|Jul/Aug 2004 fiction|
That was commonly believed to be a function of great literature: antidote to suffering through depiction of our common fate.
I am a whore and a pimp. This may seem preposterous to you, but I assure you, though self-knowledge has not always been my strong suit, here I am neither exaggerating for shock value nor confessing for pity.
I came from good schools with a lot riding on me, the aspirations of my own ambition, duly inflated by well-intentioned professors and administrators, the hopes and dreams of my hard-working but underachieving parents, the burnout of my older brother who was both smarter and more industrious. These are onerous pressures, each, and collectively, quite oppressive. I was promise and capacity. I was Golden Boy. It was assumed I would make it, in the vague sense the expression is intended, but mostly this: procure a big bundle of money while doing meritorious things.
Oh, I started out with high hopes. With my degree in English Lit tucked, metaphorically, under my arm (my area of specialty was 20th century British Literature) I headed to New York City—where else?—with the aim to get a job in publishing, figuring, naively, on walking into an assistant editorship at Knopf or Henry Holt or Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Figuring, I guess, they were hungry for a bright young man who had digested a lot of writing and who practically passed metaphors and similes with his flatulence. You've guessed by my tone by now that the doors were not exactly swinging open for me. Oh, everyone was nice enough—egad those publishing houses are filled with beautiful young 24 year-old women fresh from college, firm-jawed, severe, the kind of women who look you right in the eye until you look away no matter how unchallenging your last remark was—and I even had a few promising interviews. I actually met Roger Giroux—he must have been 104—though it was in the corridor of the building where FS&G resides and our conversation was brief, chatty, meaningless. He was, at that particular moment, concerned about some television show which had just aired (I gathered from his somewhat disjointed commentary), and which offended him deeply by its depiction of J. D. Salinger as a nasty old man. To be honest I'm not sure Mr. Giroux knew to whom he was talking or ever registered a single comment I made.
So, to pay the rent for my pitiable one room apartment (New Yorkers settle for so little in the way of comfort, the city itself, supposedly, redressing the imbalance by its sizzle), I took up a job—where else?—in a bookstore in the Village, a squatty, dark, dank little dungeon where used books mixed with a random, arbitrary sampling of some of the newer offerings by our contemporary geniuses. If this all sounds rather bitter, rather sour grape flavored, I plead guilty. I enjoyed spending my time in the bookstore—more often than not, rearranging Trollope, Iris Murdoch, the Powyses or John Fowles, ad infinitum, one week alphabetizing their subsections by title, one week placing the books chronologically. And, if this was just idle make-work, the owner, Pat Trevelyn, a corpulent ex-hippie who only wanted to make enough money to feed his cat and keep himself in marijuana, never questioned a single move I made. Nor did he recognize any of them.
So, the time went by, weeks and months. New York became a heavy yoke around my neck, and my letters back home were full of book-talk, most of which I garnered from the eccentric clientele which frequented The Book Inglenook (a clumsy appellative that one can only imagine was designed to avoid the cliched Book Nook) or from the sagacious pages of The New York Times Book Review and The New York Review of Books. It didn't take too many ramen noodle meals to make me realize what a failure I was, and I was on the verge of bailing out—running back to Saskatoon with my paper stuffed suitcase—when an ad in the back of the NYTBR caught my attention.
It said: Editor wanted. Small press. Benefits. Rapid advancement.
And a phone number.
I called—of course I called—and got the ubiquitous answering machine, and it wasn't until the next day when I returned home from the BI that a return message lit up the red-eye on my own machine. Its message, delivered in a smooth, slightly nasal but very proper voice said, "Mr. Brackett, thank you for answering our ad. If you could appear at our offices tomorrow morning at 9 a.m., we could talk further about this employment opportunity. Please bring a current resume." And he gave the address. An address that I was unfamiliar with, though I knew it was squirreled away among some claustrophobic uptown non-descript buildings, and indeed, it turned out to be absurdly difficult to find. One had to wend one's way through trash-strewn alleyways, up some unpromising exterior stairways, down some darkened corridors to finally arrive. I expected the Minotaur at any moment. It was almost as if the place were consciously concealed.
The small white sign with black lettering on the door said, "Ardent Publishing, James Quillmeier, Publisher."
I gave the hollow plywood door a light knock while opening it enough to poke my head in. My first sight was a wall, decorated entirely with oversize blow-ups of book jackets, presumably some of the firm's successes (though I had heard of none of them). Rotating my head a few degrees east, I found a smiling visage that was bright as a blister and seemed to single-handedly hold back the room's fuscous gloom. The face belonged, it turned out, to Ardent's loyal secretary, Sherri Hoving, and it was a face that was to turn up in my dreams for years to come, a face like an iceberg refracting light, with a gaze like a baby uses to gaze upon another baby. She was a brunette with skin like sealskin, and she seemed to be both dark and light simultaneously. But, before I get ahead of the story, before I wax idyllic and burn my candle at both ends, leaving little suspense for your delectation, allow me to proceed into the cluttered and claustrophobic offices of Ardent Publishing.
"Mr. Brackett?" the face tinkled.
"Yes, I have..."
"Yes, I know. Mr. Quillmeier is expecting you. At the moment he is on the phone to Tokyo, but he'll be with you momentarily, I'm sure."
"Thank you," I said and backed, self-consciously, into an old-fashioned armchair that was shoved against one wall.
The face beamed at me. I tried to beam back, but my smile felt phony, and I imagined I might have looked like Dr. Sardonicus. I tried to relax.
"Can I get you anything?" she asked after a few sunny moments.
"Nothing, thank you."
"Oh. By the way, I'm Sherri Hoving. Sherri. Sort of the grunt around here, do a little of everything, nothing of any real consequence."
This turned out to be far from the truth. Sherri (short for Sherrifa, of all things) Hoving kept Ardent Publishing together with ingenuity, spit and rubber bands, and, if not for her devotion and sapient governorship, this small concern would not stay afloat. It didn't take me long to learn this and other necessary, hard-to-swallow truths.
I bided my time in their cramped waiting room, feeling as if I were being kept waiting only for show but enjoying the view of Ms. Hoving's immaculately bare legs under her desk. Every few minutes—you could set your watch by it—she raised her freckled face toward me and smiled.
When I finally was ushered into Mr. Quillmeier's presence, I found myself in an office not much larger than the waiting room, papers on every surface, the walls decorated with more book jacket blowups (Mr. Anthony's Reproductive Organs, Flowers and Petals, The Scamp's Dog), and along every wall stacks of books, about a hundred copies of each title.
Quillmeier was a piece of work himself. As round as a turnip with a mustache that appeared to be stuck on with sweat, he punched out a chubby fingered hand and gave mine one quick pump.
"Sit down, Mr. Brackett," he said, gesturing toward the only other chair in the room, pushed up uncomfortably close to the edge of his worn old desk.
"Thank you," I said, already formulating escape plans. This was certainly low-end publishing. How desperate was I to work in that rarefied atmosphere of disseminating literature to the great unwashed?
"Your resume," Quillmeier spurted.
I fumbled in my cardboard briefcase, which I tried to keep partially concealed between my knees. I pulled out a copy of my freshly printed resume and in so doing wrinkled it. I began an apology and a quick search for a second copy, but Quillmeier snatched the proffered first copy from my sweating hand.
"Fine, fine," he said. He read it the way a child reads a history book. His concentration appeared to cause him pain as his face squinched, his left arm shot out involuntarily in spasm; he squirmed in his seat. It was an uncomfortable ten minutes before another word was spoken. I thought, flowers and petals?
"Starts at 20 a year," Quillmeier said, finally.
I hardly knew what to say. That was the interview?
"I hardly know what to say," I offered.
"Take it or leave it," Quillmeier said with a not unfriendly but somehow greasy smile.
"Can I sleep on it?" I asked, sheepishly.
"Nnn," he said, settling back into his well-broken in chair. I thought I was almost dismissed. I thought to Mr. Quillmeier I was already a former applicant.
