Friday, August 6, 2010

Notes from an Anonymous Basement

The droning starts overhead, in the dark, in the damp. I feel a chill in my cheek from the concrete floor I’m lying upon, and open my eyes. I see nothing but shadows in front of me. The droning rises in volume, as if a great swarm of insects is gathering, invisible and mighty. Sitting up, I steel myself for their descent.

When the light bulb switches on, I can see the steel I-beams in the floor above, a set of rickety wooden stairs rising out of my sight. Also I am surrounded by towers of cardboard cartons and crates with what I believe to be Hindi written on the sides. I cannot read Hindi, but judging from the sharp smells of spice poking up through the damp—cardamom, saffron—I understand them to be foodstuffs.

The drone opens into a louder keen, then blossoms into a melody. It is the notes from a sitar, I realize. Then the music briefly sounds as if it’s right beside me, then quiets with the shutting of the door, and a man descends the stairs. He’s dark-skinned, wearing a nondescript white shirt and jeans, and I intuit from the sitar and the Hindi writing that he is Indian. His dark eyes are wide and intense as he regards me.

He stands, I sit; no one says a word. Until…

“You must tell them what you know.”

I blink; my visitor does not. “Could you…be more specific, please?”

“I mean this.” He takes the book from behind his back: a curved and creased copy of Whom Must I Kill to Get Published?, and I think to myself, I sure hope you already paid for that, pal. “They must know how you knew,” my visitor—or is it host?—insists.

I rub the back of my neck, which like most of the rest of me is dully sore. “How I knew what?”

The book disappears from sight, and smirking he waggles a finger down at me. “Oh, you are good. Very, very good. But, my friend, they are better.”

“Who are ‘they’?”

My new Indian ‘friend’ squats down beside me, shakes his head. Offers me a stick of cinnamon gum, which I accept. (Never refuse gum or a mint the first time it’s offered, or you may be offered said gum or mint a second time.) “What you ought to worry about, Mr. Horger, is what to tell them. What you can remember about that Saturday in La Grange.”

“La Grange? Oldham County Days? Karen’s Book Barn?”

My gum-giver stands up, dusts off his hands. “So you do remember.”

I try to stand, but make it only partway up before a woozy head forces me to crash to the floor. It’s been a long time since I felt this dizzy, and the previous occasion involved Tanqueray and my indoctrination to chewing tobacco. “Of course I remember…the Book Barn…the parade…my family…Lori’s pink cardigan sweater…pimped-up tractors…”

“Aha! The tractors!” Now he points my own book, rolled up in a tube, back at me. That’s no way to treat a book, I know. “It is all coming back to you, yes?”

Still no idea what he’s on about. “I remember the day just fine, clearly…like it was yesterday.” I raise my head in a moment of clarity. “Wait. Was it yesterday?”

He says nothing, just smiles triumphantly like an oyster with a pearl under its tongue, and the sitar music builds one step, one harmony at a time. “Think first on the books you sold,” he suggests, backing up. “Remember, Mr. Horger. Remember to remember.” And he backs up the steps, grinning, holding Whom in front of him like a cannoli of doom, and he disappears with a sitar trill and a door slam. Perhaps even a puff of smoke.

And I’m left with a fuzzbox of a headache, a basement full of perishable items from the subcontinent, and a mystery. Several mysteries. Like the second copy of Whom? I’m, apparently, seated upon.

I open the book to the title page. In addition to my signature in blue, there’s a dedication in black, in my printed letters. Addressed to me. It says: “Take the train. To help you remember.” With a quick flip-through, there appear to be no further clues.

Sighing, I shut the book and watch the stairs for their arrival.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Oldham County Days, Part 3

Well, as it turns out, the two suspicious-looking guys are just elm-tree fanciers. So anyway...

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Guest bogger Wes Pennington on the Writing Process

Hi, folks. So Jason asked me to step in on his blog to discuss the writing process. That’s all the guidance he gives me, right? The writing process. Could he have been any vaguer? Then he runs off to La Grange—not inviting me and Alex—and leaves me alone to it. To come up with the topic as well as the verbiage. But that’s published authors for you.

So tonight I’m sitting at home, staring at an empty page, knowing there are at least five different writing projects I could be working on instead of this lazy joker’s blog, when Duncan leans into the room.

“Hey, dude. Whatcha workin’ on?” I turn around, and Duncan has a bag of Bugles in one hand, a fistful of Bugles in the other. Crunch, crunch. “Nothing, eh?”

“Blog entry for a guy I know. Something about writing. I’d thought about recycling an article I wrote for the paper two months ago, but…”

“That would be lame,” Duncan finishes for me.

“Sure.” I was going to say that I’d need my editor’s permission first, but I know Duncan’s right. “So what’re you doing?”

When does Duncan actually ever do anything? “Dunno. Cerise is getting the Dish Network set up on the new flat-screen LG TV in the front room. And I’m just standing here eating my Bugles, thinking about opening me a bottle of Heineken. You want me to grab you one, sport?”

