True, mortifying story before we begin the day's installment--
Last week my agent and I visited my publisher, Howard Books, in Nashville. While there I toured the office, and saw the famous "Howard Guitar" in the conference room. I was honored to be invited to sign it, as many other authors had also done so. (Frank Peretti's and dozens of other names were already on the guitar.) So I picked it up and signed it, and while I was doing so, Becky, my editor, remarked that the guitar was horribly out of tune.
Well, I do remember how to tune a guitar--I was a music major for years and years and years. So, summoning up a pailful of rusty memories, I began to tune it. Did the G string. And the next one. And the next one needed to be a bit higher . . . AND I BROKE THE DARN STRING!
SPROING! Right in front of the conference room, I damaged the famous Howard guitar. I apologized, of course, and they said it was no big deal, but still -- way to make my mark, huh?
Becky had mentioned that they were expecting a visit from a very famous country western singer soon (not sure this news has been made public, so I'll not mention his name), so when I got home, I had a package of new guitar strings sent to her along with a suggestion that she should ask Famous Singer to string and retune the Howard guitar.
And because I'm absolutely star-struck at the thought of Famous and Cute Country Singer, I don't even mind if she mentions who broke it. :-)
On to today's installment:
Theodora Ellen Russell pulled the old suitcase from under her bed and ran a disapproving finger through its blanket of dust. “Don’t blame me for that,” Ann Dawson called from where she leaned in the doorway. “My job description doesn’t include dusting under beds.”
“Don’t worry about it. You do enough,” Theo answered. She smiled and moved toward her closet. “You do too much, in fact. If you fix me up with one more loser, Ann, I’m going to stop listening to you altogether. When that last guy found out that I’m a—well, that I’m trying to be a writer, he assured me that his life story would make a best seller. He began with his conception in 1957 and didn’t stop talking until he was done with the full account of his third and messiest divorce.”
“That bad, huh?” Ann asked. She crossed her arms and studied Theo intently. “You know what I think your problem is? You’re too together, too self-reliant. You don’t need a man, and the men you meet know it.” Her blue eyes lit with laughter. “You know, it doesn’t hurt to play the damsel in distress every once in a while.”
Theo grimaced in good humor. “Puh-leeze.”
“Welcome to the world of dating in the nineties.” Ann chuckled with a dry and cynical sound. “It can be rough out there.”
“The dating world can stay out there for all I care. When I was sixteen, dating didn’t seem quite so . . . boring.” Theo moved an armful of clothes from the closet to the bed, and the clatter of plastic hangers woke the little girl sleeping on the pillows. The child took her thumb out of her mouth, mumbled sleepily, then her head fell back onto the pillow, and her deep breathing resumed.
Theo gave Ann a conspiratorial smile. “That was close. If I wake Stacy up now, she’ll never go back to sleep.” She lowered her voice and began folding clothes into the suitcase. “Ann, I’m really nervous about this weekend. I hate to ask you to look after Stacy overnight—”
“What is there to be nervous about?” Ann asked, shrugging. She left the doorway and perched on the end of the bed. Mindful of the sleeping child, she whispered, “Stacy will be fine with me and Bethany. And if the little darling gets lonely, I’ll just move the troops over here so Stacy can sleep in her own room.” Ann ran her hand over the soft cashmere of a sweater on the bed. “Bethany would complain, of course, but spending the night next door won’t kill her. It’s a law. A fifteen-year-old can’t do anything without griping about it first.”
The cynical edge of Ann’s smile gentled as she looked at the sleeping child. “You’re blessed, you know. Stacy will never drive you to Lady Clairol. But Bethany’s given me so many gray hairs . . . ”
“I’m sure I’ll earn my fair share.” Theo stopped packing for a moment and studied the face of her five-year-old daughter. Even in sleep, the flattish skull and almond-shaped eyes of Down Syndrome were evident. But though she and Matt had wept over the news when their daughter was born, through the years Stacy had been nothing but a tender delight, a special gift from God.
