The Google Ate My Homework

The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors
Amanda “The Bellman” Marlowe


My dog ate my homework
Photo Credit: Girl.in.the.D

I confess. I work for a major publisher. I confess, this major publisher does accept some kinds of unsolicited manuscripts. I also confess, I have occasionally received unsolicited manuscripts. Recently a manuscript for a children’s picture book crossed my desk. Addressed to me, personally. But hang on a minute before you rush me your manuscripts.

Thing is, I don’t work for the part of the company that produces the stuff that ends up on The New York Times Bestsellers List. I don’t even come close to dealing with book acquisitions. I work for a completely different part of the company—the educational division. If you aren’t one of our textbook authors, or one of our writers, or one of our editors, I won’t be looking at your writing. The most I can do for you if you send me a trade book manuscript is to look at your contact info and let you know you sent it to the wrong place.

So how did I end up with the occasional manuscript on my desk?

I suspect LinkedIn.

My guess is that some folks who were trying to do their homework didn’t like the fact they didn’t have a specific person listed with the submission address to whom they could address the cover letter directly. After all, the prevailing advice is that it is better to address it to a person than to “Dear Sir or Madam.” So they looked around on LinkedIn under my company’s name, and found my name, and somehow decided I was the lucky editor they would write the cover letter to. In one case, it made some sense. In the others, I have no idea why they picked me over my multitude of coworkers.

This story has a moral, of course, and like most morals it can be summed up in a catch phrase:

Don’t let The Google eat your homework.

If you are casting around for a real name to send your material to, make sure that person works for a relevant part of the company. If you can’t tell what part of the company someone works for through LinkedIn or other searches, don’t just pick someone at random. Seriously. Someone who writes standardized tests for a living isn’t interested in your picture book. You might be lucky and hit someone like me, who will point you in the right direction. Or you might get someone less helpful, who just looks blankly at your packet before tossing it in the trash.

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Email: bellman[at]toasted-cheese.com

What If?

The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors
Amanda “The Bellman” Marlowe


Iceberg in Newfoundland Canada
Photo Credit: Natalie Lucier

 

Mouseover “More” in the bottom right corner and then click “Fullscreen” to begin.
(You may need to click the play button once to get “More” to appear.)

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Email: bellman[at]toasted-cheese.com

Joy to the Word

The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors
Amanda “The Bellman” Marlowe


Beyond Pow!
Photo Credit: Barbara Holbrook

I have recently been taking acting classes that focus on Shakespearean verse. One of the many fun things we learn is exactly how much you can trust the Bard to get it right, and how much the characters revel in their choice word choices. If you truly give in to the words—to the sounds of the words, to the alliteration and the assonance—you find out a lot about the character’s feelings and state of mind.

My most recent monologue was “mad” Queen Margaret‘s speech to Queen Elizabeth (no, not that Queen Elizabeth, but Edward IV’s wife) from Richard III. Margaret lost her power, her son, and her husband Henry VI to Edward IV during the War of the Roses. At this point in Richard III, Elizabeth has also lost her husband and her power to Richard and has just found out her two young sons were murdered by him as well. Margaret has been hanging around England to watch the downfall of the house of York, and the speech is about her schadenfreude and about her twisting the knife in Elizabeth’s wounds. The full speech can be found here.

We talked a lot in class about how awesome Shakespeare was with his words. So one week, I just totally gave into those words. I really drew out all the consonants and vowels, really gave in to them and let them tell me the character’s feelings. Interestingly, I got a map of what she was doing and feeling.

At the beginning of the speech, Margaret is showing her contempt for Elizabeth, saying she was barely worthy of being queen as it was. She calls Elizabeth “poor shadow, painted queen, the presentation of but what I was.” Say that line, emphasizing every puh and buh. Sounds like you are spitting venom, doesn’t it? Pttthb!

Later, when Margaret is essentially saying that Elizabeth deserves all this pain (because, after all, these horrible events just mirror what the Yorks, lead by Elizabeth’s husband, did to her earlier), the speech fills with s sounds. Hissssss. “Thussss hath the coursssse of jusssstice whirled about…” And, having twisted the knife in Elizabeth’s wounds, she wallows in the schadenfreude: “These English woes will make me smile in France.” Catch the alliteration and consonance here? That’s right… mmm mmm mmm.

These aren’t the only juicy ways in which the words do Shakespeare’s work for him. There are many more examples sprinkled throughout the speech. The phrase “wails the name” for example, sounds like wailing if you draw out the a sound. Wail is onomatopoeic, and the a sound in name reinforces the “waaaaaah! aaaaaaah!” feeling of the line. Fun stuff, especially when you are acting it or reading it out loud.

We spend a lot of time as writers picking “the right words,” searching for just that nuance of meaning that hammers our point home. How much time do you spend on the sounds of your words? When you read your work aloud to hear how it flows, do you also listen for how it sounds, and whether or not the sounds reinforce the feelings you are conveying? Sometimes you’ll see it happening even if you didn’t plan it. Look for those instances. Revel in them. When your character’s “teeth chatter on a chilly day'” notice the ch ch ch of chattering teeth in that phrase. When your harried and hurrying character uses several words in a row starting with h, is it possible the hhu hhu hhu is showing you that he is out of breath?

