On April 3rd, 2019, I embarked on the longest walk known to the human race. This walk wasn't measured by miles or steps, but by psychological trauma. Many would vote the stretch from the lunch lady to that moment when you find an empty chair next to a friend in a sea of teenagers as the most traumatic. They'd be wrong, though. They don't understand how much harder life gets. Death row is a good one, but after I pondered this option, I concluded that at least on death row, you know the outcome. Death waits at the end of that walk and the inmate has spent decades coming to terms with their mortality. The right answer, my friends, is…the walk from your office to human resources. Not the "I need to update my address or W-2 exemptions" walk, either. The "somebody wants to see me because I've screwed up" walk. Even if you've never lived through this experience, it always rests in the back of your subconscious as a possibility. Every time you tell a joke, look at a co-worker too long, leave early, take a drug test, or let something spoil in the breakroom fridge, the human resources walk is on the table.
The Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences barged into my office to tell me that we had an unscheduled meeting in human resources…in fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes had never felt like both an eternity and a split-second more than it did on that day. I spent the first two minutes in a blind shock, then the next three going over my transgressions:
1) I had never taken his self-created Arts and Sciences dress code seriously. He wears a suit jacket and I don't tuck in my shirts. Any given day, I could look like a Sociology teacher at a community college or a day-drinker at Applebee's.
2) I've never worn the school colors (everyone wears green on Fridays and at special events). I don't. Wearing school colors is one step from fascism and the fascist-slope is a slippery one.
Other than that, I'm a great teacher, even better than some of the "lifers" and I've received sterling reviews from students for the past two semesters.
The next five minutes was the walk itself with a slight detour to my real boss' office and a quick text to the wife to prepare her for when this day goes sideways. Vicki, my department chair, didn't appear surprised to see my shadow in her doorway at that particular moment.
"Hey Vick, Joe just popped in my office and said I had a meeting down in HR. You have any idea why?"
She shook her head like she was sitting front row at a funeral, lamenting what has come to pass.
"He didn't tell me anything."
"Are you supposed to go too?" I asked.
"No, it's just you two."
"Alright, I'll let you know how it goes."
She wished me the same "good luck" that you'd wish to someone about to negotiate cheaper data rates with a cell phone provider. She knows I'm screwed. I know I'm screwed. But I'm still going to go in explaining why three, enormous telecom companies constitute a violation of the Sherman Anti-trust Act and the tenets of a free, capitalist society.
After leaving her office, the next five minutes were dedicated to preparing my argument. I walked down and back, past the classroom I'd taught in for nearly three semesters, remembering all the profound lessons I'd imparted. Outside of the classroom, I reminisced about why I hated my time there. Unsure if "reminisced" was the appropriate term, my high school Latin teacher popped in my head reminding me that "reminisce" means "to look back fondly" and fondly was not how I'd describe my feelings at that moment. I looked down at the clinical white/beige floors and matching hallway you'd find in a nursing home so as to not agitate the residents. We have mandatory monthly meetings here….on Fridays….in the afternoon. Full-day employee retreats where we learn how those in higher education are doing the Lord's work. I'm not sure which God created modern colleges in their image and likeness, but their sense of humor is shared with the neighborhood kid who laughs while pulling wings off butterflies.
These thoughts carried me downstairs, to within five minutes of the meeting. I checked my phone one last time, hoping for something encouraging from my wife.
"Call my office," the message read.
"Hey," she said, obviously unsure of my current state of mind. I tend to spiral when something bad happens. I begin this activity where I take a potentially negative experience and find ways to turn it into the end of the world. That way, when the experience fails to live up to those standards, I'm not disappointed. It's not healthy.
"Hey, so I'm about to go in."
I relayed what happened over the past twelve minutes.
"Look, I know you're not happy. If they fire you, who cares. Just go in, listen to what they have to say, and walk out. Be professional."
"Alright, I'll let you know how it goes. Love you."
"Love you too."
I crossed the threshold of the human resources office suite with 45 seconds to spare. The meeting was in the Director's office, the most hated place, inhabited by the most hated person on campus whose transgressions include Friday faculty meetings and that 8-hour long poverty simulation we were forced to participate in last fall...on our day off.
"Come in, Sam," she said.
Joe sat in the corner, over her left shoulder, shrouded by the only shadow in a fully lit room. If you could smoke on campus, he'd be taking long drags from an unfiltered Marlboro while providing a smug appraisal of this situation. My employee file covered the desk separating me and the HR Director.
