Smackdown: Ship of Fools
“Yes, it is.”
“It is not!”
“Don't get all in a huff. Just look it up, it is.”
“Isn't. What kind of crack was that? And what's with the flashing red light over there?”
“Bullfeathers! You're writing this down, aren't you?”
Clever man. The big lug figured out I was recording the conversation, writing down every word of it for my next story. I couldn't help it. The conversation piqued my interest and all.
“Well, I'm not saying another word, except that it's NOT a swear word, and I'll just take my stories elsewhere. Good day, Mr. Webb!”
Bobby Huff left in a… well, he slammed the door open just as Victor walked in. He waited patiently as Victor carried in the armload of Chinese take-out boxes, then slammed the door shut.
Victor set the take-out on my desk. “What's with him?”
“Nice to see you, too, Victor. He's a former client.”
“Former? Whaddya mean?”
I popped open a box. Moo Goo Gai Pan. “This one's yours, Victor.”
I opened the other box and started on my Triple Fragrance. “He got all upset when I told him to cut back on the cussing in his story. He kept insisting the word he was using wasn't obscene. I disagreed, the argument started, I thought I might use some dialogue for my next story, he saw the light and took off. That's where you came in.”
“In more ways than one. The story's still being written.”
“Really? You mean this is the much-awaited sequel?”
“Well, you're the only one who's been waiting.”
“I been waiting much, Mr. Webb.”
“So you have.” We took a break from conversation to finish off the Chinese Food. Victor started it up again as he cracked open his fortune cookie.
“So, what's this one about?”
“No idea. I just thought I needed to write.”
“What's the title say?”
“I don't have one, yet. I need a client to get one of those.”
“Who's your client if that guy just left in a huff?”
“Don't make fun of his name, Victor.”
“Good things come to those who wait.”
“I suppose they do, but that's a bit cliché for my taste.”
“Sorry, Mister, it's just the fortune cookie.”
I nodded. If I can't say any snappy dialogue, I try not to say anything at all. But I had to say something when five-foot-six of snappy strode through the door, sat next to Victor, crossed her legs, and started a dialogue. “Dean. I need your help.”
“Nice to see you, too, Carrie. You couldn't have come at a better time.”
“I need you to write a story for me.”
“Sure thing, toots. Anything special about it?”
“It just needs to be inspired by the phrase, 'Ship of Fools.' Can you handle it?”
“Sure, I'll even make it the title.”
“Nice, but not enough. It needs to inspire you.”
“Well, that'll be extra.”
“I don't care. Money is no object.”
“Especially if it's transferred electronically.”
“Victor! How many times I gotta tell you to not speak in the middle of one of my dialogues unless you have a 'Victor said,' before you say something!”
Victor said, “Sorry, Mister.”
Carrie smiled at my hapless assistant. “Good help's hard to find, huh?”
I took a swig of vanilla Coke. “Yeah, and I'm still looking.”
Carrie patted Victor's knee avuncularly. Then she grabbed it tightly and made a face like she remembered something important. I figure she must have remembered something important. “Dean! One more thing! Very important!” My hunch was right.
“What is it?”
“It's gotta be set in Florida.”
“All of it?”
“Well, most of it.”
I understood. I only asked questions about how my job was to be done, not why. Besides, I already knew why. “Novellas county is beautiful this time of year, so I hear.”
“Gator Springs, to be precise.”
“Sure thing. I'll book a flight to Miami for Victor and me, then rent a car. If money's no concern of yours, it'll be a Porsche.”
“Make it a convertible for all I care. Just get down there and spin that yarn.”
I nodded. She stood up, smiled, opened the door and shot me one of her patented “come-hither” looks. I enjoyed it immensely.
“Aren't you forgetting something?”
I thought for a moment then jumped to my feet. I dashed around the side of my desk and gave her a kiss for old times' sake.
“You're losing your timing, Dean.”
“It's been a while since I last wrote.”
“Well, don't be such a stranger.” She shut the door and sashayed down the hall. Or at least I imagined her sashaying. For all I knew, she took off her high heels and did cartwheels down the hall.
