& Other Delusions of a Free-lance Writer

Chapter 1: Ghost Writer

REMEMBER HOW the war was going to bring an early end to the recession? Well, sometime after that idea fizzled out like three-day old beer in a paper cup, I found myself writing my last paid story for a journal. I work as a writer, or maybe I should say I used to work as a writer. Anyway, the last person I interviewed for that story--it was for a technical trade journal--asked a question that nearly made me whoop and holler--and, believe me, I’m not the whoopin’ and hollerin’ type.

"Know anyone who does ghost writing?" he asked.

I could hardly believe my ears.

Know anyone who does ghost writing? Good Lord, I was once the King of Ghost Writing. I was like a shadow back then, like one of the Shades from the Underworld.

Forcefully controlling rising emotions I said in breathy, ethereal tones that maybe, just maybe I did. You see, I had become as jittery as the economy, even though I was used to being hired and fired almost weekly, for I am or was that type of writer known as a free-lancer--a romantic image, perhaps, but in reality about as glamorous as an empty cupboard or a backed-up toilet.

Did he say ghost writing or writing about ghosts or ghost riding, as in defunct cowboys still doing their thing up there? My mind was beginning to go.

I see the misty night, the spectre in the fog. A shot rings out followed by a woman’s terrible scream. Quick short foot steps now approach on the hard pavement, halt, then pass by but a few feet away. Only the seam on the bottom of an overcoat is seen, the rim of a hat pulled down low. Then there is silence punctuated only by the low blast of a fog horn and waters lapping at a dock. A body in the water?

The mist clears, the dock disappears, and suddenly I find myself standing on a vast plane of dry brown grass, some cattle grazing unattended. I look up and see billowy white clouds moving across the horizon. Could they be . . . ghost riders?

Ghost writing, that’s what he said, and I had done it before. And it was a good money-make, if there were no hitches and usually there weren’t--not if the publisher knew who was actually writing the article and you could discuss it with him, even do an outline so there were, as dullards are so fond of saying, "no surprises."

And maybe being a little dull in such cases was a good thing, because the "surprise" was usually that the article was not what the journal had in mind and so you, its real author, do not get paid.

The only problem with ghost writing was that it left you feeling, like Lady MacBeth, a little unclean--like maybe you’re the one that threw the body in the water. The money didn’t always wash away the feeling but it did fill up the cupboard or pay the plumber.

But on that day in question I only asked: "How soon you need the article?"

"By the end of the month," said Brian X, a senior engineer at a major high technology company in Santa Clara that specializes in graphics coprocessors.

"I’ll call you next week when I’m free," I said, regaining some composure. By "free" I meant free of the lesser-paying article that I was working on. "That soon enough?" I asked.

I attempted to sound cool and casual about the whole thing, but the fact is I probably would have dropped what I was doing and hopped the next bus to Santa Clara had it not been soon enough. I was desperate for money, and I had not expected anything to materialize this fast. While in the past I had let opportunity "slip through my fingers," these days opportunity was wrestled to the ground and held there in a strangle hold till it could be taken advantage of.

Infusing an extra rush of adrenaline into the whole situation was the fact that I had a daughter graduating from college with some bills that needed paying; moreover, she wanted me to attend graduation "exercises"--not my ideal of family fun, but I am at my weakest when it comes to disappointing my daughter. Without an influx of cash to my pretty nearly failed economy I would be able to do neither. And for her mother that would be the proof she had been seeking for years that I was a no good bum. Needless to say "her mother" was my ex-wife, first born of a doctor and now, quite properly, remarried to one. Money, for her, was something that all decent people were simply born with.

No big deal, but I wasn’t anxious to have this extra nail of humiliation driven into my flesh. I felt that my daily life as a free-lance writer scrabbling for assignments provided copious quantities of high protein humiliation.

I used to get a lot of assignments. I used to live in a house with plumbing and electricity. Now I get assignments occasionally and live out in the woods. I don’t have what the post office and the government call a "physical address." As a tax paying entity, the government considers me homeless, and as such takes no more interest in me than it does in a raccoon. Perhaps I am covered under Fish & Game Code; I don’t know. But like a raccoon, I now consider the world my home. But before I get carried away like some common lunatic and try to convince you that I’m the luckiest and really the richest man in the whole world, let me concede that you have plumbing and I don’t; you flip a switch and the room is illuminated. I don’t even have the switch.

But I do have a trailer that keeps me dry, and nearby there’s a spring with plenty of fresh water, so I carry on and do my work. And, oh, yeah, no one sends me bills anymore, so I may have more peace of mind than you. But I would not brag about it.

But enough about me. Just think of me, as the IRS does, as a bum living out in the woods somewhere; as a financial non-entity; as the number zero (0) multiplied by zero (0), if you like; as less than nothing living, nevertheless, among tall redwoods, sturdy oaks, sappy pines, and leathery-leaved madrones but with no neat "little garden"; as zero minus infinity getting water from a nearby spring that trickles fresh cool water out of the ground but with no jaccuzi; as zero divided by infinity living in a battered 1950’s trailer that keeps me warm and makes almost everyone who visits nostalgic for better times, or at least different times, but that would probably fall apart on the open highway. No, don’t feel sorry for me; I see a billion stars at night blazing in a clear sky overhead and am sure that if there is no god, there is something even greater out there. And with a billion stars I am never alone.

"Don't you ever get lonely out here?" my brother asked on a recent visit.

"Look up, Bob. Does that look like loneliness?"

"Dumb question. Sorry."

My brother had just split up with his wife--she opted for freedom after sixteen years of marital captivity and in spite of three young children--and he was reading loneliness into all situations, including my trailer in the woods and apparent isolation.

But back to that spectre article and the demonic high-technology company, lest it be lost among a billion starts at night, or the violently collapsing universe of one man’s dread divorce:

The following Tuesday I checked the oil and tire pressure of my old VW bug, tugged on the fan belt for any signs of parting, and hoped for the best. The original paint was Halloween-pumpkin orange; but being half covered now in splotches of grey automotive primer covering rust, it was somewhat of a spectacle.

The journey was a gamble. Aside from minor problems, like refusing to start in cold weather, the bug had numerous serious problems, among them brake and steering.

As I said, the trip was a gamble: about even odds.

But I screwed up my courage like a plucky young gambler, or maybe more like a mental patient plotting an escape from an institution, and was off: It was about five and a half hours to Santa Clara--first out of the woods, then through farm valleys, then down highway 101 to San Francisco and across the Golden Gate bridge, and finally into the super-synchronous nerve center of Silicon Valley: Santa Clara. (Oh, Clair, who once sacrificed hair to a higher journey, I won’t ask questions. What's in a name, anyway?) In the course of these scenic changes, the pace of life would go from the eternal yawn to the heavily litigated nanosecond.

Would go, did go.

By some kind of miracle of machines and moving parts that could have broken, snapped, jammed, popped, or exploded or imploded but didn’t, the car and I made it to Santa Clara a little before 2 P.M. and the two of us went in search of the company, which was located on Mission College Boulevard. (Rest in peace, maid so fair.)

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