Celebrated (part thirteen)
This mild flag in enthusiasm made her like him more, that he wasn’t a thoroughgoing fraud.
“Well, it’s that government program. I can say no to adopting another animal. But these guys are small, they pretty well fend for themselves…you’re not obligated to break them for riding or anything. Mainly, because they cull the burros. They’ll be killed if there’s no home for them. So, you say to yourself…there is just this one thing I can do.”
“Then you don’t mind if I take this one.”
He spoke to their earlier exchange, squatting at the muddy rim, sluicing the glass in pond water, a bobble almost claimed by nature…which she gave them the right to be. “I kind of want to. Have a souvenir.”
“Oh, no. Take it, and tell everyone you possibly can. Take some pictures, show them what I’m doing.”
He did not…not contrary to expectations…whip out his phone.
“I don’t really have that many friends, ma’am. That’s the sorry truth.”
“What book? I wonder if I’ve read it.” Courage always seemed to come to Petra with something arch.
“Well, it won a prize once. Sensible people never read books that win prizes. 1972, Voluntary Motion.”
“Oh! I guess I’m not sensible…no.” To stop his supposing she didn’t joke.
But here was the grin again. “I think I’ve just engineered the compliment of my life. Forget it…that was The Wilmot speaking, that quip. I mean, what would it mean…? Judges are human. The culture tells them what to pick… It’s not all bad.”
“And is that how you were about it when you wrote it? Smart-ass, if I may? I must have run across it when I was…how old? I was home one weekend. Brill was there.”
“Touting for me? He was a friend of your mom’s, right? Fairly close?”
“Oh, I don’t know.” Not close in that way. Tom spoke like someone reluctant to look stupid…someone who knows a little… Not the things you know.
“How old? I interrupted your story.”
“Well, Brill was sort of material. I mean to the contretemps…how I left grad school. So I couldn’t get hired on at the college, where my mother would have been my hovering helper. But…no, I’m sure it was Brill. He pulled the book off my mother’s shelf. She had that sofa up against the picture window, the credenza…for some reason she kept things inside it? You had to lean over the sofa back, feel around with the flat of your hand… This is just a memory. I’m sort of pulling it out by the thread. Sorry.”
“Brill is dead?”
“Oh…wouldn’t he be?”
“I haven’t heard. You’d think.”
“He wanted me to see how you handled the way…um, the girl, and…what was his name, R.K.? The goodbye scene. But…you know what? I think it was the manuscript I saw. You weren’t published yet…you probably hate that. Sort of a…”
“No…hate… If I get the chance, I’ll tell you…”
“Breach,” she said. Liberty was maybe the word. Maybe not. These relationships could be liberal on the inside, closed, in theory, to the outside… Brill had told her someone in his office liked her draft. When the idea of writing down her little thing had seemed private to Petra. And not only had she been thrilled he would show it, she had daydreamed from this a world—of success, prizes, money.
“What a name, though.” She said this aloud. “Not yours! I’m betting Oxenham, if they’d wanted it after all, my book… I was calling it The Lost Man. I think that’s a little heavy. And then it probably is somebody’s title…so I shouldn’t say heavy.”
“From now on you have permission to speak off the cuff. I’m out of sync, though…”
“It was something I’d read about the Titanic… Oh, my writing career? Mother didn’t live to see me published…she wouldn’t have liked my stuff. No. She would have said she did. I take it you never had that conversation with her? Don’t blush.”
He shrugged, and in addition, laughed. “She almost never mentioned you.”
“Well, that’s fine. I was a project, and I came out iffy. Really. It was when I turned forty I decided, get over it Petra.”
“What’s it called?”
“They. Four mysteries…three you can actually buy. I kind of adapted my first idea… Into this character with a lot of past, who finds her husband murdered and steals his cashbox, but instead of cash there’s only a sheaf of letters…each letter says, I won’t forget what I owe you, and it has a date and a place where they plan to meet. So every story was, she goes to this place with no idea of what she’ll find, or who she’s meeting, or whether her husband is really dead… The plotting got a little fancy, true. The reviewers always said, clever.”
“I feel your pain. But not Petra Motley. When I looked you up…”
“No. What kind of name is Petra Motley? Artis Morrow.”
He got out his phone.
She spelled. “A..r..t..i..s.”
“Ha! And you quit? This last one’s 2006.”
“I’m slow. And they didn’t…they sold, but they didn’t sell.”
It was after four, closer to five. The sun had reached that position where its light begins to stripe through trees, making you blink and say to yourself, it’s getting late. Time to go back inside. They had strolled the path’s entirety, scanned the fields where the horses were pastured, chatted a little, Petra telling him about that, and other arrangements, by which she eked her living. Tom laughing over the birds, the old collie, the cats, walking in train behind them…eventually the burros. These they’d stopped to pat, and she had introduced them: Stacey and Sabrina.
(2019, Stephanie Foster)