I took a deep breath and watched all the people walking up and down Fifth Avenue. Fashionable, well-dressed people. Slovenly dressed people. Moderately dressed people. Some of them entered Central Park. Some of them were on their way to other destinations. Who were these people? What were they doing? Where were they going? And did I care?
I most absolutely did not.
I turned and went back into the building, crossing the drab lobby to the elevators. Gratefully, I noticed Lance was no longer in the elevator. He must have found whatever floor he was looking for. Now there were at least fifty people in the elevator, an impossible amount, all of them dressed like doctors or nurses. I sucked in my breath, trying to make myself smaller, and squeezed in amidst them. All the buttons were lit up and the elevator stopped at each floor. No one waited to get on and no one got off. When it reached the fortieth floor, I exhaled, the surge of people behind me nearly shoving me out into the reception area. Cautiously, I strolled to the desk, waiting for a potential ambush from Lance.
The reception area was completely destroyed. The couch I had been previously directed toward was maimed and gouged, stuffing flowing out and onto the carpet, which had been torn up in places. The coffee table was overturned, the various trade magazines covering it torn and scattered across the floor. Ms. X’s computer sat in a melted lump on the counter.
There was no sign of Ms. X so I let myself back to Mr. Half’s office, again wandering along the interminably long corridor. None of the office doors had any numbers or nameplates on them so I wasn’t sure it was actually Mr. Half’s door I knocked on when I finally reached it. I waited for him to call me in but didn’t hear anything. I knocked again. Again, nothing.
“Mr. Half?” I breathed into the door.
I tried the knob and entered the office, only to find Mr. Half sound asleep, his head resting, cheek down, on my manuscript, a trail of drool darkening the page. I nudged his shoulder. “Mr. Half?”
He plucked his head up and adjusted his glasses over his bleary eyes.
“Oh... what... I’m terribly sorry,” he said. He removed his small wire-framed glasses and wiped sleep from his eyes with the heels of his hands before putting his glasses back on. “Oh, it’s you, Mr. Glum.”
“Sorry to bother you.”
“Oh, it’s no bother.”
“Did you get to read any of it before you...”
“Well, yes, I read a few pages.”
Then he entwined his fingers and rested his chin on them, staring at me.
“What did you think of it?”
“Not much, really. I mean, I fell asleep. How good could it have been?”
“About how long did you spend on this?”
“Pity.” He separated his hands and shuffled my damp manuscript around on his desk.
“So, is that it?” I asked. “Should I go? Or are you going to show it to Mr. Dix?”
“No. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”
“I see. Well, Mr. Half, if you don’t mind, I’ll take my manuscript and get going. I’m very sorry to waste your time.”
“It’s no bother. Really, I’ve got nothing but time. My wife has uh... left me, so I mostly just stay here. Actually, she hasn’t so much left me as... invited a lover into our home. The children love him. He’s a contortionist, you see. They call him Mr. Flexy... A much more interesting character than their father. A gimmick, really, if you ask me but, well... you didn’t, did you?”
“No. I guess I didn’t.”
“Anyway, I really hope you’re not discouraged. This has nothing to do with you or your writing...”
“You’re rejecting it but telling me, at the same time, it is not a reflection of the writing?”
“But if it was good you would have accepted it, right?”
Mr. Half chuckled and looked nervously at the teeming manuscripts surrounding him.
“I mean, it’s okay if it sucks. You can tell me. You’re an editor. You must have read countless manuscripts—good and bad. I would think, being a man of education and letters, you would be able to encapsulate your feelings toward my writing in a single sentence or two.”
“You’re obviously a very confused young man, Mr. Glum.”
“You’re probably right, Mr. Half.”
“Let me tell you how things work before you go back out and tell everyone what elitist snobs we all are.”
“I never said you were an elitist snob. If publishers were snobs they wouldn’t publish half the shit they do.”
“Okay... Okay, no need to get insulting.” Mr. Half sat back in his chair and spread his arms to draw my attention to his office and those insurmountably depressing mounds of novels, short story collections, memoirs, and queries. “I am only an assistant editor. Do you know what that means?”
“You’re like a filter for the head honcho, right? A...”
He held his hand up to silence me.
“Not even just a filter. Being an assistant editor implies that I am still some kind of editor. That’s where I don’t want to lead you astray. I am a half-editor. I was born to be a half-editor. Because I am half a man. I am half of Mr. Dix. I am half as tall as he is. I weigh half as much as he does. While I am not completely bald, my hair is very thin and, I can assure you, if a count were taken, you would find me to have half as many hairs as him. My office is half the size of his. I have half as many filing cabinets as he has. But this is where things differ. Whereas I am half the person he is I do a thousand times the work. All I do is read things. Every day. All day. Mostly. So he has time to live his full life and be the full man he strives to be. Occasionally I find something I like enough to pass along to him but if he doesn’t like it, if it doesn’t in some way enrich his life...”
