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Plumage from Pegasus
by Paul Di Filippo

Couch Surfing with Mickey and Judy

MY HOST for the Boston portion of my self-organized book tour picked me up at South Station, on the edge of Chinatown. I climbed with gratitude into her car. Exhausted from the long overnight bus ride from Cleveland, I sagged for a moment wordlessly in my seat. But I quickly roused myself to sociability. After all, the whole point of this debilitating, humiliating roadtrip—an exigency I had been forced into by lack of publisher initiative or publicity budget—was to pitch my new novel, Black Swan Down, a thriller involving a rogue government statistician. And in order to pitch, I had to be upbeat and engaging. Besides, Judy and her husband Mickey were being good enough to put me up in their home. The least I could do was to make light conversation.

"So, Judy," I asked as we ascended a freeway ramp, "do you live right in the city?"

Judy was somewhat older than I, late middle-age. She exhibited a serious mien, sensible haircut, and circumspect suburban clothing. Her voice was resonant and assured. "No, Mr. Lambeth, we live in Waltham. It's a nice town just outside Boston. Our place is very quiet and private."

I was a little disappointed. I had expected a more urban setting for my readings, which were to take place in Judy's house. She seemed to sense my disconcerted state.

"Oh, don't worry, Mr. Lambeth. Waltham's on the MBTA, and easily accessible. You'll get a big audience, I can guarantee. Plenty of students and their professors. Book groups and local writers. It's all in how the publicity is handled. Believe me, Mickey and I are old hands at this. We're very thorough. Posters, the internet, radio. You're not the first author we've hosted."

I relaxed a little. "Call me Karl, please, Judy. And thanks again for agreeing to handle all the details of my reading."

Judy smiled. "You can just relax now, Karl. You're in good hands. Why, Mickey's at home unpacking the box of your books that just arrived yesterday."

With that good news, I allowed myself to close my eyes and drowse.

In just a short time, I roused myself to witness Judy maneuvering the car into park at the end of a long driveway. The large Colonial house, well-maintained, stood some distance from any neighbors, who were further screened by trees and a tall fence around the property.

"Let me help you with your bags, Karl."

Judy took both my knapsack and my rolling suitcase.

"Thanks. Be careful of my knapsack, please—it's got my phone and laptop inside."

Judy and I entered a breezeway bridging the house proper on the right, and the adjacent garage. She opened the door on the left, and said, "In here, please, Karl."

Slow-witted from fatigue, I did not think to ask why we were entering the garage. I stepped through the door, which quickly slammed behind me, and locked.

Baffled, I looked around.

The windowless space was outfitted like a youth hostel: bunkbeds, sink, dorm fridge, television, primitive but complete sanitary facilities. Several of the bunkbeds held other people. They smiled wanly at my appearance.

"Mickey and Judy got another one," said a young graceful woman.

"I'll bet he's an economist," said a tattooed guy. "Full of lectures on current affairs."

"No, no, he's not quite dull-looking enough," said a second woman with long Stevie Nicks hair. "I say he's a novelist."

"What kind?"

"Mainstream contemporary."

"No, something genre—"

"Stop!" I yelled. "Somebody please tell me what the hell is going on!"

So they all did.

Mickey and Judy were running a kind of permanent unlicensed Chautauqua out of their residence. A three-nights-a-week program of readings and entertainment, provided courtesy of the unpaid, indentured services rendered by visiting creative types such as myself and the others currently here—Judy, a folk singer; Raelynn, a dancer; Pete, a magician and sword-swallower; and Sam, a scientist from the Santa Fe Institute.

"I just don't get it," I said, massaging my aching head. "I'm already willing to talk for free. It's to my benefit. Why coerce me?"

"Are you willing to stay in Boston for a month?" said Pete. "There are over half a million students in the greater metropolitan area, not to mention endless book clubs. How many people can see you if you do one or two readings? No, Judy and Mickey are experts at maximizing the draw and milking the audience. They've built up a huge clientele. And they charge admission! Five bucks a head. Plus money they earn on refreshments. They're clearing a couple of thousand a week!"

"Pete—how long have you been locked up here?"

"A month now. Why?"

"A month! I can't stay here a month!"

"You'll stay until you've exhausted your potential audience and aren't drawing anymore," said Sam, the scientist. "The formula is a simple logarithm."

"I'll refuse to perform!"

Raelynn said, "Oh, you say that at first. We all said it. But the alternative is to remain locked up in this room. You'll go stir crazy. Besides, we all live for our art. We want an audience. You'll see."

And so I did.

The next morning was a Thursday, and we were roused early to rehearse.

Mickey was tall and thin and reminded me of Basil Rathbone. He seemed sinewy and virile, and more than a match for me physically.

After serving all of us breakfast, Mickey addressed me individually.

"All right, Mr. Lambeth. Do you have any particular needs other than a podium and microphone? Any preferred lighting scheme? No? Then if you would kindly follow me, we can run through your act."

I willingly accompanied him, ready to make a break. But the breezeway doors had been barred.

The first floor of the house had been retrofitted into a theater. All the interior, non-loadbearing walls had been removed, affording about one thousand square feet of floor space, ranked with over a hundred folding chairs focused on a small stage.

"If you take your place, Mr. Lambeth, we can begin."

I climbed the low stage, got behind the lectern, and nervously began to speak.

Mickey took copious notes throughout. When I had finished, he delivered them. I listened incredulously.

"Why, why—those are great suggestions! I never realized I was doing all those things wrong!"

Mickey permitted a small smile to cross his countenance. "Thirty years on Broadway, Mr. Lambeth, were not entirely wasted. Judy and I would be there still, but this dreadful economy— Well, one has to adapt, doesn't one?"

I returned to the garage, excited about Friday's reading. I tried to rouse the interest of my fellow performers, but they seemed jaded.

Yet the next evening, before a full house, we all put on a fantastic show. I sold thirty copies of my novel! Thirty! I had never sold more than three at any one reading before.

Well, to make the story of my engagement at Mickey and Judy's a short tale, I was there for six weeks—above average for a novelist, I was given to understand. I moved over six hundred copies of Black Swan Down before sales began to flag, and made my publisher very happy.

As Judy drove me back to South Station to continue my roadtrip, I felt renewed confidence in my career, and a gratitude to my captors which was not entirely due to Stockholm Syndrome.

"We hope you'll consider staying with us when your next book comes out, Karl," Judy said as I exited the car.

"I certainly will, Judy. But you've got to promise to upgrade your cable service beyond basic!"

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