By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
The book sits quietly, battling long odds. Hundreds of other titles line the shelves of Books & Books in Coral Gables. Meditations on politics. Memoirs and biographies. First novels by the graduates of elite writing workshops. Some 60,000 new books are released in America every year. Most disappear quickly, with little notice and few readers.
The book in question rests on a back wall, among a kaleidoscope of competitors. Some cry for attention with fluorescent dust jackets. Titles are printed in vivid oranges and greens. The spine on this book is basic black. Maize-colored letters spell out a title that is not particularly catchy: Freedom Land. The front cover features a portrait of a frontiersman in buckskins. A bandanna caps his long brown hair, a rifle rests in his hands, his thin lips are set in grim resolution. Leather boots disappear into a watery marsh stained yellow by a setting sun. Off his right shoulder, melting into a burnt orange cloud line, floats the subtitle, a sultry hard sell:
From the pages of our nation's history comes a novel of passion, betrayal, and the all-consuming quest for freedom.
At the bottom of the cover, printed in white letters to contrast with tan blades of sawgrass, is the author's name: Martin L. Marcus.
"He was a real man's man, sort of a renaissance kind of man," says Sherrie Marcus of her brother Martin. "He didn't lead a typical nine-to-five life, ever."
Martin was born in Philadelphia in 1946, the son of a butcher. He grew up with the personality of South Philly: a little gruff, brimming with machismo, imbued with a certain fearlessness. He told people what he thought. He showed little patience for dreamers. If you shared a bright idea, he'd ask you what you were doing about it. Right now. Today. Why hadn't you started making the dream come true? He was athletic, not tall or bulging with muscles, but fit from constant activity. He'd played soccer and football in high school, then in college in Atlanta. He loved to ski. In pictures his face is chiseled. His eyes burn with life.
"He was a 'just do it' kind of Nike kind of seize-the-day kind of guy," says Sherrie, an attorney in Miami.
Martin vowed to lead a life different from his father the butcher. There would be no leaving for work at 4:00 a.m. only to trudge home exhausted fourteen hours later. His career would be a more fluid pursuit of his passions. Soon after Martin moved to Miami, in the early Seventies, he began investing in racehorses. Chief Steward, Ships in the Night, Uronurown. He loved watching them run. Even better was standing in the winner's circle after a race, holding the reins of a bet that paid off. He could tell you the bloodlines of any horse racing at any track in the country. He lived to gamble.
Just about the time Martin established himself as a thoroughbred owner and trainer, he changed careers. A friend had tickled him with promises of high profits in real estate. Impulsively, Martin opened his own real estate company in Miami, in 1980. He diversified with a handful of condominium time-share projects in Colorado, which allowed him to ski in Aspen. His work hours were so flexible he could play tennis, his favorite game, any time he wanted. He could have set up something stable to buffer the insecurities of life. Instead he changed careers again.
Now it was screenplays, movies. He'd been a fan of classic Hollywood films since he was a kid. Films like Casablancaand Lawrence of Arabia. Because he liked these movies, and because he thought it would be fun to make them, he did. Or at least he tried. Who cared if he lacked training? Who cared if he had no background in the arts? Didn't matter. He was fond of a quote from Wayne Gretzky, the hockey superstar: "You miss 100 percent of the shots you don't take."
Martin formed a company, Peerless Productions, and was on his way. About the only thing missing was someone to share his adventures with.
"I'm not the marrying kind," says Carol Durbin. She's sitting at the kitchen table of her condominium, just north of downtown Miami. Beyond a wall of glass, the blue surface of the Intracoastal Waterway shimmers in late-afternoon sunshine. Cars appearing no larger than palmetto bugs dart across the Julia Tuttle Causeway. She was only twenty when she first married. The union lasted less than a year. Her second marriage lasted only six weeks.
"You really want to know your lover? Travel cross-country," she says. "Believe me, travel tells a lot about a person."
