Custer Woodhead had worked on his book for twenty-eight years and still wasn’t sure what it was about. His novel grew, multiplied, and enlarged. It breathed, pulsed, and spoke to him every day. It moved his thoughts, possessing him. It spoke to him in a distinctive voice.
THE BOOK was the most important entity of his life. He had lost two jobs because of it. In his year of unemployment, he had grown a beard, gained ten pounds and gotten bifocals.
He never had fun anymore because of his BOOK and he rarely thought about anything else. There was no dress code when he worked in his second floor loft office writing it. A jungle of leaves surrounded him. He flailed away the wrens or other creatures who dared perch on the maple tree’s branches. He had to be alone, even though he was in his northside home with his wife and daughter. He was alone in his mind, alone in eternity.
On warm summer days he often sat at the typewriter dressed in his underwear, staring at the computer screen for hours, typing each letter carefully, dissecting every sentence. He had already rewritten the first chapter over 5,000 times. Pieces of crumpled paper were scattered all over his office. Some had only a rejected sentence; others had a rejected word. The top of his desk was so thick with paper that pencils disappeared into the abyss never to be recovered. The room stunk of raw ink.
“Daddy,” his six-year-old daughter Amity asked. ” We going swimming?”
“No, sweetie. I’m working on my book.”
“But mommy said…” Her mouth curled when she smiled.
“Maybe this afternoon…”
She glanced at his chair. “You look funny in your underwear.”
He smiled. Little Amity was as precocious as ever, smart as well. Her mother was an Orphan/Warrior archetype but Amity was a Sage/Bodhisattva who was working towards a vocabulary larger than Webster’s. Dressed in play pants, she looked more like a little girl than a scholar. Her fine brown hair was wound into two pigtails. Her bangs hung like moss on her eyebrows. Her dimples blossomed each time she smiled.
That was the price you paid for being an artiste, a real writer, your six- year- old daughter made fun of you. But she’d realize when she got older what a genius her father was, picking words out of the air, churning them into deep complex characters and dialogue.
He leaned back in his chair and looked up at his rare posters, worth a lot in today’s market. He would never sell them. The most valuable one was early psychedelic black ink on paper. The Grateful Dead’s name stretched across the top, surrounding a longhaired hippie beside the Whiskey-a-Go Go. Custer fantasized as he often did, not of his hippie days but of an elaborate design on the dust jacket on the book with an oversized, airbrushed photo of himself.
“Daddy!” Amity shouted. “Look what you’ve done.”
The letters BBBBBB reached across the screen, in front of which his palm rested on the keyboard.
He kissed Amity on the cheek. “Thanks, pal, best thing I’ve ever written.”
“Like Harry Potter?”
“No like Custer Woodhead.”
He turned off the monitor of his computer and sighed.
“We goin’ swimming?”
Just as he sat down on his threadbare couch, Mariposa glided in. She was an aging beauty, long –legged with high cheekbones and a melodic voice. Custer was as madly in love with her as the day he met her at Feltwick College trimming a rose bush that had leaves stained walnut like the color of her hair. Mariposa had started out horticulture major, she had changed to biology. Now she was an adjunct professor. Custer, a philosophy major, translated abstract concepts into vivid convoluted sentences. Mariposa had once loved everything he wrote. She compared his work to Shelley or Keats.
Working for Griffin Furniture gave him no chance to integrate philosophical concepts. He tried discussing Phenomenology with customers who were simply interested in buying a sleeper sofa. Most left depressed, without spending a penny. He decided to put his philosophical ideas into his book.
“I can’t believe what I’m seeing,” she said, pushing her dark hair away from her face.
“You turned it off!”
“Not the air conditioner.”
“I only turned off the monitor.”
Mariposa’s face went from glee to deep despair. “Have you ever thought that the computer might outlive your book?”
Custer turned his monitor back on.
“What’re you doin’?” Mariposa folded her arms.
“I’ve got some ideas.”
“You can’t eat them.”
Every morning Custer met with his virtual agent “Bert” in cyberspace was somewhere between a portal and the infinite website at the end of the Internet. He clicked on an icon of a green bookworm, then a pen and ink cartoon of a man with a bulbous nose smoking a cigar. A moment later Custer reappeared in the chat room with his agent. The dialogue box showed a cartoon image of Bert, the sage/operator.
“Custer,” cried Bert. He puffed away at his cigar, the smoke meandering to the top of the web page.
The dialogue box showed a cartoon image of Bert.
“Is it nonfiction or fiction, Custer,” asked Bert. The question was typed in a small dialogue box outlined in tiny dust jackets.
“Today I think it’s more nonfiction than fiction.” Custer typed in his reply. “I’ve added more abstract concepts.”
“I’m an expert at promoting nonfiction, why don’t you sign up?”
Custer clicked the backspace on his computer. He changed his reply to fiction.
Said Bert: “I’m an expert at promoting fiction, why don’t you sign up?”
Maybe I shouldn’t go the agent route just yet, Custer thought. I should rework it one more time. Often Custer woke up in the middle of the night, his mind overflowing with ideas for his book. He got up and worked from two a. m. to five. He wrote in the tangle of sunlight or the shadow of darkness.
“I can look at twenty pages, if you sign up for a trial period. ”
Custer closed the dialogue box. One hundred dollars for twenty pages was a lot of money for someone who hadn’t worked in over a year. His salary as a furniture salesman was barely enough to take care of his family.
There was the shuffle of feet behind him. He turned his head and saw Amity and Mariposa, dressed in their matching swimwear green with yellow butterflies, carrying a stack of mustard towels and hats.
“Custer, shut it off, please,” Mariposa approached him from behind. ” I beg you.”
