By Adia Keene
For a painter, the first stroke on the canvas was always the most severe. If executed poorly, what could have been a masterpiece became just another tainted scrap of paper to be discarded once the day ended.
Perhaps the author was a bit dramatic in her comparison. After all, a keyboard was not a canvas and the backspace button existed for a reason. Any mistake could be eradicated in seconds.
Maybe it was because of the unopened letter from HarperCollins sitting next to her on her desk or it could have been the book glaring down at her from her bookshelf, sitting on a small display stand with the words “#1 New York Times Bestseller” on its cover. Whatever the case, at one o’clock in the morning she was still staring into the glowing laptop screen at her small desk in her cramped bedroom. All the while she knew that her agent was sound asleep, resting assured that the author was finishing up the details of the first chapter of the next great American novel.
It wasn’t the author’s fault. Her first book had needed no inspiration. She wrote what she knew, and what she knew was “inspiring,” “uplifting and heartbreaking,” “so realistic it became unreal,” and even “life altering.” She had exhausted everything within her all at once and there was nothing left to say about her story. Begrudgingly, she decided that she would have to tell someone else’s instead.
That had spurred the author’s dilemma. She looked up at the torn newspaper clippings pinned onto the corkboard on the wall.
“Chaos Strikes After Bus Route is Ten Minutes Late.”
“Local Elementary School Teacher Finds Twenty Dollars on the Sidewalk.”
“Don’t Cry Over Spilt Milk: Compensation for Torn Grocery Packaging.”
Those were the front page stories in the small town of Springfield, which was one of the forty-one Springfields in the United States. No inspiration could ever come from a place like that. All the while, the letter from HarperCollins sat next to her, begging to be opened. The author didn’t find herself in bed until three o’clock that morning and only a single word sat on the page. “The.”
Early the next morning, she packed up her laptop and the envelope to head out of her small apartment, which was located in the only building over four stories in the town. The author hadn’t been out of her house in three days, but she hadn’t missed much. Normally she would drive to the nearest Starbucks for her morning coffee, but she had heard the hole-in-the-wall cafe less than a mile down the main road made an excellent french roast.
Esther’s Expert Espresso was located in a small shopping center, nested in between the laundromat and the opticial in the “downtown” area. Inside the cafe the scent of cheap coffee and floor cleaner filled the small room and the paint on the blue walls was chipping away slowly. The author sat herself at one of the small wooden tables in a bright green plastic chair.
Moments after she was seated, a chipper waiter was standing in front of her. He was a young man with a face that could be anything from sixteen to twenty-six dressed in jeans and a blue t-shirt. No uniform. The only indication he was employee was the small name plaque he wore. “Quintin.” He smiled widely at her, a small notepad in his hand, clearly happy to be working in the dingy cafe.
“Hello, I’m going to be your server today,” Quintin said. There was an inflection in his voice at the end of his sentence, as if to emphasize his suffocating joy. “Can I get you something to drink to start you off?”
“Just a french roast,” the author replied.
Quintin scribbled down the order. She pulled out her paper and letter, prepared to commence working. She looked up to see Quintin with his jaw unhinged.
“I don’t want to invade your privacy, but I couldn’t help but notice your letter was addressed to Chelsea Holmes,” he said. “Are you the Chelsea Holmes?”
Chelsea found herself returning his smile. It wasn’t every day someone recognized an author in public. Sometimes she forgot her accomplishment herself.
“The author of The Oldest I’ve Ever Been?” Quintin asked.
“I guess that would be me,” she said, shrugging her shoulders as she opened up her computer.
“Well, I’ll get you that french roast,” he said. “Maybe when I come back you can tell me about your sophomore effort. My book club is dying to know what you’re going to do next.”
With that he scurried off and Chelsea was left to stare into the blank document. Her sophomore effort.
Only a brief moment had passed before she saw the waiter running back toward her.
“Here you go,” Quintin said, placing a mug in front of her.
She took a small sip and instantly knew it was the best coffee she had ever had.
“So what’s the book about?” Quintin queried. “I was kind of hoping it would be a sequel to the first book. It ended with Denise going to college, but she’s such an interesting character. Something exciting had to have happened to her in college, right?”
Nothing exciting had happened to Chelsea in college.
