Lawrence Block is America’s preeminent crime writer, and the author of more than 50 novels, 100 short stories, and numerous books on writing. In 1994 he was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America; he was awarded the Gumshoe Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005. On top of all that, he’s both my favorite author, and an inspiration to countless wrters (myself included); I was recently lucky enough to have him agree to an interview (which you'll find a few inches further down).
I first encountered Mr. Block's writing when I stumbled onto the eighth book in his Matt Scudder series, A Ticket to the Boneyard. I fell in love … with the pitch-perfect dialogue, taut and suspenseful storyline, stark and sometimes shocking brutality, and with the moral ambiguity of the intriguing cast of characters (no pure white or black hats among them, everyone brings their own wonderful shade of grey to the story). As soon as messieurs Scudder and Block and myself finished with Leo Motley (the story's ill-fated antagonist), I quickly found the first book in the series (The Sins of the Father, if you were wondering) and kept reading until I had caught up.
Once I was current with the Scudder series, I worked my way through his other famous series (Bernie Rhodenbarr, who I will always think of as 'Bernie the Burglar', and 'Evan Tanner the world’s most unusual spy') before exploring his other great novels (like Such Men are Dangerous, one of my all -time favorites) and his short stories (like the fantastic collections, Defender of the Innocent and Some Days You Get the Bear). I’ve never failed to enjoy any single one of his books, and his writing seems to only get better as time goes by.
A perfect example of this is his recently released novel, The Girl with the Deep Blue Eyes, a fast-paced, sex-filled, and nasty piece of noir that’s as good or better than anything Block’s written, in my opinion. I bought/downloaded it the day it came out, and read my way through it more quickly than I wanted to … trying to stretch and savor the experience, but unable to delay the pleasure of reading one more page/chapter of retired cop, turned detective, Doak Miller’s violent romp through the steamy days and nights in Gallatin County, Florida.
The confidence and competence with which Lawrence Block steamrolled through this story called to mind both John MacDonald (at least partly because of the story being set in Florida) and Elmore Leonard (for the depth of characters and great dialogue), but with that special flair and edge that only Block can bring to his version of adult storytime; it would be fair to say that The Girl with the Deep Blue Eyes is a prime example of Lawrence Block writing exactly the kind of story and characters he loves best, while at the full height of his powers.
At any rate, enough prelims, here are the questions and answers from my interview with Lawrence Block:
1. What are you working on at present?
An updated and expanded edition of Writing the Novel from Plot to Print, my first book for writers and continuously in print since 1978. It's stood the test of time, but the word has changed in the past 37 years, and certain areas — ebooks, self-publishing — are unrecognizably different. I should have the new edition on sale in early 2016, probably with the title Writing the Novel from Plot to Print to Pixel.
2. How do you deal with writer's block?
At my age, I'm apt to yield to it. But my friend Jerrold Mundis has a short book that's truly the last word on the subject. It's called Break Writer's Block Now, and I recommend it without hesitation.
3. Do you have a favorite work that you feel has been overlooked?
The nature of the business is such that non-series novels never get the attention of books in series. I'm delighted my books about Matthew Scudder and Bernie Rhodenbarr and Keller and Tanner are as popular as they are, but regret that Random Walk and Small Town get less attention. My newest book, The Girl with the Deep Blue Eyes, is getting plenty of attention right now, and several reviewers have been kind enough to call it my masterpiece. But it's not part of a series, and its popularity will probably prove less durable in years to come.
4. If you could have lunch with any three writers, living or dead...
Ah yes, that popular favorite, and easy for me to answer. I'd pick Ross Thomas, Evan Hunter, and Donald E. Westlake. I already know what excellent company they are. And I miss them. If you'll set two more places, I'd add John B. Keane and Dave Van Ronk.
5. Do you feel you've inspired other writers?
Oh, I know I have. All over the world, no end of readers have hurled books of mine across the room. "I know I can write a better book than this piece of crap!" they've thundered. And wouldn't you know it? Time after time, they've been right.
Personal note: While I've never hurled one of your books, or thought them crap, I have been inspired, by a continuous exposure to your great ideas and characters and plot twists, to try my hand at writing ... it's safe to say that without your books, I wouldn't have written/published my books.
I’m deeply grateful to Mr. Block for taking the time to answer my questions, and even more grateful to him for the superb writing he’s done for me and all of his fans over the years. His writing, and books about writing have been an ongoing inspiration to readers and writers over the year, myself included. I look forward to reading more great books from him in the coming years, especially the updated and expanded Writing the Novel from Plot to Print to Pixel.
You can find Lawrence Block’s work and words in your local bookstore and online. I’ve provided links to buy some of the works mentioned up in the blog/interview above, as well as few of other relevant links below:
Lawrence Block's Website
Lawrence Block on Amazon
Lawrence Block on Facebook
- The new novel, "Thunderstruck", is going through another round of story and line editing by the tireless minions at SmartPig ... it should be, as Horation Alger urged, going West (to our out-of-house editor for her first swipe at the work) within the week.
- I'm hard at work on, and up to my elbows in, the fourth Tyler Cunningham novella, tentatively titled "Code Talkers", which follows Tyler and Hope on a trip out to the Four Corners region for some cryptography and murder in red rock country.
- In getting ready for my big shifting of gears next summer, to write a fantasy novel, I'm reading my way through a pile of the best work in the field, both new and old. I'm also taking lots of notes and drawing maps and making up character sheets ... this should be a fun project.
