Monday, January 31, 2011

The Hallmark Moment

My friend Leon called about a problem he was having. I saved my manuscript to my hard drive and walked down the gravel road to his cabin. He lives on the other side of Eddy and Darla. He has a nice quiet little corner to himself.
He met me at the door. “Thanks for coming down,” he said, holding the door open for me. “Hope I didn’t interrupt anything important.”
          Being right in the middle of a new romance novel is not something Leon considers important. I could have told him how breaking a writer’s flow is like cutting off the city water supply in the middle of four alarm fire.
          Being careful not to trip over the head of a fake bear skin rug on the floor between two brown leather chairs, and a red-suede sofa, I said, “You don’t have to worry about Zelda, she’s not holding a grudge against you for calling the mortuary last summer.”
          “This isn’t about Zelda.” He motioned toward the sofa. “Have a seat. I’ve got coffee brewing. Bet it’s about ready. Be right back with two cups.” Leon took off toward his kitchen.
          After taking a seat on the sofa, I couldn’t help but notice the stack of valentine cards on his green coffee table. On the other side, were an equal number of envelopes he had been hand addressing. For a man who didn’t date, he sure had a lot of valentines going out of the door of the worst interior decorated house in the Hamptons.
          From the kitchen, Leon yelled, “You want sugar in yours?”
          “No thank you.”
          “Good, because I’m out of it.” He walked back into the living room carrying two cups of steaming coffee. “Be careful now. It’s hot.” He handed me a cup. Vapor rose from it.
He took a seat in one of the leather chairs on the other side of the table. “Move those cards back if you need to.”
Leon is pushing seventy, but he doesn’t look a day over sixty-eight. I gazed at him and said, “Leon, I didn’t know you had so many girlfriends.”
He grinned. “I gave up on girlfriends a long time ago. Those cards are going to the nursing home in town. Makes people feel good to get a card. Some of those folks don’t have any visitors. I know what that feels like.”
 Leon is our resident financial advisor. He had been quite successful in the banking industry, before he took an early retirement. Thirty-eight years back, the feds charged him with six counts of bank robbery, but according to Leon they missed a few.
While he was in prison, his wife divorced him and married a postman. His son grew up, moved away, and eventually quit responding to the letters Leon mailed from prison.
I waved my hand over the cup to help cool it off a bit. “So what kind of problem can I help you with?”
“You know, I told you about my son, Randel.”
I nodded and placed my cup on the table. At the Christmas party, Zelda predicted Leon would receive an unexpected visitor sometime within the New Year. We all hoped it would be Leon’s son, Randel. I visualized one of those Hallmark moments when they grabbed each other and hugged. Where years of disappointment were wiped away and replaced with love for one another.
I smiled. “Is your son coming to see you?”
After taking a sip from his cup, he shook his head. “No, he quit me a long time ago. Not a good role model, abandonment, and all that.”
So much for Zelda’s prediction and a Hallmark moment.
“I found out I have a grandson out in California. His name is Markus. I sent some money to the college. I told them to tell Markus it was a grant or something so Randel wouldn’t make him send it back.”
I leaned forward and put my hands on my knees. I wasn’t ready to give up on that Hallmark moment. “That’s great, Leon. Is your grandson coming to see you?”
He shook his head. “I can’t see how. He’s just started the spring semester in college out there. For all I know, he might not even know I exist.”
Leaning back on the sofa, I decided to let Leon take the lead and tell me whatever was on his mind. “I’m all ears. How can I help you?”
“Would you write my memoirs?”
“Your memoirs?”
He stood, walked over to a small table in the corner, pulled open a drawer, and removed a stack of papers and handed them to me. “These are some clippings and notes I made over the years. Maybe you can make some sense out them.”
“Hold on a minute, Leon. I only write fiction, you know, made up stuff. I don’t know anything about writing memoirs.”
“Eddy said you weren’t much of a writer, but since you’re the only writer I know, I figured it was worth a shot.” He held his hand out for the papers.
I held onto them. “Why do you want me to write your memoir?”
“I’m not going to live forever. I was hoping one day you’d send it to my grandson so he’ll know something about his grandfather.”
I left Leon’s house with a stack of papers in my hand. Three days later, after I had studied all the newspaper clippings, Leon’s notes, and what I could find out on the Internet about bank robbers, I started writing.

