Will it have a happy ending?
Pete Dexter | Philadelphia Daily News | November 1981
Sometime around his 36th birthday, Shoats decided he was throwing away his life. He taught remedial English to kids who would never learn to read, and when he turned his back on the class the kids threw erasers at him. Shoats knew he wasn’t much of a teacher, but that was all he had ever done.
He said to his wife, “I think I’m going to do something else.”
She said, ” You can’t do anything, you’re a teacher. ” His wife worked at a beauty shop and had quit school in the 10th grade. He thought she ought to take him more seriously.
“I mean it,” he said. ” I spend half my life trying to teach a bunch of kids to read. They don’t care if they read and I don’t care if they can read. We’re all just putting in time. I mean, there has to be something more. . .”
His wife was sitting at the dressing table, painting her nails. ” Do you think this color is all right?” she said.
Shoats resigned from the school district and took a job driving a cab at night. During the day he sat in front of his typewriter, waiting for a novel to come out. A novel about man and the universe, about love and war and life and death. ” Is it going to have a happy ending?” his wife asked.
She also asked, ” When are you going to go back to work?” He would say, “This is work. It’s my work. “And she would say,” When you work, you get a pay check.”
Shoats came to see that the problem went deeper than the job. He was living with a woman he didn’t know, and who didn’t know him. ” We sleep together,” he said. “You cook and do the laundry, I mow the lawn, but we don’t really ever talk. We don’t say the things we mean . . . ”
“John,” she said, “What the hell are you talking about?”
Shoats moved out of the house and got an efficiency apartment on South Street. On his nights off he went to singles bars, and brought strange women home. At least they seemed strange in the morning. He would get rid of them as fast as he could and then call his wife and try to explain that he felt empty. He would ask her to understand.
“I don’t understand,” she would say. And he would say, “No, I know you don’t.”
After 10 weeks in the apartment, Shoats had written a page and a half of the novel and gained 15 pounds. The main character was a schoolteacher who quit his job and left his wife. Every day when he sat down he rewrote the first page and a half and then stalled. It seemed to him there was something missing.
And as soon as he stalled, he opened a beer. He was drinking about a case a day, and then showing up half-drunk at night to drive the cab. He kept a flask under the front seat.
In March, Shoats’ wife filed for divorce. He didn’t fight it, but he felt it. He doubled up the drinking and then one night he picked up a fare in West Philadelphia, and before he’d gone two blocks there was a gun in the back of his head.
Shoats had never been that scared before. It scared him sober. He gave the man his money and heard him cock the gun. And when the man hit him on the head with it, he thought for a second that he’d been shot.
He went to a pay phone and called his wife, even before he called the police. Blood was dripping into his face and his legs were shaking. “I don’t know what it is,” he said. “Nothing makes any sense any more.”
She said she would like to talk to him, but she had a guest. It was 3 o’clock in the morning. ” Why don’t you call me tomorrow?” she said.
Shoats went to the hospital, then he went home. There was nowhere else to go. He walked in and noticed how bare the place was. A typewriter, a cot, a lamp. He picked up the page and a half of his novel, thinking of what he’d traded in his life for.
It occurred to him that he didn’t care about love and war and life and death. He just wanted to smell his wife’s hair. He opened the refrigerator and pulled out a beer, lay down in a room as empty as Sunday’s mailbox and began to cry.
Writer bio: Pete Dexter, winner of the National Book Award for his novel “Paris Trout,” is also generally considered one of the best writers in city newspaper history. He wrote for the Daily News, mostly as a columnist, for 12 years.