I sat in front of the screen reading another rejection, this one from an independent publisher.
Maybe the book's title is a turn-off. I sighed and slumped in my ergonomic chair that seemed to sink right along with me. I moved the cursor to my documents file, then to the folder Table of Submissions.docx and double clicked, scrolled to row #40 and entered the publisher’s name in the REJECT column.
The Ritz cracker package had three pieces left. Crumbs covered the keyboard. Defeat lands a little softer with sweet buttery stuff. I spread another cracker with cream cheese, licked the blunt knife then clanked it around the nearly empty jar of raspberry jam, layering it over the cheese.
Outside the open window, beyond the apple tree, on the other side of the fence, a Chestnut mare grazed lazily, biting at short grass, with lips opening like curtains, exposing the enormous horse teeth and with it came the hollow sound of equine jaws chewing. On my side of the fence in the lawn were three dirt mounds, two more than the day before, made by sightless rodents with paddles for feet, each toe ending in long pointed claws.
I turned back to the keyboard, clicked on compose, then on the ‘TO’ line, and typed Cadre of Rejects which populated it with a dozen names of my cronies who, like me, were trying to sell manuscripts.
Hi Rejecteristas! I just got number forty. Only sixty to go till I reach that goal of one hundred rejects…
Our joke, as if rejection was the goal, it kept us going.
Let’s get together this Saturday at my place. I’m having a pity party. Any takers? Saturday at seven. Let me know!
Barkie started her high-pitched yapping outside. Not another one. The white terrier with a stub for a tail held a small rat-like animal in her mouth.
My husband, Thomas, called the dog and took the rodent by the tail.
“Good girl, good hunting,” Thomas said, his dark hair mussed from the wind, he held the mole away, and with an outstretched arm, he flung the thing into the field.
I turned back to the computer where ads for upcoming writer workshops blinked. Next came what I'd been waiting to see for over a year. An email from Gloria Z. Hicks, a well-known New York literary agent whose primary client was McMillan publishers.
“Dear Alyssa, we are interested in your manuscript. According to your proposal, this will be your first publication. This is a concern in that an inexperienced author might not have the skills to assist with selling a novel. Book signing parties and presentations are a must. I will be on the west coast this weekend and would like to meet. Let me know if you’re available.”
Heart pounding, hyperventilating and with misty eyes, I hit reply.
“Hi Gloria, I’m happy to hear you liked my manuscript, Sailing to Nowhere. I can’t wait to meet you and talk about the book… I’m giving a party for my fellow writers this Saturday at seven o'clock. I would love it if you could join us!
She replied, “You’re on. See you then.”
Pity-party no more. It’s a party-party! I’ll prove worthy of a book contract. The plaque above my computer said, Think positively, for what you think becomes real.
There’s no way I can manage a party like this...a Big Apple agent at my house! This is no ”sit around and feel sorry for yourself” get together. Two places turned me down—too small of a crowd they’d said. But this outfit, The Party-Preppers didn’t care so long as I paid their minimum.
The weather cooperated with sunshine and a breezy seventy degrees. Next to the house sat a panel truck marked in multicolor text: The Party-Preppers, ALL YOUR PARTY NEEDS! Two squarish men worked in the yard, setting up a platform over various gopher mounds and uneven spots.
I was arranging flowers, taking care not to mess up my freshly manicured nails. While I was winding my nerves in a knot, other people were going about their days. I thought of Gloria and wondered where she was at that moment.
Leaves and thorns were trimmed as water ran steadily in the utility sink. Every so often the faucet had a cough as if the water line contained air. Compact roses with white petals and pink blush on the edges, the quintessential romantic artifact. Maybe I’ll work this into the title and use the image as a cover. Lilacs were blooming too. Hydrangeas and grasses. The flowers’ stems were thin and they drooped and swung away from the designated places in the small vase. For a moment, the flowers' fragrance and exquisite design took my mind away from the party pressure. That is until cloudy water from the tap dribbled into the vase, as if it was August when the irrigation system ran nonstop. What? The well never goes dry. Up high in the kitchen cabinet was a half bottle of Absolute which I poured into a water glass and added ice.
An urgent staccato banging thumped from the front door as the party-prepper guy called, “Flowers from the garden that you wanted? Where’ ya want ‘em?”
“Come in, I’m in here,” I yelled.
Next to me at the sink, he laid down an armful of fragrant purple lilacs. My dull scissors sawed at the thick stems. Several insects dropped from the big leaves and I pounded my fist on each one like a Mad Hatter. I’ll tell Gloria that I’m open to changing the title. Whatever you do, don’t sound desperate. Does that sound desperate?
