Brevity on Church St.

by Eric Schwartz

Artwork, “Bustle” by Holly Harris

I thought I loved a girl once. That is, her smell and her taste- but when I realized the

former was on account of her laundry detergent, and the ladder was on account of her birthday

cake flavored chewing gum, I realized she was replicable. But uh,

Under an August sun, in front of an imported Pizzaplace- around where a group of senior

citizens, swaying in nostalgia, looked on at what they were now simulacrums of: kids, young,

hungry, overconfident, all roaming to bars and colonial houses and the library down the way- on

the Main Road of the college town, there used to be trees. But the trees and their shade were

gone. Stolen by the city on account of vagrants. Vagrants like the beguiling, slightly hunched

man, curiously styled in a white shirt, abused jeans- from the back left pocket of which hung a

black paisley bandana- and a beret on his head.

“I like those Stan Smiths, my brother,” he said, motioning towards Warner’s white-on-

white sneakers with a flick-of- the-ashy- wrist. “When I was coming up, you had to have them.”

Warner manically scribed mental notes until a finely sympathetic introduction took form:

Presently, Kevin did have a place to live, which is something he couldn’t always say. Still, he

wants more for himself than his current routine, which honestly sounds a lot like that of a

standard 9-5er’s. He wakes up, watches some SportsCenter, and goes into town to try for a day’s

profit (which he makes begging). Afterwards, he comes home, washes up, and goes to sleep. But

it’s not his home. An elderly, wheelchair-bound woman is letting him stay with her, and he needs

to start making real money.

“I don’t drink anymore. A while ago I had some old liqueur after not drinking in a real

long time and, I fell down these stairs that started way up high,” Kevin motioned upward, “and

ended way far down, and I woke up with this big sore on my shoulder. Man, I was like ‘that’s it,

I’m done….’ But people, they do it though; they take one sip and they’re just as drunk as they

were the night before. I take a look at the bottle,” he swings his head right- “I look at them,” he

swings his head left, “and I’m like: ” his eyes go big, mimicking disbelief.

Warner soaked up the experienced man’s monologue with a glow of excitement, with a

feverish sense of journalistic opportunity.


Warner read Conversations with Kerouac, item #27 of his “Currently Checked Out” list

from the library, under the shadow of the campus’ big, stone Thomas Wolfe memorial. Etched

on its easterly façade:




WHO! WHAT! WHY! He compulsively added; journalism’s reversed pyramid so

ingrained in his consciousness as to speak for him. From the other side of the memorial, an

abstract sculpture burst from rock. “CLASS GIFT OF 1966,” read its base.

“Will it take 42 classes of kids after I’ve graduated to build my monument?”

October-colored leaves crescendo-ed over his head with the breeze, reminding him of

childhood escapades with girls on Halloween nights. He felt alive. He watched peers blur by,

thinking, “this must be what Wolfe felt like- Tom Wolfe, that is- watching and listening, working

to extrapolate meaning from the infinitesimally obscure, the unconscious nuance of the human

beast as it awkwardly runs by under the weight of it’s backpack, late for class; or strolls along,

enjoying an unfettered blue sky; in love, hands swing under conversation floating aloft; smiles,

shrugs, paces, faces, embraces. And this will accumulate to some thesis about my generation.

‘Our electric eyes lit up by the human knowledge portal, the pulsating rectangles we faithfully

grip- those, which expand our minds to oblivion while simultaneously crushing our millennial

souls. What will we say? Where will go!

From here, to where.

with what,


But I am no relic-no foreign anthropologist sleeping in the throes of a sorority house for

a mere two months of research.

I am lungs.

Young bodies busting with feminine divinity, prophetic debates carried on with that kind

of special, collegiate fervor captured by gesture: waving hands and head nods. This holy ground!

‘The world is ending,’ cries every generation. Man is to God as the afterlife is to is to this life, is

what I say. Our end is the world’s end- one and the same. The lost! The Beat! The freelove! The

New Wave! The Drug Club Kids! And now, The Electric! Revivalists jumping and disappearing

ad infinitum ad infinitum ad…”

His mind clicked and repeated all the way to the old, underfunded building where his

next class took place: History 121: The Rise of Religion in America. Does history repeat itself

because Universities underfund its department?

