General Fiction posted January 14, 2022 Chapters: -1- 2... 


Exceptional
This work has reached the exceptional level
Friendly competition too oft with deadly results.

A chapter in the book Literary Warfare

Literary Warfare

by Wayne Fowler


"It's a ghost story," Diane remarked casually, her comment nestled among critiques both positive and not.

"Wait, wait ..."

"Don't tell me," Diane quipped, alluding to a radio game show.

Jerry froze for an instant before he caught on. "But wait ..."

"There's more," Diane retorted, obviously locked onto the nature of the conversational exchange.

Jerry gave her a serious look, nearly a glare.

"What?" Diane responded in faux innocence.

"It's nowhere near a ghost story. No goblins, no demons, not even a dead person."

"I mean it's ghost-like. I can almost see your painting, but it's, it's, it's like I'm looking through cloudy glass. Faded. Ghost-like."

Jerry looked at her, his face a blank.

"Look I love the story. It's a good plot, with all the appropriate plot points. Your characters are all authentic. I even like their names. But if I threw a mud ball at them, it wouldn't stick. It would go right through them."

Diane tried her best to mellow her tone. She liked Jerry more than any new acquaintance in her memory. More than any friend in her memory. Stepping on someone's creative writing, she understood full well, was not far removed from stepping on their children, saying that their kid was ugly. It was something not done to people with whom you had affection.

After a brief pause, Jerry bobbed his Adam's apple with a demonstrative swallow. "You're right. I guess that's why I'm here."

                                                                                                                     +++

Jerry Grinnell and Diane Nalen sat across from one another at a writers' workshop. It was the afternoon session, the first day of a two-day event. The morning hours consisted of a lecture on editing-for-flow and other gems of literary genius concerning how to foil the editor (whose very existence depends on finding error). It was a clever gimmick at negative/positive reinforcement. Along with a handout of editing code came instructions to pick a partner among the attendees that you did not know. The theory being that a more candid review would result. Not so easily accomplished for Diane. After eliminating those she knew, and watching the field narrow, she felt like the last-minute bridesmaid, asked to fill in for a more beloved first choice who called in sick.

"Guess it's you two by default," the director declared unnecessarily. The two having reached the foregone conclusion.

Lunch was an acquainting experience for the two after having shared their name, rank, and serial number, so to speak. The demographic exchange morphed into a game of either/or. Jerry topped the name of his home town with: five foot nine on a sunny day, and a hundred and seventy-five pounds.

"Cake or pie?" Diane began once the names, dates, and places were swapped, ignoring the height and weight issue, though she was a trim five foot five and a hundred and twenty.

"Pie. The redder, the better."

"Mickey Mouse or Daffy Duck?" Jerry returned.

"Mickey. Daffy's daft. Ginger or MaryAnn?"

"MaryAnn."

"Most men do," Diane said, feeling better about herself.

"Window or aisle?" Jerry asked.

"Depends on who is blocking me in. And whether we're flying over mountains. Okay, okay," she responded to his wide-eyed grin. "Window. But there'd better not be some mean, or ill, four hundred pounder stealing my armrest."

By the time lunch was over they'd established that each had lived in three states, each had difficult high school situations, and both were post-relationship. As if drawn magnetically, Jerry's right hand found Diane's left at the first intersection they had to cross, not letting go during the half mile walk back to the conference center. Diane at first thought, "Whoa, too early for this," but it felt too good to her to pull away.

                                                                                                              +++

"What's the plot?" Jerry asked later. The question bordered on rude, but considering the context and environment, qualified as legitimate.

"What's your point?"

Steering clear of accusing Diane of having a plotless story, he kept to the abstract. "A story has a tale, a motto: might makes right, no good deed goes unpunished, honesty is the best policy."

"Not always. Doesn't have to."

Jerry ignored Diane's defensiveness. "A beginning, a middle, and an end. Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy wins girl forever. A plot."

"Okay, Mister Man. Plot this." At that Diane made a fist, pointing it toward Jerry's nose, she twisted it, rotating her fist as she jabbed the air back and forth like a hammer drill.

Appreciating this new and comfortable relationship of equals, Jerry knew when to thank his lucky stars. To keep from blowing a blossoming friendship, he left the unwinnable subject.

The evening of light-natured bantering conversation came to a close at Diane's motel door. Absolutely knowing better, Jerry hoped, but hoped not, that she would invite him inside. Knowing every reason to mind his manners did not stop him from craving Diane's intimacy. Her beauty was not merely skin deep. She was smart, funny, and pretty. Expecting a pleasant, maybe a little bit sensuous, goodnight kiss, Diane surprised him with a full-bodied embrace, contradicting every unspoken word he'd heard her say.

"Good night," she said, closing the door behind her.

Jerry stood askance. Stunned. Conflicted. Did he just get teased? Or was it unconscious innocence? Did she know what she was doing? Was it on purpose? Was it a promise of more to come? Or only the physical nature of matching lips? Was his imagination running amuck?

Jerry dreamed of Diane.

Diane went to sleep hugging a pillow to her bosom.

                                                                                                              +++

The workshop over, each returned to their respective homes, 121 miles apart, each in possession of email and contact information.

Witty repartee and gifted banter ensued electronically on a daily basis, accenting similarities and common interests, but often returning to the matter of what it takes to be able to declare oneself a native, or a southerner.

"It's where you're born. End of it. Michigan makes you a Yankee," Diane insisted.

