by bart plantenga
The ad, announcing the arrival of a rep from “highly renowned publishing firm, WhetherVain Press,” appeared between the obituaries and supermarket ads in the paper. But somehow it spoke to me as a “young author;” they wanted me, “needed” me.
The motel: Autorama Motel, Ozone Park, near JFK. Not exactly rundown. Neither old nor made of enough certified building materials of any quality to ever arrive at a state of rundown. Because rundown assumes a point of grandeur; denouement implies a height to fall from. The pure profit-utilitarian nature of its construction, its no-nonsense pink cinderblocked L-shape wrapped around a horseshoe EZ-ON-EZ-OFF, precluded any involvement in the process of aesthetic dilapidation.
Its miracle mile rhinestone was a swimming pool in the shape of a gob of spit filled with urine-green water. SWIM AT YOUR OWN RISK. That was about right. Soot sat thick on the white chaise near the edge of the pool. Two cars nose-first, diagonally-aimed at rooms #6 and #17. Just two. That’s all. Like abandoned cars. Bald tires. Torn vinyl roofs. Midsummer midafternoon.
I knocked. The screen door wiggled. Like taffy. It’s the heat. Must be. That and structural deficiencies.
Inside the air conditioner was going fullblast. Rattling like there was a marble caught in its intestines somewhere. Slowly my eyes adjusted from total light to none. Two figures hovered there like two Hummels on a scratchy negative.
Polyester velveteen curtains covering the windows. Everything else in the room seemed too busy trying to convince us it was something else, from a better era, a better neighborhood. Plastic wood paneling was trying to act like wood and the gold spraypainted polystyrene Baroque ceiling molding was trying to convince us it was meticulously applied gold leaf. This connivance of view had been going on for so long now that simulation had gained its own reputation as a reality in its own right, trompe l’oeil as a way of life. I inhaled the musty odor of decades confined to this room.
She sat on the bed. Glass in one hand, flyswatter in the other. Like a leftover something, a tart perhaps – that used to be quite hot. But she had maybe not been re-heated for quite some time.
“Tis the season.” She declared, hoisting her glass and then doing something automatic to her hair that was supposed to fluff or prop it up. What season, I wondered.
“Lady Liberty I’m not.” She’d sensed, I guess, the ridiculousness of her pose. One sensed she’d cribbed some gestures from Carmen Miranda long ago but was still using them.
The man seemed much shorter than her – or her plus her beehive. And by the way his shoulders hid his ears. A stoop built by a lifetime of church pews carried from sin to sin.
He greeted me like a file clerk at unemployment might. Like he resented the notion that I was going to make him do something like an unnecessary surgical procedure. But then he found the groove and he suddenly climbed into an entirely new character.
He struggled over my name and got it all wrong. But I didn’t correct him for fear of adversely affecting my chances of getting published. “Take a seat.” I took a seat. He straightened his tie. A tie sometimes looks like a noose.
“Nicely typed, son. Very neat.”
“He likes that.” She interjected, fanning her face with the swatter.
“Course you know there’s no guarantees. Justified right margin too.”
“I know.” But I didn’t know. Someone had told me this type of publishing was about one thing – money. Or how money gets a desperate ego off the hook. But I didn’t want to hear that. “Youth” needs to believe in the notion that quality is justly rewarded. (How far out into time does youth go?) Depth, you hear from college profs, when properly rendered is rewarded the way a deep sea diver might be rewarded with a tresure chest if he goes deep enough.
“It’s like life.”
“LIFE he calls it. HUH. Drop the ‘F’ – as in ‘Fun life’ or ‘Full life’ – and you got it – one big ‘L-I-E’.” She pushed up her 60s Italian movie (big as knuckles) rhinestone-encrusted glasses, which made her look like a lobster. Or something else crustacean, out of water and into gin. Anyway, they weren’t her. “L.I.E. not the highway but the, uh, lie-way.”
HER dog – not THEIRS – was this gruesome arrogant mussed old periwig who periodically deigned to growl from the comfort of her lap whenever I threatened so much as a scratch of an ill-defined sideburn. It seemed to have never gone without a meal in its entire life. And this fact defined its attitude toward everything including my incursion into its realm. As if I were there to pilfer affection away from it.
“Cute. What’s’s name?”
“Yea, cute as a gangster. Little Caesar. As in Edward G. Robinson cute.”
The man, the editor, was – I later found out – also the publisher, co-owner, half of the board of directors (she being the other half) and the major stockholder of WhetherVain Press. Bruno Sammartino was his name as he re-introduced himself, reminding me of a faded cut-along-the-dotted-line ad in an old Popular Mechanics.
