Something Smells Good; It Has to Be Brownies

You ever have one of those weeks where you end up feeling lower than whale poop resting more than a mile down on some ocean floor?
I had just come off of such a week. I was flying high on Friday as my two-day free e-book promotion cranked up on Amazon. One of my Facebook friends was kind enough to share the promotion on her page. When I saw she had over 1,400 Facebook friends, I started dancing on cloud nine. Even walked around the house whistling, humming, and singing the tune We’re in the Money.

My longsuffering wife, who was drafted into my vision of being a writer after we married in 1975 finally asked, “So where is the money coming from this time?”

I ran over and hugged her. “My latest book promotion is going where none of my promos has gone before!”

Her expression turned thoughtful. “Hmm. Just like the crew on the Starship Enterprise?”

“I’ve posted my promo on a bunch of Facebook pages, and on Kboards, Goodreads, LinkedIn, Google, and Pinterest. All that’s left is to blast out a tweet on Twitter. I’ll give away thousands of books for sure this time.”

“But if you’re giving it away for free, how are we going to be in the money?”

“Because all it takes is just one reader to love my book and post glowing reviews about it and then tell all of their family members, neighbors, friends, and co-workers how great it –”

“I love you, dear.”

“Same here, right back at you.” Who could refuse to love someone who stuck by a writer through four decades spanning parts of two centuries and two millennia?

Late Saturday night, I checked the book promotion report showing twenty-eight books given away. By the time the promotion ended early Sunday morning, thirty books had been downloaded by who knows who. When we got to church a few hours later, I was dwelling among whale poop. But then our pastor complimented the parents of the baby being baptized for the tie their child was wearing. I couldn’t see the tie because I’m a lifelong back pew backslider but just hearing his description made me laugh. He made me laugh even harder during his sermon when he told a story of how he proposed to his wife on a cassette tape inside of a tape player he gave to her. The Alleluia Chorus followed after his taped proposal.

At the door of the church I told him, “Thank you for telling us about that baby wearing a tie and how you proposed to your wife. I’ve had a bad week and really needed some laughs.” He just smiled and shook my hand.

That afternoon included our photo appointment for the next church directory. A month earlier, a brochure detailing the photography company’s full line of services had appeared in our church bulletins. It encouraged us to bring pets or objects that would show off our interests. One of the brochure’s photos showed a grinning old codger hunched over his model train set.

I determined to sit for the photo session holding two of my books with covers in full view and asked my wife which of my books would look the most photogenic in the church directory. “At last people there will know what I do and ask me about my books.”

“I think those kind of photos are separate from what goes into the directory,” she said.

Full of disbelief, I contacted the one coordinating the photo shoot. “That’s right,” she said. “The photos going into the directory are only of people who attend church here, nothing else. The ones with pets, etc. are for your personal use.”

Like they say, if life gives you lemons, make lemonade.

So as the photographer positioned us in front of her bright lights and state of the art camera, I put on my dark sunglasses, large enough to cover a third of my face.

The photographer’s head tilted at an odd angle, as if she had never seen such a thing. “Are you really sure you want to wear those?” she asked.

“Yeah. I want to look cool like Ray Charles, Jose Feliciano, Stevie Wonder, and John Kay of Steppenwolf all do.”

The photographer shrugged and said, “Okay.”

But my wife grabbed the sunglasses off my face so fast that they tweaked my nose and ears. “No way,” she said.

“But I have to be cool. What do Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Jose Feliciano, and John Kay all have in common?”

“They’re all blind and have a valid reason for wearing sunglasses.”

“Not. John Kay is only color blind. Last I heard he doesn’t even wear them all of the time like he used to. But he doesn’t have to anymore. What all of them have in common is that they have sold millions of copies of their albums. How am I ever going to sell millions of my books unless I look cool too?”

She moved the sunglasses further from my reach as I grabbed for them.

