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The Book I Will Write #49: The Story Lady’s Confession

THE BOOK I WILL WRITE by John Henry Fleming is a serial novel-in-emails about a would-be writer named John Henry Fleming who is desperate to publish a book. THE BOOK I WILL WRITE is a work in progress; readers are invited to make comments and influence the outcome. Fleming has been exchanging emails with an editorial assistant and a senior editor at Knopf, as well as with an agent. He’s been kicked out of his apartment, and is living at the library following a kidnapping episode with The Zeppelin Society. Now he’s being stalked by the murderous son of Reid Markham, the author of The Devil’s Good Graces, a book Fleming is trying to track down and read as an influence to his own, still unwritten, novel.

#49  THE STORY LADY’S CONFESSION

Mary Ann “Annie” Lankowski

Interim Senior Editor

Knopf Publishing

 

Dear Annie,

The Story Lady was waiting for me outside the automatic doors.

“Lunch with me,” she said.

“Are you going to kidnap me?” I asked, not sure if that would be a bad thing. It all depended on whether we both agreed to be characters in an allegory. I didn’t know how to broach that subject without ruining the illusion.

“For an hour, I am.”

“Show me your car,” I said.

She was already standing next to it. A black, 60s-era Corvette. She tried to open the door for me, and I stopped her.

“I can handle that,” I said.

We drove. She said nothing in the car. I said nothing in return. It felt like a test of wills.

“We’ll get drive-through,” she said at last. “It’s better to speak in private.”

“Yes it is.”

We drove through a burger chain I’d never heard of. She ordered a double, I a triple. I hadn’t eaten in a day; I’ve been rationing my money. We split the large fries. She: tea, unsweetened. Me: double-sweetened. Free calories.

We drove down to a park by the river with a view of the bridge and the city. She parked away from the other cars and turned to me in her black bucket seat. I was already eating and had ketchup on my lips. I wiped it with the back of my thumb; they’d forgotten to give us napkins.

“I know you’ve been sleeping in the storage closet,” she said.

I didn’t deny it. I looked for a place to wipe my thumb.

“That’s how you overheard me reading Reid’s book to the children.”

“You read well,” I said. “You have a nice voice.”

“I do lots of things well,” she said. She let that hang in the air. “Why do you want his book? Reid is dead, and barely anyone remembers him anymore. Leave him be.”

“Someone’s trying to erase him,” I said, even though, like you, I’m not sure exactly what Ms. Hollymore meant by that when she screamed it at you in the jail’s visiting room.

“What does it matter?” she said.

“It must matter to you,” I said. “I heard the way you read his book. No one reads like that unless they feel the words someplace deep.”

“I wasn’t reading,” she said. “I know the words by heart.”

“Then give me a copy of the book,” I said. “Let me learn the words. Then we’ll recite them together.”

“Don’t,” she said. “You remind me too much of him.”

“Who?”

“I can’t re-live that. I can’t.”

I heard the catch in her voice. I felt sorry for her, but I owed it to both of us to press on. “Re-live what, Mrs. Markham?”

Yes, I knew. Reid Markham’s wife. It seemed obvious now, and I wondered why I hadn’t thought of it before. She hadn’t died at all, despite what her son claimed in one of his threatening emails. She’d retired from car-modeling and decided to live out her life as a librarian.

She pleaded with glassy eyes. “Don’t torture me.”

“Is it torture to re-live something beautiful?”

“I have the book,” she said, “and the book is all that counts.”

“Then give me the book. I’ll keep your secret. We’ll keep it together, and I’ll never say his name to anyone.”

“No,” she said, the fear and anger seeping through. “No! The book is what’s beautiful—not him! He was a prick! A prick, do you know?! I hated him then and hate him no less today. You must leave me alone. I don’t want to think of him.”

“Then don’t. Think of his book. Only his book. Pretend someone else wrote it. Pretend I wrote it.”

She considered the idea. “Who are you?”

“A guy who admires a good book. And a beautiful woman.”

This wasn’t idle flattery; I meant it on both accounts, though I hoped I wouldn’t be forced to choose whether or not to sleep with her to get my hands on her husband’s book.

She stared as if debating whether to kill me or kiss me.

At last she raised the back of her hand to my cheek and smoothed it lovingly, though I haven’t shaved in two days because my razor’s gone painfully dull and I haven’t budgeted for a new one.

This is his book,” she said as her fingers stroked my cheek and jaw. “This is what it means,” she said. “This is what it feels like. And that is all you need to know.”

I let her caress me for another minute. I couldn’t tell if in her mind I was myself or her dead husband, or if we were both characters in an out-of-control allegory. For that minute, I didn’t care.

The she took my hand, saw the mix of ketchup and mayonnaise smeared across the back of my thumb. Tenderly, she licked it.

“Now get out,” she said.

“And the book?” I asked.

“No. Get out.”

I opened the door out of respect. “Will I see you again?”

“Forget you saw me ever.”

“I can’t.”

She shook her head. “This moment…is nothing.”

“It doesn’t have to be.”

“It must be. Goodbye.”  She reached over and pulled the passenger door shut. She gunned the motor and left.

Now I’m back at the library after a long walk and I’m not sure yet what to think of all this.

I stopped to get a new razor on the way.

Sincerely,

John Henry Fleming

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About John Henry Fleming

John Fleming's stories have appeared in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, The North American Review, Mississippi Review, Fourteen Hills, and Carve, among others. He is the author of The Legend of the Barefoot Mailman, a novel, and Fearsome Creatures of Florida, a literary bestiary. He teaches creative writing at the University of South Florida and is the founder and advisory editor for Saw Palm: florida literature and art. He blogs at johnhenryfleming.com.

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