It seems silly now, but once I thought the novel was the ultimate goal for a writer, and that I should write one. It would take a long time, but if I kept after it day by day, I would eventually have a novel. But I would have to enjoy what I was doing. So I wrote a novel for myself, for my own pleasure and to see if I could go the distance. I had a wonderful time.
The result was a book that no editor or publisher wanted, not that I spent much time looking. Three or four editors enjoyed it, but because it was too trashy to be literature, and too literate to be trash, they had no idea how they would sell it. My favorite rejection came from a small publisher who said, “This was too much fun. Our books are stuffier.” Indeed, this novel is not stuffy.
The novel is now available on Kindle for the princely sum of 99 cents. I’m pretty sure the profits will not change the way I live. And here’s the first chapter as a preview, so you can see what you might be getting into:
Having a Wonderful Time, a novel by Kihm Winship
:: Chapter One ::
I never should have let him borrow the car. “Neither a borrower nor a lender be.” I’d heard that, ignored it, and now I was paying for it. All I’d wanted was to drive over to the university and talk to an afternoon class about the famed Indian librarian Shiyali Ramamrita Ranganathan who created his own classification system, although I was more partial to the philosophy of his Five Laws of Library Science. That, however, was becoming academic.
Arne had borrowed my car yesterday and done something terrible in it and now these men in my rear-view mirror were shooting at me on the bridge over the bay where the river slides into the ocean, chasing me at speeds well over the national limit. Not that my pursuers cared about the finer points of traffic legislation, energy conservation or reducing auto fatalities, especially not the latter. I was, in fact, convinced that these were uncaring men, violating all kinds of laws with every intention of violating my innocent, chubby body if only I’d slow down and stop swerving from lane to lane, but I had no intention of doing that, no, none whatsoever.
The side-view mirror disappeared with a bang. That put a stop to the idea of sticking my head out the window to show them I was not Arne. We don’t look a bit alike but they might think Arne was wearing a disguise, or mistake my glasses and beard for his glinty eyes and narrow little mustache and blaze away.
Oddly, I wasn’t looking for a police officer. I wanted my high school Driver’s Education teacher, strapped in next to me and white with fear. Nothing he’d ever taught me had prepared me for this. I wanted his pursed lips and disapproving murmurs right here, right now. I wanted to hear what he had to say. I wanted to see his hands shake. I wanted him to take a bullet. He’d flunk me, but I’d go happy.
But surely these men wanted my brother-in-law dead, not me, because I’m just a librarian, but Arne is always on the fringe of something illegal and so sure he is smarter than anyone, and I’m not just saying that because he’s my wife’s brother. No, I’d be happy to give anyone in that role a fair shake. But not Arne. Not now.
What the hell had he done? And then I stopped wondering about Arne because the back window exploded into a gust of sharp snow and the car seat blew apart (a car seat for godsake, they’re shooting at a family car with a car seat) and something stung my ear and then they were right next to me and I looked at two faces and one gun. The driver looked like Elvis and the man pointing the gun looked like Porky Pig. He fired but missed because I ran into the car in front of me, some sixty-mile-an-hour slowpoke, the tires and me screaming as I slid to a stop and the bad men flew by.
I tried to get out of the car because I knew they’d be coming back but I was buckled in, fought the seat belt and won, crawled as fast as I could out the passenger side, thought about taking my Ranganathan notes with me, my only copy, and decided not to, and I was out of the car and running back the way I came, back home. All the way home. I was never going to leave home again. Or answer the door. I looked back and there they were, in billowing raincoats, big men, Porky Pig and Elvis, waving their guns high so all the other drivers would duck and forget what they looked like. That was working, I bet.
I thought I’d give the mistaken identity idea one last chance, so I turned to shout, “I’m not Arne,” but it was less of a shout and more of a croak, and they lowered their guns to fire, too close to miss now, and still running I cut left, grew wings and vaulted over the rail and flew away from them, down, down to the water below.
* * *
Howard, who looked like Porky Pig, but don’t you ever tell him that, stood at the rail and watched the little man trying to swim in the air, listened to the faint high-pitched scream wavering in the wind, saw the splash, and then turned back to the station wagon where Knut, who looked like Elvis, was ripping out the seats. “There’s nothing here,” Knut shouted and so they ran, careful not to scuff their shoes, back to their own car, slammed the doors hard and drove away, leaving a bedlam of sideways cars and very frightened, wildly imaginative and ultimately ineffective witnesses behind them.
