An Odd Thing

by Joan Frank 

Several years ago an e-mail appeared on my computer screen from a friend whose name I was glad to see. Call her Faith. She lives on the other side of the country: a sober, kind person, accomplished and smart (I'll omit details for camouflage's sake). I opened her message, tantalizingly entitled “An Odd Thing.”

The chain letter that greeted me so disturbed me that I almost destroyed it at once. It announced that if I “made a wish” on the spot, then forwarded the same letter to at least ten other people within five minutes, astounding good fortune would arrive within as many minutes as I was old.

(Also, perhaps as an appetizer, my phone was guaranteed to ring within a very short time, announcing happy news.)

Three testimonials followed, from people who claimed the letter’s magic had worked. One was ostensibly from a 13-year old girl, though of course anyone could have written them. All were represented as female.

What most unnerved me were the letter’s final lines, promising that if I ignored the chain, bad luck would dog me “for years.”

Of course one dismisses such nonsense instantly, in the automatic motions of dumping junk mail or spam. But this had come from a friend I admired: a serious, well-educated, resourceful, practical friend. I turned the matter this way and that, unable to dig out the tiny hair of horror that scratched at my thoughts like an eyelash trapped in the eye.

Faith and I have both struggled, like thousands of other writers, to get our work seen, and taken. When a literary agent who’d been offering my first novel ceased to answer my queries, it was Faith who counseled me. At the time of my wailing Faith suggested, with measured care, that perhaps this agent’s silence was “an invitation to change the relationship.”

Those words, for all their euphemistic delicacy, made sense. I left the agent and began entering competitions with the novel. Then, a windfall: the novel actually won one of them, and would be published the following fall.

Ecstatic, I e-mailed the news to Faith, whose congratulations came at once, if a trifle tersely.

I knew what she was feeling. I’d felt it ten thousand times: How long, O Lord? When will my hour come? Nonetheless, Faith urged me to “enjoy the validation.” We both knew how seldom it visited.

Some weeks passed. Then the chain e-letter from Faith arrived, with its dark, parting threat—that if I ignored it, years of bad luck awaited.

I know it's sensible to assume that Faith forwarded the letter as a larky bit of bet-hedging, the careless way one tosses a coin into a fountain. Perhaps she'd never even read it all the way to its threatening close. Anyone might argue it is likely she supposed that I, too, might be vaguely amused by it.

I told myself this.

Then—I’m still embarrassed to admit this—I actually scrolled through my e-mail address book, trying to identify individuals who might be willing to receive such a letter, who wouldn’t be annoyed or perplexed or appalled by it. Soon I gave up. Even the idea of having my name associated with the language of the letter made my skin crawl. But it was with weird apprehension that I deleted “An Odd Thing.”

Days later I asked two friends, both college teachers, for their thoughts about the phenomenon. Both were sympathetic. Both agreed on the creepiness, and a certain pathos, about such letters. But neither understood—perhaps because I omitted our respective publishing histories—what was really eating at me: the distress of receiving an embedded curse, albeit in a silly, generic package, from a friend.

Strict reason, these teacher-friends insisted, must prevail.

One of them believed, very seriously, that chain e-mails were somehow a way to collect electronic addresses for advertisers to later target. The other declared that future folklorists will categorize such letters as electronic flotsam, the low-end garbage of a technocentric culture.

These are reasonable assessments. Yet they did nothing to ease the strange, fluttery feeling in my stomach the whole business had generated.

I never confronted Faith about the letter. It’s been so long, she probably won’t remember. At least, I hope not. In the years since the incident she's had a novel published; I’ve had several more books of fiction published. But it never once occurred to me to classify those events (or any others) as good luck or bad. They were pretty much the result of dogged, not to say fanatical, work—which in truth, and as any writer will tell you, never ends.

Well, maybe a pinch of luck swirled around in there. Like weather. But I dumped the chain letter. So the luck, if luck it was, must have issued from other quarters.

And alongside that, in the day-to-day, I still destroy junk mail—paper and electronic. I do it quickly, without looking at it too long. 

Joan FrankComment