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Friday, May 1, 2009

The Friday Challenge - 5/1/09

Light turnout this week. As of the deadline, we have but two entries in the 4/24/09 Friday Challenge, and they are:

Al, "Emissary"

Tom, "The Day The Earth Stomped Back"

As always, even if you haven't submitted an entry you're invited to read, comment on, and vote for your favorite, with the winner to be announced on Sunday.

Now, as for this week's Friday Challenge—

Well, okay, perhaps I got a little carried away. All I meant to do was write the beginning page or two of a story, but this is what I ended up with:

What impressed me most was the clutter. Incredible clutter, and the stale scent of dust and mildew, as if a thousand musty attics and estate sales were concentrated in that one room. I carefully edged between a peeling Victorian bureau and an ugly Moderne vanity, amazed that any place in Chicago could so well convey both the look and smell of a newly opened Egyptian tomb.

The antique dealer—a surprisingly young man, considering the state of his shop—slipped past me, rubbing his hands. "Well? Whadaya think? Cool, innit?"

In truth, the rolltop desk was exactly what I'd been looking for: a massive oak behemoth with a century of cigarette scars and character built-in. Still...

"I don't know," I said at last. "It seems a bit pricey."

"Hey, we're talking a quality piece here," he said, laying knobby hands on the dark, cracked, varnish. "No Masonite or particle board in this baby. Here's a piece you can pass on to your grandchildren!"

"But eleven hundred dollars?" I protested.

He shrugged, then turned. "Okay, so you're looking for cheap. I got this Queen Anne secretary over here—"

"Sorry," I said. "It's got to be an oak rolltop."

He stopped, fixed me with a stare—he knew he had me, the bastard—and then asked, "Why?"

"I need a good, solid, working desk," I said, mustering my courage for The Big Lie. "I'm a writer."

"Really?" The antique dealer smiled as if he actually believed it. "Whadaya write?"

"Oh, this and that," I said, trying to sound offhand and jaded. "Magazine pieces, short stories." Actually, my greatest success to date was the comment, Try reading something written after 1940! hand-scrawled across the bottom of a form rejection slip. "Science fiction," I added softly.

"Really?" He broke into a wide grin. "Hey, I used to read lots of that sci-fi stuff when I was a kid! Especially Edgar Rice Burroughs: Carson of Venus, Pelucidar, all those John Carter books. In fact, I even had this idea for a story I was gonna write once—" He stopped, and frowned. "Nah, you'd just think it was stupid."

Before I could mumble the usual encouraging words, a new thought occurred to him, and I could tell by the look in his eyes that he was going to ask The Dreaded Question. "Say, there's a Barnes and Nobles just up the street. What titles should I be looking for?"

"The reason I'm seeking an old desk," I said loudly, hoping to torpedo the question with a stunning non sequitur, "is that I've found my writing style reflects the tools I use. I have a PC, but I find it makes my prose blunt and choppy, so I'd like to trying working in pen and ink for a while. I'm trying to develop more of a Golden Age style. Yes, like Burroughs."

The antique dealer's mouth fell open and his eyes went wide. "No kidding? Well, then that settles it. You have got to have this desk. C'mere." He gestured for me to come closer, and tapped a corner of the desk. "Burroughs lived in Chicago before he got rich and famous and moved to California. You knew that, right?" I nodded.

"Well, the old lady I bought this desk from claimed Burroughs was one of her grandma's renters. Now, it's not like I can really prove anything, but—look here. Tell me what you see." I looked at the scratches and gashes in the desktop.

"Something is carved there?" I hazarded.

"Look closer," he said. I took off my glasses, cleaned them, put them back on, and looked again. "Don't those look like initials?"

"You're right," I said. "That's an E."

"And I'm pretty sure that one's an R," he said. Yes, once he'd pointed it out, I could clearly see it. "But that last letter, I'm not so sure. What's it look like to you?"

"B?" I whispered, feeling an unnatural presence creep up my spine. "E. R. B.? Edgar Rice Burroughs?"

The antique dealer shrugged. "Don't prove a thing, of course. But just think..."

My voice was a hoarse whisper. "This could be the desk on which he wrote A Princess of Mars." I looked again. By God, it did say E R B, as plain as day!

The dealer scratched his head, and smiled in an awkward way. "Look, I know this isn't good business, but—well, what the hell. I've already made my nut for the month. I could sit on this piece a few more weeks and get my asking price, but I can see it would mean a lot to you. And to tell the truth, it'd mean a lot to me, too, to see it go to a writer again.

"So tell you what. If you promise to keep it between you, me, and the ghost of Edgar Rice, I can let you have it for eight-fifty. Hell, I'll even deliver it this afternoon."

I wanted to shout, Eight-fifty? A mere eight hundred and fifty dollars for Edgar Rice Burroughs' writing desk?