- I recently conducted an interview with writing legend, and an idol and role-model of mine as a writer, Lawrence Block, and I should be posting the results of the Q&A sometime this week ... it was incredibly exciting to be in communication with this fantastic writer, and to get his thoughts on his writing and the writing process in general.
Enjoy your Sunday, read and write!
Invitation to the Party
I’m out this Halloween,
out delivering invitations.
Walking down dark roads,
and quiet paths,
even padding along carpeted hallways
(I passed your bathroom, heard you in the shower, but I don’t have an invitation for you, not today).
I see many people along my route,
am seen by few,
invite fewer still.
My home is the woods,
cold fog and damp and the smell of rotten things on forest floor are my family;
neither fallen leaves nor twigs crunch or snap underfoot,
dead things all work for me.
The signs to deliver an invitation differ in every home,
some glow with sick or fear or desperate need,
mine is a gift given to rich and poor,
young and old,
innocent and guilty (of sin or life or love).
I come in, to visit, through an unlocked window,
from under the bed or out of the slightly gapped closet door,
I know the boards that creak and stairs that squeak and hinges that sigh with gentle opening;
everyone comes to the party eventually,
why not with me,
by my invitation.
A bittersweet kiss while you sleep,
the gentle caress of sharpened steel from the right when you looked left,
a lover’s embrace of pillow over mouth and nose (rough thrashing soon spent and stilled),
a leg-sweep brings a swift tumble onto hard tile when rinsing soap from your eyes;
my invitation varies in every home,
but I always show up at the party with a new friend in tow.
Last fall I worked with a number of author indie authors to produce an anthology of short stories. It was a fun process, and I enjoyed the opportunity to work with them all, and to try my hand at writing something outside of my usual pattern.
The idea for my story came from a writing themed picture/meme I posted on my FB page:
I liked the idea of an interaction between the protagonist and the story in progress and the reader ... and in this way, my desire to write a short piece of metafiction was born. The story was quite different from the stuff I ordinarily write, but the words came freely, and I liked what I ended up.
You can buy the full anthology at Amazon HERE, it's really a fun collection of stories, read the story here (well, a tiny bit further down this blog entry actually) for free, or download it in pdf format from my public DROPBOX folder (also for free).
Now is the Winter
I came to my senses behind the wheel of a strange car, on a strange street, with a strange woman (in both/all senses of the word) beside me, and the day quickly got more strange and unpleasant from there. The tropical heat and humidity, along with a chorus of blaring car horns, told me that I was in tropics, in traffic, and in trouble. I was drunk and dry-mouthed and muzzy-headed; under my white knuckles, the steering column was sweat-slick and on entirely the wrong side of the car for this day to not be a complete disaster. I turned to my passenger, cleared my throat, and aimed for a normal tone (if there is such a thing in these circumstances).
“Excuse me,” I said, trying to ignore the ongoing honk-a-palooza coming from behind us, “do you think you could ...”
“Oh my Goddesses,” she said, whistling a bit through the sibilants and a sizable Letterman-gap. “Go, go, go! Get us out of this intersection before the cops come to see about all the honking.”
I stepped on the gas, and promptly stalled the car as my left foot slipped off of a clutch I hadn’t been aware of until the car jerked a couple of feet forward and died. I looked stupidly down between my legs as my passenger started chanting, “Go, Go, Go” in time to her hitting my left arm, which had dropped from the wheel to find the shifter. I hadn’t driven a stick since Father taught me how to drive using his ancient Saab 900 (and I certainly couldn’t remember driving one with the stick on the wrong side, especially not drunk or in traffic).
“If you don’t stop the hitting and the shrieking this second,” I said, “I’ll rip your fucking hand off at the wrist and jam it in that noise-hole. I can get us out of here if you’ll give me a moment of quiet to think.”
Her teeth clacked together, sounding like the ancient Cubanos who played dominoes out front of the bodega near Nana Cecily’s. The offending hand flew up to cover the offending noise-hole; more importantly, away from my hand, which now found the shifter, and eventually first gear. I feathered the gas and clutch as gently as if they were made from baby bunnies. I got clear of the intersection just as the light was turning red, pulled away from the angry drivers behind me, and drove until I found the first left turn that I could make. I made the turn without any honking or yelling or crashing, pulled into a shady spot under an enormous fig tree, shut the engine of the car off, rolled out of the door, climbed to my feet and went to lean against the slick and cool bark of the tree.
She walked over and said my name a couple of times before I figured out who she was talking to. My eyes were tightly closed against the sun and the day and the headache that was trying to split my skull open right above those same eyes.
“Richard, we have to get to the wedding,” she said. “You said everything would start at two, and it’s half past already.”
The shock opened my eyes, and I looked the two of us up and down, “Jesus Christ, please tell me it’s not our wedding?” I was only half joking.
She smiled and reached out to slap the back of my head. My altered-state muted my normally muted response, and I nearly broke her wrist before I reined in my reflexes.
“Goddess! That hurt, asshole,” she said. “No, we just met at the Swizzle. I’m from Yellow Bird Escorts. We’re paid through nine tonight to go to the rehearsal for your brother Eddie’s wedding to whatshername. I wouldn’t even have hung around, much less gotten in this car with you in this state, if it weren’t for your story of the orphaned baby fox.”
“Barb, not Barbara,” I said, as things finally started coming back to me. “Eddie’s marrying his new girl, Barb, in … Bermuda. We’re in Bermuda!”
“Congratulations, Richard,” she said as she queued up her next question. “Now, do you think we could get going, it’s not getting any earlier. Do you need me to drive?”
