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.
“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