Sean Doherty slammed the big glass door open and stormed across the lobby toward his office. “Sean?” Terry, the receptionist, looked up in surprise. “Trouble with Cramer again?” “With Cramer? Never. He’s a paragon of clienthood! A saint!” Sean threw his notebook down the hallway ahead of him and ripped off his tweed jacket. When he reached his office, he wadded it and threw it into the corner, knocking his prized Jimi Hendrix poster off the wall. When the poster hit the credenza beneath, the glass shattered and the poster fell forward, taking out an Ad Club trophy and scattering a tray full of paper clips around the room. “Fuck!” He threw his six foot frame into the swivel chair and pounded his desk. This was it. This was his last day in this idiotic fucking ad business. He’d corral shopping carts at Walmart or some damn thing—stand at the door wishing people a nice day as they dragged their pajama-bottomed asses through the automatic doors into the air conditioning. It would be a step up in clientele. And he’d get to see his family once in a while. Ransom Tanner, the senior writer, stuck his balding head around the doorframe, grinning. “Blew ‘em away, huh?” “Fucking Cramer.” He stretched out and gave the wastebasket a kick, sending a sprawl of paper across the floor. “Don’t worry about it. He’s diggin’ his own grave. If his daddy didn’t own the place, he’d have been out on his ass years ago.” “This is it for me. I’ve had it.” Sean leaned back in his chair, running his fingers fiercely through his shaggy salt and pepper hair. “Yeah, yeah. Heard that before. You love this racket too much.” “This time I mean it. I’m history! Out of here!” Tanner grinned again and disappeared. Sean did mean it. He was finally pissed enough to quit. Finally pissed enough to take the big step: writing that book he’d been kicking around in his head for the last ten years. He grabbed the desk and shoved his chair up to the computer. * * * “No, no, no. You’re not going to resign, Sean.” His boss, Sandy Cahill, leaned across his marble-topped desk, his eyes blinking softly behind his aviator glasses, his voice calm and reassuring. “You’re way too valuable to the agency for us to let that happen.” Sean’s gaze swept the office. Cream colored walls covered with award certificates, client paraphernalia and photos with semi-celebrities. Sleek glass and steel furniture and thick cream colored carpeting. No bookshelves, no sticky notes tacked around. Smelled like lemon Pledge, not sweat and musty books. Not a working office—a show office. “My letter’s on the desk in front of you. I’m through with this shit.” Cahill leaned back and spun around in his chair. “Okay. You’re upset. Had a bad day, I heard. What did Cramer do this time?” “That asshole handed our proposal to the three resident witches to rip apart before he even looked at it. They didn’t like the theme, hated the graphics, shredded the ads and never even heard of YouTube videos or TikTok.” Sean stood up and began pacing back and forth across the room. “After they trashed it, they sat around and came up with their own ideas. I spent a month on that program, and they spent less than an hour chewing it up and replacing it with a joke. Ramirez and I had to sit there and listen to it. Bastard’s got a fifty million dollar business and he runs it like a popcorn stand.” “What does Ramirez say?” “Ramirez is an account executive—it’s his job to say everything’s great. Had a great meeting, have a great program to implement, have a great client relationship in place, Cramer’s happy as a pig in shit.” “And isn’t he? Can’t Ramirez be right?” “Yeah, if three ninety-year-old typists with a grand total of one high school diploma from 1949 among them know more about advertising than Cahill Partners. And if they do, that’s the best reason of all to quit.” Cahill sat back in his chair and ran his hands through his thinning brown hair. “It’s just the way things go, sometimes, Sean. You know that. There are a lot more wins than losses. A lot more celebrations than the occasional bumps in the road like this. This wasn’t your fault. It was a solid proposal.” “This was more than just a bump in the road,” said Sean. “This was a humiliation. A disaster. If I’m going to work around the clock to meet ridiculous deadlines, I want more out of it than this.” “You talking a raise?” “God damn it, Sandy, you know this isn’t about money!” Sean stopped in front of Cahill and pounded his fist on the desk. “It’s about job satisfaction. In this case, a month’s work being tossed out like garbage by the fucking client while three know-nothing secretaries piss all over me! If it was up to me, Cramer would be canned by the end of the day.” Cahill sat up and started fidgeting nervously with his broad red suspenders. “Well, like you say, Sean, Athena Chemical’s a fifty million dollar business. They don’t exactly grow on trees. Cramer doesn’t know his tit from a test tube, but he pays his bills on time.” Sean sighed and dropped back into his chair. He picked up a photo of Cahill’s wife and kids from the desk. “You know, Sandy, I’d like to see more of my family than a quick breakfast every day. Take the boys to a ball game now and then, meet their girlfriends. Talk about college.” Cahill leaned forward. “Is that really it? Or was it just a bad day? This business is in your blood, Sean, you know it. You’re always telling people that your writing is more real than your life.” Was that it? Maybe it was. But it seemed now was the time to find out one way or the other. “So that’s that, I guess.” He stood and turned to the door. “Wait a minute, wait a minute.” Cahill motioned for Sean to sit back down. Sean sat. “So what exactly did you plan on doing next?” asked Cahill. “Another agency? With different clients? Do you really think