Harry Felton was nobody if he wasn’t a writer. He wasn’t what most people would name a handsome man, what with his long, hooked nose, the tip of which almost touched his upper lip, the tangle of thinning curls the color of a walnut long ago dropped from the tree that graced his sweaty scalp, the rolls of fat that folded over the leather belt he wore for no more than decoration and the liquid look inside his tired eyes.
Still, he attracted small crowds of retired old ladies who were wheeled by their hopeless husbands or hired nurses up shaky ramps that led to side entrances and into the few dusty bookstores that still existed inside the undiscovered recesses of America’s past.
“You’ll see the end of war when you die, this I guarantee.” Harry read aloud from the tattered copy of his most popular book, A Tree Dies in South Philadelphia, that he carried inside his leather attache case from one town to another.
If at all possible, Harry Felton took a bus when he toured to pimp his books. His second choice was a train. He liked the pungent smell of smokey exhaust and bemoaned the day when the fruitcake-minded eco-fascistic Save The Earth fanatics prompted Trailways and Greyhound to move the coaches’ tailpipes from ground level to rooftop height, where the black dust joined the clouds sooner than before, though with just as much determination.
Trains, of course, featured a picture-window view of the passage of a lifetime. Harry liked to think that he wrote inside his head many of his finest works while riding a train. And it wasn’t only the fields of grain, nor simply the purple mountains’ majesty that inspired Harry Felton. The coal-dusted spur lines that traced pathways to repair shacks and lay strewn with greasy engine parts attracted Harry’s stare, as well. Inspiration, Harry told himself, came from sometimes dreary sources.
If pinched for time, Harry would hop an airplane in order to make a speaking engagement, although nowadays he hobbled more than hopped from one gate to another.
But automobiles were out of the question for Harry Felton. He feared steering along a highway, or God forbid, across a bridge, a box of metal set upon two axles and four wheels. The way Harry Felton figured things, when riding as a passenger in a bus or on a train, a man had to place trust in just one driver; but on a freeway that same man had to trust the witless judgment of a thousand inept individuals, tired of changing their children’s soiled diapers, gritting their teeth together as they pretended happy attitudes toward their jobs, or rocking to the sound of raucous tunes so as to obliterate the noise inside their heads.
Somewhere deep within his mind, Harry sensed the fault that wrecked his logical explanation for the path he’d chosen, but he considered consistency more important than self-analysis as he approached his own death.
“If ever a boy was deprived of childhood, then I am that kid, I kid you not.” Harry always paused after he read that line, as if to allow his audience to mull over the significance of the remark, which significance Harry Felton had forgotten many years ago. He grabbed for the dirty handkerchief that lived inside his tweed jacket pocket, rubbed it back and forth across the yanked curve of his vein-scarred nose, made as if to blow and cry at the same time, then tucked the wrinkled rag back into his pocket and stared hard toward the ceiling. He noticed a web of rust-colored leak lines that spread their way across the soundproof tiles.
Harry felt that he had one more book left in him, but his agent complained that the manuscript he’d just submitted to her wasn’t good enough.
“How else shall I say this to you, Harry?” said Gertrude Benton. “I’ve stood by your books for more than forty years now, but I tell you that this one will not sell.”
“Well, I guess you said it the only way you know how, Gertie, but I don’t care anymore about selling my work. I only want to hold a hardbound copy of the thing as I lie dying.”
“Always, Harry, always you’ve owned a flair for the melodramatic. But another writer already wrote that book, and he wrote it better than you could ever manage.” Gertrude flicked her ballpoint pen against the top of her desk as she spoke. Harry long ago became accustomed to the sound of this nervous tap dance rhythm; he knew it as the background chorus to Gertie’s solo performances.
“So sue me for my associations with the greats. So sue me. Go ahead, sue me.”
“For what amount? You haven’t earned more than a dollar and change for this house in so many years that we’ve both lost count.” The soft flesh of her upper arm swayed back and forth as she pointed her pen at Harry and shook it as if to emphasize the importance of the business end of the creative arts.
“So sue me anyway. So sue me. Then get the damned book published. Leave me a pauper. I’ll even agree to let you write my obituary. Just see the book into print and hand me a copy when I’m resting in my deathbed. And pull the fucking tubes and needles out of me when I ask you to.” Harry reached for his handkerchief.
“You know what your problem is, Harry?”
“So tell me. Other than the fact that I’m old and dying and almost forgotten, what’s my problem? So tell me. Go ahead, tell me. I’m not afraid of you, Gertie.”
“You’re fixated on angst. And nowadays angst won’t sell. That and you’re stuck on literature.”
“So what’s literature? What is it? Tell me.”
“Look, when you and I started out, memoir wasn’t a word that most readers recognized. Back then they called them confessions. Women who stayed home after seeing their husbands off to work and their kids off to school tiptoed to the local deli’s magazine rack and snatched a few pages’ worth of titillation. But your titillating years are gone, Harry Felton. And these days confessions are played out on television screens and computer monitors.”
“So let me die a lonely man, then. Go ahead, let me die. And by the way, can you lend me a few bucks for a bus ticket to Railford, Pennsylvania? There’s a used-book store there called Yellowed Pages. Owner’s name is John, and he specializes in books written about angst by fixated depressives. He tells me his business is booming and he’d love to have me speak to his Tuesday morning readers club.”
“One-way or two?”
“Just the one way there. I might not return. Not unless I lose this cold and gather courage.”