Episode 197: The Authorized Biography (Part 1) by Michael G. Ryan

Show Notes

Galen Dara’s amazing print for Artemis Rising is available on Society6.


Theme music is “Appeal to Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available at MusicAlley.com.

 


The Authorized Biography

by Michael G. Ryan

 

In the beginning, Tim Toonby was bewildered to find his biography. Bewildered and ultimately alarmed.

It appeared Saturday morning on his front porch in an unadorned metal box, the fireproof kind meant for legal documents. No key. Tim Toonby had just stepped outside to leave the full diaper pail liner for the service, and in the age of letter bombs, he hesitated when he saw the box on the steps. He looked around as if the deliverer would still be nearby, waiting for the detonation, but the neighborhood was typically quiet—prefabricated homes with lawns of sod, flower boxes along porch railings, stone lions at the end of driveways as affectations of the neighbors’ aspirations. Toonby had them, too. It was a street for dreamers, not killers.

When he picked up the box, the lid wasn’t latched—it fell open, and he was suddenly looking down at his own face on the cover of a book inside. His own face, thirty years older, hair gone to gray, the crow’s feet at his eyes deep and sad. The black-and-white photo looked posed in a cheap hotel room where the nightstand’s drawer was pulled open enough to reveal a book, a Gideon’s Bible. But when Tim Toonby squinted at the picture, he could see that wasn’t right. He could just make out the text on the cover: Barnabas’s Bible by Timothy Toonby.

This was the book he had started writing six months ago. His first book, his hope for the great American novel, his dream of fame and fortune. The one his agent said would make him a household name.

As if handling fragile glass, Tim Toonby lifted the book out of the metal box. It was a thick hardback of a thousand pages or more. Toonby or Not Toonby, it was called, written by Jasper Toonby. Baffled, Tim Toonby looked up and down the street again. A nauseating dizziness settled over him like sunstroke.  

His son Jasper was inside the house behind him, napping in the nursery with his newborn baby sister. He was four and still enamored of the Wiggles. He was hardly writing more than his name.

The sky above Tim Toonby expanded, becoming vast and dangerous, as if deities hid behind the clouds like malicious children with sharp knives playing hide and seek. He took the book and the metal box back into the house, returning to lock the front door behind him when he forgot.

 


 

The house was momentarily at peace—Tiffany was gone to the mall, Jasper and Betsy were sleeping, even Gator was snoozing on the deck, dreaming whatever it is golden retrievers dream in their old age. The stillness of the house seemed calculated, but Tim Toonby was grateful for that eye of the storm. He sat at the tiny table in the kitchen with the book—his book, as he was already thinking of it, despite being hesitant to touch it. He turned it over to read the back cover.

Timothy Toonby introduced the world to Barnabas the spiritual nomad, whose willingness to offer his soul to any religion in exchange for divine insight created the cottage industry dubbed “multi-sectarian” fiction. But Toonby’s own tragic life was almost as shattered as his protagonist’s—from the publication of Barnabas’s Bible and its overnight success until the end of his life, Toonby was a man in search of something more than just celebrity and wealth.

In this superb biography, Jasper Toonby, his only son, shows us a side of his father unknown to the public.  From the sudden death of Toonby’s young daughter to the shattering events in Burlington, Vermont, Toonby’s life was as fraught with acts of God as anything his alter-ego Barnabas encountered in searching twenty-one religions worldwide for the answer. 

This is a goddamn joke, Toonby thought. Tim Toonby, welcome to This Will Be Your Life, weeknights on the History Channel. He immediately regretted the expletive, and besides, a prank hardly seemed like the answer to him anyway. He could not wrap his mind around any reason for it, any person who could be behind it, any outcome it might hope to achieve. It was too elaborate and too open-ended. It was senseless. And yet…

In the other room, the baby awakened. Her staccato cries came across the baby monitor on the counter, jolting Toonby out of his focus. He let out his breath—he didn’t realize he’d been holding it—and pushed the book away across the table, rising to tend little Betsy’s needs before she woke Jasper. By the time he’d soothed her back to sleep, he felt ready to approach his biography again. As he rubbed her back and whisper-sang in her ear, he returned repeatedly to that single line: The sudden death of Toonby’s young daughter. Once Betsy was back in her crib, Toonby felt the dark clouds part, those hide-and-seek evil gods disappearing with them for now, and he returned to book with a sketch of a plan.