After twisting our bodies into perfect postures and positions, the photographer hurried behind her camera and said, “Smile…come on, sir, bigger smile than that. It will help you look cool.”

Through clenched teeth I whispered to my wife, “I always have to be nice just because you’re the church organist and choir director. You don’t know how hard it is being married to someone on a church staff. You always get to be cool here at church while I never do.”

Outside in the parking lot, my wife finally returned my sunglasses. As I put them back on I said, “I could have been Joe Cool in the church directory if only I could have showed off my books or at least worn my sunglasses for it.”

She smiled. “A comic strip beagle named Snoopy can be Joe Cool with his huge sunglasses. You need to learn to be yourself. Stop stressing out about becoming a successful writer.”

That’s easy for a non-writer to say. I decide to take my book marketing to the next level.

* * *

I had not visited one potential outlet for my books in a long time. So I grabbed two of my paperbacks and drove to the lone Christian bookstore in our city of 62,000. As I entered, it seemed to hold only half the number of books it had had on its shelves three years ago, another casualty of online retailers and e-books.

The clerk looks unfamiliar but I begin my pitch anyway because he was helpful with the customer he waited on before me. “Hi, about three years ago your store had a book signing event for local Christian authors. About ten of them set up tables right over there.” I point an area now displaying artwork, greeting cards, knick-knacks, and other gift items.

“That was under the old ownership. We took over this store a few months ago.”

“Oh. Anyway, I talked to the one who organized the book signing event and asked her if I could be a part of the next one. She said she would have to read what I planned to sell to see if it fit in. You know, met her high standards and all, I guess.”

I hold up a book whose cover shows a mushroom shaped cloud rising toward the stratosphere. “I left her a copy of this to read. Is she still on staff here so I can ask her about it?” I describe her as she had metal embedded into her face.

“Oh, you’re talking about Marcie. She is the only one from the old staff still here. But she’s not in right now.”

“Well, just in case she didn’t like the book I gave her about atomic bombs, World II, and the Cold War, here’s another one I wrote that’s even more of a Christian book of short stories.” Its cover depicts the Old Testament prophet Elijah sitting in the wilderness and being fed by ravens commanded by God to do so.

“Can I leave this book for her to read with a note so maybe I can be a part of the next book signing event?”

“Sure.”

His friendliness makes me want to give him the copy of my novel about the nuclear bomb and Cold War era to read. But an inner fear of reminding the one in charge of book signings of a book she started and never finished or one she read and hated because of not enough romance or too much realistic language used by soldiers during World War II or not being Christian enough, whatever that is, keeps me from giving that book to the clerk.

After writing a short note in a way more or less begging her to let me get some much needed exposure, I leave it and the book of short stories with him. His news that half of the bookstore is going to be turned into a coffee shop leaves me wondering if there will ever be another event for local authors to meet and greet potential readers and sell some books. Maybe coffee now has more appeal than hardback or paperback Christian books for the faithful?

* * *

Disappointed by my latest trip down a rabbit hole, I look for someone to unload on. Everybody needs such an outlet. For some, it’s a priest in a confessional or other spiritual leader in an office or nowadays, some spiritual guru spouting his or her version of the truth online via a colorful website. For others, it’s a friend or acquaintance or even stranger at a bar if you’re desperate and drunk enough. For the most desperate of all, it’s $500 or more an hour talking to a shrink or counselor.

For me, it’s Chester Fields.

Chester lives a few houses down from us in one that is unique because his hand carved life-sized bears, eagles, deer, other wild creatures, and fifteen foot tall totem pole decorate his front yard instead of the grass every other neighbor waters, mows, and fertilizes or pays some guy too much money to do for them.

He also paints. Some of his artwork is a kind of matter of fact realism, almost as if it were taken by a camera instead of put down on canvas. The rest is surrealistic. As usual, I find him in his open garage working on his latest masterpiece.

“Hey Chester.” My greeting so startles him that he smears the red paint on his brush across a small canvas as he turns his head.

