There are two problems with miracles and you have to master them both if you want to stay out of trouble. The first is the easiest to surmount.
By his nature, a man wants to believe. He wants to believe his childhood pet is chasing rubber balls and stealing table scraps up in beagle heaven. He wants to believe in his ability to burst into the cockpit and land the jetliner despite the incapacitated flight crew. He prays there is a heaven in which all his gaffes and missteps are undone. A heaven where is captured the first home run he ever hit, the way it felt the summer of his first kiss, how it felt behind the wheel when he first drove a fast car alone.
He may not trust the one who tells him all of it is true. He may need to see it with his eyes.
He may need some time to accept. Above all, he may need to be convinced he's worthy.
And so the first problem with miracles is to shed belief, and escape the fear that miracles are real.
He said, "I can't believe this is happening," and then asked for the pen. It didn't write when he tried to inscribe the first letter of his name. He shook it and tried again.
"Here. Let me get that," Roger said. He pulled a stubby fountain pen out of its holder behind him. Uncapped it and handed it across the desk.
"You don't have to press--" Roger said, as Walter scrawled his name across the line at the bottom of the page.
Walter stared at his name in dark black. Roger cleared his throat, and then Walter wrote the date next to his name.
"It's ok," Roger said, clearing his throat again. He held his hand out, and when Walter handed him the pen he quickly capped it and stowed it out of sight.
Walter said, "I can't believe it."
"Well, there it is," Roger said. "And here this is." He handed Walter an unsealed envelope.
Walter folded it and shoved it in his pocket.
"You're not going to count it?"
"It's a check, right?" Walter said, and Roger nodded. "I trust you."
Roger raised his eyebrows, then scowled for a second, which made Walter say, "Shouldn't I?" and made Roger say he should, but there was something Walter wasn't getting. The concern slipped away from him as Roger put the contract into a folder on his desk.
"What happens next?" Walter said.
"We'll be sending you the galleys in a few weeks. All goes well with those, book will be in the fall catalog. In the stores by Christmas. We'll need you to be available for publicity, of course. Gotta get a headshot for the back cover. And then--"
"The tour? The book tour? I'm totally free. I've quit the firm. I can be anywhere anytime."
Roger scowled again. "Did Sandy tell you to do that? You know -- there's some time before any sort of tour. We need to get the reviews. We've asked a few of our authors to provide quotes, and those will be favorable, of course. But there's going to be quite a bit of time."
"I'm just anxious to get started. This is a dream come true."
Roger stood up and offered his hand. After a few seconds, Walter did the same, said, "I just don't want it to end."
"I hope it doesn't," Roger said. "Here's to a long and profitable relationship."
"Absolutely." And Walter shook hands until Roger pulled his hand away.
"And to the next book." Roger said.
"Oooh, I got a good one, next," Walter said. He started to give the plot away to Roger as Roger showed him to the door of the office. Roger kept nodding, Walter kept talking, until the door closed in front of him, and he was telling the ending to Roger's administrator, who showed him to the elevator.
"I just sold my first book," Walter said to a man in the elevator.
"Congratulations," said the man. "What's it about?"
"It's about life," Walter said. "How amazing things can happen to anyone."
"So it's fiction," the man said.
"Yeah. It's a novel."
"Would have to be," the man said. The doors opened, and the man was gone.
"When we gonna see the book?" Lindy asked. Walter lifted his laptop as she swabbed the counter in front of him. She put down the towel and refilled Walter's coffee cup. "How come they don't have it at Borders' downtown? I asked about it and they said they were having trouble getting it."
"It's all about distribution," Walter said, staring at his laptop screen. "They gotta get the big markets first. Open things up, and then they go to the secondaries. Hey, listen to this one--'Dear Mr. Butkus, I really liked your book. The character of Gail reminds me of my old friend Marnie from Benton Harbor. Are you from Benton Harbor? Do you know Marnie?"
While Walter started typing a response, Lindy said, "How's the fan mail coming?"
