BellaOnline Literary Review
Little Hoot by Christine Catalano

Table of Contents


A Novel Idea

Martin Zehr

"You stupid _____!" Doris Kaplansky couldn´t hear the curses hurled at her, but it took no imagination to read the lips, even through two windshields, of the irate driver in the passing car. She gave a halfhearted nod of apology and resumed her course through the intersection, continuing north on Metcalf, putting the close call behind her. For the moment she was preoccupied with her train of thought, the interruption of which couldn´t be tolerated, even for a second, or for safety.

She made a quick right as soon as she reached the mall´s entrance, hardly slowing while scouting the lot for an empty space. Spotting one at the end of the first row, she aimed the car in that direction. Without hesitating, she swerved sharply, slamming the brakes, in an untrained but well-practiced motion. Relieved at finally achieving the goal that hadn´t existed two minutes ago, she switched off the ignition, grabbed the overstuffed leather handbag from the passenger seat, and began searching frantically for the object of her desire. Finally, she liberated the small recorder from the jumble of the packed contents. Punching the On button, Doris held the business end close to her lips. She was about to speak when she noticed there was no red light, no sign of life in the device.

"Dammit," she blurted, reflexively, uselessly. This was maddening, certain proof of a conspiracy to blunt, if not suppress, the nugget of creative genius emerging into conscious awareness less than a quarter of a mile from this spot. Exasperated, she surrendered to the inevitable, hunting for a pad, then, failing in this mission, locating a grocery receipt in her coat pocket she unraveled and smoothed over the edge of the dashboard. Doris reached once more into the cavernous purse, fumbling around until finally, victoriously, her hand emerged, firmly gripping a yellow pencil stub that held the remnant of a point. Mouthing the words, her hand following frantically, before the half-life of the image had expired, she began writing.

"New Orleans at Mardi Gras, he sees the lover he´s been searching for in a crowded section of Bourbon Street, her image fixed in his mind after all these years, his heart rate jumps, the adrenalin rush pushes him, he frantically attempts to run to her, following her through the shifting maze of drunken revelers, zeroing in on what is suddenly the most important goal in his life. He´s consumed, he cannot lose her, he WILL not lose her. Copy the scene from DOCTOR ZHIVAGO, older Zhivago riding on streetcar spots Lara walking in same direction on sidewalk, struggles to get out of the car, follows her, grabs his throat, falls, dies, she goes on, unaware... tragic ending, etc."

Doris slumped back in her seat, triumphantly, firmly clutching the now memorialized final plot segment for the work-in-progress. This was the ending she´d been searching for these past weeks without a hint of progress. Other concluding scenes had been tried and discarded, for the usual reasons- lack of drama, insufficient sentimentality, too realistic, or too hackneyed- even for her. This was outright theft, of course, but, in this business, no one cared about such niceties. As long as it wasn´t a verbatim rip-off it hardly mattered. This was entertainment, not high art. The scrap she held in her hand was her ticket to another set of royalty checks and an advance for the next project, which she would start writing as soon as she´d mailed the draft of this as yet unnamed project to her agent, who would in turn deliver it to the publisher, edited, polished, and adorned with a title and florid cover befitting its status as a Sarah Lynne Hornsby romance. Her expectant cult of loyal readers would be snapping up copies as soon as they appeared in supermarkets or were advertised on their e-readers, and would not be disappointed.

This one had been more difficult than the last three she´d written, requiring eight months gestation while she assembled stock characters, settings, love interests, obstacles, resolutions and, in this case, a suitable poignant, tear-jerker ending. Writing had become an assembly line process for Doris, and she was proud of her efficiency and mastery of the form. This was not great literature- she had long abandoned any pretensions in that regard. It was enough that she was able to make a modest living, to pay for a few luxuries and finance her daughter´s schooling. When Jennifer occasionally made the observation, during one of their mother-daughter spats, that her writing was "lightweight trash," Doris effectively countered by requesting the return of the clothes, tuition, and even the cars that were the fruits of her labors. That always managed to shut her up, and eventually, grudgingly, Jennifer had come to acknowledge both the effort and cleverness required for her mother´s success, even while she was sworn to secrecy regarding discussions that might inadvertently reveal her mother´s alter-identity.

