By Tom Williams
In our second issue, we published a story called "Three Piece Combo with Drink," a weird, affecting, fantastic story by Tom Williams about a failed novelist who finds a measure of success by placing his work with a fast food company. It came in through the slush pile. We didn't know Tom. We were just figuring out at the time what Barrelhouse could or should be, and Tom was just starting to get work placed. Fast forward ten or so years and the story is the first in Tom's much and rightly celebrated new book, Among the Wild Mulattos. We're so proud that we were able to publish this early work, and that it helped, in whatever small way, to nourish Tom's unique and really essential voice. This is kind of why we do this whole thing.
Don't forget to read our interview with Tom, where we discuss this story.
During the post-lunch lull at Cousin Luther’s, I thought I’d discovered the cure to all that ailed me.
I was staring at the menu of that fried chicken franchise in my hometown, trying to forget the three form rejection letters that had arrived that afternoon. Had the magazines been The New Yorker, The Atlantic and Paris Review, I’d have been on my way to the post office, but I’d been turned down by Random Acts of Prose, Amateur Writers Unite!, and an on-line number, Boning the Muse. With my fifty-first, -second and –third rejections of the year, behind me—and it was only mid-February—I might have preferred something stronger, but Muscadine was in a dry county and the package store fifteen miles away.
So I ordered a three-piece combo with drink and found a table in the back near the right hand window. I filled my cup with ice and Coke, then sat, my back to the counter and open kitchen. I ate my sides first, the silken slaw and peerless dirty rice, and was simultaneously anticipating the first bite of chicken. Still, glimpses of the Xeroxed slips—none bigger than a matchbook—flickered on the edges of my mental vision, which initialized a chain of recalled rejections: from editors and agents, writing programs and conferences, for grants and fellowships. So bad had things gotten in my four-year apprenticeship, I feared Poets and Writers would turn down my subscription request. And though I’d made no guarantees, I believe now I stood near a resolve: I’d write one more piece of fiction and send it out. If it came back, I’d quit right then and learn to content myself as the night manager of the Delta Lanes Bowling Alley.
But at Cousin Luther’s, it was time for the chicken. Not time to eat it yet—I needed a few more steps before I’d savor this fried chicken, mass-produced but still as fine as any southern granny’s. I spread two napkins on my lap, splashed on my tray a sizeable puddle of Louisiana Hot Sauce, and sprinkled the Cajun spice packet over my breast, wing and leg. I tugged my chair closer, made sure I was the only patron—a person of color, I tend to be wary about public consumption of watermelon, barbecue and fried chicken. And though it was perhaps my fiftieth visit to this particular Cousin Luther’s that year, I parted my lips as reverently as any choir member about to sing a hymn, then sank my teeth into the chicken leg’s flesh.
It was heavenly, I tell you. As good as my first bite had been years before. Better even, as it was hotter and spicier than I’d expected. My eyes blinked. Tears slid down my nose. I wanted to thank Cousin Luther (though he was a cartoon black man in a chef’s outfit who resembled my Uncle Dobbs) and whichever of the high school dropouts in a hairnet had overseen the pressure frying. This was no mere piece of poultry. After dunking it in my hot sauce puddle, I took two more bites of the leg, all the while moving toward a state of mind that, looking back, I don’t know if I’m glad I entered. At the moment, though, I couldn’t have been steered from my present line of thinking, for as I tasted the chicken again and found it as good if not better than it had been earlier, I was thinking that something needed to be done to record this moment. Some action should commence that praised indefinitely how fine this three piece combo with drink was. Still the only patron, I turned to the cashiers and cooks, as glum a crew of black and white youth that public schools and minimum wage could produce. They needed to know their greatness. They needed praise, but of a deathless sort, to remind them that appreciation existed for their culinary achievements.
