Dropping his arm from around my shoulders, n.o.ble straightened his back. "I don't know anything about that."
It was like that all day. By late afternoon, after I'd heard that phrase, "You won't remember this, but-" for the thousandth time, I was pretty fed up.
"Why the h.e.l.l wouldn't I remember it?" I snapped at Uncle Reg. "It happened to me. I lived here, remember? I was the Punishment. Me, Ford.
Or Chrysler. Or John Deere. Me!"
Pat took my arm and pulled me away from them, and for a while she and I stood under a shade tree so I could calm down. I was grateful that she didn't try to tell me they were just simple country folk who didn't understand. Truthfully, I felt it was yet another attempt to exclude me, to make me feel that I didn't belong. I'd been different when I was a kid and now I was even more of an outsider.
But even more than that I felt they were casting me in a role of their making. "He grew up here but he don't remember us," they'd tell people.
"He got to be a big star and plumb forgot us." I wanted people to say, "Even though he made it to the top, he never forgot the little people." Or something like that. But in spite of the facts, I was being told that now that I was a "celebrity" I'd become a sn.o.b.
Pat stood beside me while I tried to get my temper under control, then she said, "Too bad you were such a Goody Two-shoes that you never learned to give any of it back to them."
"I wasn't-" I began. "And I didn't-" It took me a full minute of sputtering to understand what she was really saying. I kissed her forehead and we walked back to where everyone was waiting-and looking concerned about my inexplicable explosion of bad temper. But I guess that's how celebrities are, their eyes seemed to say.
After my talk with Pat, I was in such a good mood, that I started three fistfights. I knew where the sore spots were in my relatives so I dug at them.
I asked n.o.ble whatever happened to that old Pontiac he had and ten minutes later he and another cousin (who'd stolen the car but denied it) were into it.
I asked Uncle Clyde about his beloved son who'd drowned, then I asked him to tell me wonderful stories about the boy, about what good deeds he'd performed, and, by the way, what exactly had Cousin Ronny been doing in the pond that day?
At one point Pat narrowed her eyes at me, telling me I was going too far.
But I was enjoying myself too much to stop.
When Pat loudly announced that we had to leave, not one of them suggested that we "come again." n.o.ble walked me out to the car. "You ain't changed none, have you?" he said, his eyes angry as he spit a glob that landed a quarter inch to the left of my shoe.
"Neither have you," I said, smiling broadly. The day before I left for college, n.o.ble and three of his drinking buddies had ridiculed me until I was caught between homicidal rage and tears. I'd stalked off into the woods to escape them. When I went back, just before dark, I found that they'd run the tractor over my suitcase full of clean, ironed (by me) new (purchased with money I'd earned boxing groceries) clothes.
Uncle Cal had lightly smacked n.o.ble across the back of the head for the "prank," but he'd made it clear he didn't think what his son had done was so bad. "Just a little goin' away present," he said, smiling. No one had offered to help me rewash and iron my clothes, so I'd had to stay up all night to do it, finishing just in time to catch the bus the next morning-the bus that took me away from the lot of them.
"It was nice seeing all of you again," I said to n.o.ble, actually meaning it.
I'm not sure that getting my first book published had made me feel as good as the second half of that day had. "Listen, n.o.ble," I said in a friendly way, "if any of the kids want to go to college, let me know and I'll help with the expenses."
With that I got into the car and Pat peeled away like she was competing at the local dirt track speedway. When I looked back at n.o.ble, I saw that he was puzzling over my offer. Was I trying to rub it in that he'd told me that only fairy boys went to college? Or was I saying that I was the only one smart enough to get there?
I chuckled on and off for three hours at the consternation on his face. But he must have figured out that I'd been sincere because over the years I sent several of the next generation of my relatives to college. One of them was n.o.ble's oldest daughter, Vanessa, who ended up teaching at the college level.
"One of your ancestors had a brain," Pat said. "That's why intelligence pops out every now and then."
" Real recessive," she said, and we laughed together.
All that ended, all the good times ended, when Pat died. I had grown up without a family, found one, and lost it.
Once again, I was alone in the world.
I think he wanted me because I made him laugh.
No, not wanted me. Not like that. He wanted me to work for him.
Of course I said no. After all, many females in town had tried to work for him, but they'd either been fired or quit in tears. Or in anger.
