Jack LaBloom attempts to write romance novels while his neighbors, an elderly psychic, a retired bank robber, and a young couple offer their encouragement, or not. They all live in the Hamptons Lake Estates, a less than prestigious community, where things go right, on occasion.
Finding something online turned out to be harder than I imagined. About the time I zeroed in on a pair of red long-handle underwear for Eddy’s Christmas present, I heard a knock at my backdoor.
My neighbor grinned at me through the window. I could have sworn I heard his truck leave earlier that morning.A blast of frigid air enveloped me when I pulled the door open wide to let him inside. “Hi, Eddy. Come in. I thought you’d already left for work.”
He stepped by me and unzipped his coat. "Darla's car wouldn't start this morning. She had to take the truck in to work. This cold spell must have wiped her battery out last night. Would you mind, if I borrowed your car to run an errand?”
“Not at all," I said.
My wife had left earlier in the morning to pick up a gift for Darla. On her way out the door, she gave me specific instructions to find something suitable for Eddy. That's not as easy as it sounds. What do you get a man who stacks varmint traps on his front porch? As cold as it was, that long-handled underwear might be a suitable present for Eddy. "I plan to stay here this morning and do my last minute Christmas shopping online.”
“Thanks." He gave the thumbs up sign. "I’ll have your car back by noon.”
When Eddy gives a thumbs up, it means he has a plan. Some of his previous plans have ranged from won't work to dangerous, depending on how much thought he cares to put into them. From the expression on his face, he was eager to tell me about something.
“How about a cup of coffee, before you leave?”
He nodded and followed me over to my kitchen counter. I pulled two mugs from our twenty-seven-year-old oak cabinets and set them by the coffee pot.
“I only have time for one cup, because I need to go to the Pawn shop.”
Last summer, after they spent $400.00 on a five-day Florida vacation, I knew Eddy and Darla's finances were fragile, but I had no idea things had gotten so bad they were pawning their stuff to make ends meet.
I filled both cups with hot coffee and held one up for Eddy. “If you need a new battery, I don’t mine helping you out.”
He grabbed the cup and took a sip. “Thanks, but Darla's dad is giving her one for an early Christmas present. He was having trouble figuring out what to get her anyway. He's going to drop one by tonight after he gets off work.
Now he really had my curiosity climbing Mount Everest. Eddy works for Darla's dad down at The Co-Op Store. If he didn't need to borrow my car to get a new battery, and he wasn't going in to work, what did he have planned?
As if he could read my mine, Eddy blurted out, "I’m going to sell my cuff links so I can buy a Christmas present for Darla.” He wrapped his other hand around the mug and took another sip.
Lifting my cup to my mouth to take in the aroma of fresh brewed coffee, I thought about the cuff links. Eddy was referring to a pair of gold cuff links his grandmother had given him when he graduated from high school. They had belonged to Eddy's great-grandfather and a remnant of the Great Depression. His grandmother told him she would have let herself starve to death, before she sold her father's cuff links. As far as I could tell, Eddy had only worn them once, at his wedding. I hated the thought of him selling something his grandmother had prized so highly.
“You shouldn't sell them, Eddy. Your grandmother would roll over in her grave.”
“Oh, man. Why did you have to say that?” He took another sip of coffee and stared out the window. A Redbird picked sunflower seeds from our bird-feeder.
How stupid could I be? His parents were killed in a car accident when he was a young boy, and his grandmother had raised him. I knew how much he missed her. My comment was both heartless and totally uncalled for in the holiday season. A time, when he probably misses her the most.
I put my hand on his shoulder and said, “I’m sorry I said that about your Grandmother."
He turned back around. Tears had formed in his eyes. “Darla is the best thing that ever happened to me. I want to give her something really nice this Christmas, for a change. Something better than socks, or pots and pans. If I have to sell my cuff links to get the money to buy her a nice gift, I think Grandma would understand.”
"I'm sure she would," I said, feeling a half inch tall. Okay, so his plan had merit, but that didn't solve the problem.
“But a pawn shop won’t give you anywhere near what they’re worth.”
Eddy put his cup down on the kitchen counter, and tilted his cap back like I had said something else wrong.
He gazed at me. “I know, but I called every jewelry store within fifty miles of here. Not one of them was interested. Then I called Ron at Ron’s Pawn Shop on Third and Ripple. He said if they're real gold, and not scratched up, he might give me as much as $25.00 for them. They aren't scratched up, so I'm going to take them over there and let him have a look.
I knew what Darla had ordered for Eddy’s gift. He was going to be shocked when he opened it. If he thought twenty-five dollars was going to buy Darla a nice gift, I wondered what kind of pots and pans he’d given her in the past. Made in China with superior lead alloys came to mine. So much, for eating black-eyed peas at their house on New Year's Eve.
I couldn’t let him sell those cuff links to a sleazebag like Ron. “Eddy, I’ll give you twice that amount.” He could get a pretty decent set of pots and pans for fifty dollars. I had seen a set advertised in the Sunday paper. The same kind of pots we had.
