Today fiction chooses him. Among the crowd circling the bookstore café, he is fastest to claim the open table. He powers up his laptop and smells the coffee brewing, hears the tempest roar of the cappuccino maker. This, he thinks, is writing.
He sets his fingers atop his keyboard, the artist poising for his muse. Nothing comes. He bemoans his feckless muse and switches to Facebook.
Those without tables see he is almost out of coffee. They circle, ready to swoop. For the sake of his writing he forgoes a refill. At the Überbooks café, it is literary trench warfare.
There is a time in his past when at this table an old woman interrupts his checking out a Groupon discount offer for pottery classes.
The old woman points at his laptop, not the one he possesses now but the one he possesses in that time. “What is it you write? Life or death?”
He toggles back to his writing. The old woman sees his work and frowns. “You write death.”
“No, it’s fiction.”
“Your fiction is dead,” the old woman says, and pretends to smoke. Überbooks does not permit actual smoking. “It is dead because you forbid it to live.”
“Yes,” he says. “No. What?”
“You write in the past tense. Your words are born dead.”
He glances again at his writing and sees the old woman’s meaning. It is funereal, a graveyard of words. “Born dead…”
The old woman smiles through a pretend haze of blue smoke. “When you write in the past tense, you write only death.”
He takes the pottery class with his girlfriend and members of his critique group. He drinks too much wine and argues with them all. His girlfriend leaves him for the pottery instructor. The critique group breaks up as well, a fitting end for their serial past tense crimes.
That night he writes about this in the present tense. No one publishes his story. To help his process, he takes up pretend smoking.
A soft voice brings him back to today, not his muse but a young woman at the next table. She is pretty in the bookstore light, slender with long hair and a knitted scarf. She wants another coffee and asks him to hold her table. She promises to buy his refill for his trouble. Already her stirring catches the eye of the waiting crowd, those Victor Frankensteins in American Apparel desperate to revive their moribund fiction with present tense lightning. He agrees, anything for the young woman and says his coffee is a toffee nut latte.
He lights a pretend cigarette and watches her leave. Women are always leaving him.
He takes a pretend drag. An idea comes.
In his story a man writes in a bookstore café. Under-caffeinated, he falls asleep. He dreams that the ghost of an old woman appears and transforms the bookstore into a cemetery, each headstone bearing a verb in its past tense. The specter waves again, and the graves sink into the earth. The story ends with a pottery studio ablaze.
The young woman returns with his toffee nut latte. She asks what he writes.
“The present tense,” he says.
She nods. “The old woman. What do you feel it brings to your writing?”
“Life.” She says the word as if a dove she tosses into flight. “True. But don’t you think it also adds immediacy?”
She bums a pretend cigarette and turns her chair to face him. “How have you solved the problem of perspective?”
He mimics her thoughtful tone. “I try to keep one.”
“One? I keep all of them. Simultaneously.”
“That sounds pretty immediate.”
She smiles. “Complete and utter immediacy. But I’m moving past that. These days I use future tense.”
“Future tense.” He repeats her words because they confuse him, the thought that she writes neither life nor death but what has yet to live. He forgets his coffee is not pretend and takes too deep a drink. He burns his tongue.
“Exactly,” she says. “My work is evolving from being currently immediate to being possibly immediate. All the tension from unknowns brings a potential urgency I find liberating.”
“Yes,” he says. It is all he knows to say. He longs for the old woman’s wisdom.
“Are you published?”
Her question cuts him open, and all his creative agonies spill out as he tells her no.
“Me neither. I’m signing up for pottery classes on Groupon. Want to come? If you sign up too we both get half off.”
He hates the thought of pottery classes, but memories are the gravestones of his past. He loves this woman already, for her lithe motion, for her offhand grin, for how she holds her pretend cigarette. He tells her yes.
He writes about this in the present tense. It does not get published.