“HONORED,” said a beatific James Franco, joining his hands chest-center in Hollywood- Tibetan-Dali Lama-Namaste inspiration and deep bowing. “Truly.”
Bubby, recipient of Franco’s greeting, appeared to be holding in wind. He bent his knees, and a shaky age-mottled hand moved behind him to liberate pant material from the cleft of his buttocks. The same hand came forward to meet Franco’s waiting grip.
Flashes went off as if firing at each other, the university photographers on each side capturing the hand-shaking marvel.
“Leave,” said Franco, staring at the photographers, and in shameful dog-like deference, they complied.
Franco closed the door behind them. “Astral Fire,” he continued, as if he hadn’t been interrupted, “I mean, I read it when I was a teen, found it in my parents’ bookshelf, and it changed me, it”—he shook his head, at a loss. His face shone. It looked like he might cry.
The university had set up the conference room for Franco to meet his literary hero, the table loaded with beverages and edibles, and a display of Bubby’s books, alongside three studio-portraits of a long-haired, bearded, fringe-leather-jacketed, and youthful Bubby in his publishing prime, long since passed.
Bubby, under mounting university pressure, had agreed to meet with Franco, and I, as the youngest on our MPW (Masters of Professional Writing) faculty, and closest in age to Franco, chosen to supervise and facilitate. Bubby, the most aged and established writer on our staff, often had a crabby disposition.
“It’ll be great,” our director, Hugo Hickey, had explained to us. “Franco’s golden. Everything he touches. He’ll bring prestige to our program, attention. Even that professor who got fired for giving him a D, even that asshole got money from a settlement. It’s a win, win. All you’ve got to do is sit around and pretend Franco’s a writer for ten minutes. Simple. And we’ll get the university to take pictures as proof, put them in a catalogue.” He ended his motivational speech by making the noise of an active cash register—“Ching, ching!”—and miming the yanking of a truck horn with his hand.
Franco reached for Astral Fire propped on table display, flipped through its pages, and stopped with a smile.
“‘Whassa matta, Dinky,’” he recited after a pause, his voice sonorous and captivating, and his face wondrously melting into character, “‘you gotsta fuckin piss, you mothafuckin Jesuit?’”
My face shaped itself around a painful, ingratiating, and unfamiliar smile. Mesmerized by Franco, my heart gave him a standing ovation. At the same time, my bowls grappled with my sad and balding insignificance, more so than usual next to a celebrity, and contrasted with Franco’s nauseating excess of head-hair.
“‘I aint no motherfuckin Jesuit,’” continued Franco, “‘you pussy-eatin fuckin dickwad.’”
I’d forgotten the curse-filled complexity of Bubby’s prose.
“Fascinating,” said Bubby, obviously not fascinated, but more so to stop the impromptu reading. Both hands shuffled in his trouser pockets, so that it appeared he chose this moment to play with himself.
“Let me film it,” Franco said, “and introduce you to a whole new generation of readers.”
Bubby’s frown deepened. He winced, swayed, and then buckled over, as if to examine the carpet.
“Here,” I said, gripping Bubby’s forearms and guiding him to a chair. I’d grown accustomed to his falling down theatrics. “Pissant piece of shit,” he muttered.
“Bubby had part of his bowels removed,” I explained to Franco, looking over my shoulder at him as I settled Bubby. “Not long ago. A four hour operation.” Franco’s look of commiseration moved me to add, “Don’t worry, he’s okay.”
Bubby tugged at my arm, asking with his eyes for me to lean forward and listen to him. With hot, stinky, alcohol-burdened breath, he whispered in my ear, “Why you gotta suck at his asshole like it’s made-a ice cream?”
I pulled away and sat.
Bubby, looking at the tabletop, asked, “Can you get me a meeting with Mrs. Carter?”
“Excuse me?” asked Franco, pulling up a chair and sitting beside him.
Bubby, not looking up, repeated, “Mrs. Carter.”
“Beyoncé,” I explained.
“I’m afraid not,” said Franco, adding, “I can try.”
But that wasn’t good enough for Bubby, and so he was done, exterminating us by closing his eyes and covering his ears with his hands.
Later I guided Bubby to the bathroom, and in corresponding stalls, our farts sang to each other in stuttering conversational-like agreement. I looked with interest at the graffiti on my stall door, the emotional exuberant boast of sexual prowess (I Fuck U and UR Momma and Ur sister and UR dog) calling out to me.
Bubby took longer, and as I waited by the sink for the swish of his toilet flush, he spoke to me with fatherly tenderness: “Don’t you know, Gabriel, that literature is made by exiles and outsiders and lonely drunks and rebels and you gotta be alone and that’s it? I’m old and worn, Gabriel, old and worn, and I’m not gonna pretend some nitwit is an artist just because he’s a million times more known and loved than me. It’s the only thing we got, the only truth, Gabriel, and I’m sorry you don’t understand.”
