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And That Will Be Enough · Original Short Story ·
Organised by RogerDodger
Word limit 2000–8000
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The Philatelist
“How would you like to be in the encyclopedia, Joann?” I asked with a smile as she and I were eating lunch one afternoon.

She was slouched over her phone, one elbow on the table. She didn’t look up to reply. “No, thank you.”

“I should say,” I went on, “that it would be very convenient for customers. What if they want to know more about you? I get clients all the time who come in and ask, ‘Who is that Joann, that marvelous woman?’”

“You’re such a goof,” she said with a little jagged-tooth smirk.

“That’s what Wikipedia is, an encyclopedia,” I explained, as though she didn’t already understand. “If someone wanted to know about your stature in town I could simply spin the monitor around and save myself the trouble of a lengthy discourse. It would save me a lot of time.”

She laughed to herself, but didn’t say anything. It was rare that Joann and I had time to sit down together. She was a stout woman with a young face and large, dark brown eyes. There was no use talking to her the way I did. She was married, three kids. She had a tattoo of one of their names—the oldest one—on her wrist. The others I wasn’t sure about, and I didn’t ask—somehow it felt like it would have been wrong.

We worked in an electronics store together. I was recently divorced, and bored, I guess, and wanted to get her on my new favorite topic.

“Your kids would like it, too,” I said. “They could even make edits to the page for you—keep it fresh and updated. They could really be doing more for you, in my opinion.”

She chafed, and her smile broadened out.

“Everyone should have a Wikipedia page,” I said.

Finally, she looked at me like a kid having found someone at hide-and-seek.

“Your ‘friend’ needs to know when to stop. Coming in here, bugging you to do his projects. Who has time for all that?”

“Oh, come on, Joann,” I said facetiously.

“That man loves himself too much,” she replied, going back to tapping on her phone.

“It’s for posterity,” I said, shifting tone a little. “He’s old. He knows he’s near the end of his life. If you get on Wikipedia, then, from his point of view, you are remembered for as long as Wikipedia is a thing. Which, I have no reason to doubt, might be a very long time. It’s silly, I know,” I said, preempting an objection, “but if it brings him some comfort then I say why not. Well, why not, Joann?”

She shook her head.

“Don’t be jealous,” I said, smiling again.

“I ain’t jealous.”

“Hey, listen,” I said, pointing. “I can make this work for you. I can already see the body of the article. ‘Joann Guidry received national attention at a Family Dollar in 1997 when, while waiting in a checkout line with a flustered cashier, she made an innovative reference to the movie The Sandlot, exclaiming, ‘You’re killing me, Smalls!’, a move which would be subsequently adopted by other women across the United States over the coming decade, including Laura Bush.”

She closed her eyes and gave me another smirk. “You’re such a goof.”

The client that I’m thinking of, his name is Mr. Watts. He came to the tech bar a few months ago and wanted to know if I would go as far as to make a correction for him on Thomas Jefferson’s Wikipedia page. I laughed. I’d done some work for him before. He had a son who died at my age, just a few years ago, and I think he saw something in me. But, what the heck? When you’re living by yourself, it feels good to solve problems for people, and I figured I could always learn something along the way, or get into some new territory.

The first task was to earn credibility with the moderators of Wikipedia. I fixed an entry on the development of basso continuo in Renaissance madrigal music. Then I made an edit involving some recent considerations regarding the designation of a certain transitional period in geological time, which (as a matter of fact) had to do with the appearance of Hyalinea balthica.

I was especially happy with that one. I showed Mr. Watts when he came in one day to see how close we were to Jefferson. He’s a wispy man, a white shade, a runner who exuded good health in his younger years. He liked to greet me with a solicitous smile that a juggler or a street performer might have.

“Young man,” he would call me. He didn’t have to refer to the project by name; it was our secret project.

“This is real,” I said, tracing a line in the article I revised with my finger. “I wish I had brought in the book to prove it to you. You like archaeology, right? Well now, you’re an archaeologist. And an ornithologist. And a biographer of Henry Fielding. It’s really interesting stuff. And they’re real references, they may as well be, right?”

“Good, good,” he said. He was nodding and seemed to be looking past me, as though there was something he didn’t understand. “All good stuff. So, you think we’ll be getting there soon? I’m really excited about this.”

“Oh sure,” I answered him. “It takes time, but we both know that. I want to make it as believable as possible. I tried to find some info on your aunt. Just some genealogy websites. I found her name, but nothing about what she did or who she knew. Maybe there’s a library we can go to? I mean, we can’t just put anything up on Wikipedia.”

