Herman likes what he wrote tonight. His head rests in his hands; his fingers reach up to what's left of his hairline before they massage their way down his temple, down the pale cheeks to the stubble on his neck. He is sweating even though the window of his apartment is open to the marine layer that makes summer nights in L.A. so blessedly cool. Herman is satisfied with the progress of his project.
Herman gazes at Brooke's yearbook picture. He feasts on her dimples, her eyes, the bangs that tumble down her forehead. Next to the photo, her signature, Brooke Day Lord, slopes upward in the brisk penmanship of a seventeen year-old who revels in the love of both parents and the adoration of her peers. Nothing more than her signature appears in Herman's yearbook, not even "Good luck."
To other classmates she wrote much more. Herman has a list, taped to the wall, which contains over thirty of her send-offs. "Thanks for being so much fun." "I loved your parties." "Remember the dancing Sunflowers." "I'll never forget that concert." And she signed every one, "Love, Brooke."
Then there is what she wrote to Matt Harper, about the grunions. They really exist, those edible little fish who ride in on the waves at night to spawn on the beach. Ask anyone who lives in Southern California. Grunions make Herman recall how, when they were seniors, Matt Harper snatched away Herman's chance with Brooke, snatched her thanks to call waiting, eight minutes into Herman's first and last phone conversation with her. She had asked Herman to call back. He tried for two hours, but this time she had ignored the call waiting signal. That Friday night Matt had taken Brooke to the football game, and eight months later, to the senior prom. Herman recalls watching them dance, gaping at them until his date got angry and went home. Matt Harper is now married to a ditz named Amber, but she is a friendly ditz, and when they happened to meet four years ago, she had actually invited Herman to dinner. Herman accepted so he could employ the tactic he used with so many other classmates: he had eased the conversation to their high school days, evoking so many memories that it was Matt's idea to browse through the yearbook. When they reached Brooke's photo, Herman had memorized as much of her message to Matt as he could. Moments after Matt turned the page, Herman had excused himself and gone to the bathroom, where, fighting back tears, he took out his notebook and wrote down every word he recalled.
Herman knows he is not a stalker. He has seen enough pictures of creeps in custody, nabbed outside the bedrooms of their beloveds. Besides, Herman has never heard of a stalker ever succeeding. Others may think him dim, but Herman is smart. Indeed, Herman can be brilliant when the topic interests him, and Brooke has enthralled Herman since they met in English class. A normal person would have banished her to the edge of memory. But Herman is not normal. No, that is not true. It is Brooke who is not normal. She is charming, gorgeous, refined -- raised, he once dreamt, under laboratory conditions, destined for Davos, yet perennially blithe. How could anyone find comfort with another girl after exposure to Brooke during the formative years? Despite the years that have passed since graduation, as he did in school, Herman loves Brooke.
Herman's plan is to make Brooke come to him. Yes, he will write to her, and his missive will be long, so long that everyone, including Brooke, will call it a novel, but every word in Herman's novel will call to Brooke Day Lord. Brooke will not realize what Herman has done. She will hear that an old classmate wrote a book, and Herman prays she will read it. Once she starts turning his pages, Brooke will realize that everything Herman says resonates with her. Herman will assail her with prose carefully culled, at times from Brooke's own words, so that Brooke will conclude that Herman understands her so completely she will want to know him once more, this time forever. Brooke will never learn Herman's plan, for he has not approached her since high school. Of course Herman has dated since then. The first coed he squired would snort instead of laugh. The second swore too much and prefaced her sentences with "you know." The third couldn't stop saying "awesome." The fourth wore a crooked smile. The next two had bad breath. Worse, none of these women liked to read. Can you blame Herman for remaining faithful to Brooke? In her senior sketch, Brooke confessed a passion for fiction, and mutual acquaintances tell him that Brooke still devours novels. If Herman can write a novel that sells, it will get into Brooke's lovely hands.
