the short story project


Avi Shamir

A Novel Dream

It was not a novel idea but it had the makings of a dream, and absorbed me to the point where I could see it in my sleep. As this inspiration held me captive one brilliant siesta, I grew into a state of such finely tuned awareness that I caught all too vivid glimpses of people who exist only in my mind.

In my nocturnal wanderings, I am stepping down an unlit staircase to a hideout basement where, in some alternate reality, I keep my budding novel tucked away. My conscious mind, from which dreamscapes compile all the dubious characters, false props and contrived scenarios that pass for way-past-bedtime stories, is working overtime with my eyes closed. A vision refuses to fade; a bright idea shaped by one writer’s wishful fancies:

My novel in the making highlights one imposing character, the kind of guy who everyone likes and no one forgets. He is youthful, strapping, full of life, and all he imparts to others is bursting with humor, wit and optimism. The son of a wealthy state senator, he has the best of everything and is the envy of his peers. He was captain of the swimming team in high school and a college football star who, with his team down by a field goal and seconds left on the clock, ran eighty yards for a touchdown to win a state championship. Presently, the prized halfback is in his rookie season with the Green Bay Packers. In the locale in which I have placed him – I was tempted to “raise him” in New York City but decided that his storyline would work better in a small town – he is both popular with the ladies and a giving person who is known to help others. It only stands to reason that I would turn such a fine young man of good rearing, gallantry and athletic achievement into a hometown hero as well. There are ways I can weave this into my manuscript: I can have my spirited champ unmask a shyster type who claims that he stands for the common good, but in truth only serves the narrow interests of an industrial concern that is destroying the countryside, draining public funds and screwing the poor. Or I can rewrite the tested and proven tale of a man on the scene of a fire who is alerted by the screams of a frantic mother, storms into a burning building and later comes out of the smoke with a blaze in his eyes and a still breathing little girl in his arms. All that hero stuff is background material for a driving plot that will have all the vim and vigor of a Great American Novel.

That part of my consciousness that never sleeps is telling me that I lack certain advantages and achievements which I have lavished on my promising protagonist. This may explain why I painted him in this too-good-to-be-true fashion and named him Rich Goodman – a throwback to Hawthorne and a tribute to that old time correctness that once graced early America… Back in the real world where the hard facts are manifest, Daphna, my real live wife, number one fan and sharpest critic, has told me that I could use some of the good fortune I have so generously apportioned to my imaginary Rich Goodman, and maybe I can change my luck by doing something out of character, like waking up.

A flighty figure drifting down dark stairs and weighed down by the baggage of a guy snoring in some remote chamber, I arrive in the basement of my reverie and expect to find my cluttered desk, comfy chair and 24/7 standby computer, which stores my unfinished manuscript. But that’s giving my writs way too much credit. In truth, that scrawled text is more like a skeleton trying on the flesh of one fanciful character.

The light turns on all by itself and I am startled to see a man lounging in my chair, staring at a screen display of my embryonic novel. His perusal of my work thus rudely interrupted, he turns his head slightly and isn’t at all surprised to see me standing there, gaping at him.

“I’m missing something,” he says matter-of-factly, like he was in a restaurant and the waiter forgot to bring out the coleslaw.

Before I can ask questions that begin with “who” and “how” I am struck dumb by my immediate familiarity with the strapping young man who occupies my chair. The cozy look on a face that is free of worry is suggestive of a description on the computer screen written by my own hand, and as he rises to face me his football player’s build is a dead giveaway.


“Yes –”

“Rich Goodman…?”

“That’s me.”

“You can’t be… you.”

“Who else can I be?”

“This isn’t happening, you’re not happening. You’re just… someone I made up.”

With the very same winning smile I gave him and a right on target look-me-in-the-eye he says:

“Whoever you make happen – happens.”

