This week we present the conclusion of The Authorized Biography by Michael G. Ryan, narrated by Brian Rollins.
Theme music is “Appeal to Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available at MusicAlley.com.
The Authorized Biography (part 2)
By Michael G. Ryan
“My mom,” Betsy had written, “met Eugene Versace—no relation, it turns out—when she took our old dog Gator in to be put to sleep. Dad didn’t go that day. I was still in the hospital recovering from surgery, and at the age of four Jasper certainly could not have understood why our sixteen-year-old dog could not go on forever. So, Dad stayed with him at the house and kissed Gator goodbye in the driveway. So, Mom was alone with her grief when she met the veterinarian who would comfort her and then break up my parents’ marriage.”
“Fuck!” Toonby shouted, slamming the book closed. His eyes watered.
“Gator?” he called in a gentle voice. “Come here, boy.”
He could hear the golden retriever’s toenails on the hardwood floor in the hallway, and for the first time he imagined he could hear old age and world-weariness in that familiar sound. Gator poked his head around the corner, tongue wagging tiredly, and came to Toonby, pushing his head into Toonby’s open palm. Then he lay down at his feet as if the moment of affection were all he could endure. Toonby reached down, and the dog raised his head slowly into the touch. They stayed that way for some time.
“With a name like Eugene, he shouldn’t even be able to talk to a woman,” Toonby finally said, “let alone steal mine. For crying out loud, the man has his hands up cats’ asses all day long.”
Gator lowered his head again as if embarrassed at the thought.
All of life seems to happen at night these days, Toonby thought. The daylight hours were overcast with flurries of white coats and long stretches of relentless boredom in waiting rooms and oversized stark-bright corridors and antiseptic hospital cafeterias. The nights were composed of Tiffany and Jasper and Gator squeezing him out of the queen-sized bed in the dark master bedroom at home. It had only been a week, but he felt as if he’d not slept peacefully in months. In a lifetime, even.
In the dead of night, some things came easier. With the resolve of a man facing a firing squad, he imagined, he’d resolved to delete the draft of Barnabas’s Bible that he’d been revising for the last two weeks. If the book did not exist, it could not harm his family. It was a dream that had to be sacrificed. So, with his eyes closed, he’d dragged the electronic manuscript to the trash on his desktop, and just like that, it was gone.
His biography didn’t change at all.
Two days later, Greer sent him back the electronic copy of the first draft he’d sent the agent a month ago. Some notes attached from a couple of publishers, Greer wrote. One of the editors is from Vermont. I didn’t say anything, don’t worry.
So, he went back to work on it.
Now he kept his biography, sans its metal box, in the nightstand drawer when they went to bed; he didn’t want it too far from reach anymore. Just in case Tiffany found it, he had put a second dust jacket over it, an NIV Bible cover. She wouldn’t question it; he had dozens of Bibles around the house now, not to mention a Torah, a Koran, and a host of other holy texts.
“Are you awake?” she whispered in the darkness.
“All the time,” he whispered.
“Are you okay?”
“I doubt it.”
She sighed and reached out to find his hand. “Me either. But you saved her.”
He thought, But I haven’t saved Jasper yet. “Do you believe in destiny, Tiff?”
He knew she was considering the question seriously; ever since he’d begun to explore his own spirituality, she had struggled with her own perceptions of religion, and it made her both withdrawn and contemplative. Now she rubbed his knuckles in the dark.
“Why? Do you think she was destined to die? You changed that.”
“Isn’t that what God does? Anything we do would just be course-correcting toward that destiny anyway, isn’t it? It’s like driving around the block to get home from across the street. You still end up in the same place.”
Before Tiffany could respond, Toonby said, “Gator doesn’t look well. Have you noticed?”
She gripped his fingers tighter. He knew she’d seen Gator stumble in the kitchen at breakfast this morning. “Our little family is really struggling,” she said. “Is that why you’re asking me about destiny?”
He considered. “I don’t think I believe in destiny anymore. I think what we mean when we say ‘destiny’ is something we can’t change. But maybe destiny is just being surprised by what happens to us.” He wished Jasper were in the bed with them. “Once we’re not surprised, it’s not destiny anymore. It’s just life.”
Gator got so bad a few days later, even Jasper noticed, and that was when Tiffany said they should consider taking him to the vet. The old dog could barely stay on his feet anymore, and he panted almost constantly. It broke Toonby’s heart, yet he knew the cost would be too high to pay if he couldn’t endure Gator’s passing.
