by Phoebe Matthews
My work is published in several men’s magazines and in anthologies under my pseudonym, Charley Lucky. And I was happily rolling along in my version of the west until one of my editors suggested I expand.
She’s a smart cookie. Knows the market. So when she emails to tell me westerns are the next best sellers with women, but require the addition of romance and sex, I figure, sure, why not? I really got into it, added a mix of tenderness and lust to my heroes, plus a bunch of detail and description to the sexy scenes.
Yes, I can get into the heroes’ heads when they are in a shoot out. But when they are hitting on a woman, that’s what my descriptions sounded like. Hitting. As my stories are always third person, I solved the problem this way. Even when an illiterate gunslinger seems to me an unlikely lover, I can make him appear romantic if I tell the story from the woman’s viewpoint. Where a male reader might see the hero as an overbearing, dishonest scum, a female reader might see him as a protective and caring gentleman.
I must have done something right because my titles started getting featured on the magazine covers. I floated along, enjoying my increased sales and notes from editors begging for more.
I should have stopped right there.
Next idea pitched to me was from an audiobook company rep telling me they liked my stuff, saw market potential, and would pay a professional narrator. It seemed to me a woman’s voice would work best. They agreed and hired an actress to record the Charley Lucky western romances.
Super. I went back to my computer and didn’t give it another thought right up until they sent me a preview recording. Oh God. They planned to package five stories together and sent me the first one to approve. The complete story. Every raunchy line. Honestly, I hadn’t realized the depth of the raunch until I heard a sweet young voice reading the sex scenes. Yes, she had a lovely voice, excellent enunciation, emotion, clarity. All I could do was hope that voice belonged to a senior citizen, I mean, voices don’t age the way bodies do, not in professionals who train and take care of their voices. Maybe she was a retired actress.
The audiobook company then sent an email giving me her name, Claudia Smith, and her phone number with the explanation ‘She wants to talk to the author to clarify pronunciation of names of characters and locations.’
Claudia. It’s an old-fashioned name. Perhaps she was an actress who no longer had the physical energy required by stage productions and for that reason had taken up recording. My guess. My fervent hope.
The phone number was in Seattle, where I live.
I spent a day agonizing before deciding there was no reason why I had to tell her that my real name is Charley Royal and we live in the same city.
So I phoned and introduced myself as Charley Lucky and told her I live in Montana.
The lovely voice said, “That explains your knowledge of the old west, Mr. Lucky.” Mr. Lucky. Not Charley. Another clue that she was older and preferred formality in business situations.
We went over the pronunciations of character and location names and she ended the conversation by saying, “I’ve been contracted to record this collection and possible future collections of your stories. I work from home and have my recording studio in a soundproof closet. Living in a closet is a sure way to turn into a claustrophic hermit. So I walk to my neighborhood Starbucks almost every evening to get exercise and spend time visiting with real live people.” She laughed and then mentioned the coffee shop’s location. “If you are ever in Seattle, Mr. Lucky, let me know. Maybe we could set a time to meet there.”
The only thing lovelier than her voice was her laugh.
After the call ended my hands started tapping away on my computer keyboard while I held the memory of that laugh in my mind. When I glanced at the computer screen I saw what I had typed. ‘Retired actress, retired actress, retired actress.’
Maybe I should have stayed in Montana, at least in my mind. What I should never have done was think about the Starbucks in her neighborhood because you know how that goes.
I knew where that coffee shop was located. I had seen it when passing by. I had never entered it. So of course my next thought was to wonder what the interior looked like. Did it have numerous small tables or only a few plus a long table with high stools or was it divided into gatherings of upholstered armchairs facing a gas fireplace, or, oh God.
Get thee behind me, temptation.
The problem with my life is that it is as contained as hers, not in a closet but in my office in a large house I share with relatives. I work all day escaping into my world of fiction. Like her, I leave the house at night. Unlike her, I don’t hang out in coffee shops. I bar hop, drink too much, party too much, and usually make it home before dawn.
Now my bar hopping nights bored me. I kept wanting to hear that laugh again. And so I did what was stupid and also inevitable. I went to her Starbucks.
I thought about wearing a suit to blend in with a crowd of customers made up of people on their way home from work. A suit would define me as a professional, anything from a lawyer to a salesman. I do own a suit. I almost never wear it. What I wear when I go bar hopping is, from top to bottom, a Stetson, a suede jacket, jeans, and cowboy boots. Most people guess my age in the mid-forties. I kid myself that the outfit takes off a few years.
