The Guilty Party

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Would You Keep Reading?









Turn the Page
or
Close the Book?


I have been participating in a couple of writers' sites where member read and critique each other's work. It's a system that has its positives, but ultimately you are dealing with folks who have an agenda: namely to get their own work as much attention as possible. Understandable and pretty well unavoidable. But it makes it difficult to get a real Reader's Reaction.

So here we have the opening pages to my Novel In Progress, The Baer Boys. It has received a whole raft of "reviews" over the past umpteen months, but none of them have come from readers who approached as just that, readers.

What I am hoping for here is a bit of feedback. Did you like? Not like? Anything stand out? Anything you think should be thrown out? Boring? Enticing? But mostly what I would like to know is Would You Keep Reading? It can be as simple as a Yep or Nope.

Thanks so much.

Alan



The Baer Boys

Prologue

It's a great speech from what just might be the greatest play of all time. And I was doing it pretty darned well. Hell, from where I stood, which happened to be downstage center at the Angus Bowmer Theatre in Ashland, Oregon, home of one of the finest Shakepeare companies in the world, I thought I was nailing it.

To be, or not to be―that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
And by opposing end them?―To die,―to sleep,
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand...

“Excuse me,” A voice came from the dark. It was followed by the flick and snap of paper and a muffled whisper. “Ah, Mr. Baer?”

I shaded my eyes against the harsh white lights. It wasn't much help in seeing the person attached to the voice, but it's kind of a reflex when you're talking to somebody in the house.

“Darin,” I said. “Darin Baer.”

“Mr. Baer, have you ever made a decision?”

“Excuse me?”

“A decision,” said the voice.

“A decision?”

“About something quite important.”

“Sure,” I said. “I mean, of course I have. Lots of times. Should I start again from the beginning? Or just where I left off?”

“That won't be necessary,” said another voice from the dark. “Thank you very much.”

“I can put more decision in it,” I said. “Or indecision. Whichever you want.”

“Next.”

About two hours and five beers later I made a decision. I decided to go back to college. I was thirty-six years old and had been trying to make a living as an actor for almost twenty years. Six years at Western Oregon University and thirteen part-time jobs later I had my secondary education certificate.

Like they say, those who can do.

Those who can't, teach.



CHAPTER ONE

I was leaving, practically out the door, when the phone rang. I could have ignored it, just kept going. After all, it really wasn't my phone. But you know how it is with phones: they ring, we answer.

“Theater room, this is Darin Baer.”

“Oh good. I was afraid I might have missed you. Could I ask you to come to the principal's office?”

It was a voice that gets a man’s attention, the aural equivalent of a finely manicured female fingertip attached to a fine female tracing figure eights on your belly. In my experience such ravishing tones are most often distributed to women who are from a personal appearance standpoint strictly made for radio, or, as in this case, the telephone. To be fair, the same can be said for a lot of guys, yours truly being a prime example. I've been told more than once that I can sound more charming that Hugh Grant and darned near as suave as Cary Grant (come on, nobody can beat Cary at suave), but the bathroom mirror reminds me every day that I'm a skinny guy with lopsided shoulders and eyebrows that for some perverse reason have started to go if not exactly bushy at least kind of multidirectionally wiry.

“The principal’s office?” I said.

“You will find it just past the counselors’ office, at the end of the hallway,” said the Voice. “One of the ladies in the front office can direct you.”

“I'm on my way.”

I didn't need directions to the Westview High principal's office. I had been there before, just not recently. I paid my share of official visits to Principal Sturdevant's office during my career as a student. The person doing the summoning back then was Sturdevant’s secretary, Mrs. Crumbkaeuer, a wizened apricot pit of a woman who, according to school lore, was something over one hundred years old and drank a quart of Johnny Walker Black Label each and every day. Her age may have been exaggerated, but, judging by her voice, which was gravelly to the point of boulder-strewn, a couple of fifths and a carton of Camels might have been a closer estimate of her daily vices ration. Or maybe the woman never touched a drop or lit up at all and her voice was just a genetic fluke and we were all being cruel and judgmental teenagers, I don't know. But it wasn't a fingertip on the belly sort of a voice.

I locked up the theater room and headed for the administration building.

