The Transfiguring of Hammond Fletcher
Updated: Apr 14, 2018
by Wick Fields
Fletcher Hammond woke that morning with a great desire for cigars -- more accurately, he woke with a great physical need for them -- one that swelled so great before leaving his apartment he’d become nauseous, making the daily route to his Honda Civic especially taxing. Sitting behind the wheel his mouth filled with spit, a warning issued from his stomach of atrocities to come if the desire wasn’t satiated. Not wanting to take a sick day from his flourishing career in telemarketing, he inhaled deeply, composed himself and turned the ignition. A 7/11 was near. Cigars were near.
Once there he selected the short and slim kind. He was surprised he’d remembered to call them cigarillos, but not as surprised as he was by the response he gave the clerk who confessed they didn’t get much call for cigars anymore and were considering removing them from inventory. “Well you probably don’t get much call for ‘The Surviving Works of Euripides’ either, that doesn’t make them any less magnificent,” a quip that left the clerk blinking in bewilderment.
So with the addition of his morning coffee Fletcher stepped outside, placed the cup atop his car, unwrapped the first of the five packs he’d bought (he knew this craving had legs), withdrew his first fix of the day, gnashed it between his teeth and lit the other end with an orange lighter he’d also bought. Soon the tobacco’s compounds settled his mind and calmed his blood. What the hell was happening? he wondered, at last somewhat lucid. Cigars? He didn’t smoke cigars. He didn’t smoke anything at all.
Reaching for his coffee he caught a glimpse of his reflection in the driver’s side window. Something was happening to his hair. It was... thickening? He then watched in astonishment as it systematically turned white -- a brilliant, fluorescent, scintillating white -- streaking rapidly across his head, seizing eventually every hair. His new mane was vertical and wild, seeming to reach for the sky and wilt concurrently. But it was not his hair. It was someone else’s. It was Mark Twain’s hair. Oh Jesus god.
He quickly got into the car, determining that if he were truly going insane, it would be better to do so alone with the doors locked. Pulling down the visor, he ran his fingers through the stringy mass above his forehead. It was indeed real, this was indeed real. He was becoming Samual Langhorne Clemens. He took a long drag off his cigarillo.
He finished his smoke before calling into work and driving home, wondering all the way if obsessive reading of Twain had resulted in this. How a man can so immerse himself in another that he adopts his flesh? It simply could not be.
Pulling onto his street, he felt a tingle under his nose, followed by what felt like a thousand pins pricking. He watched horrified as his reflection in the rearview grew a glorious and full grey mustache within seconds. Then it was as if his face drew itself down. Creases grew around his mouth and nose. Every existing line hollowed deeper in his skin. His brown eyes went blue.
Panicked, he withdrew a cigarillo from its pack and pressed in the car’s lighter, then reached for his coffee. His cup holder was empty. He’d left the coffee on top of the car. Damnit to hell! The lighter popped. He snatched it up and ignited his second smoke of the day.
At home the lack of caffeine began to take its toll. His eyes grew heavy. He thought of brewing a pot, but decided a nap might be his solution (deep down he knew this was as impractical as his condition was absurd, but his need for control was great and impracticality prevailed). He laid on the couch.
For some reason he thought of his own writing -- the writing he’d abandoned after years of toil when a creative writing professor at Canoga Community College declared his work “median” and “rife with manufactured irony”, and that it suffered from “emotional anemia”. He remembered how after this catastrophe he’d re-read “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” for the forty third time, marveling at how Twain was none of those things. A great and thundering id torching hypocrisy, something he’d never be. Why had he been granted such a romance for words but not the capacity to give them life? He remembered the trumpet he’d bought soon thereafter, hoping the long held belief that he housed a dormant maestro would be realized. It wasn’t. The horn was soon put away for good after hearing Louis Armstrong play “West End Blues”. Hammond’s curse was an excess of consciousness (both of himself and the world), it plagued everything he put his hand to. He caressed his mustache unwittingly and drifted off.