"For the five thousandth time." Both Diane and Jerry were given to hyperbole and exaggeration.
"My dad was born in Arkansas, and five generations before him. They came from Tennessee by the 1870 census after the Civil War."

"See! Southerners call it The War Between the States."

What Jerry didn't offer was that Diane's heritage sprang from Europe, arriving in America far later than his people were already bona fide, card-carrying southerners.

"Well, your dad might be okay," Diane teased.

"Albuquerque," Jerry retorted, naming Diane's birthplace.

"Below the Mason-Dixon, and the military doesn't count."

"Doesn't count?" Jerry responded in rote dialogue, from a dozen previous discussions. "Doesn't count? How 'bout a whole clan goin' north for factory work?"

"Yan-kee." Diane poked fun only because she knew the sore spot to be risk-free, harmless. She would never initiate the Yankee charge, but always joined in the reindeer games that Jerry launched.

"Eureka Springs was an accident." Jerry stated one day a few weeks into their email friendship. In his economic habit, he left unsaid that he was talking about their serendipitous meeting at the writers' workshop.

"An accident?" Diane's mind went directly to the kiss, hoping Jerry was not hinting that he was sorry that it had happened.

"Yeah. My sister suggested a writers' magazine. I bought Writers' Muse instead of Writers' Monthly. She told me about my mistake when I told her about our ... friendship. That's where I saw the ad for Eureka. I went back and checked in a Writers' Monthly and the Eureka Springs ad wasn't there. It was a mistake that I even went to the Eureka workshop."

"Wow! Me too, sort of. I wanted a conference. Only after I'd registered did I see the smaller print, that it was actually a workshop held by the Ozark Writers Conference."

The hundred, or so, of their touchstone coincidental similarities and commonalities crossed their minds. It seemed fated that they meet. Jerry had worked in Diane's city on several occasions as a part of his job. Diane vacationed all through Jerry's region. Jerry's recliner came from a store two blocks from Diane's home. He stopped regularly in her town to eat lunch while traveling. Their lifestyles and patterns ran as if they were more like brother and sister than strangers. The comparisons, many of substance, also reached down to the silly, such as both hometowns had six letters, two syllables, each ending with w-a-y. It was almost as if they were forcing the issue. Now there was confirmation, compelling a relationship if ever there was one, they agreed in jest.

Finally, they agreed to meet again, each unconsciously discounting the writers' workshop as a formal meeting as official daters. That meeting was strictly business. It was like they had only been on-line dating to that point, similar to meeting on a website.

The date was to be at a college community coffee house. The official motive for the physical meeting was to exchange hostages - each was to bring a finished work of whatever length or subject. The thinking was multi-fold they would get to know one another more fully by reading one another's material, that they were most proud of, and also to assess each other outside the scholastic atmosphere of the workshop. Neither spoke about the alternative of merely emailing manuscripts. Both craved each other's company.

Hands linked almost immediately. A walk through the nearby campus, a tour of the town and a stroll through the river park later, the day ended with another full-bodied kiss at Diane's car door.

Half the way home, Jerry's mind never more than a minute from that kiss, her hands, her spirit, the hundred and twenty-one mile drive did not seem nearly as far as the same route southward to meet her - a commute was doable.

A few weeks later Diane spent a weekend visit to a river resort a few miles from Jerry's home. The next weekend, Jerry drove to her home for an actual date.

"You know, if ... if we ..." Jerry began a stammering request.

"A motel, or resort, or whatever, is a huge financial burden to long distance dating," Diane finished.

Jerry sighed, grateful for Diane's understanding and commiseration.

"And we could maximize our together time," Jerry added.

"If you promise to behave, I have a spare room."

Diane promised herself to learn from past mistakes. She resolved to honor herself, as well as her faith, pledging that physical intimacy would resume only on her wedding night. Though not as committed as Diane, Jerry agreed. His spirit was with her a hundred percent, though his body, and occasionally his words, belied his earnestness. His vow, which was more on the order of a high goal, was that intimacy would only follow love, a concept which could be substantially more undefined than total abstinence.

A fondness for Larry McMurtry's masterpiece Lonesome Dove being one of their mutualities, the two oft traded quotes from book: just tryin' to get through the territory, Gus, I'll whack that bell if I want to, No, they shouldn'ta, but they did. Jerry adopted the whiskey trader/buffalo hide character, Big Zwey, line about wanting to murry Ellie, repeating it regularly, only partly in mock.

Their first evening at Diane's was electric. At one point Diane stood at her bedroom door at the end of a hallway. Jerry was at the other end. "We haven't even played the banana game!" Jerry pronounced, their evening packed with mountains of conversation and banter thus leaving a planned round of Bananagrams unplayed.

"Not that kind of girl," Diane said, leaning on one leg, her hand on that hip. Unmistakable attitude.

Jerry burst into laughter at the unexpected contradiction to her totally proper presence. Diane smiled with a knowing sophistication.

A short time later, the last exchange of their first day in Diane's home occurred, again at the doorway to her bedroom. Finished with the bathroom, Jerry turned to the guest room door, detouring a step to Diane's door to say a final goodnight.

"Good night," Diane said as she closed her door.

"Good night," Jerry said to a closed door.

Jerry's claim that she'd slammed the door in his face created an often revisited conversation - a charge Diane continually denied. They bantered through many revisions of the truth of the occurrence.



A First Book Chapter contest entry


Two amateur writers, one reaching published fame, the other sliding from love interest to a hanger-on -- a tragedy in the making.
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