Chapter 11

COVIDose: …Another day, more virus lurking on cold, hard surfaces. Figure it’s reason enough why I’m scouring and wiping down every counter top, corner and cranny in sight—with towels, TP and toothbrushes. Spraying and decontaminating with germicidal bleach and peroxide RTU, then scrubbing and sanitizing my hairy paws until I couldn’t stand hanging in such a sterile crib, chasing those sneaky COVIDemons anymore, so… RETREAT, go NOW…

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“Why not?

“Just didn’t get around to it…”

“In what sense?”

“In the follow-through, finishing it sense.  After what happened, I kind of lost…momentum…”

Wasn’t entirely back up to speed, but at least I did plunge free that clogged porcelain toilet bowl. Then precedence entered in, as did a follow-up email from Alison Paige-Warner. Having double-checked the termination notice’s deadline date, counted down the minutes, assessed and modeled out any progress and pacing, I decided to address second things first, practicality wise. Really, settle a score, then Hail Mary for more. No sense in losing on the scoreboard and the war, went the mixed-minded reasoning at the time, why squander a bright young attorney’s generous forbearance with the Hassett case, no matter what was happening here on the home front?

Prioritize, compartmentalize, firewalls and all that: I balanced and counterbalanced ‘Verdict Street’ v. Delphoria on the scale(s) of injustice along the MUNI bus route from Pac Heights back down to the Financial District, square of jaw, yet scared of shadows, clutching the goods like sudden-death 4th and goal, sitting there trembling on the front seniors bench. I had regathered in self-denial just enough to meet her once again, termination notices be damned, this time with my authorial ducks in a manila row.

“Lost…momentum?” She had a dark blue double-breasted Claiborne trouser suit look going, all put together, all business, sizing me up again, hairline to waist. “With all due respect, sir, sounds like an awfully weak-kneed excuse on the face of it.”

“Guess I was just facing the music. Pretty rank tune, all right.”

“So you simply packed it in…” With that, she removed a yellow legal pad and fountain pen from her Coach glove-tanned, Double Swagger valise.

“Left bottom drawer—forgot all about it, at least until I spotted Hassett’s latest.”

“And you quickly made the connection upon buying the book?” By now she had begun jotting notes.

“Buy it? Damned if I’d buy that abomination,” I huffed, wriggling in my sole sport jacket, gray herringbone with dated lapels. “All I had to do was leaf on through it, right then and there at the store.”

“Well, curiously enough, I did happen to buy ‘Verdict Street’, and have read it—to where I believe I am now reasonably familiar with its story line.”

“Hmph, better you than me—but all I needed was a quick flip-through to catch the obvious rip-offs.”

“I see.” She set aside her pen and pad, then brushed back on her banded blond ponytail with glossy manicured fingers. “The documentation we discussed—that it there?”

“Here you go,” I handed her the bulging folder, a mini cassette jettisoning dangerously near her coffee cup. “Read all about it.”

Same general time, different place: I had sprung from the MUNI hybrid bus by CitiCorp Center, bucking up, game facing around to Market Street, under cover of a fusillade of international flags flapping UN-esque over the marbled entranceway of the building into which I was headed. A subdued masonry relic of the Roaring 20s, The Chancery sported a narrow arcade through to Sutter Street, with a high arching coffered ceiling and hemispheric iron chandeliers. Once lined with a warren of tailors, barbershops and an odd lot of tabac/pipes, sheet music and cutlery, the Florentine corridor had lately been reduced to bordering a sit-in Starbucks and 7-11 Express.

The nearest connection to The Chancery’s rich past mercantile glory was a cafe at arcade’s end that dated back to the early 1980s. So I shuffled by windowalls and a bank of elevators to the buildings upper office floors in through the interior side entrance to Caffe Bianco, proudly tendering ‘Espresso and Fine Food’ in prominent gold leaf lettering, whereupon I promptly met up with Alison, who had already secured a cozy calico marble top table on the sunny side of a matching marmoreal pillar center room. She had opted for a change of scenery nearest her Hobart office; besides, it was a bit breezy over at CitiCorp Plaza. And the adept young attorney had already ordered me a mocha java and herself a skinny latte—time tantamount to money, and all.

“In any case, I must say one tends to question your commitment and perseverance with regard to the…project.” This, proffered not so much with condescension as filial-like concern.

“My commitment?” I scooped up the mini-cassette and set it lightly beside her latte cup. “I’ve got years of sweat and headaches in that story…

“Then why has it taken you so long? Moreover, I wonder whether you are really up to what could come of pursuing any remedy.”

