Sunlight, like God’s grace, spilled into the aisle of the Boeing 737 as it banked over the Gulf of Mexico.
A good first sentence, he thought. Sets up hope. Scratch grace, though. He’d change it to read God’s blessing spilling in the aisle.
But it would have to wait, since he couldn’t get at his pen and journal without waking Deirdre, asleep next to him in the window seat, static hissing from her nose and throat. Her bottom lip sagged slightly, like an old person’s. But she was only twenty-five and had come along for the weekend and for the beach and for her tan and for fucking. She would be fun and she was excited, though she likely did not comprehend the import of all of this.
He liked her sleeping. She was his infant, twelve years younger. Silken hair, nearly the same color as her skin. Pink lipstick not precisely even. He could hardly expect this girl to understand the significance of his being an emerging writer, Scott Thielman, an artist, with a 4,400 word manuscript in his carry-on bag, and that in two hours he would be sipping wine with a dozen other artists, all gathered to “workshop” with a famous novelist.
Which was okay with him. Better than okay, since it was like a chapter in Saul Bellow (he would write Bellow-esque in his journal), in which two characters traveled in a plane or in a taxi: a man, and woman who was half his age, fussing with her earrings and the front of her dress, talking nonstop, yet worrying if she’d have anything to say at the charity ball they were headed to, while he, her lover, the protagonist, smiles patiently and silently, proud of his glittering mistress.
But he was getting way too far ahead of himself. He wasn’t an idiot. He wasn’t Bellow. Not Hemingway, who had a different woman for each novel. He wasn’t even Juliana Goodwin, the writing pro – the star – who was to teach this workshop. But he was on his way, he hoped. And Key West might be the pivotal step.
Enough of that for now; his “Lolita’s” pretty eyes were open, squinting at the illuminated clouds out the porthole.
“We there yet?” she said, not turning to him.
“Halfway,” he said. He stretched and cuddled his arm against her side.
“I think we have another hour. We just hit Florida.”
He studied her profile, backlit by the sun-soaked window, so that she appeared to have a halo. He had met her but three months earlier at the Caribou Coffee shop where she worked and where he stopped on the way home each day after teaching his high school world literature class. It was always around 3:30 when coffee business was slow and she was bored and he was revved up from talking up Tolstoy to 17-year-olds.
She had an upturned nose, so much like the Tiny Tears doll his sister used to carry around, and dainty hands with long pearl painted nails. He loved her hands, but most of all he loved her neck, which he all but cried into the first night they made love in his apartment. He had compared her neck to a heron’s in his journal, but he realized now the image didn’t translate well – like Olive Oil in the cartoon – so he’d have to change it. Swan was clichéd. Maybe kudu?
Their hunger that first night made the sex good, making them fall fast in love, which was why she was now his girl along for this giant step, no, leap into the heavens. He reached under her seat for the case that held his laptop and the black loose-leaf folder that was his journal.
“Do you have to write now?” she said. “Don’t you want a drink?” which was how she told him she wanted one herself. No flight attendant was in sight.
“I’m not as young as you, sweet girl,” he said. “I have to write these things down or they’re lost forever.”
“You know, Justin Timberlake doesn’t write stuff down. He says if it’s any good, it stays in his brain.”
“He and I work in different media.”
She pursed her lips, mulling this over.
“So, what now, you have to take some sort of writing test when you get there?”
Initially she had seemed fascinated with his writing, or at least by the idea of his writing. He had given her the URL for his last story which appeared in an online literary magazine. When she couldn’t get it up, he bought her a copy. In it, a boy who rode a bike for a messenger service fell in love with an accountant at Arthur Anderson & Associates. But there was more to it, because it was a literary love story, which he thought was kind of his trademark, writing about the little people but with sublime backdrops of which the characters were unaware. The morning after she had read “Speedy Delivery,” she said nothing until he asked her about it.
“Oh, yes, that was awesome,” she had said. “You know that dream the messenger boy had, with like that office lady on his handlebars in her skirt and all? It’s almost exactly, trust me, what happened at Rhodes Park with Billy Summers when I was twelve.”