Herman reflects on his plan. First he learned to write, a feat that should stun his teachers, if they read his novel. Mrs. Skovern gave him a B in English but called his work insipid. Brooke got an A in that class and went on to an elite New England college where her degree in English came with a Phi Beta Kappa key. Herman matriculated to the local community campus, where they taught him to write business memos. Since then Herman has spent many dollars to develop a voice that calls to the world, not just to the insurance company where he works as an adjuster. First came the extension classes; next, the workshops: Aspen, Napa, Sewanee. Taos, Kenyon, Squaw Valley. Within two years Herman had become such a fixture at these conferences that many attendees were greeting him by name.
Herman has absorbed Steinbeck and Styron, Cheever and Roth. He writes constantly, to the point that more than one instructor gently suggested that "there is nothing more I can teach you." That was the signal to enter Phase Two, during which Herman generated words about Brooke, at sunrise and at two in the morning, words about her body and her hobbies, her pet sayings and favorite movies, palaver at first, but turning sharper not only with practice, but data mined from Google, Dogpile, Ask.com, Lexis/Nexis. Some of his information came from beefy investigators working out of dumpy offices, happy to pocket a C-note for a couple of hours' effort. And when Herman stumbled upon former classmates, he asked them about Brooke, always making sure to focus his inquiries on someone else have you seen Amanda Bramalea? What's new with her? and then, as an aside, toss in a question about Brooke. Eventually Amanda Bramalea had sent Herman a polite e-mail asking him to stop spying on her. He told the bitch he would why risk trouble? and switched the focus of his inquires to another girl until, seven months later, she too had called to protest. Herman never cared. Despite the fact that they have had only one truncated phone call and a few hi-how-are-you's between classes, trait by trait he was discovering what to write to convince Brooke Day Lord to link her life with Herman Blix.
He knows so much about Brooke now. When a dollop of information arrives, it goes into a file consisting of notes, some typed, some scrawled, but each a window into the girl. Many of Herman's finds are thumb-tacked across the wall above his computer. Almost three hundred identifiers Herman's word for them are ready to make their way into his text. In high school Brooke liked Mustangs; now she drives a BMW. She once invited her friends to a lunar eclipse party that started at midnight. Her parents took her to Café Swiss for her fifteenth birthday. Taped to the opposite wall are articles chiefly from their high school newspaper and a few from her college that pertain to Brooke, even if tangentially. Naturally her senior profile is there. Beside it is a photo of the Ala Wai Yacht Harbor in Honolulu, taken from a room on the twentieth floor at the Ilikai Hotel, the exact suite where Brooke and her parents once stayed. Below it is Brooke's wish list from Amazon.com, featuring Above Hawaii and collections of works by Picasso and Miro. She also wants Tom Wolfe's next novel, anything by Mark Twain, and several CDs. (Among them, "Fetes" from "Nocturnes" by Debussy and three Billie Holiday albums.) Thanks to his investigator, Herman possesses her handwritten voter registration form and a car loan application. Next to them is the report from a handwriting analyst: The tail on her y swings back, making her "clannish." Her self-esteem is strong because she crosses her t's at the top of the stems. Brooke has high ideals and aspirations; just look at the height of her f's. Farther to the right hangs one of Herman's prize catches: a copy of a paper Brooke wrote for a college English class. Some Internet bulletin board had contained a statement that her professor returned student essays by leaving them in alphabetized slots outside his office. A hundred dollar payment to a friend's cousin back east had convinced a townie to go there early in the morning, filch the paper, make a copy, and replace it before Brooke showed up. That essay contains golden nuggets that Herman can sprinkle throughout his book.
