This was told me by a friend of mine who’s neither reliable in his understanding of human motivation nor a good judge of a story, a Mr. Pars by name (it’s unlikely that you know him), who pressed it upon me as being the sort of story I would like, universal in scope and application, and encouraged me to put it in a form more intelligible than the one he related it to me in and make it known. The result of my compliance begins here. The source, according to Mr. Pars, was an acquaintance of his called Pinfeather, but I don’t see how that’s possible.
Austin Pinfeather, in the opinion of Mr. Pars, was in most respects an ordinary young fellow, but perhaps not ordinary enough for happiness in the world as presently constituted. At the time of the events narrated here, Pinfeather was not yet 22 and recently graduated from a well-regarded college. A catalogue raisonne of his opinions would not differ appreciably from those of millions of others molded in similar institutions throughout the world. He had acquired, or thought he had acquired, from his tutors the certain knowledge that life was pointless and that therefore it was not unreasonable to insist upon those perfections that it otherwise was unreasonable to expect (or something near to that: I may have muddled this a bit).
In fact, Pinfeather was not far into the education process when he became convinced on his own of this truth, and though he believed the world a chaos, he considered its main features to have been satisfactorily explained by the dominant authorities. You could, accordingly, by and large dispense with ordinary experience, or leapfrog over it, as it were, while holding on to the knowledge whole lifetimes of living could never supply.
In Pinfeather’s most recent thinking, to cite a few examples (provided by Mr. Pars), the universe should have low ceilings to prevent useless expenditures on space exploration and fanciful speculations about alien intelligences. In this scheme, our planet would be enlarged to reflect the importance its inhabitants assign to their activities and purposes. All the rest would be ignored as a distraction, or freeze-dried and dispersed into the ether (science was never his strong suit). And no one would be required to begin work until they had attained the age of retirement!
Mr. Pars, oddly enough, seemed to admire these ideas, particularly the last; and that made it all the more difficult for him to account for Pinfeather’s lapses.
Mr. Pars gives an interesting and compelling example of Pinfeather’s supremely confident personality and unshakeable consciousness of his own worth that it will be useful to repeat here.
One day, quite recent as it turns out, Pinfeather returned from luncheon with several of his new colleagues — Barker, Brayer, and Mew, he called them (but their names hardly matter, as they do not figure in this story) — and a young woman (her name is of no consequence either; it is enough to say the others knew about her but said nothing, and Pinfeather was indifferent whether they knew or not).
Pinfeather had drunk more than he usually did and had let go of himself; he became moderately boisterous and, by his own reckoning, attained briefly to a state of glorious intuition wherein he glimpsed the answer to everything, and then lost it again an instant afterward. The divine afflatus quite gone, Pinfeather managed to retain only the privileged feeling of having possessed it (the gnosis) and worked silently to fix the feeling in his memory, while the others, completely unaware, chattered about the lowering skies and whether their hour would be up soon enough to see them safely back in the office before the storm.
By the time he parted from the others and entered his cubicle — the four gray walls and bit of seat fabric where he was stationed — Pinfeather hoped to settle into a relative anonymity and ponder why chance had granted him an important insight only to expunge it without a trace, leaving him at once elect and bereft.
And yet chance, while Pinfeather had been lunching and working out one problem, had authored him another.
Before he could lower himself into place, Pinfeather noticed something flat and white lying on his seat. It hadn’t been there when he left an hour or so before, what was the reason for its being there now? It was plainly a document of some kind. He bent over to inspect it. He picked up, drew it near to his face, and looked it carefully up and down. “See me!” it said, across the top, in bold script. See who? he thought. Neither the hand nor the document itself gave any clue to its origin. The text proper seemed to speak of incomprehensible things in an elevated style. Here was a puzzle; and Pinfeather, not easily knocked off his course, dithered. He threw the thing down and came near to tearing across once or twice. He looked upon it with enmity, with rancor. Mr. Pars speculates that this is because Pinfeather, being only a few months on the job, didn’t want to admit his ignorance to his colleagues, or report to the wrong superior. I wonder, too, if he didn’t suspect that his new colleagues had played him a trick, as a sort of initiation, to test his mettle. Whatever it was, it seemed the thing now raised in him a kind of dread. It was an outrage! It was none of his affair! He was already bored to death with this arrangement even before the document had arrived! And so on.
