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Excerpt from Bruce Craven’s “Sweet Ride,” published by Codhill Press

In Arts & Letters, Books, Creative Writing, Humanities, Writing on August 12, 2021 at 12:16 pm
Bruce Craven

Bruce Craven teaches a popular MBA/EMBA elective, Leadership Through Fiction, at Columbia Business School. He has also been a member of the Columbia Business School Executive Education faculty for 30 years where he teaches workshops in resilience, flexible thinking and emotional intelligence.    He also co-runs Craven Leadership LLC with his wife and business partner, Sherelle Craven. He published the novel, Fast Sofa, in 1993 and co-wrote the script for the film adaptation in 2001. His leadership book, Win or Die: Leadership Secrets from Game of Thrones, was published by Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, in March 2019. He also published a collection of poetry, Buene Suerte in Red Glitter in 2019 with Red Dirt Press. He studied politics and literature at the University of California at Santa Cruz and received his MFA in Writing from Columbia School of the Arts. He lives with his wife and two sons in the Coachella Valley in California.
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This book is available for purchase at this link.

Part One: Dirty Martini, Excerpt from Chapter 7: Wild Child

Context: struggling screenwriter, George Nichols, with the help of his financially successful fiancée, a Hollywood film-industry manager, Nicolette Amberson, has flown to New York City in the late Nineties to pursue a screenwriting project about surfing, a sport George finds terrifying.

George arrived in New York on the red-eye, and exhausted, met Australian fashion photographer Mick Tanner, and a woman living downstairs in George’s building: Lilly Lejeune. Late that same night of his first day in town, George has arrived at a nightclub at Lilly’s invitation, with the plan of having drinks and talking more with Mick. 

Two muscle men in purple stretch-knit shirts and black dusters flip through clipboards and survey the people. At dramatic moments, the muscled guards remove the braided robe, unclasp the brass hook and allow the significant or the long-suffering to enter the nightclub. The security have ear-pieces and mumble into microphones. Black velvet curtains block the front of the club. A sign in blacklight reads “Haute Densite.” George joins the crowd, checking his wristwatch as if he’s in a hurry and people are waiting for him, both true.

  One hour later, George stands by himself. George is alone, except for the bouncers in black and purple. George’s bourbon high has dimmed to a grinding ache in the front of his skull. George wonders what solution could leverage him into being inside the nightclub instead of here outside on the street. The nightclub doors open and George gets a blast of the shattered rhythm of the inside: voices and laughter spilling out with music. George continues to stand near the two muscle men who think about Creatine, whey and egg whites, and dream of their next tuna wrap, packet of almonds, and pump session, maxing out in front of the mirrors, flooding their muscles with high reps at low weight.

   George nods at one of the doormen. Pick me…

   A sharp whistle snaps George to attention. It’s Mick on the other side of the braided rope. “What are you doing out here, mate?” The two bouncers look at Mick and look at George as if he just appeared from a cloud of smoke. They unhook the braided cord’s brass-plated hook from the stand and motion for George to step forward. “C’mon,” Mick slaps George on the back. “I’ve got this pretty waitress Eve waiting. She might join our venture, handle some of the office production. You been writing?”

   “Yeah,” George lies. His head hurts. This day has not ended for two days. He follows Mick down the hall, entering the crowded lounge area where there are purple banquettes, a long mirror behind the bar and a floor-to-ceiling painting of a Maasai warrior, gripping a spear. The carpet is blood red. An opaque partition of beveled glass reminds George of the glittering martini glasses stacked on Lilly’s bookshelf.

   A glass of fire passes in front of George in the hands of a man wearing a suit made out of shimmering white material. The man hands the red glass to a girl George has seen on a magazine cover.

   Mick introduces George to Eve, who sits on a circular lounge pod upholstered in wine-colored leather. Her purple dress is crushed velvet and her hair is tossed around her shoulders. Mick looks at George, “This Eve is something. She might be the gem in the crown. She said she’s on board with TNP.” Eve’s legs are crossed. She watches the room with amused calm. Eve’s cigarette hovers above a blue ashtray on an ebony table that has legs that are carved like hooves. Mick takes one of Eve’s cigarettes. “I told you about George…he just flew in today.”

   “Oh, sure,” says Eve, “The surf writer.”

   Mick heads to the bar to buy a round of drinks.

