So, anyway, I’ve always known who to blame for what’s happened to me. Not that I thought about him all that often. Over the past thirty years, his name has only popped up maybe six or seven hundred times, tops. What kept bringing it back wasn’t chronic pain so much as my need to let go of the past. Because, as you and I both know, the past is what made us who we are. And being stuck there is about as fun as being a dog reaching the end of its chain.
Travis. What did he do to me? Nothing much, just hit me on the back of the head with a pile of books in our high school’s hallway. But you have to understand that the hit came out of nowhere, and I didn’t expect it. Because of that, my neck was in traction for a week. And that was just the beginning.
Now, before you tell me that if only I would have fallen to the floor and pretended serious injury, sued is an anagram of used, I’ll agree that you’re right– and that my father would have filed, if not my mother. Except, even if I’d thought of laying down at the exact instant I needed to, it would have been too uncool. At that age, instinct tells you to stand up and push back, which is what I did. And after we both went to the Principal’s office, my antagonist went on to graduate, as did I. Only about five years later, I started having these horrific headaches. Developed osteoarthritis with pinched nerves in C4 and C5, including a lot of numbness in my left hand, and a continual ringing in my ears. After about nine more years of quack chiropractors and physical therapy, I had a botched operation which led to fusion surgery, and left me unable to turn my neck independent of my shoulders. As for the headaches, the numbness, and the tinnitus, they resumed. So did my thoughts about how easy everything had been for Buck–the money, the girls, the popularity. What had he done? Nothing much, other than to ridicule, taunt, and then attack a poor skinny kid who had to work after school. . . a friendless wimp who was later forced to take drugs for the pain caused by being whacked down hard from behind with five textbooks in a jesting disdain.
Okay, I know that they say the causes of osteoarthritis can’t be pinpointed. There could be any number of factors involved, like environment, genetic abnormality, diet, virus, accident. But I think we both know the truth, don’t we? So can we really call it an accident, what happened to me? I’ll agree with you that the bestseller Buck wrote was an accident. All the critics agree on that, calling it a trite, sentimental, sappy romance about a handicapped war veteran who woos a beauty queen. It might even be a fluke that Travis later owned what they call an estate, and married a younger woman who wore Versace and Fendi and Gucci. But was what he did to me anything like an accident? I think not. But at least I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt by finding out.
I first saw Fate’s Shadow at Amazon.com, late one night. That led me to a piece in Time about Travis’s much talked about marriage to a fashion model for Taylor & Klein–a rising actress who’d appeared on the covers of such magazines as Vogue, InStyle, and, later, Maxim. Buck “discovered” Gerta Rosewood four years previously at UNC, back when he’d taught history and philosophy there. Then Gerta dropped out of college during her sophomore year when she was offered a lucrative modeling contract, and Buck gave up his tenure to become the father figure she never had. Taking the post of assistant professor at City College in New York in order to be near her, he was soon attempting to turn his love letters to her into a novel. And when Harlequin accepted and rushed the novel into publication–along with several dozen others that month–it surprised everyone by quickly climbing the charts out of obscurity and onto the NY Times bestseller list. At that, Gerta was wooed. She became Travis’s Lolita, then his wife. Meanwhile, the parallels between his fictional story and his real life only added to the mystique and sales. So when the book hit #1, Miramax bought the film rights, and the studio’s execs signed Gerta herself to star.
It’s just such a wonderful Hollywood love story, isn’t it? The kind you get flashed at you on Entertainment Tonight or Access Hollywood or The Tonight Show. But you want to hear an irony that you aren’t getting on the news? For a long time, I struggled to be a writer, too. That’s right. While Travis taught history in college, I even took night classes at one of those strip mall “colleges” for a time, although it wasn’t a substitute. Of course after my parents died with cancers–lung and colon–I mostly drifted from job to job, while avoiding the trap of making little replicas of myself without even knowing who I was. Probably wouldn’t shock or even interest you to learn that I inhabited at least a dozen dorm-style no-frills low-rent block-wall apartments at the nadir of human existence, and that during my many long and lonely years of scribbling in notebooks I found myself restocking various retail store shelves with shoes, basketballs, duct tape, AA batteries, disposable diapers, toilet bowl cleaner, and a thousand other items consumed by the faceless masses. Shall I mention the roaches, or the fact that I had to wear a collar at night to prevent excessive neck pain, or that I didn’t have a real girlfriend in all that time? Maybe I should tell you and Jay Leno about my days off, instead, when I walked to the mall just to be someplace cool where I could watch a movie and pretend possession of some purpose, like everyone else pretended?
