As a short story writer, Alex Miller had drawn characters and plot from events and people who were, to varying degree, actual, retelling incidents of his life wrapped in resurrected or exaggerated emotion. He now wrote pieces of stories from dim recollection, unable to move further with the plot which, as he once joked, was like an erection in old age, initial excitement but unable to sustain. He would devise brief scenes or bits of dialogue, but struggled to link the prose into a plot. These fragments of stories were handwritten, kept in folders stacked in the corner of what he called the writing room. Alex was seventy three; his nose was slightly bulbous, his cheeks were sunken and ears showed prominent against his close-cut gray hair; his beard was a constant two-day growth. Alex had used an old photograph on the dust jacket of his books and when, after a recent reading at a bookstore, buyers lined up for signed copies, turned the book over to the back photograph and stared questioningly at the difference. It had been over four years since his Collected Stories had been published and the edition had stalled at the second printing.
In this stage of his life, he found comfort in routine—waking early, drinking two cups of coffee, taking a walk along the pressed-dirt roads, and settling eventually in the writing room of bare walls, lined pads, scattered mounds of papers and a computer which was used for final drafts. On Wednesdays, his daughter visited him to check up on him and also to straighten up his house so he wouldn’t be “tagged a hoarder.” She filled the two garbage pails in the back of the house and rolled them to the front for pick-up. “You need a woman,” she said to him half-seriously.
“I tried geriatric hookup dot com, but nothing came of it,” he teased.
As his daughter Melinda vacuumed in his writing room, she pushed the heavy machine around the mounds of stacked paper. “Why do you collect these drafts in your handwriting; all are in print and far more legible?”
“That’s what they publish, this is what I write.”
“But why are they thrown all around?”
“I’m thinking about a book called the Best of the Best, the Ultimate Collection or something like that, maybe including changed drafts. I’ve gone through everything I’ve ever written, pulling out what I’m most pleased with and—.”
“Dad,” she started to speak, the single word drenched in exasperation, but decided against it.
“Also you don’t know what value these copies could have,” he said, circling as a gesture to include all stacks. “Some writers are more famous when they’re dead, and the drafts are sought by universities or private collectors.”
“Speaking of which, you could lecture at universities to promote your volumes.”
“And die of a heart attack in a motel outside the campus with no one following up until I fail to arrive; no thanks.”
After his daughter left, he went out back. The slight breeze nudged the low clouds and the sun peered around the cumulus edges. He’d moved to that house after his wife died and his book won the National Book Award. The structure was distant enough from town to offer isolation; his nearest neighbor was hidden by oaks and other thick-trunk trees. Deeper in the woods, a stream, filling with rushing water when it rained for a stretch or dry in summer drought, cut a thin line between trees. Large birds circled in hunt and sparrows dove between branches. Leaves held on to the wood but would soon lose grip in the coming cold months after weeks of brilliant anemia. He’d often described the woods in stories, selecting the seasonal image best matching the plot, or defining sounds and movement in the thick woods. But lately, the descriptive words wouldn’t form and he squinted as if the failure was with his vision.
In the late-arriving mail, he had a letter with the return address he didn’t know. Unfolding the paper, he scanned the letterhead and read the contents:
Dear Mr. Miller;
My name is Edward (not Eddy) Henderson. I’m a graduate student at North Massachusetts University and a novice short story writer. I’ve selected a topic for my thesis: you! I’ve read all your works and I’m a great admirer. I would like to meet with you and discuss your theories and methods of writing. In preparation, I’ve read interviews and pieced together elements of your life (with great gaps) and want to hear firsthand rather than relying on printed commentaries by critics and book reviewers.
I would be glad to come to your home at any time convenient for you; our campus is not far and I can be there in a short time, whenever you are available.
I hope you will grant me the interview. I can offer nothing more than the gratitude of a respectful student. My phone number is below.
Alex crumpled the letter and threw it the pail besides his writing desk. Later, while soup cooked on the stove, he retrieved the letter.
When his daughter returned, she saw the paper, wrinkled but pressed flat on his desk, and asked her father, “I saw the letter; are you considering the request?”
“You didn’t see it, you read it,” he answered huffily, “and I am.”
“Why? That’s not like you to respond to fan mail.”
“Because it was handwritten.”
That evening he called the number at the bottom of the letter and the voice on the other end answered slowly as if responding to a creditor. “Hello,” he stretched the word.
“This is Alex Miller; is this Edward, not Eddy?” he asked.
