Renton – A Short Story by Bob Sterry
Renton was aware of what had happened the moment he awoke. Like most middle aged men at the declining end of that age, his waking moments were not usually a joyous realization that life, his life, was continuing, and could be expected to be replete with fresh new experiences, bright sunny liaisons with equally luminous people, and a warm satisfying undertow of growing intellectual power leading on to unique vistas of creativity. Indeed, those awakenings had ended rather earlier for Renton than anyone could have predicted. The general feeling amongst his peers, the few friends he had, and his enemies, was that he had peaked early. Unpredictable as it might have been there had been a few clues to a softening, a barely perceptible deceleration of effort. And, of course, many who actually had no idea what was happening claimed to have foreseen it but did not feel they were obliged to say so at the time. All they had really foreseen was an opportunity to snipe at Renton in retrospect. Renton was used to it. Even before the onset of decline, when he was in his celebrated period, what some call ‘glory days’, backstabbing, sniping, and sometimes almost litigious gossip, was aimed at him and his work. Renton was used to it and in a way rather enjoyed the notoriety. He was thick skinned and gave as good as he got.
Nevertheless, the virtual overnight decline of his powers seriously shook his usual cynical elan. So much so that he went into a virtual seclusion, withdrawing from the society that had both loved and hated him. Barely into his fourth decade Renton quickly became part of creative folk lore. His work up until the decline was still admired and referred to, but rather in the way certain Victorians achieved a life after death. He may as well have been dead, and Renton thought of himself as lifeless. Without the internal creative furnace that had driven him he felt almost empty, hollow. Watching the ongoing evolution of his former creative field from his isolation left him cold. He was neutral. He knew of other creative individuals who had been unable to hold on to life once their own skills had vanished or become greatly diminished. Renton had not given this terminal path a thought. Despite his own sharply reduced creative vigor there was ignited an indestructible core of malevolence. It was this highly negative emotion that had very early in his seclusion become an insatiable desire for revenge. Perhaps it had always dwelt deep in his psyche, but was obscured by his talent. His revenge was not as some vengeances are, general and wide ranging, but a revenge aimed at one specific individual. Renton was later unable to say why this person had earned his hatred. It certainly gave the appearance of being completely random.
Random or not it gave Renton the energy to stay alive. It also forced him to ask what exactly is revenge, and why does it seem so desirable? How does one exact it, what are the metrics? The intelligence that had once powered his work had not entirely vanished, but it now exercised itself in Renton’s mind in a warped fashion. It was as if an alter ego had taken up residence in his mind. Whatever it was, it was clever. For months it quietly constructed a complete fabrication of the lengths the target individual had taken to disparage not only Renton’s work, but also spread heavily fertilized falsehoods about his private life, in particular his sexual preferences. This fabrication was inserted into Renton’s baseline assumptions. Not all at once, but piece by piece. Each piece building on the increasingly firm foundation of the previous.
From time to time Renton saw the pieces for what they were, but as the aggregate grew it became harder for him to doubt their veracity. In less than a year Renton no longer doubted the construction and even found himself adding yet more invidious layers of falsehoods.
The target individual was unaware of even the slightest hint that they were being remotely pilloried and made into the very incarnation of a lying vindictive heinous critic of Renton’s life and work. Indeed, so innocent were they of Renton’s hatred that they led an impromptu group of four of his former colleagues trying to persuade him to come out of his seclusion. An activity that only made Renton’s resolve to exact his revenge even firmer since he saw this overture as immensely hypocritical. The group were rebuffed but continued to attempt a rapprochement often enough to cause Renton to write a polite but curt letter asking them to desist.
Renton’s isolation continued. A year passed, then another but his conviction did not. The fabrication had become as much a part of him as his heart and lungs. Where at first it had seemed a satisfying fantasy but real enough to make him question its direction, now it was his constant companion. Each day it grew. No day passed without a mental parade of the target individual’s crimes against him and the embryonic form of the revenge taking shape. An embryo that took little time to fully gestate.
Against all their expectations the group of former colleagues were stunned one morning to receive an invitation to Renton’s house for a small evening gathering and an apology for his lack of contact with them. On arrival they were greeted coolly by Renton. The target individual, innocent as ever, took the initiative to begin conversation. He mentioned how sorry they were that he had left and hoped again that he would return. Renton nodded as if to accept this opening gambit. But the words that then tumbled from his mouth in a five-minute tirade were the condensation of all of the fabrication that had lived in him for two years. His former colleagues tried to interrupt but could see that Renton was not the Renton they used to know. And Renton incontrovertibly proved this conclusion when he pulled a small automatic pistol from his jacket and shot the target individual through the heart.
Renton was aware of what had happened the moment he awoke. And fully awake he screamed for the jailer to bring him a notebook and pen. The book that he wrote relating his rise and fall written as he went from arrest to indictment to trial to sentencing to incarceration, was a masterpiece of documentary fiction, and was the first of many from his pen. Even with his mind cleared of the malignancy that brought him to his prison cell he still thought that the violent death of one mediocre poet was worth the rebirth, the transformation as it were, of his considerable talent.