Friday, May 25, 2007

Previously on THE WRITER...

On Sunday, June 24, I will be reading Chapter 7 of my novel-in-progress at Cornelia Street Cafe (29 Cornelia St.). Showtime is 6 pm.

For those who need a refresher on the plot & characters of the novel, here are Chapters 1 thru 6. (see below)

Meanwhile, I will be raising $ for the NY Writers Coalition at the June 9th Write-a-thon. Go to my donation page to give. Every dollar counts!

Finally, if you want to hear the latest rough mixes of 4 new tunes form my upcoming album, go HERE!


Chapter One

Somewhere between take-off and landing, Shriver had lost his ability to read. Floating high above the clouds in the American Airlines Dash-8 twin-propeller plane, row 9, seat A, he gazed upon the handwritten pages he was planning to read from at the conference, and his eyes failed him. The words began to blur and then merge together, the little blue letters piling up into one thick mass of ink. He blinked, and blinked again. He took off his glasses, retrieved a handkerchief from his coat pocket, and wiped his eyes. The words remained unreadable. Shriver took another sip of whiskey and cola, let the sweet concoction glaze his throat. Still blurry. He peered out the window, and everything came back into sharp focus. The clouds below were white with highlights of pale blue. Miles below, service roads divided the flat prairie into vast brown squares. Relieved, Shriver looked back to the page, but the words again began to collide with one another. He turned to the passenger sitting next to him, a corpulent lady sleeping with her mouth open. The details of her fleshy face were clearly defined, down to the individual black whiskers above her lip. Back to the page: a blur. He grabbed the in-flight magazine from the seat pocket in front of him and opened to random pages. THE TEN BEST GOLF COURSES IN THE U.S. . . . SHOPPING FOR ANTIQUES IN SAVANNAH. . . MALLS OF AMERICA. He shut his eyes and breathed. This was clearly some trick of the mind. Or perhaps it was pre-emptive karma for the bad joke he was about to play.

Six months earlier, there had been a letter. Dear Mr. Shriver, it began beneath the letterhead of a small, liberal arts college situated in the middle of the country. As coordinator of ------- College's annual writers' conference, I would like to officially invite you to attend this year's event as one of our featured authors. At this point, Shriver had had to reexamine the envelope to make sure the letter was not intended for someone else. But there was his name, his address, all correctly labeled. Very strange. Though your work has been controversial, even divisive, my colleagues have decided that you would be a valuable addition to this year's event, especially since the theme of this, our 30th anniversary as one of the country's premier literary conferences, will be LITERATURE AS CONFRONTATION. The consensus is that few living writers would be more appropriate to grace our stage this year than you and the other invited guest authors. There followed some details about the event, including a vague outline of what would be expected of Shriver—a one hour reading, a panel discussion, an informal meeting with students from the university. Of course, the writer continued, in between these scheduled events you will be free to attend readings and panels by our other featured authors, and to enjoy the many planned receptions.

The letter had been signed, Best wishes, Prof. Simone Cleverly, and was accompanied by a self-addressed stamped envelope to be used for Shriver's reply. I understand you do not have a telephone, Professor Cleverly hand-wrote in a post script, and so we are left this old-fashioned, and somehow appropriate, channel of communication—namely, writing. Nevertheless, if you have any questions, please feel free to call.

Shriver had put the letter down on the bed, which was where he read all his mail, and stroked the furry neck of his trusty tuxedo cat, Mr. Bojangles. Who would take the trouble to play such a strange practical joke on him, he wondered. He thought of his old friend Cecil Wymanheimer, but wasn't he dead? Or it could have been Boyd Hart, his mischievous old college roommate, who once arranged a date for him with a rather convincing transvestite. But he hadn't spoken to Hart in twenty-five years, at least. He would have to write some letters, find out who was still around and capable of such trickery. In the meantime, to show he was a good sport, he scribbled his acceptance on a sheet of legal paper, stuffed it into the envelope and mailed it off. It will be my pleasure, he wrote, to attend your prestigious conference. I only hope I do not disappoint you. To his surprise, a few weeks later he received more information about the conference, as well as round-trip air tickets. We are pleased that you will be able to attend, Professor Cleverly wrote in an accompanying note. And don't worry about disappointing us—your mere presence is a great victory for the conference. Whoever was behind this, Shriver thought, was certainly resourceful and determined.

The reason Shriver was so suspicious of the invitation was that he was not a writer at all. He had never written any books, had never written a page of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, drama—he had never even written a screenplay. The only writing he was capable of was the occasional fan letter to his favorite newscaster, Tina LeGros, of the Channel 17 Action News Team. Dear Ms. LeGros, he would write, Just a brief note to express my admiration for the way you conducted yourself during last evening’s interview with our less-than-forthcoming mayor. These letters might take up half a page, one page at most—nothing so long and complicated as the story he was now trying desperately to read aboard Flight 1010.

When he opened his eyes and looked again at the sheet of paper on which he knew there was a full page of script, the words once more became scrambled, as if the page itself had crumpled into a ball. He finished his drink, rolling an ice cube around his mouth to suck up the last of the whiskey. He wiped his forehead with the handkerchief and gazed out the airplane window. Just a few feet away a propeller whirred invisibly. Down below, the clouds floated on the air like shaving foam on water. Some resembled animals—a duck, a sheep, a sleeping cat. That one there looked like the face of his ex-wife, with her typical expression of impatience. He felt a deep, burning sense of shame as she glared at him from a mile away, mocking him. He had considered sending her a card, telling her about the conference. He even wrote one out, using a nonchalant tone to inform her that he had been invited to a prestigious literary event as a guest. But he'd thrown it away, worried still that it was all a hoax—perhaps perpetrated by her!—and, besides, she would never believe him. You're not a writer, she would say in that voice that could cut a diamond in half.

He pressed an overhead button and, moments later, the flight attendant arrived wearing an expression of amused inconvenience.

"May I order another whiskey and cola?" Shriver asked.

There had been little correspondence from Professor Cleverly in the intervening months. She wrote once to inform him that she had ordered several dozen copies of his book—a book he'd never even heard of—to be sold at the conference, and expressed hope that he would make himself available to sign them. Then just last week he received a brief note from her reminding him that someone would be dispatched to pick him up at the airport, and that if he had any trouble traveling—any delays or other unforeseen problems—that he should call her immediately at the number provided. At that point Shriver finally began to realize that this may not be a hoax at all, but some huge misunderstanding.

Somewhere in this world was a writer named Shriver who was expected at this conference, but it was not him.

It was then that he had decided to take up a pen and see if he could write something presentable to an audience expecting to hear a real writer's work. He fluffed up his pillows and sat up in his queen size bed. After shooing away the ever-curious Mr. Bojangles, he set a legal pad of yellow paper on his lap and stared up at the watermark on the ceiling. The watermark had been there since the rainy day his wife walked out on him. He wrote "The Watermark" on the top of the first sheet of paper. He stared at the ceiling some more. After a while, he wrote, "The watermark appeared on my ceiling on the rainy day my wife walked out on me." He went on to describe the unique aspects of the mark, surprised to find that he enjoyed setting down his thoughts and ideas on paper. He was tentative at first, writing in small fits and starts, but after a few hours he found a rhythm and was unable to stop until many hours later, when he was exhausted and hungry. He woke up the next day and the same thing happened. The words seemed to flow out of him, as if he were a natural writer. This continued right up through yesterday, when he achieved a sort of fever pitch as his story raced to a climax. At midnight last night he scribbled the words "The End," then collapsed. Mr. Bojangles, freed from his banishment to the far side of the mattress, climbed onto his chest, curled up, and fell sleep.

Fortunately, Shriver had woken up on time this morning, quickly threw a few things into an old suitcase, stuffed the handwritten pages of his manuscript into his jacket pocket, poured a salad bowl full of dry cat food for Mr. B, and left his apartment.

Standing outside the door, he'd searched in his pocket for his keys. They were not in his pants, nor in his suit coat. He went back inside and stepped over the cat, who was sitting at the threshold, already awaiting Shriver’s return. He then proceeded to rummage around the apartment, looking under the many stacks of newspapers on tables, beneath the piles of clothes on the bed, peering into drawers and cupboards, eventually tossing everything onto the floor in a fruitless attempt to find his keys. He sat in a chair and tried to recall the last time he'd used them. He could not remember, but it couldn't have been that long ago. He glanced at the clock and, realizing he might miss his flight, he surrendered. He would just have to leave the door unlocked.

Out in the hallway, as he waited for the elevator, he could hear Mr. Bojangles mewing behind the closed--and unlocked—door. It was a sad and pathetic sound, and he had to cover his ears until the elevator finally arrived.

When he reached the ground floor, Shriver did not recognize the building's main lobby. Were those mirrors there the last time he went out? That sofa and matching chair near the entrance? The night doorman, still on duty at this early hour, looked at him with his battered old suitcase as though he were a burglar leaving the scene of a crime.

"Who are you?" the doorman asked.

He must be new, Shriver thought, never having seen the man before.

"I'm Mr. Shriver," he replied. "Will you please inform Vinnie"—the morning doorman—"I will not be needing my newspaper for the next few days?"

The doorman continued to scrutinize him closely. "Your apartment number?"


Shriver debated whether or not to inform the doorman that his apartment door was unlocked. Observing the man's suspicious demeanor, he decided against it.

"Oh!" the doorman exclaimed. "Mr. Shriver. There's a car waiting for you outside."

"For me?"

"Yes, sir." The doorman gestured dramatically, like a master of ceremonies on a stage, toward the revolving door. Through the glass Shriver could see a rusty old town car parked at the curb. The doorman took up Shriver's bag and, with a show of strain, followed him out the door.

Out on the sidewalk a fresh pre-dawn breeze cooled Shriver's sweating face. The street looked very different compared to his view from his sixth floor apartment window. Billowy trees formed a pleasant green canopy over the cars parked up and down the block, blotting out the slowly lightening sky. At this early hour, there was an eerie calm, broken only by the far-off hum of traffic on the highway. The doorman grunted as he hoisted the suitcase into the town car's open trunk. The driver, a tall, dark man with a bushy beard that appeared fake, slammed the trunk shut, then opened the back door with a flourish.

"Have a nice trip, sir," the doorman said, tipping his cap.

Shriver searched in his pocket and handed a quarter to the doorman. "Thank you," he said, and climbed into the back seat. The driver stood on the sidewalk for several minutes, talking with the doorman. Shriver strained to hear them, but the window was closed. The two men laughed and shook their heads, giving Shriver the distinct impression they were talking about him. Then the driver climbed in behind the wheel, started the car, and pulled into the street. Moments later, they merged onto the heavily trafficked highway.

Shriver sat back and watched the city flash by, lit by the red-orange rays of the rising sun. How strange to be moving so fast, he thought. He could not recall the last time he'd been in an automobile speeding down a highway like this. After a while, Shriver noticed that the vehicle seemed to be moving independently of the steering wheel. The driver, with his seemingly artificial beard, would constantly turn the wheel left, then right, just to keep the car going in a straight line. Nevertheless, he was able to maneuver the decrepit vehicle like a getaway driver, weaving in and out of traffic with only inches to spare. Every few moments, he would blurt out something in a brittle tongue, and Shriver would answer, "Excuse me?" only to realize the man was speaking an entirely different language into some kind of headset.

At the airport the driver refused to accept any money for the ride, not even a tip. "All taken care for," he said several times, bowing reverently, then he hopped back in behind the wheel and tore off. Shriver stood there amid a swirl of travelers with their huge piles of luggage and golf bags. Car horns blared and airplanes shrieked overhead. It was all a little overwhelming, but with the aid of a uniformed steward he was able to check his suitcase and receive his boarding passes. He then proceeded to the security checkpoint, where a guard asked him to remove his shoes before waving him through a metal detector. As Shriver walked through the machine a bell went off. He was ordered to go back, take off his belt, place any keys or coins in a little plastic bowl.

"What's that?" the guard asked of the bulge in his jacket.

"That's just some papers," Shriver replied, pulling out the story he had written. The guard ordered him to place the manuscript in a plastic tub for x-raying.

"But it's just paper," Shriver said.

"I don't care if it's the Bible," the guard sneered, holding out the plastic bowl.

Shriver set his story down and watched as the guard pushed it through the machine. Shriver then stepped through the metal detector. This time there was no bell. He stood off to the side and watched as the two x-ray technicians peered at the ghostly image of his story on the little monitor. One of them pointed at the screen, and the other one laughed. When the plastic tub finally rolled out, the pages felt warm in Shriver’s hands.

From there the first leg of his journey progressed fairly smoothly, except for some alarming turbulence during the ascent. Once the plane had reached its cruising altitude, Shriver downed two cocktails in quick succession and managed to relax and catch up on his sleep, resting so soundly that he did not wake up even when the plane landed. Then, in order to make his connecting flight, he had to navigate the enormous Airport of America from Terminal B to Terminal F. En route, he passed fast food restaurants, bars, clothing stores, bookshops, even a massage therapist. He found it difficult moving amongst so many people. They seemed so wide to him, so lumbering, most of them with those little silver telephones clutched to their ears. At one point he had to sit down and collect his breath. But he managed to find the correct gate on time and board the second aircraft without incident.

When the flight attendant finally brought his cocktail, Shriver shut his eyes and took a long, slow sip. A warm wave rolled down his throat and into his belly. From there he felt it move out in a tingling diaspora to the inside of his skin. He sighed loudly, licked his thick lips, then glanced at the pages again. The words were a train wreck.

Shriver turned to the lady beside him. She continued to sleep, her melon-shaped head resting on her voluminous bosom.

"Excuse me," Shriver said, touching her pudgy elbow. "Ma'am?"

The lady snorted awake, her eyes bulging. "What is it?!" she cried. The people across the aisle turned to look.

"I'm sorry," Shriver whispered.

She looked at the empty miniature bottle of whiskey on his tray table. "Do you need to go to the lavatory?" she asked, commencing the elaborate preparatory motions necessary to remove herself from her seat.

"No, that's not it," Shriver said. "I was just wondering if you could do me a favor."

She stared at him.

"I was wondering," Shriver continued, "if you can read this." He held out the pages for her to see.

She looked at them suspiciously. "You want me to read that?" she asked.

"No, I don't want you to read it. I just want you to tell me if you are able to read it. Is it legible?"

She tilted her head to see the top page more clearly.

"Is it comprehensible?" Shriver asked.

She squinted. "Well, the handwriting is pretty sloppy."

"But you can decipher it?"

Caught up in the assignment now, she set the tip of a finger on the top of the page.

"'The Watermark.'"

"Yes, that's right," Shriver said.

"'The watermark appeared on my ceiling…on the rainy day my wife walked out on me.' Is that right?"

"Thank you very much!"

"Can’t you read it?" she asked.

"Oh, I'm just having some trouble with my eyesight. Getting old, I guess. Thank you again."

"Say," the lady said, her eyes narrowing, "are you that writer? The one who's speaking at the conference?"

Shriver froze. For days now he'd worried about the moment he would have to take on the role offered to him. But he hadn't expected it to arrive quite so soon, and certainly not here, on the airplane.

"Yes!" the lady exclaimed. "I recognize you from your picture!"

"My picture?"

"It's in the brochure. Here."

She reached under the seat into a large, bulky shoulder bag of the kind woven by Guatemalan peasants and produced an envelope-sized brochure for the conference. On the cover were photos of the various featured authors.

"That's you!" the lady shouted, pointing to a photograph of Shriver, taken several years ago, though the resemblance was clear. "Oh, this is very exciting!"

"May I see that?" Shriver asked. She handed him the brochure. Where on earth had they found that photo of him? He was fairly sure that his ex-wife had taken it. He'd lost a bit of hair since then, he noted sadly, and his face was now more jowly, but other than that he had not aged much. The main difference was that he looked happy in the photograph. Behind him hung the pale curtains that still covered his windows.

"I come to the conference every year," the lady said. She was all smiles now, her cheeks breaking into dimpled slabs of dough. "I'm also a writer. Oh, not like you, of course, not nearly so talented and interesting. I write romance novels, mostly, but I have this one project, a memoir, that I'm trying to publish."

Inside the brochure were brief biographies of all the featured writers. Under Shriver's name it said, One of America's most controversial authors, his novel Goat Time remains one of the most widely read of the past quarter century, with sales of more than one million. Though he has not published a follow-up novel in the subsequent twenty years, Shriver remains one of our most revered and popular chroniclers of the American absurd.

"I have a very interesting story to tell," the lady continued as she searched through the many items in her bag. "I was once involved in a sort of harem with this biker from Utah. I spent a couple years there, doing drugs and participating in sex orgies."

"Yes," Shriver said, still reading. His long list of honors includes the Federal Book Award, the Outer East Coast Inner Critics Circle Award, the Publishers Prize, and numerous others.

"I have copies of the manuscript, if you'd like to take a look. Maybe you could help me find a publisher."

A two-inch thick bound manuscript was thrust into Shriver's hands. On the cover, in large letters, was the title, Harem Girl, and in smaller letters, the subtitle, My Life as a Sex Slave, A Memoir by Delta Malarkey-Jones.

"Don’t worry," Delta Malarkey-Jones reassured him. "It's a quick read. I would say I hope you're not offended by graphic sex, but I figure you're probably not, so..."

"I'm not?" he asked.

She pulled from her bag a beat-up hardcover copy of Goat Time. On the cover was a crude drawing of a satyr. "I think it's refreshing to read your work," she said. "Hardly anyone writes about real stuff like you do. You know—real sex stuff."

