A few years ago, I was bemoaning the fact that I didn't have many writer pals my age. Then one night I headed over to a book release party to celebrate Stephen Harrigan's brilliant novel Challenger Park. I hoped to have my book signed and maybe eat my fill of fancy hors d'oeuvres.
Instead I was introduced to a crew of graduate students from the University of Texas's Michener Center for Writers -- Phillipp Meyer, Brian Hart, Domenica Ruta, Brian McGreevy, and Lee Shipman -- and we all began rowdily discussing strikes and short stories, Hurricane Katrina, transgender prostitutes, guns and the emotional pain symptomatic of driving literary ambition. And we bonded over our collective disappointment that, though the booze flowed freely and the party rocked, there was nothing to eat but cheese squares.
The party ended, so my new acquaintances and I all headed over to Spider House for beers. There in the deep shadows of the outdoor patio, I looked at the crew sitting around the table with me. Though I still knew little about them or their work, already I felt a deep affinity for them. I could almost feel the group humming with pure literary potential.
Phillipp Meyer had not yet finished his masterpiece American Rust; Brian Hart already had a good start on his first novel Then Came the Evening. Screenwriting partners Lee Shipman and Brian McGreevy had finished their first screenplay, but it hadn't yet garnered the attention that would lead to Hollywood producers clamoring to hire the pair. Brian McGreevy hadn't polished up and sold his novel Hemlock Grove (which will be released by FSG next winter). And Domenica Ruta, quite possibly the most brilliant of the bunch, hadn't yet begun her memoir, which has recently sold to Spiegel & Grau.
But still I had the sense that night that it would all happen; that this loud, wildly politically incorrect crew had the magic of kings.
A few months later, I headed down to Port Aransas to spend all of January in a house on the beach revising my novel, The Gods of Fire, based on my experiences as a forest firefighter. I had imagined myself working on the deck overlooking the ocean as fresh fish cooked on the grill. But instead the grey skies poured a cold, steady rain all month. I spent long days inside, hunched over my computer, so far into the world of my novel that it was disorienting to come up for damp walks along the water. I was grateful to be there, for the time to write. I was lonely.
My new writer friends promised to visit me, but I worried the weather would keep them from coming, or keep us all cooped up once they arrived. They rolled up one night and the entire bunch poured out of two cars, joined by Phillipp's then girlfriend (now wife) Alexandra Seifert and a couple of dogs.
Miraculously, the rain stopped and we all set off in the darkness over the dunes to the water. We walked for a long time, the two dogs racing forward and then returning to us, until we came to the pier. A cluster of local high school boys staggered down the walkway ahead of us. We followed them out over the water to the pier's end, and watched a bevy of birds bob in the circle of light far below us. The drunken high school boys stood at the other side of the deck.
Suddenly, one of them jumped up to balance on the thin rail. The light illuminated his figure as he swayed drunkenly in his tight jeans and big, half laced boots, the cold deep water at least 30 feet below.
My new friends and I all sucked in our breath together and held it. In my mind's eye, I saw the boy plummet to the water, flail for long, painful moments as we watched, helpless; and then sink like a stone to the bottom of the Gulf; but instead he kept wobbling for what seemed a frozen eternity. Then he jumped back down to the deck, laughing, and his friends laughed with him.
The boys headed back down the pier towards the shore and we walked after them. Just before the pier hit the sand, the boys stopped at the plastic case attached to the rail. The boy who had nearly fallen to the water pried the box open, pulling out the life preserver and looping it around his neck like a hard-earned trophy.
Then the boys staggered off towards the parking lot, taking the life preserver with them.
That night I slept on one living room couch and Brian Hart slept on the other.
"How have things been going with you?" I asked in the darkness.
Brian paused for a long time. "It's really hard."
"Trying to write a novel?"
"Yeah," he said.
I fell asleep, happy, understood and no longer lonely.
When we all woke up the next morning, the sun was shining down and by noon Phillip had fresh fish and beef ribs grilling on the barbecue.