Still breathing hard, Howard said, “Did you see him jump? Wow. You think he’s dead?”
“You kidding? People come to this bridge especially to get dead.”
“I would have felt better if I’d seen him die.” Howard leaned back while Knut drove towards the far end of the bridge. “Why did we kill him?”
“Boss said to.”
Howard brushed some dirt from the railing off his very large coat sleeve. “I would have felt better if I’d known why.”
Knut lit a cigarette and took a long drag. “He’s Arne Thorsen’s brother-in-law.”
“Good reason for killing himself,” said Howard, who was not completely without a sense of humor, “but why did we kill him?”
“Two days ago, if you will recall, Arne Thorsen carried a very large sum of money for us, and drove off with it in this guy’s car. And he showed up empty at the other end. He says he was robbed. But there wasn’t a scratch on the car or Arne.”
“So why don’t we kill Arne?”
“Because he’s family, and he knows where the money is. So we set an example, like, ‘Arne, start talking or this can happen to you in the twinkling of an eye,’ and he’ll see the light of day and tell us where the money is.”
“So we killed his brother-in-law?”
“Well, I guess that’ll show him.”
“For sure. And now Arne’ll show us. Or we’ll have to get rough.”
It was a beautiful day. The toll booths came up in the opposite lanes, so Knut looked down and rubbed his brow while Howard held a copy of Sports Illustrated directly in front of his face. Once in the clear, they began the leisurely drive to the wrecking yard, where any number of crushed and cubed autos from previous outings were stacked in geometrical inadmissibility.
Knut turned on the radio, and caught Elvis on the oldies station. They were playing “Suspicious Minds.” “Wooo-ooo-oooo-ooo,” he sang along with the girls in the background. “Caught in a trap,” he sang with Elvis. It made him feel good. Knut liked to be reminded he looked like Elvis. People said, “Knut, you look a lot like Elvis,” and he’d say, “Thank you very much,” just like The King, and people would laugh, because he carried a gun. He remembered the last time people had admired him in this manner, smiled at the memory, and he felt good.
But Howard was troubled. “Do you think we’re slowing down, Knut?”
“I almost felt like we were chasing this one, like it was work. Lookit, my shirt’s untucked.”
“Jeez, that’s too bad.”
“I’m serious. I never fired so many shots and missed so many times. This guy really wanted to live. He was like a rabbit or something.”
“He sure could jump.”
* * *
The police officer was sitting in his office listening to the scanner and watching television news with the volume turned down. Something caught his ear, and he phoned down to dispatch. “Hey, Bruno, it’s Coogan here. What’s up, out on the bridge?”
“Some kind of car chase, shooting, guy went off the bridge, bent fenders, broken glass, hysterical witnesses.”
“Who went off the bridge?”
“I don’t know, some guy. He didn’t leave a card.”
“What do you think?”
* * *
The wind really does whistle in your ears, and the air does tear at your clothes. But I have always loved the water, and it seemed a welcoming alternative to dying on the bridge. Although I never would have jumped if I’d had any idea how long it would take to get to the water. I remembered a reference question, “What is terminal velocity?” I didn’t remember the answer, but I was going to find out for myself, or maybe I’d already found out. I sucked in sea air, and fell and fell, and wondered, “Where’s the water? Where’s the water?”
I heard screaming. I think it was mine. I was alone. I remembered an article on the Flying Wallendas that said your body tends to fall headfirst. That seemed to be true. I remembered a moment in a James Bond novel where he was diving from some high cliff and he clenched his fists to break the water’s surface, open a way for his head that would otherwise be turned to jam on impact. I tried to make fists and hold them out, but my fingers wanted to stay open and claw the air, and my arms were trying to fly or swim or something. I remembered my father holding me in his arms out by the garage. He wore white pants and a white t-shirt, and I reached up with my hand and felt his face, his five o’clock stubble. He smiled at me.
And then a wall of wind blew the very last breath out of me and I fell through a sheet of thick plate glass into an ocean of cold Club Soda. A boom and a hiss, and everything was dark. But when I opened my eyes under the water I could see which way was up. I followed the bubbles up to the light and when I broke the surface I took a raw gulp of air. It was wonderful. I wanted more. I tried to blow the water out of my nose. I coughed. I pushed the hair out of my eyes. I was hurting, but I wasn’t dead. I got rid of my shoes and my jacket. I’d been in the Boy Scouts. I know these things. I pulled off my pants, thank God I’d forgotten to wear a belt that morning, but then, I usually forgot to wear a belt, and I felt lighter in the water. And then it was almost easy, cold but easy, bobbing in the current, breathing, and thinking, “Hey, I’m alive.”
