Isabella shoos “Jack” off the table. He scurries to a spot at the narrow table’s corner, stops and looks back at us almost defiantly. He pauses before raring back slightly, and then jumps up. I wonder if he was there at dinnertime last night. Or over here.
The dining table is white and clean, except for those places where the damned cat walked or sat. A fresh vase of colorful flowers sits dead center. Four place settings of white china and silver have been laid out, with sparkling glasses, close together so that the four of us can enjoy talking about…what do we talk about? Plaids and solids? I don’t want to talk to Frank or Michael, nor do I want to eat here, really, but then again, I don’t want not to be beside Isabella. The promise, the excitement of creating—recreating—the ending of a novel, with real color and texture and an internal life uncontaminated by plainness and convention is palpable. I can smell it and taste it this morning in the presence of Isabella. Gardenia and rose and sweet orange chocolate. A drab garment of me has fallen to the floor, and I sense poetry writing itself in my heart. I swallow my Monk fetish for a sterile environment and hope that my immune system can handle the ship’s hold of germs unloaded by the disgusting cat with the un-feline name. I can create something worth reading again, and we’ll begin—the two of us— after a breakfast of…gag… yogurt and fruit.
I crave bacon, and eggs, sunnyside up.
I quickly move the dishes and silver that Frank and Michael will use down one place while Isabella strokes the cat’s back. Jack lifts his tail and rear end high, as though he’s preparing to launch a fart at the ceiling. I have no use for cats.
I place the manuscript on the table next to where Isabella will sit, slide her high-backed chair out, and wait patiently until she has finished congratulating the animal with her fingernails for having fouled the linen we’re about to eat on. I am not a hater of cats, but if Jack should decide to jump back up onto the breakfast table again after Isabella has sat down, I’ll have no compunctions about stabbing him with my fork. Or better, Michael’s—who has now entered the room slobbering and boo-hooing, and who, it looks, will be sitting to my left again. He is positively Shakespearean, and daubs his eyes with a lacy handkerchief as he walks dolefully along the table, one hand extended toward its top for safety sake in case his legs falter and he begins to collapse. Frank walks calmly on the opposite side, reserved, seemingly unaffected by his lover’s near hysteria. I wonder what Mrs. Davenport said to them?
Beginning to answer my unasked question, Michael lowers the handkerchief from his eyes to cover his nose and mouth, and says in a rumpled, muffled voice, “She’s a wicked woman.” He turns to Frank, who doesn’t seem to be paying attention. Michael goes on, “I think we should simply pack our things and leave, Sweetie.”
Frank greets Isabella and me, cursorily, and then shakes his head with what I interpret as mild disgust as he answers his Michael. He half-whispers, but I catch the drift of it. “You are so stupid sometimes, Michael. Asking her,” he whispers, now, but I have excellent hearing, “…for a rope with knots in it or a horse whip! Do you think she’s ignorant? And then your loud mouth all night long…” He stops. Isabella cannot help herself. She cracks up—her hearing is as good as mine, I guess—which sends Michael into another fit of crying, and makes Frank throw up his hands in defeat. I look over at Jack, who is staring over at me, and control my laughter with great effort. Poor Frank.
That fucking cat.
Mrs. Davenport has Mr. Davenport deliver the food. We eat, avoiding anything in our conversation dealing with horse gear or sex gear. Michael eats very little and cries a lot.
I am not full, not at all, but I excuse Isabella and myself after we finish, grab the pages of the manuscript covered with Michael’s tears, and we head off to the sitting room at the front of the lodge. Jack meows and follows along. The room smells of old fire; ash, and an almost bitter earthiness, not breathing. Cold. It is a good day for a fire and I consider emptying the grate of its burnt pine carcasses and starting a brand new, warm and cheery blaze. I’ll sit a little closer, instead, to Isabella, and I’ll read to her.
We sit near the fireplace at the end of the sofa farthest from the windows. If I reach over my body with my left hand I can easily touch her. I adjust my butt on the cushion, cross one leg in a manly fashion, then turn to her.
“Read quickly, Mr. Ash. I will listen and take notes in my head; offer my take on the writing at the end of each chapter.”
So formal all of the sudden. She leans back and closes her eyes, and after admiring her thick, dark eyelashes too long, I begin to read in a clear, mellifluous voice.
“Sylvia Ortin stepped out of the mall entrance door, stopped under the covered area in the wind, and snapped her blue floral umbrella open. The sky hung gray and low, almost kissing the square, flat roofline of the building, and droplets of rain splattered onto the uncompromising surface of the concrete walkway all the way out to the gutter, and then into the endless parking lot beyond. She had just finished shopping for Daniel at Macy’s, for his twenty-fifth birthday…”
Five minutes later I end the reading, “…not knowing, not caring whether her blond hair got wet, or if the passing traffic mowed her down like wheat in a pregnant Nebraska field.” I want to sigh. Even though I know the book falls apart in the middle, and definitely at the finish line, that opening scene has always moved me. Poor, poor Sylvia. What a terrific opening ten pages.