“I’m right at a critical point. I’ve integrated two contradictory philosophical concepts into one paragraph, absolutism and relativism.” Custer continued to type.
Drake felt minimized by the institutions. Existence to him seemed like a cut-throat struggle for his identity. He belayed any cultural pattern. Unlike the Zuni Indian’s acceptance of life and death, North American civilization was dictated by the choices of the Apollonian. He wanted to be heroic.
“That’s what you always say,” Mariposa leaned down and read the computer screen.
What happened to the days where she used to love everything he wrote, thought Custer.
“Smell the flowsies,” cried Amity. He understood that Amity could be concise.
At the beach Custer thought about his book. Lake Michigan reminded him of the phoniness of Shelley’s poetry. Dressing nature in romantic hyperbole didn’t improve its barbarity.
Everything about the beach offended him. His eye fell on the golden luster of the sand, the marigold sky, the wispy clouds. The wind whipped in his ear, tickling him. The lapping of the sea on the lakeshore fragmented his thoughts and shattered his sense of well- being. Unless nature had some kind of philosophical import it was worthless to him. The sun, which was the image of grandeur throughout history, was little more than a glorified furnace.
He wrote quickly on his legal pad:
The beach bored Drake. He ignored his wife, whose beauty was jaded by sunlight. She smiled at him and he looked away. He no longer saw her as a romantic object. Instead she was as fake as nature and the romantic poets she admired.
“Daddy, let’s go,” Amity tugged on his arm. She was carrying her water wings under her arms.
“Wait a second, I’m finishing a sentence.”
He tossed his notebook down and followed Amity to the shore.
His eye caught Mariposa’s grim look. She was reading what he had written about her.
“Don’t worry, Custer, I’ll watch your precious paper. Go swimming with your daughter. It’s calm today. No waves.” Mariposa’s upper lip was stiff, unmoved by emotion.
Custer stood up, pulling up his swim trunks which left no room for his rotund tummy. He followed Amity to the lake while she ran. The lake was crowded with swimmers.
“Make sure Amity puts on her water wings, honey.”
Custer nodded. How he detested the hot sun. When he blinked his eyes he saw only yellow orbs dancing around like hot peppers. He ran to the shore and grabbed Amity with one hand before she could dive into the monstrous wave.
“I know how to put them on,” her wet chipmunk face looked defiantly at him. “See.”
“There’s a life guard here too, daddy. He swims better than you.”
Amity sounded more like Mariposa every day.
Custer dove in, the foamy water engulfing him, his head sucked into the seaweed-infested mire. As he swam away from the shore, he felt himself getting weaker. His legs slid by the vegetation. He pulled his head up and flailed his arms. He couldn’t kick, his legs were caught in the plants. He cried “Help” and went down again, his mouth filled with stale water. Just as he thought, he was going to die. He shuddered and felt a touch on his arm, then a giggle. He jumped.
“Daddy, you can’t drown here. The water is too shallow.” Amity grabbed his arm. “You were scared, weren’t you, daddy?” Water plummeted from Amity’s nose.
“Of course, not, sweetie.”
“You like being outside?”
“You’d never know. You haven’t been out of the house in a week.”
“Mommy made you take out the garbage.”
With a wave of her hand, Amity dove into the water, her blue water wings, fluttered behind her. Custer knew that Mariposa was having too much influence on Amity. His daughter was becoming a stranger to him. He’d spend more time with her, only if it didn’t interfere with his book.
Custer had awakened at 5 a.m. to wrestle with his book. The page he was working on was white hot in the computer. Every letter pulsed without his touching the keyboard. His CPU hissed. He was going some place, where he didn’t know. His fingers felt light on the keyboard.
He was racing, racing. He fingers moved faster and faster. He had already composed three pages. He gasped for air, breathless, then leaned back in his chair. It was as though time had stopped.
He sipped his coffee and stared at the darkness, his room lit by a single lamp. He had a sense that he could finish his book tonight. Twenty-eight years of contemplation, planning, revising, rethinking.
He jumped from his chair, spilling his coffee in his lap. The sound of paper ripping. He turned.
“Mariposa!” He cried, grabbing her arms. “Stop!”
She kicked his foot. He lunged backward nearly losing his balance. By the time he recovered she had both of them in her arms, his two masterpieces.
“What’re you doin’?”
“I’ve gotta sell them. We need the money.” She held the poster tightly in her arms. “People collect them.”
Custer cried. “How could you do this to me?”
“You haven’t worked, Custer. We need two incomes. Even if your book is published, it won’t be enough money. Don’t you understand? You might get $10,000 at the most. ” Mariposa said. ” We can’t live this way. Next it’s the house, the car. We have to sell everything. ”
Custer fell into his chair, his head in his hands. He had lived with those posters for nearly as long as his book. They were his companions, his muses.
“What about Amity, don’t you ever think about her? What about your own daughter. You’ve got to make a choice. I guess you’ve already made that choice.”
Before he could move, Mariposa shot out of the room. He chased down the stairs after her, watching her carry the posters. She faded into the distance. He ran, lagging behind her. The sun through the window smacked his eye. His sternum ached from running. He held his stomach and stopped at the foot of the stairs. He looked out the window. The blur of the doorway. Amity’s arm in the air, waving as she got into the car with her mother.
He heard the voice getting louder, calling him back.
Like her character, Custer, Kathleen Vyn has been writing books and articles for a long time. Her books have been published by Simon & Schuster, Trails Books and Harper Collins. Her articles were published by the Chicago Tribune and numerous magazines. Today nothing thrills her as much as making up stories without having to wait for a source to call back.