Wheels

I was born and baptized a Methodist to a father of like faith and a mother of lapsed Catholicism… with a marked tendency to vodka. Like most of the hard-shell Baptist, relocated Southern Episcopalian, ‘go cut a switch’ Presbyterian lessons impressed upon me as a youth, I never truly understood the meaning, let alone the importance, of what it is to bear witness. It suggests a much narrower gap between science and religion that Psychology Today and the Catholic Church–Christianity as a whole, really–both offer the same essential definition: ‘to make a solemn statement or affirmation of a thing or event; to share the story of some thing that took place or some word that was spoken. To offer evidence. Worthy, true evidence.’

Now…I am neither a clinician nor a cleric, and I don’t presume to offer this piece of narrative evidence, worthy or not, as either. Beyond twenty-five years on the fringes of the advertising business, I have no knowledge or schooling of any kind in the field of psychology and cannot speak to it in any fashion. As for the latter… well, as for the latter, while I was raised under a Christian roof, and still regard myself as such, I must also confess that I am not a man driven by or wholly adherent to the faith. I do not claim membership among any congregation and I eschew the trappings and condescension of Sunday Christians. I do not end my outgoing message with the hope that whoever’s calling me will have a blessed day. I do not pray before the decisions I make or the meals I eat and I do not look for the hand of God in my daily business.

But here is the thing…. the thing I have wrestled with and dreamt of. The thing that has claimed so much of my waking thought for the past year, now. The thing that has compelled me…driven me to put this pen to paper.

I believe I have seen it.

I believe I have seen the whorls of that Hand’s imprint. I believe I have witnessed the evidence of it, the proof of its work. Moreover, I believe I have seen that proof in the eyes of nine women. Nine women I believe–nine women I know–were touched by that Hand.

And here’s the other thing. The thing that kindly throws a hitch in the whole getalong. The thing that pitches a little clod in the churn.

I witnessed it on a used car lot.

____________

For the past eighteen months I’ve had the distinct and altogether humbling honor of directing the philanthropy effort for that used car company–a small, niche-market outfit in Franklin, Tennessee with the unlikely moniker of Providence Auto Group. A company that has broken every stereotype of the business, by literally basing their business on one simple philosophy.

The act of giving.

In just over five years, that philosophy has driven them to give away thirty-eight nearly-new cars to hard-hit women and families in Nashville, in concert with their partners at Thistle Farms, Safe Haven Family Shelter, End Slavery Tennessee and Mercy Multiplied…four houses of refuge staffed by heroes. Heroes whose greatest power and strength is that of simple compassion.

While it’s technically and professionally accurate that I was on the giving, business end of things in nine of those thirty-eight cases, I would be lying if I left it at that. And lying is a…. you know. The truth is, after directing the second of those nine Gives, it became something of an addiction for me…a wholly selfish act on my part. Each successive Give an attempt…a prayer that I might recapture what I believed I had seen in its predecessor event; what I believed I had witnessed in the eyes and upon the faces of each of the women who came before. Women who had come from lives so shattered, so fraught with fear and loss, and so far beyond the shade, to be removed from any reality we might conjure up in our darkest imaginations.

The thing I believed I’d witnessed, you see… the thing I believed I’d seen in their eyes was Hope. But a hope so palpable, so overwhelming, that it threatened to envelop not just each of these nine women, but all those surrounding them.  A hope gripping each of them so powerfully that it seemed to leave an imprint upon them, as if they’d been lifted up, and held fast by a great hand.

But it was the knowledge of what sparked that hope, what gave rise to it and illuminated it that I write about now. A thing that I, and most, if not all of you reading this, take for granted so completely that the idea of living our lives without it–without them–is almost impossible to imagine.

Wheels.

___________________

Over the past two years, I’ve seen and photographed so many automobiles that they’ve all begun to run together. It takes something real special to move me past seeing nothing but steel and rubber and chrome and glass.

But to each of the nine women I stood beside at the very moment of the reveal of their new ride, it was clear that they were seeing something else. Something much more than four wheels.

They were seeing a road. A map. And a key. They were seeing the journey they were on opening up before them.

They were seeing the hope of freedom.

__________________

I have lived a long and charmed life. I have traveled to far ports in the world, and stood upon its stages. I have worked alongside Oscar winners and spoken with Presidents. I have been blessed beyond measure and seen wonders beyond reckoning.

But all of it pales and fades into the mist of memory when I look back upon the faces of those nine women, clear now, and present in my thought. Nine women whose faces etched into my mind and heart are the only evidence I have with which to bear this witness. Nine women I was privileged to stand beside in a moment in time when, regardless of how far I might’ve drifted from the faith of my fathers, I believed that we were all touched by that great and powerful Hand.

Nine singular moments on a used car lot when my life changed. Forever.

Swear to God.