getting rid of Cramer will change anything?” Sean hesitated. Did he want to get into this right now? It was just an opening for Sandy to try to talk him out of it. What the hell, he deserved an answer. Sandy was a friend and Sean had worked here for a dozen years. “I’m sick of the agency world. Of fighting off people who can’t tell a metaphor from a monkfish. I have a book to write.” “A book. That’s interesting.” Cahill took off his glasses and twirled them around by the stem. He spun around in his chair again. He played with his suspenders. “And how would that pay the bills?” “Haley’s still working,” said Sean. A good job as an ER nurse. Solid, significant income. “And I’ve got a good bit squirreled away. Enough to get a book written.” “And after that? What if it doesn’t get published?” “I haven’t thought that far ahead yet.” “Obviously. But I bet Haley will. What are you going to tell her? Are you destined to be a starving writer? Will the kids appreciate that?” Sean was silent. He didn’t know. But it seemed years since he‘d actually sat down and talked to his family. He owed it to them to be a dad again while he still had the chance. No matter how much he loved the biz. If it didn’t work out, he could always find something else. He’d adjust. “Maybe you’re thinking you’ll come back to advertising. Start out fresh with a new agency. Come in at the bottom again at a rookie salary.” That was possible. The ad world knew him now and his street value at the moment was high, but after a couple years out of sight, would anyone remember him? He was forty-two, old enough to be a problem getting back in. It was a young man’s game, after all. But he couldn’t let this sidetrack him now, not before he’d given the book an honest shot. Sean stood again. “Look, Sandy, I don’t have all the answers yet. But I will. Nothing’s going to change my mind. I’m out of here.” He stepped to the door and pulled it open. “Would you be open to a compromise?” Sean turned. “No half time deal is going to work. In this business you’re either all in or you’re out. The job takes over your life, you know that.” Nor could he write the book in the evening—his work hours just weren’t that regular and his good intentions would evaporate in the heat of deadlines. No, the book, his family, they had to come first. “I was thinking of something more along the lines of a sabbatical,” said Cahill. A sabbatical? That was interesting. Sean hadn’t considered that. “You mean a leave of absence? For a year? On full pay?” “Well, I don’t think we could afford the whole deal. We’re not the University of Dayton. Maybe a light version—say three months on half pay. After all, you don’t know how it’s going to go. Maybe you’ll finish the book in a whirlwind, or maybe it’ll drag on for a year or more. Maybe you won’t even like it. This would give you an escape hatch. And after three months we could re-evaluate. Meanwhile your old job would still be here waiting for you.” That was better than nothing. A hell of a lot better. Even if it only lasted three months. And a guarantee he could pick up where he left off whenever he wanted. Sean closed the door and sat back down. “Talk to me.” * * * “You what?” Haley stared wide-eyed at him across the kitchen. She still wore her pale green scrubs from the hospital, a few small bloodstains visible on the lower part of her smock. “Well, not quit, exactly,” said Sean. “It’s more of a sabbatical type thing.” “Sean, what the hell are you talking about?” Heat from the oven and scents of garlic, tomato and oregano rose all around him. Something Italian for dinner, lasagna, maybe. Suddenly the consequences of his abrupt retirement began to take solid form. It had seemed so simple this morning. “I had a tough day.” “So did I,” said Haley. “ER is tough every day. But I didn’t take a sabbatical over it. And what’s that even mean? Ad agencies don’t give sabbaticals.” Okay, bad start. Just say it and get it over with. “You know the Athena Chemical thing I’ve been working on for the last month?” Haley nodded. “This morning it got shredded by the client’s three neanderthal secretaries. Before I had a chance to present it, even. Then they came up with their own crappy idea and their boss loved it. Suddenly everything I hated about this job was staring me in the face. I went back to the office in a rage and quit.” Haley pulled out a chair at the kitchen table and sat, still wide-eyed, long dark hair in the current style falling around her shoulders. “Sandy talked me into a sabbatical arrangement, instead. Three months at half pay.” Haley was silent for a while, and Sean pulled out a chair across the table from her and slid into it. “And you never thought to run this by me?” asked Haley. She started twisting a stray lock of her hair around her finger. “It was an impulse. I’m sorry. But I need air. I need a break from the job for a while.” “Three months to do what? Sit around and watch TV? How’s that going to change anything? And what are we going to do without half our income?” Haley began wringing the dry dish towel she’d been holding, turning it over and over. “A quarter of our income. I’ll be on half pay. And we’ve got a lot socked away. We’ll get by, no sweat.” “That’s for retirement. Or an emergency.” “I think this qualifies as an emergency.” Sean began rearranging things on the table, the salt and pepper shakers, a hot pad, a small glass vase empty of flowers. “I’m going to write the book.” “The book?” Her eyebrows shot up. “The book I’ve been talking about for the last ten years. Haven’t you been listening?” “The retirement book? That book? That was for when you actually retired and brought home a Social Security check, not for a mid-career holiday! Do you know we have a son headed to college in three months?” A pink flush began to