At the book launch, when Jo began reading aloud from the first chapter, everyone in the crowded aisles of the small indie bookstore listened with rapt attention, chuckling mildly at the humorous asides, growing solemn as the stakes intensified. Finally, the plucky heroine overcame the first of numerous nasty obstacles. Chapter one wound up with a satisfying wallop.
Jo heard a small gasp in the audience, followed by another and another. A smile broke out on her face: her first-born novel had indeed charmed the hearts and minds of listeners. The clapping began like corn popping: first one or two kernels intermittently, then a few here and there, and finally a roar of applause.
Her face felt warm and her eyes and lips were moist with pleasure. Better than sex, she thought. Squinting under the spotlight, Jo saw faces, known and unknown, showing degrees of pride, surprise, vindication, and sheer amazement. A helium balloon began to inflate in her chest and she grabbed the edge of the lectern, to anchor herself from going up-up-up to the ceiling.
Penny, her publicist, stepped forward. She was a tall, striking woman with ass-length long black hair, dressed for the evening in (rented) haute couture. “We have time for a brief Q and A,” she announced, and hands shot up faster than gulls landing on spilled fries.
Jo twisted her ring as she tried to come up with convincing lies to “What made you decide to write about…?” and “Could you describe your process?” She didn’t want to lie, but the truth was far too vague and messy to be explained in words.
An earnest young man asked, “Where do you get your ideas from?”
She disliked that question in particular; it reminded her of the fairy tale where greedy people killed the goose that laid the golden eggs. You should just feed the goose, water it, and build a little thatched hut where it could hide away from foxes. “I get my ideas from the local history museum,” Jo said. Her mother used to work at the local history museum and often complained that so very few people visited.
Penny introduced Jo’s agent, Agatha, a sleek professional whose big turquoise eyeglass frames signalled “I’ve got opinions and I’m not afraid to share them.” She spoke in glowing terms of Jo’s talent and genius and then announced breaking news. “We’ve just sold the European options!” The crowd response was so-so until she explained “options” meant that someone was interested in making a film from novel. Jo clutched her chest and, this time, was the first one in the audience to gasp. Applause filled the aisles of The Happy Booker yet again.
Agatha led Jo by the elbow to her seat at the signing table. They squeezed past Ben, the cute bearded and bespectacled owner of the bookstore-café, who murmured, “good job.” Sweet vindication, she thought. He had looked so doubtful an hour ago when she’d wheeled in a trolley with two cartons of books. “Whatever doesn’t sell, you’ll have to cart back out,” he’d declared. But people started buying and the receipts began piling up like dry leaves in autumn.
One black Sharpie ran dry and Jo’s hand started to cramp up. Worse, her cheeks were cramping from all the smiling. She went to the washroom and sat in a cubicle, massaging her cheeks. For six years, Jo had toiled away on the manuscript. In cafés, weekends at the cottage, and every vacation. She’d sent it to thirty-three agents, who’d held their noses for various reasons as they pressed ‘Reject.’ The thirty-fourth had been dear, opinionated Agatha, who, a year ago, had landed the publishing deal. “Prepare for hurricane season,” Agatha had warned, meaning the hurricane of publicity: interviews, public appearances, and this, the splashy book launch party. Public speaking gave Jo, a total introvert, “butterflies in the stomach.” She joined Toastmasters and speechified week after week. She learned the butterflies didn’t go away, but at least she could make them fly in formation.
Women came and went in the other cubicles, cooing things to each other like “oh my god, ‘the gravity of love’ – isn’t that just the best?” and “I want to bring this to my book club – do you think we could get Jo to visit?” Two of them discussed her outfit.
What’s so wrong with leopard print, Jo wondered. When she received her advance, she’d blown it on sexy lingerie and the gorgeous star sapphire ring she now wore. And felt guilty. She ought to have bought one nice “writerly outfit,” something tweedy and tailored – to at least look the part. Or maybe a bond, yes, she ought to have bought a municipal bond for financial security in her dotage. Oh, what the hell. She had five other manuscripts, in various stages of completion, in the back drawers of her desk. They gestated there, like small unformed golden sacks inside the goose’s body. She massaged her cheeks a minute longer. Must not keep them waiting.
Then she remembered Dickens, who had once said, “make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait.” She reapplied her pearly pink lipstick, combed her hair and strolled out, where Penny, long black hair swinging, rushed her back to the signing table, saying, “What took you so long? People are leaving.”
A kindly plump woman in late middle-age with unruly silver-yellow hair, like a superannuated Shirley Temple, hesitantly offered a book for signing. Jo cried, “Ms. Somers! How great to see you!”
“Oh my,” the woman said, beaming. “You recognized me. After all these years. Call me Susan, dear.”
