You get a book published. A couple months later it's up for a Pulitzer. Your agent calls. She's excited. She says, "We're up for a Pulitzer."
You think -- "Who?" and you say it, figuring it's one of her usual motivational calls. Bill is up for a Pulitzer, why don't you write something good like that?
"No. *We* When I say 'we' I'm speaking in the present. 'Weren't We Gods Back Then' is under consideration."
You cringe at the title. You despise it's what people see when they heft the paper carrying three years of your work. You had a better name. It was called, "My Brain on Mary" but your editor didn't like books with titles that wound up in the text somewhere. Your male protagonist holds a red balloon and says, "This is my brain." He pops the balloon with a porcupine quill. Holds the flaccid rubber toward a friend. "This is my brain on Mary."
Someone in the mail room won a Doubleday corporate contest and got to rename your book.
And the cover makes you gag. Dogs playing poker would have been better. A velvet Elvis. They didn't have the budget, so they used one of the pictures the press manager had tacked up on his refrigerator with magnets.
Before you can hang up with your agent, your editor calls.
Agent on hold -- "We're up for a Pulitzer," she says. News travels. You want to ask her who "We" is in this case as well. Did she know what a foul work hour four AM is? Four AM is good for two things -- sleeping and trying to sleep. Toning down a character's language across 200 pages is misery at four AM but that's when it has to be done if deadlines are going to be met.
"That's wonderful for you," you say to her, knowing you're transmitting in the tone of your voice. You're not going to get any goddamned Pulitzer.
But it goes on. Do you have any short stories the Atlantic Monthly could look at? You are still working, aren't you?
After a week of this kind of attention you're believing you could win.
There's a speaking engagement at the Commonwealth Club set up and you don't know what you'll say. Doubleday's got signings lined up for all the retail outlets in your area. Some actor you've never heard is considering offering six figures for a film option.
Then you don't get it. They pick another novel.
"'Weren't We Gods' is strong, but really, we should think ahead," your agent says. "We have to be realistic: it doesn't have the mass appeal it could have had if you'd taken our advice -- right? You're giving me a new draft of your latest this week, aren't you?"
Your editor: Not being selected can be hard. You may feel bad you lost, but it was fun to dream, wasn't it?"
"How come 'WE' were up for the prize, but I'm the one who lost?"
"I don't catch your meaning," says anyone, doesn't matter who. Someone will say it.
Your reality snaps back. You envision your book being remaindered by the hundreds. You have nightmares about seeing it outside Barnes and Noble on a cluttered table near the parking lot where they don't care about shoplifting. Special price today and every day, a book with the stupidest title on earth. Take it off our hands, we don't have curbside recycling here.
All that work. Years of revisions. Living with the story in your head.
You were happy until you didn't get something you never had.
One snowy afternoon in mid-December I scraped the ice from Mercury's windows and climbed in beside my desk lamp and stacks of notebooks. The defroster blasted two clear spots in the windshield fog. It was enough to start the drive, tires crunching on two inches of fresh New Jersey powder at the pace of a tear down a mother's cheek. I was free of another semester. Snow drifting from a white sky, clouds heavy with gray of the early evening.
Out on unplowed Davidson Ave. the Mercury fishtailed every time I touched the accelerator with anything approximating urgency. On the radio, the college station, WRSU.
It was a good time to be alive. A good time to be me. I'd just nailed my electronics final. Applied Math and statistical mechanics had gone the day before. If the TA's found any errors on my bluebooks they'd be misprints. I was in control of my subject.
Then I heard a song on the radio. Matt Pinfield played a couple tracks from albums I'd never heard. One stuck in my head. I made a mental note to buy the album. Tape the song next time it came on.
That song was in my head all the way back "home" to my parent's house -- an hour drive to the shore turned to four in the snow. Lots of time to think. Everything ahead.
A new DJ came. Played the song again.
The thought -- "If you aren't real, I'll create you. One morning on Capri, lying on a feather bed draped in thin taffeta, you'd roll your head to face me and speak in words that were part of the ancient landscape, 'I would have waited until you were born to love anyone. I would have.'"
Thought becomes an epiphany. A gift from the gods.
"Bastard," I say to the guy to tries to cut me off at 7 miles-per-hour on glaze ice. No horn loud enough.
Good to be me. Going home for winter break. 4.0 on the books. Toward anything.
That song, one more time. They've got it in rotation, once per hour. Didn't think the college stations did that. By the third time I'm singing along at full volume, howling into the engine heated air.
And the snow on the Garden State Parkway turned yellow in the mercury vapor lamps. Thimblefuls of green, blue and red lights twinkled on the houses beyond. The holidays and nearly a month of free time ahead. Mind full of joy. Everything good ahead.
The song was called Thank God for Girls. After that trip home I never heard it again.