My home is the low-rent side-room of a bungalow near the college, belonging to Susan Sandvic, mid-seventies, widower and former beauty and airline stewardess. Wheelchair bound after two open-heart surgeries, she weighs close to three hundred pounds now, partially a fuck you to the airline industry, whose officials she used to hide from, as they followed her around airports with scales (“One to five pounds over your designated weight, a warning,” she told me once, “any more than that, and your ass got fired!”).
Don’t get the impression that we talk a lot. We leave each other alone. I’ve been inside her house once—a massive Jesus Christ portrait hanging in her living room, JC haloed with light, his flamed and barbed-wire-crossed heart exposed, index and middle finger raised in a linked-finger peace sign. Her three middle-aged sons—I don’t remember their names, but I think of them as Biff 1, 2, and 3—visit now and then. I’m here not just for the monetary boost of my minimal rent, it’s understood, but also in case of an emergency, medical or otherwise, which all the Biffs seem to be anticipating with a house-hungry lust.
At dusk—the magic time—Susan wheels herself to the back door and calls out in a voice that manages to be both singsong and severe to her black runty dog: “To-beee! To-beee!” Fat rump and tail swinging, Toby emerges from some bush in the back yard, and trots inside for his dinner. Something primal rises inside me—I have Mommy issues, it’s no secret, my mother has ruined me—and my heart balloons each time.
Post Bubby and Franco meeting, I came home to it—“To-bee! Tobee!”—and as I walked to the side door of my room in the twilit gardenia-stimulated air, I also caught a glimpse of Susan’s plump shoulder, before she wheeled herself from my view.
It was too much—the tears sprouted—and I’m ashamed to admit that I took solace in my bathroom, stripping my clothes and self-pleasuring, while seated at the throne of my commode.
How was I to know that Franco had followed me home?
“Oh God, yes,” I murmured mid-stroke, and then—Franco’s startled face at my bathroom window—“Oh God, no.”
I cupped my hands, hiding my genitals by caging them with my fingers, and then sprang—privates swinging—from view.
But it was too late. Trembling, I hop-danced into my underpants and jeans, pulled on a T-shirt, and then opened my side door.
“It’s cool, brother,” Franco said, face dimpling in a smile, “it’s natural,” and he let himself inside.
I tried to harden my heart against him, remembering Bubby’s guidance, but it was useless. When the shame subsided, the best I could summon was a giddy inner observance, concerned and interested and taking notes, noting everything for possible future material, including the observation of my giddy inner observance.
I figured he was there to convince me to convince Bubby to be his friend.
But Franco said he wanted to know what it was like to be me. We sat beside each other on my bed.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Take me through a typical day,” he said.
So I did, excluding, of course, my disciplined masturbation schedule and erratic digestive exigencies. Rise as late as possible, I explained, breakfast of coffee, raspberry-centered Danish pastry, and one half a cigarette (the other at night before bed), ensuing morning bowel movement, and then to work. Sometimes break to teach, other times not, depending on schedule. A turkey and cheddar or peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch, always sliced diagonally, with a side of barbeque-flavored potato chips, and then back to work. Two or three days a week, late afternoon walks with Bubby at the high school track, Bubby very slow or sitting in the stands—no talking, both of us wearing headphones, me a mix of music and podcasts, Bubby his one and only Beyoncé—and then home. (Making sure to be back in time for “To-bee! To-bee!,” though I didn’t mention this to Franco.) Pasta or leftovers or whatever I can find for dinner, and then back to work. Nightly half-smoke, and in bed with a book or two (“Feed yourself with words, in order to write them,” says Bubby), and then—when my eyelids are too heavy—lights off.
Franco’s look was both bold and sad. “God,” he said, “that’s depressing.”
“What about you?” I asked.
“Imagine a feast,” he said, and after a pause for me to do so, he added, “Every day’s like that. There’s so much to choose from.”
He pulled his iPhone from his pocket. “Here,” he said, raising the camera for a picture, “let’s do this,” and a flash went off. He fiddled with the phone, pulling up the photo, and holding it for me see my balding head and squinted face next to his handsome one.
“Hold on,” he said, concentrating on his phone, “I’ll post it to Instagram.” Finished, he looked up and said, “Do you follow me?”
I didn’t know what he meant.
“Twitter,” he said.
“I don’t own a twitter.”
He laughed. “Attention is power,” he said, serious again. I hoped he might not notice, near his thigh, the Saturn-like dried nocturnal ejaculation stain on my bedspread.
“All I want,” I said, “is a small room,” I gestured, indicating the one we were in, “and a desk to write on,” I nodded to my workspace, “and as much freedom from the necessity to earn an income as possible, so that I can write more.”