creep into her cheeks. “I’ve heard that rumor.” “And you just went off and did it without talking to me!” “I said I’m sorry about that.” “So am I.” She got up and walked out. Fuck. He busted his balls to put this family in the upper middle class, brought home the lion’s share of the income for years, and Haley couldn’t cut him some slack? Couldn’t see he was burned out? He hadn’t expected anybody to be delighted with this new reality, but he thought he’d get sympathy, at least, not resentment. He was making waves he hadn’t counted on. But then he hadn’t looked that far ahead, had he? It was more about getting out of the job than about what would happen at home. Sean could see he had a fight on his hands. * * * Writing was as much a science as an art. That’s what Sean had read. It wasn’t just sitting down at the dining room table and banging away. He needed a permanent space—quiet and secure with everything around him he needed. Reference books, things like that. But they didn’t have a spare room and none of their rooms were quite large enough to subdivide. With two teenage boys, a gaggle of noisy kids filled the living room, the family room and the garage at all hours. He had to have a space he could close off. That probably meant throwing the boys into one bedroom and using the smaller one as his office. They both had twin beds, there was enough floor space. They wouldn’t be happy, though. Mac would be off to Ohio State in a few months and Kyle would be happy enough in Mac’s bigger room when he left, but until then, the two kids were likely to put him through hell over it. And a schedule. He should pick four or five or six hours at the same time every day, like Hemingway and Fitzgerald. He always worked better in the morning, so right after breakfast. Eight to one, then lunch. That sounded about right, something he could do. He’d never had a problem pounding out five straight hours of copy. But then what? For the rest of the day. Watch TV, like Haley said? How could he justify lounging around for half a day after playing havoc with his family’s home life? Exercise, maybe. That’s what Steven King recommended in his book. He probably wasn’t going to be shooting hoops any more at his age, but walking or jogging he could do. Or he could get a bike—there was a bike trail somewhere near the South End. And maybe pick one household project a day to work on for another couple hours. Something to justify his presence. It was obvious now he was going to get a lot of resistance on this. That was disappointing, but he’d better have some answers if he expected to pull it off. * * * “No way!” shouted both of the boys at once, jumping up off the sofa. Sean glanced at Haley, who had her hand over her mouth, probably hiding a grin. “I’m not giving up my room!” said Kyle. “He’s not sleeping with me, Dad,” said Mac. “Did you ever hear him snore?” “There’s no way I can get all my stuff in his room,” said Kyle. “And what about my friends—do we all hang in Mac’s room with him and all his stuck-up senior buddies and both our beds and listen to his stupid tunes? There won’t be enough oxygen in there for all of us to survive!” “Forget it, Kyle,” said Mac. “No way the dork squad is hanging in my room!” Kyle threw himself back on the sofa and pulled at his hair. “Shit, this can’t be happening!” Sean sighed, sat back in the chair and cast a supplicating glance at the ceiling. “Three months, Dad,” said Mac. “I’ll be out of here by September. Why couldn’t you wait just three months?” Haley was wearing her “I told you so” face, her head cocked, her dimpled chin in the air, looking down her nose at Sean. “Why, Dad?” cried Kyle. “Why are you screwing up our lives? Is this a mid-life crisis? Why do you have to take it out on us?” Sean was startled. Was Kyle right? Was this a mid-life crisis? Maybe so. He felt a flush of embarrassment that he should be a cliché, but that didn’t change his feelings. This was something he needed to do. “Yeah, Sean,” said Haley. “All of us would like an explanation. What’s this really about?” Sean examined the three faces, the squinted eyes and set jaws. Haley’s arms folded across her chest. Defiant and determined, unwilling to accept this random attack on their lifestyle without a fight. He settled back to gather his thoughts. They didn’t come easy—it had been an impulsive decision and he still didn’t completely understand the reasons behind it himself. “Look, you guys, I’m a writer. You all know that. And I love it.” “If you love it so much, why’d you quit?” asked Kyle. “Kyle.” Haley gave him a fierce scowl and his mouth snapped shut. “I’m tired, all right? Burned out. I’ve been doing this a long time. And you can thank this job for your private schools and your cars and iPhones and personal TVs with cable and Netflix.” “It hasn’t all been you,” said Haley, scowling. “Or your job.” “Of course not,” Sean replied. “And I’m actually surprised you didn’t burn out first. At least when I screw up, people don’t die.” “So why are you the one bailing?” asked Mac. “Jesus Christ, Mac, give me a break. You think I don’t want to be eating dinner with you guys? That I’d rather be grinding away at the office ‘til midnight, forcing down a Big Mac or a bagel and a pot of acid that passes for coffee at the agency? What if you had to pull all-nighters for a week to study for a big test every morning?” “Pretty much what we do now,” said Kyle. “Oh, bullshit. If you’re up all night it’s because you were out balling with your buddies all afternoon. Don’t hand me that crap. You don’t know what stress is yet.” “Yeah, we do,” said Kyle. “Stress is getting tossed out of your room because your old man drops in out of the blue to write the great American novel.” Fuck. They made it sound like this whole sabbatical thing was just to