I went back to my desk and fired up my online travel agent. While I was booking flights, Victor had to ask, “So what's the word, Mister?”
“We're heading to Miami, then on to Gator Springs. Better pack some mosquito repellent.”
“No, I mean the word the guy was arguing about.”
“Oh, that word. Well, if I say it, I might have to put an 'adult content' warning on the story.”
“Write it down and let me peek at it.”
That seemed harmless enough. I wrote it down on a slip of paper, folded it over, and handed it to Victor.
“Dammit, Victor, now I have to put the warning up!”
“But that's not a bad word. It's just 'feck.' Now, change the e to a u and you get-“
“I know what you get, Victor, and that word there is a variant of the one you almost said.”
“No it's not.”
“Yes it is.”
“Yes, in Ireland.”
“No way is this the Irish word for-“
“I'm telling you, it is.”
“Baloney. They speak English there. If they wanna cuss, they'll say-“
“No they won't.”
Victor put five dollars on the table. “Look it up. Mr. Lincoln says you don't got a cuss word there.”
I put five dollars down and sent my browser to www.dictionary.com. I typed in the word and waited.
\Feck\, n. [Abbrev. fr. effect.] 1. Effect. [Obs.]
2. Efficacy; force; value. [Scot. & Prov. Eng.]
3. Amount; quantity. [Scot. & Prov. Eng.]
He had a feck o' books wi' him. --R. L. Stevenson.
Victor laughed and picked up my five bucks. He made that jackal grin and said, “I'm not the only guy who's gonna collect.”
“Looks like you owe that other guy an apology.”
“Hey! I make the snappy remarks around here!”
“Apology accepted. And I'll send an apology to Mr. Huff.” One email later, and the deed was done. “Get packing, Victor, we got a late flight to catch.”
“What? I thought we could get a decent flight!”
“I want to get started right away. We're leaving tonight.”
I shot him a .45-caliber mean look.
“I meant, I'll pack a feck of suitcases if we're gonna stay a while.”
“That's better, but there's no need to. We're on an expense account. We'll buy what we need down there.”
“Sweet!” My sentiments, exactly. I love expense accounts I don't have to account for.
“So what are you going to write about, mister?”
“Well, we'll just have to go there and see. Maybe there's some kind of wrong I could right. That's what I did in the last story.”
I know sticking to a formula wouldn't be the most creative thing to do, but Carrie needed her story, and fast. I had to crank something out, and rehashing old stuff would be the best way to get her what she wanted, provided I could think it up.
I thought I'd think of some kind of angle on the plane ride to Miami, but nothing came to me. I drew blanks while driving out to Gator Springs. Victor was no help, as usual, and not even the sartorial decadence of Novellas County could inspire me.
I had writer's block, and I had it bad. An illness of the soul for which there was no known cure. One could address the symptoms by goofing off and claiming you were researching a story, but that only went so far. And writer's block this close to a deadline could be fatal. Carrie was known for her drop-dead looks when her .22 started eyeballing a writer that owed her a story.
Maybe I could lay low in Gator Springs until something came up. Something always came up in Gator Springs. It had a storm drain system that needed massive overhauling and that was only the beginning of the drainage problems there. Florida was known for its sandy beaches and its Precambrian swamplands, and there wasn't a speck of sand anywhere in the county. The only dry ground in the county was brought in from Alabama in order to build roads in the area. Everything else got built on stilts, or floated.
Needless to say, parking was at a premium. Most of the public spots were four inches deep in water. I pulled up to the Hemingway Bar 'n' Grill, where parking was a bit higher and drier, especially at low tide. Victor and I sloshed our way to the entry and stepped up into inspiration.
Or at least it should have been inspiration. Marlins on the wall, salty breezes turning in the ceiling fans, burgers and beer burgeoning in the background and more guys named “Ernest” with trim white beards than you could shake a stick at. The room was loaded with ideas, but nothing fired for me. A waitress with a shirt named “Marlene” stepped up to us and would have asked us where we wanted to sit if I hadn't beaten her to the punch line.
“Two, non-smoking, on the deck, if it's open.”