"No," I said. "No, I don't have to sleep on it. I'd be proud to work for Ardent," I said. I don't know where it came from.
"Fine, fine," Quillmeier said, rising ever so slightly from his seat and giving my hand one more fat pump. "Monday at nine, then?"
"Yes, surely," I said, backing out of his office.
In the anteroom Sherri Hoving was standing next to her desk, the whole, dark, willowy length of her presented to view. She wore a smile that said I knew you would get the job.
A momentary queasiness overtook me. Sherri Hoving took a step toward me and put her arms around me, the way an aunt might hug a troubled nephew. I placed a tentative hand on the sweet, slick material over her lower back. Here was warmth, succor. Everything was going to be all right.
When I stepped out into the big city sunshine, elation welled up inside me, and I said to the lizard which lives inside us all, "I have a job in publishing."
When I left Ardent, it was still only 10:30 a.m. I first went to the bookstore and told Pat that I had found another job and would work out the remainder of the week if that was what he wanted. It was Thursday. It wasn't much notice. But Pat looked at me through his herbal haze and smiled a beatific smile and said, "Blessings on you, Brackett. Go out there and find the best damn authors you can. Make them write books that will shake the foundations of our constipated society. Draw from them their best work. Draw from them the words inside themselves that they are unaware of, words which lay dormant like an illness of rage. Publish, Brackett. Do good."
Well, I was somewhat taken aback. Part of me knew I wasn't exactly indispensable to The Book Inglenook, but I didn't expect such a divine sanction, such a heartfelt fare-thee-well.
"Well, Damn, Pat," I said. "I will try to live up to your expectations. I will do my damnedest."
"I know you will, Brackett. Which publishing house has the good fortune to have picked up your worthy services, if I may ask?"
I hesitated. A foreboding came between us.
"Uh, a small concern. You might not know them. Little house called Ardent." I started to throw off a couple of their titles as if I had heard of them prior to my visit to their Lilliputian offices, but Pat's expression was one of consternation, dismay, perhaps qualmishness.
"Ardent," he said like a book dropped on a dusty floor. He looked down at his desk in embarrassment.
"Nothing. Nothing, Brackett. I thought... you know."
"I don't," I assured him.
"Well, it's just that they're a... a vanity house."
The words hit me in the solar plexus. Like being told, "Can we just be friends?"
"Shit," I said.
"I'm sorry," Pat said. "Rain on the parade, that's me. Look, go there. Get started. Do the best you can and look for greener pastures. It won't be bad. It is publishing. Sort of."
I carried that "sort of" around with me for the next couple of weeks. After leaving Pat (he said, go ahead, he really didn't need British Fiction re-alphabetized again), I treated myself to a real deli sandwich and an egg cream. I felt very New Yorkish, though that "sort of" sat in my stomach heavier than the sauerkraut on my Reuben. I called my parents that evening and told them I got a job in publishing and tried to make it sound lively, consequential, promising. I think it worked. My parents wouldn't know Alfred Knopf from Cima Academic & Language Media.
I wouldn't have thought it possible that they had room for me in the offices of Ardent Publishing, but when I went in that Monday morning, my cheap case stuck self-importantly under my armpit, they had cleared a corner of the anteroom (I can't imagine what was there before—I had no memory of a filing cabinet or couch or potted plant). There now was an old oak desk, the surface of which was as bare as a stone. Sherri Hoving gestured toward it like Vanna White toward a new SUV, and I returned her friendly smile. We were roommates.
"Wow," I said. "My own desk. It looks so pristine, so uninhabited. It appears ready to transact some majestic and transformative legerdemain. I hardly know how to become worthy of it."
"Well," Sherri said and bent her—have I already said willowy?—five-foot-nine frame over her own desk, fetching from there a stack of what I immediately recognized as manuscripts. There were a dozen or so of them. They were printed on various qualities of paper. Most at least were typewritten, if not composed on a word processor and printed in dot matrix or laser jet, but there were a couple copied out in long hand on hundreds and hundreds of legal pad sheets, neatly stapled together. I sighed.
"Yep," Sherri Hoving said, relinquishing the burden to her new co-worker, the sap. She practically washed her hands in Pilate's bowl.
I weighed them in my hands for comic effect, as if in so doing I could determine their value.
Sherri Hoving laughed. It was the sound of snowflakes falling on a harp. I was enchanted. I suddenly knew something new: Sherri Hoving enchanted me.
"Read them. Write up a page of synopsis and critique for the boss, and then type a letter of acceptance to the author," she said, and was betrayed by a slight blush.
I wavered. "We accept them all?" I asked, though my pride was already an area of deep despoliation.
She opened a drawer in her desk and produced a fistful of checks.
"Fifteen checks. Fifteen manuscripts," she smiled, sheepishly. "We accept them all."
I sighed, set down the stack on my desk, set myself down in the chair at my desk, which suddenly threatened to throw me around a bit, spinning like a dervish, its ancient spring so loose and disconnected. This bit of pratfall, perhaps, erased the tension of the moment.
Sherri tinkled again, again like the music of a harp, and I smiled a big, goofy grin.
"Welcome to the fast lane," she said and laughed again.
"I'm here to do my best," I said, a little too earnestly. And then, because that felt awkward, I compounded the awkwardness. "Would you have dinner with me tonight?"
It was a complete surprise when to my unexpected question she barked out a quick yes, and was herself embarrassed by her enthusiasm.
So, my stint at Ardent Publishing began with mixed blessings. Sherri Hoving moved like a springborn fairy around that tiny room, and every time she did, my heart played the anvil chorus. And, meanwhile, I amused or depressed myself with the worst prose ever committed to paper. Ever. Beginning with the Egyptians. It was mixed blessings all right.
That night I arrived at Sherri Hoving's apartment in one of the nicer buildings in the same area of uptown where Ardent was also housed. She answered my buzz, and when I found her on the third floor, she was standing in the doorway to her apartment. She was wearing a sleeveless, short black dress that set birds loose in me. Her long, bare legs were lightly tanned and sprayed gently with freckles, as were her delicious and pronounced shoulders. Her knees were brown biscuits. Her limbs were exquisite.
"Hello," she said, and I thought I detected a slight purr.
"Hello," I answered back. We moved into her rooms, which were shockingly well-appointed. How much was she making at Ardent? Tasteful doesn't begin to describe how divinely laid out her apartment was. Interior decoration to me had always meant, "Where do I put the bookcase?" But, here, well, here was art.
"This is lovely," I said. And even though that sounded a tad fey, the sincerity won the point.
"Thank you," she said.
We stood awkwardly near each other for a moment, and I was about to ask for a restaurant recommendation when she stepped into my personal space and put her mouth against mine. The kiss—warm as life and moist enough to make its prolonged hold unbearably exciting—lasted until she turned her cheek slightly and exhaled as if she were overwhelmed.
"I've been wanting to do that since the first day you walked through the door at Ardent," she said.
"You haven't been alone," I said. It was almost right.
"Kiss me again," she said. I did.
That evening we spent on her plush, off-white couch, our tongues intertwined like the caduceus. And, while the making-out (forgive the seventh grade terminology) was erotic and moist and stimulating, it went no further. Oh, at one point, I believe, I cupped her small, bird-belly breast, and she sighed, and we kissed and kissed some more. I remember thinking, we have all the time in the world. We never did eat, and I left around 2 a.m., my head spinning, my mouth refreshed as if I had drunk at Tantalus' pool, and my heart full of love, oh overflowing love, for Sherrifa Hoving.
