Unveiling the Authentic Sentence
by Charles C. Cole
Jakob Shin, sixty-something insurance agent, found himself literally back in grade school, just not his. This was not a dream or time travel. He’d surrendered his Christmas and birthday “allowance” on a holiday weekend to a damp, once-condemned, 1950s red-brick elementary school building on a small island off the coast of Maine.
Men and women occupied nights in sleeping bags on Army surplus beds with creak-enhanced steel springs in gender-specific halves of the gymnasium, days immersed in writing marathons in the former library, cafeteria or playground.
They were just under one hundred neophyte authors, pushing forward on their amorphous worldbuilding. The goal was “all writing all the time,” first-draft stuff, when not eating, peeing or attending inspirational classes led by regional experts, who slept on the mainland in hotel rooms.
Classes were available on tried-and-true methods, the classics, and attracting agents, often using published texts written by the instructors. While there was no obligation to attend, most tale-tellers loved a break from staring at a blank wall or out a dirty window or at a glowing keyboard. Commitment to productivity came via a clever, but nonbinding, contract between the conference mentors and the motivation-deficient participants.
Sitting on a pillow in a metal chair at a collapsible snack table, Jakob sat in the windowless office of the school nurse, typing away on his laptop. On the floor near the white concrete wall, his de facto support team looked on: a framed photo of his wife, his parents holding him as a baby and a small ceramic buddha, a gift from his daughter-in-law. The door remained open at the request of the facilitators.
The trick, for Jakob at least, was taping a sheet of paper over his screen, his monitor. No time to reread, edit or judge or second-guess. His whimsical sci-fi adventure novel extruded into his digital domain like Play-doh through a garlic press.
The shrill class bell rang. Feet shuffled down the tiled hallway behind him, some pausing to peek. Jakob glanced at the printed agenda taped to the wall above his head: Truthiness in Memoirs or Beyond Heteronormative: The Future of Romance Novels.
Momentum must not be sacrificed. Jakob had a galvanizing vision of retiring from the work grind to become a full-time creator of artificial life, a big fish in a rural county, proffering his print-filled paper products from book club to Grange Hall.
Louise coughed. Jakob turned immediately. “How’s it going?” she asked.
In another world, Louise would have been Lillian Hellman to his Dashiell Hammett. They’d talked non-stop on the ferry over. Her New Jersey accent made his toes curl. She was twelve years younger, a housewife whose youngest son had just started fifth grade. She had a best friend from college who worked in the business and was dying to represent her. Her true love was poetry. Louise had big blue eyes that said, “I trust you completely. Let’s pick apples and cuddle naked under a blanket in front of the fireplace.”
“Not bad. I just needed a place and a time away from the real world. The story’s dying to be told.”
“It’s all about Me Time, you know? My husband offered a sand-and-surf getaway, but that’s more his style. I forgot to tell him that he married an introvert.”
“Didn’t you say you were a cheerleader?”
“In junior high. My mom died in a car accident when I was a freshman — freshwoman? — and I’ve been stopping to smell the roses ever since.”
“Sorry. I wish I’d known you in high school.”
“No, you don’t. I smoked like a chimney at a paper factory and wrote crude poetry about forbidden sex, not that I had any experience with sex at the time. I was one of those ‘saving herself for marriage’ girls.”
“Sorry. Isn’t good writing about ‘unveiling the authentic soul’?”
“I missed that class,” said Jakob. “Now I’ll never succeed.”
“I’ll share my notes on the ferry ride back, if you don’t mind the company.”
“Thanks. I’d like that.”
“I’ll let you write. See you at lunch? Rumor has it we’re having mac and cheese.”
“They’ve really gone overboard in recreating the life of the starving artist.”
“I don’t know about you, but I’m dying to get macked.” Louise covered her mouth in mock-embarrassment, giggled and wandered away.
* * *
Later, Will Roebuck, prolific author of quirky heartbreakers and the nominal dean, dropped Jakob off for the last ferry of the day. Jakob’s elderly mother, a battered cancer warrior, had taken a turn for the worst. His wife hated calling, but knew he’d want to be there.
“We don’t do refunds,” Will explained, “but you’re welcome back next summer at half-off. Guaranteed slot.”
“Feel free to email me with any questions.”
“How do you keep cranking out fiction when life gets in the way?”
“Optimal circumstances. Divorced with grown kids and a dedicated fanbase who pay my bills. And I really have no skills for doing anything else, so there’s that.”
Louise had given Jakob a note, under the condition that he wouldn’t read it until he was on the ferry. Jakob opened it carefully. It smelled like her, like skin cream.
Dear Dash, sorry your adventure was cut short. I believe in you. I know you feel old, but there’s still plenty of time. My friend, Vicky, has a pal who specializes in representing sci-fi authors. Finish first, then I’ll put you in contact. How’s that for motivation?
I’m enclosing my email address. I probably won’t come next year. My daughter overheard the surf-and-sand option and is pushing for a girls-only vacation.
Please know that meeting you was the best thing to come out of my mini-vacation. You made me feel noticed, important. Isn’t that why we all came? I snuck a photo of you in the nurse’s office. When I’m stuck creatively, guess who’ll be my inspiration!
Jakob leaned against the railing, watching the island shrink to a memory.
Copyright © 2020 by Charles C. Cole