Barbara is a faithful reader, but the Winter series tests her limits.
“It’s too real. I just keep screaming, let it go!” She texts him one day.
And the next: “Please bring back Julie and June.”
He still hasn’t written about closing night, though. When he sneaks backstage and watches Winter and The King. Ted Jackson’s oily pecs have made McCormick a madman for six nights running. They hold hands and lock eyes as the final ovation rains down.
He stops typing. His wife and daughter have little colds. He hears them sniffling in their beds. Ok, maybe that’s enough.
Reading Harry Potter aloud. June tracks it, but only stops practicing headstands when there is a picture. Her favorite is a bleeding ghost.
The Hobbit had no illustrations, but Bill’s reading voice was smooth like his singing. Delaware nights. Couch up on cinder blocks, bouzouki leaning spot lit in the corner beneath a lamp.
McGonagall tells Harry he’s made the Quidditch team, like his father before him.
“Wow, now Harry knows what he’s really good at,” says McCormick, compulsive provider of object lessons.
“Now he knows he had a real family,” June answers, because she is where it all resides.
Freshmen year McCormick converted this to story:
Waking suddenly in a roadside motel (Vermont?). Ceiling tiles fallen down around around them. Barbara and Bill in opposite chairs, made visible by the cherry-red dots of their cigarettes.
Planning their next move, how to extricate a startled child in the middle of the rainy night? Assigning blame for the chaos? Anger and asbestos dust.
He doesn’t recall what they said or he wrote, but does remember sending a copy to Barbara (purple ink, yellow paper) and her reply, folded around a check for fifty dollars.
“I’m sorry you remember it that way.”
The Mighty Thor, who could fly if he had his hammer.
A cowboy. His banana seat was a saddle, alleyways dry riverbeds, the rack at school a hitching post.
A lawyer, because it was good to prove people wrong, and he watched Perry Mason summer mornings on channel 11, and talk came easy.
Then a writer. The pleasure of converting deeds into words—things you could call poems—struck him in college and he started thinking how well they used their loneliness (Hemingway in the bunker, Salinger at the farmhouse, Woolf in her hard-won room).
Only last (resigning?) a teacher.
Julie and the contractor consider stains for June’s new bed and closet.
Recalls a prompt he gives students. What’s the first room in which you remember falling asleep?
June’s window reveals green-leaved limbs, a sweet swath of sky, a balcony directly across where four Dachshunds pee at barking intervals. At sunset, tattooed owners dine on the same concrete plat.
McCormick’s place is Montana. Cinder block bare in Married Student Housing. To doze off, he listens to Bulldog football and songs that weren’t popular in Delaware. “The Streak.” “Country Bumpkin.”
Should be a lonely memory, but no. He was good then.
In fourth grade he published the weekly-ish Mike’s Magazine. Thrilling recaps of intramural floor hockey at Edwards Elementary and the obituary of a decent goldfish.
“Sure is Mike’s Magazine,” his parents observed. “All about you.”
Stung, McCormick considered covering Barbara’s stripping and staining of antique furniture, or Bill’s controversial decision to plant watermelon that far north. But those stories never ran.
Who knew—in the 70s, in Montana—that the ego motivating Mike’s Mag would become uber modal? Who foresaw this culture of tweeting presidents and the Instagram Famous, of which McCormick’s hundred little words is such a faint echo?
From the steps he watches June bounce onto the camp bus. The rows call her name. She blows him a kiss. Makes him glad, but still, he wants to go blue.
Not dirty blue. Gloomy blue. He goes upstairs, puts on Steve Earle—I know I can always count on you—and composes himself.
A lit agent once asked why McCormick’s author felt no compassion for his characters. Wonder what that guy listens to in the morning?
His golfing buddy Jay feels the same way: “You’re funny, man. You should write funny. Everything isn’t a lesson.”
Well, that’s not true.
Once he saw Salman Rushdie hold up a book and say, “This is a hundred thousand words. That’s a hundred thousand choices. Impossible to get them all right.”
McCormick loves Enchantress of Florence.
McCormick is a hundred words each time. Only. He’s related to Haiku, and Tanka and Tweets. His choices, those made and those remembered, tax him to exhaustion.
He turned to the woman with him at Rushdie and said, “It is hard to be made of words.”
She said, “No. It’s like brushing your teeth or making the bed.”
She was wrong or she was mean. Either way.