It is said that Melville was paid by the word for Moby Dick, hence such tedious chapters as "Cetology," "The Decanter," "The Grand Armada," "Of the Less Erroneous Pictures of Whales and the True Pictures of Whaling Scenes," and "Of Whales in Paint; in Teeth; in Wood; in Sheet-Iron; in Stone; in Mountains; in Stars."
On a somewhat similar note, it is said that obscure 20th century novelist J. Thom Deeshy was paid by the chapter. This arrangement saw him produce a 2,453-chapter opus entitled The Palm Reader. At just over 250 pages, the novel explores its main character's relationship with a mysterious woman who reads palms. Yet, she does not read the palms of hands, but rather, the palm leaves that her Catholic patrons receive at mass on Palm Sunday. In fact, near the climax of the story, while the woman is reading the main character's palms after a Holy Thursday rendezvous, she announces that he will soon be going on a "very long trip." To which the man (known only as "J") exclaims, "That's amazing! How could you have known I'm spending Easter with my sister and her family in Syracuse!"
So, without further delay, here are the first 33 chapters of Deeshy's epic Lenten novel:
Chapter 1: Ash Wednesday
I met her on the stairs of the stone observatory. I was headed up and she was headed down. The twisting, turning spiral staircase offered little room for two occupants, so I stopped to let her pass. She smiled a pleasant "thank you" as she descended, and I smiled "you're welcome" in return. I stood still for a moment, watching her, watching her gentle steps upon the staircase, watching her pale hand along the curved railing, watching her high forehead smeared with a thumbprint of ash. As she came around again our eyes met for a second time. I smiled again, as did she, and then she disappeared from my view.
Taking my first breath in several seconds, I continued my ascension, stumbling on the very next step. I grabbed firm the railing, yet twice more I stumbled at different stations along the way. With more careful footfalls, I made my way to the top of the observatory. From the platform above one could see the heavens. But instead my gaze was downward, at the woman walking across the fields and along the path leading back toward the village. There was something familiar about her, something in her eyes, in her smile. I watched until she turned a corner and disappeared, seemingly out of my life.
Chapter 2: The Very Next Day
I revisited the stone observatory with the hope of meeting up with the mysteriously beautiful woman. It was colder than on the day before, a truly blustery day, with a chilling wind and fierce clouds looming off to the west out over a dead sea. For an hour I kept my vigil, waiting for a woman that never arrived.
Chapter 3: St. Luke's
Later, to warm the chill out of my bones, I stopped by a small coffeehouse called St. Luke's and there she was, seated by the window sipping from a large mug and reading from Kafka's The Trail. While standing at the counter I gazed over at her occasionally, but she did not look up from her reading. Ordering my coffee, I thought of how best to approach her, if in fact I could muster the nerve.
Chapter 4: A woman named Veronica, wearing a stained apron (with stains that reminded me of a Rorschach test, resembling the visage of a bearded face ... perhaps a father figure ... or a Christ figure ... or perhaps Sigmund Freud ... or a member of ZZ Top), handed me my coffee. I handed her a fistful of shekels in return, and then hesitated there by the counter.
Chapter 5: Just as I made my decision to simply go over and introduce myself, the wooden door rattled and in stepped Mr. Judas, whom I knew from my previous place of employment. He immediately spied me, and I knew there would be no way to avoid an exhaustive conversation.
Chapter 6: As Judas droned on and on about how much money he was making, and about his plans to make even more money in the future, the beautiful woman by the window took a final sip from her mug, closed her book, arose from her seat, and reached her arms into a jacket.
Chapter 7: She must have felt my eyes upon her, for she eventually looked up to notice me. She smiled as she had upon the previous day when we met so suddenly upon the spiral staircase. Then she swiftly exited the coffee shop. Another opportunity lost.
