“This isn’t going to be a love story, is it?” Lynette asked, into the second page of a short manuscript. She was seated back of a no-frills desk. Her glance made Harold Pender avoid eye contact with his always-to-the-point literary agent. “Harold, you know I’ve never done love stories before… .”
Harold had worked on the story in his head for a number of months, struggling not so much with characters as with plot. He felt he knew his characters well. The plot, on the other hand, made him deal with presenting what had become, over the past three years, an issue he hoped he was prepared to face. Lynette J. Addy was not only an aggressive agent with publishers; she was a very attractive woman. At least Harold found her so.
He’d accepted the fact that her enthusiasm over his first book was sincere, that she honestly felt his writing was worth publishing. Within a month she’d convinced one publisher to share her conviction. The surprise? His book won two literary awards, hit the top twenty and put Harold up there in sales with the rest of the big names in pulp fiction.
Surprise wasn’t a result of lack of self-confidence. Harold had what teachers in school often referred to as ‘a fertile imagination’. It wasn’t always a compliment. They also referred to it as ‘day dreaming’, and tried to chide him into studying harder. They worked hard to get him to complete his homework assignments.
Harold was a solitary child, an only child to working class parents. They in no way spoiled their son. Of his own volition, he’d grown up a loner, sought no one as friends, yet shared friendship with three others that lasted years.
He had one girlfriend after high school, but she was hunting for a man who wanted to be rich or famous. Probably both. Harold hadn’t given much thought to being either.
Harold wasn’t fascinated with dystopian philosophies yet liked his solitude. He enjoyed his way of spending time and in school pursued literary inclinations. Harold liked words and the images they conveyed. He read everything, but was fascinated with the foibles of human avariciousness, a foundation for story ideas of his own.
He got a job surveying. It provided employment and an opportunity to be out of doors and almost alone. It paid the bills. It was an occupation that didn’t encourage close relationships. Harold got certain satisfaction from being a watcher, as well as time to mull over the drama people refer to as human affairs.
Harold wasn’t a technocrat. He preferred to write on his dad’s old Royal typewriter and used recycled paper. He didn’t use a computer, saw the Internet as potentially dangerous technology, and feared its ultimate abuse by the government, not the governed. He wrote at home after work and had an old two-drawer filing cabinet full of neatly filed outlines, sketches and notes on subjects he intended to examine further. Harold Pender was an organized man. He was also growing a bit lonely.
In many ways he counted himself lucky after seeing the disasters resulting from the common behavior most refer to as “falling in love”. In Harold’s mind, falling usually hurt and he had no idea why so many people were so desperately anxious to stew around in such drama and pain. He satisfied some innate craving for love in loving the grandeur of nature, and for years folks thought of him—if they thought of him at all—as a loner and nature nut. The solitude Harold found in nature allowed time for him to reflect on the nature of things.
Lynette looked up again, an expression of puzzlement behind her eyes. “This is so different, Harold. Your first novel was such an intimate insight into the trials and tribulations of an avaricious man. This one is so…tender. But then I suppose your novel struck some strings in hearts or minds of readers who perhaps wanted to live the ‘lifestyle of the rich and famous’.”
“You know me Lynette. I think most people are so self-involved that they can’t or won’t take time so see past the end of their noses, that they’re bent upon becoming rich or being in love with some media-created ideal partner; that they’re living in a fantasy rather than real world.”
Lynette turned a page a began reading again. “I’m not sure I do know you, Harold. I keep learning new things about you.”
“Well, you’re not the only one, I guess. At thirty-six, I was still an enigma to my mother. My dad was almost a stranger to me. He used to look at me like I was a little nuts. Until my novel was published it was a probably a good bet that almost no one knew what was going on in my mind.”
When the book became a bestseller, it made sense to everyone who knew Harold even slightly that he would avoid the publicity usually accompanying fame. He moved deeper into the sparsely populated country and leased an old farmhouse where he could write without being pestered by people who wanted to poke into his personal life.
