by Russell Dyer
published: november 15, 2003; revised: november 15, 2003; readers in past month: 127
As a writing exercise for a course I took at Southeastern Louisiana University, I wrote the following piece. The assignment select some text from a favorite author, then to write a very short story in the same style. We would present both text to the teacher (Dr. Carole McAllister) and the class for them to give feedback as to whether we were successful in mimic the writer’s style. The goal was for us to better appreciate writers we admire and learn how to be better writers from studying them.
For my own twist, I did something a little different. I copied five paragraphs from one of Italo Calvino’s books and then wrote five paragraphs of my own, in the same style, but following the same story line. I intertwined Calvino’s paragraphs and mine.
Read the ten paragraphs below and see if you can identify which are Calvino’s and which are mine. If you email me your guesses, I will email you the numbers of the paragraphs that are mine.
If on a winter’s night a traveler…
The chapter between one and two: written by Italo Calvino, meddled with by Russell Dyer
The novel begins in a railway station, a locomotive huffs, steam from a piston covers the opening of the chapter, a cloud of smoke hides part of the first paragraph. In the odor of the station there is a passing whiff of station cafe’ odor. There is someone looking through the befogged glass, he opens the glass door of the bar, everything is misty, inside, too, as if seen by nearsighted eyes, or eyes irritated by coal dust. The pages of the book are clouded like the windows of an old train, the cloud of smoke rests on the sentences. It is a rainy evening; the man enters the bar; he unbuttons his damp overcoat; a cloud of steam enfolds him; a whistle dies away along tracks that are glistening with rain, as far as the eye can see.
A whistling sound, like a locomotive’s, and a cloud of steam rise from the coffee machine that the old counter-man puts under pressure, as if he were sending up a signal, or at least so it seems from the series of sentences in the second paragraph, in which the players at the table close the fans of cards against their chests and turn toward the newcomer with a triple twist of their necks, shoulders, and chairs, while the customers at the counter raise their little cups and blow on the surface of the coffee, lips and eyes half shut, or suck the head of their mugs of beer, taking exaggerated care not to spill. The cat arches its back, the cashier closes her cash register and it goes pling. All these signs converge to inform us that this is a little provincial station, where anyone is immediately noticed.
Over in a booth, a little off center of the cafe’, is a reasonably attractive woman with two young children who squirm in their seat and slurp their milk shakes. One can tell that this woman used to be prettier, in her youth (not that she’s not still young), but she now has the kind of good looks that can trump the good looks of younger days; the good looks that only survival can bring about–surviving a dead-beat husband who left her with these two youngsters; looks that are brought about by the long nights and hard working days of loving her children despite the burdens they bring; the good looks of a tawny, aged port. It is for this reason that, although I have no practical reason to be studying her, I cannot seem to cease my examination of her; and her circumstances seem to prevent her from frowning at me, from discouraging my attention.
The mechanical sound of a cigarette machine, from near the entrance to the cafe’, jars me loose. In the midst of the noise of the espresso machine and the card players kibitzing, the pull of that heavy knob of the cigarette vendor wrenches my attention. I know that sound and that feel: It has the feel of the trap door to a hangman’s gallows being pulled and reluctantly released: the cigarette pack sliding down the chute like death incarnate, all nicely packaged and disguised. The regular, who completes the transaction with this unfeeling, mechanical contraption, pops the pack against the base of his palm in three quick raps. The sound of the cellophane unwrapping, like this chapter now in its fourth paragraph, seems to signal that the story is about to be lit and you, the reader, can finally make a decision about committing, or not, to this tale.
Stations are all alike; it doesn’t matter if the lights cannot illuminate beyond their blurred halo, all of this is a setting you know by heart, with the odor of train that lingers even after all the trains have left. The lights of the station and the sentences you are reading seem to have the job of dissolving more than of indicating the things that surface from a veil of darkness and fog. I have landed in this station tonight for the first time in my life, entering and leaving this bar, moving from the odor of the platform to the odor of wet sawdust in the toilets, all mixed in a single odor which is that of waiting, the odor of telephone booths when all you can do is reclaim your tokens because the number called has shown no signs of life.
The stool in which I have claimed as my own, why this particular one of the six or so available I’m not sure, squeaks when I twist in the slightest. My repeated attempts to quietly turn to check the time on the large clock on the wall to my right, as well as my twists to the left to observe any new arrivals of trains–as if a locomotive could possibly pull into this station unnoticed and unheard–as well as to scrutinize any new arrivals of guests to the station cafe’, are announced by this stool which supports me in my hunched posture. I suspect that it intentionally betrays me at every turn, as the stool is a regular to this cafe’ and I am an outsider, a foreigner.
I am the man who comes and goes between the bar and the telephone booth. Or, rather: that man is called ‘I’ and you know nothing else about him, just as this station is called only ‘station’ and beyond it there exists nothing except the unanswered signal of a telephone ringing in a dark room of a distant city. I hang up the receiver, I await the rattling flush, down through the metallic throat, I push the glass door again, head toward the cups piled up to dry in a cloud of steam.
