Author's Notes: I have no idea where this one came from. None at all. I sat down and I started writing, and this is what came out in the end. But I think it's interesting, at least, and I hope you will too (the rating is for profanity, by the way). It's definitely not a "man-grieves-wife" story, though, so even if you get that impression from the first three or four paragraphs, keep reading. I'm trying out a longer, more conversational prose form right now, for anyone that's curious…and opinions of any kind are always, always appreciated.
For Vinyl, just because. The suspense is over! (I'm evil, aren't I?) Hope you like what I did with it.
This story takes place in 1941.
I am currently on my second leg of life. My wife died last year. A weak heart, the doctors said. Quietly, I understood. I never used to be that way, but marriage made me more accepting, more patient, and I guess those gradual changes you don't have control over.
When I was a kid, I sold newspapers, but then I grew up and, after a few failed attempts, got a real job. I used to be one of the men who supervised assembly plants where they build cars. I was there when the first Model Ts rolled forth. I was working in assembly line then, which was a great skill for the time, trust me on that, but I eventually moved my way up to management with a lot of hard work. Then they transferred me to another plant in a different city. I worked there for years. I was even there the whole way through the Depression, where half the people lost their jobs and no one could even afford a car.
I quit the same day they buried Marylyn.
Now I'm trying to be a writer, though I'm not very good yet. I'm working at it, though. It's become the important thing in my life. I've already started a novel, and I've been doing a lot of reading to fully prepare myself for the final plunge…I never used to be much for it; Marylyn was an English teacher, so she did the reading for the both of us when she was still alive. But since she's died, I've taken out all of her read and re-read volumes from her bookcase and have begun to study them for myself. So far, I've read some American novels (Dashiell Hammet is an amazing detective writer, by the way) and a hell of a lot of English literature, mostly Shakespeare -- "Hamlet," "King Lear," "Twelfth Night," "Macbeth," "A Midsummer Night's Dream" -- and all of it is good. I haven't been able to look at "Romeo and Juliet" yet, though. It's too soon. But I'll do it someday. Marylyn had two complete sets of Shakespeare, and I plan to finish them by the end of the year.
You should see what I'm absorbing right now. A full volume of F. Scott Fitzgerald! Can you believe it? Just came out last week. Marylyn loved F. Scott Fitzgerald. She was so sad when he died last year, and the obits beat him up so bad, but she followed him so soon after, I'm sure they're cavorting in Heaven right now. But anyway, this volume I've got, it's a treasure. It's got "The Great Gatsby" in it (Marylyn's favorite novel. If you haven't read it, you've got to. She underlined all the important things for me in her original copy. Be sure to look at the colors. Imagery, they call it. Just…damn. Trust me when I say it's amazing.), so many short stories, and the novel he was working on when he died (something about a tycoon…I haven't started it yet, so I can't think of the title off the top of my head). I don't care what the critics said about his stuff, he was amazing, even if he was a boozer and died a failure in the eyes of society. All of these guys die unhappy or they live unhappy; just look at Ernest Hemingway. From what I hear, he's got some serious issues…I wouldn't be surprised if he popped himself one of these days. And since I'm on the subject, if you ever get the chance, read his stuff. He knew so much about the war because he'd been there. I was too old to enlist by physical standards, and my oldest son too young (I've got four grown-up boys, and a daughter in the middle), so none of us saw it. But Hemmy (my name for him…I like giving them names like this, it makes me feel like I'm friends with them) puts you right there, right in the middle of it in your shorts, and usually during a snowstorm on top of that; he never sugarcoated it. Not ever, not once. Damn, if I could just do what he did…hell, what any of them did…
Sorry, am I getting on a tangent? I didn't mean to at all. But I think I'm back to the right place.
