Potluck

 

T H I S    W E E K

WATERSLIDES IN AUXILIARY HOSPITAL WASHROOM by Daniel Thompson

 

Hadley's Lament

     If the appraiser said the whole collection was barely worth fifty dollars, I wouldn’t have thought anything of it. But the fact that he couldn’t hide his excitement at what I’d shown him and immediately wanted to give me a hundred dollars for a few hundred pages of ratty and crumbling yellow paper from some obscure author made me think I may be on to something larger than I had originally realized.

     When I asked if there may be any significance of who wrote the stories, he gave me a quick answer that he’d have to do some more research to be sure, but was only quoting me a value based on the era of the work alone. I wasn’t buying it. I told him I’d think about it. 

     I wasn’t even to my car when he followed me into the parking lot and offered me three hundred dollars “to take them off my hands.” I knew I was going to have to hide these things while I figured out exactly what I had found. I politely declined, thanked him for his time and watched as he stared at my car leaving the parking lot. 

     I drove directly to the nearest photocopy shop and paid just under the amount I originally paid for the stories to get two paper copies and a digital scan of each work, including the full novel. Next, I dropped by my girlfriend’s work and told her about the appraiser and that I wanted to store the suitcase at her office for safekeeping until I could figure out what I had. On my drive home, I noticed the appraiser in the passenger seat of a black F-350 pickup with a thick ram bar across the front grill and a big dude with slicked back hair and sunglasses behind the wheel. Once the light turned green, I gunned it and lost them after a few false turns by the Union Station.     

***

     The stories had actually come into my possession by accident. A few weeks ago, I went with my girlfriend, Denise, to an estate auction on an invitation from an acquaintance of hers at the Department of State.  A legendary career diplomat had recently passed away and his entire estate had to be sold off in order for his widow to pay the debt he had left behind.

     We perused three rooms of antique furniture, rugs, real silverware, china settings for dozens and original artworks; things we couldn’t possibly afford. But there were also lots of books. I browsed the shelves and chose a few old, dusty volumes that would bring sophistication to my own shelves but were told by the auction organizers that the books would be offered for sale as a single collection all at once. 

     After about a half hour we decided everything was out of our price range, even at auction. As we made our way to the door, one of the organizers noticed my disappointment about the books and told me she had something I might appreciate. 

     She showed me an old suitcase packed with two thick stacks of yellowed typewritten papers that smelled of dust and a touch of mildew. She said she was not going to offer them in the auction because she didn’t think they were worth much but she would let them go for a fair price as a “literary novelty of a bygone era” if I were interested.

     In all, there were eighteen short stories and a thick manuscript, all in English, and an old hardback French novel. I couldn’t read French but thought the stories in English were very interesting. They were a series of adventure stories of boys hunting and fishing around the turn of the century. The novel looked to be about an older version of the boy stories as if the boy in the short stories had grown up.

     The organizer reluctantly accepted my meager sixty-dollar offer, but I felt good to have helped contribute to the widow’s predicament. Honestly, thought the sellers got the better end of the deal for a pile of old papers. 

     As a freelance writer, I’m always working on a story and that night was no different than any other. But my current story had me stumped. It wasn’t writer’s block, but I was having a difficult time getting the right words on the page. I took a break and read two of the short stories from the old suitcase and was impressed by the compositions. They were sparse but powerful. The unwritten themes crawled under my skin and lived within me like a parasite. 

    The night after I read the first two short stories, I woke up in the middle of the night wet with sweat and out of breath. I had lived out one of the stories in my dream and was exhausted, but couldn’t get back to sleep. The adrenaline from my dream had my brain ready for anything. My survival instinct had kicked in. I took advantage of the unusual spurt of energy and put myself in front of my troublesome story and finished it by sunrise. 

     I had Denise read it the next day and she commented that it seemed like the ending had a distinctively desperate and angry feel. I sat down later and tried to revise it. I read through it and stopped exactly where I had a problem the day before. I took a break, read another of the old suitcase short stories in a single sitting and came up for air a little while later, craving a drink. 

     I drank three vodka tonics and returned to revise my story. After I sent it off to my editor I went out shopping to satisfy the other craving that had bubbled up while I finished my writing assignment: owning a gun. Just reading the suitcase stories had put me on edge, made me a bit touchy, even angry.  I remember feeling the same way after reading Fight Club. I needed an outlet. But I didn’t feel like punching anyone, I wanted killing power in my hands. Writing was too passive, so was fighting, I needed to wield real power. I needed a gun or maybe two.