"Do you know why we've scheduled this meeting today?" She asked.
"I've got no idea." The flinch in the corner of her mouth indicated my lie was not sincere enough.
"We are not renewing your contract for the next academic year."
She slid a document across the desk to me. My eyes were drawn to the bulleted list in the middle of the page as I quit listening to anything she said from that point on.
Unapproved leaves (The week before the semester starts is designated "all hands on deck". I've taught at other colleges. Nobody else does that. So, I skipped a couple of days and went to a concert in St. Louis with Sara. We already had tickets and a hotel, reserved months in advance and it was doubtful the college would reimburse me).
Failure to follow through on contacting students not registered (Busy work. Joe knew I wouldn't do it, so it was basically entrapment).
Misleading the dean on a student recruiting event (I went back to my local high school for career day and only did one, thirty-minute session. Turns out, a hundred students showed up and it was a logistical nightmare for the high school. The counselor thought I would do multiple sessions throughout the day but didn't tell me that. He did subsequently complain to the Dean about it though. Also, the Dean told me to do a power-point. Which I didn't).
Not grading assignments in a timely manner (Guilty. I procrastinate every aspect of my life. Even this book.)
"Do you have any questions?" She asked.
She looked surprised at the grace with which I accepted my firing.
"Well then...we'll allow you to finish out the semester as long as you continue performing your duties in a professional manner." She followed.
"You don't have to worry about that. Is there anything I need to sign?"
"No, you aren't being fired. We are just notifying you in advance that you won't be working here next fall."
"Sounds good. Thanks for letting me know."
I smiled again and left the meeting.
"Well, you weren't happy there. Maybe this will be for the best." Sara said over the Bluetooth.
I tried to believe she believed that, but she didn't sell it well enough. I could hear worry crack into her voice.
"So…are you heading to Barnes and Noble?" She asked.
"Absolutely." I said.
She finished the conversation discussing her day (which for once was less traumatic than mine) as I pulled into a parking lot too full for a Wednesday afternoon. I pushed through the faux wood doors and crossed the threshold, overcome with this sense of relief like a decision had been made for me, and now my life was a blank slate again.
Tabula Rasa whispered my Latin teacher.
My trek through B&N never changes. First, a dark roast from Starbucks, then on to the new releases. The "new releases" shelf sits perpendicular to the "local authors" shelf, both beacons of hope for anyone entertaining the possibility of turning an idea into a creative work of fiction.
I could do this. I'm an okay writer.
I picked up a copy of The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared.
I have ideas like this all the time.
Currently, on my computer, is a folder filled with ideas for short stories, full-fledged novels, magazine articles, and comic book scripts. I'm not creatively handicapped like post-millennials or whatever they're called. Too busy mainlining Netflix and TikTok to have an original thought. I have good ideas...just like this Jonas Jonasson.
I placed the book back on the shelf and headed over to the "local authors" area. The feeling here became more visceral.
Someone who lives in the same part of the Midwest as I got the courage to put their ideas on paper, self-publish (most of the covers looked like a .jpg image from Google, printed on glossy card stock) and get it to the local B&N. Some even have book signings scheduled. Although, I have been present for a few of these painful experiences. Immediate family and close friends hanging around a table while customers side-eye a stack of books they'd never read, written by someone they couldn't pick from a lineup.
The best sellers, on the other hand, are always proudly displayed in the center of the store. Home to the Grisham's and Moriarty's. No longer relegated to genre shelves, but here in the middle so all can enjoy a 360-degree panoramic view of their magnificence.
I picked up The Reckoning and began flipping.
"Maybe today will be the day," I said to myself.
An old man leaned on a wooden cane, near enough to me that I could pick up the scent of a spicy cologne, but oddly not near enough to hear him shuffle to the display.
"Oh…nothing…" I replied. "I was just deciding whether to read this book."
The cane could have been an accessory. He wasn't elderly or frail, but old enough to be a grandparent. The cologne triggered memories of a cheap department store cologne my grandmother used to buy my grandfather. "Something" musk, but I couldn't recall the name.
"The covers are the most important part of the book. They must snatch your attention in this sea of possibilities, make you want to pick something from someone you've never heard of before," he said.
"Well, it's John Grisham. This could be a solid black dust-jacket with his name in white, block lettering and it'd still sell a million copies." I forced a chuckle.