screw up their lives. Did they really think that? Didn’t they know he loved them? “Look, I know I haven’t been here for you. Not nearly enough. It doesn’t mean I don’t love you. I love you all more than you’ll ever know. And I understand that you’re resentful when out of nowhere I land in your laps full time and screw up your routine.” The faces were softer, now, the eyes wider, the bodies stiller. “But the stress of this commitment, including not seeing you as often as I’d like, takes a toll. I need a break. “I’m tired of the chaos of the office. I’m tired of everybody chopping away constantly at my work, not giving it the respect it deserves. I’m tired of trying to persuade Mrs. America to buy Athena to wash her dishes instead of Ajax or Simple Green. That doesn’t make the world a better place and it doesn’t satisfy the soul. I’d like to know what I could do if I didn’t have a target market to write to, a sales objective to achieve, if I could just write what’s in my heart. Most of all, I’m tired of pointless deadlines keeping me from having dinner with my family.” Everyone was silent. Haley dabbed at her eye. Probably because he’d never opened up to them like this before. Probably they’d never seen him as a real person with weaknesses and problems and frustrations like they had, just a stainless steel meal ticket who dropped in on weekends. Well, whose fucking fault was that? He blinked to hold back his own tears. He didn’t think he wanted to open up to them that much just yet. “It’s just for a few weeks, then I’ll be out of your hair again. I know I can’t make a living at this. But I need a break.” The fight was gone from their eyes. It looked like he had made his case. But the practical problems still hadn’t been solved. “Maybe we’re just going at this the wrong way,” said Haley. Everyone turned to her. “It doesn’t have to be Kyle’s room or Dad’s room,” she said. “What if we look at it as a time share proposition?” “What does that mean?” asked Kyle. “It means that you keep all your stuff there and sleep there at night. Then your dad moves his desk and laptop in and the room is his for a certain number of hours every day. Say six hours. Then it’s yours again.” Kyle looked skeptical, but nodded. “That could work. Dad gets it from noon to six—until dinner.” “Wait a second,” said Sean. “I want it from eight to one — lunch time. That’s only five hours. Then it’s yours for the rest of the day and night.” “Oh, no you don’t!” said Kyle. “Next week school’s out and I plan to sleep until noon every dang day. You can write just as well in the afternoon.” “But I can’t! Morning’s my prime time,” said Sean. “I need those early hours. My mind starts to fuzz out after lunch.” Haley had been following the argument, her head snapping back and forth between Sean and Kyle, like following a tennis match. Mac had buried his face in a couch pillow, laughing. Finally, Sean and Kyle sat silently glaring at each other across the room. “Did I tell you guys I ran into Richie Wallace’s dad outside the ER last week?” All eyes turned to Haley again. “He does the landscaping for the hospital. Said he was looking for some summer help for his crew. Kyle, maybe it’s time for you to get a taste of a real job for a couple months, working nine to five like your mom and dad. Make some money for college. What do you think?” Kyle’s eyes widened and he pressed himself as far back into the corner of the sofa as he could. Mac burst out laughing again and swatted Kyle with the pillow. “How ‘bout that, dude? My little bro’s gonna be a regular workin’ dork!” “He specifically asked about you, Mac. Wanted somebody big and strong. Has a lot of lifting and hauling to do.” Mac went white and silent and shrank into the other corner. “Well,” muttered Kyle. “I guess I could sack out on the couch in the family room in the mornings. Just ‘til Mac hauls his fat ass off to Buckeye High.” * * * Sean sat staring at his laptop. Now what? Strange how all the exciting scenes and fascinating people he’d juggled in his head for the last decade turned to fog when he sat at the computer. How the joy and hate and frustration and amusement he’d felt over twenty years in the biz seemed pale and unworthy when it was time to record it for others. The blank screen of his computer seemed as large as a projection wall at the cineplex, impossible to fill. Shit. He’d been a novelist for half an hour and already he had writer’s block. Still, it was nice not to have to get dressed and shave. Jeans and T-shirt and slippers. And a stubbled face. Somehow he felt more like an author than a copywriter, now. That was good—a good start. He ran a hand over his rough cheeks. But it was a different routine than he was used to. He didn’t feel quite normal, quite prepared. Maybe that was what was throwing him off. He just wasn’t warmed up yet, that was all. There must be some housekeeping task he could tinker with until the muse was ready to put out. He glanced around Kyle’s room and shuddered. No better or worse than any other teen’s room, he supposed, the floor and single bed littered with clothes, books, shoes, potato chip bags, blankets, plates, video game magazines, various sports paraphernalia and computer printouts like they’d been dropped from a ten story building. Under the three layers of Air Wick he’d applied, the space still smelled like sweaty socks and stale pizza—greasy, fermenting and ready to bloom. He’d cleared a space against the wall away from the window for his typing desk and a small bookshelf for his new acquisitions on writing and kicked a narrow access path from the door to his tiny, time-shared office. But he wasn’t about to tackle that mess. Maybe he could get Kyle to help him harvest and dispose of the upper layers over time, but not today. Today was momentous, the