My ears hurt. My glasses were gone, blown off somewhere on the way down. Probably some fish was wearing them now, a surprised carp with 20/20, so I couldn’t really see where to go, just the fuzzy skyline, the dark shore, and the bridge above. I was drifting under it and out to sea, and suddenly I thought, “out to sea,” and panicked, but I heard the boat before I saw it and then I thought I’d be run down but it turned, and a pole came out and I heard voices, shouts, and up I came out of the water. Arms held me, and I sat down on some ropes, rough and wet on my bare legs. I could taste blood, and see it dripping from my mouth and nose onto my shirt, but everything else seemed to work okay. I tipped my head up to say, “Thank you” and just keep on going backwards into the dark.
“Richard.” It was my wife’s voice, and I was on clean sheets. I hate hospitals. “Richard.” I opened my eyes and saw her at the bedside, an angel with blonde hair. I could still smell the ocean on my pillow and in my nose. “We’re being sued,” she said.
“The people in the car you hit. Whiplash. They’re suing us. Their lawyer’s out in the hall right now. And the police want to talk to you. They want to know what you did to make those men so angry.”
“I didn’t do anything. They just started shooting.”
“A witness said you jumped. Our insurance won’t cover this if you jumped. None of it. Especially not the ambulance. Do you know how much an ambulance ride costs, Richard?”
“No, honey, I don’t. I almost died.”
“Duh. You jumped off a bridge.”
“I thought I’d never see you again.”
“You smell like fish.”
I closed my eyes, and that was all it took. When I woke up, it was dark in the room and she was gone, probably home with our daughter, my little girl. I was alone, my ears hurt, and I cried.
* * *
Knut and Howard were having a late snack in the smoking section when Sleepy Gene entered the restaurant. Knut winced, because Sleepy always said everything twice. Even if he only had a brief message, he could be with them right through dessert. Life was a short drama, but Sleepy wrote himself a lot of lines, like that would somehow make it longer. For everybody else, it did.
He sat down and sighed heavily. He took off his hat and smoothed four hairs across his shiny scalp. He brushed a little something off the hat brim. Maybe a crumb, or a bit of soot. “Knut,” he said, still looking at his hat. “Howard,” he said. “Did you boys read the paper this evening? Have you seen the evening newspaper?”
“No,” said Knut, “we were traveling. Was there bad news?”
“Yes,” said Sleepy, “There was bad news of a maritime nature. A tragedy at sea.”
“Oh,” said Knut, “Was there loss of life?”
“No, there wasn’t,” Sleepy said. “None at all. That’s the tragedy.”
The table was quiet, expect for a fork coming to rest on china. Knut became aware of a conversation in the kitchen, a radio playing somewhere. It was not Elvis. It was not fun.
“You’re not telling me he’s alive.”
“Oh yes, I am telling you that, Knut. He’s alive and talking. He’s talking right now in the hospital. In a private room. He’s talking to the police. The boys in blue. Giving them a little bio, a little recap of the day’s activities. They’re taking notes.” Sleepy sucked on his teeth and sniffed. “They’re writing things down. On legal pads. Long yellow ones. The kind with thirty-four lines. Ruled in blue.”
* * *
Luther Amo sat reading the newspaper in an old green chair, a doily on each arm rest, green glass medicine bottles with faded labels on the table next to him. “Listen to this, honey,” he said to his wife, who was sitting nearby in an old maroon chair, wearing an old maroon dress and reading a large print romance novel. ” ‘Richard Dillworth, a librarian at the Kensport Public Library, leaped from the Bay Bridge today to escape two unknown assailants who had pursued him and fired several shots at his car. He survived the leap and was pulled out of the water by a passing work boat.’ Helen, I had this kid in gym 20 years ago, fat little kid. Useless. He couldn’t do anything right, and now he’s jumping off bridges like Johnny Weissmuller.”
“Tarzan’s New York Adventure,” his wife replied, tipping her head back. She had seen that in a theater with Dan McNelly. She could have married Dan McNelly. But he went away to school.
Luther closed his eyes to remember. “He wasn’t on the swim team either. But, you know, he was a weasel on the obstacle course. Yeah, he was a great crawler.”
* * *