Thomas wrestled with the sound system, running wire for outdoor speakers. Barkie spent the morning digging holes at the yard's edge. My phone dinged with texts from invitees, “You got this!” and “You go girl!” and “Best of luck, see you soon, kiss kiss. Your BFF, Betty. PS tell Gloria all about me and my memoir will ya?” A dozen emojis followed Why did I invite her?
The party guy appeared again, his face glistening. He lifted his ball cap revealing a shaved head except for a man-bun of red hair. "Getting hot isn't it. I’m Derk from the Party-Preppers?”
“What can I do for you?” I sipped clear liquid from my water glass, the alcohol stung my throat.
“I just wanted to let you know? The yard around that platform seems really soft? Your grass is happy looking so I don’t know what’s going on. I just thought, you know. I should let you know.”
Now, if I was writing this kid’s annoying habit of making every sentence end on an up note, how would I do it? Question marks?
I wonder where Gloria is now. Maybe she isn't coming. Or she'll get a flat. I checked my phone in case I missed a text. Nothing.
I thanked him and returned to the kitchen where I poured another glass of vodka.
From outside were the sounds of carts and tools being loaded into the van. The flower arrangements were colorful, passable at best and still that cloudy water remained.
“Good luck with your shindig,” Derk called. The crew hopped in the van and Derk waved as he started the engine.
I watched from the window and held up a hand feeling forlorn as he drove down the long driveway out of sight.
This isn’t going to go well. I have a feeling.
Stop it! She’ll love you. Love the story. Screw the title. Publishers have title creators.
White lights were strung throughout the yard and garden. A bar had been set up and stocked outside. Bar stools and cocktail tables were ready on the platform. A tapas table was set with hors d’oeuvres and covered.
The evening had grown cool and damp by the time Gloria Hicks pulled up in a gleaming white Lincoln. My mouth went dry. I took a deep inhale, straightened my skirt, stood tall, and started for the car as my fellow authors whispered, “Good luck.” And “Here we go” and “Wow, look at that car.”
A slim woman wearing a light pink silk suit stepped out somewhat slumped and although she was in her mid-thirties, she had the demeanor of an older tired person.
“You must be Gloria,” I said and put out my hand, “I’m Alice.”
I tasked. “Listen to me. Believe me, I do know my name.” I threw my hands up. “Let me start over. I’m Alyssa, so nice to finally meet. How was your trip?”
Gloria's eyes shifted side to side like a crazy person. Her damp hand quivered in mine.
“Long. I’ve been sitting since early this morning. Do you mind if I use the restroom to freshen up?” She raked her collar-length red hair with her fingers where a large opal ring surrounded by diamonds caught in her hair. Gloria pulled and twisted, finally yanked it free then picked and pulled the hair from it. She placed the ring back on her finger.
“Your ring is lovely. Opal is my favorite stone,” I said. She didn’t reply but looked at the dark sky.
She hates me already.
“Let me show you where the bathroom is. Come this way.”
I led her through the kitchen to the first-floor powder room. “Hang tight for a minute and I’ll bring some ice water and towels.”
I filled the glass with tap water. Cloudy again. I sipped it. Tastes okay. I dumped it out and poured bottled water from the fridge.
Gloria stepped into the hall, hands on her hips, huffing.
“Coming, coming. Here you are," I said handing over the water and towels. “Let me know if there’s anything else you need. I’ll stay close to the house just in case.”
“I’ll be out in a few minutes. Oh! I forgot to mention. Heinrich McMillan is on his way. Turns out he’s in town. Says he wants to see what you’ve got. Alice, this is a big big opportunity. He owns the publishing company. Let’s not waste his time.”
“Oh my god,” I said and felt lightheaded. “Okay. Okay. What should I do?”
“Act like you know something. Smile.”
“I’ll do my best. By the way, my name is Alyssa.”
Humidity had settled over the tables and chairs as the hour closed in on midnight. The alcohol was nearly exhausted. On the sandwich tray sat one dried square of the cream cheese and smoked salmon. A few fractured cheese cake tarts remained. We sat on the stools and deck chairs, full and woozy, quietly commenting on the slim odds of being published. Gloria hadn’t heard from Heinrich.
Maybe she made it up trying to make herself sound important.
Thomas squeezed through the chairs to me, put his arm around me and turned me around so that we faced away from the guests.
“You are not going to believe this,” he paused. My mind raced.