first day of life as an author. The first words down on paper, or tape, or silicon—whatever the hell they were preserved on these days. He scrolled through his desktop. Not much more to do there. He’d created folders for sequential drafts, character bios, reference materials, bibliography and miscellaneous notes. He had lists of links to the most highly recommended writing sites. He’d pinned a Thesaurus, a dictionary and a slang dictionary to his taskbar. His infrastructure was ready. He lifted his coffee cup. Empty. He couldn’t begin without a full cup! He got up and headed for the kitchen. * * * He could start with just the title. Any words on the page at all. But he didn’t have a title. He’d just thought of it as the novel. And of course he’d write about the advertising world. It was what he knew, right? But now that he was ready to start putting things down, he wasn’t even sure if it was a novel. Maybe it was a memoir. After all, a novel had a plot, a protagonist, a theme. All he’d thought about were the amazing scenes that unfolded in his mind and the unforgettable characters and how he’d write them. That sounded more like a memoir. What did he want to do with this piece? He’d never thought about that, either. Just that he wanted to write the colorful and bizarre life in the biz. But there were deeper levels, too. He wanted to show the wacky characters, sure, but he wanted to show their fierce love of the creative life and their competitive spirit. And he wanted to show the fear of losing that connection, of being cast out of paradise, of aging out into an everyday world of plumbers and lab techs and insurance salesmen. On a personal level, at least, a dull and utterly predictable world. For a creative, it was a death sentence. He knew the Man-Booker prize wasn’t in the cards. This thing might not even be considered literary. Or ever get published. But this was what he knew and what he wanted to write about. He shouldn’t make it so hard on himself. He didn’t need a title. Not yet. He didn’t even need to start at the beginning. He could start in the middle if he wanted, with some of the scenes he planned to write, then figure how to connect them. Or maybe they wouldn’t connect. Maybe they’d end up a collection of short stories. So what? That would work, too. He just needed to do it. To start. He lifted his hands to the keyboard and typed. Working Title, by Sean Doherty He rolled his chair back and breathed a sigh of relief. * * * “Hey, sweetie, can you read my first chapter?” Sean dropped a paper-clipped sheaf of paper on the kitchen counter and pulled out a stool. Haley looked up from the stove. “Wow, is it done already?” “First draft, anyway.” “First draft? Bring it back when it’s finished.” “But now’s when I need the feedback. By the time it’s finished, it’s too late. It’s done.” Haley returned to stirring the saucepan of cauliflower curry at the stove. She was wearing her black yoga outfit, her dark hair falling down her back in a pony tail. She had a firm, well-muscled body. All that work at the ER throwing sick people around. Plus yoga, of course. Sean himself was a little less muscled these days, getting pudgy in his middle years. No, not quite pudgy. Soft. Yeah, that was it, soft. He missed tossing the football around with the boys when they were all younger. “I don’t know squat about writing, Sean. I wouldn’t even want to venture an opinion. You’re the writer.” “But I need your opinion. Just as a reader. Anything.” “I can tell you if I like it or don’t like it when it’s finished, is all. I can’t tell you what needs help and what doesn’t.” She dumped a can of diced tomatoes into the curry and added a few pinches of some red spice from a little glass bowl. “Look, you’re a good reader. You’re smart. You have a good feeling for people—better than me. Anything at all will help.” “Speaking of help, I wouldn’t mind a little help with dinners, seeing as you have time on your hands in the afternoon. Especially the late shifts on Tuesday and Thursday. You could fix something for you and the kids and I can catch leftovers when I get home.” “But I do my workout then.” “Right. When’s the last time you exercised in the afternoon? Connie Hamilton says she hasn’t seen you walking for a week.” Shit. Sean had fallen off his schedule. Walking around the neighborhood was boring and the neighbor ladies considered him fair game for conversation about their flower gardens as he passed. Jogging turned out to be more work than he cared to invest and he’d never bothered checking out the bike path. Afternoons usually consisted of a nap and rereading the books on writing craft he’d collected. That was certainly legitimate—there was more to be gleaned from those books every day. He was always rewriting after finding little tricks he’d overlooked. “Come on, Sean, it’s only two meals a week. Out of twenty-one. And they don’t have to be fancy. You’re all boys—you’ll probably be happy with a lump of raw hamburger and a Coke.” There was a rumbling at the back door and Kyle burst into the kitchen, followed by a troop of friends. Sean picked up the manuscript. “Hey, Kyle! I have the first chapter. Want to read it?” Kyle didn’t bother to turn his head. “Hey, Shakespeare, haven’t you heard? School’s out! Email it to me and I’ll try to get to it in September.” He disappeared with his buddies into the back of the house. Haley snorted into her oven mitt and broke out in giggles. “Ho, ho,” said Sean. “Very funny. Just wait ‘til PBS comes around for an interview and you have to tell Terry Gross none of you ever read the book. See who’s laughing then.” Shit. How could he write without feedback? Life at the agency might be a three ring circus, but he sure as hell never lacked for anybody’s opinion of his work. And now he had to