Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Biographer Opening

Here follows the opening of The Biographer, one of my Pillow Talk Novellas.  The Biographer tells the story of Sidney Zeller, a jack of all trades and retired jewel thief and Callie Atherton, the much younger and beautiful writer Sidney hires to write his biography, and with whom he falls in love.

1

As he was convinced it had always shaped the course of his affairs, Sidney Zeller was certain fate would bring him the right biographer to write it all down.  He had at last reached a place in life where he had the time and space to sit with an author and tell his story, so he took out a simple ad in the newspaper, and contacted a local publisher who furnished him with the names of several established Westport area authors who might consider collaboration or ghost writing.  From these responses and phone calls he arranged three interviews for the same weekend.
The first was a woman named Callie Atherton who visited his home on Friday evening.  She was a striking brunette about forty.  She comported herself with assured self confidence; yet also with the casual nonchalance of a free spirit.  She was neatly and attractively dressed, and carried an expensive designer leather handbag.  Sidney had difficulty forming a first impression other than that he found her strikingly beautiful.
He was hale and rugged with a full head of coarse brown hair and a face that looked a decade younger than his sixty years.  He had taken care of himself throughout his life, with diet and maintained activity, and was muscular and thin and still projected masculinity. 
After introductions and a handshake, Callie held his fingers for a moment in the tips of hers, and said: “I’m surprised to find such a good looking man.”
“I’m never surprised and always pleased to meet a beautiful woman,” he answered. 
They sized each other up with their eyes and then took a seat on the verandah, where he had already prepared a tea set.  He offered her a cup, and she bluntly stated:  “I know this is forward, but I’d rather a glass of wine if you have any.  I’m not a big drinker, but I do find that one glass sets a warm mood and softens inhibitions when making acquaintance with someone new.  If you would join me it would be ever better.”
“Let’s have a glass of wine then,” he said, rising back to his feet.  He fetched a nice bottle of Malbec and two crystal goblets, opened and poured out the wine.  “Just one for me too,” he emphasized; “I enjoy partaking, but strive for moderation.”
They looked each other in the eye, smiled, toasted and sipped.  “Now,” he continued, controlling the conversation, “tell me about your writing.”
She wet her tongue with a small sip of wine then spoke.  “I have written a variety of books at varying stages of completion.  This weekend I will complete the last edits of the final draft of my first novel, which I will deliver to my publisher on Monday.”
“Impressive,” Sidney observed.  “What is it called and what is it about?”
“It’s called The Wandering Widow Maker, and was inspired by the year I spent with Romanian gypsies.  It’s about an American woman in Eastern Europe who possesses certain qualities that drive gypsy men wild.  She has no control that they hurl themselves at her, and several die mysteriously in their efforts to win her attention.”
Sidney was already engrossed, and said: “Very interesting.  And were you such a woman that this inspired you?”
“Something like that,” Callie answered.  “It is fiction.”  She reached into her bag and withdrew a book, which she handed to him.  “The Wandering Widow Maker is my second book; this is my first.  It is an account of the year I spent working in a whorehouse in Thailand.  I wasn’t actually one of the girls—I manned the desk and managed the rooms.  I was hired for my English; a lot of the clients were American and British men, and the clients from other countries spoke enough English to describe their needs.  I self-published this edition, but it was upon reading this that my publisher offered me a small advance for my upcoming novel.  You may keep that copy; peruse it as a writing sample.”
Sidney took the book and looked down at the title:  Bangkok Brothel.  “Thank you, I’m intrigued.  I’ll start reading it tomorrow.  How did you find your way to such a place?”
“When I was twenty I had a boyfriend.  We were a couple for a couple years; we got along really well, had great fun together and were genuinely happy.  One night he took me out for a romantic dinner and then a walk around a moonlit lake, where he got on one knee, asked for my hand and offered me a ring.  If I were going to marry, he was the perfect guy.  But as I stood there with the huge moon beaming behind him, I experienced a profound movement in my heart.  It was a moment of epiphany.  I dreaded my life as I knew it ending, and growing to rely on someone else, and soon thereafter having children rely on me.  So with tears in my eyes, and uttering words that I shocked myself to speak, I told him ‘no’ and ‘goodbye,’ and went off to experience the world.  I’ve worked in a number of different professions, and experienced daily life in quite a few different cultures, Bangkok being one.  But enough about my life—what about yours?  What has been so interesting about your life that I should devote a few weeks or months of mine writing about it?”
“Well, to dispense with my family history, I’ve been married four times--twice to the same woman, who was my second and is my current wife.  We have a son and a daughter in college,” Sid explained.  “My wife’s name is Lily, and right now she’s in Vermont caring for her ailing mother.  That gives me a little time to myself, and we agreed it’s a good time for me to start work on my biography.  As to whether my life is worthy of retelling, others will judge that when I am done, although I’ve always fantasized that the opening line simply be:  His name was Sidney Zeller and he was a most extraordinary man.  Ha, ha!  Actually I was similar to you.  I’ve worked in a number of professions throughout my years, from soldier to police officer, from alarm installer to banker.  I’ve gained and lost fortunes, and I’ve done it from the west coast to the east, at home and abroad.  It is such a string of stories I intend to recount, and you, having lived similarly, might make a most empathetic scribe.”
“I just might,” she suggested.  “My level of empathy rises and falls in remarkable conjunction with my pay.  Just how much would you want me to empathize?”  She looked straight into his eyes, then softened her gaze with a slight, seductive smile.
He returned the piercing eyes and answered: “I haven’t settled upon a specific pay rate yet.  I’m interviewing two more potential authors this weekend, and I was planning to take everything from there.”
She swallowed the last gulp of her wine and rose up.  “And I am interviewing two more life stories this weekend, and following that will be weighing all offers, options and other considerations.  Read my book and give me a call if you’re interested in my talents and can make a more financially specific proposal, and I’ll let you know if I’m still interested and available at that time.  It was a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Zeller.”
She left suddenly, and from the window he watched her every movement until she was gone from view.  Then he sat down and opened her book.  After about an hour he took a break, phoned the two other prospective authors and canceled their appointments, then returned to Bangkok Brothel and stayed up late into the night until he finished.
Meanwhile Callie had lied—there were no other prospective writing gigs.  She very much wanted a paying writing job, and was hoping her self confidence and her sensuality would hold sway in his decision, and returned home to work on her novel while waiting in the hope that he’d call.