A work of art would show them, I concluded. And naturally my mind turned toward a story. After all, I told myself, brass plaques tarnish, sculptures crumble, paint fades. Prose fiction endures. Yet who was I to think I could write that story? Weren’t there three pieces of evidence to cancel me out as the one who might capture in a word or a thousand the splendid essence of Cousin Luther’s Fried Chicken? Then a new thought occurred to me. While my general idea was strong, the form was off. A story would be too brief. This three piece combo with drink needed a novel to commemorate it.
Perhaps that had been my proper form all along? Hadn’t the editor of Scouting Life, in my one personal rejection note, told me my autobiographical tale of racial strife in a Mid-south scout troop had the pace of a “longer work?”
Everything sounded so good, the impression of the task already having been completed overtook me. I sucked any remaining taste off the legbone and my fingers, certain fate had brought me here for this moment of realization. And while it may seem in my rendering that minutes had passed, this moment lasted only seconds, no more than ten and possibly fewer than five. I’d encountered no obstacles, though a pair hovered near: time and money. Did I have the patience and endurance to labor alone at this task? No agent had ever responded positively to any query I’d written about my proposed novels of biracial young men raised in the Mid-south; thus, an advance was out of the question. I knew, as I cracked the drumette from the wing and began to munch on it, that I’d need at least three months, without the bowling alley’s distractions, to fully concentrate on this undertaking. Would it be three hundred pages? Four? How could I support myself? How would I buy more three-piece combos with drink! I didn’t have enough in my savings, couldn’t pawn my stereo and TV and sell my car and earn enough to pay rent, even at the cheapest of apartments. Help is what I needed, but no friend or family member would support me. All of them, my parents, my cousins, even Trina, my last girlfriend, had advised me at least once to give up my dream of seeing my smiling face on a book jacket. What to do?
What to do?
My face was now slick with sweat and tears. After stripping meat from the wing with my teeth, I mopped my forehead with some napkins, closed my eyes and turned to the breast. Trying to savor the goodness—it was still sublime—I slowed down my chewing, and in so doing prompted the most exciting of thoughts: I could get a patron. And who better than Cousin Luther himself? Instantly, I saw myself standing next to Luther, both of us loose-limbed cartoons with bulging eyes, only my skin was two shades lighter. In his commercials, Cousin Luther often leapt up and clicked his heels, while spouting such jive as, “So spicy it’ll make your lips quiver,” and “You gon like it, else my name ain’t Cousin Luther!” But in my vision he handed me a check the size of those given golfers and tennis players after winning championships. Then, as my mental cartoon continued, he uttered the restaurant’s motto: "Go on and get you a good un at Cousin Luther’s.”
Later, I told no one of this vision, as I feared some might conclude a hallucinatory combination of spices and hot sauce had manifested it. All I can say, though, is that I was soon placing the clean bones from the breast on my plate and hurrying toward the counter. The cashier I’d ordered from, a blinking, brown-skinned boy with prominent teeth and a skimpy mustache, welcomed me again to Cousin Luther’s, apparently having forgotten my earlier order. “I’ve already had a delicious meal,” I said. “But I need to speak to the person in charge. I’ve got the most wonderful idea.”
Blinking, he looked left and right as if unsure how to answer. He held up one long finger and said, “Wait a minute.” Then: “Cassie? Mr. Bartlett here?”
A dark-skinned girl with braids beneath her paper cap stuck her head out from the drive-thru station. “In his office,” she said.
“Follow me,” the cashier said, and he came out to my side of the counter, leading me down a corridor past the restrooms to a door marked Private. He knocked. “Mr. Bartlett,” he drawled. “Customer here to see you.”
A colossal sigh could be heard. “Send them in,” came a voice. The cashier blinked, opened the door, then left. Behind a sloppy desk sat a heavy-set white man with a crewcut, his short-sleeved shirt stretched tight across his chest and upper arms, a striped blue tie loosened but still strained by his massive neck. “What they do now?” he said. “Was it frozen in the middle? The rice hard? Whatever it is, you can either get your money back now and our apologies for the inconvenience or a certificate for two free entrees under five dollars on your next visit.” He banged open a drawer and rummaged within.
I said, “It’s not that at all.” I seated myself. “I’ve got this idea that you have to hear.”
