“Do you know how much I'm worth?” Stuart asked.
They had just finished a complete cleaning of the house, whisking cigar ash off the porch and putting the empty bottles from Vic's room in the trash. The kids were coming the next day. Jeff had completed extensive shopping for both of them. Riley was on some kind of diet to prepare for wrestling in the fall, so Jeff had bought him Blue Monster Naked Juice and protein bars. For Vanessa, the twelve-year-old, he had bought a frozen apple pie and chicken nuggets. The shopping list sent from their mother had been specific and thorough.
“No,” Jeff said.
“Yeah,” Stuart said, lighting a cigar, “Me fucking neither.” He looked over at the younger man. “I know, right? But, not to sound like a rich twat, after the first 10 mil, I just stopped paying attention. I pay 5 grand a month in child support. If you want a real measure of a man's wealth, that seems like a good one to me.
“It's weird, having kids,” he said. “Especially now that they're not around most of the time. When I was in college, a buddy of mine and I got in a fight. I said that people only had children because they thought they would leave nothing else in the world, like they hadn't contributed to society any other way, that their children were their immortality. He fuckin' punched me. Only fist fight I've ever been in. I think I made him feel marginalized, like his parents had brought him into the world because they couldn't think of anything better to do with their lives.
“Then one day you're in love, or you think you are, and having children seems like the natural expression of that, you know? Well, maybe you don't know, but it's true. And then they come into the world, and what the hell do you do with them? At first they're helpless, and then all they want is your attention and love, and then they don't want anything to do with you. Well, maybe that last part is what happens because of divorce or because I'm a shitty parent, but that's how it feels.”
Jeff didn't say anything. The week or so since he had accused Stuart of murdering Mac had been a dark one. He couldn't quite say the writer had taken it personally, but his writing had slowed and his talks had been more introspective, more bitter. He watched sitcoms and reality television. He seemed to always be apologizing for something.
“I think my assumption always was that my children will find me fascinating. That they would want to know what I was about, so I read to them, you know? Redwall, Narnia, all that shit. I think my hope was that they would find the fact that I was a writer interesting and want to be a part of it. And maybe it's just that way with any kid and they way their parents earn a living, but to them, I might as well be a fucking accountant or whatever. Like even the astronaut's kids think their dad's job is no big deal. They were never interested.” He swallowed. “They were never proud of me.”
He took a drink of bourbon and smoked his cigar. “Maybe it's because my parents died when I was young. But I wanted my wife to be proud of me, you know? And she was, for a while, right up until she realized that my methods, being here, drinking, cranking out books, were not going to be changed. Wally was proud of me, and that was actually good enough for, you know, a while.”
He stood up and leaned back against the deck railing, looking at the house, past Jeff. “Who's proud of you, Jeff?”
It was the first time the writer had used Jeff's given name and he was so surprised he spoke without thinking. “My mom's proud of me no matter what. That's what she says, and I believe her. I graduated from college and it was a big deal.”
He didn't say anything more and the silence hung in the air.
“You said that Cemetery was a favorite among people with father issues, yeah?”
“My father died of lymphoma when I was a kid. We saw him waste away in a hospital and after that it was just my mom and me. She always believed in me. She slaved away in medical records, a job she was good at but she hated, to put clothes on my back and then to put me through college. Do you know what it's like to be good at something that you hate?”
Stuart looked at him evenly. “Sometimes,” he said.
“No. I see the way you work. You might hate the industry or what happened to you, but you don't hate the writing, do you?”
The author considered this. “No, you're right. I don't.”
“You can tell. You can't talk about writing the way you do if you hate it. You could be committed to it, because of your kids or your fans or whatever, but not the writing itself. I see you do it every single day and you fucking love it.”
“Yes, you're right, I do. Should I apologize for that?”
“No, you shouldn't. But you should realize what it gives you. Where it puts you in the world. My best friend, Malcolm, he works for an accounting firm. He's damn good at it. He hates it. My sister, she's an office manager and while she might not hate it, most of the time it makes her fucking miserable. She works ten hour days and comes home every night so exhausted her fucking teeth hurt.”
“No, of course not.”
“That's why you're a writer, too, kid. Making shit like that up off the cuff. It's something you love. It's something you can make a living doing, I believe that, and if you can do that, then you mother won't have to work her shitty job forever.”
“And how will I ever turn my writing into a career?”
“You had a one in a million chance. Everything fell into place. How often do you think that really happens?”
Stuart nodded then, took a deep breath, and looked away. “I could help you.”
“You said that was not part of me being here.”
“It's not. I've never stuck my neck out for anyone before, not just my summer kids, but anyone, but I have a good feeling about you. The way you talk, the questions you ask, I don't need to see what you write to know that you're good. That your instincts are right. If you haven't yet, by the time you're done here, I'd like to think you'll have learned something.”
“Good. And how's the book coming?”
Jeff looked up at the writer sharply. He had not spoken about Danny's Dime to anyone. It was still his baby. Had Stuart been in his room?
“Relax, kid, it's no mystery. I've heard you typing away at nights, sometimes like there's a fire under you. Don't you think I know what that means?”
Jeff nodded. “It's part of the power of this place. Doesn't mean you have the same bug as me, but it means you're feeling the same power. Is it good?”
“Yeah, it really is.”
“Coming along pretty easily?”
“Yes, it is.”
Stuart nodded, sagely. “There you go. When you're done with it, we'll take a look at it and see what we can do.”
Jeff felt a tingle of excitement rush to the end of his fingers. Never in a thousand years could he have dreamed...
“What's it called?”
The author grinned that savage grin of his. “I like it,” he said.