“The consequences are dire. Mr. Dix is a ruthless man. And he is not afraid to use his fists.”
“I’m very sorry about your situation, sir, but if you’ll just return my manuscript I’ll be on my way.”
“I’ll give it back to you but I should have you know that I might as well throw it away.”
“Why? I worked hard on that.”
“But what are you going to do with it now? Publish it yourself? I can assure you you will be a mockery if you choose to do that. Mr. Dix may not even look at any more of your manuscripts should you choose to do that. And, I’m sorry, but there just isn’t any other place for you to take it. We own everything.”
“I’m well aware of that.”
“Fine,” he said, using the sleeve of his jacket to wipe some drool from the title page before hastily scooting the bulky manuscript across the desk. “Take it. Go read it to the homeless or something. See if I care. And may I make one suggestion?”
“Why not?” I said, collecting the manuscript.
“You should think about giving it a shorter title. To be honest with you, I fell asleep before reading the whole title.”
“I’ll do that.”
“Have a good day, Mr. Glum.”
“You too, Mr. Half.”
I turned to leave the office and, reaching the threshold, heard Mr. Half reading, at top volume, from another manuscript.
Entering the reception area, I noticed a goat had taken Ms. X’s place. The goat sat in her chair and gnawed on the destroyed computer, sliming it with some kind of drooly goat funk. He brayed at me as I once again boarded the elevator. The doctors and nurses had all gone but now there was a patient, stretched out on a gurney, a sheet covering the body and head completely. He may have been dead. I started feeling kind of bummed out. When I got out of the elevator I decided to go sit in the park for a while. Then I guessed I would go back home. Not to the apartment but to my parents’ farmhouse in Grainville. I had wanted to be a novelist since I was in the third grade and had now failed. I was bummed because of the failure but the prospect of finding something else to do seemed exhausting and staggering. And the thought of spending years learning some other skill or craft only to fail once again was thoroughly depressing. It made me want to do nothing at all. Just sit in the park and watch people who undoubtedly had better lives than mine.
I bought a sandwich from a greasy man with a growth on his face and a thick accent.
I found an empty bench and sat down to eat my sandwich, surrounded by acres of fake wilderness. I ate my sandwich and thought about how my life no longer had any purpose. For the past three years, my purpose had been the novel and now... The positive point of view would have been to go back home and start another novel but, after being told, in so many words, that it didn’t matter how good the book was, I couldn’t embrace that point of view. Maybe I would try and build something. Something practical. A man writes a novel and, if no one reads it or it doesn’t make any money, he may as well not have done anything at all. It is just a small ream of paper that sits there and takes up a small amount of space. The only place the work really exists is in the author’s head. Because, undoubtedly, changes did occur in the brain while the novel was being written. Things imagined that had never been there before. People created who never existed before. Walls torn down. Entire cities built. But, in the real world, it was so much shit on paper. But if a man builds a house... well, then he has something to show for it. He can say he built something. “See, there’s that house I built.” And people can look at it and say, “Yeah, that’s a house.” And they might even ask, “Did you build that?” And the man can proudly say, “Yes, I did build that.” And even if no one sees it, even if it is in the darkest heart of the remotest jungle, it will still be a house. It will still be utilitarian. A man, hell, a whole family, can live in it. It would provide shelter from the rain and the wind and the cold and the sun. It would be SOMETHING whereas what I had now was a big pile of NOTHING.
I didn’t want the rest of my sandwich and threw it out onto the walk, hoping someone would step in it and soil their shoes. Then, totally unwittingly, I discovered my new purpose.
To my right, a gaggle of people strolled down the walk, going toward Fifth Avenue. At the center of the group was a tall man with an enormous white beard. He held a pipe in his right hand which he used to gesture with. There were at least three people on either side of him, nodding at him, agreeing with him, interested in what he was saying. Suddenly, I found myself waiting anxiously for them to approach the discarded sandwich. Surely one of them would have to step in it. Which one would it be? I hoped it would be the old man. I wanted to see this stately center of attention debased by having to look at the mess soiling his sober brown loafer.
Unfortunately, none of them stepped in it. As he passed, I tried to catch what the old bearded man said but it sounded like nonsense. Gibberish. Not even words. Just something that sounded like knocking on wood and static. And they all just glided right over the sandwich. It sat there on the walk, looking lonely and pathetic. Then the eagle-headed creature I had seen earlier came toward it, picked it up, and popped it into its beak.
It was at that point I decided to go back to Ohio and grow a beard. Whatever was meant to happen would have to come after that. The eagle-thing squawked at me and I thought of it as the creature’s unique way of saying, “Good idea.”