Herman relishes weaving these snippets into his plot, every word of which arrows onto Brooke. Once, during Christmas vacation, Brooke sat on her date's glasses. The first time Brooke kissed a boy, KOST-FM was playing Al Stewart's "Time Passages." That one hurts, but Herman must employ such details for his project to succeed. But he knows privacy law and reluctantly shades some facts. Out go the references to Insignia, the honor service club of which Brooke was President during her junior year. Fictional Brooke has become a candy striper. "Kill your darlings," William Faulkner once said, and Herman forces himself to strike anything that does not merge seamlessly into the plot. To make his scheme less obvious, he creates a new character, Brooke's sister Megan. Like Herman, Brooke is an only child, but with Megan he can have two characters reflecting her personality. The fictional sibling takes Italian with Mrs. Poletti. Herman has bought an Italian dictionary so Meghan can toss off phrases in that language when she is flirting, just as the real Brooke did with Spanish.
But at this stage of the plan, Herman will not change Brooke's name. That is why God created the global search and replace. To rename her now, before finishing the book, would eliminate the impact that typing her name has on him.
Herman's iPod plays a suite of hits from his senior year, the last time he was near Brooke, even though they walked the halls in opposite directions. The music drives him forward, typing ever faster and pausing only when his fingers produce a mash of letters on the screen. Sheryl Crow sings, "All I Wanna Do," and Herman's head sways, "...is have some fun." "At least you had fun, and that's what counts," Brooke told Herman when he awkwardly described a party to her. Herman inserts the quote at a strategic plot point. "Cruisin'" by Booker T & the MG's blasts into his ears, and he patterns a paragraph's cadence after that instrumental.
Herman creates a chess geek named Wayne. Wayne's appearance in the book is brief, there to elicit Brooke's actual habit of commenting, "Thanks to you, now I know everything about" in this case "how to play chess." Wayne exits when Brooke turns him down for a movie date, saying in her carefree voice, "But go anyway and tell me how it was."
Just what she once told Herman.
He stops drinking his Pepsi when the iPod queue plays Sting's "If I Ever Lose My Faith in You." Herman types to the tune. He must retain some faith in Brooke for him to pursue this project, mustn't he? "If I ever lose my faith in you, there'd be nothing left for me to do." Four songs later, at two A.M., Whitney Houston belts, "I Will Always Love You." "I will always love you, Brooke," Herman whispers after he backs up his chapter.
Work is sludge-slow the following morning. Telling his supervisor he must visit a hospital to interview a man who was hurt in a fall, Herman leaves his cubicle and drives his Toyota Camry to 2517 La Presa Drive, the house where Brooke lived as a teenager. The new owner is demolishing it next week, and Herman wants a final look. Herman breaks the lock with a hammer brought along for that purpose. As he suspected, the bolt is old and weak. No one will care; they're tearing the place down. The interior offers bare walls in bad need of paint. No matter. Herman photographs it all. He fills an entire memory chip with pictures of the house each window and eave, every plant in the yard, even the closets. Herman is proud of his imagination. He has already guessed the layout, admittedly with the help of Google Earth and drive-bys. He happily realizes that only minor revisions will be needed to the scenes that take place in her high school home. But now he can add more details that Brooke will recognize: the step down into the living room, the indentation in the hall built for an old black rotary phone, the view from what must have been Brooke's bedroom into a back yard full of flowers and citrus trees.
Herman resumes writing as soon as he returns home. Dinner consists of a bologna sandwich, consumed between key strokes. Tonight Herman focuses on Brooke's early years. Obviously, he has copies of her birth certificate as well as her parents' birth certificates and marriage licenses. He has found a blog about parental traits that produce model offspring, and he creates characters based on that information. The mother has no job, although before getting married she worked in New York for a fashion magazine. Her father is a judge, which immunizes him from the pressures of business and frees him to spend time with his child. Brooke's parents are inseparable, for only a storybook marriage can produce such a happy girl.
Herman knows less about the grandparents, all of whom are still alive. He re-reads their birth certificates and marriage licenses and goes on-line to verify that they my God! Coleman Day died last week at the age of ninety-three. Natural causes, it says. The brief obituary serves up four identifiers: Brooke's grandfather graduated from Syracuse, owned a chain of hardware stores, enjoyed playing the trombone, and saw action on Okinawa. "He is survived by his wife Martha, his daughter Marian, son Leon, and his granddaughter Brooke Day Lord. Services will be private."
