Every Life Needs a Little Mystery
Every Life Needs a Little Mystery

The Grand Plan by Allan Ansorge

 

Bonnie was always the first to arrive. Tonight her blond hair was plastered to her forehead by the rain. She dripped her way down the aisles of the bookshop as all the learn-to-write-and-be-published books said it was critical to do. An aspiring author was to study a bookstore's shelves to ascertain what was inventoried and what was selling, then go home to recreate the latest bestseller, get published, and become rich and famous.

Cookbooks were always huge, along with guides to replacing the stained grout around one’s tub or sink. Bonnie had tried to cook on occasion — even after purchasing one of the books on the New York Times bestseller list — and while it didn’t instigate the hospitalization period her venture with the hammer did, all and all it was not what could be called a pleasant experience.

 

One by one some of the other members of her writing group wandered in. Some joined Bonnie at strolling the aisles, others headed up the staircase to the tables and chairs gathered there. Each of them glanced to the rear of the bookstore’s ground floor in hopes that the cafe tables would be set up for a reading, a sales pitch by someone who had cracked the seemingly impenetrable wall of the publishing world. If there was to be a reading on this rainy night, inevitably one of the group would suggest they all sit in to “see how it is done.”

 

Mel, the owner of the book store, always invited the members of the writing group to join in, even on the occasions there was a dinner served prior to the reading that the group should have reserved and paid for in advance.

 

Every member of the writing group called the owner Mel, none of them ever learning what her given name really was. Most of them had been coming here for so long they were now too embarrassed to ask.

 

Everyone in the group knew they would learn nothing new at the readings. For them, it delayed the agony of climbing to the loft and going to their nearly assigned seats. There they would have to admit to their peers that again none of them were any closer to seeing their name on a cover shelved downstairs.

 

The rain pounded the roof over their heads as they all settled into chairs that by now had conformed to each of them as over half of them admitted they had not written anything since they last met. Most confessions featured the familiar tried-and-true excuse they had all used too often, “I am too busy.”

 

The truth, they all knew, was they were all suffering from battle fatigue of the written word. They had all more than paid their dues in time, effort, and funds. Their own shelves at home were lined with the instruction manuals that were to have guided them to success. Wastebaskets brimmed with crumpled sheaves that failed to meet muster, and exhausted cartridges that gave their all in search of the perfect letter combination to form the perfect word, to join other perfect words in making up the exact sentence that would reach out and touch a reader. Still, the stars had not aligned to grant any of them passage into the world of published works.

 

The truth of the situation made it even crueler. Every one of them in their own way wrote every bit as well as the names listed on the tomes earning royalties down on the lower level. They had learned some time ago that the publishing industry makes every possible effort to keep their club very exclusive. The gatekeepers, agents and editors, do their very best to keep the talent pool as small as possible and still make a living off of it. Quite simply, the fewer people allowed in the industry the less work they have to do. When every laborer in the field of letters is a known commodity, the job of these gatekeepers becomes that of courier rather than seeker of new talent.

 

So the members of Monday Night Writers languished. They came to the little store once a month, rain or shine. More often than not, too hear what one of their talented friends created, in their hearts, knowing that it would be the one and only time the work was exposed to anyone but the authors themselves.

 

After the readers had read, the correctors debated the semicolon verses the comma and whether a boat really had a cockpit, and the rest sat in uncomfortable silence.

 

Jema, when she wasn’t crocheting a sweater, spun memoirs that carried the group to a time when children still laughed and played in ways that didn’t require headphones. At this particular meeting a frowning Jema, turned to Larry, a retired law professor, “Why don’t you ever submit your stories for publication or self-publish them?"

 

Larry was a good three days from his last shave. The fluorescent ceiling lights caused his blue eyes and white stubble beard to glitter when he waved his thin-fingered hand as he spoke. “No agent will take on a collection of short stories from an unknown author, and publishers won’t read them if they haven’t come from an agent,” replied Larry.

“What about self-publishing?” asked Ann.  Her arms crossed in front of her chest she struck a somewhat defiant pose. She had once gone to a writer’s workshop to read her short story about a cat that solved a crime. A year later, she saw a book that expanded on the story shelved one floor below them. Ann never went to a workshop again and seldom read for the Monday Night Writers.

