Tucker Dudley folded the rickety card table and shoved it in the trunk of his elderly Honda Civic. He cleared some space and heaved a nearly-full box of unsold novels into the car. Dudley stretched his back and stared balefully at the ground where three more boxes awaited his attention.
"Good day, Tucker?" Gina Stuart asked.
Tucker glanced over at the older woman who was loading her unsold paintings into her new Lexus SUV. Gina was an artist who had the booth next to Tucker. She was a curious woman, independently wealthy, who spent her days at the Shenandoah County Flea Market trying to sell paintings that looked like they were done by a small child with a disability.
"Excellent, Gina," Tucker replied, unable to restrain his sarcasm. "I sold three books today."
"That's not so bad," Gina replied. "I wish I had sold three paintings."
Dudley nodded wisely. "I'll tell you my secret -- sell below cost. I'm selling my books for less than the discounted price I paid for them. I'm stealing from myself."
"Maybe business will pick-up, Tucker. I'll see you tomorrow."
Dudley forced a tired smile. "That would certainly be ironic." He finished loading the books and started the car. It was time to go to work.
"I am not a failure," Tucker said aloud as he stood at the kitchen counter staring at the royalty check he had just received from his publisher. The two figure amount on the check belied his assertion.
Tucker was a professional writer. He spent his days at the flea market trying to supplement the meager sales of his novels by his new publisher. Tucker had been a moderately successful mid-list author with a large publisher back in the halcyon days when he was burning with youth, energy and creativity. Those days were long gone, helped along by the increasingly frequent absence of his Muse and the rapidly growing popularity of e-books. Tucker could only watch in stunned disbelief as authors rushed to sites willing to facilitate free giveaways of their books in hopes of achieving a higher ranking for their work that everyone knew was bogus and unearned. The net result, not surprisingly, was an industry-wide drop in book sales.
The recession had cost Tucker his publishing contract. His new publisher, a small press that lacked the resources of the larger houses, kept urging him to do "free days" and other giveaway promotions. Tucker continued to resist, mainly because he believed mass giveaways were tantamount to an admission that the work was without merit and not worth purchasing. Despite the evidence to the contrary, Tucker still had confidence in his talent and the work he produced.
He stared at the keyboard and tried to think. He was tired from his day at the flea market. Tucker spent his days trying to make eye contact with prospective customers who usually walked past his booth with barely a glance. He filled the time checking and updating his website as well as the myriad sites that carried his work. Tucker also kept his Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn accounts updated. His publisher was constantly stressing the importance of social media. As far as Tucker could tell it was little more than a time-sucking celebration of banality that did almost nothing to improve his book sales.
"Think!" he swore.
Tucker was mentally and emotionally exhausted from his daily failure at the market and the strain from spending his evenings trying to create some income from his freelance projects. Of course, he had no current freelance assignments; that was the problem. He had received a nice check earlier in the year for a ghost-writing job and another handsome commission from an elderly woman who had engaged his services to help her produce a memoir for her family.
That money was gone. On the bright side, his credit card balances and car loan were paid off. Tucker knew he would need a new car soon. The Civic had over 150,000 miles on the odometer. God only knew where he would scrape up the money for a down payment. He didn't have enough in his checking account to cover this month's mortgage payment. He would need to transfer the last of his savings to avoid an overdraft.
Tucker ran his hands through his hair and pushed his chair away from the keyboard. He was a regular contributor to two magazines that were happy to pay five cents a word for short stories written by a semi-prominent novelist. Tucker worked hard to preserve the fiction that he was simply taking a break from writing novels and had achieved a level of financial success that allowed him to recharge his creative batteries while dabbling in short stories and side projects.
He had recently completed a couple of stories for the magazines, about four thousand words each. They wouldn't need anything else from him until the following month.
Let's see, Tucker, that's a total of eight thousand words at five cents per word. How far do you think four hundred dollars will stretch? And let's not forget your book selling business at the flea market. On a good day, after paying the booth fee and figuring in the cost of gas, your net profit is approximately zero. What are you going to do after you finally get rid of all your books? You've sold all your free author copies and you don't have money to buy more, even with the discount. Why would you even bother? It's obvious from your royalty checks that people are no longer interested in your work. You need to come up with a Plan B.
Tucker turned off the computer and decided to call it a night. He had until next month to produce something for the magazines. That wouldn't be hard; he could do it in a single day. The fact that the stories would, undoubtedly, be formulaic and uninspired did not bother him. His situation was far too dire to allow him the luxury of an artistic conscience. Although he was reluctant to admit it to himself, Tucker also knew he didn't have the same respect for the short story form as he had for full length prose.