He wobbled a bit as I spoke. “It’s all right there,” he said. “I gave it to you. It’s up to you, I need your help, man.”

Mr. Watts had left me with a dossier of yellow wide-ruled papers, filled with hand-written memos in all capital letters. I had never seen that in handwriting. The sheets were torn from their notebooks and had the quality of something discovered rather than notated, jewels of Hira, declaring his ancestor a mentor to Thomas Jefferson.

He leaned in, and said, “I don’t care if they take it down. Just as long as it gets there, and I can see it. I’ll take a picture. No problem. And if other people want to look, then, well, I can’t stop them!”

I was sure it wouldn’t work, but I replied to him, “We certainly can’t. And we’ve gone too far not to give it the old college. I’ll see what I can do. And if all that comes from this is that I have learned something about the migration patterns of the painted redstart, then the effort will not be in vain, as far as I’m concerned.”

I forget when, but some time ago I learned that Mr. Watts has very bad cancer of the liver and prostate. His wife told us when she came in one day to make a few purchases on his behalf. I do know that this was before I decided to go see him in his house, and before the business with Jefferson, which actually turned out to be a success. That’s why I went to see him. He wanted to take it to the next level, and put himself in the encyclopedia, for all the places he’d traveled and the jobs he worked, for the people he’d seen and the tortoise he used to have in his backyard.

I was in paradise. On the outside, the house looked like a home you might see situated anywhere in the American suburbs. I moved to the Bay Area just after my split with Debbie to get some pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge. It was a fascination of mine, some of these old places with evidence that people had done something. I had seen Mr. Watts’s postcards and his pictures of France, where his relatives supposedly once lived. Now I got to go in his damn house, which was filled like a lepidopterist’s museum with photos and maps and animal skeletons and saucy fifties women. He had columns from all the times he had appeared in the papers, fighting a fire or working at the university when something was going down.

The purpose of my visit was to find a picture which would be suitable to put on Wikipedia for longevity. We went upstairs, where the exhibit extended into all the guest rooms. His wife was up there, too, in one of the small rooms watching a television on a dresser. She didn’t want to disturb whatever it was we were up to.

“You’ve been to the Mesoamerican pyramids,” I said, inspecting a picture he had in a small office he had led me into. There was a world map on the wall facing the door, maybe six square feet, with pins stuck to various locations in Europe, the Americas, and the southeast Pacific. I squinted at the photo; I was trying to fathom Mr. Watts as a young man I might know, and I’d never known anybody who had looked down at the world from the steps of a temple-pyramid.

He joined me.

“Mhm. I’ve been to all seven continents—including Antarctica,” he said, indicating a tiny red pin on King George Island, “all fifty states, and over thirty countries. You can see it right here.”

He paused. I stood there gawking a moment, trying to think of a question to ask, and he seemed to want to give me the chance.

“If you see anything,” he went on, going back to rummaging through pictures, “anything at all that you think might work for the article, don’t hesitate to say so.”

It was on me again. I didn’t know what to say. I thought of how long the plane flight would be to get from where we were to the horn of South America. I thought about the big black ocean of the south pole, how looking over it would be like looking into outer space. I thought of sunrises and sunsets, cream-colored, over lands forgotten to a continental shift. But I couldn’t come up with a single question. It was all right there, ready for me, but what could I do?

“Take a look,” he said, coming over with a gloss print. It was a picture from maybe twenty years ago; there was a festival going on. Mr. Watts was in a white suit with a hat and bowtie, coming out of a crowd, looking ready to devour the camera. “Eh, whad’ya think?”

“That’s the best one,” I said. “It’ll do.”

He put it in a plastic envelope and let me have it. “So then. We’re done?”

He flashed me his jester’s smile. I saw him all at once in a hundred dark images on the walls. I couldn’t see the faces, mostly, but I recognized the shape of the legs, the stance. It was the same in almost all of them.

“I wish you had come along with me,” I told Joann. “It’s a great way to get to know your customers.”

She shook her head, and her little ponytail bobbed with it. “I ain’t going in that man’s house.”

“You have to take risks in life, Joann. We get people in here all the time who might be Allen Ginsberg or somebody. They hide themselves, you know.”


I said, “He has rodent skulls on in the wall in this living room. How cool is that?”

She glared at me with her sandy eyes. “You expect me to go to a house with skulls on the wall?”

“They’re not menacing.”

“They’re bones,” she said, slamming her palm down on the tech bar counter and trying hard not to smile. “For all you know he probably found those things in his backyard before you came over.”

