Thinking It Through


    Lloyd Preston had not been at all interested in the book he was holding, and when he saw that Mr. Blakey was alone, he put it back on the shelf. The great author, Don Blakey, was here at Clanston's BookWorld signing books. Lloyd had waited until the others were gone so he could speak with Mr. Blakey, alone. He wanted to knock some ideas around--one author to another--without the distraction of a bunch of bookstore types hanging around.
    Blakey was leaning back in a chair with his fingers interlocked behind his neck. His seemed to be gazing at nothing, and a cigarette dangled from his lips, the smoke drifting. As he approached the great author, Lloyd heard the woman at the counter cough self-consciously and address Blakey, "Mr. Blakey, we usually don't allow smoking in here."
    Lloyd was horrified. How dare she talk to him like that. He hoped Blakey wouldn't take offense and was gratified when the author caught his eye and winked.
    "You only go around once, hey pal?" Lloyd felt not only relieved but flush with warmth and confidence: Don Blakey, the great author, was speaking in a tone that put himself and Lloyd on the same level, a we're-all-in-this-together kind of remark. Blakey ground out his cigarette on the sole of his shoe.
    On the table between Lloyd and Blakey was a stack of shiny new copies of Blakey's latest book, Sub Hunt.
    Although some critics had whined that it lacked character development, that it was peopled by cliches, Lloyd had found the book riveting. He had read it in a heart-pounding, gritty, thirty-six-hour weekend period. He picked up a copy now. Lloyd had borrowed the book from the library to read, but now, hefting a crisp, new copy from the table, his chest felt full and his back a little straighter. Lloyd would buy his own copy--autographed by Blakey himself.
    Gesturing with the novel toward his hero, Lloyd said, "I've already read it, Mr. Blakey. This is a fine piece of work."
    "Thank you, I'm working on a new one now," said Blakey.
    Lloyd nodded approvingly, glad to be on this intimate level with the great author. "I'm getting started writing something of my own, and your books are a great inspiration."
    Mr. Blakey took an immediate interest. "You're a writer too?"
    "Well, I . . . Yes, I'm getting started. Really I'm doing the research now, getting my material in order."
    "Research is important, Mr . . .?" Blakey looked at Lloyd inquisitively.
    "Preston, Lloyd Preston." Lloyd extended his hand, and Blakey shook it with a firm grip.
    Warming to the familiarity he enjoyed with Blakey, Lloyd turned and sat on the corner of the table. He folded his arms and focused his gaze somewhere beyond the author's face. "You know, Mr. Blakey, I've always thought that some books get so cluttered with people's personal affairs, that the events get lost in the shuffle. You can waste time dealing with what this one thinks and how that one feels, but that's not essential to the story. Your books go right to the heart of life--weapons systems, intelligence agencies, military men and their work. Action--boom, boom, boom--always action. That's the kind of thing I want to do--none of this liberal-minded touchy-feely stuff."
    "Mr. Preston--Lloyd--you've got the right ideas. I'm sure whatever you write will work. I wish you the best."
    Blakey opened the cover of the book and wrote, "To Lloyd Preston, an up-and-coming colleague," and signed it with his elaborate flourish.

    Nadine Preston bustled into the apartment, juggling keys, purse, and bags of groceries. She dumped her purse on the hall table and set the groceries on the kitchen counter. Smelling the smoke, she looked into the living room where Lloyd was reclining with his hands folded behind his neck and a cigarette dangling from his mouth.
    "I thought you gave those up," she said.
    "Hey, you only go around once," was Lloyds cryptic reply. Nadine ignored the remark and turned to put away groceries.
    The canned spaghetti sauce reminded her of Lloyd's blue suit jacket and its stain. Stepping into the living room she asked, "Say, did you pick up the dry cleaning?"
    "Not today. But I will."
    "Well I'd like to have my sweater back before Thursday--you haven't forgot Jack's coming, have you?
    "No, no; you'll have your sweater. Did you know Don Blakey was never in the service?"
    "What's Don Blakey got to do with the dry cleaning?"
    "Well, nothing, but I mean. . . I didn't pick it up because Mr. Blakey was at BookWorld today."
    She looked at him. "And?. . ."
    "Don Blakey--the author. He's only one of the top-selling writers in the nation. Don Blakey was here in Corpus Christi. He was signing his book at the bookstore."
    "Did he tell you not to pick up your suit and my sweater?"
    Lloyd stabbed out his cigarette butt, launched himself out of his recliner, and faced his wife. "Look, you may not understand good writing, but Sub Hunt is a classic. They don't come much better. I mean Mr. Blakey's books are on a par with Moby Dick--sea adventure, well written. I met the man--face to face. And not only that, but he was very encouraging about my work."
    Nadine's voice was measured, almost resigned, "Lloyd. You've been talking about writing something for what--two, three years now? If you want to write, do it, but don't forget my only brother is coming to dinner Thursday, and your office is just two blocks from the cleaners. Please get our clothes tomorrow."
    Lloyd didn't mean to let his exasperation show, but sometimes his wife just missed it entirely. "For your information, I am working on something. That's why I didn't bring home your precious sweater. After I left the bookstore I went to the shipyard to begin research on my novel. Don Blakey doesn't have any more first-hand experience with sea-going warfare than I do. If he can write like he does, so can I. He was in real estate before he started writing. Real estate or insurance--what's the difference?
    "Now, if you'll excuse me, I want to get started.