“Sure is. Just walk this way.”
I thought if I could walk that way, I'd be a runway model instead of a writer. I had the height for it, at any rate. She sat us down to a perfect little table that took in a stunning view of the cypress trees emerging from the creamed spinach on a sea of brackamurk.
“What's that word, mister?”
“I thought I'd make it up. Not enough good synonyms for the stuff that grows in swamps or shades of green. That, or my writer's block is worse than I expected.”
“You got writer's block?”
“Yes, Victor. Can't you tell?”
“Is that why our waitress didn't take our order yet?”
“Yes. I have no idea what we're going to order.”
“Forget that. I'm hungry. Get some ideas we'd like Italian.” A big fellow who didn't say much set down two glasses of ice water with a lemon slice. Couldn't Victor see what kind of place this was? Oh, wait. This is Victor. I'd have to spell it out to him.
“That's insane. This is obviously a seafood and sandwiches place.”
“Is it too much of a stretch to have them put some spaghetti on the menu?”
“But I want spaghetti.”
Why not? It'll shut Victor up, which is always a good thing.
OK, so they got spaghetti here. Wonderful. I'm in the middle of an overgrown frog pond taking advice from a guy who failed Freshman English. Twice. Only reason I kept him around in my stories was because his character kinda grew on me. And now I noticed the green of the swamp looked a little more yellowish. Great. His spaghetti in the fish joint idea just ruined the local color.
The waitress returned with a brace of menus and flashed a purplish grin. Victor didn't bother to look at his. “I'll have the spaghetti and a Dr. Pepper.”
“We don't have that, shug.”
“Out of luck there, baby.”
“I'm sorry, darlin'.”
“Don't carry that, sweetie.”
Victor shrugged. “Yeah, I guess.”
The waitress gave me an “And yoooou?” look. I flipped through the blank pages of the menu. Only the last page had anything on it, and that was just spaghetti. I concentrated a while and managed to get a shrimp po' boy and catfish platter on the page. Then I started wondering if catfish lived in that part of Florida and it vanished. I thought of a bunch of pricey catch of the day entrees, but didn't think about them too hard. I was going to have the po' boy with a side of fries and hush puppies, so the only point in fixing the rest of the menu was to do something about our waitress' violet teeth.
“I'll have the po' boy, dry. Fries and hush puppies with it. Lemon Fanta to drink.” Of course they carried the drink I wanted.
She noted my order, grabbed up the menus, and said, “It'll be out in a few minutes!” Her teeth looked much better this time.
Victor looked all around him. His wolfish eyes hunted for appetizers. “How about some corn chips or garlic bread here?”
“No way, Victor. I just started getting things fixed up from your spaghetti order.”
“But I'm hungry.”
“So suck on the lemon in your water until our food comes out.”
“Ew. I need something better than that.”
The couple at the table next to us got up and left a huge tip and two plates of half-eaten chow. “How about those, Victor?”
Victor looked to see if anyone was watching. Like the patrons here would care about a ravenous twentysomething bogarting what should have gone into a doggie bag. Then I noticed the calamari on one of the plates. Best that didn't sit overnight in the fridge. Don't ask how I knew why, it'd only bring up biologically violent flashbacks.
Victor loped over to the other table and grabbed a plate. He cackled as he sat back down at our table with his ill-gotten gain. “Appetizers. Yes.”
I let Victor chew on in silence as I tried to think of where the heck my story was going. I needed a plot, some major characters, and a conflict and nothing came to mind.
Our waitress came out with our food sooner than Victor expected. He shoved the pirated plate under the table and acted like he was as starved as before. The waitress set our food down. “There you go, gentlemen. Enjoy.”
“Thanks. Looks good.”
“Mmmfh gwee mmoom.”
The waitress wasn't paying attention to what we said. If she had been, I'd at least have my conflict. I suppose it just wasn't meant to be.
Victor swallowed his food and got ready for his pasta. He studied it. He sniffed at it. “This is spaghetti?”
