John McNally was born in 1965. After attending a famous writers’ workshop in the Midwest, he worked as a short-order cook, bouncer, grave digger, lumberjack, carnival barker, florist, disc jockey, and busboy. Most recently, he was employed as a groundskeeper. He has no permanent place of residence. He owns a 1976 Ford LTD, inside of which he could, if necessary, store all his worldly possessions. This is his first published story.
I’m more than happy to write a word or two about my story. Given the pantheon of great writers before me who have added their own contributors’ notes, I have to admit that I feel out of my league. I’m a newcomer, a nobody, and whatever I have to say about the origin of my story will pale when placed alongside another writer’s comments. That said, I will do my best.
What I don’t want to do is pull a Rick Bass. Don’t get me wrong. I love the guy’s work—he’s one of my all-time favorite writers—but do we really need to be taken from the precise second the germ of a story pops into a guy’s head all the way up to the day he rides his horse to the First Bank of Montana to cash his Paris Review check? No. I think not.
There’s really not a hell of a lot to say about my own story except that one day the idea came to me, and the next day I wrote it. I could talk about how it was a gift, how I was merely the conduit through which the story moved, or I could go on about how many tens of thousands of drafts I put it through, how I wrote this story with my own blood, but I honestly don’t remember working all that hard on it. In fact, I barely remember writing it all.
Maybe what I should do is simply say a few words about the story’s dedication and leave it at that. I’m sure there’s more than one reader out there who’ll want to know why my story is dedicated to Frank Mason. Believe it or not, Frank is an old buddy of mine. I knew Frank way before that prodigious month when the planets aligned for him and three of his short stories appeared, one after the other, in Zoetrope, McSweeney’s, and GQ, turning him overnight into that dreaded cliché, “A writer to watch!” I knew Frank when he was a writer nobody watched. We were roommates our first year together in that famous and mythical Writers’ Workshop, the one surrounded by cornfields and farm houses and long, flat stretches of sun-blistered interstate.
It was almost dusk the day I pulled into town and located the Victorian on Brown Street. After getting out of my car and touching my toes a few times, I took the front-porch steps two at a time. I ran my finger across the names on the mailboxes, searching for Frank’s apartment number, then stepped into the foyer and started pounding on the door. Frank, I thought. Frank friggin’ Mason. Since all of the arrangements for us to live together had been made long-distance over the phone, we hadn’t yet met, and so I wasn’t sure what to expect.
Frank opened the door wide, cocktail in hand, as if I were the first guest at the party. “Hello, hello,” he said.
I know it’s hard to believe, but Frank used to be a thin bastard. You could see even then that he had the potential to balloon up, but when I met him he was thin and clean-cut. He always wore white T-shirts underneath his pinstriped oxfords, and he always wore penny loafers the proper way—that is, with a penny inserted into each one.
“You must be John,” he said, shaking my hand and grinning. “Damned glad to meet you. Damned glad.” Still holding my hand, he leaned in close and said, “This is probably a historic moment. One day biographers will write about the moment John McNally and Frank Mason first met. And here it is!” When he let go of my hand, he clapped my back and laughed.
I nodded. I wasn’t sure what to say.
Frank said, “Think about it, amigo. Think of all the other writers who’ve come through this city. And here we are, me and you, a part of that history!”
“You know what?” I said. “I really need to take a leak.”
“Oh. Sure. Down that hall, last door on the right.”
I sat in the bathroom, and with the frosted window cracked a good inch, I smoked a cigarette. Biographers? Jesus. Who did this guy think he was? After my smoke, Frank helped me unload my car. I had only a few small boxes and a modest selection of clothes—not even enough belongings to break a sweat.
“Holy shit,” I said once we were done and I began to walk around the apartment. “Look at all these goddamn books.” I nodded toward his bookcase.
“Yeah; well,” he said. “Occupational hazard, right?”
I pulled a few out, pushed them back in. It took me a while to realize what was so curious about the way he’d arranged them, but when I stepped back and looked at his collection as a whole, I saw what he’d done. He’d put them in alphabetical order by publisher. Atlantic Monthly Press, Black Sparrow Press, Capra Press, Ecco, New Directions, North Point, Norton, Penguin, Soho, Sun and Moon, Vintage Contemporaries. I found Raymond Carver in four different sections, including the bleak section consisting of one lonely McGraw-Hill book, an early Carver paperback with one of the ugliest covers I’d ever seen.
I thumped a few spines and said, “So tell me. Who’re your favorite writers?”
“Contemporary?” he asked.
I shrugged. “Whatever.”
“Hm.” He scrunched up his face, as if he’d tasted something he expected to be sweet but was sour instead. It’s a look, I’ve come to learn, that the privileged make when they’re weighing a question of intellectual import. When he was ready to answer, he cleared his throat, took a deep breath, and said, “I really like what Rick Moody’s doing. He’s our generation’s Nabokov. A great stylist. Amazing. And David Foster Wallace. He makes John Barth look like a little boy playing with Tonka trucks. Wallace is a genius. Hands down. I think William T. Vollmann’s work is staggering—mercilessly dark, intense—and, uh …” He paused. “Why are you making faces?”
“Each time I say an author’s name, you make a face.”
