The Writers Bloc
Roger A. Jurack
"Martin! Time to go! Sherry's voice carried downstairs with authority. Might as well--I damn sure wasn't getting anywhere staring at the screen playing edit-cut-paste with the same insipid plot that had stymied me for months. Besides, given my current mood the "Celebration of Keith's Life" (Bullshit--his funeral!) might provide morbid inspiration and move me off top dead center. Preempting the computer's normal drag-ass shutdown, I brutally jabbed the power strip and killed the whole system. Freud was right: it felt good! I grabbed a jacket and was out the door without a backward look.
Keith and I had met downstate at a writers' workshop, and were mutually surprised to discover that we were neighbors. Over the last couple of years we'd occasionally bounced ideas off each other, but that was about as close to friendship as it ever got. That was before Bathtub Djin destroyed his amateur standing. Six months later he followed with Iridescent Genie, and that masterpiece was aggressively climbing the best-seller lists. But the day after he'd signed a ten-book contract with New York publishing house, Keith had completely and utterly vanished.
A week after the disappearance, his wife had given a tearful interview in which she'd said that when she turned out the houselights and gone to bed, Keith had been in his study, pounding away on the keyboard. He'd never come to bed, and in the morning he was gone. Whether it was fact or editorial liberty, the story had gone on to report that when the police arrived, Keith's computer was still on and running. The screen had displayed a single word: 'End'. Three prescient keystrokes.
All of that was a year ago. As I turned into Keith's driveway I saw that the realtor's sign had a 'sale pending' sticker on it. Even though the police investigation on Keith was still wide open, it looked as though Becky had decided a year was long enough. Today's gathering was for friends and neighbors, ostensibly that we all might have 'closure'--a hackneyed sentiment if there ever was one. My assessment was more cynical: Becky still had curves enough to turn heads, the advance on Keith's book deal had been in six figures, and rumor had it there was a bidding war for the manuscript they'd found on his computer. Yeah, a year tastefully draped in black was long enough: there were greenbacks and greener pastures to be had.
Surrounding the picture was an array of Keith's books and reprinted articles--some of them dating to his early days with Internet magazines. Becky seated us on the floor near one of the junk piles, and I was amused to see that each pile had a place card! Other arrivals went through the same routine. In short order a circle of bemused mourners was seated around the table.
"Is this a funeral or a séance?" Sherry whispered in my ear. As I was thinking up a smartass reply, Becky lowered the lights and began to read a eulogy that she had obviously authored. My instincts for lean word-count shrank back in horror when I saw the sheaf of paper in her hands.
As she began to drone, my attention wandered to the books on the coffee table. Glossy jackets, professional artwork, even colorful print bars trumpeting the current position on the best seller lists. Envy reared its ugly head and, mentally derailed by the onset of a literary Walter Mitty daydream, I reached in front of Sherry and picked up a copy of Iridescent Genie. I held it. Hell, I fondled it! This was what success felt like.
I opened it, and the smells of fresh paper and new ink rose up to taunt me, gloating that I'd never be that good. For an instant, the urge to rip it apart and throw it across the room was overpowering. Sherry must have seen the emotion on my face because she reached over and briefly patted my leg. Her touch brought me back into the room and the moment, but jealously lingered like a carefully banked fire.
I tried to unobtrusively replace the book on the table but lost my grip on its slippery cover. It landed face down with a binder-cracking flutter, interrupting Becky's monotone. The moment spun out in silence. Feeling the heat of embarrassment rise on my face, I muttered an apology. Becky resumed the marathon eulogy, and I retrieved the book--this time using a vise-like grip.
In the process of redeeming myself, my fingers became inserted between pages. When I turned the book right-side up, I found myself looking at an Acknowledgments page, complete with Keith's preface in elegant italics. "...and finally to all my friends, contributors, and collaborators, without whose unstinting loyalty and help this Genie might never have escaped the proverbial lamp, I am humbly indebted. Keith Hardesty."
It was dated 6/1/2000, and a lengthy list of names followed. I searched memory to put faces with those names. Neighbors, mutual friends, literary and workshop associates--I drew a blank. Even allowing for the fact that we weren't exactly joined at the hip, I did know several of Keith's literary contacts. None with whom I was familiar were listed. On further reflection, I'd always thought that Keith was a solo act. Collaborators? Contributors? News to me...
