Category: Books
Last article published: 31 December 2018
This is the 57th post under this label
A couple years ago, I wrote the following short story for a weird western anthology, the publication of which never materialized. Waste not, want not. Here it is for your reading pleasure.


White hats.

Black Hats.

That’s all that was left, really. A bipolar morality in a flattened landscape, under the bluest of skies. Cloudless, of course. Clouds would have made it distinguishable from other skies he’d seen over the course of his career.

Agent Frye silently cursed the Literary Circle for sending him to America. American Lit wasn’t his specialty – he was strictly European, English mostly, Elizabethan-to-Victorian if he could help it – but the Utopian Wars had put a number of literary agents temporarily out of commission, and here he was, covering Agent Bloom’s shift in the world of lurid dime store novels, failed American dreams and the occasional Christ figure. He hated it.

Americans had no appreciation for writing, he thought. They only needed books so they could turn them into films. Films! Americans didn’t read. That took too long. No, they let someone else read books for them, let someone else digest, adapt and regurgitate in easy-to-swallow two-hour bites what should have been, in his never-modest opinion, an absorbing literary experience spanning hours, days, lifetimes. He’d always been a smug purist, and he knew it. He just never saw it as a form of hubris.

Not before today.

Literary agents were expected to at least peruse the works others were patrolling in case they could become useful, but Frye’s laxity was a direct result of his snobbish resistance to what he called “lesser works”.

The patrol had started out innocuously enough. Routine stuff. Moby Dick going corporate and Ahab’s obsession losing power as he became one of the 99%. Gatsby’s parties retro-backwashing into Hester Prynne’s Puritan village. That sort of thing. It was his job to protect the zeitgeist from bad literary criticism. Ideas, good and bad, had a habit of picking up speed and the next thing you knew, some literary masterpiece was changed, often irrevocably. It worried Frye, for example, that while he was “abroad”, no one was checking in on Hamlet and his mother to make sure things didn’t get too Freudian. That Sigmund sure had done a lot of damage to the ‘geist.

But he had to put that out of his mind when, headed west, he hit a snag.

There was something off about this Tombstone of a town, population: who cares. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it, probably because he hadn’t done his homework before stepping onto its sand-blown Main Street. It all looked the same to him. The same old store fronts. The saloon with its swinging doors. The cowboy hats and ladies with parasols. The horses and tumbleweed like so much set dressing. A flock of dirty moustaches, though he knew there was a time when this space was clean-shaven for some reason. He wasn’t a complete fool. He’d read the brochures before coming.


He took a deep breath and resolved to talk to the locals. This far out into the dregs of “literature” – he couldn’t help but see the word in quotation marks – he wasn’t expecting particularly engaging conversation, but he had to at least try to ascertain just what was wrong.

The saloon was filled with clichés. That should have been his first clue, in hindsight, but blinded by his prejudice, it seemed normal enough. The bartender finished a glass of milk as Frye approached the counter, and a mug of undoubtedly lukewarm beer slid past into another patron’s hand as he settled on a stool. Everything was as he expected it.

“What can I getcha, stranger?”

“Information. And a clean glass.”

“Ain’t got much call for that, and it don’t pay too well,” the bartender chuckled. Neither item was likely to be in inventory.

Gritting his teeth at the man’s vernacular, Frye threw a coin on the counter. The dime was quickly pocketed and Frye’s order filled.

“That thar is a green horn just come into town,” the bartender started, pointing at one of his better-dressed patrons. “Been winnin’ at poker sumthin’ fierce. Reckon that outlaw’s about to get impatient. Could get nasty. He don’t seem to care the sheriff is sittin’ behind ‘im. Deputy too.”

The bartender trailed off as a fight broke out at the gaming table. Chairs were overturned. The green horn was shot by the man in the black hat. The two men in white hats and be-starred vests drew on him and told him in no uncertain terms to leave town before things got ugly… Frye couldn’t be bothered. This was all part of the script. He didn’t interfere in stories as long as they were proceeding normally. And this seemed as normal as normal could be, something that probably happened all over this part of the literary landscape, in countless saloons in countless hastily-constructed frontier towns across the vast Arizona-like desert. The sounds of gunplay echoing through an endless Monument Valley, and each monument the same as the next. Boring.

The bartender had gone back to his duties, washing filthy glasses with an even filthier rag. Frye walked out. It took little effort to ignore the black-hatted man riding off, cursing the town and its lawmen, vowing to return and settle things once and for bla bla bla. These events probably had some basis in fact, though they were no doubt embellished by some sensationalist who’d at least learned to read and write, if nothing else. He wondered if any of the characters were famous, but hadn’t been told any of their names.

Wait. Why hadn’t the equally nameless bartender been more specific? A bad feeling came over Frye and rented a room in his gut. He turned back to the saloon. Its swinging doors were there. The bar was there. The bartender and the patrons. But walls? They’d become optional, unimportant. An unnecessary detail. All along Main Street, storefronts had become just that. Fronts. Without interiors. Nothing beyond their doors.

It was undeniably a western frontier town, but hastily sketched. A symbol drawn in desert sand.

“Inside” the saloon, generic characters stuck to the most basic of scripts, and ignored him. Even the bartender with whom he’d interacted was dead to anything not of his world, his repetitive actions giving robotic meaning to his life, such as it was. The whole town had unravelled before his eyes and become little more than a signifier. X marked the spot where once there was life, X a variable that included much that was now gone.

