Thursday, September 07, 2006


In 2005, I was invited--out of the blue--to be a "featured writer" at one of the country's oldest writing conferences, the North Dakota Writers Conference. This came as something of a shock, since I'm barely published & no one knows who the hell I am, but the organizer had heard me on NPR discussing my CD & thought it would be nice to have a writer who is not limited to fiction. Anyway, they flew me to Grand Forks, put me up in a hotel, assigned a grad student to be my "handler," & asked that I give a reading/performance & sit on two panel discussions. It was all very disorienting & I felt like a complete imposter the whole time. This experience inspired the novel I am working on now, called "The Writer." Here is the first chapter...

Somewhere between take-off and landing, Shriver had lost his ability to read. Floating above the clouds in the American Airlines Dash-8 twin-propeller plane, row 9, seat A, he gazed upon the handwritten pages he was planning to read from at the conference, and his eyes failed him. The words began to blur and then merge together, the little blue letters piling up into one thick mass of ink. He blinked, and blinked again. He took off his glasses, retrieved a handkerchief from his coat pocket, and wiped his eyes. He took another sip of whiskey and cola, let the sweet concoction glaze his throat. He peered out the window, and everything came back into sharp focus. The clouds below were white with highlights of pale blue. In between he caught glimpses of flat prairie divided into vast squares by service roads. Relieved, he looked back to the page, but the words again began to collide with one another. He turned to the passenger sitting next to him, a corpulent lady sleeping with her mouth open. The details of her fleshy face were clearly defined, down to the individual black whiskers above her lip. Back to the page: a blur. He grabbed the in-flight magazine from the seat pocket in front of him and opened to random pages. THE TEN BEST GOLF COURSES IN THE U.S. . . . SHOPPING FOR ANTIQUES IN SAVANNAH. . . MALLS OF AMERICA. He shut his eyes and breathed. This was clearly some trick of the mind. Or perhaps it was pre-emptive karma for the bad joke he was about to play.

Six months earlier, there had been a letter. Dear Mr. Shriver, it began beneath the letterhead of a small, liberal arts college situated in the middle of the country. As coordinator of ------- College's annual writers' conference, I would like to officially invite you to attend this year's event as one of our featured authors. At this point, Shriver had had to reexamine the envelope to make sure the letter was not intended for someone else. But there was his name, his address, all correctly labeled. Very strange. Though your work has been controversial, even divisive, my colleagues have decided that you would be a valuable addition to this year's event, especially since the theme of this, our 30th anniversary as one of the country's premier literary conferences, will be LITERATURE AS CONFRONTATION. The consensus is that few living writers would be more appropriate to grace our stage this year than you and the other invited guest authors. There followed some details about the event, including a vague outline of what would be expected of him—a one hour reading, a panel discussion, an informal meeting with students from the university. Of course, the writer continued, in between these scheduled events you will be free to attend readings and panels by our other featured authors, and to enjoy the many planned receptions.

The letter had been signed, Best wishes, Prof. Simone Cleverly, and was accompanied by a self-addressed stamped envelope to be used for Shriver's reply. I understand you do not have a telephone, Professor Cleverly wrote in a post script, and so we are left this old-fashioned, and somehow appropriate, channel of communication—namely, writing. Nevertheless, if you have any questions, please feel free to call.

Shriver had put the letter down on the bed, which was where he read all his mail, and stroked the furry neck of his trusty tuxedo cat, Mr. Bojangles. Who would take the trouble to play such a strange practical joke on him, he wondered. He thought of his old friend Cecil Wymanheimer, but wasn't he dead? Or it could have been Boyd Hart, his old college roommate, who once arranged a date for him with a rather convincing transvestite. But he hadn't spoken to Hart in twenty-five years, at least. He would have to write some letters, find out who was still around and capable of such trickery. In the meantime, to show he was a good sport, he scribbled his acceptance on a sheet of legal paper, stuffed it into the envelope and mailed it off. It will be my pleasure, he wrote, to attend your prestigious conference. I only hope I do not disappoint you. To his surprise, a few weeks later he received more information about the conference, as well as round-trip air tickets. We are pleased that you will be able to attend, Professor Cleverly wrote in an accompanying note. And don't worry about disappointing us—your mere presence is a great victory for the conference. Whoever was behind this, Shriver thought, was certainly resourceful and determined.