I'd been told how he was great at making people angry. "Pure, unadulterated rage," a friend of mine said while four of us were having lunch together at the local fry place-fried meat, fried onions, fried potatoes.
The waitress didn't appreciate my humor when I asked her not to let the cook fry my salad. She walked away in a snit and kept it up for the whole meal.
But I was used to my humor getting me into trouble. My father used to say that I did it so no one would see me cry. That puzzled me because I never cry and I told him so. "That's just what I said," he answered, then walked away.
So, anyway, this big-time, super-duper, best-selling writer asked me to work for him because I made him laugh. And because I told my ghost story.
Well, actually, only sort of told my ghost story. As Heather pointed out, I'd told it better. But, gee, it takes a bigger ego than mine to think she can tell a story to a master storyteller. I had visions of his saying that my "syntax"
But before the ghost story-or devil story, as Autumn calls it-I made him laugh about the Pulitzer prize.
I was at a party and Autumn-poor dear, lots of hair but no brain-was in tears because her future mother-in-law had yet again been looking down her nose at my friend. We all knew why Cord Handley was marrying the girl, and it certainly wasn't for her intellectual ability. She had a ma.s.s of thick auburn hair and a set of knockers that kept her from seeing her feet.
Autumn complained that she couldn't find lacy bras in her size. I said, "All I need is lace," and that made everyone laugh.
We knew there was no real future for Autumn and Cord; eventually, his mother would break them up. Cord's family was the closest the town had to "old money." Cord wasn't all that bright himself, but his mother was and she ran things. Unfortunately, her three children had inherited her husband's brain and her looks. It made sense that she was trying to improve the line by getting her three kids to marry brains, but her grown children were having none of it. Her youngest son wanted to marry the beautiful, sweet-tempered, but stupid, Autumn.
Poor Autumn left her future mother-in-law's house every Thursday afternoon in tears because every time Autumn saw her she was quizzed. A sort of verbal SAT test. Tea and stumpers, I called it.
One day when some of my women friends and I were having lunch together, I made the mistake of asking Autumn what she was going to do after the wedding. Since she and Cord were moving into the family mansion after they were married, Autumn would be seeing the old battle-ax every day.
Maybe it's because I grew up without a mother, but I seemed to have missed out on some being-a-girl education. I merely pointed out what I thought was an obvious problem and all h.e.l.l broke loose. Autumn burst into tears, and Heather and Ashley put their arms around her, looking at me in disbelief.
My "what did I do?" look was familiar to them.
"Jackie, how could you?" Jennifer said.
I didn't ask what I'd said that was so horrible. Years before I'd given up trying to answer the question "What have I done this time?"
As far as I can tell, women put most things under the category of "being supportive." Pointing out that Autumn was probably going to be crying every day instead of just once a week after she moved in with her mother-in-law was, probably, not "being supportive."
In this instance, I was apparently also being insensitive to the fact that my friend was "in love." As in, Autumn couldn't tell her future mother-in-law to go screw herself because Autumn and Cord were "in love."
"You know about that, don't you, Jackie? You're in love, too."
True, I was engaged and about to be married, but I think I was doing it for some solid reasons. Kirk and I had the same goals and wanted the same things. And, okay, I was sick of living alone since Dad died. Maybe because I'd grown up with only one parent empty houses are not something I've ever liked much. I was always afraid that my beloved father would disappear and I'd be left totally alone.
So, anyway, we were at a party and Autumn was gently, prettily, weeping about the latest hateful thing her future mother-in-law had said to her. Since she couldn't belittle Autumn's looks, it was about her reading matter. "My dear," the old woman had said, "the only fiction worth reading is what has won the Pulitzer prize." I'd learned my lesson and I was trying to "be supportive" so I didn't advise Autumn to tell the old bat to go to h.e.l.l.
"I don't even know what the Pulitzer prize is," Autumn was saying, sobbing into a lace-edged hanky-no used, frayed tissues for our Autumn!
I knew-bless her pretty little head-that Autumn thought that Teen People magazine was intellectual.
"Look," I said, stepping closer to Autumn and getting her attention, "you should learn to defend yourself against her. Tell her you always buy the Pulitzer prize-winning novels, but you, like every one else on earth, can't get through them."
"I know I can't read well, Jackie. I'm not smart like you," Autumn wailed.
The others gave me that look. I wasn't "being supportive."
Squatting down in front of Autumn, I took her damp hands in mine.
