“NAPALM STRIPPERS saved my life.”
The guy caught me by surprise, just after that disaster of a workshop. Nothing grabs this new batch of aspiring writers. Not for long. Not me, a relic, standing up there trying to explain what makes good memoir writing to a generation of Twitter posters?
The worst part was that I didn’t know shit about memoir writing anymore. Never did.
Now, late for lunch and having fulfilled my obligations, I looked up to find this guy, obviously deranged, his stare drilling me with unhinged intensity. I hadn’t seen him in class, I’d have remembered that off-kilter look in his eyes, the burn of intensity that didn’t match his slouch. He was thick in the middle, with the kind of splotchy beard no woman would allow. When he reached past his coat, revealing the obligatory spaceship t-shirt stretched around his gut, I saw flashes of Hinckley.
His gnarled hand produced a wrinkled paperback. The pages yellow as his fingernails. He smacked his hand on the cover, like swearing on a bible. When he lifted it up, I saw the small hole through the pages.
“Is that from a bullet?” I said, only half joking. His raspy laugh made me cringe.
“Hell, could be, that’s how I bought it.”
“Okay,” I said, already looking over his slumped shoulder. Phillip, Dawn, and the others were at the door, headed for the cafeteria. Carla shot me a look and a laugh. Yeah, I had a clinger.
“Got this at a yard sale three years ago,” he said in a way that told me I was in for the long haul. “Paid a quarter for it. Up until then I wasn’t doing shit, but this,” he thumped the whitened bind against the desk. “This made me want to be a writer.”
I straightened my worksheets, set them in a folder and the folder in my bag. Two tours in Vietnam, a lifetime of nightmares. Seven years to write my first novel. This guy paid a quarter. Fair enough.
“…I been writing some of my own stuff. Got three ebooks on Amazon. I’d love it if you…”
He scratched his hand as he spoke, I wasn’t sure if it was nerves or a rash. I clipped my bag and glanced at the clock.
“I think they’re pretty good. I know if I could just breakthrough than…”
This poor guy had snowball sized chunks of dandruff in his hair, smelled like a dog collar. What could he possibly be writing, The Audacity of Soap?
“Anyways, I was just hoping maybe I could get you to take a look. Maybe get a blurb or…”
“Um, look, I’m sorry, what’s your name again?”
“Okay, well thanks Willie,” I said, heading for the door. Willie didn’t take the hint. Just stood there, frumpy and wrinkled. I took a step back to the room. “Look, thanks for sitting in on my class. You want me to sign…that, or,” I motioned out towards the lobby. “I have a display of my newer books.
“I don’t care for them.”
“Your new books. The self-help stuff. I don’t like them.”
I bit my cheek. Willie, the Amazon writer could not have understood that the new books paid the bills. NAPALM STRIPPERS was out of print and out of mind. Done, I was lucky to buy a six-pack of good beer with the royalties. The new series, about recovery and focus were well received and plugging along at a good clip. The audio versions especially.
Willie pocketed the yellow rind and shuffled past me. “Well, I just wanted to let you know what this book means to me. Take it easy.”
Take it easy? That night I climbed into my attic and reread NAPALM STRIPPERS, turning pages, gripped by the intensity of my own faraway writing. It wasn’t me who wrote that book. It was a kid. A terrified, drug-addled, hippie soldier. There were no chapters and no tomorrow for that young writer. Without rules, commas, or any inclination to hold back. It was completely raw, freshly derived out of brain rot, trauma, and my old friend Agent Orange.
The next night I started on Willie’s stuff. Even with a deadline looming I finished all three of them. He was good. I laughed. The frumpy bastard could write. I made a few notes and decided that I’d call my agent in the morning, have her take a look. Then I inquired about another memoir. She advised against it.
So that night I let her rip. I sat down and started typing, just like Willie.