2

And he did call, Monday morning early.  He tried to sound formal.  “Good morning, Callie.  It’s Sidney Zeller.  I would like you to write my book, and have come up with a specific pay scale.  I will pay you two thousand dollars simply to have dinner with me tonight and listen to my offer.  If you like it, we’ll move forward; and if not, we’ll part ways right then.”
She desperately wanted the money and was delighted, but remained coy.  “Is that dinner at your home or a restaurant?”
“I was thinking of a restaurant, but whatever you like.”
“I would rather a nice restaurant,” she replied.
“Do you have a preference?” he asked.
“I like the Dressing Room on Powers Court,” she answered.  “Do you know it?”
“I do,” he answered.  “There, eight o’clock, tonight?”
“I’ll see you there and then.”
She had a little trouble deciding what to wear, whether conservative and professional, to portray the writer; or dressed up and alluring, to ply her feminine charms.  In the end she settled on an attractive blue cocktail dress that in her mind enabled her to do both.  She was punctual and he waiting; he rose to greet her and held her chair.  Once seated with pleasantries exchanged, Sid took hold of the bottle of wine that was there and said:  “One glass, correct?  Would you like that now or would you rather wait?”
“You can pour it now,” she said.
He did, then smiled and continued. 
“I took the liberty of ordering for the both of us, and instructed the waiter to begin service a few minutes after your arrival.  I’ve read Bangkok Brothel and want you to write my biography.”
“What did you think of my book?” she inquired with sincere curiosity.
“Who knew so much went on behind the scenes at a brothel?  The few times I ever went all I saw was whores and door keys and dirty rooms.”
“Well, these women do have lives—boyfriends, husbands and children—and dramas that spill into the work place.  It was quite the soap opera at times,” Callie explained.
“You have an excellent way with words, and of storytelling, and I’d like you to be my biographer.”
“Two thousand up front entices,” she remarked.  “What are the rest of the terms?”
He removed an envelope from his jacket and handed it across the table.  “There is that—two thousand dollars.  Thank you for coming.  For further payment I have two options to offer you.  The first is one thousand dollars cash per chapter, payable as they are completed.  I envision thirty five or forty chapters of no longer than ten or fifteen pages.  If you can do even two or three a week, that’s handsome recompense for an aspiring novelist.  If you’d rather be paid by the page or the word, I can accommodate that as well.”
She clutched the envelope, looked at him and smiled, then placed it in her purse.  “That’s worth considering,” she answered.  “What is my second option?”
“That is for you to work on spec: twenty percent of everything I ever make with the book,” he explained.  “You can even start working for a thousand dollars a chapter, and if at any time you decide you like the potential, you can opt in for the percentage, which will be adjusted accordingly by the number of chapters written for cash.”
“I am here now, and everything is on the table, as it were,” she said.  “So why don’t you give me an idea of chapter one?  Give me an idea of what I would be getting into.”
He wasn’t expecting that, and paused a moment.  “Very well,” he finally assented.  “I plan to start chapter one with my enlistment in the military on my eighteenth birthday.  My childhood was uneventful, and the few memorable moments were the ones that shaped my adulthood, and those anecdotes will be incorporated as I describe the events they influenced.”
“Interesting,” she replied with pique.  “Do tell.”
“I was born a military brat,” he continued.  “I had no siblings, and spent my childhood hopping from base to base, never staying long enough to form real relationships and friendships.  It’s a tired story that need not be retold, which is why I want the book to start with my enlistment.  I subconsciously resented my parents for bringing me up in so unstable an environment, and without brothers or sisters or friends, and by the time I was eighteen I wanted away from them.  Ironic as it was, enlisting seemed to be my only escape, and all I could think to do.  Well, I also joined because I was young and angry and I liked to fight; but at a time when most of my peers were going to college, getting deferments and protesting, I volunteered the very day I was able, and started channeling my rage into blind hatred of the Vietnamese people—for no good reason, I must add—in preparation to killing them.”