He shook his head, zipped his coat up, and pulled his cap back down. I had offered him twice the price, and he was going to walk out on me. Apparently, he wouldn't sell them to me at any price. I regretted saying what I did about his grandmother rolling over in her grave. Before he reached the door, I said, "Eddy, I'm sorry. I know they're worth a lot more than fifty dollars to you."
He stopped and turned around. "Do you have any shirts with holes in them?"
He apparently had a strange way of negotiating the price. Sure, I had a couple of old worn out shirts, but my wife wouldn't let me wear them out in public. I didn't want him going out and buying a shirt for me, especially with my own money. Helping him get something nice for Darla was my goal, but I didn't want have to drain my bank account to do it. “Have you ever seen me wear a shirt with holes in it?”
“No, and that’s why I can’t sell my cuff links to you. They only work with shirts that have holes in them.”
Oh, that's what he meant, instead of buttons. When misinterpreting a friend's words, the best way to straighten things out is to tell the truth, or in my case lie. “The only reason I don’t have a shirt with holes in it, is because I don’t have a pair of cuff links to wear with it.”
He pressed his lips together for several seconds and looked down at the floor. Finally, he reached into his pocket and pulled out two gold cuff links. He held them out.
“Okay, I’ll sell them to you.”
I took them and examined them, as if they would be my most prized possession. I didn't want to do anything else to hurt his feelings. They were one-eight inch thick by one inch squares of 18 carat gold. Heavier than any cuff links I owned. Three lines ran parallel near the edges forming a smaller square in the middle were his great-grandfather’s initials ER had been etched. ER were also Eddy's initials. Even the half-inch studs and swivels used to lock them in place were gold. In my estimation, based on their weight and a sheer guess, they were worth several hundred dollars.
Just because Ron was willing to take advantage of the situation, didn't mean I could. Eddy is a twenty-two year old kid with a high school education and a good heart, but more importantly, he was my friend. “Eddy, I can’t give you fifty dollars for these."
He opened the palms of both hands. "Why not? There's not a scratch on them."
He was right about that, but I knew he wasn't trying to negotiate a higher price. "They could be worth as much as a thousand. I think you should hang on to them. The price of gold has gone up quite a bit.”
A deal is a deal. Give me fifty bucks. That plus the fifty I got for my shotgun will be just enough to buy that nice coat Darla had her eye on last Saturday at Dillards. I can't wait to see the look on her face when she opens her gift.”
I carefully placed the cuff links on the counter and gave Eddy fifty dollars. After he left, I called my wife and told her to take the coat back to Dillards and get Darla a nice set of pots and pans instead. If we were going to eat black eyed beans at our neighbor’s house, I wanted to make sure we didn't get lead poisoning.
A few days later, my Christmas shopping was complete. I attached the cuff links to a pair of red long-handle underwear and placed them in a box. After wrapping it with silver paper, and sticking a red bow in the middle, I wrote Eddy's name on the corner of the box. I hoped he liked getting underwear and cuff links for Christmas. What could be more suitable for a man who stores varmint traps on his front porch? The underwear will help keep him warm during the winter, and the cuff links his grandmother gave him will go well with the blue pin-point cotton shirt, with holes in it, from Lands' End. The one I helped Darla pick out online for Eddy. She wanted to get him a shirt his grandmother would've been proud to see him wear with those cuff links.
Leon and I leaned back in a couple of old tattered club chairs and rested our stocking feet on the natural rock hearth. The crackle of oak logs surrounded by flames in his open fireplace was as soothing to our emotions as our warm drinks were to our stomachs. We’d been outdoors building a Christmas present for Eddy and Darla. It felt good to come inside from a shivering wind and warm ourselves. Leon’s small cabin only has four rooms, but its rustic appeal could challenge any abode for a great place to call home on a cold winter afternoon. I sat my empty cup down on the round table top between us. Leon stood. His big toe punched a hole through his old wool sock. “You want some more hot chocolate?” “No thank you, I’m good. After refilling his cup, he retook his seat. “Had any luck with your query?” I’d bragged a little too much to my friends about my latest novel, Murder and Mayham. Somehow a new story always brings renewed hope for a struggling writer. Apparently, the literary agents assumed my title was misspelled. “No, but I’m confident I’ll receive a request for a manuscript before Christmas.” That was my way of putting on a good front for my friend’s benefit, since he had suggested the title. “That’s too bad. I was kinda hoping me helping you with that title would do the trick this time.” My history of failed attempts to secure representation by a literary agent permeated the Boston Mountains like cold air in a harsh winter. My friends tried to help me anyway they could. I’d had nibbles here and there over the years, but the number of requests for full manuscripts topped out at zero. “Nothing would make me happier than for one of those literary agents to want read one of your stories before Christmas.” Leon paused to take a sip of hot chocolate. “That would be all the present I’d need this year.” That was his way of telling me not to spend any money on a gift for him. Things were tight all around, for everyone in our little community. My friend didn't even have a decent pair of socks to wear, and he was concerned about me. There were still a few days left before Santa made his visit. Not enough time to write a new novel, but I had an idea that just might work. As soon as I left Leon’s cabin, I went home and searched under my bed for one of my best stories, one which had been rejected less than fifty times. I removed it and dusted off the top of the box. All the manuscript needed was a new title and a few revisions to meet my needs. Two hours later, with the rewrite complete, I prepared a query letter.
