Friday, February 22, 2013

Another chapter? Yes, and some news...

Okay, Projectionist fans, yes, there's a brand new chapter. Fresh off the keyboard. But first I have some exciting news. April 2. (Note:  It's NOT April Fool's Day.) That's the date my new thriller will be released! It's called...well, any guesses?

The Projectionist:
Chapter 5

Bewilderment would have been acceptable, some slow head-shaking, a wee bit of silent shock, the whole bit. Maybe a little more grief; seeing his Dearly Departed’s handwriting on such a strange document could’ve certainly justified that. Porter exercised neither of these options. He looked at the paper one last time, stood slowly from the tufted leather chair without saying a word, then slammed it down on the desk in front of Larry with all the force he could summon—he summoned enough to sting the very bones in his hand—and turned and walked out of the office.

Outside Larry’s sanctum, he marched past the secretary’s desk in the outer office, opened the front door, stepped onto the street. The door didn’t have any kind of auto-closer on it and he stood there for a moment with its handle in his hand, consciously deciding if he would close it gently or crash it into the frame hard enough to shatter the stained glass. He released the handle as if it were a skillet hot from the oven and walked away with the door standing open behind him. Let it close itself. Or someone else could close it. Or not. Porter Grady Hamlin did not give one happy damn.

Ten yards down the street, he changed his mind and wanted the tinkle of red and blue and green and yellow on the hot sidewalk. Went back. Grabbed the door handle. Heaved it shut with everything he had. Nothing broke, but the thud of old wood on old wood was semi-satisfying. On second thought, no, it wasn’t. He opened the door and slammed it again. Old construction.

He walked away again. Past a couple other law offices. Past the Suds-O-Mat. Past Diebold Hardware. Across the street and past Hank’s Superette. Through the grease stains of the Shell station. Hell, it wasn’t a station anymore. It was a chicken-fried convenience store with eighteen pumps out front and enough lights that it blinded you at night. Porter remembered when it was a real service station, a Union 76 with its big orange ball perched on what looked like a giant suction cup. You drove across an air hose that rang a bell and Pete Murphy came out and filled your tank. Pete died in ’92.

After stomping past the rest of Diebold’s business district, he finally arrived at the Magic. Checking his watch as he yanked open the door, he saw that he was four minutes late. Well, technically, since he was working the two-to-seven shift free of charge, he couldn’t be late, could he? Whatever. It was four after two. Teddy walked up to him and said something, Porter didn’t know what. Cared less. He was tired of being yanked around by Teddy. Tired of being yanked around by anybody. Especially tired of being yanked around by Alice Pendergast Hamlin. Enough.

Right past the concession stand and for the first time he could remember in decades, he didn’t sniff in the popcorn aroma. Down the hall. Left through the door. Up the stairs. Into his room. His room. The one with the sign on the door that said Projectionist.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Come In!

This old short is the germ that would eventually give birth to Pawnbroker. I wrote this a few years ago while in a smarmy sarcastic mood and it was picked up and published by a high quality ezine called Pindeldyboz. When I later decided to try a totally unplanned novel--"unplanned" means not knowing what will happen in the next sentence, much less on the next page--one of the characters from Come In quickly inserted a version of himself into the text and know the rest. Enjoy. If you dare.

Come In!

I'm a pawnbroker. Forget what you've seen on TV. I don't sit behind a cage. No stubby cigar. No glasses with the swingaway jeweler's loupe on the right side. Or left. I don't wear glasses, okay? And please, please, please--for the love of all that's good and right--forget that Men In Black pawnbroker who grows new heads! Sheesh.

I'm in the South. Remember what you've seen on TV. I do have an inordinate number of customers with double-decker names: Jimmy Lee. Lula Mae. The ubiquitous Billy Bob, who happens to be the first customer this morning. Has a wife named Jo Lee. Oh please, I know what you're thinking. Try to grow up.

I raise my coffee cup, take that first glorious sip, the fresh steam blessing my nostrils. Billy Bob pushes on the front door. The one with the foot-tall fluorescent orange letters: P U L L.

"Five bucks on three," Lung Fao says. Lung Fao is the assistant manager. Real name John Harris. I call him Lung Fao because I like the way it sounds.

Billy Bob peers through the glass to see if we're open. Checks his watch. Ten past, so we should be open, the look says. He could see a lot better if not for them dang letters. P. U. L. L. "Five on five," I say.

"Y'all so mean to Billy Bob." This would be Gloria Hightower, the soft-hearted clerk who thinks we shouldn't make book on how many attempts it will take William Robert Larkee to open the door. Boys being boys. Leave us alone. Thank you.