***

     After a quick search in the local pawnshop, I walked out with a beautiful twelve-gauge double barrel shotgun made by W & C Scott. I had never heard of W & C Scott, but the old girl spoke to me the minute I saw her and the clerk assured me it was a quality weapon. Her elegantly engraved receiver and classic side-by-side double barrel set up made me feel like one of the boys in the old stories I had just read. 

     I also walked out with a stainless steel revolver, just for fun. You can’t really twirl a shotgun to practice your gun fighter technique while pacing the floor and threatening to explode your writer’s block. You’ve gotta have a .357 Magnum for that. I don’t know what had gotten into me, but I dared something so mundane as writer’s block to bother me with this much mental stimulation at my fingertips. 

     Even with stacking my mental deck, I had a hell of a night working on my next project. I spent some quality time with my new Smith and Wesson and after a couple hours of practice, I could sling it around better than Clint Eastwood. But I couldn’t manage to add more than a few lines to my story.  I read another of the old stories from the suitcase as a desperate attempt to mine some inspiration, but went to bed frustrated as hell. 

     I woke up sprawled out on my couch cuddling with my new shotgun. The twin barrels were tucked snugly under my chin, both hammers were cocked and the trigger felt comfortably nestled in the soft crease of my thumb. I sat up, put the shotgun aside and cracked the barrel. It wasn’t loaded. 

     I thought back through my memory of the night. I distinctly remember getting under my covers and thinking how cold they were before I rolled over and closed my eyes. I had no recollection of how I had managed to get out of bed and cozy up with the shotgun on the couch. I snapped the barrel shut and read another short story from the suitcase with the shotgun balanced on my lap like an old friend.

     A few hours later and only one sentence richer on my current project, I stepped out for a walk and a consoling fast food lunch that I hoped would feed my brain with unhealthy contentment and would pay me back with worthy sentences. On my walk back to my apartment building I saw the same black F-350 with the ram bar and Hell’s Angel wannabe at the wheel from the day before. He turned away from me and melted into the traffic in the opposite direction. 

     A few minutes later, wood splinters from my sledgehammered door decorated the hallway floor and it looked as though every drawer in my apartment had been strewn across the kitchen and living room.

     I grabbed a few shirts, socks and underwear from the pyramid of household items that was the sum total of all of my personal belongings in the middle of the floor and stuffed them in my gym bag. I grabbed the shotgun, handgun and my laptop and did the essential ‘keys, wallet, phone’ mantra before I headed for my car. I hit the Barnes and Noble a few blocks from Denise’s work for a fat latte and some research on the WiFi in the café area. 

     It took me less than five minutes to figure out why my place had been shaken down. 

     Holy shit, is this a blessing or a curse?  

***

     I called Denise and asked her to meet me with the suitcase at the Barnes and Noble as soon as she could. I sucked down my coffee and nailed down the last bit of my plan as I waited for her to show.

     “Is this all I am to you? A courier?” Denise said with a hint of seriousness in her voice as she sat across from me.

     “Thanks. I know your working but this is huge.”

     “What’s going on?”

     I told her about someone trashing my apartment but left out the gun business. I thought it was better not to worry her over something she couldn’t do anything about. And I wasn’t about to give up my guns, the only advice I knew she would offer.
     “I found out why they did it.”

     “Why?”

     “In 1922, Hadley Richardson lost a suitcase with eighteen short stories and one novel manuscript on a train in the Paris train station.”

     “Who is Hadley Richardson?”

     “Ernest Hemingway’s first wife. She was bringing them to him in Switzerland. They were never found.”

     “But Hemingway’s name isn’t on those stories,” Denise said, nodding to the suitcase next to me. “It’s Ring something or other.”

     “They were written by Hemingway under a pen name he was known to use at the time: Ring Lardner, Jr. The novel is titled The Sunset of Innocence. It’s the novel he wrote before The Sun Also Rises. 

     “Holy shit,” Denise said.

     “That’s what I said.” 

     “What are you gonna do with them?”

     “I’m gonna give them back.”

***

    I left at noon with Denise’s Honda Accord because it was more reliable than my abused Ford Focus and the two idiots in the F-350 knew my car. It’s just over twelve hundred miles from Washington, D. C. to Key West, Florida. I made it to Titusville, just outside Orlando, in twelve hours before I had to sleep. 

     I don’t know how they found me, but sometime between one and eight in the morning the idiots had pried their way into Denise’s car in the Titusville Motel Six parking lot. I only had three hundred and fifty miles to go before I hit Key West. The race was on.

     I figured it would be more difficult for them to screw with me in broad daylight, so I headed south immediately. I didn’t want to be caught on US 1 after dark. It was wishful thinking. I made it past Miami just after noon and then ran into bumper-to-bumper traffic at Homestead. That’s when I saw them, the black F-350 with the obnoxious ram bar several cars back.