"May I see that?" Shriver asked.

"Maybe you could sign it!" she shouted as she handed the book over.

This was the first time he'd glimpsed a book by this apparently famous Shriver fellow. He had not patronized book stores or libraries for many years because the smell of all those slowly rotting books produced in him the urgent need to go to the bathroom. It was an instantaneous reaction. He kept no books on his shelves for that very reason. He read only newspapers, which, oddly enough, did not have the same effect.

He opened Goat Time to the inside back cover, handling the book gingerly, in case the sudden urge to defecate came upon him. There was no author photograph. The brief biographical note stated, simply, that the author lived on the east coast.

Delta Malarkey-Jones produced a fine-point pen. "I would really appreciate it."

Shriver turned back to the title page. He thought it very odd that he'd never heard of this famous author with whom he shared a name. Then he glanced at the dedication page. He squinted to read the few words there, but they broke into small black pieces, like ants marching across the page.

"You can just put 'To Delta,' plus whatever you feel like," the lady said.

He turned back to the title page. The words, set in larger type, were barely legible. He wiped his brow and wrote, "To Delta, she of row 9, seat B, on this day in May," then he signed his name with a flourish.

"Thank you so much!" Delta Malarkey-Jones said, holding the book aloft. "One of these days I'm going to finish it, too. Hey--I can't wait for your reading day after tomorrow!"

"That's very nice of you to say." Shriver had been worried that no one would show up, since he was a complete unknown, or at least a fraud. Now it turned out this Shriver was quite famous and sought-after. A tiny moth of anxiety fluttered inside his chest. He closed the book and handed it back.

"You can hold on to my memoir," she told him. "I have a bunch. My address is on the front."

"Yes, thank you," Shriver said, squeezing the thick manuscript into the seat pocket in front of him. "I'll read it later, if you don't mind."

"Are you staying at the Hotel 19?" she asked. "Most of the writers stay there during the conference. I take the same room every year. I reserve it months ahead of time. Room 20. In case you need to find me," she added, winking.

"Uh, I'm not sure where I'm staying," he told her.

She grinned and said, "I'd love to discuss those scenes with you."

"Which scenes?"

"You know—the sex scenes. They were very…imaginative."

"Yes," he mumbled. "Perhaps."

After a moment, during which his neighbor settled back into her seat with a series of contented sighs, Shriver turned his attention back to his story. He glanced quickly at the first page, then looked away. For that split second the words appeared to be arranged normally. He breathed a little easier. He had to get this situation under control. There may be a lot of people at the reading, if this lady was any indication. He looked back at the first page, this time for several seconds before turning away. Again, the lines of script were there, poorly handwritten, perhaps, but legible.

Up to this point the flight had been quite smooth, but now there was some jarring turbulence. The airplane appeared to have descended somewhat, and was now skimming just above the clouds. Shriver gripped the armrests as the fuselage shook and rattled.

To distract himself, Shriver turned once more to the pages in his hand. There was the title, "The Watermark." Below that was the first line. "The watermark appeared on my ceiling on the rainy day my wife walked out on me." Then the words appeared to melt, as if the ink were wax over a flame, dripping down the page and onto his lap. This sort of thing had never happened to him before. He read the newspaper every morning, delivered to his door by Vinnie the morning doorman. He would lie in bed and read the paper from front to back, absorbing the stories like a vacuum cleaner. But words had never dissolved like invisible ink before his very eyes like this. He checked his watch. The numbers were as clear as the clouds outside his window. He had less than 48 hours before his reading. As if it wasn't going to be difficult enough to convince all those people he was a writer!

Weaving down the aisle as the plane wobbled over air pockets, the flight attendant collected empty bottles and cans.

"May I have another?" Shriver asked, holding out the empty mini-bottle of whiskey.

"I'm sorry, sir," the attendant replied. "We're going to be landing soon."

At that very moment the airplane descended right into the clouds, the window went white, and the fuselage started to shimmy from side to side. He gripped the arm rests and stared at the VACANT sign outside the forward lavatory.

Then, as if by magic, the plane ceased its shuddering and emerged beneath the clouds. The ground below was as flat as a door on its side, from horizon to horizon, and spotted with ponds that reflected clouds and patches of blue. Off in the distance was a town, not much more than a cluster of low buildings and a water tower. The airplane tilted in its direction, aiming at a large asphalt X in the middle of the prairie. Shriver's ears ached from the pressure. He rubbed the tender spots where his jawbone attached to his skull and swallowed deeply. His throat burned as a whiskey belch made its way up his esophagus. Before he knew what was happening, a freshly plowed field and then a strip of tarmac rose up to meet the wheels of the plane and, with a bump and slide, they were on the ground. A pleased Delta Malarkey-Jones immediately began to collect her many articles from beneath the seat in front of her, including her bag, a jacket, a floppy hat, and a paper sack full of snacks.

"Don't forget my manuscript!" she reminded him, pointing to the seat pocket.

"I won't," he said, placing the epic on his lap along with his own papers.

The plane lurched to a stop, and, a moment later, a bell rang. The passengers leapt to their feet and started to remove items from overhead.

"I hope to see you around," Ms. Malarkey-Jones added. "Remember: Hotel 19, room 20."

The exit door had been pushed open and people were now shuffling up the aisle like crabs. Shriver rose unsteadily to his feet and entered the line. All the whiskey had settled in his legs. Wobbling a little, he nodded at the pilot and the flight attendant at the door, then debarked onto a metal stairway that led down to the tarmac.

Looking up he saw that the sky here was enormous, dwarfing everything beneath it. The clouds seemed thousands of miles wide, with vast swatches of blue in between. As for the land, it stretched out toward the horizon, unbroken and dull. Even the little airport was squat and low to the ground. He waved away a mosquito buzzing at his ears.

He wondered who would be at the gate to meet him. As he walked across the hot tarmac toward the doors, he concentrated on the task of becoming someone else, wishing for the first time that he had been able to endure the library long enough to read this Shriver fellow's work. What had he been thinking? He cursed his decision to come here, to leave the safe confines of his apartment, to leave the unconditional love of Mr. Bojangles, the dedicated service of Vinnie, and Blotto, the delivery boy from the local grocery store. He could be home right now watching the Channel 17 Action News on television, reading the newspaper, napping on the patch of sun that fell across his bed at this time every day. Instead, he was in this strange, aggressively horizontal land, pretending to be someone else entirely, someone who was a genius, apparently, and infinitely more intelligent than he, albeit it with a dirty mind.

He passed through a glass door into the air conditioned gate area. Several people were waiting for friends and loved ones. There were cheers and exuberant hugs all around. Now that he had arrived, he wondered how he could worm his way out of this insane situation. Perhaps he could avoid the person dispatched to retrieve him, and exchange his return ticket for the next flight home. He decided right then and there that this was what he would do--he would go home to Mr. Bojangles--and so he started toward the main lobby and ticket counter.

All of a sudden his path was blocked by a petite young woman wearing a shiny yellow slicker.

She offered her hand and said, "Mr. Shriver, I presume."

He stopped and stared. She had long blonde hair, nearly the same color as her coat, and thin lips painted ruby red. He thought she was about eighteen years old until he looked closer and saw the crow's feet at the corners of her large brown eyes.

"I'm Simone Cleverly," she said.

"Yes," he replied, taking her hand in his own. "And I am Shriver."

Chapter Two

When the luggage finally arrived, Professor Cleverly insisted on carrying Shriver's suitcase, though it weighed nearly as much as she did.

"Really, I can carry it," Shriver told her, trying to grab the leather handle from her tiny hand, but she pulled the bag away. While the other passengers at the luggage carousel stared at him with disapproving expressions, Shriver followed her out of the terminal.

She lugged the suitcase across the small parking lot to a massive car, a three-ton contraption of black metal and man-made materials. She opened the rear door and, with a groan, heaved the suitcase onto the seat.

"Climb aboard," she ordered.

Shriver pulled himself up into the passenger seat as if into a tank.

The professor turned the key and the engine growled. With some effort she shifted gears, and aimed the monstrous vehicle toward the parking lot exit. She looked like a child in her yellow slicker, her tiny hands astride the colossal steering wheel. She had to scoot herself forward in order for her feet to reach the pedals. The car’s hood was so enormous that, if a grown man walked directly in front of the vehicle, he would not be seen.

"Normally we have graduate students pick up the featured authors at the airport," Professor Cleverly explained, "but your handler is teaching at this hour, so I took the job myself." She watched the road as she spoke, not turning at all to address him.

"I feel honored, Professor."

"To be honest, I was curious."


"To meet the infamous Shriver," she said.

"I didn't realize I was infamous."

"Have you read your book lately?" she asked, letting out a sharp laugh.

"I can't say that I have."

"I read it in graduate school," she told him as if recounting the time she ate a spoiled piece of meat. "I almost got through the whole thing," she added.

They passed a paddock populated by enormous, shaggy bison. A wooden sign, lettered in the style of an Old West ranch, proclaimed EAT BISON—LIVE WELL!

"But everyone's very excited that you're able to attend the conference," she reassured him. "It's quite a coup for us."

Shriver watched her profile as she drove. She had a slightly crooked nose, a strong jaw. Her skin was tan and smooth, but not pampered-looking. Apparently, she spent a lot of time outdoors. There was something very familiar about her—the combination of youthfulness and competence. He wracked his memory for a clue as to who she reminded him of, but he was drawing a blank. When she turned to glance at him he looked away toward a field of young sunflowers stretching off into the distance.

"Ever been out this way?" she asked.

"Only to pass through," he told her. "On a military train. All I can remember are the sunflowers."

She turned and nodded, as if she'd expected that answer.

He only just now had recalled a long-ago summer evening when he'd gazed out the train window at the millions of bonneted faces turned toward the setting sun. The train had been headed west, farther and farther away from Shriver's home. But then he just as quickly realized that, in fact, he'd never been in the military at all. It must have been a dream he was recalling.

"The university is famous for its Department of Sunflower Studies," the professor told him. "Did you know Native Americans used the oil for snake bites and wart removal?"

"I did not."

"Between the flowers, the seeds, and the oil, there are lots of uses for helianthus annuss."

There was even something about her voice that struck Shriver as familiar. He wanted to ask her where she came from, had she traveled out east, but he was feeling shy. So far she had not suspected him of any fraudulence, and he didn't want to push his luck.

"I guess we'll swing by the hotel first, so you can drop off your bag and freshen up a little," she said. "Then I'll take you over to the College Union, where you can see what we have planned for you."

She was driving with great concentration, her knuckles white on the steering wheel. Perhaps she was simply nervous around such an "infamous" author, but she did not seem to like him very much—or, actually, she did not seem to like the real Shriver-- which made him uncomfortable.

He noticed that she did not wear a wedding band. Instinctively, he covered his own with his right hand. For the first time he felt ashamed that he still wore the ring after all these years. He hadn't removed it partly because it would not come off without a struggle, and partly because he had never had any reason to. In fact, he'd forgotten he wore it at all; it had become a second skin. He vowed to take it off as soon as he was alone.

"There's quite a lot of interest in your reading," Professor Cleverly told him. "Everyone is wondering if you'll be sharing something new."

Again, the moth of anxiety fluttered inside his rib cage.

"Actually, I am hoping to read something new," he told her. He reached into his jacket pocket to pat the pages there.

"That is exciting!" she exclaimed, her face locked in what Shriver recognized as a struggle between pleasure and distaste. "This could turn out to be a huge literary event!"

The moth—or was it now a butterfly?--beat its wings against the thin casing of his heart.

"Not really," he said.

"No, it is! It is! We've had some big names here, but it's always the usual suspects—nobody as elusive as yourself. And your first new work in twenty years! This will go down as one of our most important conferences."

Fortunately, they were now pulling into the parking lot of the Hotel 19. It was a dull, square, three-story building at the very edge of town. Looking out a window from the front side, you would see a small college campus with its tree-lined streets and old brick buildings; from the back you would see only prairie and sky.

"This place used to have only nineteen rooms," Simone explained. "Hence the name. Then, a few years ago, they added on."

She parked at the front entrance, then jumped down and ran around the car. By the time Shriver set his feet on the ground she had hoisted his suitcase from the back seat.

"Okay," she grunted as she carted the bag into the building, "Why don't I come back in about an hour. That will give you time to catch your breath."

"Please let me carry the bag," he pleaded.

"The room is our treat," she explained as the front doors opened automatically. She dragged the bag behind her across the faux marble floor. "But you'll have to spring for anything extra. Room service, pay-TV, that sort of thing."

The lobby was furnished with what appeared to be second-hand chairs and sofas, all mismatched and faded by the sunlight that streamed in through the windows fronting the hotel. At the far end was a tall reception counter behind which Shriver could make out the top of a towering, copper-tinted beehive hairdo. Only when he and Simone had reached the counter was he able to see the receptionist's lean, well-powdered face.

"May I help you?" she inquired between smacks of gum-chewing. On her blouse was a name tag: CHARLEVOIX.

"Good afternoon," Professor Cleverly said in an authoritative tone. "I believe there's a room reserved under the name 'Shriver.'"

"Shriver, Shriver, Shriver." The woman examined a ledger until she found the name. "Here we are."

Simone turned to Shriver. "Then I'll see you in about an hour."

"Thank you, Professor."

"Please—Simone. Nobody calls me 'Professor,' not even my students."

She walked swiftly across the lobby and out the door, and ascended into the behemoth. As he watched her drive off in a cloud of smoke, Shriver was finally convinced that this was, in fact, not an elaborate practical joke. There really was a writers conference, and he really was expected to read—and everyone here really assumed he was the actual Shriver.

Charlevoix had him sign the register, then she handed him a plastic card.

"What's this for?" he asked.

"That's your key."

"This is my key?"

"You've never used a card key?"

"What do I do with it?"

"You slide it into the slot on your door," she answered in a dull monotone. "Room 19."

"Room 19?"

"Is that a problem?"

He thought of Delta Malarkey-Jones in Room 20.

"Is there another room available?"

"That's all we got, sir. Between the writers conference and the cheerleading competition, the place is filled up."


"You could try the Dew Drop Inn, but I betcha they're full up too. The whole town is full up."

He took the key card, on which was printed, "HOTEL 19--The Best Rest for Every Guest!"

"Room service is eight a.m. to eight p.m.," Charlevoix explained, "and there's the Prairie Dog Saloon open eleven a.m. to midnight." She gestured toward the saloon's entrance at the far end of the lobby. Shriver could make out a long, dimly lit bar where a denim-clad man in a cowboy hat sat perched on a stool.

Charlevoix then directed him to the elevator around a corner. When he reached the second floor, he followed the arrows pointing to "Rooms 15-30." Just beyond Room 19, he saw that the dull beige carpet abruptly changed to a brighter, obviously newer carpet, and the wallpaper became more vibrant as well. It was as if they'd simply stitched the new wing onto the old, like Frankenstein's monster.

While he negotiated the key card into the slot on the door, Delta Malarkey-Jones emerged from Room 20.

"There you are!" she called out as she rolled towards him. Amazingly, she loomed even larger in the hallway than she had in the confines of the small airplane. She had changed into a loose-fitting dress with a paisley pattern, inside of which her breasts swung like coconuts. Several beaded necklaces dangled pendulously from around her bulging neck.

"I'm headed over to the Union. Need a ride?"

"No, thank you," he replied.

"I rented a convertible!"

"Hm?" He could not get the key card to work.

"Need some help with that?"

She grabbed the card from his hand, turned it around, and inserted it into the slot. A little green light lit up, and she turned the doorknob.


"Many thanks," Shriver said, pushing the door open. He dragged his suitcase inside while Delta leaned against the doorway and peered into his room.

"This is one of the old rooms," she said. "They should have given you a new one."

"I'm sure this will do."

"You should complain."

"I'll be fine, thank you." He felt he could not shut the door as long as she stood there.

"A man of your stature should have the best," she said.

"Really, it's fine."

"I'm going to complain for you."

"Please, don't bother."

"Oh, it's no bother. They know me here."

"I'm sure they do. Now…"

"You could have my room!" she declared.

"No. I couldn't."

"It's much nicer than this. Look at that old TV! Criminny!"

The television was, indeed, very old.

"I'll be fine here," he said, nonetheless.

"It's no big deal, Mr. Shriver."

"Really. I mean it. I'll be fine." He put some steel into his voice this time, and it seemed to land.

"Okay. Suit yourself."

"Thank you, though."

"Sure. Just let me know if you change your mind. I wouldn't be surprised if that old TV didn't even work."

"I'll let you know."

She lingered at the threshold for a few seconds, inspecting what else she could see of his room, then finally waddled away. Shriver shut the door.

He went to the window and opened the curtains. The prairie unfurled itself, acre after acre of fields, ending at the straight edge of dominating sky. Two hundred yards away the dull brown land was bisected by a single railroad track. He once read in the newspaper that the earth turns at 1,000 miles per hour. He had pictured people flat on the ground, holding onto the grass so as not to be lifted up by such intense velocity, like a stunt man atop a speeding car's roof. He stared hard at the horizon to see if he could detect the rotation.

He removed his jacket and lay across the double bed. The meringue-like stucco ceiling appeared to slowly lower itself toward him. He knew that, before this day was done, he would be unmasked as an imposter. Surely there would be someone at the conference—one of the other authors, or a publishing executive, or just a fan—who would have met the real Shriver at some point, who would immediately see that he was not him, who would expose him in front of everybody. It was only a matter of time.