Herman curses to himself, for he would have slipped in to hear Brooke eulogize him.
Herman kills off one of Brooke's grandfathers. Beat up your characters, they told him in his writing classes, and be merciless about it. It pains him to expose Brooke to tragedy, even in fantasy, but Herman must touch her, and what better way than by taking her alter ego through a loss that, when Brooke reads the book, will be relatively recent? Herman debates between a heart attack and a lingering death. Which hurts more? Sudden death. He won't let Brooke say good-bye. And then comes one of those moments when Herman just knows that he is connecting with her. He writes furiously about how Coleman used to tickle Brooke. "She laughed so easily." Herman knows Brooke seldom played with dolls, and he has Grandpa Coleman ask her why. "'They're for lonely people,' Brooke said." Herman pauses to consult an identifier before moving on. "That night," he writes, "Coleman told Brooke a story about a Princess and her invisible monkey who lived in the castle. One day the monkey ran away." Herman describes how everyone in the kingdom searched for the creature. "Brooke clapped her hands when they found it, because even though no one ever saw it, the subjects knew that the invisible monkey made them happy." Herman checks another identifier to confirm that she called Coleman "Papa," and then Herman takes off again, fingers flying over the keys. "'Papa,' Brooke said in a serious voice. 'There's no such thing as an invisible monkey. You made that up.'" When Coleman admits he did, Brooke hugs him and says, "'Now I know how to tell a story.'" Finally he can do it because he is writing a novel Herman shifts into the grandfather's point of view for the departure scene:
"After dinner you asked how you could become a princess. Something I ate did not agree with me and I asked if you could wait until tomorrow night for the answer. Sure, you said so lovingly. Brooke, I died that night, quietly, without kissing you goodbye. I heard you at my funeral saying that now you will never know how to become a princess, but you know that stories can make you happy. Brooke, that is the only time I remember you not smiling."
Two nights later Herman invents Brooke's high school boyfriend Harold. (Herman refuses to give the character one of those alpha male names like Rod or Brett.) Harold resembles Herman. This part is tricky, but Herman blends a few of Matt Harper's qualities into Harold's psyche, not many, just enough to increase the chance that Brooke will be drawn to the character. Herman has thought clearly about this and realizes that Matt Harper has more, well, life skills than Herman. But Herman can learn. By the time the book appears and Brooke reads it, Herman hopes to possess most of the appeal he gives Harold. Harold is the man to whom she will become engaged in the final chapter. But first he must keep them apart through college, dialing down their relationship to occasional dates when they come home for the Christmas holidays. Harold must suffer through their Diaspora: "Harold broke free from his fraternity brothers just before one vomited on the slobbering babe who was next to him, grinding hard. Reeling up the stairs to his room, Harold staggered to his desk where he opened the yearbook and read, once more, what Brooke had written on graduation day:
Herman reaches for his identifiers. He spends an hour blending her farewell messages, and every word that emerges belongs to Brooke:
" Dearest Harold,
Remember me in your life Remember the good times, the parties, talks, midnight swims, papers, parents, teachers, tests, grunion hunts, fun, dancing, birthdays, concerts, roses, roses, roses, roses, and sunflowers. Remember them all, and remember me.
Love and love,
A hard Santa Ana wind blows the following night, but the whoosh against his window does not faze Herman, for somewhere in France's Languedoc region, Brooke skips through a field of sunflowers, holding hands with her European boyfriend -- an Olympic ski hopeful with a diplomat for a father. He presents her with a rose and a kiss. Is Brooke vacationing or studying in Europe? Both. She's on holiday, but she's spending a year abroad, studying in Florence. Where is Harold? At home that summer, missing Brooke. Beat up your characters. Harold works at a wastewater treatment plant where only the thought of Brooke allows him to survive "the acrid, putrid stench that pierced the deepest recesses of his being."