“Could come of—in what respect?” She still looked to me like every major player’s dream,

meaning way out of my league when I was half my age.

“Let’s just say I have done some grounding in this sort of litigative process, Mister Herbert. So why don’t you detail more precisely how your situation transpired to this point?”

“So, as I said before, I sent out a whole batch of query letters…”

“Unsolicited, am I correct?” In between paging through the folder, her shorthand note-taking resumed.

“Uh, yeah, you might say, cold calls,” I tugged at my open blue collar, as if to shroud the fraying of my black undershirt. “Anyway, got some nibbles thrown in with all the rejections, one in particular came back right away, and was pretty encouraging, at that.”

“How so?”

“He said he would be very pleased to receive my material, looked forward to reading,” I sniffed, inhaling a billow of garlic and alfredo. “Wanted me to send him the entire manuscript…”

“Which I gather you weren’t prepared to do.” So noted, as she stopped leafing through the folder at a copy of my original letter to Jenson Brookhouse, followed by the agent’s response.

“Right, so I shot off a gushy thank-you note with exclamation points, explaining that I would ship it to him in the jiffy bag he requested as soon as I had the manuscript polished up.”

“Bit of a stretch about then, wouldn’t you say?”

“Just trying to buy some time at the time. Then I got back to work on the novel and before long, positive responses came from several other New York agencies—big ones, repping writers like Terri McMillan and that Talahassi Coats guy.”

“Ahem, I get the picture…and you followed up how?”

As she continued thumbing through the file folder, I took a deep breath, shook some anxiety from my limbs and glanced around the airy Caffe, mainly its busy cabernet red and blond décor. How its globe lights dropped down from such a high ceiling, illuminating Italian posters framed about the room; while CitiCorp Center and neighboring Sutter Street highrises reflected in off its large front windows. Beyond that massive center column, a steep little staircase right angled up to Bianco’s snug low-headroom balcony with cozier tables yet. Directly below it the Caffe’s colorfully chalked menu boards spanned like midway placards over walk-up serving counters and gorged glass deli cases, crowded out with a late lunchtime rush line. The aroma of pastrami and roast turkey imbued the air, salted with surround sound Verdi and Scarlatti—delivering me back to the footloose days of scarfing along the Piazza della Signoria, when life was not pressing in, as it was here today.

“They all wanted to see a sample package…I wasn’t ready to trust PDF attachments about then, so I got busy at the copy machine.”

“Your package—this consisted of what?” She paged past a series of form rejection letters to the several that invited submissions.

“Basically a synopsis and three select chapters…”

“How detailed a synopsis?” She flipped about the file for a story summation, finding no trace.

“Pretty much laid out the entire novel,” I rued having neglected to include it in the folder. “Took about four pages, along with chapters I thought demonstrated my best work on it thus far. Carefully assembled all the SASE submission packages, and made for the post office, high hopes in hand.”

“Get that synopsis to me, and I assume you have been keeping receipts for all this.”

“Well, yeah, but I didn’t expect to hear back anything for a while, understand—wasn’t totally jacked out of reality or anything.”

“Then you got back to writing?” Onward she rummaged, further through the folder for query replies.

I drifted away to a middle aged couple laughing their way in through Bianco’s arched doorway, darting toward a table beside the pillar, which was being vacated by a trio of admin assistant types who had noshed over Caesar and Feta Lavash wraps and cappuccinos. The clinking of china, rattling of flatware and utensils: seated all around us were power attired junior partners, associate CFOs, CIOs and COOs munching Prosciutto do Parma and Skyscraper Special sandwiches, audit seniors and procurement managers running numbers over Italian meatloaf and Bianco Reubens, HR staffers and deputy department heads sharing Havarti & Dill on ciabatta and arugula salads—washing it all down with cold chai and organic teas, chatting amid sprays of hardy, if not faux ferns and ficus plants.

“That I did, but kept patrolling my mailbox everyday. Not too long later, I’m paging through the New York Times and spot an obit for Brookhouse, apparently he died of a heart attack at Sardi’s.”

“This knocked you off stride did it?” She paused at a yellowing news clip.

“Somewhat, especially when a couple of the sample packages came back battered and bearing polite rejection notes saying ”not right for us’, but good luck elsewhere’. Around then I spotted a follow-up Times Arts article about how a key Granite Publishing‘s editor, Craig Prescott would be taking over representation for Brookhouse’s foremost client, James Marion Hassett. That he would be leaving the publishing house to continuing editing Hassett’s books as well—all on an exclusive basis…”

“Your potential agent repped the the big Kahuna himself?”

“From the get-go—Brookhouse basically discovered him, sold his very first novel—who knew?”