The Peterson Literary Agency Attn: Mrs. Helen K. Peterson 12545 Fifth Avenue, Suite 598 New York, NY 100010
Attn: Ms. Peterson: When a rejected manuscript, removed from a recycle bin, turns out to be exactly what its author claims, Ellie Jenson hopes to change her uneventful life. Ellie, twenty-three, unattached and still cleaning offices for a living, peruses the recycle bin every Friday night in search of suitable reading material. She finds what appears to be an intact manuscript, THE TREASURE TROVE, a romantic suspense by Vargo Stalinski. All of the pages were in the original order with no hand written comments in the margins. NON-REQUESTED MATERIAL stamped in red on the cover page was a clear indication the manuscript was not to be read by any of the agents working at The Kartersan Literary Agency. The following day, Ellie is deep into her latest grab from the recycle bin and flips the page. The story was so much better than other ones she'd retrieved from the bin. When she finishes reading page 200, the next page has a hundred dollar bill taped vertically in the middle of it. She checks the next one. It too has a hundred dollar bill taped the same way. She soon discovers the manuscript is a treasure trove, literally. She removes a total of 300 bills from the remaining pages. While staring at the stacks of hundred dollar bills piled on top of her small bed, she realizes they total $30,000 dollars in cash, more money than she has ever seen in her life. Ellie knows what she wants to do with the money, be somebody. Somebody people want to be around, instead of a person no one notices. After placing the cash in a plastic trash bag, she hides it under her sink, and decides to wait a full week before she begins her transformation. A week later, so as not to cause suspicion, Ellie returns to the literary agency and begins her duties that evening. When she walks into Mrs. Kartersan''s office to begin cleaning it, she notices an unopened package on top of the agent’s desk. She leans over and looks at the return address. Mailed from Grand Cayman Island, the package appears to be the size of a manuscript box. In the lower left corner is a handwritten note: FINDER'S KEEPERS, the sequel to THE TREASURE TROVE. I promise this manuscript is also worth reading. When Ellie returns to her flat later that night, she can't believe she has become a thief. How could she stoop so low? She looks at the unopened package mailed from Grand Cayman and tries to decide whether to take it back or open it. It was probably placed on Mrs. Kartersan's desk after the agent had left for the day. It had been stamped like the other one, non-requested material. It would be discarded. That's how it works, isn't it? She had retrieved lots of non-requested manuscripts from the recycle bin. No one had ever complained. What was wrong with reading them? So what if she read this one, and then took it back and placed on the agent’s desk. What harm would there be in that? No one would ever know she had read it, would they? She opens the package, removes the manuscript, and turns to page 201. Ellie is about to become somebody, somebody on the run. THE TREASURE TROVE, a romantic suspense novel, is complete and ready for your review. I promise the 500 page manuscript is worth reading. Sincerely, Jack LaBloom
My wife entered the room. “Have you decided what you’re going to get Leon for Christmas this year?” I looked up. “Wool socks."
According to literary agent, Suzie Townsend, your title should reflect the tone of your book. If you're writing a thriller, you don't want something long and poetic. In the mist of trying to convince my neighbor, Leon, how hard it is to come up with a good title for a romantic legal thriller, he wrote one down on the back of a Burger King napkin and passed it across the table to me.
“See what you can do with that one,” he said.
I read the three words he had written, Murder and Mayham. Leon didn’t finish school, because he had to stay home to take care of his ailing mother. Whatever they taught him in prison, apparently, had nothing to do with learning how to spell the word mayhem. I couldn’t hurt the man’s feelings so I said, “Leon, that’s a great title.”
“I thought so too.” He smiled. “So now that I’ve done the hard part, you can finish writing the story.”
That’s the problem with trying not to hurt your friend’s feelings, you say and commit to things you wouldn’t ordinarily do.
Later that day, after changing the last name of my main character so Leon's title would work, I gave the document displayed on my computer screen one final review before printing a copy for my two beta readers.
After an IRS audit results in the Law Firm of Lark, Whim, and Fault having to pay $800,000 in penalties and back taxes, Jack Mayham is told to pack his personal items and vacant his office. Twice divorced and fired from three law firms in four years, he knew it was just a matter of time before another IRS audit costs him his latest job.
Jack takes one last look out his office window at the cloudless sky hovering over the Manhattan skyline. When he turns to pick up the cardboard box containing his personal items, in walks twenty-six-year-old Lisa LeRouse Bedford wearing a Marc Jacobs low-cut designer dress with a Fendi handbag strapped over her shoulder. Her diamond necklace and matching diamond studded four-inch spikes reflect sunlight shining through the window behind him.