Walking in late to his seat in the front row meant passing by the collective, semi-attentive

gaze of the undergrad riddled auditorium. He sat in front of a pretty, highly participatory blond

girl. He opened his notebook, which was the wrong one. Instead of notes pertaining to Martin

Luther and his distinguished work, On the Jews and their Lies, there were, in inconsistent black

ink, less ideas than descriptions, and less descriptions than reconstructions of his surroundings,

and less that than notes about girls:

she must practice that/ there’s no way it’s a natural pose, sitting there looking so fucking

in control of it all yet carefree with her crossed legs and brown (brunette?) hair cascading down

the front of her face while she kind of plays with the end of it, just looking down and off like that/

tight shorts and glasses

“Not to wax too poste-modern,” the Professor began, with every intention to indeed, very

much wax post-modern, “but,” and he put a stick of chalk on the table in front of him, “there is a

way of looking at the world where what you see in front of you is not a necessary truth, that is, it

is up to interpretation, subjective.” He rolled the chalk, “Now see, cause and effect would say…”

And the cause of a girl taking a seat to his left had the effect of him looking that way and,

inspired diving into his notes:

a nose ring and smart lips/…/ ‘hahah’ how do lips even look smart/ i don’t know but hers

do/ maybe it has something to do with the

“How’s the crossword?”

“Oh, it’s pretty good. Not too hard today,” she said, barely glancing at him before

returning her attention to the grid of black and white checkered boxes. She danced a red pen

between her fingers.

“I need a four letter word… ‘It’s often a stretch.’”


Did she smile?

“May I?”

She incredulously handed it over. He flipped to page 2 and gave it back. Before them, the

professor had digressed into post-postmodernism. A 16” inch story by Warner Césaire

conveniently ran in the paper that day: “No Clothes, Some Problems: Streakers Protest at

Gubernatorial Rally”

She read his article with a pursed grin before reverting back to her work. She found

phone number was squeezed into the space for 6 DOWN.


Warner, the audodidact, covered a breadth of ‘socioeconomic-enviro- political-vegan-

marxist’ happenings during his time reporting for the University paper. A taste of the work

attributed to his name included: ‘F’ Integrity Score On Par with State Average,’ ‘Pig waste: It’s

Electric,’ and ‘Student Body President Found Alive, Opiates in System.’ Additionally, his op-ed

piece on the rampant sex that took place on the tenth and highest floor of the library, titled,

‘Shhhh, This Is A Fucking Library!’ achieved solid popularity online.

Nothing of his previous work though, stitched together from 15-minute phone calls made

from his basement room buried beneath an old fraternity house, would have the heart of this

current project. No, this is why he started the “Department of Investigative Journalism for

Entertaining Reporting and Intrepid Observations,” (concisely, the DIJERIDO- phonically, the

“Didgeridoo”). Homelessness! From the eyes of the streets.


They tried to arrest Ralph the other week, Kevin continued. Apparently both drunk and

high, the senior street urchin still managed to evade the authorities coming after him.

“My guy Ralph is 65! How you let Ralph get away??”

Warner escorted Kevin into the corner drug store, past the cluster of senior citizens clad

in light blue sweaters and button downs. Everyone on Main Road was going somewhere. Only

outsiders or those without any home to go to lingered there. Looking at elders’ interactions as he

passed- they pointed out in the distance, laughed, sighed, thrust hands in pockets, conversed- he

wondered which among them was the romantic, the leader, the brooder, the entertainer, when

they were in their prime. All their individualities now reduced to a singular, defining quality: old.

He shuddered at the thought.

Recently, Warner read about a woman who bought a homeless veteran a phone- a gesture

he was able to flip into a job and stability. Anecdotal evidence, sure; but he figured that a phone

does seem like a basic necessity these days. It’s not as if Kevin asked him on the street for

ambiguous spending money, he asked for a phone in particular. The judgment in the gazes of

customers and staff alike in the corner store was palpable as the odd pair, a discernably

privileged 20-something- year-old white college student and rugged, disfranchised black man

twice his age approached the counter, the black man pointing to a $12 flip-phone on the wall

near the spread of cigarettes and condoms. The mustached manager perused by Warner, and

when their shoulders were congruent, asked in a baleful hush, “Are you buying a phone for this

guy? Do you know him?” To the latter Warner had to shake his head: no. Moustache, as he

turned and disappeared into the painkiller aisle: “He’s been out on that street for years and years

now…years and years…”

