Celebrated (part four)
He grinned. They were sharing a joke, and Tom thought he’d won at last. He had got farther inside than some of his classmates. Go to the history library, she told him. Find books with pictures, get a feel for your setting. (Getting a feel for whatever, a tic of her conversation.)
And when you find a picture that looks right to you, write down, just factually, everything you see in it. You can make sentences later. Tom had stolen all this too, the teaching. He understood you called that inspiration.
It made a good joke, anyway, fate’s drawing of her little noose, knotting one end on the prank he’d set out to play—against the roommate whose praises had landed Tom in Motley’s office—and slipping the other in here, where he stood scanning titles, dressed no doubt…metaphorically…in the doubly appropriate fool’s cap. He had assignments, going towards credits, going towards graduation. But why not fart around after a picture book on Stalinist Russia?
Even that, he wasn’t doing.
He was hiding out, in a cozy spot where two carrels faced head-to-head under a pair of windows, with a rolling cart and coat-tree forcing the passage between these and the shelves to a crabwise single file. Just below eye-level, he spotted the memoir. Because there was almost no choice, he reached and pulled it free.
Everything back here was American history, organized alphabetically by state, again by author. The upper shelves were binders and tomes, county records, population studies, agricultural yields, public health plans for combatting influenza…
For the university’s own county, newer records, a far greater breadth of records, two cabinets complete of them, near the front and within sight of the desk.
For other, distant places, this…why not say it?…motley assortment. Fauna, forestry, farming, famous sons. Odds and ends. The reminiscences of an army nurse, gone in 1900 to the Philippines. A professional guide and trapper, gone to the swamps of a Florida mythically unfamiliar. And this Tom held in his hand, a detective’s of the aughts. Big lives, he told himself, people led those days.
“Fix chapter one, and bring me chapter two when you’re ready,” she’d said.
He had resumed the typewriter and sat, incapable of flexing a finger. What his story needed was another thing to happen.
Another afternoon passed, and I knew I had to keep to my room. When I looked out the window, McSweeney was on the corner, same as before. When I looked about sundown, after the waiter brought my supper, it was another fellow. It was a long way, I knew, to the depot; and at this rate, I was not likely to make it. If Schiller had got in on the 3.15, he should have telegraphed. If I was going it alone, I had decisions to make.
Another afternoon passes, and he knows he has to keep to his room. R.W. looks out the window, and sees…
Tom looked at his fingernails, and drummed them.
(He could just use McSweeney. Part of his local color, maybe… Bus station basement, projector always breaking down…place they watch films without subtitles, argue, because they don’t understand the dialogue, what the story is. One of the party thugs falls in love with a Humphrey Bogart type…)
He settled on Meeney, a truncation with, at the time, implications clever-seeming.
Meeney is on the corner, same as before. Sundown comes; the woman brings supper. Another fellow now. (Yes, Tom thought, fellow is not a bad word.) He must escape to the depot. But where will he go? He is in any case unlikely to make it. (Schiller…sure, keep it) Schiller, if he got in on the 3.15, should have called. R.W. thinks, I am alone. The decisions are mine to make.
All this Tom told over to himself in his head, wary even to be seen copying it out. He knew, of course, that he was alone. He unslung his knapsack and took out a spiral notebook. He opened this, covering A Private Agent’s True Adventures, and after ten minutes of flipping pages, underlining random words, he closed the notebook, curled fingers around both bindings, and tucked the in-the-process-of-being-stolen-book safe away. He didn’t leave it at that, thinking of the volunteers at the exits. He went into the men’s room and stuck the book in his pants.
But this goose in the right direction, had not only broken the stalemate…for Tom it made the pointer to a new system. In R.W.’s moonier (i.e., philosophical) moments, the budding Wilmot grabbed from the medical book. When a scene needed action, the private agent’s small-time gangsters made themselves adaptable. If Raina was wanted onstage, all he had to do was make the actor she. (Critics…feminist ones…had praised Voluntary Motion for its fresh unfettered take on the heroine’s role).
So, to say to Motley, who’d advised, then counselled, finally mentored—taking his MS in hand, drawing red-penciled frames around its troublesome bits…arrows guiding Tom to the reverse of the page, comments: Continuity?, What’s the point? Don’t bury it!, Dialed the phone…dialed the number?, He said, and turned his back on her…why not He turned his back on her?—it’s a joke, only a joke…might have been possible at the very outset. The first day.
She would have come back, smiling: “Lying is a type of creativity. Now, if you would only channel that impulse…”
(2018, Stephanie Foster)