“Don’t sneak up on me like that.” His words sound like a growl, his demeanor now like a grizzly bear stung on its nose by the bees whose honey it stole from their hive in a hollow of a tree. “You know better than to interrupt an artist deep in thought as he is painting.” He points at his large refrigerator stocked with soft drinks, iced tea, beer, and energy drinks that he claims give me inspiration.

“Thanks.” I grab a twenty-ounce, icy cold soda loaded with sugar, salt, and caffeine, a no-no according to my doctor because of my high blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides, and fifty pounds of excess fat.

“Speaking of art, how is your next book coming along? I thought you said you would let me critique it for you. You said that you’re trying to write for the Old Adult genre. I sure fit into that category.”

That’s classic Chester for you. Half the time I visit him, he brings up what I really want to talk about for me instead of letting me beat around the bush for a quarter hour trying to confess what is bugging me. His question makes me squeeze my plastic bottle of cola so hard that some of it squirts out onto my faded blue jeans.

Chester laughs. “If you leave that soda on your pants instead of washing it out, maybe it will eat holes into your worn out jeans. Then you can look all stylish like those fools who buy brand new pants with holes already in them.”

I wipe the spill to spread it around, hoping it will dry faster. “My current book is on hold while I try to sell some of my other books that are already published. Do you think I should buy a booth at the annual street faire that’s coming up next month so I can hawk some of them there?”

“Not unless you plan on selling a whole raft load of books. I took a bunch of my carvings and paintings to the street faire a few years back and could not even sell enough of them to make back the $500 the city charged me for the booth for the day.”

“Oh.”

I study the paintings hanging on Chester’s garage walls and the smaller wood carvings on its many shelves and conclude they are at least as good as the stories in my books, probably even better. How can some artists cram a story into a painting or carving like Chester does? Meanwhile, I’m supposed to show not tell when I write. At least that is what all the experts say. I’m tempted to ask Chester if it’s possible to paint with words.

We talk for a while, Chester telling tales of working as a carpenter in Chicago before moving out west to be closer to his children as he ended his career of sawing, nailing, and yelling at those on his crew either too lazy or foolish to follow his work ethic. Although he is ten years older than me, we have a lot in common. We’re both retired. But more importantly, we share the agony and ecstasy of the artist without an audience, at least not one willing to pay for what we produce.

We wear our badges of struggling artist and struggling writer with pride. Not starving artist or starving writer because we both have pensions to keep food on our tables and in our pets’ dishes. I must be struggling worse than Chester, based on his one sentence diagnosis of my anguish.

“Stop looking like Ernest Hemingway before he killed himself.”

Then Chester suggests an alternative to the local annual street faire.

* * *

“Are you sure people will buy any of my books today?”

“I guarantee it.” Chester has been trying to derail my fears for the last forty miles as we drive to The Largest Flea Market for 100 Miles in Any Direction. At least that’s the way they advertise it. “I have always turned a profit selling my stuff at this place every single time.”

Yeah, but your wood carvings and paintings sold for a lot more than I can charge for my paperbacks, I’m tempted to say, but stifle my doubts into thoughts.

After waiting close to a half hour in a long line of cars, I pay a $50 vendor fee and show my permit sent from the state sales tax agency as proof I will collect sales tax. I park as close to the gate as possible. Am I glad Chester brought along a hand truck to haul the six cases of books I ordered because it’s at least a half mile walk to my vendor’s booth. Chester carries two lawn chairs, which he claims are required for the ten hour day, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., when customers by the thousands will swarm through the market.

I estimate I will need about 1% of them to buy at least one book each in order to break even.

It takes only a few minutes to display samples of my three historical fiction and two science fiction books on the top of the one inch by six inch board that serves as a counter at the front of the booth. Measuring six feet by six feet, the cramped space has Chester and me bumping into each other. So he wanders off to scout out all of the booths with free food and drink samples and to use the bathroom. The plan is to take turns manning the booth to allow for bathroom and food breaks.