    Knowing Jack's affinity for Jim Beam, Lloyd was pouring bourbon over ice just as soon as Nadine went to greet her brother at the door.
    "Hey, Jack, what's the news?" Lloyd asked, holding out the glass toward his brother-in-law.
    "Oh, just the same-ol'," said Jack. "Hey, what's this--bringing out the good stuff before I even get in the door?"
    "Yeah, well--Mi casa est su casa, you know."
    Nadine dropped her head to one side just a fraction and fielded Jack's furtive and bewildered glance.
    "C'mon and take a load off," Lloyd said, leading the way to the living room. Everything was going his way on this writing project, and since Jack had done a tour in the Navy--had been in the Gulf War--Lloyd was eager to open him up for some background. He needed to fill out the details of a sea-chase. Nadine enjoyed Jack's visits so much, and she looked especially smug in that pale rose sweater she thought so much of. Lloyd just knew the evening would go his way. But he would let Nadine get things started--better to give Jack time to relax and loosen up. No sense rushing things.
    He let them prattle on for a while: Jack's business was picking up, and all that electronics repair schooling was paying off. They'd finally got the bugs out of the new computer system at the office where Nadine worked, and things were returning to some kind of order. And then the two of them started off on some nonsense about when they had been kids--that old business about Jack and his buddies making off with scrap lumber from the new houses going up and then building the great treehouse, and how they couldn't keep Nadine and her friends out of it, and the great tomato war, and . . . The two of them laughed and laughed, Jack going on about his fishing adventures, until Lloyd shifted in his chair, thinking, all this over that foolish Saddle River that was hardly more than a creek, barely more than a puddle in the woods. And the two of them just thrilled silly to think about it.
    "So, speaking of times gone by," Lloyd said, "how was it when you served on the battleship? What do you remember about that?"  Pleased to have swung things his way, Lloyd was looking down at his drink, watching the ice float and roll near the rim of his glass, so he didn't catch the chill, didn't notice Jack inhaling sharply as he glanced into the darkness out the window.
    "Oh, Lloyd, I don't know. I don't think about it a lot anymore," Jack said.
    "Well surely you must remember something--you worked in the communications room, didn't you? How many guys were in there with you? What was the action like? How often--"
    "Lloyd, I don't think Jack wants to talk about that now," Nadine said.
    "It's all right; I don't mind," Jack said. "It was just a job, Lloyd. We did what we were told, did what we were trained to do--me and Tommy, Glen, Pete--" Jack laughed--"Pissin' Pete. You could tell a joke, and get Pete laughing, and he'd piss a little. Oh he was good. I wonder where he is now. I get a letter from Glen around Christmas every year, but those other guys, I don't know what's become of 'em. Hell, there were six or eight of us depending on the duty."
    "Yeah, but when things got hot, when there was action--" Lloyd said, before Nadine cut him off.
    "Really Lloyd, not now, please?"
    He was puzzled. What's the harm in a few questions? Jack had worked on a ship. It wasn't like some of those infantry guys who'd come back from 'Nam all messed up--psycho wrecks and all.
    Jack sighed. "Look, we shelled lots of inland positions. I worked in the radio room. You could feel every round. Is that what you want to know?"
    Lloyd sensed that Jack wasn't enthusiastic about this. He thought maybe he'd better let it slide for now. "Hey, I'm sorry. It's just that I'm doing research for something I'm going to write. It's--well . . . some other time."
    Jack was looking out the open window again. They all three listened to occasional traffic and night noise. There was a siren somewhere, but it was way off in the distance.
    Later, standing by the door, Nadine reached up to straighten Jack's collar. She could hear the keyboard--Lloyd was tapping away in the bedroom. "I'm sorry about Lloyd. You know how he is. He doesn't mean anything by it. He's just . . . well, look, the other day, Judy, the little Musgrave girl in 3A, she lost her purse on the way home from school, and Lloyd walked her all the way back looking for it. He really does have a good heart--it just takes him a while sometimes to understand things. I don't know." She shook her head.
    "It's like this story he's working on--he drove down to the Navy base the other day. He thought they'd just give him a tour, just like that--tell him all about all the stuff on the ships."
    She looked up at Jack, who was smiling.