Dear Markus,
I’m writing to tell you about your grandfather, Leon Theodore Carter. He grew up in Southern Missouri during tough times. In spite of that, he made it big in the banking industry. If you want to know how he did it, I recommend you plan a trip to come see him. He’s been my financial adviser for years, and he’s never led me down a dark alley.
Better not take too long getting here. I just found out your grandfather is writing to nursing homes. I don’t have to tell you what might come of that. I’ve enclosed an airline ticket and a couple of hundred dollars for expense money. You can be in and out of here over a weekend.
Jack LaBloom

A few days later, Leon showed up at my door.
“Come in, Leon.”
He walked in. I took his coat and gloves and put them in the hall closet. “Please have a seat.”
“I got a call this morning,” he said as he sat down in one of the club chairs in our den.
Hoping my letter had worked, I asked, “From your grandson?”
“No. Markus called my son and then my son called me. He wanted to know what was going on with that letter you sent Markus?”
Jumping the gun with that letter may not have been such a good idea after all. “I’m sorry, Leon. Did my letter mess things up?”
He placed his hands on the armrest. “Almost.”
The knot in my stomach eased up a notch.
“What made you think my grandson was going to buy that bull you wrote about me?”
Wondering whether two anti-acid pills would be enough to untie the rope coiling up in my stomach, I shrugged.
“It upset my son so much he called me.”
Lowering my head, I didn’t know what to say. Whatever hope Leon had of ever seeing his grandson was probably gone for good and it was my fault.
“He told me you attached a copy of that newspaper clipping about how I was caught.”
After robbing a Missouri State Branch Bank, Leon would have gotten away, like he always had before, except for the fact he pushed a stalled car off the railroad tracks seconds before the train engine hit the rear of his own getaway car. He was knocked unconscious from the impact. The police found the stolen bank loot in the front seat. In the process of saving the life of a woman with two children strapped in their seats, he had risked his own life.
Leon never used a gun in any of the heist. Instead he used five red flare sticks wrapped up with duct tape on both ends to look like dynamite. The nine-volt battery, with two wires going nowhere other than under the tape, looked like an electronic detonator.
The judge sentenced him to twenty years. It would have been more had he used a gun. He was released after eight years and put on parole.
“I came by to tell you I changed my mind about you writing my memoirs. Eddy was right about your writing. Trying to make me out like I was a big shot banker.” He shook his head and chuckled. “There's no need for that memoir now."
Another rejection of my writing. “I understand.”
He stood. “Because my son, his wife, and Markus, are all coming to see me.”
I jumped up and hugged him. It was a Hallmark moment.