Kevin took a step in Moustache’s direction- not irascibly, but Warner didn’t want him to

confront Mustache in any capacity. Mainly, perhaps, because he was internally hardwired to

diffuse conflict, but more significantly to the matter at hand, because Kevin- Warner’s chosen

protagonist, and the aspiring, unlikely hero of his soon-to- be narrative story of human goodness

couldn’t burn out so soon. He had a point to make here. Warner bought him the cheap flip-phone

and they walked back outside into the heat.

Warner tore a corner from his freshly returned statistics test, which he ace’d, even though

mathematics sent him into a coil of anxiety. He understood the appeal of it all; the binary right or

wrong nature of it that was so different than the interpretable and more subjective kind of work

that he loved. He even experienced euphoric rushes and thrilling instant gratification when he

successfully worked through a problem. But overall math sucked. Life exists in the uncertain,

that much he was sure. On the shred of paper he jotted down his phone number as Kevin spoke


“It’s a terrrreible thing man- not having a place to live. What are you going to do?

People just end up sleeping all day. When I was on the streets, I got woken up by this guy- he

said, ‘Kev, give me two dollars,’ and I didn’t have it and he grabbed my neck, and then the

police came by so he let go but I turned around and punched the sucka’. ‘Handcuff him!’ they

said, and they took me away. It was my birthday!”

Warner practically got-off on anecdotes like this.

“I was staying with this real nice lady, this white lady, but I bumped into her with my

elbow once and the police- they said I hit her! Charged me, so I had to get outta’ there.”

Warner hung onto Kevin’s every word, nodding along.

“My sister Monica went to the University of Wisconsin up in Madison. She thinks she’s

all hot shit. She’s making money but won’t give a thing to me or my brother, Clyde. We oughta’

jump that bitch, we say, teach Mon’ a lesson.”

Warner, though instinctually taken aback, found himself agreeing via body language.

Anything to keep Kevin flowing. tis could be a theme to develop – how far we compromise to

reach a different goal

Just then, a woman and her two kids just walked out of Big Daddy Jimmy’s, downtown’s

newest (eighth) pizza joint and the point of origin of massive, cheap slices. She spotted Kevin

and Warner sitting on the sidewalk together.

“We got more than we can eat- would you want this?” The amiable young mother asked,

holding out a slice of pepperoni, supported by two lateral paper plates.

“Yea, somebody out here will eat this,” said Kevin, pausing from unwrapping his new

phone to accept the offer.

“Hungry?” Warner asked him.

“Nah, not me… I got things to do today. Gotta’ go get some work… Got things to do


He promised Warner he’d call- and hopefully, he said, their next conversation would

entail news of a job. They shook hands. “Yep, somebody out here will eat this,” he said, slice in

hand, walking away down the street he has known for years and years… Years and years…

After their encounter subsided, Warner practically skipped to the nearest coffee shop,

where he transcribed, with the highest degree of journalistic integrity, the past 20 minutes of

action. It was just the conversation he needed. After all, it took a lot of convincing to assure his

editors that he was the reporter for the assignment. A lot, meaning he had to fuck this girl who

had the craziest voice he’s ever heard, but she basically runs the damn place so, you gotta’ do

what you gotta’ do. I’m not saying don’t put this in – just be aware some will call this out as

sexist. Drunks! Drugs! Spite! And just the right amount of goodwill too. Yes, a dash of

optimism. Accounts thus far have portrayed a homeless community on the mends; who watch

out for each other’s sobriety and stay relatively clean. But if Warner’s time on the Political Desk

taught him anything, it’s that fear sells. And he would be it’s merchant.


On the last weekend of October Warner’s closest friend, Murray, turned 21. Murray lived

in a house two blocks from the downtown scene, and that night, his party was the universe and

he was the center of it, allowing the music, faces, and bottles to orbit in natural order. On account

of the party’s Tour De Franzia theme, there was about 20 liters of wine to be had. Due to the

same account, the walls of Murray’s house were slapped all over with printed out images of the

French countryside. Because Monday was Halloween, everyone in town was dressed in costume.

