Eric arrived early to the reading, wearing a new pair of tennis shoes he had bought for the occasion. He read some poems, and then a short chapter from a novel he had given up on earlier in the month. Kiki, his agent, was in the audience, sitting in a corner. There were a fair number of people in the room, but Kiki had picked a spot surrounded by empty folding chairs. It was like a patch of barren land or a force field she was in command of. She waved at him after he finished reading. People were still filing in. By the time the store-owner was done setting up the projector, Eric’s anxiousness had grown to the point where he could feel it in his teeth. He wished he were somehow in the audience, or else instantly, improbably, at the center of a small iron ball. Then the ball would take some of the heat off of him, and by the time the fire people showed up with the jaws of life, all of the attention directed his way would have gradually diffused and centered on the ball and its sudden materialization. When he crawled out through an opening that had been bored through it, he would shrug, smile, and take a taxi back to his apartment. The fact that none of this happened was either merciful or not: this would depend entirely on what happened next. Eric sat down at the laptop, and began to type. His words were projected onto the wall.
Michael wrote for a living. He was not unpopular, and sometimes felt like he had to restrain himself from googling his own name. This temptation was strongest in the morning. Most of Michael’s success depended on a gimmick, wherein he would do public readings, then write a story spontaneously in front of an audience. Later, people at home would buy his e-books on Amazon to read the stories they had seen him write in person. It was, “like a concert t-shirt or something,” he told his sister once, while they were at the gym. The stories were always pre-written, though. And while he would emphatically delete sentences and change syntax while doing these events, this all took place in preconstructed patterns known only to himself. It was something he actually practiced.
Eric turned around to look for someone in the audience, but he didn’t see them. He blew on his glasses and wiped at them with a small cloth. A woman in the second row laughed, having just now gotten to the last sentence of Eric’s first paragraph. Eric changed “in the morning” to “on the subway”.
As he executed these patterns, Michael’s mind would invariably wander, like it did when he used to play the clarinet in his high school wind ensemble. At that time he would always pay attention when first learning a song, but after the third or fourth time through, would begin to fall back into himself. He’d play strange little games, ghosting most of the notes while he concieved of the sheet music as nuclear armament codes or else flavor text for an alien vitamin complex that would give him sexual omnipotence. No one could tell. There were so many god damned clarinets.
Michael first got the idea to pretend to make up stories in front of people for money when he was hanging out with his cousin, Tony. Tony was really into rap music, and he didn’t care that Michael wasn’t. Whenever Michael would hang out with him, his cousin would talk about it nonstop, going back and forth as if comparing notes with himself. One day Tony started listing rappers who were good at freestyling. Then he started listing ones who weren’t.
“This sounds not too bad,” said Michael.
“It isn’t. That’s because he already wrote this.”
“Look. See the way the radio guy is mean mugging him? Like he knows they both know what’s up, you know? Like, ‘how could he come into my studio and drop this fake ass marble on me’. You know?” Tony pressed pause on the youtube video, and pointed at the jockey’s face.
“Oh,” said Michael.
Eric italicized the “oh”, then quickly unitalicized it. He turned around again to look at the audience. It wasn’t a bad turn out. He couldn’t really get a read on them though. It was a complex thing he was looking for in them; not part of a binary set. Not something like if someone was wearing a wire or had a full house, that could be scavenged in one quick glance. He felt a sudden pang of envy towards comedians or magicians, other performers who could know in the moment how something was going. Instead Eric had to contend with polite people, introverts, everyone recieving the information at a distance, inside their own little head-computers. Kiki gave Eric the thumbs-up, then took a sip from her water-bottle. Eric deleted all of the dialogue and the stuff about Tony.
“Hm,” said a person to another person.
Although Michael didn’t really worry about being a fraud, he did worry sometimes about the truth. The truth was very simple: in the beginning he had just written about things that happened to him, but since he had began sitting down full time to write about them, things had stopped happening, and so he was very nearly out of things to write. It was a situation which was generating a great amount of anxiety in him, but whenever he attempted to communicate this, especially to his sister, it was always misinterpreted as being more about whether or not he was a fraud.
“People don’t believe you’re making it up on the spot anyways,” she said, “they just want room to believe you might be.”
“Sure, I think,” said Michael, “I just think. It’s beginning to seem unsustainable.” He paused, and then said: “cash flow” and nothing else. Pam, Michael’s sister, sold traveler’s insurance.
“Just be who you are,” she said, “it’s easy for someone like you.”
Michael often thought about doing something stupid, like writing a novel with only exposition, or else switching to fantasy, since maybe he didn’t have anything to say about contemporary life. Michael didn’t know any fantasy authors, except for one who was trying to transition into literary fiction. They had met at a writers convention in Carbon Creek, Pennsylvania. Michael thought about what it would be like emailing her and asking her what the money was like. Or maybe emailing one of his professors from college, who had been preparing him for a life of ascetic craftsmanship and the definite likelihood of no monetary reward. In the subject line for both emails he would put “What’s the Deal?”.
The main problem was that Michael had run out of journals. For years he had been taking notes on everything that happened to him in red composition notebooks and stashing them in his bureau. The details always changed when he was writing anyway, but still, without source material, he couldn’t work. He had a very bad memory. The last story he had written in public had been the final part of his last journal. Somehow he had finessed the material so it made sense that the story just kind of stopped in the middle. But now he was done. He had used up every last word. Every last way that the train station had seemed that foggy morning on the way to his father’s funeral.
Eric took a bottle of iced coffee from out of his backpack. He highlighted everything he had written up to this point and began to play with the fonts while drinking from it. He noticed that his paragraphs had been getting shorter and shorter, and he was having trouble believing that there was anyone behind him when he looked at the computer screen. For a while he kept on, but felt increasingly that he was boxing himself into a corner. He took out his phone to check the time, and then thought about writing a scene in which Michael sat down to give a reading in a book store and then started himself writing about someone with a similarly anglo-saxon name in a similar situation. Eric quickly turned away from this line of thinking. He could sense no tension in the room, and could sense barely anything at all. He was sure Kiki would wink at him if he looked in her direction. What a crock. Eric felt stupid for thinking anyone would care about this. Like it would be some big dramatic moment.
When he saw the Fed-Ex guy come in, he quickly deleted the sentence he had been writing, and put three asterisks at the bottom of the page. He signed for the envelope, and then began to type, looking back and forth between the printout and his laptop.
I remember in some creative writing class they told me not to second guess the audience. Or pander to them or think yourself above them in any way. That this was something a hack did. What I’m asking for then, I guess, is a fresh start. A story is not a democracy, and it’s almost never improvised, except by criminals. That’s why it’s a story. Truth be told, I don’t have anything special, really, like a dessert cart full of words, or a tin can with a time-travelling string. Sorry. What I mean to say is that maybe this relationship has run its course. But here is a story. Here is the last one I’ve got.
We’ve been in the caves forever. It feels like forever, but probably it’s not been not more than a day. In our bag is a trowell, a few toothbrushes, some rope. I’m holding the bag, and you’re holding the priceless artifact. Under the torch-light it shimmers, casting its eyes upon us like shit, I can’t believe they finally got me. At last we can see daylight. We walk easily to the exit, emerging into the pit we dug to lower ourselves down here. But now the ladder is gone, and at the top of the pit stands a smiling man in a white suit. He has on a red fez and is clutching a pistol. Loosely. He knows no one is going to take it away. He says:
“Well, well, well. What have we here?”
David Myers is an Ithaca College graduate with a B.A. in Writing.