Every once in a while, just give in to the words. Let them do your work for you. Let it be fun. Let it sound like what you mean as well as reading like what you mean. Enjoy the word play and enjoy the sound play. It’s a subtle thing, yes, but your writing will be the richer for it. And who knows? Maybe English students four hundred years from now will be pointing out these instances of word joy in lengthy essays or class discussions. So go for it!

In this post-NaNo season, my wish to all writers is: Joy to the Word!

“For what, we ask, is life without a touch of poetry in it?”
—The Pirate King, in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance.

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Email: bellman[at]toasted-cheese.com

The Voice of the People

The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors
Amanda “The Bellman” Marlowe


As I was leafing through my copy of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth, I came across two letters. I knew what they were, of course. I had heard the story behind them more than once, and read them, but it was still a thrill to find them tucked inside the book.

One letter was a copy of a letter my mother had written Mr. Wilder when she was sixteen:

(A note on it indicated it was copied from a scratch version in 1949 and had been sent sometime in May 1947)

Each year the Senior Public Speaking Class of [our school] presents a [festival] made up of scenes from well-known plays. This year our title was from Wilde to Wilder. We gave the first and third acts from The Skin of Our Teeth. I had the part of Mrs. Antrobus in the third act, which we did in assembly this morning. It was an experience. We had been rehearsing for months so that we could get as much out of it as possible in order to get across everything to our audience. Our director was a young man who had been in the Navy during the war and had carried your play with him throughout all the action he had seen. Because it meant so much to him and because its message hit us between the eyes, we tried very hard to create the right atmosphere. Each rehearsal found us deeper into the meaning of the third act. This morning’s performance was all that we hoped it would be. The play is so powerful that students from the seventh grade up were profoundly interested.

It meant a great deal to me to be able to work on Mrs. Antrobus. My interpretation was naturally lacking because I don’t think a sixteen year old girl could really understand her, but I learned an awful lot. Those students who had other parts had the same experience and it did something for us nothing else could. I wanted to tell you what your play meant to group of high school students and to thank you.

Also tucked in the book was Mr. Wilder’s handwritten response:

(dated June 27, 1947)

Forgive my delay in replying to your kind letter. I am delighted that you and your fellow students found the experience rewarding. On thinking it over I realize that that is a third act that can very easily be played separately. You can imagine with what interest I read letters from Germans who are seeing it in Berlin; who themselves are coming out of cellars; and who write me that they listen urgently to those “three things” that give Mr. Antrobus the courage to go on.

All best wishes to you in your work and again thank you for your letter.

Sincerely yours,
Thornton Wilder

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Letter from Thornton Wilder

I had first read these letters years ago, when my mother first introduced to me to The Skin of Our Teeth, back when I was a teen. But several things struck me as I read this exchange again both as an adult and as a writer.

The first thing that struck me was how technology has made authors much more accessible. When I was a child, encouraged by my mother’s story of Wilder’s answer, I would occasionally send a letter to a favorite author, care of the publishing house. I had to take it on faith the mail made it there, as I was never graced with an answer as my mother was.

But today most of my favorite authors keep tabs on their email lists, posting occasionally, answering fan queries. Others have blogs, responding to fan comments as they can. They use Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and direct messages from them tend to be available 24/7. They may still only pick a few people to answer directly, but they answer in public for everyone to see. And there is something less personal about a public reply, meant for more eyes than just yours. There’s something a written letter gives you: the feeling that it is tangible, that it is your reply and yours alone, something you can show to your children, or leave for them to find as they leaf through an old book. I don’t think my children, who are digital age children through and through, would ever consider writing an author an actual letter, unless it was part of an assignment for a class. They would seek out the digital outlet first. Their children might come across an ancient blog comment, with a reply from the author. Maybe. However, they will never come across an unexpected letter signed by the author while leafing through an old book. There’s something a little sad about that.

The second thing that struck me was how both my mother’s letter and Mr. Wilder’s response referred to experience, and how different people bring their own experiences to a work. Act Three of The Skin of Our Teeth opens after a seven-year long war. Mrs. Antrobus and her daughter have been hiding in a bunker all that time. (The world has been destroyed and rebuilt several times. This is the first act in which we see the aftermath of the latest destruction of the world—both Act I and Act II end with destruction imminent.) The Navy man who directed my mother in Act III brought his experience to the play in a way that my mother, as a sixteen-year-old, could not. The Germans mentioned by Mr. Wilder also brought a uniquely heightened experience with them as they watched the play.

The author has one experience in mind when creating the work, but people’s reactions to and interpretations of it will vary widely. The work is not truly completed until it has been interpreted by someone else. And while authors and artists have control over the final work, they have no control over how it is interpreted. But that’s a good thing. It is the story that allows for this variation of meaning among readers, that speaks to people in different ways, that speaks to something inside that makes you uniquely you—it is that story that becomes “an experience.” It is the reader or the viewer who completes the work, and brings to it a deeper and richer experience that only they can understand.