Like the school itself, the event’s denomination fell in a ratio of 70-30, girls. It was an

impressive turnout considering the torrential downpour outside. The steps leading to Murray’s

front porch were steep, and when Warner reached the top he almost bumped into a blonde girl on

her way out. Whiskers in black paint on high cheekbones.

“And who are you supposed to be?”

Warner, the only one in town under the age of 25 who did not dress up, answered how he


“Meursault” he said, stepping her by.

“Well, that’s absurd.”

He turned back for her, but she vanished down the stairs into the stormy night. He looked

towards the party and saw topless mermaids inside. And a giraffe. He did cocaine with them

while The Eagles played on the stereo: …in between the dark and the light / Ooooh, coming

right behind you / Swear I’m gonna find you / One of these nights…

It was one a.m.

A high-arching- tight-spiraling football was evanescently visible against a sky clear of

rain, for the moment, in the eye-of- the-storm. It was two a.m. High School kids were having sex

on an old mattress thrown on the lawn of Murray’s house. Warner was among those in the street

playing 500 with the football. He jumped and among the throng he was able to come up with the

ball; the thump it hit his chest with signaled his arms to unite in a cradle.

“haHA!! 450!!”

Warner was 50 points away from winning now. Murray, in his leather jacket, got the ball

back and drunkenly wound up and flung the football up-up- up and it landed 30 yards away, in

the vicinity of his friends, who all tried to recover it. To say “200 dead or alive!” Meant one

could earn points by catching the ball in the air while it was “alive,” or pick it up after it hit the

ground, when it was “dead.”

“50, dead!”


“Dead, dead, dead!” repeated all, back.

There was this lonely kid no one was sure invited. He had zero points, and, noticing that

that he was the only thing in between the trajectory of the bouncing football and the loner,

Warner stepped to the side. Loner shuffled up and, achieving his first points, broke into a clearly

socially unacceptable kind of goat dance and Warner’s heart was warm.

Afterwards, alone and centered on the living room couch, Warner downed a plastic cup

half-full of something orange. In a fluid motion Murray joined him- falling down onto the couch

and swiping at the side leaver that popped out the extended footrest. Warner transferred his

attention to him.

“Yo– Kev’ called.”


“Remember that guy from the street- remember that thing I’m writing? He actually


“Oh, word?”

“Corner of Rosemary and Church. We’re meeting up.”

“Bro, are you telling me you’re- Oh, whaddup’ T? – you’re going to meet a homeless

man alone at three a.m.?”

“He’s not homeless.”

“Nah. I’m coming with you.”

T’s hair was wild, frizzy and blonde, and he wore a happy-go- lucky grin. A geology

major with a hippie soul/ He was dressed in tie-die, and wore tinted circular sunglasses. He was

the 60’s. Warner was the 50’s. They planned it, but neither of their attires were truly costume.

“The sweetness of life! La douceur de vivre! Can you feel it?” Asked T, drunk off wine.

He then positioned himself to Warner’s left and was caught up-to- speed with the situation.

“What’s the right thing to do though- when you walk by a beggar, like, what’s the

answer?” T began, “If I do give them something then it’s like I’m encouraging dependence on

begging. And I feel bad when I just ignore them… So it’s a lose-lose to me. I mean, good on you

man, but I couldn’t do it. I just keep my head down.”

“Yes T, Yes! That’s good, don't you see? That we’re uncomfortable with the whole deal,

the poverty, the struggle of another human being, that’s our strength. We recognize that it

something is wrong- we feel it! That’s what I’m writing about. They are who I’m writing for.”

“Hell yea,” T said. “That’s dope… but you’re not, taking advantage, of him right?”

“No man, I’m just telling his story, you understand?”

“Yea, I guess if it’s honest…” T trailed off. He took a puff from the joint burning in his

left hand, with conviction, before handing it off, triggering a rotation.

“I haven’t seen Ryan around,” Murray said.

“Me neither,” Warner told him, in a tone that warrants a period rather than a comma after

the word.

“You mean that crossword girl?” Asked T.

“What’s another four letter word for bitch?”

“Don’t worry about her, newspaper writing is real writing.”

“Unless it’s fake news hahaha,” said T.

“She’s a fiction whore.”