Whenever I finish a something I've really been into (like Hemmy's stuff), I sit down and begin something of my own. So far, this has been problematic, because I imitate the writing style and subject matter of the author I've just read. That's gotten me rejected from two publishing houses already, and it's why I stopped writing for a while. But now, this novel I've got in my head, holy shit, it's going to be amazing. It's going to be about starting over. This man leaves his family and moves to Iowa (Iowa! God, who the hell lives in Iowa anyway? I don't know where the hell I come up with this stuff.), where he becomes a jockey. 'Cause see, he had this thing happen to him early on in life where he stayed not too tall but not too short, just the right height for jockeying, and he has this way of talking to horses. And so he's this jockey in an Iowa racetrack, right? Right. And one day he meets this woman who breeds horses and falls completely in love with her. And she's crazy about him, so they want to get hitched (sounds like such an Iowa thing, doesn't it?). But he's still married, because he never ended his first marriage. So he gets an annulment from his family in Virginia, where he was from originally, but he gets it without his wife's consent, so it's essentially a lie. But he marries the girl anyway, and they're happy for the most part. The first wife, meanwhile, goes out to find him, and when she finds him, he finds out he really doesn't love either of them, but he's sick of hurting people. And this whole time his jockeying career is beginning to skyrocket, and he's been offered this job in Chicago where he can become a championship racer, so he decides to leave them both secretly and move there. I don't know where I'm going to go from there. I think Hemmy would like it, though. My main character drinks a lot, just like his do.
That's my novel so far, but I've been looking for someone to edit it for me. I wrote to the publishing companies, but they said they couldn't do anything for me until I had a substantial manuscript to offer, whatever the hell that means. To make up for it, I put an ad in the Chicago Tribune last week, and today I'm meeting with the man who answered it. His name is Ron Beckett, and he'll be here any minute. From what he told me, he's sixty, divorced, and spent twenty-nine years in the publishing business until he retired three years ago. At least he's got some experience under his belt, right?
The doorbell rings, and when I answer it, a medium-sized man stands there (like the jockey in my book! If he were younger, I could use him as a physical mode, maybe. I wonder if he'd be offended if I commented on his height.).
"Jack Kelly?" he asks, looking at me straight in the eye. I've always respected guys who did that.
"Ron Beckett?" I return.
"Nice to meet you," he says as he holds out his hand to shake. I take it.
"Same here." He's got a firm handshake, something else I admire. I don't think I'll be saying anything about his height any time soon.
"Can I come in?"
I step aside. "Sure." He enters and goes right for the kitchen table, which I'm guessing he sees out of the corner of his eye. Looks like he wants to get right down to business.
"So, you've got a novel you're working on?" he asks, sitting down. Or maybe he's not getting right down to business, but I don't mind. You see, I love small talk. It's so cheesy.
"Yeah." I dig the manuscript out of the secret drawer we used to use for knives (to hide them from our kids) and toss it to him. "It's not much so far, though. Only fifty pages or so." I can't remember the last time I counted.
"Funny, most of the people that call me usually have less," he says, thumbing through the stack of paper. "And this typewritten, too. Thank God." I don't know if he realizes that he's talking out loud. "What's this about?"
"Well," I begin, about to go into my summary again, "it's about this guy who leaves his wife and moves to Iowa." Ron Beckett smirks, which distracts me immediately. "What's so funny?"
"Looks like I can help you already…I grew up in Iowa. At least, until I was twelve."
I grin. "Yeah? Then you know all about it?"
"Sure I do."
"Do they have racetracks there?"
Ron Beckett laughs. "Mr. Kelly, this is Iowa we're talking about, not Wyoming." My face falls. "Of course they do, but only near the big cities."
"Like Des Moines?" I ask. It's the only city in Iowa that I know.
"You can call me Jack, by the way."
"Then call me Ron. Jack?"
"Why do you need to know if there are racetracks in Iowa?"
"My main character becomes a jockey. He can talk to horses."
"Scratch that last part," he says immediately, his voice almost dominating.
"What?" I ask. "Why?"
"Not important. Too complicated. If this guy -- by the way, does he have a name? -- is a jockey, why does he need to talk to horses?"
"I don't know his name yet. But the horses tell him who's who in the races, so he knows when he should compete."
"Unrealistic, too easy a way out, scratch it," Ron commands, speaking more and more in fragments. "Trust me. People don't like characters that don't have to work for what they want. What else is this novel about?"
"When he's racing, he meets this woman, a breeder, and he falls in love with her. That's how far I am in the writing, by the way, right when he meets her."
"Okay," he says slowly, a little patronizing, and I'm sure he knows this. "I won't tell you what I think yet. Keep going. What else do you have in store?"
Annoyed, I continue, "He wants to marry her, but he's still got his other wife back home. So he forges divorce papers and marries the girl."
"Interesting," he comments. "Not bad for a literary newbie."