“I’ll take him,” Toonby said.
“I know you can’t do that,” Tiffany said. “You were a mess when that car hit him. This is so much worse.”
Toonby shook his head. Divorce and. “You’re right. But still, I’ll take him. You shouldn’t have to do this. I raised him from a pup, years before we even met. I have to be the one. How can I let him go alone?”
Tiffany kissed him then, more gently than she had since they’d been trying for Betsy, so gently that he almost resisted the vision of those lips on Eugene Versace, no relation, the veterinarian.
He had to help Gator into the front seat; the old golden retriever just put his head on his paws and panted as if he couldn’t breathe. His chest hitching, Toonby got behind the wheel and slid his biography under the front seat. He knew his normal vet, Brickman, wouldn’t be there today. Today, he’d bring Gator to see the new vet in the office, Doctor Versace the homewrecker. He’d considered waiting another day to see if Brickman was in later, but Gator was suffering. Instead, he’d thought about going to another vet, but he couldn’t explain to Tiffany why he’d changed vets at the very end. And in truth, he wanted to see Eugene Versace. He wanted to know what the man who had once been his wife’s destiny looked like. He wanted to see the man he’d derailed to a different future.
He sat with one hand on his dog’s soft head all the way to the Pets for Life clinic. Neither made a sound, which was how Toonby heard the biography make a flat snapping sound beneath his seat.
He locked up the brakes, and Gator barked weakly, jolting forward into the glove compartment. A car behind them honked and swerved around them. Toonby instinctively lifted his free foot off the floor so that whatever was now alive beneath his seat couldn’t grab his ankle, and he dropped his other foot back onto the accelerator, roaring into an empty lot across from the pet clinic. There, he slammed the transmission into park and barreled out of the car. Gator scrambled across the driver’s side seat to fall out into the lot beside Toonby, yelping as he struck the pavement. Toonby knelt beside him, wrapping his arms around the dog’s neck; he could see his biography under the seat.
It was so much thinner.
“The hardback of Dorian Gray,” he whispered to Gator. Slowly—in case it might twitch out of reach—he retrieved the book. It didn’t move. He slipped the NIV Bible dust jacket off and looked at his picture on the cover. Still the same. Still Betsy writing it. The title had shifted—The Promised Lands of Timothy Toonby, it was now called, innocuous enough to give him hope as he read the back cover blurb for what felt like the first and thousandth time.
In this richly detailed biography, Elizabeth Toonby-Fairway, his only daughter, explores the life of a father she barely knew. Like Salinger, Toonby disappeared from the public eye after one highly successful novel, and like Salinger, he wrote in secret, accumulated safety deposit boxes of manuscripts that continued to explore Barnabas’s journey across every world religion in search of himself. But unlike Salinger, Toonby found no peace in isolation, and only the murder of his son Jasper, a young man he’d not seen in almost twenty years, could bring him out of his self-imposed exile—only to commit suicide. Like his alter-ego, Toonby sought answers from without, but his estranged daughter argues brilliantly that his true answers were always within.
He opened the book. There was no index entry for Eugene Versace—score one for getting rid of the other man. But Divorce and was still imbedded in both his and Tiffany’s entries, now another seventy pages deeper into the book. He rubbed his temples.
“If she doesn’t meet Versace,” he said aloud, slowly, sampling the logic, “then we don’t get divorced because of him. But we still get divorced later on. And somehow, I end up losing the kids because of it.”
Gator whined, and Toonby shook the moment off. Fucking time, he thought, gently lifting Gator back into the car. Whatever I do, you take something away from me. He could see the Pets for Life Clinic neon sign across the street; he’d have to go around the block to get there because of the traffic flow.
“Never mind. Not today. We’re going home, Gator,” he said.
The morning that Tiffany took Gator to the vet, Toonby went out ahead of her to the car. And when she came out with the old golden retriever, he met them in the driveway.
“Goodbye, boy,” he whispered, fighting hard against the trembling. He knelt with Gator, who seemed so fragile that Toonby was afraid to hug him. But he did anyway.
As they drove away, Toonby wiped his eyes as he went into the garage and retrieved the NIV Bible dust jacket. He threw it away in the garbage can at the head of the drive and then went in the house to check on Jasper and wait. He’d put his biography on the passenger seat for Tiffany to find, the restored version that he knew would give him back his kids and give her heart to their new vet. If he wanted to have a future, he had to let go of the woman he’d always assumed would be that future.
