By Joe Kurmaskie
I've never fancied myself the stalker type. In high school there was no bigger Stephen King fan than me. None. And don't let Danny Hampton feed you any of his weak bullshit to the contrary. Did he know there was an unabridged edition of The Stand? Still, on my first bicycle adventure from Maine to Florida I pedaled right by the King family residence without stopping. My self-control never wavered.
My critics will point to that time I bamboozled mall security into jimmying this girl's car for me. We put a dozen roses in her front seat with a card taped to the steering wheel. It said something to the effect that what I felt for her could never be locked out. The kid in the security get up kept giggling and asking if I'd ever surprised my wife like this before.
“All the time. It's how to make a relationship last over the long haul.”
We were about the same age and I wasn't wearing a ring, but let's make him detective straight out of the academy.
But back to the breaking, entering, stalking and wooing. In my defense, well, there is no defense for creepy shit like that. We'd only had lunch a few times at the food court. It was more talking to each other since we happened to be there at the same time. But understand it was a very bleak period for me. And she purred on about how I looked hot in the Banana Republic shirt she sold me. Come to find out that all male customers were told they looked hot in any item they showed the slightest interest in. It's a significant part of their staff training.
If I were to stage a defense it would go like this… I was crazy from the heat of working twelve hour shifts at the mouth of a commercial oven, burning my fingers serving wood fired pizza slices at the front end of a mall restaurant. Every moment inside the mall I was bombarded with Christmas Muszac. The restaurant was run by Italian assholes who pretended they were in the mafia, but were really just assholes and not even Italian. Two from Brazil, one Spaniard; all assholes. I'd blown through five jobs and four girlfriends since the beginning of that semester, and had no idea how my central nervous system would return itself to college come January. I broke into a sweat every time I biked near campus which was a block from the mall. Also, my roommates, who had flown back to Buffalo for the break, borrowed my car to get to the airport and 10 days later I still couldn't find it… and the airport meter was running. Oh, and I'd just buried Travis Otis McGee, my cat, named after author John D McDonald's longest running character.
I should have gone back to my empty apartment and listened to Tom Petty's Hard Promises again. Instead, I bought those roses and turned a Hallmark card into something just this side of a ransom note. The fall out included a visit to the restaurant by a posse of her mean girl friends. They ordered slices and ordered me to keep my distance from their girlfriend and the Banana Republic in general, unless I wanted to experience death by angora sweater suffocation. Nothing as treacherous as mall girls on a mission, though the one wearing the actual angora winked and mouthed something about how I could stalk her with roses any time.
After that I didn't go to the mall, any mall, for seven years. This was not by court order, though who would blame her? I just didn't like what I became inside those climate-controlled environments. A confused, petty, rancid little creature packed to the gills with Cinnabons and Orange Julius, staring into a deep wishing pool full of small change and hopelessness.
So you'd think with that track record, I'd have looked harder in the mirror the day I decided to drop in on acclaimed writer John D McDonald. I had just discovered that one of my favorite authors happened to live on Siesta Key, not too far from, but world's away from an unstable but sometimes useful acquaintance, Orgy Magnum and his good ship lollipop.
I came into possession of this information by accident. But given the amount of time on my hands and how much of it I spent surfing the aisles of used bookstores, it was bound to happen.
I placed a copy of “The Lonely Silver Rain” on the counter.
“Loved this one,” the woman behind the register says. “He's a bit of a chauvinist, but that's the parlance of the time and the time he came of age as a writer.”.
I nod, “I've read this one twice, but there are parts I want to circle back through.”
She understands. A copy of Joy Williams, “Breaking And Entering” she's reading between sales, looks to be on its fourth or fifth run through. I think I see some notes in the margins.
“You know he lives right on Siesta Key.”
I did not know this. The ghost of my Stephen King drive-by weighs heavy on my mind. If I could get a simple sit down with McDonald, writer to writer, man to man, a bottle of whiskey and two shot glasses. He might get me sorted out proper. Everything had changed since the King sortie. I was an almost published novelist now. My first book sold to the University of Michigan. At 23, I was to take the literary world by storm. Editors were saying such flattering things about my prose. A two inch mention appeared in Publisher's Weekly. Then the chairman of the department championing the project died. Advice to aspiring writers: the guy who believes in your project and has walked it through the university press system should not be 83 with a bum ticker. Shop around for a teenager, if you're still on your first draft, maybe they aren't even born yet. I received a kill fee that allowed me to bike across Australia and New Zealand and gave me a lifetime of experiences, but the book went into a drawer at my parent's place and that literary fire in my belly, all that my momentum, went somewhere else.
I needed a kick in the ass pep talk from a master with 50 books under his belt, including a beloved Florida noir series featuring a tortured protagonist who salvages lives while navigating through cautionary tales of environmental destruction and spiritual exhaustion.
And here I find out he's getting up from his afternoon nap a few miles down the road?
There's nothing to consider.
This is what happens when a creative type is given a living wage to wander around bookstores on a Tuesday. He'll find additional ways to fill his time. I go back to the stacks, scoop up a half a dozen other titles by McDonald, have the clerk rough me out a map to his place, and begin pedaling my bike to Siesta Key.
At this point, I've dismissed with formalities, things like a car to transport my clients to interviews. Most of my days at this “job” I have as a social worker are about long bike rides that end in longer swims, with bookstore rest stops along the way. The beeper on my hip never makes a beep. I'm excited. I haven't had a legitimate destination that I cared to arrive at, or personal goal related to my writing, in months. I almost feel like a productive member of society until I reach the sprawling estate that is my favorite author.
