You Can Call Me What You Like as Long as You Don’t Call Me

 

 

A sample of my short story ‘You Can Call Me What You Like as Long as You Don’t Call Me‘, about a reclusive former actor and politician who’s reluctantly propelled back into the limelight by a determined journalist.

–––––––––––––––––––––––

 

In his youth he was an inextinguishable flame; an irrepressible voice in the world of entertainment; a reasonable, level-headed voice in the world of politics. He’d been both an actor on screen and a performer in the presence of the media. But what’s happened to Roger Dreyfus, the former governor of California and star of the action-packed mega-hits Glorious Day, A Bridge to Brooklyn, and What’s In It For Me? Where is Roger Dreyfus?!

   That’s how the article began.

   His son had called him first thing that morning and told him about it. First he sighed, and then he panicked—as he did on a regular basis now—and shortly after he got off the call and calmed down, he drove to the nearest store (which took an hour to reach, because the local store which serviced the sparsely populated-but-large gated community in which he lived had burned down two days earlier) and picked up a copy of the magazine in which he’d been featured.

   Now, as he sat at the table in the spacious kitchen featuring the granite-top counter, the biggest fridge he’d ever laid eyes on, and the island in the middle of the room with the mahogany countertop, where dinner would be eaten (alone), he read the piece written by one Warren S. Franzen.

   He knew Franzen; had met him a couple of times, didn’t like him—thought he was too effeminate. He didn’t have a problem with ‘the gays’ as he called them. Heck, he’d been governor when they passed the bill. But he liked men to be men, irrespective of whom they shared a bed with.

   He remembered the first time he’d met Franzen: He was greeted by a short, skinny man who some would call stylish, although not Roger; Roger liked men who dressed like men; none of these skinny suits, no checked pants and bright pink shirts, and certainly no stupid hairstyles. Upon meeting him, Franzen first words were unintelligible; it was a combination of “Oh-mah-God”, “Whaaaat?” and a wail which had reminded him of the time his mother had put out her back when lifting their overweight bulldog all those years ago. And it wasn’t that Franzen wasn’t a nice guy—he would categorize him as a nice, amiable person—but he was too loud, too annoying, too camp. And Roger didn’t do camp. This didn’t deter him from being a Hollywood heavyweight for the best part of forty years; he just put up with the campness like one puts up with an old football injury that creeps up on you every now and then.

   Football, he thought. Now there’s a sport that fairy Franzen had never played.

   The thing was, Franzen adored Roger. There was of course the possibility that this was the result of an attraction; Roger was muscular, masculine, magnetic; his charisma was infectious, as were his handsome features. Plus, this piece wasn’t an attack on his character; far from it. It was a celebration of the man, and it was a calling:

   “Come back to us, Roger!” it said.

   And that was the problem precisely.

   Damn that little prick, Roger thought to himself.

   He’d worked hard to escape life in the public gaze. People, he’d concluded after all these years, were perverts. Obsessive, silly, perverted little cretins. He’d also acknowledged that this supposed perversion that he’d grown to despise was part of the reason he’d become so successful in the first place. But he hadn’t held on to fame; eventually he’d willed it away like a bad flu that wouldn’t clear. He’d been a major player in Hollywood and a political powerhouse, but all that changed four years ago. Nobody, apart from family (i.e. his son, not the ex-wife) and his few remaining friends, (one a controversial Libertarian economist, one a successful author, and the other a director with whom he’d collaborated on many occasions), had contacted him over the past four years. And when the aforementioned called him it was usually unwelcomed.

   So, the question was: why? Why was Franzen calling him out? And why now?

   As he sat in the kitchen reading the piece he grew more and more frustrated; with each word, sentence, paragraph, his anxiety levels increased. He licked a thumb and aggressively turned the page. He released a vexed groan. He cleared his throat even though there was nothing to clear: this was the ultimate sign that his anxiety had peaked: incessant throat-clearing.

   “Ah-hmmmm. Ummmmmm. Ah-hmmmm. Ummmmmmmm. Ummmm.”