“Time to leave,” he told himself, hoping to fix things from the outside. He jumped on the mere idea of a horse, a floating saddle, essentially, and rode back the way he’d come. For how long, Frye couldn’t quite tell. The sun never moved in that blue sky. It was perpetually high noon. “If only it were high art,” Frye mused, his wit useless except as toxic comfort.

He looked back and the town was still right there behind him. Dimensions were collapsing. The landscape had flattened out, a dividing line between sand and sky, a street delineated only by the most basic of lines representing buildings, and even those were disappearing. The only activity: Two hats, one white, one black, facing each other in a Zen tableau.

By the time he’d reached the “town” again, the only things that remained of this universe were those two hats. Somehow, it was enough to still evoke story and setting. A world minimalized, reduced to its barest iconography. No tools, no resources, remained. He was trapped in a blank and colourless world, with no specifics to latch onto.

He blamed his nemesis, the dreaded film adaptation, for his troubles, of course. To his mind, it had replaced scholarly analysis as the interpretative medium of choice, and film’s reductive powers – and necessities – had, not for the first time, removed rather than added to his literary world. He hadn’t thought much of the 10¢ adventures that spawned this corner of the world, but they still must have been filled with colour and detail. It was when taken as a corpus and distilled into iconography that they lost their unique attributes. Films, he seemed to remember, for even his memories of specificity were getting blurry, soon got self-referential, then symbolic. And “academic” criticism of the genre would follow suit – HAD followed suit – breaking down the “western” into base tropes, memes on which to hang details, but identical, featureless building blocks nonetheless.

He was nowhere, and yet was everywhere. This generic arrangement of hats was every western story ever told, even though it was none at all. He knew who to hero was. Who the villain. It wasn’t helping. Soon, he too would be just another hat, floating in space. (Was he wearing a hat? He couldn’t remember now.)

Frye hadn’t survived this long as a literary agent by letting subpar lit-crit get the better of him. But even he had to admit his inexperience with the genre was doing him in. Oh, to be home dealing with out-of-control Biblical allusions, or settling feuds between word-mad Neoclassicists…

Wait. The Neoclassics. Why did his instincts tingle at the thought? What did they have to do with his deconstructionist problems? Maybe nothing, maybe everything. It was true to say he’d revelled in the rich details written into the fabric of literature by the Romantics, though that had only struck him after an extended stay in the Neoclassic sector, where the general was more important than the specific. People and things there often represented their entire class of person or thing rather than their unique, specific selves. Was that a kind of deconstruction?

He’d once spent days tracking down a single sheep – “Don’t ask,” he would later tell inquiring colleagues – hiding among nearly identical Neoclassical sheep. Everything in that part of the ‘geist preferred the form best described by some poet or other, and refugees from other sectors were quick to change to that “preferred” form. Thankfully, neither Dryden nor Pope had ever written about literary agents. He eventually found the sheep, an escapee from Keats’ Endymion, by concentrating on what made it different and specific. Its bleat wasn’t the same as the others’. Its bleat was, unequivocally, Romantic. Frye had focused all his attention on that singular bleat, re-specified the stray sheep, and made it so unique among the homogeneous flock, it almost shepherded itself back to its pastoral enclosure without his help.

But how did that help him here where there were no such details to latch onto?

Two hats. One white. One black. That was all.

Two hats.


Hats, but not just any hats, he suddenly realized.

Cowboy hats. Sketches of Stetsons. Unmistakable symbols of cowboyness.

Not military caps. Not French berets. Not fedoras or trilbies or top hats or cloches. Cowboy hats.

That was a detail, a detail he could work with.

As Frye focused on the two iconic hats, they turned into specific styles in specific shades and textiles. As textures started showing through – gloriously specific, random, chaotic textures! – he let his eye follow the cracks, folds and seams, turning them into holes, ribbons, buckles. A threaded rim became the notion of a stray hair, and from that hair, an entire head. That head had a body, and eyes that looked on the plain, on the sky, on the town. Specific all. Those hats existed and had manufacturers, salesmen, wearers. Those wearers had lives, parents, history. And this land was rich with that history, with the history chronicled and kept alive in countless western tales, some true, some myth, specific and iconic. And it all unfolded before him. Colours returned, dimension, sound and life!

Frye had regrown the world from the outline of a hat.

All in a day’s work, he smirked, self-satisfied. The literary agent climbed onto a red-brown mare called Carrots, who liked apples more than her namesake and waved her tail in time with her trot to keep five large flies from taking a bite of her flecked hindquarters, and took one last look around. At the children with smudged faces playing by the troth in a pair of puddles the shape of a horse’s hooves, at the piano player getting thrown out of the saloon face first by tin-eared critics and breaking three fingers on his left hand, at some sort of lizard flicking its tongue out from under an old plank of grey wood meant for funereal duties at the undertaker’s door. He couldn’t wait to leave this world, but he did draw pleasure from the well of its wonderful, unpredictable details.

Seeing a possible exit, he took it, riding Carrots into a sun that had taken too long to set.


Brendoon said...

Ta muchly... Enjoyed that.
There's too many short stories we all never got around to writing.
I'm glad that one made it out!

tomg said...

That was a fun read! Thank you for posting it.
(You should make it into a movie!)

Siskoid said...

I've been slowly expanding it into a short story collection. Glad you guys liked it!


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