“I don’t have the time or money to travel around selling the book on my own. You have to unload a ton of them to break even self-publishing. If I had the time and money, it would have to be a super book just to get my money back.” Larry uncomfortably shuffled the stack of loose papers he carried with him to each meeting.

 

 Ann stared at the Number 2 pencil that was laying in the middle of the table, unclaimed for the last three meetings. “Someone should do it; someone here should do a book just to let the rest of the world know we are here. I would help sell it on street corners if I had to. All of you write stuff as good as half of that crap Mel has downstairs. Mel knows books. She told me she sits at the bottom of the stairs sometimes just to listen to what you all write.”

 

The stairs to the loft squeaked and Mel’s auburn curls appeared at floor level behind Larry’s chair. “Might I interrupt for just a moment?” she asked in nearly a whisper. “I do listen. I know I shouldn’t. I’m not a member of the group, but you all write such beautiful things, I love to hear them. Some times it reminds me of my mother reading to me when I was a little girl.

“I have an idea that might help you get the book you all want and should have by now, if you are truly interested. I admit it is a little unusual, but then, the publishing world is unusual.”

 

Larry pulled out his chair and waved Mel into it. “This is your store; we have always considered you not a part of the group but the founder of it. You are welcome whenever you have the time. What is your plan?”

 

Larry’s stack of papers left the writers group that night with Ann. They spent the next two months in the upper left drawer of her desk at the realty office where she worked. The group wouldn’t meet again until the third Monday of January, and November and December were slow months for selling homes. A few pages at a time, they found their way to her desktop and into her word processor.

 

When the pages reappeared at Mel’s shop the third Monday of January, they had come out of Ann’s printer as a three-hundred page noir mystery. Everyone wanted desperately to hear what she had done with Larry’s stories, but that was not part of Mel’s plan. Mel herself didn’t even open the carton they were in. She drew a small slip of paper from a coffee can that had been sitting on a bookshelf for two months and, without comment, handed the carton to Jema. Everyone brought something new to read this time. Enthusiasm was again flowing around the table and through the words they all put to paper.

 

One month later, Jema repeated Ann’s transaction, and Mel handed the carton to the next person whose name came from the coffee can. The scene was reenacted five more times until it passed back to Mel from the hands of Nora, the resident grammarian and stylist, of the Monday Night Writers.

Mel didn’t stay for the night’s readings; she had appointment for coffee with the cousin of one of the distributors she bought most of her inventory from. “Gillian, I want to thank you for this favor.”

“I think we are more than even, I want to thank you for the plane ticket. I just can’t seem to get enough money together to come back and see my folks as often as I should. Living in New York is a lot more expensive than it is to live here. You could have counted on me holding up my end of the deal even without the ticket. Your letting me work in your shop not only got me through college, it taught me to love books. I don’t think I would ever have gotten a job with a New York publisher without you.”

“I have always thought you could do anything you wanted, Gillian. I’m sure some day you will be a publisher, not working for one. I don’t want anything more than a fair read. I’m betting the book is good enough to be in a cover, not a box.”

The two old friends parted with hugs, tears, and promises to write, come what may.

 

Each writing club meeting passed with exchanges of news of submissions and rejections. Even the rejections were not taken as seriously as they had been in the past. The members were all insulated from the pain of rejection by the hope in the carton that left town in Gillian’s carry-on bag.

 

The November meeting found a full complement of members. None of the 7 malingered in the shop anymore; there was always so much to discuss these nights. They wouldn’t see each other for two months over the holidays, and tonight there was news to share. Three of the members announced notification of essays accepted for publication by magazines, and Ann’s latest short story was an award winner of the Midwest Writers Guild’s annual contest. “The prize money isn’t much, but it will be in their annual magazine,” she reported with pride.

 

Congratulations on the victories hadn’t yet died down when Mel appeared at the table to drop a thick envelope in the center of the group. “You have mail from New York.”

“Who has mail?” asked Ann.

“You all do. I believe the plan has worked! It appears to be from your publisher; guessing by the thickness, I would say it is a contract to publish,” said Mel as she turned toward the stairs.

“You open it Mel! It was your plan, it’s really your book,” said Larry.

 “No, Larry, the book is part of all of you. You each added your own unique touch to it, and now you have to live with the results, good or bad.”

“Please open it, Mel, please,” said Ann, rolling back and forth the still unclaimed Number 2 in the middle of the table.