Slowly, the manager sat back in his chair and closed the drawer. “You ain’t here to complain?”
“Not in the least. I’m here to praise you and your staff, as well as the entire corporation. You serve the most fantastic chicken! But what if you had a work of art, a novel, to show the world how lucky we are to have such chicken? And sides! Do you have a minute?”
Warily, Mr. Bartlett drew nearer and nodded. Or his neck spasmed. Either way, I was telling him my plans and how I hoped for the financial support of Cousin Luther’s, Inc.—a nominal sum, peanuts when one considered the potential revenue. He sat there, blinking as much as the cashier, and remained silent as I, with a rush of breath, said, “Don’t you think that would be a great idea? For everyone involved?”
His mouth opened, but for a long time he didn’t speak. Then, as I licked my lips—still sumptuous with grease—to renew my reasons, he said, “You’ll have to talk to corporate. I can’t help you.”
“How do I get in touch with them?” I said.
He banged open the top drawer again. “Here,” he said, thrusting at me an envelope with the address of their Little Rock headquarters. “I’m just the manager of 262,” he said. “I can’t help you.”
In my reverie I hadn’t expected a lukewarm response from anyone. In my reverie I was communicating with a cartoon spokesperson. But I didn’t let Mr. Bartlett cool the heat of my resolution. I ignored his snort and derisive call of “Good luck.” I went home and wrote immediately to the corporate offices, laying out in clear terms my proposal. As I figured on three months as the time I’d need for a draft, I requested five grand as an advance, roughly three months of salary from the bowling alley. What was that to them? I’d given Cousin Luther’s that much money on my own! As well, I asked them to consider the attention they’d get if they subsidized me. My novel would serve as a permanent reminder to all of the greatness of their chicken—and their sides! How much did they spend on commercials? And how long before the public tired of the thirty second spots, requiring a need to produce newer and more expensive ones? In my last paragraph, I advanced a notion, which is the only part of the letter worth quoting: “If, as I am most certain, the product of our relationship is fruitful, might not others follow Cousin Luther’s lead? And will not that put your fine corporation in the vanguard, remembered as the fried chicken restaurant that brought literature to the masses?”
After printing it out and signing it, I stuffed the letter into the envelope given me by Mr. Bartlett, then took it to the post office to assure it was headed to Little Rock in the morning. Anticipation swelled with me—as it always did when I mailed a submission—but this time I felt no fear. Not once during the first twenty-four hours did I believe my idea would fail. But soon, despite my confidence, the only thing to do was wait.
In the interim, I went back to shelving balls and spraying shoes with disinfectant at Delta Lanes. A story I’d forgotten about arrived from a magazine that claimed they no longer read unsolicited submissions. I wouldn’t let that setback alter my enthusiasm. I wanted to write, but wouldn’t let myself yet, not with so much of my hope hinged to the acceptance of my terms by the Cousin Luther’s corporate office. I suppose I’d made up my mind then that if they said no, I’d no longer trouble the world with my fiction. But nothing could dissuade me from my belief in the project and myself. While I saved material and jotted down the occasional note, I grew more confident. Two weeks passed, then a third, while I clung to the writer’s hope that the more time passes without word, the greater the chances success will result.
One thing about the novel I knew for certain was that it would be called Three Piece Combo with Drink. On napkins and newspaper margins, I wrote this down, along with my name, as I’d read James Baldwin had while working on Go Tell it on the Mountain. A few times I ate three piece combos at Cousin Luther’s. Though I waved, no one working there recognized me. Daily, I ran to check the mail, often fantasizing whether the enclosed check required the corporate office to send their acceptance by UPS or Fed Ex. Occasionally, my confidence slipped, but not often or with enough force to change my mood. I spoke to no one about my plans, as friends and family had heard me describe previous stories and responded with either “Huh?” or “Why don’t you just give that up?” Better to let them hear the good news, I decided, with the rest of the reading public—when the book was on the stands.