“I’m not worried about Stacy,” Theo said, picking up a blouse. “I know she’ll be fine with you and Bethany. I guess I’m really worried about me. This is the National Authors League convention, for heaven’s sake. You’re not supposed to be there unless you’re a professional author. And I’ve never written anything, really. Nothing that counts.”
“How can you say that?” Ann said, swiping her bangs out of her eyes. “In my dictionary, a professional is someone who’s paid, and those people at the burglar alarm company paid you for the brochure you wrote, right?”
“Well, yes. But that’s not the same as being published.”
“Well, the church published your column on Down Syndrome kids, didn’t they?”
“But they didn’t pay me.”
Ann shrugged. “Consider it a donation of your time and talent. And it was a good article, Theo. I learned things I didn’t know, and I’m here with you and Stacy every day.”
“I still feel like an imposter.” Theo moved to her bureau and pulled out several articles of lingerie. “I’ve never written anything major. I’ll be surrounded by literary geniuses and as out of place as a milk bucket under a bull. I’ll open my mouth and say something stupid—”
“You’re an intelligent woman; you couldn’t say something stupid if you tried,” Ann said, laughing. “You’ll be fine. I thought you wanted to be surrounded by literary people. Isn’t that the idea behind this entire trip?”
“I guess so. But I’ll still be nervous. Just because I can write a paragraph doesn’t mean I can write a book. Could I attempt surgery just because I’m pretty good at carving a turkey? No.”
“But,” Ann answered, leaning forward on the bed, “if you can write a good article, you ought to be able to write a book. One’s just longer than the other, that’s all. So get going, and don’t come back until you’re rich and famous.”
“Rich and famous?” She managed a choking laugh. “If I don’t find an assignment or make a contact at this convention, I’ll have no choice but to come home and give up. I’ve been working at this for three years, Ann, and if God hasn’t opened a single window in all that time, it isn’t likely he’s going to throw open a door in the future. It’s more likely,” she said, frowning as she zipped the suitcase shut, “that I’m in the wrong room.”
Grabbing one of Matt’s old handkerchiefs, she smoothed the dust from the suitcase. The rough scar on the vinyl mocked her—had she really thought its haunting memories could fade? Three years ago Matt had taken the suitcase on a business trip, and in the wreck the bag had slid across one hundred feet of sun-baked asphalt. A sympathetic police officer had returned it when he came to tell her that Matt was dead . . .
Shoving the memories aside, she stood the suitcase upright and looked around for anything she’d forgotten. Her eyes fell upon a photograph on her dresser, and she snapped her fingers and picked up the address book by the phone.
“I nearly forgot,” she said, unzipping the suitcase. “I’ll need to see how Janette’s doing. She was scheduled for a chemotherapy treatment today, and John asked me to call tonight if I could. Sometimes she needs a little cheering up.”
“Is there anything I can do?” Ann asked, her voice softening in concern. “I’d be happy to forward a message if John calls here.”
“I don’t think there’s much anyone can do, especially not seven hundred miles away,” Theo answered, slipping the address book into the suitcase. “I’m always giving John a hard time for moving my sister to Florida, but since that’s where his job is . . .”
Her voice trailed away with her hopeless thoughts. Janette had been battling cancer for nearly three years. She had been only thirty-seven when she found the first lump in her breast, by then the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes. Beautiful, vivacious Janette, the world’s most perfect big sister, now smiled through her pain and struggled to keep the seriousness of her situation from her two teenage sons.
“Well.” Theo looked around one final time. “Time to get down to brass tacks, face the music, take inventory—all those tired old clichés people spout when they run out of options.” She gave Ann a smile containing more confidence than she felt. “I guess that’s it. Wish me well.”
Theo reluctantly pulled into a parking spot in the hotel garage and grimaced when she realized she’d be paying over twelve dollars a day just to park her car. She could have driven home every night and avoided hotel bills altogether, but her Master Plan dictated that she totally immerse herself in this convention. How could she impress an important agent or editor with her fabulous ideas if she had to leave after the last session to drive home?