"...so I wanted to thank all of you for being Keith's loyal and supportive friends." My attention tripped back into the room as Becky headed into the final laps. "Each of you has a small collection of memorabilia (Junk!) from Keith's office. I know that he'd want you all to have some small remembrance of his life and his success." Sherry looked skeptically at the carton beside us and whispered an immediate verdict: "Helluva way to clean house and not have to pay for disposal!" I agreed wholeheartedly.
As we all filed somberly out, Becky intercepted us at the door.
"Dear, dear Martin! Thank you so much for taking the time to come."
"Becky--how could we not? We are neighbors...and Keith and I shared an idea from time to time." At that moment I felt like a sleaze, usurping credit for a part of his success, but I couldn't help it: I wanted to be on the flyleaf of a best seller too!
"I know, Martin, he told me. That's why I have to apologize to you in advance."
"One of the things that I, he, gave you is his desk lamp. He bought it at a yard sale and always used it when he was writing. I thought it might bring you luck, or something."
(Thanks for the vote of confidence, lady!)
"But it doesn't work! The morning that he, I," she floundered. "Well you know, when it happened (It?) and I found him--or didn't find him." She stopped in confusion.
"Becky, it's OK." She took a deep breath.
"That morning when I came into his study, everything was exactly the way it always was when he was working, except that the light was off. The glass was still warm, it was plugged in and the switch was on..."
"Just a burned out bulb, Becky. Not to worry--and thank you. I appreciate the thought." She beamed as though the weight of the world had been lifted from her shoulders. We gave her a perfunctory squeeze and made our escape--with our 'memorabilia'.
Not just one, mind you, but two best sellers in a year! How in Christ...?"
"Watch your language, Martin! If you want the Pulitzer you'd best not piss off the Big Editor...Holy Cow!" Sherry had been examining our collection of Keith's trash as it sat on the seat between us, and she'd broken into howls of laughter.
"What's the joke?"
"I can't...just a minute...I can't...this is sooo rich!" She was gasping for breath. "Honey, not only did you get junk, but it's not even new junk!" She held up a glass tube that was mated to a corroded brass base. A cord dangled listlessly from the assembly.
"That's not what I think it is?"
"Yes! 1960's here we come! I absolutely demand we move to Haight-Asbury where you can write and we can starve together--with our very own lava light!"
"Perfect! First a terminal case of writers' block, and now a dysfunctional psychedelic hand-me-down from beyond the grave!" Not strictly accurate of course--nobody actually knew Keith's status.
"Oh Honey, lighten up! You'll make it! Besides--you still have me!" She winked lasciviously.
"Well since you put it that way, the lamp doesn't look so bad after all." That earned me a punch--a hard one! "Owwww! No sense of humor... But at the rate things are going, I'll need even more than Keith's list of collaborators: I'll need a goddam consortium!"
"In his book--a listing of collaborators and contributors who helped him write it. I saw it while Becky was reciting War and Peace back there." She giggled.
"So that's what the juggling act was all about! What's wrong with getting a little help?"
"A little? The list was nearly a page long! If each name had written just one paragraph he'd still have a complete novel! Come to think of it, maybe that's how he did it..."
"C'mon Martin, no sour grapes. Keith was a good writer--you're a good writer. All of this will pass, and when you hit the right combination we'll lie naked on the beach and drink champagne." The image was so preposterous I couldn't help but smile.
"OK! Deal! But maybe I should form some sort of alliance or something. Maybe do it like politicians, only do it with other writers so I can get some ideas and get moving." We turned into the driveway and parked. Sherry snickered as she got out.
"Now what?" Grinning hugely, she looked at me over the top of the car.
"Do you know what you just said? About forming an alliance? What would you call it--a writers' bloc?"
If she hadn't ducked, the car keys would have caught her squarely in the forehead.
The computer screen stared back at me, just as it had for the last month, daring me to come up with an inspiration. Sherry was in bed and the house was deathly quiet. A morbidly interesting phrase "deathly quiet": in addition to perfectly describing the hour and the night, it applied equally to my creative state.
"Why couldn't you have left me some ideas instead of the office junk, Keith?" The sound of my own voice startled me. I was getting shocky: time for a change of venue.
My standard defense when deserted by the Muse is to assault the refrigerator--and yeah, I was beginning to put on weight. I rolled the chair back, and it stopped abruptly. The carton containing Keith's bequeathal was lodged against a roller. I reached down, picked up the refugee hippie lamp and considered it bleakly. What the hell, if I could get the stupid thing to work I could legitimately claim to be basking in Keith's light.
