Somewhere between takeoff and landing, Shriver had lost his ability to read. Floating high above the clouds in the American Airlines Dash-8 twin-propeller plane, row nine, seat A, he gazed down upon the handwritten pages from which he planned to read at the conference, and his eyes failed him. The words blurred and merged together, the little blue letters piling up into one thick mass of ink. He blinked, and blinked again. He took off his glasses, retrieved a handkerchief from his coat pocket, and wiped his eyes. He looked at the stitched letters embroidered on the handkerchief — CRS, clear as day — then back at the page. The words remained unreadable. He took another sip of whiskey and cola, let the sweet concoction glaze his throat. That’s better. He peered out the window, and everything came back into sharp focus. The clouds shone white with highlights of pale blue. Miles below, service roads divided the flat prairie into vast brown squares. Shriver looked back to the page, but the words again began to collide with one another. He turned to the corpulent lady next to him, who sat sleeping with her head resting atop her voluminous bosom. The details of her fleshy face were clearly defined, down to the individual black whiskers above her lip. Back to the page: a blur. He grabbed the in-flight magazine from the seat pocket in front of him and opened to random pages. THE TEN BEST GOLF COURSES IN THE US . . . SHOPPING FOR ANTIQUES IN SAVANNAH . . . MALLS OF AMERICA. He shut his eyes and tried to breathe.
Six months earlier, there had been a letter. Dear Mr. Shriver, it began beneath the letterhead of a small liberal-arts college located in the middle of the country, As coordinator of ——— College’s annual writers’ conference, I would like to officially invite you to attend this year’s event as one of our featured authors.
At this point, Shriver had had to reexamine the envelope to make sure the letter was not intended for someone else. But there was his name, his address, all correctly labeled. Very strange.
Though your work has been controversial, even divisive, my colleagues have decided that you would be a valuable addition to this year’s event, especially since the theme of this, our thirtieth anniversary as one of the country’s premier literary conferences, will be LITERATURE AS CONFRONTATION. The consensus is that few living writers would be more appropriate to grace our stage this year than you and the other invited guest authors.
There followed some details about the event, including an outline of what would be expected of him: a one-hour reading, a panel discussion, an informal meeting with students from the university. Of course, the letter continued, in between these scheduled events you will be free to attend readings and panels by our other featured authors, and to enjoy the many planned receptions.
The letter had been signed, Best wishes, Prof. Simone Cleverly, and was accompanied by a self-addressed stamped envelope to be used for Shriver’s reply. And there was a handwritten postscript: I understand you do not have a telephone, Professor Cleverly wrote in a sensible, ruler-straight cursive, and so we are left this old-fashioned, and somehow appropriate, channel of communication — namely, writing. Nevertheless, if you have any questions, please feel free to call.
Shriver had immediately read the letter twice more, then again. He set the letter down on the bed, which was where he read all his mail, and stroked the furry neck of his trusty tuxedo cat, Mr. Bojangles. Who would take the trouble to play such a strange practical joke on him? he wondered. He thought of his old friend Cecil Wymanheimer, who had once arranged a date for him with a rather convincing transvestite — but wasn’t poor Cecil dead? Or it could have been Chuck Johnson, Shriver’s mischievous old college roommate. Though he hadn’t spoken to Chuck in at least twenty years, this definitely was the type of tomfoolery his friend would go in for. There was the time, as a bachelor party gag, Chuck had ferried Shriver around town to various bars and strip clubs, getting him drunker and drunker, until some off-duty police officers Chuck had hired “arrested” Shriver on charges of lewd and lascivious behavior. Hilarious! Yes, only Chuck Johnson was capable of such chicanery.
The reason Shriver was so suspicious of the invitation was that he was not a writer at all. He had never written any books, had never written a page of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, drama — he had never even written a screenplay. The only writing he was capable of was the occasional fan letter to his favorite newscaster, Tina LeGros, of the Channel 17 Action News Team. Dear Ms. LeGros, he wrote just last week, Just a brief note to express my admiration for the way you conducted yourself during last evening’s interview with our less-than-forthcoming mayor. He was very proud of these letters, some of which ran to several handwritten pages — one went on for seven, inspired by Tina’s ill-conceived change of hairstyle from an attractive, shoulder-length shower of blond to one of those stiff, helmetlike do’s that all the lesser female newscasters favored — but Shriver was definitely not a writer.
Nevertheless, to show he was a good sport, he scribbled his acceptance on a sheet of legal paper, stuffed it into the envelope, and mailed it off. Dear Chuck, he wrote, It will be my pleasure to attend your prestigious conference. I only hope I do not disappoint you. To his surprise, a few weeks later he received more information about the conference, as well as round-trip air tickets. We are pleased that you will be able to attend, “Professor Cleverly” wrote in an accompanying note. And don’t worry about disappointing us — your mere presence will be a great victory for the conference. In a postscript she added, I’m not sure who “Chuck” is, but we are absolutely thrilled about this.
Would Chuck Johnson go to such lengths? Whoever was behind this, Shriver thought at the time, was certainly resourceful and determined.