Then the day came when my mailbox contained more than circulars, bills and donation requests from my alma mater, Arkansas State. I saw the envelope, cream-colored and with Cousin Luther’s smiling face on the left-hand corner. How many times had I stood poised like this? In the first year of my apprenticeship, I didn’t know that when your SASE was returned you’d been rejected. Still later, I deluded myself into thinking that this time, an editor had used my SASE to deliver good news. But for now, as I tugged it from the box, I couldn’t tell by the weight of the envelope what the corporate office had enclosed. Nor was I ready to open it outside. Had the news been negative, I don’t think I would have made it back to my apartment. Yet I couldn’t move. I suppose giddy anticipation finally stepped aside and fear, its shadowy companion, entered the scene. You’ve been delusional, I heard a voice say. Foolish. Wasting your time and that of a publicly traded company, one with far more important matters to consider. That some office lackey had taken the time to open my envelope seemed gift enough. A part of me hoped some coupons might be included with the kind but firm refusal.
But the sun was suddenly bright in my eyes and the mid-March temperature too high to stand there waiting. I went inside, cleared the card table I used as a writing desk and laid the envelope down, seam side up. I wanted a ceremonial letter opener but had only a butter knife. I considered a brief prayer, wondering if God loved writers so much He’d change the contents of an envelope if they promised enough contributions to charity. Then I recalled He hadn’t transformed any rejection slips during the hundred other times I invoked His favor. Finally, after several false starts and a shaky glass of water that dripped on the envelope’s top, I opened it. The letterhead featured Cousin Luther’s head too, with a cartoon bubble leaking from his lips and reading, “Go on and get you a good un!” But the presence of a letter meant nothing. It elevated my heart rate, but then I remembered its author, unlike the editor of a journal, didn’t receive two hundred queries a month, and didn’t need to dismiss anyone with slips of paper containing reproduced regrets.
I pressed the top of the page against the table and unfolded the middle third, whereupon I could see it had been addressed to me and had obviously been typed by a human being. The characters had all left a slight impression in the paper, of a thick stock I had once used for cover letters, hoping to impress. I pushed down the bottom third, closed my eyes, prayed a little—“Dear God, just, just . . . .” Then I closed my eyes, let out a breath, and read.
Having no experience in getting an acceptance, and little versed with the prose of Public Relations then, I didn’t know straight away what the letter meant. Only when I saw “Contracts should arrive—if you want to work with us—by courier as soon as we have verbal confirmation of your agreement,” did I know I could retrieve my pens and pads. One might think I’d be overjoyed, dialing old girlfriends and English instructors who’d given me C’s in order to taunt them. Surely a round trip to the county line package store was in order. But as I reread the letter, assuring myself Ms. Linda Parker was telling me Cousin Luther’s Inc. had, indeed, “found irresistible your idea and is earnestly looking forward to the final product,” I behaved as if the corporate board was watching me in my living room and I didn’t want to betray my inexperience. Some might think my failure to celebrate signaled a fear I would actually have to now continue my cockamamie scheme. Nothing could be further from the truth. I called Mr. Dudley, my boss, to tell him I was quitting, then phoned the corporate offices and agreed to their terms. By the time I fell asleep at two am, I had written the first two chapters and was already dreaming of the third.
In truth, of all the time periods making up the story of my novel, this next was best. I wrote as one denied a pen for years, which is what I hoped to accomplish by forestalling any writing while I waited to hear from Cousin Luther’s. When the couriers arrived with the contracts—three days after I received the letter—I’d reached chapter six, some seventy-five pages of, if I may be so bold, my best writing ever. And while I didn’t get the five thousand I’d requested, I got three, and two surprises: a laminated card ensuring me a year’s worth of free meals (under eight dollars) from any Cousin Luther’s in the continental United States, along with the guarantee that Three Piece Combo with Drink would be published. In my early consideration of the project, I believed Cousin Luther’s representatives would send out the book to publishers when it was ready, yet I learned that, at their expense, Cousin Luther’s was going to design, print, promote and distribute the copies. Some might have balked at this arrangement. A fried chicken restaurant’s imprint is not the same as Knopf’s or Simon & Schuster’s, but this method of publication didn’t bother me. In fact, the guarantee helped me write more swiftly. All along I’d known this would be a union of art and commerce, and I hoped that as much good as I might do Cousin Luther’s, benefits would come to me, as well. And if the book was successful, I thought, who knew? Perhaps there’d be a sequel? Perhaps McDonald’s or Taco Bell might demand my services? Or, once they’d finally made it to the light, my talents would gain the attention of traditional publishers and agents, and I’d be on my way to a career.