Her neighborhood Starbucks had the usual Starbucks serving counter with friendly barristas. There were small tables near the windows and armchairs near a gas fireplace and people milling around carrying lidded coffee containers and chatting with other people who were either old friends or complete strangers. I picked up a coffee, joined the milling crowd, and slowly circled the room listening for her voice. Did not hear it. So then I looked closely at all the women in the room, eliminated them one by one when they spoke, had no idea what I was looking for, saw a stylishly dressed older woman sitting near the fireplace reading a book, and she was very much as I had imagined her. She had the grooming and posture of an actress.
There was no reason to identify myself to her and lots of reasons not to. I mean, there was the problem of looking into that intelligent face and remembering the scenes I had written and suspecting I would turn bright red and start apologizing.
I milled, along with others, paused to sip my coffee, and finally found myself standing near her. I leaned down toward her. “Good book?”
She glanced up at me and could hardly miss me with my nose almost touching hers. “Excuse me?”
“You look so engrossed in your book. It must be a good one. Is it?”
She gave me a vague smile. “Yes, very good,” she said, and returned to her reading.
I wasn’t sure about the ‘Excuse me?’ because she had sounded startled. But the ‘Yes, very good,’ was said in a calm voice, a bit high, a bit sharp, and totally wrong. She might look like I had visualized my actress. She did not sound anything at all like my actress’s voice.
“That’s nice,” I said, and continued through the room. I didn’t find my narrator that night. But I was hooked.
Four return visits later, again doing my circle the crowd act with a coffee cup in hand, I heard the laugh that by now was haunting my dreams. I froze in place. The store was filled, as it seemed to be most evenings. If she laughed again, perhaps I could locate the direction from which the laugh came.
No. Whatever had made her laugh must have stopped. I did a slow shuffle past tables, pausing to sip my coffee as a visible excuse for my pauses, searching faces, looking for a clue. Hoping the clue would lead me to a sophisticated older woman and I could walk on by and go back to nights of bar hopping.
“Are you watching the reruns? I went ahead and ordered the DVD,” the lovely voice said, and added, with a familiar laugh, “I love that show so much. Isn’t that silly?”
I swung around in time to see who was speaking. And I came very close to dropping my coffee.
Standing there, talking to another woman, was exactly what I had not wanted to see. Or had wanted to. Or was terrified I would. Because I was already in love with her voice and now I was in love with her and oh God. She was in her early twenties but could probably be cast as a teenager in an on-stage production, with a face as sweet as her voice, a true northwest woman, I knew that by the lack of makeup, which she certainly didn’t need, and the windblown hair. She wore faded jeans and a flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up to her elbows and all I wanted to do was grab her in a hug.
Using my last ounce of self-control, I started to sip my coffee and discovered the container was empty. So I pretended to sip. And I pretended to be watching everyone but her. And I pretended to be a man who does not hit on women, at least, not in coffee shops.
Yes, I could have introduced myself and she would have chatted politely with me. Who knows, our relationship might move toward a romance, but then what? Could I possibly have an affair with a woman who had read most of my love-making approaches and moves? Could I handle it if at some passionate point she whispered, “Oh my, I remember your hero doing that in the second story I recorded.”
No. And so I stepped toward her and said, “Sorry, I couldn’t help overhearing you. And I did what you did, ordered the DVDs for the whole series.”
“Really?” Her face lit with a smile as lovely as her voice.
Fortunately, I had seen the series she mentioned because one of the relatives I live with is a big fan and always turns it on. No, I do not own the DVDs. I only watch the show because that’s part of sharing a house, taking turns watching other people’s choices.
Not that it mattered. I remembered enough of the show to sound like a fan and she started describing her favorite episodes and I enthusiastically agreed. After a few minutes the other woman walked away and we became a fan club of two.
Following the ‘one thing leads to another’ route, habitually used by lemmings and love-struck males, I said, “Nice to meet a fellow fan. My name is Chaz Royal. If you want my resume, I sell boots.” I didn’t want to lie to her about my name which is why I brilliantly thought of Chaz, one of numerous nicknames for Charles. I don’t know where the boot salesman idea came from.
I didn’t ask her name. I didn’t want her to think I was hitting on her. I have no clear idea at what point women think that’s what is happening.
Obviously not at the point where I stopped, because she said, “I’m Claudia but if I tell you my last name, you’ll think I made it up.”
She laughed and I would have stood there until dawn saying ridiculous names for the sole purpose of hearing her laugh.
“All right, smart guy, my last name is Smith.”