And perhaps my mother’s connection to the play was one of the reasons I’ve always preferred it to Wilder’s better-known Our Town.

Antrobus:

Now I remember what three things always went together when I was able to see things most clearly: three things.
Three things:
The voice of the people in their confusion and need.
And the thought of you and the children and this house…
And… Maggie! I didn’t dare ask you: my books! They haven’t been lost, have they?

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E-mail: bellman[at]toasted-cheese.com

Stranger Than Fiction

The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors
Amanda “The Bellman” Marlowe


“Some people are heroes. And some people jot down notes.” —Terry Pratchett, The Truth

To writers, everything is material. Random images, overheard comments, tangled webs of relationships. We pull ideas from everywhere. And one ever-flowing river of ideas flows from the strange news stories that pique our imagination and curiosity.

Sometimes it’s the puzzle that draws us. Take, for example, The Mysterious Affair of the Severed Feet. It started out innocently enough. I shared an odd news story with Beaver. Two severed feet were found on a street near Chicago. Odd. Wonder what’s behind that? But then… very odd. She’d just had her own severed foot story—a right foot in a sneaker washed up on a beach in British Columbia. This was the second right foot found there that summer. We speculate, hunting out connections and puzzling it out. The Chicago mystery is solved fairly quickly. It was a hit-and-run accident. No connection to the two feet in British Columbia. But then another severed foot, also a right foot in a sneaker, washed ashore in New Zealand. Then a third right foot shows up on a beach in British Columbia. And, just recently, they found a fourth right foot in British Columbia. They’ve since confirmed this is, like all the others, a right foot in a sneaker.

It’s only human, and particularly writerly, to speculate like mad at this point. Canada is investigating the possibility the feet all came from a plane crash. (Mystery writers, take note: apparently right shoes and left shoes are different enough the two will drift in different directions.) There’s also some speculation the foot thing is a punishment meted out by a drug cartel. Or is it some foot severing cult? The writer in me has taken over, and I’m mentally crafting the motivations and character sketches for the sort of people who might start up a foot-severing cult. Why right feet? Why toss it in the ocean? Is it some sort of punishment? An initiation rite? Are there dead bodies that go with the feet, or are there a group of people out there who now have a prosthetic right foot? If I can’t know what the real story is, I will make up several stories of my own.

Then there’s the story of the woman who sat on her boyfriend’s toilet for two years. The toilet seat had to be removed surgically because her skin grew around it. What compels someone to sit in a bathroom for two years? Why didn’t the boyfriend do anything to get her out of there? The little information we’re given aren’t very satisfactory. Again, questions flow, and potential stories come from the attempts to answer them and explain the unexplainable.

The world is an odd place, and and a lot of stories stem from our attempts to understand things that don’t make sense to us. The old saw that “truth is stranger than fiction” holds true because, at the end of the day, a work of fiction needs to make sense. Truth and reality, on the other hand, are under no obligation to make sense at all.
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E-mail: bellman[at]toasted-cheese.com

Ya Want Ads With That?

The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors
Amanda “The Bellman” Marlowe


The other day a friend sent me a link to a New York Times article describing how Borders was planning to install large flat-screen televisions in some of their stores. The idea is to display “unobtrusive” ads and other content.

I’m instantly reminded of the scenes in Minority Report, where pedestrians are constantly barraged with ads targeted directly to them as they go about their daily business. When I first saw that, I was horrified, because I could so easily see that becoming our future.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t go out to watch television. If I wanted to watch television 24/7 I would stay home—someone in my family usually has something on. I’m not particularly anti-television. I’ve watched my fair share of good stuff and my fair share of junk, and I have shows I try to watch regularly. But I generally prefer the printed word, and I have found I enjoy getting lost in my own thoughts. Television, for better or worse, does distract from thinking, from conversation, and from reading. I find I resent televisions in public spaces like grocery store checkout lines and restaurants. There’s something about a television that demands your attention, like a little child always shouting “Look Ma, look! Look!!” And suddenly all the attention is on the television, on some channel you have no control over. Gone with your attention are many human interactions you might have had. A chat with the person next to you, an intimate discussion with your date, or a smile at the checkout clerk are easily replaced by a glassy stare at an LCD screen. I understand that waiting in places can be boring, but do we always have to fill the blank spaces in with television? Especially with television that is little better than non-stop infomercials?

A bookstore is someplace I go to relax, to be with my own thoughts, to breath in ink particles (or book mold, if it’s a secondhand bookstore), and, oddly enough, to browse books. And if there’s a coffee bar, it might be a place I’ll go to chat with friends. But it’s not a place I go to watch television. It never will be. I don’t seem to be alone in this view. The overwhelming reaction I’ve gotten to people who have read the article is “Ack!” Several people have sworn if their local Borders follows through with the televisions, they’ll never set foot in the place again.

