Swimming Against the Desert

by Bill Kitcher

As I often do, I was sitting at the bar, writing. I thought I had a pretty good idea so I was focused, and didn’t notice as the bar filled up and I was surrounded.

When I looked up to order another beer, I noticed the crowd, particularly the guy sitting beside me. He wore a coat that was way too big for him and a toque he never removed. The light brown hair that came out of the back of the toque didn’t match his beard and mustache. His facial hair was dark and looked as if it had been dyed recently. I nodded to him and went back to my story.

He was considerate enough to not bother me while I was writing.

When I paused to consider my next sentence, and looked up blankly at the hockey game on TV, he said, “May I ask you what you’re writing? A letter? A screenplay?”

“It’s a short story,” I said, then nothing more. It may have been good to talk to someone but I was trying to focus.

“What’s it about?”

He seemed genuinely interested rather than just being polite. I’d forgotten what I was going to write next, so I folded up my note paper and put my pen on top of it. “It’s about a thief.”

“Crime story?”
“No. Yeah. Sort of. No, not at all.”

He laughed. “So you’re not sure yet.”

“Well, maybe a year ago, I had a story published and in it there was this woman who was a thief. Minor character. And then, three or four months ago, I wrote another story that had a thief, and it occurred to me she was the same character. So now I’m writing a story in which that woman shows up in so many of my stories she becomes real. You know, like the teddy bear you had when you were a kid. It was alive to you. And if you still have that teddy bear, he still is. Mine is, anyway. I still have him.”

“Very meta,” he said.

“I guess. I’m just going for weird. I don’t know.” I laughed.

“What’s the character’s name?”

“Dunno. She never had one. Never needed one.”

“How does the story end?”

“No idea. I think I’m swimming against the current here.”

He laughed. “Wandering in the desert.”

“Swimming against the desert while wandering in the current.”

I stared at the TV and tried to get back into the story, but the conversation had eliminated from my mind even the vaguest notion of where the plot was headed. “Listen,” I said, “I’m going out for a smoke. Want to join me?”

“No thanks. I don’t smoke.”

“OK, I’ll be back.” I picked up my notes and stuffed them in my jacket pocket. I didn’t want him to read them and see how stupid they were.

Outside, I smoked and stared at the trees. I had nothing. Then it occurred to me that what I’d said to the guy wasn’t strictly true. The thieves in my previous stories didn’t have names although the one in the second story might have had one. None of the characters in that story knew her name, but someone thought it might have been “Annie” because he’d heard of a thief around town by that name, a tiny detail I’d forgotten, and now a fact of such little relevance I couldn’t remember why I’d even written it. It was probably one of the many reasons that story hasn’t been published yet.

I finished my smoke, having decided to give up on the story. It wasn’t worth bothering about.

Back in the bar, the guy was gone. There was a fake beard leaning up against my beer glass and a piece of paper underneath the glass. I unfolded it and read: “I stole your pen and your wallet. Love, Annie.”

I didn’t have to reach to my back pocket to know that was true. I promised the bartender I’d be back to pay my bill. He looked at me skeptically. “Is this your beard?” he said.

I took my notes out of my jacket pocket and tore them up. I gotta start coming up with new characters.