Flipping to the back of the book, he found the index he suspected might be there. His hands betrayed his inner uncertainty by shaking, and he couldn’t remember the alphabet for a moment. Oh, good, he thought. I have Parkinheimer’s now. My hands shake but I can’t remember why. The index was a minefield of his life—names he knew and names he didn’t, entries so magnetic that his fingers dug into the paper savagely enough to make him wonder if he’d tear the pages. Among the dozens of entries under his own name, two stood out, stacked alphabetically atop one another.

Toonby, Timothy Bernard; death of, divorce and

He heard his own breathing rise and fall like a steam engine leaving the station, but what he wanted was alphabetically earlier than this. So, he didn’t even note the page number of his alleged death. Not now. Not yet. Instead, he found what he needed to know more pressingly. 

Toonby, Elizabeth “Betsy” Ann; birth of, congenital heart disease and, death of

There was nothing else indexed under his daughter’s name; all her entries were clustered in less than 50 pages at the front of the biography. Between her entry and his own were Toonby, Jasper, and Toonby, Tiffany, but he closed the book before he could be tempted to look closer at either one, the risk of being turned to a pillar of salt by looking back at his own future too great.

“Papa?” he heard behind him. Jasper rubbed his eyes, standing on the porch holding a space gun he insisted on sleeping with, and Toonby knelt to hug his boy. 

“The baby’s crying,” Jasper said.

“Babies do that,” Toonby said. “You can call her Betsy, if you want.”

“The baby woke me up.” Jasper made a pouty face, but then he began to grin. “Do you want me to call her Betsy?”

“You call her Betsy, and I’ll call Mama.” 

He dug his cellphone out of his pocket and autodialed Tiffany. While the line rang, he remembered something he’d once said in a writers’ circle back before he’d started outlining Barnabas’s Bible. One of the others was a sci-fi writer, Dwayne something, and he’d been sharing his time travel novel with them. But his book was so loaded with paradoxes, with cause-and-effect problems inherent in the future influencing the past to affect the future, that the group spent an hour each week just trying to help him sort out rudimentary plot issues. At length, Toonby found his patience wearing thin.

“Time travel to the past won’t happen,” he’d said to the sci-fi writer while the others squirmed uncomfortably. “If it were ever going to be possible, we’d already know about it now—the future time travelers would be all over history already. Hitler, JFK’s assassination, 9/11, American Idol—none of it would have happened. They’d be among us, telling their ancestors which stocks to invest in.”

“Maybe there are rules in the future,” Dwayne had argued. “Maybe there will be laws about what you can and can’t do to affect the past.”

“Sure,” Toonby had said. “Nobody in the future will ever break the law. Forty virgins, Pearly Gates, and your own hot tub. All those post-apocalyptic movies got it totally wrong. ”

Tiffany answered and broke his train of memory. “Everything okay, hon?”

“Yes,” he said, watching Jasper pretend to talk into his space gun, imitating Toonby’s gestures on the phone with his wife, “but I’m taking Betsy to the doctor. Maybe it’s nothing, but I have a father’s intuition, and given what a mediocre dad I am, I think I’d better listen.”

 


 

Within forty-eight hours, Betsy was in surgery for something the doctors called ventricular septal defect—they explained it in detail, but Toonby struggled to understand, even to hear. Thankfully, Tiffany was following the explanation. She had her blonde hair tied back, always a sign of her stress and pinpoint attentiveness. What Toonby heard was “hole in her heart” and “a miracle to find it, since she has no symptoms.”

“How did you know?” Tiffany asked him while they sat in the waiting room, waiting to see their daughter. “Father’s intuition, Tim? Did she look like something was wrong with her? Was—was she crying? The doctors say there’s no way you—I don’t understand how you knew.”

“I just knew,” Toonby said. He jingled his car keys in his lap. 

