| Jack was a messy man. It wasn't intentional, or for lack of trying. In fact, to look at him, you never would have guessed. His closet was reasonably organized and he even made his bed most days, but Jack was a writer and mess was the nature of his writing beast. This, coupled with his single status, made for one much cluttered apartment. At least it was a large cluttered apartment. Clutter is only bearable when one has space to breathe.
Just as Jack was not intentionally messy, he was not intentionally single. Perhaps, it too, was a consequence of his writer's nature or something else entirely, but John felt it was his destiny (or his doom) to remain perpetually, hopelessly, and dreadfully single. He valiantly attempted to date; he would even dress up and rid his hands of their eternal covering of ink, but to no avail. He would always have a nice time with the perspective woman, and he thought they had a nice time with him. If they didn't, he certainly thought they did. If all women were such good actresses, why weren't movies better? But every time he made the conventional day-after follow up call to ask the girl out again, he got turned down. Jack was mystified. Truly mystified.
Jack's favorite place to meet his many first dates was the bookstore. Women were generally alone there, which was much better than clubs or bars where they roamed in flesh eating packs. Secretly, he loved seeing his books lined up on the shelves, their shiny dust jackets proudly proclaiming his pen name - William Harmon. Jack thought it sounded dignified. He never told the women that he dated how successful he was. He told them vaguely that he was a writer, but rarely gave any specifics. Jack had thought before that this was his tragic dating flaw - telling women he was a writer called to their minds the picture of the romantic, but starving artist. No intelligent woman wanted that. At least, the ones in suburban Henderson didn't. But at the same time, any intelligent woman could have looked at his well-made shirt and tailored slacks and gather that John was hardly starving. So that wasn't it.
One particular spring Saturday morning, Jack wandered into the large strip-mall bookstore near his home. He strolled past the "Bestseller" tables and sauntered by the "New in Paperback" racks. He was in a metaphysical mood so he made his way to the small poetry alcove in the back of the store. He owned most of the anthologies sold, and more, all stored in his impressive library, but he liked the slightly dusty shelves and the secluded location in a lonely corner in the back of the store. Jack loved poetry. He loved the structure, the rhythm, the impact so few words could pack. He loved prose too, but prose was the bread of life while poetry was the roses.
Jack searched the shelves for a new find. He smiled as in his search he came across favorite anthologies and authors. Remembering that his niece had a birthday coming up, he picked up a copy of Favorite Verses for Children. He knew that when she opened it her internal monologue would say, "A book?!" but she would appreciate him eventually. He was sure of it.
A tap on his shoulder interrupted Jack's reverie.
"Excuse me, but do you work here?" a feminine voice inquired from behind him. Jack turned to see an impossibly beautiful woman standing before him. His writer's sense was immediately attracted to her rich auburn mane and her remarkably white skin (given the omnipresence of the Mojave sun). Her face was the type that belonged in a Petrarch sonnet - regal, imposing, inaccessible and yet perfectly and miraculously vulnerable. But standing there in all her goddess glory, this creature that made Jack's finger itch for a pen if only to capture the beauty that surely had never been and never will be again seemed entirely unaware of her own magnificence. She just stood, patient and unassuming, waiting for Jack to answer her question.
"Ah, uh, no, I don't," he stuttered, eyes searching wildly for some pick-up line inspiration.
"Oh, sorry," the woman said and she turned to walk away.
"But I can help you anyway." She glanced at him, wary. "I practically live here. I know this store better than most of the employees."
"Okay...I'm looking for a book on painting."
"Painting history, painting how-to, famous painters..."
"Okay, right this way." He led her to the "Arts" section where he promptly located several painting-for-beginner books. This was one of John's issues with this bookstore - every other how-to book was located logically in the designated "How-To" section except for those instructional manuals that covered the subjects of painting, drawing and photography - those were in the in "Arts" section, causing all sorts of confusion among customers.
"These are all good, I would probably recommend this one," Jack said, handing her the books.
"You didn't lie. If I may ask, why do you have such an intimate familiarity with this place?
"Work. I'm Jack, by the way," he said, proffering a hand.
"Ingrid," she replied, shifting her books to shake. Ingrid. It was the perfect name; if he were writing about her, he wouldn't change it. "What line of work brings you to this place so often you know that the painting how-to books are not in the how-to section?"
"I'm a writer," he replied.
"Really? What kind?"
"Uh...this and that," demurred Jack, using his usual evasion. He didn't know why he didn't like to talk about work, perhaps it felt too much like bragging.
"Anything I've read?" she asked, eager. She was genuinely interested and wanted more than he was giving. It was weird. A woman had never expressed such a quick interest, much less such an attractive one, and yet, here was Juno herself practically begging him to engage.
"I write columns, mostly," he told her. It wasn't a complete lie, Jack wrote a column nearly every week, but it wasn't the truth either. "Say, do you want to grab a cup of coffee?"
"Yeah, that sounds good."
"Just let me buy these," she replied, indicating the stack of books in her arms.
