Monday, December 18, 2023

When life gives you lemons: (Short Fiction, Asphodel Chronicles)

Jana looked at the menu and inadvertently sucked in her breath. It whistled slightly as she pulled it in through her bottom teeth.

Scanning through the choices, she finally picked a “Farmer’s Chef’s Salad” for $22. She was used to high-end restaurants not listing cents on the menu but this was the truck-stop two miles west of Asphodel. The salad was the least expensive entree on the menu.

After the perky waitress took her order, Jana looked up at Cassandra and asked “How is it going?”

Cassandra had closed her bookstore during a distressed, buyer's market. It could not have gone all that well.

Jana had to give Cassandra credit for being a fighter. “Could have been worse” she said. “We never really saved for retirement. We figured we could work in some capacity into our mid-seventies. Alas and alack, it was not to be.”

Jana frowned. Cassandra was “good people”. It sucked that she should have to struggle.

“Are you going to be OK?” Jana asked. Jana was an “empath”. She felt things more deeply and in more dimensions than most people.

“Oh, sure. Probably….maybe. Vernon is struggling. It isn’t just the business going toes-up. It's the time of year” Cassandra said. Vernon was Cassandra’s romantic and business partner. They had never married.

Jana frowned. Gowain (who was a Deacon in their church) told her that Advent was a brutal time of year for many people. The short days were bad enough but Michigan was notorious for cloudy skies in late-autumn and early-winter. Then there was the emotional drain of holiday obligations and, for people facing the recent loss of loved-ones, an emotional roller-coaster.

Yes, Advent was an exercise in looking past the wreckage of the previous year and focusing on the turning point when days started to get longer. It was a time to prepare the seedbed of future ventures.

“Is there anything I can do to help?” Jana asked.

Cassandra looked at Jana with a steady gaze. “Maybe. That depends.”

That is when Jana realized that Cassandra had a purpose when she had called and set up the lunch date. It was not just idle socializing.

“Just tell me what it is” Jana said.

“We aren’t going to make it until we can start collecting Social Security unless we can make some money. And even then, we kept folding the money into the business rather than taking it as wages, so our base for SS benefits has always been small” Cassandra said.

It was even worse than Jana had imagined.

“The only thing that I know, and that Vernon knows, are books. So we put our heads together and are dabbling with opening a virtual-bookstore on DeNile” Cassandra said.

Emotions warred within Jana.

“But DeNile put you out of business” Jana burst out.

Cassandra shrugged. “If it hadn’t been DeNile then it would have been one of their competitors. Times change.”

“I would give you my left arm if it would help you...but I don’t see how I fit in” Jana said.

“We want to create, as much as is possible in the virtual-world, the cozy feel of a small college-town book store. That means an ever-changing kaleidoscope of characters offering book-reviews and cameo appearances in pod-casts” Cassandra said.

Jana mulled the thought over. “I don’t have any problem writing book-reviews but I am just not photogenic.”

In her mind, that ended THAT discussion.

“We don’t want pretty people...sorry” Cassandra said, afraid that she had bruised Jana’s feelings.

“No, I get that. I hoard my beauty in my mind” Jana said, saucily bouncing her stiff curls with her hand. “I have my priorities.”

“Vernon and I want people who are believable. Most people don’t find celebrities credible. You are the opposite of a celebrity. You don’t take two hours to put on your makeup. You just live life, pedal-to-the-metal” Cassandra said.

She had not expected this to be an easy sell, but if she sold Jana, then Jana would sell everybody else.

“So, start at the top. What is the picture in your head?” Jana asked.

“The picture in my head is that we have the podcast here, in the truck-stop” Cassandra said.

Jana’s eyebrows shot up. This is about the last place she would have chosen for the presentation.

“We will record one-or-two podcasts a day. People are addicted to routine. That means something every day and always at the same time. For some people, the internet is almost their only connection to other humans” Cassandra said.

Jana nodded. She knew some students…

“My plan is to have them at the same time of day so people can schedule their work around them. Lots of people work from home, now” Cassandra said.

Looking at Jana’s face, Cassandra hastily added “I plan to have a lot of contributors. It won’t always be you. I was figuring on your usual Tuesday/Thursday time slots.”

That was very palatable to Jana.

“I want you to pick out a book, any I want you to imagine that you are standing at the check-out desk when somebody walks up with that book in their hand and they ask “Will I like this book?” “ Cassandra said.

“I want you to have a fifteen-second intro where you make a compelling pitch about why THIS book is a must read. Then I want about 200 words where you talk about the kind of person who will enjoy or benefit from that book. Point being, sometimes the people who benefit most from a book don’t enjoy it much when they read it” Cassandra said, wryly. 

"It HAS to be short and punchy" Cassandra said. "People are not patient. There are thousands of other podcasts they could be watching and they will leave if we only give them sips-of-good-stuff."

