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.

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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.”

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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.

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© copyright 2015. J. Buck Ford