Sylvie picked the envelope up and handed it to Mel, who realized it would never get opened if she didn’t do it. Mel ripped open the envelope, lowered her glasses from her forehead and read.

“’Dear Ms. Considine,’ — I sent the manuscript under the name L. J. Considine; it was my mothers maiden name — ‘we are pleased you have chosen our firm to publish your latest work.’”

A smile crept over Mel’s face. “It is bad news indeed. They have offered you a three book deal; an advance is mentioned. The rest of it is contract gibberish. By the way, they would like to meet with the author in person at her earliest convenience.”

Mel let the letter drop to the conference table, then retreated to the staircase and bookstore below.

 

The group sat in silence, some of them staring at the torn envelope and papers resting in the middle of the table. Sylvie opened her mouth. Everyone heard her sucking in air and turned to hear what she was to say. Nothing came out, and now they all looked at the new centerpiece. Larry cleared his throat and whispered, “Mel.” When no response was forthcoming, they all repeated “MEL” in what sounded like a disjointed aboriginal chant.

 

The deep auburn curls appeared again on the stairs. “I haven’t heard this much noise up here since the toilet upstairs sprung a leak on you. What do you want?”

Larry pointed a thin finger at the papers and in nearly a whisper said, “What do we do about this?”

Mel repossessed the papers and sat down in the chair Ann pulled up to the table for her. Mel flattened the papers with her hands as her eyes circled the table. “I don’t understand. Some of you have been coming here for ten years or more. You have complained on end about your inability to get published, and now you have what every one of you has dreamed of. What is your problem?”

 

All eyes at the table turned to Larry, who raised a hand to point at Lorraine. Attention shifted to her as she rose and started to pace, “You see, Mel, we each thought someday we would have a book published. It would be our own book, not a writer that you created. With all respect to your sainted mother, she can’t fly to New York to meet with anyone.”

 

Mel shook her head and fixed her gaze on the papers in front of her. “First of all, everyone knows you can use a pen name in the book business; a lot of writers do. Second, the book is yours, as much as it is everyone else’s in this group. I think you should take one of two paths: either pick a person to represent you in New York and come clean with the publishers or have that person front for the group and the rest of you get busy on the second book of the series. I’m sure the publishers will want to see at least an outline of Book 2 before they give you the advance. You all look like you're in shock! If you had a book accepted on your own, you would have had to meet with the publisher.”

Ann fondled the Number 2 on the table. “We have been rejected for so long I don’t think we ever thought this far, at least not recently.”

Larry managed to find his voice again. “I think you should go to New York, Mel; it was your plan. You go there and represent us.”

“Not possible, Larry. I have a business to run and some people there may know me. It has to be one of you, and you better decide who very fast. As they say, your time is now: Don’t let it slip away.”

Attention shifted to Bonnie Travalia, who had informally lead the meetings since Alice the poet passed away two years ago. There was no formal nomination or ballot. Jema’s eyes never left Bonnie’s as she said, “I’ll chip in for your airfare.”

 

They all set about preparing the presentation of a marketing plan, and a plot outline for Book 2 was resurrected from Larry’s stack of papers.

 

The first special meeting ever of the Monday Night Writers met just two weeks later. Bonnie read from the extensive notes she had taken during her trip to New York, a process that led everyone she met there to believe they would surely appear as a character in the next L. J. Considine novel.

 

Bonnie carried with her a large pasteboard mock-up of the cover of their book, which Mel mounted on the wall overlooking the table they gathered at. The last item of business brought an end to the pleasure they were all sharing. Bonnie announced the book would be premiered in January at a national book festival, and the publisher had planned a number of publicity events that would of course require the presence of author Considine. After that, a publicist was planning a seven-state tour of conferences and signing opportunities.

“We have a problem,” said Bonnie.” I won’t be able to do the tour for you.” Bonnie’s head hung as she whispered that she was indeed expecting her first child in late June. This prompted a combination of congratulations and oh dear what should we do from the group that lasted at least ten minutes.

“Maybe it is time to come clean to the publisher,” said Larry without a great deal of conviction.

“Come clean about what? Did anyone ever say the book was written by one person? People use ghost writers all the time. In this case, there were a number of ghosts on the job. We have all waited to long for this opportunity to let it go now,” said Ann with a look in her eye that everyone knew meant she was never going to back down.