And she went on to tell of the bicycle ride when Billy took her into an empty house owned by his aunt who was on vacation, describing for Thielman the episode that had taken place in a “kitchen like from the ’80s.” He listened, did not feel the need to steer her back to “Speedy Delivery,” which was also okay, very okay, as he put it at the top of a blank page in the loose-leaf, since it wasn’t a writer’s job to dictate how his words impacted each reader. The impact was the key. Strike that. The key was the impact.
In fact, Susan, who divorced him seven years ago, had not thought much of his prospects as a writer. Looking back at some of the trite slop he had written back then, he could understand why. Of course, she was supposed to be his wife, not his critic.
“There’s no test,” he smiled at Deirdre, looking past her halo to what looked like a snowy mountain range – the clouds below them. “Wait, I take that back. I guess there had been, sort of. We had to send a four page sample of our writing to qualify for the workshop.”
“You don’t, like, actually have to go to the meetings, do you?” she said. “I mean, it’s a convention, right?”
“This is different,” he said. He scrunched down in his seat and turned to her, looking up into her large eyes – pale blue, nearsighted, classic bedroom. “I’m going to meet a very important writer. And this could lead to something big.”
He should shut up. He didn’t want to jinx it. He realized there was an entire industry of writing workshops, writing groups, seminars, colonies – you name it. But this was, in fact, different. It wasn’t like the Famous Writer’s School to which he once naively sent 800 dollars to get his stories marked up. Actually, that was a whole other story, kind of funny, too, and maybe he could use that to break the ice. There they’d be, he and seven other new writers all sitting around a horizontal table at the head of which would be Ms. Goodwin, the New York novelist flown in to be their writing guru for the weekend. The others would all be nervous and tilted toward her, tripping over their please and thank yous, and when she asked each to tell about himself, he could do a self-deprecating thing about having lost his faith, not to mention his ready cash to the Famous Writer’s School (FWS) and everyone would have a laugh, and he’d throw out a mock protest, pointing out that Rod McKuen had once been on the consulting board for FWS, and they’d laugh even harder. The important thing was the impression he’d make on Ms. Goodwin.
“Stephen King?” Her eyes widened as he watched her focus on whatever was blooming inside.
“Is it Stephen King? The famous writer you’ll be meeting?”
He affected a furtive glance to his left and then his right.
“We’re not supposed to say. Publicity and such.”
“Right, you couldn’t skip that. Hey, I’ll be fine. I’ll be on the beach. I have the last two In Style’s to catch up on. We can party at night.”
She was fidgety, so he decided against opening the laptop. Instead he scrawled several more lines in his journal. He crossed out flight to destiny but kept lovely bird and dreaming a life. Then he crossed it all out. Hell, he knew schmaltz when he saw it. Fucking Stephen King probably never crossed out a word in his life. He should put that in the journal, too. Maybe later. He put the laptop and folder back in the bag.
“Now can you get us a drink?” said Deirdre.
“Of course, baby. You have such pretty hands.”
“That’s my Viet Namese girls, thank you. They do a nice job,” she said, spreading her fingers like an Oriental fan. “But they think you don’t know that they’re talking about you the whole time.”
After they had de-planed and got settled in the hotel, it was already early evening, and Thielman had just enough time for a leisurely walk to the first workshop meeting scheduled for 7 p.m. Back in Chicago, it had been 22 degrees Fahrenheit with black ice on the streets, so the warm, moist air he felt on his lips and on his face as he walked along Duvall Street was like a miracle. But it was the smell of the place that dazed him: roasting fish, Mexican beer and limes, smoke from Cuban cigars wafting out of the open doors of Sloppy Joe’s and Jimmy Buffet’s, all of it mixing with the outside fragrance of flowers and leaves and seaweed, blended in a kind of Caribbean cocktail that filled his nose and eyes and brain, somehow becoming what he thought he was searching for. Elizabeth Bishop, Tennessee Williams and Papa himself made literature here. Ann Beattie lived in one of these houses. It was as if every dank centimeter of air was ripe with the promise.
