AUTHOR'S NOTE: This is a fun piece that I've been toying with on and off for years. What would happen if the characters in a story got to critique the author's work? And what would their private life be like, when the writer isn't writing? The only way to find out is with another story-within-a-story, as you'll see. This tale won't give you any orgasms, but it might call forth a smile. Let me know what you think of it.
Bruce trembled as the fierce winds tore at the plane, tossing it about like the ball in a tennis match. This looked like the end. Although he couldn't see into the cockpit, he knew enough about flying to be sure there was no way the pilots could get them out of this predicament. If only he'd had a few more hours with Clare. Did she know where he kept the life insurance policies? Had he told her he loved her just before he left? Somewhere above his head a rivet popped as the metal was tortured beyond its ability to resist the tornado's fury. The window by the seat ahead of his cracked with a sound like a gunshot. Startled, he looked out his own window and saw tree limbs flashing past in a blur, stripped of their leaves.
Charlie stopped typing, momentarily breathless from the excitement as his story built to a climax. His stomach rumbled. It was that damned tequila! Why had he let himself be lured into drinking margaritas? They always did this to him. And now he was throwing away Bruce, after he had spent five whole novels plus twelve chapters of this one, building him up into a heroic figure. And all because his stomach couldn't handle tequila!
Bruce got to the end of the paragraph and grimaced. He didn't want to die, at least not this soon. It just wasn't fair. He had done everything that Charlie had demanded of him, and to be lost in a plane crash in the middle of nowhere seemed like a monstrous injustice. Damn that Charlie anyway! Next time he'd have to hook up with a different novelist, one with regular habits who didn't drink at lunch.
Just then there was a stir in the pile of papers and Clare stuck her head out from under page 214. "How's it going in the storm? Did you get hurt?"
"Hurt? That'd be trivial compared to what he's got me into now! I'm about to get splattered all over a mountainside out on some lonely Pacific island, and the rain is pelting down so hard you can't even see which way is up!"
"Oh, that's just awful. Well, obviously it's the end for you, but at least it's sudden, without a lot of pain and suffering. But I'll be a widow, too old to find another man before the final chapter and yet with a long, lonely life ahead of me. Is there anything we can do? Can't you stop him somehow before he ruins our lives?"
Charlie sat with his head in his hands. The room was slowly spinning and he felt as if the bottom was dropping out of his stomach. Look at this mess! He scanned his last paragraph and glanced to his left to check the exact location of the big wastebasket that had harbored so many would-be literary masterpieces. If he started to barf he could just lean over and hit the basket without even getting up out of his chair. Reassured on that point, he turned his attention back to the plane bouncing around on the perimeter of a class 3 tornado. Or was it category 3? Or maybe grade 3? Better just let it go at 100 mile-per-hour winds. The damned readers these days knew all this technical stuff from watching CNN. Vicious bastards! They were just waiting for him to scatter Bruce in small pieces among the Bougainvillea. Well, he'd fix 'em!
In the cockpit Gordon and Terry wrestled with the controls, desperate to regain at least partial command of their storm-tossed craft. "Terry, there's only one chance to get back out over the water, away from that mountain, and that's in a spin. Give me hard right rudder!"
As the huge airliner shuddered, the storm gradually tilted and changed direction outside the windshield, and the altimeter became a blur as they sank lower, closer and closer to the beach, no, the ocean, no, the beach, no, the ocean, and suddenly broke into clear air where they could see the shoreline spinning before them. "Now, Terry! Help me correct or we're done for!"
Terry added his muscles to Gordon's and together they managed to stop the rotation, gradually easing into a long, flat dive that leveled off just below 1000 feet. Swinging the nose back out over the water, Gordon manually set a new course away from the island, and then returned full control authority to the autopilot. The passenger cabin erupted into cheers, and Gordon tried to get his breathing back to near-normal so he could turn on the intercom and speak reassuringly to the passengers. Terry was already on the radio with air traffic control. In less than an hour they would be sitting on the tarmac and the local TV news crews would be jostling to interview the passengers and flight crew. But better reporters and cameramen than search crews and bloodhounds.