The office was hopping with kids, support staff and a few lost looking parents. I didn’t see Mrs. Cahill, the lady who had sped me through check-in that morning, registering my presence so I could get paid the ninety-two dollars and forty-eight cents that is the daily stipend for high school substitute teachers. She had also given me the keys to the theater room. Now nobody said boo as I went past the counters, around a corner and down the hall. I figured The Voice, if she was stationed in the same spot Mrs. Crumbkauer used to stash her scotch, should have her desk in the big open area at the end of the hall, just outside the principal’s office.

There was a desk but it was unattended so I couldn't see if my Ravishing Voice/Lumpy Exterior theory held up in this case. But whatever the current secretary looked like, she certainly kept a nice, clean desk. Nothing on top of it but a computer monitor and a telephone. I looked for a name plate; every desk in a school office has the occupant's name displayed on or above it. Except this one didn't.

“Is that you, Mr. Baer?” It was The Voice, this time combined with a faint background of music. It took me a second before I realized the voice and music were coming from the phone on the desk. An intercom.

“That's me. I mean, I'm me.” I waved at the phone. “I'm here.”

“Please, come on in. The door just to your right.”

I stepped into the sound of a string quartet and the look of professional success. The walls of the office were covered chair-rail high with deep-toned wood paneling. From paneling to ceiling the walls were painted in a greyish-green, with some sort of dimensional treatment to it. Thanks to a short term live-in relationship I had with an ambitiously domestic—hence the short term—female named Rachel, I've seen enough decorating shows on television to know a mysterious technique had been applied, but I didn't pay close enough attention to be able to tell you its name. Along one wall of the office were what I think are called lawyer's bookcases, the kind with beveled glass doors hinged at the top. In the middle of the floor was a plush looking oriental rug and in the middle of the rug was a massive desk with carved detailing. Everything in the office, with one exception, gave off an aura of refined, confident masculinity.

The exception was the woman standing behind the desk. There was nothing even remotely masculine about her.

She had shoulder length chestnut hair framing a face that, if I had been casting a film requiring a Helen of Troy, would have been overqualified. She was wearing a conservative dark blue suit and a buttoned to the top cream colored blouse, but it was pretty obvious that underneath was a figure that would have launched an armada or three all by itself.

She pointed a tiny remote control at one of the bookshelves and the string quartet faded.

“I can’t seem to get anything but the classical station,” she said. It wasn’t an apology, more a statement of fact. She came around from behind the desk and offered her hand. I can't identify perfumes any better than I can paint treatments, but I'll tell you this: she smelled good. “It is nice to meet you, Mr. Baer,” she said as we shook hands. “My name is Natalie Willoughby. I am the principal here at Westview.” The principal was The Voice. So much for my Rule. She gestured to a chair in front of the desk. “Please, won’t you have a seat?”

I sat.

She sat. On the edge of the desk. For about half a minute she seemed to be studying me. I tried to look worth studying.

“Mr. Baer,” she finally said. “I want you to know how much I appreciate you helping us out on such short notice.”

“I'm a sub,” I said. “That's my job. Besides, I live just a few blocks away.” I motioned vaguely in what had a one in four chance of being the direction of my home. “I am sorry about missing first period.”

“Well, that certainly was not your fault,” she said, which was true. Usually I get called for my substitute jobs either the day before or at least a couple of hours before school starts. This morning the call had come just in time for me to make it in by second period.

She crossed her legs. She had freckles on her knees. Perfect, shapely knees with a faint sprinkling of freckles. I know I shouldn't have looked, but there they were, those knees and those freckles and I've got tell you it was a killer combination.

“Mr. Baer, are you all right?”

From the tone in her voice it registered that maybe she had said something before that, but I had no idea what it was.

“Hmm? Oh, absolutely. Doing great.” I tore my gaze away from her knees but wasn't quite sure where to redirect it. The first place my eyes landed was her chest, which, although it had at least a couple more layers of fabric between it and my eyes than her knees did, was obviously not a wise choice for lingering. I redirected and found myself focused on a bookcase behind her. The hardware was highly polished brass. Nice bookcase.

“Your day went well?” she said.

Ah, maybe that was what she had asked while I was distracted by her knees.

“Oh, absolutely. It was great. Just great.” Which was, from a substitute teacher's perspective, true. You know how pilots say any landing you can walk away from is a good one? Well, for a substitute teacher any day you make it through with your will to live intact and the inclination to lobby Congress in favor of mass sterilization kept in check is a great day.

