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Annie Pens a Story: Why Shortcuts Don't Work

I've written two complete novels in my lifetime. I'm well into a third, and am enamored with the concept. I should finish it. I want to finish it. Yet for some inexplicable reason, I started writing a new story last week. You know the routine: shiny new story idea catches writer brain, writer ditches old project and runs off with new concept... until I remember, I AM GRITTY. Writing a new story isn't going to be any easier than finishing its predecessor. Moreover, I will have created additional work by having two unfinished books. So, I shelved the new one for now, and am back on track with the story-in-progress.

In honor of that decision, I present to you: a fable. It's my take on why shortcuts don't work. I've found that there's no magic to the endgame in the art process other than actual effort.

Take from the following what you will.

Oh, and thank you for allowing me a bit of an indulgence this week. I hope you enjoy some coffee and music, Annie-style.

Jack’s Complete Lack of Time-Space Continuum

by Annie James Thomas

Jack didn't think he broke his day by ditching work. His day broke when he detoured from his usual writing spot at Java Jungle to try a different coffee shop: The Garage. The day had already gone down the tubes, and feeling a little wild, Jack thought, “what the hell” while turning into the shiny new parking lot.

The building held promise. It was an old gas station, complete with Cold-War era pumps out front, reimagined as electric plug-in stations. The sun shone off garage doors that turned the shop inside-out on warm, blue sky days like today, although the doors remained questionably shut.

Jack parked his station wagon and walked his laptop inside. His fingers itched to type the newest installment of “Cowboy and Space Pony,” and today’s work debacle made the need to brain dump that much more tenesmatic.

Scouting tables, he eyed the one in the corner, not all the way in the corner, but the next one. That was always his strategy; take the almost-corner table and block the corner from being usable, thus preventing would-be hoverers. His heart rate rose as he stood at the empty counter hoping no one would take that spot. He hadn’t even heard the barista requesting his order.

No, he was too busy mentally adding Sheila to his Choke List. And Nancy. Little Nancy, not Nancy from Accounting.

“Mmmm hmmmmm. Can I help you, sir?” The man repeated in a tone. “Something to drink?”

Jack considered the Choke List again. “Yeah… listen. I’ve had a day. What’s your best—“ he squinted at the chalkboard menu, “you know what? What’s your strongest brew?”

“Strongest is called The Diesel, but I—“

“I’ll take a small.”

“I wouldn’t recommend it.”

“What? Why?”

“It’s strong. Really strong.” The barista leaned over the counter. He was very skinny, but his lean had some reach. He whispered to Jack and emphasized the words, “Unreasonably strong.”

Jack stood straight. “That’s what I want. And make it a, a… medium.”

“I wouldn’t do that, sir.”

“A medium.” Jack didn’t raise his voice, but he was firm.

“Cream and sugar?”

Jack stared the barista right in his round tortoise shell glasses. The word bubbled up from his gut, like an unfortunate release of air. “Black.”

“Oh.” The barista shrunk. “Nitro it?”

“Sure. No. Wait. Could you do it as a French press?”

Jack had all but forgotten about the table by the time The Diesel was ready, and the lucky break in his day was that his seat remained available. Steaming cup in hand, he made his way to the non-corner corner and set up. The first sip of coffee took the tastebuds off his eyeballs.

The barista glanced at him.

No way was Jack giving up any intel.

It all came back. Sheila. Little Nancy. The whole thing had been their idea. An out-of-office team-building event. Even Margery had gotten her pants in a twist and helped come up with the scavenger hunt concept. He’d add her to the list, too, but she was sexy in his fifth-grade chorus teacher meets that hot cashier from Sammy’s kind of way.

They’d gotten name tags on lanyards. Plasticized versions of the “Hello, my name is” with their first names in big bold fonts. Not for each other, but for the general public. Little Nancy thought it would be fun.

Music started in the cafe, timed with Jack's second sip. A record scratch, and then a deep baritone voice singing a song over tinny speakers.

“Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me.” Jack whined. “Hipster tunes.”

The old-timey-sounding crooner sang about Winona Ryder. Not really anything specific to her, but her name, over and over set to big band music.

It all brought him right back to the record store. That’s where Jack lost it.