“Nope, I’m good,” I said, which is my inevitable answer to that, or any question regarding my well-being, or capacity to function in any given situation; I slid back into the roasting-hot rental, gingerly touching the steering wheel, listening to my knees crack as I settled into the car.
“I have a picture of the general layout of Hamilton, and some idea of how to get from here to the resort the wedding’s at. I feel like an ass for asking, ma’am, but can you remind me of your name?” I asked.
She looked at me, sitting behind the wheel, squinting in the tropical glare, sweating out what must have been an impressive number of rum swizzles, and she gave a deep, rumbling laugh before taking pity on me, sharing a sweet and pretty smile, and answering, “Pepper Divinity, Richard, pleased to meet you.” She took in my reaction to the name, and continued, “I know, right?”
“There is no way I can introduce a two-stripper-name ‘date’ to my family with a straight face, what’s your real name, or at least real-er?”
“That’s the real deal, honey,” she said, nodding as she did. “My workin’ name is Norma-Jean, ‘cause people say I look like Marilyn Monroe.”
I couldn’t see it, but also couldn’t think of a good reason to mention that.
“Norma Jean it is,” I said, shifting the car into first gear, putting the car through a three-point turn, and heading back into the noise and traffic of a minute ago, somewhat more clear-headed. Long years of hard-drinking and a mixed bag of blackouts and brownouts were finally paying off in the form of partial function while fully inebriated.
I managed to get through town, and onto the right road to feel my way towards the resort that was perched on a cliff at the far end of the island. I’d never been to Bermuda before, but my brother Edward and I had decided on it as the perfect zombocalypse retreat nearly twenty years ago, so the roads and general layout were still etched in my mind from long hours spent with maps and the fancy glass globe in father’s study. My head cleared further while I drove farther, and by the time I handed off the rental to a valet and escorted Pepper Divinity inside (I had perversely decided on introducing her to everyone at the wedding by her real name while crossing the island). I could remember whole stretches of the flight out of JFK. I had been alone and drinking early in the first class section. The limo driver, who provided the ride from the airport into Hamilton, arranged for me to meet the lovely lady herself at The Swizzle Inn (which serves those vicious and eponymous drinks). More importantly, I remembered that I was planning to kill my eldest brother, Eddie, tomorrow, on his wedding day.
“Would you be a peach, Pepper,” I said, giggling, though, who wouldn’t, “and get us a couple of swizzles from the bar that must be hiding somewhere nearby, while I check in; tell them to charge it to the Gloucester Wedding Party. Thanks.”
I pressed a fifty dollar bill into her hand as she started across the grand entry hall, just in case, enjoying the briefest of touches as our hands made a nest around the money. Her fingers and palm were smooth and muscled and not at all soft, much like what I could see/imagine of the rest of her. On a whim, I told the woman behind a yard of cool marble (upon which I may or may not have rested my forehead for a few delightful seconds) that I was Richard Gloucester, checking in, would need a suite instead of a single, and that there would be two of us staying for the wedding.
“Lord God, Ricky,” Father said from next to me, appearing, as always, as if out of thin air. “You smell like a high-speed collision at the corner of Fruit and Rum. You missed the entire luncheon, and a walk-through of the wedding by the planner. Your brother’s only going to get married this one time; do you think you’ll be sober for the dinner tonight, or the ceremony tomorrow morning?”
“Father,” I said, gathering my thoughts, and thankfully hearing Pepper’s heels clacking across the Italian marble, obviating my need to think up anything meaningful to say. “So nice to see you too; this is my friend, Pepper Divinity, she’ll be joining us at table tonight, and tomorrow.”
She reached out to hand me my drink, and continued the movement by sliding her arm inside of mine for a quick caress before turning to face Richard Gloucester Senior with a confident outstretched hand, and a fun and fierce and frantic smile that wholly surprised Father. At that moment I wanted nothing more than to throw her over my shoulder and take her up to the suite for a grown-ups’ play date.
“I’m so pleased to meet you, Mr. Gloucester,” Pepper said. “Richie has told me so much about you.”
Something about her tone or touch or the way that she held his eyes, warm and friendly, but not giving an inch, seemed to stop the snarky comment in his throat. He held their shake longer than the 1.2 seconds he had drilled into Eddie and me when we were growing up, and even moved his left hand to give her forearm a brief squeeze that was outwardly proper, but which seemed to me, based on my family’s general level of warmth and human contact, almost obscene.
“I am pleased to meet you, Pepper!” he said. “Richard the lesser’s ‘dates’ for family gatherings generally leave something to be desired, but seeing you on his arm makes me want to think better of the boy.”
I had never wanted to be any place less, or to kill anyone more. I could feel the red climbing up and out of my shirt collar, and felt the retort pushing its way out of my mouth like angry vomit when she answered him for me.
“If my daddy could see me today, he’d likely say the same thing about me, only with Richie dressing me up in this case. He had a talent for saying exactly the right thing to make me feel about as big as a grasshopper; but then he always was a nasty sonofabitch.”
Father looked stunned for a few seconds, debated getting angry for a few more, and then surprised all of us by laughing out loud, at her, at himself, at all of us.
“By God,” he said. “I like you girl. Pepper? That’s one hell of a loop to be hung on your whole life, but it fits you. You kids get up to your room and get settled in, and I’ll see you down at beachside where Edward and Barbara and some other members of the wedding party will be heading out for a guided snorkel at four.”
“Sounds like fun, we’ll try to make it, but we may take a nap or shower or something first, so don’t hold things up for us,” she said and turned to walk after the bellman hauling my bags up to the suite. As she walked away, she perhaps put a little extra sway in each step … a bonus that was not lost on Father, who was watching Pepper walk away like there would be a quiz on her ass later.