Tiffany turned into the driveway two hours later, just after dark, and Toonby met her in the garage before she’d even got out of the car.
She’d been crying. And Gator wasn’t in the backseat, but his biography was in the passenger seat.
“He’s gone,” she whispered.
He said, “I know.”
“Because of that?” She pointed at the book, sniffling. “Where did it come from?”
“I don’t know. It just appeared one morning.”
“The morning you had your intuition about Betsy’s heart?” she asked. When he nodded, she picked up the book and got out. As they went into the house, she handed it to him as if she could feel the twisted need in his gut to have it near him again.
“I read it,” she said in the kitchen as they hunkered together on stools at the kitchen counter, the way they had in their first apartment a lifetime ago—the place where they sorted things out. Toonby knew this would be the last time they’d be here, like this. Her smell wouldn’t be near him this way ever again, not after what he’d let her read. “The whole thing. You wanted me to, didn’t you?”
“Yes, Tiff. I had to. You know me.” He tried to smile. “I just don’t have it in me to face sad moments.”
She began to cry. He took her hand and kissed her fingertips. The last time I’ll do this, he thought, a desperate need to roll back time and change his mind about leaving the book for her sweeping over him.
“I don’t know what to say,” she said, sobbing. “It’s all so crazy. I thought it was a terrible joke, something you did, but then I knew. I just knew.” She tried to compose herself. “I want you to know that I never met Doctor Versace before today. And I will not leave you for him.”
“Yes, you will,” he said. When she began to protest, he shushed her. “You don’t understand. I tried to change things. I tried to keep you from meeting him by taking Gator myself.” He realized how another part of his heart was already broken over losing the golden retriever, but there just didn’t seem enough room for all his grief right now. “But the book changed. The story evolved. You’ll meet someone else. And then, somehow, I’ll lose the kids because of it. So, I put it all back the way it was. I chose the future that lets me keep the kids, even if I lose you.”
She shook her head, lowered her forehead to her palm. “What if I don’t believe this? Jasper dies, for God’s sake.”
“I know. I’ve tried to stop it. I even told Chuck Greer that I wouldn’t do any readings in Vermont so Jasper wouldn’t have any—”
“It’s his reading,” Tiffany said. “His book. He’s a writer, too, just like his dad. He imitates everything you do, right up to the end.”
They sat in silence after that. The kitchen clock ticked so loudly Toonby wondered why he’d never heard it before. He imagined Tiffany listening to their minutes together ticking by.
“Stop writing the book,” she finally said. “Delete it.”
“I tried that. Chuck has a copy. He’s getting a lot of interest. I think he’d publish it even if I said not to at this point. It’s become a public domain work, at least in the eyes of destiny.”
Tiffany started to say something—Toonby suspected it would have been something about not believing he could give up his dream of writing, which he would have argued fruitlessly—but she changed her mind. She sat breathing hard, and then she held her breath. He knew she was listening to the clock now, too.
“All right then. Just write one book, Tim,” she said. “Just one. They give you an incredible advance, more than enough for us to get by. The series makes you insanely rich, but the series is what makes you famous. If you’re not famous, there’s no biography. And the series costs… it costs us Jasper. He grows up to admire you so much.” She looked him directly in the eyes. “I know this is all so crazy. But I’m begging you: don’t be someone your son admires. He’s too proud of being a Toonby. It will kill him.”
The questions were on Toonby’s lips—questions he hadn’t felt safe enough to read for himself but ones he thought Tiffany would filter for him now, here at the tail end of their marriage. At this moment, she still loved him. No-relation Versace was no one yet. She still cared more about his heart than anyone else’s except the kids’, and he knew he could ask. But he didn’t know where to begin. Will I always be alone? What happens to Betsy? How do I die?
But it would all be irrelevant if he did as she asked.
“Tell me just one thing about the future,” he said. “Do we have this conversation?”
She smiled so beautifully that he ached to go back in time, to marry her again, to tell her that she’d always been the one he loved. Don’t leave me, he thought. Don’t give your love to someone else, Tiffany. How will I live without you?
“Yes,” she said. “But I think I tell Betsy we mourned Gator together tonight.”
She kissed him the way she always did. Toonby treasured it. Always remember this, he told himself.
Toonby called his agent to tell him how he had decided to proceed with the books. Chuck Greer almost choked with disbelief.