The Tradewinds Hotel was one of those historic buildings whose red brick, he could tell even in the dusky light, had been sandblasted clean and bright. The clerk directed him to a courtyard containing a jungle of trees and flowering bushes through the middle of which wound a flagstone path at whose end he saw blue light. That, he discovered, turned out to be the hotel swimming pool, empty and glowing. Beyond the pool was a table with dishes and bottles of wine, and four people, all women, standing at one end holding books and tablets.
Thielman’s hands were free, and this had been a conscious decision. He wanted to be casual, as though he had been here before. All he had brought was the first night’s agenda, a single piece of paper folded in his back pocket. He’d take notes back at the hotel.
He walked directly up to the group, and just as they turned to look him over, he bent over the table and selected a cube of pale orange cheese. He popped it into his mouth.
“Hi,” he smiled. “I’m Scott Thielman.”
While the four introduced themselves, yet another woman carrying a briefcase joined the work shoppers. Two were from Boston, one from Ohio, another from the south or maybe Kansas – she sounded southern. He knew their names from having read each of their short story submissions for the workshop, but he lost track of them almost as soon as he heard them, except in the case of Elizabeth who was soft spoken and achingly pretty. Her short, auburn hair shined and was cut carefully and stylishly in a way that suggested money to Thielman. She said she was from Florida – “Jacksonville, not here.” And he tried to remember if hers was the story whose protagonist has the sex dream. He remembers it not because either the dream or the story was particularly good, but because the author had used the word, “prick.” It’s not the term that he would use, certainly not for a dream, and if this was the girl, it must have required a deep breath and a willful effort to type it out. For her, quite a mouthful, he mused.
Thielman wished the rest were women, too, but he knew there were two other men beside himself, one of whom was arriving now, a heavy-set man, younger than him, wearing glasses and Dockers and deck shoes – acting even more casual than Thielman. He came up and almost immediately started dropping names and firing questions, and Thielman figured this was the one who wrote “Ghostwriter.” It was the only story he read twice, the only one he considered to be in contention with his. Not that this was supposed to be a competition.
Thielman did not think of himself as a drinker, and certainly not a problem drinker like a Faulkner or Fitzgerald. After all, he did not even drink every night. So the wine served at the workshop, some kind of domestic merlot, he probably guzzled it too fast, though it made him feel pleasantly warm and tingly under a humid night sky that was too thick for stars to shine through.
And Scanlon, of “Ghostwriter,” did not seem like such a bad guy after all. He wasn’t another goddamn teacher like nearly all the rest of them, so he didn’t raise his eyebrow or point with his finger or have to have the authoritative last word. Like Goodwin, he was from New York, so he had the accent going and turned out to be the most relaxed when Juliana Goodwin showed up.
Whose own presence should not have been any kind of surprise. Like Thielman, all the work shoppers read her three novels and all her stories, though they probably didn’t stare at the book jacket picture as much as he did, once he got the call saying he had been selected. The black and white picture had shown a smiling, relaxed, dark haired woman with eyes beaming exactly the right mix of confidence and modesty for her talent and success. And here was that very woman in person, though the picture was clearly from ten years ago or more.
When she walked up to the table and said it was time to begin, though her voice was thin, you could hear her credentials in it. It didn’t have a “let’s get this over with” tone, to be fair, but more of a breezy assumptiveness.
When she asked who would like to start with his or her “five minutes of writing history,” Thielman reached for the wine bottle to fill his glass, and Scanlon looked around the table and then raised his hand. He went on for what must have been twice the five minute allotment, since it used up all of Thielman’s wine, and it was a fairly intimidating ramble about published pieces, a “good” rejection from Atlantic Monthly, including an actual phone conversation with C. Michael Curtis. When Thielman realized Scanlon wasn’t bragging but just kibitzing as if he were Juliana Goodwin’s colleague, he eyed the empty vessel in front of him and thought how to signal Elizabeth to pass the as yet untouched bottle on the table’s other end.
Goodwin directed that they go in clockwise order from Scanlon, and Thielman nodded at her efficiency, maybe a little too demonstratively, as it occasioned a sidelong glance from the author.
The others followed Scanlon’s lead, each mentioning one or more writing triumphs. Elizabeth said it all started when she won a poetry contest in college. It seemed she was also into music and ballet and yoga, and Thielman would have loved to have heard the rest of her story, or at least to drink in her perfect skin while she told it, but she abruptly covered her mouth and humbly conceded that her five minutes had expired. You had to love her.
