The whole point of a first draft, someone recently posted on my Facebook page, is to see where the story is going. Subsequent drafts decide how to best tell the story. I’m a “pantser,” not a planner, when it comes to most of my writing. So I like that thought. Here’s a peek at my writing desk, where I’m approving galleys for Home Means Nevada, writing the next W. W. Ronin Western, Bathhouse Row, and finishing up the second of the Tommy Valentine, PI short stories, “Jersey Tomato.” This is the draft of the first of three chapters I’ve completed for the latter, set on Long Beach Island, New Jersey.
1 PENNS GROVE
I’ve been asked if I’m Tommy Valentine, the golfer. Tommy was—emphasis on the word was—a Gainesville, Georgia man who spent maybe a dozen years on the pro golf circuit, before heading to Gross Pointe Woods, Michigan to coach rich guys how to play a game that’s wrecked a million marriages, and maybe saved a few, not that anyone’s saying. I wouldn’t know anything about the fellow if it wasn’t for my wife, who used to make it a point to keep up with the top-40 pro golf money makers in the late seventies and eighties. Gross Pointe Woods was the only one of the five Gross Pointe communities not to have a spot on Lake Saint Claire’s shoreline, though it has a park I’m told, which is not the same thing. Living in Gross Point Woods means you’re nowhere near the powerboat, sailing and yacht clubs that real Michigan money-makers enjoy, though I’m sure he did alright. Tommy was the Head Pro at the Lochmoor Club on Sunningdale Drive, prior to retiring in December of 2009. He died of cancer five years later, which argues that you should live your life now, goddamnit. Because before you know it you could end up a GOMER—an aged and practically lifeless guy or gal, sucking up someone else’s resources in a big city emergency room. The word is a cruelty, to be sure—healthcare is like that—but when an ER doc pastes the acronym to your personality, she means just that. Get Out of My Emergency Room, because your life-long legacy is on its final leg, and there isn’t anything anyone can do for you save to hook you up to a tube or two and send your wife on a search for some other dick, because you are practically dead. I say “dick,” because that’s what I am, though I’ve been called worse. I’m speaking of my occupation, of course, not my personality. The latter has been judged to be something less than normal, “sub-normal” one Long Beach Island woman said, though I don’t think that’s a category in the DSM-5, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, like I give a shit. It’s just a book, man… This Tommy Valentine is a private detective, who plies his trade in Penns Grove, New Jersey, which is five-hundred and some miles from Gross Point anything, which is ten miles southwest of Detroit. So a guy ought to keep his mouth shut if he’s boasting about where he lives, like Gross Pointe anywhere is something to be aspired after. We all live southwest of somewhere, even Detroit auto execs. Babs and I own a small detective agency in the same Penns Grove strip mall as the local IGA, a wonderful little market in which to buy coffee and jelly donuts though much of the rest of the city has gone to shit, not that we’re complaining. We love the town. Penns Grove used to boast summer cottages and the like just outside of Philadelphia, across from Wilmington, Delaware, which used to run a ferry back and forth across the river for visits and such. That’s how swell our town used to be. A DuPont powder plant changed everything, just prior to the First World War, when America needed a lot more TNT than it was used to using, not that it’s DuPont’s fault, or America’s fault, I guess. We might blame the whole gone-to-shit thing on the German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, not that blaming someone ever got anyone anywhere. I’m just saying. But we do alright, Babs and me. We do the usual stuff that dicks do, investigations and the like, some interesting, some not so much. Every so often we find ourselves in a trunk full of trouble, which is maybe where the name “dick” comes from. “Here’s the possibilities,” Babs says, who doesn’t like my using the word so she’s spent a crazy amount of time thinking about it. “Dick” could be a contraction, like couldn’t, wouldn’t, shouldn’t, didn’t, and can’t, which is what the pregnant woman was yelling when she went into labor and was having some. “Contractions,” I say. “You’re not much for jokes, either,” she says. It could be, I guess. “Detective and Dick sound the same,” she argues. Whatever. Most days, I’m just along for the ride. Another thought is that Dick comes from a Romanian word, not that I’ve ever heard any, nor Babs either so who can say. But dik, as it’s spelled in Romanian, which is one of those romance languages, she says. “Twenty-four million people speak it,” she insists, like I’ve ever met a Romanian. “The word means to see or to watch,” she says, as we’re driving west-bound on the Atlantic City expressway. “That’s what private detectives do,” she says, “more or less,” she being my helper, me being the one who is usually staring down the fraudsters, cheaters and folks a good deal more criminal than that through the darkened windows of one of our cars—a 1967 Chevy Malibu, some nights and days. It’s quite a classic, you know, an old-fashioned hunk of steel, if you ask me. Hell, I make a lot of money sitting in that thing, though right now we’re on our way to Long Beach Island so as to look for someone’s dog, which is freaking unbelievable because no one has that kind of money—it’ll cost you $500 a day, plus expenses—save maybe the people in Gross Point or Long Beach Island, not that I’ve been to either. I’ll tell you about the dog in a minute. “The third possibility is that the word has to do with Dick Donovan,” she says, who was a fictional detective in the late 1800s. Like Dick Tracy, who was more a cop than anything else though Tracy’s wrist-gadgetry calls to mind how real any of the technical stuff really is because the cops I know have so little of it, they’re so poorly paid and such. The only talking watch I ever saw was on a blind lady in Carson City, Nevada, so I know they make such things. Dick Donovan was a sort of Sherlock Homes, Babs says, who is now the prototype for my profession, though no one likes being called “Homes” or “Sherlock” or “Tracy.” So it’s dick. But like I said, Babs and I are on our way to Long Beach Island to look for someone’s weiner, and I’m not talking about Anthony so stop laughing. The island has a few communities to it, like Gross Pointe apparently does, and one of their peeps—a female mayor of all things—lost her Dachshund dog during a traffic stop where she blew a .25 on a BACtrack Mobile Smartphone Breathalyzer, which has led to all sorts of problems, none of which I’m interested in save the dog. Babs says “in and out,” because it’s our vacation week and we’ve got a real nice place to stay in Beach Haven, a couple of blocks from the new Acme store, which blew down during Hurricane Sandy. So it’ll be real easy to pick up a couple of cartons of Tastykakes while we’re working, and some Franks root beer. We’ll expense it, you know? Incidentally, the BACtrack Mobile Smartphone Breathalyzer is compatible with your Android or Apple watch, if you care about such things. It will “help you make better decisions,” the sons of bitches say on their website. Which goes to show that not only Dick Tracy types can now wear multi-functioned digital communicators on their wrists I guess, but any dick or dickless person—private eye or not—can wear one, too. Amazing. Babs says we’re going to try one of the back roads, given that we seem to be headed in the wrong direction, so I’ve got to stop writing for now. I’m thinking we should have spent the weekend in Pennsville, just up the road a ways from Penns Grove. Riverview Park isn’t what it used to be, bumper cars, roller coasters, a hand-carved carousel and an Olympic-sized pool. It’s just a beach and a couple of soft ball fields. It isn’t Gross Pointe to be sure, or Long Beach Island for that matter, but we’d be there by now, and we wouldn’t be lost, and I wouldn’t be listening to Babs go on and on about famous detectives and such. Hell, we’d be sleeping in our own bed in just a few hours, and that would be—trust me when I say this—shear bliss.