Authors: Howard Owen
This morning, though, Jack doesn't have to leave just yet, Gina has the day off, and Shannon is going to Speakeasy Creek with two friends from the next cul-de-sac.
Jack is sipping a cup of coffee and eating a bagel, Shannon is slurping cold cereal, and Gina is washing down a doughnut with a glass of orange juice. Jack regrets not anticipating this rare convergence. He could've made pancakes, fried up some sausage, had what his mother would have called a real breakfast.
“So what're you doing today?” he asks his wife.
Gina is wearing Levi's and a sleeveless top. To Jack, she is approximately as attractive as she was 17 years ago, when they began dating. He looks at her as she concentrates on tearing out grocery coupons from the newspaper insert, and he wishes he didn't have to go to work, either.
Gina thinks of herself as tall, although she knows that she might be a guard instead of a center if she played high school basketball now. Even Shannon, at 13, has an inch on her. Gina weighs 20 pounds more than when she and Jack met, but she was too thin back then for his liking. Her hair is almost black, and she has lately begun hiding what little gray has crept in. She is, anyone in Speakeasy would tell you, a fine-looking woman, and hardly anyone adds “for her age” yet.
Her eyes were what first hooked him. They seem to range in hue from emerald to forest green according to the mood and the illumination. They have a catlike quality to them. When she is aroused, they seem to create light rather than merely reflect it. Jack always implores her not to close them when she's coming.
“Oh,” she says to her husband's question, pushing a loose strand of hair out of her eyes, not looking up from her clipping, “nothing exciting. Buy groceries. Pay bills. Win the lottery. Maybe go swimming later.”
“Not at the creek?” Shannon says, looking up in alarm.
“Yes, the creek would be nice,” her mother says, her mouth twisting into a half-smile. “I'd like to come over and meet all your friends. Maybe I'll wear that little thong bikini Daddy bought me.”
Shannon puts her finger down her throat and makes a gagging noise.
“I'm going to get your daddy to take a picture of me,” Gina tells her. “I'm going to put on it: Regina Gay Stone at 41. And I'm going to store it away. Then, when you're 41, I'm going to show it to you, and we'll see who held up better, little girl.”
“You'll be so old by then,” her daughter tells her, rising as a car pulls up outside and a horn sounds, “you won't even remember where you put the picture.”
Gina swats at the daughter's backside as she runs past.
“Be back by 5 now,” Jack says to the closing door.
“She's going to be pretty like her mother,” he says, but Gina is concentrating on the grocery list.
“You need any toothpaste, mouthwash, anything?”
“I could go for a blow job.”
Gina shakes her head and tears a sheet of paper from the pad on which she's been writing.
“Well,” she says, “it's been two years now.”
He realizes, after a pause, that they've changed topics.
“Yeah, it has. Two years last week, I think.”
She looks across the table at him. Her eyes are a darker green now, and in them he can see all the unspoken questions. “How much longer? What's going to happen when we run out of money? How are we going to keep making the mortgage payments? Who's going to take care of Shannon's college tuition?”
“I think it's ready,” he tells her. “The next thing is to get somebody to publish it.”
“That's great, sweetie,” Gina says. “Are you going to let me take a look at it, then?”
“Ah â¦ yeah, but let me just do a couple of things to it first.”
“I thought you said it was ready.”
“Just give me a week or so.”
Jack doesn't want to admit that he's a little scared. Somebody at a meeting of his writers' group said showing someone else your novel is like taking your clothes off in public. Jack hasn't given anyone a peek so far, even though this has caused some huffiness among the group. Gina knows only the basic story.
“You know I believe in you,” she tells him. “I wouldn't have signed off on this if I hadn't believed in you. Would I?”
That's the problem, he thinks. He's still sure she does, or mostly sure. What if he's wrong, though? How could he ever make up for all that squandered faith, if it turns out he was wrong?
“Soon,” he says, and then changes the subject.
“Have you decided yet about the reunion?” he asks.
“It's what, Saturday week?”
“Yeah. The fourth.”
Gina looks at him and shakes her head. “No, I don't think so, Jack. Is it OK with you if I don't? I just think it'd be boring, you know? Those people weren't my school friends. You all were almost out of high school when we moved here, remember? And I'm so much younger.” She grins.
“No, that's fine,” he tells her. “You know Milo and Cully and Mack, though.”
She shakes her head again. “I just don't think so. Is that OK?”
He says it is.
He hasn't told her yet about Jerry Prince.
He's now Gerald Prince, and he works for Mayfair Publishing. Kenny looked it up on the Internet. Gerald Prince is vice-president and senior editor, and he has his own imprint, a term Jack had to find in his dictionary. There are novels being published as Gerald Prince Books.
Everyone in the writers' group tells him he should have been trying to get an agent, although the ones he hears about from the retirees and rich wives who meet every other week seem to be less than satisfactory. He's become second-hand familiar with what one woman calls with great scorn “vanity agents,” who apparently get writers to send them money in advance to try to sell their books, and then do a piss-poor job of it. You wouldn't pay a plumber before he unclogged the sink, Jack said at one meeting, so why would you pay somebody you've never even met to sell your book before he's even lifted a finger? That was before he found out that three members had already employed vanity agents.
The real agents, everyone agreed, were very hard to get. No one in the group has been published, although there are much-discussed near missesâthe “interested” editor, the big-name agency that asks for the rest of the book, the friend-of-a-friend writer who promises to help and never delivers.
He has known for some time the general pace of Gerald Prince's progress in New York, through Gerald's mother bragging to his mother about it during their rare visits over the years. He was glad for the little boy who always seemed to need a defender when they were growing up.
Then, at some point, it hit him. Little Jerry Prince would publish his book.
