I rushed around my kitchen. (One of those very few times you wish you were a more Martha-type person.) I assembled a tray: pitcher of iced organic green tea, two glasses, and napkins. What the heck—at the last second I added a plate of lemon CocoRoons—a nice hospitality flair. Not that I was trying to bribe Officer Zaps into giving me a positive review of my writing or anything.
I rubbed the wound in my back. The bleeding had stopped. But I stuffed a clean dishtowel back there just in case. I jetted back outside to the porch—a stash of manuscript pages tucked under my arm—and placed the tray on a gardening bench. I told Zaps to help himself.
(I also mentioned that green tea can slash your risk of developing Alzheimer’s. Good to know.)
I felt my nerves ratchet up a notch—which meant the return of those dreaded butterflies—flittering through my innards like they’re do-si-do-ing at a square dance. This always happened when I start to read aloud. Ever since elementary school. But once I get cranking—look out. The butterflies fly away to dance elsewhere!
Maybe Zaps noticed my trepidation. As I rustled the pages he asked what was in the bushes.
“The rhododendrons. Next to your garage.”
“Oh, that. Those are paintings.”
“What kind of paintings?” Zaps asked.
“Homemade oil paintings.”
“Did you paint them?”
“No,” I said with disdain.
“S.I.S.—Special Interogatory Sibling.”
“Can I see them?”
“No. You don’t want to touch them,” I told Zaps. “Major cooties. Bad karma.”
“What do they look like?”
“Still drawings. A basket of purple and yellow pansies; a bowl of beefsteak tomatoes; a frozen wintry scene with a shabby barn and deathly-looking horse—a foreshadowing of what was to come.”
“Why are they outside?”
“I don’t want them in my house. I can’t bear to throw away ‘art.’ Because even if you hate the art’s guts, someone else may fancy it. Who’s to say what is good art and what isn’t? So instead of into a trash bin, I tossed the paintings, frames and all, in the bushes and decided to let nature take its course. The wormy worms and the slimy snails love them! That says it all.”
“Should I throw the dagger back there, too?” Zaps asked.
I read aloud three chapters of my “title to be determined” memoir to Zaps—to be officially titled Know Your Own Bone as soon as he left. The new title felt right—comfortable and comforting—like a pair of well-worn slippers—the used-to-be-fluffy-now-look-like-a-bathroom-mat kind. While I read , Zaps didn’t say a word. When I looked up from a page he was either staring at me (I think) or sipping the ice tea.
He also laughed at the appropriate places—a good sign—and complimented me on my literary effort when I had finished. He used the word “frisky.” I wondered if that was standard police speak. I took it to mean swell—which pleased me. But I hoped it wouldn’t cause a reaction to my noggin. Writers love praise. But you can’t let it get to your head.
(Besides, it really doesn’t matter what other people think. Only you. But I won’t kid you: it’s gratifying when one other human being on the face of the planet likes what you’ve written.)
I asked Zaps point blank, “Can I count on you to buy my book when it comes out?”
(I hated to be one of those pushy writers, plugging her book like an overpriced sapphire ring on a TV shopping show. But with no name recognition, I’d need all the sales I could muster to launch a writing career. Besides, a book is more valuable than a piece of jewelry—and less expensive.)
Zaps assured me he would buy my book and even though I couldn’t see his eyes, I believed him. After all, he liked to read (on the shoulder of Highway 101) and was employed. I figured he could afford $1.99 for an e-book.
(I’m a little skittish these days about other people’s level of veracity. Are we talking the truth or truthiness? Or in my case recently, a legal case of deliberate perjury.)
“You’ll need more sales than from friends and family,” Zaps said. “And I’m gathering that your family support will be minimal.”
“Make that non-existent. And make that ex-family.”
“Then you will need a compelling bookcover,” he said. “Something to match your frisky prose. Something to grab the reader. Something that says, ‘Read me!’ Have you thought about what you want?”
(Need he ask?)
“As a matter of fact I have, ” I replied. “I’ve come up with three ideas. The first is a parody of a painting called The Garden of Earthly Delights.
“Not familiar with it.”
“It’s from the sixteenth century—by Hieronymous Bosch—a deranged artist, in my opinion. You think Toulouse-Lautrec was wacky? He painted show girls. This guy paints demons—the original Dr. Demento.”
“So ‘earthly delights’ is a joke?”
“A creepy joke—and I mean creepy—a gothic Renaissance version of Where’s Waldo? Instead of Waldo there are detailed scenes with God, Adam and Eve, other human figures surrounded by bizarre animals, over-sized fruit, weird stone formations. The right side is called a hellscape—a chilling night-time scene that’s supposed to depict the torment of damnation—with frozen waterways, torture chambers, corpses, explosions, a burning neighborhood, hordes of tormentors, fleeing people…”
“Holy shit!” Zaps said, before I even got to the part about mutated animals feasting on human flesh. “I swear I had an ex with that same painting displayed over her bed. She told me she painted it.”
