“The Ocean Is a Desert,” a Side A fiction by Keegan Swenson

The Ocean Is a Desert

He sits there. He sits at his desk with an open notebook and three black rolling pens. The damn window is open and it’s bringing in a breeze. He will get to work as soon as he’s stood up and closed the window. He can’t bear the breeze. As soon as he’s closed the window, his throat feels parched. It’s been parched all this time, but only now after closing the window to stop the breeze, has the feeling of parchedness made itself known to him. He decides to go downstairs and fill a cup with water, after which he’ll return to his desk and get to work. Humans needs to hydrate, he thinks to himself aloud. In the kitchen, his cat is meowing an angry meow. He looks at Tanya’s food bowl and sees it’s empty. He will have to fill it with cat food and afterwards he can return to his desk and get to work. After he’s filled the bowl, Tanya begins eating like a spoiled child at a fast-food restaurant. He smiles at this and just then his phone rings. It’s his friend telling him he better come quick uptown, the award ceremony is about to begin, and all of his friends are very excited to see him. He wants to ask what ceremony his friend is speaking about for he doesn’t know what his friend is going on about, but instead he says What should I wear?

He arrives at the ballroom uptown wearing a brown suit coat, because that’s what his father wore to work at the university. His dead father who he misses so much. Once he is inside, he sees everyone he has ever known, except his dead father, and they are so excited to see him. His tennis partner kisses his forehead and says You did it you old son of a bitch, his cousin shakes his hand firmly, his ex-girlfriend cries and hugs him and says I forgive you for everything. Even his childhood priest is there. The priest embraces him and says, Put your faith in the Lord and nothing is impossible.

His best friend from middle school, Steve, approaches him and begins giving him a noogie. Steve’s eyes water. He says, Me I’m nothing, but not you. You’ve really done it. I’m so proud of you. Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine. I don’t know what I’ll do about Janet but I’ll figure it out. I promise you, just celebrate you killjoy. Why that look on your face? This is your day. I’m so goddamn proud of you. Last week, I was mad because you weren’t returning my calls. But today, I see the big picture. The 360 view. I see what you were up to the whole time. I’m proud to call you my friend.  He blinks. Steve says, Well it’s time now isn’t it?

Suddenly everyone starts cheering and he’s thrust up to a podium. Next to the podium is a blown up cardboard image of a novel named American Crass and it has his face on it. He’s confused, he had only thought of that title last week. The cover is a beach with sweeping white sand bordering a waveless sea—a beach he hasn’t seen since chucking oysters with his grandfather in Maine as a young boy.

An old, distinguished-looking man joins him onstage and hands him a gold medal, You’ve really done it kid, you have written the novel of the decade. The old man turns to the crowd, Or should I say the novel of the century? With this the crowd explodes in cheer, they start chanting his name. He sees his widowed mother in the crowd, she’s crying and mouthing the words I love you so much, he would be so proud. He stands at the podium and the crowd goes quiet, waiting for his speech. He wipes his eyes with his shirt. He clears his throat and says, I don’t know what to say, I don’t feel I’ve earned this. His old college roommate yells, Oh you deserve this, we all love you very much. The crowd cheers. He looks at the gold medal and his face on the cardboard cutout. For a moment, he tries to feel it. To feel what all this love and admiration would make him. What kind of a person would he be if he just accepted it and let it all in?

He pauses. The crowd watches his every twitch.

This isn’t mine; I don’t deserve any of this. I don’t want to be entangled, engulfed in all of you. I need to go work.

He abruptly walks off the stage and heads to the exit. His mother yells after him, You deserve this, we all know you do, why can’t you see that?

The crowd boos and hisses. The priest throws a half-drunken glass of champagne which hits his back. His father’s brown suit coat is stained with supermarket champagne.

He arrives back home, and Tanya has pissed on the rug. Tanya doesn’t like getting left alone. He cleans the pee with a Zen-like attentiveness and returns upstairs to his desk. He sits there. He breathes. His open notebook and three black rolling pens glisten in the midday sun. He is going to get to work. He feels a breeze. Somehow, the window has reopened. 

Mini-interview with Keegan Swenson

HFR: Can you share a moment that has shaped you as a writer (or continues to)?

KS: My dad would write these little limericks for family celebrations. Birthdays, weddings, funerals. I remember being young and fascinated by the way a room’s chatter would halt for a few minutes, everyone quiet as he read aloud. I also remember losing entire afternoons to A Series of Unfortunate Events. I was a lonely kid, but those books took me to another place. What’s the German word? Waldeinsamkeit? The feeling of being alone in the woods. I guess most writers, and readers for that matter, have a complicated relationship to loneliness. Writing, unlike music or filmmaking, requires solitude. Lots of it.

HFR: What are you reading?

KS: I’ve been re-reading Virginia Woolf, which has been an absolute pleasure. Her rambling, compound sentences really contain universes. Let’s see, what else? The plays of Terence, the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, Grace Paley, Manuel Puig, William Carlos Williams. Like everyone else, I just read Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts. Probably the best novel about the internet since Tao Lin’s Taipei. Also: everyone should read Laird Hunt’s new novel Zorrie. It’s beautiful.

HFR: Can you tell us what prompted “The Ocean Is a Desert”?

KS: I wanted to write something about writing. And creative blocks. And expectations. And ambition. I wanted it to be really short.

HFR: What’s next? What are you working on?

KS: I’ve just finished the third draft of my first novel about a comedian living in the Midwest. He’s inspired when a famous comic performs in his town. It’s a novel about creativity, religion, humor. I was inspired by the Israeli Jewish author Yoel Hoffman who wrote this experimental novel, The Heart is Katmandu, wherein the character just floats around Haifa, not much happens, but he has these poignant terse philosophical reflections. That’s what I want to do with my first novel.

I have another short story coming out in Maudlin House next week. It’s a bit gothic.

I also just wrote a short film script. I don’t know if it will turn into anything, but I really want to shoot it on 35mm. I have the whole movie in my head. It’s very dialogue-heavy. As much as I love Tarkovsky, I think chatty-films are underrated. I was trying to capture the music of New York Narcissist speech.

HFR: Take the floor. Be political. Be fanatical. Be anything. What do you want to share?

KS: Is this where the lefty writer lectures people on their politics? I don’t know, man. Be kind to people. Try and listen more to others. People are in a lot of pain both economically and spiritually. Be wary of any tech CEO who presents themselves as socially liberal. Buy less stuff. Did you see the Lula speech ripping into Bolsonaro? Fucking inspiring. Maybe there is hope.

Keegan Swenson is a writer living in Brooklyn. He’s hard at work on his first novel about a comedian living in the Midwest. You can find him on Twitter @Kswenny1.

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