THE ELEVENTH INCIDENT
by Bruce A. Heap
Writers as we know are an odd lot. Rarely are they satisfied with a work and when they are, they are at the whim of the reader who may or may not purchase the work. Even when purchased the reader may or may not enjoy a work just because the timing is right or wrong. Worse yet they may not understand it or their intellect may get in the way of enjoying a simple, uncomplicated story.
W.S Merwin probably summed it up best in his poem, Berryman. In revisiting his teacher and mentor, John Berryman, Merwin asks him how one can be sure that what one writes is any good. Berryman, replied that you can’t and if you have to, don’t write.
So my advice is to tell plenty of good yarns and hope that a few land. Be true to your own style, don’t get hung up on form, and please don’t take a writing class that will do more harm than good. Always remember that the best critic is the reader who buys your book, not the critic who pans your book.
And so ended my speech to a less than attentive audience. The hotel conference room could easily sit five hundred. Even with several partitions drawn the less than twenty five attendants made the room look very empty. Oh, how I miss those packed houses. The applause at the end was brief and I received my usual polite laughter after delivering my line about not taking a writing class. The queue for my book signing was much shorter than usual and the sales were way down. Perhaps it is time to rethink the lecture circuit, take my own advice, and write some good yarns.
My session was not the only sparsely populated place. The hotel was virtually empty this final evening. Perhaps I should have taken a late flight, but I actually enjoy staying an extra night and the prospect of an near empty hotel was quite exhilarating.
I decided to take myself down to the bar and follow my long standing, final evening tradition of treating myself to a very dry martini with olives. Basil, the bartender was on duty. He made the best martinis. On a busy night Basil, pronounced with a short ‘a’, was too busy to engage in conversation, but on a night like this he could be very chatty. I always thought that it should be the other way around, but in Basil’s case we engaged in role reversal as he poured out his sorrows. The subject varied, but on this evening I was listening to his complicated relationship with his mother in law.
Sometimes I miss not being able to light a cigarette at the bar. A cigarette and martini always hit the spot and there was no denying that there was something sophisticated about opening my gold case, extracting an imported turkish blend, and using my lighter embossed with the family crest. It has been many years since I smoked and frankly I only miss it on rare occasions. Truth be told, the smell today would sicken me and the thought of dining out with smoke in the air is rather repulsive.
With that thought, I asked Basil for a second martini and, after a quick perusal of the menu, ordered the Guinness Burger. Cooked medium rare and eaten with Irish mustard, this burger is the best. A little bit of food lightened the buzz just enough to help me clarify my thoughts and roll some phrases in my mind for my next short story.
I never minded listening to people like Basil. Many of my contemporaries find such people boorish, but I am willing to suffer the boor graciously in pursuit of new material for my stories. Basil was a nice enough chap and as he prattled on I found that his mother in law may very well serve as a minor character in one of my yarns.
When Basil took a break, I decided to peruse the few remaining patrons. I often practiced this exercise in pursuit of a character description. I would survey the area looking for interesting faces and then describe everything about the person in my head. It was just another technique, similar to bore listening, that provided writing inspiration and an occasionally interesting character.
One gentleman sitting at a table across the way proved to be interesting enough for further exploration. He was tall and somewhat lanky. He wore a sport jacket over an open necked shirt with khaki pants. So far nothing unusual, but his fidgety right hand led me to believe that he was a smoker. Upon closer inspection, I detected slight wrinkles around the mouth, perhaps from too many puffs. I would say that he was in his forties, but looked older than his years. He had a pleasant demeanor, but was a little nervous and seemed more outwardly focused than the meal in front of him should warrant.
Then the unforgivable happened. My gentleman friend made eye contact with me as I was observing him and followed with what I interpreted to be a curt little nod. I could feel my cheeks flush red with embarrassment as I returned his nod. He then went back to his meal and I decided to table my actions for the evening. It may have been over thinking on my part, but I couldn’t help, but wonder if I may have detected the slightest bit of recognition on his part which further led me to think that maybe I should know him.