"He didn't always, though." The man replied. "He's a brand now. Did you know he used to be a lawyer?"
"I think I'd read that somewhere." Lie.
"Then one day, he sits in on a court hearing during a victim's testimony. Sees the jury crying. Asks himself the magic question that births all great authors..."
I stared at the man, wondering how I got into this conversation.
"What if…?" he finished.
I placed the book back on the display and smiled at the old man.
"Aren't you going to read it?"
"Probably not. I'll watch the movie, though." I replied.
The old man didn't move but stared down at the "Best Sellers" as I roamed through the rest of the store.
* * *
Sara beat me home.
My Barnes & Noble trip ran later than expected, as I careened down this rabbit hole of new magazines, exploring new hobbies or interests that would make me a well-rounded human being. I prepared myself for the conversation about what happened, my plan, and what this meant for our future.
Thankfully, play rehearsal and softball practice would keep the kids away for another hour.
It's not that I didn't want the kids there, but as I drove home, I thought about how they would perceive the news. I'd always felt the coolest thing about me was that I taught at a college, which can't be said for most of the other parents of the town's teenagers. Being unemployed seemed less cool.
"Well, how was Barnes & Noble?" Sara asked as I dropped my bag inside the mudroom. The scent of roasting asparagus hit harder the closer I got to the kitchen. This, along with the sound of dishes and utensils clanking, told me she was managing the news in her usual way. Coping mechanisms are funny like that. She cooks delicious meals and I lock myself in a dark basement with an XBOX and an RPG, living a life that's not my own until my eyes bleed.
"Same as always," I answered, grabbing a bowl of fresh ravioli tossed with roasted asparagus and grated parmesan. "I made a friend."
We sat down in our adjacent chairs in the living room.
"Really…another employee?" She asked.
Yes, "another employee" was the most logical question. It's like a useless superpower I have for befriending strangers who are on the clock. The pest control guy. The Direct TV call center guy. The woman at the first window at McDonald's. The water restoration company guy. The best is the cook/dishwasher at a local Mediterranean restaurant. One night, I dropped our daughter Aster (My wife was intent on naming the kids after something that grows in the dirt) off at softball practice and I went for some Chicken Shawarma. Next thing I knew, the dishwasher/cook (I still don't know his name) sat down in the booth next to me and started describing the time he got bit by a brown recluse spider. He then showed me the wound and told me about his hospital stay and how modern medicine treats such a wound. I told him about how my son was bitten by one a few months ago and how our basement is still infested with them (I still haven't told the kids). Now we're best friends. He calls me "chief" and I ask him about his leg. Then we complain about the weather.
"Not this time, some old man came up and started talking to me. He told me John Grisham's origin story," I said.
"What is it with you and old men?" She asked with little concern about the randomness of the topic, but more for the age of my new friend. Which brings me to my secondary superpower. I befriend old men just as easily as I do strangers during the course of their employment. My golfing buddies are over 65. My barbershop is frequented by the elderly. If I went to the American Legion bar, you can guarantee by the end of the night, the guys would swear I piloted their gunboat along the Mekong Delta during their first tour in Vietnam. I'm 32 for Christ's sake. Also, not a veteran.
"I'm an old soul," I replied, taking a bite.
"So, are you okay?" Sara asked.
"Yeah, I didn't really mind the old man. He came off creepy but seemed nice enough."
She gave me an exasperated look. The same one I frequently see when I substitute humor for real feelings.
"You were right earlier. I'm not happy there, but it's all I'm qualified for."
"That's not true and you know it."
"I'm not going back to that job. You weren't with me back then, but it was like dying a slow death," I said.
"But it paid well, and you did something that interested you." She replied.
"Yeah, and I worked 60 hours a week. An hour of my day was commuting. I worked out of a cubicle. And I felt like a piece of shit when I went home at night," I said, setting the bowl down harder than I intended.