   George watches Eve smile at Mick as he turns and slides into the crowd. “Long day?” she asks George, still watching Mick.

   “I don’t have to say anything intelligent, do I?”

   “I doubt it,” Eve looks around the club. “Just arrived?”

   “This morning…but it feels like this morning was two weeks ago.”

   Mick sets the cocktails on the ebony table, “Eve has experience in…is it theater production? In Montana?”

   “Missouri,” says Eve. “I majored in theater.”

   Mick leans back, sips his pint of beer. “Then it’s settled. Hey! There’s Lilly.”

   George tries to turn casually, but his bourbon splashes on his wrist. He raises the glass and takes a strong sip of cold liquor. Lilly shines in a white cocktail dress rippling with sequins. She points a black cigarette holder at the faces of the men that surround her and pencils them in. Her eyelashes are heavy with mascara and her eyelids are lined with rhinestones. A man offers Lilly a cigarette. George remembers the photo of Audrey Hepburn in a black cocktail dress, the photo taped onto Lilly’s bureau. Lilly is a reflection in white, with a sequined clutch that has a silver clasp tucked under her arm. Mick and George watch her place the white cigarette in the long black stem and smile as the man lights her cigarette. The silver locket on Lilly’s neck, her shoulders sculpted, her white dress clinging. Lilly reminds George of a shimmering goddess. Lilly touches one of the men. He leans close to her. She turns to Mick, holds her hand up in a half-wave. “Be there in one minute,” she says across the noise and people before leaning back to address the circle of men.

   “Do you know her?” George asks Mick.

   “Know her? You could say that. I’m the lucky man that discovered her down South in Alabama. Lilly was a wild child. Still is.”

   “Discovered her?”

   “I was clipping away on editorial work, top-end material, on location in what the locals call the ‘Redneck Riviera.’ It was couture gear, all willowy crap no one could wear in the heat without sweating through it like tissue. My assistant was winding film when made a sound in his throat.” Mick laughs, “I thought he’d lost control of his bladder or was choking on a lozenge, but it was just Lilly he saw walking down the beach. He said, ‘There’s a lovely one.’ I thought I better have a look, professional responsibility and all. Lilly was on the sand, walking toward us. I was working with the Pentax 6X7, instead of the Hasselblad 120. My assistant was loading the second camera. He was in a foul mood since we had the scrim on the sand and couldn’t roll it. Two of his tall boys were trying to hold this 20×20-foot backdrop. I switched lenses and looked out near the water and focused on this young woman, late teens, in a bandanna top and cut-off jeans. Lilly was licking an ice-cream cone, one of those ice creams with the swirly vanilla inside the hard chocolate. The ice cream dripped on her wrist as she walked and I snapped a few shots out of curiosity. Lilly licked the ice cream. I got the snaps. The air was thick that day, high humidity. Our models were losing their patience and here walks this girl who just shimmered, licking the ice cream off her wrist, with a bandanna tied across her breasts and her sandals in one hand.” Mick stops. “She was breathtaking.”

   Eve crushes her cigarette, “How Beverly Hillbillies.”

   “I actually was convinced she was with one of the agencies. I knew right away I wanted to shoot her. My assistant walked over to introduce himself. You never know when a skinny local girl might break in big.”

   Lilly makes her way through the crowd.

   “She’s only skinny in the right places,” Eve says. “It’s not fair.”

   Mick says, “She’s got nothing on you, Eve.”

   Eve blushes. “My dad back in Kansas City would call her a ‘looker.’”

   “Us Aussies are vulnerable to beach girls.”
   “Men are just vulnerable,” says Eve.

   “Touche’,” says Mick. “My assistant brought Lilly over that day and she sat in the shade and watched us finish the shoot. I developed the shots back in New York and could tell she had something, but for all I knew, the girl was living in a trailer park in Baton Rouge or Memphis. I didn’t know my assistant had slipped her a card. Six months later Lilly drops by my loft on a go-see.”

   Lilly continues to sidle toward them through the crowded nightclub. She pauses under the grip of a man. Her eyes flash down to his hand on her shoulder. She smiles politely and wiggles free, poking her burning cigarette in the long holder toward the man’s hand in a mock threat, smiling. Mick says, “I set her up with some contacts. Worked to get her going in the business, but Lilly didn’t last. Hit a few road blocks…and created a few.”