 

Larry started pacing around the group gathered at the table. “You know, if you take the attitude we are ghost writers, then why can’t we be ghost presenters? We could possibly divide up the appearances between us and the people in New York may never find out.”

“It sounds like an old Lucille Ball script to me.” said Jema. “Of course they’ll find out in New York. They aren’t stupid.”

Sylvie raised a finger to her lips to let them all know they were getting a little loud. Then she slowly rose from her chair, straightened the simple cotton dress that she seemed to wear every month, and in a voice slightly above a whisper said, “We have to do this; I need the money. Since my husband died I just can’t seem to make ends meet.” Little wisps of hair that did not reach the rubber band holding her pony tail fell to sides of her face as her head lowered.

Ann reached from her chair to gently touch the back of Sylvie’s hands, which she had clasped in front of her. “Why didn’t you say something Sylvie? We didn’t know anything about this.”

“When Mike got sick I started coming here to be with adults, to have someone to talk to, you know. When he left, this was really all I had, you people and my poems.” Sylvie slumped back into her chair, her eyes never rising up to face her confessors. Jema left her normal seat to lift Sylvie from her chair, engulfing her in a cardigan embrace and slipping unnoticed five $100 dollar bills into the thin girl’s hand.

“I will still be able to do the kick off dinner with the publisher, but the amount of traveling they proposed after that is out of the question,” said Bonnie as tears started to form.

“Where do they expect you to go after that?” Jema asked. Bonnie replied by handing her the list.

“My God,” said Jema. “This is the greater part of the United States. How many people are they sending from New York to get to all of these places?”

“It doesn’t work that way Jema. In the bigger cities with a lot of stops, they will furnish a driver. Other than that the authors are on their own," said Bonnie.

Larry stopped pacing and inserted himself in the conversation. “How do they know if you even show up for all these stops?”

“The author has to call the publicist and report on each stop the next day, stuff like how many people showed and how many books were sold. It’s all on the report sheet you have to eventually turn in.”

 

So it was that the L. J. Considine that appeared at the National Book Review in Washington, DC, was a blond expectant mother. The very next week in Chicago and Kansas City, L. J. Considine bore an amazing similarity to a retired law professor from Wisconsin.

 

To increase sales, the group booked some of their own signings at independent bookstores to coincide with the travels dictated by the publicist of the publisher. It was not uncommon for a thin, wispy-haired poet in a brand new dress to appear in Michigan at the same time a rather robust memoirist in a self-knitted sweater appeared in Indiana, both signing numerous books with the name L. J. Considine.

 

When she was not on the tour, Ann incorporated L. J.Considine and banked the royalty checks that started to appear in the bookshop’s mailbox. A ballot held out of earshot of one of the writers resulted in a disproportionate amount of the funds collected being dispersed to the wispy-haired poet in time to make a house payment each month.

 

Because of the changes in all the writers’ schedules they met every Monday night rather than just the last Monday of the month. Mel had installed a speaker phone in the center of the table next to the pencil so even the Considines on the road would be present at every meeting.

 

 When all the writers had settled themselves on the first Monday evening of May, Mel appeared on the staircase with a tray of strawberries dusted with powdered sugar, and her husband followed with glasses and a bottle of nonalcoholic champagne.

“I thought a special treat was in order this evening,” Mel said in answer to the writers’ puzzled looks. “My computer screen tells me you not only made the New York Times bestsellers list, you are a solid Number 5.”  Mel’s husband produced an envelope from the bottom of the tray before he set it down.

 

A familiar paralysis grasped the group as the envelope slid across the plastic laminate toward the Number 2. Ann flicked a finger at the envelope that sent it scurrying back in Mel’s direction.

 

Mel shook her head in fake dismay as she tore open the envelope and skimmed the one-page contents. “It is a request for L. J. Considine to appear on the early morning show of ABC next week Friday, if it is at all convenient.”

 

Something being dropped and broken came from the speaker of the phone in the middle of the table. Bonnie had stayed home this evening to catch up on household chores she had neglected when she traveled. The group stared at the phone until Larry finally croaked, “Are you all right Bonnie?”

“It was just a glass. I know what you are thinking. It’s New York and I have to go in case someone from the publisher sees the show. I’ll do it, but this has to be the last trip, agreed?” Bonnie took the rumbling sound in her receiver as being a yes and hung up to soak her swollen ankles.

