Great Artists Steal

Author Terry Gimble bolted upright awake in his plane seat like a rocket. He had been dozing, dreaming that his publisher, In-MEDIAS-Res (IMSR), found out that he had plagiarized his second novel, Country Knights. Gimble was sweating as he looked about. Had I cried out in my sleep?

During his six-hour flight from the Midwest to Seattle (albeit in first class on IMSR’s dime), Gimble had downed every vodka screwdriver proffered by the attendants, but he was unable to erase the emailed message he received shortly after the release of his new novel. It was from Eddie Frist, a high school classmate and rival in Gimble’s hometown Viola, Washington:

You and I know that Country Knights is my story.

The email was spot on; without Eddie’s permission or attribution, Gimble had replicated in Country Knights the lurid stories that Eddie had told Gimble three decades earlier.

Gimble had not answered Eddie’s email, but now, at IMSR’s direction and insistence, he found himself, for the first time in decades, headed to Viola, where Gimble feared that his plagiarism was about to be exposed. If IMSR got wind of Eddie’s claims, Gimble’s goose would be cooked, and his books would be dropped like hot potatoes.

Bad Taste, Gimble’s first novel, was distinguishable only by its name from a myriad of other self-published novels, but fortune tilted the table. Out of the blue, Bad Taste was optioned by IMSR, a streaming production company, its selection as random and happenstance as a slot machine jackpot.

A resultant TV series, retitled Carnal, was a hit. For the publication rights to his next novel, IMSR offered Gimble an ample advance and a plan to reissue Bad Taste, now named Carnal to trade on the TV serial’s wild popularity. When Gimble objected to the name change, Sally Quant in IMSR’s front office was blunt: “There’s lots more money on the table for Carnal and not a cent for Bad Taste.” Gimble was more than happy to take the money.

Sally quickly put Gimble on the road, pushing Carnal through bookstore readings, a campaign of ads, and a multitude of TV interviews. An unemployed bachelor, slovenly, and somewhat of a loner, Gimble came to enjoy his celebrity, but meanwhile his writing ground to a halt. He had no idea for his next book.

In desperation, Gimble reached back to decades-old memories of Eddie Frist’s racy tales set in Viola, their rural hometown, and after four months of drafting, Gimble’s manuscript Country Knights was in the mail to IMSR. Gimble’s relief on the acceptance of the book turned to horror when Sally Quant scheduled Gimble to be filmed reading Country Knights in his hometown.

“The video will be part of the TV ad campaign,” Sally explained as Gimble writhed.

“I haven’t been to Viola in thirty years,” Gimble cried.

Sally’s answer was testy. “Hey, you set the story there, not us.”

Frantically, Gimble searched Google, only to find that Eddie still lived near Viola. Eddie had been Gimble’s doppelgänger in class, just as good in math, a terrific writer on the school newspaper, but more handsome. After college, they never crossed paths again. Now Gimble was to be reunited with Viola and Eddie whether he liked it or not.

Even anesthetized by alcohol on the plane, Gimble could not forget the origin of Country Knights that he had purloined. In the summer of their senior year, he and Eddie had snuck away from boys’ camp after pilfering provisions from the girls’ camp next door, hiking deep into the Cascade foothills. In front of a campfire that night, Eddie regaled Gimble with his ribald fables of Viola residents, the two giggling boys puffing on a seedy marijuana joint that popped, fizzed, burned, and required swigs of cheap beer to soften their roughened throats.

Etched in Gimble’s mind was the dark woods, the campfire, the dope, the improbable accounts of unmoored libidinous Violians, Eddie effervescent as he exposed in detail the sensual longings, emotional heartbreaks, and sometimes inventively amatory undertakings of otherwise obscure Viola neighbors. His sketches were both stimulating and lyrical, wedging themselves deeply into Gimble’s admiring brain. He had never lost their flavor and drama.

As he regurgitated Eddie’s yarns upon the page, Gimble rationalized he was not the first to use the work of others. He recalled his Viola High English teacher Mrs. Grover quoting many artists — Beckett, Picasso, Eliot, and Stravinsky — all of whom had reputedly said that “weak artists copy, and great artists steal.”

So, with a deep breath, Gimble refined Eddie’s stories in his new manuscript, named it Country Knights, and sent it to Sally Quant at IMSR. She loved it.

Gimble’s assigned IMSR publicist, Amory Flint, met him at the Seattle airport. She was young, short, wiry, and wore thick glasses and running shoes. Gimble wondered how long she had been out of school. Standing by their rental car with a pencil stuck in her hair, she looked like a frazzled news reporter. Amory tossed him the keys.

