FICTION: The Book Tour by Ashley Elizabeth Savard

‘When I write something,’ Peggy said, uncrossing her legs and leaning forward in the leather chair for dramatic effect, ‘I never read it again. Once I’ve written it I consider it dead.’

‘Why do you consider it dead?’ The woman asking the questions looked excited. Peggy had said the word ‘dead’, not finished, done, over – dead. It was morbid and the woman was hooked. She leaned in, too.

‘Because it’s embarrassing to pretend that the dead are living, isn’t it? Isn’t it awkward to stand in the cemetery next to other people crying over their lost mother or husband or son? Grieving in public is unpleasant. There’s something morbid in it’.

The woman across from Peggy looked bemused, unable to decide how exactly to make sense of Peggy. She must not have interviewed many writers before, Peggy thought. The pen the woman was holding, a blue and silver one with a pleasant female name written on it that Peggy suspected was some sort of graduation or new-job gift, was poised above the scribbled over notebook. Despite the mad writing it was neat. Little color-coded sticky-notes stuck out from the pages and a slim yellow ribbon marker dangled down and landed delicately across the woman’s stockinged legs. Her writing looked familiar, ever-so-slightly childish and a pain flashed briefly in Peggy’s chest, causing her to touch a hand to the spot just above her breast before forcing it back down into her lap.

‘Do you always take notes? Sometimes they record,’ Peggy said, moving the conversation off-topic. She was good at that. It was easy. In fact, she enjoyed deflecting, toying with her interviewer, getting them to tell her about their life.

‘Always’, the woman said, smiling for the first time. Peggy wished she could remember the woman’s name. She’d been terrible with names for the past two years. It was something she just couldn’t make herself listen to or care about. They were meaningless labels.

The woman’s open mouth revealed tiny, unnaturally white teeth. Peggy’s own teeth were stained with faint, barely noticeable light brown streaks. She knew because she had spent two hours that morning examining them in the mirror and getting lost in the lines. Missed having lunch with Leo, the man she’d occasionally been sleeping with when she remembered to feel bored. Too much coffee. Peggy ran her tongue over the top row of her teeth, trying to remember how they looked that morning.

‘I miss things if I don’t take notes’, the woman concluded. Maybe she knew what she was doing after all.

‘I should start over.’

‘If you like.’

‘That was stupid – it’s not even true. When I write something I read it over a million times. Edit the hell out of it. The problem starts when it’s finished. That’s when it becomes awkward. That’s when I want the story to die so that I don’t have to read it again. Rereading dead stories always makes me a bit queasy’. She took a long pause, thinking. ‘I don’t like finding the mistakes’.

That wasn’t true either – at least not the last part. It wasn’t finding mistakes that made her queasy but something else. Something hidden in the story that would haunt her – missing from the words but always present.

Peggy was already rewriting the interview in her head and the woman across from her was allowing her to do it. She could see the write-up already in pale pretty prose. An honest interview. Full of remarkably authentic contradictions. An overused allusion to Whitman. Do I contradict myself?

The interview was over and she hadn’t noticed. The woman was standing up and stretching out a manicured hand adorned with jewel-colored rings to her for a handshake. Her hand was warm, her handshake one of those barely-there pulses. The woman’s entire hand seemed to fit in Peggy’s palm and she suddenly had the strange urge to grip the woman’s hand tightly, painfully, crushing her knuckles into the center of her palm. She let go and the woman’s hand dropped to her side, the woman’s eyes remained friendly, her almost-outburst had gone unnoticed.

The interview stuck with her, gaining in vividness and becoming clearer in her mind as she walked down 5th Avenue than it had when she sat in the woman’s office, 43 stories up, the deafening noise of the street silenced by Sheila Casey’s thick windows and the soft notes of classical music playing in the background. That was her name. She’d told Sheila that she hated rereading her stories once they were published. It was true – they embarrassed her. But the moments of her life seemed to play in her mind over and over, on an ever-spinning reel that was tirelessly gaining in speed. She replayed the interview until she had come off sounding completely irrational. And then again until she sounded unhinged. Unhinged. It reminded her of something. An empty doorframe? Something missing.