 

The substitute host quickly cut away to an unplanned commercial as L. J. Considine’s water broke on the taffeta covered guest chair 30 seconds after her introduction. The interview was discreetly eliminated from the show by tape delay and no one in the world saw the now-famous author over their toast and coffee.

 

The book went into a third printing and sales boomed when Oprah picked it for her book club. Of course, she wanted to be the one to introduce the new mother and author to the public. The group, including Mel, wearing their guest passes filed into the studio and quietly stood in the shadows until they were signaled by the director to go on stage and surprise their more-than-befuddled superstar host.

 

The host recovered instantly when she was granted her wish to hold 9 pound 10 ounce Lillian Jane Considine Travalia, who the group declared was, without a doubt, the grandest plan of all.

The Super Sub by Allan Ansorge

Gary squinted into the sun as he tried to locate his sister on the bench along the first base line. He was sure he had her attention when he repeatedly signaled her to warm up, waving his right arm with an abbreviated throwing motion. She didn’t move.

He knew she was deliberately ignoring him. As angry as it made him, he wasn’t about to shout at her across the diamond. He would have with any of the other eleven registered players on his team, but not Sindy. His slightly over weight, under conditioned catcher ended the District 3 Detectives’ fifth inning in underwhelming style: for the second time this season he was thrown out at first by the opposing right fielder. Careful to avoid stepping on either chalk foul line, Gary crossed the diamond, situating himself directly in front of Sindy.

“I need you to pitch these two innings; I have a one-run lead and the top of their order coming up.”

“Nope.”

“Not nope, YES. What are you doing on the bench anyway? You were supposed to be here half an hour ago.”

“I told you I would play if you were short of players. You aren’t: you have two extra guys down there on the end of the bench.”

“Those aren’t players, those are bodies. You’re a player. Come on, take this glove and go out there and strike these smoke-eaters out for me; and for you.”

“For me? I really don’t care if they strike out or your team wins. Its not whether you win ─.”

“Yeah yeah, I know, but in this case it does matter to you. That fire truck I promised to have come to your school for your class's Fire Prevention Week program? Well, if we don’t win this game, it ain’t coming.”

“You gambled my class on this dumb game?”

“Not your class, just your fire truck. I prefer to think of it as negotiating.”

Sindy’s black and white high-tops showed after she hiked her flowing black skirt between her legs and tucked the hem under the white cord serving as her belt. Gary informed the Assistant District Attorney who was umpping home plate of the double switch. Gary’s pitcher took the place of the forlorn catcher. Before Gary’s sister made it to the mound Captain Les Larson of the fire department was in Gary’s face.

“What the hell is this Gary? She’s not a cop she can’t play for you.”

“Wrong on two counts, Les. She is my sister, The Sister. And any relative can play. She is also a cop, she’s our consulting psychologist. Show him your badge Sin, I mean Sister Mary Magdalena.”

The nun-turned-pitcher gave her little brother that look that sisters reserve for brothers who have once again fallen out of favor. She fumbled for the one and only pocket in the volumous black habit, extracted the traditional leather ID holder, and hung it by the fold over the rope belt next to her rosary.

The umpire attorney joined them in the middle of the field.

“Hello Sister Mary. Is there a problem? Les, I have an arraignment in thirty minutes. Could we move this along?”

The fireman scowled at the umpire,

“You’re going to let her pitch?”

“I have to or she won’t consult for my office. Besides, her boss knows my boss. PLAY BALL.”

Fireman Les flipped the ball up in the air in Sister Mary’s general direction as he muttered expletives on his way back to his team’s dugout.

The nun pulled the ball from the air and said to his back, “I heard that, Coach and I’ll pray for you.”

Nine pitches later, Sister Mary was in the dugout selecting a bat to lead off with. Passing Gary on her way to the plate, she let her little brother know he owed her a uniformed officer, a squad car, and himself for her class on The Policemen Are Our Friends.

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In every person there is a story to be told.

 

If you have ever started reading a book and quit after less than 25 pages because you know you could have written a better story than that.

 

If you have thought of a great story that you were sure people would want to read if only you could find someone to write it. You might be just right for the job.

 

 

I will be heading to the Creatures, Crimes, & Creativity coference on September 30th. Been there before and it is the most fun you can have in a hotel when you have yoiur clothes on. Come on along to the Sheaton Columbia iTown Center in Columbia MD.

 

 

 

 

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