 

The Query – Part One

As a hopeful first-time author, I learned early on that the creative distress one goes through writing and finishing one’s first book pales into virtual insignificance against the  anguish, the dejection and the desperate measures one will endure to finish one’s first query letter and land one’s first agent. It is the equivalent of literary self-flagellation, on a par with root canals performed with common household tools and DIY tattoo removal. Most writers I spoke with before finally deciding to publish this essay readily told me they’d rather wrap their mouths around an exhaust pipe than repeat the experience. And while I don’t share their general sense of nauseous foreboding, I can empathize;  my first book took three years to write; the one-page query letter nearly three months.

Three. Months. To write four paragraphs. Four paragraphs on one page that are more important to an agent than the book itself, because if you can’t tell that agent why your book will light up the bestseller list in two of those four paragraphs, they’re not going to give a tinker’s damn about your two-hundred page manuscript. They’ve got seventy-three more queries to read. Before lunch.

And that, ladies and gentlemen is the name of that tune. Period. End of paragraph.

Every writer has a story about their first time at the rodeo. This is mine.

_________________________

Like most freshmen, I agonized over researching agents. With the first, first draft of my manuscript saved, the query and proposal edited and in the chute, I logged on to the top writer’s blogs every day, religiously noting their advice. I lived on AgentQuery.com. I followed Predators and Editors like it was the Wall Street Journal. I catalogued every piece of information I could find anywhere about every agent alive or dead in the known free world. I queried until I drew blood. I sent out partials like they were coupons.

And then, late in 2006 I was signed by one of New York’s A-List agents. He was riding a major bestseller-just-turned-movie, and wrote glowingly about the first hundred pages. He told me I was “the next piece of his plan…” That my prose was “heartfelt, raw, and the pacing was fantastic.” I was a gifted writer, he said.

I exhaled.

Three and a half months later, I finished the manuscript. I wrote for guidelines on formatting. He never answered. I wrote again, assuring him I knew how busy he was, but I was excited about getting the final off to him. No answer. I called the office. The office manager told me she’d relay the message. A week went by. Two weeks went by. I wrote to the associate agent that originally requested the partial. I was getting concerned, I said. Three days later, an e-mail. From someone my e-mail’d been referred to. Someone I’d never heard of. They apologized. My kinds of questions however, were normally routed to someone other than my agent, because “…he was just too busy to answer those kinds of questions.” He was definitely “interested” in “seeing” the completed manuscript, though, and they preferred hard-copy, Times 12, double-spaced.

I printed, packaged, sent and waited.

And waited.

Two months later, a single-page letter from the agency arrived in the mail. “We have been unable to find a publisher for your manuscript,” it said. “Accordingly, we’re no longer representing your book.”

I was a gifted writer. The next piece of this A-List agent’s plan.

I wrote back and asked to be released from my contract. I received no response.

Two weeks went by. I e-mailed my disappointment, asked for confirmation that I could query other agents, and for a complete list of houses that declined. An associate wrote back a week later, said I was free to query. I was released. I never received the complete list, and never heard from the agent who signed me again.

I’d poured my life into this book. Literally. I was devastated.

___________________

I started building a new query list the next week. I was careful not to re-query and incur the wrath of agents that had already declined. My office became a war room. I devised new strategies. I re-wrote the entire query and a third of the manuscript. I polished every sentence, and every paragraph with a verbal chamois. I assembled the new hit-list, I hit SEND, and I hit the post office.

Almost immediately, partial requests began coming in. It was looking good. I settled in for the long haul, but continued to research new agencies. I bookmarked sites, wore them out, deleted them, then changed my mind and bookmarked them again. I kept a database of the return visits to agent’s sites I’d queried and those I hadn’t. Two weeks into the campaign, I pulled the database up for a review.

Damn. I’d hit Sharlene Martin’s MartinLiteraryManagement fifty-three times. I clicked the FAVORITES list and hit it for the fifty-fourth time. Cross-referenced my database. I hadn’t queried this agent. And what the hell was this ‘Considerate Literary Management for the 21st Century’ thing all about? Literary agents aren’t considerate…they’re sharks, they’re hit-people, they’re on the rungs somewhere between lawyers and used-car salespeople. A considerate literary agent? Horseshit. They don’t exist.  The testimonials were interesting, though, and…damn…she’s got the focus here on the authors, not her, not her site, not her success…her clients’ success. And damn if there wasn’t a NYT Bestseller and…wait a damn minute, here. She’s sold sixty-some books, and she’s only been in the game three years?! God almighty…who the hell is this woman?

Let’s see, she’s in LA – cool. She was in network TV and film production – interesting. And these testimonials from her clients…Jesus, they think she’s like, well, hell, they love her.

I left the office and traipsed back to Murph. She was on her laptop.

“Know you’re busy,” I said. “Go to MartinLiteraryManagement dot com, and browse this site. There’s something…I don’t know. Let me know what your gut tells you.”

And I headed back to my office. About an hour later, the inter-office phone rang. It was Murph.

“I’d query her. She’s handled some great stuff. Nothing to lose here.”