“So where did that leave you,” she asked, double-checking the obit’s publication date.

“Slamming keyboards, at least until I decided to do a Google search and dig up Prescott’s contact information. So I sent him the little intro letter there, cc-ing my correspondence with Brookhouse, asking if he might be interested in taking a look at my stuff.”

“Such chutzpa, Mister Herbert,” she looked up with an arching little smile. “Coattailing off the dearly departed.”

Even more patrons around us were compulsively scrolling and punching their assorted digital devices, marking time and making transactions. Just something to do with their hands, I figured—better than smoking, although apparently more addictive. Not unlike obsessing over some foundering manuscript, yet better that than crawling back onto this downtown hamster wheel with my half-assed tales between my legs.

“What’d I have to lose, right? Anyway, a week or so later, there’s his voicemail on my old machine while I was out for morning coffee.

“You were still using an answering machine…” She registered disbelief, if not dismay.

“Only for the landline—I hate giving up. So it’s this Craig Prescott guy introducing himself, saying ‘any writer of interest to Jenson Brookhouse is of interest to us’. So send me what you have, and he left an Upper East Side address. It’s right there on the mini-tape. Listen for yourself…”

“I’d much prefer an MP3 or DM link,” she examined the cassette as if it were an archeological find. “But oddly enough, I think we actually have an old Code-a-Phone player back at the office. So, what did you do?”

“Are you kidding? I sprinted from Kinkos to the post office—good thing I’m still a runner in my old age. I mean, this was the big leagues…”

“Then what?” From there, she scanned through some of my long-distance telephone records.

“I got back to work on the story full bore, waited by the mailbox and phone…”

“And?”

“Nothing, not a word for months. Finally sent him a gentle follow-up note—you know, making sure he got both packages all right. Then, again, zip, nothing…I’m thinking he was getting serious about the material, going through it real good…was floating on a metaphorical cloud for a while, typing along, making plans…”

“What was the response to that?” Next came a copy of my follow-up letter.

“Two weeks later, the return package arrived,” I pained. “My synopsis and the sample chapters, thrown together, all out of order. Oh, and a scribbled note on new Prescott Company stationery, just read, ‘Thanks for the look. It’s an interesting idea, but I’m afraid we’re going to pass on this. Best, C.P.’. Interesting idea, he says, interesting i-de-a! Oh, really?! Might as well have signed off with a goddamn rubber stamp…”

“Which left you…”

“Ricocheting between my phone and keyboard with bonfires in my eyes. Instead, I soon became resigned to stuffing the whole business in that desk drawer, vowing to never go through this fiction publishing wringer ever again.”

“Bit rash, don’t you think,” she replied, seemingly paying particular attention to the Prescott rejection—its posted date and its contact information. “Doesn’t every struggling author go through that, and keep plugging away? Really, didn’t you anticipate that going in?”

“I suppose, deep down. But if I had actually known how hopeless the process is, I’d never have laid down word one. Especially given this latest affront.”

“Be that as it may, what’s done has been done. And there’s still that unfinished novel stewing in your drawer,” she said, matter-of-factly, scribbling a few more notes. “So don’t do anything rash, Mister Herbert. You might want to think of it not just as your stillborn baby, but as potential evidence.”

“What are you saying. Are you…”

“Let’s not get out ahead of our skis here,” she packed up her legal pad and my full file folder. “Look, I have to head back to the office for some other discovery. How about this, I’ll take your folder along with me for more scrutiny and research. And you get me your synopsis package. Just drop it off at Hobart’s security desk. Lex will deliver it up to me, safe and sure. And we’ll see what’s what.”

“You’ll do that? I can’t thank you enough Ms. Warner…” Take what I can get, for damn sure wasn’t about to push my luck right then. Mind one burner at a time…

“Just tip for the coffees. I waited tables not that long ago myself.” she rose to take leave through Bianco’s side door. “By the way, what was that word I should be looking out for in ‘Verdict Street’?”

“The least I can do,” I slid two singles under my cup. “And that word is, Clover—you’ll see what I mean…”

“Clover? As in four-leaf?”

“Hmph, I should be so lucky…”

“Well, just keep yourself busy, Mister Herbert, get back to writing, why don’t you,” she said, in nearly the same stern voice she used with Gunther. “I’ll be in touch.”

“Sounds like a plan, Ms. Warner,” I muttered in her wake, increasingly wary of scaring her off now, resigned to letting her first Saturn take its course. “Besides, I’ve got other pots boiling, believe me…” 

Care for More? 

CHAPTER 12. Taking notice, thus begins 
a foray into The City’s formidable
equal/fair housing activisories…