It seemed preordained. Jack Stone has come to believe his whole existence, from the time he picked the old man up alongside the interstate, has been scripted. When people in the writers' group would talk about finding an agent, Jack was calm and quiet. He knew whence his salvation would come.
To ensure that Gerald Prince was coming to the 30
reunion of the Buster Gladden class of 1970, he called Gerald's mother and got his address. Jack's letter urged him to attend, lying that everybody wanted to see him after all those years.
Last month, long before Milo knew about it, Martha Sue Levins Bain, the reunion chairwoman, came up to Jack in the Food Lion, all excited, and told him that they were going to have a celebrity at the class reunion.
“You mean, other than me?”
“I don't know if making all-region 30 years ago really qualifies you,” she'd said, and he'd pretended to be hurt.
Jack looks up at the kitchen clock and sees that he's going to be late. He bends to kiss Gina goodbye as he wheels around her, tasting the sweet doughnut crumbs on her face. He picks up a napkin and wipes a couple off her lower lip.
“Mmm,” she says, “I love a man in uniform.”
He grimaces and walks out the door.
Jack Stone loves his family, and he's happy that Gina and Shannon seem to love their still new-smelling house. And he knows he has no basis for bitching about anything. He's the one who voluntarily cut his salary in half so he could do something about as sensible as drawing out their money, catching one of those gamblers' specials to Atlantic City, going to the roulette table and putting it all on red.
That was what Mike suggested when Jack first told his brother what he had in mind, noting that he had an almost 50-50 chance at the roulette wheel.
It could have been worse, Gina overheard a neighbor say at the Christmas party last year. He could still be driving an 18-wheeler. Although Jack never, of course, parked his rig on their cul-de-sac. It wouldn't have fit, for one thing. When he was driving for himself, they had two good late-model cars, and he could park the truck out at his mother's farm. Now, they have a 98 Honda Accord, a sometimes-ambulatory Chevy Cavalier that was Ellen's for the last 12 years of her life, and a UPS truck.
Jack thinks about the old man. He's been thinking about him a lot lately, about how he'd said writing might cause a person to give up some things, but that they were things you sometimes found you didn't need anyway.
Jack has so far given up one late-model car and a very good salary. He pays the mortgage, and Gina pays the rest of the bills. He's dipping a little deeper into the remainder of his cushion money, but he's still not worried.
They don't go out to restaurants as often, and Christmas isn't quite as lavish. They spent their last vacation at his brother-in-law's place on the Chesapeake, a week of sandwiches and all the crabs they could catch and eat. It just about ruined blue crabs for all three of them.
Still, Gina seems to be hanging in there, and Shannon complains less than many of her more well-appointed friends about any lack of material goods. Hell, they are living in a $200,000 house.
If this is what the old man meant about giving up some things, Jack is proud that the Stones are up to the test.
In my so-called formative years, I had a lot of time to make stuff up
Mike and Sandy were so much older than me, and Mom and Dad were always working
Sandy says I was incapable of boredom. Maybe not incapable, but there is something to be said for having to make your own entertainment
There weren't many other kids living along Humpback Road. I did play with Jerry Prince on occasion, but his mom didn't want her boy's best friend to be some truck-farmer's son, even if we did live right down the road from them
We hadn't even started first grade when Jerry's father left them. One of my earliest memories was of Dad coming in one evening and telling Mom, “Well, the son of a bitch did it.
They didn't know I was in the next room, kind of lost in my own little world, staring out the window and imaging I was standing guard, on the lookout for Germans. I kept quiet. Now I was a spy, stealing secrets from the enemy
I told you he was going to do it,” he told her. “I just never have trusted that fella. I believe he'd screw a snake if somebody would hold it and keep it from biting him.
I heard Mom shush him, but I heard her giggle a little, too
Years later, when I was home on leave from the Navy, Dad told me McCauley Prince had been known to bring young women into his office, that he even had a room in there with a bed in it. He'd told Arlene he needed it because some nights he would be working so hard he would just have to sleep over, couldn't get home at all
His office was right in the middle of Speakeasy, and from the way he acted, my father said, it was obvious he didn't really much care who knew what he was doing
Poor Arlene,” my mother said
Poor Jerry,” Dad said, and I came to think of Jerry Prince that way, although even with his father gone, he had more than most of the rest of us
One of the things I enjoyed doing, when I would get a rare invitation to their house, was playing with his electric football set. We would have been in first or second grade by then, and what we knew about football wouldn't have filled up a thimble. But we loved to set up the little red and yellow players facing each other with one of the offensive players holding the little cotton ball and his blockers set up in such a way that he wouldn't be touched by a defender
We had to be very quiet, because Arlene Prince didn't like noise, and the electric football game would eventually start vibrating and making this godawful metallic racket. That and our occasional screaming would eventually cause her to make us stop and do something “less nerve-wracking.
What more or less drove a wedge between Jerry and me was this stupid coonskin cap. It's the summer between second grade and third, and the other kids are already kind of picking on him, calling him “Princess” and stuff like that. He just seemed to not fit in. He was in sheer terror of getting his clothes dirty, and when it came to sports, his arms and legs seemed like they were screwed on backwards. And I'm taking up for him, most of the time, although any kid that age will run with the pack, go with the cruelty of the crowd occasionally
That summer, Jerry's mother had bought him a coonskin cap, like the one Davy Crockett wore on TV. Jerry didn't much care for it, and I did, so one day after he had worn it down to my house to play and was going home, he asked me did I want it. I said I sure did, and he gave it to me
The next morning, Arlene came wheeling up in our driveway
she drove everywhere
got out of her big old Buick and came marching up and banging on the front door
Mom answered, and Arlene told her that I had taken the coonskin cap away from Jerry, and that he wanted it back, and how much she hated a bully