“One book?” Greer said. Toonby could hear papers shuffling on Greer’s end of the call. On his end, he sat in his office, his novel on the computer screen, his biography in his lap.
“If you’re looking for our contract, it doesn’t say anything about other books, Chuck.” Toonby felt like choking too. “Just Barnabas’s Bible. That’s the only one I want you to sell.”
“You’ve set it up to be a dozen or more books,” Greer protested. “Why would you do that? Barnabas is going to convert to—”
“I’ll do revisions. It’ll stand alone. I’ll keep the same ending, but I’ll get rid of the foreshadowing.”
Greer cleared his throat—a prelude, Toonby suspected, to a supposed rational debate. His tone was surprisingly calm. “We have offers coming in, Tim. I didn’t want to tell you, but we’re looking at a lot of money here.”
“Great. Get the best you can for just the one book.”
“They’re multi-book offers.”
“Then re-negotiate. That’s what you do as an agent. I write, you negotiate, they publish.”
“Listen to me.” Greer’s tone shifted to a parental one. “You’re an unpublished novelist. The short stories you did? They won’t matter to these guys. If you try to play hardball, they’ll walk away from you. First-time novelists are a dime-a-dozen.”
“They won’t walk.” Toonby turned his biography over to look at the front cover again. His eyes were so old, so tired. He wondered what all the future brought, but he’d not asked Tiffany. He didn’t need to; he kept the biography with him, and he could open it any time he wished. But there was nothing more to be gained, he had decided. The mysteries he most needed to solve had surrendered all their relevant clues. Anything more would be a form of self-torture. “They’ll pay a lot for the one book.”
Greer groaned like a man feeling the first pinch of a heart attack. “Is this some sort of To Kill a Mockingbird thing, Tim? One and done until they magically find a sequel?”
“No,” Toonby said. “It’s more like A Confederacy of Dunces.”
“That guy killed himself, you know. You’re not thinking something stupid, are you? You’re not, you know, suicidal or something?”
Toonby looked into his own, older face, the photographed face of a man already dead by the time the book it graced the cover of was published, and tried to keep the smile out of his voice. “Not yet.”
Greer said something else, but Toonby didn’t hear it: his biography moved in his hands.
It was slight, a twitch, but in that motion it was alive. It was a living, breathing entity, and Toonby felt its pages tighten the way a hand becomes a fist. It clenched in his grip, and with an unexpected cry, he let go of it, as if he’d been briefly touched by an electrical current. The book whapped on the floor where Gator used to doze. Greer asked something, but Toonby put down the phone, his agent’s voice a squawking, tinny sound in the background.
His face began to disappear, seemingly younger as the lines in his face faded. The book moved as if gently pulled into the shadows beneath his desk.
I am watching God’s hand, Toonby thought, his head light. He did not breathe. He did not dare to let his chest rise and fall in the presence of the future reaching out for him.
And then his biography was gone.
Toonby shuddered. It’s different now, he thought. I should have read it when I had the chance. What happens to me? What happens to all of us? Everything that Tiffany knows, it’s all changed now. It’ll never be the same. But I could have known the parts that won’t change, couldn’t I?
But in the end, Tim Toonby was content to find he was free of his biography. Scared but ultimately content.
Trembling, he picked up the phone again. Greer’s voice returned to clarity. He was talking about the offer he was expecting in the very near future.
“I’m telling you, you could be a household name,” Greer said. “Work with me here.”
He’s too proud of being a Toonby, Tiffany had said of Jasper. It’ll kill him. “No,” he said. “It’s okay. I’m not that proud. Nobody needs to remember me. And they won’t if we just publish the one book.”
“Fine, you don’t want to be a household name. But you want to be rich, right?” Greer hesitated, then said, “What about a pseudonym? You write as someone else, but Tim Toonby still cashes the checks. Listen, if you write more Barnabas books, they’d pay you if your name was Judas Iscariot.”
Slowly, like a child peeking beneath his bed for a monster, Toonby put down the phone and looked into the shadows under his desk. There was nothing to see there but the cords for his computer. He then got up and went to his office closet. The metal box, the coffin his future had showed up in, was also gone.
Don’t do it, he thought. You’re kidding yourself that it’s that easy. No man can serve two masters. He’ll hate one and love the other. You cannot serve God and money.
He picked up the phone again and asked with some uncertainty, “How much?”
About the Author
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.
About the Narrator
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).