::: the novel written in seven hours :::
The officious bitch of a secretary smirks across the desk at him. He groans a little. She smirks more, enjoying the pleasant feeling of twisting the knife. "It's not that I forgot." She scratches the corner of her mouth with her middle finger, entirely unconscious of the symbolic gesture she is making towards him, although he's sure at some deep, symbolic level she is totally aware of the gesture she is making, since fucking him is exactly, precisely what she's doing.
"This is Kafka-esque!" Drew exclaims, throwing his hands up. The phone rings and the secretary smiles consolingly for just a second and then hastily turns to the phone.
"English office, Mary speaking." She starts to laugh a sweet, high laugh that sounds like two hundred years of inbred literary condescension smashing through a plate glass window. She begins a lively discussion with someone named "Jorge" (the way she pronounces it, that soft "Jo" that rhymes with yo-yo or yodel, something out of a Garcia Marquez novel about the generations of a family and how wonderful life truly is) about life in Uruguay. Uruguay, for Christ's sake! Doesn't she realize what he's here for? Doesn't she realize that Uruguay is roughly six thousand miles away and he's standing right here, paperwork in hand, and she's telling him that it's too late. Not all of the wonderful, neo-realist, Latin American poets / romance novelists in the world can change his dilemma, but she'd still rather kibitz with Jorge. This is profane.
This gargantuan, terrific force has him fixed to where he's standing, though, and the only thing he can think to do is set his paperwork gingerly on the desk, hoping that through a combination of small, non-threatening gestures and sheer demureness he can win her heart.
She doesn't notice his gestures, or the shy, quiet way he puts his hands in his pockets and waits for her to get off the phone. Not insistent! his physical manner screams. I'm in no hurry here. Look, I put my hands in my pockets and rock on my heels nonchalantly. I'll even stroll over to the rack of pamphlets about the quality of the University of Michigan's bloody English department and the instructors from around the globe who find new and interesting ways to screw students trying to get into the creative writing program. But I'm not insistent, and that's what's important here. You just got right ahead and finish your phone call and I'll just stand over here by the pamphlet rack, all these pictures of happy students who wheeled right into the program without a problem, and I'll just eat shit and die.
Somehow, she fails to notice the extremely compassionate, philanthropic way he allows her to carry on her conversation unmolested. She does however, turn suddenly and spot the papers sitting on the desk. For a second, it seems that her eyes are locked on those papers, innocently waiting to be filed and reviewed and stamped and approved, the pass key into the wonderful magical world of happy English students who make their way into advertising pamphlets about the writing program at the University, where prestigious authors like Arthur Miller and a bunch of other people you've never heard herald from. Drew looks at Mary. She looks at him. She looks at the papers. He looks at the papers. The breath hitches in his throat. Can it be? Will she notice? Will his humanity be acknowledged, will she let this fly?
And then she whispers something into the receiver, brusquely covers the mouthpiece with her left hand and says, "Sir, can you please take your papers off of the desk? We try to keep this area free of clutter."
Drew feels his heart leap into his mouth, and swallowing it back again forces a mouthful of bitter, black bile down with it. His face is momentarily magenta, but he grimaces and nods. "Of course. We mustn't have clutter."
"Thank you," she says and turns back to the phone.
Drew snatches the papers from off of the clutter-free zone (he must admit, it is rather meticulously clean) and realizing that he's crushing them in his fingers, sets them on a high-backed chair across the waiting room and smooths them out again.
Time fades out of mind, and Drew begins to wander around, the waiting-at-the-bus-stop feeling of helplessness washing away anxiety, with a gentle "it's out of our hands now, friend" gesture. Everything today is gesture, symbolic motion, people saying and doing things with a meaningful, tangible impact on his life, but those gestures being of little significance to their authors. It's too late to drop this class, says his counselor. You're not on schedule to graduate as it is. And all the while, filing her thumbnail and rocking in her reclining computer chair. Or the secretary, telling him that the deadline is passed, even though the paperwork says that the deadline is today. That's a very old copy of the paperwork, she tells him, puckering/unpuckering her lips repeatedly and thumbing through his essays and writing sample disdainfully, as if she were examining an autographed copy of Mien Kampf. We moved the deadline up two months ago, and surely you saw the announcement in our newsletter? But he didn't see any announcement because he doesn't get the newsletter because he's not in the program because he hasn't been accepted because he needs to apply but he can't because he didn't get it in on time because he didn't see the announcement. But this catch-22 and the immense absurdity is lost on her; she was busy reading the Bronte sisters and studying George Elliot when Heller was making his mark on literary absurdity.
