Venda, The Caprice, and The Martini

In the summer of nineteen and ninety-eight, I killed an extra on the set of a picture I was less than a day away from wrapping.  It was a terrible thing, I’ll grant you, a moment I still deeply regret. But a moment that was not altogether unforeseen. She had a rep for being difficult on the set, thought she ruled the roost around the other extras, and was known to use heavily when she was working. Hard stuff. Word around the studios was it was just a matter of time before she bought it. That she was strung out that day and couldn’t walk a straight line didn’t really matter. That I maybe bore some of the fault didn’t really matter. Killing her, though, put the shooting sked behind by more than two hours. And in the movie business, that mattered.

The story circulated for weeks after the wrap…months, really, and I replayed the accident again and again in my mind’s eye for just as long or longer. Mainly because no one who was on the set that day let me forget it. It followed me off location like a cur at my heels and hung about my neck like an albatross. For years, extras wranglers on every picture I worked on made it a point to herd their talent away from me. It was humiliating.

Then, after five, maybe ten years of not hearing a single peep, I thought the tale had finally run its course.  But when a grip that worked the picture told the story at a cocktail party not long ago, it all came back like a bad flashback, albeit with an extra added attraction: not only had it not dried up and blown away over those ten years like I’d hoped–it had survived, it had taken on a life of its own, and become a kind of C-movie legend, a straight-to-video urban myth grown so fat with added scenes and and so flocked with garnishment that even I had trouble recognizing it.

Certain I’d never be able to show my face in Burbank again, I fled the party; every patron, it seemed, clucking and laughing at me behind their hands as I passed their tables.

“It’s time,” my agent said across the telephone line one late afternoon not long after. “The bloody thing’s only going to keep…living, for God’s sake. Unless you do something.”

She’s right, I thought, as I pressed the small END button on the keypad. It was time. Time to free myself at last from the memory, the stigma, and the guilt.

It was time, once and for all, to tell the truth. To tell the real story of what happened that day.

The day Venda Kruger was killed.

____________________________________

The outlands north and east of the city could’ve passed for Kansas. South Dakota, maybe. Vast stretches of wheat and maize patchworked among broad, fenced fields of barley and sorghum. Droves of sheep grazed lazily in the grasslands along both sides of the road, their backs like woolen whitecaps bobbing atop verdant, open waters. Across the plains, great hulking grain mills stood here and there like giant Burning Man sculptures, with golden halos of chaff dust rising from their silo caps.

We were a good half hour from the set for that day, a working farm built from the ground up by the production carpenters in just over a week. Four-stall barn, outbuildings…sheds and coops, and a two-story log home with bleached tin roofing and a thirty-foot long porch anchoring the front face. Sweeping fields of waist-high wheat surrounded it all, stretching in all directions, it seemed, for miles, giving the farm, from certain angles,  the appearance of an island, a floating oasis anchored in a flaxen sea.

It was our third day there, and the final day of a 62-day shoot. A film launched under an ill-fated banner from the start and doomed to a shelf-life shorter than a can of Spam. A Home Alone-meets-Treasure Island-meets-Time Tunnel mashup family comedy adventure that promised to be a breakout of sorts for its lead, Jim Varney, until he lost the role to a cancer diagnosis and Tim Curry before the first table read. A film that very nearly cost director John Cherry every dime he had, and co-star Charlie Napier his life. A film that found me retching in a service alley behind the hotel at half-past eleven one night, after being hypnotized by Dee Wallace Stone. A film we all knew was going straight to Blockbuster but we all had our reasons for doing. A film that threw us all together in the most unlikely of places, and challenged us to get out. Alive. I, for one, was anticipating an eventful, but bittersweet last day, looking forward to the wrap party and hoping that the varmint wranglers had cleared the trailers and loos of snakes and spiders. And the beetles. The goddamned beetles…..

I slid the sides for the day out of my shoulder bag and turned on the van’s dome lamp, careful that I not awaken Dee, her head resting gently on my jacketed shoulder. At the top in bold caps, the title and logline stretched across the page header:

PIRATES OF THE PLAIN — Adventure Beyond Their Wildest Dreams

But my hope of not awakening her was all too short-lived. I’d only just begun scanning my lines when the van rounded a bend, lurched violently from one side of the highway to the other and came to a screeching halt in the middle of the road, throwing us all against the straps of our seatbelts, and whiplashing us to our seat backs like a vanfull of crash-test dummies.

For a chaotic moment, we all checked one another, our eyes searching each of us for signs of any injury. Until one-by-one, our gazes were pulled to the windscreen, the scene outside the van almost too surreal to acknowledge.

You’ve seen the films or stills a hundred times; a narrow road in Scotland or Colorado and a car literally surrounded by a herd of livestock; sheep or cows, all content to meander just as slow as they please while the driver barely inches forward.

This was like that. But different. we were surrounded, alright, but not by livestock. No genial old herder rode or walked behind this ambling mass.