Out of the corner of his eye he thought he saw Mr. Bojangles, then realized it was just his suitcase, and that his beloved cat was nowhere near. He pictured Mr. B. going from room to room in the apartment, searching for him, still mewing pathetically.

But he did not want to be maudlin. He sat up and inspected the room. The old television sat atop a walnut chest of drawers. In the corner was a built-in table for writing. Next to the bed was a nightstand, with lamp and telephone. The bathroom was situated near the door, opposite a small closet. On the walls were two framed prints, one of a cow in a field, the other of a windmill.

He noticed the yellow papers bulging from the pocket of his jacket on the bed. He pulled them out and moved near the window, where there was more light. With trepidation he gazed down at the title. "The Watermark." He giggled with relief. He read on. "The watermark appeared on my ceiling on the rainy day my wife walked out on me." A train blew its whistle off in the distance. "At first it was just a spot, approximately the size of a quarter, directly above the bed where I lay weeping." He could now hear the clackety-clack of train wheels. "Listening to the rain fall, I watched the watermark grow, ever so slowly, to the size of a baseball." A freight train appeared at the edge of the window, creeping slowly along the tracks. "After a few hours, the mark was as big as a honeydew melon." The floor of the hotel vibrated slightly as the train continued to roll past. "By the time it got dark, the watermark…"

At this point the words started to dissolve. Shriver squinted, but it did no good. The page was under water. He looked up and watched the train rolling by, an endless line of rusty freight cars. The sky above had cleared to a metallic blue. All this was crystal clear. He went to the desk and picked up the room service menu. "Chicken Fingers… Fried Mozzarella Sticks…Chili con Carne de Buffalo…" He looked up to see the painted cow staring at him with dull, brutish eyes from his field. He looked back at the pages of his story and saw nothing but a series of meaningless squiggles. He sat on the edge of the bed and tried to breathe. Could he have had a stroke? What kind of brain aneurysm could prevent you from reading only those words you yourself have written?

The telephone rang. Startled, he fell off the edge of the bed and banged his left buttock on the wooden frame before thumping onto the floor.

He clambered to his feet and, rubbing his smarting backside, reached for the phone.


"Hi, it's Simone. I'm downstairs, whenever you're ready."

"Already?" His buttock throbbed.

"It's been an hour."

He must have fallen asleep earlier, when he lay down on the bed.

"Are you okay?" she asked him.

"I'm fine, thank you."

"Is the room all right?"

"The room is very comfortable, yes. I'll be down in a moment."

"Take your time."

He hung up and limped into the bathroom. When he switched on the overhead light the bulb fluttered a few times, then died out. In the thin daylight from the open bathroom doorway he managed to wash his face and comb his thinning hair. Looking at himself in the mirror, he wondered if he should change his shirt. But he had only brought one shirt for each day he was to spend here, so he decided to stick with this one. He wished he had time to take a long, leisurely bath. Mr. Bojangles loved to sit on the edge of the tub and watch him as he lay in the luxurious bubbles. There they would carry on lengthy conversations about the miserable state of the world. He straightened his tie and went to retrieve his jacket. Now that he felt reasonably put-together, he picked up his key card and left the room.

When the elevator arrived it was packed with eight young girls who had somehow squeezed themselves aboard. They were all dressed in identical uniforms of sleeveless red tops and short pleated skirts with matching sneakers. The whole crew debarked like clowns from a toy car, one after the other for what seemed like minutes, amid high-pitched squeals of laughter. He watched their trim figures as they skipped down the hallway. One of them, a willowy brunette with feathered hair and muscular arms, turned and smiled at him as she disappeared into a room. The elevator door nearly closed before he remembered to board.

Downstairs, as Shriver hobbled past the front desk, the cowboy-hatted man in the saloon turned and leapt from his stool.

"Hey Shriver!" The man rushed toward him on severely bowed legs. "Hold up there!"

Shriver could see Simone waiting just outside the hotel doorway, a patch of bright yellow in a field of gray. The massive black automobile idled nearby. And he had forgotten to remove his wedding band.

"Hey there," the cowboy said in a rumbling, smoke-charred voice. He grabbed Shriver's hand and pumped it like the handle of a farmhouse water pump. "I'm T. Wassamatta. I teach here at the university."

"'What's the matter'?"

"It's spelled 'W-O-L-M-A-T-O-T-H,' but it's pronounced 'Wassamatta.' Some mix-up with the official papers back in the day, I guess."

"Very nice to meet you, Professor Wassamatta."

"Call me T. I'm a writer like yourself. And I teach, of course. I'm moderating the panel you're on tomorrow." There was the odor of whiskey on the man's breath, which made Shriver thirsty. "At some point," he continued, "I'm gonna need to talk to you a little about that. There's a theme to the panel and I want to make sure I don't ask something stupid."

"A theme?"

"Yeah. They always have some kind of theme. This year it's 'Reality-slash-Illusion.' How's that for profound?"

Simone peered in through the glass doors and, seeing Shriver's predicament, came running inside. Shriver thrust his left hand into his pants pocket.

"There you are," she said to him. She turned to the cowboy and smiled wearily. "Hello, T. What're you doing here?"

"Oh, hello Simone," the cowboy replied. "I'm just grabbing a quick lunch"—he pointed back toward the saloon—"in between classes."

Simone took in through narrowed eyes the saloon's lithesome bartendress and remarked, "I see."

"Are you handling Shriver here yourself?" the cowboy asked.

"For the time being."

"Well, well," he said, sizing Shriver up. "'Fame is the scentless sunflower, with gaudy crown of gold.'"

"Are you done?" Simone asked, rolling her eyes.

The cowboy smiled impishly and turned to Shriver. "Remind me to give you a copy of one of my books, Shriver, before this whole shebang is over."

"I'm sure Mr. Shriver has better things to do than read about your adventures on the farm, T," Simone said. She took hold of Shriver's elbow and began to usher him toward the door. "Now if you'll excuse us, you can get back to your 'lunch.'"

"We'll talk later, Shriver!" the cowboy called to their retreating backs.

With his bruised buttock, Shriver had a difficult time hoisting himself up into the vehicle. Fortunately, Simone did not notice. She sighed loudly and said, "Sorry about that."

She switched gears and the leviathan lumbered forward.

"No trouble," he told her. He rested his hands in his lap, where he attempted to surreptitiously wrestle the wedding band from his finger.

"T. sometimes thinks he's running the show here."

"From the Prairie Dog Saloon?"

"Exactly," she snorted. "That's sort of his unofficial office."

Shriver was dying himself for a drink, but was even more hungry. As he pulled unsuccessfully at his ring, he realized he hadn't eaten all day. There had been no time this morning for his usual bowl of oatmeal. And by this hour he'd have had his lunch, for which he typically heated up some canned soup. Every week, multiple cans of soup were delivered, along with his other groceries, by Blotto, the delivery boy. Blotto was not, technically speaking, a boy—Shriver did not know his age, could not even hazard a decent guess—but he behaved in such a child-like way that the term seemed appropriate. He was shaped like a Bartlett pear, with narrow, sloping shoulders and wide hips, and a round face that always beamed with blissful ignorance no matter the situation. If it was raining bullets outside and the elevator was broken, forcing him to lug several bags filled with soup cans up six flights of stairs, Blotto nevertheless displayed a grin. His smile reminded Shriver of an old graveyard with tombstones poking out at odd angles. Into the apartment he would spill, bearing brown paper sacks and sending Mr. Bojangles scurrying for safety from Blotto's large, flat feet. Thinking of his friend's odd face put Shriver in mind of a bowl of cream of mushroom soup.

"Simone, is there anyplace where I might get a bowl of soup?"

"Of course," she replied. "You must be famished. There's a cafeteria in the Union basement. I think they have soup there."

"That would be fine."

"Or I could drive you to one of our nice restaurants. Believe it or not, there are a few in town."

"I believe you, but the cafeteria will do."

"I think we're supposed to have dinner with some of the other writers tonight at Slander's, which is probably the best place around here."

"That sounds delightful."

"I mean, it's not the Big City," she added, "but we do have some taste."

"I don't doubt it."

From the hotel at the edge of town they drove deeper into the campus area, with its dreary modern dormitories and older, stone-constructed college buildings. Students walked the streets and pathways, textbooks clutched under their arms, tiny telephones glued to their ears, all of them looking insanely youthful and vibrant.

"These are the spring/summer students," Simone explained. "Quite a lot take classes year-round. It's a nice break from our harsh winters."

Shriver turned the wedding band around and around his finger as if he could remove it like a cork from a bottle. It was not budging. As he wrestled with the ring, a mosquito settled onto his right hand. Without thinking, he swatted at it, then flicked the corpse out the open window. As he did so, his gold band flashed in the sun.

"Mosquitos are kind of an issue here," Simone told him. "There's probably going to be a lot of them after the heavy rain we had this morning, and now this sun."

So that explained the yellow slicker. The rain must have been part of the same weather system that had caused the flight turbulence. A low pressure front out of the west, as meteorologist Lance Boyle of Channel 17's Action News would call it.

Another mosquito proceeded to land on the back of Shriver’s right hand. Keeping his fisted left hand—and wedding band--out of sight, he watched the insect navigate the dark hairs on his knuckles, then insert its proboscis into a vein. He remembered his childhood friend Philip Capri, who liked to tighten his muscles so that the mosquito, fully gorged on blood, would not be able to remove its stinger. Philip would watch with that special sadistic glee of children until the insect exploded in a tiny splatter of red. But Shriver had never been able to kill a mosquito in that manner. For one thing, it was painful.

“I hope you know your wife could have come along,” Simone said.

“Excuse me?” Shriver watched as the mosquito drank its full.

“I mean, we couldn’t spring for the air fare, but she certainly could have stayed with you at the hotel.”

“My wife?” Finished with its grisly meal, the insect flew out the car window.

“You are married, aren’t you?”

On the back of his right hand rose a small pink welt, where the mosquito had left its toxic saliva.

“I’m not, actually,” he said.

“Oh, I’m sorry.” She covered her mouth. “I just thought…”

“The wedding ring?”
“I couldn’t help but notice.”

“It’s just that I haven’t been able to take it off.”

She smiled. “Oh, I can appreciate that. I left mine on for a whole year after my divorce.”


“Yes. I wasn’t ready to be not married, I guess.”

“No, that’s not it. I really can’t take it off.” He made a show of trying to yank the ring off his finger. “See?”

Simone laughed. “How long has it been?”

“Twenty years.”

She guffawed, nearly rear-ending the pickup truck ahead of them.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s not really funny.”

“No. It is.”

“But it isn’t. And it’s none of my business.”

“I don’t mind.”

She turned and smiled at him, and Shriver was reminded of Tina LeGros. He had long admired the Action News anchor for her unusual sincerity, and regularly wrote letters to her. On his wall, beside the bed, was a color photograph of Ms. LeGros, personally autographed to him.

Simone quickly jerked the vehicle into a narrow parking lot in front of a three-story building made of gray stone.

“Here we are,” she announced, slightly out of breath, as she ground the tank to a halt. “All the readings and panels are held here in the College Union.” She glanced into the rear view mirror and said, "Ready, Edsel?"

Shriver turned to see a young man sitting in the back seat.

"Hi," the young man said.

"Goodness. I didn't see you there."

"This is Edsel Nixon," Simone explained. "He's a grad student here and your official 'handler.'"

"I know what you're thinking, Mr. Shriver," Edsel Nixon said. He was a handsome young fellow in his late twenties, with a lilting Southern accent and searching, sincere eyes. "You're thinking, 'This is the most unfortunately named individual you've ever encountered.' I guess you could say my parents have a queer sense of humor."

"Perhaps it's good luck to have such a name," Shriver offered hopefully.

"That's a very positive outlook, sir, and I appreciate it."

"Edsel teaches a class on modern American lit," Simone said.

"We're in the middle of Goat Time," the graduate student said. "The students absolutely love it."

Simone grabbed a shoulder bag and climbed down from the car. Shriver limped after her into the building and down to the basement level. Like a child unable to resist touching a sore, he kept rubbing his left buttock, hoping the ache would disappear. They entered a large student lounge area full of pastel-colored chairs and low tables. Those students who had been sitting around chatting, reading, or listening to music on earphones turned, in unison, to stare at him. There were about twenty of them. He waved feebly, and they all returned, again in unison, to what they'd been doing.

“Where did that young man go to?” Shriver asked, glancing around.

“Edsel? Oh, he had to run some errands,” Simone answered. “Over here is the cafeteria,” she said, directing him to the left. They entered through a turnstile into an ordering area, with different stations for sandwiches, pizza, soup, etc. The lunch crush was over, so the place was deserted. While Simone searched through her shoulder bag, Shriver approached the pimple-faced student behind the counter.

"What soups do you have?" he inquired.

The student swallowed, as if he'd been asked to defend an indefensible act. "Pea," he said, "vegetable barley, plain old vegetable, cream of mushroom, chicken noo—"

"I'll take the cream of mushroom."

"Oh, we're out of cream of mushroom."

"Okay. Vegetable barley, then."

"Yeah, we're out of vegetable barley, also."

Shriver sighed. "What do you have?"

Again, the student swallowed and chanted, "Pea, vegetable barley, plain old vegetable, cream of mushroom, chicken noo—"

"But you said you don't have cream of mushroom."

Simone appeared at Shriver's side. "You have to go through the list."

"Excuse me?"

"Hi, Charles," she said to the student.

"Hi, Professor Simone Cleverly," the young man responded.

"You have to go through the whole list," she said to Shriver. "It's just the way Charles works."

"Very well." He turned to the student. "Do you have pea?"

"We're all out of pea."

"How about vegetable?"

"Yes, we have plain old vegetable."

"Are you sure?"

The young man looked hurt. "Of course I'm sure."

"I'll take vegetable, then."

With his bowl of vegetable soup, Shriver continued on to the beverage station for a bottle of cola, wishing he had a flask of whiskey with him.

At the checkout counter Simone removed a manila envelope from her shoulder bag.

“Here’s some money,” she said, handing it over. It was unexpectedly heavy, the bottom bulging with what felt like small pieces of metal. “Your per diem,” she explained.

Shriver looked inside the envelope to see a mass of nickels, dimes and quarters.

“It’s thirty-one dollars and fifty-eight cents a day,” she explained. “I don’t know how they arrived at that figure, but anyway, it's all there. Three days' worth.”

Shriver used the money to pay for his lunch, piling up the coins for the seemingly unfazed cashier. From there they made their way to a booth in the corner.

Shriver sipped at his soup while Simone labored to pull some papers from her over-packed shoulder bag. She cursed softly and removed several personal items, placing them on the table between them. Keys, lipstick, a can of Mace. Finally, she managed to free the sheath of papers.

“This is the schedule for the conference. It’s for you to keep, so you know what’s happening. Today there's a reading by Gonquin Smithee, the poet. Tonight there’s a reading by Basil Rather, the playwright. Are you familiar with their work?”

Shriver shook his head no. The soup was hot and salty, just how he liked it.

“They're extremely talented, and sort of controversial."

"'Literature as Confrontation,'" Shriver said.

"Exactly. The readings should be interesting, anyway. A couple of the drama students are also performing a scene from one of Rather's plays tonight. Then there’s a Q and A.”

“Am I to do a Q and A also?” he asked.

“I hope so. I mean, there’s no rule about it, but we find that the audience is very interested. We typically get about seven hundred people to show up.”

A mouthful of soup erupted through Shriver’s nose.

“Are you okay?”

He nodded, wiping his face.

“That’s a lot of people,” he croaked.

“Wait till you read,” she said. “There's a real buzz about it. You’re going to be the highlight of the whole week.”

The former moth in his chest, which had since grown into a butterfly, was now about the size of a fruitbat.

Simone proceeded to remove her yellow slicker. Underneath she wore a simple white blouse, with the top two buttons undone. There was a splash of freckles across the top of her tan chest. In this light, she less resembled Tina LeGros than someone else—someone Shriver could not quite recall.

As he finished his soup, he glanced at the schedule. Tomorrow at noon was the discussion panel, with the theme “Reality/Illusion.” It was to be moderated by T. Wolmatoth, with Basil Rather and Gonquin Smithee, as well as Shriver. In the afternoon someone named Zebra Amphetamine was to read. Shriver was also scheduled to meet with some creative writing students in the morning. In between these events there were scheduled various receptions, book signings, and dinners with the authors, none of which he paid attention to. He could sense the warm soup roiling inside his stomach.

"You know, I've never been to one of these events," he confessed.

"You're kidding," Simone responded. "But surely you get asked all the time,"


"That's bizarre," she declared.

He finished eating under a thick blanket of awkward silence. So far, Simone appeared to believe he was the real Shriver, but he would have to come up with some better conversational topics—ideally, about himself—if he was to convince these people he was an actual writer.

When he was done eating, Simone escorted him upstairs. She walked with the slicker draped over one arm. She wore a tight orange skirt, knee-length, with a visible zipper on the side. Her legs were smooth and tan, her ankles narrow. She climbed the steps gracefully, with a slight but perceptible wiggle to her walk. Shriver followed lopsidedly, the envelope full of coins in his right coat pocket.

In the upstairs lobby, people milled about, browsing and chatting. He stiffened at the sight of a long folding table with books spread out on it. Several people called out hello to Simone as she led him toward the table. She introduced him to the various conference workers. They all seemed excited to meet him, shaking his hand. So far the books had had no effect on his colon.

“And this is Ora Lee Sanford,” Simone said, acquainting him with a stout, spiky-haired woman behind the long table. “She’s in charge of selling your books.”

