Cobwebs cleared, literally and figuratively, our hero writer bore down on the keyboard, seriously contemplating the idle proposition that had presented itself one year ago to the day: That he would produce a short story suitable for the annual fiction showcase published by that Route 1 newspaper.
He had thought about it a year ago, and read a few lines aloud in front of the metaphorical campfire that gathers once a week or so at the back of the newspaper. People had liked the idea, they said, but of course they were mostly being polite — what else would they say. Still, he was emboldened by a few critical comments that suggested the project was worthy of serious thought and he was enthralled by the sheer audacity of the plot line:
An editor and publisher of a small weekly newspaper (recovering from heart disease) disappears during a week of R & R on a small Caribbean island and is finally declared dead despite a futile search for the body (heart attack, the authorities conclude, suffered during a snorkeling outing in shark-infested waters). Back in the states his publishing empire is taken over by a trio of former assistants who battle each other for the lead position.
Meanwhile, an ambitious young reporter — our writer hero’s hero — discovers that the departed — but not so dearly departed — editor may have had major reasons for getting lost at that particular moment in his sorry life. Moreover, the reporter discovers, the effects of an invisible hand seem visible at the newspaper. Could the editor have faked his death and could one of the trio of former assistants be in cahoots with him to deceive and defraud various creditors? And if so, which one?
The best part of the plot was how close to the truth it cut. The besieged former Route 1 editor had disappeared in very similar circumstances. That memorial service for the old man should have raised some eyebrows — held on the cheap at the American Legion hall instead of at, say, the Princeton University Chapel, as you might have expected. And the guy’s two sons — remember them exchanging knowing glances at several points during the service and then breaking into crocodile tears as if on cue?
But in fact the Route 1 News was not taken over by the assistants. It had ended up in the hands of the suits from the newspaper chain. They were pleasant enough fellows, and for the most part the staff seemed to appreciate them and their management style. Finally there was real leadership at the Route 1 News, with meetings and — hallelujah! — praise and encouragement for jobs well done. For a while they were giving out awards for the best picture captions in each issue, but that was discontinued when the caption writers said they would rather just write the damn things and not worry whether or not they were particularly good or bad.
The best thing about the suits was that they never read the stories in the paper, and they certainly never read the fiction. Our writer knew that he would be able to slip in chapters of his forthcoming novel without anyone realizing how close it was to a roman a clef.
Yes, our hero bore down at the keyboard. Forget short story, think novel. It was not beyond the realm of the Route 1 fiction issue. That e.e. cummings — or whiting or whatever — had three chapters of a novel printed in successive years and reportedly had enough in the bank to carry him (or her) into the next decade. Linda Aldrich Teichmann submitted a short piece for the 2003 fiction issue but allowed that she also had a complete novel, just sitting in a drawer! John Symons, a contributor to the Fiction Issue since the beginning, noted that he, too, had a novel in the works.
A novel, that was it. Too soon, of course, to think about movie rights (but if pressed our writer could come up with a short list of movie stars who should be given a crack at this script). Too soon. Now was the time to think about that all important opening sentence — the one that would grab them and hold them and propel them into a frenzy of page-turning.
He thought back to that seminal moment of a year past, when he was transfixed by a spider efficiently weaving a web across the window. There was a back and forth rhythm that had intrigued him. In fact, while he had named the spider Charlotte, he referred to it alternately as he and she. Our writer scanned his mind for an opening that would have a certain intrigue built on uncertainty. Instead of opening the novel in Princeton he would open in the Caribbean. Instead of focussing on the editor, he would focus on the search — the alleged search — for the poor lost soul (lost, perhaps, in more ways than one).
That was it. He hunkered down at the keyboard, imagined high seas rising and falling around him, and began to type furiously:
It was a dark and stormy night — or was it?