“You drive,” she said. “It’s your town we’re heading to, and I’m pooped. One small town too many.”

Gimble shook his head and handed the keys back. “I’ve drunk too much,” he mumbled.

Amory stared silently, then gripped the wheel with a vengeance, jamming the accelerator to the floor, and weaved onto the freeway, all the time answering her emails and messages with her right hand while driving full speed and steering with her left.

Gimble had hoped to be assisted by a worshipful lover of literature, maybe someone longing for insight with an artist of proven talent. Perhaps someone capable of a fling. But Amory showed little respect for Gimble, plus her driving unnerved him.

“Could you keep your eyes on the road?” he asked with a thickened tongue, trying to get Amory’s attention off her messaging as he simultaneously weighed various schemes to skip his Viola appearance. Maybe a car accident would not be so bad.

“You had your chance. I gave you the keys first,” Amory answered, “so now lighten up and enjoy the ride.” Her eyes roved from iPhone to the road, then back to the iPhone. “I hear everybody in the hinterlands loved your TV show, Carnal. Believe it or not, you seem to be pretty popular in the outback.”

Outback? Hinterlands? Gimble felt buffeted. He could not tell if Amory was mocking him.

“How is the book doing in San Francisco?” he asked. “Or Seattle, or Portland?”

Amory answered cryptically. “Trust me, those people are not your niche, unless you’ve earned some literary awards that I am unaware of.”

Gimble shrunk down in his seat. Amory had classified Gimble as a peripheral author, shamefully endorsed only in the “outback” and the “hinterlands.” No wonder she seemed uninterested in him. Gimble tried again.

“So, what about you? Do you ever read the work of your…” Gimble grasped for the word artists.

“No time. My job is press, media, stuff like that. I leave reading the product to the editors and reviewers.”

“Well, what’s the last book you really read?” Gimble persisted. Amory gave him a look.

“I don’t remember, but it was not Bad Taste or Carnal, or whatever you called your first product.”

Product. Amory said it twice. It did hurt, Gimble had to admit, and the vodka was wearing off, leaving him unbalanced.

“Maybe we could stop at a liquor store,” Gimble suggested.

Amory tossed her curly hair.

“No time, friend. And perk up. Possibly you’ll get a TV series out of this one too.”

Gimble felt slammed. She is tough. Respect for Gimble was the last thing on Amory’s mind.

As their car approached Viola, Gimble recalled that as a kid he had imagined, on a snowy day, sliding from one end of Viola to the other. It was that small: the two-block downtown with one tavern, the Elbow Room. Gimble’s schools: elementary, middle, and high all in one building. Were his teachers still alive? The Congregational church and the Catholic church faced each other like adversaries. His parents belonged to neither.

He had no desire to see his family’s home, a driveway off the state road past some trees and a soggy lawn. Mother dead; father remarried, living in Oregon. Gimble had no current knowledge of other people in Viola he once knew. They would look older, possibly unrecognizable. He could imagine what they’d say about him. Tubbier. Unshaven. Stuck up. Worse, labeled a plagiarizer.

Viola’s recreation center sat next to the high school baseball diamond. Amory handed him the car keys.

“You’re driving back,” she said.

For a moment, Gimble was pleased that the parking lot seemed full of cars and pickups an hour before he was to read inside. Then he remembered that Eddie might be there as well, and his sense of dread returned. As he opened his door, a short, stout woman scurried toward him.

“Terry!” she shouted. “Do you remember me?” Her white, unkempt hair waved like spaghetti escaping a colander.

With a shudder Gimble recalled a younger version of the face; her side-to-side waddle was unmistakable. She was that girl who seemed to pursue Gimble relentlessly from Viola Elementary all the way through high school, searching the halls each day and then mercilessly hanging around him until he could make a getaway. Her name escaped him. Barbara? Belle? Bridget? Briana? Betsy?

“Your book changed my life,” she said. “And I have brought it with me.” She handed him An American Princess by Terrence Tamphill.

Gimble to Tamphill: It was not even close. Whatever-her-name-was could not remember his name either. Gimble couldn’t see the humor in it. Should I speak up or just sign Tamphill’s name? He took the pen that she held out.

“What would you like me to say?” he asked.

She extracted a Kleenex, wiped her nose, then gave him a wistful look.

“What about ‘to my close friend who I have never, never forgotten’? And put my name by ‘close friend.’ My children will be so excited. Maybe they’ll shut off those cell phones and start reading books.”

Gimble thought about how he could trap her into disclosing her name.

“Should I use your nickname?”

She looked at Gimble quizzically. “Is there a nickname for Brenda?”

Good point. He handed her his notebook and the pen.