I spent another half-hour browsing her site, opened up MAIL, wrote what I thought might be the right greeting, attached the query, hit SEND, and left for a late afternoon after-school class teaching Karate.

Three hours later, Murph came to pick me up. Her eyes were dancing.

“That agent you queried today? Sharlene Martin? She called.”

“She what?”

“She called the office. There’s a message on the machine.”

When I got back to the office, I returned her call. We talked for fourteen minutes. Agents don’t have fourteen minutes to talk on the phone with an unpublished writer they haven’t signed. This was off the radar. And she was so…considerate.

“May I send you a partial?” I asked.

“Actually, no,” she said. “I want you to send me the entire manuscript.”

Holymarymotherofjesusgodallmighty.

I tried to conceal my growing fear of soiling myself.

“I’d happy to be. I mean…of will I course. Oh hell. Yes. Are you sure, Ms. Martin?”

“It’s Sharlene. And yes, I’m sure.”

“Hard copy or Word?” I asked.

“Word,” she said. “Let’s save a tree.”

That was Wednesday, May 2, 2007.

By the next morning, Sharlene had not only contacted my previous agent, but secured a list of the houses that declined. It was significant, but she sensed something wrong…things didn’t add up, didn’t make sense. More importantly, she didn’t quail, didn’t flinch, didn’t lose so much as one iota of enthusiasm.

At ten am pacific time, she telephoned me. Again.

“This is obviously all happening for a reason,” she said. “But I need to ask you an important question. Would you have a problem with Jonas Kelson?”

“Of course not,” I said. “Why?”

“Because I just talked with the head of the company, and he wants to see the proposal. Today.”

Three and a half hours later, she telephoned me. Again.

“Are you sitting down?” she asked. I told her I was. I lied. I was glued to the ceiling.

“I just sold your book. I’m flying in to Nashville Sunday afternoon, and we’re scheduled to meet with the publisher and the department heads first thing Tuesday morning. He only had one question.”

“And that was…,” I asked, dropping from the ceiling.

“How many zeroes do we want on the check.”

At some point, I realized I’d lost the ability to speak intelligibly. Or to speak at all.

“Ohhnnggmayygahhddddjh.”

“I’ve e-mailed the publisher the manuscript, and I’m printing my copy off tomorrow, and plan on reading it before I land on Sunday,” she said.

“Ohhnnnggfarghgukayhh.”

_________________________

I sat down at the computer, pulled the manuscript up, and started reading. Then I started sweating. At some point, I recall my brain beginning to bleed. I plodded, I crawled into the house, back to Murphy. “What the hell is wrong?” she asked. “You look awful.”

“I don’t think it’s any good,” I said.

“My God, it’s fine. It reads fine. Get a grip, for God’s sake.”

“No. You don’t understand. My syntax sucks, my grammar is horrible. And the second half is like, way better than the first half. I’m going to go kill myself. Hold my calls. O.k?”

I sat back down at the computer, my index finger poised above the DELETE tab, when I heard,  “You’ve Got Mail.”

Sharlene.

The meeting with the pub was on Monday now. She wanted to have dinner Sunday night. I hit REPLY. ‘Great’, I lied.

______________________

Sunday. May 6. Four days since the query.

Murph and I arrive at the Sheraton. In the lobby, Sharlene is in a cream-white pantsuit, smiling. She is beautiful, I think.

“Beautiful,” Murph whispers.

We shake, greet, hug. “I finished the manuscript two hours ago,” she said.

“What did you think?” Murph chirped.

“Well…why don’t we go have a drink and talk about it,” she said.

From somewhere in my sternum, I heard the voice of James Earl Jones. “Luke. Sorry… Buck… it’s over. She has to have a drink under her belt before she tells you how bad it sucks.”

My legs felt like they were made of pipe cleaners. Any second, now, I was going to drop face down on the floor of the lobby. Somehow, I made it to the table. We ordered a bottle of Merlot, and I brought it to my lips. From the corner of my eye, Murph was scowling and shaking her head. She turned to Sharlene. “So…what did you think?” she asked.

Sharlene unfolded her napkin, draped it across her lap, took a deep breath and looked up.

“Well,” she said. “I absolutely loved it.” Murphy smiled in my direction.

“See? All that worry for nothing. What do you have to say for yourself?”

“Ohhhmmahhhggahhdduffth.”

________________

© 2015. J. Buck Ford

The Query – Part Two

Dinner was so-so. Murphy and I both had the plank salmon, and realized the next morning it was a tad underdone. Sharlene had the prime rib, pronounced it ‘fabulous’, and we all concluded with a wedge of New York cheesecake topped with strawberries. Decent, but nothing to crow about. I know from cheesecake. I’ve tasted cheesecake from Orlando to San Francisco, and it was so-so. The berries thing always ruins it for me. Just the cheesecake, please. Try not to fuck it up by slathering some red sauce on top, thank you.

I drained the last of my glass of merlot, and turned to Sharlene. “You said yesterday you wanted this to be a planning dinner. Did I hear that?”

