Read an Excerpt
By Rex Pickett
Loose Gravel PressCopyright © 2010 Loose Gravel Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe surf crashed thunderously against the cliffs outside my spacious seaside hotel room in Shell Beach. Golden sunlight filtered in through the white curtains. Stretched out on a bed big enough for three, I absently watched a golf tournament. I was at a wine festival, incongruously, to promote a book. Though it had been published, not that anyone could have noticed, a year earlier, the movie adapted from it had recently come out. So I was back on the promotional trail. Critics–and real people–had gone wild for the film. The story was a week in the life of me and my friend Jack, on a carousing two-man bachelor party rampage through some world-class yet little-known wine and golf country. My mom had appeared in a cameo role in both versions, and garnered a serious fan base of her own.
Thanks to the movie, my fortunes had changed. Jack, sadly, was, as I had long ago predicted, divorced and having trouble finding work. My poor mother had suffered a massive stroke that left her wheelchair-bound and sequestered in an assisted-living facility.
But I had my own problems to focus on: What was I going to say as the keynote speaker at the kickoff dinner? I had nothing prepared. Should I regale them with stories of the destitute existence that led me to Shameless? That would have them all in stitches. Should I deliver a rote speech about how my book had felicitously impacted the wine world, and how delighted I was to see them all beneficiaries of its success and ... hey, where are my royalties? Nah, too self-serving.
Maybe just go extemporaneous. Wing it.
The surf went on pounding the cliffs, sending spray high enough that I could actually see it beyond my balcony every time a wave crashed. I poured a half glass of a David Family wine '09 Pinot that the owner had been so generous as to send me to sample. Shameless had celebrated my love for that unique grape variety and made Pinot producers and distributors want to celebrate me. Maybe a little too much. I glanced over at the dresser where stood dozens of bottles, wines I couldn't afford until just a few months before. I'd thought about re-gifting them, chortled I should peddle them on eBay for a little reserve cash in case this gust of fame ended and I was back to my former penniless life. But the gust didn't seem inclined to abate any time soon. I had a new publishing agent who was arm-twisting me into a deal if I could come up with as little as a concept. "Just a couple pages! That's all!" I couldn't, but that didn't stop her pestering. I had new movie/TV agents sending me out on meetings to pitch projects and hawk myself for assignments.
Life was good. Too good? No. But I still felt, acutely, the absence of a woman to share my life. Good fortune's not as much fun as a solo act. I needed that special someone I could vent my frustrations to, negotiate life's vicissitudes with and all the rest. Oh, there were women aplenty, but I had not found my soulmate, and I wondered–still licking the wounds of my divorce–whether I ever would.
Maybe that was what I should talk about, it occurred to me, as I sipped the David Pinot and exulted in its glories. No, too personal, too self-indulgent, and though I was accustomed to wearing my heart on my sleeve–hell, my book's story couldn't have been more personal!–the subject of my solitude would be a buzzkill. The crowd, estimate nearly five hundred, would want humor. I could do humor. The protagonist of my book, whom I was here to play, got a lot of laughs out of the life of a failed writer, a broken middle-aged man who couldn't figure out where the front door was.
Done. Now I just had to come up with an opening line.
There was a determined knock at my door.
"Come in," I called from my sprawl.
Marcie, my somewhat zaftig publicist–yep, I had one of those, too!–blustered in. All hips and limbs and curves and loose body parts, especially her disorganized mouth. A walking stereotype. She pulled up a chair. "How're you doing, Miles?"
I muted the TV. "Trying to think of what to say."
"Just be yourself."
"If I'm myself, there's no telling what might come out of my mouth. I'm not used to giving speeches. Except to the walls."
"They just want you, Miles. They just want to hear your rags-to-riches story."
"They want Martin." I looked at her, but she was suddenly captivated by the stupendous view. "I should have a basic speech prepared or something, but I'd come off like a politician. Besides, I'm lousy at reading from prepared text. Even when I do readings from them I sound like some academic bore."
She patted me on the knee. "You'll be fine. You changed the world of wine, Miles."
"The movie did," I chopped her off.
"Okay, but it was your book. You created the world."
"God created the world. I just wrote a book."
She laughed her throaty laugh. "And that's why they're here to hear you. You're playing for an audience that loves you already."
"I just got lucky. Nobody wanted that book, except one hot writer/director, and he changed my life. I don't deserve all this."
Marcie was looking at me impatiently. Had I done this rap before?
I held up the glass of Pinot. "Try it. It's the David."
She accepted the glass and ventured a sip. "Mmm," was all she said.
"Yes. Very Burgundian. Tremendous finesse. I've never drunk wines like this. That bottle goes for nearly ninety bucks. And there's lots more." I pointed to the dresser.
"Enjoy it, Miles. But not too much. Remember the Santa Barbara County Harvest Festival." She wagged a reproving finger at me.