As these words sink in, my reaction to this out-of-the-blue guest undergoes a gradual shift from incredulous to just plain fascinated. Agape, I stand there staring at his face – every feature and facet of it is known to me, carved, chiseled and fashioned by my discriminating pen: the expressive mouth and forward-jutting chin, the glint in his hazel eyes, the intelligence that emanates from his brow, the confidence that comes through his tone, the brevity of his speech, the way he looks at you that is both direct and disarming, and that snugness about him that make the ladies want to snuggle up to him.     

“I’m missing something,” he repeats himself.

“I gave you everything,” I protest.

“I need a challenge.”

“What kind of challenge?”

“A certain woman,” he says, as if an abstract, fair figure is a missing ingredient, a pinch of sugar and a squeeze of lemon to bring out the sweetness of a definitive dish in the already fragrant feast of a life I had made for him.

“I gave you all the women one man can handle.”

Making the easy transition from snug to smug, he flashes me a between-us-guys smile, a show of appreciation for all the pretty women I had so delightfully imagined and deliberately implanted to adorn his landscape. In my manuscript, all the available, willing and sprightly young women I had dangled before him seem to pop up everywhere, from the ten-yard line on an empty field – scoring position under a full moon, to the post-game locker room.

“I can’t complain,” he says. But the smile fades slowly and what takes over is the more reflective side of his nature, the part of him that knows that his luck with the ladies notwithstanding, he still hasn’t found one he can call his own.

“So who is this certain woman you have in mind?” I demand.

His response knocks me over: “I’ll know her when you put her into play.”

The face I gave to Rich Goodman fades, I blink – and I’m left staring at a blank computer screen. In this sidetracked vision I am sitting in a lonesome café with a steamy espresso, crummy croissant and handy laptop. The place is empty, save for a woman who sits across from me in the dining area. Looking her way I can barely make out her profile, which is partially obscured by flowing brown hair. Through the window I can see that we are on a waterfront, but can’t make out what part of the world we are in. On my laptop, the screen is still blank.

Just the same, my mind is adrift with a writer’s roaming thoughts. From the blankness of this white screen, from this nothingness, we, the self-styled storytellers, envision color, add content, fashion scenarios, supply details and spin yarns. Yet at some point in our narratives we lose control. We, the folks behind the omniscient voices, create characters, breathe life into them, build worlds for them, burden them with conflicts and present them with all kinds of possibilities, and they repay us by making decisions and doing things on their own initiative. Some of the things they do are so self-determining that we, unheralded scribblers that we are, wonder if we’re up to speed or just spectators. This inclination on the part of story bound characters to take independent action is not necessarily part of my writing scheme, but when these people I invent start going down roads I hadn’t even conceived it takes me by surprise. While I have come to accept this occupational hazard, I have also come to suspect that some of our characters really do exist. They can’t be just names on a piece of paper, as the things they do have the power to move readers and even make writers second-guess their own ideas. But now one Rich Goodman has moved things up to a whole new level of autonomous behavior. In my recollection, none of my characters ever presented me with demands for a change in storyline, a challenge – a woman, nonetheless. Indeed, none of my role players ever had the get-up-and-go to jump off the screen of my home computer and tell me what to write. As if to assure myself that I just imagined it, I take evasive action: switch screens on my laptop, get on line, hop on to the desktop and switch back to the text file, expecting to see a blank screen. Instead, I see a woman there. Her long flowing brown hair is her most prominent feature; her alluring profile makes you want her to turn her head and show you more.

I look up, and am startled to see her facing me from across the coffee table. Her stunning face arrests me; her forbidding expression is some kind of warning. I can’t tell if her blue-green eyes are inviting me to swim inside them or drown. She looks both otherworldly and strangely familiar.

“Hello,” I say uncertainly.

“Don’t you know who I am?”

“If we ever met I – I never forget a pretty face.”

“You dumped me,” she states plainly.  

This I find hard to believe. “You must have me mixed up with some other guy…”

“I don’t think so.”

“Who are you?”

“Look again.”