The Kansas woman, though not yet published, spoke of her surprise and tears at being accepted into the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and it was then that Thielman thought he’d better shitcan the Famous Writer’s School anecdote.
The woman just before him spoke so effusively about the e-mail writer/editor banter between herself and the editor of Story Magazine, that Thielman was pretty certain he felt heat radiating from her upper body. It was mixing with the warm Gulf of Mexico air, and the perfumed foliage, and the wafts of chlorine from the pool, and the weight of dread that he felt momentarily but which he would dash in the manner that he usually did: he’d make them laugh.
“’Speedy Delivery,’” he said, raising his wineglass. Everyone watched. Waited. Thielman paused for what he thought was just the right amount of time, and then his mind went blank. He’d had a plan, and it was a good one, but in the moment of quiet, he heard crickets or cicadas or some damned thing back in the bushes, which he couldn’t clear out of his head to make room for his idea to come back. And he saw that both of Juliana’s eyebrows were arched over her reading glasses, and when her gaze suddenly sank from his face to the point of the pencil she held against her notebook, Thielman knew he’d better dive off the cliff even he didn’t see the water.
“Speedy Delivery,” he repeated. He set his glass on the tablecloth, almost tipping it. Looked back at Juliana. Her head was down but the eyes peeking at him over the red frames.
“That’s the name of my short story they published in Oak Park Raconteur.
“It was a success. And all. And, ah, I got lots of copies. Dozens,” he said, and with some relief, he saw that this elicited a few nods and smiles from the other workshoppers. Scanlon, in fact, looked as if he had something to add. God bless goddamn Scanlon.
“Oh, and, yes, this was my point,” said Thielman. “Sorry. I was, like, very proud and very happy – yay, published! and all that.” Elizabeth was smiling and nodding like a woodpecker. He paused and nodded back his gratitude, even though a brain remnant of his earlier, sober self told him she was urging him, in his best interest, to wrap it up.
“I sent it to everyone I knew. Used up all my stipend, you see, buying more copies to send to my brother in Arizona, my friends from school. Gave them out as holiday gifts.”
And now there was genuine sympathy. He could see that everyone knew what he was talking about. This was what he wanted to share with them, with other writers, especially with Juliana. Other people reading your words hundreds or thousands of miles away. Touching people you don’t even know. It’s the best kind of love. This was what he had wanted to express. But with the wine and the cicadas and this too-small fucking table and going clockwise, he’d had to finish up.
“My brother, the one in Arizona, he writes me back. Or e-mails me. Neither one. I mean, either one. He writes, ‘Dear Scotty, about “Speedy Delivery”: who gives a fuck!’”
Their hotel was on the north side of Key West, away from the crowds. Away from the ocean, too, for it sat on a little bay that appeared to be landlocked but did, in fact, connect with the Atlantic Ocean, according to their bartender. Behind the hotel was a cement walk and the requisite Tiki Bar facing the bay. A Janis Joplin look-alike was playing the guitar and singing “Me and Bobby McGee” – singing very well but way too loud for an audience of three, if you counted the thirtyish man – hard to tell his age with his head shaved – who was the bartender.
“It was awful,” said Thielman. “They all stared at me with their mouths open.”
“What did you expect?” said Deirdre. “You don’t say ‘fuck’ at a convention.”
“It’s not a convention.”
“It was funny.”
“It was supposed to be fucking funny,” he shouted, the last two words echoing over the water, as the Joplin song ended in a crescendo, which he didn’t think it was supposed to do. “Janis” and the bartender looked at him. Jesus, join the crowd, he thought.
It was getting late. He had a headache and should go to bed, but he had promised Deirdre. And now the singer was talking to the bartender, talking over both of them. And diesel fumes were coming from someplace on Highway 1, or maybe from boats out on the real ocean that they couldn’t even see from here.
He would get past what happened today. Tomorrow the sun would come up. No big thing. Like a single bad writing day that he knew would be followed by a better one. After all, his story was to be work-shopped tomorrow morning, and it was there on the page where his strengths lay, not in some schmoozing session.