   He sat reading the article in the cheap, gossip-filled entertainment column, as he emitted noises like a car struggling to start.

   When he reached the end of the piece the throat clearing stopped. This was beyond the peak: he’d never gotten past the throat clearing, it was always a downhill return to calm. He’d soared to unchartered territory—this was the next phase. He wasn’t sure what was going to happen. Perhaps his head would explode like it had in that movie he’d starred in back in the 80s (box office earnings: $120m). Perhaps he’d keel over and die of an aneurysm. Perhaps he’d leave the physical world but remain a living thing: a revelation that the key to transcendence was not calm, meditative conduct, after all, but in fact intense, silent rage.

   What happened surprised him. After reading the final paragraph, And this journalist’s mission is to find our beloved Roger Dreyfus. Bring him back into our lives. With everything happening right now in the entertainment industry, in politics, in America, we need Roger Dreyfus more than ever. So, to use one of his most famous lines: watch this space!, he calmly picked up his phone which rested on the table. He tapped the screen and unlocked the phone. He dialled the most recent number.

   As he waited for his only son to pick up, he recalled the scene in which he spoke those immortal words: Watch this space, he said, before blowing off a Saudi terrorist’s head.

   God, they’re easy, he thought.

   Almost three-thousand miles away, Rain Dreyfus looked at his vibrating cell phone. His blond-headed four-year-old kid was busy poking his father in the chin with a toy pistol.

   “Honey,” Rain called to his wife, who was sitting across from him reading the magazine which featured the article on her father-in-law.

   She stood up.

   “Come on, Sean, daddy has to talk to the crazy man.”

   Rain didn’t laugh; he rolled his eyes. This crazed man calling him was nothing more than an inconvenience: the only reason he’d told him about the article earlier was so the discussion about it would be on his terms. They barely spoke as it was, why was his father calling him after only talking with him a few hours earlier? After Sean was distracted by his mother, Rain reached for the phone, stood up, left the room, opened the back door and stepped out onto the patio. It was a sweltering Monday in Los Angeles—what’s new?

   “Yo, Pop.”

   “Rain.”

   The greeting was too calm, the voice too rational. He was expecting an explosion but  had instead experienced a lame fart.

   “What’s up, Pop?”

   “Franzen,” Roger’s calm voice said. “He’s still based in LA?”

   “I don’t know, Pop. Why would I know that?”

   “You’re good with the internet. Find out.”

   “Why? Why do you want to know?”

   Back in New Hampshire, in a dull kitchen that was too big for four people, let alone a single divorcé, Roger paused: whatever he had in mind, he hadn’t thought it through.

   “Pop?” he heard through the phone.

   “Ah, never mind. Forget it.”

   “Okay. Listen—”

   “I said forget it,” said Roger. “And don’t call me.”

   He hung up the phone and sat in silence in New Hampshire.

   In Los Angeles, Rain pocketed his phone and returned inside to his wife and kid.

 

***

A couple of days passed and Roger spent them in bed at the behest of his emboldened paranoia. He refused to answer the buzz of the gate which permitted entry to his property. Most of his neighbours were CEOs, bankers, not celebrities. This wasn’t a celebrity town; that’s why he’d moved here. He didn’t speak with the neighbours often, and many of the properties were vacant throughout the year. That was something he was thankful for.

   His phone had vibrated seventeen times in two days. That was more than it had buzzed in the preceding two months. The phone was a necessity; in case of emergencies and the need for food or alcohol when he was too lazy, or paranoid, to venture outside. Seventeen times in two days—certainly the article had led to some kind of activity, and if the calls were from anyone other than his son, the economist, the author, the director, or—God forbid—his ex-wife, then someone had gotten hold of his number. He knew that this was a distinct possibility; people had ways of getting anything they wanted these days. All it took was a little journalistic tenacity, and that was something Warren S. Franzen held in abundance.

   He would sleep and jolt awake following dreams filled with flashing lights and paparazzi. He would sweat and think about appearances on Jay Leno and David Letterman. His mind would drift and he’d find himself in conversation with Oprah yet again (he’d always hated Oprah). He’d recall the interviews, the fans, the autographs, the relentless demand and inquiry, and he would retch regularly.

