The deadline was fast approaching. January 15th was less than two days away and he still sat and stared at a blank monitor. He had been writing his monthly column for twenty-nine plus years and never missed a deadline, but 25 hours remained and he had nothing. Not a spark. It’s not as if there weren’t enough current affairs on which to write. President Ford, Saddam Hussein; hell Britney Spears fell asleep New Years Eve. There was a headline screaming for print.
He knew what the real problem was. It was that
other deadline. January 15th he would also post his last article before retiring. He had begun his career in that post-Vietnam and Watergate heyday of the late 70’s. His first article was framed over his desk, “The Day The Music Died.” Elvis and Lynard Skynard. The Iranian Hostage crisis, Lebanon, Granada, Desert Storm – he’d covered them all. From Carter to Clinton and now Bush II, the sequel. He had written about wars, politics, entertainment – even those silly-ass stories on Y2K.
Now, what was he going to do? Finish that damned book? Twenty-seven thousand words and he still had no idea where the hell the plot was headed. Did the world need another book about some ex-military guy saving the world from terrorism? Maybe he should just scrap the thing and start over. Three-hundred something articles, he ought to have something he could turn into a book. Or two.
It’s not as if he didn’t know how to handle idle hours. One column a month for thirty years hadn’t exactly filled his calendar. Outside of speaking engagements and public appearances, he still had plenty of time left over to wreck two marriages, and write six articles from inside a rehab clinic in Arizona.
And for what? To end up sixty years old, in a three-room walkup above a dirty bookstore, with a view of the airport, staring at a blank screen. He watched as the little clock in the corner of the monitor clicked over to 12:00. Okay, one day left, and no ideas. He picked up the remote and began clicking through the stations again, searching for inspiration. Letterman, Leno, and Law & Order repeats. Christ, there ought to be a Law & Order channel. People never been to New York probably think people trip over dead bodies every time they go for a walk.
He turned off the tube and threw the remote in the corner. Leaning back, he propped his bare feet on the windowsill and stared up at his wall of shame. Pictures of him with celebrities and politicians he had interviewed. The one in front of a New York nightclub with his arms around Boy George and Joe Strummer. No memory of that night other than the picture, his column, and the rose tattooed on his ass.
Appropriately, that hung next to his last article before the little holiday in Phoenix. The result of an all-nighter on March 15, 1987, swilling Nyquil and Robitussin in that fleabag on River Street in Savannah, Georgia. Two nights before the second largest St. Patrick’s Day celebration in the damned country and you couldn’t buy a bottle on Sunday. He still read that column from time to time and wondered what he was trying to say, who Agnes was, and what happened to the goat.
Below that, the shot from the ’91 Grammys with Neil Young and Joe Cocker. What a pair to be stuck interviewing sober. The living, breathing semi-coherent personification of better to burn out than fade away, and a gravel-voiced bad impersonation of John Belushi. So, Joe, how long did it take you to write, ‘You Can Leave Your Hat On?’ Wait, let me jot this down. I don’t want to miss a freakin’ word.
He slammed his chair back down on the floor and swiveled around to face his old Royal typewriter. Wished he were still working on that thing. He could have the satisfaction of yanking the blank paper out and balling it up on the floor with the rest of the night’s abortions. He remembered the first article he tried to write on his old Apple IIe. Man, he fell in love with that spell-check and search and replace crap. Turned out a brilliant phosphorescent green narrative of Pulitzer class commentary, turned it off and went to bed, and slept the sleep of the righteous and just. Got up the next morning and learned all about saving your work on those five-inch floppy disks. Before you turn it off.
Well, those days were sure as hell gone, he thought as he swiveled back toward the twenty-one inch, 256 color, blank screen of nothing in front of him. With his tower system, laptop, PDA, and Blackberry, he could file his story at the touch of a button from anywhere. He could screw the pooch at a hundred terabytes a second, whatever the hell that meant. Old Billy Gates could explain it to him. Should have asked him in that interview in 2000. Guess he was too giddy at having survived the end of the world. Boy that was some smug son-of-a-bitch. ‘Course if he could turn his hobby into a hundred billion dollars, he’d be smug too. Despite that one season on the Denny’s Pro-Bowling tour, there wasn’t much chance of that.
He flipped idly through his old-fashioned Rolodex looking for a possible interview. Glancing at the clock again, he gave up on that idea. “Hey, Hillary, I know it’s one a.m., but could you spare a few quotes – it’s my last column.” He could wait until the morning, but there wasn’t any point in calling up his contacts if he didn’t know what he was going to ask. And this was the last one. He wanted to go out with a bang, not a thud. After that, there’d be nothing left.
He wondered how long before he would quit waking up on the 15th each month in a cold sweat. The same nightmare every time. He wakes up absolutely sure that he hasn’t filed a story and has nothing to say. Kind of like now, he thought, tapping on a few keys.. It would take some time to get used to not having any deadlines to face, though. The life of a retired writer. Hunter S Thompson didn’t raise the bar very freaking high on that one, did he?
Most people looked forward to sleeping late then hanging out all day in their underwear, but he already had that action nailed down pretty damned good. Maybe he could take up fishing. Sit on a cold, wet lake bank and try to fool a fish into biting his hook so he could drag it out of the water, asphyxiate it, and then cut it up for food. Nah, he’d just run down to Esca and order the catch of the day. As long as they let him run a tab. How fast would his celebrity status last?
But all this crap about retirement wasn’t getting it done. He still had one more column to write. 2500 words. He looked back at the screen and noticed he had typed one. Today. Today, what? Today was the first day of the rest of his life? Today was the day he wrote the greatest article of his career? Today was the last time he would do anything meaningful, spending the rest of his days as a pathetic has-been? End up on some damned Whatever Happened To show with Danny Bonaduce and Gary Coleman. I don’t freaking think so. He banged the backspace key five times.
He pushed back his chair a bit and stared at the screen again, the spark of an idea coming to him, just as it always did. He swiveled around and took a long look at his wall again; the stories he had written and the famous and infamous he had interviewed. Finally, settling once again on the picture of him with Neil Young, he swung back again and faced his nemesis – the word processor.
He placed his hands over the keyboard and paused there a moment. He knew from past experience, once his fingers touched the keys, they would not stop until the column was done and the story was told. He rarely wrote a second draft. When he typed his byline at the end of the piece, he pushed the send button and that was it. Slowly, he allowed his fingers to come to rest. asdf jkl;. Taking a deep breath, and glancing at the clock once again, he began to type:
I hope as you sit there reading this article, you will take a few moments to mourn the passing of one of the more prolific columnists of our generation. He died alone in his apartment at approximately 3 a.m. on the morning of January 15th, taking his own life after writing his final piece….