I do an in-depth search of those dazzling eyes, become mesmerized by her adorable face. Though her magnetic attraction evokes memory, and her harsh countenance demands that I remember, somehow I can’t place her and, feeling like an imbecile, I shrug ruefully. She shakes her head with a sigh, and the barely perceptible pucker in her full lips reproaches me.

“I’m Tanya,” she announces.

That name, it means something to me –

“You didn’t even bother giving me a family name.”

Uh-oh, oh no, oh my God no, this isn’t happening…

Whoever you make happen – happens.

“In the first draft you had me taking over the leading lady role. In the second draft you cut me down to size. By the third draft I was on the scrap pile.”

My slack jaw is heading so far down south I can lick the crumbs off the table without bending. 

“You deleted me. You kicked me out of your book…Why did you do that?”

The disbelief on my face speaks words I cannot find. Her accusation rings true:
In a previous novel called “Saving the Game” I had first primed her to be a main character, then toned down her storyline and ultimately crossed her out of the text. In effect, I had worse than killed her, for aside from this sleeping scribe only a few close confidants ever knew that she once existed (twice, if you count her pale second draft version). And now she is back, looking as good as I had once conceived her and demanding an explanation for my betrayal.

“I didn’t have a choice,” I say finally.

“You can do better than that, mister wannabe acclaimed author.”

I had fashioned Tanya as an enticement for Allie Walker, a syndicated sportswriter who was leading a media crusade to avoid a planned strike by the Major League Baseball Players Association. Allie was already engaged to the lovely Wendy Summers, his high school sweetheart, a self-motivated, sensible young woman who was just getting her career started teaching American Literature at NYU. Tanya, an artsy, free-spirited photojournalist, was the sweet temptation who threatened to throw Allie’s world into turmoil. I had hoped that an affair would spice things up, but a literary agent soured me on the idea, saying that the main storyline was getting all tangled up and that I should just get on with it.        

“You didn’t fit into the story,” I say weakly.

“What insipid crap. I made the story. I gave it color.”

“My agent said you were too much of a distraction.”

“And you listened to him. Maybe you figured that Allie, your doppelganger, would better fit the image of a true blooded American baseball writer defending the integrity of the National Pastime by staying faithful to Wendy, his goody-goody girl next door. How tame and timid; how bland and bourgeoisie.”

So, she likes to alliterate a little… This is starting to freak me out – she talks like I write.

“It was a 1990s story, post-sexual revolution. Monogamous marriage was making a comeback, and the publishing world was staying in tune with the times.”

“How tasteful and trendy of them…”

“Don’t take it so personally. It was a business decision.”

“And for that you trashed me…Well, guess what, I’m still here.”

“You sure are.”

I look her over, convince myself that I am not just imagining her, and notice for the first time that her Nikon camera is slung over her shoulder. Was it there before, or did it just now appear? It sure belonged there, strapped to her. That camera was more than just an accessory, a tool of a trade I had assigned to her; it was part of her being and essence. She had taken it with her wherever she roamed, traversed the great urban centers and small towns, backwoods and wilds, highlands and badlands of America as a freelance photographer, shot the aurora borealis and total eclipse of the sun, rain squalls over misty lakes and nude models of both sexes in varied poses that ranged from the aesthetic to the obscene, and saw her work covering the glossy pages of dissimilar magazines. By happenstance she hooked up with the Philadelphia Inquirer where she met Allie Walker, who was working on his first job for a big city paper. And with camera in hand she opened up a world for him.

Echoes in a vacuum, words long gone resounded, scratched words from a piece of deleted text:

Allie had never given photography too much thought before Tanya wafted onto his landscape like a fallen leaf. After short acquaintance with her it occurred to him that writing and taking pictures were all about the same thing. Capturing something and putting it into print. Describing a person, place or event worth a thousand words and framing it. Utilizing light, perspective and depth-of-field. Staying in focus. Conveying content, detail and background. Not to mention the ever changing angle. A wonder he had not made the connection before she revealed it to him, simply by dropping her Nikon camera alongside his pen and pad.