“No, I don’t.”
“Yes, you do. If you don’t like them, just say so.”
“No, no, they’re fine.”
Frank squinted at me; he wasn’t buying any of it.
“Really,” I said. “You like those guys? Cool. It’s you’re opinion, bud. What’s it to me? Why should I care?” I laughed. “I mean, really.”
“All right,” he said. “Okay. So tell me. Who do you like?”
“No one you’d care for.”
“Try me. Who?”
“Nah.” I shook my head and smiled. “Tell you what. Forget I asked, okay? I never saw someone get so up in arms over such a simple question.” Frank was about to say something else, but I held up my palm. “Shhhh. Listen. Where’s the phonebook? I could use a pizza. How about you? Are you hungry? I’m so hungry, I could eat a goddamn horse. I’m not kidding. A horse! Hooves and all. My treat.”
Everyone always asks me if the Workshop is really as competitive and mean-spirited as it’s rumored to be, and I honestly have to say that I don’t remember much about the Workshop. Oh, I remember a few classes. I remember the director holding up one of the stories, as if it were a soiled undergarment, and asking if anyone else in the room smelled what he smelled. I remember a woman breaking down in tears and bolting from a classroom, never to be seen or heard from again. I remember a famous visiting editor telling a student that his novel didn’t hold his interest beyond the first word, that no one would ever publish it, and that in the entire 360 pages he saw only one vaguely interesting sentence. I remember how the people who won the top fellowships all hung out together while the ones who didn’t get funding weren’t invited to anything unless it was open to the public. But other than those few episodes, I really can’t recall much and so couldn’t say one way or the other if its reputation is earned.
What I do remember is the way sunlight would stream in through the bay window of our high-ceilinged Victorian apartment, and how some days a single beam of light illuminated my desk, as if God himself had singled me out to say, “YOU! YOU’RE THE ONE WHO’S GOING TO MAKE IT! THAT’S RIGHT—YOU!” I only noticed this beam of light because I wasn’t actually sitting inside it. I was usually across the room, eating a bowl of Frankenberry or Count Chocula. Still, I liked how that beam hit my desk and made all the papers on it look as though they had caught fire, a sight that was either celestial or apocalyptic, I couldn’t decide which.
One day, while I was admiring the beam of sunlight and imagining all the things that God might have been saying to me, Frank walked over to my desk and started reading a manuscript I had left next to my computer. He casually read the first page, but then something caught his eye on the second page, and he picked up the entire manuscript and started flipping through it. It was the manuscript I had submitted as part of my application to gain admittance into the Workshop.
Frank turned to me and said, “My teacher wrote this.”
“Really? He was your teacher?”
I couldn’t remember the author’s name. I’d found the story in a book that had been out of print for twenty years. I had scanned it and fixed the typos, and then I’d sent it off to the Workshop with the rest of the junk they had asked for. I had wanted to send one of my own stories, but none of them seemed, well, ready. Fortunately, I had left my name off the copy of the manuscript that Frank was holding.
“That’s funny,” I said. “You know that John Gardner exercise? The one in Art of Fiction? You know the one—find a writer you admire and type up the entire story so that you get inside the mind of that writer? Do you know what I’m talking about? Yes? No? Anyway, that’s what I did. What you’re holding is my all-time favorite story from my all-time favorite book. That book changed my life. I’m not kidding. I found a copy in a used bookstore in Poughkeepsie. I was visiting my cousin at Vassar, and I popped into the store and there it was, that book, on the dollar rack. I’d never even heard of this guy before. And so I took the book back to my cousin’s, read it in one sitting, and wham, it just blew me away. I mean, it’s because of him, because of his book, that I decided to become a writer. It’s because of him that I’m here. And you know him? Huh!”
“That’s so weird,” Frank said.
“It’s not that weird,” I said.
“No, I mean, what are the odds? His book’s been out of print forever.”
“Well, like I said, I found it in a used bookstore, and it’s my favorite book, so it’s not so weird when you look at it like that.”
But Frank wouldn’t drop it. Over the next few weeks he kept bringing it up. “I can’t get it out of my head.”
“That story you typed up.”
“What the fuck? Are you obsessing over this or what?”
“I have to be honest. Don’t take this the wrong way, okay? When we first met, I didn’t like you. But when I saw that story and you told me how much that book meant to you, I started thinking that we were destined to be roommates.”
“Hm.” I lit a cigarette. I nodded. “Well then it’s fate, I guess,” I said, and Frank, squinting from the smoke I blew at him, smiled.
I started dating a poet. Carrie Wilcox. I liked dating poets. They were always so screwed up emotionally but wild in bed. It seemed to me that you couldn’t have the wild part without the screwed-up part, though it was certainly possible, even likely, to have the screwed-up part and not the wild part. Anyway, this poet was both screwed up and wild, and when we hit the sack, she liked to talk dirty, which was fine by me, but after the third time I was convinced that she was talking dirty to me in iambic pentameter. I don’t think she realized what she was doing, but on around our fifth time together I reached off to the side and, with my fist, pounded the stressed words against the nightstand, and sure enough, it was iambic pentameter.
One night, after sex, she asked, “Why are you always pounding the table?”
“Huh? Oh, well, I’m trying to get into a rhythm.”
