patrick s. mcginnity
Patrick S. McGinnity holds an MFA from Hollins University, and teaches writing at Central Michigan University. His work has appeared in Wordriver, The Truth About the Fact, and Paradigm,The Harrow, Temenos, Paradigm, and The Fourth River. He lives with his wife and two children in central Michigan and has been known to blog sporadically at KrazyKelt's Killer Karnival.
"Wit's Soul" is a short-short with an interesting message about short-shorts. Click here to read what the author has to say about it!
Everyone knew he lived to read. It was a well-known fact that he treasured a good story above nearly anything else; from children’s books to epic poems, he devoured stories like a starving man at a feed. Seldom was he seen without a book in one hand or the other. In his rusty red Escort, he listened to books on tape and frequently missed turns and exits; he kept a battered, coverless paperback in the glove box in case he should ever break down. Heaven, to his way of thinking, was a thick book, a comfortable chair, and a glass of extra-dry sherry on a crisp autumn afternoon.
It was on just such a day—though in truth, day was already leaning heavily toward evening, and autumn losing its battle with early winter—when a sound from outside wrested his attention from the eight hundred page tome he was so close to finishing. He marked his place, but before he could rise, the door was battered down. In poured an unruly mob bearing torches—the smoky light shining and dancing in eyes wide with frenzied zeal. The foremost among them held something up as reverentially as if it were some saint’s shinbone. It was a single ghost white page.
Read this, they chanted, gathering around his chair. It’s short. It’s pithy. It will forever change your understanding of what a story is.
That sounded good, he thought. Voracious, omnivorous, entirely unprepossessing, he’d read anything. Swirling his glass so that rivulets of liquor clung to the sides, he settled in and began, doing his best to ignore the sweating mass crowding around him.
The throng leaned forward, fevered brows arched in anticipation, waiting for his thin lips to curve upward at the corners in delight, as surely they must when he reached the antepenultimate line, the line that began the set-up for the sweet consummation that was the final pair of sentences, which they all knew cast such an ironic and novel light over the story’s entirety that one couldn’t help but be touched.
His eyes scanned left to right, left to right, each line bringing him closer to the last sentence, which they knew concluded the story so exquisitely it was almost painful to read, or indeed even to recall having read. Several of the multitude wept openly and without shame upon recollecting how those final words had seared themselves so indelibly into their souls.
How long can it take him to read so few words, they asked one another in hushed whispers barely louder than the stuttering pops and hisses from their torches. Surely he must be nearly done by now. Through the glare on his spectacles, they watched his eyes, which scanned—it appeared to them—right to left, right to left, waiting for that tell-tale crinkle, that creasing at the corners that would signal his utter amazement upon reaching the final lines, which summed everything up so sweetly that it left the heart hesitant even to beat, lest it upset that achingly perfect moment.
At last his eyes ceased their restless jittering and seemed to backtrack, losing ground. He squinted, as if trying to read some distant road sign. Consternation grumbled through the assemblage like remote thunder. It must be, some whispered, that he doesn’t yet see how exactly perfect the last sentence is—how it recasts the entire story, remakes the genre itself, deconstructs the very universe of words. Surely a second, more-thorough reading of the final paragraph will make it clear, others replied.
When the man stopped, his brow creased ever so slightly, but the corners of his eyes remained uncrinkled, and he pursed his lips. Hmm, he said at last, making as if to hand the page back.
Hmm? they asked, their collective brow climbing almost to their collective hairline. Hmm, you say?
It was…short, he said.
Yes, they nodded in encouragement.
It was, he went on, pithy too.
Yes, pithy, they replied. It certainly is that.
But…, he began, scratching his unshaven cheek.
Yes, they said, waiting for something more. Those among the host with more delicate constitutions fainted from the very strain of the moment.
Where’s the story? he began. There isn’t any story.
No story, they cried, those with hair enough tearing at it in grief, while those without rent their garments and wailed. But it’s so short, they cried, and pithy too!
It’s just that…well…nothing happens, he said.
The throng’s anguished moans swelled like a great wave and broke upon the rock of his implacable ignorance. What about the penultimate line? they demanded, weeping. Clearly, he didn’t understand it at all— somehow he couldn’t grasp how it spun purest gold out of the rank manure that had come before.
Isn’t it beautiful? they demanded. It destroys conventions and demands that the reader become integral to the process of creation. It makes you reconsider everything you thought you knew about anything and everything you thought you were. It exposes your most fundamental illusions, and tears away the mask of your pretensions, leaving you naked and utterly vulnerable to the heartbreaking beauty of the final line. Don’t you see that, you damned fool?
He adjusted his spectacles, sipped his sherry, and thought for a moment. Well, he conceded at last, picking up the book he had been reading before the interruption, it certainly is short. I have to give it that.
Did you enjoy "Wit's End"? Try "Looking for Father" by Eleanor Levine.