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Fall 1997, Volume 14.3

Fiction

 

Don McDermott

The Fountain Pen


Don  McDermott (Ph.D., Oklahoma State U) is an Associate Professor of Foreign Languages at the National Cheng Kung University in Taiwan. He has recently completed a novel and a collection of short fiction.

While I waited for Jeremy Hearst, I flipped through his collection of short fiction lent to me by my thesis chairman.

I had, of course, read many of his stories, all certifiably brilliant, but more than brilliant, they glowed with fine sentiments. In his fiction he deftly created characters who were moral, and yet modern in their sensibilities. This achievement was just exactly what I wanted for myself; I had been writing short fiction, I had a slim volume, The Best Things in Life Are Dead, but I hadn't a literary agent, and I hadn't yet summoned the nerve to shop my fiction collection around because…well, because I was doubtful as to what New York literary agent would agree to read a manuscript from Oklahoma, part of what I thought of as the great rodeo dustland.

I have published some since then, and my attitude and goals have been transformed, or perhaps metastasized. Then I had such a craving for literary recognition—it was almost infantile. My whole ego was dependent upon proving that I could be a writer. And, I was scarcely the only one. Many of my classmates were passionate dilettantes without real ideas or the talent to bring them to birth. Ah, the timber we wasted with our soul-searched confessions and less than revealing revelations. We were all to some extent personas in our own fictions, and having given life to our fictions, we were hoping our fictions would give life to us. It was hard, in such company, not be afraid that I was no better than they. Deluded egotists, that's what we all probably thought of one another, and as Dogberry says in Much Ado, "Comparisons are odorous."

My own thesis chairman, a sort of lanky and cynical chain-smoker, had seen too many literary martyrs to recommend the pursuit of belle-letters to anyone. At first, I suspected that he was jealous of my talent when he confided, "Look, you've got about as much chance of becoming a novelist as I have of becoming a movie star." Now, I believe he was only trying to help. Even so, he had sent one of my stories to Jeremy Hearst and asked if I would meet him at the airport. In driving him to the university for a public reading, I would get a chance to discuss my work with one of the premier short fiction writers in America, and more importantly, a man with connections. So, I looked through the titles of his stories should I need one at the tip of my tongue and studied his picture on the back cover. Jeremy Hearst had the sensitive and muscular good looks of a Scott Fitzgerald or a John Irving, deviating only in his crew-cut and long handlebar mustache. It sounds like a ridiculous combo, but he had a face that could pull it off.

His plane having deboarded, I wondered if the jacket picture was obsolete or inaccurate. The passengers were on their way to baggage claim but where was he? I had often wondered if some of the pictures on the back covers were actually those of professional models. Certainly publishers know that browsers are less likely to buy a thriller or lurid romance from someone with a mug like Ross Perot or Eleanor Roosevelt. I had his book in my hand, actually pressed to my chest, the title clearly visible. Certainly he should have been looking for me. The waiting area empty, I was about to leave, when I spotted him with a stewardess at the end of the boarding tunnel. Incidentally, he looked exactly like his picture, and he was busy shifting his weight and his shoulder straps as he labored under a burden that I soon learned was not only his own but that of the airline nymph.

"Mr. Hearst," I called, and raised his book.

He gave me a look of fatalistic acknowledgment, and kept me at bay with an upraised palm that pushed towards me. He stood at the end of the hallway ramp for several more moments. Finally, he gave a shrug as if to say, "I guess my ride is here after all." They shook hands, he handed her a brightly flowered wardrobe bag, and reaching into a shoulder held bag of his own, withdrew a paperback—one identical to the one I clutched and inscribed it. The way she received the book and handled it should have reminded me of myself. She became gosh-darn goofy. To both of us, it wasn't just a book, I suppose; it was something of a mystery. The person who created this book, who put word with word together with the precision of a jig-saw puzzle, whose picture stared out at tens of thousands of prospective reader with an urbane sagacity, was standing right there. In fact, he wore at that moment not only the same expression on his face, but the same well-exercised tweed jacket which he wore in the picture. Even the tweed sport coat seemed something of a celebrity.