Friday, January 28, 2011

For Better or Worse

With the bills piling up, I was trying to put the finishing touches on my latest romance novel. If the Editor-in-Chief at Rosebud Romance Publishing didn’t go for this one, I’d have no choice but to call my travel agent and have her book a one way trip to the poor farm. I looked at the computer screen to review my opening scene.
On her way out of the apartment, just before she slammed the door in his face, the young woman took a raspberry  sucker—the one she had  been licking for twenty minutes—from her mouth and hurled it at Bart Boneheart.
Bart glanced at his wristwatch. “Time is running out.” He peeled the sucker from his forehead just above his right eye. Wet candy was a lot like glue, but he’d have to wait until later to wash it from his eyebrow.
He jumped into his BMW and pulled away from the curb. Tires squealed and horns honked when he made a left turn against a red traffic light. Margo Fox would be arriving on the 4:00 train. There was no way he could be late. He'd break every moving traffic violation the city had on its books to watch her climb down from the passenger car and run into his arms. Margo was worth every penny of the fine and the jail time to boot, if the police stopped him on the way to the train station.
Fourteen minutes and twenty-three seconds later, he slammed on the brakes and slid his car into a no parking zone near the entrance to the station. Let them tow it, for all he cared. One look at Margo stepping into his life again could make him forget he even owned a car.  
Six years earlier, she had shredded his heart, ripping out the veins and arteries along with it, when she left town, without so much as a note. Why, after all this time was she coming back to him now? Right after he’d met a nice girl who liked candy and knew how to lick it.
There was a pounding noise at my back door, more like a hammer than a fist. I saved the file and ran downstairs hoping a bill collector hadn’t nailed a board across my rear exit. What a relief. My neighbor, Eddy stood on my back deck with a beer in each hand.
“Hi, Eddy.”
“It’s Friday and I thought I’d come over and see if you wanted to have a beer.”
One Friday of each month, Eddy and I drink beer on the back deck, sometimes on his deck, other times on mine. After weighing the option of whether I should finish my story or drink a beer with Eddy, I said, “Sure. Which one did you use to knock on the door?”
He held up the bottle in his right hand.
“In that case, I’ll take the other one.”
With temperatures reaching into the low fifties, I walked out onto the deck and tossed a couple of more logs in our outdoor metal fire pit for a little extra warmth. I pulled up a couple of chairs and we sat down side-by-side, facing the water. Bare tree limbs reached toward the sky and framed the lake on both sides of us.
Grabbing the beer from Eddy's left hand, I twisted the cap off and waited for him to open his. A fourth of his brew foamed over his hand and spilled onto the deck. It had flowed upward out of the bottle like a lava flow after a volcanic eruption.
“Not to worry,” he said hiking a thumb over his shoulder to our left. A cooler sat not three feet away, no doubt, full of replacements. He had come prepared for the evening.
By the time the sun created an orange haze in the western sky, offering up its final rays of the day, Eddy and I were on our third beers. Our wives were in the kitchen plotting our demise with a recipe Eddy’s wife, Darla had found on the back of a sardine can.
Leaning forward to get closer to him, I asked, “Are you serious, Eddy?”
He looked over his shoulder to make sure Darla and my wife couldn’t hear us.
“It’s awful. That’s why I brought over a cooler full of beer. It’s probably the only way we’ll survive it.”
Something about the thought of eating sardines made my stomach feel like it was trying to wrap itself around my spine in an effort to hide from the esophagus.
“Are you going to eat them?” I asked Eddy, between sips of beer.
“If I don’t, I’ll be sleeping on your deck tonight.”
He had a point. While I was trying to remember where I put my sleeping bag, Eddy came up with an idea.
In Darla’s opinion, Eddy was one of the smartest people who had ever loaded trucks at The Co-Op Store where he worked. He had a high school diploma, and he had gotten it the old fashioned way, by completing all the credits in four years. Darla should know. She’s a teacher’s aide during the school year and a life guard at the city pool during the summer break.
After hearing Eddy’s idea, I held the bottle two inches from my right eye and looked down the neck of it to make sure we were drinking beer. I lowered the bottle. “For one thing, I don’t own a gun, and if I did, I wouldn’t shoot myself over a can of sardines.”
Eddy crossed his legs and leaned back in his chair. “You say that now, but wait until they bring it out here. The smell alone is going to make you reconsider.”
Seconds later, my wife stuck her head out the door. “It’ll be ready in five minutes.”
As soon as she went back inside, Eddy and I both grabbed fresh beers and guzzled them.
We were about to reach for another beer when the door swung open and our wives walked out. Darla was holding a big casserole dish in her hands. She set it down in the center of our deck table. Twelve skinny things were sticking up on end above the casserole. The sardines looked like they had been cooked to a walnut finish. I thought about my wedding vows. I had hoped for a married life of better. Unfortunately, it looked like things had taken a turn for the worse.
My wife reached over my shoulder and plucked one from the casserole. “Here, honey. Try it. You’ll love it.” She had it in my mouth before I could move.
I closed my eyes, shook my head, and chewed as fast as possible.
Darla, Eddy, and my wife all broke out in laughter.
I gazed at my wife and knew I had been had. Homemade bread sticks hand molded into the shape of sardines.
She and Darla placed their hands on my shoulders and said, “Gotcha.”
After a delicious meal, we all sat out on the deck and watched the moon slowly lay a carpet of shining silver light across the lake. I thought about my wedding vows again and realized I had lived a married life of better. So what if Rose Bud Publishing turned me down again. The bills could wait a while longer. I put my arm around my wife. Everything I needed in life was right there beside me, a loving wife and two beta readers. 

