The room was set up to be the ideal studio. The window shade and window were only open about two inches to let my pipe tobacco smoke leak out. A floor lamp dropped light on the keyboard like an old-fashioned street lamp. The halo of light focused on the keyboard and a smidgen beyond.
My ashtray sat to the left of the computer screen. It held a pipe that was gifted to me by a close friend years ago. The room temperature was 68, and the ceiling fan turned precisely to my liking.
I had a thermos of a favorite special coffee blend, Pitbull on Crack, with my favorite mug beside it. There was a slight cool breeze through the small opening in the window. It was the perfect place for a writer…perfect! My work setting couldn't have been better in any way.
"What in the purple hell is wrong with me?" I said to no one as I spun around and pushed away from the computer screen. Trying to calm myself, I gave my pal Archie a rub. Most times, he's not much interested in rubs or nudges. This time he purred and changed position just a bit. He curled his feet but didn't open an eye. I turned halfway back to the computer.
"What the absolute blazing holy hell is wrong with me?"
I talked out loud to shake something loose. It was akin to barking and snarling. My wife decided to take a walk with one of her buddies. She considered me close to needing police intervention or a muzzle.
I tried, in my perfectly set up space, to hammer out a detective story like those of old. No cussing, no sex, and no excess violence allowed. I had one sentence that must have been rewritten a dozen times. As soon as the period got typed, my mind took a siesta. It's been like this for a week. I gave free writing a go, which was worse than no writing. I tried writing about my Dad. No go there, either. Nothing worked. I thought that the words might be velcroed to the sides of my brain, so I spent several minutes vigorously shaking my head. I was a blend of fury, self-pity, and panic.
Spinning around once more, I stopped when I saw Archie. I reached out to give him another gentle pat on the back. His eyes popped open. He stretched and gave me a nasty look just before he jumped down from the bookcase. He squirmed through the barely open door and was gone. I shook my head.
"Once more," I said. "Once more. I'll try one more time. Then I'm going to find a job delivering FedEx packages or do yard work: something that can be done, and I can see a result right then!"
My hands hovered over the keyboard. Waiting is the hardest part of this. It came to mind that this so-called writing career might be over.
I continued to wait for the one good sentence to be followed, as Hemingway said, by the next good sentence. I could hear my college English professor right now… "Build your story one brick at a time. Stay the course. It'll happen."
"Bah!" I pulled the shade full open, hoping for something…anything. Nothing happened.
The damn words did a fantastic job of hiding from me. I needed to change something up. My favorite things to do when I'm thinking about a story are driving my Bullitt Mustang or playing golf. But at this point, golf would be far too irritating. I decided to give the Bullitt a try.
I wanted somewhere to go and let my mind rest; somewhere to be alone and miserable. I needed a place without that damn computer screen leering at me.
I located my daypack and found a suitable Peterson pipe, a pouch of tobacco, two lighters, a composition book, and three pens.
Next, I spent twenty minutes trying to find my keys. Where the tarnation are those keys? I located them hanging on the hook in the laundry room where all the keys are supposed to live.
As I pulled the driver's door shut on the Bullitt and began to put the key in the ignition switch, I realized this was as far as the plan went. I had nothing else. Where the blue blazes was I going?
I leaned my forehead on the top edge of the leather steering wheel. I closed my eyes and began to see that I had become unable to think. That's why I can't write. I was now a mental eunuch. Dammit, I imagined the inside of my skull, where my brain was before something removed it. Empty as the inside of a jack-o-lantern.
At that point, all I needed was for the car battery to be dead. There would be no escape. Doom and tragedy shadowed me like a detective following a suspect.
I turned the key, and the Ford motor jumped to life. Hope nuzzled its way back to the edge of my mind. I drove, not caring where I went.
It was a mild surprise that I ended the ride at a park alongside the French Broad River. It was empty. There were ten aged wooden tables with benches. Several other weathered benches were scattered throughout the park. The weather was tolerable for October. Enough leaves were left on the trees to provide shade and just enough sunlight to be warm enough when a breeze blew up the river. After gathering pens, paper, and a thermos, I slowly walked to the middle of the picnic area and thought about where I wanted to sit. Finally, I chose a table next to the river and placed all my stuff on it. The sky was autumn-clear and vibrant blue.
I gulped a swallow of coffee and watched the water running over rocks. The water had purpose. The French Broad flows north, one of the few rivers in the world to do so. It knew what to do and did it. At that moment, I had no real purpose. I just breathed air and sipped coffee. I was useless.