I thought about my smoking days again. I had no desire for the nicotine, but I did miss the cigarette in my hand. I missed the cool sophistication of it all, but as an author I liked to look deep into the mundane. What of the many laborers and farm people that went in to produce the tobacco. Were their lives exploited so that I could fantasize an heir of sophistication? For that matter, what about my Guinness Burger and the poor cow that lived solely so that I could salivate and enjoy the red meet with Irish mustard? My point here is that the smallest of actions may have more of an effect than we would typically think. Our simplest actions can, and often do, have a profound effect on people we may not even know. The story that I am about to tell never would have come about had I not stepped off my bar stool and made eye contact with my gentleman friend one more time.
But first let’s get back to Basil’s mother in law. I came to learn that her name was Harriett. Harriett claimed to be very sickly. Basil felt that it was all a ruse as she always seemed to have the energy to do what she wanted to do, but if she was bored then she would feign sickness and retire early. I asked Basil why it mattered to him how she behaved and he went on to tell me about her deceased husband. Harold, yes Harriot and Harry (how weird), was nothing short of an athlete. He competed in all sports in high school, focused on baseball in college, and nearly signed with a New York Mets farm team. That is why many thought it odd when Harry fell in love with Harriet and asked her to marry him. Even Harriet’s parents, and perhaps the problem, were reticent to see Harriet married as they were concerned that she would not be properly cared for with her weak constitution. Harry assured them that he would dote on Harriet and do everything to make her happy.
To Harry’s credit he kept his word. While he did stay active in sports, Harriet was his absolute priority and her condition ruled the household with never a complaint from Harry. They had one daughter, named Sylvia, who would be their only child as Harriet had no intention of going through what she called, “that ghastly experience”, again. Suffice it to say, that Basil’s wife grew up living with a constant reminder that her birth nearly killed her mother.
Well, as ironic fate would have it, Harold ever the physical specimen, died of a heart attack at the young age of 52 while the sickly Harriet lived on.
Just as an aside, because it really doesn’t matter from a character development perspective, Basil’s concern is that now Sylvia is constantly on call to dote on her mother as Harold had done for so many years. There is also another issue. Basil desperately wishes to be a father and Sylvia will have no part of it. None of this matters and please don’t judge me as this was a mutually beneficial encounter. I helped Basil by listening to his tale of woe and I was able to find a domineering, selfish, pitiful character in Harriet.
As I stepped off the bar stool, I looked over at my gentlemen friend again only to discover that he was starring right at me. He called over to me apologetically, “I didn’t mean to ignore you, but I wasn’t sure that it was you.” Apparently he did recognize me, but I still had no recollection. Sensing my awkwardness, he reintroduced himself as Bill Clausen and immediately it came back that he was one of the dads on my son’s soccer team many years ago. It should come as no surprise that he disappeared from my memory banks as I never particularly liked the man. He tended to be a bit hard on the boys and had an arrogant manner which, at least to me, was off putting. It would have been awkward to turn down his invitation for a drink, so I pulled a chair next to his.
It turns out that it is Dr. William Clausen. We had a slight chuckle as he referred to himself as Dr. Bill. It turns out that he is a psychiatrist and has been enjoying a very lucrative practice. Needless to say, Dr. Bill did almost all of the talking and, as I was already tapped out for the evening on new character development, I found my eyes glazing over.
But then Dr. Clausen started to tell me about one of his patients and that perked up my ears. He had been seeing a lord from the House of Lords in England. I thought that perhaps he was violating patient privacy, but he assured me that plenty of lords see psychiatrists in the US and I would be hard put to identify this particular one. He suggested that, as an author, I may want to write a story about his patient, “properly protecting the crazy,” he chuckled. Dr. Clausen did not strike me as being very professional, but I must admit that the prospect of a good tale had me listening.
Dr. Clausen started out by reviewing the qualities that made this lord who he was. We agreed that the Colonel was a good pseudonym so in telling the story Clausen henceforward referred to him as such.
First the Colonel seemed to be a character of contradictions. He was charming and personable one moment and could cut you to threads the next. He was highly intelligent, attended the best schools, came from a long stock of Labor Party officials and yet, he often took to extreme positions on issues that did not pass the logic test. The Colonel had more enemies than friends, mostly do to his stubbornness and arrogance. Even his own party tired of him, but he was tolerated because of his keen intelligence and organization skills. He thought of himself as a born commander and had no toleration for justifications or rationals for why another approach may make more sense.
