“Can we get out of here?” he asked, looking around quickly. “These people aren’t really that interested in their meatloaf.”
We went outside. A few cars drove past. I had my coat on.
“You said in a hotel,” I pressed.
“I’m just telling you what you wrote in ink.”
“Women”—Mr. Flint looked gray—“women like some romance in their life. They like it when a man talks to them from outside the wee world of lawns, you know what I mean? The little china tea-set world. So I wrote your mother some letters.”
I said, “They weren’t true. The letters.”
I think Mr. Flint started to shake his head, but then he stopped. His head was getting lower on his shoulders. He was staring at the metal railing. He looked up quickly at my mouth, and he explained, “Women need some romance. I know how to lavish romance. It’s what they love.”
“You haven’t seen her in twenty years.”
He said, “I knew her in high school. She was the most beautiful…She was…You know how it is. I couldn’t get her out of my head. So a few years ago I found out where she was and I wrote to her and asked what she was doing. She never wrote back, so I wrote again, and it just became this sort of—you can think of it like a novel. Okay? It became a story I was telling her.”
“She said it was true.”
“Then she’s nuts.”
“She said you had an affair during the war.”
“Maybe she did.”
“With another man. At least, not with me. I don’t know. But I can promise you: not with me. I’d be dancing to the moon in gingerbread slippers if it was me.”
“So you never went to a hotel and there was never an evening on the telephone wires and the rhapsody of entry.”
“Jesus. Some things you write don’t sound so good when they’re read back to you.” He squinted in the sun and his mustache slanted. He said, “No. Really. I made it all up.”
I didn’t know what to believe. I asked him, “She was beautiful in high school?”
“There was no girl like her. Cross my heart.” R. P. Flint kept ducking his head. He said, “Kid, you can be proud.” He punched me on the arm, and it was like a little brother pretending to be an uncle. “Okay?”
I nodded. I guessed there was nothing else to know. More cars went past. I couldn’t think of any more questions.
“Let’s go down to the docks,” said R. P. Flint, “and watch the boats come in.”
We went down the street, which was steep, to the pier. Fishermen were carrying crates up ramps. They yelled things to each other. For a while, R. P. Flint and me sat there side by side.
We couldn’t see the ocean from where we were sitting—just the harbor—but the swells drew up and lay down the seaweed. The sky was as blue as a stupid postcard, and the islands were as green as islands. Mr. Flint smoked a cigarette like he wished it was a pipe.
I said, “So you just write her letters?”
Flint blew a stream of smoke, which wavered as he nodded.
“How long have you been writing her?”
“Can we not, you know, talk about this?”
I stopped talking so I wouldn’t bother him. He was the one who kept talking.
“You think I’m a drip,” he said.
I told him I didn’t.
He said, “People might say so, but I’ve got…I told you: A man needs a great passion for a great art. For me, it happens to be your mother. I worship her as the paragon of women. The paragon. It doesn’t matter whether she cares. You know what? I’m like the knights in the old medieval stories. She’s my courtly lady. I ride into battle with her favor on my crest, okay, and it doesn’t matter whether she ever even stoops to kiss me. I remain faithful until the end. Whatever may come.”
“She tears the letters up,” I said.
He hardly moved his head.
I faced back forward. On one of the boats, some men were playing cards. There was a breeze sometimes, and they held down the discards with their fists.
Mr. Flint was blushing and he kept staring out at the islands.
He was thinking about awful things. Just watching the seagulls. I felt bad, so I told him, “I liked the pun on Boothbay.”
“Hm?” said Mr. Flint.
“Yabtúb,” I said. “The Princess of Yabtúb.”
“Oh,” said Mr. Flint. “Yeah. That’s not a pun. It’s just backwards.”
“In the story, is the place Yabtúb supposed to be like Boothbay Harbor?”
“The opposite of Boothbay?”
“Like Boothbay backwards?”
“No. It’s nothing like Boothbay.”
I nodded. We sat for a minute. I told him, “You could have called it Robrah Yabtúb.”
He nodded. “Sure. I could’ve.”
He stood up and kicked at the pier. He told me, “I’m going back to my house now. I’ve got some writing to do.”
Ten feet under my shoes, the sea grew and shrank.