In search of another good criminal defense attorney—her previous one is missing and his office ransacked—Lisa weaves a sad story of lost love. Her wealthy husband, Earl, thirty-six years her senior, was found floating face down in their swimming pool, and the prosecuting attorney suspects she had something to do with her husband’s recent demise. She tells Jack she hopes he’s as fearless in the courtroom as he claims on his Facebook page and offers him a $250,000 retainer to defend her against the Prosecutor’s baseless charge. It’s the break Jack needs and enough money to open a private office.
Police discover Earl’s fingerprints are none other than those of Tony Delonzo. Known as The Cleaner, Delonzo washed dirty money for the mob by investing it in large CAP international securities. When Delonzo decided to withdrawn sixty million, place it in secret accounts scattered throughout the world and vanish without leaving a trace, he became the subject of the mob’s largest manhunt in history. When confronted with news of her husband’s real identity, Carla admits the name Earl did not fit her husband's personality.
Jack is euphoric. His defense strategy is simple. Tony Delonzo changed his name to Earl Bedford and married a young strikingly attractive woman who agreed to help spend his money. Two years after they were married, the mob finally tracked Tony down and killed him. Lisa had nothing to do with her husband’s murder. Case closed.
While the prosecuting attorney eats meatballs and spaghetti, he agrees to consider dropping all charges against Lisa. She and Jack leave the upscale restaurant in Manhattan with plans to celebrate. Outside the restaurant, Jack and Lisa are waiting for a limo when two men place knives to their throats and force them into a yellow and brown Dodge Minivan which smells like an Italian kitchen with a motor oil leak in the oven.
The mob wants their money back, all of it. One of the men presses a knife below Lisa’s diamond-interlaced-black-pearl-white gold-linked necklace and draws a trickle of blood. She claims to have no idea where Earl stashed the mafia’s funds. In an effort to save their lives, Jack claims to be a computer guru, and if anyone can find where Lisa’s husband stashed the funds, he can.
The mob believes The Cleaner’s computer holds the key to the location of the accounts. Jack is told he has twenty four hours to get his hands on the late Tony Delonzo's computer, which is in police custody, and break the password. He is to then locate the whereabouts of Earl’s financial accounts and transfer the funds back into the mob's Swish bank account without the police knowing anything about it, or Lisa’s body will be plastered all over his new office, along with his. The mob guys dump Jack at the curb and drive off with Lisa held hostage until the money is back where it belongs.
Realizing it’s going to be a long night, Jack stumbles into a Starbucks and orders a large coffee, black. Before it’s had time to cool, Jack comes up with two plans. Plan A: Learn how to use a computer, break into police headquarters, steal The Cleaner’s laptop, figure out how to unravel a forty-eight character password, find the secret accounts, and transfer the funds all within 24 hours. Plan B: Try to convince his first ex-wife, who is good with computers and works for IRS, to help him.
It’s a toss-up as which plan will be easier. His first ex-wife hates him for leaving her for a younger woman, her sister, who later divorced him for dumping her older sister. Getting his first ex-wife to help him won't be easy, but Jack is in love with Lisa, and he’ll do whatever it takes to save her from a horrible and painful death at the hands of two overweight mob guys, who smell like pepperoni pizza.
If the title of my romantic legal thriller didn’t grab the attention of Suzie Townsend, I might have to consider making a career change. The printer stopped humming when the third page slid out into the tray. I grabbed the sheets of paper and rushed next door to see if Darla or Eddy where home.
Darla was sitting in a swing on their front porch reading a book, their dog at her feet. I hid the copy of my synopsis in my back pocket so I could ease into asking her to read it. She and Eddy still hadn’t finished reading the last three manuscripts I asked her to review. It would be best if she thought I came by to check on the dog.
“Hi, Darla,” I said petting the stray animal Eddy decided to adopt. The dog had gained a few pounds since Eddy found him roaming around in a cemetery. At that time the animal’s ribs were showing.
She looked up from the book, but didn’t smile. I wondered if Darla was upset about Eddy bringing a dog home without talking to her about it first.
“Leon said he’d take him, if you and Eddy don’t want him.”
“Don’t want him!” She leaned down and patted the large animal on the back. The 150 pound Newfoundland size beast rolled over and stuck a giant paw up in the air and waved it at her.
“What makes you think I don’t love this sweet loveable creature?”
That sounded like a trick question, so I avoided a direct answer. “Leon lives all alone and I just through maybe you could let him walk the loveable creature every now and then. I didn’t actually mean—”
“I know what you meant. This book explains a lot of stuff about men and how they communicate.”
At a loss for words, I scratched my head.
“For example, you thought I was upset about Eddy bringing a dog home without telling me beforehand. Then you thought you could make me feel better by telling me Leon would love to have him.”
Holy smokes, that kind of book would be invaluable to women, and a direct threat to any man trying to stay married. Eddy could be in big trouble.
“What’s the title of it?”
She held the tattered paperback up so I could see the cover.