A car flew past, honking its horn rudely and spraying up rainwater. Another driver, in the middle of the road in a blue compact car, raised a hand out the window and shouted at the man who had honked his horn. They both spun their cars jerkily out of the other’s way and drove off. Peggy stood still, poised in front of the intersection waiting to walk.

There was another interview a week later – this time for a television segment on local writers. It was in a leafy and brick-lined town in Upstate New York, filmed at a library by an affiliate for NBC. Peggy was given one of the librarian’s offices as a dressing room and used the makeshift dressing room to stare at herself in the mirror, not putting on makeup and examining her face, which had inexplicably and overnight grown elongated and saggy. The skin around her eyes was beginning to dip down into trickling formations that resembled dried up waterfalls. Funny how it even looked like a tear should be running down the contours of her face. She wondered if they would let her do the interview in her sweats. It would be intimate. Accurate, even.

It was time. And when Peggy finally put on the makeup she willed it to conceal not only the red blotches that were slowly spreading across her face and neck and arms, but also the geyser-like threat just below the surface.

‘What were you like at school?’

‘Quiet. Contemplative. Nerdy. I think people thought I was a snob – but really I was just uncomfortable’.

‘And now?’

‘Quiet. Contemplative. Nerdy. Still uncomfortable around people. Prone to repetitive thought’. The interviewer smiled. She’d won him over now. Her mind was working quickly. She didn’t have to rewrite things. The first sentences were the better ones this time. His questions were easy.

‘And at university?’

‘About the same. I didn’t fit in. But I wasn’t unhappy either’. He nodded and leaned his head back, thinking. She’d lost her touch a bit with that last question. Her answer had been unremarkable. But there had been little remarkable about her time there.

‘What made you want to become a writer?’

‘I never wanted to be. It isn’t like other jobs. I wanted to be an academic. And I almost was. But I had to write. I suppose books – but I can’t remember waking up one day and thinking that I wanted to write’.

Another nod. The man’s lips pursed and he furrowed his brows for a moment. It was another failed response. She should have lied – said she was driven by some sort of uncontrollable compulsion or ambition. They love things like that. But Peggy had no motivation for drive. It had flooded out of her that day back in October of last year. She could even remember it. She’d been sitting in her office in front of her laptop looking at an article she’d been writing on religious pedagogy in twentieth-century writing and was suddenly overcome with panic. Her eyes blurred in and out of focus, like on a cartoon when they show someone closing their eyes from inside the head. She’d rushed to the bathroom, avoiding eye contact with anyone she passed. Her heart was still racing as she splashed cold water in her face in a frenzy. It was sickening – she couldn’t do it. There was a puzzle that she wasn’t intelligent enough to solve but had looked so simple when she started. She walked out to her car in tears. Three hours in her office that day, that was all she’d managed.

Failure.

Peggy remembered that she was in an interview. The man across from her was staring at her with his eyes half closed, trying to figure her out. There was something else. Pity. He’d asked a question and she hadn’t heard – hadn’t even been listening. Stuck in her own head.

‘Sorry,’ she began. He smiled kindly at her and tried again, adjusting the fold on his sleeve.

‘What’s your favorite thing about being a writer?’

‘That I can spend all day in my pajamas’. He laughed, waiting for a real answer but Peggy had already determined that it was honest enough. The production lights were warm. She was starting to feel drowsy.

‘Are you having an easier time getting out of bed?’

Peggy left the interview without discussing a future appearance with the receptionist, rushing past the round desk littered with leaflets. The receptionist, a little blonde woman with curly hair had lifted up a hand to her in question but Peggy avoided her, face down, pressing out the door and into the parking lot. It was five o’clock and there were only a few cars left. It took several minutes before she was calm enough to drive.

That night she sat on the floor in front of her television. It was loud – the booming voices and then the incessant laugh track of some reruns of a show she didn’t even watch. Her legs were crossed and she sat motionless, staring straight ahead, hearing nothing but the repetitive sound of artificial laughter. She felt herself sinking into the blue carpet like water, it was lapping at her toes, then stirring around her knees, her waist, and finally her chin was pushed toward the ceiling as she gasped for air.