Tiffany said, “I never meant you were mediocre. I’m sorry I ever said that.”

“I have a problem with priorities.” Toonby tried not to sound as if he were parroting her past words for the sake of fighting. He wasn’t. “I had a problem. But no more research. I’m writing the book now. You and the kids, you’re my priorities again.”

“You saved her life. Really, you saved us all. You saved our family.”

Toonby looked up, silencing his keys. Tiffany’s eyes brimmed with relief and fear and curiosity and a hint of impatience. Divorce and, he thought. Did I make things any better for us? What’s the price here?

“I don’t know how,” he said. “You know I’ve never had any secrets from you, Tiff. It’s not like I heard the voice of God warning me. I just knew. Maybe a guilty conscience has made me hyper-sensitive.”

He could see the suspicion hesitate in the way she searched his face—his words had come rushed from nowhere, as far as she could tell—but it faded before she was through searching. She smiled slowly. “I’m glad you knew. It doesn’t matter how.”

But Toonby knew that wasn’t true. Tiffany wouldn’t let this go—on those rare occasions when he’d been in her sights, she’d usually found him out. When he had begun to “get God,” as she called it, he’d kept it from her as long as he could, as if his research into world religions embarrassed him on both an intellectual and an emotional level. As if his discovery of belief was shameful. But now it seemed to be serving him in an entirely different way.

God didn’t speak to me, he thought as the doctor came to them in the waiting room to tell them they could see Betsy. Nope. He wrote to me instead.

 


 

His biography was still in the metal box at the bottom of his closet in his office when he and Tiffany came home from the hospital late one night days later. He half-expected it to be gone. It didn’t seem real to begin with, so its disappearance would be consistent with the sensation of being in a waking dream ever since it had arrived. Yet when he took it out and set it on his desk, the lamplight on it like fluorescent light over a surgical table, the book both reaffirmed its reality and whispered to him about the intangible nature of time. Gator lay at his feet, a mound of golden fur. Toonby looked down at the old dog; usually he slept at the foot of the bed. Gator’s presence in Toonby’s office seemed another portent of the sands of time shifting beneath his feet.

The book was thinner than it had been before. Much thinner.

The black-and-white photo on the cover was the same—Toonby in the same no-tell motel, Barnabas’s Bible in the drawer to soothe the restless souls of weary travelers. But everything else about his biography was changed from when he’d hidden it in the closet three days earlier. The title was different—My Father, My Savior, it was now called, and his son was no longer the author: Jasper had been replaced by Elizabeth Toonby-Schwartz.

She’s okay, Toonby thought with numb relief. She’s even married. It looks like Christmases are going to be a little awkward for us in the future. The book’s not as long as it was before—I saved her, but it cost me time. Time is the page count. Jesus, as if this is all real. This isn’t from the future. There’s no time travel to the past. It’s like I told Dwayne that about his science fiction novel. Too many paradoxes, right? This is a brain tumor or a symptom of schizophrenia. This is me influencing me about me. I’m like a split personality making friends with myself on Facebook and liking everything each of me posts.

But what if the past changed itself of its own accord? Indirect interference?

God?

The second paragraph of the back cover text had shifted as well, and it explained the biography’s notably reduced length.

In this deeply personal biography, Elizabeth Toonby-Nicolson, his only daughter, shows us a side of her father unknown to the public.  From the death of Toonby’s son Jasper at a reading in Burlington, Vermont, to Toonby’s shocking suicide, Toonby’s life was as fraught with the search for God as anything his alter-ego Barnabas encountered in searching fourteen religions worldwide for the answer. 

A black nausea swept over him. With bone-dry fingers, he fumbled for the index at the back of the book.

Toonby, Elizabeth “Besty” Ann; congenital heart disease and, marriage of

Toonby, Jasper; murder of; See Whitmore, Franklin Dean

Toonby, Timothy; divorce and, suicide attempts, suicide of, unfinished works

He slammed the book shut, but then tore it open again so violently that the spine made a crinkling snapping sound.