Slivers of sunlight cut through the van’s windows, the first fingers of dawn just curling over the rim of Howequas Mountain to the east. Had it been any earlier, we might not’ve seen them. We might’ve plowed right into them. And as many as were there, it’s likely one or more of us might’ve been killed.

Their species is called Papio ursinus. One of the more social of their kind, highly intelligent, known to grow as large as humans and travel in great numbers or troops. To many people in this part of the world, they’re called the Chacma. But to most in the veldt north of Cape Town they’re simply called the Cape Baboon. And right now, we were encircled by scores of them. Great hairy beasts, loping across the road with their red asses held aloft and murder in their eyes.

For a moment, we were all too stunned to speak…and perhaps too frightened; that the sound of any one of us saying even one word might draw them towards us. Slowly, I scanned the interior, thinking, I’m riding to the set of a barely-breathing movie in a ’92 Toyota microbus with Tim Curry, Dee Wallace Stone, and Charlie Napier. It’s 5:15 in the morning, there’s no coffee in the van, Napier’s hung over, there’s a troop of baboons as big as men surrounding the van. And we’re in the middle of South Africa.

What else could possibly go wrong?

____________________________________

We found out what else could possibly go wrong at 3:18 that afternoon.

The last day of principal photography on a picture is beautiful thing. There is a sense of…conclusion. Of accomplishment. Of closure. It informs virtually everyone and every minute on the set and propels the team towards a finish line that looms nearer by the minute; a finish line marked ceremoniously, reverently, even, on some pictures, with The Last Shot of the Last Day. A shot so anticipated, so beloved, so important, that it was given its own entry in the great lexicon of film terminology. A cinematic sobriquet of such conclusive power that when heard or spoken could reduce even the most hardened of production veterans to tears. A shot traditionally called out by the 1st AD, or the production manager; called out from the camera line with a bullhorn, the AD’s voice blaring across the set with the revelatory zeal of a barrelman high atop a crow’s nest sighting land. At 2:45 Patrice Leung brought the megaphone she kept holstered on her right hip to her mouth and hit the TALK button.

MARTINI SHOT IS UP!

Around the great log home, some seventy people erupted into spontaneous, prolonged applause, then turned their eyes, their attention, and, yes, their hopes, to me.

The Martini, you see, was mine.  An honor normally reserved for everything from the simplest of coverage shots to final shots of the lead….but a privilege I’d never held, in twenty years of making films.

The setup was unremarkable…elementary, really. Bent on swindling Dee, her father (Charlie) and her son (Seth Adkins) out of their family farm, I’d come to discuss ‘terms’ with Dee. I pull through the gate, up to the house, step out of the car, and into a fertilized gift from one of the cows created just for me by the crack team in the special effects trailer. Three cameras: one on a crane to follow the car through the gate.

With a walkie-talkie on the passenger seat to relay direction from John, I climbed into my picture car: a nineteen-ninety dark blue Caprice Classic. Soft tricot-cloth interior, ribbed to look like hand-stitching. Power seats and windows. Cold air.

We rehearsed the scene four times: twice for for timing, and twice for angles and lighting. It was a snap. This was literally a no-brainer.

The walkie-talkie burped to life next to me. Patrice:

“Ok…settle, please. Buck, hold. Annnddd….Extras in.”

From the back of the house a pickup appeared. An older model Toyota with a five-foot tall stock rack squaring the bed and containing three long wooden cages stacked three high. From behind my Ray-Bans, behind the wheel of the Caprice, I watched as the wrangler, Ethan Kruger, a weathered and storied Africaaner known by every film crew on the continent, got out of the cab, walked around to the back of the SR5, dropped the tailgate, opened the latches on all three wooden cages, and two-by-two, brought out the extras for the Martini shot.

Fifteen South African chickens.

Fifteen mildly tranquilized South African chickens.

For what seemed an eternity, Ethan Kruger carefully moved hens and roosters from the truck to the ground, placing each upon their mark. Beautiful birds, all…Ovambo bantams and free-range Koekoeks. Naked Neck roosters and a duo of Rhode Island Reds. All obviously precious to Ethan… his moneymakers, yes, but his children in almost all respects, evinced not only in the gentleness with which he handled each bird, but in the fact that each had a given first name and Ethan’s own surname. With the driver’s side window powered down even slightly, I could hear the old man talking quietly to each bird…. his voice rising and falling among their clucks and peeps.

With what appeared to be a small brood milling about his feet, Ethan turned one last time to the open cages, reached in to the topmost pen, and withdrew the last extra. A massive bird, nearly as big as a goose. A bird that carried no small amount of baggage with her. A rumored prima donna with four pictures to her credit, including ‘Cry The Beloved Country‘ with Charlie Dutton in ninety-five.

The cast and crew all took in an audible breath as Ethan turned, his beloved Venda resting in the cradle of his arms, her brilliant plumage of black and white and red glistening under the waning light of the westering South African sun. He no sooner placed her on the ground with the others than she began earning her rep, establishing her own pecking order, as it were, nipping at every other bird near her until she’d created a buffer between her and them.