Over the ensuing months I was responsible for publishing numerous books under the Ardent imprint. My name appeared on them all as editor, though in truth, my only addition to the stream that is literature was to make subjects and verbs agree (sometimes when they stubbornly seemed unwilling to do so, fighting like Kilkenny cats), cleaning up any language which strayed from the somewhat rocky path of English grammar, taking out the names of famous people in far-fetched tales of sexual misconducts (to stave off lawsuits, obviously), substituting names of my own invention. This was at least creative and, at times, diverting. For instance, for John Kennedy I substituted Matt Chinoi, Snake Charmer. I replaced a particularly ugly reference to Calista Flockhart with the ridiculous name Sysipha Van Grubelhoffer. I turned Johnny Carson into Mungo Park. Etc. It was the only thing that made me feel as if I were not scooping up hot dung with my own well-trained hands and flinging it out the window onto the passersby below.
Some of the titles that left our offices with my name printed in garish Franklin Gothic on the copyright page were: The Battle of the Bulge as Witnessed by Me and Tom Rasking by Lt. Col. Gerald "Flip" Craig; Senior Citizens are Sexy, Too by Jenny Vookles (that Jenny rankled, for a woman in her 80s); Liposuction and You by Dr. Vance Partridge; Diddy-Wah-Diddy by Resole McRey (surely a pseudonym—I wonder what he was hiding); Tambourines, Pig-whistles and Daisies in Gun Barrels: A Nomocanon of Poems by Camel Jeremy Eros; Huckleberry Finn, Racist by Janet Grimace; Love Gained, Lost and Regained by Anonymous (hmm); Southern Jewism and the Delta: A Prototype by Shlomo Einstein; I Fought the Gulf War by my Own Damn Self by Larry "Renegade" Yates; and on and on.
And, in truth, some of these dogs sold. I imagine what happens is the author's hometown bookstore, some mom and pop place called Book Land, or The Book Rack, orders a couple hundred for a signing, and the author's friends and family feel obliged to come and actually purchase a copy. At least our books are inexpensive, comparatively. But, of course, we can afford to be. We are totally subsidized up front. And our author's contracts, well, I can't even discuss them. They are the special province of J. Quillmeier and J. Quillmeier alone. Who, by the way, is rarely in the office, the official statement being that he is having lunch with a client, or meeting with Japanese businessmen about overseas rights, or somesuch nonsense. But, those contracts, which are kept in locked files in his office, are as secret as the recipe for Coca-Cola. Very fishy, but I suspect our authors, for whom we promise to work very hard, pumping product out to the media-drenched society awaiting such drivel—we send out a single press release to a select group of bookstores and trade publications, total cost about $43—our poor deluded authors, I suspect, never have made a penny from their Ardent contracts. This is just supposition on my part, but it is not without some basis in evidence. But, that's another story and not this one, and, to be honest, what the hell do I care? These schnooks knew they were buying their way into authordom. What did they expect? Had they ever seen an Ardent title on the bestseller lists? Had an Ardent author ever been on Oprah? No, they knew the pond they were fishing in was stocked and the catch was a cheat, and they knew that in the end even the water in that pond would prove to be a sham, like the water under Casanova's boat in Fellini's film. I didn't care. Sorry.
The absence of the boss in the incommodious space of Ardent Publishing made for a sexual tension between Sherri and me, a delicious, daily sexual tension. Many days we spent with our respective tongues in each other's mouths, hands wandering the curvy landscapes that are the human body, heat rising like fervor from the Devil's kitchen. But, beyond experiencing how lovely Ms. Hoving felt through her midsection, or where her hip gently swayed into her tender thighs, or circumnavigating the sweet meat of her upper arms, or down her choice lower back, which effortlessly tipped into her incredible hindquarters, and all this mostly through whatever silken material covered her winsome body that day, nothing else happened between us. Every time the caloric vigor rose to danger levels—she could feel my need through the front of her brief skirts I am quite sure—we swayed away, we danced into a joking middle ground where there was only close friendship, companionship, flirting. It was frustrating, of course. About equally as frustrating as wading through those irksome manuscripts, feeling myself dipped in bad prose as if in machine oil or a particularly adhesive oleo.
Meanwhile, Sherri was the most professional secretary/jackie-of-all-trades I'd ever witnessed or worked with. She literally did everything for Ardent, from mailing out the many letters of acceptances, to keeping the books (and cashing those mendacious checks), to acting as go-between between the elusive Mr. Quillmeier and anyone else. I composed my own letters of acceptance (oh, sorry lies! oh, loathsome soft-soap!) and for that, and for my 200 word synopses, I called myself an editor. I collected a paycheck that allowed me to live in the hub of the publishing industry, the city that never sleeps.
It was around my one year anniversary at Ardent (my parents in their frequent phone calls and letters were fond of repeating to me the gloating and inflated remarks they made to their septuagenarian friends about their big-shot son), after a particularly dispiriting evening at Sherri's (we had actually unzipped a couple of pieces of clothing, almost touching various body parts through only one sheer layer of undergarment), I arrived about thirty minutes late to the office.
"Hey, Hotshot," Sherri said, a shy, almost frightened smile tempting the corners of her syrupy mouth.
"Hey, Sherri," I dropped.
"You okay? You look a little bedraggled. Maybe bed-raggled, eh?"
This was sexy banter to her, I suddenly realized. She thought what we had done the previous evening was highly erotic, would garner a couple of x's at least. Were there really young women this innocent living in New York City? The notion seemed ludicrous, and I admit I was a bit cross.
"Not raggled enough, perhaps, lover?" I practically snarled.
Her face retreated like a beaten cur. She turned to her desk and made a show of shuffling around in the papers there. She turned with a snap and held out a slim stack of telltale, ecru 8½ by 11 envelopes.
"Mail's here already," she said, throwing a slight lilt into her speech, a pitiful attempt to cajole me into our old style.
"Thanks," I said and took the stack as if it were a flattened and exenterated piece of roadkill.
I sat at my desk and stared at the return addresses for many minutes, stalling, trying to gather what wits I had left. The work came from all over. America was awash in wannabe writers. There was Abe Peters, Lincoln, Nebraska; Rory Canseco, Wind River, Wyoming; Lauralyn "Laurie" Enos, Fidelity, Georgia; Lamar Negri, Page, Washington (a writer's town, surely!); Kenny the Snake Girardi, Somerville, Tennessee. It was all so... debilitating. I was tired just holding these monstrosities. I punched them aside, dismissively. I couldn't do it. Not that day. Maybe never again.
I don't know what caught my attention, what about the envelope made it stick out—maybe it simply did stick out, laying uncovered in the cast aside heap. The envelope itself was smudged, as if it had been handled by a car mechanic. Were it evidence in a police investigation, the culprit's prints were readable with a naked eye. There was no need to send these babies to the lab in Washington. And the return address said, simply, "City." Presumably, this labor of love came from somewhere within the confines of our sprawling megalopolis. It was addressed "Ardent Publishing. Fiction Editor." And our address. Written in blurry pencil, as if from inside an aquarium. It was a wonder it made it to us, so indecipherable was the penmanship, so childlike the scrabble.
It was an exotic enough piece of communication that I slit it open right away. The yellow ledger-pad paper tumbled out as if enchanted, as if the pieces of foolscap were fey genii released from their bottle. They made a mad pile on my desk, papers from hell—or some suburb of hell reserved for the work of the crazed, for the products of contaminated minds. They scared me somehow, covered as they were with that same penciled scrawl, which seemed alive on the page, like some particularly loathsome form of insectivore, one which found its way into your bedclothes at night, one which entered your body through the soles of your feet and lodged someplace vital and vulnerable, slowly poisoning you, slowly fusing or liquefying your entire inner self. They were chthonic.
Yet, I could not look away.
The topsheet bore what I imagined was the title, flung across the head, above where the lines began, like on a school report. And the title was Anima, certainly a broad enough topic, I thought. And in more crabbed alphabetiforms below the larger title, as if it pained the poor soul to pin his name on the page, as if, indeed, by pinning it there he may have trapped himself, it said: by Jim Nozoufist. And, of course, there amid the detritus which was his book lay his check, which I barely registered except to notice it was at least made out in ballpoint to Ardent Publishing, Publisher.