The wind abates moments before Herman finishes the chapter and withdraws a piece of apple pie from the refrigerator. Another hour and the street sweeper will appear in a snub-nosed truck that hisses as it moves. Herman's iPod is not playing tonight because he preferred an easy listening station, thinking it would help him write the sunflower scene. It did, but now the music makes Herman reach for the phone and dial the first four digits of Brooke's phone number before replacing the receiver.
"It's 63 KBDeegrees in the Southland," the disc jockey says. "You heard Ten Sleep perform a cut off their Woodwind album. Just got a call from Daryl in Santa Monica. Says he wants to thank us for playing Ten Sleep because it gave him the nerve to propose to Carla. And Carla said yes. Congratulations, Daryl and Carla. Now if any of you want to call in and dedicate your favorite love song to someone special, the request line is open. Call 323-KBD-HITS. That's 523-HITS. Our music may change your life as well."
Herman telephones the station and somehow gets through. He knows that Brooke does not have a favorite love song, so he asks the request line operator to pick something heartfelt to dedicate to Brooke. He gives his name as Harold, for his plan could be in jeopardy if she learns of his love too soon.
"You sound like you really care about her," the receptionist says in a sympathetic voice.
"Yes," comes Herman's instant reply, and he adds, "I love Brooke." Herman has whispered that sentence so often in the dark, but until this moment, no one has heard it. His eyes turn moist. To Herman, Brooke is there, her perfect head resting on his shoulder.
"We'll get it right on for you. I have a good feeling about you and Brooke."
Whoever answered that phone keeps her word. "We just got a call from Harold, in Tarzana. He wants to dedicate a special song to Brooke. Are you listening, Brooke? Because I think Harold loves you. Here it is, for you, Brooke. Harold's a good man. Don't let him get away."
The DJ plays Luther VanDross' version of "Superstar." Herman stares vacantly across the room at the window through which only inky black is visible. He wonders if Brooke is listening. Is she with anybody tonight? She must be, even though last week Herman confirmed that Brooke is still single. Tears drop from Herman's eyes, and he does not bother to wipe them away. The music transports him to a beach on a velvet night where every inbound wave shimmers with silver grunions en route to the sand where they will lay their eggs and try their best to escape Herman and Brooke's laughing attempts to catch them. She was supposed to be his girlfriend. If Matt Harper had waited one more minute before poaching on their phone call, Brooke would have hunted grunion with Herman, not Matt. She actually had asked him to take her come summer. Since their phone call had occurred on October 10 (Herman still has that year's calendar with October 10 circled), Brooke was asking for a date eight months hence, a date to spend hours with Herman in the dark, waiting for grunions to arrive. In what would have been one of the few suave remarks Herman ever made in high school, he was about to reply, "You're on, Brooke. How's June 29? But I hope I get to see you before then." But he never uttered those words, because Brooke had suddenly said she had another call, the call from Matt Harper.
Finally, Herman is ready to write about the grunion hunt that should have been theirs. Once he does, his first draft will be complete, ready for editing. Before starting that chapter, however, Herman must make certain preparations. He will begin tomorrow. He has saved enough money.
He calls in sick. Then, armed with a copy of the Times' real estate section, Herman drives to Sunnyvale, the neighborhood where Brooke lives. His chest tightens as he turns onto Starlight Drive, Brooke's street, a lane graced by eucalyptus trees. Herman avoids the urge to pass by her off-white cottage with its red shutters and roses in the yard. He has enough pictures of it. Instead he turns onto Jupiter Way, where he spots the house for rent. It is the closest available dwelling to Brooke's, but its address is 12874, and Brooke once swore she would never live at an address with five numbers, so neither will Herman. Slightly farther away is a stucco duplex at 1103 Neptune Drive. From the roof, he can see Brooke's chimney. He puts down a month's rent. Being this close, Herman ardently hopes, will provide added inspiration as he writes the grunion scene and polishes his manuscript.