“You did and I do. I’m doing my other pitch at nine, and we’re up at 10:30, but I want you there early. Ten to ten fifteen. We’ll yak for a minute before we go in…I’ll have a reading on the room and the players by then.”

“What does your instinct tell you?” I asked.

She and Murph both finished their wine, and like they were programmed, both placed their glasses on the table at precisely the same time, then looked at me at precisely the same time.

Spooky.

“My instincts tell me they want this book. They got the pre-empt because they want this book. Jesus, they only question Declan had for me was…”

“–How many zeroes,” I finished for her. “I know. I’m still sort of numb about that, you know?”

I watched Murphy tilt the empty bottle of merlot to the candlelight, and, disappointed, lower it back to the table.

“But I’m…I don’t know…curious. Kelson’s niche is Christian. Born again stuff. Faith-based. They’re like, washed in the blood, you know? What about the e-mail from Josh  Mueller? He wants to know if I’ll ‘profess’ my Christian faith. Damn, Sharlene. Sorry…darn, Sharlene, are we gonna have to like, hold hands in a prayer-circle and sing ‘Old Rugged Cross’ and testify before we can sign a deal?”

“God, I hope not,” Sharlene said. “But I’m wearing my white librarian outfit just in case.” She took a last bite of cheesecake.

“What do you need me to do in there, tomorrow?” I asked.

“Sell yourself. Sell the book. And make me a promise.”

“Anything, girl. Name it.”

“Don’t tell them I’m a Jew — it’ll scotch the whole megilla.”

_________________

I walked through the leaded-glass doors of the Jonas Kelson offices the next morning at ten am sharp, made for the polished granite wall on the far end of the lobby, and checked myself in the reflection. New jeans, creases just right. Grey-dress Filas — looking good. All-season sport-coat — lint-free. Izod buttoned at the throat — semi-dressy. I polished my glasses, pressed the up button between the elevator doors, and rode solo to the fifth floor.

“Good morning. May I help you?”

The receptionist was smiling beatifically, but not looking at me. Maybe she’d divined that I was standing in front of her…maybe this was just her way of making visitors -in this case, visiting first-time authors- feel welcome. Smile heavenly. Don’t look at them.

I returned the greeting, introduced myself, and gave her the stats. I was early for my ten-thirty with Daniel Declan.

“Let me ring his office,” she said. “If you’ll have a seat, someone will be down in just a minute.”

“Thanks.” I stood.

Ten minutes later, Sharlene emerged from her first pitch, accompanied by her client, Michael Glasgow, a writer from Nashville who’d scored a major hit with a true-crime chronicle on the Janet March case. Big case, big book deal, courtesy Martin Literary Management. He had another true-crime saga in the wings, and Kelson was interested. We shook hands, mutually wished each other good luck, and Sharlene rode the elevator down with him.

“How’d the meeting go?” I asked quietly when she returned.

“It went great,” she said. “Great. How do you feel?”

“That was my line,” I said. “I know you want me to sell it, but this is your turf, your gig. I’m a newbie, here, a first-time writer. I gotta go with your lead.” She smiled. “So…Sharlene. How do you feel?”

The smile left her face. “Like kicking some ass. Let’s rock.”

The conference room was a corner, reflected glass on two sides, and a thermostat that was either on the fritz, or Nelson was doing their conservation thing. Either way, it read 83. It was sweltering.

We followed a polite associate who introduced herself as Declan’s assistant. I can’t tell you what her name was. But I can tell you what her domestic situation was, and I can tell your her history of physical abuse at the hands of her father and her first husband, how the same treatment affected the two daughters of the new man in her life, how they went through the same thing with their bio mom, who eventually abandoned them (I think) how God brought all four of them together, and got her a job at Jonas Kelson while he was at it. With benefits. Praise Jesus. God is good, isn’t he?

We were there for a meeting and we were getting testimony.

“Can He do something about the heat in here?” I asked.

Sharlene shot me a look that would have withered weaker souls. Our guide was -apparently- unfazed.

“Let me see what I can do,” she said.

And like a tent-healer, she laid a hand upon the thermostat, handed us some bottled water, told us to have a “blessed meeting”, and left us alone. The door clicked closed, and somewhere above the ceiling panels, in the infinite network of ducts, I heard the sound of cool air moving miraculously into the room.

Within a few minutes, a stream of people began moving into the room along with the cool air. I should have taken it as a sign. Sharlene and I occupied one side of the conference table, facing a team of seven of Kelson’s people – headed by Declan, the VP who’d asked Sharlene for an exclusive four days earlier in Hollywood. Directly across from me, Josh Mueller (another VP) and the author of the e-mail wanting confirmation of my faith. Kelson’s senior editor sat opposite Declan, their head of publicity to my right, and a tag-team of two sales guys across from Sharlene. She took the lead after the introductions, and pitched the book like she’d written it herself. She was passionate, driven, eloquent. When she finally paused, I fully expected Declan to pull his checkbook out then and there. Instead, he reached for his water, sipped from the clear plastic bottle and, looking down at his Blackberry, which had just vibrated, started the first round of questions.