“You need to pound the table to do that?”
“Sometimes,” I said.
Another night, the two of us naked, each smoking a post-coital cigarette, Carrie asked, “Who are your favorite poets?”
I blew three smoke rings, then watched them bend and melt. “I don’t read poetry,” I said.
She didn’t say anything for a while. I could hear her sucking on her own cigarette and then exhaling. Finally, she said, “I’m a poet, or did you forget that?”
“You know what I mean,” I said.
“Oh. So you only read poetry if you’re banging the poet? Is that it?”
I was momentarily paralyzed by the truth, but I knew Carrie didn’t want me to tell her that she had figured it out.
“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” I said, sitting up and trying to act indignant. “All right. Who’s your favorite nineteenth-century novelist?”
“Dickens,” she said.
“No, no. Living twentieth-century novelist.”
“Joyce Carol Oates.”
“Shit!” I said, foiled at every turn. I tried thinking of a poet whose work I had read and remembered, any poet, any poet at all, but I couldn’t think of a single name. It was as if that part of my brain had been surgically removed. “Ah, to hell with this,” I said. “It’s bullshit. That’s what it is. Bull … shit.” I rolled out of bed and started pacing the apartment. “Quizzing me,” I said. “The nerve!”
Frank was over at his girlfriend’s house—she was a poet, too—and so I walked over to Frank’s desk and started reading a story that he was working on. It seemed only fair, since he’d violated my workspace. I knew that Frank didn’t like for anyone to read his stories in-progress, but what the hell, it was only a story.
And so I picked up his latest opus, a novella, and flipped through it. There was a footnote after the first word in the story, but the footnote itself went on for the next twenty-two pages. Then came the second word and another twenty-two-page footnote. Then, well, you get the idea. It was revolting.
“Are you coming back to bed?” Carrie called out from the bedroom.
“In a sec,” I said, but I never made it back to bed that night. I stayed up reading Frank’s awful story, until my brained burned from reading so many single-spaced pages, my eyes bubbling inside my skull from his criminally small font. By the time I finished reading I knew that my life would forever be inextricably tied to Frank’s, but not because we were friends. Oh, no. We weren’t friends, we would never be friends, and I saw that now with perfect clarity.
The next night it was me and Frank and Carrie and Frank’s girlfriend, Phebe, all of us out drinking at the Boar’s Head. I liked Phebe. She was named after the shepherdess in As You Like It, as she was prone to add after being introduced, thereby defusing any questions. She was pale and had long, straight hair and big eyes, and whenever she spoke, you had to lean in close to hear what she was saying. The four of us were having a good time shooting pool, feeding the jukebox, and sharing drinking stories. I was having the best night I’d had since coming to town until Frank began to talk about writing.
“Let’s go around,” Frank said, “and tell each other about the worst thing we’ve ever written.” He grinned slyly, his beady eyes darting from me to Phebe, from Phebe to Carrie, and then back to me.
“Oh, Frank,” Carrie said. “What torture!”
Phebe said something, and when I said, “Huh? Didn’t catch that,” she leaned across the table and whispered into my ear, “I like torture.”
Frank chuckled. He twined his fingers together, like a schoolboy. He was wearing a Rolex, and every time he set his hands down, the watch’s band clunked against the table. After the sixth time, I wanted to rip the goddamn thing off his arm and flush it down a toilet.
Carrie sighed and said, “Okay, I’ll go first,” and she told us about a poem she’d written when she was in high school, a love poem about a worm cut in half that, after regenerating, falls in love with its other half, as if the two parts had never been one.
“Oh my God!” Frank said. “That’s awful. I love it!”
Phebe, offering mock sympathy, took hold of Carrie’s hand and patted it.
I sipped my beer, lit another cigarette. My head was starting to throb.
Phebe went next. In a voice so soft you were forced to read her lips, she told us how she had always admired Sylvia Plath, and so she’d decided to tackle her own version of “Daddy,” except that her version was titled “Uncle,” and it was about her own abusive uncle, a Vietnam vet, whom she compared not to a Nazi, as Plath had done, but to the Khmer Rouge. Phebe took a drag off her cigarette. “Uncle,” Phebe whispered. Cascades of smoke flowed from her mouth, her nose. “I was seventeen,” she said. “I read it at an open mic, and everyone thought it was a parody and started to laugh. I was mortified. But who could blame them?”
“Uncle Pol Pot!” Frank bellowed. “Priceless! Absolutely priceless!”
Carrie leaned into me and said, “No more bare foot, Uncle!”
I nodded. I didn’t know what the hell she was talking about.
Frank said, “Okay, my turn. I wrote this story back when I thought Hemingway and Fitzgerald were gods.” He rolled his eyes, then wagged his head. “Anyway, I wrote this story about a boy named Ernie who goes fishing and meets a young lad named Francis, and they have this conversation about fish, but what they’re really talking about are their own aesthetics. I wrote the passages from Ernie’s point-of-view in the stripped-down, deadpan Hemingway style, and Francis’s in this lush, rolling prose. Oh, and there was this not-so-subtle homoerotic subtext running through their conversation. I was playing with some things Hemingway had written about Fitzgerald in A Moveable Feast.” His watch band clunked against the table, and he let out a long sigh. “What in the world was I thinking?” He laughed nervously.