“Father,” I said sharply, trying to reel him back in for a moment’s talk before I followed Pepper down the hall to the suite, “we need to find time to talk about that ridiculous proposal and paperwork you had Mitchell send over last week. It virtually drops Eddie into the CEO slot, and freezes me out of the company.”
“There’s no ‘virtually’ about it son,” he answered brusquely. “That’s what’s happening, effective immediately. He’s a man; you’re a boy, a drunk, Peter Pan without the boyish charm or ability to fly. You are far too irresponsible to help Eddie take over The Company when I officially step down next month.”
I had no answer to this. He was right, which pissed me off and made me want to slap the self-righteous, self-assured smile off his face. Instead, I finished the drink in my hand, grimacing at the fruitiness, and turned quickly enough to slip, slightly, on the slick floor and nearly pratfall in front of the man I least wanted/needed to look a fool for on this day. I recovered, but dropped the empty glass to the cold, hard floor, then stomped off towards the room, the happiness and horniness and hopefulness of moments ago broken on the floor too. I remembered my reasons for planning the death, murder, of my brother, and wondered if I should start with the old man instead.
Pepper’s high heels were a few feet inside the door to our suite, my bags had been placed on the bureau, and her lovely silk dress was hung neatly, but casually, on the back of what looked to be a comfortable reading chair. I could hear her singing in the shower (Patsy Cline, “Walking After Midnight”) with more gusto than talent. She must have heard or felt my presence in the suite, because when she reached the end of the stanza, she warbled the ending into an invitation and an offer that I couldn’t refuse.
“I’m lonesome as I can beeeee,” she sang. “Richie, can you come and help me wash my back?”
I haven’t gotten undressed as quickly since the nineties, and the grace I’d been lacking a minute earlier was thankfully mine again, as I negotiated the high and slippery wall of the enormous tub/shower to climb in behind Pepper, who was rinsing her face and hair.
“Reporting for duty, ma’am,” I said, and, unable to help myself, I brushed my lips against her perfect neck, and ran a hand down her spine and then around to the front of a hip. “You taste like sunshine and dewdrops, and look good enough to eat.”
“We’ll get to that in a couple of minutes, mister,” she said, “but no serious monkey-business in the shower. I have a girlfriend who broke her elbow and a wrist getting frisky in the shower. You can look, you can touch, but save the good stuff for the bed out there, okay?”
She turned and gave me a long and acrobatic kiss that almost unmade her logical argument, then slapped a soapy washcloth into my hand, turned, and presented me with her back again. I dutifully scrubbed, albeit spending more time and energy on some parts of her than others, and she did the same for me (which again, almost convinced me to try and get her to break her rule about showers). Father and family and a fortune just out of reach were forgotten, and after a quick rinse and toweling off, I chased her, both of us giggling, to the bed.
Watching her race naked across the room took my breath away and put my heart in my throat; she was tanned with a few pale stripes, long-limbed and lean, but with just enough curves and softness and then still more curves to leave no doubt of her femininity.
“Jesus, you must do yoga or whatchamacallit,” I said. “You’re hard.”
“You too,” she said, turning to give me the onceover, and a ridiculously endearing giggle, “Come here and let’s do some Pilates.”
It was a wonderful afternoon … perfect really. The air was warm and smelled like a flowers and spice, the sheets were crisp and clean, the ceiling fan dried and cooled us between interludes of love, and we kept the room-service staff busy and amused with outrageous and extravagant, even unlikely and hard to believe, orders for food and drink. The sex was fun and frenzied and athletic and playful/experimental without guilt or power-struggle or inhibition. Pepper was enthusiastic and greedy and giving and genuine in bed, and by the time we should have long since started getting ready for dinner, I felt like some Caribbean god of carnal pleasures. I also felt as though I’d been beaten with sticks, had layers of skin sanded off, and been bitten/licked/kissed everywhere I had nerve endings.
“Will your father send someone for us if we skip the dinner?” she asked as she finished the last of the champagne out of a coffee mug and threw a tiny cube of ripe and juicy mango into her mouth. All of the flutes had been broken in an explosion of Greek exuberance; now broken glass littered the area around a (wholly unnecessary) fireplace.
“Eddie would actually feel betrayed in some small way,” I said, “and something about the way we’ve spent the afternoon makes me want to not hurt my little brother.”
“I must be a fucking magician in the sack then,” she said, “because the drunk, angry, airplane-cramped you of a few hours ago was intent on killing him, unless my memory’s going, and it’s not.”
I tried to play back the tapes of my jittery, drunken, and grumpy morning. Could I have been stupid enough to share my plans to murder my way up the Gloucester corporate ladder with a woman I’d just met, hardly knew, an escort (let’s call a spade a spade, she’s a hooker)? I was simply incredulous at my credulous simplicity; I went from feeling a Pirate King to one of the boobs singing loudly about their ‘cat-like tread’ as they stomp towards the house of General Stanley. The look on my face must have betrayed my emotions and confusion.
“Don’t sweat it,” Pepper said. “You were very drunk when you told me about coming down from the icy depths of Manhattan to kill him and his blushing bride because you were being edged out of the family business, whatever that is. I didn’t believe you until I met that beast who spawned you; with that monster in your gene-pool, anything is possible. All the intrigue and plotting and murderous greed was a nice counter-balance to the drunken, morose, and moping cutie-pie who talked about his dreams of opening an ‘animal shelter and wildlife-rehabilitation center’ in the mountains somewhere north of ‘The City’; the guy who cried telling me about the baby raccoon.”