Besides, he had a feeling that Juliana liked him, the way she steered everyone to the short stories so his embarrassing moment wouldn’t linger. Then they had gone over two of the women’s stories, and then Scanlon’s. Juliana was polite but honest about all of them, and, as expected, she seemed most interested in Scanlon’s. “Novel idea,” she had said, “juxtapositioning the professional athlete’s narration with the ghostwritten version”; and “provocative characters”; and “excellent tension.” But then she tried to draw out of the workshoppers what the problem was, which Thielman knew, as it turned out, but wasn’t about to volunteer any information after the embarrassment.
“Conflict uncertain,” had been Juliana’s proclamation. Thielman had felt good that Scanlon, the best of the rest, had to go back to the drawing board. Scanlon did not seem to take it too well, either, which made Thielman feel even better. He wasn’t quite sure why, because he liked Scanlon. In fact, he seemed to like him even more, now. Unsure of his own motives, he would write tonight, he knew only the warm, lasting taste of contentment. Make that warm whiskey taste of contentment. No. Warm wine woozy buzz of contentment – may as well make it alliterative.
Deirdre was talking to the musician whose expression Thielman recognized. Polite puzzlement. A little too mild. Polite embarrassment. A good phrase. Kind of a paradox. He was back in form. Ready for tomorrow morning. Thankfully, there’d be no wine served at breakfast.
In the morning, Thielman felt around in the dark for clothes and keys and money, all of which he took into the bathroom, closing the door before turning on the light so he would not wake Deirdre. He brushed his teeth and showered. He squirted a dollop of shaving cream on his left palm, looked in the mirror, then decided that stubbly was the right Key West look. He rinsed his hands and slipped outside.
A lukewarm rain mixed with the smell of seawater. He walked the four blocks to the meeting place, sheltered by shop canopies, resisting the aroma of coffee and something sugary baking at the Conch Café.
The workshop met in the historic district in the town courthouse which was still undergoing renovation. He went through the ten foot tall entry doors, and although there was an elevator, he chose to climb the two flights of steps. Once at the top, he walked through the court room in whose center aisle, scaffolding reached to the ceiling, and then to the jurors’ room – how ironic was that, thought Thielman – where the second and third days of the workshop would convene.
Three of the writers were seated at the table, all of them sipping coffee. One was reading a newspaper, and the other two smiled at Thielman, but all held off conversation, as if by some custom, like before the start of a trial or religious service.
A coffee urn and a plate of sweet rolls sat on a folding table to the right of the door. Thielman filled his Styrofoam cup and placed a donut on a paper plate. He took his place at the end of the conference table, opposite the head where he figured Goodwin would sit. He closed his eyes. He could hear the cluck of rain on the windowsill. Its smell blended with that of coffee and the old varnished wood. This could be a life for him, he thought.
A little later, though, he was not so sure, as Juliana Goodwin led the group in a swift disemboweling of the first story on the agenda. It wasn’t Thielman’s story, but Goodwin’s frank efficiency did not bode well for any insecure writer today.
And poor Elizabeth, the good looking one, was the second to be skewered. He watched that perfect countenance wrinkle and redden from sheepish to panicked, as she endured the judgment with a twitching left hand covering her forehead. Hers was a coming of age story about a girl whose privileged background was a source of unhappiness until she found romance with … Spider-Man. Actually a normal person named Charles who seemed to be modeled after the nerdy but lovable Spider-Man character in the recent feature film.
Thielman had planned last night, probably around the time he saw Elizabeth’s shining hair and naked neck, that he would lie when asked his views on elements of her story. Not lie, per se, but use words like interesting, unexpected, and provocative. He did not want to be on record as having criticized her work, in the event something might develop between them. Not that he had specific plans to ask her out, but Deirdre was, after all, Deirdre.
It turned out he wasn’t required to say anything, as the rest of the workshoppers filled the time slot with a scalding review of her story. When the blistering ended, Goodwin invited Elizabeth to respond to the criticism of her one dimensional characters, sentimental dialogue and, worst, clichéd writing. (Yes, “prick,” in fact, was clichéd, explained Goodwin.)