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Reading

With the onset of winter temperatures dipping into the teens, I went over to check on my neighbor, Zelda, a ninety-eight-year-old psychic palm reader who doesn’t get around like she used to when she was twenty. Those are her words not mine.
The thing about checking on Zelda is the heart rate. She sleeps a great deal of the time and when she’s in a deep sleep, it makes my heart rate climb until I’m able to determine whether or not she’s still alive. Other people used to check on her, but that came to a halt last summer. Now, I’m the only person who does it.
Lucky for me, she was up and around, and opened the door after my second knock.
“What do you want?” she asked holding the door of her trailer cracked open two inches.
“I came to check on you and see if you’re all right.”
“Oh, it’s you,” she said, opening the door wide. “I thought it might be Leon, or one of those encyclopedia salesman.”
I stepped in and closed the door to keep the cold air out. “Zelda, no one sells encyclopedias door to door anymore, and Leon doesn’t check on you after what happened last summer.”
“What happened last summer?” she asked, before walking over to a table with a crystal ball in the center of it. She took her usual seat. She doesn’t use the ball for readings. It’s the kind that has a snow scene in it, and if you pick it up and shake it, it looks like it’s snowing inside the ball. Eddy gave it to her for Christmas, because he couldn’t think of anything else to get a 96 year-old psychic other than a crystal ball. In exchange, Zelda gave Eddy a reading and told him his generosity exceeded all of his expectations.
“Don’t you remember when the people from the mortuary came out and loaded you in the back of a hearse?”
She picked up the ball and shook it. “Why did they do that?”
“When Leon came in to check on you, he couldn’t get you to wake up, so he called them to come get you.”
She winked at me and said, “I knew what was going on the whole time.”
I eased into the chair on the other side of the table and said, “Even when you rose up from the medal table and asked the mortician where your clothes were?”
She let out a little giggle and covered her mouth. “First time a man had seen me naked in a long time. He jumped three feet in the air.”
I made myself a mental note to tell Leon he longer needed to feel bad about having Zelda hauled off in a hearse.
“You look like you’re okay. Do you need anything?”
“Yes, I need to tell you something. I think it may be important.”
I knew what that meant. She wanted to give me a psychic reading.
She reached for my hand and I opened my palm for her. She studied it for several seconds and then went into her normal trance. The one she had perfected over the years.
Ten minutes later, she opened her eyes, pushed my hand away, and said, “Another rejection is on the way.”
To me, that was good news. I had ten queries out so one rejection out of ten was of little concern.
 “That one will be followed by nine more,” she added.
I stood. “Zelda, it would be nice if you could lie to me just one time. Just one time, I’d like to walk out of here feeling good about my chances of getting published.”
She placed her fingertips on her temples. “Wait, there’s more. Your novel will be published in the near future.”
“Really?” I sat back down and leaned in close to her.
She pulled her hands down. “No. You should have said twice. I gave you your one time.”
I left Zelda’s trailer and stopped at my mailbox to retrieve the contents. On the way to my door, I sorted through several bills until I found a letter from Rosebud Romance. I knew asking that Editor-In-Chief to get a second opinion couldn’t hurt. What other reason would she send me a letter other than to inform me she has reconsidered her position? I was so excited I dropped the other mail on the ground and ripped open the envelope.