Whitmore, Franklin Dean; murder of Jasper Toonby and, religious views of

“If they use all three of your names, you’re definitely a killer,” Toonby said aloud, his voice small and lonely in the midnight hour of his office. The house was unusually still, as if the power were out. Tiffany was sleeping in the nursery to be near the smells of Betsy. Jasper was still at Granddad and Mumsy’s; Toonby would pick him up in the morning and take him to the hospital to see his little sister. The one who would outlive him.

He missed Jasper as if they were separated by more than the four miles to Tiffany’s parents’ house.

He looked at the clock on his computer. It was still early out west; Greer would be up, he guessed. They’d only been working together for less than a year, but Greer struck Toonby as the kind of man who put friendship before finances. At least he hoped he’d read his agent correctly. Toonby called.

“How’s your little girl?” Greer asked.

“She’s okay,” Toonby said, looking at her byline on the biography’s cover. “She’s going to be in the hospital for a while. But we had an intervention and took the morphine drip away from her, so at least she’s not pushing that little button every twenty minutes now.”

“Ha. Sure, sure. And the little man?”

Toonby closed his eyes. “He’s okay. I watch my language around him now—he imitates everything I say and do. Listen, Chuck, I want to talk to you about the book.”

“Talk to or talk with?” Greer chuckled. “Writers and their word choices. All right, let’s hear it. You’re not quitting, I trust?”

“No. Nothing like that.” Not yet, anyway, he thought. “I want to talk to you about what we do after it sells.”

“Christ, you’re getting a little ahead of yourself. We don’t have offers on the table. Hell, you don’t even have your revisions done to first draft yet, do you?”

“I will. Soon. And you said you thought we’d get a bidding war out of this, right?”

Greer laughed. “Yeah, that’s what I said. I still think so—I’ve shown the first draft to a few people, and I’m getting damned good responses. I didn’t make any promises, just so you know. I wouldn’t do—”

“That’s good. Great, even. You think it’s going to be big enough for me to make some contract stipulations?” Before Greer could respond, Toonby said, “We never do a reading in Vermont. Not one. Not a reading, not a signing, no personal appearances. Can we force that issue?”

Greer was silent long enough for Toonby to hear all the unspoken questions he knew Greer was thinking. Finally, Greer said, “Yeah. We can do that. It’s weird and we’re putting the cart so far in front of the horse it can’t even see our asses anymore, but yeah. You gonna tell me why?”

“I can’t. I’m sorry. It’s not about you, though, I promise.”

“Come on, give me something here. What would I tell a prospective publisher?”

Toonby said, “Tell them I’m a sports nut. No baseball, football, or basketball team? Why’s it even a state?” 

“You’re not getting cold feet, are you?”

“No. Not at all.” Toonby looked first at his biography, as deadly and inviting as a loaded pistol on his desk, and then at his computer, where he’d stopped mid-paragraph in revisions on Barnabas’s Bible to change Betsy last Sunday morning. Then he’d taken the full diaper pail out to discover that loaded gun waiting for him on the porch. “The only thing I’ve ever wanted to be was a writer. Nothing else, not in my whole life. Except maybe a dad.”

Greer said, “Well, you finish this book, and your whole life is going to change, buddy. You can be a writer and a dad all you want. Maybe you’ll explain this to me when I get you a million-dollar advance. And hey, nobody gets a million-dollar advance. That’s an athlete’s salary, those guys who don’t play in Vermont.  I’m just making up numbers, you know?”

They said goodnight. Tired, Toonby put his biography back in its metal box (its coffin, he thought morbidly) but then took it out again.

“How long does a time ripple take to reach this shore?” he asked himself as he looked at the back cover again. Nothing had changed. The death of Toonby’s son Jasper at a reading in Burlington, Vermont, it still read. 

Maybe Chuck forgets to negotiate Vermont into the contract, Toonby thought. Or maybe the publishers won’t go along with it. But it doesn’t matter. I will never read in Vermont. Never.

He put his biography back, stowing the box in the closet again, and then sat at his desk with his head bowed to pray. It was a self-conscious act; only since beginning work on Barnabas’s Bible had he taken to prayer. It remained a foreign experience, a language he didn’t speak. He didn’t know the rituals and the verbiage, but he understood the goals well enough. He was a pilgrim in search of a private mecca. If God were speaking to him, it behooved him to answer.