“And try finding that in the phone book.”
“There! See! I knew you wouldn’t believe me.”
Of course I believed her, as I already knew her name and phone number, not that I could say so. What I said was, “How can I doubt a fellow fan of my favorite show?” which took us back to the safe ground of discussing television.
Did she want me to ask her out, I wondered. Women in bars often do, but people in after-work stops at coffee shops are more apt to be recharging their energy for an evening ahead that includes a spouse or current date. When a couple of people stood up from the armchairs in front of the fireplace, she didn’t suggest we sit down to continue our conversation. And before I could open my mouth to make that suggestion, she waved at someone behind me and said, “It’s been nice talking to you, Chaz,” and walked past me and joined some other people.
I picked up an abandoned newspaper from a table and slouched down into one of the armchairs and stared at the gas fire and did a lot of unproductive thinking. When I stood and looked around the room, Claudia wasn’t anywhere in it.
With no plans, I caught a bus to one of my usual hangouts, a bar with large, silent TVs tuned to ball games and a cheering and booing crowd providing the sound. My friend Polly stopped to chat, kiss my cheek, linked an arm around my shoulders and invited me to go home with her. We have a casual relationship that suits both of us. We have in common several things including age and a desire to avoid commitments.
I hugged her and made excuses, which she accepted because that’s part of avoiding commitments, and then I sat at the bar and drank too much and finally caught a bus home. My mind was so full of Claudia I couldn’t get her out. Nothing else and no one else appealed.
I was back to spending evenings at Starbucks, having brief conversations with barristas and the milling crowd. A few nights later, when I was sitting in an armchair staring at the gas fire feeling sorry for myself, the voice I love said, “You, again!” and Claudia sank down into the chair next to me. She added, “Shut in my closet I thought about you.”
I knew to what she referred and couldn’t admit it. Instead I asked the expected question. “Why were you shut in a closet?”
“I do audiobook recordings.”
“Wow, that sounds interesting.”
“Depends on what the book is. Right now I’m finishing up a group of short stories with main characters who dress like you.”
She did that wonderful laugh. “Pirate cowboys, right.”
“What about the stories? Do you enjoy them?”
“It’s a job.”
Ouch. Not that I expected enthusiasm, but she might have said that even though she wasn’t a westerns fan, she did think the stories were well written.
She added, “I don’t read westerns by choice.”
And? I could have bit my tongue to keep it from asking. Instead I asked. “Are these stories well written?”
“The audiobook company thinks so or they wouldn’t pay me to narrate them.”
“You read them but you don’t have an opinion?”
“They send me books on dieting, engine repair, mental illness, okay, I have an opinion. I much prefer narrating fiction because I can’t figure out how to work emotion into the others.”
“Why do you want to?”
“I’m a frustrated actress in a city filled with extremely talented actresses. I constantly go for auditions and am constantly not picked for a role and so I console myself that I can use my training working as a narrator. Which I can’t. Not with nonfiction. Plus nonfiction always contains numerous words I don’t want to know the meanings of, especially the words in medical books, and yet I do have to pronounce them correctly. Big bore. Did you really set out in life to sell boots?”
It took me a few seconds to remember I had told her I sold boots for a living. “Absolutely.”
“Do you wear cowboy boots because you love them or just to show them off to customers?”
“I love them. My customers don’t see them. I am usually barefoot when I’m taking orders.”
She did that laugh and pointed a finger at me. “You work at home and take orders on line!”
“How do you know?”
“That’s what I do, earn my living narrating books at home, and I’m usually barefoot.” She stood, smiled, and added, “Been nice talking to you, Chaz.”
“My boyfriend just arrived,” she said, and looked past me. Her smile widened into one that lit up her whole face. I turned in time to watch her rush into the arms of a good-looking guy who was as young as she was. His smile matched hers.
I felt miserably old.
On the other hand, no matter what went on between my friend Polly and me, she would never whisper, “Oh my, I remember your hero doing that in one of your stories.”
Now I know why I have never told Polly I write stories. And I never will. I consoled myself with that thought as I climbed on a bus and headed to my favorite bar downtown to find her.
Copyright © Phoebe Matthews
The idea for this story came from a writer friend who had recently had a novel picked by an audiobooks company who choose and paid the narrator, then sent him the recording. He muttered something about being thankful the narrator lived in another state.
Charley Royal is a character in the Sunspinners series. Descriptions and links are on the HomePage. The HomePage tab is at the top of this Page. That’s Charley, in another sticky situation, on the Demonprice cover.