I survey the booths on either side of mine as customers start to mill past them. The guy on the right has nothing but used items: clothes, tools, kitchenware, suitcases, the kind of things you see at yard sales. The one on the left is hawking CDs and talkative.

“Your first time here?” he asks me.

“Yeah. How did you know that?”

“From the anxious look you have on your face. Chill out. Those kind of expressions repel customers instead of drawing them in so you can hook them and make the sale. Put on your happy face.” His forced grin looks as if it will split his head into two sections.

“Oh.”

I put on my sunglasses to try and partially hide my anxiety. Why can’t anyone, including Chester, understand that like most writers, I am an introvert? Puffing my books to strangers to get them to buy them is the last thing I want to do on a Saturday.

I point at my neighbor’s rows of CDs. “How’s the music business these days?”

“Probably a lot like the book business you’re in.” He pauses to collect money for the three CDs a customer has chosen. “Did you know that 95% of the acts signed to the record companies lose money for them?”

“That many?”

“I kid you not. It’s the other 5% who barely break even or make money that carry everyone else.” He makes another quick sale of two CDs. “At least we have gigs to fall back on. We sell our CDs at our shows too.”

His group is an oldies act and plays songs from the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. By the end of the day, I’ve memorized a lot of their songs’ names because he plays the CDs nonstop on a small portable CD player until its batteries die.

About four hours after the flea market opened, I’ve sold eighteen books and Chester is ready to retrace his steps back to sample more of any free offerings. He seems proud of the map detailing each booth by number that one of the flea market staff gave to him. Based on his earlier search, Chester has marked each booth on the map at which he found free food or drink.

“There are forty-two of them with freebies calling out my name for me to make a return visit,” Chester says as he waves goodbye.

A few minutes later, a man who looks about forty stops his brisk walk and almost knocks over a love struck couple with eyes and hands locked as he careens up to my booth. He is dressed in a casual gray suit and enough gold to pass for a bride in India on her wedding day. The sun glinting off of his three gold rings, wrist band, and thick chain around his skinny neck supporting a medallion also made of gold makes my eyes water. He introduces himself by first extending his hand.

“Hi, I’m Michael R Bellow,” he says as he grabs and releases my hand in a single motion, as if someone standing nearby had warned him of a contagious disease’s pathogens residing on it. “Nice looking books you have here. Are these all of the books you’ve written?” He nods at my five titles.

“No, I have some e-books published, too. Altogether, there are eleven books.”

“You don’t say.” He whips out his smart phone, one with all the latest apps, and within thirty seconds is introducing me to his line-up of fifteen books as if they were his children or grandchildren. One of them especially interests me.

How I Made Seven Figures by Self-Publishing Books? How did you manage to pull that off?”

He smiles and leans closer until I can feel his breath on my ear and whispers. “When I wrote that book, I really had only made $11,381.24.”

“Huh? But everyone thinks seven figures means millions of dollars, right?”

His grin of perfect teeth widens as he counts off each number on his fingers. “One, one, three, eight, one, two, four. How many numbers is that?” He shoves one hand with five extended digits and the other with two extended into my face.

“Seven…I guess.”

“Now you’re catching on. So you see, technically, I didn’t lie, did I? Besides, you know what my total sales are now since that book came out? Over $100,000. So now I’m up to six figures using your method of accounting and eight using mine.”

As I try and edge away from this fishy guy toward a real customer, he makes me what he claims is an offer you can’t refuse. “How about us swapping reviews? You’ve got eleven books out and I have fifteen. You review all of mine and give them all five stars and I’ll do that same for all of yours. But you can’t just write one of those fake reviews that are only one or two sentences long.”

“Huh?”

“You know what I mean; the ones they say this book was a great read or a real page turner or it told me everything in order to succeed. Any potential buyers who read that kind of tripe know it’s just a canned review.”

