Monday, January 14, 2008

Exit, Pursued by a Bear

Chapter Thirteen

There is some good material here, said the handwritten note at the bottom of the rejection slip. It was one of my earliest experiences with “ink,” actual comments from an editor, the equivalent of healing hands at a tent show or political revival.

I wish, the note continued, you wouldn’t work so hard for your effects. Loosen up. You tend to over prepare, ambushing prospects of spontaneity. Your use of the objective correlative is heavy-handed.

I’d already developed a fondness for the salty comments of Robley Wilson on my stories when he returned them. Wolfram had not only put me on to him but warned me in advance about the high standards of the man as an editor and writer of his own fiction. Wolfram took it as a good sign that I was getting handwritten comments.

With time, as I grew more confident, my stories did loosen up. So did my robberies. The first success with a story came from a respected journal in the South, where I’d submitted on my own, without mentioning Wolfram in the cover letter. When I called him with the news, he seemed gratified.

Any robbery in which one gets some loot, however humble, without being caught is a success. But as I began to realize, the triumphs had nothing at all to do with the value of the loot. I was certainly in it for the money, but more important to me was the élan of execution.

An overheard conversation between two salesmen in a cocktail lounge at the new Denver airport reminded me of an article I’d read in the L.A. Times years before about a successful restaurateur in Sherman Oaks who’d tired of what he called Life in the Basin, cashed out, and moved across country to a small town in Tennessee.

Flush with the results of a recent venture in Boulder, I decided to heed Wilson’s advice by loosening up. As a consequence, I broke my one-job-per-outing rule. Instead of flying northwest, where I was staying at the time, I changed directions and flew southeast. After several excellent t-bone steaks at the Peerless Grill in Johnson City, Tennessee, my plan was formed. I was going to single-handedly rob a steak house restaurant.

When I speak of abandoning caution and over preparation, you must not suppose I then threw all caution aside and embraced whim at the expense of planning or that I had lathered myself up to the sense of invulnerability I see in so many political candidates. My respect for precaution was healthy to the point where I’d even researched the Tennessee penal institutions where I might be sent were I caught in flagrante or later.

I also spent some time in nearby Kingsport, checking out a fallback option, Scoby’s, a restaurant with a lesser-known national reputation than The Peerless, but with a lively clientele nevertheless.

On the evening of the event, I carefully surveyed both places. One of the back rooms at Scoby’s had been reserved by a group of off-duty Kingsport police and Tennessee highway patrol officers for dinner and poker. My choice was made for me. I drove back to Johnson City, parked in a strategic spot, entered, and ordered the top sirloin, charred and rare, with a double helping of the famed Peerless cole slaw.

Midway through the meal I left a generous tip for the waitress, rose as though heading for the men’s room, then made my way to the cashier.

Because of the traffic I arrived at The Tri Cities Airport behind schedule, lost a bit more time at the Avis counter while trying to return the rental car, and was red-lining my window of get away opportunity as the line at the Piedmont Air counter seemed to take forever.

Southern hospitality deserves its reputation. The clerk at the Piedmont counter stamped my ticket and made a hurried phone call. Five minutes later, I was on a baggage buggy, driving across the runways with great abandon by a young man with a nametag reading John Eaton sewn to the front of his overalls. Draped over my left shoulder was my carry-on bag. In my lap was a plastic take-out bag from The Peerless containing close to three thousand dollars.

A small jet was poised on the runway, engines yowling with take-off eagerness. John Eaton pulled us alongside the ramp. “You come back and see us again, hear?” he said. I gave him a ten-dollar tip which he steadfastly refused. “Taking money for being polite? It doesn’t calculate,” I scrambled up the steps, was directed by a stewardess to the only available seat on the flight, an aisle seat about a third of the way toward the front of the plane.

At first glance I saw only the profile of an attractive woman who reminded me vaguely of photos I’d seen of the thirties actress, Louise Brooks. The stewardess urged me to sit. She placed my carry-on bag in the overhead rack. I clicked my seat belt, tucked the bag from The Peerless between my legs, at which point I noticed the legs of the woman sitting next to me. She wore black pumps with the merest trace of heels, no hose. I felt myself beginning to gape at what I saw.

Another stewardess appeared, asking my seatmate if she would like to be rid of the small canvas bag she held on her lap. The woman smiled sweetly, shook her head. “I’ll hang onto it,” she said. When the stewardess left, the woman regarded me. “I see you’ve discovered my tattoo.”

She’d caught me, not only looking, but looking and fascinated. I began to redden, and as I did, the recognition of who she was burned into me. What had begun as a simple moment of erotic fascination at the tattoo erupted quickly into a more complex mélange of excitement, vulnerability, and remembered anger.

“Hush,” she said as my hands reached toward her. “I know what I done to you before.” There wasn’t the slightest trace of defensiveness or guile about her, only a cool, amused self-possession. “We’ll talk about it.” She spoke in a near whisper, and then she smiled and hitched her head toward the Peerless bag wedged between my feet.

“I’ll show you mine,” she said, moving the canvas bag on her lap with a lift of her knee, “if you’ll show me yours.”

I sank back in my seat, my eyes closed.


R.L. Bourges said...

So is your Miss Brook's playing in a remix of
a)"The Street of Fortotten Men"?
b)"Pandora's Box"?
c)"Now We're in the Air"?

Lori Witzel said...

"John Eaton"...hehehehe...pass me some more grits, please.

Fine depiction of the shifting scrim of emotion, from the erotic flash to "...began to redden...excitement, vulnerability, and remembered anger."