“Jeffrey, I know that everybody here got your e-mail about the use of language in the book…and I’d like you to…kind of walk us through some of that. Give us an idea of any racy content…”

“Actually,” I said, smiling. “There’s nothing racy at all in the book. No sex, no infidelity. Nothing… carnal.”

Smiles all around the table. Nothing carnal. Praise God. Exhaling in unison.

“But there is language — language I’m aware might be offensive to some.”

Concerned looks. Brows furrowing. I couldn’t stop, though. They asked. I needed to tell.

“I had to accurately portray my mother and father both,” I said. “And any portrayal of Betty Ford, any quotations from her, would be inaccurate without the inclusion of the language she was wont to use — and used regularly. There’s no use of the F word anywhere in the book, but there are significant passages using the name of the One we pray to (I swear to God, I said that), and virtually all of those instances are direct quotes from Betty Ford. It was as much a part of who she was as the hair on her head.”

I paused ever so briefly. “She was a painter, you know. And she painted with language. Great swaths of blue and purple. From the mouth of Betty Ford,  profanity was an art.”

Across the table from me, Josh Mueller let out a nervous laugh. Like a schoolboy who’s heard a slightly off-color joke in the cafeteria line. And like a contagion, it, trailed around the conference table, slowly petering out by the time it got back around to Publicity and Declan.

“I want that in the blurb,” he said, dialing the laughter down.

Suddenly the sales tag-team was animated. They were talking QVC. Publicity wanted to know about stills and press clippings. Marketing was thinking out loud about product synergy; moving Ford Show DVD’s with the book. Around the table, the excitement was tangible… palpable…infectious. I was stoked. At some point, I can’t say when, I realized the elephant was gone. Disappeared. Back into the hat.

We stood. Declan reminded everyone that Sharlene had given them an exclusive, and he wanted everybody to focus on getting their acts together for an answer by the end of the week. Everyone smiled. I handed out Christmas DVD’s. Smiles widened. Hands clasped. Meeting adjourned.

Sharlene walked with me to the elevator, and we rode to the lobby together. “I think we just sold your book,” she said. “Declan wants to have a drink with me at the hotel at 5:30. This looks very, very good. Call me around 7:00. We’ll yak.”

She gave me a quick hug, a light peck on the cheek, and I stepped out of the lobby onto the hot asphalt of the parking lot. In the late morning heat, it was glistening, like a darkening river.

Stepping onto its surface, buoyed by the surety of success and imminent publication, I had the fleeting sensation I was walking on water.

___________________

 

© copyright 2015. J Buck Ford

The Query – Part Three

It’s hard to adequately describe, to limn the sense of ecstacy, reward and pride that comes with the knowledge that you’ve become a published writer, or in my case, about to become a published writer. You’re suddenly legitimate; you have credentials, credits beyond the blog, the on-line content, and the volumes of television and radio commercial copy you’ve dashed off over the years. A book – a book you’ve written, re-written, revised, revised again, sliced mercilessly and finally finished, has had an offer. You can now say –truthfully- ‘…me…? I’m a writer.’

The after-effects of the meeting with Jonas Kelson had kept me groggy for most of the day. I was in a kind of euphoric state; hovering somewhere between disbelief, intoxication and elation. I was on a literary contact high. At my desk, I took the mock hardback I’d fashioned some months before, taking the cover off Oleg Cassini’s biography, and replacing it with the cover I’d designed of my book, opened the book and inhaled the scent of ink on paper. If I closed my eyes, I could smell the unmistakeable scent of a bestseller. I picked up the phone and called our family company’s heads honchos Jim Loakes and Paul Corbin, walking them through a play-by-play of the meeting from start to finish. I went through it a third time for Murph. We were packing our proverbial bags. Our proverbial ship had come in.

Late in the afternoon, I called Sharlene at the Sheraton. “I’m bringing a DVD of ‘The Mikado’ for you,” I said. “I know you’re going to have a drink with Declan, and then dinner with Lisa Wysocky, so I’m going to just leave it at the front desk. I’ll call tomorrow before you board your flight home.”

At my laptop, I opened the manuscript and began reading. Three hours later, I’d reached page 189. I closed the program, hit SHUT DOWN and closed the computer. Murph’s words from three days before were ringing like tiny, silver bells in my ears. “It’s fine. It reads fine.”

I smiled. She’s right. It’s o.k….it’s fine. It’s good.

For the first time in many months, I slept soundly.

At around eleven the next morning, I called Sharlene from the car, hoping her morning meeting was done, and I could spend a few minutes with her. She answered on the first ring of her cell.

“When this whole thing got under way, you told me you were giving Kelson an exclusive until today,” I said. “I know you heard Declan tell everybody at the table he wanted to be able to give you a final answer by this Friday.”

“Right,” she answered. “I heard the same thing.”

“My question is…are you going to hold to that, or give them some latitude?”