“He was a perfect gentleman the whole time,” I replied, preening myself. “Maybe if you kept rat bones in your sala you’d be a little bit nicer, too.”

She burst into a laugh put her hand on my bicep. “Shut up, will you?”

For some reason—maybe just because things have had time to settle—I’ve been thinking of Mr. Watts again, lately.

I called him to give him an update on his Wikipedia project; I hadn’t seen him in a good while. He picked up the phone with, “Mhm.” When he recognized me he saluted me and said, “I’m not going to come in today. I just got back from my tenth surgery. I’ve got a catheter in my dick, man. It’s big, and it hurts.”

I said okay. I considered going to his house again to show him what I’d been working on, but decided against it, with him stuck to a catheter and all.

The page went live for about a month before the moderators decided to take it down for being a vanity article. I tried to make it as credible as I could. To that end, I discovered that there is a name for people who collect stamps—a “philatelist”. I was as proud as he was happy that the article went up. I could officially say that I had gotten a man into the Internet encyclopedia.

But I’ve been thinking about him and the ice caps, and about that catheter in his dick. I see him in a still moment, without throwing anything onto him. It’s hard to be serious about these things sometimes.

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#1 · 2
· · >>Pascoite >>Heavy_Mole
"I thought about the big black ocean of the south pole, how looking over it would be like looking into outer space." -- That's breathtaking.

I love 95% of this story. There are some little speedbumps in the first half, mostly the result of beginning in media res and relying on the reader figure out what new references mean. This can go wrong for various reasons:

- throwing out too many different tidbits in the same paragraph, so that the reader runs into a new one before figuring out the previous one

- introducing mystery references in a context in which they're ambiguous

- saying something that's unexpected enough to make the reader think it's another in-media-res puzzle to work out, when it isn't

- relying on clues that aren't given until later in the story, so the reader has to keep a large inventory of loose ends. My blog post "Keeping all the puzzle pieces in play" is about not blowing the stack of the reader's short-term memory, which can only track about 4 things at a time, including everything from trivial but highlighted details to major plot questions. I think this story blows that stack, with questions the story raises that aren't really important to where it's going, like "Is the speaker a man? Where does he/she work? Is he/she flirting with her? Why does he serve customers but have a computer monitor? What is Joann's stature in town? What's a tech bar?"

For instance:

“I should say,” I went on, “that it would be very convenient for customers. What if they want to know more about you? I get clients all the time who come in and ask, ‘Who is that Joann, that marvelous woman?’”

"Customers" triggers a search for what the speaker's job is. Because we're in a place of business (some restaurant), that raises itself as a candidate, and leads to reviewing the text to see if they might both be employees there, or the speaker might for some reason be eating with a customer. Then it leads to wondering about what kind of clients would ask about Joann and why. Is she famous in town?

Later, when I learn they work together, I was puzzled as to how he could get questions all the time asking about her, without her knowing, and had to reread part of the story to make sure I hadn't mis-read something.

If someone wanted to know about your stature in town

"Stature" is such an odd word to use here that it sent me down a maze of possibilities for what it might mean. Are we in a scifi world where the town keeps track of some official measure of each person's stature? Is she unusually tall? Is she running for political office?

I could simply spin the monitor around and save myself the trouble

I still don't know where he? she? works. If I knew (as I learn later) that he works at a tech bar (whatever that is), it might be easy to infer that "the monitor" is a computer monitor, on which he could display a Wikipedia page. But I initially imagined "the monitor" as being one of the kinds of monitors people who work at a counter are likely to have: a security monitor, a monitor attached to a cash register, a video monitor of some other type. I was more puzzled by this line than I feel like I should have been, possibly because I was still trying to figure out where he worked, who Joann was, what was special about her, and why people wanted to know about her "stature".

Your ‘friend’ needs to know when to stop.

My first guess was that "friend" was in quotes because the friend was actually the narrator himself (herself?), and Joann was really saying "you need to stop flirting with me." I re-read several paragraphs trying to find a way to make that work.

Coming in here, bugging you to do his projects.

Wait, they're eating lunch together. That must mean he works at the restaurant. That makes me go back and re-read the story again to see what I missed. But surely he couldn't show a customer a Wikipedia page at a restaurant. So now I'm puzzled over whether "friend" means him or someone else, whether he works at the restaurant, and whether "spin the monitor around" does in fact refer to a cash register monitor, so there's something I'm misunderstanding about Wikipedia, Joan's stature, etc. There are so many unresolved and inter-dependent references at this point that I've forgotten half of them and the whole story is in a state of indeterminacy. I no longer know what I'm reading or what all the possible interpretations are.