Franco gave me a confused look, so I lifted Nabokov’s Pale Fire from the floor, found the passage I’d underlined the night before, and read: “‘A writer in exile, sans fame, sans future, sans audience, sans anything but his art.’”
Franco pulled a piece of folded paper from his back pocket and handed it to me. I set Pale Fire down and read Franco’s solipsistic and earnest prose. A poem about his dick— for some reason he calls it Wally—and his acting, and his all-consuming distress.
Whatever anybody thinks about him, there’s no doubt that he tries. On the whole, not bad; but not good, and when he nudged my arm, I said, “Uhm, yeah; uhm, no; uhm, not so much, sure, sure.”
He didn’t ask for more, seeming to take my commentary as a plus, and he took the paper, refolded it, and placed it back in his pocket.
He rose, and I watched his tight-moving buttocks as he walked to my desk.
He bent over my pages and read. The beginnings of a Richard Ford The Sportswriter-inspired short story: my character Gabriel Masón—divorced, alienated, working class, depressed—loses his job and his girlfriend, gets drunk, and decides to vandalize his ex wife’s house.
With thudding heart, I said, “It’s a rough, a first draft,” not true, each sentence had been abolished, re-written, read, extinguished, re-written, re-read, demolished, and re-written again.
Franco ignored me, lifting the stack and flipping through my pages, and then he said, “Right on,” and kept reading, hunching over my work, so that I couldn’t interpret his facial expression.
Insecurity coursed through me, wanting to know what he thought, honestly, was it any good? Should I continue or abort?
I had one leg crossed over the other. I disposed myself to a more confident and masculine seated position, hands on my knees, and after some time had passed, I said, “Well?”
But without answering, he set the pages down, and with an inscrutable uplift-nod of his head, he left.
Gone, over quickly, like a hypodermic needle in the vein, a shot of James Franco, and I have yet to see him again.
But the James Franco aftershocks lasted longer. The following afternoon as I approached the building for my fiction workshop classroom, a prophetic tingling ran up my neck, even before I saw the crowd—mostly nubile women—waiting outside. Some type of protest, I assumed, though the private college where I teach is mostly populated with the contented offspring of the well-off.
As I got closer, I sensed a celebratory anticipation. Closer still, I noticed a young woman noticing me, her mouth opening with a shriek, which set off more shrieks. She pointed at me—my face went hot—then a pack of women (and a handful of men) ran to me, until a throng surrounded me. It was horrifying. I thought I might die. But they wanted Franco, with a fervent religious hunger, and had used our photograph on Instagram as a clue to his whereabouts, accompanied by Franco’s tag—just hanging with Gabriel Mason. “He’s not here,” I called out, “and we’re not friends!” Their ecstatic faces turned bitter.
I felt bitterness, too, cancelling my class and, like a drone, zeroing in on a bathroom stall, where I sat at the toilet trembling, my stomach churning with delayed shock.
Soon my bowels reacted to all that had happened with a fireworks-like display, and I sweated it out.
Not more than three months later, Franco’s story “Pond” was published by an esteemed literary journal that continues to reject everything of mine. That wouldn’t have been so bad, had not his story been a counterfeit of its original. Aside from its narrator’s name (instead of Gabriel Masón, James Francoff), I recognized, if not my exact sentences, a close replicate thereof. I flashed back to Franco’s hunched form as he’d read my pages, convinced that he’d probably photographed them with his iPhone as well.
Indignant and pondering litigation (or an assortment of more satisfying and instantly recuperative modes of revenge), I sought the counsel of Bubby.
To my horror, he advised me to let it go.
Sitting at the high school stands with his headphones on his thigh—Beyoncé’s slight voice singing in the background—Bubby told me that my story hadn’t been that good anyhow, and neither was Franco’s published approximation.
A spasm of hopeless rage shot through me. “That’s not the point,” I said, though Bubby’s estimation of my prose hurt me more than Franco’s facsimile.
Squinting, Bubby said, “I feel sorry for him, I truly do.”
“Franco?” I asked, aghast.
“He’s got the worst fate,” Bubby said, shaking his head with pity, “poor man. I’ve seen it before: the soul and drive of a writer, without the accompanying release. A leaden-footed substitute, rarely taking flight. He may be a shitheel,” Bubby continued, “but he’s an easy target. Did you know Robert Shaw—of Jaws’ fame—was a serious British novelist who only acted to buy time to write?”
I shook my head, indicating that I wasn’t aware.
“I trust actors who write,” Bubby said, “more than MFA teachers who don’t.” His gaze came to mine. “At least Franco tries,” he said.
“He gets so much attention,” I said.
“Imagine,” he said, “endlessly fondling your balls and dick without experiencing a climax,” and then he coughed, cringed, and shivered with the sour displeasure of it.
His metaphor was a powerful one. I nodded my head in solemn agreement. The only salve is the writing itself. The solution.
At least I have my writing.