I was working on a short story with a "ghost in Eastern Europe" theme, and the submission deadline was looming. I had half a story in my pocket, but the other half wouldn't flow forth. I was seriously stuck. What do some writers do in this situation (beyond sticking their heads out the window and yelping in agony)? They read! They read writers who inspire them. They read on themes related to the piece they are working on. In short, they try to find their muse between the pages. With the clock ticking on my story deadline, this is exactly the direction I took. Onward, to the library!
I had a connection at the main branch of the New York City Public Library. The fiction librarian was holding Paul Bailey's new novel for me under her desk. Paul Bailey is a wonderful British writer who has written a number of fascinating novels about Romanians living in England, haunted by Romania's dark past. I had read Kitty and Virgil twice and each reading had inspired pages upon pages of my own writing. Now I had a chance to swallow his latest: Uncle Rudolph.
I took two trains and went under one river to retrieve the book. There it was, fresh and shiny. I stepped back onto the E train and stepped back in time to 1930's Vienna. I was introduced to the great opera singer, Rudolph, with his kind heart and charming presence. He had made it out of Fascist Romania. Would he and his young nephew escape to England? I was so mesmerized that I almost missed my stop.
Now I stood on the Number 7 elevated platform waiting for the next train. It was rush hour and there was heavy noise coming from the busy streets below the tracks. Ambulances roared by, police cars whizzed in the opposite direction, an express train came whipping past and didn't bother to stop. It was the heart of the rush, but I was all alone with Uncle Rudolph and his innocent young nephew. They had made it to England and Uncle Rudolph had become the darling of the British theater. Women swooned at his feet during every performance. The book was short, under two hundred pages, and I noticed as another express train came rolling past that I was nearly halfway through!
The express train gone, I turned back to my left to see if a local was coming. As I turned, I lost control of the book and it slid out of my hands and down onto the tracks. Yet when I looked down Uncle Rudolph was gone. Had the book fallen through to the busy intersection below? Had it somehow defied gravity and not fallen when I dropped it? Then I saw its profile, its spine facing upward. The novel had gotten stuck between the platform wall and the tracks. Uncle Rudolph was literally hanging on a thin metal bar, inches from the train tracks. My first thought was to climb down and get it, but the tracks were perhaps fifteen feet down from the platform and it would be quite risky to expose myself like that. I saw a number of people pointing at the hanging novel. A moment later a 7 train rolled by and I held my breath. I was not worried about paying the lost book library fine. I simply couldn't imagine waiting weeks to find out what happened to Uncle Rudolph and his nephew in London. The train roared by and the novel shook a bit, but didn't budge. Three more trains passed right in front of my eyes and the book stayed put.
I ran down to tell the station attendant, who nodded and said that "special teams" would meet me on the platform within a half an hour. Who were these people in "special teams," I wondered. I stood again at the platform, guarding the novel with my stare, as each train came and went, dropping off and picking up anxious passengers. Twenty minutes later, there they were: the special teams unit, three guys in white uniforms running off the train holding long poles with nets. They looked like members of a lacrosse team. "Where is the object?" a man with a French accent said.
I pointed, he swept Uncle Rudolph up, handed me the book and had me sign a document. Then my three heroes in white suits waved good-bye and hopped onto the next train.
I held this precious, freshly printed novel tight in my hands. I wanted to personally apologize to Paul Bailey for letting his gem slip from my grasp. I decided I could not take a chance. I had had enough of mass transit for the day. I hurried down the subway steps into a local café and spent the next hour following Uncle Rudolph's fate.
I spent the hour after that composing the second half of my own story.