In a moment she was calm – she had drowned, perhaps. The voices from the television sounded muffled and distant. Calmly, Peggy stood up and walked slowly to the kitchen. In a drawer next to the sink where she kept all the knickknacks with no proper hiding place she found the lighter that she used to light her gas stove with its broken ignition switch, then she walked back and sat down on the same spot of carpet. It felt softer – the water peaceful and warm, only gently rocking against her legs.

There were unfinished pages and stories, newspaper clippings, and even manuscripts lined up in piles and scattered under the television cabinet. Peggy grabbed at one – it didn’t matter which one – and lit the edge of it with the lighter. Her thumb pressed against the little black button, tighter and tighter, unwilling to let go. The flames were brushing her fingertips, her nails hot to the touch, before she dropped the burning pages on the carpet and let loose the little black button. And then she sat there, mesmerized by the orange and the heat and the soft hissing of incineration.

Burning her work had felt perfectly natural. Only when the papers had burnt down to a black dust and the carpet below began to blaze, too, did she reach out for the water glass on the coffee table and throw it over the now browning spot. Little black traces of paper sunk into the singed carpet. She watched until the carpet absorbed the water then stood up and went to bed.

‘Why did you burn your manuscript?’ This time it was a man with a tiny nose and a large round head, balding around the corners. Peggy shrugged.

‘I don’t know, really’, she told him. ‘I’d meant only to grab a short story, something forgotten, but that giant stack looked so threatening, so I lit the entire thing on fire and I watched it burn. I was happy. Three years of work’.

‘Yes, but why do you think you did it?’

‘Desperation. I was drowning. I couldn’t breathe.’

‘You have to take the medication, Peggy.’

Peggy didn’t burn any more stories. There were no stories. But she did go home and pile the remaining papers up and push them into the cabinet. They were safe from her there, she reasoned.

She thought about ending the book tour and for nearly an hour she sat clutching her cellphone and staring at her agent’s number. It was becoming too difficult. All that writing and rewriting in her head – all the analysis that came after. Questions about Benjamin.

Tiny miniscule raindrops collected like dust on the great window of the 12th floor waiting room where Peggy sat with her legs crossed, her feet jiggling rapidly under the leather chair. She was next. Fourteen meetings in three months. Her jeans, distressed and dotted lightly with water, hadn’t been washed for longer than she could remember. She hoped they didn’t smell and tried to casually lean down to sniff them, adjusting a shoe to her hide her intention. They smelled damp, that was all.

‘Peggy?’

A well-suited woman with light brown hair and bright yellow heels poked her head out from behind a modern sliding white door. Peggy stood up and tried to walk as calmly as possible into the office, making a mental note not to shuffle her sneakers and to stand up straight. The woman seemed so glamorous to her that Peggy felt like a child. When she stepped through the door the woman gestured to a high-backed crisp white chair with a tiny pillow the same color as the woman’s heels.

‘Please. Sit down’.

Peggy sat, her knees touching, her feet twisted together under the chair. The office was delicately outfitted with chrome lamps and vases with fresh green plants in them. There were no pictures, except for one solitary candid shot of a little girl with a yellow bow in her hair that was taped neatly to the woman’s computer screen.

‘So,’ she said in a steady voice. ‘Tell me why I’m the fourth therapist you’ve seen this month’.

‘I haven’t liked the previous ones’.

‘Ok’. The woman gave a half smile. ‘Well, I’ll do my best, then’.

Peggy was staring at the window, watching the barely-there raindrops soak into the glass and nestle in next to the other spots.

‘What happened, Peggy? Why are you here?’

Peggy started, her eyes flickered from the window to the door where she’d come in. She always liked to have at least two exits in mind in these situations. You never knew when it would become too much. It felt as if her lungs were constricting, sinking into themselves so quickly that she had to gasp for a breath.

‘Take your time.’

Deflect. Peggy’s mind was racing. Again her eyes flickered to the door. And then to the window. Rain was still collecting on the pristine glass.

‘You don’t want to know about my past?’

‘We’ll get to that I’m sure. For now I want to know why you’re here’.

There was a long pause that accelerated the ringing in her ears that Peggy heard when it was silent and no one was talking. She hated that ringing and looked at the therapist in desperation, hoping she would save her. But the silence continued and the ringing was getting louder and louder, faster and faster, a high pitched screech now that Peggy wished she could remove, dissecting her entire head and removing the part of her brain that made the ringing noise with tiny silver tweezers.