Durbin is tall and thin. Her straight, shoulder-length copper hair frames a long delicate face. Her nails are long, as are her earrings. She's wearing jeans and a fashionable top constructed somewhere between a T-shirt and a peasant blouse. She grabs a toothpick with her long, thin fingers. While piercing a melon cube from a platter, she traces the disastrous early years of her love life. An annulment after the road trip was followed by a third marriage and still another divorce. Was it her unwillingness to compromise? Was she evolved enough for marriage in the first place?
"It just seems my marriages didn't work," she concludes. "There's a learning process involved."
Now 53 years old, she was in her late thirties when her third marriage ended. She and that last husband were partners in a North Miami real estate office. Carol was okay at sales, though her heart really wasn't in it. She'd always been drawn to the arts, to dance and to song. As a girl she used to parade around her living room singing along to the cast albums from West Side Story and Oklahoma! It was quiet passion, unrequited. She never expected to get into that field. She had no experience. She knew no one in the business. All she knew how to do was sell houses. She settled into her job, assuming it was her fate.
Her third ex-husband had other plans, she says. With his majority control of their small company he gradually squeezed Carol out of power. She lost the ability to write checks. She held no say in any of the big decisions. She could stay on with the company if she wanted, but only as an employee.
Carol mulled this unattractive option during a lunch with her mother. As they ate in a coffee shop, she absently flipped through the classifieds of a weekly newspaper. She liked to eavesdrop on the romance ads. Desperately Seeking Susan. Woman in search of a man.Personally, she was in no mood to date. Why bother? What good could come of it?
"If there's an ad you like, answer it," her mother said, watching Carol's eyes scan the newsprint. One ad actually had caught her attention. She still has it, stored in an office she's set up in an empty bedroom.
"SEEKING AN AMBITIOUS CAPTIVATING WOMAN 20s - late 30s. Handsome fit writer/producer 42 (djm) commutes to London and NY and skis Aspen. Interests outside the theater include tennis and thoroughbreds. Seeking an alluring woman for serious romance who brings much more than uncommonly good looks to the table. Marriage and family possible. Short note, photo, phone, get same."
It was the word "theater" that spoke to her. Theater. Writer/producer. A life in the arts. At her mother's prompting, Carol mailed off her picture and phone number. Martin swiftly called her back. They arranged to meet at her work, in the real estate office.
The first impression left Carol underwhelmed. On the positive side, Martin came across as physically sexy, with an athlete's build. A few strands of gray wove through his dark hair and mustache. That was really it, though. He was officious, peppering her with questions. The meeting seemed more like a business interview than a stab at romance.
"I really didn't think anything," she recalls. "I just thought he was the first person I met when I was ready to start dating."
They parted with a handshake. Neither suggested they meet again. Yet that night at her gym, he was there. Unbeknownst to either of them, they'd been members of the same gym for years. When he saw her working out, he came over and said hello. A day later he invited her to play tennis. Soon after that, he asked her out on a date, but she balked. She wasn't sure. There was no spark. Even so, when a pair of tickets to a Miami Heat game came her way, she called Martin and invited him. They began sharing casual dinners after their workouts.
"That's how it really happened. That's how our relationship grew," Carol recalls. "I still dated a few other people, but I realized that they weren't for me and I probably wasn't for them, either. And Martin was always there. Every day -- it was almost like clockwork. After my workout I'd be blow-drying my hair. Martin would call and invite me to dinner. I didn't want to eat alone. We started learning about each other."
As she got to know him she got to like him. She liked how many friends he seemed to have. She liked his enthusiasm for horses, for tennis, for his work. He had the kind of personality that either attracted people or repelled them. One of her friends, after meeting Martin, called Carol the next day and told her to dump him immediately. Yet Carol stayed with him. Soon she started working with him.
It kind of blew her mind, actually. All those years she'd fantasized about a career in the arts. Making movies, producing musicals, it was too fantastic to even contemplate. Now to meet a man who shared her romance with the cinema. Who by sheer force of will had become a producer. He would stage the musicals she loved. He would write screenplays. He would produce films. And she would, too. Why not? You can do anything, he'd say.