   “Like what?” asks George, watching Lilly slide between two women, who hold black purses on gold chains, in black pants and white blouses. The women with flipped U’s of over-bleached hair and red mouths sip from matching glasses of chartreuse. One of the women, the shorter one, tugs at the blouse of the taller woman. Lilly’s eyes register a tall handsome man, with a narrow waist and a wide chest under his white open-collar shirt. He leans and kisses Lilly on each cheek. The taller of the two women grabs the handsome man, but his eyes are on Lilly. The man watches Lilly as he escorts the two women with dead hair and green cocktails to meet someone. Their gestures emphasize that they must meet now. Lilly watches the handsome man follow the two women into the crowd. The handsome man smiles at her and shrugs.

   “Her hands didn’t help,” says Mick.

   George’s eyes go right to Lilly’s mitts, manicured and clutching her sequined clutch with the silver clasp. Not freakish, but thick—her one visible imperfection.

   Eve says, “She is quite beautiful, but I see what you mean.”

   “Fashion isn’t the most-forgiving business,” goes Mick. “Still, Lilly could have worked more. She has the personality, but Lilly doesn’t have the discipline of the best girls. When she first walked into my loft, I felt here was a girl that would do what it took to make it, but I was wrong. What is it you Americans say? You can bring a horse somewhere?”

   “To water,” says Eve. “You can bring a horse to water…”

   “But you can’t make her drink,” says Lilly, running a finger across Mick’s neck. “Hey, Mickey…” Lilly skooches her sheathed butt onto George’s purple leather lounge pod, scrunching him to the edge of the fat crouton. George has to keep his shoes anchored to the floor to keep from sliding off the leather lounge pod and falling on the floor. George balances against Lilly who tosses everyone a big smile. “What’s up with the horses? You been hitting the OTB again, Mr. Tanner?”

   Mick and George look at Lilly.

   “Off Track Betting,” Eve says. “The lady would like to know if you’re playing the ponies, Mickey?”

   Mick smiles, “Hello, Lilly, it’s great to see you.” George’s jet lag gone, he sips his icy glass of bourbon. Lilly’s sheathed white dress presses against his arm, and George smells a fragrance he remembers from a long time ago.

   Lilly holds her hand out to Eve, “Lilly Lejeune, pleased to meet you.” The women shake hands. “You must be a friend of Mick’s?”

   “Yes,” says Eve. “I guess I must me.”
   “I know Mick’s type,” Lilly says.

   Eve waits for Lilly to continue. “All I mean,” Lilly explains, “is that Mick has exceptional taste. I hope I didn’t over reach…you know, speak out of line?”

   “Put your foot in your mouth?” asks Eve.

   “Right,” says Lilly and smiles. “Exactly.”

   “No problem,” says Eve. “Compliment accepted.”

   “Eve and I are just getting acquainted,” Mick says. “I invited her to join my company. We’re going to pull together a feature film, and I want someone to manage the office…George here is writing the script.”

   “A surf story,” George adds. “That was the meeting I was rushing off to this morning.”

   “A surf story?” says Lilly, without missing a beat. “All I know is that it better have teeny-boppers and hot-rods!”

   Mick looks at George, “Teeny boppers and hot-rods? What do you say, George?”

   “Why not…,” says George. “Vroom, vroom!” He raises his glass. “It’s really…” George has no idea what to add.

   Mick clinks his glass against George’s glass. “I can’t wait to read it, George.”

   “George looks so handsome when he’s writing,” Lilly touches George on the arm, “Doesn’t he, Eve?”

   “Yes,” Eve says, “If tonight is any indication…he must look very handsome.”

   Lilly pecks George’s cheek with a kiss. “My upstairs writer…”

   Mick looks at George. George shrugs at Mick. “I guess I’m the writer that lives upstairs…”

   The handsome man walks up to the four of them. He places his hand on Lilly’s bare shoulder. “Excuse me,” he says. Lilly’s hand touches his, their fingers fold together.

   The man disengages and nods to a man in traditional Saudi white robes and the red and white shemagh headwear. The man walks over to the Saudi with the same hand extended in greeting.

   George watches the handsome man. George doesn’t enjoy envy, but envy enjoys George. Envy finds George in coffee shops, behind the wheel at stoplights or even here in a nightclub in Manhattan. Envy holds up the mirror, and George tries not to look at himself.

   “Who needs a drink?” George asks, “This round’s on me.”

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