cook. * * * He couldn’t see where chapter two was headed. Of course, chapter one hadn’t exactly made that clear. Absent any feedback, maybe he should rewrite the first chapter. The more books he read, the more he realized the story was missing important elements. He’d decided on a novel rather than a memoir—it just seemed more fun to write. But he hadn’t given his protagonist any clear desire. Nothing to want. And that was apparently what provided the dramatic thrust—the impetus that kept the story moving forward and the reader interested. Did he want professional success? And just what did that mean? Awards? Money? A partnership? Or even his own agency? Or maybe what he wanted lay more on the personal side. Love? His neighbor’s wife? More time with his family? Or maybe he wanted revenge on the mafia gang who’d machine-gunned his parents to death as they were celebrating their tenth wedding anniversary at their favorite restaurant because his father was a secret undercover agent plotting to bring them to justice. Yeah, that was the recipe. Maybe it would have been easier if he’d started with a mystery. Had a tried and true formula to follow. He hadn’t spent much effort on setting, either. Or personal description. And he didn’t like the name he’d chosen for the lead. Paul Givens was too generic. Maybe something Irish he could relate to, use some ethnic colloquialisms. Kelly. More like it. Yeah, he’d start over. Give the hero a path to follow in chapter two. Make it easy on himself. He opened a new Word file and typed. Working Title v.2, by Sean Doherty * * * There was a faint creak of shifting beams from the ceiling and Sean looked up from the screen. A tiny sound, barely a whisper. Just the wind, or settling of the foundation. But why had it distracted him? It wasn’t the first time some faint scratching had stopped him in his tracks. It had been nibbling at the edges of his consciousness since he’d started working at home. He cocked his head and rotated it one way, then the other. Silence. The boys must be gone. Even the birds in the tree outside the window were taking a break. No muted chatter or faint beat of music, no footsteps or the rustle of papers. No background buzz at all. The white noise of daily business at the agency that buffered his brain from outside distractions, lulling it into maximum concentration and productivity, was absent. Was that why he’d not been able to settle into a comfortable routine? Why he was nervous and jumpy whenever he sat down to write? “Shit!” The sound of his own voice against the silence startled him. He stood and walked around the room. He’d managed to shovel most of the layer of clothing and sports gear on the floor into Kyle’s closet or under his bed, and stretches of the blond oak floor were visible again. His heels sounded like gunshots on the hardwood. He opened the door and stuck his head into the hallway. Nothing. The house felt totally empty. Haley would be at work. He peeked in Mac’s empty room, a train wreck nearly as bad as Kyle’s, then headed downstairs. In the family room there was a massive tangle of sheet and blanket and pillow on the couch and a thin, protruding arm. He wandered into the kitchen and started to make coffee. No, he’d already had two cups. He pulled a can of Coke out of the fridge and popped the top with a crack that seemed loud enough to wake Kyle in the family room down the hall. It was just too quiet. The Coke was nice and cold, though. He padded back up the stairs and settled in at his desk. Maybe he needed a little background music. No, the organized structure of music always sent a part of his mind wandering off on its own. He needed random sound. Noise. Maybe he could buy a white noise generator, the kind people used at night. Although he didn’t really need to be falling asleep at the keyboard. The office was a riot of activity, but as much as he complained about it, the fuss had never actually disturbed his writing. What was happening back at the zoo? Was Cahill Partners still functioning without Sean Doherty? Was Ransom still bonking that girl in accounting? Did Lois Killen have her baby yet? It seemed like a year since he’d talked to anyone. He pulled out his phone. “Tanner.” “Ransom. How you doing?” “Hey! Sean! Long time. How’s the book goin?” “A little slower than I hoped. It’s harder than I thought. Great material, but it’s all in pieces and I’m having a hard time stringing them together—building a story out of it.” “Sounds just like writin’ copy. Right up your alley, buddy. Been thinking ‘bout callin, but I didn’t want to interrupt. Thought maybe you’d want to get some separation. Immerse yourself.” “Yeah, you’re right. But it’s so goddam quiet around here I can hear myself think. I sort of miss the office bustle.” It was hard to believe, but Haley and the kids had stuck religiously to their side of the bargain. Not once had anybody disturbed him during his writing hours. Mac seemed to spend the mornings out of the house. In fact, he rarely saw Mac anymore, even at dinner. Kyle spent the mornings slumbering in the family room. Sean had cheated a few times himself, though, taking naps to stimulate his subconscious when he got blocked. A luxury he couldn’t indulge at the agency. “Well, you made it through thirty-eight days. Almost halfway, right?” “Yeah, halfway through the sabbatical, anyway. Wish the book was that far along. I’m still massaging the first chapter. Wait — you’re keeping track of the days?” “‘Course I’m keepin’ track! There’s an office pool.” “An office pool? Are you shitting me?” “Twenty-five bucks a pop. Serious change, man.” “On how long it takes me to finish the book?” “Got nothin’ to do with the book. It’s the day your ass is planted back in your chair, finished or not.” What the hell? “Does that mean