What Have I Done?

In the final scene of Back to the Future, Biff Tannen trundles into the McFly house carrying a white box. “Mr. McFly, Mr. McFly,” Tannen says. “This just arrived. […] I think it’s your new book!”

First to the package is Lorraine McFly, who spirits the tape from the box to reveal George McFly’s new novel, A Match Made in Space. “Like I’ve always told you,” George says. “You put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.” His demeanor is unmistakably self-assured, a far cry from the wimp we’ve come to know in the first hour and fifty minutes of the film, before Marty’s disruption of the time-space continuum altered his family’s fortunes for the better.

Lorraine slips a copy of the novel from the box and hands it to George, who immediately gives it to Marty as proof that hard work pays off. Again, George is all puffed-up here; his buoyancy and poise simply sparkle on the screen, but it is uncommonly short-lived, less than two seconds in movie time, or the equivalent of one human heartbeat. Marty gives the book a cursory once-over as George recedes behind Lorraine, and in the same moment, Biff Tannen–nerdy, combed-over, and subservient–toddles over with Marty’s truck keys.

“You’re all waxed up and ready for tonight,” Tannen says.

And that’s when the book loses relevance for Marty. The truck keys dangling over his shoulder are much more seductive. He’s seventeen and within seconds, he’ll become aware of two incontrovertible facts: he has a shiny pickup in the garage and a date at the lake that night with his girlfriend, the lovely Jennifer Parker.

Who has time to read?

Of all the scenes in BTTF–and there are some really good ones–those few minutes at the end have always thrilled me. And it wasn’t the black truck or Jennifer Parker of the white hi-tops and pink pants and turned-up collar. Okay, maybe just a little bit. I longed for a black truck. And I longed for a Jennifer Parker. And I longed for a Jennifer Parker in a black truck. Much like Marty, I was seventeen in the summer of 1985, so these longings made more sense than the one that tapped at my heart like a sculptor’s chisel, not just then but for years afterward, every single time I watched that movie and that lovely, triumphant closing scene: the taciturn, wistful ambition to write a novel.

“Your first novel,” Lorraine says. There was just something about her opening that box: the stack of books inside, cushioned in bubble wrap; the yellow-suited alien on the cover; the dotty but confident author photo of George McFly on the back–coifed, bespectacled, and grinning. I have to admit, that scene got me every time. It wasn’t Marty opening the garage door to see his black truck, though that was pretty close. It was Lorraine opening the white box of new novels. It was the shiny book cover. It was George McFly, owning the screen for a heartbeat, saying I could accomplish anything, even when writing a book seemed as unfathomable as an alien invasion or time travel or a global pandemic: a snowflake stood a better chance in hell.

But somehow, it happened. The book, I mean. So, too, did the global pandemic, which only goes to show you how twisted and incomprehensible is the world in which we now live.

My own box of new books arrived when I wasn’t home. I was with Karen and our dog on a walk, far detached from the reality that at my house, a UPS driver was delivering the realization of a long-held dream. Thirty-six years, it turns out. In this bewildering time when strangers deliver so much–in the last week alone we’ve received coffee capsules, painter’s tape, and furniture polish–realized dreams are not generally on the manifest. Used to be we had to leave our houses for those; not often do they show up where we live, unannounced. But, since wonder strikes where it pleases, we best be receptive to small marvels, especially now.

It’s the way folks around here feel about a days-long rain, which isn’t a small marvel at all but a preposterous miracle. In fact, when I first laid eyes on the box that held ten new copies of my book, that was pretty much how I felt: I was looking upon something I considered preposterously miraculous. A chimera. It was right there on the settee, flaps open, my very own book in the hands of our very own son, who appears on the cover as a shadowy, nondescript representation of my former self.

The book’s a memoir, you see, not a novel like Mr. McFly’s, which explains the tow-head, back-to-the-camera specter-me standing barefoot in a fig orchard. This was my native land; I grew up in a dusty, pitiless place surrounded by a million biblical trees.

In that way, my book is quite different from George McFly’s: A Match Made in Space is a fiction within a fiction, from reality twice-removed. Mine, well, it’s my real life made bare, available to anyone who wants to pull back the curtain.

“It’s here!” Karen said. “It’s here!” And that’s when my heart dropped like a stone through my insides. I went weak-kneed and lightheaded in much the same way I did when my kids were born. This new kid though was twenty-five months in the ginning, and though its delivery wasn’t particularly complicated, my infrastructure still turned to putty. Part of it was the dreamlike thrill of it all, but mostly it was the shock of the illusion made real, and the subsequent question I should have expected: What have I done?

Indeed, what have I done? What makes me think mine is a story worth reading or even telling? It’s not particularly unusual: My father left and I was raised by a sick, single mom. We were poor. My uncle was a ravenous drunk. I was fractious, ungrateful, and prurient. I stole. And optimism, unlike self-loathing, was a foreign currency.

Can’t we all lay claim to something similar? Something worse?

Here’s my take on what I have done: simply put, I have tried to make peace with my past. I have tried to do so without flinching, without sentimentality, with clear eyes, with humor, even. I wrote toward dignity, forgiveness, and redemption, because it had gotten too complicated for me to exist in the world without those things, and writing was the only tool I had to divine them. You could say the act of writing salvaged my spirit at a time I felt spiritless; saved my soul at a time I felt soulless; restored my faith at a time I felt faithless. And though I am no master of the genre, I love a good memoir and believe there is no higher art than a compelling personal story, and maybe no better gift than sharing one.

So, I guess that’s it. That’s what I have done. I have shared. It’s personal. I’ll let you decide if it’s compelling, or if a tale about an alien matchmaker is more your style.

Published by charleslewisradke

I am a writer and full-time staff member at Fresno State. I run the Dissertation/Thesis Office at the university, and I founded the Fresno State Graduate Writing Studio. My full-length memoir, Stuccoville: Life Without a Net, launched January, 26, 2021 (E.L. Marker/WiDo Publishing). My creative nonfiction has appeared in Hash, Sierra Nevada Review, Stoneboat Literary Journal, and others.

3 thoughts on “What Have I Done?

  1. Hey Chuck….

    Looking forward to getting my copies. Having read a few excerpts while you were compiling it, I know it’s good. Very good. You are deserving. I can imagine the thrill of seeing that box of books. It’s your time!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. We received our copy yesterday!! So excited to read your book. Congratulations on your first of many books! Your mom would be so proud!! Janet Poplin

    Sent from my iPhone



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