No one said anything for a moment, and I was thinking it was because we were all embarrassed for the poor schlub, but then Carrie, pausing after each word, said, “That. Is. Brilliant.”
Phebe kissed Frank’s cheek. “My genius,” she said.
Carrie turned to me. “You’re a fiction writer. Isn’t that a brilliant story idea?”
Frank held up his palm. “Stop it! Please! Stop! It’s awful.” He looked at me with fake desperation in his eyes. “Save me, John! Tell us your story. Hurry.”
“I don’t have one,” I said.
“No fair,” Carrie said.
“What I mean,” I said, “is that they’re all pretty bad. It would be hard to choose.” I smashed my cigarette into the ashtray, twisting it back and forth.
“Be that way,” Phebe whispered. She stuck her tongue out at me.
After last call, long after Phebe and Carrie had helped each other home, Frank and I burst out of the Boar’s Head front door and stumbled down the stairs. I turned to Frank and said, “Rick Moody is a terrible writer,” and I punched him as hard as I could in the mouth, dropping him to the ground. I had no idea what had come over me, and I immediately regretted punching him. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I said.
“Jesus Christ,” Frank said. Blood trickled out the corner of his mouth.
“Oh, shit,” I said. “Give me your hand.”
“Get away from me,” he said. “What the hell’s your problem?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Jesus Christ,” he said. “My jaw.”
“Here,” I said. “Let me help you.”
Frank scooted away from my hand. “Get the hell away from me. I mean it.”
“Okay,” I said. “All right. It’s not like I’m not sorry.” I tried to help him, I thought. At least I tried.
Frank didn’t come home that night. The next day, while heading for the library, I passed the Boar’s Head and stopped at the spot where I had punched Frank. Dried blood dotted the sidewalk. A little ways away I saw a tooth. Frank’s tooth. I picked it up, tucked it into my pocket, and continued on to the library.
I used to see Phebe around the coffeeshops and bookstores, but then I started bumping into her everywhere I went. The post office. The pedestrian mall. The video store.
“You again,” Phebe said and smiled. She was wearing a black skirt with a black tank top. She always wore black.
I leaned in close and whispered, “Are you stalking me?”
“I was thinking it was the other way around,” she said. “I attract stalkers, you know. I’m a stalker magnet.”
“Maybe I’m stalking you and not even realizing it,” I said.
Frank, of course, had told Phebe the story about me punching him, but I could tell that she was the sort of girl who invited a certain amount of danger into her life, that danger was, in fact, the only thing that made her feel truly alive. I’ve known more than one writer drawn to the dark side, as it were. The truth, of course, is that they’re attracted to fake danger. Drop them off at, say, Cabrini Green in Chicago or a crack house in the Bronx, and then let’s see how long their interest in danger lasts. Real danger would scare the living shit out of them, but this sort of danger—one writer punching another—gives them a charge, a jolt. It’s just enough danger to make them pleasantly light-headed.
Phebe and I hooked up that afternoon—we went straight from the video store back to her place—and for the next week we were inseparable. Instead of talking dirty in iambic pentameter, Phebe would lie awake after sex and talk about death. Anything having to do with death captivated her. She had an encyclopedic memory for the strange ways that various people had died. A man retrieving linen gets trapped inside a spinning dryer and dies. An old woman gets her arm stuck in a sofa bed and, unable to reach her phone for days, dies. A bald man, after applying glue to a toupee while inside his car, lights a cigarette; the glue fumes instantly ignite, the entire car becomes engulfed in flames, and the bald man, well, he dies. Phebe’s stories were endless. She would talk about death for hours and hours until I’d fallen sound asleep, but later in the night, haunted by everything she’d said, I’d wake up screaming. It’s what I imagined it would be like shacking up with Kübler-Ross—albeit a young and sexy Kübler-Ross, what Kübler-Ross might have been like if she’d shacked up with Masters and Johnson.
Phebe split up with Frank over the phone, and although I hadn’t officially said anything to Carrie one way or the other about breaking up, I hadn’t gone out of my way to get together with her, either. Phebe and I both agreed that it would be a good idea to keep our little fling, or whatever it was, to ourselves.
“I don’t want to hurt Frank,” she said.
“Me neither,” I said. “I like the guy.”
“Then why did you punch him?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I guess I don’t like him that much.”
One night, after Phebe and I had smoked all of Frank’s pot that I had taken from his desk drawer, Phebe turned to me and said, “When did you first become interested in me?”
“When you stuck your tongue out at me,” I said.
“When was that?”
“The night I punched Frank.”
“Oh, yeah. I remember now.” She thought for a moment, her eyelids dope-heavy. “Really? When I stuck my tongue out at you?”
“Absolutely,” I said. “It’s a very sexual thing to do, you know, sticking your tongue out at somebody. It’s probably the most erotic thing one person can do to another person, especially if they don’t know each other.”
Staring intensely into my eyes, Phebe stuck her tongue out at me.
“Jesus,” I said and pinned her to the bed. She laughed but kept her tongue out. “You’re killing me,” I said. “You know that, don’t you? You’re frickin’ killing me.”
