I called. The secretary gave my instructions. “Meet him at the caboose behind the Chattanooga Choo-Choo, Friday at 2:40.”
“Cause that’s what the boss says.”
“He’ll be in New York all week. He likes to relax on Friday mornings and write. 2:40.”
“Got it. Where’s the Chattanooga Choo Choo?”
“Can you find Chattanooga?”
“If you find Chattanooga you can find the Choo Choo. Can’t miss it.”
We came in from Nashville early. As we drove along by the river we heard music. Hey, a bluegrass festival. I thought for a minute. Must be Three Sisters. I’d read about it. We wandered through downtown and spotted a huge train on top of a hotel. Chattanooga Choo Choo. I stopped at the desk. “Pardon me ma’am, is that the Chattanooga Choo Choo?”
She rolled her eyes. “Yes, sir.”
“Room for two, non-smoking, Bibey’s the name.”
She scrolled through her computer. “Yes, sir. Here you are.”
“Where’s the caboose?”
“Through that door, go by the gift shop. Follow the tracks. There is a picnic table right beside it.”
“Are you here to meet the agent?”
“He fires most of ’em on the first meeting.”
“Thanks, I guess.”
Marfar kissed me bye. “Good luck.”
“I wish you could come,” I complained.
“He said come alone. No family.”
I found the caboose and the picnic table. 2:38. I sat down. A band struck up in the distance. I checked my watch. 2:40. A gray-haired man in a tweed coat approached. He carried a large briefcase and sat in on the table. It was as battle-scarred as my mandolin case, and the corners were tattered so bad I thought it might break open. Several papers spilled out over the top. He stuck out his hand. “Bibey?”
He studied my features for a minute. “Say you want to be a writer?”
“Why would you want to do that?”
He smiled. I got a sense he was working hard to try to be aloof. “You still have time to turn back, you know.”
“It’s too late to turn back now.”
He laughed. “You hear that band?”
“You said you were true bluegrass. Who is it?”
Dang it, why didn’t I check the line-up? I listened for a moment. Someone broke into a nice fiddle break. Hm. Chattanooga. My mind drifted back to a jam session at John Hartford’s Christmas party years ago. I took a chance. “Hey that sounds like Fletcher Bright.” (Fletcher is a big Chattanooga real estate man; he knows everyone in bluegrass.)
His smile broke into a broad grin. “Correct.” He pulled my resume out of the briefcase. “Tell me your story.”
“What kinda word count you gonna give me?”
“Brief. You’ll have to edit a lot. You use too many words.”
“Do you have to call everyone sir?”
“Yes, sir. Mama taught me that way. All good southern writers love their mama. She was an English teacher.”
“Okay. I’m a doctor. I saw a lot. I read in JAMA years ago where some professor said docs ought to write so people can know what it’s really like to be a doctor. I can’t tell people’s secrets, so it has to be fiction. Everyone’s always told me I should write a book.”
“That’s what they all say.”
“Well, I am proven commodity. You got your check, didn’t you?”
“Do you have a blog?” he asked.
“What’s a blog?”
“Where are you from again?”
“You have the Internet I presume.”
He looked over his glasses at the resume again. “Get your kids to show you how to set up a blog. Your readers will teach you how to write. If you don’t have one by our next meeting you’re fired.”
“No tickee no washee?”
His eyebrows raised. “I suppose.” He reached into the briefcase and retrieved my manuscript. “This isn’t too bad for an amateur. How many revisions have you done?”
“At least twelve. I have a doctor friend who writes children’s books. He was an English major. And my daughter’s creative writing teacher helped me too. She thinks it has promise. Of course, all she has to compare it to is a bunch of testosterone poisoned teen-aged boys who ain’t got nothing on their mind but trying to get laid.”
He laughed outloud. “I am sure it would be good for an “A” in Senior English, but this is a different game.”
“Yes, sir. That’s why I need you.”
“So how long do you think it will take for you to get there?” he asked.
“I work off the ten-year plan. It takes ten years to get good at anything, be it doctor, musician, golfer, or writer. I started in 2000. I think we can get there in three more years.”
He scratched his head. I wasn’t sure he was convinced.
“I ain’t Twain, but I got no give up in me, sir.”
“Tell me about loyalty,” he asked.
“It’s one of the big themes in my book. I don’t just write it; I live it. Same wife, same kids, same nurses, same friends, doctor, dentist, mechanic, and barber. All I need is one agent.”
“When some people break big they change.”
“Well for one thing I’m not likely to break big. But if I do I won’t change.” I recalled how he groomed one writer only to have them leave once they found success. “If you’re my agent and someone from New York shows up with a million bucks they gotta give you your 15%.”
“You been playing the lottery, son?”
“No, sir. I’m clean. Not even a traffic ticket. Look, its like they told Monroe when he hit the Opry. If you’re gonna leave you gotta fire yourself. If you’re straight with me, I’ll never leave. It don’t matter whether I write in obscurity or it does a little something. I ain’t gonna change. You can count on it. Just ask my wife.”
“I grew up in Texas. A man’s word is his bond there. Are you willing to shake on it?” He stuck out his hand.
“Yes, sir.” We shook.
“I’ll send a contract. It’ll be exactly what I said on the phone. Just don’t tell anyone about this. Every time I sign a new artist if they tell their friends I have to deal with all kinds people who all of a sudden decide they’re gonna be a writer.”
When the contract came in I sent a copy to my lawyer. He said it was dead on; don’t change a word. It’s a good thing; I had already signed and returned it. We’d already shook hands on it, and I wasn’t gonna go back on my word. I had an agent.
When I put it in the over night mail at the office the secretary at the time looked at the address. “Hey, Doc. Y’all gonna play Three Sisters out there?
“They’re thinking about hiring us.”
“Just don’t tell anybody. I don’t want to jinx it.”
“Sure.” She drifted down the hall. “Hey Sue, didja hear Dr. B might play Chattanooga next year?”
Oh well. The writer gig is like a slow motion horse race. I wasn’t ready to run, but they had let me out of the stall to trot around the warm-up ring. One of these years maybe I’d be at the starting gate. I had a notion my trainer knew the biz and wouldn’t settle for anything less.