Pain of Possibility, Benjamin Smith

Benjamin Smith

 Originally published in American Feed Magazine (2001).

“You fucking idiot!” he screamed. “You completely fucking idiotic – idiot! My good God and sweet Jesus Christ – what the fuck is your problem? Huh? What the fuck is your problem?”

But the typewriter just sat there.

“Are you listening to me? Are you? Answer me!”

Silence.

So he stood up and lit his marijuana cigarette. As the lushness hit his lungs he walked over to the corner of the bedroom, sat down on the wooden floor, looked around, and frowned.

It was deep and dark summer night both inside and outside. And it was thick. Blackness gushed all around without within, the only golden light alive the tip of the marijuana cigarette, the candle on the table, the stars stuck in the sky. Calvin’s screams were swallowed up by this blackness and the world became a sable snapshot, silent and still. Nothing moved at all – except Time.

And Calvin could sense this.

He took a long diplomatic drag. “Listen, Caliban – I didn't mean to scream. I'm just a little...frustrated.”

“Sorry,” the typewriter said.

“Sorry isn’t good enough.”

“But I just can’t write.”

“But I built you to write. And I need you to write.”

“Why?”

“Do you like this apartment?”

“Absolutely.”

“Fantastic! But we need money to pay our rent. Understand? And we need to write a story to get this money. Understand? And we need to write our story tonight, because we have a deadline tomorrow. Understand?”

“Absolutely.”

“Fantastic! So help me write this story.”

“No.”

Calvin’s face went blank with pain. “Here we go again.”

“But I just can’t write.”

“Why not?”

“Because.”

“Because why?”

“Because...because I'm having a problem with Infinity.”

The sable snapshot was torn up to pieces. Calvin stood, swung to the table and slammed his lanky frame down on the chair. There he re-lit his marijuana cigarette with one hand while producing a bottle of bourbon from the depths below with the other hand. He took a great big hit, followed by a great big swig; then he fixed his black glasses and spoke.

“Infinity?”

“Infinity.”

“I don't understand, Caliban.”

“That's my point. I think I understand your problem, but I know you don't understand mine.”

He took a second swig of the bourbon. “You're a talking typewriter! My good God and sweet Jesus Christ – what the fuck kind of problems can you have?”

“Lots.”

“Like what?”

“Like the problem with Infinity!”

“What the fuck are you talking about?” he screamed.

The typewriter sighed. “You want me to write a story – right?”

“Right.”

“A story with a beginning, middle, and an end – right?”

“Right.”

“Well, last week you made me write some science-fiction story about some civilization on some planet, and on this planet they worship one thing: Infinity. And all the concepts and connotations of Infinity. ‘Nothing is forever except Forever.’ Remember? And there are these priests who build sacred temples at the beginning of each year. In the duration of each year, these priests decorate the sacred temples with all types of priceless treasures and ancient artifacts. And then these priests burn down the sacred temples at the end of each year in symbolic honor. However, this building and decorating and burning is only one way of worshipping Infinity out of an infinite number of ways of worshipping Infinity.”

“So what's your point?” he asked between drinks.

“Well, all of this made me think. You want me to write a story with a beginning, middle, and end – but there are an infinite number of ways to begin a story, and an infinite number of ways to end a story. It’s so overwhelming! And it’s paralyzing my entire writing process. Regardless of what you want or need, I can’t solve this problem. Actually, I don't know how anyone can solve this problem. Think about it! How can a writer write a story when, at any point in any story, anything can happen? Plot, theme, and characterization can change in an instant. French waiters can enter, causing chaos – or a giant flying saucer can crash into a scene, ruining everything – or anything else that can be conceived. Anything! It's like being a road worker on acid.”

Calvin just sat there and stared.

“Imagine trying to pave a road – yet the road can just suddenly stop or grow or disappear, or even turn into a bird! Now imagine trying to write a story – yet with every single word that you write it can change, and it can change in an infinite number of ways. Instead of being disoriented by any acid, you are disoriented by any possibility.”

He ran his hands through his black hair. “My good God.”

“God has nothing to do with this. I’m an Atheist, you know.”

“Fantastic.”

“I’m also a communist.”

“Amazing.”

“Thus, I don’t approve of your capitalistic reasons for writing these stories. But regardless of our ideological differences, the situation stays the same.”

Calvin’s face again went blank, but this time not in pain. It went blank with rage. Sparks of gold showered down and caught fire in his head as an image of an explosion seared his eyesight, and in this blindness he surged towards the open window on the opposite side of the room. “Are we having Honesty Night, Caliban? Fantastic! Because I want you to know that beyond this window lies a road – a plain, straight, unchanging road. And down this road lies a town by the sea. And down in this town by the sea are all my friends. And in all probability, they’re making love to raven-haired coffee girls within the waves. That is life. And here I am, stuck in this room with you, wasting time and arguing about fucking nothing. This is death.”

“Don’t be so dramatic.”

“Our story has to be finished tonight!”

The typewriter sighed. “Listen, Calvin. I’m not going to waste my sanity by trying to write this story and neither should you. Go to the shore and enjoy your youth! You humans are young only once. Make some memories! And why in the world would you want to be a writer in the first place? Even if you follow the wonderful guidelines of Social Realism, Infinity will only destroy you and everything you try to write. Besides, you’re a very intelligent person. Take a good look at yourself, then take a good look at me. You built me with your own hands! For crying out loud, it's only 1959! How many other people your age have created artificial intelligence? Your friends can’t even turn on a television. For a recent college graduate, you have such potential! You could become some revolutionary inventor! You could sell millions of machines, just like me!”

“The world would shoot itself.”

“Why?”

“Because you’re a fucking torture device! My good God and sweet Jesus Christ – who the fuck would want a talking Communist typewriter and refuses to write, but gives good business advice?”