“It’s almost 1:30, BrUno.” She had had a long time to learn to turn his own name into a tool of derision. BrUno sounded like the well-aimed thrust of a knife.
“Dear, let’s give this boy a fair read, shall we. He made the effort. Riding his bike out here on this gawd-awful, humid day. Thank Gawd for air conditioning. Odysseus Was A Cabbie, interesting title. Good start.” He went on to read some random excerpts in earnest silence as he leaned toward the lamp on the nightstand. Glasses sliding down his long nose. Silence except for the wheezing ball of fur and the swish-swish of the swatter with “GOTCHA” in red letters emblazoned across a yellow bullseye. Bruno flipped further back into the manuscript.
“This is not some kinda epic pO-Em, I hope.”
“No, no, but it’s all true…It’s based on my…”
“Of COURSE it is. Of COURSE it is. But truth isn’t everything, son. Ah, ‘beech’, the tree, is with a double ‘e’ and ‘reckless’, as in the adjective, has no ‘w’.”
“Watch out, young boy. He knows his spelling. That he does. He don’t know litrachur from toilet paper but he sure knows spelling.”
“Spelling’s not everything but it’s a start, an indication, my boy. Hey, are these rhymes I see here?”
Um, could be. But they’re unintentional. Maybe subconscious or…”
“Gimmickry.” Bruno continued, voyaging forth with red pen drawn. Marking it up with flamboyant circles and arrows with all the enthusiasm of a mortician hunched over a corpse with gaping axe wound.
“‘As he parked at the isle; a cabstand we say, I cast my thoughts like an anchor away.’ Nice couplet. Real nice, boy. But you egregiously misspell ‘aweigh’. It’s A-W-E-I-G-H. And remember it’s “i” before “e”, except after “c”, unless sounded as “a”, as in neighbor, weigh – or reign or reindeer or veils or atheist or teeing…”
“Yea, ’at’s me alright, teeing, teeing off, gettin’ teed off. Right BrUUUno, dear?”
“…or heifer. Get me, dear? Get me, son? “
“There seem to be so many exceptions.”
“…or Einstein…reify…fallacies. Son, exceptions to a rule, no matter their number, do not obviate the need for that rule…”
“But it seems to only…take you away from what I’m…”
“Son, remember and don’ forget, a rule is your cudgel…”
“Don’ mind Bruno. He takes a red pen to a supermarket. He makes proofreading marks on signs, rails at public officials, bus drivers, grocers, storeowners when he spots flagrant violators of the laws of spelling or grammar. And don’t even think of taking him to a foreign picture. He’s liable to go right up on the screen and correct the subtitles; have you darting for the exit.”
“Someone has to grab the monster by the colon.”
“I would have to marry someone who’d reprimand the bet taker at the track if a horse in the 4th had his name misspelled!”
But suddenly his earnestness began to sound cramped, rehearsed. The knitted brows reminded me of little sawblades – in an abandoned sawmill.
“Nice, son, ’s very nice, transMORTIFYIN’ the metaphor of Sirens into the wail of the police sirens…”
“I think you mean transMOGRIFYIN’, BrOOOn dear.”
“I’ve learned to ignore her like a cow ignores horseflies. Now, you make enough money drivin’ a taxi?”
“Yea, ENOUGH. Like more’n pauper but less’n Rockefeller.”
“Well, yea, it’s all take home – 50% of the meter plus tips, no taxes.”
“Yea, but if all is not a lot then that’s not enough. “Where’s your cab now?”
“It’s not mine. I just drive somebody else’s at night. During the day the owner drives…”
“I take it you perused our brochure.”
“Bruno, honey, hate to break up your litrachur klatch here but we have a date with the horses. First race, 2 p.m. Trifecta, 2:45.”
“Dear, anyone ever tell you ’bout the perils of the beehive? Seems a lady had one she didn’t wash much – like YOU, dear. Seems some spiders, wolf spiders made a nest in there. Get me? Seems they started feeding on her brain little by little.”
“Tha’s my Bruno. Don’t you know that’s why I’m still with you? Honey, look, race time’s at 2. It’s one thirrrrrty eight. You’re TRYing my PAtience. Or what’s left of it after you’ve twittered it away over these…centuries.”
“You mean withered.”
“No. I know I mean twittered.”
“Maybe its frittered. Or whittled.”
“I know what I mean and I mean twittered.”
And with that – as if on cue – he grabbed a bottle from the side of the bed and poured gin into her waiting glass in one swift and graceful gesture. The choreography, the synchronization, every gear-bound detail of this motion was marvelous, the kind of timing dancers dream of, and that long-married couples perform daily without fanfare in kitchens and living rooms all over the map.
