“Counterclockwise,” Chapter Two

December 23rd, 2007

This is the second chapter of my novel in The Dickens Challenge. If you want to read the two chapters together, go to http://johndishon.com/test/viewtopic.php?t=20

Talley’s Web

For just a minute, think of Los Angeles as Edwin Arnold Tallerico does: a large, warm, semi-arid urban sprawl with himself at its center.

And here, in this single city, are five women, unconnected except for the invisible line that stretches — or, in one case, will soon stretch — between each of them and Talley. And if you don’t count Talley (and, pretty quickly, no one will) they have little in common.

Except that they all wish that time could move counterclockwise.

The first woman is, in fact, someone you’ve already met. Norah Tallerico sat in front of her makeup table, with its tiny pink lights, trying to reassemble the face she’d had at twenty, which, privately, she had always regarded as her real face. That was the face she’d had when she came into possession of her adult self, before time and Talley frayed it and wore little thin spots in it, before her skin, so fine and even luminous, had begun to betray her. At her side was a second cup of special coffee, a temptation she usually managed to resist, but today —

Well, today was a special day.

Norah wore a Valentino suit of pale, jade-colored silk beneath the white button-up coverall she’d stuffed into her purse at her hair stylist’s a few months ago. She’d stolen it without a twinge of conscience: Talley had convinced her that she wildly overpaid Claude (as he called himself although he was no more French than she was) for second-rate work. With the selectivity she’d unconsciously adopted as a tactic to survive the marriage, Norah had absorbed the idea of too much money for too little value and blocked the implication hair looks terrible. Not that she really cared any more whether Talley liked her hair, or her cooking, or her conversation. That was all long past. When she looked back on that kind of interaction between them, it reminded her of the bric-a-brac people collect on trips and stick on a shelf somewhere. Later, they try to remember where they got it.

Stolen or not, the coverall was a good idea. It allowed her to dress first and then put on makeup without powder drifting down onto her clothes, and when she wanted to make sure her makeup complemented the clothes, or vice-versa, all she had to do was open the front of the coverall. She did that now, half-expecting to be disappointed. Surprise. It was fine. It had been a long time since Norah expected things to be fine.

Nine-sixteen. Across town, her husband (although he couldn’t be expected to know it) had almost entered the last hour of his life, but here in not-Brentwood what it meant was that Norah was in danger of being late. That wouldn’t do. She grabbed her purse, shut off the lights at the makeup table, and went through the bedroom suite and down the long hallway to the living room. She was picking up her keys when she heard the cell phone ring, faintly and resentfully, obviously pissed off at having been forgotten.

“Oh, crap,” Norah said. She dropped the purse on the seat of her high-backed chair and hurried down the hall to the bedroom, where she finally located the source of the ringing in her bathrobe, and pulled the phone out of the pocket. “Hello?”

“Mrs. Tallerico? Please hold for Mr. Weller.”

Music came on the line, the Rolling Stones played pizzicato by a great many violins. The revolution was over, and Mantovani had won. “Is Mr. Weller’s dialing finger broken?” Norah asked the orchestra.

“Norah?” Frank Weller had a voice that inspired confidence, even if you knew him.

Yes, Frank, it’s Norah. Didn’t your secretary tell you? I’m just about to leave.”

“Don’t bother,” Frank Weller said. “It’s hopeless.”

Norah found that she was on the bed, although she had no memory of sitting down. “But — but I thought –”

“I was wrong. Talley’s pre-nup is water-tight. I’ve been looking at it all morning. Really, it’s a remarkable piece of work. I wish I could hire whoever wrote it.”

“But then, what that means is, it, uh, it means –”

“It means you’ll leave the marriage with not much more than you brought to it. Or maybe a little less. He set aside fifty thousand a year, which he calls in the pre-nup, and I quote, a generous salary, considering what she does, and that’s about it. Thirteen years, figure six hundred fifty thousand. After court costs, legal fees, taxes, moving expenses, and so on, you’ll be living on Crackerjack and Cup O’ Noodles.”

Norah said, “Oh.”

“So I’m sorry. But I wanted to save you the drive, and no point running up the billable hours.”

“That’s . . .” Norah said, and drifted for a second, but then realized she’d left the sentence hanging. “Nice of you,” she finished.

“Least I could do.” Norah heard the dropped words, heard him cutting the call short to get to some billable hours. “Wish I could find the guy who wrote this, though.”

“Me, too.”

“You? Why would you want to find him?”

