92. Science Fiction

WE FIRST MET IN a night class at the local community college - a short story class, to be precise. At the time, I was teaching piano out of a suburban music store while my wife worked as a journalist at a local newspaper. Actually I had initially signed her up to do the course because she was always saying she wanted to write fiction, but when the time came she decided she didn't have the time to do it, so I decided to do it instead. I would personally have preferred to take a poetry writing class to help with my song lyrics, but it wasn't being taught that year. Our teacher was a Mrs Crabtree, who had had some slim novels in the style of John Updike published in her youth. The were twelve of us taking the class, and because it was the early nineties, we were, almost unanimously, obsessed with Raymond Carver, with a couple of notable exceptions: one girl with crazy white hair was imitating Kathy Acker, an Indian student was imitating Salman Rushdie, and there was an older gentleman who wanted to write military epics in the style of James A. Michener. He would tell us harrowing stories about the Korean War. Then there was Yevgeny. Yevgeny Petrushevko was a computer programmer who'd just left Russia. He was living with his pregnant wife in a part of town I'd only ever heard things about. He had yet to find a job in his field, so for the time being he was working as a dishwasher in a local pizza restaurant. He wanted to write science fiction. Every week Mrs Crabtree would set us an exercise - write a story about something that happened in your childhood using no adjectives, for example - and every time, the following class, Yevgeny would turn up with a science fiction story. His spoken English was terrible, but his written style was more fluent - he told me he couldn't write a sentence without recourse to a secondhand dictionary he'd picked up in a thrift store. The problem, or at least the most immediate problem, was that his prose veered between a stilted, old-fashioned style and occasional intrusions of highly complex technicalese, sometimes borrowed from the computer jargon of the day and sometimes invented by the writer himself. In class, his efforts were either turn to shreds by the collective, to the evident pleasure of Mrs Crabtree, or they were simply ignored. I must say I had a soft spot for him from the very beginning. Something about him made me check my natural instincts, which normally tended toward the cynical. Perhaps it was because he was so defenseless, he was impossible to attack. His utter lack of vanity had a relaxing effect on me, rendering my own considerable vanity unnecessary. At the end of the semester, the course having ended, Yevgeny and I caught up for a drink one time before we dropped out of each others' lives. He told me the course had inspired him to keep writing (it had had precisely the opposite effect on me), but that now he was experimenting with writing poetry. He asked me would I care to read some of his poetry, and of course I accepted. The following week I received a thick wad of handwritten poems. My marriage ended soon after and the poems were lost in the move before I got around to reading a single one of them. The truth is that in the several years until I saw him again I must have thought of him about once a month, each time with a pang of guilt about those lost poems. Then one day I picked up a magazine in a bookstore called The Whole Truth, which was filled with stories about right-wing conspiracies, conspiracies like who really killed JFK and the coming war between the government and law-abiding gun owners. I noticed most of the articles had the byline Yevgeny Petrushevko, and when I checked the magazine credits I noticed that Yevgeny Petrushevko was also the magazine's editor. I emailed the magazine and Yevgeny emailed back within minutes, saying how wonderful it was to hear from me, and telling me of his relatively new life editing the magazine, which he was publishing with his wife. He suggested we meet for a drink, and I accepted. We met at a bar called The Minotaur. Yevgeny told me how he and his wife had come to start the magazine. I asked him if they had started making any money from it and he said that magazines usually took three to five years to start making money, and that in the meantime he was working as a computer consultant with the department of something-or-other, making lots of money, he said. To be honest, I'd never heard of the department he named, which wasn't typo say it didn't exist. Then I told him about my news, how my marriage had ended, and I apologised for having lost his poems. Forget it, he said, you did me a favour, losing those poems. What was I going to do, become America's first bestselling Russian poet. Come on, he said, snap out of it. I'd already noticed a new, bullying tone in his conversation, although I couldn't be sure if he was like this with everyone or if it was just me - because I'd known him when he was a very different person, because I'd lost his poems, because I hadn't kept the friendship going, or for some other reason I couldn't guess. He poured drink after drink, and almost all his conversation was about himself. I was completely drunk by the time we left, to the point that I had to take the next day of work. For the following few weeks, Yevgeny would call every few days to suggest another night out, but I ignored his messages and soon enough his calls stopped. The following spring, I got a call from my wife. She and her boyfriend were about to have a baby. She'd been spring-cleaning the house in readiness for the birth and she'd found a whole bunch of my old papers. As they were to heavy to mail, I told her I'd swing by to pick them up the following day. They sat there on my desk a few weeks before I got around to sitting through them. Among other things, I found a bunch of other people's stories from the short story class all those years ago. There was one by Yevgeny, the story of a civil war between the American government and gun owners. In the same bunch of papers, I found Yevgeny's handwritten poems, and for the first time I began to read some of them. One of better poems was about who really killed JFK. Another was about the United Nations' secret agenda to establish a global dictatorship. A third was about an imminent civil war between the US government and gun owners. I stopped reading the poems and kept sifting through the papers - the usual jumble of old bills, brochures and receipts. Then, at the bottom of the stack, I found one of my own pieces, an unfinished story of a marriage imperceptibly falling apart. The style was obviously - too obviously, perhaps - influenced by Raymond Carver. But somehow its flaws didn't seem to matter so much after all this time. If anything I was struck by how much there was in it, and how precariously poised it was between innocence and knowingness, despite the obvious inexperience, the all-too-familiar limitations, of the story's author.