I hope I’m not going on too long here—I know there’s a word limit on these contributors’ notes—but I should probably tell you a little about my past. My father was a carnie. He worked all the games. Ring a Bottle. Balloon Water Race. Skee Ball. He helped assemble and then operate the rides, too—the Zipper, Pharaoh’s Fury, the Hurricane. “NOT FOR THE WEAK OF STOMACH!” my father would yell at anyone who walked by. “NOT FOR THE FAINT OF HEART!” After my mother died, when I was five years old, I started traveling with my dad from city to city, state to state, living off a steady diet of Sno-Cones, fried dough with butter, and Italian sausage sandwiches. We had a dog, too. Rosco. Rosco never barked. He’d sit next to my father and chew gum all day long. I swear, my father’d spit out a wad of Dentyne and the dog would pick it up and start chewing. He even moved it from one side of his mouth to the other, the way my dad did, and he’d watch my father unwrap a new stick and start chewing it. And sometimes I’d sit in a lawn chair and chew gum and watch Rosco chewing gum watching my father chew gum, and I’d start thinking all kinds of crazy things, like how maybe I was a figment of somebody’s imagination, and how I had no will of my own, that whatever they wanted me to do, I’d do. But whose imagination? And why me? Some days, sitting at the precise center of the midway, I’d drive myself nuts thinking about stuff like that. Sometimes it made me feel like weeping, I swear to Christ, but other times it made me feel like I could do anything I wanted, since it wasn’t really me doing any of those things. If I was no more than a figment of somebody else’s imagination, then the repercussions would be figments, too, right?
I don’t know why any of this is important—it’s probably not—but I guess I wanted to put it here so that people could see how different I was from someone like Frank or Carrie or Phebe. In terms of the Workshop, I was an anomaly. I didn’t go to the Ivy Leagues. I didn’t go to prep school. After being homeschooled, I went to junior college. After ju-co, I went to state. Not the big state school, either. One of the satellite schools. I didn’t take any creative writing courses. I hold a degree from the Department of Mortuary Science and Funeral Service. Funeral Studies, I called it. The way I figured, not every town has its own funeral home, and yet we live in a country that has exponential population growth. I’d have opened up my own funeral home, too, except that I didn’t have the money and couldn’t get a loan. Bank after bank turned me down. Why should we loan you any money? they asked. Why should we assume all the risk for someone with no collateral and no job history? This is what happens when you’re the son of a carnie, and this is why the very sight of Frank was like having a dagger rammed through my head—in one ear, out the other. It wasn’t that Frank owned so much shit. He did own a lot of shit, but I didn’t care about that. What irked me was that Frank wrote heaps of meaningless crap, one steaming page after another, and that this same crap would garner awards, money, jobs, maybe even fame. He was clever, and he was being patted on the back for being clever, but there was a hollowness at the core of every word he wrote. His stories were all surface, all technique. A lot of fireworks. A lot of sleight of hand. But in the end, what were his stories about? Nothing. Page after page of diddly-squat.
Maybe this is why I started dating Phebe. I wanted to deprive Frank of what little substance filled his otherwise shallow life. I wanted him to earn it. But I have to confess, I fell for Phebe. I fell hard, too. All her talk about death sent me reeling back to those lazy undergraduate days of sitting in my Funeral classes, gorgeous fall afternoons with orange leaves blowing past the windows, the professor’s macabre lectures lulling me to sleep. And now, however many years later, I fell asleep thinking about me and Phebe living together in some sleepy rural town. I would be Funeral Home Director, and Phebe would be my haunted poet wife, writing morbid villanelles about the dead men and women who passed through our halls. I wanted to tell her about this fantasy, but I couldn’t ever muster the courage. I was afraid she’d laugh at me. I should have risked the humiliation, but I didn’t. I couldn’t.
“When I die,” Phebe said one night, “I want to be aware of the moment. I want to be cognizant. I want someone there with me so that I can describe it. I want to take them right up to the point where I cross the line from life to death. I want to describe it without embellishment. I want to be accurate and objective yet vivid. Is it possible to be accurate and objective and vivid all at once? Probably not. Still, I think one should try. I think it’s possible to come close.” Into my ear she whispered, “I want that to be my final poem.” She licked my earlobe, then began to nibble on it. I don’t think I’d ever been happier than at that very moment. I was about to roll her over onto her back, maybe chew on her ear, when someone knocked on her door. It was two in the morning.
“Oh, shit,” she said. “Who’s that?”
“Want me to get it?” I asked.
Phebe shook her head. She creaked off the bed and tiptoed to the door. She didn’t have a peephole. She didn’t have a safety chain. Her apartment was a burglar’s dream. She opened the door. I couldn’t see anything, but Phebe’s voice was surprisingly loud, and I knew that this was for my benefit. I appreciated her concern.
“Frank?” she said. “What are you doing here? It’s two in the morning.”
Frank said something, but I couldn’t hear what.
“I’m really tired,” Phebe said. “Can’t we talk tomorrow?”
And then I heard him: “Is that John’s coat?”
“John. Is he here?” He called out my name: “John! Are you here? John, you son of a bitch.”
“Go away,” I yelled.
“Don’t,” Phebe said.
