Monday, February 20, 2012

The Seventeen Damn Dollar Phone

Here is a taste of my novel "The Seventeen Damn Dollar Phone"

Let us suppose you are taking a walk. Let us further suppose that this is not a structured walk. There is no destination, or predetermined length to your journey. Quite simply, it is just a walk on a pleasant day for the sheer delight of being one with the great outdoors. You go by the neighbor’s house, and then the school you went to as a kid. Take a left at the end of the block and enter the woods you played in a thousand times as a child. In your uncomplicated imagination there were cowboys and Indians, mountain men (or women), fearless explorers, brave warriors doing great battle with the dreaded enemies, and a multitude of other fantasies only the young and inspired might dream.
You walk to the big tree with the double trunk, and sit in the crook between the trunks on the seat that has been worn into it by years of kids coming to it and dreaming great dreams. As you contemplate the past, and the astonishing worlds you entered as a child sitting in these woods, you begin to sadden. Your depression is that…hard as you try…hard as you wish…hard as you dream…you can no longer see in your mind's eye with the beauty of a child Your ability to conjure a game to play has been replaced with the ever present realities of being an adult. You begin to resent ever growing up.
You get up and start back to your house, and the inevitable congestion of adult life. The car payment is due, the spare bedroom needs painting, the mailbox got knocked over by the neighbor kid throwing rocks at it. You look back at the woods with a longing that is impossible to realize. You’re an adult, and adults have responsibilities. Games are just tricks we play to escape life, and we all know…tricks are for kids.
Chapter 1
You pick the mailbox up, thinking you would like to strangle that little son of a… Inside you find a letter from your editor. In the house, you read the letter. You stare in bewilderment at the words on the page. It appears that your last two books have not sold enough copies to even cover the advances, and the publisher wants to drop you. The letter further states that your genre is flooded with many, more talented, authors who consistently produce novels that sell, and that you have lost your touch. Unless you can come up with a profitable product in this next book, your contract will be cancelled due to lack of performance.
You snatch the phone from the cradle, and dial the bastard’s number. You angrily demand to speak to him, and are told that he is currently in a meeting. Out of frustration you rage at the secretary about the situation. The voice on the other end of the line suggests that you go back to teaching grammar school English which is probably all you are good for. “It’s not as if you have any real talent, anybody can write spy novels for goodness sake.”
Dropping the receiver on your desk, you stare out the window blankly. All of a sudden your world has become irrationally horrible. You pick the phone up and let the secretary have a real piece of your mind. I was a LITERATURE teacher, and it was COLLEGE! Albeit a junior college, but still a COLLEGE! I NEVER taught grammar school! Don’t they know who I am? My first book topped the N.Y. Times bestseller list for 29 weeks! I’ve been on the damn Jay Leno show! I am KNOWN!
The tirade lasts for about an hour until you’re just too exhausted to continue. You drop the phone on the floor, and finish the rant by flinging it at the wall…smashing it into pieces. It rings unbelievably, but all you can do is helplessly wait for the answer machine to pick up. It’s your editor returning your call. He explains that abusing his secretary was the last straw and he can find someone else to edit the dribble you call literature.
Frustrated and despondent you walk outside and sit on the porch swing of the house you no longer have the ability to pay the mortgage on. As you swing, you start wrestling in your head about all those adult realities that were so irritating this morning in the woods while you sat fondly remembering your childhood. How long can you last on the money you have? What about the savings? Are the bills current? What am I going to do?
You go into the house, and dig out the checkbook. It is out of date by a year. I should talk to my accountant more often. You reach for the phone, only to discover it laying in pieces…by your own irrational, raging, idiotic effort. Your checkbook says you have plenty of money, if you don’t take into account all the checks you never recorded. You have to get another phone!
In the garage you find the expensive German sports car has a dead battery, and the OnStar won’t work because the subscription has ran out. The vintage edition suicide shift Harley Davidson that you’re afraid to ride is sitting there but you don’t remember how to start it. The custom designed titanium/graphite mountain bike has a flat tire. All that’s there is the 1972 Volkswagen Super Beetle that you kept to help you remember where you came from. Astonishingly it starts.
You go to the mall and find a phone that suits you only to have the clerk tell you that your credit card has been declined for being over the limit. You open your wallet to find just $17.00. The clerk tells you that the discount warehouse across town is the only place you can find a “17damn dollar phone.”
On the way to the “17damn dollar phone” store you pass the accountants office and decide to stop in. You went to high school with your accountant, stood godfather to his bookkeeper/secretary’s son, and date his sister on occasion. He welcomes you like the old friend you are, and asks what he can do for you. You tell him about the letter, the editor’s secretary, the editor, the checkbook, the car, the OnStar, the motorcycle, the bicycle, the credit card, and the “17damn dollar phone.”
He listens attentively, and sympathizes. He pulls up your files, and gets online to look at your accounts. He frowns. He double checks the figures, rechecks the bank numbers, and turns to you incredulously announces, “You’re broke.” He explains that most of your assets are not “fluid.” What in the hell does that mean, you demand in a decidedly irate tone of voice.
He holds his palm up to you, and waits for you to calm down. “You told me to look after your money, and I have. You never keep track of the checks you write, even though I have begged you to. Your bills are all on automatic pay, which is fine except for the lack, by the account holder, to pay attention to what he spends. You’re in some trouble. You no longer have an income, and it doesn’t look like you are going to after you cussed out that guy’s secretary. You’re not destitute or anything like that, but I would seriously consider spending that ‘17damn dollars’ on some groceries.”
