THE IDEA SHOP
The laws of physics to the contrary, there was such a thing as a perfect vacuum. It lived at 1326 Bradford Street, in a third-floor apartment, squarely between the ears of Stephen Shaw. It appeared promptly at 10:00 a.m. on Saturdays, as soon as Steve sat down to write, and it disappeared when Steve surrendered and admitted to himself that he still had no idea for his Great American Novel.
I just need an idea, Steve thought, slumped in his chair. Steve was convinced that he had a brilliant, compelling story to tell, one that would vault him into the first rank of American novelists. But there was no novel, not even a short story, just emptiness.
At 37, Steve was employed as an oxymoron -- a customer satisfaction clerk at the Department of Motor Vehicles. He hated his job. It was crushing the artist in him, ruining his imagination, and slowly eating his soul. This is only my day job, Steve told himself every morning, but every night he believed it less and less.
During one particularly difficult day at work, Steve remembered The Idea Shop, which his bus passed every morning. It was a quaint brick building, partly covered in ivy. There was a black store cat which Steve frequently saw sleeping in the window. A small sign advertised “Successful Ideas for Successful People.”
Steve always ignored The Idea Shop as a likely self-help cult recruiting center. But not today -- today his despair led him to check it out during lunch.
The black cat retreated to the back of the store when Steve entered. The interior resembled a book store. Nine rows of shelves ran from the front to the back, with the aisles partially blocked by bargain bins. Each row contained a different subject. There were signs for fiction, non-fiction, poetry, school, businesses, and many more. A few customers were pulling book-sized cardboard boxes from shelves and reading the descriptions of the ideas inside.
Steve walked down Aisle 4, the business aisle, taking random boxes from the shelves. “TinFoil – a social network for imaginary friends.” “Conspiracy web site – they’ll know why.” “Boat Cleaning – no experience, training, or license. Hose needed.” “Consulting Life Expert – you’re an expert on your own life, now interfere with others. No training.”
Steve felt overwhelmed, but someone behind him suddenly tapped his shoulder.
“It can be a bit much at much at first,” said a stranger, amiably. “You’re not a businessman, are you?” The stranger pulled his long black coat tighter around himself.
“Not at heart,” admitted Steve.
“I can tell -- you’re a writer.” The stranger smiled.
“How did you know?” Steve wondered.
“I know people. I’m Lucas Abeddon, and I own this store. Let’s go to the fiction area,” said Mr. Abeddon as he guided Steve to Aisle 8.
Aisle 8 contained idea boxes for novels, short stories, and poetry. Steve marveled at the titles. “Hooves: the Civil War as told by a talking Confederate horse”; “The Teddy Bear Detective (young adult series): a nine-year-old finds lost stuffed toys, solves mysteries and saves the world”; “The Mange: adventures of a half-magician, half-genii (trilogy).”
Mr. Abeddon watched as Steve’s face lit up. “These aren’t really you -- let’s go over here.”
The American Novels section was near the middle, and Mr. Abeddon chose the “Mash-Up” idea box.
“I’m not so sure,” said Steve.
“Take that one, friend,” encouraged Mr. Abeddon. “Trust me. For you, it’s free -- I can tell you’re special.”
“Thank you! That’s very kind,” said Steve, who took the package with him.
On Saturday, Steve opened the idea box. He found a computer disk and a pair of virtual reality goggles. Steve put in the disk, adjusted the goggles, and hit “play.”
Steve had the visual ride of his life.
Millions of words rushed by, looking as if they had gone through a blender. None of it made sense. All of it made sense. All American literature, even James Fennimore Cooper, flashed through Steve’s brain, obliterating his vacuum.
Now, not only could he finally write, he had to. Steve pulled off his goggles and started typing.
Oh America, My America
A novel by
[plot outline draft 1]
It was a dark and stormy night. Suddenly, a monstrous whale swam up the Mississippi, wreaking havoc. He raged for miles upriver, destroying anything in his path, eating a raft with a boy and a slave. The whale was unstoppable until it reached a dock with a green light at its end. Standing on the dock was a plucky young girl, her brother, and the best father in history, who took his rifle and killed the whale with one shot, releasing the slave, who escaped across the ice floes to freedom.