Dear Mr. LaBloom,
It was a pleasure to meet you at the conference. Thank you so much for allowing Rosebud Romance to consider your novel, SIR TRUCKALOT AND THE OBESE MAIDEN, for publication. Although I told you I felt your story had a limited audience, you were kind enough to insist I take your synopsis and first three chapters back to my office and pass it around to my editors for a professional opinion.
I am so glad I did. I am happy to inform you that several of my editors, actually, all of them, agreed with my initial assessment.
Lisa Prettywell
Rosebud Romance

          I walked into the kitchen and placed the bills onto the counter.
          “Hi Honey,” my wife said. “Is Zelda okay?”
          “Her usual self.” I tossed the letter into the trash under the sink.
          “Another rejection?”
          I nodded and said, “Actually, it’s a rejection confirmation from that Romance Publisher I had my hopes set on.”
          She walked over and put her arm around my waist. “Oh, what do they know?”
          “That I apparently don’t know anything about romance?”
          She whispered into my ear, “I must respectfully disagree with that.”
          I threw my arms around her. “What’s for dinner?”
          She leaned her head back. “Wild Alaskan Salmon prepared just the way you like it.”
          “Have I ever told you how much I love you?”
          She put her head on my shoulder and squeezed me tight. “Not less than twice a day since we were married.”

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Sir Truckalot and the Obese Maiden

