Punctuating Verheeker

BECAUSE Lamont Verheeker had more or less saved my life, I had promised to punctuate what he wrote when he began to be interested in writing. I didn't mind punctuating Verheeker's stuff in the beginning. His sentences, insofar as I could identify them, were short, as were his stories. As Verheeker's narratives lengthened, punctuating them took longer. I noticed too a disturbing tendency toward longish sentences. Verheeker enrolled in a writing class, read some writing books and magazines, and joined a writing club, but he didn't seem to be trying to learn how to punctuate. ``Before you grow too ambitious, Lamont,'' I offered in a friendly way, ``perhaps you should give some attention to learning to punctuate.'' I suggested this as nicely as I could, not wanting to offend the man who, at what he described as ``the last possible moment,'' had pulled me, generally speaking, from ``the shark-infested lake.'' My fur ther polite intimations that Verheeker learn to punctuate drew from him a disdainful rolling of the eyes, and the cavalier comment: ``Why?''

When Verheeker announced that he felt he was ready to try a novel, I uttered a small cry of protest which, if he heard it, he ignored. If Verheeker wanted me to punctuate his novel, I'd have to give up sleeping. Verheeker, wearing a red silk cape, black top hat, and white gloves (``I'm going to be a novelist in the grand manner''), had been pacing the green carpet in front of the fireplace but now sat heavily in the La-Z-Boy and wrote on his clipboard, as though he were doing something worthwhile. For a lmost an hour, all you heard was Verheeker's pencil scratching on the legal pad, and his silly sighs.

Verheeker, who had completed maybe 20 pages, scattered yellowly around him on the carpet, seemed to strengthen with each page. I had been calculating my dwindling free time and had determined not to give another inch, when a sharp bong of the grandfather clock startled me and caused Verheeker to stop writing and look up. ``I believe I'm onto something huge,'' Verheeker said, as if from another planet. ``I believe I'm going to write my novel,'' he said, fixing his blue eyes menacingly on me, ``in one sen tence.''

``Longer than a James Joyce sentence?'' I asked, hoping I had misunderstood. ``Longer than a William Faulkner or a Claude Simon sentence?'' I was suddenly quite warm. Verheeker had been pacing between the fireplace and grandfather clock, but stopped and sat thoughtfully at a table and looked out a window in the direction of November.

``I shall write,'' Verheeker said ethereally, ``the only single-sentence novel in English since the world began.''

As I prepared to leave, Verheeker began to read his novel aloud -- boring, meandering words that did not come from any place or go anywhere. But his insipid intoning was only background for my larger griefs: punctuating the mess. As I walked out the door, I thought to ask Verheeker a question, two questions, three. He was slouching in the La-Z-Boy again, his eyes glittering dreamily into the middle distance, and so I gave up the notion, left, and went home to bed.

That night, I dreamed I had been sent to Punctuationville, kicking and screaming, to learn how to punctuate a novel-long sentence. All the punctuation marks lived there. Everybody in Punc-tuationville was pushing and shoving and arguing. When the citizens saw me get off the bus, they stopped squabbling among themselves and started shouting at me. I tried to explain to them that if they were divided into sentences, things would go better, but they wouldn't listen.

Next morning, I telephoned Ver-heeker, to beg him to use more sentences in his novel, and then I would try to punctuate it. He laughed, reminding me of my promise, and adding, insolently, that he expected the novel to be longer than ``War and Peace.'' Verheeker said he would telephone me when it was ready, and hung up.

I have attached an automatic telephone answering service to my telephone and don't answer cold-turkey anymore. I have installed peepholes in all my doors. I keep all the drapes drawn. It's not my fault I can't keep my promise to Verheeker because he never finds me home anymore.

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