“Put down what you want me to write. And spell your name,” he said.

“Okay,” she said and looked at him sideways. “I betcha that my handwriting is still better than yours.”

Gimble laboriously scrolled the requested message and handed the book back to Brenda, who clutched it in the crook of her left arm, then lunged at Gimble and, to his dismay, hugged him before rushing away.

Gimble stood there in a state of paralyzing queasiness. Brenda had smelled like French fries. Who am I kidding? Bad Taste or Carnal was only a big deal because of TV, and now I’ve put out a plagiarized story. My luck is about to run out.

Another woman sauntered toward Gimble. This one he knew from her predatory gait. It was Rochelle Mayhue. Rochelle had married Eddie Frist. Gimble had ignored the wedding invitation and also failed to send a present.

In high school, Rochelle had seemed to shimmer with budding sexuality at a time when Gimble anxiously but futilely searched in the bathroom for signs of body hair, his dad jiggling the locked door, “What are you doing in there?”

Rochelle had packed on a few pounds. She wore tight jeans and a deep-V sleeveless blouse even in the afternoon chill. Her hairstyle was that of the eighties. Kind of farm Farrah Fawcett. She still stared and Gimble still could not meet her eyes. High school all over again.

“So there you are,” she said, unblinkingly appraising him.

“Yes,” Gimble answered, not wishing to disappoint. Then, “You still look great.” What a ridiculous expression.

“Did you drive up from Seattle? That’s a hike at this time of day. Staying overnight somewhere around here?”

“Well, yes to both.” Gimble tried to decide whether he would be safer if he told Rochelle that his event handler was a female.

“Eddie and I divorced, you know. Likely he won’t be around tonight.” Rochelle arched her painted eyebrows, letting that factoid linger in the air. Was her declaration an invitation for Gimble to extend Rochelle an invitation? Or just another opportunity for him to misunderstand Rochelle’s signals?

Gimble chose to be ambiguous.

“Well, that’s too bad.” Let her guess which: Either it’s too bad that they divorced or that he might miss seeing Eddie.

In a sense, it was good that Rochelle had cleared the field for the night. If Eddie’s ex was there to “make” the local scene or “make” somebody else, Eddie might not want to show. Gimble’s expelled breath of relief was premature.

“Actually, Eddie is telling everybody who’ll listen that you stole your new book from him. Said it started that night after you guys swiped all the food from girls’ camp and took off to the boonies with your loot. You could’a taken me along, too.” She sighed. “Girls’ camp was a drag.”

She turned a thoughtful face to Gimble. “Are you gonna mention any of us tonight?”

“Well, I hadn’t planned on it.” Gimble tried to quell the quake in his voice by clearing his throat.

“Did you read my first book?” he asked.

“Nope, but I watched Carnal on TV. I know which one was me. The good-time gal.” Rochelle leered at Gimble, who tried to look unaffected but found himself turning his eyes away from hers.

“You’re not, I mean, she’s not in my novel.” He found himself blushing. “The screenwriter added her to the TV script.”

“No big deal. Anyway, I’ll be at the Elbow Room later if you’re inclined to talk about old times, and maybe you can tell me about your new book, or Eddie’s book, whichever it is.” Rochelle winked and walked away, waving her hand as if she had dismissed Gimble.

Amory grabbed Gimble’s arm.

“It’s time to go in,” she said. Gimble took a deep breath as they entered the building. Standing in the back by the center’s rear doors, Gimble saw the speaker’s podium flooded with light. He anticipated the audience’s scrutinizing glare as he retold them the rich, rollicking yarn that Eddie spun in the woods so long ago. Would any of them know that it was not his story?

A tap on Gimble’s shoulder startled him. Eddie stood there, balding now and red-faced, but still with the big, self-confident smile.

Gimble sucked in his gut. Eddie had his hand out. Gimble took it.

“I’m surprised you’ve come,” Gimble lied.

“I’m surprised you recognized me.” Eddie’s laugh all but danced. “Anyway, it would be a shame not to see you, this being your first homecoming I know of. By the way, we all watched Carnal. I tried to figure out who was who. I wasn’t put off that Rochelle was the town slut. Believe me, that actually got a lot of laughs around here. Art and life colliding, so to speak.”

“The screenwriter invented her, not me,” Gimble answered hotly.

“And Country Knights, that’s quite the double entendre.” Eddie pronounced the French words slowly, as if he were chewing gum. “By the way, did you get my email? I never saw an answer. I wrote a manuscript, too. It’s an awful lot like yours but with a better title.”