I would try to simplify the Colonel as a person by saying that he was just an asshole, but he wasn’t. Despite an autocratic personality and management style, he was known for spontaneous acts of kindness that would go beyond what was expected. Furthermore, as a man of means, he was very generous to charities and well intentioned movements that did not always reconcile with his position on the political spectrum.
Dr. Clausen reminisced about the first time that the Colonel came to his office. He had me picture this austere British noblemen, dressed in a dark suite with a walking stick. “I had to say I was somewhat taken back as he looked like something out of the late 1800’s,” Dr. Clausen reflected. “He came into my office and looked me up and down as if he were trying to decide if I was worthy to be of counsel to him. When I asked him to sit down he looked at the chair as if he were thinking of dusting it off and then thought better of it.”
Once situated, the Colonel spoke first and said, “I am quite certain that once we finish up today you will be confident that I will need no further follow up.”
Dr. Clausen ignored this comment and went about asking him the standard introductory questions.
“What is your age, Colonel?”
“How long have you been divorced?”
“One son and a daughter.”
The Colonel never elaborated on any of his answers preferring to divulge very little, so Clausen, after a short pause, tried another more open ended question.
“If I may ask, Colonel, where did you hear about me?”
“I read several of your articles many years ago,” said the Colonel, opening up ever so slightly. “At the time I was very interested in psychology and wanted to learn more about how the mind worked. I found your insights to be very interesting and, when your name came up recently, I decided that I should arrange to see you.”
Sensing that it was time to get beyond the formalities, the doctor looked at the Colonel and said, “So what can I do for you?”
The Colonel inquired about patient confidentiality and wanted to be sure that any discussions that took place would go no further than the room. “After all,” the Colonel explained, “I have many important duties back home and a reputation to uphold.”
Dr. Clausen assured him that he may speak freely and know that whatever he says, short of a court order, will be kept in confidence. Dr. Clausen went on to explain that he has heard almost everything and speaking to someone in a safe environment is the first step toward a cure.
The Colonel paused and looked down at his feet. He fidgeted with his fingers, adjusted his neck tie, and moved his walking stick as if it were about to fall. “Very well,” he said, “I suppose it is best to just blurt it out and have it over. I have reason to believe that I am responsible for someone’s murder.”
Dr. Clausen waited applying a technique of allowing a pause to run its course. Often a patient will have more to say. The Colonel was clearly waiting for a reaction, so the good doctor simply fed back a paraphrased version of the Colonel’s phrase.
“So, you believe that you are responsible for someone’s murder.”
“I am quite certain of it,” replied the Colonel in his abrupt inpatient manner.
“So you know that you are responsible for someone’s murder,” replied the doctor with a switch in emphasis.
“Yes, I know that I have caused this person to die.”
“Well, that is not the same as murder. Did you physically murder this person yourself or cause someone else to do it?”, inquired Dr. Clausen.
“It is more complicated than that”, responded the Colonel. “Let me start from the beginning.”
“Doctor, have you ever had the experience where you think of someone that you haven’t seen in years, perhaps decades, and then the very next day you run into that person?”
“Yes everyone has that experience from time to time.”
The colonel went on to explain how it had happened to him. He thought of someone that he had not seen in years and then the very next day he ran into him. Dr. Clausen explained that such situations are common and can easily be explained away by coincidence.
The colonel retorted that it did not just happen once, but happened again several days later with another individual. This time the Colonel was thinking about this person in the context of an automobile and the very next day he read in the paper that the unfortunate victim was in a serious accident and listed as critical.
The Colonel went on to list a total of ten separate incidents that had taken place over the last three years, none of which, in the opinion of the Colonel, could be explained away as coincidence.
It was number ten that was the most troubling because, in this case, the Colonel thought of this person as being dead and the very next day the unfortunate victim was murdered.
Dr. Clausen reflected for a moment and said, “Surely you can’t think that you played a roll in this person’s murder?”.
The Colonel replied, “Well you’re the brain expert, you explain it.”
Dr. Clausen looked at me and said, “I tell you, I couldn’t help, but wonder how something like this could happen, presuming, of course, that my patient’s report was accurate. I thought for a moment and decided to put psychiatry aside and look at the problem mathematically.“
“Colonel, I believe that you were correct earlier when you said that there will be no need for a follow up,” offered Dr. Clausen. “You see, I am certain that you had no part in the murder of this victim. As a practitioner in the medical sciences, I am bound to follow the scientific principle and in doing such I cannot even entertain the notion that someone can be murdered by thinking about them.”