I understand a company wants to make money. And I understand that there is a great deal of money in selling ads—just ask Google. I also understand that Borders has always wanted to be seen as more than a bookstore. But given the reactions I’ve heard to this move, I have to wonder if perhaps they don’t understand their audience. Well, perhaps this whole thing will help out the independent bookstores. If so, then that would be a bright spot in an ad-filled future.
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E-mail: bellman[at]toasted-cheese.com

Can The Small Talk

The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors
Amanda “The Bellman” Marlowe


Writers tend to listen to the conversations around them. We’re always looking for snippets that would make a good scene, or trigger that best-selling novel’s plot. With cell phones, there’s a lot more to overhear than there used to be. And half of a conversation can be far more interesting than the whole conversation. The woman on the train seat next to yours is buying life insurance for her young children, but you hear her say “No, that’s too expensive. Forget the health insurance, just give me the life insurance.” The writer’s brain immediately supplies the backstory: She’s about to murder her children for the insurance money. The kid yelling into his cell phone about how much he hates his dad becomes the main character in your next angstful coming-of-age story. We’ve all done that sort of thing.

And people talk on cell phones almost everywhere, so it’s hard not to overhear them. They’ll break up with their lovers at full volume at a bus stop. They’ll chew their kids out as they’re walking down the street with a Bluetooth headset. You can’t tell the weirdoes from everyone else anymore—almost everybody is talking to thin air now. Everywhere. And I do mean everywhere. Even in the bathroom.

Three times this past weekend, I’ve heard a phone ring in a public ladies’ room. Once in a McDonald’s, and twice at an airport. This didn’t surprise me particularly. What surprised me was that the gals, who were all on the can at the time, answered.

Maybe I’m not up on today’s etiquette, but I think it’s gross to answer a phone when you are in the bathroom. I would really prefer you let me leave you a voicemail message. Even without the germ issue, there are some things that you just don’t need to share with the world. Bathroom trips (as that CNN anchor found out recently) are very high on that list. I don’t need to know you are going to the bathroom. I really don’t. So if you’re in the stall, and your phone rings, check your caller ID. If it’s my number, do us both a favor and just let it ring.

I understand some people live with the phone in the hand, or the Bluetooth ear piece permanently attached, but really… is there any phone call so desperate you have to answer it in the john instead of calling someone back about five minutes later? Certainly none of the conversations I was privileged to overhear were particularly noteworthy. They weren’t even story-worthy. They almost all of them ran something like this:

“Hello?”

“Oh, hi. Look, can I call you back in about five minutes? I’m in the bathroom.”

I’m sorry. There’s not much writing material in that sort of conversation. Well, okay, I admit that’s an obvious lie—it did fuel this Snark Zone essay.

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E-mail: bellman[at]toasted-cheese.com.

The Testing

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Exhibition
Amanda Marlowe


Damiol smothered the fire, and removed his fur cloak. He stood naked, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the faint starlight. A chill wind whipped around his slender body as he stared toward the west, waiting for the moon to sink below the horizon. There. Not even a glimmer of light on the snow. It was time for the berries. Time to become a man.

“When you reach the peak of the mountain, you will find a ledge. The bush is there.” Elder Morrion’s instructions ran in an endless stream through his mind.

His hand sought in the dark among the thorns of the sepelia bush. When he had found five of the precious berries, he yanked his hand and allowed the thorns to rake his palm. Both blood and berries mingled black in the starlight. Damiol crushed them together, then dipped his fingers into his palm. He shook the paste into his mouth, then smeared what remained in streaks across his face. Dip. Swallow. Smear. Dip. Swallow. Smear. The last of the juice he rubbed over his chest.

“Once you have performed the purification with the sepelia berries, seek the bonfire, and watch. You will know when you must offer your entire self.” And that was all. There was nothing more to do but watch and wait.

He turned to seek the dim flicker of light, and stood watching it dance, letting the wind whip his hair in any direction it chose. He refused to shiver. If he shivered, he might fail. He focused on the bonfire below until it whipped about in his mind, dancing up closer, closer, up the mountainside, up above the ledge he was on, up into the sky to join the stars. To be one with the Goddess.

Damiol flung himself backward onto the ground, arms flung out, and continued to watch the fire as it danced among the stars. He would study the dance until the Goddess came to take her sacrifice, and speak the phrase that would guide his adult life.

A kaleidoscope of explosions flickered through his brain. The patterns were becoming clearer, the path of the Goddess on the fringe of his understanding. His body was still, but his eyes traced the circles within circles of the heavens.

Then understanding fled, replaced by terror as the Goddess herself appeared before him, shimmering and translucent as water. And then he was up, dancing to music that made him weep, and yet, too, he was flat on his back, spread out under the stars. And the Goddess was water, and air, and fire, and earth, and she danced with him, and on him, and in him. But the Goddess never spoke a word.

She returned him to his body, and wrapped herself around him. When he cried out as she accepted his sacrifice, she made no noise. When he bit back the cry as she branded him with the mark of her favor, she was silent. And as the glow of dawn spread throughout the mountaintop, she vanished. And still, she had not left him the phrase that would guide him to his life’s path. Had he failed? Impossible.

Damiol remained staring at the sky until late morning. When the sun edged into his direct vision, he arose and wrapped himself in his cloak. Then he started on the long trek home.