"Barkie was going crazy so I let her out of the kennel, you know? Gloria came out of the bathroom. Of course the dog ran right to her; stopped barking and started wagging. So Gloria asks me for a drink, not water she says. She sounded sloshed. Next thing I know, she gets all weepy and says she hasn't sold a manuscript in a year. McMillan told her to find another line of work. He told her that she's lost her touch. Said she should take time off. Re-charge the old battery so to speak. But that's when she came across your piece."
I wasn't sure how to take this.
"Now the really bad news."
My stomach dropped. She's bailing out. I knew it.
“The toilets won’t flush. I tried all three. Nothing.”
I took in a deep breath. “Ah shit.” I rubbed my forehead. Gloria was in the house and the others looked half asleep. “I’ll let everyone know we need to wrap things up.”
Gloria stepped from the back door, wobbled toward us. Before I could tell everyone that we had to call it a day, Gloria kicked her shoes off and shouted,
“Heyyy, let’s get this party started!”
"No, no," I said. But she never heard me as she unplugged Thomas’ phone from the speaker system and attached hers, tapped the screen and turned it up all the way. We Will Rock You by Queen.
The others joined in, dancing and singing like they’d taken cocaine. Queen ended and Korn came on with “Let’s Get the Party Started” nu metal, a band I’d never heard. Gloria was throwing her arms up and twirling in her bare feet.
The implosion came like an earthquake, with a small sign at first, the kind where you wonder if you’re imagining things. Time slowed as the damp platform tilted toward the downhill side of the yard. Gloria slipped, struggling to right herself, she grabbed the linen tablecloth and took the empty platters with her as she landed in what had become a swamp beside the party floor. As if choreographed, the band sang, “I fall face down…”.
No one noticed the Jaguar roadster rolling to a stop by the house.
No one knew to laugh or act horrified, but most did both. At first I watched in disbelief as Gloria tried to stand and fell again, her silk suit loaded with muck.
"Oh god, Gloria! Wait. Wait. Okay, Thomas," I said, "let's give her a hand." We stepped gingerly onto the undulating grass. But the ground had become like quicksand and gave out under us. Only Thomas managed to remain upright. The others stayed on the platform, but formed a line like an ice-pond rescue, laughing as if we’d discovered a hidden lake at midnight.
Mr. McMillan did not step onto the platform but watched from the driveway. He helped himself to a beer and waited for someone to notice him. At last, we made it out of the mess, our legs covered in mud, and Gloria looking like a swamp monster.
Thomas pulled out the hose and turned it on. No water came out. We stood like space aliens with arms out and legs spread.
Heinrich said, "I guess I should have tried harder to get here earlier. What the hell happened? Gloria! Oh, Gloria," he shook his head. "Hey, I've had a long drive. Can I use the bathroom?"
"Better use the bushes," Thomas said from across the yard. "Our water's out. Sorry."
But Heinrich walked inside anyway and as the door opened, Barkie shot out. She raced to the swamp and pounced exactly where Gloria had gone down. Front paws working, mud flying, at last she stood triumphant holding a fat gopher by the neck. Like all good Jack Russells she carried it to her master and dropped it at his feet. From the hole a geyser erupted.
Impossible, unheard of, a poly-pipe chewed through by a rodent.
Gloria returned home the next day without conferring with me. Whereas, Mr. McMillan who had gray hair and the face of a sage, met with me over coffee. We chatted about the party fiasco and life in the country, about the beauty and the drawbacks. He told me about his humble beginnings as a writer.
Then he said, "I'm here because I had an earlier meeting on the west coast. What the hell, I like being out of the city, why not have a nightcap at your place. Anyway, Gloria never told me about your novel, just that you're a new writer and had promise."
"You seem like a nice person. I like supporting new authors. After all, I was one once. So, I'll take a look."
“Oh, yes of course! I have it right here,” I said through a measured tone, “I was hoping you’d ask for it.” I laid the block of paper on the table next to the cream and sugar.
He held up an index finger as his sipped his cappachino. “Please. Just send it electronically.”
”Oh yes of course. Who wants to lug paper around?” A nervous laugh snuck out. I lifted the pile of rubber banded paper with both hands and thumped the edges on the table.
Heinrich said, “Wait. Its titled Sailing to Nowhere?”
”I know, not the best; it’s a placeholder title until—"
He interrupted me. “What an intriguing name! Why don’t I take that with me. I‘ll read it on the plane.”
My computer lit up as I logged on and opened email. Oddly my spam folder opened first. I began mindlessly deleting the junk when I found a reply from a lit agency. and a second one, both asking for the full manuscript.
Hiding all that time. Like the gopher gnawing on the poly-pipe.
Outside my window, the mare chomped grass, lifted her head and shook the massive head. I turned to the keyboard, opened a new document and typed, Sign Number One: Cloudy Water".