“But I thought that reciprocal reviews between authors were unethical and against Amazons terms for reviews.”

“Unethical? Don’t start getting high and mighty with me, wise guy. Do you want to be a best-selling author like me or just another flunky self-publishing his way to Nowhere Ville? What’s the matter with you? Are you a curmudgeon or just grumpy because your books aren’t selling?”

“Excuse me, I have another customer.”

He shakes his head as he straightens the lapels of his expensive tailored silk suit. “You’re a real loser. Don’t ever say I didn’t try to help you out with some really great reviews. Here’s my card just in case you wise up and come to your senses.”

I pocket his business card as he walks away in search of other prey.

“May I help you?” I ask a mother who looks about thirty. Her daughter in the stroller by her side has one of my books and is trying to eat it. “It looks like your cute little girl really likes that book. Are there any others you would also like to buy?”

“I don’t think so,” Mom says as she sets the book she has been thumbing through down. “I must have scanned forty or fifty pages and did not see a single romance scene. Give the man back his book, darling.”

A tug of war begins until mother hands me the book her daughter had been sampling with her mouth. The impressions of her teeth on the cover appear to be deep enough for a dentist to fashion a crown. And her slobber covers all of the pages of one corner, leaving it feeling slimy. I sit down to try and relieve the building stress.

My heart rate and breathing had slowed somewhat when I hear a faint voice that sounds familiar. Then I notice that about fifty yards up the wide asphalt aisle the throng of shoppers is parting like the waters of the Red Sea after Moses’s command. Through their midst walks Chester. The closer he comes, the louder his short ditty grows.

“Something smells good, it has to be brownies.”

He repeats the refrain a dozen times before he reaches my booth. If nothing else, his impromptu free entertainment is causing smiles and laughter for the strangers within earshot. Maybe it might draw some customers our way.

He offers me a sample of the inspiration for his song. “Have some of my brownie. I bet you can’t eat just one.”

I study the half eaten, moist chocolate goodie he drops into my hand before breaking it into two to better smell it. But my nose cannot confirm my suspicions that one of the brownie’s ingredients is causing Chester’s slurred speech and uncoordinated movements. It takes him three attempts before he is able to settle into one of the lawn chairs without falling off of it. I sit in the other one and pull it next to Chester’s to study his eyes. They are bloodshot and his upper eyelids are drooping.

“Chester, you didn’t go off the wagon, did you? I don’t want your wife blaming me for you getting drunk.”

“Wagon? What wagon?” He shrugs.

“Can you show me on your map where exactly you got this brownie?”

“Sure thing, partner.”

He pulls out his map and studies it by rotating it clockwise and then counterclockwise. “Uh, the brownie joint was one of the first ones I marked.” He points at the series of Xs he wrote on the map’s locations of the booths with free food and drink samples. “I think maybe it was this one.” He pauses. “But don’t quote me on that. For some reason all the marks I made on the map look the same all of a sudden.”

I count nineteen Xs and decide to visit them all if necessary until I find the one serving brownies. “Can you describe the booth where you got the brownies?”

“Sure. It was a couple of old hippies selling tie-dyed shirts, candles, and crafts. You can’t miss it. Do me a favor. Bring me back some more of those brownies. I’m starving. And get me something to drink too. My mouth feels drier than Death Valley on the Fourth of July.”

He has the munchies, cotton mouth, bloodshot eyes, faulty short term memory, incoordination, uninhibited behavior, all symptoms feeding my worst fears. “How many of those brownies did you eat?”

“Three or four, I think. I’m not sure because I went there twice, you know. Can I have the last of the one you’re still holding onto?”

I drop the pieces of the sample he gave me onto my handkerchief and wad it into a ball and shove it into my pocket. “I’m saving it for later. Do you mind holding down the fort while I go and get us some real food for lunch?”