His mother and Erril were waiting at the gate, but though their eyes asked many questions, their mouths were closed as custom demanded. Damiol, too, spoke to no one as he strode through the village. His first words must be to the council of Elders.

He entered the longhouse, where the five Elders were assembled.

“Damiol of Erona, drop your cloak and show us the Goddess has declared you a child no longer.”

The fur cloak slithered to the floor. The blood had welled around the deep gouges on his chest, and the Elders nodded at the sign of the Goddess’s favor. “It will scar well.” Morrion smiled. “You must have pleased her.” Damiol looked at the floor, his eyes tracing the circle his cloak formed about his feet.

Elder Cormat spoke. “We have your medallion prepared, Damiol. Tell us, what words did the Goddess leave with you, that we may engrave them in the ancient tongue and set you on your path in life?”

At this Damiol raised his head, and looked Cormat in the eye. The Elder’s eyes were bright, and his smile large. Damiol shook his head. “She said nothing.” He watched the smile falter and the forehead furrow.

“You jest with us, Damiol. It is unlucky to speak of anything before you speak The Phrase.” Morrion’s voice seemed overloud as he spoke to be heard over the murmur of the council.

“Would I jest? You know my history, Elder. I have never lied. She said nothing. She came, She marked me, and She was silent.”

Morrion glanced at the rest of the council. “We must discuss this. Such a thing has never happened before. Yes, the Goddess has rejected boys who were not ready to be men, but never has she accepted and not offered guidance. Cloak yourself and wait outside.”

His mother Leera was waiting for him. Leera’s eyes widened as she saw him still in his cloak, and she traced the pattern on her palm repeatedly. Damiol bit his lip; he knew this was her habit when she was frightened.

Erril appeared, making faces at him. But he too was silent as he saw the fur cloak. Damiol managed a small smile for his friend, though his eyes strayed often to the closed door of the longhouse.

After an eternity, Morrion opened the door, and motioned Damiol back in. “We have decided to give you your medallion, for you have obviously earned your place among the men of the village. But we must leave it blank. If the Goddess said nothing, you are free to pick your own path through life.”

Cormat spoke up. “Your path does not lie with us, though you are always welcome here. Shed your cloak now, take your medallion, and dress as a man dresses.”

Damiol bowed to each Elder in turn as they withdrew, then dressed in his new clothes. He slipped out of the longhouse.

“Erril, my friend, you know better than to ask me.” He punched the lad’s shoulder. Erril wasn’t to take his testing until springtime, and was all curiosity.

“And you know better than to answer even if I do, worse luck.” Erril punched him back. “So, what’s it to be? I was hoping you’d be carpenter and join us as my father’s apprentice.”

“I don’t know yet. I must talk with my mother, Erril. I promise I’ll tell you what I can about it later if you’ll leave us be for a while.”

Erril grinned, and clasped Damiol’s hand. “I’ll hold you to that.” Then he dashed down the street.

Damiol turned to his mother, opened his shirt and showed the blank medallion. “Mother, does the Goddess hate me, that she leaves me with no words to guide me?”

“Son, How can I know what the gods have planned for you? You should have been God marked at birth, like me, yet you weren’t. You should have been Goddess marked last night, yet you weren’t. I just don’t know.” She traced the lines of blood on his chest. “I will be glad to see this when it scars. If it scars.”

Damiol shrugged. “If it scars, or if it doesn’t, I am Goddess marked. And if She chooses to be silent, that does not mean I can’t be guided by her wisdom.”

Leera smiled, “I call you ‘my boy’ for the last time. For those are surely the words of a man.”

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Amanda (a.k.a Jam), Toasted Cheese’s resident tech-whiz and keeper of the stars (both the heavenly and Hollywood kind), can be reached at bellman[at]toasted-cheese.com.

Seven Deadly Dialogue Sins

The Snark Zone
Stephanie “Baker” Lenz & Amanda “The Bellman” Marlowe


Baker & The Bellman demonstrate how not to write dialogue.

Happily, she smiled, “Ooo la la, Ereeek, zee zewers of gay Paree, weeth zee sewage and zee high breek walls, smeell mahvelous in zee zummer heat just zo long as tu, mon chere, are weeth me!”

Miserably, he grumbled, “Easy for you to say, Christine Daae, my secret soprano pupil. You’re not holed up under the Paris Opera, season after season, listening to the same Wagnerian German arias while the damp water drips down the stony masonry walls. I have to take a gondola boat ride just to get to the loo. And it’s a labryinthal maze down here in the basement, under the building, where I live.”

Jealously, she seethed, “Ereek! Can it be that you love zee opera house, wheech is older zan my grandmere, more than you love me?”

He worried anxiously, “I think I’m dying of some fatal disease. I’ll wake up some early morning and all at once I’ll die. Your dead grandmother died all at once, didn’t she? Oh, I know I have that disease. You know, the lung disease miners get where their lungs turn sooty, ashy, coal, raven, ebony. Cough, cough. Almost blackish. What’s that called?”