I could hear Frank’s footsteps; he was heading my way. I was naked and not in the mood to deal with the situation at hand.
“I’ve got a crowbar,” I said. “I’ll knock out the rest of your teeth if you come in here.” He stopped walking. “I’m serious,” I said. The footsteps retreated. Frank and Phebe whispered something, and then the door shut. When Phebe returned, I could tell she’d been crying.
“At least he’s gone,” I said. “The nerve!” I sighed. I shook my head. “What did he look like when I told him I had a crowbar? What was the look on his face? Jesus, at least I didn’t have to get out of bed. I mean, I’m naked. Could you imagine? And what the hell time is it, anyway?”
“I think you should go,” she said.
“What? Are you serious?”
Phebe nodded. “I’m not ready for this. I’m sorry.”
“Ready for what? Two minutes ago you were ready for death. What’s this compared to death?”
Phebe stood silent, waiting for me to get off her bed and put my clothes back on.
“Oh, for Christ’s sake. Okay, okay,” I said. “I’ll go.” But there was no place to go. I didn’t want to return to my apartment and find Frank sitting there in his ridiculous penny loafers, waiting for me. And I couldn’t pop in on Carrie, not after avoiding her calls. I walked to Liberty Park and found a bench. I fell asleep. At some point in the night, a cop poked me in the ribs with a billy club.
“Up, up,” he said. “The park’s closed.” When I stood, he said, “This time you get a warning. Next time you’ll get a ticket for vagrancy. Do we understand each other?”
I stood. I rubbed the sleep-glue from my eyes. “Perfectly,” I said.
Two days after the incident with Frank at Phebe’s apartment, I bumped into a classmate who told me that the director of the Workshop wanted to talk to me. Since I’d never spoken to the director, and since I was pretty sure he hadn’t, until recently, even known my name, I knew his wanting to see me wasn’t a good sign.
I wish I could say that I had always wanted to be a writer, but this isn’t true. I had wanted to be an astronaut, too. I had wanted to be a sharpshooter. I had wanted to be a physicist, a bounty hunter, and a zookeeper. Nearly everything interested me as much as anything else. But now that the director of the Workshop wanted to talk to me, I suddenly wanted nothing more in life than to be a writer. I wanted to win the PEN/Faulkner. I wanted a Guggenheim, an NEA. I wanted to hang out with the Southern mafia—Larry Brown, Barry Hannah, Harry Crews, and the rest of those ass-kickers. I wanted to shoot the shit with these guys. Who cared that I didn’t have a drop of Southern blood in me? What did it matter? I wanted to give readings at City Lights, Tattered Cover, Square Books. I wanted everything that came with being a writer, and I wanted it so much, my heart literally hurt to think about it.
The director, slouched in his chair when I arrived at his office, had my application materials spread before him on his desk. Also on his desk was a copy of the book from which I had pilfered the story—the story I had used to gain admittance into the Workshop.
“McNally,” he said. “You know what this means, don’t you?” He was in his fifties but had a boyish face, and I thought maybe we could work this out, that I could show him some things I’d actually written as proof that I did indeed deserve a spot in the Workshop. I wanted to make a case that by plagiarizing I was actually doing this long-neglected author a favor. No one had paid attention to this man’s work for twenty years, and by using his all-but-unknown story to get into the famous Writers’ Workshop, I was saying, “Look, here’s a writer who’s just as good as any of these new punks who think they’re hot shit!” Before I could say anything, the director said, “Your writing career is over. You fucked up. Big time. This is serious.”
“You want me out of the Workshop?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “I want you out of this town.”
“Out of town? Are you serious? Can you do that?”
That night, in protest, I set up a makeshift tent in the director’s backyard until he called the police. The police officers weren’t interested in hearing my side of the story, but they didn’t want to go through the hassle of arresting me, either.
“What do you do in town?” the short cop asked me.
“I’m in the Writers’ Workshop,” I said.
“Oh,” the other cop said. “One of them.” He cleared his throat, then spat on a tree.
The short cop said, “Okay. Run along now, John Grisham.” The other cop tried holding back his snicker but couldn’t.
Later that same night I tried setting up a tent in the backyard of the visiting writer. The visiting writer was a brooding, tortured man who had a reputation for nailing anything that moved, and so I thought maybe he wouldn’t be quite so judgmental, but when he saw me hammering in posts, he came bolting out of his house with a stun gun and told me he was going to beat the living shit out of me if I didn’t pack up and get the hell off his property. This, I might add, from a National Book Award winner!
I didn’t really see that what I had done was so terrible, certainly not terrible enough to justify getting chased out of town, but with no place left to go I didn’t have much of a choice. My car had quit working shortly after moving to town, so early the next morning I hitched a ride east. In little over an hour, we were in another state. As fast as that, one phase of my life was over and a new one had begun.
Four years went by without any news of Frank, and then, in a single month, his work appeared in Zoetrope, McSweeney’s, and GQ. Not much later I read in Publishers Weekly that he had landed a six-figure advance from FSG based on half of what sounded like the worst novel ever to be written. It was described as what the Warren Commission Report would read like if Richard Brautigan had written it. Could you imagine? Who’d want to read the Warren Commission Report written by Richard Brautigan? But there you have it—New York publishing in a nutshell. They’ll give Frank six figures, the book will sell ten copies, and everyone will wonder what the hell just happened. Or maybe the book will sell 100,000 copies, and for the next two years we’ll suffer a string of copycat books, something along the lines of the Starr Report written by Jhumpa Lahiri or the OED by David Foster Wallace. And so, against everyone’s better judgment, Frank Mason was on his way up. The son of a bitch had made it.