Nightfall. Tired after transporting his computer and reassembling his identifiers on the walls, Herman faces the empty screen. No words come. He climbs to the roof, where he sees Brooke's chimney etched against golden moonlight. Still no words. Herman walks the neighborhood, as near to her house as he dares, and he lingers there until words emerge from wherever in his brain they slumber. Repeating the nascent phrases under his breath, he races back to his keyboard. Tonight, yards from where Brooke sleeps, Herman finishes that phone conversation, and his alter-ego Harold drives to the beach with Brooke.
Herman writes furiously without making a sound except for one "oh shit" when he accidentally deletes a phrase. Harold's meeting Brooke's parents in the foyer, the small talk Brooke and Harold share en route to the beach, the taste of the roast beef sandwiches Brooke made for their picnic Herman piles on the identifiers. As they eat the carrots and celery she packed, Brooke and Harold talk of English class and Student Council, of ball games and algebra. After finishing Brooke's chocolate chip cookies, they saunter along the beach, holding hands until the waves turn silver with grunion and Brooke runs toward the water. Herman peppers his prose with her trademark shrieks: "Neat," as she sees the fish riding in on the waves, "Ick," when she tries to pick one off the sand. Even when his iPod runs out of tunes, Herman does not stop typing. He hears no sound now except the tap-tap of fingers on keys. When the street sweeper whines past at three-thirty A.M., Herman does not pause to look. Although the grunion run is over, the couple is not ready to drive home. They sit quietly in Harold's Mustang, conversing through the night, listening to the surf, until Brooke announces that a friend taught her to play the harmonica. The moment Harold says he would like to hear a song, she withdraws the little instrument from her purse and launches into "Merrily We Roll Along." Harold accepts her invitation to teach him, but after blowing futile air, Brooke musses his hair and says he's "cute." He gives her back the harmonica, and their hands touch, and then their fingers interlock. Neither speaks. Brooke and Harold are about to experience a sunrise, and so is Herman, who drips with sweat. His stubby fingers start missing keys at the same time that Harold's fingers caress Brooke's cheek. Herman has injected every joule of energy he possesses into this fictive moment. The lingering kiss at dawn, written the moment the sun illuminates Brooke's chimney, makes Herman shiver, as does Harold when Brooke purrs, "That's so good."
On the day his lease at Neptune Drive ends, Herman finishes the book. Writing with Brooke nearby has yielded spectacular results, impelling Herman to hone his prose beyond what he believed his abilities allowed. Now, his last night near Brooke, one task remains before he performs the final spell-check, the final back-up, the final CD burn. Slowly, fighting his fingers which drag on the mouse pad, he slides the cursor up and left to the Edit prompt and clicks. The word "Find" appears. Another click. "Find what:" "Brooke," Herman types. He feels unfaithful to her, but he must continue. Click number three: "Replace." Up comes "Replace with:" Herman pauses. He is certain he would feel just as nauseous if he were about to knife Brooke. "Do it," he calls out and forces his fingers to type he has struggled for months to pick a name -- "Jennifer." Herman exhales before he forces his cursor to the "Replace All" tab. He grips his mouse harder. Stab, and Brooke disappears from his book. "Darling, I didn't want to hurt you, but I have to protect myself," Herman says aloud after he absorbs the message on his monitor: "Word has completed its search of the document and has made 1,104 replacements." One more global search and replace, and Brooke Day Lord becomes Jennifer duPaige.
Tomorrow he will begin the hunt for a publisher. He knows it will take time, and he expects rejections. Charlotte Bronte, Agatha Christie, James Joyce. They all were turned down. Herman will be patient and persistent, and if he fails to place his novel, he will publish it himself and seed every bookstore in Sunnyvale with copies. If he must, he'll pay the merchants to display them. To place a copy before Brooke's green eyes Herman asks for nothing more.