“You got yourself a deal. Hurry on back here though. I’m hungrier than a really skinny bear who just woke up after his long hibernation for the winter.”

Not until locating the booth corresponding to the twelfth X on the map do I find one fitting Chester’s description of a couple of old hippies selling tie-dyed shirts, candles, and crafts, and a metal pan containing brown crumbs that smell like brownies.

“Do you have any more free brownies left?” I ask the bearded, long haired giant of a man who has his eyes closed and feet propped up on a cardboard box.

“You’ll have to ask my old lady, man,” he answers. But then something makes him spring from his metal folding chair, as if someone poked his fat rump with a pitchfork. “Hey, wait a minute. What color is that pan, man?”

I lift it up to examine its sides and bottom. “It’s orange. Why?”

“Because that’s the pan that was meant just for me and my old lady. Is there very much left in it?”

“Mostly just crumbs, I’m afraid.”

He turns toward a frail looking woman who must weigh at least 150 pounds less than he does and yells at her. “Hey, Janie! How many times do I have to tell you before you remember? Orange begins with an O, which stands for ourselves. In other words, for you and me.”

The woman answers with a frown and crimson blush as she takes a step backward away from her man’s wrath and then returns her attention to a customer amused by the drama. He growls back.

Next, he stomps toward me and snatches the pan from my hand. He groans after seeing how little of the brownies remain. “I must have put $50 worth of hash in the batch that went into that pan. She was supposed to put out the purple pan with the just plain brownies for our customers. Get it? Purple begins with a P and P stands for people.”

He bangs the pan on his booth’s wooden counter to loosen the crumbs and then tilts it at his salivating mouth. A small avalanche of crumbs tumbles into it.

“Anyway, a friend of mine, an old guy in his seventies, came by here and ate more than one of your hashish laced brownies. He’s stoned out of his mind.”

“So?” He wipes away the stray crumbs lodged in his beard and belches.

“So do you want me to tell security about you doping him up without his knowledge?”

His sneer and roar of a laugh is more intimidating than his recently displayed wrath. “Security? Who do think that they hire here for that, the Hell’s Angels so you can get them to beat me up? What do you think this is, some kind of outdoor rock concert? I think you’re the one that’s stoned, not your friend, man.”

“No, they hire rent a cops here. Maybe one of them would be willing to test this with his drug testing kit.” I pull out my handkerchief and display the remainder of the brownie Chester gave to me. “All I need is some money to feed my friend a decent meal because he has the munchies really bad, okay?”

We argue for a few minutes until settling on a compromise. He gives me $10 in exchange for my evidence, which he conceals by popping it into his mouth.

“I had to destroy it just in case you decide to narc on me,” he says after washing it down with whatever he squeezes out of his fake goat wineskin.

As I return to Chester, I see a kid carrying one of my books and a young man with three of them. When I reach the front of the booth, an old lady is stuffing a copy of each one of my books into her handbag. I thank her and walk around two neighboring booths to reach our booth’s entrance along its backside, expecting to find Chester with either a fist full of cash or reports of all the sales he has made while I was fetching our lunches. Instead, he is stretched out on the ground between the two lawn chairs, fast asleep.

It takes me a few minutes of shaking and coaxing the snoring Chester before he fully awakens, and only five more for him to devour both burgers, two orders of French fries, and guzzle down one of the two sodas I delivered. I guess he thinks I already ate, that is, if his thought processes are even functioning at a level that considers others’ needs due to the THC from the hash brownies still circulating in his brain. He hands me the other soda before stretching back out for another nap.

A half hour later a woman who is young enough to be my granddaughter pauses at our booth. She is wearing a stylish light blue pants suit and jewelry to match it. After she says she is also an author, I begin to wonder if part of my problem is that I don’t dress the part of what a successful writer should look like. The combined costs of her outfit and the one the other author who stopped by earlier offering to swap glowing reviews are well over $1,000. I wonder if they write off their wardrobes as business expenses. I picture them telling a tax auditor, But my clothes are part of my author brand, which makes them a legitimate tax write off.