Clare was every bit as happy as Bruce over the thrilling rescue. "Oh, honey, you're safe! I'm so glad! And I'm not a widow! Oh, I can't wait to tell George."
"George! Who's George?"
"Oh, that's right, you don't know. Remember that guy we met at the art gallery in Chapter 5? He's been coming over once in a while when you've been away on business. He sort of keeps me company and makes sure I'm all right, all alone night after night. Charlie hasn't put that into the story yet. Well, he did, but when he re-wrote Chapter 8 it got tossed out. I think you'll learn all about George two chapters from now."
"That's a hell of a surprise. Here I am running all over the globe trying to provide a decent living for you and the kids, and you've got George coming over and patting you on the butt. Next you'll tell me that he's better in bed than I am.
"Hey, how do you know what's coming in two more chapters? Have you found a way to read Charlie's mind?"
"Oh, Bruce, don't get yourself all worked up. You've just had a narrow brush with death and you need to chill out, not work yourself into a heart attack. Now listen to me. I sneak out at night and read the manuscript and look at Charlie's outline. It's a mess, with stuff scratched out and notes penciled in the margins, and big black question marks scrawled right across some lines, but when the house is quiet I can spend hours trying to make sense of it. You're going to find out about George and get furious, and you'll throw that big Chinese vase that's worth five thousand dollars and smash it into a million pieces, but I'm going to come onto you very seductively and you'll see that you're the only one I can ever truly love. Or something like that. You'll see."
"We have a five thousand dollar vase?"
"Well, if you'd stay home some of the time you'd know about it. Come on over to the sofa and loosen your collar while I fix you a drink."
Charlie was furious. If the plane had crashed he would have lost his hero halfway though the story. Now he had a piece that was feel-good but bland, with nothing to hold the reader's attention. How could he get any real action, any breathless suspense, with these characters, anyway? They never did anything exciting! They were as dangerous as a bunch of Sunday school teachers. He'd never make the New York Times bestseller list with them aboard. Hell, he'd be lucky to get it published. He needed a gimmick! Instant excitement! Something that nobody had used in a long time. Somebody on the plane, a passenger or a stewardess, had to be doing something dangerous. Hiding something? Smuggling? Drugs would have been sniffed out at the airport. Never get a gun past the metal detector. Money! Paper money! Could it be sewn into their clothes? Behind a false bottom in a suitcase? How much could you carry? How heavy would a million dollars be? What about diamonds, could they get past the x-ray inspection? Okay, a passenger with a million dollars in diamonds in a carry-on bag. No, make that two million! The passenger wouldn't be likely to like to trust a fortune in diamonds to the baggage compartment, would he? Probably depend on the passenger. What kind of a person would be carrying a fortune around on an airplane? And Why?
Ruth, the Senior Cabin Attendant, walked through the cabin chatting with the passengers, carefully masking her own feelings and presenting a relaxed image, just as if she had flown through tornadoes hundreds of times. "All in a day's work," she commented to a nervous middle-aged lady, wondering as she did so if she sounded as calm as she was trying to. Their reactions to the close call were as varied as the passengers themselves. The elderly couple in 13 A and B were holding each other tightly, and might have been praying together. 20 D had produced a flask and was using the screw cap as a shot glass. Repeatedly. The girls in 25 D, E, and F were all chattering at once, and giggling after ever fifth word. But 32 A was different, staring out the window while he clutched his carry-on bag to his chest with trembling hands. Ruth's rhetorical "Everything all right now?" was answered with only a nervous nod of his head, showing where the violent maneuvers of the plane had dislodged some of his tight comb-over from his bald spot, leaving a patch of pink to peek prominently between the graying strands.
Bruce sipped his drink slowly, afraid that if he gulped it down too fast he might be half smashed when Charlie needed him. The Jack Daniel's tasted wonderful, and Clare had poured it generously. No shot glass for this one. That bottle of club soda would last as long as the whiskey at this rate. Clare sat next to him, her left arm propped on the pillows behind his neck while her fingers toyed with his hair.
"What's going to happen now? Was any of this in the outline?"