HOW TO LOVE A BONEHEAD by Lillie Lovegarth. It appeared to be old. With any luck it was out of print and would be near impossible for my wife to find in a used bookstore. I decided to try and confirm my suspicions without asking her if Zelda had given her the book.
“That sounds like a book Zelda might read?”
“I don’t know why she’d need to read it. She’s not married.” She closed the book.
As soon as Eddy arrived home from work, I planned to warn him to be careful when trying to communicate with Darla. It’s hard enough to stay out of trouble when your wife doesn’t know what you mean, much less when they do.
She leaned toward me and held the book out. “Here you go.”
I grabbed it from her hands with plans to recycle the pages, in my shredder, before Linda got her hands on it. “Thanks, Darla.”
“Tell Linda I said thanks for letting me borrow it.”
Another mystery solved. That explained how my wife had me figured out from the beginning.
Darla blamed me for Eddy running off to who knows where and not contacting her for three days. She asked me to find him and bring him home.
It was unlike Eddy to do something like that. I strolled over to my neighbor’s house and asked Zelda if she had any idea where I might start my search.
Fifteen and a half minutes after I had given Zelda twenty-five dollars and developed a severe cramp in my left leg, she came out of her psychic palm reading trance and released my hand.
“You will find Eddy in a field of carved stone.”
Getting specific information from a psychic is like trying to get a detailed balance sheet from a Wall Street banker. I had hoped for a latitude and longitude, but I left Zelda’s trailer with a pretty good idea where I might find my buddy.
I drove three hours and then turned off on a dirt road. It was dark by the time I made my way through the broken down gates of the old cemetery. The headlights of my car illuminated Eddy’s truck. It was parked under a large oak tree. Yellow and brown leaves decorated a good portion of its windshield. His push mower and a leaf rake sat beside the twelve year old Ford truck.
In the far corner of the cemetery, a Coleman tent had been set up. A lantern nearby glowed in the darkness. On the other side of it were a camp fire, a portable grill, and my friend, Eddy. He was sitting in a lawn chair petting a dog.
When I walked up to the fire to warm my hands, Eddy asked, “How did you find me?"
“Zelda,” I replied rubbing my hands together over the fire.
Eddy shook his head. “She wasn’t supposed to tell anyone.”
“She almost didn’t. It cost me an extra twenty to get the name of this place out of her. You should call Darla and tell her you’re okay.”
Eddy lifted the lid of his portable grill. The smell of hot dogs cooking made my empty stomach want to place an order with the cook. He moved three weenies over, placed three more next to them, and added two buns on the sides to brown them.
“I told Darla I was going camping.”
“Well, you know wives they like to stay in touch with us.”
He closed the lid, and then unfolded another lawn chair for me. “You want mustard on yours?”
I nodded and placed the extra chair next to his about four feet back from the fire. The warmth felt good.
After preparing two toasted buns with mustard, Eddy stuck cooked weenies in them and handed one to me along with a bottle of water.
“Thanks, I’m starving.”
Within thirty minutes, Eddy, I, and the dog had consumed three hot dogs each.
“Where did the dog come from?”
Eddy shrugged. “He just showed up the first night, probably smelled the grill. I don't think he has a home.”
With ribs showing, and no collar on the animal, it was obvious the poor fella hadn’t been eating regularly.
With October 31st approaching, I sure didn’t want to spend two many nights in a cemetery. Not that I believed in ghosts or anything like that, but it never pays to push one’s luck on Halloween.
“How long you plan on staying out here.”
He glanced at me. “Until I figure out what I want to say.”
The leaves had been cleared away, and the grass had been mowed near a rectangle stone marker. I pointed to it. “Is that your father's grave?”
He nodded. “Zelda called somebody who handles state records and helped me find him.”
At age twenty-two, my young friend still had a lot of healing to do. His father died when Eddy was a child.
“My father never had a chance to take me camping."
I didn’t say anything. I just nodded and tossed two logs on the fire to counteract the drop in temperature. That’s the way it went the rest of the night. He talked and I listened until we both feel asleep.
The following morning, I awoke to Eddy breaking camp. He doused the smoldering ashes with water and cleaned the area up where you could barely tell we had ever been there.
When a young boy loses his father, he loses far more than his protector and hero. He also loses his way in life. Eddy had come to his father's burial site to regain his direction. For those of us who understood, it was something that had to be done before we could continue our journey. A father needs to know his son is going to be all right. “Did you tell him you're going to be okay?" I asked.
He looked at the ground and shook his head. “I can’t stay here forever. Let’s go home.”
After everything was loaded up in Eddy’s truck, including the dog, he said he’d take the lead.
I went to my car and started the engine.
His truck hadn’t rolled ten feet before he jumped out and walked back to the grave. The dog followed him. Eddy stood there for a moment, appeared to say something, then he and the dog got back into the truck. Seconds later, we were on our way.
