Well, not really, but perhaps the title grabbed your attention and you’ll read on.
I wrote in a previous blog post of a rejection letter I received from an agent in response to a query for my fifth novel, The Cobb Legacy. It’s a modern day story written with a slant toward the mystery surrounding the shooting death of baseball legend Ty Cobb’s father by his mother in the early twentieth century.
If you recall, the agent wrote that she found my prologue gripping and liked my voice, but she found my use of back story in the first twenty pages didn’t grip her.
So over the past several weeks I’ve been reworking the opening chapters, rearranging them, really, in an effort to better hook the reader in the first twenty pages. The short of it is this: I went back to my original text because, in my mind at least, that’s the way it works best.
Well, below appears chapter 1—a fairly short read of a couple thousand words. I’m asking for feedback, criticism, whatever commentary you feel you’d like to offer in an effort to improve what I think is already a strong opening chapter that introduces a fairly sympathetic protagonist who is also a touch dislikable, flawed, and dealing with several obstacles in his life. In short, in addition to back story, it has drama, a touch of the risqué, humor and confrontation. Additionally, it takes the reader behind the closed door of patient-doctor confidentiality; so it should appeal to voyeurs.
Enjoy, and have at it:
Ann Arbor, Michigan, 2009
Be good and dutiful, conquer your anger and wild passions that would degrade your dignity and belittle your manhood. Cherish all the good that springs up in you. Be under the perpetual guidance of the better angel of your nature. Starve out and drive out the demon that lurks in all human blood and ready and anxious and restless to arise and reign.
—From a letter to Tyrus from his father, January 5, 1902
“Life would be so much easier if I were a cartoon character.”
“Did you always feel that way?”
“No. Thirty years ago, during the golden age of FM radio, the era of album oriented rock and roll—before they edited the seventeen-minute version of In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida down to three and a half minutes to accommodate jingles, contests, weather and traffic reports, along with a six-minute block of commercials—there was a segment on W-four where they asked listeners which cartoon character they’d sleep with if they could: Betty Rubble or Wilma Flintstone? I scoffed at the notion of either one. Why would I want to sleep with a piece of celluloid? This was maybe ten years before Jessica Rabbit showed up in Toontown. She wasn’t bad, she was just drawn that way.”
“So you’d prefer a virtual relationship?”
Cagney shook his head but filed the question away for introspective analysis later, on his own time.
“I’m going to be fifty-three this year,” he said. “Life is beating me down. As a youth my dad always told me, ‘Cagney, you live only once, and I don’t think you’re going to make it.’”
“You feel he was setting you up to fail?”
“He said it tongue in cheek. But his point was, or at least I took it to mean, that none of us makes it out of this life alive. Dad certainly won’t. And he certainly seems to have accumulated his share of disappointment.”
“You see similarities between your life and your father’s?”
Cagney ignored the question. “I managed to outgrow the gawkiness of my teens to turn a few heads in my twenties and thirties. My soon-to-be-ex-wife used to tell me, when we were in our thirties, I was capable of walking into a Meijer Shifty Takers and turn a head or two. But in youth I viewed myself as invincible. Every day was an adventure and I risked more. I grew stronger, more confident, until I couldn’t help but believe it would always be so. But at some point I found that, like the sun, I’d reached my zenith and was now sliding slowly toward that horizon I’d always seen as so distant—the one behind which my dad will soon disappear, never to rise again. The one which I seem to be approaching faster and faster.”
“When did you first realize this?”
“I felt it beginning to happen sometime in my late thirties, I think. But it wasn’t until I turned forty that I realized it had happened: I was never going to play major league baseball except in my dreams. Actually, the last baseball dream I had I was playing minor league ball for a team in Chicago, still trying to catch up to that high inside fastball.”
“How does this relate to Betty and Wilma?”
“You read Archie and Jughead when you were a kid?” Dr. Victor nodded. “Their problems in school or with girls always seemed so trite to me. Somehow I must’ve realized, even as a kid, that their troubles weren’t real. Well, maybe they were, but their resolutions, which always managed to come within a finite number of pages, I knew wouldn’t always work in the real world. Might isn’t always right (nor is the obverse always true), playing fair doesn’t always net you the promotion, success in the book industry isn’t just about opening a vein and bleeding on paper. Nor do you always end up with the Betty or Veronica of your dreams. That’s why I always went for Marvel Comics—Peter Parker got bit by a radioactive spider and developed spider powers, Superman feared only kryptonite. I loved it all for what it was—escapism. It’s important, as an adult, to escape once in a while.”