The creamy white envelope jiggles between Herman's fingers until he mangles it open and withdraws the check, a small advance but high for this little publishing house that Herman found on the Internet. But after months of queries and form letters saying no, Herman is too emotional to scream, and he feels too good to cry. Wanting to do something besides stare at the draft, Herman bolts from his apartment and drives out to Brooke's neighborhood, where he navigates his Camry along a route that resembles a comet's elliptical orbit, streaming in from afar to approach but not touch Brooke's Starlight Drive home before retreating into the cosmos via Moonridge Way and out to Morningstar Avenue until it intersects with Aurora, and Herman can begin his orbit once more. As he drives, Herman ponders the effect his novel will have on Brooke. Will she reach for the phone or e-mail him? Will she suggest a grunion hunt or coffee? His book should appear in April, cool for the California beaches but a month into the grunion season. They'll meet at Starbucks, the one off the Coast Highway, a mile from her house, where they will giggle together as they plan their belated grunion hunt. Brooke will pack a picnic dinner, and Herman will find the best place to encounter the delightful little fish.
Herman remains disappointed that Brooke did not attend the launch party, held, at his insistence, in a book store near her home, even though within days his work is galloping up Amazon.com's list. Reviewers warmly welcome him as a "new voice, mature beyond his twenty-nine years." The publisher's Monday morning flash reports stagger Herman. Several weeks later, his editor calls with the formal announcement: Herman has written a best-seller. The author manages to whisper thank you before stumbling to his couch where he lies torpid for the rest of the day, watching Brooke against his closed eyelids as she reads his pages, nods her head and emits dainty gasps. Images of Brooke's "aha" response remain with Herman for weeks, through speaking engagements in bookstores stocked with comely women who stroke their hair and try to flirt with Herman while he autographs their volumes. They want you, the Denver store manager says with a trace of envy. They think Harold is you. Harold is so caring, so devoted to Jennifer. Harold is a SNAG sensitive new age guy. That's you, Herman. But Herman remains expressionless as he signs his name and politely accepts the business cards so many women hand him, and he sleeps with none of them, does not even fantasize about them. Instead Herman repairs to his room in whatever hotel his publisher has ensconced him, in whatever city he is visiting, and wonders if Brooke will contact him tomorrow. It's been weeks since the publication date. Surely tomorrow an e-mail from Brooke will appear on his screen. Surely tomorrow.
But tomorrow does not bring Brooke Day Lord. Instead a studio executive calls, and a week later, when Herman enters the patio at The Ivy, the executive actually turns off his Blackberry and exclaims that Lamm Brown has agreed to play the part of Harold. Dude, that's huge. He's got two Oscars. And we're casting Alexandra Fields as Jennifer. She loved your book. Dude, she's single. You hear what I'm saying? Now have your people call so we can make a deal. Herman hears but does not taste as he swallows his young greens. En route to the bathroom, he scans the patio, for he knows that Brooke frequents this restaurant.
Herman misses it when he checks his e-mails the next morning. The suite of fan messages is especially long and he does not notice the initials "bdl." Only later when he scans the list again does Herman see, in the "subject" column, "Congratulations from Brooke Day Lord." Herman's trembling hand cannot control his mouse. The cursor becomes a seismograph as it whips down the screen. Herman withdraws his hand. If this is what he thinks it is, he is poised to embark on a new life. They will have so much to talk about, so much to do. And they're still young, with so much of their lives ahead. Herman allows himself a two-second smile before his mood plunges and he wonders if he can hold Brooke's interest through even one date. It took over a decade to craft the precise phrases that, he finally knows, have touched her. He won't have time to do that during their first dinner, let alone across the rest of his life. Herman tries to reassure himself. Brooke has come. He has won her, yes. Finally, they can go grunion hunting. With that thought, Herman double-clicks Brooke's e-mail. Her words burst onto the screen, and Herman immediately hits the print key, fearful that a computer malfunction will make her precious electrons scatter. Only when he holds the hard copy in his hand does Herman stop shaking enough to be able to read:
"Congratulations on your book. It's good to see a classmate doing well. Sincerely, Brooke"
Herman dives for the landline. He will not risk a dropped call by using his cell phone.