Carol traveled with Martin to the Cannes film festival in France. In London they partnered with a man itching to stage a musical. When Martin suggested a move to Los Angeles to be closer to the film industry, she agreed to move with him.
The next few years unfolded in a whirlwind. A move to California. A bohemian apartment over a health-food store. A job in the back room of a producer's office. New friends. A new life. Screenplays and musicals and all that stuff they'd both always wanted to do.
It was a struggle, to be certain. A studio would option a script only to table it a few months later. The producer they'd been working for went out of business, forcing them to move their office into the living room of the apartment. At one point they started peddling a film production guide just to live off the sales. Martin would say they were on the fringes of the entertainment industry.
Perseverance is the key, he'd add. That's the number-one thing. Not talent. Not money. Perseverance. Are you going to talk about it or are you going to do it? Keep going, no matter what.
They lived and worked in L.A. for six years, sweating like this. They never married, as Carol wasn't interested. Why bother anyway? They were together and they were working all the time. Martin was always on the phone, calling someone. Carol always grilling an agent or drafting a fax. They both toiled on their computer at home, writing up stories, editing drafts of scripts, trolling for contacts and money.
"They had a great bond together," says Alexandra Scott, a friend who knew the couple in L.A. "He made Carol feel like she was the most beautiful woman. I'm not saying it was all roses, but he gave her self-confidence. He built her up. If she found flaws in herself, he'd say, 'Don't be ridiculous, no one cares about those things.' He was crazy about her."
They'd been together for eight years when Martin went in for what he thought was minor knee surgery.
Martin figured it was the tennis. He played a lot of it. He also skied. It must have been arthritis from those sports making his knee stiffen up, shooting a mild but ceaseless pain up his thigh when he walked. When he woke up from the surgery, on April 1, 1997, he couldn't feel or move his left foot.
The doctors initially thought a tourniquet set just above the knee had been tied too tight. They assumed the foot was sort of asleep, that it would soon awaken. Every day Martin waited for feeling to return. It never did, not even a year later. Sometimes he'd fall over when he walked and Carol would have to pick him up. She got him a foot brace, then a cane. He was in his bathroom prepping to attend a friend's wedding when he fell again, shattering his femur.
"I heard a piercing scream," Carol recalls. "Just a piercing scream. I ran to the bathroom and Martin's on the floor. I didn't know what to do. Martin was a pretty big man, but somehow I got him off the floor, got him onto a chair with rollers, lifted his legs, and pulled him across the living room and into the bedroom, and got him on the bed."
Martin insisted Carol not call an ambulance. He insisted he was all right, despite what Carol had just heard, seen, and done. He calmed her down, convinced her he was fine. Carol so wanted to believe him. But they never went to that wedding. Instead, the next day, they went back to the hospital. Martin stayed there for six weeks, recovering.
His foot never regained sensation. And, once out of the hospital, he kept falling down, even with his cane and leg brace. Then his neck started hurting. A neurologist suggested it might be an old car accident coming back to haunt him. Martin decided to have neck surgery. A few days before that operation, another doctor delivered a more accurate diagnosis.
"This doctor simply tells us Martin has Lou Gehrig's disease, and that he's going to die sometime in the next three to five years," Carol remembers. "I was sitting in the lobby. The doctor comes out and says, 'Carol, Martin's going to die in a couple years. Would you like some grief counseling?'"
Lou Gehrig's disease is the colloquial name for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. It's a disorder of the neurons that control muscles. The nerve cells gradually die, for reasons no one has yet been able to determine. Without input from nerves, muscles die off as well. The disease most often strikes in late middle age, and usually men.
ALS is degenerative. Basically the muscles shut down slowly, one group after the other. In a typical case, the first to go would be the muscles in the legs, then the arms. At the end everything goes, including the muscles that control swallowing and breathing. Many ALS patients choke to death on their own phlegm.
Throughout the course of the disease, hearing, vision, and the ability to smell stick around. Brain function is unaffected, which is a mixed blessing. A person's emotions and intellect remain intact while his body deteriorates.