“I think we need to give them the latitude,” she said. “I don’t think it’ll do anybody any good if I hardball them now, because I think this is on a fast-track. I don’t want us to be over confident, you know…but you don’t bring the heads of sales and publicity and marketing into a first meeting unless you’re serious. I think they’re going to make us an offer – I’m just not sure what the number’s going to be.”

“How did drinks with Declan go?” I asked.

“Fabulous,” she said. He’s totally sold on the synergy thing – the book being the anchor product, marketing Ford Show DVD’s with it – doing QVC – he’s excited. Oh…I forgot. I had a thought, and gave him the operettas DVD with The Mikado that you’d left for me at the front desk. He was the only one at the table that didn’t get a Christmas DVD, you know…so I told him you made a special trip out here to drop this off for him.

“And…?

“He was blown away. He loved it. We scored. It was way cool.”

God, I love this woman. “You’re too good, Sharlene. That was strong. I’ll put a copy for you in the mail right away.”

I was still walking on air, still couldn’t believe I’d queried her less than a week ago. “This is like a dream,” I said.

“I know,” she answered. “I want to wake up at the bank. Gotta go. I’m packing and off. I’ll e-mail you on my layover in Dallas if I hear anything.”

When I got back to office, I logged onto MartinLiteraryManagement. I wanted to read through the testimonials from her other clients, get an idea of length, form, etc., and have something in her in-box by the time she landed in Burbank that evening. I wanted to give something back. Something besides dinner and one night at the Sheraton. A testimonial that would be different from anything else on her site. A testimonial that would let her know I was a writer now. A published writer –or, soon to be. Something that would let her know how grateful and proud I was. I opened up Word, and typed THE QUERY. The first chapter of this essay poured out onto the screen over the next hour.

At 5:02 central, I hit SEND.

At 7:48 my laptop informed me I had mail. The sender was Sharlene. She’d read THE QUERY. I opened the e-mail.

 

Subject:  RE: From Jeffrey Ford

Date: 05/08/07 7:48:01 PM Central Daylight Time

From:  Sharlene

To:  JBF Sent from the Internet (Details)

You may call me when you receive this.  Oh my, this is fabulous!

 

Fifteen minutes later, she called the office.

“I just got Chapter One of your new book,” she said.

“Well…it isn’t really a…”

“It’s fabulous. I want you to keep this under wraps. It’s not finished yet. It’s an ongoing story, you know.”

“It was really just a…”

“I think when this whole thing is done, when we get the deal, you write the final chapter, and we sell it to MediaBistro, or one of the literary mags. A diary of the whole process, you know – from query to deal.”

“Great,” I said. “But I really just wanted to—”

“–Tell Murphy I so enjoyed meeting her. She’s a doll. I’ll keep you posted. Bye.”  And she was gone. I let the dial tone drone for a few seconds, and then hung up.

A few minutes later, Murphy came back to the office. I was in my chair, holding the receiver in my hand, staring blankly at the keypad.

“Was that Sharlene?” she asked.

“Yeah.”

“Did she like the testimonial?”

“I’m not sure about the testimonial,” I answered. “But she loves the new book.”

______________________

Wednesday passed. Thursday’s sun rose and set. Murphy and I occupied ourselves with normal business. I finished sending e-mail notes to all the other agents I’d queried, including those with, or who’d requested partials, informing them I’d signed with Sharlene. In hours, my inbox was filling with responses.

“Congratulations. Sharlene’s great.”

“Best of luck. She’s a great friend…great agent.”

“Damn. I guess I missed the boat. Good luck.”

And a score or more of similar good wishes. Each was a testimonial to Sharlene Martin in and of itself. But she didn’t just have this effect on her clients, she’d shined the whole damned industry. In three years. She wasn’t anywhere near her peak, and I’d been lucky enough to get a seat on the bus…damn.

Friday came and went. No word. Murph was nervous. I told her it was fine…normal, par for the course. Not to worry. “There were seven department heads in that meeting,” I told her. “I really don’t expect Sharlene to hear anything until Monday.”

I was scared shitless.

Monday came and went. Nothing. Tuesday, an e-mail from Sharlene.

‘I know this must be dreadful for you. The waiting is always the hardest part. I’ll let you know the minute I hear anything. Try to stay distracted.’

Oh, Jesus. She’d italicized anything. That meant she wasn’t sure. Now she was expecting anything. Including…oh Christ. Including a negatory.

I tried to stay distracted. Do what your agent tells you. I called Corbin on TEF business.

“Hell, I want to know what’s happening with the book!” he said.

Sonofabitch.

“This is the norm,” I said. “We’ll probably hear by the end of the week.”

Loakes was fidgeting in Palm Springs. He’d left seven messages on the machine. I couldn’t bear to call him.

For two days, I was tempted to e-mail Sharlene. Murph was adamant.

“Do NOT e-mail her. She’ll let us know as soon as she hears something. Do the laundry. Bill your karate students. Work on the screenplay. But do NOT e-mail her. She’ll think you’re stalking…that you’re not stable. Promise me.”