"Good morning, Tucker," Gina said as she began setting up her paintings. "I brought doughnuts."
Tucker gratefully accepted two of the breakfast treats and tried not to look at the paintings. It looked like the work of one of Gina's grandchildren that belonged on her refrigerator.
The day passed slowly and produced nothing in the way of sales or insight that would solve Tucker's problems.
He stood over the sink eating a bologna sandwich for supper while staring down at the garbage disposal. Tucker wiped his hands on his pants, found a spoon, and carried a container of chocolate cake frosting into his study. He stared at the blank computer screen, eating the frosting and trying to think.
I could probably qualify for public assistance. I just need to walk in to a social services office, provide some information, and walk out with an EBT card. At least I wouldn't starve to death. The royalty checks and short story money are enough to cover utilities. Actually, I don't need to worry about utilities since there is no way I can continue to pay the mortgage and keep the house.
Tucker went to bed early but couldn't fall asleep. His mind was in overdrive, racing in circles as he grappled with the problem while trying to ignore the specter of destitution. He knew he couldn't actually bring himself to apply for public assistance. It would break his spirit, destroy his dignity, and be the end of him professionally. He would never write another word. Tucker had been a writer his entire life, publishing his first work, a novella, while still in high school. He had no other skills or experience to offer a potential employer.
He fell into a light doze around dawn. An hour later he shot up out of bed like he had been zapped with an electric cattle prod. His heart was pounding and his mouth was dry.
Tucker took a quick shower, swallowed some orange juice and toast, and hurried to the storage room to locate what he needed. Ten minutes later he was on the way to the flea market. For the first time in weeks, maybe months, Tucker felt at peace. He had a plan.
"Is that a smile I see?" Gina asked. "I haven't seen one of those on your face in a long time."
Tucker nodded and laughed happily.
"And I haven't heard that laugh since forever. Did you win the big lottery or something?"
"No, it's nothing like that, Gina. I just finally figured out some things. Better late than never, I guess."
The morning passed slowly, as usual, but Tucker found himself savoring the peace and quiet. He didn't bother checking his website, e-mail, or Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn accounts. Instead, he simply sat back and enjoyed his new-found serenity.
Around noon, Tucker got up from his chair, stretched his back, and looked over at Gina who was flipping through a magazine.
"Do you mind watching my booth for a while, Gina? I won't be gone long."
"Take your time," Gina said. "I'm not exactly swamped."
Tucker laughed as he grabbed some things and left his booth.
"Hey!" Gina called.
Tucker stopped in his tracks and slowly turned around. His face looked empty.
"I like the new and improved Tucker," Gina laughed.
Tucker relaxed and continued on his way down to the first booth in the market. The woman smiled and asked if she could help him select some jewelry. It was all handmade.
The woman's smile evaporated when Tucker produced a gun and pointed it at her.
"I'm a novelist. I sell my books at one of the booths here."
The jewelry maker watched in frozen horror as Tucker smiled and handed her a book. The gun never wavered.
"Sales have been slow, but I finally came up with a new and improved marketing plan. This is way better than some Internet platform."
A wild laugh briefly escaped his mouth.
"That will be twelve dollars for the book. Don't worry about the sales tax," Tucker added with a grotesque wink.
The woman quickly handed over the money and Tucker moved on to the next booth. He had ninety six dollars in his pocket by the time the police arrived.
Tucker dropped the gun and raised his hands.
"Don't shoot!" he hollered, grinning fiercely.
The police cuffed him and read him his rights. Tucker nodded and smiled agreeably. He felt like a man on top of the world. This would surely increase his book sales. He could write about it himself from prison. There might even be a movie deal in it.
"My God, Tucker," Gina said as the police led him past her booth. Her hand was over her mouth and Tucker was worried that she might start crying.
"Please don't cry, Gina. I hate to see a woman cry."
"What do you want me to do with your books, Tucker?" she asked in a quivering voice. "I'll look after your booth while you're gone. I can keep an account of your sales and the money will be waiting for you when you get out. You didn't hurt anybody. You didn't even rob them, really. You just made them buy your books. You'll be back soon."
Tucker felt his eyes grow moist. "You're a good friend Gina. I would be very grateful for your sales help while I'm gone."
The police began to lead him out to the patrol car.
"Gina," Tucker called over his shoulder.
Gina looked up. Tucker noticed the tears leaking from her eyes. The distress he felt at the sight was overwhelmed by the compassion and tenderness he felt toward the woman. Her artistic talent was, after all, almost non-existent.
"You'll have to buy your own gun," he said softly.