Oh, it’s you, Lauren.”

“Who’d you think, Roger — Semiramis? Gloriana?”

“Close the door, you’re letting out the light.”

“What’s that supposed to mean? What light? I can still see your face, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“The light of my invention, Lauren.”

“Your face, you should know, looks like flickering neon in a pile of soot.”

“Very funny. Close it all the same. You wouldn’t consider standing on the other side of it when you do?”

“Ha ha.”

“Okay, so you’re in again. Still in . . . Lauren the seductress.”

“I suppose you had nothing to do with it, you poor, clueless fellow. Look, my child, how about I come in and you say something nice, something a little friendly for a change — just to help me remember.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Okay, forget it. So here you sit writing in this dingy wreckage of an office of yours, the perfect setting for your ideas to fester in. Right, Roger?”

“Lots of great work comes from unlikely places.”

“Who said anything about great work? And anyway, I’ve told you before, I don’t like you using me the way you do. You could have changed my name, at least. You could have altered me a bit the way they do. You make me out to be such a piece of . . . whatever.”

“She isn’t you. The name is yours, is all.”

“‘All,’ he says. All is what I gave you, you . . . Really, there aren’t words, Roger.”

“So it’s not what you expected, I take it.”

“I didn’t expect anything. I lived it, have you forgotten?”

“But it’s not the same.”

“Oh yes it is. Who are you fooling?”

“I already told you, Lauren’s not Lauren. You’re Lauren. She’s Lauren. So where’s the connection?”

“You took my words, my gestures. They were meant for you, Roger, not for everybody in the whole world.”

“Lauren’s not Lauren.”

“Then who in hell is she, you bloodsucker. You have no answer.”

“As I’ve been at pains to say, Lauren’s not Lauren. We’ve been over all that. What more do you want? Roger’s not Roger either. Reality’s not reality. It’s all invention. Reality comes out of the barrel of my pen, as I like to say. I live and die by that.”

“You don’t believe in reality, Roger? Now you tell me. Then why do you exploit me?”

“I don’t.”

“You do. It’s like you make it so we’re always in these same few miserable moments. It’s like our life together ends at the beginning and never goes anywhere. You make our lives seem just a punishment. Is this the promised end? Is this the end you promised me?”

“What’s an end? There’s no end. Or rather, there’s only this: in the end . . . there’s an end. There’s an end at the end, do you follow? Which is where it belongs.”

“Oh, brilliant. That’s why you can’t write a real, proper story, instead of being a parasite on my life. Write something with real passion. We all long for some warmth in this world. You couldn’t write your way out of a . . . You’re really a kind of vampire, an undead . . . a bloodsucker. You have no invention.”

“Is that right? What would you know about it? Listen to this, then. I’m inventing, do you hear me, Lauren? Take a seat and observe the Master in action. Are you ready? How about this for a start? There’s this couple.”

“Oh, here we go! What did I tell you?”

“No, no; you have no idea what’s coming.”

“I do, Roger.”

“No, not now. Just listen. There are these two chaps — see if you find yourself in this, Lauren — two chaps, two close friends, and they’re having a heated discussion. Because they are passionate about ideas, all their discussions are heated. . . . Notice I’m not reading, Lauren.”

“Probably you’re plagiarizing. For instance, it’s already British-sounding.”

“I have many voices; I’m universal, like the Poet.”

“No, you’re local, like a . . . like I don’t know what, as a matter of fact.”

“Pay attention, if you want to learn something. The two of them, the two chaps, they’re going at it hammer and tongs, and suddenly one of them says, coolly enough: ‘Tell me again what you just told me. I’m afraid I wasn’t listening.’ Then the other one turns red and huffs and crosses his leg on his knee and grasps his ankle and pulls the heel of his foot up close to his belly. Then the first one says again: ‘I said, I’m not sure I heard what you said.’ Then the other replies: ‘You should have been listening.’ And he turns redder and huffs again and pulls his leg up tighter and tighter till the other end becomes detached at the hip. Then the first one says: ‘Your leg’s come off.’ And the other says: ‘So? I can have it mended,’ and after a pause, adds: ‘Funny. That’s never happened before.’ Then the first one says . . .”