“It’s not a finished draft,” said Elizabeth.
“Don’t take it personally,” said Goodwin. “This is a workshop, not a beauty contest.”
Elizabeth bit her lower lip. Thielman saw Scanlon offer her a pained glance but then lose himself quickly in the papers in front of him.
Every man for himself – was that it, Scanlon? Thielman knew he himself had compassion for Elizabeth, but he just couldn’t feel it right now in this atmosphere. Like a high stakes poker game, was how he’d write it, with everyone else glad that Liz was out. Even Goodwin? Especially Goodwin. Why in hell would she want one more writer vying for Harper’s single monthly fiction slot?
Thielman watched Goodwin smile sympathetically in Liz’s direction, and then rotate slowly around the entire table, her eyes finally settling on Thielman.
“Would you please read from your story, Scott?” she said.
Clear headed, and with nothing solid to lose, really, Thielman took a deep breath and read his first sentence:
“’He’d had this feeling before, of being both flattered and repelled.’”
He’d read it aloud before, but this was the first time to an audience, especially one that included a major league author. He expected to be nervous and humble, but his own words seemed new, his characters and their voices and their fates a seeming universe completely separate from him. The inflection and emotion in his voice were not theatrical on his part; it was involuntary reaction. Only when he had finished, was he aware that the rain had stopped. Everyone, including Goodwin, was staring at him silently.
“Who would like to comment first?” said Goodwin.
Scanlon raised his hand. But Elizabeth spoke out.
“May I,” she said. “I think the character, the hero, is completely … well, first let me say the story held my attention. There’s that. But the hero is totally unsympathetic.”
“Explain,” said Goodwin.
“I do not like him. He is …” she searched for a word, looking down the page on the copy of Thielman’s manuscript copy. He could see her hand shaking. He could imagine what she felt after all her preparing for the workshop, after flying down from Jacksonville, and then to bear hearing her work, her dreams getting blown apart.
“He’s really quite despicable. The first few pages he just rants about everything and everybody.”
“Are we supposed to like him?” said Goodwin. “Must we like a character for a story to work?”
“Well, it’s not just his complaining,” she said. “He mocks every woman, you’ll notice, every woman in the story. But even while he’s doing it, he wants to fuck every single one,” she said, biting off the f-word, looking accusingly at Thielman.
Thielman felt himself redden. He wanted to point out that it wasn’t him. It was “Oberle,” the photographer in his made-up story. But the writers weren’t allowed to speak during their own session.
He stared plaintively in Elizabeth’s direction. The look she pinged back across the table can’t have been hatred. Whatever it was, though, he realized he had somehow fucked up any chance he might have had with her without even trying.
“You’re reacting very strongly to this story,” said Goodwin. “But that’s hardly surprising.”
Darkness arrives impolitely early in the middle of February, but it did not matter to Thielman. Later that night he waited for Deirdre under the stars at a tiny outdoor table on Mallory Square. A tall, sweating, glass of Key West lager sat in front of him, as he stared over it into the roily waters of the harbor mouth filled with tour boats pitching and bobbing along the seawall. To his right and about twelve feet away was the southernmost edge of the continental United States. Behind him, and from a considerable distance, he could hear a commotion of seagulls and human laughter, probably a lately arrived sport fishing boat. And even further back, vibrating from the heart of the town, the strum of an electric base guitar.
A waitress with brown pigtails, a white peasant’s dress, and deeply tanned skin was lighting the candle on his table with one of those plastic butane torches. As she held it steady over the glass, she raised her eyes to smile at Thielman, and he felt overwhelming love for her. Yes, he loved her, and he loved the warm breeze that was just now making the flame flicker, and was carrying to his nose and his brain the smell of the ocean and the memory of the fish that swam in its depths. He loved the seagulls, the distant music, and the electric light on the Square, yellow light hazy with smoke and salt air.
And he loved Juliana Goodwin. He loved the way she could not quite control the excitement in her voice, when earlier she had led the workshop on a tour of the amazements in Thielman’s short story. She had loved his writing, his “elegant cadences,” the story’s “imminently trustworthy voice,” its “unobtrusive, classic structure.”