An actual plan might have been helpful. He doesn't so much live on Siesta Key, than own a good chunk of it. I find a spot in the shade outside the security gate and ponder my options. I could wait for Orgy Magnum to finish whatever he's not doing back on the boat, recruit him to pilot me around by sea; a Normandy type invasion. Only that leaves all these books I was hoping to have John sign soaking wet or back on the boat. God knows what Orgy Magnum will do to them, I only that it will likely end in a fire.
Sweating under a magnolia tree, listening to crickets in the middle of the afternoon, I see this latest flight of fancy for what it is. I'm gonna get shot or arrested or…
A pair of trucks hauling gardening equipment pull to the gate. My moment of clarity passes. I scoop up my bike and without hesitation pedal along side the vehicles as they pass through. Once beyond the protection of the gardener's trucks, my new plan loses its momentum. I expected to be clotheslined by security hiding in the palmetto bushes by now. So sure in fact that I rode clenching every muscle awaiting impact. I would be taken to a safe room where my skills of conversation would convince everyone that John and I needed to meet. When that doesn't happen I coast around the expansive grounds unsure of my next move. I resemble one of those devil may care characters in a British novel. Wealth, privilege and too much free time find him pedaling around the gardens thinking up the next witty thing to say at dinner. I lap the estate twice before meandering to a stop at the front entrance.
I might as well give it a shot.
I lean the bicycle against a massive column. The main building is southern gothic plantation architecture. My backpack is heavy with mass-market tenth and eleventh editions, and used at that so Mr. McDonald didn't see a dime from my recent purchases. I wait at the door. The surveillance cameras must be well hidden. I wait some more. When security still doesn't swarm, I knock. A Hispanic woman answers. I stammer something about my writing credentials and needing to meet with the author of Condominium, which incidentally they made into a horrific miniseries, completely missed all the ecological messages in favor of soap opera dialogue and special effects, She stands with her arms crossed.
When I've talked myself out, she whistles.
I mistake this for admiration; that I've persevered, stormed the castle, breached the gate, all to meet one of my idols.
A Samoan the size of a grizzly bear fills the doorway.. I brace for the beat down.
“He's not here.” I notice the bowl of cereal the Samoan is cradling. He studies me while steadily spooning – what is that, Special K, into his mouth?
“Is this the part where you rough me up?” Thinking I sound just like one of the characters in a McDonald novel.
The Samoan shakes his head, grins. “Why, you want me to?”
As I see myself off the grounds one of the gardeners waves.
“I thought you just wanted to have a look at the place.” I'm back at the bookstore. The clerk is shaking her head. “Like those maps of the stars home tours out in L.A..”
What did she imagine I wanted with all the titles of his books I'd already read? I share my University of Michigan failed publishing saga to demonstrate my special purpose here. Credentials that place me outside of the stalker category. She recoils. “If you want to hassle him for writing advice I can't be party to that.”
And I thought we'd bonded over our mutual admiration for the man and Joy Williams. I try one more thing.
“Have you ever met him?” Fans love to talk about their own encounters. She hesitates. Must be an aspiring writer herself who thinks there's too many of us already.
The old guy behind us stocking biographies chimes in. “We've all met him.” The clerk shoots him daggers, but he laughs it off, enjoying himself. “He's a regular. Most days he's down at about now having Cuban coffee and garbanzo bean soup.”
I can't help grinning at the pissed off clerk. Come on, Sister, share the wealth.
I haven't tasted a good Cuban sandwich in at least a day so I slide into a booth that offers me a direct view of the famous author. Inconspicuous as possible, I peek at his jacket photo on the back of “The Executioners”. Twenty years of broken gravel road later, but it's him.
While working through two iced teas, I watch the man who put McGee through a lifetime of trouble protecting the powerless and standing up for the mangroves and the coral reefs. I rehearse different approaches in my head. It has to be just right or he won't treat me as a peer, won't see in me a younger version of himself asking his future what to do to achieve heartbreaking stories of aching beautiful that illuminate the human condition. I decide to hold off telling him I named my cat Travis Otis McGee, after his protagonist. While it served dual purposes in that I called him my TOM cat while reminding me of McDonald's books multiple times a day. The Otis part I added, but then there was no mention of McGee's middle name in the 20 book series, so I felt I could take a small liberty in completing the acronym. When I play this little anecdote back in my head, I see a middle-aged lesbian with a subscription to Feline Fun monthly.
John D McDonald coughs up some soup phlegm, spits it into a napkin, looks at it intently for a few moments, then returns to his bowl. It occurs to me that my idol has already told me everything I need to know on the pages of his books. This tete e tete could be the granddaddy of bad ideas. I am about to voluntarily destroy the mythology of an author I hold in high regard. I hear some quiet slurping in his direction. It's already crumbling and threatening to fall down when my Cuban sandwich arrives. No getting away clean now. That's when I notice McDonald staring at me staring at him. He has a world-weary look on his face because he knows what comes next.
I reach into my pack and grip one of his books under the table, it doesn't matter which one, they were all brilliant. I remember disappearing into each and coming out the other end… changed at a time when I needed changing. I give it one more squeeze, let it fall away and do what must be done.
“What you looking at old man?” I put it out there with more force than I intend.
McDonald smiles, offers a little “I surrender” wave with his soupspoon, and goes back to his meal.
As I work through my sandwich I barely taste it. I'm already thinking about stories I haven't felt strong enough to take a crack at in years.
When I leave the restaurant I don't look back, but I place my copy of “The Lonely Silver Rain” on the table. Maybe he'll spot it on his way out. It's not two shot glasses and a bottle of whiskey, but it was never gonna be.