She wasn't wrong, though. The best-paying jobs are the ones where you feel morally bankrupt during your commute home. That's what we're taught growing up. If you go home feeling guilty about the fact you haven't seen your kids or spouse in any meaningful way, but you can afford a couple of new cars, a boat, and an ATV by working twelve-hour swing shifts and holidays, then you have successfully achieved the American dream. In my case, a master's degree in sociology and a hobbyist interest in the data sciences landed me a job in market research and advertising. Imagine if Cambridge Analytica was a tech start-up more concerned with getting people to college instead of rigging elections. I spent five years in the social media division coming up with ways to funnel potential students to our client colleges. Ever discuss a career change with your spouse, then wonder how Facebook immediately hit you with an ad for a local college? You're welcome. Ever notice when your kid became a senior in high school, more sponsored Instagram posts appeared from local universities? You're welcome. I spent five years justifying my job as doubly achieving the American dream. I worked long hours for good pay AND funneled people to college so they could one day do the same thing. The last year was the worst, though. Did you know that for-profit colleges will pay more money for the same service than traditional private and public institutions? They also want a specific student body. Most seniors in high school are too smart to buy what these colleges sell and most adults seeking a career change are as well. But those who are desperate, have already failed at one of these other colleges or dropped out of high school, they're the perfect student body. Ever been in line at the local welfare office, at a desk at the GED testing center, or filling out an application at a staffing agency, then immediately became inundated with social media ads for that for-profit college? Unfortunately, you are welcome for that too. I worked on those contracts for a year, complained at every staff meeting, then eventually made a scene and walked out. No plan. Just left.
"So, what now?" Sara asked.
"I just want to do something that makes me happy."
"Don't we all?" She chuckled.
We sat silently for a while, finishing our dinner, watching whatever house-hunting-remodel show was on the television.
"I want to write," I said.
"Write what? Like books?"
"Yeah like books. I want to be an author." I replied.
"I've always told you to try it. I just wish you'd have tried it when you were still gainfully employed."
"There was never any time. When I'm not in the classroom, I'm prepping lectures or grading papers. Now, I don't have any excuses."
"How about this? Take the summer to write your novel or figure out how to become a published author. Best case…I'm married to the next Danielle Steele. Worst case…you're back to teaching at university in the fall."
We both smiled and turned our attention to the television, no doubt having different thoughts about the future of this endeavor.
The last few weeks of the semester passed quickly. I satisfied my verbal agreement with HR, although my classes became much more Socratic. I avoided the dean, turned in my keys to Vicki with little conversation, and respectfully laughed off the invitation to participate in their graduation ceremony when the semester concluded. I'd used my first weekend of unemployment to catch up on playing Red Dead 2 under the guise of clearing my head in anticipation of my new job as "respected author".
Like most great journeys, mine began in the public library.
"That's a great line. Definitely using that in the book," I mumbled as I walked through the automatic doors.
The newly remodeled atrium featured paintings from local artists along it's brown, brick walls. Most are never to my liking, as "local artists from a rural community" usually means "Old barn. Oil on canvas" or "Meadow. Pastels on paper" or the ever-so common "White Jesus/Cross/Church with American Flag. Watercolor on paper."
As was the case on most mornings at the public library, Carol sat guarding the circulation desk. I approached, smiling, and waving obnoxiously. My smile/wave went unreturned. Her eyes shifted behind gold, wire-framed glasses and her face wore the usual frown, with the corners of her mouth resting downward.
"Damn kids," She said.
"Whoa...it's only 9:30. How could they already be in trouble?"
"They meet us at the door in the morning. We practically have a line."
"They're anxious to learn," I said with a grin and the belief she'd never flip me off in front of so many security cameras.
"Yeah," she laughed. "or their parents forgot to pay the electric and it's ninety degrees outside already."
I was wrong. It happened so quickly she might as well have said "Nobody checks the tape" as she holstered a wrinkled middle finger.
"This sounds more tragic than anything else," I said.
"It's tragic, alright. The fact I'm old enough to be their grandmother and I'm having to parent them."
"You know, the library is an important part of growing up and learning manners. I used to be scared to death of librarians when I was their age."
"I threw out the same kid twice in twenty-four hours. Once yesterday for lighting a chemical fire using our bathroom hand soap. Near the genealogy section, no less."
"Jesus," I replied.
"Yeah, Jesus. You ever try to light a fire in the library when you were a kid?"
"Exactly. Cause your grandma would have broken a switch from one of our trees and…," she paused. "How is your grandma by the way?"
"Fine. Should be up here for book discussion today. Like always."
"Good. I'm glad she's still getting out and about. Also, why are you gracing me with your presence? Don't you work?" She asked.
"I do. I'm working here in my satellite office today."
"So, you're loitering. Like everyone else."
"Or using my tax dollars. Either way..." I smiled and started to walk away. "Oh...why'd you kick out that kid this morning?"
She smiled her toothy grin, overjoyed at remembering the incident from thirty minutes prior. "Because he came back."