"It's a miserable disease because it makes you regress to becoming as dependent as a baby is," explains Walter Bradley, M.D., of the Kessenich Family MDA ALS Center at Jackson Memorial Hospital. "You need to be lifted on and off the toilet. You lack hand function so you can't wipe your bottom."
At first Carol and Martin lived in denial. At least Carol did. She refused to believe the sentence the doctors had delivered. Oh, she took him to a local swimming pool for physical therapy. And she acknowledged that, yes, he'd now lost the use of both his legs. Okay. But no more. One of the symptoms, they were told, would be drooling. During a meal at a Thai restaurant with some friends, drool slipped from Martin's lips for the first time.
"Stop that!" Carol barked. Somehow, he did. She tried to believe the whole thing was mental. She liked to think the disease could be overcome.
Martin knew better. He was more realistic. He was stuck in a wheelchair, with his whole world reduced to just the walls of the apartment. Unable to do much more than sit, what could he do with his time? In the past he'd made seemingly random decisions: I'm going to own racehorses. I'm going to sell real estate. I'm going to produce movies and screenplays. Given his health, the decision to write a book seemed like a logical choice.
"He said, 'If I'm going to be stuck in this damn wheelchair then I'm going to make the most of it,'" Carol recalls. "He always used to say to me, 'What kind of person are you? A person who talks about other people, who talks about great events and great ideas? You have to go out there and create those ideas and make it happen.'"
Like his other passions, the book idea had been kicking around his head for years. A novel, historical fiction, with heroic characters and lusty women and a battle for virtue and honor. A story set in the past, grounded in fact.
The plot, as he conceived it, would revolve around a little-remembered military battle. In northern Florida, a few decades before the Civil War, Seminole Indians joined up with more than a thousand escaped slaves to settle a territory they called Freedom Land. When the U.S. Army arrived to reclaim the slaves, the Seminoles and the Maroons, as the mixed races of slaves and Indians came to be called, fought back for seven years. More than 4500 U.S. troops were killed before the leader of the Seminoles, Chief Osceola, was treacherously captured under a white flag of truce.
Writing such a book would be a challenge, no matter the circumstances. Martin's odds were longer than most. In addition to his physical deterioration, he had never written a book. He hadn't studied writing. He didn't have friends in publishing to guide him through the process. Beyond that, he didn't even know much about the Seminoles or their war with America.
Rather than dwell on these obstacles, Martin set about overcoming them. He dove into research, starting with old newspaper articles he had photocopied and sent to him by librarians back in Florida. Over long-distance phone calls, he pestered historians for details. When he was satisfied with his research, he selected his characters, some fictional, some much less so. Zachary Taylor and Andrew Jackson made appearances. A few tight-bodiced women surfaced as love interests. Martin crafted a plot spiced with bullwhips that tore open the shoulders of recalcitrant slaves. Then he set about writing it.
He referred to Freedom Land as his blockbuster novel, but as he ground out his first draft he typed dialogue that can charitably be appraised as wooden. "He was 30 years old and stood five-feet-ten-inches tall," is a typical description. "Jamina climbed into his bed and they made passionate love," is a typical sex scene.
"It's not Dostoyevsky," Carol admits.
When his hands started fading on him, Martin used only his index finger to type out his chapters. Carol soon began typing for him. When he needed to read a book for research, she turned the pages. To pay for therapy and medications and doctor's visits, they liquidated all their investments, even selling Martin's thoroughbred racehorses. Carol took a second job. After two years with the disease, he and Carol decided to move back to Miami so he could be closer to the ALS center at Jackson Hospital.
In Miami, Martin's condition worsened. Carol drove him to therapy almost every day. She took him to doctors' appointments at Jackson, dragging him from his wheelchair into the car, no easy feat. The passing of every month brought further decline. His face started to freeze, making it hard for Carol to read his moods. He had trouble eating the food she liquefied in a blender for him, and his weight began to plummet. He was tired most of the day.