"So, you must be Tim," he said at last and with a disappointment that escaped me. "Short for Timothy?"

"Short for Timid, Sir," I replied.

"No, you're kidding?" he asked with a dour expression. Obviously, one shouldn't kid above one's rank.

"Yes, I'm kidding," I confirmed, with what I hoped was an equally doleful expression. We walked through the terminal without a word. Then in the parking lot he commenced at last, "Oh, your story."

"Rodeo Punks."

"Ah, yes, damned good story."

I looked down to hide a grin and waited for more. There was another pause. That was it. Then he said he was surprised at how large the airport terminal was.

In the car between Tulsa and Stillwater, home of the gentrified Oklahoma State University Cowboys, we talked about tornadoes—he looked over his shoulder periodically expecting, I suppose, to see one. My thesis chair came up, the deep pastel colored grasses and red soil, even the Grapes of Wrath trekked into the conversation somehow. I thought maybe he was tired or avoiding the subject I wanted to discuss. I wanted to talk about my own fiction. I mean, it's great to read Tolstory, but imagine the pleasure of having Tolstory read you? More than that, I wanted to know if what I had written had really worked on him. The illusions of the story, the lies and fudged remembrances were obvious to me. Fiction writers are something like magicians. They know where the rabbits come from, that the magic and mystery is just a slight of hand. There doesn't seem to be anything special about what we do from our side of the curtain. What I wanted to know was "Did my fiction cast a spell?" Did my characters have life, did he believe in the farmhouse and exploding tractor? There's nothing worse than reading a story in which you don't even trust the punctuation. But I didn't want to solicit a response. I didn't want him to say something on the spot to be polite. I wanted him to venture something about the story which really came from him.

"So, Tim, you grew up on a ranch?"

"No, Portland, actually. You were thinking about my story?"

"Yes, it's just that you seem to know your way around a ranch, so I just assumed. Tell me about Portland."

I was surprised; I happen to belong to the T. S. Eliot School of Objective Correlatives, and was not of an opinion that good writers wrote about themselves or from their own experience. I mean, they can in a pinch, but I would never do it as I've found it so limiting, and of course, when writers do write autobiographical fiction, it's important for the reputation of the craft that they always deny it. But then I was flattered that he thought the narrator was a credible source about ranch life.

"I was wondering," I finally ventured, as we neared the university and the library bell tower came into view above the treeline, "Did you have any recommendations, anything you thought was weak or not quite there yet?"

He paused reflectively. I was trying to assume an air of disinterested curiosity.

"We're almost there, huh?"

"That's the university library," I pointed out.

He pulled a pen from his inside coat pocket and wrote something on the itinerary the university had prepared for his visit. It was a fountain pena Mont Blanc. I had priced them before—the sort with twenty-two caret gold points. I pulled the car to a full stop in the hotel parking lot, and as he reached for the door handle he said, "No, I think the story is finished. I'd send it off."

I knew it! Deep in my gut, I knew it. I have always been afraid to rewrite. On previous stories I had tried to go back and improve them. I added something, I took something out. But nothing I did improved it in my estimation—in some cases, I actually marred the piece with a text that was emotionally alien to the original conception. And he validated that, and if I could write one good story, I could write others. I wanted to shake his hand but he was already half way to the hotel entrance, and my hands were busy with his luggage. Nevertheless, it was as if he had reached into his pocket and given me a new life.

I turned him over to the hotel desk clerk and told him I looked forward to his reading the following day. When I returned to the car, I found his black fountain pen on the floor behind the passenger seat. I picked it up, removed the cap, stared at the gold point as though it were the most marvelous artifact—the Spear of Longin—us, perhaps, the Holy Grail. It must appear ludicrous to others, to be sure, but this seemed the pen, or rather the instrument by which the logos of a well-published American writer came into the world, igniting our imagination with images as vivid or more vivid than our own banal senses could provide. And who knew how high his star would climb in the literary heavens? Imagine, if you will, the effect that the sabre of Napoleon would have on a military cadet or JFK's rocking chair on a Camelot Democrat. It electrified me just to hold it.