I followed in my car. We stopped once to take a break and refuel our vehicles. That’s when I noticed there was something different about Eddy. He appeared to be more confident. He had regained his path. I felt certain Eddy would never tell anyone what he said while standing at the foot of his father’s grave. He didn’t have to. I had a pretty good idea it was something like, “I promise to try my best to make you proud."
Leon leaned forward in the Adirondack chair my Aunt Josephine purchased at a yard sale in Boston and kept with her throughout four moves and 32 years of marriage, before she decided it would make a great wedding gift for me and my wife. The chair didn’t look all that bad after I scrapped three layers of lead paint off of it and spray painted it yellow. Something about a mauve colored lawn chair on our Redwood deck didn’t sit well with my wife. Come to think of it, she wasn’t all that affectionate over the color I picked either.
I handed Leon another beer. “Zelda has a birthday coming up soon. We better start looking for a gift.”
“I can’t believe another year has already gone by.” He shook his head and twisted the top off the Sam Adams Light, our version of diet beer.
I knew exactly how he felt. Shopping for a birthday gift for Zelda was something Leon and I dreaded more than root canals. And it was getting worse every year. What do you get a women who is about to turn ninety-nine? The box of Depends he gave her last year didn’t go over well. Zelda predicted he would die a slow agonizing death.
The six pack of beer I gave her was accepted with a smile and the prediction I’d live long enough to realize my wife had way under married.
That’s what happens when you buy a psychic the wrong gift. Zelda lives by herself in an old trailer with a human palm painted on the side of it. In the middle of the palm are printed the words: Psychic Readings $1.00. Of course, it’s false advertising. She hasn’t done a reading for a dollar in over forty years. Living next door to a psychic has a lot of disadvantages when you’re a romance writer, especially when said psychic has the uncanny ability to predict rejections before they arrive. So far, she’s batting a thousand.
“You got any ideas?” Leon asked, leaning back in the chair and placing his feet up on the railing.
“How about a moon rock?”
He glanced up at the moon I had been staring at for two minutes. “What the heck is she going to do with a moon rock, throw it at us?”
Leon had a point. Zelda might be old, but she still had plenty of spirit left in her.
“Okay, scratch that idea. Your turn,” I said, placing the burden on him.
“Well, since this might be her last birthday, I think we need to do something really nice for her.”
“That’s what you said last year, and we ended up giving her diapers and a six pack of beer.”
“Well, that’s what I’d want if I were that old.”
Have you ever been talking about someone and they walk up on you?
“Who you calling old?” Zelda said, climbing the back stairs with her cane tapping on each step.
Leon and I jerked our heads around.
“We’re in deep yogurt,” I whispered, but not low enough.
She made it to the top step and stood up as straight as she could. “No thank you. I didn’t come over here for yogurt this late at night.”
Leon and I jumped up and pulled another chair up for her. We ran to her sides and offered our arms for support. It was hard to tell exactly where her hands were with all that purple and pink silk draped around her head and arms. Her whole wardrobe remained me of a psychic.
“It might take me a while, but I can still walk by myself.”
Leon and I both agreed that Zelda had become rather feisty, after she had a pacemaker put in last spring. To get her to agree to have surgery, the doctor told her that her heart was worn out, and she needed a pacemaker, if she wanted to continue living. When she woke up and found out the doctor had put it next to her left shoulder, instead replacing her heart with it, she accused him of being a jar-headed idiot and predicted he would die a slow death.
And to think some people are stupid enough to pay Zelda to predict their future. I’m certainly not dumb enough to pay for a reading, especially when she offers to give them to me for free whenever my wife asks her to. One might think they were in cahoots.
Zelda shuffled along one step at a time, with Leon and I staying by her side, until she reached the green aluminum fabric covered deck chair my wife purchased for me on the first anniversary of our wedding.
After she eased into the chair, Leon and I retook our seats.
“Zelda, would you like to have a beer?” Leon asked, apparently hoping he could get her drunk, and get something out of her, by way of ideas for a birthday gift.
“Bonehead, when’s the last time you’ve seen me drink any liquor?”
“I rest my case.”
Leon leaned back in his chair and sulked for six whole seconds, before he swallowed enough beer to calm him down.
He and I had been in deep yogurt with Zelda before, but her overhearing us refer to her as old apparently was too much for her to take lying down or shuffling along in turtle gear.
Sometimes the best defense is a cowardly offense. “You look nice tonight.”
“Thank you. How kind of you to say that. You've obviously had your limit tonight?”
“This is only my second beer,” I said, holding it up to show her and set the record straight.
“I rest my case.”
“It sure is a pleasant night, all cool and everything.” Leon tried to rescue the conversation.
“It’s especially pleasant now that I know you two boys want to do something really nice for me on my birthday.”
Apparently, she had overheard our conversation, or her ability to predict the future had skyrocketed to new levels of accuracy.
“We haven’t come to a firm decision on your gift, but it’s going to be something you’re really going to like.” Leon must have thought he was on a roll, and tried to bluff our way out.
“I want you two gentlemen to take me to see a play.”