I coughed a laugh. "I'll do my best," I said. "But, no promises. There's going to be barrels of wine at this dinner. You know that. And let's not forget: you got me into this."
"Miles, you're a celebrity. Specifically, a celebrity in the wine community. I'm just trying to help you promote your book and make you beaucoup bucks. I thought that's why you hired me?"
"It is. And I appreciate all you're doing. But I'm wondering if it's too much. Wine and I don't always mix."
"You'll be fine," she said, in an effort to reassure me. There was an edge in her voice along with the reassurance.
The sky out over the Pacific was growing orangey, semaphoring that the time for my kickoff speech was fast approaching. I was getting more nervous. What if I just clammed up? I worried. I fretted. My mind was turning in vertiginous circles. Part of me wanted to bail, get in my Prius (yes, just off the lot) and ride into the sunset, hit a wine bar, and have an anonymous evening alone with a raft of Pinots.
"How do you like your room?"
"It's nicer than my place in Santa Monica, that's for sure."
"Got everything you need?"
"Exquisite wines, ocean view, plasma TV. What more could a literary figure ask for?"
"You want to get a massage? You seem tense." She flipped open her cell. "I'll arrange it right now."
I held up my hand. "No, that's okay, but thanks. I might get an erection and do an Al Gore."
"We don't need that," she laughed. "I don't want to bother you right now, but I need to run some important things by you tomorrow, okay?"
"Okay," I said wearily, fearing a spate of speaking engagements and more wine festivals.
My iPhone–yes, it's pretty much the whole package–rang. I glanced at the number flashing on the screen. My mother. Or, rather, one of the numbers for Las Villas de Carlsbad. Ever since her "incarceration" at the assisted-living facility she called me three times a day, sometimes five. "It's my mom," I said to Marcie. "I should take it."
"I'll come get you in an hour," she said. She stood and exited.
I tapped Accept. "Hi, Mom."
"Miles! Where are you?"
"I'm up in Shell Beach."
"Up where?" she screeched.
"Shell Beach. Central Coast. Near Hearst Castle. I'm supposed to give a talk here in an hour or so. It's a big wine festival."
"Oh, no," she said.
"Oh, yes," I said. "They've got enough wine up here to keep everyone on Capitol Hill inebriated for a week."
"You'll get drunk and be thrown in the pokey," she said.
"No, I won't. I don't have to drive anywhere, Mom."
"When're you coming to visit?"
"I don't know. My publicist and publisher have a lot of events planned for me to promote my book. They all want to make money. I'll get down soon. I'm supposed to give a talk at a faculty event or something at UCSD, so maybe then."
"I'm so miserable here. The food is shitty. The help is shitty. They treat me like an invalid."
"You are an invalid, Mom."
"I am not!"
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean it that way. But you did have a pretty massive stroke and you need care, and until someone convinces Medicare to cover assisted living, Las Villas is the best I can do."
"Why can't I go live with my sister, in Wisconsin? She'll take me."
This was a regular part of her litany. There was no way they would let a woman with full left-side paralysis board a plane on her own, and I hate to fly. No, I'm terrified by the mere prospect.
"Mom, I've explained to you a hundred times. There's no way to get you there. Unless you want me to pack you up and put you on a boxcar."
"Stop joking me. You can find a way. You're always showing how smart you are."
Unless I shifted gears, she'd go on indefinitely and indefatigably. "How're you doing otherwise? Has Hank been up to visit?"
"No," she retorted nastily. "Your brother hates coming here and seeing all these old, dying people. That's what he told me."
"So Melina hasn't been coming up with Snapper?" I knew my cantankerous mother had long-ago alienated the old girlfriend of mine who'd adopted her horrendous Yorkie.
"No. I haven't seen Snapper in months."
"I'll talk to Melina," I promised.
"Please come and visit," she beseeched ... no, wailed!
"I'll try, Mom," I said, with exasperation now in my voice. "But I'm real busy these days. This is my time. It comes but once in a career."
Why should she give a damn about my windfall fame? "Oh, please. Try. I'm dying in here!"
I couldn't take it anymore. "I've got to go, Mom. I've got a speech to give to five hundred people and I have no idea what I'm going to say. Okay? Goodbye. Sleep well."
As soon as I hung up the phone rang again. Same number. I hit Decline and muted the incessant ringing. She left an evidently lengthy voicemail I had just as little interest in hearing. I rose and ambled out onto the balcony. Now I could finally see the waves I'd been hearing. Sailboats bent sideways raced across the coastline, leaving white wounds in the water behind them, the rich and adventurous, living the good life. Fuck them, I thought. Gulls wheeled overhead, cawing hungrily. The air was redolent of the sea: brine, kelp, dead shellfish. The David Pinot was really opening up. It had started out kind of barnyardy with notes of hay and wet tea, but now it was fragrant with raspberries and black cherries, a truly splendiferous wine. The more I drank the better I started to feel about the upcoming dinner. In fact, I was getting fired up. I can do this I intoned over and over. I can do this.