Chapter 8: A number of days passed without seeing her. She had seemed so familiar to me, but I just couldn't place the face. Like a painting I had seen years earlier and suddenly there it is upon the wall of a gallery, staring back at me, triggering a memory, like rolling back a heavy stone from a cave opening.
Chapter 9: I learned her name was Mary ... a local palm reader, psychic, watercolor artist, sculptor, animal activist, and part-time chambermaid.
Chapter 10: My days being spent unemployed due to a recent layoff, I had nothing but time on my hands. Not much money in my pockets, but plenty of time.
Chapter 11: Each morning I visited the stone observatory hoping to meet up with Mary.
Chapter 12: For a solid week this was my daily routine.
Chapter 13: And I quickly became a regular at the coffeehouse.
Chapter 14: Not that I had any meaningful conversations with the woman behind the counter in the Rorschach-stained apron, except perhaps "Hello" or "May I have a large cup of regular" or "Do you know the coffee stains on your apron look like the Messiah?"
Chapter 15: I'd just sit there at the counter waiting for "her" to come through the door.
Chapter 16: Weeks elapsed. Lent was unfurling. Yet, my station in life remained unchanged.
Chapter 17: I was now up to three cups of coffee per visit, though I'm sure I would deny all three if my doctor were to ask about my caffeine intake at my next appointment.
Chapter 18: Upon one particular March day ...
Chapter 19: ... after an earlier stop by the observatory ...
Chapter 20: ... I entered St. Luke's, glancing around casually ...
Chapter 21: ... yet she was not there.
Chapter 22: Oh well, I thought.
Chapter 23: Defeated and weighted down by the cross I was bearing, I strode across the worn floorboards to the counter ...
Chapter 24: ... where Veronica in the stained apron was already in the process of pouring me a cup of coffee.
Chapter 25: After some pleasantries ... and some predictable Rorschach-inspired comments ...
Chapter 26: ... I dropped my loose change ...
Chapter 27: ... into an old coffee mug on the counter ...
Chapter 28: ... marked "Tips"...
Chapter 29: ... and then I turned.
Chapter 30: There she was - Mary - just entering the shop ...
Chapter 31: ... with Joyce's The Dead in her hand ...
Chapter 32: ... and a timid smile ...
Chapter 33: ... upon her angelic face.
Further chapters of Deeshy's novel might include just one word, or simply a punctuation mark, or in the case of chapters 403 thru 965, a single letter. Chapter 1,092 included only an open parenthesis, followed by a closed parenthesis in chapter 1,093. While chapters 1,862 thru 1,867 were left completely blank. Either way, the author was paid by the chapter.
Now, let's jump ahead to the end of Deeshy's gospel:
Chapter 2,443: Holy Saturday afternoon
We were seated across from one another at the coffeehouse. It would be our Last Coffee together.
Chapter 2,444: A conversation, or perhaps a sermon, was looming.
Chapter 2,445: But there were a few brief lingering moments of silence ...
Chapter 2,446: ... during which she took a bite of her muffin and a sip from her steaming chalice of cappuccino.
Chapter 2,447: She then broke the muffin and passed it to me. I took a bite, and then a sip of coffee.
Chapter 2,448: The anticipation was like a curling wave about to crash upon the beach of a Galilean Sea ... whatever that may be??
Chapter 2,449: Finally, Mary spoke.
Chapter 2,450: "I'm sorry, J, but I'm leaving you for Mr. Judas."
Chapter 2,451: "Mr. Judas?! You've got to be kidding me! What's Mr. Judas got that I don't have?!!"
Chapter 2,452: "A job, for starters ... with good benefits - health, dental, life, a 401(k), three weeks paid vacation, stock options," she replied as she arose, sighed as if offering up a brief prayer, and then briskly walked away like a widow from an empty tomb.
Chapter 24:53 Finished
Well, it is finished, I thought as I sat alone by the window at St. Luke's, twirling a single palm leaf in my hands. I guess I couldn't blame her ... after all, you just can't beat a good dental plan.