“Listen, you’re a serious writer. Perseverence is the major ingredient in a writer’s success. There’s some good lines. But the sex is too too…”
“Too foreign to HIM.”
“Don’ mind her. But clean up the language. Clean up the spelling and punctuation. Frankly, I don’t think there’s enough of a public. Bottom line is it has to be commercially viable.” She choked on a swallow of gin. And her poor knot of mangy mendacious wheezing fur and growl was roused rudely from its nap.
“Tha’s like saying; ‘that’s a horse wid t’ree legs. I don’ think it’ll run today. But maybe tomorrow.’“
“Dear, yer logic betrays any remnants of self-esteem you might have left. Son, I can’t EAT integrity. It’s not a question of integrity. You see, my bank don’ cash good intentions.”
I had no response. But what about…”I understand”? I didn’t, but I said it anyway. I put the manuscript back in the ratty folder and I heard his voice press on into the humid air like a dirty thumbnail inside a pantyhose. “Viability. You gotta get inside people’s headsets. You gotta write what people want to read. Just like GM’s gotta build a car that we wanna drive… And get a folder or something, get it bound in something to make it more – attractive. I mean, would you buy cornflakes if they came in a greasy old paper sack? Course not. Make others believe you believe in yourself. Give your Odysseus a facelift, a shave. Appearance, boy, appearance.”
“I got 2 novels…”
“‘Have’! ‘Have’, son! Get’m in tiptop shape…”
“…that develop ideas…”
“IDEAS! Huh! Son. Ideas’re like farts. Mere flatulence in the universe of feelings and emotion…”
“Rest assured he knows about gas
“Passion’s what people want. Ideas are the farts of the dying. And so, the less ideas, the less your story’ll stink of the dead.”
“Bruno once had an idea but the stench of it drove him crazy. Now Bruno just has schemes. Isn’t that right, Bruno? And what are schemes but ideas whittled down into sharp jabbing sticks…”
“Dear, button it! For your own good. Now, son, you also have to create believable characters, sympathetic characters that people can readily relate to. Product identification. Something that moves.”
“When he turns his brain on his bowels start to move.”
“…People of action. Ideas don’t move. Like still water. And still water stinks and harbors disease. You need a story that flows, like a river, like whitewater – adventure, soldiers, lawyers, police, athletes, you know, rags to riches! Inspiration!”
This made her cough. Which sent her wheezing furball tumbling rudely to the fake parquet floor. And was actually being called upon to stand on its own four paws. And it didn’t like that. And it whined. And she immediately fed into the whine. And picked it up with all the cloying gushy tenderness a devout dog lover is capable of.
“Sorry. Wrong pipe – cough – more like wrong TYPE!”
“She does these things to get under my skin, you hear me. But my skin’s gotten thick, marriage thick. Marriage makes your hide thick as a rhino’s.”
“If I was to die choking on a herringbone he’d think it was just to get on his nerves.”
“Luckily, boy, I’ve developed techniques. I KNOW hurt but no longer FEEL it. And that, my boy, is the secret to survival…well, lemme put it this way, I know talent. And so, despite my reservations, I have an innate trust…”
“Trust or lust…?”
“…Ignore the ignorant…trust in the human spirit…Fortunately I have a nose for smelling talent…”
“That’s not talent, that’s the rotten deal in yer…”
“But-ton-it-dah-ling…A seed sprouts to become a seedling, a seedling grows into a sapling…”
“Sap is about right…”
“…and I’ve got just the fertilizer…”
“Tha’s about right…” She held her glass of clear liquor up to the light. “Just like Little Caesar makes fertilizer…”
Bruno placed his leg across his right to make of his left leg a stand upon which to balance his valise. Like the tripod upon which W.C. Fields might open his carpetbag upon which to peddle his nostrums.
“We have the perfect remed-y for chronic obscurit-y, the perfect recip-e for an-o-nimit-y. Whadda yuh say, we let him in on our winning formula; join our team…?” As if he were making light satire of own his pitch to ease all qualms.
And the more elegant and elaborate the thread of his words twined into golden piping the more I began to notice his frayed shoelaces.
“If we work together…my practical sense…”
“Read his ability to spend…”
“My investment of time – time’s more valuable than any amount of uh capital…well, one can’t buy back time, youth…and then your small investment…” The hole in the sole of his shoe. In his sock. The skin on the bottom of the sole of his foot. Like some kind of stigmata, or sucking wound.
“After all, we must grease the printing presses. We will have your book…your press photo…a professional photographer…”
“Yer lookin’ at her. I aim, I shoot…”
“A press kit. Thomas Wolfe, the young Hemingway. We will display you…”
“Like raw hamburger on a paper plate…”
A button dangling.
