Everyone gets to die. Not everyone gets to find love first.
Some people don’t even get to look.
This novel is about a moody fellow who got to do all three. His name was Moody Fellow.
Moody looked for love for a long time before he found it. He looked in some, not all, of the wrong places and in quite a few of the wrong ways. It didn’t make things any easier that, from the beginning of his search to the short-lived sweetness that marked its end, he was a terribly—and we do mean awfully—moody fellow.
But enough ado. Let us begin at the beginning.
There was a tremendous rupture of some kind, totally unprecedented, or else it was a rerun of something that had happened many times before, maybe somewhere in space, except no, this rupture created space, at least this time around it did, space and everything in it.
Eons later, a girl kissed Moody Fellow.
I like how scrawny you are, she told him, snapping her bubblegum. That’s why I kissed you. Can I borrow your math homework?
Okay, said Moody.
Moody was twelve years old and didn’t know much about life. He thought the girl would give him back his homework when she was done with it. If you were as pretty, he reasoned, as this girl was, with her blond hair and everything, why would you need to be dishonest? But this thought was interrupted by another: He’d been kissed! Not on the lips, but still, it was a thing that had never happened before, at least not to him, and now that it had, he felt like the king of all creation.
Take as long as you need with the homework, he said, handing it over.
The girl flashed him a smile and took off down the hall. She never kissed Moody again, or spoke to him, or gave him back his homework.
It made him mad that she didn’t give it back. But he didn’t tell anyone he was mad.
Moody’s second kiss foisted itself upon him four years after the first. It happened on a Wednesday, in the wake of algebra. The bestower of the kiss was an awkward girl Moody’d been informed liked him, as in liked. He’d been avoiding her, but now here she was, upon him in the hallway. His main concern as she leaned toward him pursing her anemic lips and squeezing shut her eyes, which when open were slightly crossed, was to make sure no one who mattered witnessed the event. Those who mattered numbered three: Moody’s best friend, Tall Jim; his second-best friend, Jorge, an exchange student who was Moody’s doubles partner on the tennis team; and, three, the girl on whom Moody at that time had a crush, a skinny girl with explosive hair, an extensive collection of brightly colored miniskirts, and a name that doesn’t matter anymore, though it did at the time, quite a bit, to Moody and, presumably, to the girl herself, else she wouldn’t have changed it after graduation. She had the locker next to Moody’s, and one of the reasons Moody liked her so much (in addition to how he was struck speechless, though not literally struck, by her amazing limbs, all four, and not literally speechless either) was that although she could outpeck him in terms of the social pecking order, she always, when the two of them happened to be at their lockers at the same time, had a friendly word for him. And not always a mere word—sometimes they had actual conversations, the sort in which views were exchanged. Moody learned, for instance, that this girl believed the space-time continuum was like a many-colored soap bubble, its colors constantly shifting, which seemed about right to him, god how he wanted to kiss her. When they crossed paths elsewhere than at their lockers, she ignored him. It was as though she too were struck speechless, but not in a good way.
While he scanned the hallway for the three who mattered, Moody managed to angle his face away from the approaching face of the awkward girl, so that her lips would meet not his lips but, say, his cheek or, as it turned out, his jawbone, or rather the skin that kept it mercifully from view. She didn’t seem nearly as awkward from close up, he noticed as he turned away. There was a mole-like blindness as she came at him with eyes closed that stirred within him something tenderer and less sure of itself than pity would have been. Whatever it was, it wasn’t desire, as the girl saw clearly when she opened her eyes to the post-kiss universe. The ache she felt was no less painful for being something nearly everyone who has ever lived has experienced.
I have to go to history, Moody said.
I’m sorry, said the girl.
You’re okay, said Moody, not knowing what he meant by it but knowing he intended it as a kindness. Then he hurried away, relieved that those who mattered hadn’t seen.
Around this time, Moody explained to his piano teacher that although it might be true that other people needed to practice the piano in order to get good at it, he, Moody Fellow, did not intend to approach music in quite that way.
I’ve noticed that, said his piano teacher, a short, solid woman who was six decades Moody’s senior and had heard this kind of thing before.
I want to play by pure feeling, Moody said. I want to play by inspiration, you know, in the moment.
Moody meant what he was saying. He thought people like Beethoven had been struck by the lightning bolt of pure musical feeling and had created beautiful music on the spot, while still warm from the lightning bolt. And he wanted to be the same way when he played Beethoven. Surely the great man deserved no less.
I’m not here to teach you musical feeling, said Moody’s piano teacher. You have that already. I’m here to teach you how to work.
Moody didn’t want to work, at least not at music. He worked at tennis. It didn’t occur to him to try to play a tennis match based on pure, in-the-moment feeling, with no preparation. No, what had made him the second-best player on his high school team, behind his doubles partner Jorge, were the thousands of hours he’d spent on tennis courts, endlessly running, hitting ball after ball to different spots on the court, with different spins, at different speeds, with different goals in mind. None of this seemed like work to Moody, for he loved every moment of it. He loved the sounds of the game—the pock! of the ball being struck, the squeak! of a player’s sneaker as he or she abruptly changed direction. He loved the sport’s Euclidean geometry and the way it was a contest of wills. He was, he would later think, both physically and psychologically addicted to tennis. He didn’t see why anyone else wouldn’t love it too, for instance girls. In a sign of how poorly he understood those fair and mysterious creatures, he thought he was more likely to win girls’ admiration by scooting back and forth along the baseline, getting every ball back deep with topspin, than he was by performing the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata, which, because he rarely practiced, he couldn’t play very well.