I chuckled as I walked toward my usual table.
* * *
As with any job, a morning of work isn't complete without checking email, firing off a couple of texts, and light web browsing. My new career as "respected author" was no different. The texts were to Sara, updating her on my progress and the web-browsing involved signing up for a free, online creative writing class. The checking of email was just deleting old messages, but important nonetheless.
Unlike most aspiring authors, my cursor didn't methodically flash at me from a blank canvas. The first couple of pages were already set. I had characters and at a minimum, the first couple chapters imagined. The next "Great American Novel" would grow from a seed planted in the imagination of my childhood. As an adult, this novel had been gently pruned in the back of my mind like a small bonsai tree, taking shape and appearing before me fully grown. It would be a spy novel based on my great-uncle who to anyone else in the family was simply a federal employee in Washington, DC. But to me, since I first watched Dr. No, he was an international man of mystery during the cold war. Not just any operative, though. He was highly intelligent. When I was a kid, he fixed my Batman action figure in ten minutes. James Bond couldn't do that. My uncle the spy would outsmart the enemy, not simply defeat them with brute force. Sure, in my head it sounded derivative, a little too much like le Carre's George Smiley, but America needed their George Smiley, and this would be it.
The words flowed from my brain to the page like a dopamine loop. The high would strike me every time I went back through the words on the page, then it would inspire more writing, causing the cycle to repeat for the better part of an hour. As the rush wore off and writing became difficult, I dedicated more time to exploring this creative writing course.
The instructor was welcoming, talking briefly of her experience as a published author, and encouraging us to communicate with her and our classmates via a discussion board. I fired off a quick greeting, where I explained my limited background in writing and my excitement for this journey. Her reply was immediate.
Teacher: Thank you for signing up for my class! I look forward to helping you on this journey! What's your goal for this class?
Me: I would like to be a published author. I just have no idea where to start.
Teacher: Nothing wrong with that. It can be a long, arduous process, but rewarding in the end. Did you know that Lisa Genova received nearly one hundred rejections for Still Alice?
I wasn't sure where to go with that, except
Teacher: The process doesn't have to be like that for everyone. Want to know the secret?
Teacher: You must be willing to sacrifice everything. The process isn't the hard part, as writing is easy for the creative. But success enacts a heavy toll on those it visits. Are you willing to trade the only thing you truly own? Risk that life you have with your wife and children?
A chill crept through my body, from the middle of my back to my fingertips. I stared at the message, then exhaled, expecting to see a cloud escape my lips. I slammed the lid on my laptop, garnering "shushes" from the staff and rushed out of the library.
"Maybe it was a glitch?" Sara asked.
"I'm telling you...it was there! I was having a conversation with a teacher, then she asked about you guys!"
"...and what you were willing to sacrifice?" Sara added.
"I know how it sounds, but I was wide awake. I'm not making this up..." I said, turning back to the laptop screen. I'd blindsided Sara with this as soon as she opened the door. After the library, I spent the afternoon on our blue couch in the living room staring at the laptop that stared back from the island. The screen never flickered or timed out, tempting me to respond to the ominous question.
"I'm sorry baby...but It's not there..." She said.
"But it was!" I looked back at the laptop and the last comment:
Teacher: Nothing wrong with that. It can be a long, arduous process, but rewarding in the end.
"The kids will be here soon. Why don't you go to your basement and relax for a bit? I'll let you know when dinner is ready."
"I don't need to relax! I need to know why a complete stranger knows I'm married with children. I need to know why a conversation completely disappeared after I stared at it for the last four hours!"
I stormed off to the basement like a child sent to time-out. I prefer to unhealthily analyze life events in solitude anyway. My Sanctum Sanctorum is a finished basement you'd find in most thirty-year-old ranch-style homes only the walls are adorned with comic book art and family photos from varying conventions. My writing desk sits in a corner cutout below two rows of bookshelves displaying the great works of literature in my possession. Dumas, Murakami...then the rest devolves into graphic novels and paperbacks.
I wedged myself into the corner of the grey sectional and opened a meditation app on my phone. My therapist has been telling me for years that mindfulness exercises can help manage anxiety, but they have to be part of a daily routine...which is why I only use them at times like this.
I laid in the dark and followed the simple breathing instructions from the Englishman speaking from my phone.
"Be aware of how your body feels"
"Be aware of the tension and where it's held"
"It's important to just be aware of how we feel. Physically and emotionally."