“We need names, Roger. You can’t keep saying ‘the first one’ and ‘the other one.’ And what’s the point of this anyway?”

“This is extemporaneous. Names I’ll think of later. Call them something, if you must. Meanwhile, don’t interrupt my stream of invention. So where was I? So . . . so the first one says: ‘Well, it’s happened now. Mind you don’t lose the parts.’ And the other one says: ‘No, I think they’re all here. Shouldn’t be a problem. As I’ve said, it can be mended.’ And he hoists his leg up above his head with one hand grasping it by the ankle, and, after looking it over carefully, begins to wave it in the direction of his interlocutor, that is to say, the first one. Flecks of blood and leg-meat begin flying off and striking the first one in the face. ‘What I said was . . .’”

“Really! It’s depressing enough as it is around here.”

“I admit it’s edgy. I’m giving you the invention you asked for and, I feel, have a right to expect. So . . . so then the first one, interrupting, says: ‘Watch what you’re doing with that thing! Flecks of blood and bits of leg-meat are flying off and they’re getting all over me.’ And in fact they’re coating his face pretty thickly, and soon he is unable to talk. But the man with the loose leg ignores this and continues to make his points while the other protests silently by means of a series of heaves and murmurs.”

“Roger, that’s just hilarious!”

“There may be shouts of encouragement offstage. So then …”

“But that’s enough for now.”

“No, listen. ‘Incensed, says the man covered in leg-meat and drippings.’ ‘You’re meant to be,’ says the other. Soon they get into an argument, more heated than before, and the first one pulls off his leg and starts swinging it over his head. Eventually they fall to dueling.”

“Roger, and I mean this, there’s something wrong with your mind.”

“Don’t worry about my mind, it’s expanding; worry about your own. Anyway, later they make peace and dine on each other’s legs. Or else they do mend things, but soon they get into another squabble and it starts all over again.”

“Is that it?”

“For now. You want more?”

“And to think I once cared for you.”

“Oh, there’s line for you! And there goes all that warmth you’re withdrawing. But admit it, my stuff’s exhilarating.”

“It won’t sell, so it doesn’t matter what it is. No love interest, for one — not like we, you know, had, Roger.”

“So I’ll have the legs come off higher up. Anyway, all that’s getting old, the stuff you like. This could be a breakout story for me, my opus magnum. Shows my genius, the power of my art. In this case it’s allegory. I’m sure you missed that. Two minds contending: two bodies grappling — same thing.”

“But this isn’t really going anywhere, is it, Roger?”

“What? No, Lauren, you weren’t listening — invention, remember, invention. What choice do we have anyway?”

“So why bother, I ask myself?”

“Well, actually, if you look closely, you will see in my story, my extemporaneous narrative, I mean, a certain redeeming, a certain . . . well, it tells of a kind of, you could say, a persistent . . . affinity, of a type. A sort of fellow-feeling, a common humanity even. What is there better to do? And that was off the top of my head.”

“I’m sorry I opened my mouth.”

“You’re right to take an interest.”

“Good. That’s all you’re getting. Now let me hear what you were writing when I came in. Not that I expect much better of you.”

“This?”

“That, Roger, yes. Another iteration of your invention? of your universality? Something meatier than the last, perhaps? Or a less-common humanity? Any chance of that, Roger?”

“You won’t want to hear it. It’ll be lamentations all over my workstation.”

“Try me.”

“But, Lauren . . .”

“Just shut up and read it. It can’t be worse than that other carcass of thing I heard earlier. If need be, I’ll put my fingers in my ears. Or should I say up my nose?”

“It’s of no concern to me where you put your fingers.”

“Read! What’s holding you?”

“Okay, so I’m reading. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. ‘Oh, it’s you, Lauren.’ ‘Who’d you think, Roger — Semiramis? Gloriana?’”

John Symons is a U.S. 1 contributor and former reader of submissions to the Summer Fiction issue.

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