Celebrated (part two)
His eye had refined itself to news items, accounts of disgraces fallen by inadvertency into imposture. Tom Wilmot—a teacher, what else?—trading on the incidentals of fame where the trading was most fruitful (and having taught himself, preparing lectures, real craft), concluded it was always this way.
An experiment, at the outset. Curiosity, of course…a question…what if I did?
A little bit of fun, the mitigation he would put down in his own brief. Like working out a crossword, telling yourself this was a kind of free association, loosening up the knotted brain…better for the paper, whenever you got around to that.
Those days (as he always told his students), when you’d missed out on some needed factoid, it was an effing son of a bitch, truly. You had to slog yourself back to the stacks. You didn’t just instantly look a thing up on your phone. (No…and no one else bothered much, unless on a vengeful mission, verifying other people’s facts.) Bored and by inertia stuck to his chair, Tom had forced movement on himself at length, muttering do it…
Flattened the book beside his typewriter, dropped on a sneaker to weigh it open, and copied out the words. To see this whimsy, for diversion’s sake, made concrete…divorced from context and given a life of its own.
“Hey, can I tell you something? That’s a story you’re working on, right?”
Careful of his source, Tom had taken to carrying the book in a knapsack pocket; double-secured in a folder behind some papers. But he’d developed the little piece, penciled in corrections (…or, one might say, depredations), shifted language too nineteenth-century into something he would today call close narration, historical present. He’d excised one or two lines altogether.
“Yeah, I mean…like…just for a personal thing…sure…”
And maintaining rare focus, his roommate heard Tom’s babble out, to add: “I think it’s cool. You oughta finish it.”
Dr. Motley taught Basics of Writing; this, in his freshman year, one of Tom’s reqs. He wasn’t the only cheater…a girl in class had told him (maybe subliminally coaching him), “My mother took this shit from Motley twenty years ago.” She gave him two quick lifts of the eyebrows. She nudged across an exercise…jumping off the Cartier-Bresson photo of the man jumping the puddle…returned her with a B minus.
“Toughened up in her old age. Mom got an A for this same story.”
And sharing his umbrella afterwards (a thing he hadn’t seen on campus for years): “I mean, it’s exactly the same story. Exactly the same assignment.”
He’d thought about this. “Yeah, but imagine the crap load. Even just one class, one quarter. Reading it all, trying to care. I’d wanna forget, too.”
His remark, in the ballpark of sympathy for Motley, had led to a tense little conversation.
Motley had been a frustration.
Fifty-something, waist-length hair, salt and pepper braid. Gauzy, as to garb. ’68, after all, the figure not wholly cliché…of Gypsy Mama, hip with the times. How conscious her act, who knew? Fashion produced the outsiders’ outer man and woman, as it did the insiders’, according to trend. Trend, though, had put Haverton Wilmot out of the public eye, and for that, he had to respect it.
A gatherer of circles. Inviter of kids to her house…to breathe incense, eat things with sesame seeds, listen to flutes tripping over jangly strings, get creative in ways the classroom forbade. But clean fun…she was a sort of proto-Gaia, skinny naiad-of-the-reeds. The ones who loved her, loved her dearly. She had got cancer and died at sixty-two, and the Wilmot (as he called his alter ego), celebrated grad, had been asked to bang up a little piece for the college paper.
Voluntary Motion exists because of Madeline Motley. This is the simplest and truest statement I can make, in describing her influence, her importance, to a former student.
He’d sweated over it…finding himself committed. He’d done reviews and a few articles, co-authored a text, never another book of fiction. A eulogy ought to wax lyrical, uplifting; it ought to echo the Wilmot’s famous voice. It ought to have a point.
The point would have been, what about me?
Tom…then…spellbound by a weird sort of wish to bob in front of the mentoress with his hand up, be chosen, not for just the annual house party, but the Saturday coffees. Be benefactored by her informal counselling. You heard about it, these takings-of-interest in the good little writers; in the gold-standard, promising Motleans.
Yes, they were so called, like a theater company…it had been that kind of cult. People like Sunny had only scorn for the doctor. Sunny was a skeptic; Tom was a skeptic. They had agreed together the class was dumb.
“…cause, like…you get sent someplace to cover the war. Her stupid thing about loosening up, seeing a story in every blade of grass, or bullshit…”
Sunny, the two of them sharing an Indian blanket, draped in a crotch of the oak tree’s roots, had picked plantains on their walk, and sat firing off the seed heads. “You write what’s happening. What’s hard about it?”
She hadn’t, this old girlfriend, given him bad advice. And he’d pilfered more of it than he’d thought. But he thought he’d never seen Sunny on a byline.
(2018, Stephanie Foster)