“You feel the dreams of your youth will never be realized.”
“Pinky and the Brain’s incessant efforts at world domination invariably fail, yet I admire Brain’s adamancy in answering Pinky’s same question at the end of every episode, ‘What are we gonna do tomorrow night, Brain?’ ‘The same thing we do every night, Pinky—try to take over the world.’
“Yosemite Sam always had something or other setting his pants afire; Wile E. Coyote, with those ACME mail-order rocket powered roller skates strapped to his paws, always managed to speed off the edge of a mesa to disappear into the desert floor below in a mushroom cloud of dust. But in the next scene they were always back—Sam’s biscuits might be burnin’ but his stones never scorched. Wile always walked off the accordion effect of those sudden stops after his long plummets. They always came back, ready to eat bear, although it was inevitably the bear that ate them.”
Cagney paused a moment to glance out the window, to the parking lot, where a young woman in a short skirt that revealed a striking pair of legs walked to her car. He looked back at Dr. Victor who, he noted, had also noticed the young woman who had distracted him.
Sighing, he went on: “I was a lot like Sam and Wile E. in my youth—always bouncing back in the face of adversity.”
“Bouncing back has gotten tougher for you?”
“Trying to keep up with technology and stay ahead of the kids who are coming out of college smarter and more resilient than I. I’m struggling to keep up in a world that’s changing faster and faster and becoming smaller and smaller. In time I won’t be able to keep up. I watched it happen to my dad. I think it’s going to happen to me a lot sooner than it did to him. Not that he was any smarter than me, but life during his time moved at a much more leisurely pace. The snowball of my life is picking up momentum.”
Dr. Victor nodded.
“Brain’s schemes inevitably fall short,” Cagney said. “Sam never bags Bugs and Wile never nets the Roadrunner.”
“Yet they never stop trying,” she offered, as if to offer Cagney some sort of consolation.
“I envy them that.”
“You talked a moment ago of the importance of escape.”
“You want to know if that had something to do with my having an affair.”
Dr. Victor said nothing. Cagney nodded; from what he understood about therapy, the therapist’s job was to lead you without you realizing you’ve been led.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe it was just some midlife crisis, but how would I know? I’ve never been middle-aged before. The only good thing about middle age is that you understand how little you knew in your youth. Like Romeo and Juliet. I used to think it was the greatest love story ever written. But now I know. Oh, Romeo certainly thinks he loves his Juliet. Driven by hormones, he unquestionably lusts for her. But if he loves her, it is a shallow love. Soon after meeting her for the first time, he realizes he forgot to ask her for her name. In the end, he finds no comfort in living out the remainder of his life within the paradigm of his love, at least keeping alive the memory of what they had briefly shared. Nor does he seek the reason for her lifelike appearance in death. Does he hold her in his arms one last time and feel the warmth of her blood still coursing through her veins? Does he pinch her to see if she might awaken? Does he hold a mirror to her nose to see if her breath fogs it? No. His alleged love is so superficial and so selfish that he seeks to escape the pain of loss by taking his own life. That’s not love, but infatuation. Had they wed―Juliet bearing many children, bonding, growing together, the masks of the star-struck teens they once were long ago cast away, basking in the love born of a lifetime together―and she died of natural causes, would Romeo have been so moved to take his own life, or would he have grieved properly for her loss and not just his own?”
Cagney paused; then, to fill the silence as well as to ensure he was getting his money’s worth, as if he were paying by the word count, he added, “What a crock—the notion of middle age. If the average life expectancy is seventy-six, then middle age is the years between twenty-five and fifty. By my reckoning, I’m into old age.”
“You’re dividing the lifespan into thirds, lumping adolescence in with youth. I break it into five segments. Adolescence, youth, midlife, old age and—”
“Incontinence?” Cagney was annoyed that Dr. Victor thought this point important enough to debate on his dime.