“Lord,” he whispered, “don’t let my kids die.”

Gator, who hadn’t moved during Toonby’s conversation with Greer, lifted his head and grinned a sad dog’s grin at him.

 


 

For three days, he waited for his biography to change, for Vermont to disappear from the back jacket, but nothing happened. Not to the book, anyway.

Toonby wasn’t sleeping well; in the middle of each night, he got up and crept into his office to be sure the book was still in the closet. To check for magical alterations. Touching its slick glossy cover began to feel like a holy ritual, reassuring and vital to maintaining his connection to the next world. Then he would sit at his computer and look at the pictures they’d taken of Jasper over the years. It seemed like a thousand, but they weren’t enough.

No amount of research on the Web, not even through a pay site that alleged “We Can Track Down Anyone!,” turned up any information on Franklin Dean Whitmore, Jasper’s would-be murderer. He’s probably still a child, too, Toonby finally realized, and gave up. He wasn’t entirely sure what he would have done if he’d found Whitmore anyway. This wasn’t a science-fiction movie in which he could have Whitmore arrested for some future crime that he’d not yet committed. And anything else—the other ways of stopping Whitmore—made Toonby pray for not just the safety of his children but also for the restraint and retention of his own sanity.

He couldn’t write. The distraction in the closet was like the beating of the tell-tale heart, calling him to deal with it now while making veiled threats about what would happen if someone else found it first. Tiffany, he suspected, would think it was a joke, at least until she began to read it. If she read anything before today’s date, he could spin it as an autobiography, he supposed. And that’s when the idea came to him.

He took it out and opened it up at the beginning.

For Nick, the dedication line read. My dad would have liked you.

Toonby skipped the table of contents; the chapter titles were too revealing. Why live, he’d once heard said, if you already know what your whole life will be? So, he cautioned himself he could only read as far as Betsy’s heart surgery. Even then, he had to watch carefully for references to things that hadn’t happened yet, especially his suicide attempts, Jasper’s killer Whitmore, and his own ultimate demise.

Reading the story of his own youth as told by someone else was unnerving, especially where details had been filled in that he had no personal recollection of. Summations of stories he’d written as a boy but couldn’t remember writing, research into his parents’ finances, quotes about his life from people he’d not spoken to in twenty years. 

“I gave him his first Bible when he was about ten,” his aunt Lydia had said. Or would say. Either way, she was wrong—he had received his first Bible while trick-or-treating at Granny Willis’s house when he was seven. He’d cried bitter tears that it wasn’t a Marathon candy bar.

Despite the occasional factual errors, however, he found it a thrilling experience. I’m going to be somebody. People actually give a shit about this life I’ve lived. He read at a frantic speed. We’ll be financially well off. It was twenty-one books before and fourteen after I saved Betsy, but that’s still a good run. He saw the word “Vermont” on the page and squeezed his eyes shut. So what? What would happen if I knew everything? Why am I so sure I shouldn’t know? Somebody wanted me to know. Instead, he turned the page.


 

End of Part One

About the Author

Michael G. Ryan

Michael G. Ryan considers himself a late bloomer as a published author–but not as a writer. He’s been writing for over 40 years, but is only now taking all those short stories and novels out of the digital bottom drawer and submitting them for consideration.

He’s planning a Kickstarter in early 2016 for his novel None of This Has Happened Yet, a fictional biography told in short stories presented in reverse order. He’s been an editor in the gaming industry for twenty years, working now as the director of publications for Privateer Press.

Find more by Michael G. Ryan

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About the Narrator

Brian Rollins

Brian Rollins is a voice actor living in the Denver, Colorado area with his wife, two kids and a Great Dane. He has narrated for a variety of podcasts as well as several audiobooks, including the Glen & Tyler series. When he’s not in the soundbooth, he works as a web developer and can occasionally be coaxed out into public and onto the stage (usually with Dr. Pepper or chocolate).

Find more by Brian Rollins

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