“I promise.”

The next day I finished Chapter Two of The Query, and ran a copy of the operettas DVD for Sharlene.

“Can’t I just let her know her DVD’s on the way?” I asked Murph.

“What do you think?” she countered. It smells –no, it reeks of fishing. Let it go. Do NOT e-mail her. Jesus.”

“O.k., honey.” Murphy left the office. I opened AOL and clicked on SEND MAIL.

 

Hi, Sharlene,

A quick note to let you know that your DVD copy of ‘Gilbert, Sullivan and Ford’, with The Mikado and HMS Pinafore went out today. Sorry for the delay…we had some tech issues to resolve.

Best to Anthony…

JBF

 

Thirty minutes later, my in-box rang. Sharlene

‘Thanks, Jeffrey. I’ll call Declan today and find out where we are.’

That was Wednesday, 4:08 in the afternoon – central daylight.

Thursday afternoon was busier than normal. The public school I was involved with as a martial arts instructor held its annual day-long Field Day, and, as it’s been for the past nineteen years, I was there from morning until the end of the school day. At three o’clock, I said goodbye to the kids and the staff, called Murph, and started the short walk home. It was a beautiful day, cloudless, seventy-five, a light breeze from the west. From inside my hip pouch, my cell rang, twice, three times, a fourth, and then fell silent. Whatever it was would keep, I thought. And as soon as the thought passed, Murph did likewise, pulling about, and swinging back to pick me up.

I was looking forward to a couple of hours down-time before heading to the Dojo for the evening’s classes. Life was good.

As is my custom, I headed for the office as soon as we got in the house, opened the screen on the HP, hit the power button, went to the kitchen and nuked a cup of joe from the morning’s pot while I waited for the laptop to power up. I set the cooking timer for fifty seconds at high. Got the milk out of the fridge, opened the dishwasher, retrieved a clean spoon, and watched the timer count down the last fifteen seconds on the microwave. Three beeps. Warm mug. Dash of milk. Too much sugar. One semi-fresh cup of coffee. I love technology.

On the way back to the office, my cell played the Chopin piece that lets me know a message is in voice mail. I pulled the phone out of my pouch, flipped the lid and checked the read-out. It was from Sharlene.  At my peak of multi-tasking skills, I keyed in my password on the phone as I loaded AOL. The e-mail opened at exactly the same time her voice-mail began on the speaker-phone.

Kelson had passed.

_________________________

© 2015. J Buck Ford

The Query – Part Four

For a moment, the passage of time slowed to a standstill; the cursor’s wink on the monitor froze on, Sharlene’s message on my phone dropped in pitch like a record on a turntable being powered off. I was sure that there was some wire crossed somewhere, some logic overlooked — some reasonable explanation for why breathing was suddenly so difficult.

I pressed CALL and dialed Sharlene’s number. Half way through the third ring, it suddenly cut short, and through the near-microscopic earpiece, I could hear the brief, quick intake of muffled breathing on the other end.

“Sharlene….?”

She was crying.

“I can’t believe this,” she said.  “God, I wanted this so bad. I’m so sorry. I would have nev—“

“—Just a minute.  Just a damned minute, girlfriend. You’re crying? You’re crying?! There’s no crying in baseball! Wait…I mean….publishing! There’s no crying in book publishing!  You’re Sharlene Martin, for God’s sake. You’re the toughest literary agent in town. And you’re…. considerate. Strike that. You’re a shark. A fighter. Get a grip.”

Silence.

“Sharlene…?

Nose into Kleenex. Then… “Jesus. You’re right.”

“What the hell happened?”

“They were worried about your mother…and her –”

“—Language? Her profan–”

“–Her death. The… way she died.”

“Her… the what?”

“It came down in an e-mail from Josh Mueller. He said Kelson was concerned she didn’t… what did he say? Wait a second… let me read it to you… here: ‘that she didn’t die in a Christian way. We’re concerned about the effect it might have on our core market, and frankly—’” She paused and exhaled like somebody’d cut the valve stem on her spare. “Jesus, I literally can’t believe I’m reading this.” She said. “… ‘we’re concerned about the effect it might have on our core market and frankly, on Ernie’s fans. She killed herself. She broke a Commandment.”

For a micro-moment, the sheer absurdity of what she’d just told me hung in the air like a bad one-liner from a washed-up comic.  This idiot wasn’t just talking about my mother, he was talking about Betty Jean Ford, who began breaking the Commandments when she was barely out of grade school; who broke handfuls of them before lunch every day. Who tutored me at her feet in the paralyzing beauty of profanity and taking the Lord’s name in vain… who wrote the book on breaking the Commandments, for God’s sake.

For an instant, it hung there.

“And for that transgresshunn, Betty Jean Ford,” I said in my best Oral Roberts, “Is going to go straight to Hayull.”

We both exploded in laughter.