The reason Shriver was so suspicious of the invitation was that he was not a writer at all. He had never written any books, had never written a page of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, drama—he had never even written a screenplay. The only writing he was capable of was the occasional fan letter to his favorite newscaster, Tina LeGros, of the Channel 17 Action News Team. But in the past week, when he began to realize that he may actually be expected to read something out loud to a large group of people, he'd set about composing a story that had been fermenting in his brain for as long as he could remember. This was the story he was now trying desperately to read aboard Flight 1010.

When he opened his eyes and looked again at the sheet of paper on which he knew there was a full page of script, the words once more became scrambled, as if the page itself had crumpled into a ball. He finished his drink, rolling an ice cube around his mouth to suck up the last of the whiskey. He wiped his forehead with the handkerchief and gazed out the airplane window. Just a few feet away a propeller whirred invisibly. Down below, the clouds floated on the air like shaving foam on water. Some resembled animals—a duck, a sheep, a sleeping cat. That one there looked like the face of his ex-wife, with her typical expression of impatience. He felt a deep, burning sense of shame as she glared at him from a mile away, mocking him. He had considered sending her a card, telling her about the conference. He even wrote one out, using a nonchalant tone to inform her that he had been invited to a prestigious literary event as a guest. But he'd thrown it away, worried still that it was all a hoax—perhaps perpetrated by her!—and, besides, she would never believe him. You're not a writer, she would say in that voice that could cut a diamond in half. It had been many years since she'd walked out on him, self-consciously slamming the door behind her, as if making some kind of profound statement about marriage and love and the differences between men and women, when what she was really doing was just slamming the door.

He pressed an overhead button and, moments later, the flight attendant arrived wearing an expression of amused inconvenience.

"May I order another whiskey and cola?" Shriver asked.

There had been little correspondence from Professor Cleverly in the intervening months. She wrote once to inform him that she had ordered several dozen copies of his book—a book he'd never even heard of—to be sold at the conference, and expressed hope that he would make himself available to sign them. Then just last week he received a brief note from her reminding him that someone would be dispatched to pick him up at the airport, and that if he had any trouble traveling—any delays or other unforeseen problems—that he should call her immediately at the number provided. At that point Shriver finally began to realize that this may not be a hoax at all, but some huge misunderstanding. His letter to Boyd Hart had been returned, stamped ADDRESS UNKOWN. And he had not even bothered writing to Cecil Wymanheimer, who he'd since remembered had definitely died ten years ago, in a freak moped accident. There was simply no one else he could think of who was resourceful enough to have engineered such a trick.

Somewhere in this world was a writer named Shriver who was expected at this conference, but it was not him.

It was then that he had decided to take up a pen and see if he could write something presentable to an audience expecting to hear a real writer's work. He fluffed up his pillows and sat up in his queen size bed. After shooing away the ever-curious Mr. Bojangles, he set a legal pad of yellow paper on his lap and stared up at the watermark on the ceiling. The watermark had been there since the rainy day his wife walked out on him. He wrote "The Watermark" on the top of the first sheet of paper. He stared at the ceiling some more. After a while, he wrote, "The watermark appeared on my ceiling on the rainy day my wife walked out on me." He went on to describe the unique aspects of the mark, surprised to find that he enjoyed setting down his thoughts and ideas on paper. He was tentative at first, writing in small fits and starts, but after a few hours he found a rhythm and was unable to stop until many hours later, when he was exhausted and hungry. He woke up the next day and the same thing happened. The words seemed to flow out of him, as if he were a natural writer. This continued right up through yesterday, when he achieved a sort of fever pitch as his story raced to a climax. At midnight last night he scribbled the words "The End," then collapsed. Mr. Bojangles, freed from his banishment to the far side of the mattress, climbed onto his chest, curled up, and fell sleep.

Fortunately, Shriver had woken up on time this morning, quickly threw a few things into an old suitcase, stuffed the handwritten pages of his manuscript into his jacket pocket, poured a salad bowl full of dry cat food for Mr. B, and left his apartment.

Standing outside the door, he'd searched in his pocket for his keys. They were not in his pants, nor in his suit coat. He went back inside and stepped over the cat, who was sitting at the threshold, already awaiting his master's return. Shriver then proceeded to rummage around the apartment, looking under the many stacks of newspapers on tables, beneath the piles of clothes on the bed, peering into drawers and cupboards, eventually tossing everything onto the floor in a fruitless attempt to find his keys. He sat in a chair and tried to recall the last time he'd used them. He could not remember, but it couldn't have been that long ago. He glanced at the clock and, realizing he might miss his flight, he surrendered. He would just have to leave the door unlocked.