Billy Bob will not be denied and pulls to glory on the count of four. The door chime sounds its melodious tones--it's made by the Melodious Tones Door Chime Company, Inc.--and in he comes. He's carrying two bulging plastic bags, a blue one from Wal-Mart, a white one that says THANK YOU three times. Lung Fao leans in close. "Buck says he needs to get the lights turned back on."

Billy Bob's moving slow this morning, giving me time to work, so I scan the bags from a distance. Wal-Mart buys good bags, the kind you can't see through in order to identify their contents from thirty feet away for gambling purposes. That really chaps my cheeks.

The white one, though, now that's a bag, Chief. Flimsy. One split seam already. THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU. No, thank you, Mr. Bag Maker. Loaded with videotapes. Not Disneys, either. Just plain old run-of-the-bourgeois-mill VHS, one of Billy Bob's staple collateral pledges now that we stopped taking his Betamax movies. Betamax was actually a better format, I'll give you that, but it's another story for another day, a seedy tale of marketing blunders and corporate arrogance by Sony. Blunders, hell. More like an evisceration. The point is, Billy Bob is reluctant to embrace new technology. And to take baths.

VHS. Video Home System. At least fourteen tapes, no more than twenty. There'll be a Jean Claude Hot Damn in there, maybe two. Stephen Seagal will be well represented. Bet your gravy and biscuits on that.

Speaking of betting, that opaque Wal-Mart bag is quickly becoming the bane of my existence. I can just see some smarmy Wal-Mart Bag Buyer in his office, sitting on the edge of his desk, sample bags in his sweaty, hairless, puffy, pale clubs, rubbing them back and forth between plump thumb and plumper forefinger while some skinny Bag Seller sits there hoping he'll choose the thicker one because his commission will be $14.88 per month higher if he sells the thick bag, by gosherino, and then he'll be able to bowl in the league, baby. Selfish jerk.

I'm disappointed to the nines, I won't lie, but I don't make blind bets. For a fleeting moment, I get the urge to let go, be a man on the edge, take Lung Fao's bet anyway. Something in my gut says he's wrong. It's not getting the lights turned back on. DUI ticket? Maybe. Bail out Jo Lee? Could be. Medicine for the grandbaby? Strong possibility there. I can almost smell the Keflex. But I manage to contain myself. Discipline. That's why I own the shop, Sugar.

"How's it going, Billy Bob?" Lung Fao says.

"Come in, Billy Bob!" Gloria sounds thrilled to see him. Gloria is a black woman about the size of a Volkswagen, always Bubbly Happy in her acres of Spandex. Pisses me off sometimes, like when I've been out all night and my eyes are all bugged-out feeling and my brain is too big for my head and I puked in the Dumpster out back, but I don't let it show. That D-word. Key to success.
Billy Bob plops his bags down on the pawn counter. For the briefest flash of a moment, I consider acting on my fury toward the Wal-Mart bag. My Kimber is locked and loaded and I can pump eight .45 slugs into that Mystery Mother of a Day-Ruiner quicker than you can...well, pretty quick. The compulsive need to take this action passes within a minute or two. See above.

It unsettles me to look at Billy Bob. He has a bulbous nose that rides a shrunken mouth that is for the most part devoid of teeth. Oh sure, you might find a molar in there somewhere, perhaps even an incisor if you looked long enough and the batteries in the flashlight endured, but I think you could call Billy Bob toothless and win in court. That's all I'm saying. He has a perpetual three- to five-day supply of stubble, and his jowls are sort of "hangy." None of these things bothers me.
But those eyes. In a word? Disconcerting. Noncommital. Beady. Frightening. One of them may be pointed your way, but the other one is just as likely to be aimed at the Taco Bell across the street.

You know those paintings--think of the Mona Lisa for a moment, not the buck-toothed smile or even those silly ears, just the eyes, stay with me now, Homer--in which the eyes seem to follow you wherever you go? You know how freaky it was when you were pawing at your first girlfriend and you looked up and saw Dead Grandma's eyes looking down at you, right there on the couch? Billy Bob's eyes aren't like that, but they're still freaky.

"Need a little money," he says.

No duh. Thought maybe he came to visit, with his fricking bags. Geez. I eyed that Wal-Mart bag. I could feel the presence of Smarmy Bag Buyer and Mr. League Bowler, who couldn't bowl 200 if his life depended on it, the kind of man who'd waste a dollar running a ball that didn't even belong to him through the ball washer while his kid eats peanut butter for lunch instead of bologna. "How much you need?" I say.

