Celebrated (part five)
Because she had given this talk. Who’d stolen what, never named; Dr. Motley disappointed, not angry. She wanted the plagiarist to know, simply, that—don’t you think?—this was too much energy to devote to failure, when so little more would lead to success. There was help available, if you were stuck. Just ask.
That day he had sat numb, certain at the end of the hour she would say also, “Tom, will you stay?”
But, someone else. Sunny maybe.
Among the prices paid, the failures, was the public pose of necessity adopted. Reclusive Wilmot. Publicity-shy Wilmot. Hated fame so much, he never wrote another novel.
A published author, congenial, humorous, with…at least, someone said it once…a good radio voice, might develop a line in punditry. He might work up to his own show. He had been asked, when the book was out, the Whiz Kid doing the rounds in ’73, All Things Considered, Dick Cavett, what about Watergate? Isn’t this the kind of dissolution of public trust Voluntary Motion predicts?
Well, no, of course not.
But it goes that way, everyone wants to talk about the topic of the day…a guy who wrote a book, just another avenue. Tom on politics, always with an opinion, and believing himself pretty fluent as a speaker. He might have wished to be another burglar, then, if what drove a Liddy (or a Nixon) was the idea: if I do it, it’s all right. Because I’ll make it right.
Bluffed and bullshitted his way to a kind of Teflon celebrity. There were a few examples of such.
If, their second year of working together, almost everything crafted but a satisfying ending, Tom would clean the manuscript up, retype the whole thing (two shaggy manila envelopes, a slew of nasty little fasteners, margin notes in a three-color system of red, blue, and green…error, syntax, storyline queries, pages with x’s drawn across, only there to preserve the prose…her notepaper, daisy design lower right, stapled on here and there, her staccato handwriting…), she would show it to her friend, at Oxnum. The Oxenham imprint, demanding its name be elocuted with this insider’s elision, still alive in ’72.
The student who’d shown him (1999) a printout, an article celebrating dead Oxenham’s heyday: “See, there’s Voluntary Motion.”
“Forgotten but not gone,” Tom quipped. Good old self-deprecating Prof. Wilmot.
“Should they get married?”
There was to these editing sessions a kind of Zen, a relationship in his life like no other…of peaceful concurrence, of discussion that never lost interest—and it was fair to say relationship. Nothing went on but the work.
While with his own parents, he groped for conversation starters.
On the Wednesday and Saturday nights, Tom and Madeline took up where they’d ended, each chapter paged out on the floor of her spare bedroom, one set of mimeos in her file cabinet. In his knapsack, the original.
It was a question, the question, and countless times he’d weighed it. Why would he not own the plot, for one? Obviously, the source material wasn’t fiction, not even coherent narrative. Thomas H. Wilmot had made it all up, that they couldn’t take away. The bad writing, the clumsy transitions, had fallen, not like dominoes…
Maybe, though, like targets in a beanbag toss.
The book got a lot of editing, a lot of the near-verbatim just not, it turned out, working. The doctor’s formal language, the unsuitability of the alcoholic angle, Tom had recognized before the adventure began. The voice had gelled, a particular narrator’s, arguably his own, and Madeline…
He had never known her break with her sense of rightness, just as her forbearance seemed also fathomless. She had composed none of it.
Thus, he held to a conviction he had really written the book, its stolen passages mostly subsumed, only the opening words…that everyone seemed to like…remaining an egregious theft. He had a conviction he was going down anyway, at whatever time. His defense would be a lame and meagre one.
“Should they get married?”
“I don’t have any opinion at all,” she told him. “This is a world you’ve created. What does it mean if they do? What does it mean if they don’t?”
R.W. and Raina he’d nudged onto a boat, one leaving the harbor. This was a device…it ended the story on a note of hope, or hopelessness, as the reader preferred. More to the point, it ended the story.
Sequels those days weren’t so much a thing, and Tom had never thought of staging one. For a decade, the 80s, his base had been touched semiannually by his publisher. (He had not, his productivity not meriting it, retained an agent.)
“Yeah, I like the idea. But I’ve got too many things on the burner right now.”
Always the answer, the insincerity at length believed.
“No…that is, nothing…I guess either way…but I don’t want the scene to be exactly sad. I mean, honest, I don’t know if I can write it like that. Only otherwise, what reason would she have for going with him…”
“Love,” she said. “Still, you’re right, it could go either way. He could protect her, sacrifice for her, ask her not to put herself in further danger. That could be powerful. But Tom…words on paper! I’ve told you a few times. If it’s flat, if you wouldn’t want to read it yourself…
(2018, Stephanie Foster)