At some point in late 1997, I finally got over my wretched obsession with Joseph Conrad and ran straight into the equally dead white male arms of James Joyce. I spent the first half of 1998 reading Ulysses and screaming at Ulysses and going to the few parties I was invited to as a highly unpopular homeschooled teenager and talking about how much I both loved and hated Ulysses and when I finished it I declared that James Joyce was the greatest influence on my young life and that I would write the next Ulysses yes I said yes I will Yes.
This is not to say that I became a great modernist writer. Or even that I experimented with any modernist tendencies whatsoever. The thing I loved about James Joyce above all others was that he was a petty and vengeful writer. I read that he used to get drunk and sit in the corners of pubs, threatening to write everyone he knew into his books — and that the bumbling and awful character Private Carr in Ulysses was, in fact, based on some poor sod named Henry Carr who once had the temerity to argue with Joyce over a pair of pants — and realized that I had never admired or envied another human being more.
So when I stopped subconsciously working through my breakup with my best friend via stories about murder, death, and guilt on the shores of Lake Erie, I started consciously writing even worse thinly-veiled tripe about her and what I considered her “totally fake” personality. That is why this sad little story exists. Even the the musical inspiration was a shot at her, because “Smile and Wave,” from 1997’s Headstones album of the same name, was by her favourite band.
I don’t suppose Tom Stoppard will ever get around to writing a play inspired by this epic literary burn.
PART SIX: SMILE AND WAVE
My mother knew more about getting to heaven than is in the bible. There were times I wanted to tell those preachers how wrong they were, but I thought better of it. That might have put me on a slow boat to heaven.
Mom told me the story when I was very young and she repeated it every once in a while to keep me in check. I passed it on to my children, who have told the tale to theirs. I am very proud to say that we’ve all followed the little story’s moral to a tee, except in one case. Ronald always was the black sheep of the family.
I can hear some people out of my window who obviously haven’t heard the secret. I can hear their words clearly. The whole group is in high spirits, laughing amongst themselves about some kind of chair. Now, I know for a fact that there must be other people on that street, walking past them. I have not heard them greet a single one. That chair might give them some enjoyment now, but it’ll be of little comfort when they have to wait in line at the gates of heaven.
You see, when you die, you have to go to the gates of heaven, and when you get there St. Peter asks you how many people you said “hello” to in your lifetime. If you haven’t greeted enough people, you have to wait in line to get in. Mom told me that those weary souls have to wander around lost for a very long time.
No one in my family will have to be a lost soul, except, of course, for Ronald. All of us know plenty of people, and every time we go out, we smile and say “hi” to our friends. That in itself is not enough, though. We also make many new acquaintances, so we can up the greeting count. My family understands that you are only worth who you know. The judge of a good life is the number of people who are at your funeral, and, most importantly, the number of people you’ve met out in public and spoken to.
My mother’s funeral service was packed, as mine will be. Some of the people there I will have hated in life. I know plenty of ignorant runts, but I still talk to them. I couldn’t possibly ignore them. The only time you can ignore someone you know in some way is if you’re meeting someone new and important, and you need to impress them. Impressing just that one person can lead to a whole new social circle, and plenty of new people to say “hi” to.
It was in high school that I first started earning my way to heaven. It’s a very good place to start. It’s when you can meet up with familiar friends and childhood enemies and say hello to all of them. The best place for waving and greeting people is a high school hallway. It’s also a great place for growth. You work from your fellow grade nines in your first year to athletes and stars of school plays, to the captain of the football team and president of student’s council. Soon, you’re saying hi to everyone in the school. Of course, everyone isn’t really desirable. There’s junkies, sluts, and the antisocial nerds, but you can’t ignore them.
Toronto is a big place, which makes it perfect for having plenty of bodies to wave to on the street. It also has its share of truly obnoxious people, and really odd humans that I wouldn’t want to know personally. I keep these thoughts to myself though as I pass them and wave. If people weren’t supposed to talk behind each other’s backs, we wouldn’t have backs. It’s only wrong if you’re discovered, and no one in my family is ever discovered. If we were though, we would be able to maneuver out of the situation with grace.
Now that I’m sick, and probably on my death bed, it is harder to work on my total. I’m lucky that some people have been visiting me with some remedies. Some of the other people from the building are not very bright, and others are dirty and annoying. I swear, it’s so pleasant when they leave. I wouldn’t usually associate with them, but I’d wave and exchange words on the street. When they come, I can always have them pass on sentiments to others. I’m, pretty sure that counts towards my total.
Even Ronald comes to see me, although sometimes I wish he wouldn’t. I still don’t approve or understand his way of life. He does not know many people, or at least he doesn’t acknowledge them when he’s out in public, unless they’re “close friends.” He seems to think that that is more important than greeting everyone you’ve ever met. It isn’t a choice, though. Saying hi and asking everyone you’ve ever met how they are, even if it’s feigned friendliness is just how it is. There is no other way to live. It just doesn’t work. As much as I despise Ronald and his opinions, I’ll always stop and talk to him. I even put in a friendly phone call every once in a while, although they’re short ones. I have nothing to discuss with him.
Lying in bed now, close to the end, I can’t help think Ron’s kidding himself with the idea of close friends. There’ll be hardly anyone at his funeral, and he’ll wander around lost forever. And for what? This lie about being very close to some people? I don’t think very dear friends even exist. If they do, they’re not worth the loss of hi’s on your count.
There is one thing I know for sure. Everyone at heaven’s gates will have to clear out of the way when it’s my time, because St. Peter won’t even have to bother asking me the question.