I never really gave up the notion of becoming a writer, even though the whole episode at the Workshop had soured me on the politics of it all. What I did was wrong. I’ll admit that. I used poor judgment, and I deserved the boot. Still, something about the way things happened, about the way it all shook down, rubbed me the wrong way. I was having a difficult time putting my finger on it until I saw a publicity photo of Frank—a headshot. In it, Frank is smiling, damned glad to have landed his big-ass book deal, but if you look closely, you can see the missing tooth, the one I had knocked out. Here’s a guy who could afford to get the tooth replaced but didn’t. He was showing it off. Someone told me that pirates pierced an ear every time they survived a storm at sea, and I couldn’t help wondering if this was how Frank saw himself, as some kind of literary equivalent to the pirate, his gap serving as proof that he was a survivor. And then it came to me, what it was that had rubbed me the wrong way about the Workshop: Frank. Frank and his god-awful writing. Frank and how everyone had been duped into believing he was some kind of genius, always cleverly turning a phrase, punning his way down the page, footnoting, those vile footnotes, and how his stories had no story, his characters no heart, no brains of their own. Frank. I was glad I had knocked his tooth out, but now he was out there parading the gap, the bastard. Seeing his picture made me want to punch him all over again. I’d be lying if I said otherwise.
I went through a long period of not really knowing what to do with myself. A few summers ago, I bought a junk car, a real beater, for about a hundred bucks. It was really a piece of shit. It wobbled when I drove it, and bouquets of foam periodically exploded from the seats. I spray-painted the car about a million different colors, and then I gave it a name—Purple America—the title of one of Rick Moody’s awful books. I took the car to a literary festival where Rick Moody was teaching, parked it in the parking lot of an out-of-business gas station just before you entered the festival grounds, and I charged people five bucks to hit it with a sledgehammer. Five bucks, five whacks. By the end of the festival, the car was entirely flat. I’m not kidding. Mostly it was punk kids paying the five bucks, kids who’d heard about it from other punk kids, kids who didn’t know Rick Moody from a wingback chair, but a few conference participants eventually wandered out, paid their money, and took their whacks at the car. One kid was a Richard Yates fan; his name was Michael, and I shook his hand. “Good man,” I said, slapping him on the back before he knocked the sideview mirrors off the car and punched a hole through the roof with his remaining three whacks. I kept hoping someone from Poets & Writers would catch wind of what I was doing and write a piece about it, but this didn’t happen. I considered pulling this stunt again at another conference, getting a Pinto wagon and naming it Infinite Jest or The Corrections, but I didn’t have the energy or the money or the desire to travel across the country. My will, I’m sad to say, was almost gone.
It’s no secret: I went through a bad depression. I had trouble holding down jobs. I moved from city to city, picking up work wherever I could find it, whatever would get me by. I worked as a lumberjack, a short-order cook, a carnival barker. Nothing steady. Nothing lucrative. Nothing particularly gratifying in any meaningful way.
Most recently, I worked as a groundskeeper at a resort in Vermont. Occasionally, businessmen would bulldoze into our sleepy little town for a two-day huddle, or a congregation of Bible thumpers would descend upon us for a weekend retreat. I didn’t mind. I like meeting new people. I like seeing the world through the eyes of someone who’s not the least bit like me. But then a writers’ conference set up camp for an entire week, and wannabe writers came pouring in from all over the country. Oh, they came with their laptops and precious manuscripts and dog-eared copies of the most recent Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market. Agents and editors were arriving, too, and every last amateur writer thought that a book contract was headed their way. They carried their book-length manuscripts to their chests as if transporting bombs about to be detonated. The faculty stayed together in the main lodge, the same men and women of American letters you’ll see at every conference, year after year. Conference whores, every last one. It makes you admire a guy like Delillo all the more. You may not care for what the man writes, but at least he’s not twirling a baton at every parade.
Disgusted, I was all but ready to take the week off from work when I saw in the distance my old friend Frank Mason. Old Frankie boy. He’d put on a little weight—okay, a lot of weight—and every time I saw him he was wearing a sport jacket over whatever else he was wearing—T-shirt, oxford button-down, Hawaiian shirt. It was so Frank. Frank to a goddamned tee. And watching him, day after day, made all those old feelings bubble back to the surface, until I was feeling how I’d felt that night we stepped out of the Boar’s Head and I had popped him in the mouth.
One morning I was sitting outside and smoking a cigarette and thinking about Phebe. Phebe was my biggest regret. You meet someone like Phebe only once, if you’re lucky, and I should have tried harder to stay with her. But I didn’t. And so I smoked my cigarette and imagined myself dying some pointless yet bizarre death, and then I imagined Phebe in bed telling her latest lover about it: Writer, on his way to the post office to mail the final draft of his first novel to his publisher, stops to pack a snowball for the first time in years. An icicle breaks loose five stories above, stabs the writer through the head, and kills him. I was trying to picture the nearly blank expression on Phebe’s face as she tells the story to the man beside her when I heard someone calling my name. I knew it was him before I even turned around.