“I’m very proud to meet you,” Ms. Sanford said, shaking his hand rigorously. “We’ve been selling a lot of your books, you’ll be happy to know.”

Shriver glanced down at the pile of “his” books laid out on the table. This was the paperback edition of Goat Time, with the same satyr on the cover that graced the hardback copy he'd signed for Ms. Malarkey-Jones. Feeling bold, he picked one up. On the back were blurbs praising the novel for its “bacchanalian fervor.”

“I just love that book,” Ms. Sanford noted. "It’s just so…dirty.”

“Ora Lee!” Simone cried.

“Well, it is. What can I say?”

The two women giggled, their faces turning red. Shriver felt his own cheeks warming up.

“I do have a question, though,” Ms. Sanford said. “I was wondering if you could clarify something for me.” Noticing that Shriver had stiffened at the request, she added, “Oh, I know it’s impertinent of me, but I really want to know.”

He saw that Simone was also looking at him, as if she too required clarification.

“What’s the question?” he asked them.

"Well, to be honest," Ora Lee said, "I haven't actually finished reading it yet, but I'm dying to know…"

Simone added, “You must get asked all the time.”

Turning to the copyright page, Shriver noted the year of publication.

“It’s been twenty years, ladies. I’m not sure I can even remember.”

Both women looked at him expectantly. Finally, Simone asked, “Did he do it?”

Shriver examined their eager expressions. This is a pleasant sensation, he thought, even as he scrabbled for an answer to their baffling question. Perhaps this was why people became writers.

After a delicious moment, he said, “Don’t you know it’s supposed to be ambiguous?”

“Awww!” they both cried. “Come on!”

He smiled enigmatically and turned to the books by the other featured authors. There were collections of plays by Basil Rather, books of poetry by Gonquin Smithee, and several volumes of stories by Zebra Amphetamine. At the end of the table were two tall piles of books by T. Wolmatoth, both with photographs of horses on the covers.

“Well, Ora Lee,” Simone said, “I don’t think we’re going to get any satisfaction from Mr. Shriver here.”

“Oh well,” her friend said. “I still love the book, even if I don’t know if he killed his wife.”

Shriver felt his face go cold. His bowels gurgled voluminously. As the two women chatted (“Have you noticed the mosquitoes?” “I think they’re going to be bad this week.”), he set down the copy of Goat Time and discreetly excused himself, gesturing toward a rest room located in the lobby. He somehow managed to reach the door without running, but once inside he scrambled into a stall and frantically lowered his trousers. He slammed himself down on the seat, yelping at the pain on his newly bruised buttock.

He would have to steer clear of the book table from now on, he decided.

When he emerged from the rest room several uncomfortable moments later, his face damp with sweat, the women watched him closely.

"Are you okay?" Simone asked.

He paused several feet shy of the book table.

"Airline food," he said. "But I'm fine now."

“Simone says you’re going to read something new?” Ora Lee Sanford said, seeming eager to change the subject.

He hovered at this apparently safe distance, feeling the gradual return of blood to his face. “I’m hoping to,” he replied.

“Gosh, that’s exciting. This is going to be something else!”

“Don’t make him nervous, Ora Lee,” Simone said. “Here, let me show you the main room, where all the action takes place.”

Feeling grateful, Shriver followed her past the table and into a vast ballroom. A long raised dais ran along the far wall. Four small microphones stood atop the dais table, which was draped with crimson fabric. At one end was a pale wooden podium. Hundreds of black folding chairs were set up facing the dais.

“We can bring in extra chairs if we have to," Simone said.

The fruit bat caged inside his ribs was now a crow.

Chapter Three

The ballroom was packed for the afternoon reading by Gonquin Smithee. Shriver, seated next to Edsel Nixon, leaned to the right to take some weight off his smarting behind. It was easy to do, with all the change clanking around in his right coat pocket. This position also afforded him a better view of Simone, who was seated in the front row, off to the side, her head cocked as she took in Ms. Smithee's words.

Gonquin Smithee was a tall, svelte woman with the narrow, chiseled face of a former model. She wore a man's tailored suit, her graying hair cut short and choppy. She read her work aggressively, each line like a stone hurled at the audience. Earlier, just before his intestinal difficulties, Shriver had glanced through the poet's books on the lobby table, to the sound of Ora Lee Sanford rhapsodizing to him of their many merits and awards. On the jackets were enthusiastic endorsements from other poets. "A painfully honest exploration of survival." "Ms. Smithee plumbs the depths of emotional truth as she attempts to exorcise the demons that have possessed her." "These are gut-wrenching poems that do not flinch from the hard truths." Glancing through the pages, he'd noticed a number of poems concerned with rape and/or blood. The author's bio in each book broadcast the information that she had been sexually abused by her father.

"Your eyes like an ice-cold speculum," she read from the podium, "pushing deep into the tender pink folds of my soul."

"What do you think?" Shriver's handler whispered.

"Wonderful," Shriver replied, though he had not paid much attention to the poet's words. He was too busy watching Simone. She appeared to be listening raptly, gazing up from the front row, her long yellow hair casually pulled over to one side of her head and bunched at her shoulder. Again, Shriver tried to think of who she reminded him of. As he searched his dark memory, Simone glanced over and caught him watching her. He was so off guard that he did not bother to turn away. She looked at him for a moment with an impenetrable expression, then returned her attention to Gonquin Smithee.

Shriver now made an effort to pay attention to the poet's words, in case he would have to speak with her later on, at dinner. He wanted to be able to say something intelligent and, hopefully, complimentary, and needed a concrete example of her work to talk about.

"Your hands as big as baseball mitts on my buttery skin," she intoned. "Fingers long and hairy between the knuckles, their tips rough as a cat's tongue."

As Shriver attempted to digest the poetry—"Your cock," Ms. Smithee chanted, "was salty and smelled of yeast and baby powder"—he was suddenly overwhelmed by the abrupt realization that he was in this strange room in a strange town full of strangers. His heart pounded. Icy sweat erupted on his forehead. He wondered how long it would take him to get back home—to get to the airport, to fly half-way across the country, to take a cab to his building—if he walked out of here right now. He was sure he would die before then if his heart did not slow down.

He shut his eyes and thought of Mr. Bojangles, who was always able to comfort him at times such as these. The cat would somehow sense his distress and come to him, leaping daintily onto his lap. Shriver would then stroke Mr. B.'s silky head and back, feeling the vibrations building up deep inside the animal. They say no one knows where purring originates in the cat—how the noise is manufactured, or where. It remains a pleasant mystery.

"Are you okay?" Edsel Nixon whispered.

Shriver realized that he'd been miming the act of stroking a cat.

"Fine," he replied, shifting in his seat.

"You have finally killed me, I thought, when you pulled out your blood-drenched cock," Ms. Smithee read from her book-length poem, Menstrual Show, "but then disgust spread across your face like a shadow, and I knew it was I who had somehow done wrong."

Shriver wondered if perhaps he should compliment the poet on her vivid imagery, but worried that this was not original enough for a writer as sophisticated as the real Shriver seemed to be. As he rehearsed to himself various compliments, Gonquin Smithee brought her performance to a well-received climax

After lengthy applause, during which Ms. Smithee stood tall and defiant at the podium, the poet asked if there were any questions. Shriver watched as Simone scanned the apparently stunned crowd. Seven hundred people, and no brave volunteers.

She stood and said, as loudly as she could manage, "Okay, I'll get the ball rolling."

How courageous she is, Shriver thought.

"Is it difficult," she asked, "to be so open about your personal story in these poems?"

The poet mulled over the question as if it had never been asked before. Then she leaned toward the microphone and said, "Yes."

There was a pause as the audience awaited further elucidation. There was none. Shriver heard a few titters as people realized this. Simone, he could see, was worried. She now stood off to the side of the room, watching for any raised hands. Ms. Smithee, meanwhile, remained proudly at the podium, awaiting the next question.

"Come on," she said. "I won't bite you."

Several people coughed. Shriver felt sorry for Simone, who now seemed embarrassed. No doubt she had played up the audience participation angle to the author. He saw her wipe sweat from her brow.

Impulsively, Shriver raised his hand.

"Mr. Shriver," Gonquin Smithee said with an exaggerated nod. She must have recognized his face from the brochure photo. There were murmurs in the crowd. He could hear his name being whispered all around him. He stood, feeling a stab of pain in his rear end. He looked over at Simone, who, he could see, was relieved and grateful. She smiled encouragingly.

"What is the question?" Ms. Smithee asked. If he was not mistaken, there was a hostile tone to her voice.

Shriver licked his dry lips and tried to think. He looked down at Edsel Nixon, who watched him with great anticipation. Out of the corner of his eye he caught the intense gaze of Delta Malarkey-Jones, who appeared frozen in the midst of taking a sip from a large soda. He thought quickly, and said the only thing that came into his mind.

"Have you ever written a poem from the point of view of your father?"

The room was dead silent. A truck could be heard backing up—beep, beep, beep—somewhere outside the building. Why he'd asked such a question was a mystery to him. He knew nothing of literature.

The poet looked down at Shriver with an amused expression.

"And why would I do that?" she asked.

Still standing, Shriver felt 1,398 eyes turn toward him.

He cleared his throat and said, "I just thought it might be interesting."

The audience buzzed.

"Any other questions?" Ms. Smithee asked, looking around the room.

Shriver glanced over at Simone, who did not meet his gaze. A woman in the rear called out that she, too, had been abused by a family member, and she'd written six hundred poems about it. Ms. Smithee responded warmly to this information.

When the Q and A was over, a grateful Shriver followed Edsel Nixon into the lobby, where hundreds of people were now milling around. A few smiled at him; some others looked away, embarrassed.


From across the lobby, a man's voice.

"Shriver, you old devil!"

A familiar-looking middle-aged man in a cheap suit squeezed his way through the crowd. At first, Shriver was sure it was his friend Vinnie, the doorman. But how could that possibly be? Vinnie would be the last person in the world to attend a writers conference. He hated books. He'd sometimes mention his daughter, who was away at college, and how she wasted her time reading when she should be out enjoying life. "Imagine it, Mr. Shriver," he'd exclaim, "a young girl, with the world at her feet, curled up in a chair with her pretty nose in a book!" Vinnie didn't even read the newspapers that he so faithfully delivered to Shriver's door every morning, preferring to hear the news on the radio, or from Shriver himself.

But as the man approached, Shriver saw that he actually didn't resemble Vinnie at all. Vinnie was a wiry fellow with a shock of white hair and piercing eyes. This man was rather portly, and wore thick glasses and a gray mustache that contrasted sharply with his brown toupee.

"You haven't changed a bit, you old s.o.b.," the man said, offering his hand. "Jack Blunt. Remember?"

Fate tapped a paradiddle on Shriver's heart. He tried to brace himself, but it was no use. This was the moment he was to be exposed. This man knew the real Shriver. Any minute now the façade would come tumbling down.

"I interviewed you years ago. Your book had just been published. We went out and tied one on." He laughed. "Jesus, I think I'm still hung over."

Shriver said, "Of course. Blunt. That was a long, long time ago. I hardly recognize you."

"You look the same," Blunt said, sizing Shriver up through his cola bottle glasses.

"I do?"

Relieved, Shriver introduced the journalist to Edsel Nixon. "He's my 'handler,'" Shriver noted with a chuckle. This Blunt fellow was an old drinking buddy, after all. He could laugh with him.

"Nice to meet you, son." Blunt shook hands with the graduate student, then turned back to Shriver. "Listen, how about an interview?"

"Oh, I don't know."

"This is a big occasion. Your first appearance in, what, twenty years? I flew all the way out here for this."

"I'm not really doing interviews, Mr. Blunt."

"And it's only appropriate you talk to me," the reporter persisted, "since I was the one who got to you first all those years ago, when you were a nobody. That was a big deal for you, Shriver. This will make for a delicious bookend. Plus I really need the break."

"But I don't have anything to say."

"Look, why not let's go to this little hole in the wall around the corner, I'll buy you a drink or two, and we just shoot the shit. Off the record. Then you can decide. How about it?"

A drink sounded very good to Shriver, especially after that reading.

"I think there's a dinner thing planned," Edsel Nixon said. "With Gonquin and a bunch of the others."

"I'll have him back in time," Blunt promised.

"Will Professor Cleverly be there?" Shriver asked Nixon.

"Yes, I think so."

Shriver turned to the reporter and said, "I really must be back by…"

"Six," Nixon said. "At Slander's restaurant."

"No problemo," Mr. Blunt said. "I'll have him there by then."

Nixon appeared troubled. "Mr. Shriver—Professor Cleverly will kill me if you get lost or anything."

"Time's a wastin'," Jack Blunt said.

"Don’t worry, Mr. Nixon," Shriver told his handler. "Tell Simone—er, Professor Cleverly—that I'll be there at six." Poor Nixon looked stricken as Blunt led Shriver down the stairs and out the front doors.

"Goddamn, it's good to see you, old man," the reporter declared. "To be honest, I thought you were dead."


"Where else would you be for twenty years? But the minute I heard you were appearing here, I made my plans."

They crossed the street and rounded a corner.

"And that question of yours—goddamn brilliant! How I despise the self-serving victim crap that dyke ladles out."

Shriver had a hard time keeping up. This Blunt fellow walked very quickly, plus his buttock still ached. The change in his jacket pocket jingled with each step, and mosquitoes buzzed noisily around his head. After a few blocks they came to a one-story cinderblock building, painted brown. On the metal door were adhesive letters that spelled "THe BLoodY DuCk." Inside, the air was thick with gray cigarette smoke, though there was only the bartender and one customer in the place, neither of them smoking.

Blunt led him to a booth and called to the bartender for two double whiskeys. Shriver winced as he sat on the hard wood bench. Initials and names and slogans had been carved into the wood of the booth. Directly over Blunt's left shoulder was written NOW THAT I AM ENLIGHTENED I AM AS MISERABLE AS EVER.

"Do I really look the same?" Shriver asked after their drinks had arrived.

"Of course not. Cheers." Blunt held up his tumbler and the two men toasted. "None of us look the same, do we?"

Shriver took a gulp of his drink, relishing the heat that cascaded down his esophagus.

"What I want to know," Blunt said, "is what the hell you've been up to these past twenty or so years."

Shriver thought back over the past two decades.

"This and that," he said.

"Have you been writing?"

Shriver patted his jacket pocket. The yellow pages were still there.

"A little," he said.

"A novel? Stories? What?"

"Not sure."

Blunt slapped his now-empty tumbler down on the table in disgust. "You're playing games with me, Shriver." He signaled to the bartender for another round. Shriver hurried to catch up with him, draining his glass and setting it down beside its companion.

"No games," he said.

"Alright. So tell me why you've been out of the spotlight for so long. Is it the ol' sophomore slump?"

"I guess so."

"Writer's block?"

"Sort of."

"I mean, the first book goes nuclear, millions sold, a buttload of awards—who could follow that up?"

"Not me."

"Did the reviews bother you?"

"What reviews?"

Blunt removed some crumpled, yellowy newspaper articles from his pocket and read a few phrases.

"'Sick…' 'Unrelentingly twisted…' 'Perverted nonsense…' And from Chico Puxatawney: 'A pathetic male fantasy, obviously a sad response to Mr. Shriver's own personal problems…' Shall I go on?"

"I never read reviews."

"That's not what you told me twenty years ago."

The bartender delivered two more glasses of whiskey. Shriver drained his in one gulp.

"Still able to put it away, I see," Blunt remarked.

Shriver could feel the alcohol as it seeped into his bloodstream. He felt like a man in an airtight wetsuit slowly submerging into an icy lake.

"Why should I trust you, Mr. Blunt—"

"Oh, come on, Shriver. You need me now, just like you needed me then. You may be a star at this little conference, but out there"—he waved toward the wall and beyond, toward the rest of the world—"nobody remembers you. I had to explain who you were to my editor, the stupid twit."

"Then why bother to talk to me at all?"

"Because as ridiculous and self-serving as these little events are, it is a big deal that you're coming out of the woodwork, and it's a great opportunity for me."

"You want a scoop."

"Hell yes! And I can help you while I'm at it."

"Help me how?"

"By getting your name out there! And your face, too."

From his coat pocket he produced a small camera and began waving it around.

"No!" Shriver cried, covering his face. "Absolutely not!"

"Just one shot. No one remembers what you look like."


"They don't even put your photo in your goddamn books."

"Honest to God, Blunt, if you take a picture of me I will not speak to you at all."

"Oh, alright." The reporter slid the tiny camera back into his pocket. "Still cranky. That hasn't changed."

Shriver scratched at the mosquito bite on his hand, which had suddenly become irritated. The bartender emerged from a wall of smoke with two more drinks.

As they sat sipping their whiskeys, this time a little more slowly, Blunt eyed Shriver over the rim of his tumbler.

"I'm on to you."

Shriver was suddenly sober, his adrenal gland pumping madly away.

"What do you mean?"

"You're up to something, old boy."

"Such as?"

"It's some sort of stunt. I don't have it all worked out yet, but…"

Shriver's lips began to quiver a little.

"What I can't understand," Blunt said, "is why you would agree to attend this little dog and pony show."

"It's simple. They asked me."

"Is that all it took?"

Shriver nodded.

"So you've been hiding away for two decades because no one asked you out?"

Shriver finished his drink. He had gone from sober to drunk to sober again, and now he was pleasantly tipsy. He peered through the fog-like smoke at the clock on the wall.

"Sorry, Mr. Blunt, but I really must go. I am expected for dinner."

"You haven't changed much, Shriver."

