Celebrated (part six)
Then, lopsided mischief in her smile: “In your case, though, I think if it makes you squirm, you’re on the right track. If it’s sad enough, you’ll probably feel pretty embarrassed writing it.”
Understated, the parting had been. Melancholy…stronger for the unsaid words, as he’d discovered. Which was good for teaching. None of these lessons had made him a novelist.
If Voluntary Motion is flawed, the flaws lie with the student, not the teacher. If it speaks of a dream of experience, rather than the hard stuff of a lived life, that too was a fault of its callow author; a fault that remains (and may always remain) in need of further correction.
In 1975, Tom was married. He had won an award for his book. He’d been hired to teach creative writing at a Big Ten school, joining the master’s program there.
It wasn’t just leaving home. This career track shunted him apart from all Wilmots past, from his brother and his mom and dad. His dad had only gone past high school because the GI Bill paid for it, because in their little town he’d found no job waiting, coming home.
Tom at present had no job himself, occupied from October ’72 onwards, with a declining trend of readings and signings, radio interviews. He had gone out to California to spend a week being driven up the coast highway, eventually to motor among the redwoods, tour around Eureka, crawl past the Carson Mansion (nice from the outside), the nuke plant…then a long night at white-knuckle velocity, back to Malibu.
Yes, the actor so thrilling to meet had proved weirdly lonely, carrying on like a kid—or a homeless man with a brimming grocery cart—who wants to show off everything. Who had wanted to buy the rights, hadn’t had the wherewithal to make a film, dithered over the project, promising new partners, until the book had fallen out of favor.
Tom was in Wilmington, Delaware, ill-fitted to a radio panel show, debating a self-promoting magazine editor who’d called Motion “clever”…in a two-line review; the idea they’d spar, clever-seeming to the show’s host.
And everything Tom said irritated the editor more.
“You’re twenty-six. You’ve done nothing.”
“I actually like your magazine.”
The host was heard on air laughing here, though Tom had been all appeasement…shooting himself in the foot, though, with that unfortunate “actually”.
“Hmm. Give me your address, and I’ll mail you a subscription form.”
“Great you stopped by.” The host kept his seat, hoisting a hand. Tom shook it, his own stool perched on already by a fresh guest, and let himself be shuttled to the broadcast-room door.
“You have a call,” an assistant producer told him. She pointed her clipboard at a payphone on the wall.
“Hey…do you think we should go through all the books…? I don’t see why we’d want to haul them, take up so much the space in the car.”
They were driving midwesterly with another couple, sharing costs and tight quarters. His book sales, good…and better, after the prize…hardly amounted to wealth. “What I mean is,” Shannon said, “we should decide what we’re keeping and then take the rest to Goodwill. You have some really old ones…”
Junk. Or maybe she’d been going to say, that could be worth something. Tom was hit with a panic, exiled in Delaware, his fiancée looking at stuff he’d forgotten to hide from her.
He bleated. “What’d you do? Get under the bed and go through my things?”
“Well…” He felt something tick in the silence, a meter of adjustment in their relationship. “I won’t touch your things,” she said finally. “I was just getting some work done.”
So here had been another barb, thorning its way into the Wilmot persona, rooted by his false position. They had divorced twenty years later, and Shannon never had let this go. Not even for vindictiveness, only made averse, distrustful. He didn’t blame her. There were ways in which she had hurt Tom, and he couldn’t have helped himself being leery, either, steering clear of whole areas…
The question of whether they did or did not want kids. A big, big fight they’d had over vacations.
“Because you teach. You get summers off. I don’t. No! I don’t care you’re working on your class plans and crap. It’s not the same! I don’t want to go sit in a beach house, where I have to cook and clean for nothing, then come back and have…
(This time, no profane punch pulled.)
…a shit load of housework waiting. Only I have to be at my job Monday! Let’s stay home. Or you go.”
But when he was alone, he at last had got an inkling of the dynamics.
Shannon picked things up, uncomplaining…he thought. She put laundry in hampers, vacuumed, hadn’t liked going out to restaurants. The microwave mac and cheese, the boil-in-a-bag entrees, usually a cheesy sauce with peas, broccoli, or cauliflower, food that definitely said like it or lump it, had given seed to a notion, that this decline in caring was a hidden sign of depression. Tom been afraid to say so. But he had congratulated himself on his compassionate silence.
(2018, Stephanie Foster)