I didn't so much see as sense that she had started to swing one foot back and forth. Like it was calling me back to her legs. This was not fair. It was kind of exciting, but if I wanted to continue getting substitute teacher gigs in this school district that sort of exciting I didn't need.

“I understand you applied for a teaching position with Mesa Schools and there were no openings at the time.” She leaned forward just a bit and tilted her head ever so slightly to one side. Stage left tilt. Christ.

“Well I did just move back to town a couple of months before the semester started,” I said. “I'm sure it was kind of late to be raising my hand.”

She slid down off the desk, giving me a brief glimpse of maybe two more inches of leg above the knee, then went around the desk. She sat and referred to something I could not see on her computer monitor although I really wasn't trying that hard. My mind's eye was replaying her sliding off of and walking around the desk, complete with a Jobim soundtrack. Maybe our first date should include dancing.

“Mr. Baer,” she said, and hesitated.

“Darin,” I said, taking advantage of the pause. “If that’s okay, I mean. I would use that old line about Mr. Baer being my father’s name, but everybody calls him Art. Short for Arthur. Darin’s not short for anything. It’s just Darin.”

Forty years old, okay, forty-two as of last April, and a pretty woman was making me babble. Admittedly, an extremely pretty woman, but still.

Principal Willoughby looked at her computer monitor again. Probably trying to hide a case of eye rolling, I thought. She turned back, looking nicely composed.

“I see from your resume you have quite a bit of professional experience in the theater.”

I shrugged what I hoped was a charming, self-deprecating kind of shrug.

“Just regional stuff,” I said. “Not exactly the Great White Way.”

“Isn’t that boxing?”

“Isn’t what boxing?”

“The Great White Way.”

“Actually, that’s Broadway.”

She nodded and bit her lip. I won't even bother to tell you my assessment of the attractiveness of her lip biting. “What was I thinking of?”

“Great White Hope?”

“That must be it.” She turned back to the computer. “I also see that you were voted best actor right here at Westview.”

“Twice, actually. Junior and senior years. I think it was the first time that happened here.”

“And apparently,” she said. “no other student has matched that accomplishment since.”

I was the holder of a twenty-five year record at my old high school. For the briefest moment I felt kind of proud. But let's face it, unless you happen to be a female gymnast reaching your peak at the age of seventeen could be considered more than a little sad. Hell, even Willie Loman peaked later than that.

“Well,” I said. “I don't really like to live in the past. Here and now, that's my philosophy.”

There's acting with a script and then there is improvisation. It's all acting.

“A commendable attitude,” said Principal Natalie. She put a fingertip to her chin, leaned in and asked, “Do you happen to know Ms. Daviot?”

“Daviot?”

“Maureen Daviot. Our theater teacher. The one you substituted for today.”

“No, I haven’t had the pleasure.”

“She turned in her resignation on very short notice. By email. I’ve tried to get in touch with her several times but haven’t had any success.”

“Just up and gone?”

“That's the way it looks.”

“That’s a shame.” Not really. Not if it meant a few more days of gainful employment for me. Gainful employment in the vicinity of the world's most beautiful school administrator. “If there’s anything I can do to help.”

“As a matter of fact,” she gave me another look of assessment, “there is. Would you possibly consider accepting the position of permanent substitute drama teacher?”

“Permanent substitute?”

“Essentially it means you would take over Ms. Daviot's classes for the remainder of the semester.”

“So I'd be like a real teacher?”

“In a way. I am afraid it only means a fifteen percent increase over the regular substitute rate.”

Not quite real teacher pay, but it would put me dangerously close to three digits a day. For me these were giddy financial waters.

Principal Natalie seemed to mistake the cause of my hesitation. “I know it’s probably not what you have been hoping for—“

“Hey, it's great. The theater department is mine and I get a raise.”

“It is just for the rest of the semester you understand. But if things go well it could work to your favor in securing a regular contract.”

From where I sat things were working in my favor already.


No comments:

A Bit About Me

My photo
I am a writer with a longtime interest in photography. I'm a dad, husband, photographer, and not very good guitarist. My first novel, Boomerang, is available in both paperback and ebook form at Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Smashwords.com. As a matter of fact, my second novel, The Baer Boys, can be found at exactly the same places.