"Let's go ahead and start with a few deep breaths...eyes open...in through your nose and out through your mouth"
I floated through the rest of the evening, hardly speaking to the kids or touching dinner. It was better than ranting about a conversation no one believed existed.
* * *
I read in a book, maybe Stephen King's On Writing, maybe some random blog, if you want to be a successful writer, then you should treat writing as if it were your profession. Find the time you're productive. Churn out a designated word count per day. So, I did. All month. I only opened my laptop to work on my Cold War spy novel, never attempting to log into the creative writing class for fear of having another breakdown.
Instead of spending an entire Saturday writing, Sara decided a distraction was in order and we carted the kids off to this little town about twenty minutes north. The Summer Arts Festival is held there in the middle of June and things like this always reinvigorate me. I love wandering around festivals and conventions, learning from, and admiring their art. We walked up the main street where a blacksmith hammered a sword from scalding steel and a man catty-corner sold Native American crafts, all beads, and leather, but nothing that interested any of us. Down one of the side streets, a glassblower beckoned us over as he transformed a glass straw into a hummingbird. The sight entranced the kids so, they hardly noticed the heat from the blowtorch or the smell of singed hair from the man's knuckles. The kids lost interest, but I stayed and watched him begin work on a flower. I stared at the bubbling glass, secretly wishing I had this type of talent in any aspect of life. This man can proudly walk around and announce "I am a glassblower. Nay...an artist!". I wandered off, saddened by my inability to announce such things.
Birch, my son (also grows in dirt), sat alone in two short rows of folding chairs in front of a podium where a bereted man in a scarf and hempen clothing spoke with his hands. I sat down, doubling the audience for the performance.
"He's reciting Macbeth," Birch said.
"Why?" I asked, looking around for his mother and sister.
"I asked him to. He takes requests. He calls himself a "traveling bard" and has memorized nearly every famous speech or play and if he hasn't, it's in that binder on the podium."
"So, he's like a cover band for poetry?"
Birch rolled his eyes.
"I wanted to see if his Macbeth was better than mine."
I ignored the invitation to recount the time we all sat through a high school performance of Shakespeare's long and over-serious work.
"Where's your mom?"
He shrugged. "Looking at pottery with Aster, I guess. I got bored."
The bard finished and we both provided cursory applause that was met with multiple bows.
"Any other requests?" The bard asked.
We looked at each other, unsure of if or which prose we should be regaled with next.
"Dealer's choice," I said to the smiling bard who already had something chambered.
A man leaned forward.
"This is one of my favorites," the stranger said.
I smiled over my shoulder, hoping not to begin a conversation about poetry or theater, as neither was of interest to me except as art forms I appreciate, but in which I have never participated. Haiku is the only poetry I've written, out of sheer laziness in English class, and while I've never acted on stage, I know I'm the type to experience crippling stage fright. The bard continued...
"….Now that the gloomy shadow of the earth, Longing to view Orion's drizzling look, Leaps from th' antartic world unto the sky, And dims the welkin with her pitchy breath..."
"I love coming to these things. So much unrealized potential." The stranger said.
I smiled politely again, trying to convey the right message this time.
"Did you see there was a blacksmith? I mean, who even does that any more?"
I stayed silent.
"The irony of these places is overwhelming. Small, artistic communities. There are six booths on this street selling Native American art. Beaded jewelry, dream catchers, hand-tooled leather...you name it, they got it. All white artists "inspired by the American West aesthetic". All of them full of customers buying and admiring."
"Then there's this poor soul." The stranger pointed past the bard to a tan-skinned man with slick, black hair sprinkled with gray. He organized similar wares toward the front of his deserted booth, hoping to attract customers like the others.
"If anything, his booth should be doubly full. Through his art, he's bringing the authenticity of his cultural experience to all these white people who should be overpaying for it out of guilt for generational complicity in the genocide of his people," the stranger said.
"...And try the uttermost magic can perform. — "
"Jesus, we're the worst," was all I could muster, not wanting to delve into a discussion of America's historical treatment of non-whites or my shared appreciation of irony or hypocrisy, unsure in which category this experience fell.
"That's the problem with being an artist. Everybody can do it. Even if it's trash, it's still art. Just look at Jackson Pollock." The stranger said.
"I hate Jackson Pollock," I groaned, finally turning to face the man behind us. "Anybody can throw paint at a canvas."
