My mother’s agent crossed her legs and smoothed her skirt, placing the manuscript delicately on the coffee table. “Georgina, it’s not even finished.” Mum nodded, folding her hands over her knee. “And– the murder scene at the end, it rings disturbingly similar to the finale in Black Tears, you know where the killer tries to drown Detective Knaus in a swimming pool. In this, you have the main character drowning in a Jacuzzi, and maybe there’s a fine distinction, but– look Georgina.”
Mum burped out a quick apology which faltered once it left her lips. “Angelina, please, look, I can tidy up the script. I’ll change the scene even. She’ll drown in the sea or a bathtub or a dunk tank at the carnival. I just can’t stop writing Catherine Knaus novels, Angie.”
“Yes, well, you can’t write them. Not anymore. You killed Knaus off in the final book, and didn’t I tell you not to? You could still be writing her character now. But no, you wanted to go for shock value. End of the series, hero has to end. And now where are you? Writing a bland replica of the same character with a different name. Georgie, I can’t even use this– it’s, it’s… it’s fine, but your comeback must be strong, soaring, magnificent. Not– this.” She tapped the manuscript and smiled with bared teeth. “Honestly? Rhonda Flame? That doesn’t belong in a Georgina Snyder novel; if you were writing erotica, though…”
I crept another step down, peering through the banister at where they sat below me. My father entered the room, brandishing a slightly taller stack of paper than my mother. “Angie, you want some tea? Nice to see you again after–“
“No tea, thanks. Your wife and I were just discussing–“
“You know who else finished a manuscript, Angie?”
Angie the editor shifted her glasses and waited a beat. “Am I supposed to guess?” Another moment of that silence adults share when social constructs fall apart. “You?”
“Me, yes me. As you’re my wife’s agent, I was hoping you’d take a look.”
“We’ve talked about this,” mum said, pushing my father’s manuscript back toward him, away from her own on the coffee table as if one might infect another. I imagined all the sheets of paper spilling onto the floor, and when you rearranged the pieces, you got a literary journey of discovery and scandal intermixed with grungy noir gore.
“It’s a tale of a broken middle-aged man, in an existential clash with himself. He’s a writer, though he has not written anything for years– oh, the crisis, it’s sort of a metaphor for writer’s block, you see. He begins looking to make his life more interesting, takes up gambling, then begins an affair…”
“Mr. Snyder, I appreciate–“
“Better not be a fucking autobiography,” my mum muttered, finishing her wine in a grand, gulping swig.
“Mr. Snyder,” Angelina continued, “I think your writing is superb, but the idea of the book is hardly marketable. There’s nothing distinct that sets it apart, you understand?”
“Bet his wife catches him shagging one of his students on his office, and all she wanted to do was surprise him on his birthday.”
“He’s not a professor, Georgina. He’s a writer.”
“Listen, both of you. I really need to be leaving.” Angelina smiled again, her teeth on vicious display, taking steps toward the door. “Georgie, we signed a contract. At least finish something, change the hot tub scene, and– my boss wants to see it by next month.”
“Next month. The fourteenth then?”
“The first would be better, Georgie. They’re awfully particular about those contracts, and I mean, maybe after Catherine Knaus died, that was a sign. That your, well at least your career in crime novels–“
“My career?” My mother stood up, though clumsily, knocking her empty wine glass onto the floor as she crossed to Angelina. “Angie, Christmas is coming up, and we can’t even–” she lowered her voice “avoid presents. We’re going to have to pick and choose. Honestly, if Michael keeps breaking windows– January 1st will be too early. Can’t it wait until at least the second or third? You’ll be too hung-over– I mean, knackered– to read it.”
“The contract, though, states that our agency will represent you for the entire Catherine Knaus series, and after that ended, we gave you two years.”
“I can have it in a month. Two weeks from now, no problem. All I need is– some space, some coffee, a little inspiration.”
“Good. I’m glad we’re all in high spirits then. Send it to me in an e-mail, Georgie. Talk to you soon.”
“But you were going to read my manuscript,” my father shouted as Angelina slipped out the door, then half-sprinted down the walk through our garden. “Well, bugger that slag with a buttered broom handle. Georgina?”
“Don’t talk to me, Richard.”
I leaned in close, trying to read their nuances, their motions, their faces. “What the hell are you doing?”
Nearly tumbled down the steps when I leapt up, my heart rocketing into my throat. “Aggie, just headed downstairs for a cup of tea.”
“Have you been in my room?”
“No, of course not. Why? Is something– um, missing?”