After thumbing through one of my books, she asks if I ever write reviews of books.

“Sometimes,” I answer, waiting for another offer you can’t refuse, excellent reviews of her books in exchange for the same of mine. Tit for tat. You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. A symbiotic relationship made in heaven or hell, depending on whether you’ve sold your soul to the devil yet.

“What’s the name of a book you’ve reviewed?” she asks as she connects to Amazon on her smart phone.

I help her navigate to one of my reviews. After reading it, she clicks on the pseudonym I use as a reviewer name, which takes her to a page with all of my book reviews. After ten minutes of skimming them, she sighs as if she were dealing with a dense boyfriend who has yet to grasp the feminine mystique, at least enough to see things her way.

“Why do you put in the phrase Received a free copy in exchange for a review as part of so many of your reviews? Research has shown that a lot of potential buyers either don’t trust or completely ignore reviews with phrases like that.”

“Because the Federal Trade Commission requires that kind of statement whenever a reviewer receives a product for free.”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever. None of any of those kind of regulations or being ethical, whatever that is, matters anymore anyway.”

“Why? Did the FTC drop that regulation about reviews?”

“No, silly. All of us really smart authors finally figured out a way around it is all. Now I just have all of my Advance Review Team preorder an advance copy at a discount. It’s a win-win-win kind of situation for everyone involved.”

“But how is it a win for your reviewers if they now have to pay in order to review your books for you instead of getting a free copy?”

She leans forward and lowers her voice, as if disclosing an indie self-publishing trade secret. “They get a copy before everyone else at a fantastic discount. The price goes back up from $.99 to $4.99 once the preorder period ends.”

“And I suppose it’s a win for you because almost all of your team will give you a great four or five star review.”

She wrinkles her nose and tosses her perfectly trimmed short black hair to one side, as if something unclean has invaded her private zone. “Of course. They have to. How couldn’t they? I only write high quality stories with all of just the right tropes for my readers. Some of them have told me that they are addicted to my books.”

“Just what is your genre?”

“Erotic dystopianism. You know, instead of Sex in the City, I write all about Sex in the Future.”

“Oh, you write porn. One of the online writers’ groups I belong to had a thread where a lot of the writers were bragging about how well porn sells for them.”

Her eyes narrowed, giving her an appearance of a cobra or rattlesnake about to strike. “I do not write pornography. I write erotica. You obviously are so uncouth and illiterate that you don’t even know the difference between the two. Pornography is vulgar while erotica is beautiful. Besides, all I do is give my readers what they want. Don’t you do the same?”

“Well, my market is made up of people who are like my wife: over fifty, family oriented, and Christians who love the Lord. She is my alpha reader and editor so I can better aim at that market. She says God never intended for sex to be a spectator sport. Uh, you said win-win-win but only mentioned two groups of winners, you and your Advance Review Team. Who is the third one?”

“Those who have never bought any of my books but are persuaded to do so by my Advance Review Team’s reviews. I was even intending to ask you to join my team but you are obviously just one of those holier than thou grumpy men with a bad case of sour grapes because you write for such a narrow market of narrow minded people like yourself. I bet you sell very little, if any of your books.”

She sneered at my books. Then she gave me a last if looks could kill stare, her sharp daggers projecting from her fiery eyes into my soul before strutting away, head held high, posture perfect, as if she were modeling the latest fashions from Paris for her readers.

And here I am, dressed in what my two daughters gave me as birthday gifts – a pair of baggy blue jean shorts that reach down to my knees and a T-shirt with a warning to Never underestimate an old man who listens to the Beach Boys and a picture of the band as they looked fifty years ago, holding onto a surfboard and wearing huge smiles. At this point, I’m beginning to think I overestimated instead of underestimated, at least the market for paperback books by an unknown author like me trying to sell them at a flea market.

