So I finished Gram & Me, as I mentioned a few posts back. I packaged multiple queries to agents, and already my confidence is waning, even though it has only been a week. I should be ecstatic – although I received 3 instant rejections (indicating the story line wasn’t for them), I did receive a full manuscript request. I likely won’t hear more about that for weeks. But I’m floundering around trying to decide what to do next. I’m losing confidence in the likelihood of traditional publishing. Although I get lots of compliments on my writing, so far it hasn’t led to that Holy Grail. I’ve started another novel, and sharing Chapter One here. I could use some insights into how it could be stronger.
LILIES OF THE VALLEY
A Novel by Dawn Lajeunesse
Everything changed the night Peter strode into my life. When he walked through the door, his eyes scanned the crowd as if he were looking for me, Katie Cuyler. As if. We had never met, didn’t know of the other’s existence. When he saw me, he stopped. Our eyes locked. Then, never taking his eyes off me, he headed my way. My heart raced and thudded, my stomach wrung itself, my legs turned to jelly, and I had to lean on the table to remain standing as I watched him approach.
He was tall enough, but not too, maybe five-ten. His hair was jet black and he had a rakish moustache, like Rhett Butler. He wore a casual, short sleeve, button-down shirt in some kind of print with the top few buttons open, allowing dark hair to peek through. As he reached the halfway point in the large, crowded room, I caught glimpses of the rest of him, trim and solid in lightweight tan summer slacks.
It was early summer, and The Pointe had just opened for the season. My friend Ruthie and I stood by a table near the bar where we’d have a good view of the action both there and in the dance hall. On such a warm evening, we both wore sundresses – mine a peach print that I thought warmed my skin tone and contrasted nicely with my light brown hair – and, of course, our dancing shoes.
It took a split second for me to open my compact to check my lipstick, closing it in frustration that my lips weren’t full like Ruthie’s. I smoothed my dress and wished that I was more voluptuous, like Helen, instead of kind of short and puny.
Staggered rows of tables lined three sides of the room between the dance floor and the rough wood walls. The checkered linoleum floor may have been green and white at one time but had faded to speckled gray under years of seasonal wear. The smell of tomatoes, basil, oregano and cheese competed with beer and smoke. Spaghetti was tonight’s entrée. The Pointe had one food choice each night, and if that didn’t suit you, then you had to be satisfied with peanuts. Folks didn’t come to The Pointe for the food or the glamorous surroundings. Before long all the food would disappear and the real action, the dancing, would begin.
Ruthie followed my line of vision, and we watched this self-assured man make his way across the crowded room. He’d entered by the side door, the one marked “Ladies Entrance,” the one that brought him directly into the dance hall instead of through the dark bar. The hall was bright this early in the evening, sunlight still streaming through the abundant glass windows, making it easier to watch his approach. Several people stopped him, tried to engage him, but he grinned without looking at them, held up one finger – as if to say, “be back in a minute” – and continued toward Ruthie and me.
From the juke box Bing Crosby sang “The Folks Who Live on the Hill.” Lazy fans swirled the canopy of smoke that already hovered at the open raftered ceiling.
“Who is he, Tuffy?” Ruthie asked. Tuffy was my nickname dating back to early school grades. I got picked on a lot, because I was scrawny and had what many considered a low-life family. I fought back every time, drawing blood more than a few times. By sixth grade, nobody messed with me.
“I have no idea,” I said, my voice sounding far away, swallowed up by the noise of the crowded room.
“Classy outfit. Looks well-heeled,” Ruthie assessed. “He’s definitely not from Comstock Valley,” she declared, setting her beer on a cardboard coaster with a red “Ballantine Beer” label.
My legs, grown more wobbly as he approached, could no longer hold me, and I dropped into my chair.
When he reached our table, the din of voices around us receded, leaving the two of us alone in our own world. He grabbed a wooden chair, spun and straddled it in one motion and lowered himself to eye level with me.
Suddenly shy, I looked down. His hands rested on the back of the chair. They were the hands of a man who wasn’t afraid to work, calloused and strong, yet immaculately clean, nails evenly clipped. Then I returned my scrutiny to his face.
Green eyes held mine. It struck me as strange, these gentle green eyes in the face of a man who otherwise looked so strong and confident.
