by Erik Leavitt
The more time I had spent being a writer, the less I knew how to talk about it. Growing up, when I had imagined being a writer, I saw myself lecturing about the writing process for my modestly successful but critically adored novel, and, after the signing, going out to cocktails, where I would humbly accept compliments. But now that I was working on a never-ending book, the idea of talking about that foggy, self-esteem hemorrhaging process to anyone other than fellow writers in my graduate program seemed too intangible to earn anything but post-signing glowers.
This wasn’t so much an issue with my family, since after years of clamming up about my personal life, we all decided to operate on the emergency broadcast theory of personal information—only if something was important enough would someone come out and say it. But during this trip home for Christmas there would be others to whom I wasn’t related, whose spirits I hadn’t broken. I had had those sorts of conversations before:
So, Erik, what are you doing in graduate school?
I’m writing a lot. Well, not writing a lot so much as typing sentences, deleting them, then trying to come up with something smarter sounding. Usually I just give up and Facebook-stalk people I went to high school with.
What paradigm-shifting book are you producing? And will it off-set the hundred grand you wasted to fill your gaping, emotional void?
I’m too lazy to do research, so it’s a memoir. So, probably not.
But aren’t you kind of a nobody to be writing a memoir? I mean, aren’t most people who write memoirs astronauts or celebrity murderers?
Well, I had a nervous breakdown a few years back, It messed me up pretty bad and really put a strain on everyone who loved me. Now I’m planning to cash that in for the big bucks.
Your folks must be so proud.
Psssh. The first they’ll hear about it is when I’m on Oprah.
The memoir thing did bother me. I was sure it was a good story, and my professors liked it, but whenever I tried to talk about it, it sounded like Someone said something mean to Erik and then he got sad and sat around thinking about how sad he was. It got to me so much that I had stopped mentioning the memoir altogether and invented a fake book—a collection of essays about karaoke singers in New York.
A karaoke book sounded a hell of a lot more legitimate than a memoir, and most people agreed. Most importantly, it worked like in ejection seat in the spy car of literary conversations. Start talking about a karaoke book and pretty soon you’re no longer talking about books at all. I had even written a few non-fake essays that I would reference to give things a hint of verisimilitude. More and more. I was thinking that this fake book was the best thing I’d ever created, and I hadn’t even done that much creating. If only my real book was that easy.
A few days after I flew back home, I found myself riding in the backseat of my mother’s station wagon, leaning my forehead against the cold window and trying to ignore the carols on the radio. My mom drove and my stepdad Jim rode shotgun. “Do you know if anyone else we know is going to be at this party?” I asked.
“John’s brother might be there,” my mom said without looking back at me. “You met him once a few Christmases ago. Maybe his wife.”
“So, in other words, no.”
“Well, the party is at the Ponderosa. We ate there all the time when you were little, so just pretend the restaurant is your friend.”
“I’ll just pretend I’m in a PG version of The Shining where the ghosts of the steak house aren’t interested in murder so much as they are in foot massages.”
“You’re a big boy,” she teased as we pulled into the parking lot, “just tell people a story about school and you’ll be fine.”
Inside, the Ponderosa didn’t look like I remembered. The one in my memory was a dude ranch’s take on a TGIFridays, while this looked more like a food court break room, all sneeze guards and smear-resistant stucco. Donny Osmond squeaked through the speakers.
We weaved around a set of buffets to the back room. A few dozen strangers, all roughly my mother’s age, yammered at tables and ate clam strips from chafing dishes. One of the youngest, a lumpy woman in her late forties, dabbed Vick’s Vapor Rub on her throat like perfume.
“I might just sit in the car.”
My mother snatched my sleeve and tugged me towards an occupied table. “Talk about Lawrence Welk and you’ll fit right in.” Jim ambled behind us.
We sat down, and when it became clear that no one at the table knew anyone else, a scarecrow of a man swimming in a sweater took charge and suggested that we introduce ourselves. He said that he was an English professor, recently retired. He lead us like a class, going around asking our names and what we did for a living. There was the professor’s wife; a shampoo bottle shaped librarian dressed as an off duty nun; my mom and Jim, who had married just a few months before. While people went around I rehearsed my answer (“I teach composition”—I would avoid the word “writer”). When it came my turn, though, my mother cut me off: “This is my son Erik, and he’s studying writing in New York.”
It was a comment like a trick pool shot, sinking three conversational-dread-balls in one stroke—I was a writer, a student writer, and I lived in New York (a tender spot for Minnesotans, tired of theirs being referred to as a flyover state). I was 31, without a family, a job with a no-sneakers policy, or an insurance plan that didn’t involve buying expired prescriptions from estate sales. My stomach made a sound like Alka Seltzer in oatmeal.