Thielman had been stunned. He’d always had confidence in his writing; but Juliana Goodwin gave him faith. He took a sip from the tall, slippery glass, and thought how only hours ago, Juliana changed his life.
“How was it?” Deirdre was across the table from him. He had not seen her approach. She wore a maroon spandex tube top and a navy blue mini skirt. Her gold navel ring glinted in the candlelight.
“I love you,” he said.
“That good, huh?”
“She said my story was ‘brilliant.’”
“You don’t understand, baby.”
She was standing next to the stool waiting for his explanation. She was facing him, but her eyes darted everywhere else.
He stood up to sidle next to her. He loved the dizziness he felt. Not the headachy kind; amusement park dizzy. He knew he would forget to put that phrase it in his notebook. But it didn’t matter.
“This woman’s a National Book Award winner,” he said. “She’s been in the New Yorker. And she, in front of all those other folks, is fucking extolling my work. Can you imagine? I was paralyzed.”
“Time to celebrate. Do we have a waitress?”
He rested his head on her shoulder and then was bumped up when she raised her arm to signal the waitress over.
“We’d better get some food in you,” she said.
“Order whatever you want, my sweet. Lobster, caviar, cold duck. Tonight is the beginning of a new life.”
“Why? What is the Goodson woman going to do.”
“Not her, baby. Me. I’ve been wasting so much time. So much life. Tomorrow I devote all my hours, my blood, to fiction. I finally have permission.”
“So she is going to pull some strings for you?”
“No strings attached, baby. It’s the real deal.”
When he awoke the next morning, Deirdre was smoking in bed, watching one of those bullshit network morning shows. An overweight black man held an umbrella and a microphone, and behind him was a crowd of dozens of people separated from television persons by stanchions and a rope. Thielman was sickened by the idiot smiles they wore, by the salty smell of Deirdre’s cigarette, by the buzz saw whining away in his head. Sitting upright, the pain worsened, especially as he realized he’d be trapped here for another two days.
He had to get up, had to get out for some air. He also had to see Ms. Goodwin. It was the workshop’s “optional” last morning meeting when applicants could pick up their manuscripts and typed evaluations.
A hot shower helped, but his headache had ushered in some nausea, so he took the long, oceanside way around to the courthouse to clear his head.
She looked up, seemed not to recognize him at first.
“Mr. Thielman, yes. I have your manuscript here. I consolidated the comments within the text into this little typed evaluation tacked on at the end.”
“I appreciate that. May I ask, though, what you would recommend.”
“Keep writing. And reading and writing. And sign up for more of these workshops.”
“Right. Right, I will,” said Thielman. “I meant – I mean, what do you think I should do with my story?”
“Well,” and here she put down her pen. “I think there are some literary magazines that might be interested. Most of them don’t pay, but it would be good exposure and experience for you.”
“I’ve done that. I had a piece, in fact, in Other Voices last spring.” Did she not remember which writer he was? It was possible, he supposed, what with all the work shoppers and what not.
“My story, ‘Man In A Box,’” he said. “I was thinking, why not try for the big enchilada.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“After what you said, I thought maybe Harpers? Esquire? Or, maybe, you know, you might recommend it to the folks at The New Yorker?”
“I can’t do that.” She squinted as if in pain.
“But you said the characterization was ‘most apt.’ That it was, ‘an unstoppable read,’ or something like that.”
She touched her fingertips to her lips, than slowly slid them down to her chin.
“Scott,” she said, using his first name for the first time. Her eyes, he could tell, weren’t straight focused on his, seemed to be looking at his shoulder or the top of his head or to someone behind him. He turned – there was no one behind him. “I meant what I said. It was wonderfully written, as workshop stories go. But that’s compared to other student stories.”
The pain in his gut dimly returned.
“Scott, don’t get me wrong. It was a pleasure to read after some of the other manuscripts I had to suffer through. But looking at it as a commercial editor, I would say the subject and the theme are simply … familiar. Been there, done that. You understand? Nothing cries out.”
In a fog, Thielman was too slow boarding and pressing the elevator button, so he had to ride back up and then down again to the ground floor. When the doors opened, Scanlon was standing there holding a valise under his left arm, and a paper coffee cup in the other.