I looked up from my po' boy and noticed he didn't have a piping hot plate of noodles with meatballs and tomato sauce. The sauce and meat were both too pale for that sort of thing. Then it hit me. “It's linguini with clam sauce.” I checked the swamp. It was green again. “Yep. Linguini with clam sauce. Enjoy.”
“I didn't want clams. I dissected those in Biology. They're nasty.”
“Those haven't been marinated in formaldehyde. They cooked them, even. Give them a shot, why don't you?”
Victor shrugged and gave it a try. He spat it out faster than you could say, “I'm gonna eat that other plate on the table.” Which is what he said. To his horror, a busboy had already swept away Victor's culinary salvation and he was left with a pile of bad taste in his mouth and a dirty plate under his feet.
I just munched at my po' boy. It was the only thing keeping me in that place. I needed inspiration and this dive wasn't exactly a wellspring of brilliance.
Then I saw the definition of the word 'grizzled' eating inside the restaurant. His face had lines on it carved by the sun. His skin tanned to cowhide, his hair bleached like bones in a desert. His rough blue shirt once fit a larger man, but now hung on his starving, aged frame.
“Victor, you see that guy eating ceviche?”
“The guy inside, right there, having the fish?”
“Oh. Him. Yeah. He's old. And?”
“That's my protagonist. He'll be perfect.”
“Wha? NO! Protagonist means a main character. He's obviously a sea captain. I imagine he's down on his luck. He's got to have a powerful story of quiet dignity and grace under pressure somewhere in him.”
“Sounds like you're gay for him.” Victor scooted his chair back.
“Shut up. I have to write a story and I need a character. He's it. I am not gay.”
“Could we go to a strip club in Miami to prove it?”
“No. We have to write a story and get back ASAP. I'll kiss someone passionately when I get back so as to remove all doubt about my sexual orientation.”
“How come I don't get any?”
“Because you accused me of being gay, and I think irony is a great idea.”
“I'm sorry. Now can I get a girlfriend?”
“I'll think about it. First we gotta get that story.” I finished my sandwich and got up to go visit the old man.
I walked up to him. “Excuse me, sir?”
“Ah, hello. I'm a writer, name's Dean Webb, and I'm looking for a character for my latest story. I was wondering if I could use you for it.”
“A story? What? Like Cinderella or some crap like that?”
“Not like Cinderella, but, yeah, in a story. Something based on your life and experience. Would that be all right?”
“Sure, what the hell. You're gonna pay for this, right?”
“Uh, yeah. It'd be the standard rate I pay first-time protagonists.”
“Hah? Look, buddy, I'm a boat captain. I charge five hundred bucks a day for a charter. And fuel. You gotta pay my fuel.”
What did I care about expenses? Carrie was paying for everything. “Sure. Five hundred and fuel. What time do we leave tomorrow?”
“How did you know I got tomorrow free?”
“You look a little down on your luck, it's the off-season, and I need you to be available as a plot device.”
The old guy shrugged. “What kinda conflict am I looking at? Man versus nature?”
“Most likely. Probably also a little man versus himself as you struggle within yourself to deal with the challenges of your life.”
“Geez, I just run a boat. I don't have challenges of my life. What the hell kinda book is this, anyway? And that man versus nature worries me. You ain't gonna wreck my boat, are you?”
“Of course not. I'm going to be on it. I'm a terrible swimmer. You have to come out alive, and a better person for it.”
“I'm going to need to know the ending in advance before I go through with the thing.”
“I can't reveal the ending now. It'd ruin the suspense from the rising action.”
“I ain't sailing my boat if you're not telling me exactly what the conflict is gonna be.”
I wondered if Hemingway had this much hassle with Santiago back in the fifties. “I'll take out an insurance policy, how about that.”
“Nothing doing. Let me see your notes. I read Moby Dick once. I know how these damn books can end.”
“Well, the funny thing is, I don't plan out my books. They just sorta go in a direction all their own. Insurance is the best I can do.”
“Crap.” The old man stared at his meager meal. Was he desperate enough? “I'll do it. Crap.” Yes. I had my man.
“So, ah, what's your name?”
“Jimmy St. James. How much is the deductible on that policy?”
“Nice meeting you, Mr. St. James. It's $200, which I'll be happy to cover. Where do we meet in the morning?”
