Post Road Magazine #24

Readers and Writers

Ryan Boudinot

I was standing in the aisle on page 238 of Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals when a guy tapped me on the arm. Heavy-set, looked my age, shaved head, slightly tinted glasses, walrus mustache. He held up his copy of the same book.

"Funny," I said, "What page are you on?"

"Just got to 239."

We had a laugh over this. The Republican National Convention of 1860 was getting underway and soon it would be my stop. Before I hopped off, I told him my name was Phillip. He said his name was Marty.

"This your usual route?" I said.

"Sure is. I'll be on it tomorrow."

"Maybe by then we'll know whether Abe got the nomination," I said. Ten minutes later I was in spreadsheet land.

The next morning I spotted Marty again and gave him a little chin-thrust hello. In the weeks that followed neither of us got much reading done on the bus. Without either of us planning it, we formed a book group of two, joking about humorless Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and the unpretentious Ulysses S. Grant. Over the couple weeks that Marty and I were both reading Team of Rivals, neither of us asked the other about jobs or family. We were just two guys immersed in the intrigues of the sixteenth president's cabinet. I looked forward to these conversations and would come home and tell my wife Shel about Marty's observations. Having no real interest in history, particularly Civil War history, she nodded politely and indulged me in my nightly reports.

Then, over the course of a long weekend I finished the book. I prowled the bookshelves in my study for an acceptable volume to follow Kearns Goodwin, settling on one of the Vonnegut novels I hadn't read yet, Galapagos.

Here's where it got weird.

When I stepped on the bus the following Tuesday I spotted Marty right away, sitting in one of the higher seats above the wheel well, absorbed in Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut. Same edition, even.

We had another laugh over this. What were the chances? He told me he'd been saving Galapagos for some time, having been a fan of Vonnegut since he was a teenager. Me too, I confided. The conversation turned to other books. Suddenly it was like my head had turned inside out. Every book I mentioned, he had read. And every book he mentioned, I had read. I rattled off The Complete Works of Isaac Babel, Heaney's translation of Beowulf, Aimee Bender's Willful Creatures, Camus's The Plague. He nodded at each title. He threw me Stephen King's The Stand, Murakami's Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Kurzweil's The Singularity Is Near. Yep, I'd read those, too. I missed my stop. I countered with Rene Dumaunt's Mount Analogue, BolaƱo's 2666, Victoria Nelson's The Secret Life of Puppets, and our current president's The Audacity of Hope. Sure enough, he'd read them, too. We exchanged email addresses. I got off at his stop, walked back to my office, got chewed out by my boss. The reprimand didn't dent me, though. I was in some kind of Borgesian haze, having just met my readerly equal.

When I got home that night and told Shel, she didn't believe me.

"One of you must have been lying," she said, "You couldn't have possibly read all the same books."

"I'm not making this up. He might have been bullshitting, sure, but every book he mentioned was something I've read. We're both reading Galapagos!"

Shel yawned. "We've got two Mad Mens on the DVR. Want to open the new cabernet and watch them with me?"

That night after Shel fell asleep, I tossed in bed thinking of books I'd read, the more obscure the better. Danilo Kis's essay collection Homo Poeticus. Gary Lutz's chapbook Partial List of People to Bleach. Michel Houellebecq's H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life. Stuff only a literary nerd like myself would really get cranked up about.

I decided to send Marty an email and got out of bed. When I opened my inbox I found he'd beaten me to it. His email contained fifty or so titles. There was David Lynch's Catching the Big Fish, Barthelme's Sixty Stories, books by Pynchon, Mutis, Hempel, and Marquez. Whether it was fiction or nonfiction, it didn't matter. Each was a title I'd read. Who has read Ryu Murakami's Almost Transparent Blue? Who has read Haldor Laxness's World Light? Or Trinie Dalton's Wide Eyed? Plenty of people, I suppose, but how many people have read all three of them?

I countered with a list of my own. Thomas Bernhard's The Lime Works. George Perec's A Void. Rock Springs by Richard Ford. J.K. Huysman's La Bas. A book-length critical essay by D.X. Ferris about Slayer's classic thrash metal album Reign In Blood.

"I have to see your library," I wrote to Marty.

"Likewise," he replied, more or less instantly. We made a date of it. I'd stop by his place the following night around seven PM.

Marty caught the bus just one stop before mine, and as the crow flies his house was probably no more than a half mile from my own. I lived on one side of the hill facing the lake, with a view of Mount Rainier, and he lived on the other side within spitting distance of a Jiffy Lube. His place was an awkward Spanish-style bungalow painted kelly green with an unweeded front yard held in place by a crotch-high chainlink fence. He opened the door and offered me a beer. It was pretty obvious right away he lived by himself. The furnishings were slim. In the kitchen, it appeared the microwave oven was pulling all the weight. Maybe he'd made an attempt at tidying up before I arrived, then run out of time. The dinette table had been half-wiped with a wet wash cloth that sat crumpled next to a napkin dispenser probably stolen from a restaurant. The living room was lined with his shelves.