“It was a baby fox, and it died in the exact same moment as those stupid dreams,” I moved over to the bar, feeling once again fat and old and slow and impotent. I filled my own coffee-mug with a few inches of mid-market single-malt, and drank it down like the medicine it was.
“I’ll go in and rinse off the afternoon,” I said, eventually. “Unless you want to go first, and then we’ll head down to the dinner after.”
“New rule,” she said, “as long as we’re gonna be together, we’re gonna be together. We’ll rinse off together, to save water, and be downstairs all the sooner.”
“Sounds perfect,” I said. I was relieved and happy and thought that I just might be able to face the dinner, and Eddie, and Father, after some scrubbing-bubbles therapy-time with Pepper.
“The discussion of our taking a team-shower does raise another point, possibly two,” she said, looking down my body and smiling, not without kindness or fondness. “Given this wonderful room, and a bathroom bigger than my apartment in town, and the wedding you sorta invited me to tomorrow, we need to talk about money.”
“I want you,” I gushed, then pulled back, slightly embarrassed/embarrassingly. “I mean I want you to stay with me during my stay in Bermuda, until I leave the day after tomorrow. How much money do we need to talk about?”
“I like you, Richie,” she said, “like this place, had fun in bed with you this afternoon, wouldn’t mind snorkeling tomorrow if there’s time, or the morning after. Five thousand dollars is a nice, round, and steeply discounted number.”
“Done,” I said, before she finished. “Can I run it on my card, like before? I’d like to get it out of the way, behind us, before dinner and tomorrow.”
Pepper beamed at me, and I noticed a tiny chip missing from one of her incisors on top that I chided myself for thinking was cute, charming even. She walked across the room like she owned it, and me, kissed me like no mother ever kissed their child, and dragged me into the shower.
Two hours later, I was near the center of a long bridal-party table, under a tent with dance floor and mirror ball and a DJ to shield us from a possible tropical rain that had been threatening. I was sweating under a heavy load of lights and booze and banquet food and the pressure of being with a small group of people I didn’t like, and a big group of people I didn’t know. Father had said something to Eddie when we first came in, about me, or about Pepper, or about both; whatever it was, it had diminished the usual happy/wrestling hugs of greeting Eddie and I usually shared to a quick/dry handshake. It had also soured our too-brief initial conversation, and every word or smile or glance since. Father kept up a campaign of gently leering at Pepper, and savagely winking at me, while I continued lovingly to drink tumblers of their mid-market single-malt to help me avoid stabbing him with the tiny cake-fork at the top of my place setting.
“Can I steal my brother for a moment?” Eddie said from behind us.
“Only if you promise to return him in time to dance with me later,” Pepper said.
I got up, located my drink, and staggered off after Eddie into the growing dark outside the tent. He stopped near an embarrassingly bloom-tastic and gratuitously wonderful smelling hibiscus bush, and leaned in as if to share a secret with me. I considered, for the briefest moment, breaking his neck and chucking him off the cliff and into the pounding surf below, but assumed that someone, likely ‘Barb, not Barbara’, would be watching and spoil everything.
“It’s winter,” he said.
I expected more, so I waited for it; he could never hold onto a clever thought for long, and didn’t in this instance.
“You’ve lived your whole life like the bug in that stupid story,” he said.
It was a grasshopper, I mentally corrected him.
He continued, “The one that lives it up all summer long, making fun of the ants and everyone else for working and planning ahead.”
I nodded at him, having heard versions of this story before, from both him and Father.
“That fucking bug parties like a rock star until he feels the chill of winter, and then expects the ants and everyone to help him out,” he continued, projecting spittle onto my shirtfront with his vehemence. “Well, fuck that noise. I’ve worked for what I’ve got, to be where I am, and you can freeze for all I care … Grasshopper. You’ll have what you inherited from Grandfather, and that shitty cabin Cecily left you, but I’m telling security to keep you out of the offices come Monday.”
“Is that all?” I asked, trying to play it off as unimportant, unwounding, to me.
“That is it, Rick,” he bit off the last syllable an inch from my nose. “Winter is coming for you, and you’re on your own from here on out; enjoy the whore tonight, she’s out of your price-range from now on.”
I nearly lost grip of my unravelling control, but I heard Pepper laugh from inside the tent behind me, drained my tumbler, tossed it over the side instead of Eddie, and felt my way back to the table, taking a detour by the bar.
She leaned over a few moments after I’d regained my seat, perhaps sensing an approaching tipping point, and placed a hand over mine for a moment. It was a tiny gesture, but so loaded with support and warmth and sharing and commiseration, that I looked up into her fierce green eyes with my rheumy and scratchy-feeling ones. She moved her head close in to mine, as if to kiss me, (perhaps she did, I certainly felt her soft lips on my ear), and whispered.
“You could kill them,” she said, the words tickling the side of my neck in a way that was disturbingly erotic. “You could kill Eddie and your father. But, people who should know have said that living well is the best revenge. For two hours mingling and talking and listening, I’ve watched you and watched them, and you’re not one of them, any of them. You can fake it, probably have been your whole life, but you are different. Just walk away … from killing Eddie, from running or not running your father’s stupid company, from all of these hustlers, hustling in Hustletown (by which I assumed she meant Manhattan). Just walk away.”
“And there will be an end to the horror,” I said, completing the line from the movie; although Pepper was as unlike Lord Humungous as was possible for a human to be, she made, perhaps had already made, the connection, and smiled.