Out in the hallway, as he waited for the elevator, he could hear Mr. Bojangles mewing behind the closed--and unlocked—door. It was a sad and pathetic sound, and he had to cover his ears until the elevator finally arrived.

When he reached the ground floor, he did not recognize the building's main lobby. Were those mirrors there the last time he went out? That sofa and matching chair near the entrance? The night doorman, still on duty at this early hour, looked at him with his battered old suitcase as though he were a burglar leaving the scene of a crime.

"Who are you?" the doorman asked.

"I'm Mr. Shriver," he replied. "Will you tell Vinnie"—the morning doorman—"I will not be needing my newspaper for the next few days?"

The doorman continued to scrutinize him closely. "Your apartment number?"


Shriver debated whether or not to inform the doorman that his apartment door was unlocked. Observing the man's suspicious demeanor, he decided against it.

"Oh!" the doorman exclaimed. "Mr. Shriver. There's a car waiting for you outside."

"For me?"

"Yes, sir." The doorman gestured dramatically, like a master of ceremonies on a stage, toward the revolving door. Through the glass Shriver could see a rusty old town car parked at the curb. The doorman took up Shriver's bag and, with a show of strain, followed him out the door.

Out on the sidewalk a fresh pre-dawn breeze cooled Shriver's sweating face. The street looked very different compared to his view from his sixth floor apartment window. Billowy trees formed a pleasant green canopy over the cars parked up and down the block, blotting out the slowly lightening sky. At this early hour, there was an eerie calm, broken only by the far-off hum of traffic on the highway. The doorman grunted as he hoisted the suitcase into the town car's open trunk. The driver, a tall, dark man with a bushy beard that appeared fake, slammed the trunk shut, then opened the back door with a flourish.

"Have a nice trip, sir," the doorman said, tipping his cap.

Shriver searched in his pocket and retrieved a quarter. He handed the coin to the doorman and said, "Thank you," then climbed into the back seat. The driver stood on the sidewalk for several minutes, talking with the doorman. Shriver strained to hear them, but the window was closed, and the engine was shut off so that he could not open it. The two men laughed and shook their heads, giving Shriver the distinct impression they were talking about him. Then the driver climbed in behind the wheel, started the car, and pulled into the street. Moments later, they merged onto the heavily trafficked highway.

Shriver sat back and watched the city flash by, lit by the red-orange rays of the rising sun. How strange to be moving so fast, he thought. He could not recall the last time he'd been in an automobile speeding down a highway like this. And only a few hours later here he was moving even faster, at several hundred miles per hour, thousands of feet in the air. Perhaps that was why his eyes were playing tricks on him: perhaps his vision was five hundred miles behind him, trying to catch up.

When the flight attendant brought his cocktail, Shriver shut his eyes and took a long, slow sip. A warm wave rolled down his throat and into his belly. From there he felt it move out in a tingling diaspora to the inside of his skin. He sighed loudly, licked his thick lips, then turned to the pages again, with no luck. The words were a train wreck. He was struck with the thought that it may be due to the booze. Could resuming drinking after a long hiatus alter one's perception like this? His frontal lobe did feel slightly numb. He considered not taking another drop of the stuff, then proceeded to drink down the entire whiskey and cola in one delicious gulp.

He turned again to the lady beside him. She continued to sleep, her melon-shaped head resting on her voluminous bosom.

"Excuse me," Shriver said, touching her pudgy elbow. "Ma'am?"

The lady snorted awake, her eyes bulging. "What is it?!" she cried. The people across the aisle turned to look.

"I'm sorry," Shriver whispered.

She looked at the empty miniature bottle of whiskey on his tray table. "Do you need to go to the lavatory?" she asked, commencing the elaborate preparatory motions necessary to remove herself from her seat.

"No, that's not it," Shriver said. "I was just wondering if you could do me a favor."

She stared at him without comprehension.

"I was wondering," Shriver continued, "if you can read this." He held out the pages for her to see.

She looked at them suspiciously. "You want me to read that?" she asked.

"No, I don't want you to read it. I just want you to tell me if you are able to read it. Is it legible?"

She tilted her head to see the top page more clearly.

"Is it comprehensible?" Shriver asked.

She squinted. "Well, the handwriting is pretty sloppy."

"But you can decipher it?"

Caught up in the assignment now, she set the tip of a finger on the top of the page.

"'The Watermark.'"

"Yes, that's right," Shriver said.