     The traffic was caused by a jack-knifed truck pulling a fishing boat that I was able to get past after about thirty minutes of staring at that damn black truck in my rear-view mirror. I tried to pass as many cars as I could to get a longer line of cars between them and me. But it wasn’t working, they passed as many cars as I did. I pulled into a tourist trap at Tavernier, mile marker 90. I watched the road from behind a mini-van full of college kids as the F-350 passed by. 

     I grabbed a sandwich and two Monster power drinks before I headed south on the lookout for the idiots. At mile marker 18, just past Sugarloaf Key, I saw them pulled over, at a highway emergency pull-over point, waiting. On a two-lane road and cars behind me, there was nowhere to go. I had to pass them. I waved and smiled as they passed, staring me down. What are they really going to do anyway? Kill me?

     With less than seventeen miles to go they passed the last car behind me and pulled in like we were in a NASCAR race. I sped up as much as I could but was stopped by an eighteen-wheeler doing fifty miles an hour. I squeezed to the left as far as I could without endangering oncoming traffic and honked and flashed my lights at the trucker ahead of me. He just flashed his own lights and flipped me off in the mirror.

     The F-350 kissed my rear bumper and pushed me closer and closer to the truck in front of me. I shot out to the left into oncoming traffic and stomped on the gas while flashing my lights and honking my horn. The oncoming car in the northbound lane flashed his lights before he slammed on his brakes in a cloud of smoking rubber and brake pads to avoid a head-on collision. I cleared the front of the eighteen-wheeler by inches as the trucker stood on his locomotive horn that almost put me into the guard rail from fright. 

     My pulse was pounding in my ears and I held my middle finger out the window. I watched the F-350 fail at the game of chicken with oncoming traffic I had just pulled off. My triumph was short-lived. Two minutes later the F-350 was bearing down on me again. This time I slowed and waited for them to get closer. 

     The F-350 shot to the left during a break in the oncoming traffic. I heard the diesel working hard to catch me. I lowered my window and felt Hemingway tug the shotgun from the back seat and begin to load it as I drove. We slammed the breach closed and rested the double barrels on my forearm as it rested on the open window. We could see the F-350 approaching in our peripheral vision. 

     I could feel Hemingway cheering me on. We weren’t going to let his stories get stolen twice. We let’em have it in the right front tire. Time kicked into slow motion as the bird shot shredded the tire and left a group of tiny holes in the right front fender.  The recoil of the shotgun stunned me and destroyed my hearing. 

     I looked in the rear-view mirror just in time to see the F-350 slam into the far right railing with a shredded front tire. Fucking idiots.

     Fifteen minutes later I pulled up to the Key West Public Library and parked. I was shaking from adrenaline and just wanted to get rid of these damn stories. I grabbed the suitcase and trotted up to the front door and pulled on the handle. It was locked. 

     “What the fuck!”

     I looked at the hours on the door. Closed on Mondays.

     I went back to Denise’s car and tapped on the GPS and found my way to the Ernest Hemingway House and Museum a half mile away. My heart was in my throat as I walked to Ernest’s former home toting his lost suitcase and a shotgun.  I came up the walkway of the white square building with yellow shutters and black wrap-around colonial porch and approached the ticket desk. I opened the breach of the shotgun and laid it on the front counter to prove it was no longer loaded and breathlessly asked the wide-eyed ticket-taker girl that I needed to see the curator. 

     I sweated in the afternoon heat for the longest three minutes of my life. A man in his late sixties came in cautiously from a side entrance dressed in khaki shorts, white linen shirt and flip-flops. 

     “May I help you?”

     “I have a donation for your museum.”

***

     Once the curator verified I indeed had what I claimed, he graciously welcomed the suitcase of stories back to Ernest’s possession where they belonged. 

     “I’m not in the position to offer you any reward or payment but I can certainly recommend a lawyer to help negotiate terms with the Ernest Hemingway Estate.” 

     “Is he a defense attorney as well?”

     He looked at me for a few seconds, not sure if I was kidding or not. 

     “Never mind,” I continued, “do you have a good fishing charter recommendation? I’ve got a friend who needs to be re-acquainted with Cuban rum and marlin fishing.”

 

Todd Tavolazzi has a B.S. in History from the U.S. Naval Academy and a M.A. in International Relations from Norwich University. He is a career Naval Officer and part-time writer stationed in Naples, Italy. His flash fiction has appeared on 100wordstory.org and is currently working on his first novel. He usually writes on his balcony with a drink and a smoke overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.