He awoke on a couch, but not the couch he’d fallen asleep on. This couch was smaller and more ornate. He sat up, yawning. His sight was fuzzy but he could see a billiards table before him. He often played billiards and was pretty damn good at it, truth be told. And there was his desk, where he wrote. He wondered if it would be as important a hundred years from now as it was today. Immortality is a destination traced on no map, he thought. The life that has learned its sentence is not worth living anyway. It struck him that he’d thought that before -- written it before -- as he stared at the liver spots on his hands without alarm. And why would there be? They were his hands, Mark Twain’s hands, old hands. Not a trace of Fletcher Hammond existed anywhere.
Then it came. Pain, deep and devouring pain, and with it came faces. A very young man. A toddler. Two young women. A grayer woman. A brother, a son, two daughters, a devoted wife. All loved. All gone. But to where? In all likelihood oblivion. God had made it very difficult to think otherwise.
“Very difficult indeed,” he said aloud, his voice drawn and scratchy. He fixed his eyes openly ahead, thought of the grayer woman. Livy. Oh Livy.
Suddenly his vision filled with history. He was much younger, as was she. They were in a theatre. So much younger. The first time he escorted her out? Yes, yes, Dickens. They went to hear Charles Dickens lecture. The hall was smoky and they sat far away, so he’d heard little of the master’s testimony. He’d been too enthralled with what sat beside him, and he’d loved Dickens, but not like he loved her. She was so terribly lovely. So terribly young. Dickens would be dead in the grave in just three years.
“Whatever I have tired to do in life, I have tried with all my heart,” orated Dickens from behind the podium, Twain only hearing pieces as he stole glances of Olivia. “Whatever I have devoted myself to, I have devoted myself completely; in great aims and in small I have always been in earnest.”
Twain remembered the crowd’s applause.
“There are dark shadows on this earth, yes,” Dickens continued, but it’s lights are stronger in the contrast. We are that light.”
The crowd erupted, ascended to its feet.
Life is made up of ever so many partings welded together, Twain thought. He said that too.
The pain returned. He looked to Livy. She was gone. He looked to his hands. They were old again.
Furious, he rose to his feet shouting; “Life is made up of so many partings!” his wail barely discernible amidst the cheering. He shouted those same words again and again and again, each time the crowd’s collected voice softening, each time his words heard by more and more ears until finally the master himself heard. “You said that as well,” charged Twain.
“I did indeed,” responded Dickens.
“Then what use is the light?” demanded Twain. “Where’s the joy in a life that steals from you ceaselessly?
“‘The pain of parting is nothing to the joy of meeting again’, I said that as well.”
“In ‘Nicholas Nickleby’, yes, you did,” answered Twain. “But I’m an old man, sir, and I’ve learned only one thing.”
“The dead stay dead.”
“That they do,” agreed Dickens.
“So then I ask you again, sir. What use is the light?”
“... To make sense of the remains.”
Then Twain was gone. Back in his study. Staring at the billiards table thinking of the dead. He rose and walked to the mirror on the wall. He was so old. His eyebrows wisped at their ends. The skin below his eyes hung low and dark. Every joint throbbed. His heart felt thin.
He shuffled to the window and peered out. The sun was beginning to set over a 1910 New York City.
He then found himself wondering the streets of the city, the sun brimming over rooftops in its descent. Not a soul was anywhere in sight. He walked into the park and by the lakes, then up a hill, to the carousel, where heard the most splendid horn playing. Walking around the side of the ride, he found a young black man playing his trumpet. It was the most sublime sound he’d ever heard.
The young man finished his tune and looked up at the applauding Twain. “That’s the most beautiful horn I’ve ever heard, and I’ve been all up and down the Mississippi.”
“Well I am from New Orleans,” replied the boy.
“First time I’ve been to New York City,” the boy admitted, “and I gotta say, I like what I seen so far. You play?”
“Me? Oh no,” rejoined Twain, glancing up at the riderless carousel. “I play a little piano, but --”
“Then you can blow a horn.”
“I’m afraid it’s not that easy,” proclaimed Twain.