“Meet me by the bait stands at the piers. Be there at five. I like to leave early.”
“Sounds like a plan. I'll be there.”
“You'll get half up front, half when we get back. And I better have drama.”
“Whatever. Now get the hell outta my face so I can eat in peace.”
So he was maybe more curmudgeonly than I'd have liked, but any port in a storm, I figured. I left his table and returned to mine to discover Victor had eaten all my fries and half my hush puppies. Looks like we'd all gotten what we wanted.
Five AM the next day saw me and Victor standing in front of a row of bait stands, staking out the waterfront for Jimmy St. James. We were wearing the fruits of our shopping the night before. Victor had on a slick “Dirty South” urban contemporary ensemble. I sported a Disney-influenced Hawaiian shirt – Bermuda shorts combo. Neither one of us looked like we belonged in front of a bait stand at five in the morning.
I felt my writer's block lifting as the sun struggled to free itself from the horizon. I noticed I'd stopped saying “Victor and I” and was making use of the more hard-boiled “me and Victor” construction. I'd hit my stride and I was going to run with it.
Jimmy St. James pulled up in his extended-cab pickup. He looked pretty much the same as he did last night, except he now had on mirrored sunglasses and a bass fishing tournament gimmee cap. Half a dozen coolers covered his bed. He flicked a switch and the passenger-side window rolled down. “You fellers hop in.”
We climbed into the back of the truck and jolted down a few dozen yards into the parking lot. Jimmy put it in park and jumped out of the cab. “Now help me get these ice chests into the boat.”
Jimmy pointed where they should go and we schlepped coolers onto his boat. I had no idea how to talk boat, but it looked pretty good compared to other boats in the harbor. It had a cabin with a shade awning and a few deck chairs. Knowing I could sit in the shade as he went about his business certainly buoyed my spirits.
After we loaded the chests, Jimmy confronted us. “You got any watches? Cell phones?”
“OK. You gonna let me frisk you?”
“Don't want no GPS devices on this trip.”
“Believe me, Jimmy, I don't have anything electronic on me and once we get out there, all the water's gonna look the same to me.”
“All the same, I need to search you.”
Jimmy frisked us both and, satisfied we weren't packing satellites, let us sit down, buckle up, and head out into open waters. When I saw the glint off the water, I couldn't help but imagine Hemingway's anti-hero Santiago going up against the noblest of the marlins. I was going to re-live that experience, write about it, and get Carrie her story in time for the weekend. Life couldn't be any better. I had setting, character, and plot. All I needed was conflict and I'd be a made man.
Jimmy slathered on sunscreen and kept his head covered with the hat and shades. Looked like I wouldn't get any man vs. nature that way. It'd all have to come from the marlin we were going to catch.
Jimmy piloted his boat out into deep blue water and cut the engine. He set up five huge fishing poles and asked, “Which one you wanna use?”
“Which pole? You're paying for it.”
“Oh, no, I just want to write about you fishing. I don't want to fish.”
“Don't want to fish? What are you, some kinda communist?”
“I don't have any idea how to catch a marlin. It's all yours.”
“You're paying me five hundred bucks just to watch me fish. Am I understanding you properly?”
“Yessir. You fish, I write.”
“Well, what am I gonna catch, Mr. writer?”
“Not a white whale?”
“Well, not literally.”
“Well, I was thinking of having a major struggle as you strive to bring in the perfect blue marlin.”
“I don't struggle when I fish. I drink beer and let the fish do all the work until I reel it in.”
“OK, well, uh, we could have the fish be too big to fit in the boat in one piece, and-“
“I doubt that will happen. If it did, I'd find a way to make it fit. I've got plenty of storage and ice below. This ain't a rowboat with twine tied around my big toe. I'm prepared for just about anything.”
“Aren't you a down-on-your-luck fisherman who needs that one big break?”