After a thorough inspection I had to acknowledge defeat. There didn't seem to be any way to get at the bulb. "Made In Malaysia" it said on the underside. Screw it! I'd just plug it in and if it didn't work I'd beat on it--God knows I had enough frustration in me for that!
Violence proved unnecessary: once plugged in, the lamp gave off a warm glow. A purplish-orange concoction made up the guts of the thing, and the refracted light was oddly soothing. Maybe Keith had a good idea in hanging onto this relic after all. In any case, it would take time for the 'lava' to start doing its thing, and in the meantime the refrigerator was calling.
"Honey that was spectacular! But who is Ethan Stockweiler?" Sherry's voice hit me like ice water.
"What...?" I rubbed my eyes and sat up. Late morning daylight streamed through the window.
"The ending of your novel, dummy! If that doesn't sell I'll go live in a nunnery! I read it while you were taking your sabbatical in the chair. My God but you had me on the edge of my seat...if there'd been a seat available! Don't ever talk to me about writers' block again!" She was damn near babbling and compounded my amazement by planting a sloppy kiss on my forehead. She was almost skipping as she left the study. At the door she paused and looked back.
"So Keith's lamp is permanently dead?" Even in daylight I could see that the light was out. I touched the glass: lukewarm.
"Well it was working." But when had it gone out? And what the hell was Sherry so excited about? All I had to show for the night was a plate of sandwich crumbs and a lava light on unemployment.
"Never mind--breakfast in a minute!" And she was gone.
Brushing away mental cobwebs, I rolled forward to the desk. The computer screen displayed the word 'End'.
(End? Of what?)
I scrolled back...and back...and back! When I finally reached the title page I'd scrolled back through 22 chapters, yet I clearly remembered my plot had withered by chapter 16! And what was this:
"Acknowledgement: In collaboration with Ethan Stockweiler, wordsmith extraordinaire!" Who in Christ was Ethan Stockweiler?
"Breakfast!" Sherry's voice from atop the stairs.
"Yeah, coming..." but instead I began to read.
"...and in the end, the progress of the knife was colder even than the aurora mirrored in her dying eyes. The silence of the dark and brooding wood was finally sundered, not with her scream, but with that of the Beast. End"
Jesus! This guy was good! Wait--what the hell was I saying? This was my story and plot! But the whole thing was fleshed out and richer, like coffee with real cream instead of the powdered crap.
"Hey hero, I know you're a bigshot author and all, but breakfast is cold!" I hadn't even heard Sherry come into the room, and she was pissed.
"God Honey, I'm sorry! I just got into proofreading..."
"And got carried away? C'mon Martin, it's not like you don't know how it's going to end or anything--you wrote it!"
(Did I? Then why can't I remember it?)
"Well sure, but you know, details..." I finished weakly.
"You're forgiven--this time! But when you get the advance, you'd best remember how nice I was to you before you got famous!"
(Or before Ethan Stockweiler got famous?)
"Count on it, Babe."
The reception had begun privately--very privately. Sherry insisted that we christen her new Corvette before she test drove it, and we hadn't done things like that in a car since we'd dated. It might be interesting to compare black and blue marks after the shindig was over... For the moment however, my agent was the last man standing and I was having trouble getting him to the door.
"To Solar Wind--and its third printing! May there be many more!" Chet Brownley was thoroughly smashed. His agency status as well as his gross income had elevated markedly with the book's phenomenal early sales. He threw an arm around my shoulders and we did a brief champagne-sloshing two-step. He put his face close to my ear.
"Tell me mighty Marty, tell the world: where do you get your inspiration?" I forced a smile and tried to disengage. I hate sloppy drunks.
"Now Chet, you know I can't...trade secrets and all."
"But the world wants to know, Marty! How does you do it? Three manuscripts and a runaway on the market in eight months--man that's superhuman!" I held him forcibly at arm's length and draped his coat over him, covering champagne glass and all.
"Cab's waiting Chet. The meter's eating into all that commission money you're ripping off." The word 'money' penetrated the alcoholic fog: he weaved through the door with some alacrity and was gone. Finally.
Sherry rolled away, pulling the covers to her stomach. Comparing black and blue marks had gotten delightfully out of hand.
"How do you do it, Mr. Bigshot Author?" It was a satisfied purr in the dark and had no relevance to Chet's identical question earlier in the evening.
