N gives in, starts writing a story about writers. He figures, hey, why resist, all his characters talk that way already. They say, “denouement.” Say, “tellingly.” “In the end…” They scour experience for details that gesture toward meaning, spending most of their time alone, shuffling through the world or the worlds in their own minds. They are all so self-aware that their interactions read like transcripts from group therapy sessions, every bit of dialogue confessional, reflective, narrative, wandering, wondering. Their few actions are outbursts, often literally, always effectively, and more often than not these isolated incidents are fueled by liquor, loneliness, and a slow-burning sensation of powerless responsibility. In the beginning, he stalls over a choice: first- or third-person? A coin flip and the caffeine jitters decide: first. Twenty minutes later he splits the difference: multiple first-people. And if they all talk the same, fine. That can just be part of the overall statement, or whatever: inside of ourselves, we all speak in the same cadence. Sitting in breezy, leaf-strobed sunlight on his recently deceased mother’s favorite chair, the one where she would survey the birdfeeders while sipping morning tea and jotting in her journal, N bangs two full pages up onto his grimy laptop screen in under an hour. When he finally looks up, the sky is making its move from orange to pink beyond the birds, the trees, and the houses across the street
Having avoided this kind of story, maybe this particular story for a long time, N is ambushed by how easy it is to write. The paragraphs pile up and his hands are drawn to the keyboard, as if the clattering plastic keys are magnetic or life-sustaining, as if his fingers draw some mystical energy from the molded plastic squares, as if the wearing away of the letters on them somehow spells an incantation conjuring newly vivid awareness of his life unfolding in time and of the secret understanding hidden all the while in his own mind and its malleable memories. The story heads off on its own, following a path he can only discern one sentence at a time, deep into the past, far off into the world, and probingly ever-closer to the molten core of human life. The characters, given names and the merest description by N, step out of haze into clear light, doing what they will, writing their own dream-like tales, careening toward and away from each other, leaving glittering debris at the sites of their crashes, a luminous milky way of hopeful sadness laced into every moment, every line, every word of the story. N wakes after only a few hours of sleep that night, the details of newly dreamed strands of the story fading with each step to his mother’s chair and his sleeping computer, entirely new ones flooding his mind even before the word processing program starts up and offers another blank page. By dawn he has twenty pages, single-spaced, a cacophonous choir of the many voices inside him. Some are those of people he had long forgotten knowing. Many, to his surprise, and despite their unique timbers and lilts, are voices of his own, never spoken aloud, but for all of his life, he now realizes, murmuring in the dark recesses of his consciousness. As the birds outside the window sing their blessings for another day born, he reads, for the first time, what he has written. Tears welling in his eyes, he is paralyzed by his love for his own creation as his pages scroll up the screen, once, twice, three times before he is sure he is right, that he has something here, something pretty great. Blinking quickly evaporating warmth onto his cheeks he sits back for a moment, sips from his mother’s favorite mug, and hollows himself out with the thought that she will never read these pages.
Two years later it is summer again, and N’s novel is shipped to bookstores with his mother’s full name and a descriptor, who showed me why to write and how to live, on the dedication page. He quits his job at the public transit advocacy nonprofit, gets his little cousin to watch his cat, sublets his apartment to a friend of a friend’s friend, and heads out on the road for his book tour. Waiting nervously for the bookstore employee’s introduction to wind up at his first stop on the tour, he stares at the blown-up cover on an easel. He frowns at the book’s title, With Hoops of Steel. It was not his first choice, not his idea at all, but the publisher has, his agent told him, “put a pretty big push behind the hardback, PR-wise,” so N has given in, has let them decide how best to get his story in front of as many people as possible. Besides, his agent had pointed out, the phrase is Shakespeare, from Hamlet, the play the characters almost put on at the end of the story. N then pointed out that it is Polonius talking, that it is part of the “to thine own self be true” speech that lets you know Polonius is a fool. His agent had stared at him for a long moment then said, “but that still works for this story, right?” At the time, N had thought his agent was suggesting the title might be saying something about the tragic inability of people to truly hear each other’s distinct voices and their willingness to live out other people’s bad advice. Those seemed like central themes. Now, as the smattering of applause from the half dozen members of the audience ushers him to the podium, he thinks that his agent might not have meant that at all, might not have any idea what the story is really trying to say, and worse, that he might not be sure what the story is trying to say, or if any story should be trying to say anything.
The reading goes fine, and after signing several books, he accepts the offer of the young woman who ran the reading, and after a few drinks at downtown bar, he makes out with her in her car before heading up to his hotel room and its few dozen cable channels. The rest of the tour goes similarly, the few people who show up seeming to enjoy the sample chapter and the way he reads it. Reviews of the novel follow him across the country, some laudatory, some ho-hum, only one scathingly negative. In a hot southern city on the last leg of the tour, N returns to the apartment of a friend who has let him stay the night and finds a message from his agent. Bad news: the publisher isn’t happy with sales and is “pulling the second publicity push,” the radio talk show circuit and an upcoming convention for booksellers. He can still do Atlanta and Miami if he wants, but his expense budget has been halved and they can only pay for a room in one of the cities. N sets his phone on the coffee table and sits on his friend’s couch where he slept last night, sweating into the cushions, looking at the hardwood floor’s sun-shaped stains of sunlight streaming from the holes where’s where the cord goes through the mini-blinds. The holes are lenses, someone once explained, bending the streaming photons into a picture of their origin. He stands up, goes into the bathroom and takes a shower. Toweled off and dressed, he calls his friend and says he’ll ride the streetcar downtown and meet him after work for drinks. He’ll buy. They bar hop, stuffing in burgers between cocktails and beer, and by midnight, they are both hammered. N’s friend needs to get some sleep, he says, so they should head home. In the bathroom, N holds himself up at the urinal with one hand as his swimming eyes bring the wall’s call and response graffiti into focus. The words are a frightening revelation to him, the voices almost bare of character, just somehow surprisingly typical opinions and accusations jockeying with each other. “Bush is the best,” they say. And, “Nope, he’s a dick.” “Thats what u suck tho.” Who are the people in his own story, N wonders, what world did he think that they lived in? He heads back into the smoky thunder of the bar, finds his friend, then a taxi, then the couch where his last hope for his novel’s success died that afternoon. He falls asleep inwardly humming a wordless tune his mother sang to him when he was little. He lies awake for hours thinking he couldn’t have done anything differently, that it doesn’t matter if he could, that he is here now, alone, that he’ll figure something else out, and he wracks his brain for what, possibilities only half-considered before he’s onto the next ones. In the end, he gives up, letting himself falling to a swirling sleep, waking with all his dreams forgotten, his head aching and containing only one voice, his own, which asks over and over, what pushed me to this, the place that I have now come to rest?