I ignore him. "His wife -- the original one -- comes and finds him through a private detective. When the guy is cornered by both his wives, he decides to run again to keep from hurting them because they would force him to choose. He goes to Chicago because he was promised a good position in racing there."
"Chicago. Where we are now," Ron observes. (Yeah, I put the place I live into my novel. What's so damned bad about that? If it's really that despicable, Ron, sue me, why don't you?) "Quaint. And after that?"
"I don't know," I admit, trying to shake off my growing annoyance by attributing it to my fragile ego. "That's why I need your help."
"What about the jockeying?" he proposes. "What happens?"
"I guess he could get hurt and end up lost and alone, a failure."
"Nice," Ron says, showing his teeth. "It's always interesting when they're sucked down the rabbit hole. Who pulls him out of the gutter?"
"Another woman?" I suggest. "Then he could --"
"Boring!" he interjects. "You've already done it before. So has everyone else."
"Hey!" I exclaim. "What the hell do you expect? This is the first time I'm doing this!"
"I can give you a suggestion…" He pauses. "But…"
"Be open-minded about it, would you?"
"Yeah, sure," I say. "What is it?"
"Introduce a man into the picture."
"Like a best friend, or someone from his childhood?"
"That's cliché at best," Ron spits. "I meant it romantically."
"Romantically!" I exclaim, trying to laugh incredulously at the suggestion. "That's so crude!"
But Ron speaks as if he knows what he is talking about, right down to the very last detail. "The scandal of it would probably sell more books, if sales are what you're looking for. But if you do it artfully…they'll remember you for what you said, not for what you initially stirred in the populace." He purses his lips. All of these things he does artfully, like a scholar. He must know that I was just hanging on this every word. "Mind if I smoke?"
"Nah," I say as he takes out a cigarette and lights it. "I used to do it myself."
"Used to? Why'd you quit?"
"Wife didn't like it."
Ron nods, breathing out smoke. "Neither did mine. What was the name of yours?"
"Marylyn," I tell him. "I met her in New Jersey, on the train to New York City. 1903…rough spot in the tracks, and she fell right onto me." I know the transition of my voice when I speak about Marylyn. "Luckiest fall of my life." It becomes low, reverent, loving. I really did love her, even after everything, even my changes of heart, I loved her; don't doubt that. Ron notices my tone, and the contrast in his face is clear.
"My Anita was a sweet thing on the outside, but all she was really was a bawdy little bitch," Ron tells me, his voice rough and crass against mine. "Accused me of cheating on her. Me!" He slams his fist on the table for emphasis. "She was the one running around with the bastard of a boss I had the whole damned time."
"I'm sorry," I say immediately.
"Don't be," he replies, running a hand through his short, graying hair and taking a long drag from his cigarette. He never seems to be sure about what he should be doing with his hands. "She sure as hell wasn't the one true love of my life."
"I had two," I admit.
"The girl you married, and who?"
"The one before her." I'm distracted from telling more by the cigarette he's rolling between his fingers. "Mind if I take a few puffs?"
"No problem," he says, reaching into his shirt pocket and grabbing his pack.
"You don't have to go through all that," I say. He's surprised when I reach across the table and grab the cigarette from his hand. "We did this all the time when I was a kid," I explain, taking a short drag before finishing my justification. "Don't freak out about it, it's harmless."
"Where'd you grow up?" he asks me, cocking an eyebrow. "I used to do that kind of thing too."
"New York. Lower East Side of Manhattan."
"No shit!" Ron exclaims. "Me too!"
"I thought you were from Iowa, Ron," I laugh, thinking that I've called his bluff.
"Yeah, like I said, till I was twelve. Then my family moved me to Brooklyn." I reach to hand his cigarette back to him, but he refuses it. "Keep it. I'll light another one."
"What years were you there?"
"Christ, I've never been good with dates…1894, I think…I know I left in 1913 to move here…" He shrugs. "I don't know, it was a long time."
"Maybe we met each other," I chuckle.
"Yeah, sure," he laughs, fishing in his pocket for his new cigarette. He thinks my last statement is guessing-game bullshit, without a doubt, and he's probably right. "We're gettin' off subject. We need to talk about the important things. Like your book," he adds.
"What about it?"
"There's one key element to a successful novel," he tells me, again assuming his scholarly pitch. "And that element is research."
"What, I know my place names?"