“I befriended a guy in my outfit, his name was Vern.  He was both the best friend and brother that I had never had.  We were together nearly every minute of every day, and watched over each other like hawks.  After we got into combat, I noticed Vern slowly losing his grip.  One day he recovered a small money belt from an American soldier who had died near him on the field.  He didn’t tell anybody but me, and called the money belt ‘Hinky’s billfold’—Hinky being the dead soldier he’d recovered it from.  It contained about thirty five hundred in twenties and fifties; he usually wore it under his shirt, but whenever we went into battle he wore it around his neck outside his uniform, like a necklace, so that if he did die in battle someone else could easily retrieve it.  He also talked about his plans for the money, to go home and marry his girl and make a down payment on a house.
“One day Vern snapped.  I was staring right at him the very moment his eyes popped like spent bulbs.  We had gotten separated from our company during some bombing and wandered into a village.  Vern started shooting up everyone in sight—women and children and animals.  His rampage triggered something inside me; and I couldn’t stand the slaughter any longer.  I followed him into a hut where Vern waved his gun and menaced a terrified woman and her two small screaming children into a corner.  I knew his mind was broken, and he was gone, so I drew my gun and pretended to be giving him cover.  Then I noticed ‘Hinky’s billfold’ hanging from his neck, and I coveted it. 
“I still don’t know what made me pull that trigger—to save the innocents or to steal the money—but I did pull it.  I tell myself to this day it was to save those helpless people, but the first thing I did, after making sure Vern was dead, was to pocket ‘Hinkey’s billfold’; only then did I reach out and comfort the woman and her children by assuring them they were safe.  It was awkward, and I quickly thought it best to remove my gun and myself from their presence, and so I ran into the jungle, where I promptly sat down and counted the money before returning to my company and reporting that Vern had been shot and killed by a Vietnamese soldier using what I thought was a stolen American weapon.”
Callie was rapt.  “So what happened after that?” she almost whispered.
“Not much,” he answered.  “I was almost done with my tour, and while I’d planned on re enlisting, following that afternoon I accepted my honorable discharge and returned home, where I opened a bank account with ‘Hinky’s billfold’ and went to work.”
“That’s an awful story,” she sadly said.
“That’s the horror of war,” he replied.  “Anyway, may I ask about you?”
Her face changed.  “Ask me anything you want, and I’ll tell you what I like,” she mischievously offered.
“What did you do when you were eighteen?” he asked, seizing the opening.
“I had that boyfriend I told you about,” she explained.  “I was reared in a repressed Christian home, and he was the one they wanted me to marry, and I thought I loved him, but the moment I denied his proposal I felt relieved and released from it all.  I said goodbye then turned and went wild.  I sought out the bad boys and started running with them.  I also started dabbling with drinking and shoplifting, and got a tattoo and did various things for money.  Not my body, mind you, but I was open to just about anything else.”
He was very intrigued, and said so.  “How long did that go on?”
“For a year or so, till I was twenty one,” she explained.  “That’s when I came into a large sum of money and took off for Europe.  Anyway, I don’t mean to sound callous or cold, but what else do we have to discuss tonight?  I have to get back to my husband.”
He was shocked, and unable to conceal his surprise.  “You’re married?  I didn’t know that.”
“You didn’t ask,” she rejoined.
“But you don’t wear a ring,” he observed.
“So you looked,” she observed.  “I thought I caught your eye gazing at my ring finger.  My husband and I are separated.  It’s a trial, though we’ve both removed our rings.  But I do have to get home so he can leave the house.  We have a sick dog he’s watching while I’m here with you.”
Sid was completely off guard.  “By all means, once you’ve made your decision please let me know and I’ll consider the two thousand fairly earned.”

“I can tell you my decision right now,” she replied.  “I’ll write your book for the one thousand dollar per chapter offer for now, and as we progress I’ll let you know if I decide to switch to your proposed royalty schedule.  If you have more stories like the one you just told me, I imagine that possibility will become a serious consideration.”  She rose and thanked him for dinner, told him she’d call when she had something written and left.

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