You can’t write a story from the point of view of an ashtray, my writing teacher said. That had me thinking. Like, I hardly heard anything else the rest of class, anything Mr. Givens said or the other students. I was thinking, “Why not? I could.” I grew up around ashtrays. Everyone in my family used them. It’d be easy.
I’m an ashtray. Here I sit in the living room, atop some magazines which are atop a coffee table in the disgusting and filthy apartment of Rebekah Treehorn. I’m ceramic, machine made, with a pitch-black glaze that’s brilliant when I’m washed, which isn’t nearly often enough, though I am emptied daily. I have a silver bar that acts as a handle and has a wider spot that can be used as a grate for mashing butts out. I was found at a boutique shop in Brooklyn for something like $80, though I retailed for $1.99 in Sears & Roebuck sometime in the 1950s. Many an Elvis tune was spun around me when I was new. The King—I remember when he tilted the world another degree with his swiveling hips. But I digress.
Stuff like that. I went home that night and started going with it. All kinds of stuff unfolded. I said to myself, “I’m an ashtray. What type of person would use me?” I felt like I was reporting on something that had just taken place, and taking my cues from public radio reporters, I naturally began the next like with an emphatic “So.”
So, I basically spent the first few weeks of my life on a shelf in a department store. Mighta been Macy’s on 5th Avenue. Mighta been Ames, Iowa. I was carried, like a baby in a stork’s swaddling, in a shopping bag, and then deposited here on my back on this coffee table, and that’s where I’ve been ever since. Most of the time, I look up, and it’s her, Rebekah, flicking her ashes onto my concave chest—into this trough that runs from my sternum to my anus. She smokes when she’s happy, she smokes when she’s nervous, she smokes when she’s drunk, she smokes when she’s angry. She smokes in the morning, she smokes at night. Sometimes she paces around the room, yelling with Joe, her boyfriend who she wants to marry but who is a complete waste of life. Pardon my French. But, god you should hear the screams. “Joe! What the fuck? Where you been? I’ve been waiting up! Asshole! I texted you, like five times!” I’m not saying anything about Rebekah’s—you know—class or anything. Who am I to judge? I’m an ashtray. But still.
I was having a good old time. But then I thought about what Givens said, and while I understand that Givens, as a writing teacher, is just a working stiff like anyone else, that fact was, he was wrong to say that you couldn’t write a story from the point of view of an ashtray. Clearly you could. Givens said himself that Jack London wrote from the point of view of a dog. So why couldn’t it be an ashtray? Dog, ashtray. What’s the difference?
I was miffed about the man’s error, but the more luscious fruit was that I felt this story really had something for me. That spark. Because the ashtray was me. I was that ashtray, always getting flicked on. Stuck there in that room with Rebekah, my mother. I mean, that’s where this stuff was coming from. My mom’s name was Robin. I used Rebekah because it starts with R, and that makes them one in the same. That’s a little writer’s trick. It’s an old trick, an easy trick, not that sophisticated at all, but it reminds me, in this case, of why I’m an ashtray. How it is that people discarded their castoffs onto me, into me. People flicked me with their killer grime and ground burning cinders into my skin. That was saying something.
Well, it went on for hours, me writing as an ashtray, and in addition to learning things about myself, I learned that Rebekah possessed a serious deficiency of self-esteem which required her to treat herself as something akin to a piece of human garbage, undeserving of love. This is why she was so hopelessly devoted to the incompetent philandering alcoholic Joe Mittlefield, even though he angered her, lied to her, yelled at her, called a “slut,” took her money, and threatened the biological balance of her intra-uterine biotic state due the dipping of his dipstick all about the town of High Falls, where they lived. It was something of a debacle, the catastrophic dysfunction of this relationship, begun when the ashtray was bought, back when Rebekah lived in Brooklyn, when she could afford it, before Brooklyn became the Jerusalem to the disciples of hipsterdom, circa 1994, when the first NY Times article appeared about artisanal food being grown along the shores of the Gowanus Canal and prepared in a former Red Hook brick factory.