Ridiculous, I thought. Ridiculous title, absurd nom-de-plume. Who was this wise guy kidding? And, somewhere in the middle of my nonsensical fear, a small anger grew, a misplaced anger at this ridiculous Jim Nozoufist and his unsanitary manuscript. How dare he! I huffed. I sat back hard in my chair, which once again tilted dangerously, like a rolling log over a chasm. Sherri looked around hopefully with a can-I-help look on her exquisite, colorful face. I scowled back.
After a moment I picked up page one of Anima and began to read. I read the first sentence with a self-righteous mad on. I read the second sentence with a prickle like fever at the back of my neck. I read the third sentence, a sculpted piece of prose mastery worthy only of some pixilated offspring of Beckett and Virginia Woolf, with a growing sense of disbelief. Oh, my lares and penates!
An hour passed. Two. Somewhere beyond the periphery of my mindfulness, I was cognizant of a sulking Sherri, who went about her work, left for lunch, returned. It was four o'clock in the afternoon when I threw down the pages I still had in my hand and craned my stiff neck heavenward. It was unbelievable. It was preposterous. I looked guiltily around me, as if I had smuggled some plutonium and was squirreling it away in my desk drawer, or as if I had just inherited the secrets of eternal life and did not want to share them with anyone. Not even my sweetheart, not even my parents. Sherri turned inquisitively toward me, but my face must have seemed deranged, goggle-eyed, for she crinkled up her nose and widened her beautiful mahogany blinkers and turned back to her own work. I took a series of deep breaths and leaned back precipitously in my chair. What was first an inkling of something "other" had become a faith in something grand. I had on my desk a masterpiece. A piece of the puzzle, several missing pieces perhaps in the puzzle of world literature. Or, so I felt initially.
No. It was stronger than that. I was sure. This was it. This was the real thing. And I was an editor at a dog-assed, corrupt publishing concern that would take this precious cargo and jettison it upon the world like another book of grandma's poetry, like another memoir of "My most memorable character." I surged with power, but it was a power checked, a light under a bushel, a light obliterated and trapped under a sleazy, perplexing bushel. I had to think. I had to clear my mind and figure out what to do.
I gathered the pages together and stuffed them back into their envelope (they didn't want to fit, as if once oxygen had reached them, they had expanded, full of life, or as if they would not be imprisoned ever again). I made a quick, rude excuse to Sherri, rushed past her, and went immediately home.
I must keep Anima with me at all times. I must never let it out of my sight. These were my thoughts.
And I must find Jim Nozoufist. And tell him... what? That he was a genius, that he had written the most important novel since Joyce reconfigured things. Needless to say, I re-read the book in its entirety that night—it took me until the wee hours—and it only reinforced my opinion. This was the book that the literary world had been waiting for. It was an answer to questions we didn't even dare ask, questions we didn't know needed asking. And I owned it. Anima was mine.
The address listed for the author of Anima was in a tony part of Manhattan, a part, quite honestly, where I rarely ventured: high rises where the word penthouse was tossed around lightly, where the recirculated air was ripe with the scent of freshly minted cash. Was it possible this adept was worth more than the entire publishing concern on which he was pinning his literary aspirations? Why didn't the joker just publish the book himself, certainly a time-honored way of appearing in print, and just slightly more expensive than turning over blood money to Ardent?
After some initial wrangling with a taciturn doorman, who insisted there was no one living in Two Towers by the name of Jim Nozoufist, a call was made to the apartment number written as the return address on the soiled envelope I had clenched under my jacket. (I had spent the earliest hours of the morning at Kinko's making a copy of Anima, which now resided in the locked drawer of my desk in my apartment.) Some muted conversation was made into the phone while I stood by like a miscreant pupil, some description given of the personage wishing admittance I imagined, and after hanging up, the doorman simply opened the inner door without apology or even assent. I walked past unnecessarily close to him, hiking up my dignity, looking into his dead eyes.
The elevator stopped on the thirteenth floor, and I bobbed down the thickly carpeted corridor to Apartment 1307 and lightly rapped on the door. After a few sweaty moments—was there another gauntlet to run before admittance?—the door opened, and an astoundingly beautiful woman in her mid to late 50s stood there glittering like a prize. Her jewelry, her dress, her teeth, even her décolletage, sprinkled with some kind of glitter makeup, everything was glittering. She was smiling to beat the band.
"Mr. Brackett?" she twinkled.
"Yes," I said, transfixed. "Call me Todd." I was so nervous, it came out "Dodd."
"Please come in."
I walked in as if being led past the pearly gates, mesmerized as much by this ideal of womanhood as by the incredible space into which I was coaxed. It might have been Gloria Vanderbilt's home, or indeed, one of the nicer salas in Heaven. If my conscious brain was working at all, it was chewing on the question, who is this ravishing dowager, and what does she have to do with J. Nozoufist?
"Please sit," she gestured toward the plushest piece of furniture I had ever seen. I could have lived in it.
A gentleman appeared as if a bell sash had been pulled.
"Would you like some refreshment?" this lovely woman asked, all flickering eyes and teeth.
"No. Uh, actually, yes, some ice tea, if available," I managed.
"Ice tea, Noah," she spoke to the superannuated butler, whom I assumed really was the Biblical patriarch.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Brackett. How rude of me. I am Cecilia Quisby. My name may be familiar to you, though I'm well aware that it is not me whom you are here to see."
I didn't know her from Betty Grable, but I smiled and nodded. She seemed to know a lot more about whatever was happening than I did, and in such situations I always find it best to keep mum until things begin to take shape. It didn't take long.
"You are looking for Jim," Cecilia Quisby shimmered.
"Yes," I said. "I'm from Ardent Pub—"
"Yes, I know. Jim sent you his book. I told him we could look elsewhere, but, well, Jim has a sort of stubbornness to him, which..."
She drifted away momentarily, and I took the opportunity to try to win some respect from this imposing woman.
"Frankly, Mrs. Quisby—"
"Cecilia. Frankly, I think, just maybe, Mr. Nozoufist has written something really remarkable here."
"No," Cecilia Quisby spoke quickly and then caught herself. "I mean, really? It's, it's good?"
"Um, yes. I believe it is quite good."
"Well, I'll be damned, excuse my Alabama backyard French," she said and sort of fell back into the couch, wherein she could have fallen quite a long way.
"Jim is a real writer, then?"
"I believe so."
"Hm," she said, and she lay there, in a repose rather unladylike for someone so elegant, though it gave me ample time to run my eyes over her aged but stately figure. She was a supernatural being.
"Mrs. Quisby—Cecilia—who is Jim Nozoufist? Is he here? I would really love the opportunity to speak with him about his book and about the possibilities I think—"
"Jim's not here at the moment, Todd," she spoke, familiarly, and she rose up to a more upright posture and placed a warm hand on my knee. It burned through my cheap suit pants. Up my leg went the heat of torment.
Letting the fluster pass, I took a difficult swallow of ice tea, which Noah had delivered I know not when, but which, magically, had appeared near my right hand.
"Is Jim Nozoufist your husband, Ma'am?" I wondered at the Southernism, triggered no doubt by her mention of Alabama.
She let loose a cachinnate fanfare. "Oh, my, no," she said. "Jim, well, Jim works for me."
"As?" I asked without thought.
"Oh, odd jobs. When a woman reaches my age, she needs some seeing to. Jim does a little driving for me, a little grocery shopping, that sort of thing."
"I see. Well, I don't want to take up too much of your time. When can I speak to him? It's rather urgent," I added self-importantly.
"Noah," Cecilia Quisby spoke in conversational tones, and the man was suddenly there. "Call Jim and have him come straight over."
Noah nodded, I think, and left the room.
Cecilia smiled her bright white smile at me, and we sat in silence for a few moments, and I sipped at the ice tea without tasting it.
After a while she scooted a half-inch closer, leaned forward, and replaced the hand on my knee, perhaps a measurable space higher on my thigh. This woman knew men. She knew me, and she had me, and she knew she had me. I didn't care. It was literature a-calling and, for the moment, even the sexual flirtation of such an attractive woman took a backseat.