The bit was simple: Ethan slowly herds the birds to the drive, then, out of frame, waves a brightly painted piece of cardboard the birds know, scattering them as I pull in. Chickens mildly tranc’ed, me driving at about 2 mph…nobody saw a problem.

Beside me, the walkie-talkie burped to life again: Patrice.

“Ok… everybody settle, please. This is for the martini…. in 3…2… Ethan: extras….. and Buck… action.”

I slid the Caprice into D, turned through the gate and into the drive, my ears tuned to the walkie-talkie and my eyes glued to my stop-mark ahead. To my left, Ethan was waving the brightly painted cardboard and all the chickens were scattering across the drive on cue.

The first instinct I had that something was amiss was the slight, very nearly imperceptible rise-and-fall of the right front end of the car, followed by the same sensation from the right rear. I remembered neither from the four rehearsals, and wondered how I’d missed the clod I’d obviously just driven over.

The next instinct I had was that my first instinct was wrong. Way, way wrong. Off to my left, old Ethan Kruger was loping as fast as he could towards the Caprice, tears welling in his eyes. Beside me, the walkie-talkie again came to life, but the voice now was the director’s. Even through the static, I could make out the unmistakable sound of John Cherry exhaling before he spoke even one word…

“Oh, man…” he sighed. To my right, now, Ethan disappeared below the door-frame of the Chevy. As he slowly rose into view, John came back on the radio, telling me what I already knew.

“Ok… let’s, um, let’s cut, man. You, um…..you just, uh….”  but from the open passenger window, Ethan finished for John:

“You bastard. You just killed my Venda.”

____________________________________

I was, of course, exonerated, and eventually even old Ethan apologized and acknowledged as much, but for the rest of the day, the death wore heavily on us all, placing a decidedly pitty olive in what should’ve been a fabulous martini. Packed back into the microbus, the long ride back to Cape Town and the hotel after the wrap was like being in a sensory-deprivation chamber; my cast-mates all but shunning me. It was mortifying.

Against my better judgement, I listened to Dee, Charlie and Tim and went to the wrap party, where we screened dailies and I drank myself into near-forgetfulness, regretting the pending separation from the cast and crew and hoping that the memory of the day’s accident had faded from their minds as well. Sufficiently oiled with a serious South African Merlot, I was gathering myself up to return to my room when Tim and Dee sidled up to me with a dinner invitation to join them in Charlie’s room in an hour. Having done no more than pick at finger food for as long, I jumped at it, taking a detour to my room where I splashed some water on my face, changed clothes, grabbed another bottle of wine, and at seven-thirty, made my way to Napier’s room.

I’d barely knocked when Dee opened the door, gave me a quick peck on the cheek, and led me into the suite, where Charlie, Tim, and John waited for me at the dining table, beautifully set with white bone china, silver and crystal surrounding the meal my friends… my dear, dear friends… had prepared for me.

A bucket of KFC.

____________________________________

 

© 2017. J Buck Ford

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.

 

Lessons From My Father

(Note: Originally written in 2007 for the Commercial Appeal)

Ernest Jennings Ford was part of a generation brought up to believe that sparing the rod spoiled the child. And like many my age, the lessons my father sought to impress upon me in my youth more often than not came with a reminder, which usually left an impression of another sort altogether; one that spared no emphasis, one usually in the shape of a hand, a belt, or a switch, and usually found somewhere on my backside. Many of those impressions were so…impressive, that they actually left depressions back there. Over time, I think I actually began to develop calluses on each cheek.

I know now, that all of the reminders in the world wouldn’t have mattered, wouldn’t have guaranteed that I’d remembered. It is, after all, a well-known, but oft-forgotten fact that the lessons our fathers spent most of their adult lives teaching us to remember, fail to be remembered until we’re well into our own adult lives, and old enough to have our own children. I know this to be incontrovertibly true. I’ve told my own children many times that one day, they will wake up, slap themselves and realize their mother and I were right.

They will realize that the same lessons given to me by father, and his father to him, will be the lessons they will (eventually, I hope) seek to hand down to their children; those lessons that mold who we are; the lessons that shape our character and define how we live our lives among others. Their simplicity is the key to the enduring value each holds: Tell the truth. Respect your elders. Don’t take it if it isn’t yours. Wash your own plate. Sit up straight. Earn it. It only takes five minutes to get in trouble with somebody, and a lifetime to get out (a personal Ernest Ford mantra in my teen years). Brush your teeth. Don’t slouch. Speak up. Mind your manners.

…Life lessons that will endure generation after generation. Lessons I will spend the rest of my life teaching my children to remember, knowing they will possibly need an occasional, moderate reminder.

Last time I checked, none of them had any calluses.

Thanks for the lessons, Dad. I miss you.

_______________________

© 2007 Jeffrey Buckner Ford

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