"It was sad seeing my best friend deteriorate in front of me," Carol says. "It was very hard to watch a loved one not only just die, but see him just totally degenerate."
Still they worked on the book. Facing his computer, Carol at his side typing, Martin slid into another dimension, into the Nineteenth Century. For a while at least, he forgot about his body and the doctors and whatever was hurting him. When his energy flagged, Carol put him to bed. When he regained his strength, at whatever hour, they returned together to the computer. Every day they wrote.
"If I had something like ALS, I'd say, 'Well, the hell with it. I'm going to retire and go fishing,'" says Dr. Bradley at Jackson Memorial. "Not Martin. Writing the book was important to him. I think in a sense it gave him a mission."
Carol had always considered herself a free spirit. Now, with Martin's never-ending needs, she became much more organized. She fed him. She bathed him. Mucus that a healthy person reflexively cleans from the throat would fall back into Martin's lungs. She cleared it out. At first there were caregivers at his side a couple of hours a day. Even then Carol had to stick around to put out whatever fires might arise. If she didn't set out Martin's urine bottle, for instance, the caregivers wouldn't know where to find it. Her life remained on hold.
"Once I would help him into bed I could leave him alone for awhile," she says. "But one time he went to answer the phone, he didn't realize he was losing his ability to control himself, and he fell out of bed. That's when I knew I really couldn't leave him alone anymore."
Martin needed Carol to give him his drugs. All kinds of drugs. Rilutek to protect nerve cells and the Sanofi drug to breathe easier. Gabapentin to decrease his body's production of glutamine. Martin would try anything, including, literally, snake oil. There was a snake venom that some study said would help. He asked Carol to inject him. She was afraid of needles, but he insisted. "When I jabbed the needle into him, I ripped open his flesh," Carol remembers. "I screamed. I hurt him so much. I felt so bad for him. He said he was sorry he'd made me do it, but I felt so bad, I wanted to leave right then and there. 'What am I doing here?'"
Run away. Catch a bus. Why not? Why did she stay? All her friends asked her that, constantly. So many people were amazed she stuck around to take care of him. She and Martin weren't married. She didn't owe him anything. Wasn't she the one who always left her men? Didn't she leave one husband after just six weeks? After a road trip? What was she doing now, virtually enslaved by a dying man?
"I loved him," Carol explains. "He was my best friend and my business partner. I could never leave somebody who was in that situation. People would actually tell me to leave, but it was too heartbreaking. And so selfish."
Carol stayed on as Martin descended into the final stages of ALS. As his body inched toward complete paralysis, they managed to finish a draft of the book. They found an agent and the agent led them to a small firm in New York willing to publish it. A freelance editor scrutinized the draft, sending back a long list of suggestions on plot, structure, dialogue, and characters. Every fact needed to be checked. In one scene, Abraham, an educated former slave leading the Maroons, whistled a song that didn't exist when the story supposedly took place. Martin searched the Internet until he found a more appropriate tune.
He worked an hour or two at a time. The writing came on top of his other responsibilities, most notably the mounting medical bills he had to navigate. He helped Carol plan for her future, telling her she needed to chart a clear course for her life. Only when he started the morphine did he lose some short-term memory.
"Who are you?" Carol would ask. "Why are you here? What do you do? You're writing a book. You need to finish it."
Right up to the end they worked on Freedom Land. Carol typed as Martin dictated his changes on a second draft and then the final draft. They'd work whenever he could find the strength. Sometimes they'd spend a half-hour scouring the manuscript for a single word that could be improved. They'd sit in front of the computer, his hand on the mouse that Carol moved for him. Sometimes he'd just sit there for long stretches of time -- ten or twenty minutes without saying a word -- staring at the computer screen.
"What are you doing, Martin?" Carol would ask finally.
"I'm thinking," he'd whisper in his fading voice. "We're writing."