"Yet the woman three booths down who paints portraits of her cats as historical figures will die in obscurity," the stranger said.
"Shame," I added while imagining cat portraits of Napoleon and Abraham Lincoln.
"But if she were to join an art collective in New York, put her work in a coffee shop or two, maybe become "troubled" through alcoholism or bouts of manic violence, we'd be sitting here having a much different conversation..." He paused, then lifted his chin and stroked a non-existent beard. "Pollock was a hack compared to surrealist Karen Turner and her historical cat portraits. You know, I heard MoMA has a memorial retrospective this month."
I laughed. Birch "shushed".
"...I charge thee wait upon me whilst I live, To do whatever I shall command, Be it to make the moon drop from her sphere, Or the ocean to overwhelm the world."
The bard finished with more exaggerated bows at our smattering of applause.
"Well, off to the next one..." the stranger said as he slapped me on the back.
"Take care," I replied.
Sara and Aster walked toward us, as we left the bard without an audience and joined them in the middle of the street. Both smiled cheesy grins and held up two handfuls of paper shopping bags.
"Did you guys find anything?" Sara asked.
No, we listened to a bard," Birch said, gesturing to the lonely man.
"I made friends with a stranger again."
"Not surprising," she said, thrusting the bags at me before leading us back to the car.
Inspired by the arts festival stranger, I prematurely began the query process the following week with only about 10,000 words and no idea how the story would end. According to Writer's Digest and some very popular writing blogs, the most comprehensive way to tackle query letters is through a book called The Writer's Market and our public library had a copy I'd glanced through after an uneventful morning of writing. Just like every other morning, Carol's stoic glare met me as I walked the writing bible to the circulation desk.
"Well...how's unemployment?" She asked.
"Do you only smile when giving me a hard time?"
"Unemployment's fine. I don't understand why more people don't try it."
She glanced at the book, then at me, then again at the book, then at me, like a night clerk at a video store and I'd just walked out of the adult section.
"Jesus...you are unemployed. What's your novel about?"
"It's about a boy who goes off to wizard school after he discovers his magical powers," I replied.
"I hope you have something better than that."
"A five-part epic about sparkly vampires and abstinence?"
"Yeah, I'd stick with the wizard kid," she said handing me the book.
That conversation epitomized my interaction with anyone asking "Whatcha writing?" as they passed my table or glanced at my laptop. Claiming to be a writer is funny like that or maybe me claiming to be a writer is just funny. Something easily mocked or judged through raised eyebrows. For the next month, with every query I sent, the feeling never subsided.
Then silence. No emails from publishers or agents. I sent hundreds, maybe thousands of emails. So far, my new career produced 15,000 words, representing the longest piece of writing I'd ever done. My master's thesis wasn't even that long.
Then the first response came, "thank you, but...", then the next "not interested". Eventually, I had a handful of rejections that felt like being pushed down the side of a mountain after spending days hiking to the top.
Weeks passed until I finally felt the impact of hitting bottom.
Thank you for your submission...
While we were interested in the premise of your work, we feel it aligns too closely with the works of an author we currently represent. Feel free to resubmit if changes are made to differentiate your work in this genre.
"What author?" I said to the computer.
A google search of "cold war spy novels" kicked back 50 years-worth of literature. I dismissed the obvious ones, like Fleming and le Carre. Definitely not Baldacci or Ludlum. I spent the rest of the afternoon pouring through Wikipedia pages and author websites. Then I found him.
I read through the synopses of every book on his website, as well as the reviews, realizing with each one that the summer had been a waste.
"No. No. No."
I sat back, rubbing my strained eyes.
"I've spent two damned months writing something that was written thirty years ago," I said to no one.
The door opened and jolted me from the haze of thought.
How long had I been sitting there?
Rubbing my eyes?
Two damned months...
"Hey," Sara said, as she carried an over-filled work bag through the door. "Why didn't you answer?"
"I left my phone somewhere..."
She fell backward into the recliner and kicked off her heels.
"I swear to god if they keep treating me like this, I'm gonna start writing MY novel."
I went back to the screen.
"What's the matter?" She asked.
I told her of my discovery with little change in her expression. She rubbed her eyes the same as me.
"I'm exhausted every night I come home. I hate my job. When I'm not worried about randomly being fired, I'm worried about paying bills. When I have free time, I'm worried about you. Jesus, we're all worried about you."
"What the hell are you talking about?"
"I think being unemployed did something to you," she said. "You're not the same."