You, reader, are probably wondering who I am calling and why they do not answer. You are probably wondering why it is imperative, to me that is, that I make contact with this unknown person, here by telephone or in person, and especially now, between trains. And if I’m anxious not to miss my next train and wish to place my call repeatedly until it is received or until the last possible moment before my second train departs, why do I not use the telephone booth up the boardwalk, where a comfortable weathered, wooden bench rests, where I could rest in equal comfort and perhaps be unnoticed by the regulars. I would have to say that I started in this station cafe’ because I believed I could blend in, but did not realize that among so many regulars, as an irregular, I would stand out in this cafe’ and now in this novel. Further, I stay because I find myself mesmerized by the smells, and the sounds, that you, the reader, know so well.
The espresso machines in the station cafe’s boast their kinship with the locomotives, the espresso machines of yesterday and today with the locomotives and steam engines of today and yesterday. It’s all very well for me to come and go, shift and turn: I am caught in a trap, in that nontemporal trap which all stations unfailingly set. A cloud of coal dust still hovers in the air of stations all these years after the lines have been totally electrified, and a novel that talks about trains and stations cannot help conveying this odor of smoke. For a couple of pages now you have been reading on, and this would be the time to tell you clearly whether this station where I have got off is a station of the past or a station of today; instead the sentences continue to move in vagueness, grayness, in a kind of no man’s land of experience reduced to the lowest common denominator. Watch out: it is surely a method of involving you gradually, capturing you in the story before you realize it–a trap. Or perhaps the author still has not made up his mind, just as you, reader, for that matter, are not sure what you would most like to read: whether it is the arrival at an old station, which would give you a sense of going back, a renewed concern with lost times and places, or else a flashing of lights and sounds, which would give you the sense of being alive today, in the world where people today believe it is a pleasure to be alive. This bar (or ‘station buffet,’ as it is also called) could seem dim and misty only to my eyes, nearsighted or irritated, whereas it could also be steeped in light diffused by tubes the color of lightning and reflected by mirrors in such a way as to fill completely every passage and interstice, and the shadowless space might be overflowing with music exploding at top volume from a vibrant silence-killing machine, and the pinballs and the other electric games simulating horse races and manhunts are all in action, and colored shadows swim in the transparency of a TV and in that of an aquarium of tropical fish enlivened by a vertical stream of air bubbles. And my arm might not hold a briefcase, swollen and a bit worn, but might be pushing a square suitcase of plastic material supplied with little wheels, guided by a chrome stick that can be folded up.
No, reader, I will not place this story in historical context for you; not yet. I will let you wait until the second chapter to satisfy your curiosity. And I know you will turn the page to the next chapter because you are reading an Italo Calvino book, not that I, the narrator, take particular pride in that I am a character in an Italo Calvino book. However, you have come to expect something from this particular author which compels you to tolerate these asides, this abuse. But you wonder, don’t you, if the author is weaving a story or just filling pages to satisfy his editor to collect his next advance for having completed the first chapter, when all the while the regulars to this station cafe’ are enjoying themselves and their conversations: ‘I haven’t seen you around here before.’ I squeak around in my stool in surprise. A woman of about forty, looking quite seasoned and confident and with only a hint of make-up on her handsome face, somehow has managed to wander into the cafe’ undetected by me, despite my vigilant guard over the entrance. Is this the signal: I thought the challenge was to be, ‘New in town?’ To be sure, I extend my password: “Just changing trains to Malbork.” No response. She eases into a seat next to me without the slightest complaint from her stool: she must be a regular. She slips a cigarette from her small purse and then grasps it with her lips and lights it, before I can finish considering if it would be too much like a cheap detective novel to light it for her. Nodding to the old counter-man, she sends him scurrying to the espresso machine again to concoct her usual. “Malbork, huh?” she says while blowing smoke politely to one side and up. Just then the telephone booth resonates in alarm. I glance back at it and consider whether it could be for me, whether I want to leave this charming looking woman of experience, but who bears no wedding ring. The card players twist around and look to see if I heard the beckon. The telephone rings in disbelief and irritation at my hesitation. “Excuse me.” I make my way to the booth and pick up the receiver and say a simple, non-committal, “Yes?” A voice at the other end, in the darkness, from a distant city says, “The exchange has been canceled. Leave the station immediately. Talk to no one!” The line goes dead, giving me the feeling that the call never happened, that I dreamed it. I look back at the woman waiting for me at the counter. She’s glancing down at my valise. Quickly and with determination, I walk across the cafe’, drawing the attention of the card players and the cashier, whose scrutiny I had forgotten. I pick up my bag and hug it close to my chest and bid the woman a good night and exit the cafe’, whereby I rush to the cab stand to make a hasty escape, wondering all the while what has cause this sudden change in plans.