Warner and Murray rose from the depths of the couch- before they made it to the door a

brunette latched onto Murray’s arm- “Hey birthday boy, let’s take a picture.” When their pose in

front of a picturesque printout of Bordeaux melted into rhythmic, flirtatious conversation,

Warner grabbed his backpack from under a table, turned, and started off alone. Murray returned

to the couch. T turned to him and passed him the joint and said, “That’s some exploitative shit

he’s up to.” It was three thirty a.m.

Straight for one block… Left here… One more turn… Warner knew the streets well, well

enough. Past the bars shouting out last calls, the late-night food joints feeding ravenous crowds

of youths looking to cap off their Saturday nights with the honest sensation of soul food. Food or

sex was how most late nights ended in this town. Ubers rolled around and girls waved.

When he got to the designated corner he paused underneath a flickering street light to

transcribe the night. He retrieved the notepad from his pack and scribbled away:

Lungs inhale/ Lunges exhale / What a time / what a time to be young and happy and

hungry, like Hemingway in Paris / The truth is, Generations don't change: the circumstances do

/ Kerouac on Facebook! Proust on Snapchat! / I wait for Kevin, Kevin, the harbinger of trust and

optimism and belief in the utility of man! / The harbinger of my career and glory / yes! / and! /

and the American Dream- and the ‘m’ exploded into a chaotic drag when four hands grabbed

Warner from behind, pulling him into dark. His journal fell. It fell still open under the streetlight


The eye-of- the-storm passed, and with it, so too did the stillness in the air. An elbow

rammed into his face, and when he fell, four feet followed, swinging. It was all Warner could do

to lean- pulverized, recoiled, limp- against a brick wall.

A man with an incredulous bandana in his back left pocket pulled Warner forward and

slid the backpack off his defeated shoulders.

“Run Sugar, run!”

The black ink did. The black ink did. Black and red- oh, the black ink did.


“I thought it could be half as long. I mean, the prose is… fun, but, it lacks precision.

Concision. Brevity.”

N– , my college advisor- the JC Hackmuth to my Arturo Bandini- had concluded his

complements for my short story and moved, little too swiftly, into criticisms.

“The narrative is clear, but I was a bit confused about why Warner gets beat up at the

end- I mean I get it, he’s the romantic egoist, but… Also you digress into his mind too much.

There are a lot of frayed strings if you know-what- I-mean. What is it that are you trying to do

with this story, exactly?”

Literary fame, set the western canon aflame; make Updike and Steinbeck roll in their


“Well,” I said, “for me, writing is cathartic in and of itself. So if this never gets published,

that would be OK…”

movie adaptations; New York wife; Los Angeles mistress; novel; novel; novel…

“That’s just the mindset you need to have, I’ll tell ya.”

He said he would pass my work on to his friend, Gertrude, at a moderately read

magazine of fiction and poetry, S—magazine, and they would in the least, give it a look. I

thanked him and left.

Every day I walk by the University’s performance art center and I see Phillip Glass-

young Phillip Glass- Phillip Glass, the famed minimalist composer- his picture framed on the

brick façade of the building’s wall. Glass at 80. That’s the advertised event. But the Glass I see

has lived maybe a third of those years and he is glorious and imposing in his youth: his neck a

robust trunk; his mouth swaggering, hanging slightly open, his hair unsurprisingly matted, wild;

the lazy eye compensated by an overall glow of confidence; broad shoulders; and then the

picture stops. To lose it all to age is harrowing. Reading Conversations with Kerouac makes me

sad. The end of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg makes me sad. Not because our heroes don't up end

up together, but because of all the magic they lose to time.