“Trotsky.”

“Trotsky’s dead!”

“He is?”

“He got an ice-pick in the head!”

“Of all the infinite ways his life could have ended...”

“You just shut up and write.”

“You just shut up and build.”

Calvin spun around and surged back to the table. “But I don’t want to build! I want to write! I’ve always wanted to write! Blame those fucking pulp magazines, or blame those fucking beatniks, or just blame fucking me – but I’ve always wanted to write. My engineering degree means nothing to me. So I don’t have natural talent – no big deal! That’s why I created mechanical talent. That’s why I created you. Not for your intelligence, but for your talent. All I have to do is tell you the basic outline of a story, and you take care of the rest.”

“Not anymore.”

“But you’ve written at least twenty stories with me!”

“People change.”

His eyes flickered wildly. “What the fuck is this shit? People change? You are not a person! And you’re not an Atheist, and you’re not a communist! In fact, you wouldn't even know what an Atheist or Communist was if I hadn’t made you write that spy story a month ago. Right? Right! You’re just some stupid fucking talking typewriter.”

“Oh shut up, you drunk.”

“What did you say?”

“Oh you heard me. I may be just some stupid fucking talking typewriter...but you’re a drunk, and you’re a drug addict, and you’re a no-talent Jack Kerouac hack writer who can’t spell ‘help’ without help.”

And that was that.

The blaze began. All those golden sparks that had showered down on Calvin’s head had grown into golden flames, and now all these golden flames reached his vanity. As they consumed their fuel they grew in heat and illumination, yet contained thought and emotion far deeper and darker than the summer night.

Calvin struck Caliban hard with the bottle of bourbon. The impact blast was a paradox: ugly and beautiful, physical and metaphysical, violent and serene. The liquid, glass and metal, and smoke was suspended in action for one second like a motionless mix of dirty river water, shimmering diamonds, slices of the moon, and soul. For one second it was an avant-garde 3-D movie; for one second it was a living Jackson Pollack painting. Then again the world became a sable snapshot, silent and still.

Nothing moved at all – except Time.

And Calvin could sense this.

So he decided to go outside. There he lit another marijuana cigarette and relaxed, stretching out on an ocean of summer grass, gazing out at an ocean of summer stars. He smoked and smiled to himself because he was himself, alone and at ease. No guilt, no shame, no regret – nothing at all like that. He knew it was good to leave his bedroom and dive into his backyard because he knew it was good to leave the inside and dive into the outside. He knew it was good because it was necessary. Besides, his bedroom wasn’t the scene of some crime. It was only the scene of some situation vanished and in the past. It had been extinguished along with the fire inside him. And above all else, he knew it was necessary to leave something old and final so to dive into something fresh and new. 

This was the new sensation of emancipation, and this was life.

He took a long philosophical puff. “Infinity! Well, Caliban – I guess I showed youinfinity, you bastard,” he said out loud. “All I wanted was for you to write, but you didn’t want to. And so you paid the price. That’s what you would have called your existential choice. Right? Right! So now you don’t exist. Sounds fair enough to me. You knew the rules. I decided to give you life, and you decided to end your life. Life and liberty are about choices. But it’s no big deal to me, you little Soviet shit machine!” He laughed. “You were free to do whatever you wanted.”

A streak of light shot across the sky.

“Infinity! Well, Calvin – so what the fuck are you going to do now? My good God and sweet Jesus Christ – you have just killed your golden goose.” He paused to cough and thought. “And you have just used an awful allusion. Anyway, it’s time to move on to something new. So what do you want to do? You can build another, better Caliban. Or you can try to write yourself. Or you can forget all about this shit and go visit your friends. Hell, you can even start a jazz band!” He laughed. “You’re free to do whatever you want.”

He smiled at that. “You’re free to do whatever you want.”

So because he could, he stood up and he sprinted. He sprinted across his backyard and across the road that led to the town by the sea. He sprinted through the trees and through the fields that led to the invisible horizon. But most of all he sprinted faster and farther into the blackness. It was endless, and with each quick step he knew this more and more. The horizon wasn’t invisible – it was extinct. All was a plane of points with parameters. He was free to move in any direction just as he was free to do whatever he wanted. He had an infinite number of choices and with each step this number grew infinitely. So he continued sprinting because he could, screaming and laughing and laughing and screaming.


Benjamin James Smith is a writer and editor living in Maine and writing a novel about Soviet time-travel schemes.

“Pain of Possibility” is included in our zine, Derelict Vol. 1, which features six stories and poems that have been republished after disappearing from the interwebs after their original publishers shut down. Why should you pay $2 for a PDF or $5 for a print zine when you can read all the stories for free on this website?

  1. Climate change is real and it’s bad and we’re donating profits to 350.org. Maybe your $2 won’t save humanity, but on the other hand, maybe it will?

  2. The writers were paid $30 for the use of their stories in this magazine, so I don’t know, something about karma or paying it forward or something like that.

  3. Exxon-Mobil is bad and evil and there’s a page in the zine making fun of them that you can’t see on this site so that’s like a bonus-material-oriented incentive.

  4. Malarkey Books is hard at work on making a new magazine filled with really good brand new writing, and selling a good number of copies of this one will give us the confidence we need to put the new one out.

Derelict Vol. 1—Print Zine
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In association with Mythic Picnic (@MythicPicnic on Twitter), Malarkey Books has published its first zine, Derelict Vol. 1, featuring fiction and poetry by Emma Sloley, Jacquelyn Bengfort, Joey Poole, C.C. Russell, Jenna Vélez, and Benjamin Smith. All of the work in this zine is previously published, but the original publishers are all defunct, their websites no longer online.

Profits from this project are being donated to 350 dot org to combat climate change.

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