they’re rooting against me? They don’t think I’ll finish the book?” “Naw, man, they just know you got the biz in your blood. We’re all rootin’ for you, but when it’s in the blood…” In the blood? Bullshit. He loved it, but that didn’t mean he was married to it. It was over. Maybe they just wanted him back, part of the family and all that. At least that’s the way he wanted to see it. Their way of keeping him at top of mind awareness while he was gone. “So, what’s shaking down there? Sandy miss me yet?” “Sure does. He’s been bringin’ in freelancers to cover your ass and the rest of us are all puttin’ in the odd extra hour. By the way, you’ll be happy to hear Cramer’s crappy promo bombed big time. Daddy’s finally threatening to pull the plug on him.” “No shit? Finally. He better pull the plug on the witches, too, get some fresh blood in there before they bring the house down around them.” “But you’re still the big news, Sean. Breakin’ free. Somethin’ we all dream of if we could only find the balls.” “No big deal, Ransom. Just a change of pace for a few months.” There was a banging on the door and Kyle flung it open. He kicked off his pajama bottoms and threw them into the closet. “Time’s up, Shakespeare. Get your bootie out. I need my sneaks and basketball.” Sean plucked a pillow off the bed and chucked it at Kyle, who swatted it away with a grin. Sean checked his watch. Damn, one o’clock already. And no progress on the book. “Got to go, Ransom,” said Sean. “My son’s kicking me out of our timeshare.” It was lunchtime. He’d fry up some eggs. And it was Thursday. He had to start thinking about dinner. Draw up a menu, check the fridge, hit Kroger if the cupboard was bare. Burgers tonight. The best thing about cooking was that you got to choose the meal. A nice day — he’d use the grill. Build a salad to go with, maybe a can of baked beans. Was he out of barbecue sauce? Buns? It was great to eat with just the boys. They were all a little crazier, a little more fun. The occasional food fight and all. But the chat with Ransom brought the hard fact home: it was four weeks now, and only an unfinished chapter to show for it. Too slow. Way too slow. * * * “Come on, Haley, please? It’s not that long — ten, fifteen minutes is all.” Sean sat on the bedroom floor watching her unroll her yoga mat. “I’m telling you, Sean, I can’t help you. It’s hard to squeeze in that kind of time.” Haley pulled her stretch bands out of the case. “You know me, I’ll have to wrestle with it for three of four hours to come up with anything coherent. Call Ransom or Julie. They’re writers—they can help a lot more than I can.” “I really don’t want to go there. I’m trying to stay arm’s length from the agency. There’s a big difference between ad writing and fiction writing, and I don’t want any of the old shit creeping in under the door.” “Look on-line. Don’t they have literary sites where writers critique each other’s work?” He’d been to a few of those sites. A lot of the reviewers seemed pretty damn nasty. He wasn’t ready to put his work out there for strangers to crush yet. “Can’t you just knock fifteen minutes off your yoga for once? Just read it and tell me right then what you’re thinking.” Haley gave him a hard look. “This is my break from work, okay? This does for me what your writing sabbatical is supposedly doing for you. Relieves the stress and tension. This is time I don’t cut into.” She plugged in her earbuds and turned on the Trevor Noah podcast. Sean sighed and leaned back against the wall. Their relationship had gotten a little bumpy since he’d come home to work. He was getting in her way, interrupting her long-standing routine. They hadn’t found a new groove yet. It was understandable. But if she wouldn’t read his stuff he was shafted. Hunting for a critique partner or a writing workshop took time he didn’t have. He was on his own, and he wasn’t at all sure he’d nailed it in the second draft, either. Crap, why was this so hard? After all, he was an ad writer. If anybody knew what the desires of an ad writer were, it should be him. If he was Kelly, what would his motivations be? Jesus—that was it! He could write his own story! It was sitting there waiting for him. A memoir in the form of a novel. What he wanted was painfully obvious: get the hell out of the biz, write something meaningful, reconnect with his family. Of course. The conflict, the obstacles to overcome—that’s what the last few weeks had been. This could act as a frame for all those wonderful scenes in his mind. All he had to do was get it down on paper. Sean picked up his laptop and rushed for the stairs. Writing hours were officially over, but he could set up in the dining room. Halfway down the stairs, he stopped. It hit him that he was caught in a circular holding pattern, rewriting chapter one over and over. Was he deluding himself, avoiding the hard task of launching a new chapter? Would he be trapped in that first chapter cycle he’d read about, getting sucked round and round and never making it out? He turned this insight over in his mind. No, this time he was sure it was different. This was going to be a breakthrough—he saw the path forward now. And it couldn’t wait. He raced down the rest of the stairs and slid into a chair at the dining room table. He opened a Word file and typed. Working Title v.3 by Sean Doherty He had to start setting deadlines for himself. After all, he worked best under pressure. Always had. The new first chapter would be easy—it had already happened and he just needed to tell it that way. He could even start with the blowup at Athena. Sure, start with a bang, conflict right out of the box. Two days, max. Today was Tuesday, he’d have it finished by the end of the writing day on Thursday. Deal. He started typing. * * * “Can you do dinner