A Heineken sounds pretty good to me, actually, but I know drinking and writing don’t mix. “Nah, I’d better stick to trying to write,” I tell him. “What’s Alex up to?”

“Trying out her new tools, man. That Black and Decker set you got her for her birthday, with the rechargeable battery? Her and her mom have a project they’ve been working on. Big hairy secret.”

“Duncan, come in here.” Cerise pokes her head around the corner, sporting my Dinosaur Jr. t-shirt and adidas soccer shorts. “The view on this LG’s screen is fantastique. High-def, d’accord.” She smiles at me. “Oh Wes, you are writing.”

“No, not really.”

Just then the doorbell rings, and Cerise goes to answer it. Bovinely Duncan crunches Bugle after Bugle, occasionally putting the conical corn snacks on his fingers and doing the Freddy Kruger number with his hand. “Man, I love Bugles,” he says, mesmerized by his snack-fingered claw.

I still have no idea what to write about. Then Cerise comes back with our visitor. It’s Thom, Alex’s dad. “Hey Duncan, Wes,” he greets us. “I just stopped by to see whether Livvy and Kitten were done."

“Still playing with the Black & Decker, Mr. Duckett,” Duncan tells him.

“Come see our new LG flat-screen,” Cerise offers.

“Sure,” Thom says, grinning. “But lemme tell you…the handling on this Dodge 500 Livvy and I just bought rides like a dream. It doesn’t even feel like you’re doing ninety on the Interstate.”

“That would be the high-performance Pirellis as well, n’est ce pas?” Cerise suggests.

“Hey, Thom.” Kissing her dad, my darling Alex finally makes her appearance, and my office has officially reached capacity. “Livvy and I are done. She’s putting Mop ‘n’ Glo down on the floor right now.” Alex is holding in her hands a three-foot long cordless tree saw. “This Black and Decker system you got me is great, Wes honey.” She hands the saw over to her father, who admires it.

“Rechargeable battery, eh?” Thom says, making the saw rattle to life for a moment.

“Took it right out of the Black and Decker leaf blower before we started in on Bychenko.” Alex bounces over and kisses me, and I catch the pleasing cinnamon whiff of Big Red gum. “He seems to have sort of a thing about blondes wielding tree saws.”

“So he talked?” Thom raises his eyebrows. “Gave up the location of the laboratory?”

“It's in a storefront in Middletown between Radio Shack and Domino’s Pizza.” Alex polished the toe of one of her maroon Doc Martens. “He sang like he was on America’s Got Talent.”

“Hey,” Duncan says. “That’s on at 8 tonight.”

“On Fox,” Cerise says helpfully.

A plan’s coming together in my mind, and I might just have that slacker Jason’s blog entry yet. “Hey, you all…let me ask you this: how do you feel about reading stories with a lot of product placement in them?”

Duncan pops the top on a Heineken. “You mean, like, brand names and stuff?”

Thom shakes his head and slips on his pair of Foster Grant sunglasses. “Frankly, Wes, I’d never noticed.”

“Me neither.” Alex pats my Levi’s-clad knee.

“Come on,” Cerise says. “I have ordered Wok ‘n’ Go. And there is a Major League Soccer match coming on shortly.”

I check the blank Word document on my Dell Latitude Z and sigh. As wonderful as Microsoft Office is, it can’t do your writing for you. The Panasonic clock tells me in glowing green numerals that I haven’t got much time.

But Alex leans in and kisses me again, and this time her fragrance caresses my nose. Boucheron…it gets me every time.

Sorry, Jase, and never mind the blog. I get up from the Broyhill swivel chair. Soon, the Dell goes dark.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Oldham County Days, Part 2

In just five minutes, it’s gotten warmer, steamier. That, or the air conditioning took just that long to spoil me. Angela, Kate, and the Beattys still haven’t made it downtown yet. But Lori’s chatting with a brown-haired woman about the plastic carry-all she’s gotten from the mysterious stand across the way. Next to it is a chiropractor. The model of the human spine they have on display looks like a dinosaur, lying on its back as it does. There are also balloon animals (Lori correctly assumes Kate will make a beeline here on her arrival) and Blue Bell ice cream (I correctly predict that Angela will direct the beeline here after the balloon animal.)

The woman moves along the street without us making a sale, and we see a man with a carved wooden turtle--two and a half feet long, made from hardwood and polished--on his shoulder. Just what he was looking for! We commiserate about the steamy weather, and the turtle-bearer points out that when the sun does emerge from the clouds, it’ll be blocked first by the elm tree over our shoulder, and then by the bookstore’s building behind us. He bids us adieu; he and the turtle have people to meet and places to see.

