It's true, it was plagiarism that had initially formed Grady Tripp and Terry Crabtree's friendship--they had both tried to pass the exact same story as their own on the same day in their creative writing class junior year at CalState. Crabtree, young, not giving a shit and not really taking the class for its original purpose--to create writers--had turned it in word for word. Tripp, who had really wanted to create brilliance but had simply run out of time, took the original story and tinkered with it, so in the end, they were the only ones who had known it was the same. But even beyond that fated experience and their shared appreciation for the same underrated author was the essence of their bond: words. They both loved words; how they spun, twirled and danced upon a page to tell a story.
"It's shit," Terry said, throwing the pages on the floor. He was lying on the tattered couch in Grady's basement apartment. Grady had moved out of the dorms about the time that he had discovered weed. Terry had introduced him and had since spent a lot of time on that couch smoking and reading what Grady hoped would one day be his first novel.
"Hey, that's what I'm here for, but you don't need me. Come on. You have to know it's shit."
"I know some parts are in need of repair," Grady mumbled.
"Parts? Repair? There are some parts that need to be fuckin' cut and other parts that need to be burned in a fire and every single word of it is missing one key element."
"A fuckin' point. Jesus, blah, blah, blah, why do I care?"
Finally Grady became indignant. "The point? It's a about the declining American spirit, its about being young and travelling and what it means to really live--"
"And it's about you," Terry finished.
Grady shrugged. "Well yeah. But so what? I'm not the first--"
"Or sadly the last. But do you really want to use the words 'I'm not the first' when talking about your work? Work that you hope one day to be published and read?"
Grady didn't respond. Terry didn't need him to; he stood up and started pacing, apparently on a roll.
"I mean, I get it, Kerouac did it with Sal Paradise and Hunter S. Thompson did it with Raoul Duke last year but there are two, no wait, three things you need to remember before you try and take that road."
Grady began rolling a joint; he sensed he was going to need it. He knew Terry did. "Yeah? What's that?"
"First: those books are shit." He ignored Grady's scoffing. "Second: there are, and will be a million rip offs of this Heart of the American Dream crap. Every poor sap that read On the Road and went out and jumped the rails and thumbed their way across America is going to do it. You can do better."
"And?" Grady masked his hurt feelings-- for that was exactly what he had done-- by lighting up and taking a long, deep hit before passing it to Terry.
"Third, and this is the most important part, you should maybe write this down. You. Are. Not. That. Interesting."Terry stopped his ranting long enough to inhale the rest of the joint. He coughed. "I mean, just because it happened to you doesn't make it interesting, ya know?"
Grady began rolling another.
"You're hurt." It wasn't a question. Grady didn't answer. Terry stood before him and watched as he wetted the paper with his tongue and sealed it. "Come on. Grab your coat, let’s go."
Grady looked up. "What? Where?"
"This conversation needs drinks."
"I have drinks." Grady still wasn't comfortable being in public while completely stoned. That paranoia would, of course, only last a few months, especially since Terry did most of his best meeting and greeting while completely wasted.
"And people. It needs people too. Come on."
Grady scratched at his beard but then stood up and put on his coat. "We're having a conversation about my crap story, my wasting years of my life collecting this crap story and it needs drinks and people? Is this a conversation that I'm actually going to want to be involved in?"
Terry put on his trademark cashmere scarf and gave Grady the smile that would proceed many nights of manic adventure. "Only if you want to be a better writer."
There was no more arguing by Grady.
Their entire relationship, through it all, had been about story, the need to tell it and the need to perfect it. Each knowing their role and each owing something to the other, Grady was convinced he would never have been published if he hadn't met Terry, his sounding board, biggest supporter and harshest critic-- his editor. Terry also believed that his early friendship with Grady helped him in honing the skills that weren't taught but were expected of editors, the nurturing and hand holding of writers, making connections in the text that the creator, too close to the source, hadn't seen and setting them straight when they're going off the rails. Besides, it was Grady's first book, Badlands that had gotten Terry the job at his first small press.
“I might have been a bit harsher than I needed to be back there,” Terry started after they had ordered their drinks and headed to a quiet booth. They had gone to a bar away from campus and students, choosing a townie one with professional drinkers and a jukebox that played tinny Sinatra and Ella James.
“A bit?” Grady reached over and pulled the pack of cigarettes out of Terry’s shirt pocket.
Terry threw up his hands. “Truth is, there is a lot of good stuff in there. Nothing that made it a good story, but stuff that could be worked with, molded.”
“Your descriptions, the way you talked about things, they all rang with authenticity, like you knew what you were talking about.”