She's middle aged, and a little plump around the middle. She wears a green and gray cardigan that reeks a little of pipe tobacco and coffee houses in Paris. She has her hair braided back in a style that is flattering to younger women, accentuating her high cheek bones in an unflattering way that makes her look something like Gaine's crypt-keeper. And her smile is too toothy and shows off bad bridgework. On closer examination, Drew can imagine that in her prime about 20 years ago she might have been a real looker in circles where the men didn't get out often, a mathematician's wet-dream. Now, she fancies herself the heroine of a Russian novel, wears a babushka to work and talks to middle aged Latin men who perpetuate the myth of her youth.
Drew is staring out the window to the stairwell, musing over the passage of minutes and the relative, mid-day silence in these corridors of power when he hears the secretary exclaim, "Ah, well, vaya con dios, my dear Jorge. Best to Lois and the other archaeologists." She titters and hangs up the phone.
Drew sidles up to the counter. The smile vanishes from her face nearly instantly and she is all business, but he's all about helping her to hang onto her mirth. "A friend of yours?" he asks, desperately to sound merely inquisitive and not sardonic. It isn't exactly milky-smooth, a little lumpy, but it catches her off guard.
"Yes, a writer in residence for the department two years ago. A very influential poet in some circles."
She coughs and glances at the clock. It's 2:30, he could tell her; he can feel the leaden minutes slipping by. "Well, as I said before, this paperwork is a little late, and I just don't know."
Drew tsks a few times, rocking his head from side to side in rhythm. "Mary... can I call you Mary? ... No?... ok, well, look, I have a dilemma here. I need to get into this program because I have a very serious disease. Can I tell you what that is?"
She arches her eyebrows. She smells a story to tell her grandchildren or maybe even to spin at the water-cooler to the other jaded, cynical, could-have-been-writers, secretarial staff.
"I have a problem with truth, Mar... ma'am. I have a problem that it builds up inside of me everyday. It's this dark, black bile that builds up in my throat and comes tearing out of my ears while I sleep. I have so much I need to communicate, and I simply can't go on holding this inside. I need to write, Mary." He's getting bolder. "I need to communicate." He reaches out and touches her hand. "I need to be free of the burden of my honesty. Help me, Mary."
She bites back a smile, but it's no longer condescending. He sees a few blotty tears welling up around the corners of her eyes. She holds her hand to her chest and sighs. "It's so nice to see someone with passion," she says. "I love passionate people." She looks down momentarily and when she looks back up again, he sees the tears are dry and she is resolute. "I'll put your paperwork in the pile on Professor Bogdavani's desk, and he'll review it for you. No one will be the wiser."
Drew straightens up and smiles a proud, courageous smile. "Thank.. you. Thank you, Mary. You don't know what you've done for me today."
"This little drama," she says, speaking to no one in particular, 'this little life. We are but players in it. And only through courage may we be more than just players, more than inhuman, walking dreams."
Drew hands her the papers, and feels that now would be a good time to leave. He smiles once more, hazards a wink, and turns and departs, slowly, striding off into the sunset.
Prof. Sonny Bogdavani returns to his office exhausted to find that the crazy, over-emotional bitch (his pet name for the secretary the rest of the world knows as Mary) snuck in and deposited yet another late portfolio on his desk. The cold Michigan winter is playing hell with his weakened, Southern Californian immune system, and through rheumy eyes he reads the little post-it note she stuck to the front of the half-crumpled papers. "This kid has real spirit, raw talent. Please read and disregard tardy submission."
OF course, tardy submission is exactly what Sonny has had in mind for the last three months. Every year, the glut of submissions to the Creative Writing program is overwhelming. His staff of one, himself, sifts through rubbage that ranges from modern, deconstructionist filth to cummings-ian stream-of-consciousness. Hundreds of thousands of millions of pages of Tony Morrison wannabes and Michael Ondaatje-bestialists. The cracks in the pavement in this city could be filled with the bones of its modernist poets and nouveau-artistes. Sonny is goddamn sick of reading their stuff, and he moved up the due date accordingly to give himself the much needed pretense of throwing away more than half of the awful garbage he would otherwise have to read.
Raw talent! Sonny throws his skinny body into his swivel chair and laughs out loud. Ha! Talent? He knows talent. He did the things, and he's known the people. He'll judge talent. He, who mescaline-tripped with Ginsberg in a hotel near Camus' beloved Algerian shores in '69, who talked shop with Burroughs in Greenwich Village back in '73, watching the latter-day morphine-bandit shoot up under the table in a little beat-reserve coffee house.