   He’d only left his bed for three reasons: to eat, to visit the bathroom, and to check his Beretta M9, which his ex-publicist had purchased for him at his request ten years earlier (when his paranoia had first made its appearance). The pistol was loaded, always was. He’d fired it drunkenly a couple of times. A few other times he’d held it to his head. This was also a drunken act. He was only ever suicidal in the morning, or when he was drunk. So he didn’t drink very often, and he slept past noon on most days. He’d found that filling his days reading works by his favourite writers and watching lectures online was a good distraction from the noxious elements of life, or his head. He hadn’t had sex in four years, and it didn’t work anyway. He’d asked himself: when your cock goes, where does your pride go?

   On the third day he decided to revisit his original idea; the one he’d considered before calling his son a few days earlier. He retrieved the 9mm from the walk-in closet that was mostly empty, and placed it on the granite countertop in the kitchen. He showered, shaved and worked his penis to see if it did anything.

   It didn’t.

   In the bedroom he took his phone and texted Rain: Get me Franzen’s fucking address.

   When he returned to the kitchen he said aloud, “Who do I have to shoot in here to get a bourbon, neat?” He couldn’t remember if this was a line from one of his movies. There was no response, not even in his head.

   Under the winding staircase he rummaged in a box filled with miscellaneous items until he found what he was looking for: the bottle of 23-year-old Four Roses. Back in the kitchen he poured himself a glass of the bourbon and, with 9mm in hand, he rambled around the house. In the living room he urinated into the fireplace. In the dining room he upturned the table. In the home theatre—which he rarely used—he sat with his feet up and watched his most celebrated movie, A Bridge to Brooklyn. He hated it. He shot the pistol at the giant version of himself on the screen, piercing a neat, smoking-hot hole in his forehead; his aim was still good, even if his cock didn’t work anymore.

   His phone vibrated.

   He opened the message from Rain: 1842, Wells Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90046

   He returned to the kitchen and began to write on a single sheet of ruled paper. He spent some time writing the letter. He sipped his fifth glass of bourbon and thought about each sentence at length. When he was done he placed the letter in the envelope, licked, and sealed. On it he wrote: Warren S. Franzen, 1842, Wells Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90046

   He walked with dignity, despite his voluminous consumption of alcohol, to his study. He fingered from the library a copy of Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea.

   He sat at the island in the kitchen and read the short novel into the early hours, pouring the remainder of the bottle into the glass as he read the final paragraph of the widely celebrated work. After he absorbed the final few lines, having read them a number of times as he always did when finishing a novel, he closed the book and placed it on the mahogany countertop.

   He stood up, fixing his shirt neatly into his pants, and downed the remaining bourbon. He whispered to himself, “Watch this space,” as he raised the gun to his head and took a deep breath.

You know how I was gonna self-publish my novel?

Well, if ever I felt like a liar . . .

Earlier this year I excitedly announced that I would be self-publishing my debut novel, Leaving Sadie, in June. Then, as the month approached like a freight train bombing along the tracks towards our tied-up hero in an action movie, I realised that I needed more time to free myself from those restrictive ropes; i.e. I needed to make additional changes to the story, let alone finalise the book-cover design (wonderfully executed by Chloë Keogan), get an ISBN, and prepare the final manuscript for digital and physical publication.

To be crude about it all: I’d blown my load.

So I said I’d aim for an autumn publication date, with October being the definite deadline. I’d even contacted Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin over at writing.ie about promoting the work on the site, as I had promoted my old blog Sounds From a Dublin Cafe. And Vanessa — wonderfully supportive of emerging writers as she is — was happy to offer me a slot on the site. That was that: I was certain I’d self-publish the novel by October at the latest.

But.