"First, I'm not unemployed. I'm a writer!" I felt less embarrassed admitting that. "Second, I'm fine. I spend my days writing or learning how to structure stories, so don't lay your work stuff on me," I said.
"My work stuff? You've been unhinged since you got fired!"
"Some old man offers you sage advice at Barnes and Noble that jump-starts your "author" career. Then a class discussion board starts talking to you..."
"Yeah, just like the guy at the Arts Festival," Sara said, rolling her eyes.
"Birch was there the whole time. He saw the guy."
"Oh yeah? You know what he told me? He said you kept looking over your shoulder, having a one-way conversation with the air."
No, he was there. Maybe Birch missed him or never turned to look at who I was talking to, but he was there, I thought.
"You're hallucinating! Birch was too afraid to say anything. Afraid you'd lose it because it's obvious to everyone."
No, I'm not! It happened!
"You've been in your own little world all summer. Always blaming it on writing or thinking about writing. Now you don't have anything to write because you've spent an entire summer writing a book you read years ago," she said.
Did I? I got it for Christmas one year. The Men of Honor Series. From my Uncle.
I flew from the table, slamming the chair to the floor, and barreled to the basement. Sara's weeping followed me through the darkness of the basement.
"What's happening to me?" I questioned the darkness, as I rocked back and forth on the couch.
"I just wanna write. I wanna be happy." My voice was strained, choking on tears.
I laid there mumbling into a cushion until exhaustion finally took me and the darkness answered.
I have disturbing dreams when life becomes overwhelming. The kind where you wake up, grasping for people who aren't there or crying uncontrollably. I alternate between zombies chasing my family (everybody dies), dead relatives (everybody lives) or a life regret resurfaces in my dreamscape (I fail in the dream too, then wake up reminded of my real-life failure). This was a dead relative dream.
I walked past my grandmother as she sat in her recliner watching Golden Girls. She looked up long enough to say, "He should be upstairs. Hasn't been down all day. Never comes down to talk to his own mother."
I ascended the stairs to the guest bedroom, the feeling of thick, old carpet under my feet. I brushed my hand across ugly wallpaper that decorated the narrow stairway. The smell of stale Pall Mall's and a low-hanging cloud of smoke hit me on the top step. There he was. His face framed by a coarse, brown beard and wire-framed glasses. He's like I remember toward the end. Tall with a beer belly not earned from drinking, but laziness. The rest of him lanky, like a boxer without muscle. The bed was never long enough for his 6' 5" frame, he lays there with his leg crossed and a glass ashtray balanced on his belly.
"Hey there son."
"Whatcha up to?" He asked.
"I failed at life again," I replied.
"I did that once or twice," he chuckled. "It's less YOU failing and more life just failing you."
"I tried to be a writer, but everybody already wrote everything."
"Son, I tried to tell you. You should've done all this sooner, but instead, you chased the myth." He said, dragging half the cigarette to ash.
"What did you want to do with your life when you were my age?" I asked.
"Nothing. I just wanted to have ideas and become wealthy. That's why the man never came around for me."
"The man from the bookstore..."
"...and your class and the festival." He finished.
"What does he want?" I asked.
"He wants to make a trade. He wants to give you an opportunity," he replied.
"And in return?"
"Nothing you'll miss."
I stood for a moment, trying to record his mannerisms in my memory, wanting to warn him, but knowing it was useless here.
"What do I do?"
"Just tell him what you want," he said, burning the cigarette down to the filter before lighting another one.
"I want to be a writer. A real writer. One where I don't have to feel embarrassed to tell people what I do," I replied.
"You could have gotten Sara her dream job or made your son a famous movie director or your daughter a biologist that cures cancer. Why'd you waste it on you?"
"Because I'm afraid of dying like you…"
"…I'm afraid of looking back on an unrealized life."
"I'm proud of you, son."
I walked over and took his hand.
"So, how do I do it? Do I sign something?" I asked.
"No son, it's already done," he said, squeezing my hand.
I flew off the basement couch, surrounded by darkness. My eyes wet with tears and the smell of stale Pall Mall's in my nose. I stumbled through the darkness to my writing desk and awoke the computer, inspired by something I couldn't remember. The smoke began to float through the memory of that dream, a dream of a conversation that never occurred with a man who died alone in that room. The cursor flashed on the blank word document and I began to type, unafraid now of dying:
"On April 3rd, 2019, I embarked on the longest walk..."