No, you wouldn’t want to hear about that. You’ve got the picture already. You were probably never like me–a loser without a direction, except for where the urgent advertising of Madison Avenue directs us all with their deceptive ads that promise something more than what you get, which is just plastic and trans-fatty foods and stylish clothes made in Mexico or Taiwan by malnourished children. With your skills you probably call it designer-wear, and eat at upscale restaurants. Right?
>What do you mean, is that what I think? You want to know what I think? I think Buck was no better than Hollis Randall, a retired postal worker who was my neighbor for two years–a man who kept pigeons and believed in hell. Hollis was very close to death one night, the result of a heart attack. “There are two tunnels when you die, not just one,” he told me, “and which one you are able to choose decides your eternal fate.” Before he went more than a little nuts, he claimed to know the meaning of life, too. Said the great mystery could be told in eighteen words which, when heard, might drive you mad. He started to tell me, until I shouted that it sounded like a Twilight Zone episode. Then he wrote the words on a piece of paper, and laid it on my suitcase the day I moved away. Did I read it? You bet I did. Although I wish now that I hadn’t.
Of course words are just signposts, and point at other realities. Take just one of the eighteen, the word why. Hollis wrote it as Y. You could also say Y as it wrote Hollis.
>Believe me, you couldn’t handle the Truth. You’re not ready. Not if Lizzie Selmut, another neighbor of mine, wasn’t. She was a Buddhist assistant Dairy Queen manager who, after hearing the Eighteen, went around after work putting locks on gates and chains on doors, leaving little messages behind for the frustrated owners of liquor franchises and porn shops. One read:
Take up the way of not defaming that which reflects true self-nature. The teisho of the body is the harbor and the weir. The most important thing is the letting go of ego and of waiting and even of seeking. Only in the eternal present does virtue find its home.
>Trust you? Let me tell you, one old golf geezer I told the Eighteen to goes, “Man oh man, what did I do with my life? My room is just walls, now! Like a waiting room at the hospital. Coulda been helpin’ kids or somethin’ instead-a watchin’ ball games or buyin’ pretzels at the supermarket checkout, along with tabloid trash about the latest Elvis sightings at the Krispy Kreme.”
When I left him there, his forehead crunched into a kind of primordial expression, like it could become anything, given the right genetic instructions.
>Okay, okay, the house. Well, it was a pretty impressive place, I have to say. How did I find it? Easy enough. Just ask around–everyone in Raleigh knew where Travis lived, from all the articles. Some of them knew the exact address. “Most decadent beach house in Nags Head,” was the way one guy in Kitty Hawk described it. Of course you know the deck, supported by those fifteen foot concrete pillars. That’s what I saw first. You can even see the Bodie Island Lighthouse from the beach, there. Nicer still from atop that deck, from his jacuzzi. But how best to approach it, though? Should I just go up and knock, introduce myself as the friend of a friend? Maybe lose a kite or a freebie on the property? I doubted he would remember me. The thing was, I really just wanted to observe him. At least for starters. So I sat down on this slab of stone next to a little hillock of sand and sea oats down on the beach, just outside his property line, and waited. Sat lotus style, my forearms on my knees, palms up.
I noticed a construction company sign nearby announcing acquisition by a developer willing to play God with an entire swath of shoreline real estate, for the right money. Maybe other millionaires had already ponied up enough to be near Travis. I remembered that a reviewer on the internet reported that a sequel to Fate’s Shadow was being written, and that the advance would be three million. Maybe Buck was up there, writing. Maybe I’d see him crossing the big bay windows with a sheaf of papers, walking back and forth. As I waited to witness that, I thought about how my mother could have used even half a million, as an anagram of sued. How she deserved to live in that house. And how, after Fate’s Shadow, all she had now was a tiny plot of dirt in a low rent cemetery.
Then I saw him, up there–Travis. Saw him come to the window. Before he saw me, I turned slightly away, and closed my eyes tight. I knew it was him, and it was worse than I thought it might be. He hadn’t changed as much as me. Still had his full head of black hair, while mine had receded and grayed. At ease and confident, the tall, virile man in the high window resembled actor Barry Bostwick. Among all of his possessions the only two things he didn’t appear to own was an aging body or a beer gut. Unfortunately for him… (CONTINUED ON CD or Download at iTunes.)