By Rea Frey
This is what I want it to say on my tombstone: Milton Stewart was the greatest writer who ever lived. No date of birth, no “beloved,” no dried flowers sprinkled around the gravesite. Just that one important line. Of course, I would have probably had to publish a book, or even write something from time to time, but A) I just liked the way it sounded, and secondly, I wanted to be remembered.
Sometimes, in my home, nestled behind a TV tray, I was afraid I would die and no one would remember me. My friend Harry would find me three weeks after I’d passed, a sad, saggy nub glued to his rocking chair. I’m sure that’s a common fear when you get old and live alone, but when you are seventy-two, have two prosthetic legs and a house full of books, it’s not entirely irrational.
Every step could be my last. All the heaps of books and junk and clothes were like landmines to a cripple. I could trip and asphyxiate myself on an unwashed pile of sheets. I could knock my head on a stack of Russian poets. I could get one of my limbs wrapped around an antique tea set and fall down the steps to the basement. It’s amazing what a dangerous life I led. It was kind of exciting when I stopped to think about it. Which I rarely did.
Luckily, my daughter offered me some help. Or rather, she insisted I move in when she stopped by to drop off some mail. The shame crossed her face as she maneuvered between dirty dishes and mounds of dictionaries.
“You can’t live like this,” she said.
“Well, I’m alive, aren’t I? I’m still breathing.”
“You know what I mean.”
Because I didn’t want to disappoint her, I agreed to move in with her and her husband. They lived a nice, quiet life. They had two empty guest rooms. I even got to pick which one I wanted: orange or green. I chose green. It was my wife’s favorite color.
My daughter lived on the other side of town in a suburb of Nashville. She had a gigantic house she’d bought with her husband before the economy had crashed; before her husband lost his job and she started working again, and before her two children got divorced and crushed her lofty dreams of grandchildren filling that big old house with their small footsteps and lively screams.
Because she had no grandchildren, she had cats. Now, she would have me. Perhaps I wasn’t the only embarrassment.
Tomorrow, I would have to pack up my house. But today, I would sit among my possessions and pretend I was somebody great. Every novel was my novel. Every great word that had ever been written was constructed in this very room, with a pen and a pensive look out my dirty window.
Perhaps at this moment in some alternate universe, my wish was coming true. Perhaps I had been a great writer, and that’s why I was so called to words. I lived my life surrounded by dead authors and live ones. Could my novel be tucked somewhere among the thin and thick volumes? Maybe, I thought. It’s not too late. Though I knew it was for me.
Rustling through my junk, I found an old yellow legal pad and a chipped pencil. I brought it up to my tiny writing desk I’d bought at a flea market for $10. I had an Underwood typewriter, sans ribbon, collecting dust. I liked the way it looked, and I often went over and pressed the keys just to hear the melody they brought to the empty room.
I cleared my throat and looked at the stale cup of coffee that had been sitting on the corner of my desk since 1952. I pressed my pencil to the paper, excitement building as it always did – for I figured today might be the day that inspiration hit and I would have a bestseller on my hands. As I pressed the pencil to the paper, the lead broke. I was too tired to look for a pen.
Another successful day of writing: check.
I hated my daughter’s children. Was that wrong to say, since technically, they were my grandchildren? Mainly I hated them because my granddaughter was a writer, and she had just published a book, so really I loved her. She’d actually published two books if you counted her first one, which I didn’t, because it was with a bad publisher and never saw the inside of a bookstore. Her second book was legitimate.
Every time she came in from Chicago with her long, feathered earrings and modern tattoos, I wanted to shake her down for information. What’s it like to have an editor! What do you and your agent talk about! What was it like the first time you held your book in your hands! I also wanted to yell: You have feathers in your ears! You have a husband with a mohawk! You wear platform shoes! Real writers don’t wear platform shoes!
The truth: She was a great writer, and I envied her abilities. She wrote for about fourteen different publications and complained about how much she wrote for such little pay. I scoffed. To be known as a writer, even in this oversaturated world, was much more important than getting paid.
My grandson was a bit more traditional. A schoolteacher, he’d had two marriages in the span of five years, and his new wife (also heavily tattooed) had a real dick of a son from a previous relationship. Every time I was around, Trevor ran around naked with his little uncircumcised penis waving in the air like a human baby toe. He would place it on me, brushing up against my shoulder, my knee, or setting it on my fiberglass legs while I was taking a nap, so when I woke, he would be standing there with his appendage looped over my fake shin like an earthworm.
Every time he opened his mouth to scream, he looked like a scary clown. He did whatever he pleased, and I found myself wanting to yank him up by his elbow as my mother had when I was a boy to tell him that little boys didn’t disobey their parents they way he did. “What a little brat,” I said once, and my grandson’s wife had shot me a look that could have killed me.
“He’s four,” she said.
“Exactly. Who’s the parent here? You or him?”
That was the end of my conversations with my grandson’s wife.
My son-in-law, Duane, was wonderful. Mostly because he was quiet. He was secretly a writer too, and secretly I hated him for his talent, which was wide and gaping and reminded me of Ted Hughes – his poetry was just that remarkable.
My daughter was the best human being I knew. Emma. I’d adopted her with my wife when she was one year old because no one wanted her. She’d had brain surgery at just six weeks old – otherwise her head would have grown to the size of a watermelon – and when she looked up at me in that orphanage, her red hair shining in the bright Nashville sun, I’d fallen madly in love.
“We’ll take her,” I’d said.
Anna had slapped my arm. “She’s not a couch, Milton, she’s a person. There are rules here.”
“Rules schmules. How much is she?”
And so I’d bargained for my daughter, who was the best purchase I ever made. The fact that I had given her a roof over her head, and now she was giving me one over mine seemed cyclical and very ironic.
I’d adopted Emma when I was twenty. The majority of my life had been filled with women. When Anna died five years ago, I’d let things fall apart. I had no desire to cook or clean. I collected things because I no longer collected memories. My house resembled a bookstore that had been attacked by a tornado.
Now, standing in front of my daughter’s door, I fidgeted with my suitcase. I missed my books, my dishes collected over the years, my twenty-five pairs of khakis hanging according to their various hues in my closet. Emma was hiring movers to sell the rest of my belongings and store some of the possessions I just couldn’t bear to part with in a storage unit across town. I loved her for taking care of these things, for getting my house in some sort of working order to sell. I had made what was once a happy home sad and depressing. If anyone could give it life again, it was her.