"Dribbles," Walter said. "But I'm ready for the onslaught. Once we go into the big printing, I'm going to have to switch to my unlisted address. My web administrator will handle everything. She's looking to hire someone to answer my mail. It will be part time at first. But then the second book will come out and we'll probably have to have someone full time."
"What's a job like that pay? I'm pretty good with e-mail."
"Well, I'd imagine we could do better than they're paying you at this place," Walter said, grinning. "I'll tell my web admin to give you a call."
"Thanks," Lindy said. She scooped some change off the counter and dropped it into the tips jar. "So when's the second book coming out, then?"
"It's really up to Roger. He's got the outline. Come to think of it..." Walter pulled out his cell phone. Hit a number, smiled at Lindy. Said, "My editor," which made Lindy nod, because she'd heard it every day.
When Roger's admin picked up she said, "Walter. Roger's busy. Can I take a message?"
"Damn caller ID," Walter said.
"I'm not screening," Joan said.
"One of these days it would be nice to get through, though. Any reason he won't call me back that you know?"
"He's awfully busy."
"Do you know if he's read my outline for the next book? I'm just wondering what I should do. You know, I'm kind of hanging on this end. I've got everything ready to go. The website. Does he know I'm free to go to Chicago like he said I might have to? It turns out I'm going to be there anyway..."
"Walter--" Joan said, several times to interrupt him. "Here he is. Here's Roger. Hold for a moment."
There was silence, and then Roger's voice. "Zelnick here. Walter? How are you?"
"Well, pretty good, Roger, I was wondering--"
Roger cut him off. "I have some good news and some bad news. Which do you want first?"
There was something deep and unfriendly about the tone of his voice that made Walter dread the bad news he asked for.
When Roger asked him if he'd seen The New Yorker, Walter had to admit he hadn't read anything for the past couple months. He'd been writing his second novel.
Roger said, "Well you should have. Greenburg panned you. No, wait. He stomped you, covered you in gasoline, and set fire to you. You should never write another word in public, as far as he's concerned."
"Yes, that's very bad."
"Heh. Well, critics. Who's to say. Sandy tells me--"
"Walter, something else has come across my desk and it's very troubling. Sandy tells me you and she no longer share a client-agent relationship. What the hell'd you do, fire her? Some poor judgment there, man. Damn poor judgment. She's the best. You were lucky to have her."
"Well, actually it was her idea--but it's just one critic. And I'm working on a new agent right now. Hickum & Smith are entertaining--"
"Hiccough and Spit? Those weasels? Damn it, Walter. This is unrecoverable, you know that, don't you?"
"But I thought we were selling well. Once we get into the first real run--"
"Walter, we sold a marginal test printing, and that's the good news. But there's not going to be anymore."
"What? Roger? I don't understand. One critic. You and Sandy both said I should ignore the critics."
Walter slumped. His laptop nearly fell off the counter, and only Lindy's quick hands saved it from splattering on the linoleum floor. She poured a glass of ice water and pushed it toward him.
"Well, you can ignore them all except for Greenburg. It's not going to sell, Walter. We can't risk it."
"What about my royalties--"
Roger coughed and on reflex, Walter held the cell phone away from his ear so as not to be hit with the spray. Roger said, "You didn't cover the advance. Now Sandy negotiates a good contract, so you don't owe us any return--"
Walter put his elbows on the counter and rested his forehead in the palm of one hand. He felt like he was shrinking. Like the world was growing up around him swallowing him. And the thought crossed his mind that if he was small enough the sun would have to travel twice as far to rise in the morning, and he might never see it.
He never hung up the call with Roger. He didn't go back for his coat or his laptop. He never paid Lindy for his coffee and pie.
Walter walked out of the diner and into the parking lot knowing that sooner or later he'd be reduced to atomic size, and he'd fall through the cracks between the molecules, and from that perspective, the entire universe would look the same in all directions.
The day Walter ate the entire bottle of sleeping pills, he decided to go to church and ask God what had happened. Where had he gone wrong?
But as has been the case since they stopped writing Bibles, God answered in God's usual enigmatic way, and Walter missed the whole conversation while he sucked in lungful after lungful of self pity. He stumbled into the daylight, staggered into a convenience store, and roamed around long enough to convince the clerk he was casing the joint for a holdup.