As his fingers race across the keyboard, Herman occasionally pauses to fork a dollop of apple pie into his mouth, eating it slowly, getting all the juices. He finishes his treat moments before the street sweeper arrives. It comes earlier here on Jupiter Court. The advance for his second book has enabled Herman to buy a house on this Sunnyvale street, less than a quarter mile from where Brooke lives. He sits there now, in his capacious writing space above the three car garage that contains Herman's new BMW, the same model as Brooke's. Taped to the left of Herman's monitor is Brooke's e-mail. He needs her inspiration. The sequel is harder to write, because his first cry to Brooke consumed Herman's choicest identifiers, forcing him to rely on anecdotes that he initially rejected. Oh, he can re-use some of her key speech patterns, but now Herman has to mine deeper for prose that will summon Brooke into his arms. Fortunately, the royalties permit him to hire a better investigator.
Whenever Herman becomes too tired to write, he estimates the weeks it will take to finish his book, the months before it's published, and the date Herman might hear again from Brooke. At least a year and a half, more likely two years. Herman and Brooke will have entered their thirties, still time to start a family, still young enough to have fun. Herman remains optimistic. Brooke is still single. And did she not contact him? Yes, but when he phoned and left a message on her tape ("Hi, Brooke, this is Herman Blix. I really appreciated your e-mail and would love to talk to you."), she did not call back. She also ignored his second call. Is his Brooke that shy? He knows he can get her to come, this time to stay. And they'll go grunion hunting. They will pick a silky night and pack a picnic and....
Stop daydreaming, Herman commands himself. Finish the book. Herman's fingers take off again, tapping tapping tapping on the keys, reaching for the words that will make Brooke seek him once more.
He notices the e-mail three nights later only because he recognizes the name: Amanda.Bramalea@carefree.net. Even then Herman delays reading the message until his creative energy wanes, which tonight does not occur until three A.M.
"Oh my dearest Herman,
I am stunned at the way your book touched me. You kept me up all night, which is amazing because, as your character Jennifer says, sleep is one of my favorite pastimes. When I finished, there were tears in my eyes and a smile on my lips.
Herman, I am so sorry I suspected your motives last year. If only I had realized how you felt about me. I sensed you next to me turning the pages, saying all the right words. You know me so well, but how can that be? We hardly talked to each other in school. I had no idea you were so perceptive. How did you learn about me and roses and sunflowers? I love them and love them. And calling Jennifer The Cat. I always wanted that nickname in school, but that flit Brooke Day Lord got it because she had green eyes. And she was allergic to cats. Fred, my little kitty, has blue eyes, just like mine. Had I known what you were really like back then -- oh well, that opportunity has passed. But has it really? We're still young, aren't we? If sixty is the new forty, our twenty-nine has to be the new fourteen, okay, seventeen. That means we're still kids. Herman, let's be kids together. Oh listen to me, so forward. What I mean is, let's spend a day together, while we're twenty-nine and carefree and can say in the present tense, it's fun to be a kid. Let's pick a time when the grunion are running. Do you have any idea how few people have ever seen a grunion run? You and I know that those fish are not mythical creatures. We've actually seen them, and it would be magical to be by your side the next time I watch a grunion ride in on a wave. If you will indulge me, I have to tell you about my last grunion hunt. It was in June after we graduated, and I was with Justin. I had packed a picnic dinner, and we drove down to the beach...."
To read the rest of Amanda's e-mail, Herman must scroll down. He does not. He deletes it after scribbling the new identifier and taping it to his wall. Brooke is allergic to cats. Herman did not know that until now.
About the author:
A two-time Pushcart nominee, Anthony J. Mohr lives in Los Angeles. His memoirs and short stories have been published in Bibliophilos, Circle Magazine (RIP), The Christian Science Monitor, Currents, Literary House Review, The Sacramento Bee, and Skyline Magazine. His interests include hiking, traveling, horseback riding, and improv theater.
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