“Recognized? More than that.” Jo opened the book to the dedication page: “To S.S., my extraordinary first teacher of the craft. You were the wind beneath my wings.” Jo flushed with embarrassment at how over-the-top this sounded now. But when she looked at Susan’s trembly smile, she wished she’d made it twice as mushy.
“I shouldn’t monopolize you, dear.” Susan sighed, closed the book, and held it to her chest as she wandered into the crowd.
“Wait! Where’re you going? Do you want a signature?” Jo called after her muse and long-ago mentor. “Come back at nine. The shop closes then so we can grab a drink together. Okay?”
The fade-away was classic Susan Somers. Always so self-effacing. Not wanting to hold up the line or impede the successful upward trajectory of others. As Jo continued to sign books, she kept smiling.
A dozen fly-leafs later, Jo looked up to see an all-too-familiar pair of lips. The wide cranberry-red slash was more like a facial wound than a smile. Jo’s toes curled in her shoes and she gripped the Sharpie so hard her fingertips went white.
“Josephin-ah!” The high voice sounded like a squeaky hinge in a horror film – the hinge that gives away the hiding spot of an innocent victim.
“Ms. Rankin,” Jo said, marshalling every ounce of courtesy she had as she twisted her ring. “Hello.”
The woman thrust the book toward Jo like she was returning an unsatisfactory assignment. “Well, I might as well get your John Henry.”
“To whom should I inscribe this?” Jo’s Sharpie paused over the cream-colored page.
“Just your name, that’ll do,” the woman said with an off-hand shrug. “I haven’t decided yet which niece I’ll foist this book on.”
Foist. The word, the tone, the woman’s off-hand shrug. They all stung, like a wasp attacking an old tender spot. After a year in Ms. Rankin’s composition class, a writer’s block as big as the Hoover Dam had lodged itself in the river of Jo’s creative juices. She went off to college and majored in “business communications,” ensuring she stuck to only “safe” corporate-speak in company circulars and bare-bones expository statements in procedural memos. Until, that is, she’d found herself a metaphorical case of dynamite.
Take the high road. “Thank you for buying my book,” Jo said sweetly. “And especially for coming out to my launch.” She smiled, handed the book back, and turned to look at the next person in line. In her peripheral vision, she saw Ms. Rankin plunge the book deep into her tote bag, draw her coat tightly around herself, and stalk off, muttering “high and mighty” and “swollen headed.”
Congratulations, dragon-fighter. Jo uncurled her toes. Years of therapy had desensitized her to this very moment. She had been able to look her nemesis in the steely blue eye – ignoring the curve of contempt on the cranberry lips – and eject her from her life. On bad days, Jo sometimes still heard the squeaky-hinge voice saying things like, “you call this writing?” and “I have never read a more self-absorbed derivative pile of trash in my life.” But she had trained herself to muffle the sound.
Jo smiled extra warmly at the next person in line, a distinguished-looking European man. “Could you please inscribe this one to Michael,” he said, giving her both the book and his business card. Jo did a double-take. Creative director of the writing program at the local college, no less. “I thought you looked familiar, professor,” she said, blushing. She twisted her ring. His last name was Lithuanian, and she was afraid of mangling it.
“You read aloud magnificently,” he said. “Most authors put on the ‘shy act’ and they rush the experience. But you had a slow enough tempo that we could admire your keen insight, and you paused at just the right moments so we could savor the well-turned phrase.”
Keen insight. Well-turned phrase. Ba-dump, ba-dump. Her heart was rolling over in her chest. She thought she would be sick. She couldn’t believe the director, who was the author of nine critically acclaimed novels, was praising her, the newbie. Her eyes slid sideways to see if Ms. Rankin was still within earshot. She was not. Oh well, his words were still balm to her soul.
“I’d like to speak to you later,” he said, “about an opening we have on staff. Permanent part-time with benefits, for a creative writing instructor… would you be free after the signing?”
“Oh yes! Er, I mean no,” she said, catching sight of Ms. Somers’s silver-yellow frizzball in the distance. “I mean... yes, I’m interested in the position – but I have other plans for tonight,”
He chuckled. “They lionize you already, I see. Well, send an email. My assistant will find a slot.” He stroked the cover of the book appreciatively. “Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to a good read.”
* * *
“Oh yes, we drove down here together,” Susan Somers said to Jo. “Easier that way. Plus, we got caught up on all the gossip from Northview High.” They were perched on stools around a tall table for three in a wine bar not far from the motel where the two teachers were staying. “Becky, have you decided yet?”
A sour smile in cranberry red flashed as Becky answered, “I’ll have the Riesling spritzer.” She turned to Jo. “So, how does it feel being rich and famous?”