"It's a hell of a lot more than that," Ron replies sharply. "You've got to know the details. Place, time, and action are the most important. Know your dates, your history, all the shit that happened at that time. I mean, look at F. Scott Fitzgerald." He exhales. "He had the publishing date for Hopalong Cassidy wrong in Gatsby. That kind of stuff kills you."
On behalf of my wife, I take offense in his blasphemy of Fitzy. "So he didn't know one little thing. That doesn't mean his writing couldn't strike you right in the heart."
"When you work in publishing, even a misplaced comma ruins an entire work," he instructs. "Research! Accuracy!" These are without a doubt his sacred scripture. "Those are the keys."
"What do I have to research, then?" I ask, raising an eyebrow, turning a little sarcastic and not feeling a bit sorry for it. "If you know everything, Ron, what's the key that unlocks my door?"
"You know Chicago, so that shouldn't be a problem." He's risen from the table and he's circling the table as if he's a famous professor, pacing and smoking. And dropping ashes on my hardwood floor. "I remember enough about Iowa to keep you on the right track. The marriages you may have trouble with, since you and your wife seemed so happily married, and your character just, well, isn't."
"Were you always this pompous when you worked for your publishing company?" I inquire scathingly. My ego is sick of taking a beating. "Maybe that's why you stopped short of a full thirty years?"
"Shut up and listen," he commands, setting his palms on the table and letting his arms hold his weight. The cigarette is hanging from his mouth. Having finished mine by now, the taste of tobacco whetting my taste buds and taking over my mouth for the first time in thirty-six years, I reach out and take it. I do it more out of spite than craving, though. His reaction is laughable, but I hold my tongue. He seethes, his eyes almost on fire; I'm definitely pushing his buttons, and I'm sure laughing would send him to the asylum, or it would land me dead in my own home. "Would you fuckin' stop it, Jacky-boy?" he snaps.
I drop my cigarette onto the kitchen table. If it's burning a hole into the wood, I sure as hell don't notice.
"What'd you call me?" I ask, my voice, I'm sure, jarred from his outburst.
"Jacky-boy," he repeats, immediately apologizing, "Sorry, don't know where that came from. Out of nowhere, no reason. You know what I mean?"
In the split second that I am silent, I weigh my options. I could say it, risking either finding something I hadn't been near in forty years or leaving him confused, giving way to an awkward silence before getting back to the subject of my book, or I could just accept his explanation as a spontaneous, arbitrary outburst, standing by quietly like I always do. But the thing is, I'm tired of quietly understanding. I was never like that in the first place, anyway. I'm fifty-nine years old, damn it, with a dead wife and an uncertain future. Yeah, he's here to help me with a novel, but still, that's not the point anymore. I owe it to myself to ask.
Isn't it funny how much can pass through your mind in a split-second? All of that, and a decision to finish it off. In that instant, I make mine, all without missing a beat.
So I say it.
"They used to call me Jacky-boy back in Manhattan, when I sold newspapers," I answer, not exactly sure where this tangent will lead me. Ron's face is unchanged by my words, though. Shit, the confusion. I knew that was going to happen. He shrugs.
"Figured as much."
"What?" I ask, flabbergasted. God, that's a great word, but right now, I could care less about great words.
"I said I figured as much," he repeats, accentuating each word with its own razor-sharp edge.
"You knew who I was the whole fucking time!?" I demand angrily, standing.
"Since I read the newspaper ad."
I continue in my storm. "And you don't tell me a fucking thing about who you really are!"
"I didn't feel like it, what can I say," he replies, blasé about the whole thing. Christ, how can he…?
"You son of a bitch!" I curl my hands into fists, getting as angry as he had before. Now he's the one pushing my buttons, and there's not a damned thing I can do about it. "What are you here for, anyway? And since when is your name Ron Beckett, Conlon?"
"Never said Conlon was my real name." He smirks. God, I knew there was something familiar about that smirk that threw me so far off guard. "I thought you'd get a kick out of it."
"It isn't funny."
"Not a damned thing about it is?" he asks, not hiding his amusement. "Come on, like you aren't happy to see me."
"Hell no, I'm not."
"You really hold a grudge."
"It's justified, isn't it?"
"Since when are you the hurt one?" His voice counters my bitterness with its own distinct cynicism. "Last I checked, you weren't the one who left the people he cared about for a girl he met on a fuckin' train."
