Old Man Wrote

by Simon JONES

Morton Waldorf was precisely forty-seven years old when the doctor informed him of the terminal cancer eating away at his colon. He took the news with relative indifference. The disease had taken his father and grandfather before him. It appeared to be the done thing for Waldorf men to perish from the wretched cancer curse before the age of fifty. Morton thanked the doctor for the news with a shake of his hand and spent the evening smoking and drinking and writing, as he did every night.

With no wife or children to tend to his needs and not wanting to bother the busy doctors and nurses with cancer treatments that would sooner or later fail, Morton’s condition deteriorated rather quickly. After two months, he could no longer make it beyond his letter box without doubling over in pain. He acclimatised to this enforced confinement by purchasing his weekly necessities (seven packets of Marlboro Red 100s, fourteen bottles of Finnlaigh Irish whiskey and various foodstuffs) over the internet - a fascinating technology he was taught to use by his neighbour’s kindly 10-year-old boy.

For those two months, Morton continued to write and drink and smoke - and he did each activity with more vigour than the day before. The writing relaxed him, the drinking helped his creativity and the smoking calmed his nerves whenever he opened another rejection letter from one of the hundreds of literary agents and publishing houses he had sent queries to, of which he received at least one every other day. Any time not invested in writing, drinking or smoking was spent voraciously consuming any novel he could grasp between his fingers. His tiny one-room apartment housed well over eight hundred novels, biographies and short story collections, and though he never read a story twice, he was wary of selling or even lending any of those books to strangers. For new material, he relied on his online purchases and, of course, the neighbour’s kindly son.

When walking to the letter box became too much of a burden for Morton bear, he remained inside, moving only between his bed and office chair, which were fewer than five feet apart. Though he could no longer continue to check his letter box for the rare chance that an agent had decided to take on his project or, almost impossibly, a publisher had asked permission to publish one of his countless works, he reasoned that since he had only opened rejection letters for the past twenty-two years, it was logical to assume that there would only be more of the same waiting for him outside. Still, he continued to write.

After sixteen days playing the role of hermit, there was a knock on Morton’s front door. He spent the better part of five minutes moving from his office chair to the door and feared that by the time he opened it the visitor would have left. However, upon unlatching the door he saw his neighbours and their kindly son standing before him, the husband carrying what appeared to be dozens of loose envelopes. The middle-aged man smiled awkwardly, obviously shocked by Morton’s unkempt appearance and likely the rank smell that was emanating from the apartment. He told Morton that his letter box been overflowing for the past few days and they had collected his mail for him. Morton thanked the man and managed to offer a lopsided smile when the kindly son handed him two books: Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card and The Gift by Richard Paul Evans.

Ender’s Game is my favourite my favourite,” he said happily. “My Mum likes the other one and says it’d be good for you to read something happy since you might die.”

The mother blushed as if embarrassed by her son’s inability to temper his outbursts, though perhaps she was now ashamed to give Morton such an uplifting book when he was quite clearly so far gone.

Morton thanked the family and, in return, handed the son a manuscript for his most recent novel - a story about bird-like creatures landing on Earth and transforming into humanoids in order to breed with their women so they could flourish on the Moon. Morton hoped the child would enjoy the tale and return the manuscript when he was finished - it was his only copy and he wished to send it out to publishers soon.

Not four months after that unremarkable doctor’s appointment, Morton Waldorf was admitted to a hospice where he spent his remaining days. He was an unhappy patient. Not because of the vicious disease that was slowly but surely shutting down every organ in his body, but because he was unable to drink and smoke and, most importantly, write. The hospice appeared to have a strict policy against any technology that had emerged after the 1960s. As such, a personal computer was out of the question, though the nurses gave him a notepad and several pens in the hope that such a gesture would shut him up. As it was, the day the nurses came and took him from his one-room apartment was the last day Morton ever wrote. The neighbour’s kindly son never did return his manuscript.

Morton died, as all men do, alone. Had he been able to foresee his passing, he would have been pleased that he did not cry out for the nurses or weep for the comfort of his family that had long since passed. He only wished he could have had one last cigarette and sip of whiskey. And perhaps been able to open one more letter, just in case.


The neighbour’s kindly son grew up to be an intelligent young man, perhaps even more interested in reading and writing than Morton had been. He spent the first years of his twenties honing his craft before finishing his first manuscript. After researching what he believed to be the best agencies and publishing houses for his novel, the lad built up the courage and sent off a number of queries and submissions. His first rejection returned a week later, then his second and third. After almost a year of composing and posting query letters only to receive form rejections, he was ready to give up any foolish desires he had of becoming an author. If Morton Waldorf couldn’t sell a single story in twenty years, was the neighbour’s kindly son willing to spend the next two decades of his life doing the same?

Then, on a day not unlike most others, the young man received a quite informal letter stating that a publishing house was interested in his work. While at first unable to live off the meagre wages of a first-time novelist, after six years he had produced more than enough works to be able to support his young family.

It was at this point, when he realised he was now able to call himself a full-time author, that he remembered the old, sickly man who had lived next door and had loved to write. In the summer that followed, he made a deliberate effort to visit his parents in the house where he grew up. Late one evening, he returned to his old bedroom, which his mother had left in almost the exact state as when he had moved out at age eighteen. There, he waded through box after box, folder after folder until he found what he was searching for:

Origins of an Intergalactic Species by Morton Waldorf.

The young man smiled at the title and all at once memories of reading the silly manuscript as a child came flooding back. Morton was not blessed with a keen eye for grammar, or even a unique writing style. However, it seems the drink gave him endless unique ideas. Perhaps most were better left on the editing floor, but the young man could not fault Morton’s enthusiasm for creating something very real, yet entirely unreal at the same time. Being a published author, he could understand why Morton’s manuscripts and queries had been rejected time and again - he was never cut out to be a published writer. Perhaps he was only meant to write for one person.

The young man spent the next five hours reading Origins of an Intergalactic Species for what he could only estimate would be the twentieth time. The poorly-written, poorly-characterised yet entirely entertaining novel brought back memories he had thought long since lost. Yawning, he re-bound the manuscript and took it back downstairs to place securely in his briefcase.

Perhaps it was Morton’s lot in life to be the personification of rejection. Perhaps he really was only meant to write for the neighbour’s kindly son. But the young man thought that entirely too cruel a fate for a man who had put so many thankless years into his craft. Perhaps only one more person would read Morton’s novel and that would be the end of his meagre existence. But in a few years’ time, when he was old enough, the young man would give Morton’s odd little novel on avian creatures populating the Moon to his son in the hope that it would spark in him the same zest for writing as it did in his father.

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