“All right?” said Mr. Flint. “It was really nice to meet you.” He smiled at me, even though I could tell it wasn’t a real smile. Mr. Flint held out his hand again like he had in the luncheonette. “It’s been a pleasure. A real pleasure.”
I stood up and I dusted off my pants and I shook R. P. Flint’s hand. I said politely that it was good to meet him.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I know this isn’t what you were expecting.”
I shrugged. “It’s not what you were expecting, either,” I said.
R. P. Flint nodded. “You’re a great kid, pal.” He smiled, and this time it was for real. I smiled back. The sun was bright and we were both squinting. He said, “What’s your name again?”
I told him, “Jim.”
I stared at him. For a second he didn’t realize what he’d said.
I said, “The same as my mother’s. You write to her.”
“Oh, sure,” he said.
“Of course, Jim. I know.” He fumbled with the air. “All right. Great. Good-bye,” he said quickly, and walked away as fast as he could.
I watched him. He moved as fast as a crab on the beach.
He hadn’t known her name. He had no idea. None. He walked up the hill.
I just stared at him. I stood there and watched him go up the road and I wondered how many women Mr. Flint was writing to. I bet there was a list. Probably a monthly calendar, and he went through them all by date. Maybe Mr. Flint wrote to a lot of the women who were girls at his high school. I pictured their legs, their arms in front of Dickie Flint still, white hands sorting cards, writing “DANCE” in block letters, slim fingers held up to answer questions about Uruguay, pale socks twirling past his pimpled face, his slack, stupid mouth where he sat at his desk, scratching his lower lip with his upper—and maybe there were others, too, other women he thought about alone—the teller at Mr. Flint’s bank, the typists at Utter Tales, Ruby at the luncheonette, who knows?—and he wrote his dirty letters in which he loved each one like no one else had ever loved him before, and in each envelope, the future was just beginning, a new future with just him and this girl, and she and he were going to meet in some courtyard with a fountain and wine and flutes, and Mr. Flint was never alone.
That was all. He walked away, trying not to look back at me, because he knew what I was thinking. Then he was gone, around a corner, and I went up and waited for three hours for the next bus back to Portland.
On the bus, Caelwin, called the Skull-Reaver, returned to do battle with his erstwhile ally, the King of Pelinesse, that he might seize the scepter of that benighted realm, but I couldn’t fix my eyes on the page because the darkness was starting to fall over the salt marshes and towns.
Mr. Flint, I guess, was back at his house. Hunched over, drinking root beer, sleeves rolled up, one lamp. Doing his evening’s work. I pictured him reading out the best passages to himself in a voice as swollen as opera, about the breasts and the thighs; and there they were; all of them, like women in a sunken kingdom, sitting in his garden with seaweed waving around them, there in his undersea court, his consorts, yielding up thegemof etc., and etc., and etc.
I decided I would have to phone my mother from Portland. I would have to tell her I was okay and I guess I’d have to ask her who she really’d had the affair with, and probably there’d be more stories after that. All the stories of parents that I couldn’t even hardly imagine, all the things that happened to people in houses and hotels in this world, on this Earth, on this stupid Earth.
Caelwin was riding to the north, his demesne expanding; and on the bus, I stared at my own reflection in the window, my own twined legs, until evening came, and all that was left was specks; and then my traces grew so tiny I could not even be seen.
M. T. Anderson’s satirical science fiction novel Feed was a finalist for the National Book Award and winner of the LA Times Book Award; his Gothic historical novel The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Volume One, won the National Book Award and the Boston Globe/Horn Book Award. He has also written music criticism, picture books, and stories for adults. For many years, he was fiction editor of 3rd bed, a journal of experimental poetry and prose.
As this story suggests, Anderson was (and continues to be) a fan of old fantasy pulp: Robert E. Howard, H. P. Lovecraft, Jack Vance, and Clark Ashton Smith. Acting as a Dungeon Master for a D&D campaign in his early teen years taught him most of what he knows about creating narratives. As he sees it, an interest in fantasy drives right to the heart of what it means to be a geek: someone who admires barbarians, but who has to avoid swordplay due to really bad asthma.
Text by Holly Black and Cecil Castellucci. Illustrations by Hope Larson.