It was a real keyboard frenzy, let me tell you, as you can see, I learned something about the wider world as well. I got up and made a cup of coffee, I took a pee, but otherwise, I was drawn back to the laptop, and before I knew it, the grandfather clock gonged out a dozen times, and I musta had a thousand pages before my only other occasion for pause came about, which was to think back on the remarkable fact that it had all begun with Mr. Givens making the horribly misinformed, unforgivably unsupported assertion that a story couldn’t be written from the point of an ashtray. And just as I clicked to open up my email client to pour out a hot little screed saying how erroneous he was, how myopic, what an old-fashioned fuddy-duddy he was, and my god I bet he’d never even heard of Chuck Palahniuk and probably had a poster of Edgar Allen Poe in his den, etc., when the phone rang. It was Givens.
“Hey, Eric,” he said. “It’s Mr. Givens.”
“Mr. Givens. What are you doing calling me? This is very strange.”
“Meet me in Washington Square Park in an hour. It’s important.”
I knew that it was. I trusted that it was. I went there. I recognized his shape under a street lamp, nervously looking about, in a tweed tam and scarf, his white bushy mustache, like Einstein’s, twitching about in the wind. I approached him.
He said to me, “I’m sorry.”
I asked what for.
“You know what for,” he said. “For being wrong.”
I didn’t understand how it could be possible that he was talking about the same thing I’d been thinking about him at home—the fact that he’d been wrong in pronouncing it impossible to write from the point of view of an ashtray. How could he know what I’d been writing about?“Mr. Givens, I—“
“I have a confession,” Givens said, cutting me off. Every time a horn honked—and horns honked often—his head twisted around as fast as a jackrabbit. “Something I have to tell you.”
“I read what you wrote about the ashtray. From the point of view of the ashtray.”
“What are you talking about? Mr. Givens….” I was getting a little paranoid myself, and wondered if I shouldn’t check over my right shoulder, then my left, in quick succession so fast that Givens wouldn’t even see it if he blinked at the right moment.
“Spyware. This company that I teach for. They put spyware on your machine, based on your IP address when you register. It transmits your key log to me, shows me your every word as you’re writing it. It’s part of an NSA surveillance program looking for anti-capitalist sympathizers. I was logged in. I saw what you were writing—Rebekah. The ashtray. I said it couldn’t be done. But it can. I’m here to say I’m wrong. Do you accept my apology?”
I was dumbfounded. Dumbstruck. I pulled my hood up. I looked around the park, at Givens and his doofy mustache. “Where’s the camera?” I said. “Where’s Alan Fundt?”
Givens told me he was sorry for this invasion of my digital and artistic privacy, but that there was a much more serious matter at hand. “Listen closely,” he said, grabbing me by the lapel of my wool coat. “While reading what you wrote, my phone rang.”
“Oh?” I said.
“A woman spoke, identifying herself as Rebekah Treehorn. She said to meet her in Union Square in two hours.”
“Jesus Christ,” I said. I could tell Givens was utterly serious, and freaked the hell out.
When we got to Union Square, we entered from the southeast. Union Square is thronged at 5:30 on a Thursday, as everyone knows. We waited over two hours until the crowds thinned enough that we could really start despairing that this was a hoax. There was no Rebekah. Just every New Yorker going to a train or a bus or a building or a restaurant, several hundred thousand at a time in the space of a few square blocks—New York City being New York City.
I thought Givens might have gone mad. But then I thought it also might be me who’d gone mad. I’d never before had a colleague receive a phone call from a fictional character I’d written up that day. It kinda made me chuckle, and when I did chuckle I sounded like madman, I couldn’t deny. So I stopped that and reasoned that the likelier thing was that Givens was mad, not me. At least, that’s what I talked myself into. Givens was a guy, after all, who lectured that Poe’s narrator in “A Tell-Tale Heart” was unreliable with such conviction and profound investment that I had wondered at times if he wasn’t speaking of himself!
Just then, as Givens and I stood in the clearing at the center of Union Square, and the last of the pigeons went to roost in the cool night, a black ash tray fell from the sky, landing just between us, where we stood blowing on our hands, me wondering if I was going mad or if it was Givens. The ash tray passed between us, racing through the air, but it did not crash, because it was not ceramic. It had white streaks representing the shine of gloss. It had the silver bar, but not one you could grab. This one was foam rubber, and when it landed there on the hexagonal paving stones of Union Square on a cold winter night in New York City, this black ashtray proved that it was an imposter, that it had not belonged to any Rebekah Treehorn and never would. The damn thing bounced like a football.