Martin finished the book. A publication date was set, a month or so away. There was enough time left, he hoped, to start work on a second book, a memoir of his disease. But he didn't have much time left at all. On the last day of his life -- December 22, 2002 -- Martin discovered he could no longer speak. All he could do was blink his eyelids. There was no way to write. There was nothing he could do but lie in his bed.
"You could just tell he gave up the minute he knew he couldn't talk anymore," says Carol.
As he lay motionless in bed, Carol curled beside him, stroking his hair. She thought about their nearly fourteen years together, five with the disease. She thought about how his arms and legs had looked so strong when he glided across tennis courts. She thought about what he'd just accomplished -- writing and publishing a novel as his body collapsed. How many people say they're going to write a book? How many actually do? She stroked the skin of Martin's cheek. Until the moment he stopped breathing, she whispered in his ear. "You're an author," she said softly. "You're an author."
Martin's ashes were scattered across the back stretch at Calder Race Course. His sisters, the track chaplain, and friends from Los Angeles, Miami, and Philadelphia joined Carol in the winner's circle. Before the ceremony, Carol ran her fingers through the bag of ashes, assessing the material's odd texture. A friend was taking pictures on his cell phone. Carol held up the bag for him, saying it would make a great Christmas card. "Happy Holidays from Carol and Martin."
"When somebody passes away, people tend to idolize him -- all of a sudden he becomes perfect," says Alexandra Scott, the friend from L.A. "Well, no one's perfect. He just was a very special human being because of his drive. None of us should get to a point in life that you're dying, but he knew and he never gave up. That's so admirable."
Carol immediately cleaned out the bedroom, which to her seemed more like a hospital room. She got rid of the huge adjustable bed. She cleared out all the medicines and the wheelchair and all the things Martin needed to make his last days bearable. The caregivers who'd marched in and out no longer visited. When something interesting happened during her day, she had no one to tell.
"I was working late one night, about 11:00, trying to get ready for the book, which was due to come out," she says. "I had promotional material to prepare. I had bookstores to contact. I had a lot that was keeping me busy. And that night, as I was sitting there, it came to me: Did Martin ever exist? Was he real?"
A month after Martin died, Carol received a box of books at the apartment. She picked up one copy of Freedom Land and held it. Flecks of freshly cut paper tickled her nose. She turned over the novel in her hands, assessing the cover, the spine, the excerpt quoted on the back. She opened to the dedication, which was to her.
"I wanted to say, 'Martin, look what we've done. Look what you've done -- forget about me -- what you've done.'" It's one thing to share something with your best friend, she thought. It's another to share with the person who was in the trenches with you.
One review, in Publisher's Weekly, called Freedom Land "riveting" and "remarkably well crafted." Wrote the reviewer: "Marcus gives us sharply defined characters and weaves an intricate narrative of conspiracy, subterfuge, and vivid, bloody action. Historical-adventure fans will eat it up -- and anxiously await this talented rookie's next work."
When the Toronto Globe and Mail asked Miami author Edna Buchanan to name three books that explain the allure of Florida, she offered up T.D. Allman's classic 1987 analysis Miami, City of the Future, Marjory Stoneman Douglas's Everglades masterpiece River of Grass, and Freedom Land. Buchanan called Marcus's "meticulously researched" book a "passionate first novel, alive with the heart-stopping action of its vibrant and doomed real-life characters."
The Little River branch of the Miami-Dade County Library. It's a rainy Saturday afternoon. On a television in the center of the main room, kids watch a video of Disney's Lady and the Tramp. It's the moment in the film when the two lead dogs fall in love over a shared platter of spaghetti, a rather touching scene for a cartoon. Instead of watching, a trio of the more hyperactive patrons commence a track meet around a pair of circular tables littered with children's books.
"Excuse me, sirs, please sit down!" shouts a woman at the checkout desk. "Please sit down right now!"
This branch of the library is more day-care center than research institution. The gray metal shelves sag with Spanish translations of the adventures of Clifford the Big Red Dog (La Navidad de Clifford) and English-language science primers on iguanas and Black Holes and Other Space Oddities. Today, near the front door, stands a new and unusual display: a large poster of the cover of Martin Marcus's book.