A horn blares, and someone frantically moves away the Road Closed sign at our end of the street. A train’s a-comin’. Now I should explain about Main Street in La Grange: a train runs through it. There’s a CSX track right down the middle of the street. The townspeople are scarcely amused by the sight. Lori and I are thankful for the breeze accompanying the slow-moving train, so it’s a fair trade-off that no one on the far side of the street can get to us. The train’s moving slowly enough that we can see the cargo inside the larger box carriers: SUV’s, and lots of ‘em.

The train passes, people are welcome to move freely across Main Street and our friend from earlier--the woman with the carryall bag--returns to our table. She wants a copy of my book! Trying not to grin too maniacally, I personalize the title page for Roberta--or Robbie. Wishing her a good rest of Oldham County Day, I get an ‘attaboy’ from Lori. Feeling good, at this point.

That’s when I spot the two bald guys across the way, dressed for a golf outing in polos and khakis, both stealing glances over in the direction of our table. It’s when they lean against the chiropractor’s display, one of them chowing down on an ice cream cone, that I notice they’re identical twins. In fact, their faces resemble two bowling ball-sized fists poking out of shirt collars. My impression is that they’re either watching me, Lori, or the front door of Karen’s Book Barn.

“They look like trouble.”

Lori signs a copy of Missing Andy for a customer. “Who’s that?”

“Those guys across the way. Couple of hair-challenged twins on steroids. Sound familiar?”

She hands the book back to her new fan with a smile and turns to me. “No, I’m sure I’d remember a pair like that,” she declares with conviction.

Hmm. Having just met Lori, I know I shouldn’t really bother her with my hang-ups. I should try to pass myself off as normal, seeing as she’s stuck with me for the next four hours or so.

Just then, from the corner of my eye, I see our silver station wagon roll by on Walnut Avenue (‘Road Closed’—hah!). My wife, daughter, and friends have arrived, just in time for the start of the parade—or its scheduled start time, anyway.

I look back across the street, and the two men have gone. But a young couple strolls up to take a look at my book, and I promptly return to sales mode, handing a Whom brochure over to the husband.

And I forget about the twins. Mostly.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Pimp your book in just 5-7 words!

"A far-fetched romantic murder mystery/spy adventure!"

(Am I stalling for time until I finish Installment 2 of Oldham County Days? Indubitably I am. But until I do, writers should feel free to use the comments below to pimp their own books in 5-7 words. Make your own pitch here on this blog!)

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Oldham County Days -- Part 1

It has rained the night before. At three or four that morning, lightning flashed and thunder rolled, and my family was wide awake. This always happens as a matter of habit when an early start is called for the next morning.

At 9 AM I’m due at Karen’s shop, which is just ten minutes away from our friends’ house. I have twenty-five copies of my book, Whom Must I Kill to Get Published?, twelve of which are still bubble-wrapped from their overseas journey from England—and one copy each of the other books from my imprint, diiarts. I’ve chosen a five-minute selection for my reading—where Detective Birdsong interrogates Wes Pennington about the events of his evening. So although there’s no caffeinated coffee in the house, I feel mostly ready for my first public book event in America—ready to sell my book, personalize copies and generally be a nice guy. With or without caffeine.

Five minutes to nine, Angela and I are circling downtown La Grange in our station wagon, the books in back, looking for somewhere to park. Of course Main Street is already blocked off, so we get a quick tour of a four-block square around the shop. But this is Angela, so ‘Road Closed’ is but a suggestion to be brushed aside. She pulls me up just feet away from Karen’s Book Barn and Java Stop, corner of Main and Walnut. There’s a tablecloth-covered table out front at the curb with two chairs behind it (one of them with a pink cardigan draped over the back), half of the tabletop already occupied by a professional-looking permanent display, two piles of books and a sort-of easel propping up a copy of one of the books.

This means my partner for the day, Lori Moore, is already there. She’s the friendly, open sort of person with a ready smile whom you feel like you’ve already known for ages on meeting her, which I am doing as I put down the DHL box and shake her hand. Around us, the parade-watchers are milling about on the sidewalk for a good vantage point. Word is, the parade starts at 10.

In the meantime, we tell each other about our books, and already it’s clear we’re most likely playing to different reading audiences. Lori has written in one book about her experience becoming a Christian in her thirties, and about learning to cope with the unexpected death of her husband. Me (in a mumble-y voice, explaining Whom): “It’s a murder mystery which morphs into a …um, er, spy romp.” (Looks down at sidewalk.)

Okay. I lay out seven or eight copies of Whom, kerfuffling over the best way to display my product, while realizing I’ve completely forgotten the U.S. retail price of my own book. About this time—roughly fifteen after nine—I also realize I’d better let Karen of Karen’s Book Barn that I’ve shown up.

So after Karen gets through with a customer at the counter, we introduce ourselves and shake hands. She doesn’t seem nonplussed or contemptuous when I don’t have an easy answer for her about how much to charge for my books. Fortunately, 7/99 works out to roughly $12.50 today, which is what we’ve established as the U.S. recommended wholesale price, I now remember. She generously prints a sign for me, and armed with the knowledge of how much my book costs and the visual means to convey this information, I head back outside.