Chapter Sixty

   After my release I had the feeling of being followed, studied -- like a bear with a tracking device implanted in its ear. I reached for my ear, though, and felt nothing unusual, but something was different, something had changed. I may have been carrying the narrative, but that didn't mean I knew what I was saying. Wait -- was there someone else there?
   "We've come for the refrigerator," said this total stranger, obviously a character in another novel. And next to him, his partner, who said nothing but just nodded and looked stupid.
   "What?" What? (What?) (What? -- Ed.)
   (Editor's Note: What?!)
   "I said, we've come for the refrigerator!" he repeated angrily.
   "I think you're in the wrong work of fiction, buddy," I pointed out clearly and concisely.
   "Look, we've got a work order to pick up a refrigerator, so why don't you just point us in the right direction and we'll get the damn ice box and be on our way."
   This was a new one. I'd never seen or imagined these two goons, and yet, here they were, in my face, asking for my refrigerator which, I'm sure, did not exist.
   "Fellas, let me take a look at that work order if you don't mind." The silent one took it out of his pocket and handed it to me. I uncrumpled the pink paper. It was a fairly typical work order -- "Pick up refrigerator from a Mr. Jack Reynolds in the novel On The Bubble by four o'clock, deliver to warehouse by six o'clock."
   "Boys, it says here you were to pick up a refrigerator from a Mr. Jack Reynolds in the novel On The Bubble -- get that? On. This is In the Bubble, and my name is James, James M. Reynolds." Like two disappointed refrigerator delivery men they shrugged their shoulders and shuffled off into obscurity. So, that's that.
   From what I've been hearing on the inter-novel grapevine, there are only five chapters left after this one, and I still have no idea what's going on. I wonder if those two doofuses that dropped by weren't sent here for a reason. You know what? I should go after them. I should go after them and follow them, even if they are in the past tense. What the hell, if they really are from another novel, then -- who knows?
   I flew down the stairs and into the street -- they were just turning the corner, but they weren't moving that fast so I was able to follow them at a discreet distance.
   I remember thinking, since this was the past, that my nondescript neighborhood never looked so good. I also remember thinking that things could get dangerous -- those two guys could turn out to be pretty ornery, depending on their author's imagination of course. One thing I knew, they couldn't kill me, because, let's face it, this was the past and I'm still here to tell you about it.
   They ducked into a store, and several seconds later, so did I. They were already at the front desk, talking to a salesman.
   "Can I help you, gentlemen?" he asked.
   "Yeah," said the one who talked, "we'd like to see your best quality, your best stuff."
   "Uh," the salesman hesitated nervously, possibly flummoxed by the fact that as of yet I hadn't decided what kind of store it was. "I'll have to check." He made a hasty exit. The two thugs -- let's call them Ben and Greg, Ben being the talker -- started to browse around the place, looking at God-knows-what. I, in the meantime, kept just out of their line of sight, hiding behind, oh, heavy winter coats.
   "Hey, nice coats," Ben observed, noticing the sudden appearance of racks and racks of them. "Strange time of year, though, isn't it?" It was over ninety degrees outside, and humid.
   Well, Ben and Greg walked over to where I was hiding and checked out the fur.
   "Greg, you'd look good in this one," Ben said, pulling out a musty old skunk and porcupine coat.
   "Ugh!" said Greg, speaking for the first time. "It stinks -- ow! -- and it hurts!"
   I guess that discouraged them, because they went back to the front desk just as the salesman reappeared, this time having a better idea of what he was selling.
   "Gentlemen, here is our best 'stuff,' as you call it," and he revealed, and opened, a box of... candy!
   "The small round ones are nougat, the funny-shaped ones are dark chocolate and almonds, the square ones are caramel."
   Greg picked a nougat candy, took a bite, didn't like it and put it back. Ben declined.
   "Go ahead," the salesman urged. "One piece of candy isn't going to kill you -- in a novel."
   Ben relented and had a caramel. He liked it. In the meantime, I was getting bored. You too, I'd guess. It was time to get moving. Can you imagine? Hundreds of pages and still no context, no story, no rationale for anything. Just nonsense. It was unnerving, especially to me, the voice that speaks the words you read. This is my ass on the line, not yours. If this novel, fails, it will ultimately be me, or my essence, or whatever it is, that gets raked over the coals. My name is on the cover of this thing, too -- not my idea, by the way -- and my reputation as a narrative voice will be Mudd if life as I know it doesn't get back on track, back to the mildly amusing story of a confused loner recovering from the effects of sticking his head in the Xerox machine. And back to Maureen.
   "Here I am, as if on cue."
   Maureen. I knew you'd return.
   "Big choice I have. What's up?"
   There are only five more chapters after this one and I'm scared.
   "Scared? Why? What do you have to be afraid of?
   What? Exactly. What. What is there?
   "Jim, the only thing that matters is to keep it moving. By the way, look at this."
   I'm impressed. An invitation to a book signing at the Gotham Book Store in New York. "Blabbo Blabberman will be signing his new novel, One Hundred Million and One Bottles of Beer on the Wall, between 2PM and 5PM on October 30, 1994. Your attendance is requested." Congratulations. How come I didn't get one of these?
   "Maybe you're just a bit too ill-defined as of yet."
   What's that supposed to mean?
   "Maybe you just haven't focused in on who you are and what you mean in the scheme of things."
   Uh huh. Come again?
   "Who are you, Jim? Who are you? Are you a quirkily interesting new novelist with an over-reliance on self-referential digressions -- or are you the disembodied narrative voice of an experimental work of fiction written by the same new novelist mentioned above -- or are you an Indian who lived in a cave dug out of a cliff some nine hundred years ago? Or are you a group of nine journalists from a newspaper on Long Island who try to write a novel collectively? What'll it be, Jimmy Boy? As soon as you make up your mind and get a fictional life I can guarantee you an invitation to the next cheap-champagne-in-a-plastic-cup-book-party will be in the mail and on its way to you."
   But, what should I write about?
   "Write about what you know."
   But, I don't know anything.
   "Then, write about that."

   I'm going to step away for a moment here to take an informal readers' poll. Should there be, or should there not be, an index? Got that? An index. Pro or con, yes or no. Think about it. I'll announce the results somewhere in the next chapter.

   Maureen, you're right. I'm going to do something positive about myself.
   "Think sharp, Jim, think sharp."

   Yeah, yeah. Well, thanks. I'll be fine, now. Thanks.
   "What? Should I leave?"
   Well, you can if you want to. I'm going to walk down the street and slip into am alleyway and into a back door of a building, over to the elevator, punch the button a few times, and wait... and wait... and wait... z-z-z-z-z-z-z-z-z-z-z-z-z-z-z-z-z-z-z-z-z-z-z-z-z-z-z-z-z-z-z-z-z-z-z-z...

(This ends Chapter Sixty.)

Chapter Sixty-one