"You don't know how pleased I am to hear you say that. Thanks for the drinks, Mr. Blunt."

"Any time. How about tomorrow? An on-the-record chat over lunch?"

"I don’t think so. Have a nice trip back home."

"Oh, I'm not going anywhere. I'll see you around town, old boy."

Shriver squeezed himself out of the booth and walked stiffly from the tavern, trailing a wispy tail of cigarette smoke.

Chapter Four

Slander's restaurant was on Main Street between the Porn Again Church of Pornocology and the Dusty Rose antiques shop. Shriver stood outside for a moment, peering in through the large plate- glass window. The place looked elegant in an old-fashioned way, with walls of dark wood dotted with sepia-toned historical photographs of the town. Mosquitoes buzzed madly around his ears. They were growing in number now that the sun was starting to set. He was half an hour late, according to the clock near the entrance.

“There you are!”

Shriver turned to see Edsel Nixon standing beside him.

“You have an unnerving habit of materializing out of nowhere,” Shriver told him as his heart pounded.

“Sorry, sir,” the student said. “I’ll try to be more noisy from now on. It’s just that Professor Cleverly is worried about you.

“I got a little lost.”

Along the way Shriver had been forced to ask several people for directions, with mixed results. Fortunately, he’d then stumbled upon a liquor store, Big Chief's Liquorarium, where the proprietor, a squat fellow of Native American descent, silently drew a detailed map on a brown paper bag. To thank him, Shriver purchased a pint of whiskey, which he now kept in his inside jacket pocket.

Edsel Nixon now led him to a back room in the restaurant where the conference people were seated at a long table. There were eight of them, including his handler. He instantly spotted Simone in the far corner. Unfortunately, the seats on either side of her were spoken for.

"Shriver!" a hatless T. Wolmatoth hollered from his place at the far end of the table, to Simone's left. He was bald, Shriver now saw, with a graying comb-over made sweaty from all those hours of dank confinement beneath his ten gallon hat. "Where ya been, buddy?"

Shriver waved hello and sat to the left of Edsel Nixon. "Ouch," he hissed as his sore buttock collided with the seat.

"We thought you got lost," Wolmatoth said.

"He was talking to the press," Simone explained to the group.

"Ah," the cowboy chuckled, "fraternizing with the enemy, eh?"

The waiter arrived with a menu. He was young, obviously a student, with dark hair and deep-set eyes. "I'll have a double whiskey," Shriver told him.

Simone took it upon herself to make introductions.

"This is Basil Rather," she said, indicating the gentleman to Edsel Nixon's right. The playwright sat ramrod straight in his seat, his face narrow and harsh, a thin, suspiciously black beard lining his jaw. He wore a maroon turtleneck beneath a houndstooth jacket.

"How do you do?" he said in a theatrical voice.

"And to his right," Simone continued, "is Mr. Rather's assistant, uh…"

"Lena," the young woman said. "Lena Dunn." A busty redhead, she was perhaps half the age of the playwright.

"You know T., of course," Simone said. The cowboy saluted and raised his tumbler.

"I don't know if you've officially met Gonquin Smithee," Simone said, indicating the poet to her right, who nodded minimally. Up close her face was attractive—unlined, with full, sensuous lips. "And her friend, Ms. Labio," Simone added, indicating the woman to Gonquin Smithee's right, directly across from Shriver. She closely resembled the poet, with erratically trimmed hair above a smooth, shapely face, except instead of a man's tailored suit, she wore a square-shouldered frock.

"That was an interesting question you asked, Mr. Shriver," Gonquin Smithee said just before taking a sip of white wine.

"'There are no other questions than these,'" Wolmatoth intoned from the far end of the table. "'Half squashed in mud, emerging out of the moment/We all live, learning to like it. No sonnet/On this furthest strip of land—'"

"Thank you, T.," Simone interrupted.

"Nixon?" Wolmatoth shouted.

"Ashbery, sir," the graduate student answered.

"Very good."

"I've read your novel," Gonquin Smithee continued, aiming her green, laser-like eyes at Shriver. "Well, I didn't finish it, but from what I did read I was struck by the fact that you seem taken with writing from the point of view of villains and abusers."

"Er," Shriver responded, as the mosquito bite on his hand began to itch.

The waiter appeared at his side with a tumbler of whiskey. Everyone watched as Shriver grabbed the glass and sipped greedily. The waiter removed a pad and pencil from his pocket and asked if he was ready to order. The young man gazed down upon Shriver intently, as if all the world depended upon the answer.

"Go ahead," Simone told Shriver. "We've ordered already."

"Do you have any soup?" Shriver asked.

"We have a cabbage and smoked sausage soup, and a Peruvian lamb soup."

"Uh huh. How about a sandwich?"

"We have a bison sandwich, Mr. Shriver."


"Food of the gods!" the cowboy exclaimed.

"Do you have anything less, uh, fleshy?"

"A Caesar salad?"

"I'll have that."

"Excellent choice," the waiter said. Then, sotto voce, "I'm a big fan."

When the young man had retreated, Shriver turned to the group, hoping that a new subject had been introduced, but they seemed to be awaiting his response to the poet.

"Er," he repeated.

"I prefer to speak for the victims," Gonquin Smithee declared. "I think the violent, sexist patriarchy has had its time to speak, and now it's our time."

"Good Lord," Basil Rather snorted. "I've time-traveled to 1975!"

Shriver gripped the tumbler tightly and mumbled, "You're probably right about that, Ms. Smithee."

Ms. Labio sighed dramatically and said, "That is so patronizing."

"Tell me, Ms. Labio," Rather said, "what do you do for a living?"

"She's an artist," Gonquin Smithee answered for her friend.

"No kidding?" Rather responded with a tight little smile. "And what is your metier?"

"Sculpture," the artist replied.

"Clay? Stone?"



"I sculpt nudes made of cake."

"How delicious!" the amused playwright declared.

"Male?" T. Wolmatoth asked. "Female?"

"She-male," the sculptress answered with a satisfied grin.

"Well, I'll be," the cowboy chuckled.

"How long do they last?" Edsel Nixon wondered.

Ms. Labio shrugged. "A week or so, depending on the conditions."

"Sometimes we eat them," Ms. Smithee announced.

"I find temporary art to be baffling," Rather proclaimed to the entire restaurant. "What do you think, Shriver?"

Shriver turned to Simone, who, recognizing his distress, hoisted her glass of chianti. "To a great conference. The response so far has been extremely positive."

Everyone raised their glasses and muttered in agreement. Then, amid more talk of the mosquito problem ("I must've got bitten a dozen times on the way over"), dinner was served. Throughout the meal, the waiter hovered nearby, his focus seemingly upon Shriver. Conversely, Shriver couldn't help but notice that Gonquin Smithee and her sidekick would not look at him at all. Unnerved, he poked at his salad in silence, barely listening to the talk of literature and academics. Occasionally, inspired by a word or phrase, the cowboy would utter some snippets of poetry, then quiz poor Edsel Nixon as to its origins ("Hart Crane, sir").

"How do you know so much about poetry, Mr. Nixon?" Shriver asked him.

"I have to. Professor Wolmatoth is my faculty advisor. He says if I get any wrong he's going to torpedo my thesis."

"All the more impressive."

"Not really. He quotes from the same ten or twelve poems all the time. Usually he's too sauced to realize it."

From behind the graduate student's head there appeared the grim visage of Basil Rather, who, in between chewing bovinely at a hunk of veal, asked Shriver if he was planning to attend that evening's reading.

"It should be quite interesting," he added, "if I say so myself."

"I'm sure I'll be there," Shriver said.

"You know," the playwright appended, "your novel was quite important to me as a young man."

"Is that so?" Shriver felt himself blushing slightly.

"I can't remember much of it now—I'm not even sure I finished it--but I recall it made an impression on my soft, unformed intellect. Of course, I imagine it would not cast the same spell now that I am older and wiser."

"I can see it in your work, actually" Edsel Nixon told the playwright.


"Sure. In the transgressive nature of the characters. How they yearn for meaning so much, they destroy meaning in the process."

"Nonsense," Basil Rather said to the young man. "Did you hear that, Lena? My characters are transgressive! Wolmatoth, what kind of claptrap are you teaching these students of yours?"

"Probably the deconstructionist element," the cowboy explained in a tone of grave seriousness. He cast poor Nixon a withering glance. "They're running rampant in the English department."

"God help us!" the playwright cried.

"And what's wrong with deconstructionism?" Gonquin Smithee wondered.

"Ah-ah-ah!" The cowboy wagged a crooked finger. "Save it for the panel discussion tomorrow. Looks like there could be fireworks, eh, Shriver?"

Shriver signaled the hovering waiter for another whiskey. He was dreading the panel discussion tomorrow. He knew nothing of deconstructionism or transgressive characters. He was just a man who liked to lie in his bed and watch the local news. He missed Mr. Bojangles. He loved to rub the white cummerbund of fur on the cat's belly. Mr. B. never spoke to him about poetry or the meaning of literature. He never made any demands beyond regular feedings and the stroke of a hand.

Sometimes, when he watched Mr. Bojangles sleeping on the bed, Shriver wondered if the cat was contented, or if perhaps he was bored and unhappy, like a prisoner in a comfortable but dreary jail cell with nothing to do but eat and sleep. If only animals could communicate, he often thought, we would learn all sorts of things about their lives. Mr. B. may dream of sprinting through the jungle after a tasty vole or wild boar, only to wake up in a stuffy two-room apartment where a middle-aged man watches a strange talking box all day long. Occasionally, when Blotto came to deliver groceries, the cat would bolt out the open door into the hallway. Blotto, with his blocky teeth sticking in all directions, would laugh hysterically as he chased the cat up and down the hall. Was Mr. Bojangles trying to escape? These thoughts always filled Shriver with anxiety and guilt until he realized that his kitty could just as easily feel lucky for having such a cozy life, with his food provided for, plus plenty of affection and opportunities for rest. But why would he run out the door like that? If only the cat could speak!

When dinner was over, each guest was presented with a check. Great piles of quarters and dimes were stacked upon the white tablecloth, to be counted by the patient waiter. As Shriver was adding up his tip, the young man knelt at his side and said, “Mr. Shriver, it’s a real pleasure to meet you. I’ve read your book three times.”

“Three times?”

“And I’m reading it again for my lit class.”

“You seem to be the only one to have finished it.”

“I think it’s fascinating.”

“That’s very flattering. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

The young man remained on one knee for a moment, his eyes watching Shriver from their deep sockets.

“Sorry,” he said, rising to his feet. “It’s not every day one meets their idol.”

Edsel Nixon ferried Shriver and T. Wolmatoth back to the Union in his decrepit army-issue jeep. Shriver had hoped to catch a ride with Simone, but she’d promised a lift to Gonquin Smithee and Ms. Labio, so he thought it best to accept his handler’s kind offer. He sat in the cramped back seat, among books and ice scrapers and teeth-marked pens, and rolled from side to side with every sharp turn. There was no roof, and the engine sputtered like a dying lawn mower.

“I like to take the top off,” the graduate student hollered over the noise, “because the wind keeps the mosquitoes away!”

“’Insects do not sting out of malice,’” the cowboy quoted, one hand clasped to his fluttering ten gallon hat, “’but because they also want to live: likewise our critics—they want our blood, not our pain.’”

Poor Edsel Nixon was drawing a blank.

“Okay, I’ll give you a pass on that one,” his advisor said.

“Who is it?”

“Nietzche, my boy! Don’t you ever read anything but bullshit poetry?!”

They drove down a tree-lined street beneath overhanging limbs. Gazing up through a blur of leaves, Shriver saw the stationary moon hanging as white as a bone.

“So, Shriver,” Professor Wolmatoth said, turning to face him, “any thoughts on the panel tomorrow? Or should I surprise you?”

The cool breeze was sobering Shriver up considerably. He patted his jacket to make sure the pint bottle was still intact.

“Since we have this ridiculous theme, I thought perhaps I’d query you about the role autobiography plays in your work. You know—‘reality versus illusion.’”

“I’m not sure I have much to contribute,” Shriver said, hoping to lower expectations.

“Balderdash!” the cowboy exclaimed. “You’re one of this country’s most revered novelists. A mystery man for twenty years! People are coming from hundreds of miles away to hear your thoughts. I know this for a fact! You must have a lot to say!”

Shriver’s hand began to itch. The bite had grown to the size of a quarter. He removed the bottle of whiskey and, with some effort, unscrewed the cap. He offered it to the cowboy.

“Don’t mind if I do,” Wolmatoth said, grabbing the bottle and indulging in a rather prodigious swallow. “Nixon?”

“No, thanks.”

“Oh, right,” the cowboy sneered, turning back to Shriver. “Nixon is a teetotaler. Did you know that, Shriver?”

Shriver took a long slug and screwed the cap back on.

“I’m afraid I may disappoint my fans tomorrow,” he said.

The cowboy laughed. “I know you’re up to something, Shriver. I’ve never met a writer who didn’t have something to say. I don’t know what it is, but I’m sure you’re up to no good!” He laughed some more.

“’If I had to give young writers advice,’” Edsel Nixon shouted in a dramatic voice, “’I would say don’t listen to writers talking about writing or themselves!’”

The two older men looked at the graduate student.

“Lillian Hellman,” he explained.


The ballroom was once again filled to capacity. There were many of the same faces as at the afternoon reading, including that of Delta Malarkey-Jones, who now waved to Shriver from her seat. Shriver nodded back, then searched the crowd for Simone. She was up front, talking to a group of graduate students. Basil Rather stood off to the side, tall and imperious. Ms. Dunn was beside him, looking as anxious as her mentor looked calm. Perhaps Rather kept her at hand to absorb all the trepidation that came with being an award-winning playwright. Shriver wished he had such a sponge for his own unease.

Edsel Nixon told him he was going to sit up front, but Shriver declined to join him, preferring the back row, where he could imbibe more easily. He found a seat in the far corner, next to some undergraduates who were abuzz about the upcoming performance.

He settled in and surreptitiously sipped from the bottle. He was a little worried about all his drinking after so many years of sobriety, but he told himself it was just the stress he was reacting to, and that once he returned home he would again put the bottle away. It was a good thing his ex wasn't here to see him like this. She used to get so upset about his drinking, hectoring him and making threats. Just to show her, he hadn't had a drop since the moment she walked out that door. Until now.

Shaking off these memories, he focused his attention on Simone. Even from far across the ballroom she stood out in the crowd. Her face was pink from the wine, her hair resplendent as it cascaded down her back. The students listened closely to her words, all of them in thrall. One by one they peeled away to perform their duties. The last of them, a bearded young man wearing a dangling earring, stepped up to the podium at the side of the stage. The crowd dutifully quieted down as he cleared his throat.

There followed an adulatory introduction of Basil Rather. The graduate student spoke of a trip he once made to New York, where he took in one of Mr. Rather's many critically lauded plays. Watching the performance, he said, he was sucked into a vortex of language he had never experienced before. Or something like that. Shriver was much too busy watching Simone, who had returned to her usual seat in the front row corner. From this angle, he saw that she did not at all resemble Tina LeGros of Channel 17 Action News. Her beauty was much more natural and unstudied, with little or no makeup and none of that hairspray that keeps every strand in place. No, she much more resembled someone else that Shriver knew, though he could not think of who it was. The slight bump on the nose, the shell-like ears.

Despite her obvious popularity with the students and her colleagues, Shriver thought Simone seemed lonely and isolated. He'd been touched by her talk of divorce and how difficult it had been to remove her wedding ring. Clearly she was someone who, when she loved, loved deeply.

After the introduction, an attractive man and woman walked onto the platform and stood a few feet apart. Using voices trained in the university theatre department, they proceeded to enact a scene from the playwright's canon.

"Cunt," the man casually began.

The undergraduate students near Shriver tittered.

"Coward," the woman responded.




"Mama's boy."

As this played on, Shriver resorted repeatedly to his bottle. Eventually, both of the characters turned to the audience and recited monologues about the pointlessness of relationships and the impossibility of connecting.

"Can you ever know someone?" the young man wondered, "when you don't even know yourself?"

"We are just bundles of neuroses," the woman said a while later. "Each of us a jigsaw piece with it own distinct bulges and crevices. What are the chances of finding the perfect match?"

Simone seemed to be absorbed by the drama. She leaned forward, as if hanging on every word. But as Shriver watched her, even from this distance, he felt he knew she was thinking of other things--more meaningful, personal, things.

He was concerned about her disapproval of the real Shriver's work. He wanted to tell her that it wasn't his doing—that he wasn't the author—but then what would she think of him? An imposter, a fool, a charlatan. No, he stood a much better chance as the Shriver she thought he was, then, once he'd won her over, he could confess.

After about thirty minutes, the actors abruptly stopped speaking and, amidst confused smatterings of applause, took their bows. Basil Rather bounded onto the stage and stood to the side of the podium, twisting the neck of the microphone to point it closer to his face. His mouth moved but no sounds emerged. He continued with this pantomime until several audience members began shouting, "The sound is off!" and "Turn the mic on!"

Rather's face reddened. He turned to look at Ms. Dunn, who was standing off to the side of the stage. Ms. Dunn, in turn, looked toward Simone, who was already rushing to the podium. She examined the microphone, pushed a button, but still there was no amplification. The playwright's face grew more and more crimson as poor Simone scurried up a side aisle to the back of the room.