In tennis, love equals zero. But although our teenage protagonist lost his share of tennis matches, that is not what we mean when we say that, before he died, a moody fellow named Moody Fellow found love.
Nor are we referring to the first time a girl Moody liked liked him back. This finally happened about a year after the awkward girl had kissed him. Moody, seventeen now, was on a field trip to the countryside. His biology class had gone to a pig farm to see what things were done there and how. Moody didn’t give a rip about pigs. He spent the day thinking about hitting passing shots down the line (a higher art, to his way of thinking, than hitting them crosscourt) and glancing not so furtively at Jane McConnell’s cute, freckled face and the lively brown hair that framed it and also at her collarbone and so on. Moody liked Jane because there was something immediately present about her; she had an air about her, an intelligence or something. Anyway, he thought she was cute, even if, as Tall Jim and Jorge didn’t hesitate to point out to him, she had a pear-shaped figure. What have you got against pears? Moody would say in response, or else simply: No, she doesn’t. But she did, he could see. But so what?
Today, pig day, it seemed to Moody that Jane McConnell was returning his not-so-furtive glances. This made him happier than anyone else who’d ever lived had ever been. It was as though each of Jane McConnell’s glances his way were a sun that shone only on him, or only for him, or only, it may not be too much to say, in him. Indeed, let us say more, for this was one of the great moments of Moody’s life. Each of Jane’s glances at Moody that day was an exploding star, and he, Moody Fellow, was, in each case, that same star, blasting itself to happy smithereens with the help of Jane McConnell’s cute brown eyes.
One reason Moody was so happy was that there was some stuff of which he was not yet aware. He didn’t yet know, for instance, that Jane McConnell’s parents, the McConnells, had died in a plane crash when she was five. He didn’t know that Jane and her seven sisters were all, individually and as a group, kind of messed up, partly as a result of that plane crash, partly because of their genes, partly because of the degraded state of the culture at large during the time period in question, and partly for no known reason. Nor, and more to the point, did Moody know that in a few short weeks, after he and Jane will have started dating but before they’ll have come anywhere near doing what is sometimes known as the deed, Jane will in fact do that deed, not with Moody but with a football player nicknamed Grizzly, on the floor of the bathroom at a house where there’ll be a party Moody won’t be able to attend because he’ll be out of town with his family visiting relatives who won’t think Moody or his brothers quite old enough yet to drink root beer. Moody will arrive at school on Monday not having heard what Jane did on Saturday night, though many others will have heard. It’ll fall to Tall Jim to tell Moody, over chicken fingers after school. Moody will know something’s up when Tall Jim pays for Moody’s chicken fingers. They will be the first things Tall Jim has ever bought for anyone whose name is not Tall Jim. Something I got to tell you, man, Tall Jim will say between bites of his own chicken fingers. Something about Jane.
But of course Moody will feel as though what Jane has done is not about her at all but is instead about him, a judgment on him. As though she were letting him know what kind of man he wasn’t.
Life, in short, was about to throw Moody for a serious loop.
Which ain’t to say, though, that he shouldn’t have been exactly as elated as he was when, on the bus ride back from the pig farm, Jane McConnell sat her ample seat down next to his scrawny one and said, Hey.
A few years later, in the City—for yes, this is on its way to becoming an urban novel—a group of neocubist artists calling themselves the New Cubists started building a bunch of new cubes. Some of the cubes were made of wood, some of plastic, some of glass or stone. They were of every different size and were painted many different colors, or were not painted, or were painted but not with colored paint. They were all the same shape. Once made, they were placed in strategic locations throughout the City, or perhaps there was no strategy; perhaps (who could say?) there was no City.
Whether the cubes had a purpose was for a long time unknown beyond the ranks of the New Cubists. Some noncubists said the cubes seemed to want to say something about what kind of city the City had become. Others said that although the cubes had many things to tell the City, the City would never get to hear these things, either because the cubes didn’t know how to speak or because the City didn’t know how to listen. A third contingent held that no cube anywhere had ever had anything to say except: Cube. Which was plenty to ponder, in this contingent’s opinion.
We narrators have always felt there was something a little creepy about the cubes. Say you’re alone on an underground train platform late at night; you look to your left, and there sits, or stands, a small red wooden cube, seemingly waiting for the train you’re waiting for. The seconds pass like centuries, an entire age defined by the awkward silence that pulses in the air between you and the cube.
Or suppose you enter the local branch of your regional or national bank and find yourself in line behind a large cube of thick, clear glass. You know what to do—politely step around the cube and proceed to the teller’s window—but the experience is disconcerting, even frightening, though obscurely so.
Art can be dangerous, as Moody Fellow would one day discover.
Douglas Watson is the author of a book of short stories, The Era of Not Quite,winner of the inaugural BOA Editions Short Fiction Prize. His second book, a novel called A Moody Fellow Finds Love and Then Dies, will be published by Outpost19 on April Fool’s Day 2014. (No joke!) Watson’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in One Story, Fifty-two Stories, Tin House Flash Fridays, Sou’wester, The Journal, Ecotone, Salt Hill, Epiphany, and other publications. His story “Life on the Moon” was chosen by Dan Chaon and Wigleaf in 2012 as one of the year’s top 50 very short fictions. He was featured as a “literary debutante” at One Story’s 2013 Literary Debutante Ball.