‘Yesterday I burned an entire living-room-full of papers and notes and pictures’. She was waiting for the question – Why? It’s the question that they asked her repeatedly and that she repeatedly ignored. She didn’t know why.

‘What were they?’ There was a sinking feeling that coursed through Peggy’s entire body. It started in her head where the buzzing noise seemed to grow more bass-like and lower in tone and descended down into her feet, pulling her toes into the floor. She crossed her legs just to make sure she could still move them.

‘My divorce papers, mostly. Several stacks of photos. Police reports. Newspaper clippings. The entire wedding album.’

‘Did you burn everything?’

‘Yes – well, no. The fire went out before I could burn it all. There are still a few things left. Two birth certificates. And a picture’. Peggy reached down to the ground to retrieve her handbag, a brown water-stained thing that she’d been carrying around since she finished her degree seven years ago. She pulled out a folded up 4 x 6 picture that had been printed at Wal-Mart two years ago – before she heard the ringing. Slowly, and with extreme caution, Peggy unfolded the photo and offered it up for the woman to examine. It was a boy with large cheeks and a toothy grin and brown hair that stuck up at odd angles. He was clutching a drawing on which he’d written in large, childish, and looping letters his name, Benjamin, in the left corner.

‘Is this your son?’

‘Yes. But I lost him’.

‘I’m very sorry to hear that, Peggy’.

Peggy was crying now. Her face was puffing up and the skin around her eyes was turning bright pink. The rest of her body seemed to sink into itself. Someone placed a heavy red brick over her chest and she tried to pull it off, sinking under the weight.

Reporters and news crews lined the sidewalk in front of Peggy and Jim’s house. Jim was out there talking to them, desperate to be heard while Peggy sank into the shadow behind her curtain. She was scared to even look at them. Yesterday they had snapped a picture of her getting into her car, tear-streaked, hair and clothes unwashed, body threatening to crumble and then she had been forced to see the picture, over and over on reports of their publicly grieving family.

Jim was steady, composed even, in front of the cameras. A single tear would slip down his face and he would gracefully thank the press for their interest in the case and for raising awareness of their efforts. They loved him. But they looked at Peggy with distaste. They resented her messy tears and her silence. Jim was a much better griever. More photogenic and engaging. She was disappearing into herself and became the barely visible shadow behind the curtained living room window that looked out over the lawn, the same window from which she had desperately scanned the lawn looking for Benjamin’s bobbing head and bubbling laugh.

A year on and Peggy still sat behind the curtain, letting Jim provide the answers to the much smaller group of journalists outside their house. She started drinking in the morning sometimes. Nothing much, just a drop or two in her coffee. And then something else when she sat down in front of the news for lunch. Jim begged her to stop turning on the television. He punched a hole in the wall next to it. Then he left. The divorce papers were delivered in the mail a few days later. She signed them without reading.

And two years? Nothing. Until she started the book tour. But the book tour was over. She was sitting in Ariana Lee’s office on the 12th story of a strange glassy building with white gallery-like floors. Someone put another brick on her chest. He was being cruel – this bricklayer. Peggy gasped for air, panicking and clutching the arms of the white chair. She was clawing, scratching at the man with the bricks but he was laughing. The strange ringing noise was back and Peggy wanted to scream, but she thought of all the pretty little glass ornaments the woman had on her desk, and that picture of the little girl with the yellow bow, the same color as the woman’s page marker – no, that was the other one. She didn’t want to break the ornaments and she didn’t want to scare the child so she stifled the scream.

‘It’s over,’ she cried and turned her hands, which had failed at attacking the bricklayer, to her own face, making a deep scratch that stretched from the corner of her left eye all the way to her mouth, a light pink streak that left a small line of red on her finger nails. ‘It’s all over’.

Ashley Savard is originally from the Finger Lakes Region of Upstate New York, but now resides in London. She is currently working on a PhD at Durham University and is in the final stages of writing a thesis on James Joyce and Cultural Performance. ‘The Book Tour’ is her first published short story and, after years of development and much procrastination, Ashley recently began writing a novel.

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