“Oh, you write?” The professor sounded interested. “What do you write about?”
I managed to sound enthusiastic as I launched into my spiel, “Well, I’m writing a book about karaoke…” I told a quick story about the self-proclaimed “Mayor of Karaoke” who held court Godfather style in the back of a honky-tonk. Usually this was enough to get people excited and trigger the spy-car ejection seat, but the librarian seemed to be more interested in searching her purse for Tic Tacs and the professor gave me polite, sad eyes, as if his wife had just whispered to him that I had suffered head trauma on the car ride here.
Even if the book was a lie, the anecdotes worked. Usually. Maybe, I thought, the “Mayor of Karaoke” story needed too much insider information, so I went right for a show-stopper—a story about a series of singers in the Philippines who murdered each other after they karaoke-ed “My Way” off key. Normally, even people snoring through a karaoke story perked up at Sinatracide, but around the table people acted like I’d farted at a baby shower.
There was a squirmy second of silence. Someone cricketed their corduroy pants. Then my mother broke in. “Erik said that in New York, when it snows, people use umbrellas. Isn’t that weird?”
“Umbrellas,” the professor frowned, “I suppose that is strange.”
He let that sink in before turning to my stepdad. “Jim,” the professor sounded relieved, “what is it that you do?”
The table got less fidgety as Jim talked. He explained how, before he retired a decade ago, he had been a meat man for 20 years, then he and his ex-wife had traveled around to county fairs in a motor home. His wife would read the map and he would drive.
This was all new to me. Jim and my mother had met after I had moved out of state, so I didn’t know much about him. From what I had seen he was generous and good humored, the sort of man you’d want your mother to marry. When he got talking, though, he’d start to ramble and I’d phase out. I couldn’t even make it through one of his sets of directions without feeling like someone was pouring Elmer’s Glue into my ears. This story didn’t seem any different. He talked a lot about his favorite kind of motor home and how to get the best mileage. My brain clocked out and went into drool time. When I blinked back awake, I noticed that the rest of the table was leaning in and watching Jim the way cats circle an electric can opener. “This is marvelous,” the professor purred. “So you just toured the country and met interesting people?”
“We went everywhere, and wherever we would go we would stop into a diner and make sure to eat the spaghetti. There would always be a diner and there would always be spaghetti, and you know what, it would always taste the same. Everywhere I went it was the same!” Jim tossed imaginary confetti into the air. “I would always ask the waitresses what kind of Ragu the cooks used but they would never tell me. Chef’s secret, I guess.”
The librarian, somehow managing not to fan herself with her napkin, turned to me. “This is what you should be writing about.”
“Well…” I drew out the word until it sounded like no. “I’m pretty tied up with my other projects right now. Plus, I’m not really sure I have that interesting a take on the story.”
“Don’t worry about that,” the librarian waved me off with her fork. “Just write it down the exact way he’s telling it.”
I don’t know if I looked confused or just angry. I wanted to explain that even though she might think “writer meant someone capable of jamming a golf pencil into his ape-paw and making word-scribbles, the term actually suggested a little more brainwork on the pencilholder’s side of things. More than that, though, I wanted to not embarrass my mom, so I clenched my teeth until a vein popped under my eye.
The professor was too busy swooning over Jim to notice my approaching aneurysm. “Jim, when you were traveling did you have a chance to talk with any other travelers? Did they…” he hesitated, aflutter, “did they happen to share any wisdom with you?”
“Oh sure, all the time.” Jim scratched his beard. “One of the puppet sellers at a county fair told me he could never sell any sock puppets in Florida because people there think puppets are voodoo.”
The librarian melted back in her chair. “This is the sort of story people are interested in,” she announced to the table as though she was planting the flag in the Field of Tranquility. “Who has ever written about traveling the country before?”
My teeth clenched harder. A sentence escaped. Barely a hiss. “Lots of people. Everybody. There’s even a book called On the Road. It’s in every single library.”
No one seemed to hear, then my mom pinched my leg hard enough to make me snort. No one seemed to hear that either.
“Erik, you should really consider this,” the professor said. “You can write a book about karaoke any time.”
Under the table my hands bunched into fists. “Well, this story is not really my thing.”
“But just write it like he’s telling it,” the librarian repeated more slowly and in a tone usually reserved for explaining to children how to share. “People would want to read that story.”
“I’m sorry, I think I’m getting a phone call.” I pulled my phone out of my pocket and jammed it to my ear as I got up from the table. As I faked conversation I could hear the professor cooing, “Jim, would you be willing to correspond with me? All this, what you’re saying, it’s just fascinating! Fascinating!”