Harold’s second novel outsold the first. Harold gave up his surveying career and spent more time writing and learning the basics of organic farming.
He managed well at the farm and grew almost all of his vegetables, encouraged the dozen or so fruit trees to produce again and raised a few free-range chickens for fresh eggs. Three Nubian milk goats and an aging mule helped augment the composting chores. A neighbor offered an Alpine Billy free of charge for stud when it was time to breed the goats.
Cliché as it sounds; Harold was enjoying the fruits of his labors. Simultaneously, he was rethinking his old position regarding love. Harold wasn’t afraid of women or relationships. He just hadn’t succumbed to either…until he met Lynette J. Addy. He never asked what the J stood for.
After the first year of their special relationship, one that allowed room for criticism as well as praise, he found himself thinking more about her than he did writing. That left him a little disconcerted. He invited Lynette out to see the farm when he moved in, but something came up and she didn’t make it. Harold hadn’t asked her again.
With two books on bestseller lists, Harold decided to ‘test out the waters’. Succumbing to a part of him that had skirted direct examination, he sat to write a love letter to Lynette. He intended it to be a very short story. Before he was done he’d gone through half a ream of typing paper. Still agonizing over a few revealing passages, nervous as a kid asking for a first date, he handed the first final draft to her on Valentine’s Day.
Understand that Lynette J. Addy was in many ways like Harold Pender. Maybe she wasn’t the media’s idea of beauty, but then Harold was no matinee idol. Self directed and right down to business, Lynette relied mostly on herself and her own good judgment when deciding who to represent and why. Lynette knew a good story when she read one.
“I liked both of your first books, so, what is bothering me about this short story? Well, it is different, Harold. It simply doesn’t seem like something you’d write. Where did you get the idea for this character, Nelson?” She arched an eyebrow; something that always made Harold hold back a smile. “Someone you know? You meet him out there in the country?”
Straight-faced, Harold leaned forward, chin in hands. “You don’t like Nelson?”
“Oh, I like him just fine,” Lynette said, and took a deep breath, perhaps searching for the perfect criticism, “but all this effort to get Claudia to come around to living miles from the city on his goddamn farm…Harold, you’re not turning into some hippy, are you? You’re not smoking grass or something?”
“Never smoked anything but fish,” Harold said, chin still in hands. “Something wrong with living on a farm?”
Lynette started to respond but picked up the manuscript instead. Harold watched her eyes narrowing over the rim of her half-glasses as she scanned the pages. She stopped when she found what she must have been looking for.
“You want people to get all warm and fuzzy about someone cooking over a wood stove? Harold…that went out with Green Acres.”
“My grandmother cooked over a wood burning stove.” Harold lifted the corner of the manuscript with one finger. “She made it look easy. I always wanted one myself. I bought one last year.”
“You knew your grandmother? My God, I thought I was the only person alive who remembered more than one generation. Anyway, I mean…this is all very tender…how you get Claudia to see how much Nelson cares for her. At least it’s not some Bridges of White House County with all that hanky-panky-who’s-married-and-who-cares? stuff. You have a sweet side, Harold. Have you been hiding it? I always thought of you more as a…well, the outside-looking-in kind of guy. I don’t mean you’re some kind of voyeuristic pervert, but you’ve always been so surgically accurate and, well… ruthless about unveiling our weaknesses…and God, I’d hate to have you write about me.”
That made the corner of Harold’s poker-face lip twitch. He stirred and leaned further forward. “Really? Sweet, huh? Thanks. You’ve never called me sweet. Am I really ruthless, Lynette, or do I just look at things with the sound off. Without all the sales hype that usually accompanies greed.”
“I suppose,” she said, continuing to read, turning pages slower. “It just sounds too good, Harold. No one has that much fun. You want readers to believe this kind of thing works?”
“You’re saying relationships never work?”
“No, of course not, but what are they going to do when and if she decides to have a baby? Deliver it himself?”