The Colonel explained how he did not consciously think of any of these people and he was only reminded that he had been thinking of them when he saw the incident play out a day later. The doctor waived him off and nodding his head assured the Colonel that he understood the difference between conscious and unconscious thought. Dr Clausen then went on to explain that most of us think of people all the time, nothing happens most of the time, and we therefore never remember that we even thought of them. So when there is an incident it will stand out as something unusual, but when compared with how many times we think of someone and nothing happens, it is easy to see it as a coincidence.
The Colonel conceded that may explain the occasional follow up incident, but he asked how that explains ten incidents over three years with increased complexity in how the follow up incident occurs.
“Do you believe that you have special telepathic powers?” asked Dr. Clausen.
“No, because I had no control over these thoughts,” answered the Colonel.
“Precisely”, replied Dr. Clausen. “It is my scientific opinion that no one has such power regardless of what you hear about some people having the ability to predict the future. If they did they could get rich playing the lottery. And speaking of the lottery did you know that there have been cases where someone has won the lottery more than once? Do you think that they have special luck or did they just get lucky by beating the one in five trillion odds? As strange as it may sound, Colonel, given how many people play the lottery over time, multiple winners will occur occasionally. Furthermore given how many people there are in the world, it should not appear unusual that some will have significantly more uncanny experiences such as you have described. Colonel you are a statistical aberration and you can put aside your guilt.”
The Colonel had a rare moment of speechlessness, but then slowly replied as he starred directly at the doctor, “Dr. Clausen, what if I were to tell you that I had an eleventh incident involving you?”
“I suddenly started to perspire and I could feel a well of fear start to permeate my body,” Dr. Clausen explained to me. “It was creepy and intellectually I knew that my feelings were foolish, but that didn’t make them any less real”.
“What sort of incident?,” inquired the doctor trying not to show fear in his voice.
“It was the eleventh incident that made me want to see you in person. You see, Dr. Clausen, I saw your death as well.”
“Well, I would tell you the same as I did earlier”, the doctor replied with less confidence. “It is nothing more than a statistical aberration and you can be assured that I plan on living many more years. No, Colonel , please go back to your wonderful country with a clear conscience. Think of this incident as a great experience to share, but don’t place any credence on any of it.”
“Surprisingly, the Colonel appeared genuinely pleased,” said the doctor as he continued his story. “He wanted to see me because of the eleventh incident and when I merely categorized it with the others without regard to my demise, he was convinced that my advice was sound. Thankfully, he had no idea about what I was really thinking.”
Suddenly the doctor looked at his watch and looked at me. “How about another round of drinks?”, he asked.
“No”, I replied, “I really do need to retire.”
“But you don’t understand,” said the doctor. “I suddenly feel the best that I have felt in months. It has been horrid ever since he told me about the eleventh incident. I have been thinking non stop about death. I even started smoking again and, to make matters worse, I have felt like a fraud for not heeding my own advice, but you have helped me immensely by simply listening.”
“I am glad to be of service, but I really do need to retire,” I stated while faking a slight yawn.
“I positively must do something for you. What if I were to purchase your book?”
“It really isn’t necessary,” I assured him.
“But there must be something,” he protested.
I had started to like Dr. Clausen more than I thought I would. Exposing his vulnerabilities, made him more human in my eyes. I was also convinced that he was a better than average therapist.
“Well actually there is something that you could do for me,” I said as I thought about another role reversal that had occurred earlier in the evening.
“Go sit at the bar, order a drink, ask Basil about his mother in law, listen attentively, and see if you can set him and his wife on the right path. While you’re doing that I am going to retire and think about my next story.”
As I walked back to my room I thought that perhaps the Colonel character should not be divorced. He should be married to my character version of Basil’s mother in law. That would make the story so much more interesting.
About the Author:
Bruce A. Heap is an aspiring author living in upstate NY with his wife and dog. He received a BA in Mathematics from the State University of NY at Geneso and an MS in Computer Science from Union College. After a career as an Educator and a Computer Consultant, Bruce has turned to writing and hiking, in either order, together or separate.