Lustfully, she recalled, “As you know, Ereek, zat is de dreadful black lung deseeze. My pauvre grandmere, at zee old age of eighty three, died of zee black lung dezeeze all of a once just az zee doctor arrived. Zee doctor… zo young, zo handsome… Zee eyes, zee arms, so strong… How zey consoled me in my sorrow… Zee kisses…”

Hopelessly, he sighed, “The babes don’t dig organ players anymore. They all lust after pulminologists and lung doctors. Of course organs, lungs… oh never mind. No one will ever love me. Ever since work began here on the Opera house in the summer of 1861, I have known that I shall be unloved and forlorn all my miserable days.”

Irritated, she burned, “Ereek! Pleeze, mon chere, I did not come down here to zee zewers to hear you whine. I can hear you whine all zee time upstairs. Through the four black and gold leather-covered walls while we are waiting in zee dressing room. I came here because you promised me you would help wit zee zinging voice. I do not want to be zee chorus girl forever. Degas, he wanted to do zee sketch of me, but I stay for you.”

Uncertainly, he wondered, “I whine? I don’t think I whine. Do I? Who’s this Degas fellow? Is he that viscount who’s always running about after you? Maybe I’ll have to deal with him. Or maybe I should invite him down for Sunday brunch this Sunday around 11 a.m. I’ll make mimosas. As you know, Christine, mimosas are champagne and orange juice beverages what are traditionally served to drink at brunch. What if he doesn’t like mimosas?”

Courageously, she declared, “Ereek, I do not think zee famous painter Degas will come to zee brunch on zee Sunday at 11 a.m. But enough of zee chitchat. I want to view zee face of mon chere. I am zee strong woman, zee corahgeous one to follow into zee zewers. Zee zewers, as you know my chere Ereek, are damp and stinkee. It is great courahge to stay with zee smell of zee refuse from zee city. Reward my courahge and remove from you zee masque.”

Sarcastically, he gibed, “You’re no bed of roses either, you Parisian floozy.”

Pettily, she trivialized, “If you do not remove zee masque, I shall emit zee scream and bring zee polize to find you.”

Regretfully, he lamented, “I could have been a celestial star. I could have been somebody. But I told my voice teacher I would hang him from the grand chandelier if the mood struck me. And it struck me. If only I hadn’t lost my temper, if only I hadn’t gone off track, if only I hadn’t gone above, to the surface, without my sunblock. Ah, the streets of Paris. So much to see, so much to do. That’s where I got this kicky beret. I had “Erik” stitched on it by a streetwalking prostitute. Ah! Paris. I saw the Bois de Boulogne, the Tuilleries, the Champ de Mars. Of course I visited Notre Dame, on the Île de la Cité. As you know Christine, it was begun in 1163 and is the main tourist attraction here in Paris. I also visited The Arc de Triomphe, the Place de l’Étoile, the Rue de Rivoli, Rue de la Paix, Rue de Faubourg-Saint Honoré, Avenue de l’Opéra, Boulevard des Italiens, Boulevard du Montparnasse, and the Champs Élysées. Then it was back to the Place de l’Opera and home sweet sewer.”

With wonder, she mused, “Oh Ereek, you bring back zee memories of when I first came to zee gay Paree from zee native shores of my homeland. Zee Cathedral of Notre Dame, zee hideeous gargoyles so beootiful in zee moonlight, and my heart, she sing to zee heavens.”

Curiously, he queried, “You’re not Parisian? You had me fooled. And I thought you were such a big Jerry Lewis fan. What is that accent supposed to be then? You sound like Pepe LePew, the famous Warner Brothers character French skunk with the overdone fake French accent.”

She sneered smugly, “LePew, LeShmue, what care I for zee famous French Skunks? I am zee soprano, zee diamond in zee rough. I am to have zee vibratto, zee agitatto, zee allegro non tropo…”

He raged angrily, “Diamond in the rough? Hey, you little French Fry you, I made you what you are. You might be able to lead a gift horse to water, but you can’t look it in the mouth! You ingrate! How dare you call yourself a diamond! You’re a cubic zirconia if I ever saw one. Why don’t you get that Degas guy to give you singing lessons, huh? If I don’t hang him from the lead crystal grand chandelier first!”

She whispered passionately, “Ereek, Ereek, mon chere, zee whole world I owe you, zee voice, zee job. I forget not zee tender moments down here in zee romantic black shadowed zewers, where Jean Valjean once rescued zee young Marius. I live for zee tender moments in zee flickering of zee flaming torchlight with you, mon chere. I keess your shadow…”

Lovingly, he revealed, “Oh Christine, I dream at night about your flaxen hair, your flashing azure eyes, your heaving bosom, your peaches and cream complexion. My heart skips a beat when I hear your angelic voice. Like the caged pet canary bird who sings only for me and me alone. Alas, I am too hideous for you to ever love me. But I love you so, I must be willing to let you go.”

She wailed longingly, “Ereeek, Ereeek, I weesh I must not return me to zee sunlight and zee fresh air, and zee tedious Raoul, Viscomte de Chagny, who holds the titles to the ancestral family lands of Provence, France, and who weeshes to marry me. But alas, mon chere, I must. I scream for ze polize now. Eeeeeeeeeeeeeek!”