I read Dream Tigers with Cabalists in Madrid and talked to crazy, blind Borges about what God would say to the damned. I touched the ethereal essence of poetry before this kid was ever born, back when this secretary was still deciphering the sexual mysteries of Jane Eyre! I'll tell you what talent is - you just bring me my coffee and my messages and leave the rest alone.
"Sonny" Bogdavani, Russian émigré at age 8, washed upon the shores of Southern California aboard a tanker carrying unrefined Novobrisk petroleum and Formosan buttons across the heavily fortified Pacific tradeways. Stalin was drawing out the long war in the tundra, the Germans were getting a taste of real winter, and the Japanese were suffering cruelly at the hands of the American's armada. And tucked in his little coat pocket were a copy of Trotsky's Letters and Chairman Mao's good book. Sonny found life in the new world exquisitely hedonistic, living with the communist brethren of his recently executed parents, watching excess heaped on excess. He knew about the turns of democratic politics, about the extreme illiberalism at the heart of it all, about the torment of America's prisoners, its poor. And through it all, Sonny maintained that the best thing that ever happened to the world was that democracy won. Because at his core, Sonny was bitterly, recalcitrantly anti-humanist, and couldn't believe in any idealism beyond what he was having for lunch.
Sonny reclines in his chair and studies the paperwork on this "raw talent," Drew Chatterly. Senior, LSA. Math major with some serious problems in 500 level courses. Major influences: this would be telling. Here was where every hack writer would laundry list a litany of bad breeding and inconsistent literary talents. Some half baked phony last week had even given him a portfolio that listed Tom Robbins as an influence! Third generation, post-post-modern psychedelic hack! Faulkner, he was not! But here Drew had carefully avoided naming any names, and instead written in scribbled verse: The poet who others reads and forgets / May prove to be a poet yet.
Sonny frowns. Was the kid quoting himself? He doesn't recognize the couplet. Of course, the kid fancies himself a real auteur, a talent who can't help but smirk at the sort of process that allows them to weed out the real talent, the potential, from the rest of the hacks, the chaff. He begins to wickedly imagine how awful this kid's work will be. He rubs his balding pate and thinks pleasant thoughts about mocking the contents in the presence of other members of the department, trashing yet another reputation. Sonny laughs, and unable to stop, starts hacking and wheezing until he coughs up a rattling phlegm globule which he spits into his trashbin, the green-black mucus plopping onto someone else's portfolio.
Sonny rips through the pages, until he gets to the first story. It's about five pages long, and he starts to skim, looking for textual conceits, visible syntactic errors and semantic confusion throughout. To his surprise, ten minutes later he is rereading the opening lines, deliciously savoring the words, relishing the physical description of its heroine, offended by the lascivious advances of the villain. To his amazement, the story has panache, a real flair. The kind of flair that makes print.
Sonny puts the portfolio down and holds his swooning head. The daytime NyQuil is playing hell with his mind, and he sees words floating in the space in front of him, letters marching across his field of vision to the tune of Colonel Bogey. Wasn't he once a real writer, didn't he once get reviewed in the Times and find it amusing to see his name in print on the shelves at Border's and The Merry Bookseller? Didn't he proclaim loudly to everyone he knew that fame was fleeting, and it was perverse to cherish that renown? So then why did he resent so much all of the authors that passed through his office, under the scrutiny of his official position but also under the jealousy of their youth and promise? Was it possible that it was not his age or his sickness that made these people seem awful writers, but his desire to believe that no one could ever best his skills?
Sonny examined the name on the portfolio, sounding out the syllables. Drew Chat-ter-ly. Young, budding writer. Drew Chatterly, the next Scott Fitzgerald? The next manic poet of State Street? Or the first of a brave, new genre?
Sonny scoffed again, his laugh rasping like a sanding block on ragged wood. Not likely! Not if I have a say, he thought, and smiled to himself, wickedly. The word talent was written in this portfolio, signed next to the name Drew Chatterly in blue ink, but it wasn't official yet, not until he cosigned the lease. And he wasn't about to do that. He pulled his drawer open and stuffed the folder inside. He knew what talent was. Talent was a four letter word, cursed in stinking bathrooms in the backs of bars. Talent was a crocheted blanket on his shoulders. Talent was his power to say no. And he would definitely use it.
...on to Chapter Six...
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