"No, I think he was making it up as he went along. Tomorrow morning he'll probably revise the outline and then I can find out what's coming next. I do hope you can get some rest before the next disaster. That was an awful scare for you, poor baby."
Bruce put his glass down, frowned at it, picked it up again for another quick sip, then carefully set it back on the coaster on the coffee table. He straightened up, turned, and took Clare in his arms. "I thought I'd never see you again. That's what had me panicked. The thought of dying barely entered my mind. What I kept thinking was that I'd never hold you in my arms again, and kiss you, and . . ."
"I know, I know. Just hold me close. Everything's all right now. I doubt that Charlie will need you any more this afternoon. Just rest here with me. It's all right now."
"If Charlie calls, tell him I stepped out. I've had about all of him that I can take today. Tell him I'm sick. Tell him I went to Croatia. Or Latvia or Finland. I don't care what you tell him. What would be wrong with living in a regular house in a regular town, going off to the office every morning and coming home to my family every night, having kids that I take to Little League and soccer practice, being just a normal guy with a normal family? Why does he have to drag me all over the globe to do heroic deeds in improbable settings?"
"Oh Bruce, try to look at the situation from Charlie's point of view. Normal doesn't sell books! People read Charlie's novels because the situations are unusual, bizarre, thrilling. You have a job just because you go to those places and do those things. You're the guy who can keep his head straight in confusing circumstances. You're the guy with the beautifully tailored suits, the washboard abs, the keen insights, the unfailing courage. You can whirl through terrifying plot twists with a gorgeous young woman on your arm, and at the end just kiss her goodbye and return home to your ever-patient wife." There was a brief pause. "You . . . you are still just kissing them goodbye, aren't you?"
"Of course. You don't think Charlie would let me take my pants off, do you? He won't even let me go to the men's room, let alone have any casual sex. I'm Boy Scout Bruce. It doesn't even make sense, the way I can be so casual about blowing away people I don't even know, with AK-47's and Walther PPK's and even Bazookas, and never even cop a feel of those babes. They're falling all over me, sometimes half undressed, and I don't seem to know they're coming on to me. How can I decipher coded messages and unravel wicked plots to blow up the United Nations General Assembly, but be too dense to see that those bimbos are after my body? I don't even know if I'm supposed to be virtuous or stupid."
"I know, I know. Just hold me close. Everything's all right now. Just rest here with me. Try to relax all those tense muscles. I bet if I were to give you a good back massage you'd fall asleep. You're totally worn out but you're too tense to get any rest. Unbutton your shirt and let me go to work on you. Here, lie down on the sofa and let me . . . there, how does that feel? Oh, your shoulder muscles are all in knots! Wait here while I go and get a nice hot towel. I'll be back in a minute."
But when Clare returned, Bruce was snoring softly, his body as limp as a well-used dustcloth. Setting the hot towel aside, she carefully removed his shoes and wristwatch and loosened his belt. Then she leaned back in a reclining chair and thought about what their next move ought to be. Within ten minutes she had nodded off, her whispered snores blending with Bruce's.
Bruce grunted and sat up. The living room was totally dark except for the feeble glow of a night light on the far wall. He turned on a lamp on an end table, which prompted Clare to stir on the chair and open one eye. "Well, aren't a pair of sleepy-heads?" she asked. Maybe you ought to go right in to bed before you wake up any more."
"No, I feel like sitting up for a while." He retrieved his watch from the coffee table. "It's almost ten o'clock already. I guess Charlie must have closed up shop by now."
"Come with me. I'll show you how I spy on him when you're away."
She rose and led the way through the dining room to the back window. "Look out here and you'll see the back gate. Just beyond it there's a pile of papers, and we can wiggle our way around them to a spot where we come out onto his desktop. Come on, it's not hard, and it's sort of fun." In a few minutes they were peering out at the end of Charlie's keyboard, and were surprised to see Charlie's hands. "Quick, back in here!"
"You mean he's working? But he never sent for me. And he never works this late. Something's wrong here."
"Wait. Look over there. You see that he's not typing? That thing over there is the mouse, and he's . . . oh, there, on the screen, he's playing cards."