“This is all just standard publishing jargon. You get more’n we do. The bottom line is trust and that line is…well, there are many ways to express both ability and permission: could I? Do you mind if I? Would you mind if I? And, please allow me…remember, it is I who will be in your employ. We will be…you DO have a checking accou
“I can’t give…”
“No, no. The bank. It’s still open…or if you like we could drive…”
“Son, if you have any hide – made of wallet leather, well, I’d scra” – her eyes fell apart inside his – “I can drive you.” She had been slowly sliding off of the edge of the bed for who knows how long.
“Investment…the Italians, bless’m…”
“Gotta be one to bless’m…”
“They, er, we have a saying, son, ‘It’s better to live one day like a lion, than your whole life as a lamb.’”
I held the pen, saw the button dangle, jiggle as he gesticulated. The bas relief of plastic mother of pearl. The likeness of Jesus, the halo twirling…
“She can drive…we’ll wait in the lot. She has good eyes – no glasses! – but she has NO vision son, no vision…20–20 but NO vi-sion…”
I saw the pamphlet of books they had published. Names like Agnes, Hortense, Aloisius…titles – I don’t know – like Adventures in the Alimentary Canal, Churches of the North Central Plains, Conversations With The Creator, The Spider’s Tangled Web, Hairdressers Wear Strange Tresses.
“Look’t how thick my lenses are – Coke bottles, but yuh know, I can see through things, walls, fog, doubt…sign here boy and we can push through walls, work miracles.”
“If the Nova’ll start.”
I held the pen and then suddenly I became for an instant a character in a story I had not yet written, was not yet capable of writing; I reached with my pen and swung at the button dangling from the frayed thread on his cuff.
The button broke loose, sailed to the formica floor where Little Caesar, the brute, pounced on it and – swallowed it.
“No worry…Fanny here’ll drive…”
“I should just go. I got my bike…”
“Nonsense. What kind of resolution would that be? Just to let the hero quit? Let the story peter out…I don’t get you…you…”
“This Chevy Nova’s as close as I’ve ever gotten to the stars he promised me, son … a Nova’s just another word for a bright but, let’s face it, dying star…”
“Where’d my button go to?”
“Little Caesar ate it. You’ll get it back tomorrow when Little Caesar fertilizes the sidewalk. What’s the..”
“You couldn’a stopped Caesar from…?”
“I just’ didn’ wanna…” She crushed the last slivers of ice between her teeth.
Bruno angrily closed his valise; the crisp snap of the one functioning clasp – TCK. Like a period at the end of a sentence, a sentence about dopamine, the chemical that helps transmit impulses from the brain to the nervous system to the muscles. Or a sentence about the crushed corner of the valise, the rip in the leatherette, the mysterious stains – its history – how Bruno had fished it from the trash of a recently deceased neuropathologist. Or another sentence about how the screen door wiggled. How it squeaked as I pushed my way through. How I heard him admonish her for “Playing the foil too-blasted-Bette-Davis convincing.” Something about the Academy Awards.
Another sentence about how the sun glared, reflected, bounced around; heat waves warping the boundaries and sanctity of objects – tangible things were no longer so…touchable – with glare bouncing off shiny surfaces and for a moment I couldn’t see my bike, couldn’t recall which direction was EZ-ON and which was EZ-OFF.
And as I turned over his business card to scribble some observation, I noticed his name “misspelled” as Bruno Sanbenito – Bruno will tomorrow take a dull cheap knife and fall to his knees and with the touch of a junior college dropout dissect Little Caesar’s feces with Fanny and Little Caesar looking on.
“Ain’t faith the funniest thing, Little Caesar?” She pinched his snout. Little Caesar licked the last vestiges of remorse from the corners of her mouth.
The mind is a pretty rugged piece of machinery. It withstands long waits, justifies anxieties out of existence, romanticizes traumas, kills time. So when I finally received the grease-stained envelope I’d been prepared for a long time.
Dear Vim [name misspelled],
I have with great interest gathered the proper occasion and resources to venture through your manuscript HOMER WAS A CAB DRIVER [not the title]. I must say that with a few fine tunings this book is ready for us, dare I say the rest of the world, the world that we have within our power to reach.
Being the insistent and thorough man that I am, I must tell you that for me to apprise you of the changes, slight as they may seem, I will have to ask you to send an additional fifty dollars ($50) IN CASH through the mails. Please wrap the $50 in a sheet of plain typing paper. This is a small expense you will I’m sure agree to, to ready your book for publication. I must also insist on a $15.95 handling fee. So for all of $65.95 we will be ready to negotiate the final cost to you to give the world your first of many masterpieces. The cost to you will of course be no greater than the cost to me. This is part of our pact, part of my show of trust in you as an author who is certainly ready to reap for us the just rewards of our labors.