    "No kidding, Lloyd, it just wasn't at all glamorous," Jack said, over a beer. Lloyd had caught Jack coming out of the shop at five and steered him to a bar down the street.
    "Cooped up in that room with a world of electronics, we really spent a lot of time trying to imagine we were somewheres else, telling stories about home and girls and stuff, what we'd do when tour was up. See, we had to think about other stuff, 'cause when all you've got is just the instruments. . ." Jack sighed and then cocked his head toward the door. "See all that that's going on outside?" Lloyd turned to see a newspaper delivery truck slowing, two women carrying shopping bags and talking animatedly as they drifted past the door; a car horn sounded, and all was bathed in sun-warmth. "I don't exactly understand it myself," Jack said, "but it's like that everyday stuff is more important than you'd expect.
    "Y'see Lloyd, we didn't have anything but cold instruments--no window, nothing but our work. If it hadn't'a been for something to take our minds off it all. . . I don't know, I don't think we'd've done too good."

    On the way home, Lloyd kept getting stuck on things Jack had said. "Some of us weren't so proud of what we were doing there." It didn't square with Lloyd's picture of things. But their talk had been helpful, and it would all settle out. Things would gel.
    Twice on Saturday and then again Sunday, Lloyd sat at the computer and wrote some. Maybe Jack hadn't been so helpful after all. He kept getting in the way of the story.
    Lloyd finally shut it all down, quit for the time being. He and Nadine took a walk up through the park. They stopped to throw pieces of bread to the ducks.

    The new actuarial program was so sharp, the information so clearly organized, that Monday's work fell into place almost by itself. Lloyd drove straight home from the office with a clear mind, ready to hit into his writing. In this frame of mind he knew he'd get it right.
    Sitting at his keyboard in the bedroom, Lloyd saw the story coming together. Remembering what Mr. Blakey had said about the key to writing fiction being an active imagination, Lloyd let the scenes play out in his mind. His research hadn't gone quite the way he'd planned, but he could work around that. He envisioned a sea chase. He pictured the men on ship readying weapons and tending their electronic instruments, the eerie green glow of monitors lighting up their faces as they stared intently into their work. He let himself feel their adrenalin. In just a short while he had the scene fleshed out with a warhead streaking toward its target. The scene worked well for Lloyd, but he needed more detail. Something was missing.
    Since Jack had been his best source of particulars, and Lloyd could easily picture him at work, he imagined Jack in an operations center. He saw Jack triumphantly keying into his console the command, the simple electrical impulses that sent a heat seeking missile toward the enemy submarine. He imagined the warhead streaking ominously toward its target.
    Then Lloyd filled the picture with all the details he could imagine, all the small things that give body to life. He thought about the men on the target ship. Since the Soviet Union was no longer our most immediate "enemy," and an enemy could conceivably be any nationality, he again pictured Jack. Jack being the one man who came to mind most readily as a sailor.
    What would a sailor be doing when the goods hit? What would Jack be doing? And then he recalled Jack's stories about being a kid, running up and down the banks of the creek, fishing on the opening day of trout season, swimming, catching crayfish and minnows. He saw Jack with his mind full of creek and boyhood friends and a fishing rod, when his world turned into a noisy hell of the sick, smoky, acrid smell of electricity where it doesn't belong, and steel crunching and twisting eerily in the darkness, and boys crying and dying. And then, for some inexplicable reason, Lloyd thought of Nadine. He saw what her face looked like and what she sounded like when she got the news about Jack, knowing that Nadine too could imagine what Jack's last moments would be like, when the water came. . . .

    It had truly been a Monday, and the run in her pantyhose was terminal. Nadine dropped the whole thing into the wastebasket. Looking down, she saw Lloyd's prized copy of Sub Hunt in the trash. Curious, she fished it out and turned to the flyleaf.  Below Blakey's handwriting Lloyd had scrawled something--apparently just recently--that made her insides jump. She flung the book back in the trash, as if there were some contagion in it.

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