I had some thinking to do: Had I truly exhausted the traditional road to getting a novel published? Definitely not: Off the top of my head I would guess I’ve approached around six or seven literary agents — 10 max. Now, most people interested in literature know the famous J.K Rowling story, and how her Harry Potter manuscript was rejected time after time: The road to publication or landing an agent is a long one, and for that you need patience — like waiting at a railroad crossing for that freight train to pass by.

Now, I’m someone who has plenty of patience when it comes to writing a novel; I know it takes a lot of time and isn’t something that should be rushed. I know that landing a publishing deal is incredibly difficult and that these things take luck and time; and the world of literature can be kind to the aging process.

Despite my patience for the writing and publishing process, I had decided that Sadie was what it was: my first effort writing a novel. Completing the first novel is the real achievement, I’ve read umpteen times; it means you’ve got what it takes . . . when it comes to the next novels. Many authors don’t see their first completed novel published, and many of those who do wince and shudder when asked about that usually inexpert-though-rich-with-potential first novel (think Haruki Murakami and Hear The Wind Sing).

Sadie was sitting on my computer; a learning process that instilled in me the confidence to go and write my next novel. There it would stay, in the dark, left untouched, without a reader to heap praise upon it or tear it to shreds. And that to me felt . . . wrong. I’d poured a lot of energy into that work. And more importantly I loved my characters, for their talents and their flaws, for their courage and their cowardice, for their demand to be brought to life on paper — to be heard by someone.

It was the characters screaming from the laptop or the cold, dark desk drawer, who prompted me to decide to self-publish. If the work wasn’t up to scratch — if it was clearly the work of a novice; a writer experienced in film and advertising but not experienced enough in long-form fiction writing — then I’d learn that through the feedback of readers, the most honest critics. Why not put it out there? It would be a valuable learning experience.

And as explained above, I made that decision and had planned on publishing the work by next month, following that premature release date.

But then something else happened.

An early draft of Sadie was given the editing treatment by a young, recently graduated editor in the U.S. back in 2016. The feedback was mostly helpful and informed the future rewrites of the manuscript. But the story had changed so much since that first edit that I had to consider whether or not to have another editor take the story apart and find the flaws and inconsistencies.

Originally I’d said, ‘No, no, this is what it is. I’ve rewritten and rewritten and it will go out in its current state.’ That was a tad naive of me, but I knew that: I knew it would be a risk to self-publish without the final draft getting the editor’s touch. But then I was contacted by a fellow writer and copywriter, who informed me that their published-author sibling was now editing as well, and would possibly be interested in looking at Sadie before I put it out there, at a very reasonable fee.

At first I said it was okay; I had made the bed, tucked in my plot and characters and kissed them on their way into the unknown. I could no longer protect them, they were ready to be unleashed and whatever was to come their way would come; I could only hope that I’d equipped them well enough to deal with it. Then panic sat in: what if the work is awful? I mean, I knew the work wasn’t awful: I’d had plenty of feedback (no, not just from the mother and girlfriend!), and when I compared my work to other emerging writers on workshop sites I knew there was real strength in my writing. But the structure, the character growth, the conclusion — these aspects of the story could benefit greatly from the eye of a published author and editor.

I had to pause the self-publishing plan and send it over to that editor.

And now?

Now I have the editor’s invaluable notes.

Now I see where the story needs work: it needs more work.

And now I have the belief that Leaving Sadie could very well find itself a home by going down the traditional publishing road; the feedback definitely suggests that.

So now I have to get back to work.

The novel wasn’t ready for self-publication, I have to accept that.

But it could be ready for a traditional publisher very soon.

I’m going to go down the road of finding an agent, because while there was great appeal in self-publishing the work, and while I spent money and time on preparing for self-publication (cover design, ISBN, etc,), and while I know I had input from people on WordPress and Facebook on the book cover (for which I’m forever grateful), I shouldn’t self-publish until I’ve fully exhausted every option available to me when it comes to finding an agent and a publisher.

And if I fail to find one after all this?

Well, I guess I’ll self-publish; only this time I’ll be driving the freight train knowing the cargo is in the best possible condition.

Anyway, the call for last orders has sounded. I’m off .

Until next time, I will be in the bar, with my head on the bar . . .