Back in 2004, I read an article about the late-great actor/comedian/writer, Ronny Graham. I remembered Ronny from a commercial for car oil -- 1960s, 1970s vintage -- in which he crawled out from under the hood of a car and said in his gravely voice, "They call me Mr. Dirt." The article, however, was about Ronny Graham's work on the show M*A*S*H and how he tried to mentor a young writer named Rodger Jacobs. I left a comment saying how I remembered Graham, and I quickly received an e-mail reply from Rodger. That was how I 'met' Rodger Jacobs, and I've been reading his work ever since.
Rodger is a gifted writer; his style is minimalist and his voice is honest. He began self-publishing his work with a collection of flash fiction stories called Christopher Walken and the Tuna Fish Sandwich and Other L.A. Stories. The first thing I noticed were the hilarious titles: "Winona Ryder Suffers For Your Sins"; "Striking Johnny Depp's Dog With A Bible"; and a boozy Jessica in "The Lange Goodybye."
Over the years, Rodger had a number of blogs where he posted his stories, most of them about his alter ego, Trace. He's published his Trace stories in a book called The Furthest Palm. I'm half-way through the book now, having started it yesterday. Like most of his writing, they're a little gritty and a little witty and thoroughly enjoyable.
I learned a lot about writing by reading Rodger's stories. Back in 2005, I wrote a piece of flash fan-fiction after having read one of his Trace stories called "A Sexual Obsession With Soup Pots" (included in "The Furthest Palm" collection). I had asked Rodger if his personal life affected his writing. Can you write when you're involved? Can you write if you've been dumped? He replied that he can write any time, whether involved or not. However, I pictured a writer, not unlike Rodger/Trace, who could only write when he had been dumped. My story is called
Quid Pro Quo, Nick
Nick had met me at his hotel room door with his newest pet, his System Automatic 9mm revolver, while his other pet was sprawled naked upon the unmade bed watching Brady Bunch reruns.
“What’s the matter, Doll, had a quiet night?”
I'm Nick’s agent, Tess Fidelio, but he calls me Doll.
“Nick, where are the stories?”
“Isn’t she a beauty?” he asked holding the revolver up for my approval.
“Have you written anything?”
Well into his mid-forties, Nick had finally found his niche. He is the best of the new breed of noir fiction writers. Although the genre doesn’t pay well, he has developed quite a cult following with his stories. At long last he is making a name for himself. Under ideal conditions, he could crank out a story a day. Ideal conditions, like when his ex-wife mangled his heart before she took a powder. With a bottle of Potter’s at one elbow and an ashtray at the other, he opened his veins and the stories flowed.
“Don’t you like my gun?”
“Yeah, swell. Now, where are the stories?”
I had finally inked a deal with a small press to publish a book of his short fiction. There was even talk of doing a book tour, which really excited him. No doubt about it, he’d be a natural. Wearing his vintage tailored suit, once worn by Bogart in The Big Sleep, and his Montecristi Classic Fedora, Nick would only have to show up to sell books. But then Blondie jiggled into his life, happiness settled in and the stories stopped flowing.
“Have you written anything at all in the past month?”
“You worry too much, Doll. Have I ever stiffed a publisher before?”
“Nick, listen to me. The publisher isn’t going to wait while you entertain company.”
“Here’s the story of a lovely lady, who was bringing up three very lovely girls.”
Oh, God, Blondie was singing along to the theme music, bobbing her head from side to side, as yet another episode began in what must have been a Brady Bunch marathon. “Ooo, I love this one! Hurry up, Nicky. This is the one where Marcia and Greg have to babysit their brothers and sisters!”
“Doesn’t she have a Brownie meeting to go to?”
“She moved in.”
“She moved in last week. It’s the real thing this time, Doll.” Then he flashed his pearly whites and said, “Trust me.”
“Nick, you poor sonofabitch, your dick is in lust again.”
He set his revolver on the desk and snuggled up next to Blondie. He patted the bed and asked, with his naughty boy grin, “Wanna join us?”
Poor Nick couldn’t see that Blondie was like all the others, that sooner or later she’d move on leaving his heart feeling as though she had forced it through a garlic press. When that time came, the only weapons I wanted near him were his Potter’s Vodka, his cigarettes and his computer. So I snatched the revolver and stuffed it into my purse before he could react.
“What the hell are you doing, Doll?”
“I’m holding on to it, Nick,” I said as I patted my purse, “until you come up with the stories. Give me the stories and I’ll give you the gun.”
As I walked out the door, I turned and said, “Quid pro quo, Nick, quid pro quo.”
I hadn’t heard from Nick in a week, so I stopped by his place and Blondie answered the door, wearing something more than just Nick’s soft brown sheets for a change. I squeezed past her silicone hills and into his room to find Nick wearing a big-ass grin.