I put my elbows on the table and held my head. I looked at the tabletop and saw cracks in the wood. There were a couple of ants crawling around, looking for leftover crumbs. I started to mash one of them with my thumb but stopped. Those ants also had a purpose and were working hard to accomplish something.
I got a blank piece of paper ready to go and picked up one of the pens. Just then, a yellow VW Beetle pulled into the lot and parked right next to the Bullitt. A girl was the only occupant. She stared at me through her windshield and drank something from a large cup with a straw. She just sat there.
A car door shut. My eyes closed. The girl must have floated across the gravel because I never heard her approach. When my eyes opened, she was sitting across from me with that drink. She didn't say a word, just sipped and stared at me.
Finally, she put the drink down and smiled. She was twenty-something, brown-haired, cute, and not talking.
"Why don't you go to another table? There's plenty of empty ones to choose." I asked.
No response. She picked her drink up and began sipping. It was obvious from the slurping sound the cup just had residual ice in the bottom. It was an annoying sound, and she knew it. Smiling while sipping was a neat trick. In a minute, she put the drink down.
"I like it right here," she said, grinning.
I turned away, feeling perturbed and wondering why I didn't get up. After thinking for a minute, it was plain she'd simply follow. I saw a blue heron land on a log that had jammed itself into a sand bar. It was a large, proud-looking bird. In my peripheral vision, there was movement. My thermos was sliding away. I turned just a bit to see this girl pick up my thermos, take the top off, and pour her cup half full. She put the top back on and slid it back to me. By this time, I'd fully turned back around and was staring at her.
My mouth opened to say something, but she beat me to it.
"I knew you wouldn't mind sharing since you weren't drinking it. You seem to like gawking at the river. That's weird."
She sat there staring at me; sipping through that straw. She had the beginning of a smile, an impish look.
"You know I could have been contemplating suicide. That coffee might have been poisoned." I smiled back.
"Nah, guys don't use poison to check out. That's what chicks do."
"You're wrong," I said. "Method of suicide doesn't depend on what sex a person is. It's much more complicated than that."
She stopped slurping long enough to sit up straighter and looked at me differently. She seemed less bored.
"Oh, you're a psychologist. I was guessing a failed ad man or a washed-up golf pro."
"What? What kind of crap is that to say to somebody you don't know? Somebody you've never seen before? Damn. Give me back my coffee."
I made a move for the cup, but she snatched it out of my reach. I started to stand and felt my temper rising, and from the look on her face, she could see it too.
"Whoa dude. I was joshing. I have no clue what you do to make a buck. I stopped at this picnic area because I was tired of driving around and wanted to talk to somebody. I have some stuff to figure out and thought talking to somebody might help. But I think your issues are bigger than mine. Kinda makes me feel better about myself," she said.
"Well, I'm not a shrink or an ad man. I'm not nearly good enough at golf to be a pro."
She put the drink back on the table. I sat back down and restored my mental order.
"Since the subject has been breached, what do you do to make money? I can't figure it out. Sitting alone in a picnic area and staring at a river seems odd even to me."
"I'm a writer. Well, I try to write." I turned to the river again. The heron was gone. A couple of crows were circling. A hawk was circling too, keeping an eye on the crows.
I mumbled, "I used to be a writer. Now I'm a bumbling, stumbling, former writer."
I stared at the top of the picnic table. When I shook my head in disgust, she slammed the cup onto the tabletop.
"What do you mean, former writer? I thought once you were, then you were forever. I don't understand."
I looked at her and put both my hands on the table, palms down. At first, I just stared at her. Then a sentence popped out: a declaration.
"I have writer's block. No matter what I try, the words will simply not appear, and nothing I've tried works. So this may be the end of the line for me writing anything. It's maddening."
"Humph! I may not know much but what you just said is BS. Your brain has words swirling around constantly. Even when you're asleep, words form pictures. You dream, don't you? Pictures are just another form of words. If you can see, you can put stuff on paper. Writer's block…ridiculous."
I was getting frustrated again. How could she know anything about this? This was going nowhere. I didn't want to be rude, but what the heck?
"Listen, you can't know about this. Are you a writer? My bet is the answer is no. For days I sat at my keyboard, and all I thought about was not being able to imagine anything to write. The longer I sit, the more I've become convinced that it's over. No more writing. I'll be a greeter at Walmart." I was staring at the tabletop again.
I scowled and looked back at the river. When I turned around, she picked up my pen and put it in my hand. She shoved the notebook underneath and looked directly into my eyes.
"You're right. I'm not a writer, and I'm young. But some things are simple and you people with life experience, as you call it, smother yourselves with accumulated baggage. Sometimes simple is best. Sometimes you need to think as you did before all that stuff you've lived clogged your brain."
