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  • Writer's pictureJeff South

Book Excerpt: Day 1


Below is the first of five excerpts from my upcoming novel Someone Else's Book Club. I will post a different excerpt every day to offer a glimpse of what the new book contains. Someone Else's Book Club is a prequel of sorts to my first book, Kilroy Was Here.


***


The first rule of Book Club is to tell everyone about Book Club. Why would I want my members to not talk about it? I'm a struggling small business owner selling used books out of a repurposed old house. I need customers in order to support my lavish lifestyle of sleeping in a motor home and a steady diet of ramen noodles bought in bulk. Since I hold Book Club in the store, I stand a greater chance of selling actual books. I'm just a guy living in his bookstore, helping match readers with just the right book. In a good month, if the match is correct, after I pay the bills on this place, my haul is a cool $3.47 an hour. I understand your envy.


Well-meaning regular patrons of Someone Else’s Books have advised the reason my store isn’t exactly thriving is due to my Herpezoid propaganda. Potential customers are scared by this, they tell me. Take the posters and crap down, they say. Not going to happen. I try to make up for it by being generally lovable like someone’s crazy but harmless uncle, but that hasn’t translated to increased revenue, either. Other ideas to increase foot traffic into Someone Else’s Books include discounts for students who need a copy of a classic for school and a rewards program for frequent buyers. An attempt at a Saturday morning program where I would read a popular picture book to children bombed because parents were reluctant to bring their kids into the Herpezoid guy’s store.


So, I started Book Club. We meet every Thursday in a room at the back of my store. Members enter through the front door and walk past the science fiction, fantasy, and horror, and the cash register counter. They don't ask much about the Herpezoids, though, and thus ignore the display of The Lizard People Next Door by renowned Herpezoid expert, Dr. Spencer Dudley. I chalk it up to putting aside misgivings about the crazy guy in the room for the sake of stimulating conversation and delectable snacks. Someone Else’s Books may not be as homie as a three-bedroom split-level ranch in one of Poplar Bluff’s fine middle class neighborhoods, but I do what I can to make the place inviting. After passing through the front room of the store, members then head down the hall past the classics room where the floor slants slightly and the romance section and a door marked 'private' on the left. No one asks what's behind that door. Once in the back room, they can find a seat on one of the garage sale chairs or a couch I inherited from my late mother and which is likely possessed by her malevolent spirit.


Ernest Hemingway said there is no friend as loyal as a good book. My former mentor Nelson Clanahan used to say there was nothing quite like the hunt, whether it was books, a good whiskey, or Herpezoids. I believe the purpose of Someone Else’s Books is to help people hunt for that special book that can become their new loyal friend.


Tonight, a Pablo Cruise album spins in the back room on a wood-grained 1970s turntable console I snatched for a fair price at an estate auction. This yacht rock provides the background music while we all engage in small talk about benign topics and indulge in the potluck of snacks we have each provided. Karen Pulsipher, Home Economics teacher at Poplar Bluff High School, sits to my left, sipping from a straw from a Styrofoam cup emblazoned with the logo for Tater’s Subs and Taters. She sits prim and proper with her owlish glasses and her chestnut brown hair is pulled into a tight bun. Maybe her hair is caramel brown or honey golden brown. Simply labeling it brown does it no justice. The shade is specific. I wonder if something else is going on underneath her reserved demeanor. Karen nearly quit our little group when a discussion of our last selection, Leaves of Lars by some obscure author named Whitman Mulcahey, erupted into a debate about whether or not Shakespeare walked like a duck.


Across from me on the pleather couch sit Chris and Suzanne Pershing. Chris is a mid-level manager at the Kwench-Aid plant in town, thus justifying the jug of tropical punch flavored Kwench-Aid on the table. Suzanne sells real estate. They are sweet people who harbor no inhibitions about public displays of affection. His hand is on her knee while she partakes of a Rice Krispies treat. My phone buzzes with a text from Heather F.


Just following up to see if you went through the deck I sent you.


"Kevin," Suzanne says to me as I silence my phone and shove it into my pocket. "These Rice Krispies treats are so fudging addictive."