The young man sighed, “Thank you, I never expected.” He paused as if deciding how to continue.
“You wanted to talk to me?” Alex asked impatiently.
“Well, how? Have you thought this all through?”
“Yes, no. I mean, I know what I want to ask, but I was expecting rejection, or at best, a letter exchange.”
“Have you written about other writers?”
“Yes, John Cheever.”
Alex scoffed: “Cheever. If you live in Connecticut or New York, ride the commuter train and have a martini before dinner, I imagine his stories are appealing. Also, John was a charming man—“
“You knew John Cheever?” the young man interrupted.
“Well,” he answered, pausing briefly, “know is an ambiguous word in our language. So many foreign tongues have words that distinguish the type of knowing.”
“Can we meet?” the young man asked sheepishly.
“We can. How do I know what you look like? Describe yourself.”
Edward paused; “I’m tall, swarthy from my Mediterranean heritage. My facial features are symmetrical but indistinctive so that if you encountered me committing a crime you couldn’t provide a description that would eliminate half the county. My gait will remind you of a runner never called to race. And is this a test?”
“Yes, you said you were a writer.”
“How did I do?”
“A bit overdramatic, but I will meet with you—here.”
When Edward showed up, Alex realized his self-description was fictional: the young man was thick around the waist and thighs, with pale skin, circular and inquisitive eyes, and a broad mouth that drew immediate glance by its disproportion with his small ears and nose.
Alex invited him in, and both stood awkwardly in the living room like a shy couple on a dance floor, each waiting for an invitation. “Do you want anything to drink?” Alex asked.
“Coffee,” the young man answered.
Alex went into the kitchen and came out with two steaming cups a short time later.
“Instant coffee, microwaved. That’s says it all, doesn’t it.”
As they sat, each looking at each other, Edward turned toward a picture in a frame and asked, “Is this your wife?”
“No, it came with the frame. Of course, it is, was, my wife. Are these the type of questions you want to ask?”
“No, tell me your writing routine.”
“I get up, make breakfast, write for a while, watch television, have lunch, write or edit, have dinner, watch more television, then go to bed. Exciting isn’t it?”
“How did you know writing was the only thing you wanted to do with your life?”
“It wasn’t the only thing. I’m not a hermit or Thoreau. But I wasn’t interested in anything else, couldn’t picture myself in any other occupation. Did lots of other things to make money but that’s all they were—a source of income.”
“What do you most fear, as a writer?”
“Being forgotten,” he answered quickly.
They continued talking until the sun was at eye level.
“I’d better go,” Edward said. “Can I come back Tuesday?”
Alex nodded; “But bring something you wrote.”
Returning on Tuesday, Edward offered Alex sheets of typed paper stapled in the corner and said, “I was planning to send this to a magazine. It’s a story about—.”
“Don’t tell me what it’s about. If you have to, it’s not worth reading.”
Alex sat back down on a green chair that was worn on the sides. While he read, Edward paced until Alex interrupted his third circling. “Go make coffee.”
When the graduate student returned, Alex stood and took the cup. “Have you counted the adjectives in your prose? Are you expecting to be paid by the word?”
“Is that the only thing wrong, too many adjectives?”
“I had a hard time getting past the first few pages, so distracted by the elongated sentences. The writing is prosaic.”
After asking Alex a few questions, not taking notes, Edward went back to the campus, leaving the draft story on the end table.
In the following evening, Alex was watching television when he could sense his heart was racing. Pain forming in the center of his chest, he rushed into the bathroom, shook out aspirin and swallowed two tablets, gulping down water to flush the pills into his stomach. Alex felt stiffness in the back of his neck and walked around the room. Slowly the ache subsided and he sat on the edge of the bed until the beating in his chest slowed. “I think it was just gas,” he explained the pain to his daughter. “Scared the shit out of me, though.”
“How’s your graduate student?” his daughter asked.
“I think I insulted him about his writing, so he might not come back.”
“You know, a lot of people admire you but their admiration is one dimensional. The boy is a three dimensional fan, and you don’t have many of those.”
Alex grunted dismissively. “Writer’s got to be thick-skinned.”
“Let him learn that on his own. You don’t need to be his instructor on the vagaries of writing.”
After the phone call, Alex worked on a short story draft, writing lines, then crossing them out until he threw the pencil in disgust. Later that morning he called Edward and got his answering machine. He spoke to the recording, “I hate these things. Look, if you want to get together it has to be Wednesday; that’s the only day for me.”
