Celebrated (part ten)
Murmurs, hopeful and wary.
On the safe inside, among private certainties, was this: that these scruples made no difference. He didn’t care about plagiarism…and didn’t care, not from misplaced fellow-feeling, but because he had come to it, from years of debating forced alternatives. The only constant in educational theory was that nothing ever worked. Unless you were willing to accept this, that nothing could work, in which case, any current thing probably worked as well as any theoretical next thing.
Encourage kids to try, was the only rule Tom considered sound.
“No, I don’t do that. We volunteer. If you never want to share your work with anyone but me, that’s fine. So now…let’s talk about stealing. I don’t expect to have a problem with it. That’s because we’re learning method here. It’s been said that editing is ninety percent of the writer’s work. That’s true…
“Or not, who knows…I just made that number up.”
Shrugs. Laughs, enough of them.
“But anyway, you’re going to edit your piece, put it aside, edit it later when you’ve stopped liking it. Or hating it. If you put energy into finding something someone else did, copying and pasting it, changing it to the right format, maybe modernizing the language…maybe sticking in some typos, so it looks like you really wrote it…you’re wasting your time. And for no reason.
“Put down something stupid. Fix it. Fix it again. We’re learning to read our own writing. If you’re determined to get better at this, you will. But, if you’d rather park your rear in a chair for a semester, I give D’s, too. I hope at some point I’ll say something that interests you enough to participate.”
He was sixty-two…it was 2011. He could have gone for retirement six or seven years earlier. He did not draw life’s blood from the university milieu, had yet no eagerness for the complete retreat—on the other hand, he’d spent his prime working at a found career.
Tom had thought long ago (long ago) about jet planes and African safaris. Nothing stirred for naming these now, but a kind of wistfulness. Tom the schoolkid, his future un-derailed by the practical joke rigged ahead. The calibration of his nature a little more industrious, a little less cocky, more resistant to temptation, less likeable…
It was a funny thing. You only wanted people to like you, and yet his father, certain no one did, had buckled with stoicism, every day, down to it. Dad did right, he did duty, people didn’t honor this, it was…satisfying. You knew all along they wouldn’t. Dad not a guy to trust the genie in the bottle.
Would have asked—
That his boys not disappoint him, turn intellectual, get divorced. If his imagination could encompass Mom’s wanting anything, he’d have wanted her to have it.
And: “When I have to go, let it be sudden.”
It had been cancer, and not.
Tom’s brother was a county treasurer, on the strength of a twelfth-grade education, night classes, and party boosterism.
It would be great to travel, to fade into that alternative existence. To camp out in front of polluting factories, march in protests, bodily block roads. To be old, still articulate, some crank on TV. People appreciating that you were there doing it, glad not to know you personally.
Even those sorts of daydreams were hemmed in by The Wilmot.
DMG and Grady, LLC, had nothing on its website, even to list Oxenham as a legacy imprint. They did not want to talk to anyone on the phone. Tom was with them, there. The company that had bought, and killed, his old publishing house, seemed to him a longshot.
“What I’d like is a quiet chat, with someone knowledgeable and discreet.”
No, whoever answered, if he held the line for an operator, would not be ready for that. He was tempted to fax, type a document, print it out, put it back in the machine, a weird, penitential pilgrim’s progress—but he’d have to get someone from Marco’s department to teach him how, assuming IT covered fax machines anymore.
He checked his book on Amazon.
8 new, 36 used.
Farthingsworth Books. This was somehow not flattering. The printing plant was in Tennessee, the corporate mailing address, New York.
The idea had been to make a full confession. Tom had another idea.
In the search bar, he entered Brill. He entered Oxenham. He entered Cape May. This brought up a dentist…Dennis Brill…expanded to some academic works mixed with trip reviews, finally a house for sale, and more densely buried university press arcana.
Brill was dead, more than likely. He would be ninety at least. He’d once meant to retire to Cape May. It seemed he hadn’t made a name for himself there. But the owner/publisher/chief editor of tiny, tony Oxenham, was the only (conceivably) living person Tom could think of owed an act of atonement…or the honor of first refusal. Brill’s ear, his genius ear, was what they all had talked about in the sixties and seventies. The ear went south in the eighties, though. Maybe liking Motion had been the first sign of it.
Oh, well. Tom liked Motion himself. He counselled his students against becoming an idiot self-deprecator. Learning to read your own work, learning to know good from bad…no other way. There were still swaths of his book he could run through, if he happened to pull it off the shelf, and still be caught up.
Shannon. Why Shannon?
Because not much in their bad marriage hadn’t in some way begun, often ended, with the persona, all that Haverton Wilmot could gain or lose for being this; all the writer’s quirks, which had been fits and starts, really, fear of scrutiny.
He typed Shannon Wilmot.
The fair list of women with this name did not include his ex…and the relief was telling. He didn’t, at this moment, know if she were alive. Allowing this thought, he felt also superstitious, as though he’d just cursed two old acquaintances…
And then he thought, why old acquaintance?
She hadn’t wanted to see him, trade Christmas cards with him, find out if he still had the folder with her college diploma (he did), invite him to her mother’s funeral…which pretty much had to have happened…
Would she like him tracking her down? Would she want his apology? Probably not. She had known the whole time he was a fraud.
“Yeah, Tom, this does me a lot of good. You’re sorry. So am I.”
He highlighted Shannon’s, and replaced the name with another. The idea of it was weirdly nascent, half-thawed, a bubble from the permafrost of old times. Maybe he had never met her at all. But there was a thing, wasn’t there…? He had brought a girl, they edged crowded, picking up Archway cookies and teacups, little paper plates…the room in Motley’s house, the dipped-down parlor with all the windows, coming off the living room, the one—the girl—in between Sunny and Shannon…
What did he know now, but that her hair had been shiny-dark and pouffed at the crown?
Sometimes, getting old like he was, Tom would sit still and put mental effort into groping after some lost fact, jealous not to let it be gone.
But the name in his head was the one he’d unconsciously typed. Petra Motley.
He clicked the magnifying glass with the mouse, where he would normally hit the enter key, nudged off course by some tentative fear of success. He didn’t believe in Dr. Motley’s daughter, but she was there.
(2019, Stephanie Foster)