In the small adjoining coffee shop, Jack and Ingrid talked for the cliché hours. She was a round character if there ever was one. The writer in Jack was excited by the possibilities such a person presented - how many levels of character were there to explore in this neat, curvy package. The person in Jack was scared witless by such depth.
"So, do you date a lot?" Ingrid asked.
Jack didn't know how to answer. "I...uhh...I go on a lot of first dates," he stuttered.
"A real turn and burn guy, huh?"
"No, no, it's not like that!" Jack exclaimed, not recognizing the irony.
Ingrid laughed. "Just teasing. I can tell you're not like that."
"Sure. You seem like a good guy."
"But why so many first dates?"
"That's a good question. I wish I knew."
"What do you mean?"
"Every time I ask a girl on a second date, I get turned down."
"Not every time."
"No, every time. In fifty-five second date invitations over the past two years, I have gotten turned down fifty-five times."
"Yeah, seriously. I don't know, maybe I get really ugly at night or something," he replied. The conversation was lighthearted, but Jack couldn't help the notes of depression that floated in on their own accord.
"Seeing as how we aren't in some odd fairy-tale alternate reality, somehow I doubt that's it."
"Maybe not," Jack conceded with a smile. He glanced at his watch. "Good Lord, it got late. I have to go." He stood and she followed. "Uh...so...maybe..." Jack stuttered. The routine made rote by endless repeating had been rendered useless in the face of a potentially meaningful girl.
Ingrid cut in smoothly. "Can I give you my number?"
"Yeah, yeah, that would be good."
She dug around in her purse for a pen and then scribbled her number on a napkin. "Here," she said, offering him the scrap of recycled paper. "Call me."
"I will," Jack promised.
"I'm counting on it."
Jack left the coffee shop bemused. What was this woman thinking? Why him? Why did she deign to speak with him? Yes, Jack was brilliant and he knew it. He was made newly and painfully aware as each moment that passed entered his brain and transformed into sentences, phrases, images. Every event, every experience, passed through the filter of his writer's self. A sparrow in a tree, a construction worker, a boarded up building - all had a story to Jack. Every moment held potential to be profound but along with that potential came Jack's responsibility to find it. He had a unique, intense connection to the concrete world and a more intimate relationship with the imaginative one than most people will ever know. But other did not see this brilliance. They didn't know; how could they? Jack wouldn't let them. So why would she speak to the seemingly average him?
Jack mulled these thoughts over as he drove to meet with his agent. He hated meeting with his agent. The woman always insisted on meeting over an expensive lunch where they made pointless and painful small talk until, over some fruity dessert, they reached the real crux of the conversation: What have you done for me lately? After a meeting with the vulturous woman, Jack felt like old fashioned water pump that had been forced dry. He only kept her on out of some twisted sense of responsibility and debt. It was she who had introduced him to his publisher, who Jack actually liked. It was she who had gotten him his first contract. And it was she who brought him his first paycheck for a work of fiction, so Jack bore her leeching in favor of the massive burden of guilt he was sure to have if he ever fired her.
He pulled into the parking lot. He found Maureen already sitting down, drinking some heinously pink drink from a martini glass. Jack rolled his eyes. Martinis were not supposed to be pink.
"Jack, honey," she called, standing. Jack groaned and ran a hand over his face. 'Honey?' Really?
"Hello, Maureen. I'm sorry I'm late. Did you order already?" Jack couldn't help allowing a note of hope enter his voice.
"No, I was waiting for you."
"Right. Of course." Jack sat down.
"How is everything? Have you reconsidered your silly attachment to this God-forsaken place? Have you finally decided to come to New York?"
"I like Las Vegas."
"Writers live in New York. And every time I need to see you I have to fly out here or you have to fly there. And New York is more intellectually stimulating."
Jack rolled his eyes once more. "I can write anywhere. And I don't live in Vegas. I live in Henderson."
"It's the same difference."
"No, it's really not." Jack was now annoyed. He could think of a whole host of things he would rather be doing. Like calling Ingrid. Was it too soon? Should he wait until tomorrow? Was asking her to dinner tonight creepy or cutely eager?
Jack toyed with his silverware as Maureen prattled and chattered on and on. He briefly considered stabbing himself in the thigh with his knife for a distraction, but discarded the idea because he really like the slacks he was wearing.
"So, how is that draft coming along?" Maureen asked.
Ah, so there it was. "It's coming." That was a lie. It was not coming. Jack had written nothing resembling a draft. Oh, he had typed a few bad, random lines, but the promised novel had yet to be conceived.
"Coming well? Coming quickly? What kind of coming? What's it riding in? A Ferrari? An Escort?"
Jack cut her off. "It's coming," he repeated.
"Jack, I need more."
"I don't know what to tell, Maureen."
"How many pages are you in?"
"I don't know, it's hard to tell at this point. Why is it such a big deal?"
"Jack! Your deadline is in two months."
"Have I missed a deadline yet?"
"That's right. I haven't. So calm down. Seriously. Listen, I have to go. I was good to see you. I've got this." Jack pulled some bills from his wallet and left the restaurant. Once inside his car, he took a deep breath and ran his hands over his face. What was he going to do? Where was he going to pull this out of? He had nothing. He was empty.