Scavenger Ship (what Sheila named the rented motor coach) dropped the crowd at their fourth stop. Big Sound Records, one of the few locally surviving brick and mortar stores that sold CDs and vinyl, was on their hit list. The crowd rushed the jingly door. Frantic, like a group of teens on molly (but not a drop of molly was to be found, no, it was Sheila, Little Nancy and the gang, high on team-building adrenaline), pounced the cashiers with their lists. Their overly enthusiastic giggles to cross off lullaby versions of a Beatles album echoed in Jack's skull.

Little Nancy thought 45s were “adorable.”

Sheila asked what “that smell” was. Margery giggled. Margery had a wild side.

It was at Big Sound that Jack felt his blood pressure go up about five, possibly ten points. "Interpersonal enhancement," "community-adjacent perception," and "data accumulation" skills were time drains when Jack had real work to do. He’d slid the lanyard from his neck, dropped it in a space between record displays, crumpled the scavenger hunt list, and hid it in his pocket.

“This is great. A lot of fun,” Jack told anyone in earshot, and then snuck into the video game/clearance room.

When the noise of the store died down, and he heard the bus rumble away, he took out his phone, alerted a cab, and hightailed it back to work. Before anyone could notice he was gone, he slipped out of the parking lot.

Another sip of The Diesel. Winona Ryder ended, and Cowboy hadn’t gotten a single new word. But the coffee was growing on him. Strong, Jack thought. Only for real coffee drinkers. Not Sheila and her watered-down office backwash.

A song started over the speakers. Jack looked up. Same crooner, same lyrics. Winona—again.

“Record’s broken,” Jack yelled to the barista.

The barista gave him a thumbs up and wiped the counter.

Space Pony safely landed the airship on enemy territory, and Jack picked up his coffee mug. Empty. A truck hit a rumble strip outside, and The Garage shook. The record scratched, and Winona replayed.

“What the—,” Jack looked over at the barista, who paid no attention to the music. “Hey, buddy! Counter clean yet?”

The barista gave Jack a thumbs up.

Jack felt a fly buzzing around him. His leg started to tap to Winona. He had to leave. He packed his bag and noticed for the first time that he’d been alone in the cafe with the barista.

His only regret upon setting his bag in the car was that he should have made a pit stop before leaving. Touching the rabbit’s foot hanging from his rearview mirror, Jack made a silent plea that his body wouldn’t recognize all the caffeine he’d consumed before he got home.

The left out of the parking lot led him to his first roadblock.

“Road closed,” Jack read out loud. “What? Why?”

He followed the detour left down a long, windy road with which he was vaguely familiar. A right turn about a mile down could get him back on track.

Except, upon that right turn—

“Road closed? You’ve got to be kidding me.” The gas tank was a quarter full. Home was about six miles away. The anxiety dial ticked up.

Jack detoured left again, down another long and winding road that he was less sure about than the first. Pastures to the left of him, cows to the right, and here he was stuck in the middle with one other car that seemed to have no rage about the fact that they were detoured to nowhere.

White-knuckling the steering wheel, Jack watched the car turn down a dirt road onto a farm. His heart raced. His legs shook. His body bounced. The radio skipped.

“Civilization!” He yelled it before he could clearly make out what lay ahead.

Sure enough, there it was. The center of town. A red light. Big Sound would be directly across from him. He needed to go right at the light.

Blinker on, he paused for the turn.

A detour sign.

He looked left.

A detour sign.

His only option was straight.

The music store.

Staring at him.

He reached for the crumbled paper in his pocket. Cursing Sheila, Little Nancy, and even Margery, Jack knew what he had to do.

The door jingled when he entered. The place smelled like weed. Approaching the cashier, he smoothed the paper on the counter.

“Can I help you find something?” The woman was in her twenties, tattoos up both arms, dark red lips, and hair shaved on the sides of her head.

Wi-no-na Ry-der, Jack's heart palpitated.

“Yes. No. Wait. There’s something I need first.”

“Bathroom’s in the back.”

“Not that,” although, yes, he did.

Jack walked to the vinyl section and slid his arm between two displays. Reluctant, he placed the lanyard over his head.

“Hello, again, Jack!” the woman read. “So, what are you looking for?”

Jack checked the paper, and, acutely aware of The Diesel on his breath, whispered, “I need a metal band that’s covered a pop song.”

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