“No. Business is slow in the off season, but I do all right when the vacationers get here. I figured taking you two yahoos along would mean I wouldn't have to spend the day babysitting my sister's brats because my wife loves to have the pitter-damn-patter of little savages in the house. And wouldn't you do some irony garbage and have my big break turn into a big heartbreak? No thanks. I'll catch your damn fish, give you a few tips and be home in time to catch Matlock reruns.” Jimmy stomped to the front of the boat.
I could see Captain St. James was more well-read than I had reckoned. He didn't want to have anything to do with Ernest Hemingway's grace under pressure. He wanted Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville, and he had the well-stocked ice chest to make that dream come true. Life was too easy for him to have any meaningful conflict.
I had to think fast.
Suddenly, a swell of water rocked the boat. It was totally unlike any surface wave. Another swell followed, even higher than the first. They felt as though they came from far below the surface, from some disturbance rising from the sea floor.
Victor tapped me on the shoulder. “Mister, you think this is a good idea?”
Strange vapors began to bubble and hiss from the slowly-churning waters. “What do you mean? I'm introducing conflict.”
“Yeah, but, we're on the boat.”
Shadowy horror-shaped figures moved in the chaotic murk. “And your point?”
“Whatever you got coming up to scare Cap'n Cranky would probably wipe us out.”
“Oh. Rats.” The waters calmed as quickly as they had become disturbed. “I hadn't thought of that. So how am I going to get a conflict in this story? His life's too boring.”
“Well, bringing in some huge monster doesn't make it any better for us.”
“I could have him lose his mind.”
“Not good. How do we get back?”
“Coast Guard could pick us up.”
“I could die of hunger by then.”
“Always thinking with your stomach, Victor.”
“It's what keeps me going.”
“Man vs. man?”
“Which one of us fights him? And if we lose, does he cut us up for fish bait?”
“Ew. And I didn't want to write a slasher story.”
“Especially with me on it. Hey, I know!”
“How about have us collide with a cruise ship full of swimsuit models and they have to take us on board while his boat sinks?”
“That had a nice bittersweet twist to it, but swimsuit models?”
“Sure. The babes gotta cruise, too.”
“I don't think Carrie's going to like that.”
“Too bad. I need some action, mister.”
Nine pages in and I didn't have any conflict. Everything around me kept me from finishing the story, it seemed. Nothing I came up with was good enough for everyone, and nothing Victor came up with was good enough for me.
I had had enough. I wasn't going to listen to anyone else anymore. I was going to end things my way.
Jimmy screamed as a tentacle shot out of the water and wrapped around him.
Deal with that, Mr. I-don't-struggle-for-nobody.
“You can't do this to me, Webb! This is deus ex machina! Hemingway would never have pulled a stunt like this!”
“I'm not Hemingway.”
“You got that right.”
Victor said, “Sorry, mister.”
Something was wrong with Jimmy's reaction. Apart from the initial shocked scream, he didn't seem too fazed by the tentacle suspending him five feet off the deck. “All right, St. James, what's your story?”
“I thought it was this one.”
“I thought so, too, but you seem to have been in other literary works. Spill the beans, bub.”
Jimmy smiled knowingly. “So the jig is up, is it? OK, so this isn't my first story. I did a lot of pulp sci-fi and horror stories back in the early sixties. I seen this and worse. You can't faze me. I've forgotten more about cheap scares than you've ever learned.”
The tentacle set Jimmy back on the deck and retreated to unnamable deeps. I had to ask. “You even did Lovecraftian fiction?”
“Cthulhu ftaghn, Dean. Cthulhu ftaghn.”
He'd seen it all, sure enough. Or… had he?
“Don't think I didn't see those italics, Dean. That's pretty trite of you.”
“Never mind that, Jimmy. I give up. There's no scaring you. You pretty much got things in order and under control.”
“I run a tight ship, so to speak.”
“Indeed you do. I'll just sit back here and write some bad poetry for the rest of the trip. You enjoy your time fishing. Just one thing, though.”
“Could you teach Victor to fish?”
“Sure. Does he want to learn?”
Victor said, “Beats sitting around with nothing to do.”
Jimmy surveyed the fishing poles. “Sounds like a plan, then.”
“Great!” I plopped down in a deck chair.
