Sparkaline McMasters glowered at her Remington, though through no fault of her typewriter. She’d written: “The steak of wrath found its mark, and Claudia, bledding porfusly from the braest, fell to the ground, wrihting in pane.”
“Dammit,” she swore, “what’s wrong with my fingers today? And when the hell is somebody going to invent some kind of a device for typewriters that can stop idiots like me from making stupid typos and spelling errors in the first place!”
Bette Nesmith Graham was still a year away from inventing what would be called Liquid Paper, and the first IBM Personal Computer would not be born for another 26 years, and so Sparkaline either had the option of erasing the errors with a hard eraser, or run a line through them and write or type the correction in the empty line above or in the margin.
“Ah, hell,” she grunted, “I’ll just fix everything later,” and continued to type.
It wasn’t easy for the woman. Aside from her 73 years, she still knew how to spell, but advancing arthritis had other ideas, one of these being the mania of seizing her fingers when she least needed them to be seized. For three decades she’d been a prolific writer and had won a modest but still solid readership among fans of fantasy/romance novels. Sparkaline McMasters — her nom de plume, not her real name, which was the less-fetching Agnes Angstrom (a descendant of Anders Jonas Ångström of ångström unit fame) — still entertained a loyal following, but her physical infirmities were beginning to make her job difficult. And to be frank, she was getting not just a little bored with the genre.
Her new novel — the one she was currently working on — wasn’t doing her any favors either. It’s working title, “The Wormhole Snafu”, had nothing to do with the modern scientific usage of the word ‘wormhole’; that is, designating a hypothetical solution of the Einstein field equations having a non-trivial structure connecting separate points in spacetime, much like a tunnel with two ends, each at separate points in spacetime — whatever that meant. American theoretical physicist John Archibald Wheeler wouldn’t coin the term “wormhole” in that sense until 1957. Sparkaline’s “Wormhole”, on the other hand, was the surname of her novel’s antagonist, Lord Gared Wormhole, a thoroughly vermiculate villain who both prevailed and survived through an underhanded ability to worm his way through other people’s lives much like the woodworm beetle’s insatiable and destructive appetite for burrowing into wood furniture. As for the ‘snafu’ part, Lord Wormhole would in due course receive his merited comeuppance, thanks to his own accrued cockups. Albeit wicked through and through, he lacked the shrewdness of a first-rate scoundrel that might have otherwise garnered him the Throne itself.
And speaking of the title’s “Snafu,” Sparkaline begrudgingly knew that her publisher would never allow it, given the acronym’s literal military equivalence. Still, she decided to keep the working title until something else more palatable came to mind. Botch, bungle, fumble, foul up, mess up, and similar synonyms didn’t seem to have the same biting panache of snafu, so probably she’d have to think up something totally different. Sparkaline sighed. She returned her gaze to her typos.
“The steak of wrath, indeed,” she read aloud. “It’s supposed to be the /stake/ of wrath! Hmm? Or is it? What about the steak of wrath?”
She chuckled. Maybe Lord Gared Wormhole instead of being an aristocrat could act as a nefarious sous-chef in the service of the King. Then “the steak of wrath” might be more feasible. Of course, this might also end up turning the novel into more of a satire of some kind. Either way, the hapless Claudia was evidently destined to be skewered. Sparkaline entertained the idea for a while. Why not give it a shot, she thought. Even throw in a few intriguing if not questionable recipes to boot. It would save her from writing another dreary fantasy, which were beginning to bore the hell out of her, even if her readers lapped it up. And why in the service of another king? Wormhole could simply sweat it out in the kitchen of some restaurant. Should it be a fancy-schmancy Italian restaurant or a dive? She could still make Wormhole a saboteur in an eatery, as well as a screwup. But what might be his motive? Why would he bump off restaurant clientele with his “steaks of wrath”? Were they poisoned? Too spicy? Why in God’s name would the restaurant’s chief chef allow such a thing to happen, not to mention management?
Sparkaline McMasters broke off her reveries there. Five other typos to attend to awaited as well, and no telling what her misbehaving fingers were capable of over the rest of the page. She was being silly just because she wearied of yet another potboiler. She massaged her hands, feeling the ache in their joints.
“But what if I did go ahead and write something different?” she asked herself aloud. “I mean altogether different? Maybe the sous-chef angle? Maybe what else? A western?”
She pursed her lips and mused for a several minutes. Then with a shrug and a quick nod of the head, “What the hell, let’s see what I can do with a shoot-em-up, and if that doesn’t work, then back to the psycho sous-chef.”
She tore the page from her typewriter, wadded it up, tossed it in a nearby trash can, and inserted a blank sheet. She rarely if ever initially plotted out her novels. Far more often she simply started writing whatever came into her head, and then worried about devising the sequence of events afterwards. She stared at its pristine whiteness for a few seconds, closed her eyes for a moment, stirred, shook and slowly lowered her gnarled fingers to the keyboard.