As I was writing, though, none of these vain thoughts littered my mental landscape. A reason for the ease with which I composed—twelve pages a day on average—was that my material was autobiographical. I made my first person narrator biracial—as I had with every other piece I’d written—though I moved his residence to Little Rock, which seemed a more appropriate setting for his occupation, sculpting. Never did I think too long about making him a writer: that seemed corny, too self-reflexive. Besides, I didn’t want my audience to think my creation and I were that much alike and that his story was mine, though the plot possessed some parallels with my writing career. My character, Will, was more successful than I, but at the novel’s opening, he’d reached a period of creative dissatisfaction. No longer able to summon inspiration, he longed for a return to the days when he hacked away at stone and shaped the figures his imagination commanded. I gave Will a love interest—though I was two years since my last date with Trina—to serve as a subplot: Will they marry? And Constance, whom I named for her enduring patience, wanted him to give up his aesthetic pretensions and become more of a commercial artist.
None of the obstacles I strew before Will hindered me in the drafting. Whenever my energy flagged, I’d reread the letter, especially the paragraph that concluded, “Your creative proposal assures us this novel is in the hands of an imaginative and skilled writer.” Occasional daydreams befell me: I’d see myself dressed in a light-colored linen suit, before me an audience of adulatory readers. But I didn’t, from my receipt of the letter to my delivery of the first draft, three months to the day later, take off one day from writing. Vain as this may sound, I was writing so well I couldn’t wait to read the previous day’s work, where I’d often startle myself with the incomparable prose and dramatic plot moves. When, for instance, in chapter four, when Will eats his third three-piece combo with drink and realizes that this fried chicken—and sides!—should be the subject of his next piece, I knew all along I’d write that scene, but little did I know how well it would come out. I never would have guessed I’d write the line that ended that scene: “It was all very clear—the key to the lock in my mind had appeared in the form of a chicken wing.” At that moment I set down the pen and left my apartment. I knew I could do no better.
And when I finished the draft and typed it into Microsoft Word—five marathon sessions of eighteen-hour days—I felt a slight sense of remorse. I knew I’d see the characters again—there were first draft details I was fuzzy on. Where did one purchase marble? Was marble even used by sculptors anymore? Even still, I felt, as I drove to Little Rock in my temperamental Ford Escort to hand over the draft to Linda Parker, that I was letting go my offspring, and that now I had the difficult task of sharing it with the world. I knew Cousin Luther’s would be happy. In the three hundred and twenty pages, I mentioned the restaurant two hundred and nine times, Will and Constance ate there in six scenes, while Will ate there alone in five more. Four scenes featured him in his studio, eating chicken as he worked on his masterpiece—titled, like my novel, Three Piece Combo with Drink. And with the climatic scene, where Will donates his sculpture to the corporate headquarters (a place I’d never been and hoped to visit for second draft corrections), I determined that they had a book they couldn’t have made better themselves.
My meeting with Linda Parker confirmed these feelings. In her airy, third floor office (I’m made my version of the headquarters building too gray), she paged through my manuscript, remarking again and again on her pleasure. An intense and thin woman with odd glasses, she was not an Arkansan but a Chicagoan whose hard midwestern nasality startled me. “Oh, that’s perfect,” she said one moment. Then: “Exactly what we wanted.” She looked up from the pages on her lap and eyed me over the bridge of her glasses. “We haven’t wasted a penny on you.”