Gimble felt the match was on. Eddie’s use of the word “manuscript” was a reminder. I’m as smart as you. With Eddie, Gimble had always read antagonism and rivalry the same way. First Eddie would make an effort to unlevel the field before choosing the game to be played and which side to be on. Then, at Gimble’s feeble response, Eddie would begin to vanquish him, accompanied by a stream of mirth at Gimble’s expense.

But Eddie seemed to have something else in mind.

“We should get a picture,” he said. “Could use it in my next campaign.”

“Campaign?” Gimble repeated. “Are you the mayor? Or something?”

“The second. A county commissioner, one of three. I’m in Viola no more than you. Except in election years. And I still have my day job. Since Rochelle divorced me, I have to watch every cent. But hey,” he clapped Gimble on the back, “just send me a campaign check.” That cavorting laugh again.

“I’m surprised you bought Country Knights,” Gimble said.

“Didn’t. My bookworm daughter Miranda has a Kindle. That’s where I saw it. For sure it’s not a money-maker. That’s just my opinion, of course. I could be wrong.” Gimble felt Eddie’s arm encircle his waist. His face got close. Gimble could feel the heat of Eddie’s breath.

“But if you get another TV series with it, I’m going to want a piece.” Eddie’s smile was that of a deal-maker.

“I’m sure we can work something out.” Gimble tried to smile wryly. “Do you remember Mrs. Grover in English? She said, ‘Great artists steal.’ Remember?”

“Is that a confession that you stole my story?” Eddie said. “Then you’re under arrest. I’m also a deputy sheriff.”

Gimble stiffened.

“Ha-ha.” Eddie grinned like the Cheshire cat. “Just kidding. Had you for a moment.” He pulled Gimble away from the crowd and fished out a joint from his shirt pocket.

“Here, take a puff of this.”

Gimble looked around as Eddie lit up.

“Not here,” he said.

“C’mon,” urged Eddie. “For old times’ sake. This is good shit, believe me.” Gimble reluctantly took a drag and held it in. Smooth. Eddie was right. His dope was much better than the stuff thirty years ago.

“High end,” Gimble said, exhaling as Amory approached him. She sniffed.

“Have you been smoking weed?”

They passed the rec center color guard, there to lead the Pledge of Allegiance, aging vets in helmets sucking in their paunches, smoking, and gabbing. Tilted against the wall were two flag stanchions: Old Glory and Washington State’s iridescent green banner.

The cannabis kicked in hard and Gimble began to giggle. The silvered helmets, empty white rifle stocks, leggings, big bellies in too-tight uniforms. Hilarious. Where’s their sunglasses?

Gimble threw the vets a salute, and Amory pushed his hand down quickly, rolling her eyes. She shoved a big-print version of Country Knights into his arms.

“Don’t forget your damn book, or are you too stoned to read?”

Gimble’s mind floated like the first time he took acid. Unfamiliarity flavored everything. The late-day sky darkened with a hint of a licorice raincloud that cast shadows on the attendees streaming into the rec center in pairs as if they were creatures clambering into Noah’s ark.

Gimble climbed the podium stairs. He sat heavily and uncertainly under the heat of the overhead lights. The large-print version of Country Knights in his lap suddenly weighed a ton. The book was growing bigger and he was shrinking.

Gimble focused on the crowd; there was a hunger in their upturned faces, their cheekbones angled, each set of jaws ajar, ready to ingest a meal. It occurred to Gimble that he was the entrée of a repast, a Viola escapee recaptured and about to be served on a plate garnished by a color guard. Autor tartare. His bones, fingernails, and teeth would be the only leftovers.

Petrified, Gimble let the book slip to the floor. Survival hung in the balance. On the center aisle, the color guard was forming up with their flag stanchions and rifles at the ready, but Gimble still had the advantage of surprise. He would charge out the rec center’s side door. Yes, he might find it necessary to fight his way out, hand to hand. Romans versus the Gauls at the Rubicon. His publisher, IMSR, would understand completely.

Gimble inhaled deeply. The air-conditioned atmosphere filled his lungs with energizing oxygen. His skin color reddened, muscles hardened. His big-print version of Country Knights remained abandoned on the floor.

“At-tention,” shouted the color guard. They advanced toward Gimble, pointing the spear-like flagpoles at him, the sharpened tips gleaming with malevolent intention. As the audience rose, Gimble shifted into a crouch, then leaped to his right off the podium and broke for the exit.

His racing heart about to burst, Gimble found the door pliant, and his hands thrust it open. The cold evening air hit his face. He searched his pockets for the car keys, while in his brain a title for a new novel began to crystallize, his first original thought of the day. He would call it Outflanking the Cannibals. Brilliant. It could be a blockbuster.

Photo by lightpoet/Adobe Stock


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