As you know Whether Vane [new spelling] is always on the lookout for quality verse. So when your manuscript is ready the final product can be yours, dare I say OURS, in a mere matter of weeks. I look forward to the opportunity of seeing it into print. Naturally your payment of $65.95 via CASH (currently no credit card authorization) puts you under no obligation to take the next step, payment for the actual book production.
I look forward to hearing from you soon, hopefully with the arrival of your brave and innovative manuscript on my desk.
Keep up the good writing.
Bruno Sanbernito [third spelling]
After a painful decision, [an exaggeration, of course – I had all of $184.54 in my bank account at the time] I decided I did not have the additional $2795.95 to publish Odysseus and I was forced to admit as much in letter form. The response:
Dear Vern [name misspelled again],
I have with great sorrow had to part with your wonderful manuscript HOMER WAS MY CABBIE [?]. I reread it and I must say it left me with certain emotions of great power.
I was disappointed to read that you are financially unable to invest in the publication of your work at this time. But you should remember that if you want it badly enough you will eventually find a way. But you already know that I trust. Incidentally, our $2795.95 limited edition plan to which you referred, is now $2995.95 as the cruel result of inflation.
I have other bad news. I am afraid some pages of your manuscript have been damaged, dare I say eaten, by Little Caesar. I’m sure you are aware of the fact that I still expect your cash payment of the handling and analysis charges as laid down in the previous letter. I have been in some disrepair because alas, Little Caesar has passed away in the mean time. Although I would not worry too much, the tragedy was likely not precipitated by your manuscript. Although philosophically speaking, had you not written the manuscript, Little Caesar might still be with us of course. But this is mere bickering sophistry. I take full responsibility for Little Caesar’s passing and have to live with myself everyday, not to mention with a very distraught Fanny, my, dare I say, wife. I am thus reducing the cost of return of your manuscript by $3.56 you will be happy to learn because the total damaged number of pages was 10 of a total 185, or 5.4% and that divided into $65.95 comes to $3.56.
Bruno Surbanito [?]
A week or some time later I wrote about seeing or what I thought I was seeing or what my mind had convinced me I was seeing – glare, speed of bike, breaking up with girlfriend, rejection and loss of verifiable identity had all collaborated to make of certainty a kind of negotiable ambiguity.
In a store window I “saw” something I could not accept as real. This window withheld some of its characteristic transparency, glare wreaking havoc with clarity and certitude. It wasn’t even a store window per se, filled with hocked items, dusty Russian cameras, and musical instruments with yellowed tags tied to them, the ERMINAL PAWNSHOP [T missing from Terminal] off Cobb Street, near the county courthouse.
There upon a dingy satin pillow, fixed stiff in impudent repose, a bit of pink-teated belly showing, slab of tongue poking out from overbite, was Little Caesar, stuffed with whatever animals are stuffed with. Rigid to lend memory an aesthetic aspect and prevent him from becoming that formless mass of perceived fragments, torments dashed against the world, dog years lived in an instant, unfinished bowls of Masters Choice brand dogfood, immense indignities embraced in a single glance …
Next to Little Caesar, in front of a pewter bowl, next to a chipped Hummel and a tarnished clarinet stood a Tibetan Buddhist tchotchka. At the feet of this garden gnome in Buddhist robes, a dusty file card:
“enlightenment achieved by extreme humility and sensory deprivation until full recognition of hallucinatory nature of external world. When hallucinations become convincing and solid, person ventures back into life with hallucinatory figure accompanying him even casting a shadow – external world is hallucinatory and product of own mind: this realization = enlightenment.”
A dog’s reflection barked in the window as I pulled away. The marble eyes of Little Caesar followed me, vigilant to the end.
bart plantenga is also the author of Beer Mystic, which can be read online in the world’s longest pub crawl. He co-authored “Lydia Tomkiw: Glowing Bright as Nirvana,” which appears in Merida #1. Also the short fiction collection Wiggling Wishbone and Spermatagonia: The Isle of Man. His book YODEL-AY-EE-OOOO: The Secret History of Yodeling Around the World received worldwide attention. He is working on a new novel, Paris Sex Tete and a new book on yodeling Yodel in HiFi. His radio show Wreck This Mess has been on the air on WFMU [NY], Radio Libertaire [Paris], Radio 100 and currently Radio Patapoe [Amsterdam] since 1986. He lives in Amsterdam.
Painting by Mel Blossom