I was shocked at what she said. She picked up that damn cup again and reached for my thermos. She poured the rest of my coffee. Then she looked out at the river and said nothing. A sad look came over her. She hadn't been this way the entire time we talked. What had I done to her?
"Look, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to make you sad."
She looked back at me and took a short sip. She smiled a bit and slightly shook her head.
"You didn't do anything to me that wasn't in my mind. Young doesn't mean happy all the time, just like old doesn't mean grumpy all the time." She smiled a tiny smirk and turned around to face where her car was parked.
I thought she was going to get up and leave, but she turned around. I looked at her and repeated, "I'm sorry."
She gave a nod and slurped her drink. She got up and walked to a trashcan. After throwing the cup away, she came back and stood at the edge of the table with her arms folded across her chest. She looked at the river. Then turned to look at the woods adjoining the picnic area, but she didn't seem to be seeing anything. She looked down at the top of the table, and her mouth opened. She started to say something, but I put my hand up to keep her from speaking.
"Why did you stop here? Did you really just drive around and decide to come over here and talk? Talk to a stranger? Someone who might be dangerous?"
Nodding her head, her reply was short and to the point. "Yep."
We both started laughing. The laughter seemed to help both of us. She sat back down.
"I've got some personal stuff going on and just needed to think. I saw you and took a chance that you might talk to me, and maybe somehow that would help. For a bit there, it looked like we both were in trouble. But I feel better. Nothing is fixed for either of us, but at least I do feel better. You know, the way I see life is that problems pop up for a reason. We find a way to fix one thing, and that gives us confidence to go to the next. There's always going to be stuff to face and fix."
She began to stand up.
"But," I said as I also stood, "I think there's going to be that one problem, that one issue, that can't be fixed. The one that causes a life change."
" I might be young and naïve, but there's always going to be this one thing to hold on to and believe in. There's always going to be this one thing." She was looking at me, but I thought she was talking to herself as much as me.
"What one thing? I don't understand that at all." I said.
She said, "The one thing that gives you a reason to take another step. The one thing that gives a bit of light when everything seems to be dimming."
She didn't say another word. Just went to her car. She didn't look back. She didn't wave. She simply left. That was one strange experience.
The river's sound seemed louder. I looked to see if it was rising. I heard a symphony of birds. It seemed that I was in the midst of sensory overload. This whole morning was overwhelming.
I stood there, not knowing what to do. Should I sit back down and try again? Should I go home and have a strong cocktail? Standing there, I noticed something odd. I felt no negative thoughts swirling around my skull like angry hornets. I tilted my head and tried to hear myself think…nothing. But for some very odd reason, the emptiness felt comforting.
I sat down, picked up a pen, and opened the notebook. My pen hovered as it had recently, going nowhere near the paper. Then something percolated and boiled up. It wasn't sudden, but I sensed a change rising. Right then…right then, it was there. I wrote:
Office hours are over. I don't have a case to work on tonight. No missing person to locate. No dame thinking her hubby is stepping out. I could take it easy for once on a Friday night.
I turned off the office light and pulled a nearly full bottle of Cabin Still bourbon from my desk drawer. I slowly poured it and watched it cover some dried coffee grounds in the bottom of my cup. When I put my feet up on the desk, I noticed my shoes needed some attention from Bobby at the shoeshine stand around the corner, and my wrinkled trousers could use a trip to the cleaners. That's the way of it for a PI when business is good.
I took a sip of whiskey and heard a knock at the office door. The hallway always had a light on, and there was a shadow playing on the opaque window in the door. It was a dame, and if I was a betting man, I'd bet she was young.
I stepped across the wooden floor and opened the door. She was young. She was also dressed in expensive clothes and carried an umbrella that the wind had ruined. I could have been impolite and told her the office was closed, but that wasn't me.
"C'mon in and have a seat." I stepped aside so she could pass.
"Oh, thank you. I was hoping I wasn't too late." She looked a bit confused.
"The office. I hoped your office would still be open." She said as she walked by me.
"Well, here we are, darlin'." I pointed to a chair in front of my desk.
"How's about a name?" I asked.
After sitting, she pulled a silk handkerchief out of her pocket and dabbed her eyes.
"My name is Frankie…Frankie Donovan." She crossed her legs, took a deep breath, and seemed to have her composure back.
"How can I help you, Frankie?"
"I think I'm in danger, and that's why I'm here."
"Why not go to the police then?"
"I started to do exactly that. But there's this one thing…"