When he opened his eyes aboard Flight 1010 and looked again at the sheaf of paper in his hands, the words once more crumpled and folded in on themselves. He finished his drink and rolled an ice cube around his mouth to suck up the last of the whiskey. He wiped his forehead with the handkerchief and gazed out the airplane window. Just a few feet away a propeller whirred invisibly. Down below, clouds floated on the air like shaving foam on water. Some resembled animals — a duck, a sheep, a sleeping cat. That one there looked like the face of his ex-wife, with her typical expression of impatience. He felt a deep, burning sense of shame as she glared at him from a mile away, mocking him. He had considered sending her a card, telling her about the conference — he even wrote one out, using a nonchalant tone to inform her that he had been invited as a guest to a prestigious literary event — but then he remembered he didn’t know where she lived, and he threw the note away. Besides, she would never have believed him. You’re no writer, she would say in that voice that could cut a diamond in half.
He pressed the overhead button, and moments later, a flight attendant arrived wearing an expression of amused inconvenience.
“May I order another whiskey and cola?” Shriver asked.
There had been little correspondence from Professor Cleverly in the intervening months. She wrote once to inform him that she had ordered copies of his book — a novel Shriver had never even heard of — to be sold at the conference, and expressed hope that he would make himself available to sign them. Then just last week he’d received a brief note from her reminding him that someone would be dispatched to pick him up at the airport, and that if he had any trouble traveling — any delays or other unforeseen problems — he should call her immediately at the number provided. That’s when Shriver finally began to realize that this may not be a hoax at all, but some huge misunderstanding.
Somewhere in this world was a writer named Shriver who was expected at this conference, but it was not him. What should he do? He’d committed to attending, and had even been sent what looked like genuine airline tickets. He checked the date on the itinerary — just three days away!
At that point he’d decided to write a letter to Tina LeGros about this peculiar situation. As co-anchor of the Channel 17 Action News Team she had seen it all — political scandals, extreme weather conditions, serial killings; maybe she could help. He fluffed up his pillows and sat up in his queen-size bed. After shooing away the ever-curious Mr. Bojangles, he set a legal pad of yellow paper on his lap and stared up at the water mark on the ceiling. Dear Ms. LeGros, he started, I seem to have found myself in something of a pickle.
After a few more lines, however, he grew bored, and sat staring up at the water mark, which had been on the ceiling since the rainy day his wife walked out on him. He stared and stared, thinking about what a real writer — a writer expected to present his work to a large crowd, a writer like this Shriver fellow — would make of such a water mark. He crumpled up his letter to Tina LeGros. Then he wrote “The Water Mark” at the top of the next page. He stared at the ceiling some more. After a while, he wrote, “The water mark appeared on my ceiling on the rainy day my wife walked out on me.” He went on to describe the unique aspects of the mark, surprised to find that he enjoyed setting down his thoughts and ideas on paper. He wrote tentatively at first, in small fits and starts, but after a while he found a rhythm and was unable to stop until many hours later, exhausted and hungry. He woke up the next day and the same thing happened. The words seemed to flow out of him, as if he were a natural writer. This had continued right up through yesterday, when he achieved a sort of fever pitch as his story raced to its climax. At midnight last night he’d scribbled the words The End, then collapsed. Mr.Bojangles, freed from his banishment to the far side of the mattress, climbed onto his chest, curled up, and fell asleep.
The next morning, at precisely six o’clock, Shriver awoke to a knocking at the door. He pulled on a robe, padded across the apartment, and peered through the eyehole to see a tall bearded man staring back at him.
“Yes?” Shriver, still half-asleep, said through the door.
“Airport,” the man said in a strange accent. Ear-porrit.
Then Shriver remembered: the conference. He considered sending the man away, telling him he had the wrong address — the wrong man — but then he recalled the story he’d written. “The Water Mark.” He picked up the stack of paper and stared down at the dense blocks of words, some of them crossed out, with arrows and asterisks and question marks scrawled across the pages. He had written this. And it had been fun. Exhausting too, but in a good way. He hadn’t felt so consumed by something since . . . he couldn’t remember. Was this what it felt like to be a writer? he wondered. What if he . . . ?
“Sir?” the man said from the other side of the door.
“Be right there,” Shriver said, and before he could change his mind he quickly threw on some clean clothes and rummaged through his closet for the suit jacket he hadn’t worn in . . . how long? Then he stuffed a few things into an old suitcase, poured a mixing bowl full of dry cat food, and lifted up the toilet seat for Mr. B. to drink from the bowl.
“Don’t fret, my little friend,” he said, patting the cat on his furry head. Shriver couldn’t remember ever leaving Mr. B. alone. He got onto his knees and squeezed the cat close. Mr. Bojangles purred. “I’ll be back before you know it,” Shriver told him as he poured an extra layer of litter into the cat box.
Lastly, he folded the pages of his story and slipped them into his jacket pocket.
When Shriver opened the apartment door, the airport driver, whose dark bushy beard did not at all match the color of his graying hair, grabbed the suitcase and made for the elevator. Meanwhile, Shriver searched in his pocket for his keys. He could not find them in his pants, nor in his suit coat. He went back inside and stepped over the cat, who sat at the threshold, already awaiting Shriver’s return. He rummaged around the apartment, looking under the piles of clothes on the bed, peering into crowded drawers and cupboards, eventually tossing everything onto the floor in a fruitless attempt to find his keys. He sat in a chair and tried to recall the last time he’d used them. He could not remember, but it couldn’t have been that long ago.
“Sir?” the bearded man said again from the hallway.
“Yes, yes,” Shriver said, giving up. He would just have to leave the door unlocked.
Copyright © 2015 by Chris Belden. Used by permission of Touchstone, a division of Simon & Schuster Inc.
Chris Belden lives with his wife and daughter in Ridgefield. He has taught writing at Fairfield University, the Westport Writers Workshop and at Garner Correctional Institution in Newto.wn