Suzanne Pershing is a faux cusser, meaning she substitutes regular curse words with reasonable facsimiles. Sometimes her replacements are obvious. “Dookie” for “shit” is an example. Others provoke quizzical looks from me. During the aforementioned Shakespeare debate, she avoided saying “bullshit” by liberally inserting “donkey dookie” and “horse hooey” into the dialogue. She takes another bite and closes her eyes in deep satisfaction. She is a smart, lovely woman in her mid-to-late ‘40s who knows how to manage the fashion transition from the business suits she wears during the day to the stylish sweatshirt and jeans she is sporting tonight, though her dark blonde hair is still styled from after her day of showing properties to those in Poplar Bluff looking for prime investment property. I won’t attempt to specify Suzanne’s blonde hair. I’m already in over my head with Karen’s not-just-simply-brown. Suzanne smiles at her husband and he returns one in kind. Their attraction for one another after all these years together is not only admirable but a life goal for any couple.


“I just follow the recipe on the box.” I grab a treat for myself and chomp off a piece. Damn good if I do say so myself. “That same approach has helped me perfect the boxed macaroni and cheese, boxed au gratin potatoes, and, when I want a fancy dinner, Hamburger Helper.” I shoot a playful look at Karen and do an unfortunate thing with my eyebrows. This is my version of flirting that currently has me on an extended sexless streak I’d rather not discuss. I’m not trying to pick Karen up so much as I’m curious to whether I register on her radar.


“How are you tonight, Karen?” asks the argyle sweater vest-wearing fellow sitting in a recliner that no longer serves the purpose of a recliner. His name is Guy Haversham, self-proclaimed indie author who also claims once his writing takes off he will quit the paint store he has managed for seven years, which is the same amount of time that he has claimed to be “transitioning” out of his mom’s house.


“Fine, Guy,” Karen replies with a curt, terse tone and pursed lips. He leans in anticipating a reciprocal inquiry about his well-being but none appears forthcoming, so he nods with a sad smile and leans back, clutching his personal copy of The Rapture of the Follies to his lap. Guy’s anxiousness about our impending discussion of his debut novel is palpable and our collective disapproval of it is the elephant in the room.


“I’m just glad it’s not French food,” Chris says, pointing to the snack assortment, in an attempt to break the tension. “French food is weird. It gives me the crepes.”


His wife pats his knee and says, “we talked about this on the way here, honey.”


Chris Pershing never met a dad joke he didn’t love and habitually finds a way to interject one into any conversation, no matter the context or lack thereof. He shrugs at his wife’s comment and surveys the table of snacks. His hair is thin and dark with subtle hints of gray along his temples. He attempts small talk with Karen but is interrupted by the twinkling of the bell above the front door.


“Sorry I’m a little late!” a female voice calls out.


“Come on back, Sandy!” Suzanne replies.


Sandra Harper, late 30s, maybe early 40s walks into our sacred space looking as if she just hurried from her job at an office here in town. She carries a plastic container that, from my angle, looks to be filled with her homemade chocolate chip cookies. Those delectable treats are always welcome here. I walk to her, take the container of goodies and set it on the table only after grabbing a couple for myself.


“What a crazy day and I am afraid I can’t stay,” she says. “I have to go deal with Jeff.”


Her son, Jeff Harper, is a student at Poplar Bluff High and seems to always keep Sandra on her toes with his shenanigans. I wouldn’t classify him as a troublemaker, but it is always something with that kid.


“What happened?” Suzanne asks. “We don’t have to deal with Tony, do we? Where one goes, so goes the other.”


Tony Pershing, Chris and Suzanne’s only child and Jeff Harper’s best friend. A good kid. He always comes into the store and leaves with a stack of books. This makes him one of my favorite people. Tony is quieter than Jeff, but they are joined at the hip.


“I don’t think so,” Sandra says. “Apparently he has been spray-painting ‘Kilroy Was Here’ around town. Mostly dumpsters and abandoned buildings, but he got busted tagging the Episcopal church.”


“I saw that the other night,” I say. “That was Jeff’s work? Ballsy.”


She shakes her head and leans one of her slender shoulders against the door frame. Her hair is also blonde, but a different shade of blonde than Suzanne’s. Some might call it dirty blonde, but, again, I’d rather not speculate. She takes in a deep breath, closes her hazel eyes and releases a sigh. I make a mental note to quit obsessing over the exact shade of a person’s hair color.


