Ten Paces behind John Westermann by Mary Ellen Walsh

Posted: September 27, 2012 in Uncategorized

Chris Byrd advised, “Westermann’s good for you. It’s all plot,” after I read at the fall 2011 MFA Student Speaks.

Embarrassed, I asked. “Who is he?”

My bad. For the past decade as a journalist, I was knee-deep in diapers then driving an Odyssey around Syosset, chasing three kids through childhood. I lived among the Joneses, watching folks keep up. I read novels—but cop procedurals were not on my nightstand. Two words “Exit Wounds” developed that photo.

I signed up for Plot and Pacing and Googled. Jeez!  Westermann will skewer me. We’re opposites.

Born at the dawn of Gen X, my mantra is don’t f*cking tell me what to do. Westermann’s from that generation—the golden Baby Boomers who paved the way.

Some stuff I’ve done:  wrote women’s articles with an indignant fist in the air (maiden name—yup); snuffed out a relationship with a “111th” precinct, anti-crime cop honored for catching bullets in his teeth; raised by Ronald Reagan-devotees (raised, not am) AND…I don’t like sports.

Perfect!

John Westermann and I will have a lot to discuss on my way to the slaughterhouse. Bite my tongue, bite my tongue. Learn, grow, dig this novel out of me once and for all. I will survive, come out alive, I will write better.

I was dealing with an athlete, retired cop turned gritty novelist…a life of quick reflexes and judgment calls. Cops size up folks fast—are all about physical energy. Mis-managed it, lose an eye or your life. Power’s in the containment.

They know what you’ll do when the shit-hits-the-fan better than your rehearsed crisis management game plan. Strategies play like movies in their mind…. If this happens, go left…if that…right. if he goes for his gun, I’m dropping to my knees… and rolling, up and out that door in a minute. No elevator, hop down three steps at once…

Dating “the cop,” in public, gun strapped to his ankle, he always sat against the wall facing the door. Never turn your back on anyone. Never leave yourself vulnerable. Never show weakness.

It all came back.

Dragging the novel out of the drawer, again, I pulled on my bulletproof vest and rode the Manhattan-bound train. I clunked the loose-leaf binder that bound my novel, X Marks the Spot, and five years of work onto the conference table. I flipped pages – no, yes—maybe. Ah, the beginning. I’m having trouble with the beginning…I read and got to…

“So, Roy’s a piece of work, huh?”  Peter said as the bartender brought our beers, carefully positioning the round bottles on the square coasters. I reached for my pocketbook…

Blathering on, losing my way, I realized—I had just turned my back. He sensed it.

“You know what that sentence is like?  The juice ain’t worth the squeeze,” he said.

What? Who was this guy? I was paying for this! He talks like a Damon Runyon character. I criticize myself enough internally. I don’t care if it was written in Sanskrit—give value-added comments – please!  Chris Byrd was going down.

But, Westermann was right. It’s a long way to the punch line and wasn’t worth the effort; red-penned that line.

We hit the streets, he, full of energy at 6 foot 3ish; me, huffing and puffing to keep up as he strode through the tip of Manhattan’s garment district.

“Penn Station. You, too?” I asked. He slowed his pace to mine.

Did I have to ride on the same train? Suffer the humiliation? I just wanted to go home, sulk, burn the manuscript, hide.

You know, I believe in things—things we can’t explain. Something said: follow. So, I did.

“Do you know so-and-so from Syosset?”  Yes, actually out of the 20,000 who live there and thousands who had blown through, I did know that ONE person. “My sister’s friend.”

“Nope, I’m not a Dead head.”  But, a patchouli-wearing music-obsessed woman.

Read his novels (read your teacher’s work. These people did it.  Don’t you want to learn how firsthand?)  Found it all: the physicality, alert, heighten senses of an athlete and cop, the shock-value grittiness, journalism of the twisted Long Island streets, a flashback for me to the cop, guys’ guy world I’d left behind.

Perched on a spec of time, a bird between flights, I sat in class or on the train, talking, listening. Westermann’s hands twirl as if flicking a lacrosse or nightstick as he talks. Seated at the conference table, behind him the city buildings turned to Freeport’s soupy Woodcleft canal.

Decades ago, he probably walked right by me pulling a 4 to midnight shift as I sat on the deck of Otto’s Sea Grill listening to the band.

Once, he said, “I did it!” an affirmation of years of hard work.

Another time he turned to me, “Do it.  Finish that book.”

Once, walking to the train, he was a block ahead of me. I tried to catch up, but he was too fast; couldn’t close that gap. I slowed my pace to its natural gait and let him go.

Mary Ellen Walsh is a second-year fiction MFA student working on a Rock ‘n Roll, Gen X love story “X Marks the Spot” set on Long Island. She is a public relations consultant for authors, musicians, visual artists and academia. As a lifestyle writer, touching on health, women’s issues and business profiles, her work has been published in: Newsday, New York Daily News, LI Pulse, Long Island Press, Wellness magazine and elsewhere. Walsh’s column “Mewsings” on Patch.com won first and second place 2011 Press Club Media Awards from the Society of Professional Journalists for humor column. MaryEWalsh@optonline.net

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