This article runs in issue 36 of Crimespree
Shipping Monday (June 7)
Shipping Monday (June 7)
DANCING NAKED ACROSS THE TOWN SQUARE
Clouds passed over the sun, sucking the light out of the day, casting the terrace of the Hotel de France in a sudden chilly gloom. The geraniums lost their brilliance. The umbrellas flapped uneasily in the breeze. P.S. set down his glass as violently as he could without spilling any of the Champalou—his favorite white--and squinted into the darkened sky. Not because he didn’t know what had sucked the light from the scene, but in defiance of . . . whoever it was that sent clouds to cover the sun on a perfect spring day. The cloud left as quickly as it had arrived, but P.S. remained unhappy.
He was in Saint Léon sur Dême, in the Sarthe, that part of France which tourists rarely visit. Besides the forgotten villages, the gentle hills of lush farmland, the chestnut and oak forests and the castles they hide, the small, provincial cities, what was there to see? What was there to do? Nothing. P.S. smiled despite his persistent . . . what was it exactly? Pique? Consternation?
P.S. set his novels—two were out, a third was coming-- in this very village, often on this very square. In the novels this corner of France abounded with crime and intrigue and terrorist cells. But being a novelist meant that—despite the mayhem he created for his poor hero, Louis Morgon—P.S. was by definition a solitary person. He abhorred actual mayhem and worshipped calm.
In fact P.S. was beyond solitary. He had not found his way to writing until he was sixty. And ten years had passed since then. Being old and set in his ways, PS did not see any reason to change just because he was writing books. He wrote because he lived essentially in his imagination, which made writing something like a continuously pleasurable trip home.
Before writing books he had been a cartoonist, an activity that is even more solitary than writing. A cartoonist sits somewhere out of sight and notes down in humorous drawings the ridiculous state of affairs as he imagines them to be. By comparison with cartooning, writing seemed, to P.S. at least, akin to dancing naked across the town square. Writers were expected to be public figures. They were expected to make appearances, to sign books and greet their fans, or someone else’s fans if they didn’t have any of their own.
“Dancing naked across the town square!” P.S. spoke the words aloud.
J. glanced at him and tried to continue her conversation with their companions. But she saw that he would not be contented no matter what, and she turned back in exasperation.
“Look,” she said. “It was your idea.”
“What?” he said in complete innocence.
“The book tour was your idea.”
“That’s a lie,” he said. It was something one of his characters might have said, and then un-said in the editing process. “It was their idea. They’ve been pushing me. I had to do it.” He felt weak and irresolute. He wished the cloud would return so that he might have reason to scowl again at the sky. But J. was right.
A month earlier, in a café in New York City, a far less lovely dive, in fact, than the Hotel de France or any other café anywhere in the entire Sarthe, P.S.’s editor had told him in no uncertain terms that his third book—she personally loved it, she said; in fact, everyone loved it, she said—which would be out in two months would likely be his last with her publishing house unless the numbers were better than for the previous two.
“The reviews were great,” P.S. said. “Publishers Weekly, a starred review. What could be better than . . .”
“Great reviews,” she said, “lousy sales.”
P.S. muttered something, but it was clear from that moment on he would be touring around the country in June. He would be living out of a small suitcase (provided the airlines didn’t disappear it along the way), staying in strange hotels with windows that didn’t open, or motels maybe, in rooms right beside the icemachine which made clanking noises all night. He would brush his teeth looking at himself in pointlessly large, blank mirrors.
Then there would be the airports, oh, the airports, those soulless limbos between the heaven of P.S.’s easy, lovely life and the hell of all that other stuff. Maybe he would get lucky and see some senator hauled off in handcuffs for tapping his feet in the men’s room. Even that thought didn’t cheer him up. He had sat alone with his head in his hands long after lunch was over.
The mosquitoes, the airports, he would be able to manage all that. “But what about the signings?” He tried not to wail, but J. looked at him as though he had wailed. In fact, she was not unsympathetic. She had been to signings with him, and on several occasions P.S. and J. along with the bookshop manager had outnumbered the people listening to his little speech.