If there had been books I had not read I would have been disappointed, but the mystery of our perfectly aligned reading tastes persisted as I ran my eyes along the spines. Turns out Marty did own books I hadn't read, but these were books he hadn't read, either. It finally dawned on me that there was a Corona with lime in my hand. I settled into the room's only chair, a nice oxblood leather one, and tried to express my amazement.

"I can't explain it, either," Marty said, readjusting his chin, "It's like those stories you hear about twins separated at birth, the ones who meet each other as adults and discover they've both married women named Pam and both drive Dodge Dakotas."

"So you must have been an English major or something, right?" I said.

Marty nodded. "Graduated from Boston College in 1995."

"I went to Evergreen. Also graduated in '95. Then grad school. Bennington, Creative Writing."

"I did the Warren Wilson program," Marty said.

"I'm being set up here, right? Tell me this is some kind of weird reality show thing."

Marty shrugged. "I'm just as blown away about this as you are. By the way, I started re-reading one of my favorite books today."

"Jesus' Son, right?" I said.

Marty nodded and finished his beer in a gulp. I stayed til eleven, getting drunk, talking about books that had changed our lives. We went way back, through high school's Bukowski and Kosinski and Kerouac jags, junior high's fascination with paramilitary potboilers and Stephen King doorstoppers, then grade school's Newbery award winners and Tin Tin comics. By the time I left we'd exhausted The Poky Little Puppy, The Summerfolk, The Great Brain, and Goodnight, Moon. I gave Marty a man hug at the front door and invited him over for dinner the following week.

By the time Marty came over we'd been having a week-long discussion about Denis Johnson and the current book we happened to be reading at the same time, Moby Dick.

As it turned out, that night wasn't so great for Shel; she'd had to lay off twelve employees that day. She arrived home needing to cry it out with a couple glasses of wine and some Colbert Report to bring herself down a few notches, but instead she had to put on a social face and entertain this new weird friend of mine she'd never met.

When Marty walked in the door I knew how he must have looked to Shel. He wasn't grotesque by any means, but he could have used a shave and the Top Pot Donuts T.shirt he wore looked like it had been recycled a few times. I don't think Marty expected me to live in the kind of house he walked into. Shel and I had done pretty well for ourselves in the ten years since our wedding and when we finally decided to own a home, we got a screaming deal on a recently remodeled four-bedroom, three-story house in a neighborhood where the trees had been shading the sidewalks since before cars.

Marty complimented our place and we did a little dance about whether or not he should take off his shoes in the foyer. Shel appeared at the top of the stairs in a new blouse and her pearls and warmly greeted our visitor. After some awkward small talk, I asked Marty if he wanted to see my books.

My study was about the size of his living room, the bookcases custom built.

"How strange we've come together like this," Marty said, touching the spines.

Awhile later we ate pizzas made with homemade dough and drank the last of a case of something Shel and I had picked up from a winery tour of Lake Chelan. I tried pulling Shel into the conversation, but as soon as I shared some meaningless literary matter Marty and I had wrested over, it became apparent how thoroughly unengaged she was. Marty tried to involve her by asking about her job, not realizing that this was perhaps the absolute worst day for such an question. After an acceptable period of time, Shel excused herself for the night, apologetically blaming a long day and an early meeting the next morning. Which was true.

After Shel left, Marty said, "So do you still write?"

"You mean after I got my MFA? Well, I mean, I try once in awhile. I'm just so busy. What about you?"

Marty shrugged. "I've got this novel I've been working on."

"How long have you been at it?"

"About fourteen, fifteen years."

"Damn! You must be pretty far into it by now."

Marty looked at the floor. "I suppose I am," he said quietly.

"How many pages?"

He shrugged. "Fifteen hundred or so."

"Shit, Marty."

He must have known what I desperately wanted to ask next, because he cut me off at the pass. "It's not ready for anyone to read yet. It still needs some work."

"Do you have a title?"

"Yeah. The Dystopians."

"I'd definitely read it with a title like that."

"Yeah, well, it's not ready." Marty threw his gaze around the room at potted plants and framed art. "That was one excellent dinner, my friend," he said, slapping his knee, "I shouldn't keep you guys up." He checked his watch. "The 106 hasn't stopped running yet, has it?"

"Hey, no, let me drive you."

Marty waved me off. "It might seem like far away, but it's just over the hill. I can walk it if there's no bus. Serious. Tell Shel I really enjoyed her company."

A week passed in which I didn't see Marty on the bus. I emailed him a few times, writing, "So I assume you're reading Diane Williams's Excitability?" and "Dude, I hope you're okay."

Work rose up and swallowed me for awhile. Long nights putting out fires, the rumor-mill at full churn about layoffs, accounts diving overboard: an occasion for mixed metaphors if there ever was one. When I finally had the wherewithal to think about books again, I popped into one of my favorite used bookstores while on a lunch break and found my fingers resting on a battered copy of On Death and Dying by Elizabeth Kubler Ross. I'd always wanted to read it, and at two bucks it was a steal. As I began reading on the bus home I knew I had to pay Marty a visit. When I showed up at his house that night I found the lights out. I knocked on and off for five minutes, peered in windows, and figured he wasn't home.