Before I headed back to Muscadine, Linda described to me the rest of the process while we ate three piece combos with drink in celebration, and then she posed me next to a cardboard cut out of Cousin Luther for a publicity photo. There’d be a review of the manuscript by her PR staff, who’d suggest changes, then they’d approve my changes and pass the draft to the legal department, who’d make sure there were no libelous passages (I had, in fact, made a few derogatory comments about KFC). Then, definitely before August, the book would be out, and she and I would work tirelessly to promote it. When I stood outside the entrance to the building, ready to drive home, Linda shook my hand. Her grip was stronger than mine, and she wished me well. “Just wait,” she said. “This is the beginning of a wonderful partnership.” I wanted to hear more, but I’d already taken up two hours of her time and another meeting was calling her away. But I had praise enough for the drive home. I could follow in my imagination the sequence of certain successes. Probably more than at any time, after those impossible years of what looked like failure from all directions, after, at last count, three hundred and forty seven rejections, along with dozens of manuscripts that were lost and dozens more that returned unread, after all that, I believed I was a writer.
But no matter how ebullient I felt, it was the end of the period of creation. As soon as I put my pages in Linda Parker’s hands, a new phase commenced. And when I got from her a call two weeks later that she was sending the corrected copy, I felt a pain in my chest. I’d expected changes. I’d even done some research on sculptors in the interim. Still, I’d unconsciously hoped my typed draft was immaculate, ready to go directly to bookstores. As well, I was anxious to get the book released, as I was almost out of money. My taste for Cousin Luther’s chicken hadn’t ebbed—and they had a new catfish platter worth at least a short story—but I used my free meal card there less and less.
Once I calmed down, I grew confident again. “Of course there were changes,” I said to Linda.
“Can’t wait to see them.”
“You did all the hard work,” she said. “All we did was refine it.”
“Thanks,” I said.
“So let’s get this puppy out in the world! All right! In time for late summer reading!”
Her excitement restored my confidence even more. When she hung up, I nearly ran to the mailbox. But I had another day at least to wait.
I tried not to predict what had been done with my draft in the hours I waited, but I couldn’t quit thinking about the alterations. Essentially, I expected refinements, as Linda had suggested. A more accurate description of the corporate building. Perhaps some pruning of descriptive passages and a tightening of scenes. I wondered whom I’d be working with. Linda or another PR person? Though stubbornly some resistance remained, I looked forward to the experience of working with an editor. To be truthful, I was also hoping for someone who wouldn’t mind hearing some of my ideas for future work.
The corrected draft arrived two days after Linda’s call.
There is a moment in many stories like the story of my novel where the artist finds himself the victim of unscrupulous managers, promoters and executives but has no recourse. The contract he signed assures his hands are tied. This innocuous phrase tripped me up: “Cousin Luther’s Incorporated assumes the full production of this work.” I doubt any of Muscadine’s personal-injury attorneys could have read that phrase and known Cousin Luther’s intent. Even had I been warned, I wouldn’t have done anything differently, as I believed this was the only way to see my book into print.
The title was the same, as was Will’s ethnicity. (Linda told me: “He taps into both white and black demos.”) And they kept him a Little Rock sculptor who donated his work in the end to the corporate office, though the point of view was switched to third-person, a new crisis was added to the plot, and his medium changed to metal, which ensured a lot of noisy welding with flying sparks. Otherwise, Three Piece Combo with Drink was unrecognizable. They’d made Will the manager of a Cousin Luther’s on the west side of town who sculpted in his free time. And, unlike a real manager, he actually ate the food prepared at his restaurant, at least once a day, often while commenting, “Damn, this is fine fried chicken! The best!” Constance was dropped, as a fiancée got in the way of Will’s many demonstrations of virility (including a scene in which slaw and two biscuits serve as a means of arousal). Moreover, their Will needed far more energy than mine to fight off thinly disguised fast-food competitors, who schemed to acquire secret recipes and sent into Will’s restaurant hordes of street brawlers, Ninjas, snipers and finally a twenty foot robot with laser beam eyes. The structure—a series of violent set pieces with bed-hopping and chicken eating transitions—was execrable. The language, absurd. And anyone with an IQ over sixty would have sensed that no one who ate as much fried chicken as Will would have “arms of steel, legs of iron, and abs you could grate Cousin Luther’s Chunky Fries with.” The complete and utter badness of it would have made me laugh hysterically had the book not had my name on it.