"Trade secrets, Babe." But it merited the same answer--the same evasion--because I deeply feared that even the truth wouldn't set me free. I rolled over and buried my face in the pillow, hoping that just for tonight it would leave me alone. Just for one night I could rest. And forget.
A search of the Internet had yielded information that Ethan Stockweiler lived in the Carolinas and had two novels to his credit; both had sold modestly. His brief career mirrored those of Sheila Nonce, Marge Draves, Vance Merton, Evelyn Voss and Sperry Olmsted. The collection of those names haunted my every waking hour and tormented my fitful sleep. They appeared together in only three places: Keith's glowing acknowledgement in Iridescent Genie...the obituary notices...and the Credits for my latest novel. I'd never met any of them.
The flat, cooled surface of the lava tilted, ejaculating a translucent column of purple-orange. It crawled up the side of the lamp, gathered at the top and bent toward me. The fluid mass bunched and fanned against the glass, spreading a cobra-like hood. It swayed and was still. Hot shadows where eyes should have been looked at me. And like the other times, I couldn't look away.
The noise began, just like all the other times. The cobra in the lamp collapsed, sinking formlessly into the base. The lava swelled, pregnant with the horror to come.
The swelling became obscene, and the top of the head appeared. In the eldritch light a face elongated, swollen, leprous and disgusting, but familiar: male and female, undulating, alternating, staring. It fixed me with dark-shadowed and desperately stricken eyes.
And the ideas push in, screamed by a hundred voices (Join us!) and I can feel the torture of my characters hear their screams and smell the terror (Be with us!) and the noise that never stops like the wheels on a train...
...and can it be my hands and the voices keep pushing in and faces in the lamp (Be ONE with us!) and...
Quiet. I settle deeper into the warmth. Sleep is finally coming. If only the light will go away and let me rest...
"I still can't believe that I'm sitting at the same desk where he wrote four best selling novels. And in just eight months! Unbelievable!" He ran his hands caressingly over the desk. Sherry looked at him with mild distaste.
"Detective King, it's been almost a year and I can assure you that I still find it as unbelievable as you do. Do you have any new information for me?
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Saylor, nothing new has turned up; absolutely nothing. But naturally the file remains open and we'll keep..."
"Hoping?" She lit a cigarette. "You and me, detective, you and me." She stood looking out the window and the cigarette smoke spiraled in the sunlight. King stood, and his hand dragged briefly over the keyboard.
(Clickety!) Sherry turned as though stung.
"Do you have to, detective?"
"I'm sorry--force of habit. I do a little hobby writing myself and like the sound of..."
"My husband hated that sound. He told me once that it would drive him insane."
"Do you think that's what happened?" He regarded her with new interest.
"Detective King! One year ago, my very successful author husband vanished. We were very much in love, money was not an issue, and he was not crazy! I don't know what happened to him. Finding that out is your job!"
"Again, I'm sorry." He turned back to the desk.
"No detective, this time it's my turn to apologize. I simply can't get it behind me." His eyes followed her as she reached past him and stubbed out the cigarette in the ashtray next to the lamp.
"Don't see many of those old-style lava lights anymore. Was your husband an antique collector?" Sherry laughed humorlessly.
"Not hardly. It was a token from a--departed--acquaintance." She paused as she remembered. "You say that you write?"
"Well certainly not in your husband's class--could never come up with ideas like his--but..." He stopped and looked at her inquisitively as she unplugged the lamp and handed it to him.
You might as well have it as a souvenir, detective. It never worked for my husband."
Roger writes from broad life perspective, having earned a living in several diverse fields: Naval aviation for 22 years (now retired); Foreign Service communications officer in the Middle East; a Montana law enforcement officer; a commercial pilot and flight instructor, and a long-haul professional driver. He even drew a paycheck once for 'bucking' hay bales (at ten cents apiece) on a Montana ranch! He wryly comments that writing fiction is his latest attempt at starvation.
For many years Roger's writing appeared in military and governmental technical publications, but he has only recently forayed into the world of fiction. His work has been published in Alien Skin magazine, Nocturnal Ooze Magazine, Twilight Times, and Anotherealm.
He writes and resides with his wife (and staunch critic) Carolyn, on Michigan's Upper Peninsula, surrounded by Lake Superior and his much beloved Springer Spaniels.
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Published by permission of the author.