Shriver watched as she conferred with the obviously confused young technician behind a large sound board. Knobs were turned, cables extracted and replaced. Still no sound. The audience became restless. Meanwhile, directly above the area where the sound equipment was located, Shriver saw for the first time a large screen hanging against the room's back wall. Projected onto this screen was his photograph, his face at least twenty feet high, the same photograph that was on the conference brochure. After a moment the image faded and the face of Gonquin Smithee appeared. This, in turn, dissolved into a well-lighted head-shot of Basil Rather.

Shriver turned back to see the playwright at the lip of the stage.

"Can you hear me?" Rather called out.

"No!" someone barked back.

At this point, there was an ear-splitting shriek of feedback. It went on so long and so shrilly that Shriver had to cover his ears.

When the noise finally faded, Shriver looked around with one open eye, half expecting to see the room in tatters. On the stage, Basil Rather stood bowed with his hands still over his ears, a grimace on his normally composed face.

The gaping silence was broken by a rumbling voice: "'All the heavens/Opened and blazed with thunder such as seemed/Shoutings of all the sons of God.'"

This was followed by a more timid utterance: "Tennyson, sir."

Meanwhile, Simone had run to the podium, where she tapped tentatively at the microphone.

Thump thump thump.

A few people applauded, Shriver among them.

"I am so sorry about that," Simone announced. She then made room for Basil Rather at the podium. The playwright approached the microphone as if it might bite him. Ms. Dunn stood nearby, ready to administer first aid.

"Well, that was interesting."

He then apologized, not for the technical difficulties, but for the blunt language of his play, which, he said, was necessary to bring home the point of the piece. He did not elucidate on that point. Instead, he wondered if there were any questions.

Again, there was a general reluctance on the part of the audience to pose queries. Wishing to avoid any temptation to leap into the fray, Shriver stood up and sidled past the young students to the aisle. He would go out to the hall and relax, sit on a couch, have a drink. As he crossed the back of the ballroom, he glanced at Simone beside the stage. She was scanning the audience, clearly hoping to see some upraised hands. There were none. For a second their eyes met, and Shriver stopped in his tracks. He did not want her to see him leave.

Earlier, just after dinner, while everyone was clustered on the sidewalk deciding who was riding with whom, Shriver had managed to briefly speak with her.

"I'm sorry about that Q and A thing."

"Are you kidding? You saved my life."

"I didn't know what I was saying."

"It was the best question all day. Something only a real writer would ask."

"Come, now," Basil Rather said. "Someone must have a question."

Simone looked at Shriver with imploring eyes. Please don't go, she seemed to be thinking. For some reason, perhaps to ensure her that he was not going anywhere, he waved.

"Mr. Shriver!" Basil Rather cried.

Heads turned. Shriver froze, hand still in mid-wave.

"First into the breech again?" the playwright quipped.

Shriver looked again toward Simone, who was equally stationary, the two of them statues on either side of the curious throng.

Basil Rather leaned forward over the podium, awaiting Shriver's inquiry. The playwright's steady breathing could be heard over the sound system. In the sea of heads between them, Shriver made out the artificial coloring of Jack Blunt's hair-piece. The reporter smiled mischievously. Near him sat T. Wolmatoth, with his greasy comb-over and bloodshot eyes. Shriver scratched blindly at his itching hand.

The sound seemed to come from underneath them at first, like the shifting of tectonic plates miles below the surface of the earth, but then it rapidly grew in intensity until, after welling up deep inside the bowels of the sound system, a volcanic blast of feedback erupted, making the previous disaster seem like a minor annoyance. Shriver watched as seven hundred people pressed their hands to their ears and shut their eyes—all except Simone, who ran onto the stage, straight to the podium, grabbed the microphone, and switched it off.

The noise ceased immediately, trailed by a kind of echo that ricocheted around the room. People were reluctant to uncover their ears, understandably worried that there may be another brain-frying aftershock. A crimson-faced Basil Rather stood on the stage with Simone, speaking quietly but with many gesticulations.

Shriver took the opportunity to exit the ballroom. He could always claim ear damage as an excuse. Out in the hall, seated side by side on a couch, were Gonquin Smithee and Ms Labio.

"I don't know which was worse," the poet commented. "The feedback or the play."

"Such claptrap," her companion noted.

"I mean, I don't mind confrontational—I'm confrontational—you're confrontational, Shriver—but at least he should have the talent to back it up."

Shriver wondered if this meant Gonquin Smithee thought he had talent. Or, that the real Shriver had talent. An olive branch, or at least a leaf, seemed to be in the offing.

He sat down a little too hard on a couch opposite the two women.

"Would either of you like a snort?" he asked, removing the pint of whiskey from his pocket while, with his other hand, he rubbed his throbbing buttock.

"What the hell," Ms. Smithee said, reaching for the half-empty bottle. Ms. Labio watched with a disapproving expression as her friend downed a considerable amount.

“Gonky,” she said in a tone of warning.

Gonquin Smithee swallowed, shook her reddening head from side to side, and flapped her arms. “I can handle it,” she squawked, handing the bottle back. Her eyes were pink-edged and a little crossed. "So where do you teach, Shriver?" she asked.


"Harvard? Yale? Must be a biggie."

"I don't teach."

Her eyes bulged. "You don't teach?"

Shriver shook his head.

"You mean you just write?"

Shriver shrugged.

Ms. Smithee sat back in her chair and snorted, "Well, I'll be damned."

"Is that good or bad—that I'm not a teacher?"

"Oh, it's good, it's good. You're the genuine article. I wish I had the guts to do that."

"How would you make money?" her friend asked.

"I don't know. I could wait tables. Work in a book store. Whatever."

Ms. Labio rolled her eyes at this. Shriver got the impression she rolled her eyes quite a bit.

Ms. Smithee gestured for the whiskey. Shriver handed it to her and she took another long pull.

"You know, Shriver," she said, "I've been thinking about what you said earlier."

Shriver took a serious drink himself.

"What did I say?" he asked.

"You know—about writing from the point of view of my father. I may have been hasty in my assessment of that suggestion."

"It wasn't so much a suggestion as a simple question."

"But it suggests that there is this other approach, and I've never really considered it."

“I bet it might be interesting,” Shriver said.

“What do you think, Majora?” Gonquin asked her friend.

“I think you’ve had enough to drink.”

“Aw, bullcrap! I’m tired of being the frickin’ victim. I wanna be the bad guy for once. See what it feels like. What does it feel like, Shriver?”

“How should I know?”

“Oh, c’mon. All those pervs and nasty-ass characters in your book. That guy cut off his wife’s head, for Christ sake.”

“Oh,” Shriver said, detecting a far-off rumble inside his bowels. “Him.”

Gonquin Smithee laughed. "You know, Shriver, you're not at all what I expected."

His hand began to itch. "Is that so?"

"I thought you'd be this stooped-over goat-man or something, leering and slobbering at all the girls, all full of yourself with your awards and shit."

"Is that my reputation?" he asked.

"You don't have a reputation. That's the amazing thing. I looked you up on-line and there's hardly a word about you. Personally, I mean. You're a mystery."

"I hope I haven't disappointed you."

"You're actually quite gentle, I can see."

"Thank you."

“All the more amazing that you write about such low-lifes." She leaned forward and asked, "What’s it feel like to inhabit those people? To crawl inside their skin and walk around doing such bad things?”

“I never thought about it,” he told her. “I suppose it must be sort of liberating.”

“Exactly!” she cried. “I need to be liberated!”

“You need some coffee,” Ms. Labio commented dryly.

“And you need a drink.”

“We shouldn’t have come. This happens every time,” the sculptor explained to Shriver.

“That’s right," Gonquin shouted. "Every time we come to one of these conferences, I have a great time! That’s what you can’t stand.”

Shriver stood up. “Excuse me, ladies.”

“Aw, look what you did, Majora. You drove him away.”

Shriver walked in a jagged line across the lobby and into the men's room. As he relieved himself, he became aware of a presence in the nearby stall. There was a groaning sound, followed by prodigious flatulence. He washed his hands at the sink and, staring at himself in the mirror, saw that he'd never looked so old. There were bags under his bloodshot eyes, his sagging chin was dotted with gray whiskers. He dabbed some water on his scalp and tried to comb his wiry, thinning hair into submission. Then he pulled down his trousers and examined the rather alarming purple bruise that had formed on his left buttock. It was shaped like something, but he wasn't quite sure what.

"Good God almighty, Shriver!" T. Wolmatoth cried out as he emerged from the stall. "Looks like you got kicked by a mule!"

Shriver quickly pulled his trousers up and buckled his belt. "It's nothing," he said.

The cowboy proceeded to vigorously wash his hands. "A vinegar compress'll help that, ya know. I used to get whacked all the time back when I was in the rodeo." He dried his hands with a paper towel and tossed it away.

"I didn't see you leave the ballroom," Shriver said.

"'By stealth she passed, and fled as fast/As doth the hunted fawn…'"

With that, the rhyming cowboy made his exit. Shriver lowered his trousers and took another glance in the mirror. The bruise was shaped like an animal, or maybe a country on a map. Puzzled, he buckled up and exited the rest room.

People were now emerging from the ballroom. Shriver swam against the tide, squeezing through the doorway. Inside he saw Wolmatoth trapped by Delta Malarkey-Jones, who was pressing a copy of her manuscript into the cowboy’s hands. Up near the front, Basil Rather was holding forth for several audience members. Ms. Dunn stood close by, the playwright’s jacket draped over her arm.

Shriver cast about, looking for Simone. He saw Edsel Nixon speaking to some of the undergraduates, and Blunt, still sitting in his seat, scribbling in a little notebook.

Simone was in the back of the room, he now saw, conferring with the sound technician. The young man appeared to be explaining something to her. She seemed on the verge of tears. Shriver loitered nearby, hoping to speak to her. He felt awful about deserting her earlier. He should at least have been able to come up with a question for Rather.

On the wall, the author photographs continued to be projected. Shriver remained confused as to how the conference got hold of his picture, which, as far as he knew, remained in an album buried under a pile of magazines in his apartment.

When she was finished conferring, Simone turned and saw him waiting there.

“What a disaster,” she said. She looked much older now, aged by stress and the unforgiving glow of the fluorescent ceiling lights.

“I’m sorry,” he told her.

“I don’t know what happened,” she continued, not hearing him. “Some sort of technical snafu that I don’t understand.”

“Can I help?”

“Most definitely not."

She moved off, the little wiggle in her step canceled out by stress and perhaps the speed with which she walked.

“Goin’ to the reception?”

He turned to see Edsel Nixon. Had his designated handler noticed him staring at Simone’s shapely derriere?

“Er, what kind of shoes are those Professor Cleverly is wearing?” Shriver asked.

Nixon looked at him blankly. “I dunno. Pumps?”

Shriver pretended to ponder this information for a moment. “Yes. I am going to the reception. Can you lead me there?”

He followed the graduate student outside.

“This is going to be interesting,” Nixon said as they crossed the street. He did not appear to be bothered by the mosquitoes that were busy dive bombing Shriver.

“Why’s that?” Shriver asked, waving his arms to ward the insects off.

“Well, Rather is really pissed about the sound. He thinks someone sabotaged his reading.”


“He said he might not come to the reception, even though it’s for him.”

The St. George Café was a roomy coffeehouse with high, arched ceilings and a huge cross hanging from the wall. At the far end of the room was a small stage where a man with a shaved head was tuning up an acoustic guitar. Several of the graduate students were standing around drinking coffee and snacking on small pastries that the conference had supplied.

“I’m going to have a latte,” Edsel Nixon said. “Do you want something?”

“Just get me an empty coffee cup, if you can.” Shriver opened his jacket to show the whiskey bottle. Nixon nodded and went to the counter.

“Shriver!” came the now familiar rumble. “Got any of that hooch left?"

Shriver pulled the bottle out and offered a slug to the cowboy, who promptly accepted.

On the café stage the folk singer started strumming his guitar. He played a while, then, flanked by two public address speakers, he stepped up to a foam-covered microphone and sang in mournful tones a song of love.

Edsel Nixon returned with an empty coffee cup into which Shriver poured himself a finger.

"What did you think of the reading, Professor Wolmatoth?" the graduate student asked.

"Not my cup of whiskey, to be perfectly frank about it."

"Too bad about the sound."

The cowboy grunted. “We’ll see if that pompous old queen Rather shows up.”

Right on cue, Basil Rather, closely followed by Ms. Dunn, entered the café. Wolmatoth started clapping and ran up to them, showering the playwright with praise. Rather thanked him, but his face remained stern.

“And don’t fret about the sound,” the cowboy assured him. “It didn’t make any difference. Everyone was very happy with the reading.”

“Where did you go, Shriver?” the playwright asked. “Didn’t you have a question?”

Shriver took a deep sip of whiskey and savored the heat as it caromed down his throat.

“My ears,” he explained. “That last blast of feedback.”

Rather nodded, but in a way that indicated disbelief. Ms. Dunn was hanging on his arm, gazing up at the man's bearded chin.

“These yokels,” Rather said with a wrinkled nose. “They don’t have a brain between them.”

“Perhaps they were simply stunned,” Wolmatoth theorized.

“Yes,” the playwright answered. “Their expressions did resemble those of cows at the abattoir.”

The cowboy glanced back at Shriver and fluttered his eyelashes.

“Where is Professor Cleverly?” Rather asked.

“I hope you know how awful she feels,” Shriver said. “It wasn’t her fault.”

“And how awful do you think I feel, Mr. Shriver?”

"I’m sure you feel—"

“Let’s see how you react when someone deliberately sabotages your reading,” the playwright said.

“But who would do that?’

“Yes,” the cowboy piped up, “That’s quite an accusation, Basil, ol' buddy.”

“I will leave you to your whiskey,” Rather said, walking past them with his wrinkled nose in the air. Ms. Dunn followed, but not before giving the two whiskey-drinkers withering looks.

"'A vile conceit in pompous words expressed/Is like a clown in regal purple dressed.'"

"Alexander Pope," Nixon declared.

"Damn straight," the cowboy muttered before loping off on his increasingly bowed legs.

"I'd better go make sure Professor Wolmatoth doesn't get into trouble," Nixon said. "Let me know if you need a ride back to the hotel." The student then ran to catch up with his faculty advisor.

Shriver stood near the door sipping at his whiskey and listening to the music. The singer's voice was thin but sincere as he warbled about a woman who did not love him as he loved her.

The door swung open and Simone stepped in, her eyes sweeping past him to take in the whole cafe.

"Hello," Shriver said.

"He thinks it was done on purpose," she told him, watching Basil Rather across the room.

"By whom?"

"Does it matter? The man's paranoid."

"Does he think you did it?"

"Who knows? I wish I didn't have to be here."

She was standing close, using him as a shield. She smelled like citrus and flowers. Looking down at her face he could not help but peer past to see her freckled chest and the pale blue brassiere she was wearing.

"Are you having a good time?" she asked.

Was she being sarcastic? Had she caught him glancing at her underwear? No doubt she could smell the whiskey. She probably thought of him as just another booze-drenched writer. But I'm not! he wanted to tell her. I'm not a writer at all!

"Yes," he answered. "But I'm very anxious."

"Don't be," she said in a weary voice. "I promise we'll have the sound problems ironed out before your reading."

"It's not that."

He wanted to tell her about how he couldn't read the words of his story, how he couldn't even read them to himself, never mind amplified in front of seven hundred Shriver fans. Then he wanted to confess to her the whole abysmal situation, to tell her she'd made a titanic mistake by sending him that invitation, that he was a fraud. To hell with how she would react.

"There's something I need to tell you," he began, not knowing how to explain it.

"Oh, God, here he comes," she said, bravely stepping out from his shadow to meet Basil Rather head-on.

"Professor Cleverly," Rather said.

The singer, having finished his first song, received a smattering of polite applause.

"Mr. Rather," Simone replied, her eyes tilting upward to meet those of the lanky playwright. Behind him, of course, was his diminutive mistress.

"Have you found the source of the technical difficulties?" he asked.

"I was assured it was accidental. Something about a power surge."

"How apt," Rather snipped.

"No one is to blame."

"Whose power was surging, I wonder."

"I'm told it affected the entire campus."

"The timing was interesting, don't you think?"

"Who would do such a thing, Mr. Rather?"

"Perhaps there are those who are envious," he replied, his eyes focused on Shriver. "Where is our friend, Ms. Smithee?"

"I wouldn't know."

"And her sidekick, Betty Crocker?"

Simone narrowed her eyes into steely bullets. "Surely you don't think one of the other writers tampered with the equipment?"

"Stranger things have happened."

"Not here."

"No, of course not," the playwright sniffed. "Not at your precious writers' conference."

Shriver witnessed this exchange with a mounting sense of anxiety. He wanted to step forward and belt Rather on the mouth, but he was fairly certain that, with his superior height and reach, the playwright could amply defend himself. At the same time he was impressed by Simone, who, though clearly anxious herself, did not back down from the bully.

"I apologize once again, Mr. Rather," she said, "and I hope you will be able to join us for tomorrow's panel."

"We shall see." Rather turned on a dime, as did his sidekick, like two dancers in a choreographed movement, and side by side they disappeared through the door.

Simone looked back at Shriver, and he knew, somehow, what it was she needed.

"Yes, please," she said, accepting the offered coffee cup. She drank greedily.

"Thank you," she sighed, handing the cup back.

"I am at your service."

The singer had started another tune, an upbeat number with a welcome perky rhythm.

"It's been a long day," Simone said.

"For both of us," Shriver agreed.

"Yes. I think it's time for me to head home."