"What's that all about? I know he's behind schedule on the novel because I overheard him talking to the lady at the publishing house. Why would he be wasting time playing cards?"
"He does that when he doesn't know what to do next. He must have written himself into a jam, and he may play cards half the night, waiting for an idea to come. He'll probably sleep late tomorrow morning, so we'll come back then and read what he's been writing. If we can't find the last pages, we can print them out. I can't handle them alone, but the two of us can move them over here on the pile. I'm sure we'll find out what's bothering Bruce in the last page or two."
Back in the living room, Bruce poured them each another drink. "It's kind of strange, the way you can spy on Charlie like this. How did you discover that little path between the paper and the in-basket?"
"Oh, I searched for a way to get some idea of what was happening. I needed to know when you'd be coming home, and with you gone so much I had plenty of time to search. I've been all over his desk, and let me tell you, it's a mess! There's all kinds of stuff on his desktop that has nothing to do with writing novels. Now I don't know if it's ever come to your attention, but our Charlie is a little strange."
"Oh, I think he has dreams of being another Hemingway, but he hasn't the talent. He lacks the courage to tackle anything he hasn't done before, write stories that aren't just like the ones he's been writing. He'll sit and play with the stapler, clicking it over and over until he has all the staples out of it in a pile on the desk. And he's got strange little things that he'll sit and hold, turning them over and over in his hands."
"Well, there's a doorknob. Can you imagine? A doorknob! And a couple of golf tees and a golf ball that he keeps in a big glass ashtray. But as far as I know, he never plays golf, and I've never seen him with a club in his hands. Then there's a little candle like you'd put on a birthday cake, over by the phone. And the ashtray, what's he need that for? He's never smoked in all the time I've been working for him."
"Do you think he's about to go off the deep end, like maybe trashing all the chapters he's written already? Or maybe he'd give up writing and get a job?"
"Are you kidding? Listen, writers will do anything at all to keep from going to work. Don't forget, I started in children's stories when I was a little girl, and I've known a lot more writers than you have. They're so lazy they pretend they don't know anything at all except writing. And they're totally afraid of the real world. They just want to create a dream world of their own and then live in that, and avoid any contact with real people. But when I say that Charlie is strange, I mean as compared to regular people. I suppose he's no more weird than a lot of the other writers I've worked for."
"All I ever worked for was one other guy before Charlie. His name was Herb. He was all right, I guess. He mostly wrote at night. His whole house would be dark except for one desk lamp. And I know what you mean about being strange. He used to wear rubber boots when he was writing, and sometimes he'd wear an old hat that had fishing flies hooked through the brim. But he was a good writer, worked steadily, pumped out at least fifty pages a night and very rarely did he go back and revise what he'd written. But he stopped writing after a while; too old, I guess. I wonder what ever happened to old Herb."
"What was your name then?"
"I was Will. I was a private investigator, and I usually was solving crimes that the police couldn't figure out. I had an office up over a drugstore, and I drove a convertible. That was a good job. Herb was good at inventing clever plots, crimes with interesting twists in them. Herb made me real smart. My secret ability was being able to put myself in the criminal's shoes, and think the way he would. Sometimes when I solved one I had a hard time convincing the police and the DA that I had the right culprit. Mostly the crimes were murders, but there was one victim who was kidnapped but we got him back alive, and we had two cases of espionage. I worked with the FBI on them, and just being with those guys was an adventure. But I didn't have to travel as much as I do with Bruce. Herb got me home to my own bed almost every night. I miss that."
"I've been Molly and Helen and Eve and a bunch of other names. When I was a little girl just starting out I was Curly Jane. I think that was because of the lingering influence of Shirley Temple.
"You know, I never did get the whole story of what went on here before I came to work for Charlie. You had another wife, didn't you, or weren't you married?"
"Oh, we were married. Charlie'd never let us live together if we weren't married. Her name was Alice. She got killed in an auto accident that was sort of suspicious, but nothing was ever proven. I was terribly broken up over her death, but then Charlie bought this house and he had mortgage payments to meet every month, so I wasn't allowed to sit around and mope very long. I did two novels as a widower and then you came along in Chapter 3 of the one after that."