After a few minutes of facing the wall I ended my fake phone conversation. The rest of the Christmas party was going full swing, the room filled with lunchroom noise. To waste time I meandered over to the chafing dishes and was fishing out a chicken drumstick when I felt a hand on my arm. The professor.
“Erik, it’s Erik, right? I don’t think that we properly met before.” Up close his breath smelled like a mouth full of microwaved Cheetos. “I think, and you have to forgive me for being blunt here, but I think that if you don’t sit down with your stepfather and write down these stories that you are a fucking idiot. I mean the man is right there! And he’s a gold mine, just a fucking gold mine. He clearly doesn’t have much time left, so you need to do this now.” Nodding, he locked eyes with me and waited for me to nod back.
I looked away, looked for anyone else who might be witnessing this. Around me old-timers guffawed at each other, and my mother was halfway across the room. Not even a fire alarm stood within yanking distance.
“Look,” the professor continued, “I was your age once, and I had a book published too, a shitty little piece of nonsense about whatever I thought was important at the time. That’s all bullshit.” He let his eyes close for a second, taken by the bullshittiness of both our books. “Erik, you can’t keep sitting around in your fucking ivory tower all day. You have to write books about people, REAL people,. And that’s what Jim is trying to offer you: a story about something fucking real, you know? There, I’ve said my piece. Will you promise me you’ll at least consider it?” Still leaning in, he held out his hand to shake.
My hands retreated into my pockets. “I guess I can consider it.” The words came out growlier than I’d intended.
“Promise me.” He poked me in the chest with a finger.
Somehow, I didn’t grab him by the snout like a dog who needs its nose pressed in shit. I didn’t yank us eye to eye and snap, “Why don’t you take your reality check horseshit, roll it up like a newspaper, and cram it in your gaping rectal craw. If you love Jim and his Winnebago picaresque so much, why don’t you two just cozy up together and write the damn thing yourselves, ‘cause I’m sure as hell not going to. And you’re an English professor, you should know better than to catheterize someone with a writing project that you have a man-crush on just because you think you know what’s best for him. You should know how thankless and self-flagellating it is to write something; how most of the time you have to actively ignore the feeling that you’re just mashing your stupid finger across a keyboard and whining about things that no one else cares about and that you should probably just quit writing altogether and become a massage therapist, because at least people like massages. And the only thing that keeps you from giving up is trusting this gut feeling that you’re writing about something that might be important. Not cure-for-cancer important, but important in that way that a story or some other stupid thing you love can be important. You have to hope that whatever you’re writing will do that. If you don’t have that hope for a story, even if it’s someone else’s story, then you’ll end up a massage therapist. So, yes, maybe that belief makes me a ‘fucking idiot’ but at least I’m trying to do something ‘fucking real.’”
Somehow, I didn’t say any of that. Instead I let out my longest, most passive-aggressive sigh. “Sure. Cross my heart.”
He gave me a satisfied smirk, clapped me on the arm, and said that he would let me get back to eating.
For the next half hour I alternated between gulping down finger food and sitting in a men’s room stall playing Solitaire on my phone. Finally, when Jim and my mom got up from the table, I wandered back over. We spent a little time with the hosts, then left.
Outside the snow had kept on falling, bearding the parking lot in white. My mom started the car, and Jim insisted I sit in the car and get warm while he brushed the windows clean. Inside the seats cracked with cold as I sat down, and the windshield wipers whined against ice.“I saw you and the professor talking,” my mom said as she fussed with the heat.
“Yeah. He wanted to know what books they taught in my program.” I had to pick my battles; admitting to my mother that the thought of listening to her new husband chatter almost made me deck a tenured professor seemed fib worthy. “Hey, have I ever shown you what I’ve been working on?” Trick question. The last of my writing my mom had seen were some poems I’d written when I was eighteen. Thirteen years later, when people asked about me, she still sent those poems out like a press release.
“No, I don’t think so.”
“Jim’s story reminded me of something. When we get home I’ll print you something out.” I only had chapters of my memoir with me. This was how the emergency broadcast system worked: the communique always came out casual, like we had already been having this discussion.
“Okay, I could take a look at that.” Jim got in the car, and we pulled out of the parking lot, slowly, so as not to fishtail. Behind us the Ponderosa’s dull light lit a halo on the snow.
Erik Leavitt spent his first twenty-five years in Minnesota desperately trying to convince anyone who would listen that he was an avant-garde slam poet. Since then he’s been a night watchman at a no-tell motel, a professional screamer, a cashier in an evangelical bookstore, and once studied Confucianism to try and figure out how to teach composition. These days Erik fumbles his way through social situations in the New York area. You can read his work at ThisThatSAID, New York Quarterly, and AGNI.