“Gee…” Harold shrugged. “Nelson drives a nice Chevy pick-up…he only lives thirty miles from the city. He has a phone. And electricity. I didn’t intend to give the impression that they were going to drop out of society.”
Lynette read until she’d finished the last page. “He is nice.” She smiled wistfully and closed the manuscript. “And that was very touching…how he let her know how important she was to him. Your other books never made my cry. This made me remember my grandparents and their farm. God, look at me going on about this. I’ve never liked corny romance stories, but Claudia seemed so…well…at least you didn’t finish this making us think she’d be content being some farm-scrub housewife…someone who would give up her life and work and just roll over and moooo. You sure make that don’t drive-to-work sound awfully appealing.”
“You really think so?”
“It has a certain appeal.” Lynette put the manuscript down and looked into Harold’s eyes. “You’ll give yourself a bad overbite…pushing your lower jaw back like that.”
Harold scratched his neck. “My dentist says my teeth are perfect. No cavities. I had them cleaned two weeks ago. Says I got teeth that should last me for life. I’d be a good buy at an auction.”
“Good teeth are important.” Lynette smiled and sighed. “So is good judgment. You want me to try and get this sweet little story published?”
“Do you like it?”
Lynette sighed again, smiled and looked down at her desk, at the manuscript in front of her. “God, I feel so out of my waters… .”
“Want to talk about it?” Harold’s innocent face appeared almost boyish. “If it got out there on the stands, say before Valentine’s Day, maybe someone would buy it instead of chocolate? Better for the teeth.”
“Harold,” Lynette said, removing the half-glasses and smiling at him affectionately, what is it about you I find so disarming? You write such intriguing stories…then come along with one like this? God…if life were only like that. It’s charming and fun and full of nice little touches….you know, it makes me… .” She stopped and looked closer at Harold’s face.
“Harold Pender…are you trying to tell me that you wrote this for me? Is this Claudia supposed to be me?”
“Happy Valentine’s Day.” Harold smiled almost shyly and rubbed a finger under his nose like his father used to do. “I didn’t know what else to get you.”
“Oh Harold,” Lynette said, cheeks flushed, eyes moist, “you nice wonderful nutty man, you. You let me read this whole damn thing thinking you wanted me to find it a home, but all along you knew I didn’t know. Oh, Harold… .”
For the first time in his life Harold Pender reached out and put his hand on a woman’s hand…and held it. “I was hoping you’d like to take a drive out in the country. It’s still winter, but the fruit trees think it’s spring. They’re flowering. Apple juice waiting to get squeezed. Be patient with me and I’ll try to cook up a meal on my wood stove.”
“Oh, God…the next thing I know you’ll be trying to get me to chop wood.”
“How about feeding the chickens? I’ll milk the goats.”
“You have goats?”
“Three, but I’ll have five come Spring. I’m going to learn how to make goat cheese. The damn stuff in the stores costs me an arm an a leg.”
“Harold, you’ve never used clichés before.”
“There are a lot of things I’ve never done before, but maybe it’s time. Don’t give me a bad time until I’ve earned it. I’ve got a lot of tough things to learn.”
“Me too, Harold.” She put her other hand on the slim pile of paper. “That was a wonderful Valentine’s Day present. Much better than chocolate. It’s the sweetest one anyone has given me.”
Harold stood, and took a deep breath. “You have no idea how difficult that was. Maybe some day things like that will get easier for me.”
Lynette found a tissue in her bag. “Well, look at me. I never cry.” She dabbed at her eyes. “I’m sorry I haven’t been out to see your farm. That was thoughtless of me. Before we drive out, let’s do something I’ve been putting off since you moved.”
“Go to the Pound and look for a dog. You talked about wanting one since you moved out there. You haven’t found one, have you?”
“Maybe we can find a Valentine Dog. I’d never buy one without you meeting the critter first.”
“Well, I’ll say this: If I were a dog, the farm’s the place I’d like to live.”
She smiled. Harold grinned and opened the door for Lynette.
* * *