"Todd," she said, as if about to let me in on a family secret. "Prepare yourself for Jim. He may not be what you were expecting."
"Ok," I said, though I wasn't aware of expecting anything.
A moment later there was the sound of activity coming from the kitchen area.
"I believe he's here now," Cecilia Quisby said, rising from the couch. Having space between us was both a relief and an agony.
What emerged from the rear of the apartment was indeed not what I had expected, no matter what I had expected. Neanderthal was an unavoidable reference term, and had I Tourrette's syndrome, no doubt I would have spoken the word aloud. Jim Nozoufist was a man about the same age as Mrs. Quisby, though through grime and facial hair it was difficult to ascertain much about the man. He was positively pithecoid. Surely this was just some poor homeless gull they brought up to impersonate the author. His dungy attire—ankle-length, soot-grey raincoat, unbuttoned formerly white shirt, oversize achromatic pants, squalid, unlaced hightops—reminded me of the costume Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull used to sport in his early rhythm and blues days, a sort of crazed, exhibitionist, street person affectation. Indeed, he somewhat resembled Mr. Anderson in the uncouthness of his wild appearance. Aqualung with an Olivetti, I thought. No one could have been more out of place in Cecilia Quisby's elegant apartment.
"Jim, come here," Cecilia beckoned with a bejeweled hand. "This is Todd Brackett from Ardent Publishing. He's here about your book."
No change of expression occurred on the feral face. Did he understand? Was he capable of more than animal instinct?
He shuffled forward and extended a meaty and distinctly unclean hand. I took it gently, but he squeezed like an Irishman in a pub contest, and when I drew my smarting body part back, I found myself imagining all sorts of disease, scrud or double scrud. I wanted to bolt for the bathroom.
"Mr. Nozoufist? As Mrs. Quisby said, I'm from Ardent and I've had the pleasure of reading your manuscript, your, um, novel, Anima, and I'm quite taken with it. I believe you have a real gift. I have taken it upon myself to contact you personally, not standard procedure perhaps at Ardent, but I was moved to do so by the particularity of your work, by its special otherness, which it is my belief may just be something very special in the world of contemporary letters." I felt as if I was talking to an actor standing in for the real author. At no time during my speech did I believe this was the author of the book I still had clenched inside my jacket. I also felt orotund and absurd in my language and as if I was talking over the poor man's head.
There now emerged from somewhere inside the whiskers and grime on Mr. Nozoufist's facade a deep growl or grumble. Bubbles of saliva formed in his mustache. Fear flashed through me—perhaps he was an epileptic, perhaps he was about to bite my neck—but I glanced at Cecilia, and she was smiling beatifically. This calmed me somewhat.
"I'd like Ardent to publish Anima," he said.
I nodded and was about to open negotiations—whatever those were going to be—when he sputtered further.
"Cecilia sent the check. We've paid," he said, and looked to his patron for reassurance. Cecilia moved to him and took his filthy arm in hers and placed a kiss on his hispid cheek. He smiled, a horrible smile, a monster's lascivious grin.
It suddenly occurred to me that Jim Nozoufist did a little more than some grocery shopping for this woman. There was a warmth between them one sees in movies, that romantic shorthand which says, intimacy. It made me feel unwell for some reason.
"Mr. Nozoufist, rest assured that all is satisfactory in your prepayment and the contract that denotes. Ardent would be proud to publish your novel. Ardent would be more than proud. Ardent should get down on its collective knees (here a brief flash of Sherri's lovely face threw a blinding flare over my vision) and beg to publish Anima. What I'm saying is..."
And, here I was at the moment of truth, the moment I had been dreading. What was my plan? Did I think I could parlay this man's talent, this wild man's exotic talent, into some kind of score for Todd Brackett? What were my motives? I had convinced myself that they were pure and that the main thing, the important thing, was to get this book into print and into wide distribution, where it could, rightly or wrongly, upset the placid and smug and dull ship of state which was modern fiction.
"What is it, Todd?" Cecilia asked with genuine concern in her voice.
"I think Anima may be the greatest novel of its, of our, time."
I said it. I laid it out there like a taunt, and I did not know, in this extraordinary company, where such a taunt would lead. I did not know who would pick it up.
After a pregnant moment, our aberrant author spoke.
"You do work for Ardent, don't you?" It was somewhere between a growl and a barroom challenge.
"Yes, yes," I assured. "But, this book, this marvelous book, is something quite uncommon. Frankly, it is too good for Ardent. I mean, we are fine for what we do, but, Mr. Nozoufist, Jim, if I may, Anima needs one of the big boys. It needs a Knopf, a Farrar Straus & Giroux. It needs a Gary Fisketjohn. It needs a Liz Darahnsof. It needs paperback rights, foreign rights, electronic rights, Hollywood representation, for Christ's sake!" I was sweating. "This is a major book. A searingly significant, important book." I finished with a deep breath, as if I had sprinted here from Newark.
"I don't understand a word you're saying," Cecilia Quisby let out. "And I'm sure Jim doesn't either. With your Fiskyjons and your Jews and your Darryn Soft. Mr. Brackett, Todd, we are simple people. What are you suggesting?"
I didn't know. Could I tell them I didn't know? That even I was out of my depth?
"I don't know," I said.
"Ardent's good enough for me," the musty giant now spat out, and he strode out of the room so quickly it left me speechless. I looked at Cecilia Quisby—she smiled like the opening of the moon—and a few minutes later I was walking back toward Ardent, shell-shocked. The manuscript was still tucked under my jacket, and my arm was cramped from the tension of holding it there. I had never even brought it out, examined it in front of its exotic creator, showed him that I knew my way around a work of fiction. I only then understood that that was what I had desired—to prove myself to the author of such an eccentric masterpiece. I had expected to be parlaying with someone along the lines of Mervyn Peake or Alexander Theroux.
Cecilia Quisby was right. I hadn't expected Jim Nozoufist. I hadn't expected a madman. And, now, where were we?
Sherri was playing coy when I returned to the office, playing at avoiding my eyes but giving me uncertain, saucy side-glances at every opportunity. I sat down at my desk and stared straight ahead. My head was full of expensive perfume and deodorized penthouse air and Cecilia Quisby's squeezable bosom and her hand which generated heat like a magnifying glass and the sweet rot of old flesh and fetid clothing and the incredible, exploding encyclopedia, which hovered above it all, that book called Anima. I finally remembered to unclench my arm and release the manuscript, and I lay it in front of me atop the numerous unopened envelopes that would make up Ardent's Spring list.
I believe Sherri hissed or made some noise that was not quite human speech, and I slowly turned toward her. She smiled a delicate, infirm smile.
My heart beat hard once or twice—there was pain there, should I worry? And then I opened my arms, and Sherri Hoving slid across the room and onto my lap, and her warm mouth covered mine, and her tongue swelled into me, and I lost, momentarily, all my worries as my blood careened around in my body looking for the place it was needed most. It found my loins.
Sherri felt the stiffening there, and she loosened her kiss slightly and looked into my eyes. Her hand went South, where the trouble was, and opened my tensions to the air, and it was that handjob at my desk—that release—in the middle of a most troublesome workday, which began to crystallize things for me. Which began to set a course for myself, for Sherri Hoving, and for our demented ward, the foul and priestly Jim Nozoufist.
Through Cecilia Quisby I set up a meeting with our author for the following day at a coffeeshop near Ardent, and I asked Sherri to join us. My reasons for doing this were a bit confused, but it's safe to say, I wanted a witness. I wanted backup. And I counted on her to be true to her pseudo-lover, and I counted on her unique capacity for organization, something this situation desperately needed.