“Frank!” I said, and I must have sounded and looked genuinely glad to see him, because he smiled at the sound of his own name. “How the hell are you?” I asked.
“Good, good. It’s, well, it’s sort of ironic seeing you here.”
“Really?” I said. “Why’s that?”
Frank looked down at his shoes, as if the answers were written on the tips. “It’s just that I’ve been putting the final touches on a story about that time in my life.” He paused, then added, “Our life.”
Frank frowned. “Listen. About that business back at the Workshop. I feel rotten about it. I really do. I mean, what you did was wrong, you shouldn’t have used someone else’s story to get in, but I should have handled it differently. We should have talked about it first. I should have given you a chance to turn yourself in. I mean, I think they’d have gone easier on you. I heard what happened.”
“About the blacklist.”
Frank stared at me, as if to see if I was for real or not. “All right. Let’s forget it, okay? It’s just good to see you. I’ve been wanting to apologize all these years now, but I had no idea where you were.”
“You know my motto,” I said. “No apologies.’”
Frank grimaced. He nodded. “Well, I should go. I’m teaching a workshop in about, oh”—he looked at his Rolex—”two minutes.”
We shook hands, and then I was alone again. What I didn’t tell Frank was that I still had his tooth. I’d been carrying it around for so long, there was a nub in my wallet where I kept it tucked, and my driver’s license looked like somebody had bitten it.
What happened next is the sort of thing I probably shouldn’t admit. In fact, when I began writing this little piece, I’d had no intention of admitting what really happened, but you know how it is—sometimes the only way to get real satisfaction out of what you’ve done is to tell someone. Otherwise, what’s the point?
While Frank taught his workshop, delivering piercing insights to the starry-eyed masses, I keyed into his room for a peek around. It was here that I found his story. I sat on the edge of his bed and started reading it. By the end of the second page, my hands were shaking. I couldn’t stop shaking, either. The story was about me, about us, me and Frank, and about how I had gotten booted out of the Workshop. He’d written the story from my point of view—my point of view!—cleverly speculating on why I had done what I had done by inserting a brief section about my carnie past, and though I wanted to hate it—in the abstract, the story epitomized every stinking thing that I hated about Frank’s writing—I fell, against my will, into the story’s grasp. It kills me to admit, but Frank had brilliantly captured the way I saw the world and, in particular, why I hated him so much. To Frank’s credit, no one came off looking particularly good, not even Frank himself, who, through my eyes, was a sad clown, a buffoon of pretense. Frank had even captured my vocabulary, my diction, the cadence of my speech. I had to give it to the old boy. He’d brought me fully alive on the page. He’d pumped blood into my veins, and the result was downright scary. I was more alive on the page than I’d ever been in life. And when I read the part about punching Frank outside the Boar’s Head, the hair on my arms rose. I read that passage a half-dozen times. As soon as I’d finish it, I’d start back at the top and read it again:
After last call, long after Phebe and Carrie had helped each other home, Frank and I burst out of the Boar’s Head front door and stumbled down the stairs. I turned to Frank and said, “Rick Moody is a terrible writer,” and I punched him as hard as I could in the mouth, dropping him to the ground. I had no idea what had come over me, and I immediately regretted punching him. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I said.
Each time I read it, I laughed out loud. But it had another effect on me, too: my pulse sped up, and an artery in my neck began to throb. I felt it. I could have been standing outside the Boar’s Head with Frank right then and there; that’s how real it felt. There wasn’t a false note. Beautiful, I thought. Perfect.
I folded the story and tucked it into my shirt. After a few more minutes of searching, I found a set of disks for his novel. I recognized the title from the article about him in Publishers Weekly. I slipped the disks into my back pocket. I walked from the main lodge straight to my car, and once I drove out of the resort, I never returned.
I don’t feel guilty taking Frank’s story because his story is, after all, my story, and someone like Frank needs to learn that you can pluck away at someone else’s life only so long before the one getting plucked rears up and attacks.
I’m even contemplating filing a lawsuit. I’d file it against Frank for stealing my novel. I’m the one with the disks, after all. I’m the one with solid proof of all my hard work. I know, I know. It’d be a rotten thing to do. And, yes, there are times I wonder if I’ve already gone too far. But what else are my options? Do I keep taking one shitty job after another? How long can one live this kind of piecemeal life?
And so I spend my days now trying to figure out where my writing should go from here. What next? And when I’m not thinking about writing, I’m thinking about Phebe. I saw recently a review of Phebe’s first volume of poetry. “Hauntingly refreshing,” the review called it. “Sylvia Plath on acid,” it concluded—whatever that’s supposed to mean. It could have been sweet, me and Phebe together. It could have been a really sweet life. Every time I see her name in print, I feel the breath leave my lungs, and a weightlessness settles into my chest. What, I wonder, will become of me now? Who am I? Some mornings I wake up and listen for the sound of my own beating heart. Only then do I know that I am alive. Then and only then do I know for sure that I am not a figment of someone else’s wild imagination.
for Frank Mason