Two days later I felt the compulsion to read the Bible and knew that Marty must have been in really bad shape. I started calling hospitals, but here's the thing—I'd never bothered to learn Marty's last name. I wouldn't get anywhere asking the front desk if they'd admitted a voracious reader named Marty.

At work, my face remained friendly and strained, scaffolded by my contrived persona as an enthusiastic manager of projects. Shel put on her own brave face as her direct reports clamoured for reassurance that they wouldn't be next on the gallows. She had to look many of them in the eye and outright lie that their jobs weren't in danger. When Shel and I came home these faces collapsed and various sites of domestic insignificance became the triggers for raging arguments. I forgot to buy more dishwasher soap. Shel neglected to tell me my mother had called. We clashed, exhausted ourselves, fell into one anothers' arms with Jon Stewart mugging on the plasma.

I emailed Marty. "What's with all the religious texts?" I wrote. "Just tell me you're okay."

Finally I got a reply. It just said, "Sorry I've been incommunicado. Things not well. I need to see you."

I walked into his house without knocking that night and found him in bed in a little room stinking of boxed-in sweat. Beside him on the floor and bedside table were copies of all the books I'd been reading for the past couple weeks, spread-eagled and marked up with margin notes.

"I'm dying," he said, "I don't have anybody. My family lives in other states."

"You need a hospital," I said.

Marty shook his head. "Three months ago they said I had two months."

I sat on the edge of the bed and held his hand. "Three months ago was when we met," I said.

Marty swallowed and swallowing appeared to hurt. "I need you to finish the manuscript." His eyes led mine to a cardboard box partially obscured by a shirt. Inside I found several reams worth of paper covered with Times New Roman size ten. He said, "Remember that part in the Lincoln book, before he became famous, where he told his friend he didn't want to die without anybody knowing he'd ever lived? That's what this manuscript is to me. But I can't finish it. You're the only one who can."

"Marty, I don't know."

"You dropped your writing as soon as you got out of grad school. But you kept reading. My novel will fill the hole you created when you set aside your own work."

"You need to see a doctor."

"I need to die surrounded by books. Read something to me. Read me Carver's 'Cathedral.'"

I found the New American Library edition of the Collected Stories and sat on the floor next to the bed. I read about the husband and the wife and the blind man. By the time the wife went to bed Marty was asleep. By the time the husband guided the blind man's hands across the paper, Marty was dead.

My life wouldn't let me stop to process this strange tragedy; the very next day I lost my job. I called Shel from the bus on my way home and she arranged to get out of work for the rest of the day. She found me in the living room staring at the two cardboard boxes sitting on the coffee table, one containing Marty's novel, the other containing Mariners bobbleheads, vacation snap shots, HR paperwork, and the bottle of champagne I'd kept for five years in a file cabinet. I had two months' severance. Shel pulled up Microsoft Money on her laptop and charted our finances— things wouldn't start getting hairy for at least a year.

There was a funeral to attend. I met Marty's relatives who hailed from various places in the Midwest. Affable people who didn't read books. They watched TV shows and played video games. They excitedly retold a story about their cab ride from the airport that didn't seem all that noteworthy to me. I told them how insightful their son, their cousin, their brother had been. Their expressions told me that they felt obligated to come across as friendly. Reading wasn't important to them, wasn't something necessary for their survival, and in fact probably would have complicated it. Once again I found myself understanding that this was how most people were these days. I didn't mention Marty's and my perfectly syncronized reading habits or that he'd written a novel. One of them, an uncle, owned a car dealership and kept offering me gum. Another, an aunt, kept repeating the phrase "weird little kid" when talking about Marty. None seemed to have any clue that he'd been a writer.

The day after the funeral I started reading the novel. Hours previous I had looked upon my friend laid out waxy and inert in a coffin, and yet the man never seemed as alive to me as when I read the words he'd committed to those pages. I had to stop several times to weep, and immediately after reading the last sentence I slipped the CDR he'd given me into my laptop and started editing the soft copy. Nothing drastic of course, just a typo fixed here and some untangled syntax there. The more I got my hands in it the more the novel's subtexts called attention to themselves and the more glaring its flaws became. It was as though all the books I'd read had been precisely what I needed to prepare me for this task, finishing and editing one of the most brilliant works of literature of our time. I began to see exactly what this novel needed to become truly great, and spent my days deleting and adding the passages it required.

My wife got up early, went to work, came home exhausted. I barely noticed her comings and goings. I diligently submitted my unemployment claims and had to go to an acupuncturist when my hands grew too sore from typing. On the anniversary of Marty's death I came to the end of my work on Utopia's Garden (I'd changed the title) and began looking for an agent. After a bit of Googling I came up with a list of addresses and drafted my query letter. I had just finished writing my first novel, I told them, and I was seeking representation.

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