I sketched the situation for Sherri, and throughout my extravagant tale she looked at me wide-eyed, her moist mouth forming a series of variations on ohs and ovals. At the end of my recitation—and I told her almost everything, including my reticence about seeing this work of literature go through the mill which was vanity publishing—her doe eyes blinked once or twice, and then she was all business. I told you she was the glue which held Ardent together, and that professionalism took over, and she immediately began making notes and gathering together a file, a file which would remain a secret between her and me, under the name "Anima, Nozoufist." The Anima, Nozoufist file. I believe she felt that this secret was further cement to our "understanding," though, for the time being, the personal was a back burner for me.
We arrived at the coffee shop about fifteen minutes early, such was our excitement and nervousness to set this thing into motion, whatever this thing was to be. With Sherri's encouragement our plan was simple, at least as far as step one went. Beyond step one was a haze of possibility, a scrim over a future that seemed murky and confusing and even perhaps a little dangerous, though I didn't at the time have anything to fear. We sat over our dry bagels and weak joe, and our conversation was scant and clipped, airy like a tattered flag. The fifteen minutes passed and then another fifteen, and Sherri looked at me with an anxiety in her boyishly resplendent features that were overflowing with sympathy and concern. I believe she might have, for just a moment, believed I had made up Jim Nozoufist out of whole cloth, however exotic that cloth would have to be. I admit that I even had the passing notion that I had imagined the man, something from some primitive consciousness welling up like a bad dream, something unreal, a bit of undigested beef perhaps.
Just as exasperation began to take over, I saw through the shop's wide glass window the madman author striding our way, crossing against traffic as if he were indestructible, walking almost totally erect. To say he burst into the coffeeshop is to resort to cliché, but Nozoufist practically thrust the door off its hinges, so exaggeratedly violent was his ingress. Sherri jumped in her seat as I stood to beckon the Yeti over. Jim wore the same outfit I had seen him in earlier. Sherri wore a look of what might be described as professional doubt, mixed with, I think, bemusement.
The waitress eyed us askance now but took our order for another cup of their dishwater coffee and a round of eggs and toast for our guest.
"Jim," I began, "This is Sherri Hoving from our office."
"Pleased," Jim grunted and put a hoary hand out, which missed Sherri's delicate attempt at a handshake and ended up gripping her forearm, as if this were a meeting of two Vikings.
Step One was this: we were going to convince Jim Nozoufist to make us his independent agents. Sherri had sketched out a contract which gave us full power to place Anima where we thought best and make what demands we could, reaping only a measly 15% of whatever profits befell us. The important thing, the only thing, was to get Anima into bookstores, onto library shelves, into the right critics' hands, to get the damn thing recognized. The inchoate contract also gave full editorial decision-making to Todd Brackett, but with final say on any changes to the author.
Nozoufist seemed to chew on these terms at about the same frenetic and unwholesome way he dug into his toast and eggs. We could not look at him and spent the tense minutes looking at each other with, for want of a better word, affection. Our eyes may have been dewy.
"Ardent doesn't want it," he said, finally.
"No, no," I quickly corrected him. "Ardent would publish it in a heartbeat. Cash Cecilia's check and throw Anima out there. But, you have to understand, Ardent would publish the ravings of any lunatic who could muster the money to pay their fees. They would publish that surly waitresses' love poems to her trucker boyfriend. Ardent is not about editorship. Ardent is about taking money from people who are desperate to have something, anything in print. Anima, on the other hand, is a life-changing work of the imagination. We can take it just about anywhere we want and get some real attention generated. We can make you famous, if that's not putting the inappropriate slant on it."
"Ardent is for the odes or autobiographies of retired doctors and lawyers, who have nothing better to do with the money they've made grinding the noses of the poor," Sherri put in. I squeezed her knee.
"Hmm," Jim Nozoufist said, maybe through his nose.
"We'll take full responsibility," I added. "If we fail to produce anything greater—but there is little chance of that—we can always fall back on Ardent."
"Ok, then," the mammalian author said, rising quickly from his seat. This time his handshakes hit their marks, and he was gone, seemingly carried out by a gust of wind from the reek of New York, a wind up from the subways, smelling of urine and lost dreams and the foul decay of a once great city.
Sherri and I looked at each other. She couldn't suppress a tight giggle.
"Well, we got what we wanted," she said. "What next?"
"I'll make some calls," I said. "You make up a formal contract, and we'll get that to Mr. Nozoufist and get this ball rolling." I smiled with a confidence that was the confidence of a child becoming an adult. I was making it.
Sherri and I walked back into the office holding hands like Hansel and Gretel, cooing at each other, snickering like schoolchildren. We were met by the grim countenance of our plenitudinous boss.
"Hello, Mr. Quillmeier," Sherri said, suddenly serious, with more aplomb than I could have mustered.
"Early lunch?" he asked.
"Meeting with an author," I said, but from Sherri's darting eyes I knew I had blundered.
"We don't meet with authors," J. Quillmeier firmly informed me. "We publish their shitty books and cash their checks and move on."
"Is that on our logo?" I asked, sarcasm born of this newly acquired and foolhardy confidence.
Mr. Quillmeier glowered. He placed a chubby hand on a chubby hip and looked us over as if he didn't quite know what we were up to, into mother's cosmetics, perhaps, or sneaking out back with the airplane glue.
"Who is this author who demands such attention?" he asked.
It was a fair question. Unfortunately, it caught the two of us answerless. We stared straight ahead. My armpits filled with moisture.
J. Quillmeier had us and let us run, cruelly, like hooked fish, which he only wanted the barb to dig deeper into. He stood before us like the Colossus of Rhodes for a few minutes while we fidgeted and cleared our throats.
"Was it perhaps James Nozoufist?" he asked.
We were stricken. We looked stricken.
"How—" was as far as I got.
"Cecilia Quisby is a very old and dear friend, my compatriots. She phoned me at home to find out how long until we could expect to see her man's book in the bookstores."
"Cecilia Quisby told me she tried to talk Nozoufist out of publishing with Ardent," I said, floundering, fighting for my life.
"A blind. She sent the book in through the regular channels, but, still was not above a phone call to an old admirer to grease the works. Seems she had a visit, a peculiar visit from our chief editor, who did nothing but confuse her about our intentions. Quite inappropriate. Hence, the call."
"Ahem," I believe I said.
J. Quillmeier waited.
"Mr. Quillmeier, this book, by this friend of your friend, is, well, it's quite a book."
"And I think, maybe, it's just, sort of, not for Ardent."
J. Quillmeier waited another painful minute, looked at me, looked with not a little disappointment at Sherri, and then spoke, with decisive finality.
"You're fired," he said, poking a sausage-shaped finger at my sternum.
"And you," he said, hesitating as he turned toward the soul of his publishing house, and in that moment of hesitation, Sherri Hoving, God bless her, moved in my direction and slipped her frabjous arm through mine in a show of confederacy. "Well, you're fired, too," he was forced to add.
He then rolled into the inner recesses of his private den, a bear who must certainly go into hibernation, at least temporarily, with no Sherri Hoving around to keep his affairs in order.
"Well," I said, exhaling for the first time in ten minutes.
"We're out on the street," Sherri said, with brave calm.
"But we have Anima," I said. And I think I really believed it was a charm, a shield, a mojo against the perilous future.
Of course, in the following days, there was a back and forth wrangle between myself and J. Quillmeier about who indeed did own the rights to the wondrous Gordian knot which was Anima. It was the most conversation I had with the man in the nearly thirteen months since I had come to work for him. He was a surprisingly savvy combatant. I say surprisingly, because, one must ask, what is he doing running this shill game for suckers if he has the smarts to do better work?
It was my, our, contention that the author had signed a binding contract with us (he actually had not at this time, but the contract was professionally drawn up by my amorous conspirator and awaited only a meeting with the author for the proverbial eyes to be dotted, etc.) and that he had no such contract with Ardent Publishing. It was J. Quillmeier's retort, as one might expect, that the check from Cecilia Quisby, which he had quickly cashed, constituted a contract and one which he had already made moves to justify by putting the manuscript through the motions of getting into shoddy print and between two glued-together cardboard covers and hence turned into a proud Ardent book. I doubted this contention, simply because we had both copies of the manuscript, and though it was possible he had obtained another from Cecilia Quisby, J. Quillmeier had not the means nor the wherewithal to get the whole process rolling by his own rolling self. At least, this is what Sherri and I fervently hoped.
