Saturday, October 11, 2008

Novel in Need of a Name

Some years back I started a writing project I never finished. I worked on it, off and on, for well over a decade. I'd write a section then grow disillusioned with it or get writer's block and cease work. But I'd keep taking it up now and again writing a hundred words here, a thousand words there, tearing it all up and starting over almost from scratch, always keeping a couple of core chapters.

Lately I've taken it up again. This time, I'm going to finish it. Unfortunately, I have to retitle it. And this bugs the hell out of me, because I've always loved the title that I'd chosen. But this year there was a best selling book with the very title I'd picked for my book: BEAUTIFUL BOY.

Now, you can't generally copyright a title. That's why there are so many different novels with basically the same name. I could go ahead and use BEAUTIFUL BOY. But I hope to complete it very soon and get it in the hands of my agent. And I don't think it would do for him to go about trying to sell a book with the exact title of a recently successful book. So, at some point, I'll have to come up with a new name for this novel. But I'll cross that bridge once I've finished the manuscript.

Until then, here's a chapter from my ongoing project: BEAUTIFUL BOY.


Martin Braun had the phone to his ear before the third ring was but a nagging memory. He made an effort not to sound as groggy as he was, as if he had already gotten six hours of sleep and not two. But the plain truth of the matter was that he couldn't bear sleeping alone, and every night he faced a struggle to find the moment that would bring slumber; it was coming later each evening. "Hello?" He squinted at the digital clock on the bedside table, trying to read the crimson numbers without his glasses. What asshole would phone him at 3:30 in the a.m.?

"Martin." It was Amy, the companion missing from his bed, and from most of his day-to-day life. He still loved her, even if she no longer held such affection for him.

He sat up, his bare legs dangling over the edge of the thick mattress, pale skin hissing across clean sheets. "Amy? Are you okay? What's going on?" Martin's hand was a white-knuckled vise on the receiver, the plastic pressing too hard on his ear.

"Don't worry, Martin; I'm fine. I've just got a bit of an emergency here, and I had to call you." True to form: Amy was calm and businesslike even in an emergency at an ungodly hour. Her voice was even, although Martin could detect a bit of breathlessness beneath the words.

"You're upset. What's happening?" Already, he had the lamp on; his wire-rims perched on his thin nose, his eyes casting about for the location of his slacks.

"Well..." She paused, and Martin waited, wanting to hear what she had to say. He had never known Amy to be at a loss for words. He wanted her to ask him back home; but he knew she never would. At last, she continued.

"Someone knocked on my door about twenty minutes ago."

"Who the hell would knock at your door at three in the goddamn morning? Is somebody bothering you over there, Amy? I'll be right over!" Yes, he would come rushing over to kick ass and to save his woman who would fall into his strong arms and ask him to never leave.

"Martin. Martin! Calm down." She waited until she could hear his even breathing from the other end. "I went to the back door, and a little boy was there. I think he may have gotten lost in the woods, or something. And he just happened to come out here in the back yard, so naturally he came to my door and knocked."

"Lost?" He sat again, his legs once more dangling over the mattress. The bedsprings didn't utter so much as a squeak; he'd yet to break them in. “Is he alone? How old is he?"

"Yes, he's alone. At least, no one came up to the door with him. Unless you want to count that big redbone hound of Bill Sothern's."

"What? Big Sammy?"

"Yes. I think that's the one. The one Bill's so stuck on."

"I think the feeling's mutual there, hon." He heard her giggle, then cut the sound short, for there was the hint of hysterical hiding, just barely.

"I shouldn't laugh. The poor child was almost frozen. I got him into a tub full of hot water and got his temp up to normal and his extremities looking pink and healthy. But he may still have some problems from the exposure. He was soaking wet. Must've crossed the branch out behind the house." And his clothes. His clothes were like tissue paper, she wanted to say. His shirt and his pants all but came apart in my hands, she wanted to add. But she said nothing about these things. Not yet.

"How old is he?"

Again, there was a pause as Amy held her breath and, uncharacteristically, her tongue.


"I think he's about five. Five or so."

There wasn't a sob from her end, but Martin felt one growing in his chest. About as old as Tommy was, you mean? About the same age as our own little boy, you say? Kindergarten age: like our son, if he weren't dead? After a while, he cleared his throat having decided to hold up his end of the conversation. "Did he say who he is or how he got lost? Do you recognize him, at all?"

"No. I've never seen him around here, Martin. I don't think he's a local kid. Can't say why, really. Just a feeling.

"And he hasn't said much of anything." He called me 'Mommy. "He, uh, he's sleeping right now." I put some of our boy's clothes on him, Martin. You know I've kept them. I'll never throw them away; the one silly thing I allow myself. "And I'm thinking about calling an ambulance. Do you think I should?"

And still she hadn't asked him to come to her home, although it had once been their home. Martin's new place was only two blocks away.

"Wait for me to get there," he told her. "I'll hurry on over. Maybe we can just take him to the hospital ourselves.

"And we need to call the police. I think that would be best. Maybe they already know who he is. His family must be worried..." He couldn't hold back the sob. "They must be worried sick."

Before he could let her hear the tears, Martin hung up. He sat there on the side of his lonely bed, his head at his knees, crying until he'd let out a little more of the great reservoir of grief that yet remained after two long years.