The fact is, the more I thought about it, the more I considered keeping it. In years to come, when I pulled the pen out to sign a check or whatever and people complemented me on my stylish pen, I could say, "This pen belonged to Jeremy Hearst—you know, the famous writer?" Incidentally, I later noticed that in his book jacket photo, this pen was clearly visible in the breast pocket of his immortalized sport coat.

The next day, I got a few wounded inquiries from fellow graduate study-ers. What was he really like? Did we get a drink somewhere afterwards? Somebody said he would like to have picked him up—as though he had been asked to meet him—but that he taught an afternoon class. More than anything else, I suppose, they wanted to know if I had made a professional contact. The graduate students were always afraid that book deals were being made secretly behind their backs. We all wanted to know this sort of thing, though we were afraid to ask for the fear of leaning that we had been left out. We all had book manuscripts, we all wanted agents, a leg up, patronage, and we were all self-imposed exiles on the St. Helena of literary opportunity.

That evening, there was a small poetry awards ceremony before Jeremy Hearst's reading. A not unattractive girl named Cecily—a freckled, carrot-topped ingenueread an essay length poem about how her father had reached deep into a cows guts to extract a stillborn calf. This is the sort of experience you can't get in New York City.

That done, my thesis chairman crushed a cigarette butt and strode and slouched, slouched and strode, up to the podium and introduced the man that he had known in the army, sometime after Korea and before Viet Nam. "We wore a patch—a division shield—on our right shoulder," I remember him saying. "It portrayed a horse head above a diagonal stripe. And when people would ask us what our division shield stood for, we'd say, 'This is the horse you never ride, this is the line you never cross.'" There was gratuitous applause. Not many of us liked my thesis chair—we were simply too God fearing.

Jeremy thanked the audience, the university, his old Ratskellar buddy, for the evenings program. In return for coming to our university, he would receive a stipend—a cash payment. Coincidentally, later that year, my thesis chair would travel to his university to give a reading. Jeremy said some very kind things about Cecily's poem. Then he began to read a story from his new collection entitled The Things That Keep.

He started with an uncertain and professorial voice. The sort of voice that implies, "I'm not a thespian, mind you, but I'll give this performance thing a shot." It was very disarming. We all sympathized when he cleared his cold throat and warbled a few long vowels. But as he read, his voice warmed up like a clarinet. His pronunciation became more precise, his inflections suddenly shifted to reflect multiple speakers, his gestures became expansive and we were at the theatre. His story moved us. It was about an academic, someone not unlike himself—someone, interestingly enough, who also sported a handlebar mustache and traveled now and again to give readings at other colleges. This man loved his wife, but they had been married for 15 years, there were children and diapers, and difficult pregnancies and bad bed smells. And this character of his had begun to indulge himself in one of the oldest of academic compensations, one night stands with the students he attracted to his readings. But women, you know, have a second sense about infidelity, and the character's wife had begun to suspect and question him.

He struggled with his guilt. Finally, his wife threatened to leave him and the sense of what he was about to loose came crashing down upon him. The protagonist was a sort of Everyman who had been tempted by the World, the Flesh and the Devil. But somehow, he had spied the divine light just in time.

Quite frankly, I had always written these stories about tortured and alienated youth. People told me some of them were moving, that they posed real problems and disturbing dilemmas. But what I couldn't write was what my mother always wanted me to write, sentimental endings." The world is so full of trouble and disillusionment, why couldn't I write stories that gave people hope? Jeremy Hearst wrote these kind of stories. They ended with a sense that inspite of all our human errors and stumbling in the dark, ultimately, the twisted becomes straight, the mist of confusion clears, and to paraphrase Browning, "God's in, allright?" Maybe when my life straightens out, I reasoned, I'll be able to write this sort of fiction. In my work, I'll portray something more than recognizable pain, I'll bring the reader through the bewildering paths. I'll write like Jeremy Hearst.

The reading was an absolute smash. There was a reception that evening at the Ramada Inn. All the graduate students were invited, and they all did their best to inconspicuously sidle up next to the writer or insinuate themselves into a conversation, but from the looks of things, they weren't having much luck.