We believed, though, that we had to move quickly.
We set up another meeting with Jim in the coffee shop (as we now began to call him whenever we referred to him, the familiarity meaning—what?—a confidence that he was ours, that we were going to ride his raggle-taggle coattails into literary stardom). We anticipated trouble arranging said meeting, but Cecilia betrayed no loyalty to her old friend JQ, and readily set us up with our author. But she also did not offer his address. It was an unspoken part of the dealings that everything would be funneled through the glamorous and ladylike hands of Cecilia Quisby.
Jim was late again. Sherri and I sat in worried silence, holding hands lightly, fingertips to fingertips, across the tabletop, casting strained, grim smiles at each other as each additional five minutes ticked away. Finally, Jim was blown in by that same ill wind, leaves and detritus seemingly swirling around him, his hair a tangled mass, full of birds' nests and insect larvae and perhaps the missing body of James Hoffa. He threw himself into the booth on Sherri's side, fairly slamming against her but not upending her tight smile.
"Ok," he began, as if he had called this meeting. He was all at once in charge, and it momentarily upset me.
"What you got for Old Jim?" he asked, a piratical jolliness inflecting his voice, unlike anything we had heretofore witnessed.
"A contract," Sherri said, briskly, whipping it out from her briefcase and laying it on the yolk stained Formica.
Jim looked down at it the way first man must have looked at first fire.
"It says, basically, what?" Jim said, quickly, as if to hide his embarrassment at not understanding the legal jargon before him. "You own me. You own Anima. You get all the money."
I didn't know if he was kidding or not. I didn't know if he was capable of kidding.
"Of course not," I said. "Just as we discussed. We will do everything in our power, everything to see that Anima gets the publishing contract it deserves, including all foreign rights, paperback rights, etc., at the best house possible and for the most money available. We vow to do this not only on this piece of paper in front of you but, here, to your face, with honest and heartfelt integrity. We will get your book the attention it deserves, and for that we get 15% of all profits."
"15%," Jim said.
"That's fairly common, low even. Understand, Mr. Nozoufist, we have given up all other work to pursue this. We have no other job but getting this book out and reaping the rewards it deserves. We have, you might say, put all our eggs in one basket, laid our whole lives on the line," Sherri put in.
Nozoufist looked at me with what I thought was a twinkle in his eye—he resembled briefly a deranged Santa Claus—and then at Sherri the same way. Suddenly he leant over and kissed my compatriot full on the mouth, pulling back like a drunkard who has just taken a large draught of a rich ichor. A smile opened up the box of snakes which was his visage.
"Let's do it," he said.
I was taken aback. But then I smiled just as quickly and took his callused hand into mine and gave it a hearty shake. Fellow-feeling flowed.
Sherri, recovering from her bestial buss, pointed a red-nailed finger at the line on the contract where Jim was to put his John Hancock and brought out a pen from her lap with which he would sign. Jim gripped the pen like it was a Louisville slugger. Just for a second I thought he might make a crude X on the space provided, but he signed with a flourish, his name a dance of curlicues and embellishment, ending with a singular paraph.
"Good," he said. And he was gone.
Although tangential to the tale, now might be the time to discuss the nature of the relationship so recently born between the lithe Sherri Hoving and your humble narrator. After that unexpected office manipulation of my membrum virile, I supposed, naturally, that we had embarked on that journey which takes a couple of ordinary human beings and transforms them into the coniunctio spirituum; in short, that we were now a fully feathered couple, free to partake of each other's intimacies, privileged to feel the human warmth and moisture at the heart of the creature called man (and woman). I thought, bluntly put, that we would be fucking, and soon.
It was not to be. Instead we regressed. That workaday pizzle-pull was not repeated, and when our tongue sucking grew too intense, Sherri again began that coy retreat which had initially signaled to me that we were not to be, couplewise. It was frustrating and may or may not have had bearing on the frustrations to follow. I am not a Freudian disciple and do not pretend to possess the ability to explain human endeavor in terms of inner chemistry, misfiring neurons, bad potty training, want of breastfeeding as a child. So what follows followed. My flesh-loneliness is, most probably, only a not-so-interesting sidebar.
The truth was we couldn't place Anima. Much to my chagrin and shock, even when we were able to get the thing into what I would have supposed to be sympathetic hands, we got kind dismissals, compliments galore, but no takers. Roger Giroux himself penned a quick note, calling the book a "spiritual cousin to Confederacy of Dunces," but his house passed on it, seemingly against his wishes, but it's hard to tell. And, besides, I thought, Jim Nozoufist could write rings around that poor dead Louisianian. If he were alive, I guess I mean.
I was flummoxed. I was confounded and astonished. We tried half a dozen major houses, both Sherri and I calling in whatever tenuous connections we boasted, and received little or no encouragement. Could it be that I was wrong about Anima, about its place in the line of literature which went from Homer to Rabelais to Sterne to Joyce and then, unerringly, I believed, to our own beloved dement? No, I was not wrong. This was a hell of a book, a world-beater. It was the times that were to blame. I was not the first to decry the shallowness which had overtaken the culture, from idiotic TV to bright, shiny, big-spectacle movies as empty as raided graves, to art which only imitated art which had self-consciously imitated art before it but at least for a laugh, right up to and including the now conglomerate-controlled publishing houses, where there were only acquisitions editors, where there was the search for the next Bridges of Madison County ongoing, not the next Thomas Pynchon. I knew it. I knew it all. Maxwell Perkins was dead, as dead as Marley. I knew it, but I still hoped. Surely, there was a place for genius still, a place for something as fresh and new and invigorating as Jim Nozoufist and his cracked, portmanteau tome.
Six months passed in this way. Increasingly frantic phone calls, faxes, letters, cold-call visits to houses we only knew the names of. We worked out of Sherri's apartment, where it was comfortable and clean and she cooked wonderful meals of couscous and exotic vegetables. She told me to stop worrying about money, and I did, for minutes at a time, but things were not going well. Soon we would have to admit that we had to look for work—continue our ceaseless search for a home for Anima, but, at the same time, do something, however menial, to pay the bills.
It was about this time when I got a call from Cecilia Quisby. She was concise but not unfriendly, and she wanted the four of us to get together to discuss the future of Jim's book. I was to pick her up at half-past seven and proceed to her private club, where a dinner would be waiting for us, over which we could make some plans on what to do next. It sounded good. It sounded wrong. But, what choice did we have?
Also, she added, could Ms. Hoving pick Jim up, and she rattled off a quick address.
I arrived at Two Towers at seven-fifteen, dressed in my best suit, which was a poor imitation of good grooming, nervous as sunlight. This time the doorman parted the waters for me immediately, and I proceeded up to Cecilia Quisby's wondrous place of residence, feeling like a kid on a first date.
Knowing my early arrival was rude, I rapped lightly on Cecilia's door. It took some 90 seconds or so—an eternity—before the door was opened and there stood Dame Quisby herself. I had, of course, expected Lurch, and was embarrassed to find Cecilia at the door dressed only in a housecoat, albeit a sheer, sparkling housecoat. The shins which showed beneath the elegant hem of her garment, though aged, shone like ambergris, and her toenails were painted a pale shade of lavender, which made my heart do a sad drumroll.
"I'm so sorry I'm early," I sputtered.
"Nonsense," she said, waving me in.
I shuffled in, a child, a nullity in her reflective radiance.
"I'm afraid Noah is off for the evening, so if you could just make yourself comfortable while I dress," she said gesturing vaguely toward all that was hers.
"Certainly," I said.