Carol Durbin walks in at 2:00 p.m., shaking the rain off her umbrella. She's wearing a long green linen skirt and a white tank top that reveals her angular shoulders. Hoop earrings draw attention to her coppery hair. She introduces herself to the librarian at the desk, then points her umbrella at the poster of the book cover. The two talk for a few minutes. Periodically they scan the room for someone who's lived more than twelve years. Almost no one fits the bill. Carol was going to read from Martin's book this afternoon, as the poster advertises. The librarian recommends cancellation.
"I could turn off the TV and force them to listen to you," she explains, "but they'd only be doing it 'cause I made 'em, and they're not gonna sit still and that's not gonna be good for nobody."
Writing a book, as difficult as the process can be, is usually only half the battle. Much like every new mother learns, the hard part starts after delivery. With a million and a half books in print, it's easy for one title to vanish unnoticed. To land any kind of attention, especially if you're a first-time author with a minor publisher, you have to get out there and pitch the book as if you were hawking soap, cereal, or stereo equipment at an electronics superstore. Try to hustle up local press, hoping it leads to more press nationally. Agree to speak anywhere they'll let you.
"It's harder with Martin being dead," Carol adds, her lips curling into a wan smile. Some bookstores have refused her request to give a reading, saying they only grant appearances to authors. The book hasn't yet sold many copies, despite the two impressive reviews.
Carol moved out of the apartment she shared with Martin and into her own place. She stays up at night working, sending out e-mails and searching the Internet for contacts. Reminders of Martin decorate her office. Lining the walls are photos of ski trips and of horses in the winner's circle. The original oil painting used as the book cover stands near the printer. A stereo plays a CD of her idol, Madonna, the most determined woman in entertainment. A plaque near the door reminds Carol, as Martin always said, that persistence is more important than talent.
And Carol vows to be persistent. She isn't going to hope the book is a success; she's going to do something to make it happen. She refuses to be discouraged, whatever her obstacles. She drove five hours to Tampa for a bookstore reading. No one showed up. Another night, at a bookstore in Orlando, again no one showed up.
The organizational skills she learned while caring for Martin infuse her promotional efforts. She keeps a thick folder of everything: clips, reading schedules, contacts, the Publisher's Weekly review. She has her pitch down, tailored for every audience. When she took the book to the Miami Beach Black Film Festival in June, she emphasized the escaped slaves. When she tries to persuade schoolteachers to distribute the book to their students, she presents Freedom Land as a primer into the art, fashion, and music of the time. It makes history come alive, she says. She worked the Harlem Book Fair in New York. She intends to send a copy to Oprah. Couldn't hurt to try.
"I have a strong belief in it, along with a desire to fulfill a wish for Martin on his deathbed, to be a well-known author," Carol says. "I know if I just keep going forward, things will appear and present themselves. I can push through the maze and have the book become a best seller or a movie."
Her friends marvel at her resolve. The same friends who wondered why she stuck it out with Martin now wonder why she's working so hard to promote the book. It seems a bit quixotic, doesn't it? Isn't it enough to put the book out there on the library shelves? So what if nobody reads it?
"I'm so blessed to have this," Carol explains. "Otherwise I'd be a basket case, because I laugh and cry almost every day. I'm just going forward by myself and hoping that I'm not stumbling too much, and if I am stumbling that I fall the right way."
Besides, quitting is no longer an option. Many people just complain instead of looking around at what opportunities are available. What would you do if you only had three to five years left? Carol knows. She keeps going. She keeps working. After all, a shot not taken is a shot missed. When she wonders if Martin ever existed, she picks up the book.
Because Carol and Martin never married, Martin's sister Sherrie handled the legal paperwork after he died. For the death certificate, Sherrie was asked by the coroner to list Martin's occupation. Her answer is a confirmation of everything Carol whispered as Martin drew his last few breaths. On the legal form, on file into perpetuity, is a one-word reply: "Author."