His heart sank. The whiskey, the buoyant song, the memory of the pale blue brassiere—all had combined to lift his spirits, and now she wanted to go.

"Can I give you a ride back to the hotel?" she asked.

Chapter Five

Just getting to her car was an ordeal involving much zig-zagging and other attempts to throw off the relentless mosquitoes.

"The nightmare continues," Simone said once they were safely in the massive vehicle.

Though it was a warm night, they had to keep the windows rolled up, but Shriver didn't care about the bugs. He couldn't even feel the bruise on his buttock anymore. Illuminated by oncoming headlights and other ambient light, Simone looked to him incandescent.

"I just want to say," he told her, "I think you're doing a great job."

"Oh, thanks. I'll be fine. It seems every year there's some sort of controversy."

"I guess you get a bunch of writers together and…"

"Exactly," Simone said. "Between the booze and the egos and the sex…"

"The sex?"

"Last year, for example," Simone expained, "there was this writer who did his best to seduce every grad student we had in the department. Women, men—he'd have had his way with a bison if there'd been one on staff."

"Wow! How successful was he?"

"He got pretty far, let's put it that way. But then the conference is only four days long."

"Did this Don Juan go after any of the professors?" Shriver asked, pointedly.

She hesitated. "He was a seductive character, all right. He was short and I was not a fan of his poetry, but there was something about him. Self-confidence? Cockiness? I don't know."

"I guess I'm an amateur," Shriver said.

Braking at a red light, she turned to him and said, "What is it about writers? Why are they so self-absorbed? Is it because they spend all that time alone? Is it because sometimes some people actually are interested in their ideas, and so they assume that all of us are interested all the time? Is it something in their genetic make-up?"

With each question Shriver's heart wobbled. This woman had obviously been hammered by some blunt instrument and was now unlikely to take up with another self-absorbed writer. Then he remembered that he wasn't a writer at all, and his hopes perked up.

"Writers are trouble," he declared.

"You said it, mister."

She turned into the hotel lot, pulled up at the door and shifted into park. The behemoth's engine growled.

"Well, I hope your first day wasn't too terribly traumatic," she said.

"Not at all."

"I'm sorry if I burdened you with my personal drama."

"I honestly don't mind."

"You're very sweet. Tomorrow you're speaking in Teresa Apple's writing class, remember."

"Have I met her?"

"Not yet. She's a real pistol. In fact you'd better be prepared."

"For what?"

"Let's just say Teresa is very, um, hospitable to our guest authors."


"She'll pick you up at nine or so."

"I'll be here," he told her, disappointed that she would not be driving him in the morning. "Though I don't know what I'm going to tell the students in Ms. Apple's class."

"Just tell them what you know."

"That's the problem."

She laughed as he opened the door and climbed down onto the pavement.

"Goodnight," she called down to him.

"Sleep tight!" he shouted back.

He slammed the door and she roared off, leaving him in a mini-twister of exhaust and swirling mosquitoes. He ran inside before he could get devoured.

As he made his way through the lobby Shriver realized how drunk he was. The bright lights shimmered, notes plucked on a tinkly piano in the Prairie Dog Saloon bounced across the floor like rubber balls.

Glancing toward the bar he spotted Gonquin Smithee on a corner stool. She was by herself.

"Good evening, sir," the clerk called out to him from behind the front desk.

He paused to take in the beehive hairdo, the lean face, the gum chewing.

"Are you still here?" he asked.

The clerk gave him a strange look, then grinned.

"Oh, you probably mean my sister, Charlevoix," she said. "I'm Sue St. Marie."

Shriver stared, amazed at the resemblance.

"We're identical twins," she clarified, obviously bored with the necessity of it. "I'm three minutes older, in case you're wondering."

Just as Shriver was walking away, the clerk called out, “Oh! There’s a message for you, Mr. Shriver.”

“For me?”

“You are Mr. Shriver, correct?” She handed over a folded sheet of paper.

He opened the note: I’m in bar. GS.

For a moment he considered meeting with Ms. Smithee, but decided there had been enough drama this evening.

Waiting for the elevator, he heard high-pitched laughter as the car descended. The doors opened and a half dozen teenage girls fell out, dressed in bathing suits with towels tossed over their slender shoulders, the braces on their teeth flashing. Among them was the girl he'd seen before, the willowy brunette. She smiled coyly as she passed by, then ran to join her friends on their way to the indoor pool.

Somewhat shaken by the sight of the young cheerleader's provocative expression, Shriver boarded the elevator and rode to the second floor. There, he inserted his card key in the slot to room 19. There was a click, and he pushed the door open.

He switched on the light and sat on the edge of the bed. He gazed at his gray, funhouse reflection in the television. Outside a train was creeping by, its wheels clanking rhythmically.

He should have asked Simone in for a nightcap at the saloon. Had she wanted him to? It had been so long since he'd had to read the subtle signals of a woman. He was like a man raised by wolves. Was someone waiting for her at home, he wondered.

He rose and went into the bathroom. He turned the light switch, but the room remained dark. He'd forgotten about the burnt-out bulb. Oh, well. He would take a bath, anyway. He searched in the dim room for the faucet and turned on the bathwater. He poured in some of the bubble oil provided by the hotel. If only his old friend Mr. Bojangles were here, he would not feel so lonesome.

As he took off his jacket he remembered the story he'd written, and removed the pages from the pocket. He sat on the bed near the lamp and looked down at the words on the page.

"The Watermark."

His eyes were tired but they seemed to be working properly as he read the first few lines.

"The watermark appeared on my ceiling on the rainy day my wife walked out on me. At first it was just a spot, approximately the size of a quarter, directly above the bed where I lay weeping. Listening to the rain fall, I watched the watermark grow, ever so slowly, to the size of a baseball. After a few hours, the mark was as big as a honeydew melon. By the time it got dark outside, the watermark had elongated to roughly the shape of a two-foot long oval. All night long I lay there, wide awake, wondering what the watermark would look like when daylight started creeping in the next morning…"

There was a knock on the door. Startled, Shriver threw the pages onto the bedside table and stood up.

"Who's there?" he called out.

"House detective!"


"Please open up, sir."

"What's the problem?"

"We've had a complaint from one of the cheerleaders, sir."

Oh my God, he thought. What had that girl told them?

"Are you sure?" he asked.

"Please open up, sir."

He unlocked the door, and T. Wolmatoth, accompanied by several others, including Edsel Nixon and Gonquin Smithee, came crashing into the room.

"Fooled ya!" the cowboy hollered. He was carrying a gallon bottle of whiskey, which he set down on the writing table, along with a full ice bucket and some hotel cups wrapped in plastic. He pushed the front lip of his ten gallon hat up and said, "Brought some replenishment for ya, Shriver ol' buddy."

Shriver turned to Nixon, who shrugged. Gonquin Smithee unscrewed the bottle cap and poured herself a generous drink.

“Did you get my note?” she asked.

“Yes. I thought I’d freshen up first.”

“Didja now?”

"Where's Ms. Labio?" Shriver asked.

"Aw, she's back in our room, sulking, as per usual," the poet replied.

The other revelers, all drunk and talking amongst themselves, included Delta Malarkey-Jones, who had an arm around the folk singer from the café.

"This here is Christo," she announced.

The singer, not quite as inebriated as his companion, shook Shriver's hand and said, "I am a major fan."

The other stranger in the room was a tall African-American woman with closely cropped hair and long, pendulous earrings that looked painfully heavy.

"Oh," the cowboy said, "let me introduce you to the last, but not least, of our featured authors. This is Zebra Amphetamine. She flew in tonight."

The woman nodded to Shriver with heavy lids.

"'A Nubian girl,'" Wolmatoth intoned, "'more sweet than Khoorja musk,/Came to the water-tank to fill her urn…'"

Zebra Amphetamine laughed like a hyena at this, as did the cowboy, who wrapped his arm around the much taller woman's waist and pulled her close.

"Was that Aldrich, sir?" Edsel Nixon wondered.

"Nixon, you are most impressive," his advisor opined.

A plastic cup filled nearly to the brim was handed to Shriver. He peered down into the brown liquid and saw his face there, tired and beaten by gravity. Then he took a sip.

"Listen to that train!" Zebra Amphetamine shouted as she ran to the window. "It's the sound of America! We could be Lakotas in our skin teepees listening to the clackety-clack of White Death rolling toward us!"

"Hey, look down there!" the cowboy hollered. He cranked open the window and shouted down, "Ahoy, girls!"

On the back lawn of the hotel, just outside one of the ground floor windows, several girls in bathing suits and some in underwear sat lounging on chairs they'd set up on the grass. They were lit by the moon and the light from their room. Bubblegum music percolated from a nearby radio.

"Watch out for those mosquitoes, girls!" the cowboy warned, but the cheerleaders appeared impervious to the attack of insects.

"Sunflower oil!" they shouted, holding up a large bottle of the stuff. "Come on down!" they called. "Let's party!"

Among them, Shriver saw, was the willowy brunette, who was dancing provocatively with one of her fellow cheerleaders.

"We would be fools, gentlemen," the cowboy disclosed, "to pass up such an invitation."

"I don't think it's such a good idea, Professor," Edsel Nixon said.

"Poppycock! These nubile young things are more experienced than all of us put together. Who's with me?"

"I'll go!" Zebra Amphetamine exclaimed.


"I think I'll stay put, T. I'm tired."

The cowboy's face was inches away. "I'm very disappointed in you."

He grabbed the bottle and left with his new friend. Meanwhile, the shaven-headed singer was strumming his guitar in the corner, with Ms. Malarkey-Jones at his feet.

A moment later, a deep-throated braying could be heard from outside. The cowboy was on the lawn, dancing lewdly with the brunette, his hat held high in one hand as he wiggled his bowed legs to the sugary music. Zebra Amphetamine stood nearby, doubled over with laughter.

"They're on their own," Edsel Nixon declared, shaking his head.

"Oh my gosh!"

A distressed Ms. Malarkey-Jones was now on her feet, pointing toward the water flowing underneath the closed bathroom door. Shriver pushed inside and splashed his way through the dark to the tub, which was full of overflowing bubbles. As he attempted to turn off the water he slipped on the soapy floor and crashed onto the froth-puddled tiles.

Delta Malarkey-Jones cackled at the sight of Shriver struggling in vain to climb to his feet, his face now bearded with foam. Edsel Nixon endeavored to help him up, but also succumbed to the slippery floor and dropped with a great upheaval of bubbles. Delta, still hooting with mirth, entered the room despite pleas for her to remain outside, and immediately lost her footing. She proceeded to teeter like an oak on the edge of collapse, first in one direction, then the other, all in tortuous slow motion, until finally the momentum was too much and, as Shriver and Nixon covered their heads, she plunged backwards into the tub. The resultant tsunami flooded the bathroom up to several inches and sent a small wave out into the hotel room proper, where Christo the Folk Singer stood strumming in accompaniment.

Somehow, Shriver was able to reach up and twist the faucet handle into the off position. He then pulled the lever that opened the drain. Nixon was quickly on his feet and tossing dry towels onto the floor. Meanwhile, Delta Malarkey-Jones lay in the tub, held tight by the suction from the draining water.

"I'm stuck," she chortled, holding out her arm for any man brave enough to come to her aid.

The task required all three men, and nearly sent them to the floor as their feet slipped and slid on the soapy tiles. But after a few moments of tugging and grunting, Ms. Malarkey-Jones was finally pulled free, and she gave them each a sudsy, smothering hug for their efforts.

The ever-efficient Nixon ran to the front desk to get some more dry towels, as well as a new bulb, and in fifteen minutes the floor was relatively dry and the light was fixed.

"Thank you, everybody," Shriver said, sitting down on the commode in exhaustion.

"Well, I've had about enough for one evening," his handler declared. "I'm headed home. If Professor Wolmatoth shows up again, tell him I'll see him tomorrow."

The dripping graduate student departed, leaving behind Delta Malarkey-Jones and her folk singer friend.

"Listen," Delta said, "Christo and I have been talking it over, and we'd really like it if you came back to my room for a bit."

"What for?"

"Okay, we could stay here, if you prefer. But my room has a king size bed. There's room for all of us."

The musician was smiling throughout this exchange, his hands gripping the guitar.

"Thank you," Shriver said, "but I think I'll pass."

"You sure?"


"Okey-doke. Don't say we didn't try. C'mon, Christo." She grabbed the musician by the wrist and pulled him out the door.

Shriver stood by the window and removed his wet shoes and socks. Out on the lawn the cheerleaders were in the process of forming a human pyramid, with the cowboy and Zebra Amphetamine on their hands and knees among those at the base. The group had reached the third level, comprised of three girls on all fours atop the backs of the four girls below them. Two more girls clambered up like monkeys to form a fourth level. Then the willowy brunette ascended the pyramid to her solo spot at the apex, where, tall and lithe in her aqua-blue bathing suit, she stood perfectly poised atop the backs of the two girls beneath her. With her angelic face level with Shriver's, the confident cheerleader smiled at him with dazzling teeth and asked, "Are you a writer, too?"

While Shriver pondered the question, the girl shouted down to her teammates, "One…two…" On "three," the entire pyramid collapsed, like an imploded office building, and the squealing girls rolled off one another onto the grass. The cowboy and Zebra Amphetamine were the last to emerge from the pile, their skin wet with perspiration, the grins on their faces speaking of some secret ecstasy.

Shriver closed the window and removed his sopping clothes. From his jacket pocket he retrieved the envelope and set it down on the desk with a metallic clank. After toweling himself off, he climbed into bed. There, he took up the pages from the bedside table and started to read.

"All night long I lay there, wide awake, wondering what the watermark would look like when daylight started creeping in the next morning. As dawn broke, I saw that the spot had grown even more, now to the general size and shape of an adult person, complete with arms and legs, and at the top, a head. Furthermore…"

Here his eyes failed him again, scrambling the words into meaninglessness. He turned to page two, then three, but it was all a jumble of ink. Perhaps it was just fatigue this time. He set the pages down, turned off the light, and lay listening to the sound of the seemingly endless train, broken by the occasional guffaw and a high-pitched squeal from outside, or maybe next door, he couldn't tell. Either possibility was unpleasant to contemplate.

He was exhausted but could not sleep. The mattress was more firm than he was accustomed to, and the sheets smelled of detergent. Forgetting where he was, he reached out to stroke Mr. Bojangles, who was nowhere near. Then, for a moment, he thought he had slipped into the ether of slumber. He even heard himself snoring. Then he realized someone else was snoring. Someone nearby. He sat up in bed and turned on the light. In the narrow space between the bed and the wall lay the poet, Gonquin Smithee, passed out. He reached down and touched her shoulder, but she did not wake up. He shook her, to no avail. Her face, so hard and defended when awake, seemed to him soft now, and open. He decided to let her be.

He shut out the light and rolled over. The train had finally passed, and the cheerleaders had gone inside. The only sound was of the poet's rhythmic breathing, which gently lulled Shriver to sleep.


Chapter Six

When the telephone rang, waking Shriver from a deep sleep, he did not recognize his surroundings. Where was Mr. Bojangles, he wondered. Normally his friend's whiskered face, always so charmingly neutral in its expression, was inches away from his own, as the famished cat awaited his morning bowl of cottage cheese.

And that irritating sound? It had been so long since he'd heard the close-up jangle of a telephone, he assumed it must be emanating from somewhere else. Answer the damn thing! he wanted to shout to his annoying neighbor, the one who played his television so loud every night until two in the morning.

The room was dark but for a bright strip of sunlight between the heavy window curtains. The bed felt strange, the sheets crisp with starch, the pillows thick and fluffy. Not his usual soft cotton sheets and a single, thin pillow. As his eyes grew accustomed to the dark he could make out the old television set, and the painting of a windmill on the wall.

Where am I, he wondered as he reached for the phone.

"Hello?" His throat was dry and cracked, his mouth barely able to form the word.

"Mr. Shriver?"


"Hi. This is Teresa Apple."


"You're speaking in my class this morning?"


"I'm here to pick you up."

"Uh huh."

"I'm down in the lobby."

"Oh! Okay! I'll be right down!"

He jumped to his feet, hobbled to the bathroom and turned on the light. The sudden brightness immediately scalded his eyeballs and sent a shock wave directly to his brain. He grabbed his skull and, forgetting about his bruised backside, sat down hard on the commode.

"Ow!" he cried, his headache momentarily gone.

With the whiskey-tinged taste of bile floating up into the back of his throat, it all came back to him. As if watching a news summary, he saw a briskly edited montage of yesterday's events, from his ride to the airport (it seemed so long ago) to last night's debauchery on the hotel lawn. Damn, he thought. He'd assumed it was all a bad dream.

He suddenly remembered Gonquin Smithee. He ran out and checked the floor between the bed and the wall, but she was gone.

His headache was returning now. More than anything in the world he wanted to take a long bath, but there was no time. He splashed some water on his stubbly face and under his arms. He brushed his teeth. He took a moment to lather up his left hand with soap and attempted to pull off his wedding ring. There was some give, but he was unable to force the gold band past his knuckle. For the first time, he wondered what had happened to his ex-wife's ring. Had she pawned it? Thrown it away? Was it sitting in a dark drawer somewhere?

He threw on a clean shirt and trousers and checked his jacket, which was draped over the curtain rod, still damp from last night's Keystone Kops routine. He would have to go without. Before he left, he picked up his story from the nightstand. The pages were heavy in his hand, each one a thin sheet of lead. He set them back down.

Out in the hallway, as the door slammed shut, he remembered that the key card was still in his jacket. Now he would have to go through some big rigmarole with one of the beehived, gum-snapping clerk twins when he returned tonight. He hoped this was not an omen.