“I prepared a very clever opening line on my way over.” His voice was deep and soft. “But now I can’t remember it.”
I smiled at him, wondering if that was his prepared line. My fluttery stomach and racing heart wanted to believe him.
“Then say something else,” I replied in my best Garbo voice.
“What I want to say will surely sound like a line.” His voice had lowered. The conversation felt more intimate. It was only him and me.
“Try it,” I barely whispered.
“I’ve been waiting all my life to find you.” Before I could react he slapped the back of his chair, adding, “Shoot, even I think that sounds like a line. Can we just ignore this awkwardness, and I’ll take you over to the box, we’ll pick out a tune and dance past it?” He reached his hand out for mine.
I glanced over at Ruthie.
“Scram,” she said, nodding and shooing me away with a flick of her hand. “The gang will be here soon.”
“I’ll be back after one dance,” I told her. I didn’t want this guy to think I didn’t have a mind of my own.
But one dance led to another. Peter led smoothly and instinctively as we swung to Glenn Miller’s “Chattanooga Choo Choo.” Unlike a lot of men, he didn’t seem to think about the movements. His eyes were on mine. In a way, it was a bit unnerving. I didn’t know anything about him, but I felt like he was reading my soul. Our palms brushed lightly unless he was readying for a dip or a turn, when he pressed my palm or grasped my hand with a light tug and a subtle movement of his head to communicate the next step. When “Choo Choo” ended, I pulled back, nodded thanks, and turned toward my table.
“Please stay,” he said softly, holding on to my hand. “One more?”
Someone else liked Glenn Miller – of course, who didn’t? The beginning of “Blueberry Hill” played and I debated. My friends were waiting. We usually all danced together. But those green eyes pleaded, and a warm thrill coursed up my arm when he squeezed my hand lightly. I gave what I hoped was a nonchalant shrug, but couldn’t help smiling as I flowed back into his arms. It was a slower pace than the first dance, which allowed a little conversation.
“What’s your name?” I asked, just before a quick turn under his arm.
“Peter,” he answered. “Peter McCaid.”
“What is that? Scottish, Irish?” Step, step, half turn, back together.
“I regret to inform you that I am an all-American mongrel. A mix of English, Scottish, black Irish, and Norwegian. I’m told there’s even a little Spanish and Italian in there. And who knows what else? Your turn.” Full turn, dip, step, rock, step.
I laughed at the description of his genealogy.
“Katherine Cuyler.” Step back, step forward. “My friends call me Katie.”
“It fits,” he said, twirling me into his embrace and just as quickly out to full arm stretch. “Katie’s a happy-sounding name, and the way your eyes shine, I’d say you’re a happy girl. A girl who enjoys life. Katherine is so formal sounding. What kind of name is Cuyler?”
“No more specific than McCaid,” I admitted. Step, rock, step. “My grandparents told me I’m a mix of Dutch, German and Scot.”
“Your grandparents?” His surprised inquiry was cut off when the number ended. “Please, Katie, one more.”
“I told my girlfriend I’d be back after one,” I said with a nervous laugh, peering through the crowd. It looked like someone was at the table with Ruthie. I couldn’t be sure who.
“I promise,” he swore, right hand moving in an oath. “Cross my heart and hope to die. One more dance and I’ll escort you back to your table.
For a second I thought the decision would be taken out of my hands, because another song hadn’t started. But then “Frenesi” began, with its Spanish-sounding tune, although Artie Shaw sang in English.
“Didn’t I just tell you I had some Spanish in me? We have to dance this one.” He laughed as his own silliness.
But I found myself following his lead once again.
After “Frenesi,” as promised, Peter led me back to the table. The gang was there.
“Everybody, this is Peter. Peter, that’s Ruthie, and Laura, and Tracy. John, not to be confused with Johnny here, my brother. Over there’s Shrimp.” Shrimp was six feet tall and built like a beanpole. “Peter’s a great dancer,” I exclaimed. “I felt like we’d been practicing together forever. Didn’t matter if we were jitterbugging or fox trotting.”
“We fit together well and seem to think alike on the dance floor,” Peter said. “Next time we’ll waltz.” He slid his arm around my waist, our eyes met, and my legs went all rubbery again.
I told myself to play a little harder to get. But it was hopeless. After Peter came along, I knew nothing would ever be the same again.
So, readers of my blog – what do you think?