Isabella sits looking at me, her lips pursed, the rest of her face stoic, or blank. I think she’s moved. I expect to see a tear forming at the corner of her eye, but—not yet. She has to digest the loveliness of this part of the book. Probably the only really excellent example of what I’m capable of. At last she moves her folded hands, and then slowly turns her head so that I can see her entire face as clearly as Sylvia sees the gray world she’s trapped in. Isabella speaks:
“Her husband beats her. She meets a house painter—a house painter? Of all the occupations you could have picked for this Daniel, why that?”
I begin to explain the significance of Daniel’s chosen trade in the novel, but she breaks in.
“Well enough, I suppose, but to have her daydreaming about their first meeting, seeing one another for the first time at a construction site. Love at first sight? At a construction site, in an unfinished house littered with paint cans and empty beer bottles? And all of this reminiscing taking place while she’s driving in a rainstorm on a busy street? Why would she believe her bald-headed, fat husband is going to beat her when she gets home, too? And the wreck. Do you really think women like me are going to identify with her after you’ve put her in such an unbelievably saccharine, melodramatic—absolutely low-life situation?”
I never thought of it in quite that way. From that perspective. But I defend myself because my book is me, even if I know deep down that it needs some fine tuning. Sylvia is Everywoman, and I know, also, that the tragedy of her life becomes absolutely clear as I drag the plot along. Isabella just hasn’t read far enough. But then again, I think sadly, maybe she has.
“I’ve just waded through ten pages of a famous author’s new book. I’m sitting in an easy chair at the bookstore, hoping I will like…no, love this new one. Maybe I was disappointed with his last book, maybe not, but I need a reason to be moved by the images in this book, the dynamics of the main character, the hopelessness she feels. I need to be shaken in some way, and Sylvia simply doesn’t have what it takes to do it. For certain, sex in an unfinished house in the first chapter is just too weird. And wheat in a…” she giggles, “…in a pregnant Nebraska field? I have serious difficulty with that image. I return the book to its place in the hot current releases rack and forget about Matthew Ash’s latest offering.”
I am shocked. I am disappointed and shocked. Isabella doesn’t understand, even though I set the scene beautifully and gave the reader…okay, maybe the construction site part was a little too over-the-top. I can easily change that and have them make love on their second meeting, somewhere else…at her house or his, or at McDonald’s in the ladies room. An author, a truly gifted author, has to be inventive. I can change that part of the scene.
“You are an award winning writer. Your opening chapter is weak, and unrealistic to the point of being offensive. The language you use, both in the narrative and the dialogue, is substandard at best. Why? Is that the best that the great Matthew Ash can come up with?”
Isabella says this with conviction. I am being pulled through the wringer, and suddenly it hits me that maybe she’s incapable of being my editor. She probably hasn’t read enough great literature. Then on the heels of that thought, another; that maybe she is hitting the nail squarely on the head. I don’t want to rewrite the book. I can’t. I don’t have enough time and, truthfully, I’m sick of Sylvia and Daniel and the dwarf on the horse who stalks them. I just want to get those last chapters finished and get the manuscript to my editor. My real editor who will love it. I don’t care if it stinks. I want very badly to write the words, “The End”.
“Why does this Sylvia have such a dirty mouth? Matthew, you must change her name and also give her a little more dignity. At least Isabelle was an attractive name, even though she was a…” Isabella doesn’t finish the sentence.
“Tell you what. Let me have the pages. I’ll lock myself in my room and read them over the next couple of days. I need to see her character in context, see how you tell the story with her. The dilemma she creates, or that fate throws at her. All of it as a whole. I need to read it. If the rest of your book is like your numbing opening chapter, it’s my opinion that we’ll have to trash it and start all over again. But, let me read it first.”
Isabella stands up, and Jack comes flying across the room to join her. She’s bold, I’ll give her that. I’ve just been insulted, but the words “we’ll have to” send goosebumps racing up my arms and down my back. Isabella extends her hand, not for mine, I know, but for the pages. This has become very too professional all of the sudden. I reluctantly hand her my six-eyed child and question in my own mind whether “we” will be able to type “The End” in the next week at all. I’m deflated. Limp. I wanted to finish it by this evening.
“Let me sit with you in your room. I won’t say a thing unless you ask me to—ask me to explain something that you’ve just read.” I think she’ll melt after a few more chapters, honestly, and well before chapter twenty she’ll be in my arms. I can begin to finish the goddam book later, after she leaves.
“No. Stay in your room and do what you do best. Write. Just think about the word “campy”. Keep it in mind. Write the ending, good, bad, or whatever. I’ll read and make notes on what I have here and get back to you tonight at dinner, then maybe tomorrow we can read your ending—if you can devise one—and talk a little about what you might want to do to salvage this thing.”
Not even my editor would dare…but, okay. I have no choice. I have to be patient.
Isabella touches my hand as Jack rubs his side against her leg.
“You asked me to help. I’ll do it, but I won’t be kind if kindness is all your looking for. By the time I’m finished with you and your book, you’ll have a Pulitzer prize winner. Your main character won’t be named Sylvia, either.” She laughs gently. Gently, so that my feelings remain somewhat intact, and then she brushes her fingers along my hand, turns, and walks toward the stairs. Jack is right on her heels, lucky bastard. I remain standing for a moment, watching her ascend the stairs like a breeze clothed in moonlight. The gray cloud dances along right behind her.
(c) Patrick Sean Lee, 2010