Talk about simple and easy to do. The local Playhouse Theatre never had a sellout crowd and tickets were cheap. We could probably get three for fifteen dollars. I decided to get in on our roll.
“Zelda, it would be our pleasure.” I glanced at Leon. He nodded. “To escort you to a play.”
She pushed one of six scarves away from her face. “I’ve kind of had my heart set on seeing Mama Mia.” There was short pause then she added, “Before I die.”
I glanced at Leon to see if he knew anything about that one. He shrugged. Neither of us kept up with the fall schedule. Since few people attended any of the plays at the Playhouse Theatre, the management didn’t see any need to spend any money on advertizing.
Leon jumped in. “Sounds like a good one to me.”
“I’m sure you boys will love it.”
In for penny, in for a pound. “I’m sure we will,” I said sealing the deal.
She reached into her web of silk clothing and pulled out a piece of paper.
“Here’s their numbers for tickets.” She handed it to me.
“I’ll call first thing in the morning and make arrangements for the four of us.” I stuck the paper in my pocket. “You don’t mind if Linda goes with us?” I decided to take the opportunity to build up a few points with my wife. I never know when I might need them.
“Of course not. It was her idea in the first place.” She turned her attention to Leon. “Leon, dear. I was hoping you’d be my date.”
You could have knocked Leon down with a soft, white, fluffy feather. Neither of us could remember a time when Zelda had spoken so kindly to him.
“I would feel honored to be your escort to see Mama Mia.”
“Okay, then. I need to get my rest. You two have a most wonderful night out here on this lovely deck. Isn’t that moon beautiful?”
Ten minutes went by without a word. That’s how long it took for Zelda to climb down the stairs and walk back to her trailer.
“Is she out of hearing range,” Leon asked, leaning over the railing.
I hustled back up the stairs. “All tucked in for the night.”
“If that don’t take the pressure off, I don’t know what does. Give me another beer, before someone pinches me and wakes me up.”
I fished two ice cold Sam Adams Lights out of the cooler.
“Give me those numbers,” Leon said. “I’ll cover the costs of all four tickets myself.”
“Oh, you don’t have to do that, Leon. My gosh, Linda and I can handle our end of it.” All four tickets couldn’t add up to more than twenty dollars, but I acted like he was offering to buy the Taj Mahal.
He held his hand out. “I insist.”
There was no need to drag it out any longer, so I pulled the folded piece of paper out of my pants pocket and handed it to him.
He grabbed it, feeding up my hand to unscrew the cap on my fresh brew.
“You know,” he said, after reading the information written on the paper. “I think I’ll take you up on that offer to let you and Linda buy your own tickets.”
“Sure, Leon. No problem.”
“Well, actually there are several problems.” He handed the paper back to me.
I studied it for a moment. The numbers were for airline reservations, a four star hotel, and a theatre in London.
It’s not every day the Editor-in-Chief for a romance publishing house offers to give you a third and final chance to prove you can write a great romance novel. With two solid rejections under my belt, I knew my latest effort had to use a high-concept plot idea and follow the criteria Miss Prettywell outlined for a romance novel. Something she had not taken the time to tell me until recently. According to her, all romances novels must follow three simple rules.
Rule Number 1: The hero and heroine must meet in the first chapter and are immediately attracted to each other.
Rule Number 2: The hero and heroine struggle throughout the story to overcome one or more obstacles keeping them apart.
Rule Number 3: In the end, the hero and heroine surmount all obstacles keeping them apart, and the reader is led to believe they live happily ever after.
Those three rules are so simple I’m surprised everyone is not writing romance these days.
I e-mailed my query today and look forward to hearing from Miss Prettywell. For those of you who have trouble writing a query letter, I'm sharing mine with you so won’t make the same mistakes I made.
Rose Petal Romance Publishing
ATTN: Ms. Prettywell, Editor-in-Chief
Dear Ms. Prettywell:
In my novel, CHIGGERS, global warming has caused an explosion in the chigger population in America, sending people indoors for cover. Robert (Chig) Langdroff, the country's leading authority on chiggers, is summoned to Washington, D.C., from his home in the Mississippi Delta, to offer a solution to the chigger crisis. Robert meets with the President and the President's top Scientific Advisor, Nancy Snatchit, a beautiful, but aggressive young woman bent on preventing the banning of makeup and perfumes even if Robert's advice might help prevent an exponential growth in the chigger population.
Robert realizes his first task is to win Miss Snatchit's trust. As Robert and Nancy lock horns and scratch chigger bites, millions of the country's outdoor sporting events are put on hold, causing a tremendous decline in beverage and fast food sales, resulting in a national decline in obesity, causing a surge in online clothing sales, home cooking, and family time. The White House grounds are soon engulfed by chiggers. The vast horde-of-chiggers are too much, even for the mightiest military in the world. As a last resort, Robert calls for help from some Good O' Boys. While everyone else in the country stays indoors, two Good O' Mississippi Boys, immune to chiggers, begin to mount an offensive just north of the Mississippi State Line. The Good O' Boys drive their truck toward Washington, D.C. killing billions of chiggers all along the way. The lethal gas, used to kill the chiggers, is emitted from their truck, as the Good O' Boys drink lots of beer and eat lots of barbecue. They arrive in Washington to a hero’s welcome. Everyone appears happy until one of the Good O' Boys unintentionally releases some of the lethal gas amongst a crowd of well wishes, sending thousands of people scrabbling back indoors for cover.