He sighed despondently, “Oh well. With my luck, someone will make a highly successful musical about our star-crossed love. After all, look what happened to Jean Valjean.”

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Baker, our fountain of useless knowledge, hosts Maxim Tremendous, Antediluvian Tone and Ink in Unfailing Supply, and can be reached at baker[at]toasted-cheese.com. The Bellman, our tech support whiz, hosts Damage from Hail and Boojum Tales, and can be reached at bellman[at]toasted-cheese.com.

Soup to Nuts

Fiction
Amanda Marlowe


It is always embarrassing for a host when a dinner guest slumps face forward into the soup. It is even more embarrassing when that dinner guest has just been poisoned. But it is excruciating when the host of the dinner party also happens to be the world’s best private detective.

Nigel Rathskeller had always loved a good formal dinner. And tonight he had been entertaining five of the city’s more notable residents with tales of his exploits. Suddenly he was entertaining four. Harvard Pomfrey III, the richest man in the country, had collapsed in the soup just as Nigel was reaching the climax of his story. Nigel stared in horror at the tablecloth, now splattered blood red. Borscht stains terribly. The silence that followed that heart-stopping splat was shattered by a melodious crash.

Dr. Whitsun had leapt from his seat, sending his wine glass plummeting to the floor. Shards crunched unheeded beneath his shoes as he rushed to Harvard Pomfrey’s side. Morris Whitsun avoided touching the flabby fist that still gripped a small soup-splattered spoon as he sought for a pulse. Finally he pronounced, “He’s dead, Nigel.”

Jarvis, Nigel’s butler, appeared in the doorway with the salad tray. The multicolored leaves peeping over the edges of the stark white plates quivered as he paused in the doorway. His eyes swept over the table, lingering on the borscht-covered body. “Shall I tidy up the mess, sir?”

Nigel considered. “No. Do not disturb Mr. Pomfrey’s place, Jarvis. I have reason to suspect it may be murder.”

Both Dr. Whitsun and Chief Inspector Mansfield whipped their heads around to stare at Nigel. Angelica LeMarion screamed dramatically.

Her husband, Bradford Kincaide, snapped, “Calm yourself, my dear. We all know you have the best scream in the cinema. You needn’t prove yourself.” The shrill sound stopped as Angelica pouted dramatically.

Inspector Mansfield glowered. “It would be murder on my day off. How do you know, Rathskeller?”

“My dear Inspector, use your nose. Borscht generally does not reek of bitter almonds.”

Dr. Whitsun sniffed at the corpse’s mouth. “He’s right, Mansfield. It was poison.”

Mansfield growled. Give someone a doctorate for writing a few murder mysteries, and he thinks he’s qualified to identify poison. “I’ll have to call the medical examiner. Unless,” he said as he eyed Nigel, “unless you think you can have the whole thing solved before dessert.”

Nigel Rathskeller lifted his wine glass and swirled the pale liquid inside. He raised it slightly in Mr. Pomfrey’s direction, then touched it to his mouth in a silent toast. He carefully placed it down again and stared for a moment at the silverware reflected off the glass. Finally he said, “Nothing would be easier, Inspector. Obviously it is one of us here. Jarvis, you may serve the salad now. I trust you can work around Mr. Pomfrey.”

“As you wish, sir.” Jarvis placed the crisp greens in front of Angelica. She looked at the plate, sniffed dramatically, then looked over at the dead body.

“I can’t eat this. It smells like almonds.” Her voice rose hysterically. “Mr. Rathskeller is trying to poison us all one by one! How does he expect us to eat with a dead body sitting at the table??”

“I believe what Madam smells is the aromatic almond pesto vinaigrette dressing. A family recipe. Quite safe, I assure you.” Jarvis kept his tone soothing. “Mr. Rathskeller would no more poison you than I would, Madam.”

With a melodramatic gesture, she raised a small leaf towards her mouth. She paused, and turned to her husband. “If I die, sue Nigel, my love!” The scrap of green vanished behind scarlet lipstick. Disappointment flooded her face when, after a brief interval, she found herself still alive. Death scenes were always a specialty of hers.

Nigel was talking, “Indeed, Miss LeMarion, I am also a suspect in this murder. My motive? Mr. Pomfrey dined here last week. I believe Jarvis hoped I would not ask him back. Mr. Pomfrey scandalized him by using a dessert fork for the salad. But I digress. We were discussing raising money to help my favorite charity, The Home for Aging Detectives. Mr. Pomfrey felt this was not a worthy cause. We had words. He said I could have the money for my Home over his dead body. I fear I lost my temper, and told him that could be easily arranged.” He paused to savor the vinaigrette soaked mescaline.

Inspector Mansfield pulled out a pair of handcuffs. “I always did want to arrest you, Rathskeller. You make the police of this city look like idiots.”

“Inspector, patience. I will deliver the culprit into your capable hands in due course. I said I had a motive. But I am innocent. For only a dastardly miscreant would murder a guest at his own dinner party. No, if I had wanted to kill Mr. Pomfrey, I would have poisoned him at your dinner party next week, Inspector.”