I could have refused. I could have returned the money to buy back my draft and done with it what I wanted, taken out all the overtly commercial references and let it stand on its own as a novel of art, love and fried chicken. But I may as well be plain in this account: I didn’t know if I’d ever get this close again. I hoped this would be a foot in the door, so to speak. Not everyone writes Catch-22 or Invisible Man the first time out! This was, let’s say, my Typee, my Fanshawe. The next one—and I was convinced I’d write another—would make everyone forget Three Piece Combo with Drink. At least that’s what I told myself at the time.
As for what happened after I signed off on all the changes, and Linda Parker said, “Awright,” like one of Al Capone’s henchmen, I wish I could forget. I wish I could forget the garish cover of a shirtless Will with a drumstick between his teeth, clinging to the robot’s neck (whose wrecked robot corpse would become the raw material for Will’s final sculpture). I wish I could forget the author photo—the very same one of me and the cutout of Cousin Luther, where it’s difficult to tell who’s more lifelike. I wish I could claim that all this was endured by another, but sadly I know all too well it was me.
A tour followed, with book signings and readings, but I didn’t set foot in a Border’s, rentano’s, Square Books or That Bookstore in Blytheville. Instead, in Memphis, Jackson, Hattiesburg, Fort Smith, Dallas, Monroe, St. Louis, and tiny truck stop towns in between, I sat near the heat of open kitchens, signing grease-spattered copies, shook hands with my audience (most of them quite charming, if illiterate), posed for photos with more cardboard cutouts of Cousin Luther, read chapter excerpts over the hiss of the deep fryer and the squawk of the drive-thru speakers. As a courtesy, most managers suspended counter orders, though there was that angry manager in Grenada, Mississippi, a fellow mulatto who shouted he had too many orders to fill.
At every stop during those four months, I got reports from Linda Parker, so many that I started taking Benadryl before bed to muffle her blunt vowels echoing in my head. Cousin Luther’s was doing quite well with the novel’s release, bolstering its reputation among its existing clientele, luring literary types and earning praise from state and local agencies for promoting literacy. As I’d predicted, other chains tried to duplicate the success, the national ones chasing after King, Chrichton and Grisham, though no deals were ever made after my royalty arrangement—the sole mistake Cousin Luther’s made as first time publishers—was learned. If a nobody like me was getting twenty-five percent, many reasoned, the costs for an author of note would certainly eat most of the potential profit.
Meanwhile, I was growing wealthy, selling more and more books, appearing on regional morning radio and TV shows. On one such appearance in Shreveport, the young Latina hostess asked me to read her “favorite passage”—a section where Will, in my estimation, cruelly victimizes a female spy from the KFC clone, General Sandy’s Tennessee Fowl. I stumbled over the words and got lost twice, causing Ms. Rivas to say, “It sounds like you haven’t read that aloud before.” Though this might have been the time to loudly proclaim the truth, I surprised myself with an awful equivocation: “Sometimes, when you’re writing a book, it’s as if someone else takes over.” Then, before I forgot, I uttered what I was contractually obligated to say: “Go on, read you a good un at Cousin Luther’s.”