"Cared about? What a damned stupid euphemism. Say it, Spot."
"Shut up," he growls. "It's Ron now, not Spot."
"I almost forgot one more thing," I add, spitting my words at him, ignoring his last comment. "I didn't look up someone's name in the paper so I could pretend I was God's gift to literature."
"Don't tell me I don't know what I'm talking about, Jacky-boy," he corrects, pointing his index finger at me. "So maybe I did leave the business shy of thirty years. And maybe I knew you were here even before you put that ad in the paper." My eyes widen. "Ever heard of a city directory?" he chuckles. "And trust me about your book. I meant every word of it."
"Research, research, research, right?"
"Do you even pay attention? Research is one of them, but there's still something else that supercedes it." He jabs the finger he was pointing with into my chest. "You never did let me finish what I was going to say before."
"Say it." I want to hear him say it. I've waited long enough for him to admit it. Son of a bitch, dropping hints the whole time but never really saying the words.
"Experience," he replies, not moving his finger, "is the real key."
"Yeah?" I ask, challenging, looking down at his index finger. It's the Contact Point. He nods, still refusing to be blatant, still dancing around it carefully, never quite letting out the crucial words.
"It's where you get the real details. Some of the most beautiful prose is that which comes straight from experience."
"So what you said before," I resume, my gaze slowly moving up, "about getting my main character into a relationship with a man…you're telling me you have experience in that?" I can't help but grin. He pushes me into the kitchen wall, and I'm a little surprised by the force of it, what can I say, because he's trying to take the control I've suddenly seized back. But it won't work, he knows it.
"You want me to say it?" he demands, his voice guttural, nearly caught in his throat because of the effort.
I lean against the wall, feeling the power hidden in my seemingly submissive position. "Stop filling up the silence with stupid questions."
"I'd say the same for you," he replies wryly.
"Just get it over with."
"Yeah, I've got it. From a long time ago."
The Point of Admittance. The two essential points, now together. It's my own set of keys.
"And what happened?" I ask, continuing to trail him along. I love this feeling of control. I can tell he hates it. He has rarely been the one without command, even after all these years, I can feel it.
"Left me for a some klutz that fell on him," he replies flippantly, taking a step forward. He did not know Marylyn; I'll let him be so offhand about her for now. "Heard he loved her, too," he adds, noticing the glint in my eye.
"She's passed on, and I'm looking to see if he's missed it as much as I have."
"Well, it's been a while, I've heard," I tell him; now that he's said it, everything seems like it's moving slowly, naturally, without the apprehension of, say, twenty minutes ago. "He wants to be a writer, but he's got a problem with the novel he's working on."
"What's that?" he asks with bated breath.
"It's been a while, and, though he's a little embarrassed…see, he lacks the experience. There's some things he can't remember."
"Little things…like the way the sun hits his hair in the morning, spinning it from the twine it had once been into the silken silver stands it is now…the important, beautiful things, you know what I mean? He wants to write about those things."
"What are some more beautiful things?" he asks, moving so close the tips of our noses graze each other.
"Learning that sometimes standing by quietly is the bad thing to do," I murmur, knowing quite well that he won't get it.
"What?" He's confused, just like I expected, but I'll let him know later. For now, I just smile.
"Don't worry about it…I'm tired thinking about this for now."
I kiss him when I finish my sentence. It's the essential, pivotal kiss, the one that has been waiting readily in the wings for many years now, anticipating the old doors being closed and new ones being opened. His lips are soft now, not chapped and rough like they were back when we were teenagers. He returns the kiss (he's better at it now than he was way back then), his hands moving up to my face, fingertips touching me lightly though he still doesn't know exactly what he should be doing with them, his eyes closed. When I notice this, I close mine too. This isn't the docks of Brooklyn or the alleyways of Manhattan where we had to look for spies on the outskirts of our vision; this is Chicago, thirty years later in a world that's at least slightly wiser. Right now, we don't have to worry about who sees us. When we part, a little rusty on breathing, I open my eyes again, and everything is beautiful, moreso than when I saw it all a few moments before. The colors are brighter, burning my vision with their vibrancy, and everything seems to glow like a rare treasure. And he's in front of me, the most beautiful and valuable thing of all. My Maltese Falcon, if you can appreciate the allusion.
For now, my novel can wait. I've found something more important.