No halfway efforts this weekend, she told herself. You’re going to pay the one hundred and ten bucks a night, plus parking, plus those outrageously expensive meals because this is it. Your last chance. D day. There’s only enough insurance money left for three more months, so unless you find something here, you’ll have to face the fact that maybe you aren’t meant to be a writer. This is your turn up at bat, slugger, so look out, be ready.
The pep talk did nothing to rid her of insecurity, her constant companion. Even her car looked ill at ease in the parking garage. Surrounded by shiny late models and foreign imports, her eight-year-old Ford—littered with Happy Meal boxes and empty cola cans—was clearly out of place. When the uniformed valet approached her car and she reached out to hand him her key, she thought she saw his lip curl downward. She must have reeked of amateurism.
“Ma’am, will you open the trunk, please?”
“What?” Startled, she looked out the window at the valet.
“Pop the trunk. I need to remove your luggage.”
“Ah . . . it’s not automatic.” He lifted an eyebrow, and Theo pointed to the key she’d just given him. “You’ll have to unlock it.”
“Fine.” He pressed his lips together and moved to the back of the car. Theo sat in silence, her cheeks burning. Since she worked at home, a new car was the last thing she needed. So why was one raised eyebrow from a parking attendant enough to send a wave of embarrassment over her? Snap out of it. She grabbed her purse and briefcase and got out of the car.
The valet opened her trunk, pushed aside the rumpled bed sheet with “Call for Help” scrawled on it (one of Ann’s ideas), and removed the battered suitcase. Dangling her purse over one shoulder and stashing the briefcase under her arm, Theo extended her hand. The attendant shook his head. “We’ll bring it up after you’ve checked in,” he said firmly.
Theo felt another blush creep along her cheeks. Another dollar gone, a tip for this guy when she was perfectly willing to carry the bag herself. “All right,” she said smoothly, as if that’s what she had planned all along. She turned to go, but the attendant called her back.
“I need to know your name, ma’am,” he called, attaching a ticket to her bag.
“Theo Russell,” she said, turning toward the escalator that led to the lobby.
She offered her Visa card at the registration desk and tried to smooth her face into a casually bored expression as the girl behind the counter fretted at her computer keyboard. While Theo waited for her room key, her attention was diverted by two men behind her who slapped each other on the back and embraced as if they’d been apart for ten years. Glancing over her shoulder, Theo felt the chill shock of recognition. Good grief, Ann would faint if she knew George Keeton and Michael Rogers were standing within arm’s reach. Keeton’s weekly magazine column had just been spun off into a television show, and Theo and Ann had read every one of Michael Rogers’s best-selling thrillers.
“George, it’s good to see you,” Rogers boomed, apparently not caring who heard him. “Saw your book on the Times list last month. Four weeks at number two, is that right?”
“Well, it was number two on the PW list five weeks in a row,” Keeton answered. “But, say—your book got some great reviews! What’s your secret? Been bribing the critics?”
Rogers laughed and said something else, but the girl at the reception desk had spoken. Theo turned around in time to see her waving a white folder with “Russell, T.” neatly laser-printed across the top. “This contains your room key for room 2121. You’re all set for Thursday through Sunday.”
“Thank you,” Theo said, taking the folder. She sneaked another careful glance at the two celebrities behind her, aware that everyone else in the lobby seemed to be doing the same thing.
She made her way to the NAL convention table, checked in with a gum-chewing girl who couldn’t have been more than a year out of college, and picked up her information packet. She glanced around the lobby for a moment before deciding to take the elevator to her room. She was here to make contacts, but how should she begin? Maybe she’d have a better idea after introductions had been made in the evening’s first session.
Theo pressed through the mingling crowd. A hotel signboard had been erected near the elevators, and the weekend’s events were posted:
Thursday: 8:00 P.M. NAL, Opening Session, Grand Ballroom
Friday: 9:00 A.M., NAL General Session
7:00 P.M., Special Guest, Theo M. Russell,
Author of Out of the Darkness, Into the Light
The elevator opened, and Theo was swept inside with a swarm of other people who carried NAL information packets. She felt a thrill of alarm when she heard her name bandied about, but she smiled quietly when she realized her fellow conventioneers were excited about hearing Theo M. Russell, the novelist.