How could this happen I ask? I had received what I thought was retirement money with my first royalty check. I invested, or had the accountant invest it in a retirement account. I asked about that, and was told that it was, in fact, still there. I told him to use that, and was informed that if I pulled it out at the current level I would lose about half of it as a result of a downturn in the stock market. The original investment was based on a certain level of performance in the invested companies. The fund had taken a hit with the rest of the economy. This had happened several times over the course of the investment, but had always recovered. It was currently in the process of recovering, but still would yield less than half of the original investment. The best he could say was that when it recovered to the point of reasonable return we could migrate it to the accounts and use it.
This was all a foreign language to me. All I wanted to know was how I was going to live. The accountant gave me several options;
1. Make peace with my editor, and give him a book that would sell,
2. Find a new editor and publishing company in the hopes they could sell the supposedly un-sellable material,
3. Go back to teaching,
4. Sell my car, motorcycle, mountain bike, and half my land.
I was now getting a headache. I had worked hard on my eccentric bestselling author persona, and did not like the options before me. The old editor could kiss my nether regions for his attitude. The book business was especially swamped with wannabee classic authors, and editors were not easily impressed. Teaching was altogether too much like work, and I loved my stuff too much to sell it. I asked for more options.
“There are none really. What you might do is take certain components of each, and try to come up with viable alternative.” He was truly trying, and I appreciated it. He had always been the person to whom I ran to when things stopped making sense. He was Bud Abbott to my Lou Costello. Dean Martin to my Jerry Lewis. Angel to my demon. Always the straight man to my clown, and most importantly…the voice of reason to the idiot savant I quite often became. It was time to grow up, so I asked him what to do.
“How long does it take you to write a book?”
“My first took me 38 years…”
“Noooo…it took you 38 years to find someone to publish it. I’ll ask again. How long does it take you to write a book?”
I thought for a minute, “With inspiration, commitment, and hard work…about a year. Of course, I currently have no inspiration, I’d rather drink and look at the beauty queen than works as my maid, and I won’t give those idiots another minute of my life”
“Why?” With that question, he nailed me. I had lost it. I looked at writing as a job, and not the magical land I created with words. Characters were clichés, prose was just filler, and poetry was bullshit. My Waterloo, those last two books, came from the video store. I found fifteen or twenty action/adventure movies, and stole themes, plots, characters, and style. All I had done was receive a check. I had lost the ability to create. The editor was right, and I seethed at the uncovering of my lethargy. I looked at my lifelong friend, feeling an all-consuming disgust and contempt for myself. Sitting in his office, I cried like a child for loss of my craft. “But I’m a writer!” I wailed.
“No, dude, you’re a man. Writing is what you do.”
“I’ve forgotten how to do it.”
“Then go find it again.”
“And just how am I going to live while I am ‘finding my muse’”
“Leave that to me, I’ll make it as painless as possible. First, there is the car and the motorcycle. You don’t have the money to maintain the car, and you’re freaking scared of the Harley. We sell those and you’ll have enough money to live on for a few months…if you let me budget you.”
“What am I going to drive?”
“The Volkswagen and the mountain bike. I’ll send my boy over after school to fix the flat…and show you how to work on it, and the car.”
“I know how to work on the car. Remember college?”
“Oh, yea, that’s right. You were a regular wiz kid back then. Dust off that part of your brain and maybe you can write a book on servicing ancient Volkswagens. That could be the change of genre the editor was talking about.”
“Just what I’ve always wanted to be…a “How-To Hack.”
“Hey, Bob Vila pays his bills.”
“Okay, but what if it takes some time to sell those things? Why don’t we sell the back part of the land? It ought to bring something.” I said this not really meaning it. The Woods were the back part of the land. I didn’t really own the woods. Legally I did, but the truth was that the woods owned me.
“Now you’re thinking. Only I would rather wait on selling the land. They’re not making anymore of it, and it will only increase in value. Besides which, you don’t own the Story Tree. Until then, I’ll float you a loan. Payable when you publish again.”
I inwardly sighed in relief, but it only lasted a second, “What if I never publish again?”
“You will.”
“You seem to have faith in me that I don’t have.”
“Remember what grade I got in freshman English?”
I laughed at that. “You mean the grade I got you in freshmen English”
“As I recall I did better than you did when I did your algebra”
“Okay, relax. I still want to know what I do if I don’t publish?
“I take your house and you live in my garage apartment.”
“Ah, I feel the love of a benevolent tyrant.”
“HA- HA- HA. Seriously, this will work if you do your part.”
“What’s my part?”
“Give my kid a list of the foods you like. He’ll bring you groceries…macaroni and cheese worked in college. He’ll mow your lawn, and clean your house.”
“What about Christiana”
“She goes. $500.00 a week is too much for a former Miss Ecuador who does nothing but lay in the sun by the pool half-naked, eat your caviar, and drink all your wine. Eye candy is a luxury. My kid will take care of you, and you get to help him with his schoolwork. I’ll pay him. You just keep him busy.”
“Deal. What’s next?”
“You go buy that 17damn dollar phone, and go home.”
* * * * *
That’s how it happened. The bestsellers returned, television optioned some of my books as well as the movies. Awards came, the Nobel, a Pulitzer, two Oscars, six Emmy’s for the miniseries I did for Hallmark, and maybe this years Tony. All because I bought a 17damn dollar phone and went home. Well…perhaps there was tiny bit more to it.