You like archaeology, right? Well now, you’re an archaeologist. And an ornithologist. And a biographer of Henry Fielding. It’s really interesting stuff. And they’re real references, they may as well be, right?

This really confused me. Is Mr. Watts an ornithologist now because the narrator has been editing Wikipedia articles about ornithology in Mr. Watts' name? (Probably yes.) If so, why, since that wasn't the point of the task? If the references may as well be real, does that mean they're not real? Is the narrator just making stuff up to gain Wikipedia cred? (Probably not.)

She burst into a laugh put her hand on my bicep.

Whoa, now she's flirting back. Why? What does this mean? Where is the speaker going to take this? I was still trying to figure this out when the story ran out.

He picked up the phone with, “Mhm.” When he recognized me he saluted me and said, “I’m not going to come in today.

So, they must be on a videophone, right? But he answered the phone by picking it up, and you can't answer a call on any device that makes videophone calls by picking it up. What's going on? Is this science fiction?

That's all a swarm of little, niggling, easy-to-fix problems that are individually trivial, but which ganged up on me all at once because each in media res mystery depends on me solving most of the others.

There's an entirely different, much bigger problem at the end: Is it an ending?

I think what you've got contains the "essence" of the ending--the narrator's ambiguous feelings about this strange and compelling project, and Mr. Watts' desire to cheat death just a little. But the story doesn't bring it into focus, and I have no idea what the last 2 lines mean:

I see him in a still moment, without throwing anything onto him. It’s hard to be serious about these things sometimes.

More importantly, this story is too much like real life. Too many loose ends; too little focus. You can't stick the landing at the end when you've left unresolved questions which the reader cares about more than he cares about your ending. This story drew me in using the relationship between mystery-narrator and Joan as its hook. The ending throws all that away. Why did the story jerk me around like that? I don't care about you seeing him in a still moment, or not throwing anything onto him, whatever that means. I want to know about Joan and the narrator! I want to know if and when Mr. Watts died, whether he ever found out that the Wikipedia page went live, what his reaction was, and whether it was enough in the end. What I don't care about is what the narrator feels at the end, because the story made me care about all those other things instead.
#2 · 2
I pretty much hit all the speed bumps that >>Bad Horse did, so it's not going to be productive to rehash it all. I will add that I agree the ending doesn't feel like an ending, in that there's nothing to tell me there was a purpose to telling me this story. I like the characters and their interactions, but afterward, I'm stuck with the question I always ask at the end of a story: so what? If I can answer that myself, why it matters that the story happened, because of the permanent change it made in the world or some small piece of it, then I'm good. But I don't see the answer here.
#3 ·
>>Bad Horse
Thank you for this detailed overview and for being so thorough in your reading habit.

You are right that the end is a cop-out. The day on which it was put to paper was one that began at 5 AM, and which concluded very, very late. Of course, this is only an excuse.

But I will give you two criteria I have for an ending, as I go further with the drafting process, and perhaps you will sympathize with my difficulty:

1) Mr. Watts must survive; he must persist with a catheter in his dick. The "point" of the story (if you like), is that Mr. Watts has traveled all over the world, to every exotic place (even Antarctica), but has never taken anything seriously in his life. His goal is to enter himself into the encyclopedia before he dies. The speaker (a wistful bachelor) discovers himself reflected in Mr. Watts, and his (Watts's) mortality as an extension of his own. Watts's death would be didactic, a "close call" and invitation for the speaker to get something right. It would be the wrong kind of intervention.

2) No romance. Joann and the speaker flirt with each other, uselessly. She lives in a different world than him. She is a kind of sexual day-dream; she does not represent a real direction for him to go. She is like the picture of a tunnel painted on a rock that the roadrunner goes through and Wile E. Coyote slams into, and he is Wile E. Coyote. The speaker's resolution does not lie in satisfying his appetite.

My sense is that, for a satisfactory ending to come about, there would need to be an additional component to the story, something which makes it a bit longer than it is. But I am at least interested in the germ that is here.

As far as "speedbumps" go, it is good to have input on that. It is something I tend to struggle with. Some of them are context issues. There are, however, a couple important details which I forgot to include:

You like archaeology, right? Well now, you’re an archaeologist. And an ornithologist. And a biographer of Henry Fielding. It’s really interesting stuff. And they’re real references, they may as well be, right?”

The speaker is performing the edits using Watts's account, so that Watts's can make changes to his own page in the future.

Another rather glaring omission is that Watts is a postcard collector (from the places he's gone to), hence 'The Philatelist'.