For John Eaton
Matt Bender answered on the first ring. Phone calls often mean requests to audition. Maybe a shot at some meaningful TV work or a great play in some small theater.
Felt the vibe of New York on this one, before the caller said, “Yo, Matt Bender, right?” Importance and purpose spilled out of the phone, like the jostle of crowd in Times Square. Don’t get in its way. Could walk right over you. Turned out the call came from the Flatiron Building, 175 Fifth Avenue, N.Y.
“So, okay, Matt Bender, get yourself up, take a shower, put onna clean shirt, get yourself down to Rex’s Books in Ventura. Why, you may wonder? Cause you have a book signing. You got a clean shirt, yeah?”
“Not even close. Antoinette. Toni to you. Got those fuckers at Rex’s to order fifty books. Told them Matt Bender doesn’t get outta bed for less.”
“Ventura?” Bender said.
“Main Street. Twenty-seven-point-five miles from you. GPS it. Straight shot from you and Milpas Street Storage. Home of—” enormous guffaw. “—The Maurice Barrymore Theater.”
“Ventura? A book signing in Ventura?”
“What, you think people in Sanna Barbara want books like yours? Acting techniques for fiction writers? People in Sanna Barbara, they already know how to write.” Another guffaw. Irony, right?
“Okay,” Bender said. “Last week, someone from your office set me up for a reading? They hear The Bender Method, they don’t bother with the subtitle, they’re thinking chiropractor. Not happy to find out I’m an actor with a book on creating characters for fiction.”
“Intern did that. From a graduate writing program. Sent her ass back to academe. So, you begin to get the program, Matt Bender? You’ve gone from the comforts and security of your career in acting, smack dab into the second worst profession, writing.”
They must love irony at 175 Fifth Avenue. “Yeah?” Bender said. Play along with the routine. “What’s the worst?”
“Editing. Bad enough I put up with writers. Now, I gotta put up with an actor.”
Thank you for your service. Asked for particulars of the job. Ventura, then. So, what time? How long to talk?
“Never unnerstan California people. Make such a big deal out of twenny-seven-and-a-half miles. Oh, dear me, you hadda go alla way from Hollywood to Santa Monica. For Chrissake, everything out there’s far apart. You wouldn’t live there, you get things close together. Pioneers with their covered wagons and chickens, they go out West. You know why? Because there’s so much space. You want things close, you live here.”
“Okay,” Bender said.
“Yeah. Like you’re convinced. Remember, back when this all started? I said there’s good news and bad news?”
“I remember,” Bender said.
“And you said to start with the good news.”
“That’s me,” Bender said. “Always start with the good news.”
“Yeah. Well the good news? You’re getting published.”
“And the bad news, I’m going to Rex’s Books in Ventura.”
“Fuckin’ laugh riot, Matt Bender.”
“Yeah, Mr. Laugh Riot?”
“I’ve got a clean shirt.”
Bender didn’t need a GPS or Google Search to locate Rex’s Books. Live in Santa Barbara for any amount of time, you learn Ventura by driving through it. One of those places between destinations.
Bender knew locations there. Pete’s Breakfast House, open seven in the morning, close mid-afternoon. Right across from Ventura High School. Not that he’d know anyone who went to Ventura High School. Knew Pete’s because of its corned beef hash. Funky wall paintings. Waitresses with number two Dixon Ticonderoga pencils behind their ear instead of writing order chits with ballpoint pens.
He knew the Royal Bakery on Telegraph because of the tuna sandwiches. You really want baked goods in Santa Barbara, go to Helena Street Bakery. Okay, but give Bender the choice between a tuna sandwich at Helena Street or the Royal? He’d drive to Ventura.
Crazy times after making out with Carly, she’d want Greek food. No decent Greek food in Santa Barbara since the deli on lower State Street closed. No way to stop making out with Carly, so, Ventura. Stephens Grill on Main. Open until ten. Bender knew places in Ventura the same way people who live in smaller towns know local gossip.
Didn’t need a GPS to find Rex’s Books. Place had a smell like a pissing contest between two tomcats. Non-uniform shelves all over the place. Chairs with sprung cushions for browsing, serious reading, added to the sense of cats in residence. Chalkboard sidewalk sign, Reading Tonight from His New Book. Local Actor. Matt Bender.
Person he’s supposed to see, Lucille, grandmotherly type, maybe letting one of her grandkids learn hair styling on her shaggy gray thatch. Reminded Bender of a Bouvier de Flandres. Showed him the new mic and sound system the eponymous Rex won this week on an eBay auction. “Angela so wanted to introduce you tonight, but they’re having Bingo at Camarillo and she never misses. Looks like it’s up to me.”
“She’s read all your books.”
Bender on a learning curve here. Proceed with caution. “This is my first book.”
“Isn’t that lovely. A man your age, just starting out. I had a career change, myself.”
Playing him for more revelations? No point telling her she’s hosting his first book signing. Might make her more nervous.