Doris had to admit that she also enjoyed the sight of her nom-de-plume in airport newsstands, drug stores, and the local Price Chopper magazine rack. She took a special measure of pride when she would notice, while vacationing, the sight of someone choosing to spend their leisure time with one of her books, whether intently absorbed as a palliative to lessen the aggravation of plane travel or displaying an open copy draped over a half-naked torso sleeping on the beach. This was, for her, the ultimate compliment, and the fact that her writing had somehow eluded the radar of the New York Review of Books bothered her not a bit. Not one bit. At least, that was what she told herself all these years. Serious writing, she was convinced, took too long, required real research and, in the end, the odds of selling the requisite number of copies were astronomically small. Besides, that type of writing carried with it the additional risk of critical rejection, resulting in the stigma that she feared most, losing readers and royalties, permanently. As long as she stuck to her formula, changing names, settings and plot twists sufficiently to render each book distinguishable from the next, neither she nor her loyal readers cared that her name(s) were never mentioned in the rarified air of the literati. Doris wasn´t the type who ruminated over the notion of a legacy that might be recognized generations hence, when it would be of no earthly good to her. She´d enjoyed the study of great literature in her college days, but was never interested in what she viewed as the uncertain and interminable apprenticeship of the starving artist, nor was she willing to spend time absorbed in what she believed was the boring minutiae in which college lit professors were expected to devote their energies. She viewed that livelihood with a degree of contempt she hardly disguised; these were the untalented and unmotivated souls who couldn´t survive, she had convinced herself, in the real world, where academic treatises were not worth the paper they were printed on. When the type of writing Doris turned out was referred to dismissively as trash, she never needed reassurance or consoling. On the contrary, the fine leather of the Papagallos hugging her feet and the soft set of the sports car was consolation enough. Besides, she reminded herself, wasn´t it true that Mark Twain, the most American of writers, hardly had an elementary education and that Huckleberry Finn, The American novel, had been dismissed as the "veriest trash?" Trash as tradition, she laughed at her manufactured link.

At this moment she was interrupted by the ringing of her phone, muffled by the contents of the purse in which it was buried. She managed to retrieve it and press the talk button before the third ring, with trepidation. It was her daughter, notifying her that her plane had arrived and reminding her of the reason she´d been on the road in the first place.

"Yes, Jennifer, I´m on my way. Got stuck in rush hour traffic and I´ll be a few minutes late. I´ll drive by the terminal and pick you up in about twenty minutes. Love you, bye."

She snapped the phone shut, cutting off any opportunity for her daughter to deliver a predictable, well-deserved harangue about her habitual tardiness.

It wasn´t possible to make the trip from Metcalf to the airport in half an hour, even in ideal conditions, but Doris wasn´t about to admit the brief interlude of self-absorption that precluded any possibility of fulfilling the commitment. She´d rely on her concocted excuse and Jennifer´s grudging indulgence to divert attention from her unexplained break, knowing her daughter rarely missed an opportunity to criticize her habit of stopping to jot down a writing-related idea, passing off these episodes as simple incidents of "absentmindedness." Jennifer had, nonetheless, grudgingly come to express a genuine respect for her mother´s writing talent, reluctantly acknowledging her role as willing accomplice, at least insofar as accepting the largesse generated by her mother´s efforts. She had, moreover, demonstrated a changed attitude since her second semester, when she´d take a comparative literature course. At first it was in the form of simple inquiry, questioning whether her mother had ever written any "serious" literature. Doris was surprised at the question, even defensive at first, but eventually came to realize that her daughter´s comments on the subject, which hadn´t ceased since then, were meant as a compliment of sorts. This was Jennifer´s tacit acknowledgement that her mother was, indeed, capable of producing a literary product outside the realm of what she mockingly referred to as her "prurient pulp."

Doris adopted the tactic of accepting her daughter´s evaluation without argument, waiting for the subject to die of its own accord, a strategy that had worked thus far. It was, however, comforting to know that Jennifer, whose adolescence hadn´t been marked by any conspicuous evidence of appreciation of her mother´s skills, somehow was acquiring an awareness of the fact that these books did not write themselves. Still, the bottom line was, as it had been since she´d started, out of necessity following her divorce, the need to pay the bills. The fact was, at least in this regard, she had succeeded beyond her wildest dreams. Nevertheless, Doris occasionally experienced pangs of guilt over her perceived shortcomings as a single parent, holding onto the hope that Jennifer would someday come to realize that, after all, she was doing the best she could. Her potboilers, she told herself, were a noble form of self-sacrifice.