As these lost reflections are summoned up from my subconscious, they find their way back to the screen of my laptop:

At twenty-four, Tanya had acquired a trace of something in those eyes that invariably transformed from emerald to sapphire. A glint that told of a secret shared with her camera lens, an edge of world weariness; a tinge of angst; the baggage of too many roadside cafes. All this mated with stored energy reserves that compelled her to turn any corner and start afresh, and a restive mien that attested to her fly-by-night nature. Allie suspected she had approached the Philadelphia Inquirer out of curiosity and been horrified to stumble into a full-time job.

That, in a nutshell, was the story in the making that was nixed by a persnickety literary agent. Allie Walker, a sportswriter with an agenda to derail a damaging ballplayer strike and save an endangered baseball season, was building a portfolio on the Inquirer while aiming to land a position on a major newspaper in his hometown New York and marry the woman that he loved. And Tanya was the bed-hopping, steamy distraction with the snap-happy camera who made life confusing – and threatened to make a full-length novel overwritten.

Then it hits me: All this must be for a reason – Tanya’s premature death followed by a timely resurrection right here in this writer’s corner of a waterfront café. I don’t have to think about it too hard; the words come right out of Tanya’s mouth.

“So, don’t you think it’s time you hook me up with Rich Goodman?”

“How can you –” the words die on my tongue.

“The way you know me,” she says oddly.

Yes, it most surely fits. Rich Goodman has any woman he wants, and they all want him for keeps, but he just wants to play football and otherwise play the big stud. Along comes Tanya, the one exceptional woman who can both enchant him and entangle him; the temptress who can’t be kept and will break his heart. The hook is bated; the lure is enticing; the conflict is gripping.

With a silent nod we scrape our chairs on the wooden floor and get up to leave the cafe. Espresso and croissant left behind, I find that there is nothing more European about this waterfront as a passing group of strollers are speaking American English. We walk by a quaint line of boathouses along the shoreline, and something clicks: This must be Boathouse Row on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia. Tanya had come here on her first photo feature assignment for the Inquirer. Not far from here, she had rented a two-room apartment where she ensnared Allie in a pool of lascivious lust – but that only happened before I cut the scene.

I turn to her and say “You can ruin him…”

“Like I was going to mess up the sportswriter?”

So maybe she would have estranged Allie from his fiancée and put a snag in his marriage plans. But once this free bird flew the coup, he could have won back Wendy and things would have fallen into place. If I hadn’t trusted the instincts of an à la mode literary pretender and instead trusted my own; if I had kept Tanya in play; if I had just let the story play out.

As I contemplate the unsteadiness of the situation I created some time ago and have now resurrected, I find myself back indoors, a plain hallway leading to a bedroom in an unlived in single woman’s flat. I must have left my laptop at the café, but I don’t need it to recall the scene that is about to take place, a hot episode from a trashed file that remains etched in my mind and crying for life.

I turn around, look right and left, but apart from Tanya no one is in sight.

“Looking for someone?” she says mockingly.

Allie Walker went back to Brooklyn, and Rich Goodman must be scoring with a cheerleader. That leaves only me.

There, in the afternoon glow coming in through her window, I see an enchantress with a dancing light in her eyes and a mysterious smile. I can see her beyond my original conception of her. I can sense an underlining softness behind her scorn, read her sure intentions, and can’t miss her sense of play. I gaze at the perfection of her features, contours of her curves, seductiveness of her hair and magnificence of those eyes, and with a lip-smacking, wicked-witted understanding that she is looking my way I feel a pleasant expansion in my pants.

This hasn’t happened to me before. This hasn’t happened to any writer before…This is the substance of storybook that adds a whole new dimension to “myth.” This has the makings of a most uncommon, out-of-this-world experience. Indeed, this can make literary history…                                                                         

My own carnal creature, coming on to me!