“So I can kill him with my teeth,” Norah said. She dropped the phone onto the bed.

The house was as silent as the chamber at the center of a pyramid. Something glimmered at her from across the room, and Norah looked over to see her coffee cup. She hauled herself to her feet and slogged across the thick carpet to the makeup table, grabbed the cup two-handed, and drained it. Avoiding her reflection in the mirror, she removed the jacket of her Valentino suit and dropped it on the floor. She sat down and opened a jar of cold cream, smearing it thickly over her face. Within seconds she had turned into an abstract painting the forty minutes’ worth of careful makeup she had just finished applying. Then she picked up the silk jacket, wadded it up, and used it to wipe off the cream.

* * *

Three-quarter time seemed right even if it wasn’t rock and roll.

Normally, Claire thought in two-four, with the emphasis on the backbeat. It was as reflexive to her as thinking in English. Two-four was the time signature of life, of human life, anyway. Three-quarters, waltz time, was the time signature of — oh, what the hell — formal silk bouquets and opera gloves. Seed pearls, maybe.

One-two-three, one-two-three. Easy to strum, although Crank would go nuts. In three-quarters time he wouldn’t be able to channel Keith Moon. Bash those drums, tote that bale. Get little drunk . . .

God, how drunk had she been last night? Drunk enough to fly to LA, apparently.

But it was almost okay, the sun felt nice, the folds of Laurel Canyon marched away into the smog below the deck, and this song was in the wrong time signature. And she’d made the wrong decision. She never should have signed with that asshole, Talley. Claire Standish, Miss Independent Rock and Roll, Miss Principles. She’d sold herself down the river and dragged the rest of the band with her. They’d hated the idea until she’d talked them around, but that just showed what words were worth. They’d been right and she’d been wrong. Jesus, even Crank had been right, and he was usually right only twice a day, and then usually by accident, like a broken clock.

Clock, she thought. Time, she thought. Time signature. Sure, it’s wrong. It’s about time. Count it backwards, three-two-one, three-two-one.

Over the strum, she sang:

I can go East

I can go West

I can go anywhere

I think is best

To escape all the damage in your eyes.

So why can’t I go,

Why can’t I go

Counterclockwise?

I don’t even need to go all that far back, she thought, writing down the words. Just a few months, just to the microsecond before I signed my name. She got up, feeling the deck pitch slightly beneath her feet, courtesy of the red wine and champagne she knew better than to mix but apparently had anyway, and leaned against the railing. For a moment she distracted herself from her thoughts by indulging a habit she’d had since childhood, snapping a mental picture of herself and supplying a magazine caption. So there she was, long and lean and blond and hung over, with enough metal piercing her and hanging off her to outfit a hardware store. Rock goddess Claire Standish seeks the elusive muse.

Or maybe not so elusive. Counterclockwise. Might be a keeper.

The story accompanying the photo wrote itself in her mind. Ruthless in her pursuit of stardom — whoops, make that the pursuit of musical excellence — Claire Standish blew through one band after another, ransacking them and abandoning them, and making off with the best player in each: drummer Crank from Herpes Simplex, guitarist Eloy Cloudwater from The Bottom Feeders, and bass standout MoFo from Anastasia’s Shoes. Having assembled Vacancy at last, she blundered outrageously and made a deal with the devil.

Well, deals were made to be broken. And song or no song, she was going to go counterclockwise. By the end of the day, she’d be free of Edwin Arnold Tallerico.

One way or another.

* * *

“We had a deal, Elena,” Talley said from his end of the phone.

“I can’t do it,” Elena said. “I’ve already told you that.”

“You don’t have to do it,” Talley said. He had his reasonable voice on. “I’d never force you to do anything, Elena, I’d never just give you orders.”

“I knew you’d understand,” Elena said. “My religion –“

“And I’d certainly never make you go against your conscience. Do it your way. Don’t go see the doctor. But I’m telling you that the day you go to the hospital to have that kid, all the locks on the condo are going to be changed.”

“The locks –“

“Your keys won’t work. You’ll be outside, and the keys won’t open the door. I’m sure you and the baby will find someplace nice to live. After all, I’m giving you almost eight months’ notice.”

Elena reached for a cigarette but then knocked the pack off the table and halfway across the floor. Bad for the baby. “Talley,” she said. “You can’t do this.”

 

“I’m not doing it, Elena, you are. I said from the beginning, you and me, and no kids. Do you remember that?”

“Yes, But –”

“And here you are, carrying. What is it with women? That was a deal, Elena, we made a deal.”