"'The watermark appeared on my ceiling…on the rainy day my wife walked out on me.' Is that right?"

"Thank you very much!"

"Can’t you read it?" she asked.

"Oh, I'm just having some trouble with my eyesight. Getting old, I guess. Thank you again."

"Say," the lady said, her eyes narrowing, "are you that writer? The one who's speaking at the conference?"

Shriver froze. For days now he'd worried about the moment he would have to take on the role offered to him. But he hadn't expected it to arrive quite so soon, and certainly not here, on the airplane.

"Yes!" the lady exclaimed. "I recognize you from your picture!"

"My picture?"

"It's in the brochure. Here."

She reached under the seat into a large, bulky shoulder bag of the kind woven by Guatemalan peasants and produced a folder, inside of which was an envelope-sized brochure for the conference. On the cover were photos of the various featured authors.

"That's you!" the lady shouted, pointing to a photograph of Shriver, taken several years ago, though the resemblance was clear. "Oh, this is very exciting!"

"May I see that?" Shriver asked. She handed him the brochure. Where on earth had they found that photo of him? He was fairly sure that his ex-wife had taken it. He'd lost a bit of hair since then, he noted sadly, and his face was now more jowly, but other than that he had not aged much. The main difference was that he looked happy in the photograph. Behind him hung the pale curtains that still covered his windows.

"I come to the conference every year," the lady said. She was all smiles now, her cheeks breaking into dimpled slabs of dough. "I'm also a writer. Oh, not like you, not nearly so talented and interesting. I write romance novels, mostly, but I have this one project, a memoir, that I'm trying to publish."

Inside the brochure were brief biographies of all the featured writers. Under Shriver's name it said, One of America's most controversial authors, his novel Goat Time remains one of the most widely read of the past quarter century, with sales of more than one million. Though he has not published a follow-up novel in the subsequent twenty years, Shriver remains one of our most revered and popular chroniclers of the American absurd.

"I have a very interesting story to tell," the lady continued as she searched through the many items in her bag. "I was once involved in a sort of harem with this biker from Utah. I spent a couple years there, doing drugs and participating in sex orgies. To tell the truth, I'm sort of surprised no publishers have expressed interest in my memoir."

"Yes," Shriver said, still reading. His long list of honors includes the Federal Book Award, the Outer East Coast Inner Critics Circle Award, the Publishers Prize, and numerous others.

"I have copies of the manuscript, if you'd like to take a look. Maybe you could help me find a publisher."

A two-inch thick bound manuscript was thrust into Shriver's hands. On the cover, in large letters, was the title, Harem Girl, and in smaller letters, the subtitle, My Life as a Sex Slave, A Memoir by Delta Malarkey-Jones.

"Don’t worry," Delta Malarkey-Jones reassured him. "It's a quick read. I would say I hope you're not offended by graphic sex, but I figure you're probably not, so..."

"I'm not?" he asked.

She pulled from her bag a beat-up hardcover copy of Goat Time. On the cover was a crude drawing of a satyr. "I think it's refreshing to read your work," she said. "Hardly anyone writes about real stuff like you do. You know—real sex stuff."

"May I see that?" Shriver asked.

"Maybe you could sign it!" she shouted as she handed the book over.

This was the first time he'd glimpsed a book by this apparently famous Shriver fellow. He had not patronized book stores or libraries for many years because the smell of all those slowly rotting books produced in him the need to go to the bathroom. It was an instantaneous reaction. He kept no books on his shelves for that very reason. He read only newspapers, which, oddly enough, did not have the same effect.

He opened Goat Time to the inside back cover, handling the book gingerly, in case the sudden urge to defecate came upon him. There was no author photograph. The brief biographical note stated, simply, that the author lived on the east coast.

Delta Malarkey-Jones produced a fine-point pen. "I would really appreciate it."

Shriver turned back to the title page. He thought it very odd that he'd never heard of this famous author with whom he shared a name. Then he glanced at the dedication page. He squinted to read the few words there, but they broke into small black pieces, like ants marching across the page.

"You can just put 'To Delta,' plus whatever you feel like," the lady said.

He turned back to the title page. The words, set in larger type, were barely legible. He wiped his brow and wrote, "To Delta, she of row 9, seat B, on this day in May," then he signed his name with a flourish.

"Thank you so much!" Delta Malarkey-Jones said, holding the book aloft. "One of these days I'm going to finish it, too. Hey-- I can't wait for your reading day after tomorrow!"

