We bought tickets to hear the words that had been discovered on an ancient fragmentary cuneiform tablet, dated to 3,000 BC, “at the very inception of true writing,” or so it was printed in the night’s program. This was the earliest (at least currently discovered) decipherable passage ever found.
A slide show of pictures of the tablet were flashed up onto the screen behind dual podiums set up on either side of the theater stage. The lights dimmed and the curator stepped to the podium on the left and spoke of the methods of dating and the means of translation. He then introduced the first scholar, a professor of linguistics at UCLA, who stepped out of the backstage dark and up to the podium opposite the curator’s podium. He was wearing a bow tie.
The professor cleared his throat, a long eh-hereehmm into the microphone that was, suddenly, and for whatever reason, so annoying to Janice sitting beside me that she was clutching the armrests of her seat.
I whispered at her to calm down.
She hissed at me not to tell her to calm down. Janice was going through menopause. She had, on top of it, or so I had long ago deduced, a most unpredictable, eruptive, explosive temper.
After a long warming up period and a shuffling of his notes, the professor began his translation of the ancient script, as those all around us began typing what he was saying into their smart phones:
“Fiction is more metaphysically sound—or resounding—than the real world.”
The professor paused and stepped back, as if surprised to find that written in his notes. “But that can’t be correct,” he said. “I’m suddenly doubtful of this one word here.” He turned and used a laser pointer to underscore a word on the large image of the tablet behind him on the screen. “Not fiction, suddenly, I’m seeing most clearly, but friction.”
“Friction,” the professor began again, “is more metaphysically sound—or resounding—than the real world. But that can’t be right either. That doesn’t sound right, does it?”
Those all around us waited, their thumbs hovering over the screens of their phones.
“Anyway” the professor said. “It ends most clearly in this way:
We waited for him to go on, but when he took a sip of his water, set the glass down and then backed up from the podium, to nod across the stage at the curator, Janice said, “What was that?”
A woman to her left whispered that it was a poem.
“A poem!” Janice hissed. “But it’s not even any good. And there’s a run-on right in the middle of it.”
Janice had been an unhappy writer for many many years, the last twelve of which she’d been sober. A sober writer is a double negative she had once informed me. But she made good money. She had a pen name. Her genre was romance. Middle-aged to elderly women, mainly, if not solely—Bride of Frankenstein types—recognized her from the pictures on her book jackets, and came up to her shyly in the supermarket or the mall. She gave them hope, most ironically, considering how Janice had always been very vanilla in bed. Fall asleep, I kid not, in the middle of climax (mine, not hers) type of vanilla.
“Janice,” I said, “calm down.” I reached in my jacket pocket for a Valium and nudged her with it.
“I don’t want your pills!” she yelled at me, getting everybody within a ten seat circumference to turn and look at us. I nodded back at these people as if everything was okay and mouthed, “cat,” “mouse.”
But Janice, apparently, wasn’t done. “Who the hell writes a bad poem about a cat and a mouse at the very inception of true writing? She was reading this last bit off the program.
I looked to the back of the theater to see two security guards talking with each other, one of them motioning to our seats. And then they both started down the aisle.
“Janice,” I said, “please.”
“Don’t please me,” she said. ”Over five-thousand years of written language and it begins with what, with our Neanderthal stupidity!” She definitely sounded like a crazy woman. It was only then that I realized that she had, and perhaps that night, again started drinking.
The people all around us were visibly upset. They were turning to her with their fingers over their mouths, motioning at her to be quiet, as the curator introduced another professor to talk about the ancient cultural and political climate of the area in the ancient Indus river valley where the tablet was discovered.
“But we’re doomed,” she hissed back at them. “Can’t you see. A poem! We’re doomed!” She ha-ha’d and then actually snorted.
People to our left began clearing out of their seats to make room for the security guards. “Might as well start the world with a religious tract,” Janice said, “or, or, or, a book of, of, of,” she yelled just as the security guards put their hands on her, “literary short stories!”