My Father, the Transcriptionist
I didn’t know how to spell, but all I wanted to do was write. Seven, eight years old and obsessed with telling stories. Being a writer, whatever that meant. Back then, just to have the weird ideas in my head laid out in an organized structure, that was enough. Sometimes it still is. It’s challenging to come up with something more satisfying than seeing your imagination manifested into its physical form. To look at a block of text and know that yes, that’s exactly what’s been plaguing your brain. The world becomes less chaotic. The weird itching sensation consuming your body slightly subsides.
A little kid with a book perpetually in my hand. Flipping through pages and staring at words I could only barely decipher. Their meaning didn’t matter. Just that they were there, that they were present, that’s all I cared about. The smell and feel of pages previously caressed by the fingers of strangers. Books meant everything to me even before I could read them. It seemed natural that the desire to create my own would eventually develop.
The desire reached its peak with the death of my dog, a Chihuahua rat terrier mix named Penny.
Penny had been my everything. We slept together every night, me on my back, her on my chest. We ate ice cream together and took baths together. We looked at books together.
Penny was the love of my life, and then she was gone.
She slipped out the front door one day while my brother walked across the street to retrieve the mail. Penny was a small and feisty beast, but she didn’t stand a chance against a Midwestern snow plow. One second she was in my life and then she wasn’t, and I struggle now to think of a moment when I’ve experienced a greater sadness. Sometimes I try to picture what she looked like, and the memory is more distorted than I’m comfortable admitting.
Everybody copes with the death of a pet in their own ways. Some people immediately find a replacement, something new to love that will numb the hurt in their hearts. Me, I refused to move on. Death was nothing but a hurdle. I became determined to make Penny immortal. The most logical route to achieve this goal, it seemed, would be to create a series of stories starring myself and Penny going on adventures together. Fictional characters couldn’t die unless the writer decided it was time, and if I was the writer, then that meant I would never have to make such a horrible decision. So many ideas for me and my dog exploded in my head all at once, and I desperately needed to free them onto a page where they belonged. The only problem, of course, is that I was a child and hadn’t a clue of how to write. It was easy in my fantasies but reality was not so forgiving. I could spell some words, sure, but to form them into a coherent sentence structure? The concept felt impossible to reach.
Until I talked to my father, and he showed me how to accomplish my dreams.
Max Howard Booth Jr. was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana on May 24, 1950. He spent his childhood in Virginia with his three younger brothers until his father was eventually transferred to Tennessee. When he was twenty-two, he moved onward to Indiana with his now ex-wife in search of employment at a steel mill. Events occurred. He got a divorce. He remarried. He assisted in my creation. In his life, he’s held the following jobs: drug store stock boy, paperboy, encyclopedia salesman, car salesman, taxi driver, fiberglass boat builder, timekeeper, music store clerk, hotel owner, and steelworker. Those are just the ones he remembers.
But I remember at least one other job of his, one that will stay with me for the rest of my life. In the first year that I became obsessed with being a writer, my father took employment as a transcriptionist. My transcriptionist.
When my father offered to help me write the stories in my head, everything changed. I still remember, clear as day, sitting on his lap, both of us at his desktop, the bright glow of the monitor radiating us like performers on a stage. If I try hard, I can almost transport myself to our old recreational room. The carpet was shaggy, and if you weren’t careful, you could easily get a toenail caught in its many traps, ripped clean from your foot. A large glass credenza rested against the opposite wall of my father’s computer desk. Each shelf full of old junk nobody deemed important any longer. Next to the computer desk, that’s where the room really shined with a massive terrarium housing thick plant life and the biggest goddamn snake I’ve ever seen in my life. A python named Monty. I would not understand the joke for several years, until my fifteenth or sixteenth rewatch of The Holy Grail.
When I think about Monty now, I do not picture a simple snake. I imagine a mythological creature. A behemoth reptile with the heart of a saint. I can still remember sitting on the floor at my father’s feet with Monty wrapped around my neck, giggling and making up stories about my dead dog who was no longer dead but very much alive again. Asking my father if Penny could talk like humans if I wanted her to and my father telling me she could do whatever I wanted, anything was possible, and me telling him the words she should say and him making those words breathe onto the screen. Sometimes as my father typed, I’d steal a glance outside the window facing our long driveway, facing the neighbors across the street, facing cars passing from either direction, and I’d wonder if anybody knew what we were doing in this house, in this room, what they’d think, if they’d call us crazy or weird or if they’d be threatened, like we were mad scientists creating the world’s finest abominations and they were mere mortals unable to escape our genius.
The first story we ever completed together involved myself and Penny exploring the infinite woods behind our house. We discovered a tree with a strange marking in the bark, and when Penny yapped three times at the tree, a section of its base split open like a door, and out walked a fox wearing a white jacket (“Like a doctor!”). The fox snatched Penny and threatened to eat her unless my Max character could bring the fox a list of specific items. He then took my dog into the tree and the bark closed again, leaving me alone in the woods. The items demanded by the fox included the feather of a raven, the seeds of a pumpkin, the blood of a mouse, and a bunch of other weird shit that I no longer remember. When my Max character collected each item through a series of wild side-adventures, he returned to the tree and knocked on the bark until the magical door reappeared. The fox, satisfied with the items Max brought him, coughed over Penny and returned to his tree headquarters. Max and Penny quickly discovered the fox intended on using these items to create a doomsday device, something that would destroy the entire planet. Of course, the fox did not succeed with his plan, as Max and Penny teamed up and kicked some serious fox ass to save the day.
Yeah. It was pretty fucking stupid.
My father printed the story out and gave it to me. It was maybe three pages long, but it felt like we’d just finished an epic odyssey. An exhausted pride washed over me, the kind one feels after completing a physical task with their bare hands, like mowing a lawn or fighting a lion to death. I lay on the couch holding the story with both hands, terrified I’d somehow damage it or if I looked away for even a second, the words would vanish when I returned to them. I had written a story. Me. Some stupid kid with a dead dog. Sure, I’d gotten some help from my father, but it was still me who came up with the plot, the dialogue, the characters. It was the first time I ever felt like a writer, like someone who could do something. And I had my father to thank for it all. Without him, would I have continued my weird desire to write? Probably not.
I’ve never been prouder of anything in my life.
I hope my father reads this essay. I hope he knows how much he means to me, and how thankful I am of everything he’s done. I may have never said it before, but I’m saying it now:
I love you.
Let’s write another story together someday, okay?
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