Later that night, Robert wins Nancy's trust in the Lincoln bedroom. They get married and move to Alaska, where no chigger has ever lived long enough to cause any trouble. The President takes credit for reducing obesity, the upswing in online clothing sales, and the national movement toward more family time.
Market Research: Having been bitten by more than a few chiggers, I can tell you chiggers are one of the most feared creatures on the planet. More people are attacked by chiggers than all other forms of wildlife in this country. One person can sustain literally hundreds of attacks in one outdoor walk to the barbecue grill. Just ask my neighbor, Eddy, or worse, make him take his shirt off so you can count the bites. I have enclosed a picture for your benefit.
CHIGGERS, a Romantic Thriller, runs about 86,000 words. May I send you my draft?
Thank you for your time. You do not have to return the picture of Eddy.
I waved at Eddy when he drove past my house and pulled into his driveway. His truck made a screeching sound before it came to a halt. When he jumped out and ran toward me waving his hands in the air, I thought he had an emergency. I let go of the handle so my lawnmower would stop running.
“Eddy, what’s wrong?”
He stopped short of my mower and stared at me. “Hey man, when’s the last time you sharpened the blade on that mower?”
I looked at the 21 inch Yard Dog I’d purchased at a flea market sale five years earlier. “The guy I bought it from told me he sharpened it.”
Eddy pointed to three or four hundred weeds sticking up all over my yard. “Your blade is so dull it can’t cut the weeds.”
That explained the strange phenomenon I had noticed this mowing season. I’d begun to think I had a fast growing variety in my yard. So fast they grew back right after I mowed over them. It was time to fess up. “Okay, you got me. How do I sharpen the blade, and where is it?”
“Hey, I’ll do it for you.”
He walked over to his truck and pulled a couple of tools out from behind the seat. He removed a long flat thing from my mower in less than 30 seconds. He used something called a bench grinder on his back porch to sharpen it. After he put it back on the mower, he started it up and made a round in my front yard. What a difference it made. There's nothing like the smell of fresh cut weeds in August, especially when someone else is doing the cutting.
He stopped the mower. “What do you think?”
“That’s great. Thanks, Eddy.”
He reached into his pocket, pulled out a card and handed to me.
I looked at it.
Eddy’s Lawn Mowing and Firewood Deliver Service
You grow it, we mow it.
We cut it, you burn it.
In an effort to pay down the debt he and Darla ran up by taking a Florida vacation on their credit cards, Eddy cuts firewood in the spring and sells it in the fall and winter. Now it appeared he had added a lawn service to make a little extra money during the summer months.
“That’s a pretty fancy business card.” I stuck it in my shirt pocket for reference, in case I ever sold a manuscript and made enough money to hire him to mow my yard.
“It’s was Darla’s idea. She said they’d make me look more professional.”
Eddy and Darla are both twenty-two years old. They got married two months after they graduated from high school. Darla is a teacher’s aid during the school year and a life guard at the city pool during the summer break. She’s taking classes to become a classroom teacher while Eddy works his butt off for his father-in-law down at the Co-Op, but to hear Eddy tell it, Darla’s father doesn’t think he’ll ever amount to much. Eddy’s plan is for Darla to get her college degree first, and then Eddy will go to college and get a degree in agriculture.
In an effort to give him moral support, I said, “You know, I bet Darla’s dad has changed his mind about you.”
He shrugged. “When I showed him my business cards, he said I was a regular entremanure.”
A good romance writer has to know the proper way to pronounce every word in the dictionary. Lucky for me, over the years, I had finally worked my way completely through the es.
“I think he meant entrepreneur.”
“Probably not,” Eddy said. “Darla’s dad thinks I’m full of it, and it’s looking like he always will, no matter how hard I try.”
My neighbor has a good heart and works hard. He deserved better treatment from his father-in-law. I needed to act quick before depression set in. "One day he'll surprise you and tell how lucky he is to have you as a son-in-law." He dusted some glass clippings off his leg. "I'm not getting my hopes up."
Eddy is one of my two beta readers. I had finished writing the first three chapters of my latest novel, Tumble Weeds and Dry Lips, my first attempt at writing a western romance novel. Maybe it would be a good time to ask him to read my first draft. I looked at my watch, and then pushed the mower under a tree. "It’s Friday and after five. What do you say we go hang out on my back deck and have a cold one."
Eddy nodded. “I thought you’d never ask.”
Right after we opened our first beers, I placed my hand on my young neighbor’s shoulder.
“For what’s it worth, I think you’re top notch.”
He smiled. “Thanks, but I still ain’t reading any of that mushy stuff you write.”