The guy selling yard sale kind of merchandise has already gone home carrying nothing but money, his inventory of used items completely sold out. The musician on the other side of me is packing up. It seems like he has lots of unsold CDs left, so I hope maybe he understands.

“Did you sell enough of your CDs to break even today?” I ask him.

“Yeah, and a little more besides.” He smiles as he stacks his display into cardboard boxes. “You mind if I borrow your hand truck to haul these boxes out to my van? It’s a pretty long walk and I don’t want to have to make two trips.”

“Sure.”

“Here, go ahead and pick out one of these as my thanks for letting me use your hand truck.”

While he wheels his remaining three boxes of CDs to the parking lot, I study the songs listed on the CDs he gave me.

Flashback to the Fifties contains:

I Walk the Line originally performed by (OPB) Johnny Cash

Fever (OPB Peggy Lee)

Great Balls of Fire (OPB Jerry Lee Lewis)

Come on Let’s Go (OPB Ritchie Valens)

Johnny B. Goode (OPB Chuck Berry)

Come Softly to Me (OPB The Fleetwoods)

Rawhide (OPB Frankie Laine)

Not Fade Away (OPB Buddy Holly)

Crying (OPB Roy Orbison)

Sleep Walk (OPB Santo and Johnny Farina)

 

Sounds from the Sixties has:

Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood originally performed by (OPB) The Animals

Help (OPB The Beatles)

In My Room (The Beach Boys)

Hit the Road Jack (OPB Ray Charles)

Rag Doll (OPB The Four Seasons)

Go Now (OPB The Moody Blues)

Oh Well (OPB Fleetwood Mac)

Somebody to Love (OPB Jefferson Airplane)

The Weight (OPB The Band)

Badge (OPB Cream)

 

Solid Gold from the Seventies includes:

Smoke on the Water originally performed by (OPB) Deep Purple

Nature’s Way (OPB Spirit)

Give It Everything You’ve Got (OPB Edgar Winter’s White Trash)

Doctor My Eyes (OPB Jackson Browne)

Summer Breeze (OPB Seals and Crofts)

Blue Collar (OPB Bachman Turner Overdrive)

Simple Man (OPB Lynyrd Skynyrd)

Heard It in a Love Song (Marshall Tucker Band)

Listen to the Music (OPB The Doobie Brothers)

It Don’t Come Easy (OPB Ringo Starr)

 

When the musician returns Chester’s hand truck, I give him back Flashback to the Fifties and Solid Gold from the Seventies.

“So you are a Sixties’ music fan?” he asks.

“Not really. I mostly picked that one because that’s the kind of music my friend here likes the best. I think I’ll give it to him to thank him for helping me out here today.”

“It looked to me that he mostly just slept and ate all day long.” The musician points at the still asleep Chester and laughs. “So, how did you do with selling your books?”

I pull the wad of ones, fives, tens, and twenties from my pocket and count it. “Well, I think we almost broke even, if you don’t count the books that people walked off with while Chester was asleep and I was gone from the booth.”

He nods. “You sound a lot like my situation. We only make pocket money after expenses as a band. But we keep doing it because we love music. Just don’t forget what my wife is always telling me: ‘Don’t quit your day job.’ She even said that when I asked her to marry me.”

* * *

As we drove home, Chester listened so impassively to the first eight songs on the CD that I thought maybe I had chosen the wrong decade’s music to give to him. But when The Band’s song The Weight mentioned a character named Crazy Chester, my friend responded by singing along.

I joined in on the chorus, something about someone taking a heavy load off of another (The Weight) and then putting it on me instead. All that deepened my depression caused by all of the failed attempts to market my books. Then the CD’s last song, Badge, told a story of one who had cried away her life since falling out of her cradle as a baby and the need to pick oneself up from the ground before it’s too late.

“Those last two songs remind me of you,” Chester said.

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