I thought, envisioned, imagined for a few moments, then took a deep swallow from my glass, and waved it at a passing waiter, slopping an ice cube over the side and onto the table. When one of the white-coated minions had swung by to take my glass, I leaned in to Pepper’s neck, smelling the soap and sex and a dab of expensive perfume on the soft skin just between her jawbone and a lovely, perfect ear.
“I wish we could, I could,” I quickly corrected, “but after playing the game for so long, so hard, it’s as much about the game as it is about the prize, or prizes, or winning. This is my story, and although the chapter with you has been both wonderful and unexpected, unexpectedly wonderful in fact, the ending can only go one of two ways at this point; if Eddie wins, I lose, and for me to win, Eddie has to lose. The only one way for me to win is for Eddie to lose everything; the best place, the best way to do that, is here, in this sunny exile.”
I could feel her turn her head toward me so I pulled back and looked into her eyes. “I wish you didn’t know,” I said, “wish you could keep seeing me as the man you spent the afternoon in bed with, not the man who’ll kill Eddie for money, for power. I don’t want you to see me as one of them,” now gesturing at the room-full of ‘hustling hustlers from Hustletown’.
“But I don’t have to see you like that,” she said, “because you don’t have to end up like that. This is your story, you can change the ending.”
The tone of her voice, the urgency, grabbed me. I looked at her face, so close to mine, our conversation a private island of conspiracy in a room of conspirators and conspiracies. Her eyes were earnest and wet and wide and I wanted to believe her, desperately wanted it to be my story, not Eddie’s or Father’s. I saw movement beyond her, and shifted my whisky-slowed focus to Father who was eyeing me, us, and speaking in Eddie’s ear. My defenses, my resentments, my vulnerabilities, all came to the fore as I imagined him whispering with Eddie about my whore. I felt someone, some hand, put a glass, filled with a reassuring liquid weight, promising surcease of pain, into mine; the moment, her moment, her promise, my hope, was gone. I turned from her to take a drink, and saw Father smile.
Eddie picked up his knife and gently tapped the rim of a water glass with it, to get everyone’s attention. The room quieted quickly, and enough eyes darted quickly to, and away from, me that I could tell that I was soon to be put under the spotlight … as brother, drunk, failure, passably witty, and introducer of the best man. This was evidently something discussed at the lunch I’d missed, and mentioned briefly by Eddie when Pepper and I made our slightly late entrance to the pre-dinner cocktails on the bluff overlooking a pink sand beach and the infinite ocean beyond.
Pepper seemed to sense (or possibly just remembered it better than I, being considerably less drunk) what was coming, and leaned in close to me. She gave me a short, fierce kiss on the mouth, ending it by sucking my lower lip in to her mouth; surprising me by biting my lip quite savagely.
“Remember me,” she said, “remember us, remember yourself. None of the rest of it, or any of them, matters. You can rewrite your story from here on out … you just have to decide to do it.”
I could taste blood mixing with the whisky in my next swallow, and the inside of my lip stung … crazy bitch.
Eddie had just finished saying something; people were laughing, and looking in my direction. Beyond Eddie, Father smiled wryly at me, and held up his own glass of bourbon (never whisky, which explains at least two things about him, and me). I climbed the seemingly endless distance from the comfort of my chair to the stilt-tall, wobbly feeling of my tired legs, and felt the chair tip over behind me as I pushed it back while standing. It clattered and bounced for a second, which brought first a shocked silence and then some nervous laughter from the crowd scattered around the tent. I felt in my breast pocket for the three by five card Eddie had pressed into my hand during our shake, loaded with first and last names of all of the people in the wedding party, along with their roles; it was gone.
I drank the last swallow from my glass, glad of both the fire it brought and the mists it promised, and put the glass down on the table, over hard. Pepper reached over to give my hand a squeeze, and I felt it, like electricity all through my body, ending in my throbbing lower lip. She smiled up at me, I smiled down at her, everything else was gone, or at least unimportant for a moment; then Father stage-coughed loudly.
“Thank you all for coming to help my brother, Eddie, celebrate his wedding, marriage, with … Barb,” I said, drowning in inanity, and feeling the fear and anger and booze climb back up and fog my already foggy brain.
I looked out across the room for a friendly, or even a marginally sympathetic, face. Finding none (not even the wait-staff, whom I had kept relentlessly and thanklessly busy fetching my drinks all evening), I cleared my throat, reached up and back into my brain for the words I would need to talk my way across the next few minutes (and then back down into my chair) as gracefully as possible.
Standing there, balanced on the triple-edge of drunk and embarrassed and angry, a thought came to me. Pepper said this was my story, and that I can write it however I’d like. If that’s so, I thought to myself, “I’d like for my glass to not be empty.”
I looked down and nearly gaped at the half-full tumbler.
I imagined a fat and balding writer correcting his work in a stuffy cubicle up on Mount Olympus, and a reader somewhere near Dubuque rereading the last sentence to make sure they’d gotten it right.
I shifted my eyes again up to the crowd, looking to see if anyone had noticed, and continued my thought process. “If this was my story to rewrite, there’d be a bic lighter …” and before I could finish my thought I felt the slight bulge and weight I’d lived with for years when I smoked, but had given up five years ago.
“No, a gold doubloon,” I thought, and I barked out a short laugh that I barely covered with a cleared throat as I felt the weight shift and increase and flatten. I looked around the room at increasingly impatient faces, smiled, and thanked my imagined writer and reader.
Booze-fogged, and still not ready to give my little speech, I nervously/accidentally chewed my lip, aggravating the Pepper-spot and with that pain came a brief flash of clarity … in that moment I rewrote my story, my too-drunk-brain, the evening, and I began to talk.