By the end of the tour, I looked horrible: bloated from so much fried chicken and sides, hollow eyed from lack of sleep, my normally fawn color veering toward a jaundiced yellow. I showered five times a day but couldn’t remove from my nostrils the stench of fried food. The linen suit I’d bought to match my dream was stained, sloppy and unable to hold a crease. I was tired, felt older than my thirty-four years, but had one last appearance, a special one in Muscadine, “home of my inspiration,” according to Linda Parker. It was to be a huge occasion: all my friends and family—the harshest critics of my desire to write—promised to be there, as would be representatives from the press and Cousin Luther’s, the mayor of Muscadine and the town council, along with Mr. Dudley, my former co-workers at Delta Lanes and many bowlers who once rented shoes from me. After my limo ride to Franchise #262, I tried to smile and hoped only half of the people would want to buy me a three piece combo “because you like them so much.” Everyone greeted me at the door, Linda Parker leading the way. She grabbed me by the sleeve and, in the crush, accidentally scraped the side of my head with her glasses. Flashbulbs popped and sizzled, seemingly disembodied fists held aloft copies of the book. My parents were elbowed out of the way by Trina, my ex, whose last words to me had been, “I should never get involved with mixed nuts.” Then #262’s manager, Mr. Bartlett, resplendent in a short-sleeved shirt and a tie as wide as a napkin, pulled my other arm and shouted, “I’m glad to have been the one who helped this writer achieve his goals.” Even the kitchen crew and cashiers applauded then, all with a new paperback copy of my novel in reach.
Automatically, I did my act: read from the first and ninth chapters, answered a few questions, then signed books. My high school grammar teacher, Mrs. Ball, was thrilled I’d mastered the comma splice, and Uncle Dobbs—looking grayer than Cousin Luther but still nearly his double—wanted to know if the girl Will beds on page one-thirty-seven was modeled after Danita Strickland, a former Miss Black Muscadine. Then, after posing for more photos and choking down more three piece combos with drink, I found an opportunity to escape. Everyone who’d ever known me was skirmishing to be interviewed by the just arrived TV crew from Memphis, trying to say it was he or she who’d been the one who helped me out the most. I said my piece to the reporter then excused myself to the bathroom. While no one was looking, I ducked out the door. Almost immediately, I stopped the driver of a Ford F-150 and he agreed to take me to my apartment, as it was on his way home. Once inside his cab, though, I saw skittering on the top of his dashboard a copy of Three Piece Combo with Drink. The driver, an older white man with a John Deere cap, squinted at me, then we both looked at the book. He spat out the window, wiped his mouth and said, “Ain’t you that fellow?”
Even in my beleaguered state, I was too quick for him. Shaking my head, I said, “I get that all the time.”
One pleasure of living in Arkansas is the many regions where a person can easily hide. With my money from the book—and there was a lot of it; I can’t complain about that, save to say Cousin Luther’s got even more, especially after they sold the movie rights—I was able to rent this cabin in the Ozarks. I’m so far from the nearest dirt road that the only person who knows I’m here is my landlord, who doesn’t have my real name and has only seen me with the beard I’ve grown to go along with my ball cap and dark glasses.
I came here not just to avoid the celebrity brought on by my novel. I wanted the self that authored Three Piece Combo with Drink to disappear so a new one could emerge and write the fiction I want to be remembered for—instead of a novel whose greatest virtue is the two-for-one three-piece combo with drink coupon on the back page. My Moby Dick and Scarlet Letter, if you will. If I publish anything else, it will have to be under a pseudonym—an idea that came too late for the first book. Sadly, though, any identity I construct will face the same difficulties I encountered when laboring without success for so long. No wonder in the sixteen months I’ve lived here, I’ve not produced one page of fiction. Most days it is impossible to squeeze out a sentence. I started writing this very account with the hope I might stumble onto a new idea, but imagination comes harder and harder, as if by forgetting who I once was as a writer, I lost all connection to whatever talents I once had. Above all, I hoped a sober setting down of that which occurred with Three Piece Combo with Drinkmight once and for all silence the voice that seeks to continue in the vein of that book. But as I write these lines, a phantom taste spreads across my tongue, and even though the closest Cousin Luther’s is miles away, I can sense the direction I need to take to get there.
Tom Williams is the author of three books of fiction: The Mimic’s Own Voice, Don’t Start Me Talkin, and his latest, Among the Wild Mulattos and Other Tales. He lives in Kentucky with his wife and children.