“Scottie,” said an ebullient Scanlon. “You too?”
Thielman tried to manufacture a smile.
“I just got her message at my hotel,” said Scanlon, “about using my story in her book. Can you imagine us as two of the ‘break-out writers’ in an Alfred fucking Knopf volume edited by Juliana Goodwin?”
In the darkened foyer, with the smell of coffee, and with Scanlon’s breath too close, Thielman felt a wave of nausea. He had to get outside.
“That’s great,” he made a weak smile for Scanlon. “It’s … that’s great.”
“Man, your story … I meant to tell you …” Scanlon said, shaking his head. Thielman nodded but left him standing there and lunged toward the door and pushed his way through.
The outside air was steamy. It was close to noon and the sidewalks were filling up. Thielman needed to breathe so he headed towards the gulf. But when the nausea turned into a sharp pain in his stomach, he walked to the water’s edge and placed both hands on the top of the chest-high sea wall. He leaned over and took a deep breath. At the foot of the wall beneath him, the water was shallow, perhaps a foot or two; it was hard to tell. Low tide. Brown and gray things undulated beneath the surface, and a long tubular shaped fish faced the shore, waiting in ambush for some tasty terrestrial to fall in. Barracuda. But then they all disappeared, either because of their camouflage coloring, or because they weren’t present in the first place. The rippled water distorted all below.
The sharp pain suddenly contracted and convulsed his insides, and he retched violently over the wall, nearly losing his balance.
The stomach pain left, but he felt extremely fatigued. It was a long walk back to the hotel and he’d have to make it even longer by avoiding the Hemingway House on Whitehead.
The thought of it, of all the Key West lore, and New York’s Goodwin and now Scanlon, threatened to bring back the nausea. What the fuck had he been thinking?
Maybe this was a blessing. Permission to quit writing. To quit wasting his time.
At the base of the seawall, he could see fish frenzied. Pinfish, they looked like, silvery-green five and six inchers, dimpling the surface while they gorged themselves. And then further out he saw it, a bulge and surface wake homing in on the pinfish, that in another split second ended in a swirl and a splash that he felt all the way up to his face. He blinked, and then he opened his eyes to see a long gray shadow torpedoing back out to sea, and he felt a wave of vertigo and a flutter of fear.
“Scott, you’re being so sweet to me,” said Deirdre.
It was their last night in the tropics, and Thielman was sitting with her at a wooden picnic table outside at the Turtle Corrals, a seafood restaurant built on the end of the Key West Marina pier. They looked out on the sea, shining black under the night sky. It was late, and the air was still. They were the only ones left outside.
“I’ve been neglecting you,” said Thielman.
“You had work to do.”
He felt the sea chop against the huge wooden piles holding up the pier. In the distance, a ship with multicolored lights blinked above and then below the night horizon line. He tried to imagine the people contained on the tiny ship – likely a private yacht – many miles out to sea. Isolated, festive, steaming west. He wondered if anyone aboard was leaning over the rail, looking in their direction. How he and the girl would look to them from afar.
“Isn’t it pretty?” said Deirdre.
She smiled, staring out to sea.
“Can we come back?” said Deirdre. “Do they have a writing thingy every year?”
“I don’t know about the Keys,” said Thielman. “Besides, it’s awfully crowded. Isn’t it crowded? And there’s just the one highway.”
He peered in the direction of the lighted yacht which for the moment was not there. The ocean, instead, was a mass of blotchy darkness.
“There are other wonderful places,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if they have conferences. You think Papa ever went to a stinking conference?”
“We just go. Find our own way.”
When he looked back up, the distant yacht had reappeared, and he reached for his notebook and pen: A line of red, green, and blue lights twinkling faintly but absolutely between sea and sky.
David McGrath divides his time between teaching English at College of DuPage in Illinois, and splitting wood and nightfishing on Moose Lake in Wisconsin. He is the author of a novel, Siege at Ojibwa, and his essays and stories have appeared in Artful Dodge, Sport Literate, Chicago Reader, Education Digest, Midwest Outdoors, Chicago Tribune, and Fourth Genre. He can be contacted at email@example.com.