I searched for it on the net. Discovered only one song with that name by an 80's almost-was vocalist named Benny Mardones. Song out of print. Not even iTunes had it.
I guess I held out hope that if I ever heard it again, I could reclaim the way it felt on that long winter's trip home from school in my junior year.
Today I found it. One of the guys who co-wrote the tune put it on his website. Must have had the studio tapes.
And it was with no lack of excitement that I clicked the link. Heard what over the years I'd imagined into an undiscovered R&B classic.
"Thank God for Girls"
Goodbye junior year. Goodbye snowstorm mythology. Goodbye heroes and heroines, castles and narwhales and stone bedrooms on Capri. Goodbye dreams.
It is now clear to me why Thank God for Girls never made platinum or gold. Now clear to me why that riff isn't immediately recognized by every middle-aged American who had a radio in the 70's.
Appreciation of music has a lot to do with state of mind, and it's difficult to remember state of mind accurately. It's anachronistic theater of the self. You begin to miss a time that never existed.
A lot of things I remember never happened. A lot of things happened I don't remember.
Yesterday my mother reminded me of a football game I played in high school. We were the underdogs to St. Joseph's. The St. Joe's team showed up like the circus. They caravanned to the field. Every car had streamers and slogans smeared in soap on the windows. Their cheerleaders made human pyramids. All the parents wore the school colors.
In contrast, we showed up to the field like shipwreck victims. No one was sure what the school colors were. Our cheerleaders had no pom poms.
I remembered losing that game when the ref's called it due to fighting. The St. Joseph's booster club had a mean streak. When their team proved unable to shut us out, they took out their fury on their players. Fathers came down from the stands and clocked their sons across the helmet. Mothers grabbed facemasks and spat epithets.
Unable to restrain themselves in the third quarter, a fist fight broke out between the St. Joseph's booster club and some of the St. Joseph's parents over the substitution of an defensive right tackle. The cheerleaders burst into tears. Distracted by their parents brawl, St. Joseph's defense allowed us to score, which further fueled the riot.
Eventually, the refs called the game when the St. Joe's parents started drawing each other's blood. It was a forfeit. We won.
My mother remembers the fistfights and the crying cheerleaders, but I don't. I remember walking off the field a loser, knowing that we could not have beaten the team if it wasn't for their parent's bad behavior. I'd allowed an interception of a pass I juggled. I missed a tackle and allowed them to position for a field goal. There was nothing good about our performance and coach made us run extra wind sprints at Monday's practice as if we had lost the game.
In the archives of my mind, the St. Joseph's game was a humiliating defeat.
But my Mom remembers that I won. That's because she's my mom and she's entitled to her own memories of her son, even if my reality was different.
In three weeks I'll be going back to Antarctica for the fifth time.
When I get off the plane at McMurdo, the landscape will feel intimately familiar. Infinitely accessible. I've not only been there before, but ten thousand years from now archaeologists will find traces of me there.
I think back to my first time on the ice. How it was like living through a waking dream. Nothing seemed real. Everything was a Disneyland version of a war story. Happy camper school. Field training. Deployment by helicopter. All the stuff of a novel I was sure I'd write someday, or maybe I'd already written it.
Five years later, going to the ice becomes rote. A very done thing. And it's still just as risky and unobviously dangerous, only this time I'm less interested in facing death and more interested in getting home for Christmas without permanent frostbite damage.
Reality of the ice is working twelve-hour days, six days per week. I'll be happy for the 10 pounds I'll lose avoiding the crummy galley food and carrying 80 lb field cases up dormant cinder cones. Happy for the exercise.
But though I would sooner lose a limb than my deployment orders, I know of a particular day that will come. It comes sooner with each trip.
That's day I stand at Hut Point, gazing at Mt. Discovery and Ob Hill, tracking the planes that land, listening to the rumbling over the ice, the whole time thinking,
"Dear God, what the hell am I doing here?"
"Suppose we are all angels. Suppose every one of us has super powers and a high bandwidth connection directly to the force of creation. Suppose this whole thing we call life is a sort of game, a sort of a workout. Like going to the gym. You know, you lift weights as substitutes for the real thing, like when you have to lift a Volkswagen off a child, or a fallen tree off a burning house. You run on a treadmill as a substitute for running from an erupting volcano or a charging lion. And the deal is you can't blow the secret about things. How it's all a substitute for what's real. If you give it away, it wrecks everything for the rest of us. So there's a thing we built. A sort of a destructive creature that keeps people like you, from telling people like them, all about the reality of reality."
"Is it a scary thing, this creature?"
"It would have to be as terrifying as it gets. Otherwise people would beat it, eventually."
"I'd probably say you had the makings of a novel, or a made-for-TV movie."
"Smart boy. Intelligence will get you everywhere in this life."