I pointed above and beyond the tables, at the mirror ball and dance floor behind the restive mob seated in front of me, as they waited for dessert or the best man or something besides this drunken, fat, and red-faced ‘Eddie’s brother’ they currently had to suffer, and said:
Now is the winter of our disco-tent,
made glorious summer by this son of New York;
and all the clouds that lower’d upon our houses
in the deep bosom of the Atlantic buried.
I saw a few appreciative nods from the ones who’d read The Bard in prep school or college, and as I reached for the next bit, I thought that it would be nice if the rest of the night and the wedding tomorrow could simply be sped through in a pleasant montage.
The rest of the evening was pleasant and as stress free as could be reasonably, or even unreasonably, hoped for with Father present, and Eddie and his best man angry at my speech stealing their thunder a bit. I only had eyes for Pepper, she was by far the loveliest, sexiest woman in the room, and she only had eyes for me, as we danced deep into the next morning. The rest of the crowd faded first from our view, and then actually faded from the tent, until there was only us and a yawning DJ who remained long after everyone else, spinning a perfect web of music for us to dance within. We fell into bed as the sun crept over the horizon, napped until just before the wedding, had a fabulous time with each other and with the wonderful people we met at the reception, who seemed more lively and interesting and fun than any of Eddie’s friends normally did. We had no problems with Father or Eddie all day. Pepper and I again collapsed into the huge bed in our suite, drunk on life and love (or sex and lust and something maybe a little bit more), in a sea of warm skin, teasing/stroking hands, and happiness to the horizons.
I woke the next morning alone, terrified in those first instants of gently hungover muzziness that it had all been a dream, and that it was the afternoon before the rehearsal dinner (which would be a distinct possibility if Father, and not me, had been working on the rewrites of my life story). Then I heard Pepper singing in the bathroom, and knew that everything would be okay … not okay, wonderful.
“Crazy,” she sang, the words pulling me out of bed and into the shower, “for thinking that my love could hold you … Lord God, Richie, I didn’t even hear you.”
“We’ve got to save water, Pepper,” I said, reaching for the loofah and bath gel. “I understand Bermuda depends largely on rainwater for their supply.”
We fell giggling into bed twenty minutes later, having very narrowly avoided breaking Pepper’s rules about sex in the shower, and spent a slow and relaxed and comfortable and leisurely hour of lovemaking; by now we each knew how to touch and kiss the other for maximum effect, and affect, it was delight.
“I can drive you to the airport this afternoon, and return the car for you, Richie,” she said, looking away towards the open window and the emerald sea we could smell beyond it. “It’s been a fun few days. I’m glad that you seem to have decided not to kill your family, I’ll miss you, and them, even.”
“That would be great, I’m not looking forward to driving that wrong side car on the wrong side roads again,” I said, starting to respond to her statements as though they were questions. “They’ve been the best days and hours and minutes and seconds of my life, Pepper Divinity. When it comes to my family, I’ve decided both to leave them alone, and to leave them entirely, entirely thanks to you, my dear.”
“But as to the last, sweetness-heart,” I said, kissing my way down her spine to that glorious, world-class, ass, “I have to confess that I won’t miss you a bit.”
She turned quickly at this, leaving me with a chin full of pubis, and her startled and sweetly sad expression (two and a half feet north of my current position).
“I won’t miss you, because I’m not leaving you … here, or anywhere,” I said. “This is my fucking story, and I don’t know how the writer wrote it, or what the reader wants to read, but I’m riding off with you in that Delta 737 to the cold and grey slushiness of New York in February. I’m taking you away from all of this hot sun and pink sand and good money, and giving you the chance to chuck all of that for a hunting cabin up in the Catskills that Great Grandfather built, and Cecily left me.”
“It’ll never work,” she said, in a voice that betrayed her desire to be proven, or at least convinced that she was, wrong. “We’re too different. I live in paradise, you’ll be poor, I’m a two-stripper-name ‘date’, and you’re probably Richard ‘something fancy’ Gloucester, the 17th.”
“Richard Broderick Gloucester, the 3rd, actually,” I said. “But I don’t give a shit about any of that because it’s my story, and I know how I want it to end. I want to spend another couple of hours in bed with you and a couple bottles of champagne. I want to race to the airport so late that we can’t possibly make it onto our flight, but somehow do. I want to rejoin the mile-high club in the first-class bathroom, and then skate through customs and security in the airport without hassle, without even having to take off my fucking shoes.”
Pepper looked me in the eyes for the longest ten seconds ever to pass in Bermuda, before reaching across to order the champagne from room service (along with some strawberries and chocolate sauce and whipped cream and a ginger root and paring knife … oh my).
The rest of the day went just as I had hoped/rewritten, faithful reader (thank you, faithful and patient writer). We’re adjusting to life in my adjusted story, and absolutely cannot wait to live the next chapter.
Not quite the end … the other shoe
Three weeks later, Pepper and I were sitting on the porch of the cabin, watching snow fall, bundled and coffeed in Adirondack chairs, watching the stray cat who’d found us play ‘lick the fallen icicle’ with painful deliberation.
“You’re going to leave,” I said, knowing it as I said it, without having known it the moment before. “You’re going to leave here, leave me, leave Cat (we didn’t know Cat’s sex, as he/she hadn’t let us get close enough to tell yet, so we’d been holding off on a name).”
“I have to,” she said. “This is your dream, your story; it’s not mine.”
