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A Life in Hypertext

The Meaning of Life: or, Animal Tracks

Once a man went walking with his partner. He didn't like to call her his wife because she and he agreed that they liked to see things differently than the mass. Yet they were not too snobbish. She credited him for his aristocratic features; he her for her purebred peasant look; yet really they were both middle class, and did everything they could to escape from that heritage.

They boycotted the community Christmas dinner: the one event of the year that "everyone" attended. The next day they went for a walk on the flats. Wandering, for that is all you could do there. They wandered right to the edge of the water, where the river carved away a foot of sandy soil every year, and where the fence lines ended--

Another abandoned project, a strawberry field.

He crossed on the rotting ice over the slough; she went to the old beaver dam overgrown with long prairie grass. They embraced there; and nearly toppled into the water. That would have made a good movie shot.

They wandered on. It was only a matter of time before they found themselves in the long snow-beaten grass, soft as a foam-core futon, rolling around in mock-lovemaking, relaxing to look up at the sky through tan strands of grass; marvelling at the purity of the moment. Then her knees got wet and they had to get up.

They wandered on, reflecting on the serenity of the previous evening. "Much better than the Christmas dinner," she observed. They'd stayed home from the community gathering, alone together with a long hot bath by candlelight, leisurely conversation. He agreed, stumbling on the grass.

Their cat, too, had been glad for their company. He mentioned this as he examined the cause of his misstep, a clump of coyote scat. Their cat was a replacement for one who'd disappeared, probably a victim of marauding coyotes.

He inspected the dark dried turds for clues: embedded were a number of short white hairs. Rabbit? There were no black cat hairs in this pile, anyway.

Did they speak of the meaning of life, following animal tracks across the wastes?

I know they spoke of humor, the importance of it. He wrapped a handful of long grass in front of her face, and hugged her from behind: "The attack of the two-legged coyote!"

"I know what you should do," she smiled. "Write a story as funny as you are."

He laughed. "Yeah, you're right. Why not? My natural voice. Treat the reader as a friend."

"And for your subject, take what's real. Our morning here together on the flats."

"All right. Sure. When's my deadline?"

She said without hesitating, "Tonight."

He missed the deadline; she seduced him and he was never one to decline a persuasive seduction (believing firmly that any seduction was persuasive if carried out in good humor and with honorable intention).

So, the next day, loose-limbed and languorous upon arising, he put himself onto the assignment. He tried his best. But he was rusty. He hadn't written anything new in months. The words dragged themselves out of his fingers. His mood, he found, was no longer frivolous, but melancholy.

Maybe it wasn't a root problem, he thought. Maybe the cat on his lap as he wrote was too distracting. Maybe he was distracted by the thought of his obligation to spend the afternoon with their daughter. Maybe he was distracted by the virtual pile of new reading he had taken on, in the form of a large number of files downloaded from the Internet the previous week, still unread.

His characters loped mechanically through their traces, following the tracks of deer on the flats, crossing ice and beaver dam without remarkable incident. His narrative mood (it occurred to him with some detached horror, powerless to change it) matched the bleak, slant-sunned day they spent there; and the story rambled like their aimless feet.

He showed it to her when he was done. She read it, not smiling.

"Well…" she said tentatively.

"Well what?"

"I don't know. It's missing something. Wasn't it supposed to be funny?"

She tossed her tan strands of hair to the side, as if wishing she were laughing in the sun. The overhead fan whirred silently.

"Yeah, but it's subtle. You know, the irony of understatement."

She looked thoughtfully at the manuscript again. "Hmm. I'm not sure. How about more dialogue; that might liven it up a little."

"Maybe. Anyway, it was just an exercise, right?"

"Whatever. I thought you wanted some direction. I gave you my advice."

"Sure. I appreciate it. Anyway, I did the best I could. Maybe the subject just wasn't right."

"Haven't you told me before that any subject is okay; that it's just the style or treatment that matters?"

He looked offended. "Uh--maybe. But still, you can't always make a silk purse out of a sow's ear." As he said this he remembered that he used to call his older sister Sal that. "Hi Sow," he'd say to her.

She never laughed at his joke.

© Nowick Gray

"The Meaning of Life" appears in the 2014 collection, My Country: Essays and Stories From the Edge of Wilderness, by Nowick Gray

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also see: The Meaning of Life - a website offering practical advice about lucid living

Stories - in rough chronology

The Baby Boom
The Boys in the Park
First Love
Trumped in Peckerdom
Of Ducks, Trucks and Bucks
Stephen King through Rose-colored Eyes
Just Coyotes
The Meaning of Life
Deep Summer

Life - a novel of the baby boom

Prefaces and Introductions . . . without end

rendezvousstrange lovemy country

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Fiction and Creative Nonfiction by Nowick Gray

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