He tried calling a few old girlfriends, all of whom were now married and unwilling to meet him under any circumstances that didn't involve him being married to someone as well.
His ex-wife screened his calls and wouldn't pick up.
A couple of the guys from the firm agreed to have lunch with him, but the topic immediately swerved from their latest project to the status of the book--why hadn't they seen it? And he hung up.
He went home, emptied the prescription bottle of Ambien into his mouth and swallowed them down with a cupped palm full of water. Fortunately for Walter, no one had explained to him that to actually kill yourself by sleeping pill overdose, you'd have to eat something to avoid the problem of an empty stomach.
He puked the bulk of the pills into the toilet, fell backward onto the bathroom tile and fell asleep.
The pounding on the front door woke him up. It made him able to hear the incessant doorbell. Then the tapping on the window. Then the ringing phone.
Lindy gasped when she saw him. She held the laptop in front of her. Said, "You forgot your phone yesterday. And your computer."
He accepted them without comment, trying not to make eye contact.
"Are you okay?"
"Yeah, I'm fine," is what he said, when he was thinking that anyone who felt the way he did would say they were fine just to see how big a lie was humanly possible to execute.
"Can I come in?"
"There's not going to be any e-mail answering job," Walter said. "It didn't work out."
"That's okay. I kind of figured. I mean, I was there when you called. I just want to show you something."
They sat on his living room sofa, Walter more reclining that sitting, resting his head on the sofa back, staring at the ceiling while Lindy started his computer.
"I couldn't help but see this. It came up when you left."
There was an e-mail message on the screen. Walter lowered his eyes, but didn't attempt to focus.
"That's okay. I'll read it," Lindy said. "It's from an 18-year old girl in Chicago. She says,
"Dear Mr. Butkus,
Lindy waited for Walter to say something, and when he didn't she asked, "What do you think?"
Walter barely lifted his head.
"You saved these children's lives."
"People see what they want," Walter said. "I didn't do anything. Gail's story has nothing to do with what happened to those kids. It isn't even close. Nobody in my story has cancer."
"But you gave her courage."
"That's not why I wrote it."
Lindy closed the laptop and got up. "Well, then, Walter J. Butkus, why exactly did you write that novel?"
Walter shrugged. "It came to me. I've been writing a story like that my whole life. I wrote the first version when I was twelve years old."
"There is a reason and purpose to everything under heaven. Maybe your story was published to save that child's life."
Lindy tried to step over him. She made her way clumsily, but with determination. It shouldn't have, but it bothered Walter how much she seemed to want to get away from him. He sat up.
"Are you saying that everything--all my writing, years and years of rough drafts and writer's classes-- the hundreds of rejection letters and hundreds of copies of Writer's Digest and sleepless nights and praying--and then to have my dream snatched from me: it's all just for Tracy whoever in Pennsylvania who thinks I saved her life when she probably didn't even read the book?"
Lindy paused at the door. She scowled as he had seen Roger do.
"What more could you possibly want for your trouble?" she said, went out, and slammed the door behind her.
Walter hated boats, mostly because he'd grown up around them and his childhood was full of mooring and snubbing and half-hitches and fish guts. He'd parleyed his job as a grocery store cashier into a district managership, and that enabled him to move inland, away from the ocean he disliked. When the book deal went through, he moved back to the shore community he was familiar with to minimize his commute into New York City.
And so when another day passed he left the sofa and went walking among the fishing boats. After a while a large storage box near the pier looked inviting, and so he sat on it and listened to the gulls and the ropes clanking against the sailboat masts.
A voice cracked through his introversion. "You're Walter Butkus," made him turn to see an older man approaching. "You are, aren't you? Remember me?"
And Walter didn't remember the man, and did nothing to return his greeting other than leer at him with a squinty stare.
"I recognize you from your book jacket. Are you famous yet?"
"You read my book?" Walter asked.