“Hell was just not hot enough for TexMex Trotter,” she typed. “Not according to the half dozen townsfolk he’d hornswoggled out of their life savings, herds, homes and land, not to mention seduced wives and daughters. Maudie Trusket was one of the latter. Trotter had sweet-talked that delicate flower into bed, plucked her precious petals, and then left her indecorously untended, a harrowed mother-to-be.”
Sparkaline paused to re-read, and laughed, shaking her head. “Oh, brother! Cockamamie as hell . . . but still, this might be fun.” She continued.
“It did not take Maudie long to realize not only her precarious situation, but also Trotter’s disinclination to assume any culpability or obligation. In a word, he ridiculed her naiveté and blithely continued on his way to other garden sowings. Maudie’s gentle heart wronged, slowly hardened, then turned to stone.
“‘Somehow, I shall avenge myself,’ she swore.”
Sparkaline paused again, musing. “How the heck shall she avenge herself, I wonder . . . ? Ah, but of course! The steak of wrath!”
There was a knock at the door. Shave and a hair cut, two bits. Her son Larry.
“Door’s open, hon,” she shouted.
Lawrence McMasters turned the knob and pushed into his mother’s study.
“Not bothering you?” he asked, seeing her arched behind her typewriter peering at him over the top of her spectacles.
She smiled. “Not a bit, Son. You could be a godsend. I think I need your wise advice.”
“Godsend? Wise advice? How so?”
“Well, for starters, you may well either save me from writing my very first western, or pester me to do it at all costs.”
“A western?” His eyebrows raised.
“Yep. Believe it or not, I am crazily just about to start one.”
“Um-hm. It was a toss-up between that and a restaurant crime thriller. Truth is, I’ve had it writing these fool fantasy romances. I can’t do it anymore. They bore me to tears. The last one almost drove me barmy. Before I die or first go completely senile, I think maybe I’d like to go out with blazing saddles under my carcass instead of Chaucerian maidens bedded by less-than-noble Lotharios. Tell me I’m wrong.”
“Mom! You’ve never once had a maiden bedded by a Lothario.”
“Hmph! Just goes to show that you never read between the lines then. Why do you think my books sell well, or why they could ever be published at all?” She waited a response, but only got a shrug. “Subtlety, lad. Guileful subtlety.”
Her son burst out laughing. “Okay.”
“I’m serious. There’s always an elusive intimation that it’s some heroic Lancelot’s intention to score in the end. Sure, my gals always start out chaste and suffering under the yoke of poverty, misogyny, misfortune, churlish masters, harridan mothers, ruthless overseers, boorish barons, and on and on . . . but in the end they are miraculously rescued by some well-favored benefactor – or, occasionally vice versa, she’s rescuing some poor but handsome schlump in dire straits of his own. But they always end up between the sheets on the last page, a sparkle in the eye of the guy, and the girl ain’t complainin’.”
Sparkaline did not ignore the fact that the beginnings of her possible western sounded suspiciously similar to her previous English period novels.
“Aren’t you mixing metaphors?” observed Larry.
“What do you mean?”
“First it’s Chaucer, then it’s Knights of the Round Table.”
“Hush up. You know what I mean.”
“Yes, but Mom, such cynicism. My-my.”
“Face it, laddie, people eat this stuff up like chocolate candy. But I’ve lost the chocolaty taste to write it.”
“I can understand that. So now you’re thinking a western will spark you up?”
“Who’s to say? Maybe. Could also end up just like my romance novels of Jolly Old England, only now in the location of the rough and ready Not-So-Jolly Old West.”
Larry nodded, still a smile twitching his lips. “Well, Mom, you were born in Arizona after all, so maybe for a change you do need to don your Stetson, pack a loaded six-shooter, sharpen your spurs, fasten your riata, saddle up and, whip in hand, ride hell-bent for leather into the sunset . . .”
“Stop, Son. You’re making me sound like Gail Davis mistreating her overworked horse Target. In any case, I’m now having some second thoughts, wondering how the switch might befuddle my fans.”
Larry raised a hand, musing. “Wait up a bit, Mom. You might be on to something here. A rousing horse opera just might do you a world of good. Hmm, yes.” He paused, then his eyes lit up. “Better yet, why not make it a science-fiction horse opera?”
“A what! Are you out of your mind?”
“On the contrary, I think it may be a stroke of genius. Mixing two completely different genres into one. How many writers have ever tried that?”
“Scads. But aside from that, I don’t know anything about science-fiction.”
“Maybe not, but who cares? Look what Edgar Rice Burroughs did with his John Carter from Mars series. He may have known plenty about fiction, but he didn’t know a blessed thing about science-fiction either.”
“So you’re saying I should do a Flash Gordon at the O.K. Corral.”
“Yes!” Her son chuckled. “Something like that.”
She added dryly, “And shall I guess that you would also propose a Dr. Zarkov for the Doc Holliday role, Dale Arden as the overly congenial barkeep at the Crystal Palace, while Ming the Merciless and his ilk will represent the Clanton brothers and The Cowboys, Tombstone being the planet Mongo?”