Maybe she’d have a serendipitous meeting with the famous Theo M. Russell, and the coincidence of their names will induce him to take her under his wing. Maybe he’d introduce her to an editor or an agent, someone who would listen and recognize her talent and determination.
Maybe. Always maybe.
“Maybe” hovered like a bright light over every proposal and query letter Theo mailed to editors and dimmed to the gloom of “not now” with every rejection. Well, she told herself as she stepped onto the twenty-first floor, this time it’s now or never. After this weekend there will be no more maybes.
She unpacked her suitcase, ordered a burger and diet cola from room service, and spread the contents of her NAL packet on the bed. Several large publishing houses had sent representatives to the convention, she noticed. She had sent proposals to four of those houses, and two of her best proposals were still out.
She had just circled the names of Howarth House and Doubleday in her program when a knock sounded at the door. Glancing through the peephole, she saw the waiter outside with her tray. She mentally debated for a moment whether to take the tray at the door or to allow the waiter to bring it into the room. She knew Ann would scream at the thought of Theo’s opening her door to a strange man, but she’d ordered the meal herself, hadn’t she?
She was not paranoid and delusional. She was an independent, determined woman, as strong as her sister Janette.
“Just bring it in and set it on the table,” she said, opening the door for the young man who stood outside.
He gave her a perfunctory smile and moved past her into the room, returning in a moment with the check. Theo skimmed it, noticed in relief that the gratuity had already been added, and signed the paper with a flourish. “Thanks.”
The waiter left, and Theo kicked off her shoes and picked up her convention schedule before moving to the desk to eat. The glass on the tray held a pitifully small amount of ice, so she grabbed her room key and ice bucket, then padded down the hallway in her stocking feet to search for an ice machine.
She had just returned to her door when she heard the phone ring inside her room. Fumbling with the plastic key and the bucket of ice, she inserted the card into the magnetic lock. Nothing. She jiggled the handle in frustration, then pulled the key card from the door, turned it over, and tried again. The light on the lock blinked green, and the handle clicked, but the phone had stopped ringing.
Theo dropped the ice bucket on the desk and immediately dialed Ann’s number. Something must have happened if Ann would call so soon . . .
“Hello?” Bethany answered in her slow drawl.
“Hi, Beth, it’s Theo. Did your mom just call me?”
“I dunno, she’s in the kitchen. Do you want me to get her?”
“Would you, please?”
Theo felt her heartbeat slow perceptibly when Ann’s sunny voice came on the line. “Hi, girl, what’s up? Forget your toothbrush?”
“No. My phone was ringing, and I couldn’t get the door open with this plastic key card. I thought maybe John had called you.”
“Nope, it wasn’t me. But you’d better get the hang of that key. What if a mugger was coming after you?”
“Don’t be so paranoid, Ann. This is supposed to be a very safe hotel. You’d be proud of me, though. I looked through the peephole before I let the room service waiter in.”
“You let him in? You’re supposed to have him leave the food on the floor.”
“I had to sign the check.” Theo couldn’t help smiling.
“He can slip it under the door. Remember this, Theo: There are no perfectly safe hotels, especially for women alone. Do you keep the dead bolt on the door at all times?”
“Do you have that Mace I gave you?”
“In my purse, right under the brass knuckles.”
Theo laughed. “I promise, I’m being careful. How’s Stacy?”
“She woke up in a great mood and seems to be thrilled to spend the night with her Auntie Ann. I don’t think she misses you at all.”
“Gee, thanks, Ann.” Theo smiled wryly. “Tell me she misses me. I’m entitled to a little guilt.”
“She does miss you, but she’s fine. She and Bethany made cookies. The girls OD’d on the chocolate; I think the cookies are more chip than dough.”
“You didn’t forget her pink blanket, did you? She can’t sleep without it.”
“We’ve got it. And what we don’t have, we can get. Now you stop worrying and have fun. Make those contacts. Go be discovered.”
“Talk to you soon.”
As Theo hung up, she noticed that the message light on her phone had begun to blink.