“Quintin, is it?” Chelsea asked. The waiter excitedly bobbed his head. “Would you sit with me for a minute?”
Quintin quickly obliged. It wasn’t as if he had any other clients to serve.
“If I were to write a sequel for Denise, what would you like to see happen?” she inquired.
He took a moment to think before responding.
“In the first book, it seemed like the only person she could trust was her best friend,” Quintin began, “ so I’d like to know what became of her friend.”
Her friend and her had slowly lost touch in college.
“I’d like to know about her relationships,” he continued. “Does she find love?”
“Or maybe she starts an amazing career?”
Living off the royalties of a one-hit-wonder was hardly a career.
“I feel as if I’ve said everything there is to be said about Denise,” Chelsea said, looking at the blank screen once again. She ignored Quintin’s sigh of disappointment. “I just can’t seem to find a new character to talk about.”
“You know, there’s this exhibit at Springfield Museum of Culture about the diaries and accounts of earlier settlers in our beautiful town,” Quintin said. Chelsea resisted the urge to wince at him saying “beautiful town.” “I think that great stories can be found in those who came before us. I’m going to scope it out after my shift is over at three.”
“Maybe I’ll see you there,” Chelsea replied.
At three-thirty, the author entered the Springfield Museum of Culture. She had gone through lots of trouble to find the building. It looked like the average house on the street with its pastel blue siding and Tudor shape. The only indication of what it was a small wooden sign out front: “ ring eld Muse o Cult .”
Stepping inside was akin to being transported through time. The worn rosewood floorboard seemed to be arbitrarily covered in psychedelic kaleidoscope rugs and a small school desk served as the ticket kiosk. Sitting at it was an old woman with gray hair thin as straw and , thick-framed glasses that occupied most of her face.
“Welcome to the Springfield Museum of Culture,” the old woman beamed. “How might I help you today?”
“Do you know where I might find the exhibit on the settlers?” asked Chelsea.
“Straight back down the hallway and it’s the first door to your right.”
And so Chelsea headed straight back down the hallway and entered the first door to her right. She determined that the old lady must have converted her house into a museum. To her, it just looked like a small bedroom with plaques on the wall. Quintin was already inside the exhibit.
Before Chelsea could exchange pleasantries with her new friend, she felt her phone vibrate in her pocket. After quickly noting who it was she answered the phone and held it up to her face.
“Did you get the letter?” demanded the woman over the phone. “From the publishers?”
“I think so, I just haven’t gotten around to opening it yet,” Chelsea responded. She noticed Quintin glancing away from the letter on the wall.
“Well, you might want to do so soon. Let’s say that it might be a contract and it just might be six figures.”
“All they need is for you to send in that first three chapters by next week.” Three. Chapters. “Don’t worry if it’s a bit rough.” Rough was a nice way to describe it. “They just want to see that you have a premise. Knowing you, you probably have something amazing.” She didn’t. “I’ll be talking to you soon.” Much to her chagrin.
And with that, her agent hung up. Chelsea spent the rest of the afternoon fervently searching through the accounts of the earliest citizens of Springfield, but she knew within the first minutes that her quest was extraneous. There were no tragedies.
“There’s nothing here,” Chelsea muttered underneath her breath.
Quintin perked up. “What was that?”
“There’s nothing to write about in Springfield. It’s like every other town in America.”
“And what’s wrong with that? Tons of stories have been written about small town America. Places don’t make stories. People do.”
The morning after her visit to the museum, Chelsea stood at the Greyhound station right outside the town. Packing was easy for Chelsea. She had one backpack, even if it was a bit heavy, and two suitcases. She left her furniture behind. She would consider coming back to the small town when she didn’t have a story to write.
She inhaled a deep breath as she heard the bus engine come to a stop behind her. When she boarded, it was almost empty.
The ride was lonely and silent. A few more people joined her along the way, but it was evident the route she had taken was the road less traveled. Hours passed, but eventually she found herself in the big city. Everything was exactly as she remembered it. She passed buskers and arguing street vendors and hopeful tourists, but eventually settled herself down in a busy Starbucks with free wifi, an accommodation that could not be found at Esther’s Express Espressos. She pulled out her laptop and began typing away. But the big city was not her fixation anymore.
“There once was a woman with a museum for a house…”