She cocked an eyebrow, licked her lips, then replied. “No, nothing’s missing. Just my notebooks fell over, and I know you’re a nosy little brat who likes to snoop around in other people’s things.”
“Maybe it was Michael, looking for inspiration for his Great American Novel.”
“Fucking idiot. I’m pretty sure only Americans are allowed to write those.” I nodded empathetically, then slipped away before she realized the horror on my face. The ring, she knew it was missing.
While reaching my arm down the air vent, the screws rolling against my knees, I wondered how I would formulate this scene in the final draft of my memoir. Would I write the scene dramatic, my breathing heavy, my fingers scrambled to find the lost ring, my eyes shifting constantly to the clock that hinted at my impending doom? Maybe not so suspenseful. Maybe more comedic.
Halfway through, my hand would get stuck and I would hear my sister begin her ascent up the stairs. At the moment, she shopped for Christmas presents with my parents while Michael sat upstairs doing whatever Michael usually did, probably writing another rip-off Stephen King novel.
As I thought about a comedy of errors, a series of mishaps in the story like a 3 Stooges cartoon but more literary, I feared my hand might actually get stuck. As if how I fictionalized the event might preemptively affect the actual event. Like a blooper, but from real life.
People in the audience at a play— they laugh politely at the gaffs but laugh the hardest when you lynch your lines, when you forget a word, when your wig tumbles off, powder clouding the air. Laughing at something that’s supposed to be funny, that only makes you a conformist. It’s the fuck-ups that really make people cackle.
I withdrew my hand and wiped the black, grainy smudge from my fingertips. When first contemplating the lost ring, I considered telling my parents, but then Agatha would know I lost the ring. Also, we had moved beyond tattle-tale-ing on each other because it meant the snitch too would face punishment. We knew so much about each other, we could never blame each other directly, only indirectly, like two hostile nations pointing nukes at the others’ capitals, knowing once we set off the explosives, we insured our mutual destruction.
Dropping the vent back over the hole, I began to tighten the screw when I heard omeone creeping down the hallway. I faced the door, my hands shaking, and then I dropped and crawled underneath Agatha’s bed. I imagined that in the fictional version of the moment, I might feel like a character in a horror movie, breathing slowly as the serial killer stalks around the bed. The door opened, and dirty sneakers trod across the room before halting next to Agatha’s book case.
After some strain, the person sat down on her bed, and I could hear pages flapping. The sneakers smelled like dirt and mashed potatoes, a hairy ankle sticking out. “What are you doing?”
As I clambered from under the bed, Michael fumbled with Agatha’s notebook to return it to its hiding place. “Shit, Neil. You scared me.”
“You’re reading Agatha’s journals? Trying to steal ideas?”
“I’m just– what are you doing in her room?”
“I’m just– I– uh– so she keeps the notebooks behind the other books on the book shelf.”
Michael nodded. “She’s smart. Turns ‘em sideways so they lie flat against the back of the book case, and they don’t stick out. But I found them this time. Have you read this stuff?”
“I think she’s pretty good, actually. Might be the best writer in the family. I mean, at least she’s honest.”
“Honest? She’s hormonal. Dad’s the best writer.”
Michael screwed up his face. “He only writes reviews. Anyways, dad’s not all that smart.”
He only said that, I suspected, because dad refused to read his newest project. Dad had tried to read previous novels by Michael, but then Michael never finished them, and my father grew frustrated with this until he refused to not comment on any more of Michael’s unfinished manuscripts.
Being brutally criticized, my brother could probably withstand that but what broke his heart and his resolve was being ignored. As if his work had grown so insignificantly droll, my father could not devote time to criticize its quality.
The front door opened, and Michael and I retreated from Agatha’s lair to stand in Michael’s room. On the desk stood a stack of clean notebooks, a row of mechanical pencils filled with graphite sticks. “You’re planning to write a lot?”
“I have been writing a lot.”
“And what is it this time? Like, a story about dragons or is this another Philip K. Dick rip-off.”
Shrugging, Michael moved the notebooks into his drawer. “I’m working on my magnum opus. My bestseller.”
“You can’t just decide it’s a bestseller before it’s even started.”
“But it’s all about the dramatic inner lives of a group of writers, on whom the nation recognizes.”
“You mean mom? What are you writing?”
Michael took a deep breath and sat down on the chair. “Oh, well, a memoir.”
The door opened, and Agatha dropped her shopping bags in the hallway before storming in. “What were you two doing in my room?”