Pinfeather rose slightly and looked cautiously over the cubicles. No one was looking in his direction; no sound of conspiracy was to be heard; no mirth detectable. He might just take a moment to step out for a while and clear his head, give a freer reign to his thinking.
How there are many ways a young man might exit from his cubicle, too many to enumerate here, though Mr. Pars reports that a professor in California may be working on a compilation. Pinfeather’s method on this occasion was to exit at full speed, just as if he knew where he was going and hadn’t a moment to spare. At the office door, he had the presence of mind to turn and display a certain gravity of mien before escaping into the corridor.
Pinfeather held the document up to hide his face from view, in order to make himself difficult to identify, and set off down the hallway with an affected sprightliness. Before long, people he didn’t want to be seen by began to approach from the other direction, so Pinfeather quickly disappeared down a flight of stairs into a subterranean tunnel linking his building to another. (Please note that Mr. Pars insists there is no allegorical intent to this passage.) Pinfeather swung down the stairwell, grasping the handrails, while holding the loathsome document in his mouth.
The door at the bottom closed behind him and Pinfeather was alone. (Again, Mr. Pars insists upon disrupting our expectations: it was bright down there in the tunnel, not sepulchral: there were plenty of ceiling lamps and above them ran cheery lengths of white pipe and conduit.)
To understand Pinfeather better it is helpful to observe how he made use of his time and freedom in the tunnel. First, he walked rapidly from the door at one end 500 feet to the door at the other; then he repeated this route running at top speed, several times over; then he skipped one way and hopped the other; then he threw his document in the air and caught it on the run; he shouted; he spun about; he mixed these moves randomly and laughed quite a bit out loud. Mr. Pars speculates that Pinfeather would as readily have golfed or bicycled or sailed a sloop had the conditions been favorable. The more incongruous and diverting the behavior, he says, the more gratifying it was to Pinfeather.
But then, at the very height of his activities (is this not always the way?) a woman of a certain age entered the tunnel just as Pinfeather was bounding and laughing his best, with maximum unrestraint. Then Pinfeather, almost without thinking, while leaping high above her head, greeted her with a dreadfully impudent expression, and then made his way through the door and quickly upstairs. Mr. Pars lays stress here on Pinfeather’s unwillingness to suffer a distraction, whereas I remind him that Pinfeather had been caught out making a fool of himself – though all of this business is of little importance except to round out the exposition.
Pinfeather decided to continue on the stairs until he reached the top floor, in order to delay his return. He entered the corridor there and saw that it was in most respects identical to the one below, where his office lay. Resuming the pretense that he was on a mission, he lifted his document and started off. But he was not more than a third of the way down when the sight of something entirely unexpected arrested him.
He saw in a fleeting electric instant a vision of a slender girl modestly costumed, giving out under the force of her presence and momentum a pull of gravity rival to his own. It seemed to him, almost before he was conscious of her, that he she must be peered at warily, through half-closed eyes, through the fringes of his eyelashes, as if toward a light (or a danger, I suppose you might think). But the lights, Mr. Pars says, were the usual lights, and from the open office doors came more such light, and from beyond, a glimpse of dimming sky, where the air was of a peculiar pink and full of tension
The distance between Pinfeather and the girl began to close quickly.
She is looking down, he thinks, because she has lost something, but comes forward without breaking stride and glances upward pleasantly; the corridor seems filled with her presence. (This is all romantic nonsense to Mr. Pars, but I’m inclined to attribute her magnetism to an unpretentious modesty of being, if I may phrase it like that.) But Pinfeather meanwhile is struggling to treat her as if he sees nothing out of the ordinary. He doesn’t want her to notice his interest, should he discover that he has any, because he thinks it will please her. Yet if he had glimpsed her in a crowd, at a distance, on some concourse or thoroughfare, he would have run to see her closer up.
It may be that she says something to him as they pass, a mere breath, soft, lyrical, lilting that is perhaps her hello, her greeting; even that she pauses as if for an answer; but he will not in any case find suitable words to give one.
And when they are abreast, Pinfeather, still affecting indifference, can no longer prevent his eyes from looking at her: her dress bright red, her hair nearly black, her eyes dark under brows almost quizzical, or full of wonder and good will, her lips turned up gently at the corners as with a readiness to smile. Pinfeather receives all this in an instant (as I remember Mr. Pars has indicated), but with barely a nod, plowing on as before with a fierce display unconcern.
He did not look back until there was little chance she would notice. (Mr. Pars told me that he, Mr. Pars, searched his memory for a suitable parallel in literature to underscore the implausibility of Pinfeather’s behavior, but none came to him — or to me either, for that matter.)
