the opening line

by dm gillis

He’d been trying and failing to fight off an opening line to a story.

Ringing at the other end of the line. Clicks and long distance ghosts. A faint far away voice, perhaps in time, saying the name Agnes three times. Then the hollow plastic sound of hanging up. Vera answered on the forth ring.

“Hello?”

“Hello, Vera. It’s Nathaniel.”

“Nathaniel. Where are you? What’s 604? We’re all so worried.”

“It’s Vancouver, 604. I’m in Vancouver at a motel.”

“Washington? Why?”

“No. Canada. Vancouver Canada.”

“Canada? My God that’s so far away.”

“Only a few miles from Washington. “

“Why there? When are you coming home?”

“It was the first flight out, so I took it. It’s nice here. Kind of like Disneyland. The streets are clean. I’m on a street called Kingsway. It’s raining.”

“Get to the airport. They have one don’t they? Get to the airport, and get a ticket home. Call me when you get it, and tell me your arrival time. I’ll be waiting for you.”

“No, Vera. I like it here, for the moment. People say thank you like they mean it. The air doesn’t smell like anything. It’s just air. There’re mountains with trees. I’m looking at them. I mean I can’t really see them right now because of the clouds and rain, but the girl at the desk assured me that they’re there. Maybe I’ll be able to write something here.”

“Do you have your medication? You have to have your medication. You know what happens when….”

“I have to go.”

“No. That’s not fair. These things you do to us….”

“You’re speaking in sentence fragments, Vera. That means it’s time to hang up.”

“No, please.”

Nathaniel hung up.

When he came into the suite, a little stucco cabin really, he was drawn to the picture window. It provided a view of a wet off season parking lot. True inspiration.

“So, I’m Roger, Mr Reed,” the porter had said putting the suit cases down. “I’m a big fan. When’s the next one coming out? They just keep getting better and better. You’re about due, aren’t you? I belong to a discussion group online. We’re rereading your old titles now, but it sure would be great if you wrote another. Anything you need to make your time with us more enjoyable, just track me down on the phone. I’ll get it for you. Have a nice stay.”

Nathaniel placed the shoulder bag containing his laptop on the table near the window. The laptop with five half written stories occupying a fragment of its drive. Five half developed ideas. Products of his medicated mind. Sedate characters living uninteresting lives completely devoid of incongruity.

“What’s this shit,” Angela, his publisher, had said when he presented her with three of the five as teasers. “Where’re the crack pipe swallowers and paranoids howling at the moon? Where’s the kink? You write about whack jobs, psychos and abhorrent sexual desire, Nathaniel. That’s what your readers want.”

“I can’t anymore. I’ve done it for ten years. I deserve to move on. I’m on some decent meds for the first time in my life. The voices have stopped. I’m clean, and I haven’t had a drink in more than a year. I think I’m feeling normal. I want to try to write something normal.”

“Fuck normal, Nate. This is a money making gig here, and we publish pulp. The freak shows you write that we pass off as novels make dough. For all of us including you. Your readers pay to live like junkies, raging schizoids and hermaphrodite nymphomaniacs three hundred pages at a time. It’s how they convince themselves they’ve got street cred as they drive their beamers to Amway meetings.”

“I read Atonement while I was in rehab,” Nathaniel said.

“Oh boy, here it comes.”

“I want to write my Atonement.”

“We all want to write Atonement, Nate. Some of us want to write Lolita. But if we all could do it, McEwan and Nabokov would be fry cooks. You owe us two books, sport. You’re a year late because of this rehab stunt you pulled. So be a player and stick to addicts biting off their own toes and obeying their command hallucinations.”

That had been the last word, in a 24 hour submarine sandwich shop at midnight. And he knew she was right. He hadn’t written anything worth a damn since he’d started the medication and the idiotic 12 steps.

For this trip, he’d left the meds at home. The pink ones and the tiny white ones. Their small orange bottles stood impressively labelled in the cabinet over his sink. He’d resisted pouring them down the toilet. They weren’t worthy of such ceremony. They were just prescriptions. Did they really make him feel normal? What were the terms of reference? Was Vera normal with her nail biting and nervous life long insomnia? Was Angela, chain smoking on coke and absinthe and running out of body parts to pierce and tattoo?

