It was the first day in two weeks the men had watched baseball, since the kids had been there the previous weekend. They ordered Arturo's pizza for lunch and Chinese food for dinner, and Stuart drank his Alaskan Amber and Jeff his Coors Light. They didn't about the beach or the posts at all.
The Dodgers took the Astros into overtime in the afternoon and Stuart's enthusiasm was contagious. Play after play came down to the wire, with a handful of almosts and maybes dragging the game until the 17th inning. When the winning run, for the Astros, crossed the plate in the bottom of the inning, finally ending the game, both men cheered and toasted each other with their beer.
In the lull after the game, before the Chinese food arrived, they adjourned to the deck and Stuart let a cigar.
“How's it coming?” Victor asked.
It took Jeff a moment to realize what he was asking about. “My book?”
“It's coming along really well. I'm past 50 pages.”
“You still excited about it?”
“Awesome, man, I'm really happy for you. When are you gonna let me take a look at it?”
“I'd say when I'm done, but I dunno if I'll be finished before the summer is over.”
“Go get your laptop,” Stuart said.
Jeff hesitated. “Seriously?”
“Yeah, I wanna take a look. Since today is a no writing day, I'll have the head space for it.”
Jeff scurried down to the basement and retrieved his Dell, almost running back up the stairs in his enthusiasm. He hadn't intended to show the book to Stuart yet, still not wanting to break the spell, but things felt like they were getting back to normal, at last, and he didn't want to break that spell either. Call it a draw.
Stuart was sitting at the dining room table when he returned, staring at the painting on the wall.
“You know who that is?” he asked, as Jeff placed the laptop on the table.
“Abel Rasmussen. Ever heard of him?”
Jeff shook his head.
“Get me another beer, will you?”
Jeff went into the kitchen and got them each a drink.
“Rasmussen was a painter. Was well recognized in the late twenties and early thirties as advertising artist. This is back before photo manipulation and Photoshop and all that shit, so when you needed an ad, you either needed to stage a photo or get a good artist to do you a painting or a line drawing. Rasmussen wasn't the best, but he was good. I'm sure you've seen a retro Coke ad or two that he made. He retired here, spent the last five years of his life at this place. It was a different house, then, of course, no basement, the original place was broken down to build this one, but this is where he ended his life.”
“Wait, you mean...?”
“No! Ha, sorry, not like that. This is just where his time ran out. At least, that was the assumption. His wife had left him after he moved out here, as I understand it, and at some point someone dropped by to visit him and he just...wasn't here. He was never seen again, so the conventional wisdom was he went for a swim and never came back. Whether it was on purpose or not probably doesn't matter.”
He stopped speaking and Jeff really looked at the painting for the first time since he had arrived. The man's chin was slightly turned up, giving him an arrogant look. His ears were barely visible, crimped tight to his head, and his colorless hair was swept back from his forehead. The eyes were narrow, permanently squinted, Jeff supposed, from hunching over a drawing board or an easel.
“Why do you have the painting?”
“I haven't done a damn thing to update this place since I moved in except buy some furniture. It came with the place, along with that ugly-ass deer.” Stuart pointed at the other painting. “Doesn't matter. You should Google his illustrations sometime, though, they were something. He captured a, I dunno, a life, I guess, that most of the work from that time didn't have. He was different, I think, which is why he didn't make it bigger, like your Rockwells or what have you.”
Stuart heaved a breath and then turned to Jeff.
“Let's take a look!”
“The idea ain't bad,” Bobby said, begrudgingly.
“Not bad?” Danny demanded. “Fuck you, you never had a good idea in your life. It's a great idea. It'll set us up to do whatever we want.”
“Yeah, and what's that, Danny?” Bobby said. “Fuckin' settle down and pop out some kids? Maybe you think you got what it takes to be a squarejohn, but the rest of us know you don't. You're no better than us and just because you pull a big job won't make you any different from anyone else. You think some broad's gonna give you the time of day when she finds out where your money came from?”
“He won't never have to worry about what some broad thinks of him,” Moses contributed, “Cuz we ain't never gonna live to tell the tale.”
Danny stood at the head of the table, rage boiling like indigestion in his gut. He played his trump card. He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out the long, heavy key. He dropped it on the table with a decisive thunk.
“No one else has this,” he said proudly. “So stuff your naysaying. This is all we need. This is all we need, and that is that!”
The others around the table stared at the key. Betty crossed herself. Moses clicked his dentures back and forth in his mouth. Slim just shook his head.
“No one knows we got this,” Danny said, slamming a hand on the table. “They'll be so busy looking to chew up someone in the organization that they'll never look at a buncha low-level players like us. That's the whole goddamn point! Getting the job done is easy enough, right, you can't argue with that. It's the getting away with it that's the hard part.”
Betty's eyes gleamed with the wealth she could accumulate. She adjusted her bra and Danny knew what she was thinking about. “I'm in,” she said.
“Shit, son, if you can pull that off, I'll believe in whatever other magic you got to sell,” the old black man said.
Slim just nodded.
Bobby shrugged. “If you say so, man. God only knows I ain't never gonna do any better.”
“You're having fun with it, I can tell,” Stuart said, after he finished another chapter.
“Yeah. It comes through in the writing. Something like this could totally be a heavy affair, all posing and bullshit, but you've got a nice Elmore Leonard tone going on here. Lots of character in your characters, you know? Maybe Carl Hiassen would be closer, but you've found a good energy, a nice center. Stick with it.”
“Wow, that's...amazing. Thanks.”
“Just get it done. That's the important thing. You can fix all sorts of things when you get back to it, but the most vital step you can take when writing a book is just getting the fucker finished.”
Jeff sat at the table for a moment, just basking in the praise of Victor Stuart.
“You already got an idea for the next one?”
Jeff should have known that Stuart would know such things, but he was still taken aback. “Yeah.”
“Great. You come up with good people, good ideas, and they'll stick with you. Some of my stuff seems to come out of thin air, or not from me, I told you that, but the way my characters talk and act, who they really are, that's all my creation and I'll never tell you different. That's one of the areas were I know I'm damn good. You've tapped into that and it shows. These people are real, you know, and that'll carry you a long way.”
“Now, you'll need to tighten it up when you come back to it, keep the conversations from meandering, maybe cut back on the patois a bit, but that'll be easy. Worry about it after the book is done. Where is it going?”
Jeff explained it all then, spilled his guts to his hero, about how the book was really more or less The Old Man and the Sea, how Danny and his crew would succeed and then have their success taken away from them.
When he was finished, Stuart stood and stretched. “I gotta take a shit,” he said. “You mind if I take this with me, read some more?”
It never crossed Jeff's mind that there was something weird about another guy using his laptop on the can. Victor Stuart wanted to read more of his book!
“Knock yourself out,” he said.