Edward called back and they arranged to meet. “Do you ever get out? We could meet on campus. There are lots of places.”
“Ever hear that expression about Mohammed and the mountain. Look it up. I’m the mountain.”
When Edward arrived that day, he saw that Alex had placed the student’s folded story on a table next to the chair. Words were crossed off and text was written in margins or between lines. “Don’t look surprised; it’s called editing,” Alex said.
The young writer read through the changes and Alex shifted in his chair until Edward turned over the last page and stared out the side window. Finally, he said, “Thank you, but why?”
Alex answered, “I’m going to buy you a book of cliques. There’s one about gift horses.”
“Do I have any talent?” Edward asked.
“Do you think that competency is inbred, some genetic gift? You have potential—that’s a more accurate word. You also have time, unlike me.”
Edward’s face twisted in an expression of curiosity.
“There is an urgency to writing at my age, a compulsion to finish before awakening one day with a muted section of brain where words are formed.
“Will you let me write your biography?” Edward asked.
“When I’m dead, I won’t care what you write. See if there is any interest first.”
“So, that’s a yes.”
“Damn it, for a fiction writer in-training you’re awfully literal.”
When Edward left, Alex was in a good mood. They meet weekly, sometimes semi-weekly, over the next two months. Their conversations involved into a banter that challenge them to respond in kind, Alex provoked by the student’s unconvincing certainty and Edward emboldened by familiarity. “I wish to hell I would live long enough to see how experience changes your sophomoric perspective,” Alex once said.
“Or in your senility, you might see I’m right.” Edward had responded, laughing.
When Alex’s daughter asked about their meetings, she said after his description of their conversations, “You like the boy.”
In December, Edward returned home for the holidays, and called the old writer on the twenty-fifth and was treated to a diatribe on religious myth. When asked if he believed in a deity, Alex hung up. In January, when the graduate student returned for his final semester, he called Alex to schedule another session, but there was no answer. In the following days, he tried repeatedly and when he read the small article in the county newspaper headlined: local writer hospitalized, he understood why there was no response. Calling the home number again, he spoke to Alex’s daughter who’d arrived that morning to bring her father home to recover from a heart attack. “He needs his rest,” she said as deterrent. Instead of pursing a visit, Edward wrote to him.
Dear Mr. Miller;
I was saddened to hear of your illness and hope that you will recover quickly. I have missed our talks. To be frank, I’ve had more than enough information for my paper but have enjoyed our discussions so much (even your candor) that I was reluctant to end. Also, to my surprise while on vacation, I read a copy of the New Yorker and saw your short story—a delightful tale about an ambitious graduate student! I had a story published in a college periodical. I sent you a copy, which I hope you have a chance to read.
Please let me know when I can visit you again.
In two weeks, Edward received a response and sensed by the tone that the old writer was improving:
Dear Edward, not Eddy,
Why would you be surprised that I was published by the New Yorker? And if you are hinting the story is about you, don’t be so presumptuous; you’re not the only graduate student I’ve encountered. I did read your story and I have two words of advice: require payment. If you are to make a living of writing, you can’t rely on contributor copies as income. It was a good story. If I state that I enjoyed our times together it’s only because the oxygen to my brain has diminished somewhat and I will likely deny this admission when I fully recover. I will call you when I’m ready to accept visitors.
But that time never came. In February, Alex had a second heart attack, and his weakened body couldn’t recover. He died late in the month.
Edward attended the services and completing his studies that spring, left graduate school and returned home. In the next ten years, he completed two modestly-successful novels and wrote periodic reviews for the New York Times Book Review and other publications. In the fall of 2004, a revised collection of short stories by Alex Miller was published, and the critics were mixed, citing unevenness in the works. Edward reviewed the book, ending the article:
Alex Miller, a writer in a more introspective, uncluttered era, was a charter curmudgeon. He is of another generation and buried in his epoch. He will not be replicated in part because he, or rather his writing, has gone out of style—the older art of storyteller—to the veneration of ambiance and eccentricity. I once asked him how much of his writing is autobiographical and in his typically dismissive and cranky response, he said “reality is boring; only in fiction can the mundane be made interesting.” In truth, his biography is his fiction, the only part of his life he wanted revealed and remembered. His latter works were not his strongest but age brings an urgency, a racing to conclusion, as he once told me. He should be judged on the totality of his writings; whether there will be renewed interest, I wouldn’t attempt to predict, but for now, and for me, he is a cherished writer.
Edward (not Eddy) Henderson
New York Times Book Review