Larry laughed. “Yes, that’s the idea!”
“What about Wyatt Earp’s horse, Dick Naylor . . . I mean, Flash Gordon’s spaceship?”
“Actually the spaceship belonged to Zarkov. Wait! Wyatt Earp’s horse’s name was Dick Naylor?”
Sparkaline nodded. “So I’ve been told. Well, your space opera in the Old West is a plum crazy idea, but all the same I kind of like it. I’ll definitely give it some thought. I think if I’d write something like that, though, it’d have to be a farce. And that kind of appeals to me after cranking out all those sober period romances. By the way, Son, what brings you here at this hour? Aren’t you supposed to be at work?”
Larry’s grin turned down. “Oh, that . . . Well, ahem, truth be told, Mom, I got sacked. That’s why I came over . . . to let you know. But not to worry. I’ll find a job elsewhere in a jiffy.”
“Fired? Fired! You’re kidding. Seriously? How could you get fired? You just got hired!”
Larry scratched an ear. “Well, long story short, Mom, I decked my boss.”
Appalled, Sparkaline cried out. “You what! Why on earth would you do that?”
“I’d rather not say.”
“What do you mean you’d rather not say?”
“Well, if you must know, he said something insulting that frankly I could not abide.”
“Insulting? Since when did you ever take issue with an insult?”
“Since this morning.”
“What was the insult?”
“I’d rather not say.”
“You’d rather best say if you know what’s good for you, sonny.”
Larry hesitated, swallowing. “Mom . . .”
“Out with it!”
“Ahem . . . Well, uh, my boss . . . that is, my former boss . . . made, um, a-a disparaging remark about your last three novels . . . and, uh, well, I took exception to his, shall we say, unacceptable appraisal.”
Sparkaline gaped at her son, then coughed. “Ahem . . . well, a person is, uhm, entitled to his or her opinion. I don’t think it merits fisticuffs, however.”
“He called you a hack.”
“H-He called me a hack?”
“He did. A hack and a Grub Street penny-a-liner.”
“He what! A Grub Street penny-a . . .! Why that miserable, low-life bastard!” She thus tried to contain herself. “He said that to you, and for that you clocked him?”
“I did, Mom.”
“Son, Son, you mustn’t do things . . .” Tears suddenly gushed from her eyes. “Oh, hell, come to my arms, my beamish boy!”
He came. She hugged.
Later, after she’d dried her eyes and the two were sharing a mid-afternoon tea laced with an overly generous shot of whiskey, Sparkaline McMasters said, “Larry, darling, since you now seem to be without a job on my account, how would you like to spend some time collaborating with me on my next novel? We’ll do the science-fiction western merger as you suggested.”
“What?” Larry stared at her with open surprise. “But Mom, I don’t write. I’m in advertising.”
“That’s not writing?”
“No, of course not. It’s lying to the public, manipulating them so they’ll buy our clients’ products.”
“And you called me cynical? Wouldn’t you like to help out your old mom?”
Larry shrugged slightly, but intrigued. “Well, gee . . . I don’t know. Maybe. If I can. What’d you have in mind?
“Right now it occurs to me that on top of that crazy plot we might also add what I’ve already been toying with.”
“More, even? What’s that?”
“Well, the working title is, ahem, ‘The Wormhole Snafu’.”
Larry looked shocked. “The what?”
“You heard me. My publisher would never let me call it that, naturally, so instead I’m thinking to call it ‘The Steak of Wrath’.”
“‘The Steak of Wrath’?”
“Yes, but listen to me a bit.”
Larry nodded, dismayed. “I’m all ears.”
Sparkaline went on to explain to her son about the despicable Lord Gared Wormhole, how her quivering arthritic hands had of late been creating peculiar typographical tricks, one of note causing Claudia, the wronged lover of Wormhole, to be mercilessly slain by a “steak of wrath” driven through her breast rather than by a “stake of wrath,” this triggering a harebrained idea of transforming Wormhole instead from a nobleman into a sous-chef with an agenda at an Italian restaurant. Then, even a further shift where Wormhole metamorphs into TexMex Trotter, still a cad, of course, but now an American cad, out to plunder the Old West.
“Gracious!” exclaimed Larry, eyes wide.
His mother nodded. “I know. Then you come along with this screwball whimsy of a Flash Gordon yarn. It’s a wild kettle of fish, that’s for sure. But you know, Son? Somehow I like it.”
Larry blinked. “For sure? Do you really believe we can take all of this colossal mess and mold it into a single novel?”
“Hang on just a tad.” Sparkaline McMasters seemed to zone out for a moment, eyes closed. At last she opened them, a slow smile working on her lips. “Yes, I do think we can do it. And what if we stage it in an Italian restaurant in, say, El Paso or Laredo, Texas, and call it a spaghetti western space opera? What do you think?”
Her son gaped at his mother, dazzled, then convulsed in laughter. “Oh, my gosh, Mom! You’re a bloody genius!”
She smirked sweetly. “I guess I rather am, aren’t I?