Instead, I whipped out my checkbook. "Who do I make this payable to?" There are significant advantages in being a part-time writer and a full-time certified network analyst.


"You paid eight hundred and fifty dollars for a desk that might have belonged to Edgar Rice Burroughs?!" my wife said in something other than her usual dulcet tones. "You nitwit! I did a paper on him. Burroughs was a financial failure! He screwed off on the job and wrote at his office, or wrote on the kitchen table. He had to sell the furniture to pay the bills!"

I have learned not to quibble biographical points with my wife, as she took an MFA in American Lit before embarking on a career in advanced diaper management. Instead, I said, "Honey, it was a bargain. Remember Mike Hoffman? He paid two grand for Jack Kerouac's typewriter."

"Ha!" And I knew I'd lost that point.

"Don't worry," I said, trying another tactic. "In two stories it will have paid for itself."

"That's what you said about the leather office chair," she noted. "And the Clarion workshop. And the—"

"Aruba," I said, striking a low blow. "Cancun. Windjammer Cruises. A Volvo XC70." Faced with this gentle reminder that I was not the only one in the family with a taste for expensive toys, she quieted down. Boy, there are a lot of advantages in being a part-time writer and full-time certified network analyst!


Later that evening, after my wife and children were in bed, I retreated to my study, to try out the new desk. Gently, I opened the rolltop, savoring the feel of real wood under my fingers and caressing the dark, romantic, varnish. The desk was a wonderful, mysterious thing, simply throbbing with possibilities. What wonders I would create upon it!

I turned on the brass accountant's lamp, fiddled with the green glass shade until I was satisfied, laid fingers upon the blotter and adjusted it until it was just so, and then opened the side drawer and counted out exactly ten sheets of vellum paper, which I arranged in a neat stack in the precise center of the blotter. At last, when I was absolutely and completely ready, I opened the center drawer, pulled out the Parker Duofold Deluxe fountain pen (a gift from a great-aunt), dipped it into the bottle of blue-black Skrip, set pen-point to paper...

And stared.

And stared. And stared some more. And stared at that blank sheet of paper, until beads of sweat broke out on my forehead. Still, the words would not come. Pushing my chair away from the desk, I got up and stalked around my den, hoping perhaps to have better luck by sneaking up on the paper and taking it unaware.

I came back to the desk, picked up the pen, and scratched out three words: Call me Ishmael.

No, that didn't look right. I changed the subject and the verb tense and tried again. They called me Ishmael. Nope, still not right. Maybe it needed a comma. Ishmael, that's what they called me.

I crumpled up the paper, threw it at the wastebasket, and missed. As I stooped to pick it up, I wonder if that nice woven brass wastebasket I saw at Nelson's the other day would help with my writing.

The door creaked open behind me, and small feet padded into the room. "Daddy?" three-year-old Cynthia asked in a tiny voice, as if disturbing a sleeping dragon. "I need something to drink. Right now."

"Okay, sweetheart." Maybe a little distance would help. Taking Cynny's hand, I walked her back upstairs, got her a Dixie cup of water, and tucked her back into bed. Then I took a quick tour of the other bedrooms: six-year-old Lisa had her doll in a hammerlock and was snoring like a crosscut saw, baby Scott had kicked off all the covers but was sleeping like an angel, and my wife had nodded off over the latest Maeve Binchy again. Gently taking the book from her hand, I put it on the nightstand and turned out her reading light. I was certain she was asleep.

Which made it all the more puzzling when I got back to my study, and found the large red envelope tucked into the rightmost cubbyhole in the desk.

I picked it up. It was large, about five by eleven inches, and made of an odd sort of paper with a distinctly metallic sheen. There was no name or address on the front. Turning it over, I found a queer, embossed seal, featuring a neo-Grecian building surrounded by words in—Arabic? Hebrew? I couldn't tell.

The flap wasn't gummed. I split the back of the envelope with my hand-carved Kenyan ebony letterknife, and a dozen or more sheets of extremely thin paper fluttered out. Picking them up, I found them to be covered with small but neatly hand-written English, and this is what they said.


"My dearest nephew Edgar,

"My apologies for not answering your last letter sooner. When one has the thousand-year lifespan of a Barsoomian, one tends to forget the urgency you Jasoomians feel about answering mail. Dejah is doing well, thank you for asking, and—"

Well? What happens next? It seems that after nearly a century of silence, the space/time portal between Barsoom and Jasoom has been reopened. What have John Carter and Dejah Thoris been up to lately? You don't have to finish an entire novel in one week, but at least give us the next chapter.

As always, we're playing by the loosely enforced official rules of the Friday Challenge and playing for whatever is behind Door #3. The deadline is midnight Jasoom time, Thursday, 5/7/09. Now saddle up your thoat and ride!

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