“I read recently that thirty is considered the new twenty.”
“So what’s that make twenty, the new ten? That’s just propaganda created by some analist—I mean analyst—trying to make their patient who is, at age thirty, well into their own midlife crisis. I don’t know why I put myself through this, really I don’t. Your job is to help me feel better about myself, which doesn’t necessarily equate to curing me.”
Dr. Victor was silent; to fill the void, Cagney said, “You want to know why I had an affair? No real good reason. Charlene got that right. After twenty years of marriage, the last ten being told I was over the hill and could no longer turn the head of a woman, guess what? I found I could, without even trying—younger, too. It was she who pursued me.”
“I’m not surprised a younger woman found you attractive.”
During the ensuing silence, for which he was paying, Cagney wondered if Dr. Victor might be flirting with him, but he quickly discounted that notion. Charlene had taught him long ago that men always misunderstand the flirt—the waitress who laughs at his joke is merely working to inflate her tip. According to Charlene, to women flirting is merely a game, and that no self-respecting woman interested in a man would ever flirt with him. Cagney nearly gave in to the urge to remind Charlene that she had flirted with him outrageously the first time they’d met, but thought to remain mute would be the better part of valor. In Charlene’s eyes, that Freyja had flirted with him, a married man, only labeled her a slut. Cagney needed to get his money’s worth for the session:
“After she found out about the affair, Charlie told me I had taken her for granted. Maybe I did, but I think she took me for granted, too.”
“Did you tell her that?”
“Of course not. I was the betrayer. I don’t get to justify my actions. You know, when Charlie turned fifty a couple years ago, she embraced that plateau, claimed she finally could surrender to the battle of the bulge, leave behind the ridiculous notion of beauty as society dictates, just grow old, sans the graceful part. But now that she’s filed for divorce, she’s gone back to the gym to get her figure back.”
“And that leaves you feeling taken for granted.”
“My feelings aren’t important here—I’m the one who hurt her. I’m shallow, visual, couldn’t be content with true love and emotional intimacy.”
“True love includes not taking one’s spouse for granted, don’t you think?”
“What I think is immaterial. I gave up the right to think, and feel, when I committed adultery. We spoke last night by the way, by phone, and Charlie told me she now thinks I have an addiction to sex.”
“Do you agree with that?”
“I don’t know that I disagree. During the affair, after every encounter, I left feeling guilty as a pile of dog shit left on the neighborhood’s best manicured lawn, swearing I’d never go back. But I always did. For six months I did. I couldn’t help myself.”
“At our last session you told me she’d told you that you were evil, a bad person.”
“I haven’t forgotten.”
“You can’t have it both ways.”
Cagney looked confused; Dr. Victor explained: “Good people are capable of bad deeds just as bad people are capable of good deeds. Addicts don’t act out of evil intent, but out of need.”
“That’s supposed to make me feel better?”
“The alcoholic who, while driving drunk, kills another motorist—the family and friends of the deceased may think the alcoholic a bad person, but their thinking that doesn’t make the alcoholic bad. The gambling addict who loses their 401K and children’s college fund isn’t a bad person. Addictions make people do things they wouldn’t normally do. They make poor choices.”
“So I’m either a sex addict or a bad person.”
“Not necessarily. There are a host of reasons for affairs. From what you’ve shared of your marriage, it was not very healthy.”
“You’re hearing it only from my perspective.”
“I take that into account. You made a mistake and expressed contrition.”
“And she forgave me.”
“If she had she would not continue to punish you, nor would she have filed for divorce.”
Dr. Victor glanced at her watch and said, “We have to stop for today.” And then, as an afterthought, she asked, “How’s the new book coming?”
“It’s not.” With the session over, it was pointless to go into the reasons why.
See? Cagney thought. She doesn’t really care how the book is coming along. She’s just making small talk now that I’m off the clock.
“Work is work,” he said. “It allows me to pay the bills, my attorney. It pays for these visits and gives me the freedom to write fiction, submit and endure rejection. Life is good.”
As Cagney left he was reminded yet again that life’s problems, his at least, couldn’t be solved within a finite number of minutes. Yeah, he thought, life would be so much easier if I were a cartoon character.