I topped off the glass and went back to the golf tournament, but it was just as boring as before. The wine, though, was energizing me, propping me up, fortifying me for my talk. Hell, I could say anything and I'd be fine. I undressed, crossed to the ridiculously capacious bathroom and indulged in a long, hot shower. When I came out I felt better. Much better. An opening line had even flared in my head during the shower. From there, I reasoned, I would be off and running.
I donned a pair of black corduroys, a long-sleeve white button-up shirt–sans tie–which I purposely didn't tuck in. Hey, I was a real writer now, I could dress the part. I could show up with my hair looking like a tumbleweed, my eyes bloodshot, my left shoe on my right foot, walking an oblique trajectory without clear destination. Hell, that's probably who they were expecting!
At seven Marcie came to retrieve me.
"How're you feeling?" she asked.
"Great!" I said, probably a little too exuberantly.
She glanced at the empty bottle on the nightstand, but held her tongue. I was her client; it was her job to get me through this. After all, I was being paid five thousand for the speech, and her ten percent commission probably covered most of her BMW payment.
We left the hotel room and ambled along a meandering cement pathway toward the venue. The sky was starting to purple. The ocean had grown calm and glassy and the swells had abated from their earlier fury. The sailboats were gone, back safe in their harbors, their owners no doubt dining on lobster at seaside restaurants. The gulls, fed now, had quieted. There was a peace in it all. A peace everywhere except my soul, in my gut, in my re-escalating nervousness about what I was going to say, how I was going to get through this.
"You'll be fine, Miles," Marcie kept saying.
"I'm sure I will," I tried to reassure her, not believing my words for a second, the Pinot in my belly no longer buoying my sudden surge of confidence.
"Just like the last one. They'll get easier." She placed a hand on my back and prodded me forward. "Remember. They're here tonight not just for the festival, but for you. They just want to see and hear the guy who wrote Shameless. It doesn't have to be long. Twenty minutes. I'm sure they'll be over the moon."
"I hope they will. Disappointment disappoints me."
The auditorium was packed and noisy as hell when we entered. At the back of the large room, fifteen sommeliers–many employed by famous restaurants in L.A.–were uncorking Pinots and sniffing them for cork taint, sometimes emptying whole bottles of expensive Burgundies they deemed off. Some sixty white-clothed tables, each ringed by eight of those fake-gilt fake-bamboo chairs, crowded the room. Numerous wineglasses sparkled on the tables, indicating that many wines waited to be sampled. All the tables boasted the same centerpiece: a large aluminum spit bucket. Winemakers and wine aficionados were hobnobbing.
It was good no one recognized me by face. I wasn't, after all, a movie star. I was just a writer and they're generally known, if at all, by name. Especially if they were first-time novelists as I was.
Marcie took an elbow and led a reluctant me to the director of the festival, a middle-aged, pleasant-faced woman standing near the raised stage. Marcie introduced me.
On Marcie's introduction, Jean hugged me profusely. "Miles! It's so great to meet you finally. Congratulations on your book and your movie. I'm so excited you're with us."
"Thank you so much for your hospitality," I said humbly, adding in a mumble, "Beautiful hotel room."
"It's our pleasure. You're the guest of honor. In fact I bumped Stephen Tanzer from your accommodations."
It was little consolation, in my state of rising anxiety, to learn I'd usurped one of the great critics of the Burgundian world. Tanzer's lectures at this festival had been sold out from early on.
"Really? Wow. That wasn't necessary, Jean. I would have been fine in a first-floor room with a view of the parking lot. He'll probably trash my book now on his site."
She laughed. "We wanted to make it special for you."
"So, what's the game plan here?" I asked, businesslike.
"Well, I'm going to get up and give a short introduction to the festival, then I'm going to introduce you. You'll come up and do your thing."
"Okay," I said. I raked a hand through my hair, half out of nervousness, and half combing it into some vague notion of presentability. "Sounds like no big deal. How long should my speech be? I have nothing prepared."
"Just keep an eye on me. At some point I'll give you this"–she raised a flattened hand and, smiling, made a gesture as if slitting her own throat–"and you can wrap it up, go back to your table and enjoy! Menu's marvelous. And there's plenty of wine!"
"I noticed. Wow."
"We're going to be going through hundreds of bottles tonight."
"Looks like it." My panic had seemed to be ebbing, but no–it wasn't high tide yet.
"All Pinot. No Merlot," she laughed.
Marcie joined Jean in the standard guffaw, and I gave my now rehearsed smirk.
"Let's get seated," my publicist suggested, "shall we?"
"Again. Great to meet you, Miles," Jean said. "And really curious to hear what you've got for us."
Me too! I wanted to say.
Excerpted from Vertical by Rex Pickett Copyright © 2010 by Loose Gravel Press . Excerpted by permission of Loose Gravel Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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