“When I asked him why he did it,” she says with just the slightest lilt of a Southern drawl, “he told me ‘Jesus loves Kilroy, too,’ and that I ‘shouldn’t inhibit his pursuit of spiritual knowledge.’ His exact words.”


“What’s the deal with Kilroy Was Here?” Chris asks. “Is it a World War II thing or another Styx thing?”


“Styx,” Sandra sighs. “It’s always Styx and ‘Mr. Roboto.’ That boy’s obsession with that band and that song borders on troubling. I could write a book about it. I guess I’m glad he appreciates music from another generation, but, Jesus, give it a rest. Ah, the joys of single motherhood. Anyway, I said I would bring cookies, so there you go. Hopefully, I’ll be able to join y’all next week.”


She half smiles, waves, and shows herself out without acknowledging Guy’s book. This is telling because Sandra always brings enthusiastic discussion to the group, so the fact she didn’t even tell Guy he did a good job tells me she either hasn’t read the book or doesn’t want to hurt his feelings. The sound of her high heels on the floor fades as she reaches the door. The twinkle of the bell signals her departure. Godspeed, Sandra Harper. I can’t imagine raising any kid alone. My mom did it and she and my dad stayed married. He was just always distant, even when he was home. He traveled for work often and when he was home it was as if he was still on the road mentally. I have never harbored any desire to be a parent.


"Hey, Kev.” Chris assembles a mini sandwich from the cheese, summer sausage, and cracker charcuterie plate. He is a man of average height, same age as his wife. I’m comfortable enough in my masculinity to call him traditionally handsome. "I saw on the news that someone in town claims they saw a lizard man. You've got all that stuff on the walls about Herpezoids and whatnot. What do you think about that?"


Normally, I love talking about Herpezoids. I've been telling the people of Poplar Bluff for years about the reptilian-like aliens disguised as humans who want to drink all of our beer.


“I feel like I’ve seen one, ya know?” Suzanne says. “But then I think maybe it was all just a dream or something. It’s like Bigfoot. Enough people claim they’ve seen Bigfoot that you start convincing yourself that maybe you’ve seen him, too. What’s that thing where people are convinced something has happened, but it really hasn’t?”


“Mandela Effect,” I say.


“That’s it!” she says. “Maybe this is all Mandela Effect. We think we’ve seen an alien, but we haven’t.”


“I’d love to see a Herpezoid,” Chris says. “I think it would be cool.”


"Herpezoids?" Guy Haversham snorts in derision and rolls his beady eyes. "Ridiculous. No such thing. I’ve never seen one.”

"Just because you’ve never seen one doesn’t mean they don’t exist," I tell him. “They're very real. They blend in with their human disguises. Someone in this room could be one and the others wouldn't know until it was too late.”


An uneasy silence settles over us accompanied by cautious glances at one another as if we were all suspected killers in an Agatha Christie whodunit. These awkward moments are commonplace in my life. They loom over my futile attempts to flirt with women. They are a critical component to those painful interactions at the grocery checkout lines when the cashier offers up small talk that I just bat away like a pesky mosquito. Such interminable silence pales in comparison, though, to that which accompanies a conversation about Herpezoids. People are okay talking about the weather, their kids, or their mundane jobs. Try to engage in a serious discussion about something that matters like aliens infiltrating our world, though, and suddenly I'm a whack job conspiracy nut. If they only knew.

"Let's not talk about that right now," A clap of my hands signals an end to the awkwardness and I pick up some stapled copies of a discussion guide from the table. "We're here to talk about Guy's book. Here are some questions for our discussion.”


The group has been reading The Rapture of the Follies, Guy’s bizarre self-published piece of William Faulkner fan fiction involving all the various characters from Faulkner's fictional Yoknapatawpha County and imagines them as vampires, werewolves, and witches, all told from the perspective of Charles Bon from Absalom, Absalom! I don’t like the book and have struggled to make it past the halfway point, but I agreed to select it to help him with promotion. This shall be added to my running list of Poor Business Decisions That Will Be My Undoing.



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