Heaven help me but crying made her prettier. "Autumn, your future mother-in-law is a sn.o.b. She thinks that because a book has 'Pulitzer prize winner' on the cover that reading it makes her an intellectual. But it doesn't."
I wanted to cheer her up but I knew I couldn't do that by telling her that I read the fiction winner every year, so I decided to elaborate on a pet theory of mine. "You want me to tell you how to write a Pulitzer prize-winning book?" I asked, but didn't give her time to answer. "First you come up with a love story. That's right, just like all the gaudy romance novels in the grocery, Pulitzer prize novels are pretty much all love stories, but they're in disguise. Sort of like buried treasure. And like finding buried treasure, you have to go through a lot of stuff that isn't treasure to find it. Do you know what I mean?"
"Sort of," she said, her tears slowing. She wasn't smart but she was one of the nicest people I ever met.
"Okay, so the author comes up with a teeny, tiny love story, just something as simple as two people meeting and falling in love."
"That's what the books I read are about," Autumn said.
"Yes, but we're talking about the ol' prize novels here so those books are different. First of all, the main characters can't be beautiful. In fact, they need to be homely. No smoldering eyes or raven tresses as those traits would disqualify the book."
At that I got a tiny smile from Autumn. "I understand. Ugly people."
"Not ugly and not grotesque. Maybe they have something like big ears.
The next thing you have to do is start hiding the treasure. Bury it so the reader can't find it easily. This means you can't have the lovers together very often. They can't be like in a romance novel where the hero and heroine are together on nearly every page. In fact, you can't even call them a hero and heroine. You have to call them 'protagonists.' "
"It's just one of those little rules of literary life. People who think they're smart like to use words other people don't use."
"But Jackie-"she began, but stopped and waited for me to go on.
I didn't believe she'd remember any of this, but I was indeed cheering her up. And besides, even though I didn't look up, I could feel that I was drawing an audience, and I can be an awful ham.
Autumn nodded, still holding my hand, and waited for me to continue.
"Okay," I said, "you start burying your treasure of a love story underneath lots of quirky characters with funny names. You name them Sunshine or Rosehips or Monkeywrench, whatever, just so they get odd names."
"Why would they do that? Who's named Monkey-wrench?"
"No one, but that's the point. The judges probably have names like John and Catherine so they dream of being name Carburetor."
Autumn smiled. "I see. Like Emerald."
I didn't have any idea who Emerald was, but I figured it out and smiled.
"Exactly-except the opposite. In romance novels the hero and heroine-"
"Protaga..."Autumn said and I grinned.
"Yes. In romances, the protagonists are given beautiful names like Cameo and Briony, and the males are Wolf and Hawk, but those names don't win prizes. Prize-winning protagonists have odd names, but never beautiful ones. So after you get your names for your characters, you make up quirky personalities for them."
"Well..." I thought about it for a moment. "Like Miss Havisham. Heard of her?"
Autumn shook her head. Her crying hadn't even messed up her makeup.
"Miss Havisham was getting dressed to get married when a note was delivered saying the groom wasn't going to show up for the wedding. Miss Havisham decided to stay exactly the way she was for the rest of her life, one shoe on, one off, and in her wedding dress. The author showed her years later as an old woman still in her rotting dress, cobwebs all over a table covered with her wedding feast. Miss Havisham is a celebrated quirky character in literature, and people who award prizes love quirky characters.
And they want the treasure-the story-hidden very deep, under lots of people with funny names doing lots of strange things."
"I see," Autumn said.
I knew she probably didn't "see" at all, but I could feel the collectively held breath of my audience so I wasn't about to stop. "In your story you also need to put a shocker, something straight out of a horror novel."
"But I thought this was a romance novel."
"Oh, no! You must never call it that. The people who write these books need for you to believe that they're far above romance writers and horror writers and mystery writers. That's why they bury all those stories deep inside their books; they can't risk a.s.sociation with a genre writer. In fact, prize-winning authors have to bury the story so deep that the judges can barely see them."
Autumn was looking puzzled.
"Okay, let me give you an example. In a romance novel two gorgeous people meet and immediately start thinking about s.e.x, right?"
"That's how it is in real life, too, but if you want to win a prize, your characters must never think about s.e.x except in a self-deprecating way. The judges love characters who think they're unattractive, and who've failed at most things they've tried. And, by the way, the judges also love incomplete sentences."
"But I thought-"
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