It was a night very much like this one, Colin typed. He had a first line, a foundation rising up from his subconscious into the solidity of mortar, steel, concrete. From here, he could begin to shape, chisel, and scaffold skyward—if only he knew where to go next. Colin had no idea. He only knew that he needed money. And he needed money yesterday. He sat in front of the unadorned screen, mesmerized by the blankness of the digitally replicated page. He drifted across the apparent emptiness that had come to define him since the economy collapsed for him and his wife:
I could write about the weather. Thunder crash of stupidity. I could write about sex. Everyone loves penises—you can tell by the shape of their cars, their brooms, their monuments. But who would take me seriously? Teen boys? Politicians? I could write about politics, finally carving from the slabs of semi-consciousness a lasting memorial to the conservative socialist agenda of my latent Christian atheism. I could write about writing, and how one word follows the next like footsteps on the thinnest summer ice of a shrinking arctic ocean. Or, maybe I could just write about blowjobs.
The car alarm beeped. Colin adjusted himself nervously, as if his wife had caught him masturbating, then feeling a slight flush to his cheeks, Colin realized that he might be up to something considered far worse in the circles he travelled: he was plotting ways to sell out. He was attempting to shirk every last ounce of his creative dignity. He didn’t, this time, want to write anything “good” or anything “literary” or anything that might make the smallest of incremental changes in what he assumed everyone could see was a thoroughly insane world. All he wanted was to make enough concessions and to provide enough distraction to a few people that he could still afford to watch the World Cup on cable without sacrificing things like health insurance or an occasional bean burrito at a fast food restaurant. All he wanted from this project was filthy fucking lucre. He wanted to write the most commercial novel ever written, but to have the cash instantly. There would be explosions, sex, sappy happy endings. There would be melodrama and puppies—puppies with sad, fat eyes, puppies that had been emotionally traumatized by years scavenging on the streets of Northern Kentucky, puppies who had to take antidepressants. He would pluck those fucking heartstrings of anonymous readers with a virtuoso touch. He would write anything they wanted.
Neither he nor his wife Sylvia had time enough to worry whether or not they were sacrificing their morals: it was either find a way to make money before the next mortgage payment was due or watch their comparatively miniscule dreams of continued home and dog ownership catch fire like a rumor of infidelity in the Senate chamber. They had to act fast. The long-awaited unemployment extension might never make its way out of that same Senate chamber, and they simply couldn’t afford to wait for hard work, craftsmanship, or time served to the trade. He, clearly, would have to write under a nome de plume. What other choice did he have? Find a job writing “educational materials” for big Pharma? Start a pornographic website? Respond to the myriad UK lottery emails he received with the hope that somehow he would find the only one that wasn’t written in a Nigerian Internet café? His options were slim. He would begin his novel, post it on the internet and ask people to pay as they wished. Surely, someone would feel sympathy for his family’s plight, take a modicum of enjoyment from the bristling prose, and pay a paltry fee of their own choosing just to keep reading.
Sylvia finally emerged outside onto the backyard patio cupping two lattes.
“I couldn’t take it.” She handed a coffee to Colin.
“You deserve a spanking, Ms. Andrews.”
“Maybe, Mr. Andrews, but one medium latte per week is better than the six large lattes I’d been doing.”
“When you put it like that…” Colin looked out toward the sunset. The violet-orange horizon glowed with something he mistook for possibility.
“Hey.” Sylvia took a sip of her latte and pulled one of Colin’s hands from its protective cradling of the flat-black laptop. “What are you doing?”
Colin shook his head. “Nothing.”
“Remember, no more lies. No more half truths. Your rule.”
“I’m thinking about that novel idea. Not sure what to write.”
“You should make it really meta.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know . . . why not write a novel about a guy writing a novel?”
“About a guy writing a novel?”
“But who would want to read that?”
“Well, what books mattered most to you? What books deeply affected the way you think about the world?”
“That’s not what we’re going for here, sweetheart.”
“Well, what are we going for, sweetheart? More self-aggrandizing egoism from that under-recognized, underappreciated, and undersexed literary genius, Colin Pegram Andrews?”
“No. This is all about money. Filthy fucking lucre.”
“Ok . . . how about this, what books did you, personally, spend the most money on over the course of your lifetime? And porn doesn’t count.”
“No. Half-assedly. Yes, honestly.”
“Choose your own adventures.”
Sylvia laughed. At first it was a slow laugh, but it bloomed like a peony bulb until it was oversized, enormous. It threatened to dwarf Colin, until she snorted.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “but seriously?”
“Yeah,” Colin steeled his reserve as if he’d swigged a highball of one of the world’s ten most expensive Scotches in one gulp, “what other book lets you imagine so freely?”
“Well could you do something like that?”
“Let the readers choose. Whoever pays the most on a given day can leave a comment with plot details or characters.”
“Or product placements?”
“The Great American Cybernovel.”
“Or at least an interesting experiment.”
“I love you.”
“Not tonight, sweetheart.”
Colin, for a moment, believed it might work. Generosity. Commercialism. Sex. Violence. Americana in a digital age, but what would he call it?
“Get out of my head, Sylvia.”
The luster of clouds dimmed. Summer mosquitoes swarmed. Colin and Sylvia took their dogs inside, and Colin, facing the blank page, buoyed by his wife’s faith, began to type the first line of a serialized behemoth that could be quite good, career suicide, or a minor lark. But at the very least it had the potential to save his house and provide antidepressants for his dog. Colin typed:
It was a night very much like this one.