"Got to get a tie-rod end put on the van," he says.

Tie. Rod. End. I shake my head. Billy Bob Larkee waltzes into my shop, me running on one pathetic sip of Dunkin Donuts freshly-ground, and clips my wings but right. I glance at Lung Fao. He was hurting too, can't deny the pain on his young face, but he's a five-year man who still brings the diamond loans to me. I've been doing this for twenty-dadgum-four years.

"How much you need?" I repeat. So what if my tone was a little cold? As much as I don't want to, I raise my eyes toward his.

The left one acquires lock on me for a moment, releases, goes off in search of a new target. Righty shoots up, down, up, down, makes me think of Wilt Chamberlain dribbling on that court with the pretty hardwood squares--I always thought that floor should've been in Madison Square Garden, but I don't think it is--and eventually saunters up toward mine, only a little off-center.

Here we go. I may get him out by lunch.

"The part's seventy-eight dollars..." He pauses, looks up, wants to be sure he has my attention, which is to say he wants to be certain he's making my life as hellish as possible without killing me outright, then continues, "and the mechanic wants sixty-six dollars to put it on."
So there it is. Laid out naked as a french whore. Billy Bob wants a hundred and forty-four dollars. I yank open the Wal-Mart bag. It's filled with DVDs. Raw shock hangs in the air, not unlike the moment when another Billy Bob declared--with an admirably courageous dose of candor, I think you'll agree--that he aimed to lay open Dwight Yoakam's skull with a lawn mower blade. I process the implications of one American owning Smokey and the Bandit on Betamax, VHS, and DVD.

"You know I can't loan that much on this," I say.

"One-twenty?" Lefty's all over the place.

"Quit smoking weed. Fifty."

"Eighty? I'll put it on myself."

Yeah, right. Like he can install a tie-rod end in the first place. And like I don't have all his tools in the pawn room anyway. Good grief.

"Forty-five," I say.

"You said fifty."

"You didn't want fifty."

"Give me the fifty."

This is how our business works. Day after week after millenia. Gloria checks the tapes. Where Corvette Summer should be, she finds The Spirit of Seventeen-Seventy-Sex, a XXX that features George Washington interrupting Betsy Ross while she tries to sew Old Glory. Shows how the Minutemen and Pocahontas really got their names. Things like that. So I've heard.

Gloria shoots him a look. "I ought to tell Jo Lee on you, you nasty old buzzard." Ha! Who's being mean to poor old Billy Bob now? Right to his face, too. One DVD is scratched. I should re-think that fifty, but I'm feeling generous and let the transaction proceed.

The licensed pawnbroker of record is required to sign each pawn ticket in Alabama, so Gloria slides it over to me. I pull out my Mont Blanc and do the deed: JOHN WAYNE LARKEE.

"Thanks, son," Billy Bob says as I hand him two twenties and a ten.

"Thank you, Daddy," I say. "Give my love to Mama."

Monday, February 18, 2013

The Projectionist - Chapter 4

The response to this exercise has been a surprise to me. The story of The Projectionist has been rattling around up there for quite a while, but it's so far outside my normal genre and voice that I have to be honest and say I didn't expect much interest in it. But based on the feedback public and private, it appears I was wrong. got it:  The Projectionist will continue as a serial novel. I'll release the chapters as they roll out of this jumbled mind and we'll experience the evolution of the story together. As always, thanks for reading, and please spread the word!

Chapter 4


Porter realized the sheet of paper wasn't a sheet of paper at all. It was white like paper but felt like a piece of parchment. It looked old. Damn old. The ink did not. It was bright red, crisp, looked like it could have been written that morning. That wasn't possible, of course, because dead people don't write, and it had without a doubt been penned by his beloved Alice, her beautiful flourish filling about two thirds of the page.

My Dear Porter:

It is very important that you do exactly as I ask in this and every other one of these documents. Some of this will seem very strange to you, my love. I know that. But you need to trust me. Please.
Tomorrow at 6:10 PM, run a special showing of Lawrence of Arabia. You'll find the three cans on the left end of the archive rack.
Trust me, Porter. Please.

Forever yours,

PS:  Put it on the marquee as soon as you can!

Porter read it again, laid it on the desk. Picked it up. Read it a third time. Looked up at Larry Walker, who sat there with a blank face. He was putting it on the desk for good when he pulled it back, squinted at a tiny entry in the bottom right corner. His hand shook and his head felt light. Like the rest of the writing, this entry was bright red and obviously written by Alice. It said, “January 18.”
Their anniversary.