“Betty Ford scotched this deal, Sharlene. Kelson wasn’t supposed to happen. Jack Westholm in New York wasn’t supposed to happen. You were supposed to happen, Sharlene Martin. This book will stand or it will fall with you.”

We talked for a few more moments, tightening our belts and sucking air – taking the edge off.

“Thanks for the pep talk,” she said. “Give me a couple of days to regroup.”

We said goodbye, and I hit END. A fitting gesture; for all my bravado, I was nevertheless convinced that my career as a writer had died before it had taken its first breath.

__________________

The couple of days Sharlene needed turned into a week, then two. I moved across the hours in slow motion, wading through them with leaden feet and heart. After three weeks, I was certain I’d never write again. Never write anything. I looked at the keyboard like it was some kind of alien device. Putting pen to paper seemed… pointless. Obviously, a published writer was not to be my lot in life It had all been one grand exercise in literary futility.

I was wrapping my lips around the Toyota’s tailpipe when my cell phone began playing the Debussy funeral dirge I’d downloaded a few days before.  Ringing and vibrating; buzzing like a carpenter bee hung up and humming in my pants pocket. After the fourth ring, the tailpipe was getting a tad warm, and I knew I had a choice to make: burn my lips off, or answer the phone.

It was Sharlene. “We’ve got a meeting,” she said.

My lips, it seemed, were safe.

“Cumberland. It’s a small company. Historical fiction and bios, mainly…”

“Boutique?” I asked.

“More like a closet. But they’re legit, and they’re interested.”

“When?”

“Tomorrow morning. You’re meeting with Ron Forster – head of the company, and you’re going to love this…. Are you sitting down?”

“Yes,” I lied. “Tell me.”

“He was with Kelson for ten years. And honey, he’s looking for a little hard-cover payback.”

______________________

Friday April 4, 2008 – Nine months later

I was running late, and knew I’d be fighting traffic on the way to the airport. Murph was on a 5:30 Jet Blue leg from Kennedy and I needed to be on the off ramp ten minutes ago. If I took Briley to Elm Hill and jogged down to Donelson Pike, I might could come in the back door, shave ten minutes off and still make it to Arriving Passengers before she got out of luggage.

Wasn’t going to happen. I threw the van in reverse, got maybe six feet out the drive and two feet shy of rear-ending a UPS truck pulling in behind me. The driver hit the air horn, spooking a bunch of crows in the big oak tree and climbed out of the jumper seat, carrying a square box maybe 20 by 20. I grabbed the box, signed the digital… signer-thing, set the box in the well between the seats. Foot on the brake, I put one eye on the driver’s side mirror, waiting for the truck to back out, and let my other eye drift to the top of the box. Two-maybe three inches above the address label, a dark red logo, rectangular, a black border encasing five words:

CUMBERLAND PUBLISHING HOUSE – NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE.

I laid my windbreaker over the box and hit the gas.

Murph was standing in the waiting area when I pulled under the awning at baggage. I swung curbside, threw it in PARK, threw her bags in the hatch, threw her in the shotgun, ran to the driver’s side and climbed in behind the wheel, just in time for three cars and two parking jitneys to pull in front of us. We were going to be there for a few minutes. Providence.

I reached in the cargo hold, pulled a small pocket knife out, opened the blade and handed the bolster-end to Murph.

“And you’re handing me a knife in the airport for….”

“I want you to be the one to do this,” I said.

“Kill you for being late?”

God, she’s funny.

“God you’re funny…. I want you to open this.”

I whipped the windbreaker off the parcel, flinging it back to the back seat with the abandon of a magician, unveiling the big reveal.

Three cars ahead, one of the parking jitneys swung out into oncoming and beckoned by the uniformed security, we inched forward before coming to a stop again. Murph’s eyes never left the box. She brought her free hand to her mouth.

“Oh my God,” she whispered. “When did they come?”

“Today,” I answered.

“Oh God…. And you didn’t… you didn’t open it?”

The SUV two up pulled out, and we crept forward another car length.

“I wanted you to do that,” I said.

Loaded with riders, the second jitney pulled out and we pulled forward. Another minute, maybe, and we’d be headed home.

“Are you sure?” she asked.

“I love you,” I answered.

With her index finger across the length of the blade, like a surgeon, she creased the tape and the tip of the blade sunk between the seams of cardboard.

“Careful….” I whispered.

Slowly, she drew the knife the length of the tape, cut the ends, folded the blade back in its haft, handed me the tool, and opened the box.

I do not believe that I shall ever forget the next moment; should I live beyond all years, it will never fade from my memory. The moment when she lifted the first copy off the top like she was holding a rare thing, an heirloom, and laid the book on her lap, brushing her hand lightly across the dust jacket.

“I can’t believe it,” she said whispering. “It’s real. This is … this is your book….”

She looked up and into my eyes, her own brimming with tears.

“You’re an author.”

The last car pulled away, and waved on by the uniform, I put the van in gear, and we swung out onto the road leading home.

_________________

© copyright 2015. J. Buck Ford