"That's very nice of you to say." Shriver had been worried that no one would show up, since he was a complete unknown, or at least a fraud. Now it turned out he was quite famous and sought-after. A tiny moth of anxiety fluttered inside his chest. He closed the book and handed it back.

"You can hold on to my memoir," she told him. "I have a bunch. My address is on the front."

"Yes, thank you," Shriver said, squeezing the thick manuscript into the seat pocket in front of him. "I'll read it later, if you don't mind."

"Are you staying at the Hotel 19?" she asked. "Most of the writers stay there during the conference. I take the same room every year. I reserve it months ahead of time. Room 20. In case you need to find me," she added, winking.

"Uh, I'm not sure where I'm staying," he told her.

She grinned and said, "I'd love to discuss those scenes with you."

"Which scenes?"

"You know—the sex scenes. They were very…imaginative."

"Yes," he mumbled. "Perhaps."

After a moment, during which his neighbor settled back into her seat with a series of contented sighs, Shriver turned his attention back to his story. He glanced quickly at the first page, then looked away. For that split second the words appeared to be arranged normally. He breathed a little easier. He had to get this situation under control. There may be a lot of people at the reading, if this lady was any indication. He looked back at the first page, this time for several seconds before turning away. Again, the lines of script were there, poorly handwritten, perhaps, but legible.

Up to this point the flight had been quite smooth, but now there was some jarring turbulence. The airplane appeared to have descended somewhat, and was now skimming just above the clouds. Shriver gripped the armrests as the fuselage shook and rattled, reminding him of that old town car this morning as it bumped over potholes on the highway.

The driver, with his seemingly artificial beard, had been quietly efficient. Occasionally he would blurt out something in a brittle tongue, and Shriver would answer, "Excuse me?" only to realize the man was speaking an entirely different language into some kind of headset. Throughout all this, Shriver noticed, it seemed that the vehicle was moving independently of the steering wheel. The driver would constantly turn the wheel left, then right, just to keep the car going in a straight line. Nevertheless, he was able to maneuver the decrepit vehicle like a getaway driver, weaving in and out of traffic with only inches to spare.

At the airport the driver had refused to accept any money for the ride, not even a tip. "All taken care for," he said several times, bowing reverently, then he hopped back in behind the wheel and tore off. Shriver stood there amid a swirl of travelers with their huge piles of luggage and golf bags. Car horns blared and airplanes shrieked overhead. It was all a little overwhelming, but with the aid of a uniformed steward he was able to check his suitcase and receive his boarding passes. He then proceeded to the security checkpoint, where a guard asked him to remove his shoes before waving him through a metal detector. As Shriver walked through the machine a bell went off. He was ordered to go back, take off his belt, place any keys or coins in a little bowl.

"What's that?" the guard asked of the bulge in his jacket.

"That's just some papers," Shriver replied, pulling out the story he had written. The guard ordered him to place the manuscript in a plastic tub for x-raying.

"But it's just paper," Shriver said.

"I don't care if it's the Bible," the guard sneered, holding out the tub.

Shriver set his story down and watched as the guard pushed it through the machine. Shriver then stepped through the metal detector. This time there was no bell. He stood off to the side and watched as the x-ray technicians peered at the ghostly image of his story on the little monitor. When the plastic tub finally rolled out, the pages felt warm in his hands.

From there the first leg of his journey progressed fairly smoothly, except for some alarming turbulence during the ascent. Once the plane had reached its cruising altitude, Shriver downed two cocktails in quick succession and managed to relax and catch up on his sleep, resting so soundly that he did not wake up even when the plane landed. Then, in order to make his connecting flight, he had to navigate the enormous Airport of America from Terminal B to Terminal F. En route, he passed fast food restaurants, bars, clothing stores, bookshops, even a massage therapist. He found it difficult moving amongst so many people. They seemed so wide to him, so lumbering, most of them with those little silver telephones clutched to their ears. At one point he had to sit down and collect his breath. But he managed to find the correct gate on time and board the second aircraft without incident.

Now, as the turbulence died down, Shriver turned again to the pages in his hand. There was the title, "The Watermark." Below that was the first line. "The watermark appeared on my ceiling on the rainy day my wife walked out on me." Then the words appeared to melt, as if the ink were wax over a flame, dripping down the page and onto his lap. This sort of thing had never happened to him before. He read the newspaper every morning, delivered to his door by Vinnie the morning doorman, a spry gentleman of indeterminate age who had worked in his building for as long as Shriver could remember. He would lie in bed and read the paper from front to back, absorbing the stories like a vacuum cleaner. Words had never dissolved like invisible ink before his very eyes like this. He checked his watch. The numbers were as clear as the clouds outside his window. He had less than 48 hours before his reading. As if it wasn't going to be difficult enough to convince all those people he was a writer!