“But we weren’t–“
“My notebooks were on the bed, you little snoops. You don’t have to be so damned jealous that I can write poetry and you can’t. Michael, stop being so desperate.”
I cut in, “He was probably just collecting research for his memoir.”
“What a joke. Michael, please go throw yourself out of a library window.”
Michael’s face grew red. “Shut up, Agatha. You’re not even good anyway. The only reason anyone likes you is because you starting seeing that Greg guy.”
“Greg? Michael, you’re–“
“Oh, you know, just the guy you talk on the phone with every night, that boy you write poems about. He’s four years older than you, and I mean, it’s not a coincidence you’re featured in his magazine.”
“You’re a nosy little creep.”
I looked between them. “You’re dating someone?”
Mum walked in. “Dating who?”
“Greg,” said Michael. “He must be an American, and he wrote that article about Agatha, and now she thinks she’s hot shit. But she’s not. Once I publish my memoir, everyone will know.”
“You can’t publish a memoir,” said mum. “You’re not even an adult yet. You don’t know anything about life.”
Shaking my head, I looked to Agatha. “Did he give you the ring?”
“Right? Agatha, what’s going on?”
“How do you– you lost the fucking ring, didn’t you? Mum, he lost my damned engagement ring.”
Mum turned dead white, pressing her hand against the door and gasping dramatically like they do in the movies. “Engaged? Who are you engaged to?”
“Greg, probably,” said Michael, retreating to his bed.
“I didn’t to lose it. I just held that card, and then– it fell out.”
“You’re getting married and you haven’t told us. You’re not even an adult yet, Agatha.”
Michael smirked at this. “Yeah, Agatha, you’re not even–“
She lunged for me, toppling me to the floor as she clawed at my face. “You little snarky bastard. You lost the ring. I was going to give it back to him but now you lost it. And he’ll hate me. Even more than when I told him no.”
“You told him no? Agatha, what?” Mum looked even more horrified, clutching her blouse.
Everything that was happening, I could not help but imagine how awesome it could play out in my memoir. How Agatha had turned violent over her passionate secrets, how my mother felt so scandalized.
Mum called up my dad, and with Agatha, they drifted to the kitchen to discuss Agatha’s engagement ring. I sat upstairs, relieved they had forgotten to ground me for snooping in her room, and Michael began writing in his notebook.
“I don’t know why you’re trying. I think I’ve already got the memoir market for this family cornered.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m working on one too, I meant. No offense.”
Michael shrugged. “They’re probably different anyways.”
I chewed on my cheek and walked from the room. “We’re just different people. How different could they be?”
In my room, I began to write, but I found it hard to concentrate once dad started yelling. Something about how Agatha didn’t deserve to be off in California if she were just hooking up with indie magazine editors. Somehow, I could not write the truth, so I wrote something else: a story about a boy in a family of writers.
The father, a children’s book illustrator. The mother, a redundant poet. His older brother, a budding literary novelist. And a little sister, who had decided she wanted to be a doctor instead.
Every story we tell is a memoir disguised as fiction. The characters we write, they’re just derivatives of ourselves, expressions of who we want to be and who we don’t want to be. We’re obscuring the truth in fiction.
We live anecdotal lives. Everything we can do becomes just another story to tell our parents or friends or spouses when we get home from school or work or Pilates. As humans, we love stories. In the case of lying about who you are, come full-loaded with anecdotes. Stories make you believable—that’s why Hitler promoted the publication of anti-Semitist children’s books.
This is just my version of a children’s book, starring me. Everyone wants to write a memoir, to cash in on their stories, so why can’t I?
The truth, when it’s unwrapped, when it’s raw, burns our skin with embarrassment. We recognize too much of ourselves in the truth, things we could not say out loud printed onto a page. We’re so afraid of sharing our secrets, we make ourselves into a breathing sarcophagus. We write our confessions on bathroom walls, trying to find salvation in anonymity. And we only end up alone.
The day after Christmas, Angie visited to pick up the manuscript for the first adventure of Rhonda Flame, the protagonist of a true-crime-inspired erotica series. Angie agreed to read dad’s manuscript too, maybe out of starch politeness.
Agatha found the ring by fishing down the air vent with a campfire skewer. We celebrated by sealing the ring in an envelope and mailing it back to California, back to Greg, who I felt slightly sorry for. Then again, if we were an American magazine editor, he probably deserved better than Agatha. If he had made that mistake, she’d be even more of a crazy, psycho bitch. Not that her foulness bothered me– it made good fodder for a memoir, that memoir I still needed to start writing.