I approached him with a good excuse. I had in my fist a black-enameled Mont Blanc fountain pen. Earlier that day, after wrestling with my conscience (and losing) I had gone to the college bookstore and purchased from behind the counter—because that's where they keep $200 fountain pens—an identical facsimile. I held it up, and he instinctively checked for his pen with a pat of his coat pocket. He seemed glad to be reunited (with the pen), and as he took it from me, he gave it a second glance. It was a bit different from the original somehow, perhaps the enamel shown with more luminosity, but if he was suspicious of a switch—and why should he be?—he said nothing. Then he paid me the rare compliment of asking me what I thought of the reading.

I stammered something effusive but vague as I didn't want to say anything stupid. In Oklahoma, stammering is actually a sign of character. Nevertheless, He quickly lost interest in my observations and I paused to scan the room with him. I asked him what he was drinking and if I could fetch him another. He thought that was a great idea.

I went, returned with a screw-driver in each hand, and discovered that he was suddenly engaged in a conference with the undergraduate who had introduced the world to her cow poem. And I don't mean conversation so much, I suppose, as something more akin to a seance. He had moved from the center of the banquet room to a dimly lit corner, between him and which there was Cecily, smiling behind a wine glass which she held with some coyness between her pink slippery lips and his. I realize now that he was, in his own mysterious manner, merely divining her immediate future. I think he may have seen my approach peripherally, and he lifted his left arm and fixed his palm upon a corner wall.

One of my peers came over, hoping I think to lend credibility to his attendance by at least pretending he was mingling and having a good time. Earlier in the day he had asked if I was taking Jeremy Heart back to the airport the following morning. If it was inconvenient, he suggested, he could manage.

I don't know if I still thought that there was a possibility of making a connection with this illustrious writer or whether I simply wanted the local departmental honors for myself. He nodded at my extra drink and asked, "for him?"

I asked him how our guest managed to get hooked up with the department's poet laureate-tess.

Need you ask? A great pair of wheels will take you anywhere," he noted, and I had to admit there was something rather agreeable about the way this poet giggled, arched her spine back until it met the wall with her square skinny shoulders. Her short skirt and black hose were not hard to appreciate either.

"But did she come on to him?" I asked, now sipping from both drinks. "What could she possible want from him?"

"Recognition? They've been making eye-reconnaissance since the reading. I heard him say he wanted to read more of her poetryhe compared her style to Sylvia Plath. She said she'd write a lot more verse but she felt more and more that rhyme was artificial and cumbersome."

I had to stop him there. I was disgusted, oddly enough—comparisons are odious—and I was embarrassed for both myself and Jeremy Hearst. It was as if I was looking upon my mother's nakedness. "Well, well—we're all goddam fools, aren't we?" I finally concluded. He didn't answer and I didn't look to see a non-verbal response. "You still want to drive him to the airport?" I asked.

"Naw," he said after a moment. We looked on together for a few minutes in silence. They were now in complete eye-lock, the room and audience had all faded into oblivion, and they were completely alone behind a force field of vibrating infatuation. Finally, my erstwhile friend and sometime ally turned, and as he walked away he started singing to himself an old Jefferson Airplane lyric:

When the truth is found, to be lies,

and you know the Joy, within you dies.

When the two starting tasting each other's drinks, I left.

I picked him up the next morning. He looked disheveled and I let him carry his own baggage. It's about ninety minutes from Stillwater to Tulsa. My perfunctory manner was obvious, and so I think he sense some of my disappointment. He started with, "You've got a great little school, more sophisticated than I had imagined."

"We have our share of long-legged women," I ventured, my eyes steady on the road. I could feel a bit of his discomfort, and I was almost sorry about my remark.

"You know, I have this friend starting a new magazine in New York. If you were to send me that story, I could pass it on to him."

Now this was interesting. Was I going to forget or simply over look his shabby example of the last 24 hours because he was offering to connect one of my stories with a New York editor? This was not the moment to judge one's neighbor, I decided, and once again I was his lapdog. As I think I made clear, this was a realization of a dream, a real publication would put me in a separate classification from my fellow students, it would lend gravitas to my comments in writing seminars. Still, I sensed something rather obligatory in his tone, so I asked, "You really liked the story?"