“Life is not a deal.”

“Why don’t women think they’re accountable? Make the deal, break the deal. Feelings are more important than commitments. You’re not the only one. I’m up to my ass in women who want to change a deal. But you know what? I keep my deals. I’m not a freaking woman.”

“Come over here, sweetie,” Elena said. “Let’s talk face to face.”

“You got a great face, Elena. God knows I spent enough money on it. But looking at it’s not going to change anything. Me or the kid, it’s up to you. And you can settle things with Jesus on your own time.” He broke the connection.

Elena hung up the phone. She got up and went to the pack of cigarettes and picked it up. Then she carried it the rest of the way across the room to the bed, where Andrew was up on one elbow, looking at her, his hair mussed from the pillow in the way that always made her want to smooth it. He picked at one in the pack, shook it out, and lit it.

“He’s not going for it,” Andrew said.

“No. The son of a bitch says he’ll kick me out.”

“You didn’t threaten to sue him. I thought you were going to –”

“In the mood he was in, he’d have told me to get in line.” Elena sat next to Andrew and put her open palm on the skin of his shoulder, still warm from the blanket. “Everybody’s suing him.”

“But he’ll have money left over for Junior, won’t he?” Andrew said.

“You heard. He wants me to lose Junior. He’s got a doctor lined up and everything. And if I push too hard, he’ll kick me out now. Maybe demand a paternity test, like DNA or something.”

Andrew said, “That wouldn’t be good.”

“No,” Elena said, “It wouldn’t”

“So,” Andrew said. “Plan B.”

* * *

So: Norah, Claire, Elena. Each at the far end of one of the lines that comprise Talley’s web.

The fourth woman had never heard of Talley. She had adventurous musical tastes for a cop, and her iPod hosted a few of the sellout alt-rock bands he managed, but she hadn’t yet heard Claire Standish and Vacancy. Almost no one outside New York had. And although she often wore the ubiquitous little white earbuds when she was doing desk work, at the moment music was the farthest thing from Laura Callow’s mind.

What was on her mind, to the exclusion of everything else, was the precarious state of the once-proud American public school system, a system that could release into the world a purportedly educated adult capable of writing the following sentence:

We seen obsurved a innividual who matched the descri desiptsh way the guy was sposed to look, heding east on Sepluveda and persued his vehiccal at hi spede.

It isn’t bad enough I have to do so much paperwork, Laura thought, without also having to redo my partner’s. She could just see some smartass defense attorney with a 1200-buck suit and a fifty-cent smirk challenging Jerry to spell “pursued” on the stand and then standing back as the members of the jury who had college educations began to take notes like they’d just gotten an idea for a best-seller. Everybody knew college-grad jurors were anti-cop anyway, but why rub their noses in it?

So, she thought, rewrite Jerry.

She pulled a bunch of forms out of her desk drawer and looked up at the clock. Nine-twenty-eight. If something interesting didn’t happen before eleven, she decided, she would forget about not reinforcing negative female stereotypes, and scream.

But something interesting did happen.

* * *

And finally, we have a young woman who has lied her way into the day. Every single thing she had said to get into this very luxurious office with its thick beige carpets and leather couches, and all the little recessed pinspots on the ceiling trained at gold records and posters on the wall — every sentence, every clause, every syllable had been untrue.

She was not named Rita Chaney, she did not live in Chicago, and she was not a reporter for Music Life magazine. She had spent most of the previous evening copying bits and pieces out of Moby-Dick into the notebook balanced on her knee so it would look well-used. The page to which she had opened said, The Whiteness of the Whale on it. All that copying, plus the drive here from the San Fernando Valley, had been the final moves in an elaborate five-week charade that had brought her here, to this office, across the desk from this man, to do this.

She forced a smile that felt like it weighed fifty pounds and put a small metal object on the blued-steel desk in front of her. To Talley, who sat behind it, she said, “Do you mind if I tape this?”

 

13 Responses to ““Counterclockwise,” Chapter Two”

  1. Nadja Says:

    I’m hooked. I LOVE your narration.

  2. reality Says:

    This is a great second chapter and begs answers to so many questions.
    Your writing is terrific and each one of the women introduced appears to be a well crafted character.
    Wonderful stuff.

  3. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Thanks, Nadja, thanks, Usman. This one was really hard. It clocked in at about 8000 words to begin with; it had flashbacks that had their [i]own[/i] flashbacks, and it just trailed off into the kind of zero-energy heat death some cosmologists predict for the end of the universe. So I just cut everything and tried to find one gesture, like Norah’s wiping her face with the jacket, that ended the segments with some kind of impact.