“We try hard to make Rex’s a place for serious readers.” Way she said it gave Bender a hint. Some agenda boiled unattended. Watch out for boil over.
Not many people at Rex’s Books. Lucille, and some teenage girl, Christie, wearing a Bruce Springsteen tee shirt, putting books away. “She gave up a better-paying job to come here,” Lucille said of Christie. Added to the unattended boil. “Books don’t bring in the revenue you’d suspect.”
Table for Bender to sit, next to the mike. The fifty copies of his book, pressured by his editor, a neat stack, next to a pot full of Sharpie marking pens. All nice and cozy. No sign of Rex. Maybe off celebrating his win at the eBay auction with a couple of beers at the local.
“You did let the local papers know about this?”
“Not to worry,” Lucille said. “People here always seem to know about an event.”
“Seem to know?”
“The serious ones always come late. Last time we had a speaker—that archaeologist from up your way—“ Spoken as a benediction for bookstores and authors who were archaeologists, somehow wedged a bit to include him, an actor who wrote a book.
Ventura people call Santa Barbara “up your way,” same as SB people call LA “down below.” Made him think darker thoughts about LA than he already did.
“—name of Fagan. You probably know him. All you people seem to know each other. Only two people here at seven. By the time Professor Fagan finished, you couldn’t get another person in. Even standing. Had to rush more sandwiches.”
She showed him the table where he’d sit to autograph books. “You might want to fiddle with the mic, get it the way you like.”
Bender more than glad to get away from “you people” conversations. Never could tell where they’d go.
Two minutes before seven. Guy in his sixties came in. Needed a shave even more than a haircut. Wearing emerald green polyester pants, flare at the cuffs. White shirt. White belt, matched his white loafers. Checkered sports jacket. New Yorkers, they’d call that outfit The Full Cleveland. Bender felt a stab of empathy for the guy, probably got the outfit at a thrift shop. Wore it for his night out on the town.
Guy honed in on Bender, introduced himself. Ralph. “Looks like I got time to freshen up.” Ralph patted his small canvas bag, asked Lucille “Where’s the men’s?”
Bender noticed the wrinkle in Lucille’s nose. Like a shop awning going up. “As if you didn’t already know.” She flashed emotional semaphore Bender could not interpret.
He liked to keep a running tally of the way people ask directions to the facility, the restroom, the lav. Some Brits ask for the loo. Good way to get a handle on regional mannerisms, he ever had to portray a red neck or hooligan.
Ralph went off to the restroom. Bender located the plug for the mic, found an electrical outlet flush with the floor. No doubt a convenience for a reading lamp at one time. Plugged in the mic. Overhead lights dimmed throughout the store. “Oh, dear,” Lucille said. The overheads struggled like an older person climbing a steep flight of stairs.
Ralph out of the rest room, half shaved. “You got a wiring problem here. Know whereof I speak. Used to be an electrician before them unions grabbed all the work. Plug my razor in, after a few moments, she up and quit.”
Lucille said “Oh, dear,” again.
Bender wondered maybe she used “Oh, dear,” for her default response to disaster. “How much you think Rex paid for that mic?”
“I can tell you exactly. Rex was so proud of his winning bid. Two hundred seventeen dollars and fifty cents.”
“Lucky for you, tonight you won’t have to worry. I can project my voice, actor and all. But you might tell Rex to be suspicious of two-hundred-seventeen-fifty microphones in the future.”
“Oh, dear. Really?”
“Slippery slope, trust,” Bender said.
“Lovely. I’m going to use that. When I introduce you. Trust was my watchword at my previous profession.”
Recognized that gambit. Either a real estate broker or a commissioned mortgage broker, Lucille. Throw in a little clue about their personal life. Didn’t have to be true. Get the customer’s guard down. Should he “confess” now? Tell her he’s spokes-chicken for a thriving chicken and waffles restaurant franchise?
Might have worked, but something didn’t jibe with her treatment of Ralph.
Ten after seven, still only Bender, Lucille, Ralph, the clerk in the Bruce Springsteen tee shirt. Christie. “Let’s give it until seven fifteen,” Bender said. “Then I’ll start.”
“That doesn’t seem fair,” Lucille said.
“I remember one time,” Bender said. “Wednesday matinee. Port Hueneme Community Theater. Lovely facility. We had to abort Henry Fifth. Only seven persons. Not so bad, itself. I’ve worked even smaller audiences. But two of them were—“
“—snoring. The director pulled the plug.”
“That’s awful,” Lucille said. Seemed to think it over. “I hope you’re not telling me that to make me feel better.”
“What I’m going to tell you got its start with Samuel Goldwyn, then took on a new life with Yogi Berra. “Sometimes, people stay away in crowds.”
“Whatever,” Ralph said. “Time to put out the sandwiches, right?”
“Sandwiches?” Bender said.
“Oh, dear,” Lucille said.
“Had to get more sandwiches when Brian Fagan read. The week before, when that cookbook lady read, we also got Cole slaw.”