The flight attendant passed down the aisle collecting empty bottles and cans.

"May I have another?" Shriver asked, holding out the empty mini-bottle of whiskey.

"I'm sorry, sir," the attendant replied. "We're going to be landing soon."

At that very moment the airplane descended right into the clouds, the window went white, and the fuselage started to shimmy from side to side. He gripped the arm rests and stared at the VACANT sign outside the forward lavatory. He recalled how his ex-wife had once ridiculed him for being so frightened of turbulence. Where had they been headed at the time? So many memories were now blacked out, like top secret details from government documents. But he could vividly recall the acidic tone of her voice as she ordered him to remain calm for Christ sake. She was one of those people who drove fast just for the feeling of defying death.

Then, as if by magic, the plane ceased its shuddering and emerged beneath the clouds. The ground below was as flat as a door on its side, from horizon to horizon, and spotted with ponds that reflected clouds and patches of blue. Off in the distance was a town, not much more than a cluster of low buildings and a water tower. The airplane tilted in its direction, aiming at a large asphalt X in the middle of the prairie. Shriver's ears ached from the pressure. He rubbed the tender spots where his jawbone attached to his skull and swallowed deeply. Before he knew what was happening, a freshly plowed field and then a strip of tarmac rose up to meet the wheels of the plane and, with a bump and slide, they were on the ground. A pleased Delta Malarkey-Jones immediately began to collect her many articles from beneath the seat in front of her, including her bag, a jacket, a floppy hat, and a paper sack full of snacks.

"Don't forget my manuscript!" she reminded him, pointing to the seat pocket.

"I won't," he said, placing the epic on his lap along with his own papers.

The plane lurched at the gate, and, a moment later, a bell rang. The passengers leapt to their feet and started to remove items from overhead.

"I hope to see you around," Ms. Malarkey-Jones added. "Remember: Hotel 19, room 20."

The exit door had been pushed open and people were now shuffling up the aisle like crabs. Shriver rose unsteadily to his feet and entered the line. All the whiskey had settled in his legs. Wobbling a little, he nodded at the pilot and the flight attendant at the door, then debarked onto a metal stairway that led down to the tarmac.

Looking up he saw that the sky here was enormous, dwarfing everything beneath it. The clouds seemed thousands of miles wide, with vast swatches of blue in between. As for the land, it stretched out toward the horizon, unbroken and dull. Even the little airport was squat and low to the ground. He waved away a mosquito buzzing at his ears.

He wondered who would be at the gate to meet him. As he walked across the hot tarmac toward the doors, he concentrated on the task of becoming someone else, wishing for the first time that he had been able to endure the library long enough to read this Shriver fellow's work. What had he been thinking? He cursed his decision to come here, to leave the safe confines of his apartment, to leave the unconditional love of Mr. Bojangles, the dedicated service of Vinnie, and Blotto, the delivery boy from the local grocery store. He could be home right now watching the Channel 17 Action News on television, reading the newspaper, napping on the patch of sun that fell across his bed at this time every day. Instead, he was in this strange, aggressively horizontal land, pretending to be someone else entirely, someone who was a genius, apparently, and infinitely more intelligent than he, albeit it with a dirty mind.

He passed through a glass door into the air conditioned gate area. Several people were waiting for friends and loved ones. There were cheers and exuberant hugs all around. Now that he had arrived, he wondered how he could worm his way out of this insane situation. Perhaps he could avoid the person dispatched to retrieve him, and exchange his return ticket for the next flight home. He decided right then and there that this was what he would do--he would go home to Mr. Bojangles--and so he started toward the main lobby and ticket counter.

All of a sudden his path was blocked by a petite young woman wearing a shiny yellow slicker. She had long blonde hair, nearly the same color as her coat, and thin lips painted ruby red. He thought she was about eighteen years old until he looked closer and saw the crow's feet at the corners of her large brown eyes.

She said, "Mr. Shriver, I presume."

He stopped and stared. This was a beautiful and strangely familiar girl offering her hand to him.

"I'm Simone Cleverly," she said.

"Yes," he replied, taking her hand in his own. "And I am Shriver."

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