The man nodded. "No bigger piece of crap has ever been printed in the history of modern letters. You're to be commended. How you got as noble an institution as Random House to publish your dreck is in itself a feat worthy of note. But please, do us all a favor and don't write a 'How To' book. You'll clog the arteries of literature with the insidious plaque of amateur whining and conniption."
"Tell me you're Honor Greenburg. Please. I need to meet the man who ruined my life."
The man eyed Walter. "Hardly. Travis Worrell. And that's my tackle box you're on top of."
Walter excused himself and slid off. "And how do I know you, Mr. Worrell?"
"The day you signed your contract. I was in the elevator. Remember me?"
And try as he might, Walter didn't remember.
Worrell took a key out of his pocket and opened the box. He pulled out two books. Walter recognized his own face on the cover of the one on top.
"What is it you say about miracles? There's two problems with them, isn't there?"
"Using my own words against me. Anyway, nice to meet you, Mr. Worrell. You won't be troubled by any more of my books. Don't worry."
"Now don't you walk away from me like that, son. Show some respect for one of your readers in person that you won't show on the page."
Walter stopped. Turned to face his critic.
"One of these books, I'm going to toss into the sea, and the other one, I'm going to give you. Which one will it be?"
"Oh come on," said Walter.
"It's an easy choice, even not knowing which book I have. It could be a terrible Stephen King novel, and it would be more worth keeping than yours, wouldn't you agree?"
Walter paused a second. When would it end? Was this a hell he invented on his own? What had he ever done to deserve this punishment? All he ever wanted was to be a writer. And now that was taken from him and he had nothing to replace it with.
"Why does God hate me, so?" he asked Worrell, he hoped he'd asked ernestly enough the man wouldn't make fun of him.
"God does not waste his time with such human triviality as hate or greed or disrespect, and he has not made an exception in your case, I assure you."
"Toss mine. Go ahead."
Walter dropped his shoulders and looked at the ground. Why this trial?
"We are all used, Walter. Every last one of us. That's why we're here. And it's damned good to be here, as you were saying to yourself only a week ago. One little setback."
In the gray black water beyond, a flock of gulls descended on the remains of a chum bucket a mate tossed over the gunwales of a fishing boat. The sun blasted bright yellow white from a cloudless blue sky.
"Toss it, already. So I can get out of here."
"You walk any time," Worrell, said. "Don't mind me." He tossed the volume into the water between two moored sailboats. Walter watched his own face float for a moment, then get caught in an eddy and spiral away into the channel. Worrell handed Walter the other book. He said, "One good turn--and now that one is a goddamned great book. See ya in the funny pages, Walt." And he patted Walter on the arm as he left.
Walter walked off the pier and found a bench near the boat launch dock. He scanned the book's cover. The title was unusal, printed in a script that made it hard to read. "Somebody should be shot for the cover art," Walter said to himself.
The book fell open in his hand to the dedication page. It said, "To Travis Worrell, wherever you may be."
Walter turned the page and began to read the quotation that started the novel.
He saw Lindy walking into the diner across the parking lot and thought about some pie. He hoped she'd speak to him, and if she would, he'd apologize, perhaps even enough. Then he stared out at the thin line between the sea and sky before him--the infinity of time and space that had existed before him and that would be after.
The words from the book resonated. He'd heard of authors who recycled old unpublished prose and claimed it as their own. He began to get angry, but then the thought came to him he should let go and think of something else. There was always another story. The idea he'd floated to Roger was still swimming in his mind, getting clearer by the day. When he looked back down at the page he felt himself mouthing the words as he read.
"Second and most importantly, a man must recognize the miracles in his life when they happen, that they are happening with the consistency of the next raindrop in the storm, and that for all his disbelief, he cannot stop them."
Walter closed the book and put it on the bench beside him. For a moment he wished it away, and when it didn't disappear, he picked it up and threw it into a dumpster beside the bait shop. Then he looked toward the heavens and said, "I always thought that was the better title."
God answered in his usual enigmatic way, and it made Walter feel tiny. He was as small as an atom sitting between the molecules.
All of creation around him was boundless and constructed in glorious perfection.
c 2004 by Joe Mastroianni