The next thing I know a deft hand is reaching under my shirt, light fingers inching along my chest, probing downward – and then all at once she releases me.

“Catch me, mister,” she says, thrusting the camera into my hands.

Surprised that my hands are trembling, I walk backwards through the hall and into her bedroom. I know what happens next; can relish the scrumptiousness of the impending passion play that I wrote, and though I anticipate what’s coming that doesn’t take away from the excitement. Neither does a moment of confusion as the afternoon light fades just like that to midnight.

“Tanya,” I murmur, getting cozy with the sound of her name coming from my mouth. “Stay right where you are.”

Reaching for a reading lamp by her bed I place it on the floor, turn on the light and angle it towards her so that it spreads its glow on her curvilinear figure, which she poses upright and ready to move like a model on a catwalk. I click the camera and it flashes in the softly lit hallway. I had her now, her free spirit held captive in a moment by a time-stopping device.

“Take off your clothes,” I tell her.

“Everything?” she inquires, suddenly demure.

“Down to the last stitch.”

Tanya makes a show of kicking off her shoes. She positions her size-sixes in a way that suggests hesitation; toes pointed inward, one knee bent into the other beneath her long, light dress. A hand placed lightly over her swelling breasts makes my heart throb.

“What happens now?” she asks, the fine, feigned innocence almost believable.

“I think you know,” I say from the bedroom.

“I’m not sure I do,” she persists, her hands by her sides now, fists clenched, her body tilted forward a little. “Do you want me nude, or na-aked?” She pronounces the word in a sing-song tone. “There’s a difference, you know.”

“Whatever does it for you,” I reply.

Tanya turns completely around, unzips the back of her dress and lets it slip off her shoulders. I click the camera. She unhooks her bra and lets the straps hang. Flash. Reaching down to the hem of her dress she draws it up her legs to her panties, lingering there, her well-rounded ass protruding like a pounding little heart. Flash. Flash. Flash. Deliberately, she leads the dress in a slow ride up her back and over her head, then lowers her panties down to her feet. Framed.

“Now turn around,” I direct her, adding: “Show me your best asset.”

Tanya, her posterior pose illuminated in the hallway, flings her head forward, baring the nape of her neck. Then she turns around. Her long, brown hair obscuring most of her face, her chin pressed upon a slightly raised shoulder, her pleasure chamber kept secret beneath light fingertips. The loosened bra clung obstinately to her heaving breasts by a pressing hand.

A click of the camera… This is surely the most revealing portrait of her: The story unfolding to the final detail.

“Move your hand away from there,” I guide her, almost tentatively. I don’t say which hand.

She bends her knees a little and inclines her upper body perilously forward; by the way she postures herself I barely get a peep at her piquant pussy.

At length, with the camera working, I tell her to straighten up slowly. She complies with a belly dance rise to her five-foot-six, her shapely thighs swaying as her honeyed pubic mound comes into full view.

“Drop it,” I order her.

The point of her chin digging deeper into her shoulder, she holds out her bra like a white flag. I can feel my breath quickening as I watch it drop.

Her ample tits stand firm, inviting.

“Come here, beautiful.”

A slow walk down the narrow hall and into the bedroom. The fallen hair hiding what she is saving.

I anticipate and catch her in a split second, so that when she flings back her hair to expose her face all she can see is the flash.

Captured… Chin uplifted, moist lips drawing the formation of a kiss… High cheekbones stretching wide-set optical lenses… The glint is there and those eyes are smiling now.

Her best asset…

I reach for her, but she pushes me away. She takes the camera from me, places it on a chair, and sizes me up as I undo my belt buckle, hands on hips, a woman comfortable with her body. Easily she moves onto the bed, lies on her side and stretches across its length, the parting of her legs a revelation of her secret smile.

                                               *     *     *

With the morning light flooding our bedroom, Daphna’s eyebrows climb up her forehead as she spies a growth under the sheets.

“So,” she says pleasantly, “who were you dreaming about?”


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