Writer’s Block

James David Cohn


In the beginning, Steve created the story. And the story was unformed and void, and darkness was over the face of Aunt Esther, and Aunt Alice went to and fro over the same spot on the carpet.

“Write another story,” said Aunt Alice.

“I’m trying,” said Steve. “Even as we speak.”

“But not one of those depressing stories,” said Aunt Esther. “Make it a funny one. Your funny ones are really funny.”

And Steve said, “Let there be narrative. And let there be a plot, and conflict, and let characters fill the narrative and subdue it.”

“But not a parody of the Bible,” said Aunt Alice. “It’s been done, and it’s not that funny anyway.”

Steve had been up all night trying to write, he’d even considered in his desperation the possibility of writing (God help him, the cliché’!) about the blinking cursor on the blank screen.

“Have you eaten anything today?” asked Aunt Esther.

“Not a thing,” said Steve hopefully.

“A bagel with a schmeer,” said Aunt Esther.

“Make sure to toast it the way he likes,” sang Aunt Alice, and her voice was clear and bright and sweet to Steve’s ears. “Extra dark so it’s crunchy.”

“Al dente!” joked Aunt Esther over her shoulder as she purposed toward the kitchen.

Steve asked himself, And who are these with you this day?, and he answered, These are angels sent of God to prepare before me the way to the narrative. They must dress meticulously in frock coats to hide their wings. Or perhaps they are not angels but they are instead two of the 36 lamed-vavniks whose presence on earth redeems both time and event from the hands of what, without them, would constitute a dysteleological surd that would rob existence of meaning.

Aunt Alice sat on the love seat and watched Steve type. She was too far away to make out the individual words but she could see their black shapes against the white background. “Some of those words look very long,” she warned. “And what’s that stuff in italics?”

Steve block-selected and deleted.

They must dress with care in frock coats to hide their wings. Or perhaps they are not angels but they are instead two of the 36 Righteous Ones whose presence on earth makes life nice for everyone.

“Mmm-hmm,” said Aunt Alice, the approval returning to her voice. “Better. Shorter.”

Aunt Alice had never taken an interest in Steve’s writing until Uncle Shel died. Somehow she had been wounded more deeply than Aunt Esther by the death of their brother. Aunt Alice and Uncle Shel had been a dyad from their earliest years. Aunt Esther had married and moved to Manhattan, but Aunt Alice and Uncle Shel had remained single, living together in this same house and more or less married to each other, except they didn’t have sex.

“You’re not writing about our family again, are you?” Aunt Alice asked.

Aunt Alice and Uncle Shel had remained single, living together in this same house and more or less married to each other, except they had more sex than married people.

Aunt Esther returned with a plate which she set on the table next to his laptop. The plate had a darkly toasted bagel on it and a thick mountain of cream cheese gloriously glistening in outrageously oleaginous miscreance.

And beside the plate she set a knife. Steve noted something bizarrely out of place about this knife. It was not a butter knife, but a steak knife, its edge sharply serrated to cut with ease through the toughest of flesh, its tip honed to a fine piercing point.

“Is that my name?” asked Esther as she looked over his shoulder at the screen, her voice filled with both apprehension and warning.

“It’s a fictional character,” said Steve, staring at the knife.

“With my name?” asked Aunt Esther dubiously.

“Not unusual for short story writers,” said Steve distractedly, his eyes not moving from the knife. “To do that, I mean. Use a name from real life. In a fictional kind of way.”

Aunt Esther was not convinced. She reached for the reading glasses that hung from her neck on a silver chain worn by her mother before her, a bone of contention between the two sisters when their mother had died, this small bit of precious metal worked into fine shining links that were the devil to clean, but worth more to either of them than all the rest of the old lady’s chattels real and personal. It was the only time he had ever known them to argue.

“But you’re not using your real name,” she objected as she read the words on the screen. “Who’s Steve? Oh, Alice! He’s writing about Mama’s glasses chain again. Honestly!”

Steve was looking at the screen where a perversity of optics was manifesting itself. The sunlight was coursing through the window, reflecting off the knife blade onto Aunt Esther’s reading glasses where the image of the blade was reversed, only to be re-reflected onto the screen, so that the image of the knife hung as a ghostly superimposition on the words, its serrations slicing sentences diagonally with the merciless cruelty of an editor.

“And this stuff about the knife,” said Aunt Esther, and Steve shot from the chair, his shoulder hitting her jaw as he rose, slamming her teeth together and knocking the glasses from her face as he pushed past her and grabbed the knife, and turning back to Aunt Esther he thrust the knife in an upward motion deep into her chest, taking care to start underneath the ribcage and drive upwards into her heart, surprise in her eyes and an “Oh!” exhaled, and before she could drop he moved to Aunt Alice who was halfway off the love seat. He reached his right hand with the knife over his left shoulder and then drew it with brutal fury across her neck in a single slash that opened a yawning gash from which deep red blood fountained in an arc that nearly reached her sister who lay on the floor by the writing desk, foaming pink bubbles forming on her silently moving lips.

“And this stuff about the knife,” said Aunt Esther, “why it’s nothing but a small butter knife and you know it.”

“Leave him alone, Esther,” said Aunt Alice, reaching for the remote. “He’s a creative. Oh, goody! Judge Judy!”

“I thought it was going to be funny,” said Aunt Esther, still reading.

“Oh, I heard something funny yesterday,” said Aunt Alice. “How do you pronounce the capital of Kentucky, lewie-ville or lewis-ville?”

Aunt Esther took off her glasses and turned to her sister. “It’s lewie-ville.”

“Nope,” said Aunt Alice, well pleased. “It’s Frankfort!”

Aunt Esther turned back to Steve. “You are going to take out that awful part about Mama’s glasses chain, aren’t you, David?”

“I can’t work like this,” said Steve. “I can’t do it. You two are killing me.”

“Well, Mr. Creative, I think it was you who killed us. And what’s with the italics? Alice, come look at this!”

“I can’t,” said Aunt Alice, “Judge Judy is going to rule right after this commercial.”

Aunt Alice and Uncle Shel had remained single, living together in this same house and more or less married to each other, except they had filthier, dirtier sex than married people.

“I have to end this,” said Steve. “This is pointless. It’s drivel. Why would anyone read this?”

“My dear,” said Aunt Esther, “they’ll hang in with you until the end because they want to find out how it ends. That’s the thing about the end,” she said, holding out her arms, palms up as if assessing the weight of this thought. “It has an ending.”

“Not every story has an ending,” said Steve. “Some stories

© 2018 James David Cohn