“I promise you it is,” insisted the boy, extending the horn to him. “Go ahead.”
“An oyster has a better chance of playing a harp.”
“Go on now and play,” insisted the boy.
Not wanting to insult the boy and his message Twain took the horn. He just stared at it.
“All you gotta do is blow. Blow and press in those finger buttons, that’s it.”
“You make it sound so easy,” Twain responded.
“That’s ‘cuz it is.”
“Maybe for you.”
The boy just looked at him knowingly, saying nothing, smiling. “Just blow into the small end. It’s that easy.”
“You might wanna cover your ears, this could become unpleasant,” Twain warned before inhaling deeply, waiting for the air to collect in his chest, then he put the small end to his lips and followed instructions. The noise emitted was even more hideous than anticipated, but that didn’t seem to register with the boy, who just went on smiling.
“Told ya,” affirmed Twain.
“Do it again, but this time move your fingers,” instructed the boy. “You want to hear that horrid sound again?”
“Just press the buttons while you blow.”
“Alright,” said Twain, shaking his head. “If only to prove that first unholy squall was no accident.” He then returned the small end to his lips and blew. Another unholy squall flung itself from the horn.
“Move your fingers,” directed the boy, “and forget about everything but that horn.” Twain wondered how one went about forgetting everything before blowing again, this time pressing the buttons randomly. The noise improved.
“That’s it,” encouraged the boy as he dropped his head, focusing entirely on the sound.
Then something peculiar happened, Twain’s fingers seemed to somehow know where to go and in what order to press the buttons. Soon it was as if he’d been playing for years. It was palpable. Pleasant even.
“Oh yea...” crooned the boy as Twain’s sluggish melody took form. “Now put your whole heart into it.”
And just like that the pain returned with a ferocity, coming up and through Twain, over his shoulders and down his arms, through his hands and fingers, which in turn, pressed the buttons in a perfect succession. The pleasant melody became something more, something stirring.
“Oh yes,” endorsed the boy, swaying.
Twain raised the horn as his melody rose. Glancing at the carousel, he saw a young man atop one of its horses. There was something familiar about his shape. Henry?
“I said your whole heart,” commanded the boy. A command that pushed Twain’s torment to the surface. His song’s beauty multiplied.
“Yes!” exulted the boy as Twain glanced up again, and with slightly sharpening sight, saw a second person on the carousel. A young girl. He recognized her blue dress before she and her steed rounded out of view. Clara?
Twain then hit a series of notes so exquisite the boy gasped. Twain saw a third person, his sight sharper still. Jean? Yes, Jean.
Twain continued playing those perfect notes in perfect succession as the boy hummed harmoniously, his eyes shut in rapture. Twain then saw yet a fourth person. A woman, not on a carved wooden horse, but standing beside one, holding a young child firm in its saddle. Twain’s sight was now impeccable. Livy. Langdon. Then they too rounded out of sight.
As he longed for them to circle back around Twain’s blowing found a swell so mournful and so splendid the boy could take no more and broke into sobs. But Livy and the children never came back around. His brother Henry never came back around. It was just Twain and the sobbing boy.
“That was the most beautiful horn I’ve ever heard,” said the boy as Twain’s last note faded.
Twain handed the horn back to the boy. “Farthest thing from it actually,” he said before turning and walking back the way he came. Dusk was giving way to night.
He then woke up on his couch. His own couch. In his apartment. He looked at his hands. They were no longer old. He rushed to the bathroom mirror. In it was Fletcher Hammond. He wasn’t Twain anymore. Is this how you go mad? he wondered. Is it a process? Was I dreaming?
Surprisingly these thoughts bothered him little. What possessed him now was the sadness that lingered from the dream. A sadness that blunted everything. A sadness as constant as the earth. A sadness that was tyrannous and consoling all at once. A sadness that made him whole.
He wondered where he’d put his horn as he walked to his kitchen, spotting his cigarillos on the table. He stared at them for a few moments. He had no desire to smoke.
Where is that horn? he wondered. All he wanted was that horn.