“Them that’s got shall get, them that’s not shall lose” God Bless the Child, Billie Holiday
This won’t be sentimental as such. I’ve read enough sentiment to realize love stories are like love songs. They have a beginning and an end. Paul McCartney doesn’t like them ending, but his are silly. That’s probably why John Lennon said Paul “only wrote yesterday.”
My love story ends with a text last New Year’s Eve. Kathryne sent it from New York saying, “Times Square is crowded and cold. I went into a Barnes and Noble and found your book. I read the dedication: To Kathryne.”
Let’s back up a bit, say, six years ago when we first met online. She told me her husband came home one day and said, “I’m leaving you for my high school sweetheart.” She said, “I thought I was your high school sweetheart.”
That’s what twenty-eight years of marriage gets you, folks. A punchline.
We were both divorcees, both a little gobsmacked. Love songs end. We sign onto a dating site. I asked Kathryne why she did it so soon. “I wanted to prove someone could want me, too,” she said. The rhythm struck me as a song, maybe a lyric I’d heard in the past: “But that was yesterday and yesterday’s gone.”
So we dated, we discovered each other, she read my stories and the English teacher came out in grammatical ways. “I love this, but…” Grammarians take love to a whole new level. You end up dazzled by their acute sincerity usually reserved for toddlers—until they start fussing with split infinitives.
I’m not a punctuation man. I knew I’d have to watch myself. When I told her I was writing a novel, she said, “What about?” I told her it concerned an old copywriter. I was doing contract work at an agency back in the 80s. One day I saw this gray-haired guy sitting in a corner office, smoking and take the occasional drink from a whiskey bottle.
He didn’t care. He was waiting to be fired.
“Wow,” Kathryne said. “So what happened?”
“He died,” I said. “But I’m wondering what would’ve happened if he hadn’t?”
So it began, the writer and the grammarian. I’d send her my chapters each day, and she’d send her comments back. “I love this, but…”
One afternoon she called and said, “I’m mad at you.” It could have been anything, really. I wasn’t the greatest boyfriend—unless you like catching a lot of split infinitives. I asked her why, anyway. “You won’t give Muller a chance. He’s got a wonderful heart and you treat him horribly.”
I told her Muller was a secondary character, an off-the-rack son-in-law.
“Still,” she said, “you don’t give people a chance.”
I went to bed thinking about that. You don’t give people a chance. Was it true?Was I harder on Muller than the others?
Even in the dull light of my computer, I knew she was right. You can’t go around treating your characters like spittoons. I had to go back and talk to Muller.
It was a long night, a deep discussion, more listening than talking on my part. We got through it all, and guess what? Muller grew on me. He grew on me like a silly little love song.
The next morning, I rewrote the early chapters and a different Muller emerged, a thoughtful, forgivable man. Over the next weeks and months, he became a lesson in human nature and spittoons.
When I sent what I thought was the last chapter to Kathryne, I said, “Am I done?” and she replied, “Yes, you’re done.” She drove two hours in traffic to bring me champagne. A year later, after a hundred and seventy-six rejections, she brought over another bottle of champagne. An agent down in the States finally agreed to represent me.
“Whooee!” Kathryne shouted on the phone. “I’m on my way!”
Well, love stories have their highs and lows, don’t they? They can’t all be silly little love songs. Mine became sadder than most when my agent, Peter, sent me an email. Attached was a note an editor friend sent to him: “Peter, we’ve worked together a long time. Normally, I trust your judgment. But I don’t see it here. I don’t find this book particularly funny.”
“Why aren’t you crying?” Kathryne said when she read it. I told her there was no point. “But your book is funny,” she said. I sent an email to Peter saying, “I don’t know what to do.” He responded with these words I’ve kept for posterity: “There’s no precipice here, Robert,” he wrote. “I still believe in your book.”
Four years later, Kathryne’s and my love story would end, much the way love songs end. We sent Christmas greetings and birthday wishes as my book went into distribution. It would be described as “funny but weird.” I’d found an audience, but the “funny and weird” don’t exactly populate the earth. As Peter would say, “Let’s hope we find enough for another printing.”
A box arrived at my door. Eight hardcover copies, smelling like a bookstore shelf, all glossy and new. I autographed one, sending sentiments to Kathryne in the form of “Thanks for all your kindness and hard work.”
She responded with “I’ll keep this for all time,” a promise I’m sure she’ll keep. Kathryne likes memories and, besides, some books you can’t give away.
Months of waiting followed, watching the numbers, hoping the royalty check wouldn’t be a joke. My former boss’s book earned him exactly ten dollars. I earned a few thousand. I’d lost Kathryne to a portly doctor who got stuck in the hatch of his boat. Kathryne’s terrified of the water. Imagine her sitting at the tiller with the doctor saying, “Take us in wing-to-wing.”
Which brings us back to New Year’s Eve, with Kathryne in New York, and me reading my second royalty statement. It said: “Royalties from sales: $11,429. Amount paid for returns: $11,429.” Books were coming back faster than they went out. My popularity was blossoming with the U.S. Postal Service. Not so much elsewhere.
The reviews were good, friends and family called my novel “funny as hell.” Sales rose and fell and one bookstore employee called it the “wandering book.” This is when a novel leaves the shelf and shows up somewhere else. People change their minds. I put it down to cost. An online book seller in Britain is still offering my book for $108.99. Shipping is another $10.00.
In Calgary, the three copies of my novel are always checked out of the library. “We have a waiting list,” the librarian told me.
I don’t know whether Calgarians have a better sense of humor or think my book is about a horse. You never know. When oil prices get low, I guess Calgarians turn to fiction. They’ve got the time, so do authors. We start seeing the postal service as a worthy occupation—at least more lucrative than what’s pushed through my mail slot.
It’s a shin kick in either case.
We may be writer’s of fiction, but we’re not in the big leagues. Fate has the real stories all wrapped up. When somebody like Bill Maher says, “I’m not making this up, folks,” he ain’t kidding. We’re slow hands, dead-eyed novices walking into the breach.
That’s what fate allows. Even love stories get tossed in the remainder bin. That’s fate, too. You have to hope you’re ahead of the returns.
That’s my love story. It might make a silly little love song, but I doubt it. I see it more as something Don McLean or The Everly Brothers would sing. You think it’s silly until you’ve heard it five or six times. Then you realize Suzie ain’t so sweet and Buddy Holly isn’t coming back.
Sort of like life as we know it, the song, the book, the love story.
Robert Cormack is a novelist, freelance copywriter and blogger. His first novel “You Can Lead a Horse to Water (But You Can’t Make It Scuba Dive) is available online and at most major bookstores. Check out Yucca Publishing or Skyhorse Press for more details.