“After your spiel, we will open up the comments and answer the questions our viewers ask. In effect, they have become the buyer standing at the cash-register with the book in their hand.”

Jana, puzzled, said “I don’t see how that puts any money in your checking account.”

“That is the easy part. I put a link to the item in the comments of the pod-cast and that takes them to our store-front in DeNile where we get a percentage of the sales” Cassandra said, confidently.

“That can’t be a very big percentage” Jana said, musing.

“Well, its not like I got a very big percentage when I sold a book out of our bricks-and-mortar store. And either I or Vernon had to be there. Pod-casts will sell books even when we are sleeping.” Cassandra said.

“Of course, you will get a cut of our percentage” Cassandra reassured her.

The waitress dropped off their orders. Jana’s salad was large enough for two meals but it was obvious that the cook had done what he could to cut costs. Crispy-fried potatoes had replaced croutons and celery. Locally grown, greenhouse lettuce had replaced west-Coast microgreens. Smoked sausage had replaced bacon and turkey and so on.

Jana wished she could be magnanimous and say that it wasn’t necessary. But prices were shooting up and the pension and Social Security benefits that had looked so generous just a few short years ago were not quite enough.

Looking down at the meal and thinking about how much it cost, Jana asked “If Gowain is interested, do you think you could find room for him, too?”

Jana knew that Gowain had more hours on his hands than he had work to keep him occupied.

“Many hands make light work” Cassandra said with a sigh of relief. “You are my rock-star. I NEED you. And I will certainly appreciate anything that Gowain wants to contribute.”


  1. That was an interesting point of view and a novel business model (for me at least - I don't get out much ! :^) Selling an item you have no ownership or possession, yet gain a small 'cut' for making the sale of it ? Great way for a person with small nest egg to remove many cost of having a business.

    1. It is no different than what your insurance agent gets for selling you an auto insurance policy.

      Advertising, creating demand, is very, very big business. Huge numbers of dollars go into it. That is the primary COST difference between a pair of high-end Nikes and Walmart's Ozark clod-hoppers.

      From the business owner's standpoint, the problem with advertising is that it is very difficult to evaluate cost-effectiveness. How many additional dollars of sales were actually due to any given ad in any given medium.

      Allowing other entities to have store-fronts is bullet-proof from the business standpoint. Successful storefronts make more money and less successful storefronts make very little. And it all comes out of the advertising budget.

    2. Someone like the CEO of Macys once said something like "I know I am mis-spending half of my advertising budget. I just cannot tell which half." And oh have I felt that. Just fewer zeros. Roger

    3. Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is, I don't know which half.
      —John Wanamaker

      WikiPedia has a good entry:

  2. ERJ - What a fascinating vignette. And pretty timely.

    If anything has come to my awareness in the last 12 months or so, it is content creation. The old content model - big houses (be they movie, book, or music) - that used to completely dominate the space is falling apart faster than my job did (really, in this case). The market is ripe for such things now - and lots of people are capitalizing on it.

    The only potential danger to the above plan is book recommendations that do not go through the link (likely I am one of those; the cost of a new book is egregious these days). Not sure if "used" books sites allow associates as well, but that might be a thing.

    The background details are good as well. A brief story to that effect:

    Yesterday A Jolly Old Elf might or might not have stopped at Cost Plus to buy stocking stuffers for his wife. Not only was the store incredibly less busy than any other year he had been (with only a week to go as well), but there were only two people working the store, a manager who was filling InterWeb orders and a single cashier. Things are falling quickly, if one knows where to look.

  3. Sorry Joe, caught a mis-spell and thought you'd want to edit it: "“That can’t be a very bit percentage” Jana said, musing."

    Thanks for the story segment, though! And Merry Christmas to your horde.

    1. Thank-you for catching that and calling it to my attention.

      As a young man, I used to have an ego but I found the cost of feeding-and-housing it to be excessive.

  4. So appreciate your writing, look forward every day to maybe find fiction on your blog

  5. Love the quote " as a young man, I used to have a ego but I found the cost of feeding and housing it to be excessive". Sounds like something my friends in the 12 step world would say.
    Yes I have spent some time in Al-Anon.

    1. The 12-step process distills a lot of life-skills into pithy, actionable steps. I particularly like "Seek forgiveness from those you have wronged to the extent that it is safe".

      We could do far worse as a nation than to have every 8th grader study the 12-steps for a week. EVERY 8th grader.

    2. I am going to steal this idea for use at the appropriate point in my GrandThings' education. Thanks.

  6. I can't see the problem. If only Cassandra read the comments in your blog, she could make hundreds of dollars working from home by following the generously shared advice of your most regular commentator. Ahem! >};o)

    Phil B

  7. Yep, it kinda works...LOL! Maybe we need to get you on ours...


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