    But I have to tell you, if I had this to do over again, I’d make it six hours until Talley’s death.

    At some point — maybe after chapter 4 or 5 — it might be interesting for us to write something about our processes in getting that far — where things came from, and what we think about where we’re going.

    Thanks again. I hope you’re all having fun. I certainly am.

    BTW, I’m going to post this on my own site in reply to the people who responded there. And I’ll respond to your work on your individual sites.

  4. Cynthia Mueller Says:

    I’m loving this! Each character emerged fully formed and unique, with their own distinct voice and energy. What a little crowd you’ve created, Tim.

    I can’t wait for your next installment. Oh, and your idea about sharing our processes — sounds like fuel for the campfire discussion thread. Great idea.

  5. Suzanna Says:

    Tim,

    Another great installment. The tense situations your characters are in reveal a lot about who they are very quickly. Even though you aren’t preplotting this the story feels like it’s headed somewhere definitive, hellish, and dark for each of these characters. Looking forward to more.

    Suzanna

  6. Steve Says:

    Tim, I have to admire the master wordsmithing here. It’s a classic detective story with an abominable victim and at least four people with excellent motives for wanting him dead. A sort of Trent’s Last Case for the 21st century. I’m eagerly awaiting the nest installment.

  7. reality Says:

    Tim,
    the point about our processes is excellent. Although I tend to think of writing as a very abstract process. At least it is for me.
    Your comment about zero cosmic energy really resounds. Yesterday I worked on my ‘other’ WIP; where i had to revise a really bad chapter. It was negative all over.
    My chapter 2 is up btw.

    Usman.

  8. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Thanks to everyone for being so positive. I’m sorry I haven’t been to your sites yet — I’ve been in a total sprint on this other book I’m writing, mostly because the first week before the DC and the first actual week just knocked my writing schedule completely off the tracks.

    But I will — I’ll read some tomorrow and the rest the day after. And you are all being just amazingly kind about this last chapter, which almost imploded before I just started cutting 200-300 words at a time.

    Thanks again

  9. John Dishon Says:

    I haven’t read anyone’s work yet because I was out of town for Christmas, but I’ll get on it soon. My own second chapter, however, might not be up until next week.

  10. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, John —

    I’ve been looking for it. I think I’ve read everyone else who’s posted, and left a comment. If there’s anyone other than John and Jennifer whose sites I haven’t written something on, please let me know.

    I think I’ve figured out why I went with the direct-to-reader narrative. It allows me to knit together things that appear a week or two apart. It really is different to write this story, knowing that the reader can’t turn the page at the end of, say, Chapter Two, until seven days later.

    One of the things I think about a lot when I write books is the difference between “writing time” and “reading time.” It can take me anywhere from six to 14 months to write a novel, and someone will read it in a relatively small number of days. When I’m writing Chapter Forty-six, need to be as closely in touch with Chapter Three, which I might have written a year earlier, as the reader will be who reads them only two days apart. And that’s not just story, but tone and character nuance and everything else.

    And here, the chapters are being read (at least initially) a week apart. Really feels weird. I think it’s going to read rather oddly when the chapters are all jammed together and the reader can read them at his or her own speed.

  11. Jennifer Says:

    I have to ask, do you go back and re-read earlier chapters, or scan quickly through them at all? I keep finding that I have to at least scan from the beginning as I approach each new chapter to retain a feeling of unity. I find I’ve left little tidbits along the way that serve as pointers to something on the horizon that I didn’t understand at the time I wrote the earlier chapters. (Plus, I forget or misremember facts, etc.)

    I really like the web metaphor, the idea that Talley is caught in so many sticky strands. The female characters are so distinct from each other; I look forward to their development.

  12. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, Jennifer —

    I scan the earlier chapters, in part because I barely remember them (I’ve been writing another book that’s getting all my attention most of the time) and in part out of force of habit because I always begin writing by going back a ways and rewriting as I move toward the blank page. I can’t rewrite here (and don’t think I don’t want to) but the process gets me into the spirit and rhythm of the story.

    And unity is precisely the thing I’m trying to achieve when I go back; remembering that the reader may read in two hours material that I wrote over a period of two months, and it has to hang together when it’s consumed so quickly.

    Thanks for the nice remark about the web; I have to remember that I did that, and try to keep it alive.

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