“Now that is creepy,” I said. “Where did you find her?”
“The side of the freeway—long story. So who’s your target audience?” Zaps asked. “Satanic bookclubs from the Nine Circles of Hell?”
“No. Readers who like to read about a family that is more screwed up than their own. So they can laugh at my ex-family members’ pathetic lives and desperate behavior and feel better about themselves.”
“If you’re trying to write a feel-good book, that bookcover doesn’t cut it.”
“I’m not finished explaining. My bookcover would have a rendering of just the night scene—only with a pack of ravenous but cartoonish-looking jackals hunched over a blazing fire billowing up from a hole in the icy ground of a frozen desert wilderness. The jackals gnaw on bones—with bloody piles of them stacked up inside cauldrons around the fire. The jackals wear a piece of clothing—like from a “Brady Bunch” episode—so you can tell who the mom is, who the dad is—in a spoof of the quintessential American family. And the cauldrons are labeled ‘Relatives.’ Which means that this family is literally eating its own. Which is a metaphor of how destructive family can be to each other.”
(And why Know Your Own Bone would be an excellent title. But I did not want to mention this to Zaps.)
Zaps gulped. “Wow. That’s dark.”
“That’s the point of my memoir. That ‘family’ can be a perversion of what it’s supposed to be—harmful instead of nurturing; debilitating instead of encouraging; a hell hole instead of a loving foundation. I’m trying to shine a light on it. To take it out of a dark secret place and open it up for enlightenment. So it can be changed for the better.”
(I felt a need to justify myself.)
“Oh heck,” I continued, “this is nothing new. Literature is chock full of this theme. Like King Lear for instance. My memoir is a very similar to that story.”
“Does anyone get their eyes gouged out by an enemy?”
“No, just their soul, their self-identity, and oh yeah, their inheritance.”
“I understand the scope of your story,” Zaps said, “But what you read me has a humorous tone. I think your bookcover should reflect that. Not scare the crap out of people.”
“I have a couple more covers in mind,” I said (hopefully not defensively). “I was also thinking about a parody of Da Vinci’s painting The Last Supper.”
“Oh boy…” Zaps said under his breath.
“What? It’s funny. My illustration would be similar to the table scene—same background, same artistic style, same number of people—but more American family-ish looking. And the Jesus character would be standing up, wearing a red and blue toga-type robe. But instead of his head there would be a giant U.S. dollar bill. The idea being that worshipping money leads to betrayal. Get it?”
“Got it. But the Christian right wouldn’t. They’ll be unglued. Call it blasphemous. Call for a book banning. Although that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. Controversy sells.”
“This bookcover isn’t about Jesus. It’s about regular American’s bad values.”
“Best not to mess with Jesus. What’s your other idea? Another painting parody?”
(Need he ask?)
“As a matter of fact…” I smiled at Zaps. “It’s a variation of Norman Rockwell’s famous Thanksgiving Dinner he did for the Saturday Evening Post in 1943. But instead of a large delicious-looking turkey being served by a grandfather figure, the old guy holds a big platter of cash. And there are obese relatives gleefully salivating over it—with the table covered in half-empty whiskey and wine bottles and bowls stuffed with money that some of the dinner guests are grabbing at and stuffing it into their mouths.”
“Getting a little better,” Zaps said. “Plenty of Americans can relate to that.”
“It supports my greed theme,” I said. “There will also be one skinny female relative at the table—wearing a floral dress and a beehive hat and looking forlorn—with a plate of vegetables in front of her—and a dagger in her back.”
“With blood dripping out.”
“That would be more colorful.”
“Dark but true.”
“Maybe you should hire someone to design your bookcover?”
I noticed Zap’s glass was empty. No more ice tea for him.
Periodically I also noticed my nosey neighbors walking past my yard, spying the cop car parked at the end of my driveway, peering at my porch to see why the policeman was at my house.
Zaps waved at them. They scurried by. And probably hid their pot plants when they went home.
Wasn’t it time for Zaps to go home, too?
The sun dipped over the speck of the Pacific Ocean you could partially see from my doorstep. Hadn’t we run out of things to say? I got the info about my genetic heritage. Zaps got his info about what the blood trail along the highway was about.
But then he said, “Those scoundrels…”
“—your ex-family members—in your chapters are really something. I’ve been in law enforcement over twenty-five years and I thought I’ve heard and and seen everything. How do you plan to deal with them?”
“Oh, I have a plan all right. It’s a long one,” I said.
“I’ve got time,” Zaps said.
And then I said something I may or may not live to regret the rest of my life. Having made Zaps stand the entire time our of lengthy conversation and chapter readings and tea drinking, I pointed to the porch swing that I had so carefully avoided until that point and said, “Take a seat.”