He unzipped his shoulder bag, pulled out his laptop and placed it back on the table. An expensive bit of plastic housing some circuitry. And five unfinished, unwanted stories. He closed his eyes tight and tried to feel the absence of the psych meds. It had only been two days since he took the last dose. The ones that stabilised his mood; the ones that quieted the voices. He knew they were still present in his body, stabilising and quieting. It might take weeks or months to flush them out. He was detoxing all over again.

He’d been trying and failing to fight off an opening line to a story. It kept coming back like a ball thrown against a wall, like the urge to use and drink again. It wasn’t the opening line to a normal story. It wasn’t the sort of opening line seen in a Michael Crichton novel. It was pure pulp. But an opening line to a perfectly marketable story in an age that had resurrected burlesque and the roller derby.

She was a screamer on a bed of squeaky springs.

That was it. From it a novel could grow.

Definitely not Michael Crichton. But then, Michael Crichton didn’t really write novels anyway. Just exhausting overwritten outlines for soon-to-be exhausting overwritten Hollywood scripts. A script adaptation would be nice right now. It would take some of the heat off money wise. But Angela was right. Stories of reconstituted dinosaurs and courageous missionary position medical practitioners weren’t in him.

But what of McEwan. Full of irony and passion. Passion for the little things as much as for the large. Atonement, what was the opening line? He’d memorized it while in his room at the recovery house, repeating it in his head while others said the serenity prayer.

The play – for Which Briony had designed the posters, programs and tickets, constructed the sales booth out of a folding screen tipped on its side, and lined the collection box in red crêpe paper – was written by her in a two-day tempest of composition, causing her to miss a breakfast and a lunch.

He paused to compare his recurring opening line, the one that was haunting him, to McEwan’s.

She was a screamer on a bed of squeaky springs.

Perhaps it wasn’t a fair comparison.

He lifted one of his suitcases onto the bed, opened it and retrieved a faded tee shirt and a pair of gym shorts. As he changed, he noticed the mini-bar. It was oddly placed next to the king sized bed like a nightstand. It hummed a cool invitation. As a writer, recovering drunk and generally curious individual, he was fascinated by the phenomena of the mini-bar. Nothing in the hotel/motel world was so closely monitored and inventoried. You could get away with stealing towels, the soap, the little bottles of shampoo. But you could never get away with pinching mini-bar items. Not even the shitty little bags of peanuts.

He crouched and opened the small refrigerator door, and saw the neat rows of little bottles and snack items. It reminded him of Hunter S Thompson’s drug inventory from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas:

We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a saltshaker half-full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers… Also, a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of beer, a pint of raw ether, and two dozen amyls.

Here was five vodka, five gin, five rye, five scotch, five rum, five tequila, three Jack Daniel’s,  six beer and four half sized bottles of wine, along with mixer. Ice was outside and round the corner.

He poured five tiny bottles of vodka into a glass and gulped it back. More than a year since his last. But why was he drinking from a glass, not directly from the bottle? What had he become? There was a long way to go to get back. To return to that magical, moneyed and celebrated place. It was those crappy little bottles. Man had evolved to become obsessed with portion control.  Could he get crack in this sterile city?

He returned to the laptop, plugged it in and turned it on. As it booted, he made a call and tracked Roger down. The vodka was gone, and he was now drinking scotch.

“Roger?”

“Yes, Mr Reed?”

“I need Smirnoff. Red label. A couple of monster bottles. You got those in this country?”

“Yes, Mr Reed?”

“And, umm, Roger?”

“Yes, Mister Reed?”

“I’m not sure how to ask.”

After an appropriate pause, Roger said, “I’m the motel porter and handyman, Mr Reed. What could you possibly ask for that those before you haven’t?”

There was a soiled logic to that. Nathaniel hesitated and then spit it out, “Rock, pipe, brillo.” He said it like rock, paper, scissors. What was the hand gesture for brillo, he wondered.

“Not instantly available, and a bit pricy under the circumstances.”

“Whatever.”

“And a word of caution, Mr Reed.”

“Yes, what is it?”

“You’re in a non-smoking suite. If consuming the latter requested item indoors, I’d turn on the bathroom fan.”

“Yes. Sound advice. I’m running out of mini-bar choices, Roger. Please hurry.”

He panicked at first, after he’d hung up and sat at the computer, facing the blinking cursor on the blank screen. Then he looked out the window and knew he must give in. To remove the demon from the mind, it must be written down.

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