Steve worked hard on his book for many months. By the time he added a frontiersman or two and a war, Oh America, My America was over 700 pages of gut-wrenching prose.
Steve proudly typed “The End,” and popped open a bottle of champagne to celebrate.
He took some time off before beginning the next stage. I need to find a publisher, Steve thought. Steve wanted the perfect one, so after some research, he submitted Oh America, My America to 25 lucky publishing companies.
He did not have to wait long for the responses.
Dear Mr. Shaw,
You’re kidding, aren’t you?
Editor, Putnam Press
The other answers were just as crushing (“Please send this to your psychiatrist.” “Received by accident. Returned immediately.” “Why us? What did we do to you?”). Steve even received a 26th letter from an unknown publisher: “Don’t even think of sending it here. We have lawyers.”
Steve, as a DMV clerk, was used to rejection, so he knew just what to do – blame someone else.
That someone was Lucas Abeddon. The same day he received the 26th letter, Steve burst through the door at The Idea Shop, sending the cat running away, and demanded to see “that cheat, Mr. Abeddon!”
Mr. Abeddon ran from the back of the store. Steve thought he saw what looked like a barbed tail poking out from Mr. Abeddon’s black trench coat, which he quickly hid. It was just the coat’s belt, Steve thought.
“What’s this all about?” asked Mr. Abeddon calmly.
“I used the idea, but no one will publish my book,” Steve said angrily.
“You were able to write a novel – we’re not responsible for the result,” explained Mr. Abeddon patiently. “Talent is a very expensive extra.”
“How much? Should I re-write the book?”
“Re-writing will take forever -- I have a better idea. I’m also an agent, so I can work out the publishing. Remember, John Grisham was rejected 25 times before an associate of mine arranged for his first novel to be published.”
Is there something moving under his coat? I can’t let silly worries stop me, thought Steve.
“I’ve done this many times before,” Mr. Abeddon assured him, “and I guarantee publication. No payment until the contract’s complete.”
I’ve worked so hard, given up so much for this, Steve thought, what’s a little more?
“Here’s the contract -- it’s just my standard form. Sign it, and Oh America, My America will be published.” Mr. Abeddon pulled the document from his coat pocket.
Steve wanted publication too much – the fame, the money, but most of all the vindication. No one had believed in him, not even Steve himself. It will all be mine! Steve signed, not even reading the contract. Deep down, he suspected the truth about Mr. Abeddon, but it didn’t matter, not now.
There was no blast of lightning, no tears of angels to mark the loss of another soul, nothing except a lavish book publication party six months later. Steve was surrounded by beautiful women, jealous men, and stacks of Oh America, My America. It was perfect.
Steve mingled with the guests and accepted their congratulations. The champagne flowed and the hors d'oeuvres were wonderful, especially the crab puffs, his favorite.
By midnight, Steve began to notice that no one was buying his book. How could I forget to ask for book sales! With that realization, the contract was complete. Steve grabbed one last crab puff as the Pit of Hell opened before him and demons dragged his soul to eternal torment.
Satan always visited new arrivals in their pits. “Now you finally know how awful your book was!” Satan told Steve, giving him a few lashes for fun and turning up the flames.
“I have just given you the talent to create the most beautiful, important books ever written, but you won’t be able to write anything -- you are condemned to read your vile book unceasingly, knowing the treasures you now could write and how horrible that damn book is. Your despair will increase with every reading.”
Satan vanished, leaving his laughter hanging in the air.
Steve could hear an anguished voice from the next pit. The soul of a New York Times book critic was constantly reading her review of Oh America, My America aloud. It was not favorable.
Shortly after his triumph, Satan closed The Idea Shop. As a trap for souls, it had its benefits, but business was down. Satan needed a new snare, and the Internet offered such endless possibilities, especially for writers.
* * * * *
A big thank-you to my wife, halfshellvenus, for beta-reading this.