“You’re jealous of me, aren’t you,” she shot back.
I turned to look at her. “Say what?”
“That’s right, jealous. You’re jealous because Nick chose me and not you.”
“You poor thing, Nick chose me long before you had ever seen your first Brady Bunch rerun.”
“Girls, girls, you shouldn’t fight over me.”
“Can it, Nick!” I snapped.
It was worse than I had anticipated. He was far too blissful to have accomplished any writing in the past week, but the publisher was hounding me to see something from him, and it was my job to deliver. Before I could ask my question, he asked his. “Did you bring my revolver?”
“No. Why, have you got some stories for me?”
He very proudly handed me three scripts. “You’re going to love them, Doll. They’re some of my best work.”
We walked down the street to the corner bar and slid into our usual booth where we always discussed his work. At about a thousand words apiece, Nick’s stories are quick reads. He leaned back and relaxed with a cigarette and a half-empty bottle of Potter’s Vodka while waiting for me to finish reading.
“You know, Nick, this is the first time you’ve actually written something while you’ve been otherwise engaged.”
“You can see it in my writing, huh.”
“I can see it all right.”
“They’re great, aren’t they, Doll. I knew it. Boy, once I started writing the juices just flowed. It was great.”
I placed the scripts neatly in front of me and asked, “Nick, how do you really feel about Blondie?”
“I think she’s the one.” Christ, he was giddy.
“You say that about all your women.”
“But this one is different.”
“You say that, too.”
“Enough about Blondie. What about the stories?”
“I am talking about the stories.”
“Whadda y’mean, Doll?”
I’m basically a teetotaler, but this was one of those rare occasions when I needed some bottled backbone, so I poured myself a stiff one. As Nick watched me kick back the shot, his ain’t-love-swell face dissolved into concern.
“C’mon, Doll, you do love them, right?”
I squeezed my eyes shut as the vodka blazed a trail causing me to gasp. I took a deep, slow breath to regain my composure and calmly replied, “They’re awful.”
I couldn’t have dealt a more solid blow if I had slugged him in the gut with the buisness end of a two-by-four. But he had to hear it straight and he had to hear it from me. I looked him in the eye and said, “They’re not you, Nick. These are romance stories; they’re not your trademark hardboiled vignettes. And they’re certainly not what the publisher is expecting or wants.”
“I thought I’d try something different.”
“Nick, you’ve been down that road before.”
He threw back a shot and fired up another cigarette. The smoke plumed lazily up around his head. I’ve never had to tell him that his work was bad, so I wasn’t quite sure how he’d react. I could handle his anger, I just didn’t want to pity him. As the silence in the bar was becoming dead weight, Carmine, the bartender, pumped some quarters into the 1947 Wurlitzer and Sinatra’s velvety voice, singing I’ve Got A Crush On You, filled the empty spaces. We sat listening for a while, grateful for the diversion, and then Nick’s strained face eased as he said, “Hey, Doll, remember that song?”
I smiled and said, “You tried to pick me up with that song.”
“You were sitting right over there,” he said, pointing to another booth. “You weren’t blonde and you weren’t leggy, but boy you were gorgeous. So I played that song and asked you to dance.” He took another shot of Potter’s and a long pull on his cigarette.
“You’re a great dancer, Nick, and a pretty good singer, too.”
That made him laugh. “But I couldn’t get into your panties, could I.”
“You sure did try, though.”
Leaning forward over the table and looking directly at me he said, “You can’t deny that you were tempted.”
We’d always had a chemistry between us, even now.
“We would have been outstanding together, no doubt about it, but it would have eventually doomed our relationship. I chose to be your agent, Nick, and your friend rather than your lover.”
He pushed back in his seat and sighed. “You’re right again, Doll … as usual.”
“What’s her real name, Nick?”
“Whose? Y’mean Blondie’s?” He furrowed his brow as he concentrated. The answer became painfully obvious as the seconds dragged on.
“You don’t know her name, do you,” I said. “Doesn’t that tell you something?”
“Jesus, Doll, sometimes you can be such a bitch.”
We stayed until the Potter’s was finished, and then I guided Nick back to his hotel.
I took one look at him, with his drained pallor and raw eyes, and knew Blondie was history. He sat across from me in our usual booth looking as haggard and as empty as the bar. It had been a little more than a week since we had last met when Nick had called. He calmly nursed his bottle of Potter’s as I skimmed through his six manuscripts.
“They’re great, Nick. Classics. The publisher will love them.” He nodded knowingly, as though he had been confident of my answer.
“How long has she been gone?”
He polished off his vodka, stubbed out his cigarette, and as he rose to go he said, “Tell the publisher he’ll have the rest before the end of the month.”
He left without ever asking for his revolver.