Jarvis disappeared with the almost empty salad plates. Rathskeller continued, “And that brings us to your own motive, Inspector.”

Mansfield sputtered, “My motive? What do you mean?”

“Why, you are due to retire soon. It would be very much to your advantage if I had been able to raise that money for the Home. But I exonerate you as well. You would not stoop to poison. You don’t have the dexterity to slip something into a cup unnoticed. Instead, you would have had Mr. Pomfrey shot in one of those unfortunate police accidents that we are continually reading about in the papers…”

Rathskeller was interrupted by the reappearance of Jarvis bearing a suckling pig on a wheeled cart. The aroma of roast pork wafted through the room, mingling with the scraping sounds of the knife against the honing blade. The pig, roasted to crispy golden-brown perfection, presided on a throne of lettuce and pineapple. The golden snout tapered into the red of a small apple. It was, perhaps, unfortunate that the delectable dish vaguely resembled the dead millionaire. Several of the guests shuddered as the knife first slid through the skin and shaved off a razor thin slice. After precisely layering the slices on the antique china, Jarvis served. Since Nigel refused to discuss crime over the main course, an appreciative silence followed. Amid the gentle clinking of cleared dishes, Nigel commanded their attention again.

“It is a pity Mr. Pomfrey did not survive another half hour or so. He did so enjoy roast pig. But let us proceed in finding his murderer. You, Miss LeMarion, wanted Mr. Pomfrey dead as well. The two of you were having an affair, but he was about to break it off, was he not? And Hell hath no fury…”

Angelica gasped. “How dare you!! You couldn’t possibly have known that.”

“Now, now, my dear. Don’t bother to deny it. The clues are all obvious to the alert observer. The back of your dress shimmers with a phosphorescent pollen found exclusively in a very rare South American orchid. The only local source of these orchids are Mr. Pomfrey’s greenhouse. So I knew you were having an affair, either with him, or with his gardener. A quick glance at Mr. Pomfrey’s clothing confirmed my deduction that you would not stoop to dallying with a gardener. I will not bore you with the other details that led to my conclusions.”

“And I don’t suppose that our arguing about the matter as Jarvis was opening the door had anything to do with these so-called deductions?” muttered Kincaide.

“Certainly not. Jarvis merely confirmed my already well formulated theory. And you, Mr. Kincaide, you also have signs of the pollen on your shoes. From which I deduce you walked in on your wife and Mr. Pomfrey as they had their little spat. Ah, yes, from the clenching of your hand, I see that your rage would be sufficient motive for his murder.”

“I begin to feel left out,” murmured Morris Whitsun, fidgeting with his coffee spoon.

“Don’t, my old friend. For I know that Mr. Pomfrey was about to sue you for plagiarism. He mentioned how you had stolen his idea of murdering his mother-in-law for your latest book. By poisoning her soup.” Nigel’s sharp gray eyes observed Dr. Whitsun’s face growing pale. The Inspector pulled out the handcuffs again, but a wave of Nigel’s hand arrested him. Nigel continued, “But, despite all these motives, I know you are innocent. Just as I know I am innocent.”

Angelica’s brow wrinkled delightfully. “But that eliminates us all as suspects. Which means it wasn’t murder.”

“Ah,” announced Nigel, “but it was. For there is one more person in this house, with an overwhelming motive for murder.” He got up and slipped over to the dead man’s chair. “With your permission, Inspector?”

Inspector Mansfield nodded, and Nigel worked the silver spoon from Harvey Pomfrey’s flaccid hand. He flourished the cold silver implement under his guests’ noses. “This, my dear friends, is the final clue. Observe this spoon.”

Kincaide frowned. “It’s just a spoon.”

“But, no. It is not ‘just a spoon.’ It is a dessert spoon. Mr. Pomfrey was slurping his soup with a dessert spoon.” He gazed at each living guest one by one. “Surely that makes it all clear.” He glanced at Jarvis. “Doesn’t it, Jarvis?”

The butler placed a quivering crème caramel in front of his employer. “Indeed, sir, you are correct. Mr. Pomfrey would be alive now had he used his soup spoon. I would have contrived to replace the dessert spoon at this juncture, before he could use it.”

Nigel smiled. “Inspector, you may pull out your hand cuffs now.”

A cacophony of “Why?” burst out around the table. Nigel held up his hand for silence. “Jarvis is the perfect butler. In his eyes, anyone crass enough to use a salad fork for the main entree, as Mr. Pomfrey did when he dined here last, deserves instant death. But, being a fair man, he was willing to give Mr. Pomfrey a second chance.”

“Indeed, sir. It is as you say.”

“Thank you, Jarvis. That will be all. Please take the body with you on your way out, Inspector. Justice is served.”

Jarvis cried out, grabbing a bowl from the side board with his manacled hands and dumping it on the table. Several pecans clattered onto the tablecloth. A nutcracker hastily joined them. Jarvis turned to his erstwhile employer and pleaded, “But not, sir, before the nuts!”

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Amanda can be reached at bellman[at]toasted-cheese.com.