Jimmy sat Victor next to a pole and began explaining its usage. “Now, when deep-sea fishing, there are three key things to keep in mind. One, you- uh, don't touch that. No, put that down. Whoa! Hey, easy there, fella! OW! No, don't OW! OK, we're going to look at how to get a hook out of your arm. YOWCH! STOP! SIT DOWN! WAIT! NO! AIIIIIEEEEE!!!”
Turns out, the Coast Guard did have to pick us up. They had a hard time getting the nearly cataleptic St. James on their cutter, and had to move carefully through the wreckage to get to Victor. They all were amazed at how some strange force suspended me several feet above the water.
Once I'd gotten on board, they started asking me all kinds of questions. All I could say was, “Who knew a guy with a pole could do so much damage after hooking a 80-foot long squid?” When they asked about the squid, I told them it was the big one that got away.
Victor just shot me a mean look when I mentioned the squid. “That was just wrong, mister. I told you not to do that while we were on the boat.”
“I had to be me, Victor.”
“Well, next time, be yourself without me on the boat.”
“At least it didn't devour you. Be glad for that.”
“It sucks being your helper. No chicks, that old guy yelled at me when I tried to learn fishing, then you throw one of those monsters at us and I wind up in the Gulf of Mexico. I want a new job.”
“What, another job where you spend most of your time playing on the computer, eating take-out, and traveling to exotic destinations?”
“Gator Springs ain't exotic.”
“OK, so two out of three ain't bad.”
“Yes it is if one of them isn't something I can date.”
“Well, I'll think about it.” I left Victor and went to check on Jimmy.
Jimmy looked a different man without his mirrored shades and hat. He sat, shivering under a towel, staring straight out into space. Somehow he noticed my presence.
“Damn you, Dean Webb.”
“Nice to see you, too, Jimmy. I thought you'd thank me at least for the squid.”
“It made it stop, but why did you set me up with Victor in the first place?”
“You needed conflict. Something to struggle with.”
A tear rolled down Jimmy's cheek. The ordeal had broken him.
“Good news is, I got my conflict.”
“I hate you.”
“Now, you hardly know me well enough to say that.”
“I hate you.”
“I'm sorry you're not looking at this as a growth opportunity. You know, Santiago in Old Man and the Sea had bone spurs and he didn't complain. He looked up to DiMaggio, the great ball player who played on his injury.”
Jimmy didn't say anything.
I then realized that analogy was a load of hooey nowadays. Look cross-eyed at a baseball player, and they'd take at least two weeks off to recover. I suppose a lot had changed since the fifties. I tried another angle to cheer Jimmy up. “You had insurance though. That'll pay off for you. I've already covered the deductible.”
Jimmy glared at infinity.
“OK, well, take care.”
Some grace under pressure he had. I had to teach Victor for two years in a row and I came out mostly fine. So I had a few mental issues as a consequence of that, but I got through those all right. Modern medical science can do wonders, provided you give it a chance. But one day with Victor and this guy caves. Such a letdown.
Characters these days don't seem to be as sturdy as they used to be. I shudder to think how Jimmy would last in Treasure Island or Robinson Crusoe. Even The Great Gatsby might be too much strain for this guy.
Still, I had my story, whatever the cost. It was time to head back and give Carrie her due.
I figured I'd also give Victor his.
Back home, I called Carrie. She arrived at my office as soon as the proverbial possible.
“So where's the story, Dean? I need it, fast.”
“Nice to see you, too, Carrie. I got it right here.” I handed her the story, all printed nice in twelve-point Times Roman. She looked it over. “Whaddya think, toots?”
“First of all, don't call me 'toots'. I didn't like it the first time.”
“That's better. Now, about your story.”
“It's flat. Uninspired. It's not even much of a parody. The whole bit at the beginning about feck is unrelated to the rest of the work. It's indulgent.”
“Well, I figured I could indulge a little since I was just writing for fun, then. Think of it as a bonus short subject with the main feature.”
“It's indulgent. I don't care who you're writing for, you should always follow the rules of good writing. And when you're writing for me, you better have a damn good reason when you break one.”