Once, in Dayton, Ohio, he had signed books the evening before Shakespeare or somebody equally famous was scheduled to appear. Naturally, the public held out for Shakespeare and stayed home for P.S. There were customers in the store, but they were interested in other writers’ books. At the appointed hour no member of the public was there.
P.S. had smiled sheepishly at the store manager and apologized as best he knew how for the disappointment they both felt. “No, no,” she said bravely. “It’s fine. But let’s have your reading anyway, shall we?” She sat down in the front row of chairs. Her assistant, a college intern, read an introduction she had written about P.S, including flattering quotes from various reviews. And then P.S. read to the three of them—the manager, the intern, and dear J.
It had been sixty years since P.S. had been in the third grade. And yet reading at the Dayton bookstore had brought the third grade experience back with such frightening clarity, that his knees knocked together whenever it came to mind. In his mind’s eye he was delivering an extremely inadequate book report to Mrs. Pottenger.
Suddenly, P.S. felt J.’s tender hand on his own. “But what about Aluminium Steele?” she said. “Remember Aluminium Steele?” She was right of course.
A woman more or less P.S.’s own age had approached P.S. after a reading in a small bookstore in Connecticut. She had introduced herself as Aluminium Steele, and because the name was an odd one, had volunteered a brief explanation. Her father had been a Pan Am man who had loved nothing so much as progress. For him the word aluminium incorporated both progress and flight, that most progressive human achievement. And so he named his only child Aluminium. The English spelling and pronunciation added panache. Steele was her married name; her husband was dead.
“I read both your books, Le Crime and L’Assassin,” she said. “I read them after I heard you interviewed on a local radio station. Do you remember? You read an excerpt from the first and then an excerpt from a work in progress.”
“I remember,” said P.S.
“I was entranced,” said Aluminium. “I don’t usually read thrillers.”
“Well,” said S., “I think of myself as telling stories. Someone else calls them thrillers.”
“Well,” she said, “I was entranced. I could tell there was an interesting mind at work here, and so I bought both your books . . .”
“And they changed your life.” P.S. was uncomfortable with compliments, and he felt an extravagant one in the offing. He wanted to head it off before it arrived.
Aluminium raised her eyebrows and laughed. “No, no. Nothing like that. But they’re good books, the books you write. You said on the radio that the pressure was on you to write books that would sell better.”
“Publishing is a business,” P.S. quoted his editor.
“I suppose so,” said Aluminium. “But I hope you keep writing for the people that like your books, not for the others. Let them read . . . oh, you know. Whoever.” She laughed again and stuck out her hand. “Thank you for your books. I look forward to the next one.” P.S. took her hand in his.
P.S. looked at J. across the table. The sun was out for good it seemed. The terrace at the Hotel de France was full. He was with J.; they were with friends. And he was going on a book tour. He lifted his glass. “To Aluminium Steele,” he said.
Peter Steiner's new novel, The Terrorist, will be published by Saint Martin's Press on May 25, 2010. His first-ever book tour begins in June and includes:
June 3 @ 7PM, The Book House, 1475 Western Avenue, Albany, NY 12203
June 8 @ 6:30PM, The Mysterious Bookstore, 58 Warren St. NY, NY 10007
June 12 @ 2:00PM , M is for Mystery, 86 East Third Avenue, San Mateo, Calif. 94401
June 14 @ 7:00PM, Books Inc., 1760 Fourth Street, Berkeley, Calif. 94701
June 15 @ 7PM Poisoned Pen, 4014 N. Goldwater Blvd. Scottsdale, Az. 85251Peter Steiner
June 16@ 7PM Murder by the Book, 2342 Bissonnet Street, Houston, TX. 77005
June 19, Merritt Books in Millbrook @ 10AM, 57 Front Street, Millbrook, NY 12545
Merritt Books in Red Hook @ 2:00PM, 7496 South Broadway, Red Hook, NY 12571