Chapter Fifty-four

   "Where is my son?!" Dancing Cloud's mother cried in anguish upon my return.
   "And where the hell are the batteries?!" cried his father. (By the way, I know the Powloo tongue well enough by now to translate directly to English.) I didn't know what to say, especially since I skipped the part about how I got back here. It was time to make something up.
   "Here's the poop, you two: Your son, Dancing Cloud, is pulling down six figures per annum doing promotional videos and TV commercials, and he's currently in negotiations with MCI for a series of 'Friends and Family' spots that'll offer special 'Kimo Sabe Discounts' aimed specifically at Powloo warriors who've traveled through time. It could be worth half a million dollars for just two days work!"
   "Yeah, but that's in 1993 dollars," Dancing Cloud's father pointed out.
   "True, but it can still buy a hell of a lot of arrowheads and clay pots, my near-naked illiterate caveman friend. It's nothing to sneeze at."
   Dancing Cloud's parents looked at each other, opened their palms to the heavens, and shrugged their shoulders as if to say, "Go figure!"
   Meanwhile... what about Maureen? And Ed., and Mr. Note, and Ben and Farley and Sonny and Greg? And what happened to the crew of the German sub, and the frogmen, and Anna Matopeia? And what about Mal, the Alaskan cruise, and Ethan Childress? And what happened to Abe, and George, and (YOUR NAME HERE), and Mrs. Dinwiddie, and Joseph P. Kennedy, and the French waiter, and Aloysius Q. Butler, and Satan M. Beelzebub? And what happened to Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer, Sarabeth Honeybee, Kurt Vonnegut, and Uncle Lupo?
   "I'm right here!" Uncle Lupo interjected out of the blue, and there he was, right where he said he was.
   "Where'd you come from?" I asked.
   "I took the 'red eye'," he cracked. "Hey, Reynolds, check this out." He was holding a book jacket, but when I looked closer I was stunned. He was holding the book jacket for this book!
   "Where'd you get that, Uncle Lupo?"
   "A street vendor sold it to me."
   "You bought a book jacket? And no book?"
   "There is no book. Yet."
   And then it hit me. Lupo was acting as a messenger, a prophet. He was there for a purpose -- to spur me on, to keep me going, to keep it moving, to finish the damn thing. But I was wrong.
   "Just kidding," he laughed. "I got it at that place in Times Square, where they put your name in the headlines. Pretty funny, eh?"
   I was not amused. When you're this far out on a limb, when you're this far removed from reality -- or fiction -- when you're this far gone, you're looking for anything, a sign, advice, guidance, sympathy, anything. It's getting pretty bleak, pretty depressing, the prospect of never making sense, never making a damn bit of sense out of it. It's getting very, very, bleak. Damn bleak.
   Maureen? Where were you?
   "I've been thinking. Strategizing, really. You need a battle plan."
   No I don't.
   "Yes you do, and I think I've got one. First, you must write a letter to the publisher and state your dilemma, clearly and succinctly."
   What dilemma? I'm in the bubble.
   "Don't lie to me, Jim, I can read."
   And then what? What's the publisher going to do for my writer's block?
   "There are many things they can do. Remember, these are big companies, employing thousands of people. The resources are there. If you want help, you can get it. On the other hand, a publishing house is only a small part of a much larger corporation, and the needs of a first-time novelist who has already blown his advance and is late delivering the first draft of his novel is not a priority in the minds of the multi-billionaire moguls who run these multi-national cartels."
   So, where does that leave me?
   "Right back at square one. And that's where you want to be, Jim. You can start over, begin anew."
   A new novel?
   "Sure, why not?"
   What about this one?
   "Save it. Or sell it to someone."
   Sell it? Who's gonna buy an unfinished novel?
   "I will."
   Who are you?
   "I'm from Philip Morris."
   The tobacco company?
   "Yes. We subsidize the arts and all forms of freedom of expression, you know."
   I know. You bought the Bill of Rights, didn't you?
   "We sponsored its tour. We've also invested in theatrical troupes, individual artists, a variety of things."
   But -- do you have to smoke to get the money?
   "No, no. Whether or not you smoke has nothing to do with it."
   Because I quit years ago. That's all I need right now, a smoking habit, right Maureen?
   "Right, Jim."
   But, how much is Philip Morris willing to pay?
   "If you can come up with a plausible ending, it might be worth some real money."
   Like, how much?
   "Oh, maybe seventy-five grand. That's with a good ending."
   I'll sell it to you for one twenty-five, but I'll go as low as one.
   "One hundred thousand for an unfinished novel?"
   Oh, it won't be unfinished when I'm finished with it.
   "Then finish it -- finish it and we'll talk."
   Give me half now. Give me fifty thousand now and I'll have a finished version that'll knock you on your ass in a couple of weeks -- uh -- months.
   "Give you fifty now? Are you serious? This is still a mess. It's all mish-moshy."
   It's not mish-moshy. It's not mish-moshy in the slightest. And if it is, I can change that. It might be a pain in the ass, but I could do it.
   "We'll give you fifteen hundred now -- which you must return -- and the rest of the seventy-five thousand upon delivery, assuming it's in less than three weeks, and assuming it has a satisfactory ending. Deal?"
   "Wait, Jim, why so fast? Aren't you going to... you know."
   Aren't I going to what?
   "Aren't you going to... "
   What? Negotiate for more? Not necessary. In three weeks, or less, I will drop off a finished first draft of this novel at the offices of the Philip Morris Company, or whatever they call themselves, and they will draw a check in my name in the amount of one thousand five hundred dollars. And I will go home, stopping briefly at the Checks Cashed store, then stopping briefly at the 7-11 on the corner and purchasing some lottery tickets, then one brief stop at the supermarket for some steaks, and then home, to wait. Wait for my number to come in.
   "Your number? And just what is your number?"
   Yes. And if it hits --
   "Jim, your number is 1-2-3-4-5-6? That'll never come in."
   "What are the odds of 1-2-3-4-5-6 being drawn? It's ridiculous."
   I would agree with you, Maureen, if I were to buy only one ticket. But, what would you say if I told you I plan to purchase twelve hundred tickets?
   "Twelve hundred tickets?"
   Twelve hundred tickets, each one bearing the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6.
   "Twelve hundred tickets, all with the same numbers?"
   Try multiplying fifty million dollars by twelve hundred sometime -- and here's the beauty part: What I'm actually selling Philip Morris -- this manuscript -- it's just paper. I can change one word, just one word, and it's different. In my book, at least, that's different. So I can sell almost the same thing to someone else.
   "You can't do that. That's unethical."
   You can throw your ethics out the window. Everything is unethical. It's even unethical to throw ethics out the window, because you might hit someone. But all that is all moot now, according to this fortune cookie:



   "Where'd that come from?"
   I saved it from the Chinese dinner that we're having later.
   "Oh." She looked confused. So did I.

(This ends Chapter Fifty-four.)

Chapter Fifty-five