Sitting in my favorite Adirondack chair, I looked over the lake tracking the flight of an eagle in search of food. There were footsteps behind me. My neighbor, Darla, came bouncing up the stairs of my deck. She had taken to wearing clothes again, since the hot summer days were behind us, and her pool had become a floating sanctuary for oak leaves.
“Hi, Darla. Have a seat. Would you like some lemonade?”
I poured a glass and set it down in front of her.
She grabbed it and sat in a chair across the table from me. “I came over to congratulate you on getting a book deal.”
Book deal?  “What on earth are you talking about?”
She sipped the lemonade before placing the glass on the table. “Zelda told me all about it.”
Zelda lives on the other side of me. She's our ninety-eight-year-old resident psychic. I had only said a few words to her about my meeting with the Editor-in-Chief of a well known romance publishing house.
I refilled my half-empty glass with lemonade and pushed the vessel away. “Exactly, what did Zelda tell you?”
Darla crossed her legs and started bouncing her foot up and down. Something she does when she gets excited.
"She said you finally got a session with a real editor and she told you that your romance novel was one of the most interesting stories she'd ever read.”
That part was true.  “Did Zelda tell you the rest of it?”
“No, she fell asleep. That’s why I’m here. I want to hear everything.”
 I should have known Zelda wouldn't keep her mouth shut. I picked up my glass and drank about a third of it, letting the cold liquid quench my thirst.
She leaned forward and rested her arm on the wrought iron table. “I’m dying to know which novel you told her about.”
Darla is one of my beta readers, but I had just finished writing the novel the previous week. “You haven’t read this one.”
“What’s the title?”
“Sir Truckalot and the Obese Maiden.”
She rose up and pulled her arm from the table. “Are you serious? Oh my God, I love it already.”
Darla does a lot for my ego as a writer. Her husband, Eddy hasn’t finished reading a single one of my short stories, much less any of my novels. Darla, on the other hand, reads everything I give her, and reaps praises of my prose when I spell something correctly. I felt like she deserved to know the truth.
“I met with the Editor-in-Chief of Rose Pedal Romance.”
“Was she pretty?”
What did that have to do with anything? I knew I might as well answer the question. “I thought she looked attractive for an older woman, in her mid thirties.” Darla is twenty-two.
“That’s good. I was just wondering.”
Since my neighbor appeared satisfied with the editor's appearance, I decided to continue. “I was well prepared for the meeting. I had a copy of my query, a synopsis, and the first three chapters.”
“What did she read first?”
“The query and after reading it, she told me I had two of the characters necessary for romance, the hero and the heroine.”
“Now, aren’t you glad I talked you into writing romance novels?”
“You might want to hold that thought until you hear what else she said.”
"I'm on pins and needles."
I didn't want to mislead Darla. I tried to recall the details of my meeting so I could get it all straight in my mind, when it all came back to me.
“Hi, I’m Jack LaBloom.” I decided to give Miss Prettywell my pseudonym because it sounds more like a romance writer's name.
She offered her hand and told me to have a seat.
“So what’s your novel about?”
“I assumed that much. Why don't you tell me about the main characters.”
I hated to admit it, but I was a little nervous. This was my big chance to finally get published. I took a deep breath and decided to give her my best pitch line. The one I had been working on for more than a month.
“My novel is about a truck driver and a fat woman, who fall in love and live happily ever after.”
She stared at me for a full thirty seconds without responding. From my perspective, it didn't look good. Her frown was a dead giveaway. Estimating I still had four minutes left to make my case, I opted to go with Plan B.
“Before you decide this manuscript is not for you, would you at least read my synopsis?” I held out four pages.
She glanced at her watch. “Sure, it's the least I can do.” She grabbed them from my hand and began reading.
After placing the first page face down on the table, she looked up. 
"Your hero comes across as a complete idiot.”
I gazed at her in disbelief. What was she talking about? The hero has a commercial drivers license.
She held her hands apart. “Who else would ignore a weight limit sign and drive an overloaded truck, full of secret chemicals, onto a bridge that then collapses into a river?”
She had a point, but I had to find a way of getting those chemicals into the main water supply for the vegetable garden at the farm. This is what I get for not letting my beta readers have a look at the manuscript before trying to pitch it.
“I may have to revise that part a little. The rest of the story has a much better feel to it. Please continue?”
She read the second page and shook her head. 
“Are you out of your mind? Your heroine weights 680 pounds?”
At least I had a good explanation for that one. 
“That’s the reason she's forced to go to the fat farm, where she is held against her will. I realize your concerns about her appearance, but don’t worry. She loses 580 pounds by the end of the story.”
That must have allayed her fears about my Heroine. She rolled her eyes and started reading the third page. I held my breath hoping I wouldn't turn blue.
She put the third page down. “So the chemicals spilled in the river cause people to lose weight rapidly?”
I held my hand up and signaled I needed a minute. After inhaling forty cubic feet of oxygen and exhaling it slowly, I was able to respond to her question.
“Not only that, but it shrinks her skin. And helps clear up her complexion as well.”
There was one page left. Knowing she had reached the best part, I smiled.
“You’re going to love the ending.”
She looked at her watch again, before lifting the last page.
While she read, I replayed the closing scene in my mind.
After Joe wrecked the chemical truck, he lost his job as a truck driver and had to settle for working as a day laborer at the fat farm hauling water for the vegetable garden. That’s where he meets Bellynntina, the Heroine. One day while Joe is picking corn at the farm—that’s the only kind of food they served the residents— he spots Bellynntina walking the perimeter of the farm, a quarter of a mile. When she collapses from exhaustion, he tries to help her up, but can't budge one of her arms much less her whole body. She weights as much as a horse. He offers her a drink of water instead. Water he has retrieved from the river. Within minutes of taking a drink, she begins to lose weight right before his eyes. He offers her another ladle of water from the bucket, and then another, until she’s down to a 100 pounds. After five and eight tens ladles of water, it was love at first sight. He lifts her up and carries her away from the fat farm. Later that night they embraced and kissed quite a few times.
When Miss Prettywell finished reading the last page of my synopsis, she placed it face down on top of the others. She looked up. The expression on her face was one of astonishment. She appeared to be taking her time to form her words just right. Finally, after what felt like enough time to have cooked up a pot of vegetables from the fat farm garden, she said, “This is one of the most interesting romance story ideas I’ve ever read.”
I took her comment to mean best-seller. While trying to calculate my royalties, I also planned the layout of my yacht.
Miss Prettywell stood. "Unfortunately, I feel the audience for your story line is limited, therefore I'm going to pass on this one. Thank you for coming, Mr. LaBloom. My assistant will show you out.”
When I finished telling Darla what the editor said to me, she stood and threw her hands on her hips. “I can't believe that woman had the gall to tell you your audience is limited.” She turned and stomped toward the stairs.
I jumped up. “Wait, Darla. Don’t you want to take a copy of my manuscript home with you so you can read it?”
"No, Eddy bought me a new cookbook. I’m diving into that tonight.”