“Um, how about an appetizer?” Jo said, bending her head to the menu. “I’m starved.”
“The launch had a ton of food, although, I daresay they kept you too busy to spit,” Susan said, laughing gently. “Seriously, what’ll they do with the stuff left over?”
“Penny will take care of it,” Jo said expansively, pretending that she was not already counting on eating leftover eggplant shish kabobs until the end of the week. The server arrived with one spritzer and two glasses of red wine. The women sipped and commented on the flavors they detected, the ambiance of the wine bar, and, again, the large turnout at the launch party. Becky Rankin harped on this last point. “Fortunately, I have a large circle of friends and acquaintances,” Jo said, stifling her irritation. “And my publicist is a whiz at social media.”
“Not at all like high school,” Becky said. “You were frightfully unpopular.”
“I’ve moved on,” Jo said. She twisted her ring. “How about you? What are you up to these days?” She directed the question to Susan Somers, but Becky answered at length. Jo’s mind kept wandering to the Lithuanian director. It would have been fun to “talk shop” instead of listening to twenty minutes of drivel about Becky Rankin’s grandchildren.
“You know, I think it’s more than coincidence,” Becky said as she patted the book. “I notice you have someone named Rosette in this story.”
“My favorite character,” Jo said, smiling at Susan, summoning an image of the encouraging, compassionate yet plucky heroine with fluffy yellow hair.
“Cheers to Rosette!” Susan said, raising her glass. “What a lovely name.”
“That’s my daughter’s name,” Becky said, her voice carving into Jo’s equanimity. “I suppose you didn’t know, Josephina. You were always quite self-absorbed, never cared much about your teachers’ lives.”
Jo was taken aback. As a kid, she’d been taught it wasn’t right to pry. She decided on the spot to write a sequel and kill off Rosette. No. Let it pass, Jo corrected herself. Change the subject. After a pause, she said, “How about you, Susan, how is retirement life?”
Susan drained her glass and looked a little tearfully at the street outside. She answered in such vagaries that Jo wondered if she was recently bereaved. Or maybe it was just the wine. How could she tactfully find out? Becky, still smirking from her well-aimed accusation, excused herself and went to the Ladies’.
Jo sipped meditatively, watching as two newcomers entered the wine bar: one woman with long black hair nodding to the other, the more voluble one, who wore turquoise-frame glasses. Into the room women come and go, talking of Michelangelo.
Jo realized Becky’s absence gave her an opportunity to reconnect with Susan. Kindred spirit to kindred spirit, as it were. “I recall how you used to encourage ‘morning pages’ – twenty minutes, free-association writing – for all your students,” Jo said. “How about you? Do you still do morning pages?”
Susan answered timidly, as if to a stranger. “Once in a while.”
Of course, she IS a stranger, Jo reminded herself. She hadn’t spoken to any of her high school teachers or classmates since graduation. She had kept alive a certain version of Susan Somers in her writing – but that was not the real Susan Somers, only an idealized version, frozen in time. A wave of nostalgia passed through her. She twisted her ring.
She looked around the bar – where had Agatha and Penny disappeared to?
“Speaking of writing,” Susan said tentatively, “I happen to notice there’s a …Brandon in your book.” The server stopped at the table to deliver her refill and left. “I was reading while waiting, you see.”
Jo nodded. “Sorry you had to wait.…” She tilted her head, recalling Brandon the one-eyed gambling fanatic and womanizer. The novel had needed a villain and she’d randomly chosen a name and compulsion for him. But now, as she watched the tired, sad, older woman across from her, Jo was overcome by a sinking feeling. “Wait – your husband – his name?”
“My son, actually. Brendan. He lost an eye in a barbecuing mishap,” Susan said, biting her lip. “And he’s addicted to slot machines.” She gulped some wine.
“Oh?” Jo winced. “I swear, I knew nothing about him!”
“Maybe you heard news reports? It was all over the papers…” Susan’s eyes were glossy and bloodshot.
Jo turned her wineglass slowly under the yellow light of the fake LED candles and shivered a little. Coincidence or not? She didn’t want to cause hurt, even unintentionally. Especially not for dear Susan. Who could tell what were the many brooks and rivulets that fed into the giant river of the subconscious?
Jo moved uneasily on her stool. The air felt still and close around her. Becky, refreshed from the Ladies’, was advancing on the table, lips pursed. Jo would barely have time to glide away from muse and nemesis. She cautiously slipped off her stool. “Well, it’s been wonderful seeing you again.” She slung her purse resolutely across her chest. “I’ll pay our tab up front. No, really, my treat. I must get going.” She gripped her credit card tightly, willing it the extra strength to assume another burden of debt. “Good night! Good-bye!” She called as she left.
On to pushing out that next golden egg.