tomorrow, Sean?” Haley scraped the breakfast dishes into the disposal and slotted the plates in the washer. “Tomorrow’s Friday.” Sean sat hunched over his coffee mug at the kitchen table. “What’s the deal?” “A bunch of us from work are going out tomorrow night. I’ll get something on the fly, don’t bother with anything for me.” “Yeah, I can do that. Anything special?” Haley picked up a washcloth and started wiping down the counter and the table. “Lonnie’s birthday. My racquetball partner. She’s fifty tomorrow. We thought we’d start out at the ICU after work.” “The ICU?” “Intensive Care Unit. It’s a bar across the street from the ER. Mostly the hospital staff hang out there. Happy Hour all day Friday.” When had she started playing racquetball again? He remembered seeing her racquet on the hall table, but hadn’t thought anything about it. With all this extracurricular activity, no wonder she didn’t have time to read his story. He didn’t know Lonnie. Or Chan or Taylor or any of the docs she mentioned now and again. Her medical world seemed as tribal as the ad biz. A handful of people specializing in something nobody else understood. Something fascinating but out of reach for the average Joe, like medicine or advertising. It created bonds no one else could share. Sean grabbed the coffee pot and topped off his cup, then rose and headed upstairs. Time to get to work. He had a deadline. * * * The deadline came and went. That was the trouble with self-imposed deadlines. They didn’t mean anything. There was nobody waiting at the door to grab his copy and race to the client. No boss to call him on the carpet if he flubbed it. Well, he’d just reset. No problem. It wasn’t like he had a publisher sitting there waiting on the manuscript. But Kelly had a life to lead and a book to write, just like Sean. And it was up to Sean to keep it moving along. Two days later, version three of the first chapter was finished. Five days after that, chapter two made it across the finish line and Sean had run out of history to repeat. Now it got hard. Kelly scrambled to reclaim his family, but Sean threw problem after problem in his path. The boys continued to rebel. The novel was going nowhere. Kelly’s wife Katie assigned him more and more of the cooking duty. That’s what he was supposed to do, wasn’t it? Make it tough on his hero? Kelly began missing the hurly-burly of the agency where he could finish a project in a day or two and move on to a new, more interesting challenge. The book was dragging on him like an anchor. Now Kelly faced the end of the sabbatical and the loss of his paycheck before he was even halfway through. Kelly’s wife became more and more resentful and began racking up overtime hours. The boys consciously avoided him. Then Sean stopped writing. * * * Sean closed the file and turned the laptop off. There were a couple more hours left in his window and there was more work to be done, but he didn’t feel like writing anymore. The story was going to be too short for a novel. Kelly’s climax was bearing down on him already, heavy and inevitable, and it had the smell of truth. It was pointless to put it off by trying to write it longer. Strange that he couldn’t decide if it was a happy ending coming for Kelly or a tragedy. He kicked back his chair, stood and walked to the window. The cardinals clustering at the new feeder rose with a flurry and disappeared into the trees. They’d done their job, creating just enough chatter to dispel the heavy silence, enabling him to continue writing comfortably. Kelly couldn’t see it coming yet, but he wasn’t going to finish his book. Sean walked out into the hallway, glancing once again into Mac’s empty bedroom. He wandered down the stairs and into the kitchen. He fumbled in the cabinet above the fridge and pulled out the dusty bottle of scotch. He poured a couple fingers into his coffee cup and looked out the window across the yard. There was a flower garden against the back fence he didn’t remember. Bright reds and yellows and blues. It was too late for Kelly to reconnect with his family. Sean took a sip of the coffee-tinted scotch and felt it burn its way down his throat. He reached to his empty shirt pocket for a cigarette, then remembered he gave up smoking years ago to help Haley quit when she was pregnant with Mac. He wandered around the kitchen, picking up a tattered hot pad, a ceramic chicken cookie jar, the engraved stainless steel ladle he’d won for first prize in a chili cook-off the first year they were married. Things which had made the journey with him. There was no longer a place for Kelly. Kelly’s wife had her own career, her own activities and circle of friends. His older boy was rejecting him and the younger was ridiculing him. In a couple years, they’d both be gone, soon with families of their own, maybe in other states. Kelly had made his choice early on and now he was permanently out of the loop. It wasn’t the ending Sean had intended to write, but it was the only one that made sense. He had to listen to the story. He couldn’t bring himself to break the news to Kelly. Not yet, anyway. He turned to the calendar on the wall and flipped through the pages. Seventy-seven days. He wondered if anyone at the agency had the winning number. For better or worse, it seemed he was going back home. — BOB BEACH
Bob Beach has written stories appearing in an array of publications, including The Saturday Evening Post, The Woven Tale Press, and The Penmen Review. He spent many years as a writer and designer for advertising and taught at Bowling Green State University. In addition to his writing, he maintains a career as a fine artist. He holds BSc and MFA degrees from BGSU and is currently enrolled in the MA Creative Writing program at Wilkes University. He resides in Toledo, Ohio.