Gathered at the elevator was a gaggle of cheerleaders in uniform. They seemed so small and young now, fresh as the proverbial daisies, all corn-fed innocence. He thought of the sunflower oil-smeared vixens of the night before and wondered if these could possibly be the same creatures. There was the willowy brunette, looking like a Sunday School student but for the sly smile she gave him as they entered the elevator. On the brief ride down to the first floor the girls managed to sustain the quiet-as-church-mice routine, though Shriver could sense they were holding something in. Sure enough, when the doors opened and they poured out into the lobby, they erupted into their usual squeals and giggles as they scurried toward the hotel diner for their breakfasts.

Passing the saloon, Shriver noticed T. Wolmatoth at his usual stool, his hat beside him on the bar. He seemed to be drinking a tall glass of milk.

"Shriver!" the cowboy called out, waving him over. "I believe I may have discovered the fountain of youth last night!"

Upon hearing this, Shriver had visions he did not want to have.

"Ever hear of the 'low-hitch stunt,' Shriver?"

"Can't say that I have."

"How about the 'Swedish fall'?"


Shriver could see a young woman waiting near the door. Tall, curvy, with straight reddish hair, she seemed tense as she glanced at her wristwatch.

"Excuse me, T.," he said.

"'Youth, large, lusty, loving—'" the cowboy chanted. "'Youth, full of grace, force, fascination.'"

Shriver started toward the door.

"There's a whole uncharted world out there, Shriver," the cowboy called after him. "These gals are capable of almost anything!"

As Shriver made his way through the lobby, he saw Ms. Labio at the front desk, looking even more agitated than usual. She was speaking shrilly to one of the twins, who sat in her usual position behind the counter, as if she'd grown there, toadstool-like.

"Shriver!" the sculptress called, gesturing for him to come over. Her eyes were pink, her face puffy.

"Is something wrong?" he asked.

"Fucking A, something's wrong," she hissed. "Gonquin is missing."


"Mr. Shriver!"

He turned to see the redhead rushing to meet him with an outstretched hand. She wore tight, faded jeans and a clingy red blouse that showed off her pert bosom. She was perched upon preposterously high heels, and yet seemed perfectly balanced as she jogged across the lobby.

"I'm Teresa Apple."

"Hello," he said, shaking her hand. He could see how she might be enticing to visiting dignitaries. Her face was lightly freckled and smooth, her eyes a piercing blue.

"What am I going to do?" Ms. Labio cried. "I don't know where she is!"

"What's the matter?" Ms. Apple inquired.

"Ms. Smithee is missing," Shriver informed her.


"That's what I said."

"Maybe we should call the police," the clerk suggested.

"The police?" Ms. Labio screeched.

"What's the ruckus?"

T. Wolmatoth was suddenly among them, the tall glass of milk in his crooked hand.

"Gonquin Smithee is missing," Ms. Apple informed him.


"She never came back to the room!" Ms. Labio bellowed.

"How strange," Wolmatoth declared. "Well, let's see. Wasn't she in your room last night, Shriver?"

"Shriver's room?" Ms. Labio asked.

"Yes," Shriver said. "Along with everyone else. Then she…"

He didn't know whether he should tell them that the poet had passed out on the floor.

"Well, I didn't notice when she left," he told them. "But I'm sure there's some explanation."

"What do you mean," the sculptress asked, "you didn't notice when she left?"

"You have to understand," the cowboy explained. "There was a lot of chaos last night. People in and out…"

"You were all drunk!" she accused.

"Yes, well…" The cowboy looked to Shriver for help.

"I'm sorry," Ms. Apple interrupted. "But we have a class to get to." She turned to Ms. Labio and added, "I'm sure Gonquin will turn up."

"Where could she be?"

"Maybe she went for a walk," Wolmatoth offered.

"A walk? Where to? There's nothing here!"

"I think we should call the police," the clerk again recommended.

"Mr. Shriver," Ms. Apple said, taking him rather firmly by the elbow, "We're going to be late."

Shriver looked back as they made their way through the lobby. Ms. Labio and the cowboy were conferring with the clerk, the sculptress's arms wheeling about in distress.

"I wonder what happened to her," Shriver said as he followed Teresa Apple into the parking lot.

"Oh, I'm sure she'll show up. She probably passed out somewhere and hasn't woken up yet. Here's my truck. We're sort of in a hurry."

She drove a worn-out pickup, powder blue in the spots not covered by rust.

"I apologize for my tardiness," Shriver said as he climbed up into the cabin. "I overslept, myself."

"You had a long day yesterday," Ms. Apple replied courteously. She proceeded to stomp on the gas pedal, and the truck shot out of the hotel parking lot.

It was a bright, cloudless day, already quite warm. As Ms. Apple steered the rumbling pickup toward campus, there came a refreshing breeze through Shriver's open window. The throbbing blood vessels in his head were quieting down.

"I expected more mosquitoes," he remarked.

"They sprayed early this morning," Ms. Apple informed him. "Some sort of synthetic pyrethroids."


"Insecticide. It works pretty well, but they'll be back at dusk. Trust me."

"Oh dear."

"Aedes vexans. The bane of our existence. They migrate up to twenty miles for a blood meal."

"'Blood meal'?" Shriver said, scratching at the raw lump on his hand. "Sounds grisly."

"I hate the little fuckers," Ms. Apple declared as she accelerated to beat a yellow traffic light.

Shriver thought ahead to the remainder of the day. This class would be the biggest test yet of his ability to fool people into thinking he was the real Shriver. But it was just a warm-up for the panel discussion to come. He again scolded himself for accepting the conference invitation. He wished he'd been discovered right away as an imposter, and sent back home to his comfortable rooms. But then he remembered Simone. He recalled shards of a dream he'd had last night, in which she had figured prominently. She'd been wearing a cheerleading outfit and was bouncing on an unseen trampoline outside his sixth floor apartment window. Each time she arced up into view she performed a different acrobatic maneuver, bright red pom poms in her hands.

"We're really happy to have you here," Ms. Apple said. She smiled, revealing small white teeth and pink gums.

"I'm not sure what I'm going to say to your students," he confessed.

"Oh, I'm sure you'll think of something."

"How long have you been teaching?" Shriver asked, hoping to distract himself.

"Since last Fall. I'm a grad student. Creative writing."

"How long before you graduate?"

"I have to finish my thesis first. A collection of stories."

"And then?"

"And then I hunt for a waitressing job, I guess," she laughed. "Oh, I could probably teach somewhere—Podunk University, James Polk Community College, whatever. But I just want to write and no one makes a living doing that. Except for guys like you, of course."

He had never realized how many writers there are in the world, and how hard it must be for them to earn a living at it.

"What are your stories about?" he asked.

She looked over at him as she accelerated to pass another vehicle.

"Gawd, how weird," she said. "To be asked that by you. I'm a little afraid to tell you."

"You don't have to."

"No, I want to. It's just a little intimidating." She paused, took a breath. "It's a collection of stories narrated by people who've been murdered."


"Yeah. Each narrator tells how he or she got killed. That's the hook, anyway."

"Sounds interesting."

"You think so? Cool. The thing is, my parents were murdered. By a drifter. The police think they picked up a hitchhiker. They were found by the side of the road. Not too far from here, actually, out on the interstate."

"I'm sorry."

"It was a long time ago. But I guess it still haunts me. Hence the story collection."

She made a sharp right turn into a parking lot behind one of the university buildings and screeched to a halt. "Here we are!"

Feeling dizzy from the ride, Shriver gingerly set foot on the ground. In doing so, he glanced for the first time into the flat bed of the truck. Lying there, side by side, were two unfinished pine coffins.

"This is Custer Hall," Ms. Apple announced, swiftly leading him to a back entrance. He followed her up a flight of stairs and down a long hallway. Students in t-shirts and shorts scurried past on their way to class, their faces screwed up into serious academic expressions. Just as Ms. Apple was about to enter an open classroom, Shriver grabbed her elbow and pulled her aside. She smelled of sweat, but not unpleasantly so.

"I want to ask you," he said, feeling the now familiar flutter of the black crow in his rib cage, "in all seriousness: what do these students expect of me?"

Ms. Apple smiled. "You're nervous, aren't you." She patted him on the arm and said, "That's sweet. But they've all read your book. Some of it, anyway. They think you're a genius. You could do nothing but fart in there and they'd worship you. Okay?"

"Okay," Shriver said. "I guess."

She turned on her considerable heels and walked into the classroom. Shriver hesitated a moment, took a deep breath, swallowed yet another upsurge of bile, and followed.

Inside were a dozen or so students seated at their desks. The windows had been thrown open, letting in fresh air and the musical chirping of birds. Shriver stood abashedly to the side while Ms. Apple introduced him. She utilized a range of superlatives to describe the author's talent, creating a weird, almost disembodied experience for Shriver, since after all she was not speaking of him, even as she and the students thought she was.

"I encourage you to ask Mr. Shriver anything at all," she continued, "but since this is a creative writing class, you may want to know about how he works. Anyone want to dive in? Or," she said, turning to the guest of honor, "do you have anything you'd like to say first?"

Shriver's mouth, already parched, became a veritable desert.

"Well," he squawked, his dry lips clicking, "as you probably know, I haven’t been writing so much lately."

"Twenty years," Teresa Apple helpfully reminded him.

"Yes. So, I'm a little bit out of the loop when it comes to technique and that sort of thing." He was hoping this would excuse him from having to answer any technical questions about writing.

"You haven't written anything at all?" a young man asked from the front row. "Not a word?"

"No, I have written a little," Shriver said, thinking of his story.

"When are we going to see it published?" someone asked.

"I have no idea."

"What's it about?"

"It's hard to describe."

"Are you going to read it tomorrow?"

Shriver leaned back against the front edge of the teacher's desk. "I hope to."

The students murmured excitedly.

A hand shot up in the back. "Why is your book so pornographic?" a robust, pig-tailed young lady asked. The rest of the class tittered; eyes rolled.

As Shriver tried to come up with an adequate response, another student—dressed in black, with dark, sunken eyes—said, "I don't think it is pornographic. I think he's just telling it like it is, ya know?"

"But it is porngraphic," the young lady countered. She opened a copy of a book and, in a clear voice, read aloud: "'He stroked his cock furiously, remembering the night he'd spent with the alabaster waitress from the Chinese restaurant--the way she had writhed atop him, her knees up, both feet flat on the motel room floor, her eyes rolling backwards, her breath catching in her throat, her small breasts flopping in counterpoint to the rest of her body…’ Oh, and this part: ‘…he ejaculated onto the scrap book page, creating a viscous puddle of gluey jiz.' You don't call that dirty?"

Shriver's face turned red.

"No!" another girl interjected. "Caleb is creating a scrapbook of his intimate moments. Some people save photographs. He saves intimate memories out of little pieces of himself."

"It's not just dirty," the young lady in the back retorted, "It's self-consciously dirty. I mean, who the hell jerks off into a scrapbook?"

Shriver was wondering the very same thing.

"What's wrong with 'dirty'?" Ms. Apple wondered. "Is there room for dirtiness in literature? Are our lives so clean? Do we have to limit ourselves as artists to those clean moments, those corners of our lives that are not shadowed or dirty?"

Shriver thought she might have a point.

"Not if we're going to be honest," the dark-eyed boy offered.

"I don't know," the young lady said, feeling outnumbered. "It just seems excessive to me."

True, Shriver thought. That bit about the scrap book was over the top.

"Life is excessive!" a chubby young man in a tight t-shirt shouted. "We have a responsibility to show that."

"You would say that, Cornelius," the pig-tailed girl shot back. "All you write about is fellatio."

The other students chuckled in recognition.

"Yeah, well, fellatio can be important."

Cheers from the others.

"Okay, you guys," Ms. Apple interrupted. "Let's get serious."

“I am serious,” Cornelius said.

Another hand went up. A pale young man with a wispy mustache asked Shriver where he got the idea for his novel.

He had rehearsed this one. "I don't remember," he answered.

"What about your new story?" the pale student asked.

"Well," Shriver began, thinking back to last week, "I was lying on my bed, and there was a watermark on the ceiling, so I thought I'd write about that."

There was an appreciative hum from the students.

"Fascinating," Teresa Apple declared. She turned to the class and added, "You see how art can be inspired by the mundane, the little details that are right under our noses?"

"And we all know what's under Cornelius's nose," the young lady in the back row uttered.

More laughter.

An alarmingly thin girl raised her hand and asked, "Why did you name your protagonist after yourself?"

"I did?" Shriver asked.

A few students snickered at this.

"Was it because the story is so autobiographical?"

"I suppose I couldn't think of any other name," Shriver answered.

"And why'd you give the other characters such funny names?"

"Did he kill his wife?" the thin girl asked.

"Why do you have to be so literal?" the dark-clad boy asked her. "Why do you have to have all the answers?"

"Yeah," someone else piped up. "Sometimes you're not supposed to know."

"But what's the point of that?"

"Life is ambiguous!" Cornelius interjected.

The discussion continued in this vein, with Shriver happily unable to get a word in edgewise. He leaned against the desk with a tightly constructed smile on his face, and as the students debated the merits of ambiguity, metaphor, and poststructuralism, he thought: I have no idea what these young people are talking about. When he'd written his story about the watermark last week he had simply come up with the words that described what had happened to him. His wife had left him. It was raining outside. He lay on the bed. The watermark grew and grew. Then he had gone a little further because what really happened beyond that point was not interesting to him anymore, and probably not interesting to anyone else either. He had to make things up. Then he had to come up with a proper ending. He needed to feel like this had all led to something. He did not once think about deconstructionism, or whatever it was called. He didn't even know what it meant. He had never heard of those French people who apparently invented it.

Before he knew what had happened, Ms. Apple interrupted to announce that the class was over. The students applauded and lined up to have him sign copies of his book.

First in line was the robust girl from the back row, whose name, she informed him, was Cassandra.

"Cassandra had the power of prophesy," she told Shriver, "but nobody believed her."

"That's very interesting," he replied as he opened her copy of Goat Time.

"Sorry I gave you a hard time," she said. "The truth is, the book is totally hot."

Inserted at the title page was a card with her name and a telephone number.

"Oh, you can keep that," she said. Her face, with its healthy complexion and shine, betrayed no indication of her motives.

He wrote, "To Cassandra, My book may be dirty, but I, alas, am not. I predict you will be a fine writer someday. Best…"

He then placed the card back in the book and handed it to her. She shrugged goodnaturedly and, still smiling, walked away.

As he signed the others' books, using the same signature he penned on his checks to the utility companies, he wondered what the real Shriver's autograph was like. Was it florid, or jagged? Did the letters lean forward, or backward, or rise straight up and down? Was he left-handed? Was he clever with inscriptions, or did he make do with "Best wishes"?

Last in line was the black clad young man. He did not offer a book to be signed. Instead, he plopped a thick pile of pages onto the desk and told Shriver, "This is something I wrote. Will you look at it?"

Shriver picked up the story and read the title: "The Imposter, by Vlad McKennedy."

"It's about someone who pretends to be someone he isn't," the student said. "You know—the human condition."

"Sounds promising," Shriver said as little pearls of sweat formed on his brow. "I'll be happy to read it."

"It would mean a lot to me," Vlad McKennedy said. Not knowing what to do with his arms, he kept crossing and re-crossing them. "My number's on the back. For your comments."


The student stood there for a moment, smiling awkwardly.

"Do I look familiar to you?" he asked.

Shriver looked up at the long, pale face, shadowed by budding black whiskers, the eyes small and almost as dark as his clothing. The boy did look somewhat familiar.

"Have we met?" Shriver asked.

Vlad McKennedy's face drooped in disappointment, and then he loped out of the room. Only then did Shriver recall where he had seen the young man before: he was the waiter at the restaurant last night.

"Well, that was really great," Ms. Apple told him. "They loved you."

"I'm not sure I helped them at all."

"Sometimes it helps just to know that these great books are written by real flesh and blood people."

"Yes, I suppose you're right."

"It'll mean a lot to Vlad if you read his story," she said as they left the classroom. "He's quite talented."

"I hope it's dirty," he said, hefting the student's story in his hand.

She laughed and said, “You’re cute.”

Shriver’s face went pink. “Thank you.”

“I mean, from reading your book I expected some intense, icy man, all sharp angles and unbridled anger. But you’re…”


“Cute. Yes. Would you like to have sex with me?”

Shriver stopped. They were on the steps outside the building. Ms. Apple took another step, then turned and looked up at him from below.

“You don’t have the panel for another hour,” she said. “We could run over to my place. It’s nearby. Or—even better—we could go to my office. It’s in that building over there.” She nodded toward a school building next door.

Shriver thought of last year’s randy author, plowing his way through the graduate students.

“I’m very flattered.”

“Time’s a wastin’.”

She was a very pretty woman, he thought, with her copper hair and fleshy lips. But then he thought of Simone—the freckles on her chest, her tiny hands.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I couldn’t.”

She shrugged. “You got a sweetie?”

“You might say that.”

“Okay. I’ll walk you over to the Union, if you’d like. You can rest up before the big panel.”

She said this as if he had just turned down an offer of iced tea. She was walking so quickly along a path between school buildings that he had to double-step to keep up.

“I’ve never been on a panel before,” he said.

“You’ll do fine,” she assured him. “Just act like you know what you’re talking about.”

“So much of life is just that.”


He smacked at a mosquito on his hand.

“The first of many,” Teresa Apple said, ominously.


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