Still, the idea of writing something with actual, well-developed characters, an out-of-the-ordinary plot, and language that wasn´t deliberately dumbed-down to the vicinity of an eighth-grade reading level was intriguing, and Doris began playing with it, despite her own prejudices, spurred on by Jennifer´s well-intended prodding. Doris indulged this train of thought with the idea that maybe she should try this out, just once, if only to establish, to her satisfaction, and perhaps Jennifer´s, that she could, in fact, do this, if she chose to. This hardly seemed sufficient motivation, however, and she had set the idea aside until it was eventually replaced with the notion, maybe a rationalization, that an extended, novel-length project, even if never completed, might have the beneficial byproduct of improving the writing of her bodice-rippers. These had been getting stale, to say the least, since her revelation, years ago, that creativity in language, story or actors was not required, was even superfluous.

As she approached downtown Kansas City the merging traffic demanded her attention and she temporarily complied. Once she had merged onto I-29, heading straight to the airport, she lapsed back into this analysis of her writing. The observation that Jennifer had initiated this train of thought did not escape her. For two decades she´d been striving to create the conditions that would provide her daughter everything necessary to choose her own path. Jennifer´s nagging insistence, now taking her mother´s career seriously, seemed to Doris nothing less than an attempt to return the favor, her daughter´s turning the tables and, in her own small way, reversing roles.

Doris was now experiencing the crystallization of the idea she realized she´s been dancing around since the beginning of this errand. The timing was right, Jennifer was right, and, most of all, the story was right. This was something she knew, firsthand, something she´d been living, was living even now, and she had Jennifer to thank for what could become the most stimulating project contemplated in the course of her so-called career. This was a story worth the telling, worth the writing.

For once, "a Doris Kaplansky novel." The sound of herself mouthing the words openly, as if throwing off the cloak of secrecy in which she´d been disguised all these years, was more satisfying, even exciting, than she could ever have imagined. This idea alone served as a stark symbol of the transformation in her thinking that was occurring in the course of her drive to the airport. She was experiencing exhilaration, as yet shared by no one, generated by an acute sense of awareness of the beginning of a new, actual and figurative, chapter in her life.

Pulling up alongside the terminal, Doris spotted Jennifer, sitting at the curb with her legs straddling her suitcase, glaring directly at her. She could clearly see Jennifer´s scowling face. Jennifer stood up, stepped toward the car and opened the rear door, flinging the suitcase onto the back seat, slamming the door and getting in the front seat. As she buckled her seat belt she greeted her mother with "It´s about time, I´ve been waiting here an hour. Why is it so difficult for you to be on time?"

The latter was meant as a rhetorical critique for which no response was expected.

"I´m sorry, you´re right, as usual. I got caught up in traffic and didn´t plan ahead. Anyway, I´ve got some news I think you´ll like, so can we just cool it for now?"

"Sure, I´m sorry Mom, but you know I hate waiting for anything. All right, so what´s going on, what´s so important, you getting married to some guy I´ve never even heard of or met?"

"More important." Doris laughed at the idea. "You´ll be glad to know, dear daughter of mine, that I´ve finally decided to take your advice. I´ve started writing a real novel of my own. Something you´d call serious literature. How´s that grab you?"

"Awesome Mom. That´s fantastic." Her smile was as genuine as it was wide. "What´s it about?"

"I´m afraid I can´t divulge that information. Writer´s superstition, you know."

"Well, for once I guess I really won´t know what you´re writing until you´re finished. As far as I´m concerned, that´s okay. Hey, Mom, let´s celebrate. Sarah Lynne Hornsby is dead, long live Doris Kaplansky."

"Let´s not get crazy now. Sarah Lynne Hornsby will be paying for dinner tonight. After that, we´ll see what Doris Kaplansky comes up with."

"Sounds good for me. You think Sarah Hornsby will be taking us to the Savoy?"

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