“Like I said, I lived it.”
“Right. But you’re not writing an autobiography are you? A fuckin’ memoir? No, you’re not.”
Grady studied the way the ice swirled in the amber of his whisky. “So what are you suggesting?”
It was still early in the evening so there weren’t many people in the bar, but they could see them all from the booth. Terry was studying them, as if looking for someone in particular. “We’re going to find you a character.”
“Sure. Why not here? You’re telling a story about the vanishing American Dream, where better than this bar?”
Shrugging, Grady scanned the room.
“Tell me that guy’s story,” Terry said, nodding towards a man standing at the bar trying badly to get the attention of two women about half his age. He was tall and skinny, mid 40s, black leather jacket and a sandy blond ponytail.
“What about it?”
“Well, let's start with his name. Something wholesome and heartland I should think.”
“Yeah. After his father, Michael. Comes from a long line of Michaels.”
“Okay. What else?”
“He grew up in Dickinson, North Dakota. His father worked at the lumber yard, his mother was a school librarian at Jefferson Elementary. He was a momma’s boy growing up, but rebelled in his middle school years.”
“A girl. Why else? No wait, he got teased for reading and he blamed his mom for making him strange. He turned on his mom, but never on the idea of books, of losing himself in different worlds, as different people.”
“Okay, that’s a little you, but I’ll let it go.”
“Fuck off. I didn’t even know my mom.”
“But tell me you didn’t read books to escape and become someone else, go somewhere else, anywhere else?”
“What other reason is there to read books? Why did you?”
Terry raised his hand to his temple and twirled his fingers. “Touche. But let’s get back to our character, what did he read? Where did he sneak his books if he didn’t want to be ostracized as weird?”
“Tree house. He and his father built it on weekends when he was ten. It took all year.”
“Good. So we have a pretty solid start at his home life, his early childhood. Go on.”
“His mother worried about all the time he spent alone, his father is convinced he’s a normal teenage boy and he is jerking off, and he is...but he also reads.”
Grady smiled. “Okay, Hemingway.”
“He read Farewell to Arms and wanted to go off to war. Then he read Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead and reconsidered. It was The Sun Also Rises when he dreamed of running away. Dreamed of having adventures of his own.”
“He meet Sofia his last year of school, she was a new student in a school that never got new students. They talked about getting away. She meant college, he didn’t know that.”
“How did it end?”
“In the back of his old man’s Studebaker. She got knocked up; he got the hell out of town.”
“Perfect. So, you got yourself a main character. Wasn’t too painful was it?”
“No. Sort of fun, actually.”
“Should we continue? Find your love interest?”
“Check out the peach at the end of the bar.”
Grady looked. She sat by herself in front of a full ashtray and looked like she was either an aging whore or possibly owned the bar.
“Peaches it is.”
“How did they meet?”
“At the carnival. She runs the ticket booth and does all the hiring.”
“She ran it as a family business until her son, the Tattooed Man died.”
“Mauled by a bear,” Grady finished.
“The husband drank himself to death after that.”
“The Fat Lady ran away with the Merman.”
“And the cow jumped over the moon.”
Terry subtly gave Grady the finger by scratching his nose deliberately with his middle finger. “Something like that.”
Grady stood up and went to the bar, ordered two shots of tequila and came back. Not sitting down he handed one to Terry. They clinked the glasses and threw them back together.
“What? We’re leaving?” Terry asked.
“Apparently so, turns out I have a book to write.”
“Fuck yeah,” Terry said, standing up.
“So, you really think I wouldn’t make a good character?” Grady asked as they stood outside smoking a joint. He was slightly drunk and incredibly stoned.
“Honestly? No I don’t. I don’t think anyone would ever read a book where you were the main character. I’m sorry but it’s true.”
Grady sighed and exhaled a plume of skunky smoke. “That’s too bad. I was going to make you the Dean Moriarity to my Sal Paradise.”
Terry smiled and took the joint from Grady. “Really? Would we also have epic unresolved sexual tension?”
Grady laughed. “Of course.”
Terry handed the joint back to Grady. “Well, that really is too bad.” Then he reached into his pocket and pulled out a sandwich bag with two small paper squares. “But, maybe I should be the Dr. Gonzo to your Raoul Duke.”
He put one of the sheets on the tip of his tongue and handed the other to Grady. He looked hesitant for a moment and then, shrugging, put it in his mouth. As he pulled up the zipper of his jacket, Terry tightened the scarf around his neck and they wordlessly headed towards home, or to whatever adventure called to them on the way.