She wafted away toward her bedroom, and I spent some time examining the art on the walls. All the names were familiar. All the paintings were authentic.
"We're not having much luck with Jim's book," she called from the recesses of her apartment. It was a statement, almost, but not quite, a challenge.
"No," I admitted. I began my rant about the unappreciated prophet, the overemphasized profit, etc. She cut me off with a reverberating contralto.
"La di da, Todd," she sang. "You underestimate yourself. You have literature in your veins."
I let a few moments pass. I had no answer.
"Is that not true?" she asked, this time the challenge more clearly delineated.
"Well, I've tried all I know. I've called in all my markers. I've—"
"Todd. Todd, come here," she spoke, as if I were her stubborn spaniel.
I walked slowly toward the doorway to her bedroom. I didn't want to go there. I was sore afraid.
I stood in the doorway, but my eyes were on my shoes.
"Look at me, Todd," she commanded.
I raised my face, knowing what would be there. Cecilia Quisby sat on the edge of her bed putting her stockings on. They were the kind that stayed up only by the magic of their darker top halves. I was looking at quite a bit of the fifty-year-old Cecilia Quisby, and I was thoroughly impressed by what she was showing me. Her body, covered here and there with bits of lace and whalebone perhaps, was a wonder, for all its wrinkles and extra flesh. The places of extra flesh seemed derived from Elysian fields, fruit from the garden Adam was born in. I could not help but survey it.
Cecilia Quisby smiled like a ring-dove. Her remonstration was temporarily halted so she could address this new question, the question of what she was going to do about the lust she had engendered in me.
"You don't think I'm too old and used," she said, a hint of insecurity in her voice, but a voice which quavered like a taper. She lightly spread her arms and revealed herself all the more. She was an aged Delilah, but the temptations were nonetheless irresistible.
"You're the most beautiful thing I've ever seen," I said. And I meant it.
"Come here, Todd," she said, and, of course I did.
I stood next to the bed and she wrapped her arms around me and put her cheek on my zipper and held me there like a queen making time-honored use of some hierodule. I ran my hands over what parts I could reach—shoulders, her slightly furry cheeks, her still glossy though graying hair, the tops of her bare breasts—but I felt as if I were straightjacketed.
What happened between Cecilia Quisby and me should not be made public knowledge. Things occurred in that plush and mirrored bedroom that I will forever want repeated, will forever be tortured for wanting them repeated. She was a remarkable woman.
After our athletic endeavors, Cecilia Quisby begged off on the remainder of the evening, citing fatigue, headache, surprise, new things she would have to digest.
"Could we do this tomorrow night?" she asked from amid her pillows and silks.
I hoped for a moment she meant... Well, at any rate, she meant the dinner/meeting.
"Of course," I said. I bent to kiss her on the cheek as I left, and she turned slightly, I thought away from my lips, but perhaps it was just an awkward parting. I left feeling wrung out. I had at least, for the first time in a while, if only for an hour or so, forgotten Anima and the pledge that hung over me like the sword of Damocles. I forgot it until I arrived at Sherri's and found her in tears, her clothing torn, a bruise swelling up under her left eye like an ugly toad.
When she lifted her face to me, it brought a more frantic flood of tears. She sobbed like a nun with stigmata, my name spewing from her blubbering like a curse.
"Wh-where were you?" she asked.
"Picking up Cecilia—what the hell happened?" I sat down by her and put my arms around her, only to be pushed away.
"He tried to rape me, you shit," she managed to get out.
"Who?" I said automatically, though I knew. Of course I knew.
"That beast, you selfish jackass. That goat-footed author of that horrid, horrid book. I never want to see him again. I never want to see you again."
"Sherri, you don't mean that," I started.
She was suddenly, fiercely calm. She looked at me with the face of an unrepentant killer about to be electrocuted.
"I do, though. I mean it. He attacked me. He thought it was part of the deal. God knows what goes on in that beastly mind of his. And you, while you were sporting with that rich—" here tears took over again.
"He told you that, that I was bedding Cecilia Quisby?" I sputtered in mock outrage, my face coloring with shame.
"Get out, Todd. That animal tried to put his thick, dirty prick into me, and I will never forget that and never forgive you for it. Get out."
I started another weak protest, but I was beat. I was beat all to hell. I didn't know who I was, where I was from, who was on my side or who wasn't, or even if I was on my own side. I wandered out onto the rebarbative sidewalks and meandered around for a few hours. I was as loose as the trash blowing up Fifth Avenue. I was as pointless.
What had happened was this:
Jim Nozoufist and Cecilia Quisby, apparently in frustration over our impotence, our ignorance, our inability to get Anima published, had re-established contact with Ardent Publishing and J. Quillmeier and had signed with him (in apparent disregard for the contract Nozoufist had with us, but we were weak as kittens afterwards—we were cowed, subjugated—and they knew it) to bring the novel out as the sole offering from Ardent in the fall of that year. They also, coincidentally, had made a more personal, more vindictive pact to humiliate us, use us, show us that power in the circles they frequented had to do with who had whose dick. In the case of Cecilia Quisby's seduction, this amounted to a fairly memorable and aristocratic, almost feline, display of how a woman controls a man, how she has him like a leopard on a leash.
In the case of the less sophisticated Jim Nozoufist, this amounted to a savage attack on Sherri that included tearing her blouse and blackening her eye. Sherrifa Hoving would never press charges for her own personal reasons, which I can only guess at. Shortly, after this, I heard she moved out west and was working for one of those fancy book houses, the one that makes a living publishing books of immaculate glossies of baby-boomer memorabilia, books for Architectural Digest coffee tables, gorgeous books, empty as skulls. I never heard from her again.
Ironically, sadly, Anima was never published. Either Cecilia Quisby and J. Quillmeier made their own secret concordat and shelved the book for reasons of their own, or they came up with a better plan.
Six months later there appeared on the literary horizon a new publishing house, Quillmeier Books. Its sole first offering was a potboiler entitled Run for It. You know the story. It went into multiple printings, launched the publishing house making James and Cecilia Quillmeier the toasts of bookdom, sold to the Book of the Month club, went to NAL for a cool million mass market rights, and the movie version, starring Bruce Willis and Natalie Portman, was said to be filming in Chicago, where they were having script problems that would delay the actual release of the film until the fall of the following year.
Run for It, the book, was seemingly everywhere at once: in every chain bookstore window, in every glossy magazine's book review section, no matter how perfunctory (People called it "John Grisham with extra adrenaline"), in the laps of every commuter. Its author, a James Skald, had his handsome kisser spread across America like a new brand of cereal. Or a new hostage crisis; he practically had his own theme music. He was on Oprah, he was on Charlie Rose, he was on NPR.
And James Skald, household name, with a face now as familiar as Dan Rather's, seemed to have come from nowhere. He had a burnished, prizefighter's mug, somewhat ruddy, perhaps freckled (it was hard to tell through the makeup and TV lights), and his clean-shaven jaw was as chiseled and well-cornered as a bank building. Still, if you squinted and held up Time's cover to the right light, you could see a bit of wildness there, underneath the well-groomed and artificial map. Somewhere under the sleek surface of that face that had been configured for television to consume and disseminate, there was something almost sinister, almost feral. It's the beast inside man, I guess. We all have it.
But, some nights, here in Pittsburgh, where I moved and got a job at another bookstore, some late nights, when I'm lonely and I'm thinking about the snake-like shapeliness of Sherri Hoving or the delights of Cecilia Quisby's venerable body, I'll pull out Anima and read sections of it to myself. Or aloud if I've had a couple of drinks. Or sometimes even over the phone to family or friends back home, who wonder why I've called after all these years just to spout off some baffling jabber into the plastic receiver they clutch to their ears as if they expect real communication from it.
And I marvel, still, still I marvel, at the magisterial sentences, at the distilled but cockamamie wisdom, at the fantastical, magical, misbegotten, empyrean otherness which is this novel, Anima, destined to die with me, to know only the life which I bring to it.