“Rex has strong beliefs about the sandwiches,” Lucille said. “We need at least twelve customers before we set out refreshments.”
Christie joined them, bubbly with wannahelp . “Sandwich time?”
“We’re waiting for more customers.”
Christie recognized Ralph. “Back again. For the culture, right?”
Bender took Christie’s response as bucking for a raise. Showing Lucille she knew a thing or two about the economics of running a bookstore.
Ralph radiated his own energy. Extended both hands to Christie. “There,” he said. “See. Washed. Clean.”
Bender certain he’d come in on something between Christie and Ralph. Maybe Lucille also in on this scenario.
“Got busted last week for getting mayonnaise on a Harry Potter,” Ralph said. “Christie, here, she don’t miss a trick.”
“Like the paper towels,” Christie said. “Every time you’re here, I have to refill the container.”
“You got something against personal hygiene?”
Bender thought for sure Lucille would say “Oh, dear.” But she surprised him. “We—that is, Angela and I—thought since Mr. Bender has written about acting, we’d serve deviled ham.”
“You had cucumber rounds for Fagan,” Ralph said.
“That’s because he’s English.”
“He’s so English, how come he didn’t take any?”
“Because,” Christie on a roll of triumph. “Because you stuffed them all in your canvas bag.”
Bender got the picture now. The time before he moved to Milpas Street Storage, a combination gift from two SBPD uniforms and Frank Burns. Lived in his battered Volvo station wagon. Recognized Ralph’s homeless status. Ralph, trying to keep fed and clean, without a roof over his head.
Bender watched Lucille take things into account, cope with what he thought to be her assessment of an evening gone wrong. Her face worked through its grandmotherly sweetness to a moment of reddened cheeks. A blush of embarrassment for herself, possible she extended it to include recognition of Bender, here only with herself, Christie, and Ralph. “I don’t see the harm,” she told the clerk, “in offering Ralph a sandwich now. Of course one for Mr. Bender.”
“It’s all right,” Bender said. “Really.”
“No.” Lucille stomped her foot. “Not all right. Not the slightest bit all right. I had high hopes for this evening. I had high hopes for this store. I used to win prizes, Mr. Bender, for selling single-residence homes in Ventura County. Prizes more significant than Ginzu steak knives. Weeks in Maui.” Surveyed Bender as though checking him for boarding a flight. “Of all the local authors with new books, you were my choice.”
“You changed careers.”
Bender knew enough not to expand on the economics of his one published book, or the farfetched hope The Bender Method could pave a way for him beyond commercials for a chicken-and-waffle chain. Even worse, memories of times in actor’s workshops when the leader or his classmates unloaded on his performance.
“We really try to present interesting programs here,” Lucille said. “We sacrifice so much. I expect you understand.”
“The reading,” Bender said. “How about it? You introduce me to Ralph, here, and I read from the parts of the book I’ve marked. Talk some about how fiction writers can pick up tricks from actors.”
“Yowza,” Ralph said. “I’d listen to that.”
Bender on the way to liking Ralph. “Let’s hit it,” he told Lucille.
“Oh, dear.” But she took her place at the reading area, waited until Ralph sat. One deep breath, then another.
Bender wondered if she thought of Angela, at her bingo. However Angela fit in the convoluted Rex’s Books scheme of things, might she have done this better?
“Our guest author tonight came to writing after making his way in another discipline, every bit as rigorous as writing.” Stopped when she saw a potential customer stand in the doorway. Intense-looking lady, Lucille’s age, deliberate in the way she scanned the interior of Rex’s Books. Looking for something.
“Don’t see any sandwiches,” the wannabe customer said.
Bender heard Lucille sigh.
“You had cucumber rounds for Brian Fagan.”
Lucille sighed heavier this time. Seemed to come from hidden depths. Was this the boil over? Reminded Bender of his paternal grandmother, whom he discovered in later years to have been a bootlegger at one time. “You coming in? Or not?” Lucille told the lady at the door.
Ralph pumped his fist at Lucille. Gesture of support. He and Lucille now united in common cause. “That lady.” He tried for sotto voce, but Bender could tell it had no chance. “She’s with them Tri-County Seniors. I see her with them over to IHOP, before the dinner prices kick in.”
“Well!” the woman in the doorway said. Left.
“Our speaker tonight—“ Lucille continued.
Ralph spoke so that Bender could hear him. But maybe not Lucille. “Fuck Rex,” he said. “Fuck Rex and his sandwiches, he don’t have the time to show up tonight. Rex’s fucking books. You unnderstan?” Fished through the pockets of his highly patterned, thrift store, full-Cleveland jacket. Produced a rumpled packet of Trader Joe’s fig newtons. “Refreshments on me.” Another fist pump at Lucille. “Yowza. Let the show go on.”
Shelly Lowenkopf taught at the graduate writing program, University of Southern California, for 34 years, had a shot at teaching undergraduates at UC Santa Barbara, now teaches adults that everything they were taught about writing is either outdated or wrong.