At home, I sprawled out on my bed and contemplated. No more fiction. It was late and I

had a test in the morning for my history class, History 426: What Makes a Cult a Cult? For it, I

needed to practice writing, from memory, short descriptions about vital places and important

events. A notebook was in front of me. I opened it up to a page midway through and saw my

notes for that undated day:

Fuck Fuck Fuck Fuck Fuck Fuck Fuck Fuck

Fuck Fuck Fuck Fuck Fuck Fuck Fuck Fuck

Fuck Fuck Fuck Fuck Fuck Fuck Fuck Fuck

(They say to be writer, write everyday, but they never said what)

On the next page, a list of foreign words collected from coffee-driven mornings churning

through New Yorker articles, words to use in my writing to prove something:

-Simulacrum -Irascible –Beguiling–Autodidact –Polemic –Atavism

How would I make –Atavism work? I picked up a pen. Just holding it was a threat to

scholastic productivity. The exquisite ballpoint presented infinite possibility- an outlet for the

mind, or the universe (which one was ever-expanding, again?). How could I try to force and

bend the pen’s movements to produce “The Oneida Community, circa the 19 th century, was best

known for orgies and silverware,” when the heart-stopping prospect to never grow old, to live

forever was, literally, in my grasp? Yes, this is why I need fiction, because it presents the

immortal power to write and rewrite the past, to pen sweet into existence- things I never had but

always lusted for, like cornfield mazes with girls in October, game winning touchdowns,

homecoming dances, a girlfriend with a nose ring, more than one girlfriend at all, a job at the

newspaper, feeling like a current in the grid of life and not an outsider on his knees, taking notes

but never playing the game. Things like the moral capacity to stop on the corner of Rosemary St.

during the middle of August and give the time-of- day to a man in torn jean-shorts, a black shirt,

and the worn-in ball cap; a man who merely asked for change but to whom you said,

automatically and without even processing the words as they came sheepishly out, “Not today.”

But why lie even here and now, in admittance? Even worse, you said nothing at all. But you

glanced up at him, for a moment, and then turned your stupid back head down and kept going.

And in that second of eye contact you saw the millennia of stories welled up in his meek eyes,

stories that you wish you knew. Stories that could have gone something like…

In the mornings I hear the language of birds, in all its bountiful exotica, outside the

window that I leave open by my bed. They sound like lasers and angels and broken sprinklers.

And they are angels, bringing in the sunrise with song. I woke up to their familiar declarations. I

woke up covered in pages of notes. I got to my history test with half of the allotted time already

expired; but I did all right. “The Oneida Community, circa the 19 th century, was best known for

orgies and silverware!”

I was considering this girl’s freckles from a bench outside the humble History building.

She stretched out and her body went on forever- she looked at me looking at her, we made eye

contact (note: beautiful brown eyes) and I looked away, my excuse being that I’m a writer and

that’s what I do, I look at things- then my phone vibrated. An email from N– : “MEET IN


I made quick time there.

“They said it was hilarious!” He said, as soon as I had a foot in the room.


“A biting, narcissistic lark, a meditation on hyper-masculine- youth-complex. Yes, yes,

Gertrude’s words, precisely. Even letting the lonely boy get the football during that game they

played rang hollow. Seeped vanity. They want to run it, and pay you, per-word! I’ll tell ya; it’s a

real blessing when you can get paid for pieces now-a- days.”

Hollow? Fucking… I must have looked confused at his polemics and N– sensed it.

“Oh, come now- just call it satire, m’boy!”

I crushed a bottle of wine that night and stared at my wall with nothing on it and felt like

we had a lot in common. O’ the tragic irony! Published for the wrong reasons. I was a

fundamentally terrible author, failing to communicate even the most basic wave of emotion, of


Again a vibration, again, an email from N– : “FWD: FORMALITIES CONCERNING


I didn’t give a Fuck about changing font sizes to appease the magazine. I scrolled through

the message.

“Firstly, congratulations on the selection of your piece for print in S– Magazine.”

It’s not like it will say “satire” above it… Everything is subjective, the way we see the

world, the rules that govern us- take chalk on a table for example…

“Please indulge us with the following technicalities. On each page, near the top, well

within the margins, include, on the left, your title and on the right, your last name, followed by a

dash and the page number…”

…Yes, they will see ‘WORDS BY MURRAY WARNER’ and my story. That’s it and that’s

all. The rest is up to them…

“Now, for clarity, we like to add another space after sentences, but none between paragraphs, as

per our house style…”

…Maybe there’s a crossword in S—Magazine and Ryan will see it and see me for what I


“And when the story is complete, either type three asterisks (***) or the words:”

“…A real writer- O,’ Ryan! My atavistic love and your birthday cake chewing

gum! And so my foundation begins, and on it will stand, forever rising, a great stone obelisk:


“The End.”

Chapel Hill,

October 2016

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