"Like I said."

I told him I was flattered, and of course, I would send him the story, and then I took one step too far. I did think the story was ready and as good as anything I had ever written, but I had one reservation about an incident in the story. My character joins a traveling rodeo after blowing up his father's tractor. "Let me ask you about the tractor; did the circumstances seem believable, because frankly, I'm not sure his motive was clear."

"Like I said, good story." "But you understand why he did it? Why did you think he blew up the tractor?"

"Of course, some story elements are best left ambiguous," he added.

"Yes, but why exactly did he do that—in your opinion?"

Jeremy Hearst lifted his chin and scratched at his day-old beard. "Listen, I have to confess, I've been really busy lately. I started the story you sent, I liked it, but—I get a lot of stuff to read."

"Oh yeah, of course." I felt like a fool—again. The Cimmarron Turnpike was straight and clean except for the carcass of a raccoon or a armadillo here and there. I drove stiffly on for another twenty minutes in silence, looking ahead like a robot, or maybe like one of those armadillos, his head poking up from his suit of armor. Was I going to send the story to him, knowing as we both did that his offer was nothing more than an attempt to assuage his guilt?

Shortly before we arrived at the airport I turned and looked fully upon him. He had slouched down in his seat and had his head against the window.

"Have a long night?"

"Drank a bit too much," he said wistfully.

"I just want to ask you one thing—just one thing." I wasn't slowing down and he wasn't getting out so I took my time. "You wrote this great story about a man who picked up groupies on the lecture circuit but finally comes to understand that he's risking everything, that he'd become—what? A lech, a coed catcher, but…BUT, he finds the moral courage to realize the error of his ways, he wakes up before it's too late."

Jeremy Hearst straightened himself up in the seat, and as he checked a loose button on his shirt, I noted that he had at some point earlier, slipped a wedding band off his finger. I hadn't noticed it before, but I noticed now that the ring mark was still visible.

"Listen, Tim, I told you, I've been really busy. It's about the story—that's what you're really pissed about, isn't it?"

"Why didn't you just tell me the truth—that would have been okay. Did you think my ego was so fragile? And when it comes to your story, why didn't you just write it the way it really is?"

He didn't have to take this from me, and we both knew it. There were many things he might have said to point this out. Instead he merely said, "You know, as Hemingway always said, `Never apologize, never explain.' That's my credo."

Yes, I know, I thought, but Hemingway betrayed Fitzgerald—didn't he? And what about Gertrude Stein, who helped him to his first big break, and let's not forget his various and sundry wives. Yes, I wanted to say, "Yes, but Hemingway was an ass." But I didn't say that. I couldn't overcome the residual respect I had for this man, for the work he had done—his stories, his magic with language and his penetrating insights. "Just one question, though," I said.

"I gave you one already, but go ahead."

"That story you wrote. It was so full of truth. No one can make that up who doesn't understand. You know what you should be and you know what you are. How can you write one way, write so goddam well, and be something else?"

I have thought not infrequently of the last conversation with the illustrious and colorful Jeremy Hearst. His name frequently comes up in writing seminars and I hear he recently won another book award. I can hear him even now rephrasing my question, "How can one write one way—with such an understanding of folly, and not completely reject it in his own life?" He smiled a crooked smile.

I had read how the good hearted Socrates asked, "Whoever knowing good, would choose evil?" But according to Jeremy Hearst, Socrates was all wet. "Evil understands good only too well. It's good that doesn't have a clue. When you understand that, Tim, you'll be a much better writer. Oh, by the way, the reason I didn't finish your story—it wasn't anything special, that's all."

A few months later I was sitting in the student union and Cecily, in the company of a mutual friend, joined me at my table. I had given up on writing fiction. I was jotting down an outline for a book of literary criticism I envisaged myself writing one day. She saw "the Pen." I don't know if she recognized it, but she admired it and wanted to scribble with it on a placemat. I handed it over—carefully—and then said, unable to resist the intimacy, I suppose—"That pen belonged to Jeremy Hearst."

She smiled in reverie, all the time rolling the pen between her fingers like a fat cigar. "Really? I'll never tell you what he gave me," she said at last.

 

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