Pinfeather, after his own fashion, had already begun to brood on the affair as he made his way to the staircase that would take him down to the place where he had begun. He considered that he was fortunate to have passed the test – leaping smartly, as he had done, over a bit of by-the-way experience. It was as if the girl, and others like her, in the loneliness and insignificance of existence could find nothing better to set against the babbling indifference of the universe, though admittedly to form an alliance with such a girl (and isn’t that what she would prefer?) would likely rattle the new polity. It was all too retrograde to the world’s new purpose, an event misplaced in time. Best to view it as a mischance, an anomaly in the ineluctable movement of causes, here neatly disarmed and brushed aside with his lone unspoken negation.
And with that, Pinfeather reached the door to the stairwell and started down, and we (Mr. Pars and I) pass another of the turning points of our story.
On the way down, Pinfeather wondered with heavy heart if he might share in the triumph of Sisyphus. A muted thunderclap punctuated his thoughts, announcing the arrival of the storm. Some moments later he came to the door to his office.
He had been away for twenty minutes or so, had cavorted in the tunnel, had climbed up and down the stairs, had had a narrow escape on the floor above; but he had not solved the mystery of the document.
After an interval of some length, Pinfeather pushed open the door and re-entered his office and his cubicle.
He settled slowly into his seat and resumed his brooding. He vowed then and there that in the world to come, no one would issue him peremptory commands, for no one would be superior to him by contrivance as no one was in fact. Until then, he would accept that he had no chance of happiness, and no right to pretend that he had. Pleasures alone might be his where he found them.
Appropriately enough, the office seemed to have grown dark, though all the fixtures were burning. (This is an instance of the pathetic fallacy, I am told.)
There was a hum of talk. Something unusual had come up. Perhaps the storm; perhaps his absence had been noticed. Pinfeather rose from his seat and saw a commotion at the windows. The entire staff, it seemed, had gathered. There was a rising excitement.
Pinfeather looked beyond them. The storm had begun to rage. The wind was driving sheets of rain up and down the avenue, bending trees and branches, dousing the great panes of the windows with cascades of water, hurtling leaves and twigs. (Who has not seen this?) Then the tattoo on the windows let up as deep thunder reverberated through the building. And then the cycle began again.
Pinfeather watched impassively, flinching only at the brighter flashes of lightning. It seemed to him (according to Mr. Pars) that the curious thing was how uneasily his colleagues stood, as if watching themselves watching the storm and wondering what their motives might be. (I don’t know about that; I think it more probable they were momentarily unaware of themselves, though I have no reason to think it — except that I’m the author.) Immune to the storm’s enchantments, Pinfeather was at liberty to imagine the others breaking into a dance, like a field of peasants in a festival. For here in small was the imagined grandeur of existence, the unmanageable profusion of life, of the myriad individual wills acting in the world, and “the huge army of the world’s desires.” Pinfeather steeled himself against the illusion, who would have said with Baron d’Holbach, had he known or remembered to, that the storm was mere “matter and motion.”
And when the storm began to pass, the others little by little, found their way back to their cubicles, still talking unguardedly, murmuring happy child-like things, complaining perhaps that it didn’t last longer. Was one of these his betrayer? Pinfeather thought he would interview them, chiefly about the document; but instead he sat and brooded on his chances and the inconclusiveness of things.
And so the story ends here, according to Mr. Pars, who provides us with an anecdotal acquaintance with Pinfeather, with small insight into his character and plight, and simply stops, leaving the rest to our overtaxed imaginations.
In my opinion, this speaks to a miscalculation in his discursive practices. Simply put, he ought to have begun later. Pinfeather’s rudeness to a woman who did him no injury is of little consequence; the snubbing of the friendly girl, though nicely handled and well-judged in its particulars, does not lead to anything like the interesting developments readers are on the lookout for; the condescension to the flock at the window is mere filler. Only the storm itself seems to make a point; namely, that Pinfeather’s emotions are in turmoil: they rise to a pitch, then later subside. It would be good to start there and show how as bad weather lifts Pinfeather finds his way home.
Still, Mr. Pars can scarcely have intended us to draw large meanings; only, given the sovereignty of the reader in our times, neither he nor I can prevent you from doing so.
John Symons is one of the readers for the summer fiction issue. He lives in Pennington and also is a deliverer for U.S. 1.