They debated sensibly on the points of taking him over the mountain to Dalton, where the hospital was bigger and better--where there was more than one hospital, in fact. But Amy was an RN at local Methodist right there in Jasperton. And she felt fairly certain that there was nothing physically wrong with the child beyond a certain exhaustion and some minor exposure, which she had already taken care of. Nevertheless, it was the wise thing to transport the boy so that a physician could look him over. They took Amy's wagon, she sitting in the back seat, with the child, to watch over him and to hold the boy. She sat, eyes front; his small blond head was in her lap. Absently, her fingers felt through his golden hair, tracing haphazard patterns on his scalp. Trying very hard not to let them, memories of her son began to trickle through; threatening to break the flinty dam she'd built to hold them in.

She recalled a time when, reading Dr. Seuss to Tommy, he'd fallen to sleep, his head in her lap just so.

"Martin." She said it too loud, so that her former mate tensed at the sound, his breath sucking in through clenched teeth.

"What? What is it?" His first thought was that the child had stopped breathing.

"I...I think Dr. Welch will be on duty." She did not look down at the boy.

"What? What the hell are you talking about? You almost scared the shit out of me the way you yelled my name!"

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to blurt like that. I was just...I dunno." She did not want to look into the face of the child; the features might too closely resemble those of one she'd never again see.

"Bullshit, Amy. That's bullshit. Don't bullshit me." Martin clenched his jaw and glared at the road, watching the verge of town hissing past, looking for the entrance to the hospital. It was coming up, and he slowed to make the turn. "You're just thinking of Tommy. That's all. It's nothing to be ashamed of, and you just need to go ahead and admit it.

"I do it all the time."

"So I've noted."

He actually bit his tongue as they pulled up to the emergency entrance where a male nurse waited for them with a wheeled stretcher. Opening the door for Amy, the nurse nodded to her and spoke.

"This our little patient, eh? Just looks tuckered out to me." He offered his hands and made to lift the frail bundle.

Martin and Amy climbed out, helping to transfer the lost boy to the mattress. It was then that Martin finally noticed the blue and red strobing of the lights atop the ambulance and police cars parked nearby. "More excitement," he muttered.

Glancing back at Martin as she followed the other nurse and the child through the doors, she spoke to him. "Par for the course, Martin. It's all routine around here. Probably just another drunkard into some trouble."

"Not hardly," the other nurse said. "Not when the drunk in trouble is a cop."

"A cop? Who?" But the nurse shut up when he noticed Chief Brace standing inside the door, his jaw set and his eyes staring like two small, blue marbles. The wheels of the lorry jounced atop the grimy metal strip at the doorway and he hurried past the scowling policeman, taking the patient down the hall and into the glaring white.

Stopping there where the officer waited, Martin watched the retreating trio fade around the next corner, then heard as a curtain he could not see was drawn across a polished bar. The next muttered voice was a doctor he also could not see; but he wondered how well the physician knew his wife. Damn and hell. Tommy's death and their separation hurt more than he wished to say. But at least he had the guts to admit it to himself. Not like Amy. He glanced up at Chief Brace, and saw that the man was staring back at him, no smile on his hard, stubbled face. There was gray forming on the cop's temples; and Martin noted as he always did the bare nubs of fingernails that the policeman had bitten down to the quick and beyond, raw red edges alternately glittering red or browning with crusted blood near each fingertip.

"Who's the kid?" Brace's voice was rough--a gravelpit of sound from a throat made raw from the twin bad habits of screaming and chain-smoking. His subordinates often gawked in wonder, as he would yell at them, his filterless Camels somehow clinging to one lip or the other, but never falling out or spewing forth like the fine spray that anointed their cowed expressions.

"We were hoping that you'd know," Martin told him. " Amy found him at her back door tonight. Lost or runaway. We haven't talked to him yet.

"Do you have any missing children reports sittin' on your desk from the past day or so?"

"Nope." The cop's hand went for his breast pocket, but fumbled there as he recalled that he was in the emergency room and there was no smoking allowed. Even he drew the line there. His hand went on past to his mouth, though, and he amazingly found a hard nub of tenacious epidermis which came loose between smoke-yellowed incisors. There was a quick thp! as the morsel exited his thin lips and angled for the floor at light speed. Martin heard it impact on the gleaming surface, but he did not look to see where it landed.

The civilian waited for more communication from the cop, but nothing else spouted forth. "What will you do, now?"

Brace's eyes were slightly glazed, staring off someplace Martin could not see. "Hm?" He finally uttered the sound after some five seconds had passed.

"I said: 'What will you do now?'"

"I'll plug in a description of the boy at the VDT down at the courthouse and we'll see what comes up. We'll know who he is real quick." Brace cleared his phlegmy throat. "If there's been a report filed, that is. If no one's filed a missing child report, it might take longer."

"Surely the boy will tell us who he is." Somewhere, someone cried out for her 'goddamn Darvon, dammitall'.

Brace grunted, then cleared his throat again, but did not swallow. "Maybe. Maybe not."

"What do you mean?"

"If'n he run away, then why the hell would he tell us how to send him right back to the same damn place he done run from?"

Martin looked upon the police officer as if he had imparted some great gem of common sense. "Oh. Yeah. I hadn't thought of that."

That's why I'm a cop and you're a damn fool. "Don't you worry about it any more. It's our problem, now."

"Yeah. I reckon so." Martin cleared his own throat, shuffled a bit and looked about for a place to sit down. "What brought you down here, anyway?"

"Some shit." He said nothing else. At that point, Martin drifted toward an uncomfortable looking couch that had once been dark blue, but which was now fading to an organic black bruised with what he hoped was the brown of spilled coffee and not something less pleasant. He heard the twin doors that led to the cold outside hum open, and looking that way he saw Chief Brace stomp out where he began to inhale the filterless Camels, one after another.

He fell asleep watching the officer sucking the cancer sticks. Another nail. Another nail. Another nail...

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