“I always have my reasons, Carrie. And you got your story, right? There it is, from opening to denouement, it's all there.”
“I was a fool to think you'd write a good story.”
“And I was on a ship, so there's your ship of fools.”
“Speaking of which, where's Victor?”
“On a cruise, would you believe it? He called yesterday to say he'd already met a few ladies who were interested in seeing him.”
“How is he affording that?”
“Corporate credit card.”
“Nice to know you've got other clients paying your bills.”
“What? You're paying, right?”
“I'm not paying for this, Dean.”
I couldn't believe this symphony of rejection in F Minor her criticism composed. “Carrie, you gotta pay up. I delivered.”
“It's hack work, and you know it. Barely a character in Jimmy St. James. His pulp experience shows through. He's so cardboard, I think he's got a pizza inside him. You would have been better off with the waitress with the purple teeth.”
“Hey, I fixed that.”
“Barely. And the conflict? Please. Man vs. Victor is pretty painful to watch, let alone read through.”
“He's a changed man for it.”
“For the worse. I don't like it when you just use up and discard characters like that. If they're going to be tossed, they should be tossed for a reason.”
“I had a terrible time getting the story together. You should be glad I had anything for you. My writer's block was killing me!”
“Then why didn't you write about that?” Carrie walked out, without so much as a goodbye. That made two of us who were let down.
The dame had a point. Why didn't I focus on my own difficulties? I'm quite the character and I had one bad case of Man vs. Conflict. I made a mental note to kick myself later about this. All along, I was searching for a topic, and there it was, right in my own inability to find one. Everything I did to resolve it was no good, even leading up to a false climax of my own contrivance.
But everything had changed. I now knew my real conflict. All I had to do was put it around the rest of the story, and I'd have a real winner. I typed some more pages and called Carrie on her cell phone.
“Make it quick, Dean.”
“I did. I got my conflict in there. It's a good one, I can tell. The writing came easily once I knew my direction. I even tried to goof off and do research through video games at one point, but couldn't. I found myself writing instead. My writer's block is gone, and I got the story to prove it. You gotta read it, Carrie!”
“Too late, Dean. I've already gone with another author.”
I sighed. I expected as much. Carrie didn't play around. When she needed a story, she meant business.
“Don't take it too hard, Dean. I'll cover those expenses. You did have a few funny things in it, and I think they deserve a little something.”
“Thanks, Carrie. Maybe next time.”
“Sure, there'll be a next time. Just keep writing and don't block up again.”
I looked at my story, unpublished yet magnificent. No one else knew about it, but it was still mine, all mine. The memory and enjoyment of writing it were all mine, forever. Even though I didn't feel like writing at first, I did it anyway. I played in spite of my injury, my brain spurs, and didn't flinch. I set out to write, no matter what, and came back with a wonderful catch. Pity no one else would enjoy it but me, but such is life some times. No money could buy the feeling of satisfaction I had.
But I'd need money to buy the other things in my life. Sure, I'd get more work in the future, but times were hard for the moment. I'd have to cut expenses to survive. Where would I begin?
Victor had that company plastic. That would have to go.
I called in to cancel the credit card. Moments later, a panicked Victor called from the cruise ship about how he couldn't buy anything in the gift shops anymore. I told him to hold tight and fill up at the buffets.
Victor asked, “How is that going to impress the ladies?”
“I don't know, but it'll see you through the lean times ahead.”
“Didn't Carrie pay you?”
“No. But my writer's block cleared up. I can go forward from here. I'm confident I'll succeed.”
“But if I got no moneys, I got no honeys!”
“You could still impress the ladies, even without cash. Like DiCaprio's character in Titanic. You could be heroic.”
“I don't like where this analogy is heading.”
I felt so proud he finally picked up on what an analogy was. So proud, I almost felt guilty for the strange waves emanating from the ocean floor that rocked his boat, portending a nightmarish doom for him and his ship companions, et cetera, et cetera.
Oh well. I'm sure he'll thank me for this later once he's safely on the lifeboat with the ladies. Of course, I could make the ladies all octogenarian prudes with a yen for lecturing whippersnappers of all ages.
I do love irony so…