I reached across the space between us, praying that she wouldn’t pull away; she didn’t instead reaching her hand out to meet mine halfway.
“It could be yours too, we can rewrite it, write the ending, however we want,” I said, working to keep the desperation and fear and longing out of my voice, “We could make it work.”
“You could,” she answered. “You could probably rewrite this story, your story, our story, my story, so that we stay here in this sweet and kooky cabin, fucking like minx until we’re nothing but wrinkles and liniment, but I hope you won’t.”
She wanted me to figure it out, to say it for her. I didn’t.
“If you write the story that way, or make it so that it’s written that way, I’ll lose myself, be less, maybe be gone. I can’t be a supporting character in your story, I need to be the protagonist in mine.”
I covered dark thoughts with a prolonged slurp of coffee. She was right. I could rewrite the story, rewrite her, to serve my needs and wants. I had considered minor alterations in the very fabric of Pepper (bigger boobs, her being awake when I woke up horny in the night, small things like that), but to date I had rejected it due to some nagging and niggling fear in the back of my skull.
“Your power to change was a gift that saved you from the brink of some genuine horrors,” she said. “But using it from here on out won’t be good for you, I think.”
“Explain,” I said, pausing to reach out and try to rub Cat with my foot while leaning over acrobatically to kiss a soft and sweet-smelling spot behind her ear. “I can have whatever I want. How can that be bad?”
She smiled up at me and waggled her empty coffee mug, signaling that she wanted another cup, and said, “Montage-ifying chunks of time, smoothing out the tough stuff, making sure that things always work out, all of that will make your life soft and grey and boring. You stayed up for two straight days as a kid, feeding that tiny baby fox by hand every hour, and warming it inside your shirt against your chest; that was real experience, real pain when it died. If you had montaged it, regardless of how you wrote the outcome for the fox, you would be a less interesting person. You need to let life soak you in pain and angst and frustration and helplessness from time to time, in order to connect with other people and with the world, in order to matter; if you don’t, you’ll end up being a shadow-person. I need my life, and want your life as well, to be filled with those details. I agree with John Lennon that ‘life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans’. I love you, in my way, Richie, and love the cabin, and Cat, and the thing you’re starting with the shelter, but it’s not me, any of it … well almost any of it, so I gotta find mine, and you gotta let me.”
“I’m scared Pepper,” I said, flatly, returning with the French press coffee that I’d left just inside the door off the porch. “Scared you’ll take the magic with you when you go. Scared I’ll be less interesting, less magical, less strong, less the ‘new’ me when you’re gone.”
“Growing up, we once had a Lab named Puck,” I said, “Father got him with the idea of hunting, but Puck was a useless and scared thing, he gravitated to me as I was largely the same way. He would sleep with me every night, and what I remember most was the feeling of safety and love, having him curled up and warm against my back, guarding my flank.”
“So I’m your dog?” she said, affecting a hurt tone, but I could see the smile creeping in at the edges of the faux-pout, showing off her chipped tooth to glorious effect (at least on me).
“Don’t take it the wrong way, Pepper,” I said. “I love that dog more than anything in space or time, except you. You make me feel safer and stronger and loved-er than I am, or deserve to be; I don’t want to lose that feeling.”
“But you understand why I have to go?” she said.
“I do,” I said. “ But, or, and, I don’t know which, I fucking well hate the thought of losing you when I seem to have the power to have or do anything I want.”
“Choosing to do the right thing even, especially maybe, when you don’t have to, is a sign of being a grown up,” she said. “You might be losing your Pan-ness, but in a good way.”
“So you’re leaving me, us,” I said, gesturing dramatically at Cat. “Where will you go, and when, and how can I reach you, and when will I see you again?”
I looked over casually, topping up her mug, pretending my heart wasn’t breaking, that I wasn’t terrified almost beyond rational thought or deed, and that I wasn’t considering using the power that she or God or you (the reader or writer of this, my story) gave me to change her; and force her to stay.
“I’ll ride into town with you tomorrow morning,” she said, “and catch a bus to Albany. I’ve got a friend in Santa Fe, and I might ride out the winter with her down there. I’m travelling, dearheart, exploring, not dying … you can reach me on my cell or by email, same as my momma does.”
She stood up and shook off the quilt she’d wrapped herself in when we’d come out onto the porch, and flashed me a thousand watt smile that took my breath away (although her standing there, nearly naked and all goose-bumpy didn’t hurt). “Take me to bed and screw me wobbly, lover. Give me another reason to remember this crappy, wonderful, leaky, lovely cabin, say you love me in a convincing tone, and then promise you’ll let me go. I’ll hide in the high-desert for a few months, cry some and probably drink too much red wine. Then I will miss you too much, and one of us will come to the other, and we’ll be together for a while, and then I’ll run away again, maybe forever,” she finished this crying and smiling and goddess-beautiful in her pain and wanting.
We ran inside, Cat following our two-soul stampede, certain that if we were fleeing the porch, there must be a reason. Cat ended up cowering in the corner for hours, as we celebrated Pepper’s decision and story and protagonist status in that story, ignoring my only-partially broken heart, with a mixed grill of love and lust and lewd behavior.
I’m not sure how it will all turn out, what will end up happening with me and Pepper Divinity, if I’ll learn to stop using my/your gift, if I can make a go of it as a recovering grasshopper, or what the next chapter will bring, but I’m eager to see. Yes, it’s winter, but the cold days and long nights hold a certain beautiful magic for Cat and me, particularly because we can feel a well-earned spring just around the corner. You keep writing and reading, and I’ll keep living, the words.
Thanks for reading - Jamie