Back when I was a bright-eyed English major, wearing but a plus one prescription, I scored an internship at a literary agency. While my peers were happy to earn their credits carting mail and fetching coffee I wanted to get my hands dirty. I convinced Keith, the head of the acquisitions, to let me take a peek at the unsolicited manuscripts. I was a budding writer and I wanted to get a sense of what the competition was doing.
Keith was a far cry from the tweed cardigan, leather patch wearing, literary figure you might imagine. He dressed like a janitor in V-necks and grease stained overalls.
There was dirt in his five o’clock shadow and his brow was always dripping with sweat. He seemed more comfortable with his satchel full of tools than he did behind a novel.
Keith led me into a darkroom filled with bulk storage racks, rolling ladders, and boxes. The kind of place you’d expect to find religious relics and alien artifacts. He tapped a cabinet. It creaked under the weight of its manila envelopes. They were stacked so high they pressed into the ceiling tiles. Dust clouds twinkled through the dim light of the exit sign.
Keith waved his arms over this wee warehouse. “This is our slush pile.”
“This is a fire hazard.”
“That it is, but it’s been a while since we’ve had need of a first reader. Seeing as most of our agents are already up to their eyeballs in clients.”
“I could do it.”
Keith stroked his stubble. “That would be outside the scope of your internship. You’re here to learn. You’re not supposed to do the work any actual employees.”
“But you just said you didn’t have a first reader. Who would I be replacing?”
Keith tongued his cheek. “Well, it’s hard to argue with logic like that.”
Keith gave me a key to the janitor’s closet and I pulled up a chair beneath the eyewash station and got to reading.
I’d made myself a job. Now all I had to do was convince the agency to pay me for it. I wrote copious notes, summarized the stories and gave them letter grades. As an English major I had to read between 12-30 classics a semester. Now I was putting away a clunker a day. The highest grade I ever gave was a B- and that was when I was being generous. Still I was panning for gold, hoping to make a discovery that would elevate me within the agency. Sadly all I discovered was the reason those manuscripts were gathering dust.
I read all the tepid tragedies, lukewarm victories, and shallow life lessons homemakers had to offer. I read every account of heaven from children who’d suffered near death experiences. I sample every flavor of thinly veiled autobiography: divorce diaries from armchair psychologists struggling to diagnose their exes, recovery journals with relapsewritten between the lines, and all manner of reptilian illuminati conspiracy theories.
This was before any schmuck with a premise could self-publish from the toilet. Before vanity presses started offering half assed editing services. Before Amazon made the entire industry bend the knee. Back then the only path to literary success was through gatekeepers like me. It was a lot of responsibility.
I imagined authors reading over my shoulder with their fingers tented in silent prayers. I could feel them breathing down my neck. It was an eerie. I found myself turning from the aluminum ladders, chrome containers, and other reflective surfaces for fear I might spot a phantom silhouette.
I thought about sending words of encouragement to some of the authors, notes for future edits that might elevate their manuscripts, but the post dates were ancient and there were always more envelopes piling up.
I’d marvel at how many manuscripts I’d made it through until I returned to the room to find the ceiling tiles cracking and the cabinets leaning. I couldn’t help but wonder how many of these writers had died waiting to be discovered.
The semester was almost over and I had yet to strike gold. Still I convinced myself I was getting an education. The carrot I was chasing wasn’t rotten, it was rich with nutrients. All of this bad fiction was teaching me how to be a better writer. I learned which trends had been driven into the ground: the brooding vampires whose redemption only came with the help of a virginal infatuation, the artisan serial killers whose crimes recreated renaissance paintings, the blank teenagers who turned out to be sci-fi saviors. These tropes were refining my tastes, challenging me to dig deeper. My own writing was going to be oh so well informed.
Serial liars save the best lies for themselves.
After the Internship
I was the only one to stay on. The cream that had risen to the topor so I told myself. No one had asked me to keep reading, but I was hoping someone would see the coverages I’d written and offer me a position. One day Keith came into the janitors closet. He needed supplies from the cart I was using as a desk.
“Don’t you think you’ve read enough. I mean the semester is over.”
I lowered my readers and rubbed my eyes. By then I was wearing a plus two prescription. I told him I wasn’t there for the credit I was there for the sense of purpose. “My summaries are going to save the agency a whole lot of time.”
Keith wrapped his big calloused fingers around my shoulder. “Son. No one is going to read those summaries.”
“Then why take unsolicited manuscripts in the first place?”
Keith sighed. He tilted his head back to search for the words. “They’re lucrative.”
“How are they lucrative when they’re just sitting there?”
Keith swished his words around before just spitting them out. “Every one of those writes paid us a hundred dollar reading fee.”
My eyes widened trying to estimate what the agency’s slush pile was worth. “There must be hundreds of thousands of dollars in there.”
“More. Way more.”
My heart weighed heavy on me as I waddled into the elevator and out the agency’s door.
I had seen writing contests in the back of literary magazines that asked for $25 reading fees. I’d pegged them for scams. Here I’d unknowingly volunteered to help perpetuate one. The agency was a reading mill. It didn’t matter if their clients ever got published. Their product was false hope. I felt like a traitor to the medium.
Nine Years Later
While my classmates went on to get careers as baristas I found myself working out of a penthouse overlooking Manhattan. While they measured milk temperature I altered between an exercise bike and a rower. While they modeled flour coated aprons I had a wardrobe full of Armani jackets, Versace slacks, and Santimon loafers. While they struggled to sell their art I had a gallery of art deco sculptures. Every room of my home had its own golden Olympian, each one looking like it came straight off the cover of an Ayn Rand novel.
So how did I go from laboring in a closet to my own private penthouse? Remember that guilt I felt as I trounced out of the agency’s parking lot. Well, I got over it and set up my own literary agency.
I put out an open call for submissions at fifty dollars a read, spent the profits to poach a handful of high profile clients, and used their status to up my reading rates to one hundred and fifty a manuscript. And by “reading rate” I mean my storage fee. I didn’t even bother to invest in shelving. I kept my slush pile stacked on pallets. The post office shipped them up via the freight elevator. I’d pilfer through the envelopes for checks and send the rest down in the blue bin, because recycling is important.
I’d feel bad about pulping all those manuscripts, but my ad clearly stated: SEND A COPY, NEVER THE ORIGINAL TEXT. Nevertheless the boxes accumulated. Just counting checks was a lot of work.
Now I was a great agent to my high profile clients. I shook all the right hands, greased all the right wheels. I got them the coveted seat on The Late Show, got their titles on the best seller’s list, got the bidding war going over the film rights. I did well by all three of them. So well they could’ve dropped me and I could’ve coasted on the royalties.
It’s just that my side hustle was so much more fruitful. Every hour I spent stacking checks into a pouch at the edge of the pallet earned me $18,000. And it’s not like I never peeped at any of those pages before I put them in the blue bin. I read author bios when a woman sent a cute photo. I peeked at their titles, skimmed through their loglines. I might’ve even taken a gander the occasional query letter, but whenever I did my suspicions were always confirmed. Writers sent to me because no one else would humor them. If anything I kept them going by not responding.
I met one of those writers at a publishing event. She slapped my back so hard my cocktail shot out the rim of the glass. She held the portrait from her dustjacket to her face and mirrored the contemplative expression.
“Bet you wished you’d signed me when you had the chance?”
“You stole the words right out of my mouth.” I had no idea she’d even queried me. I pointed to her hardcover.“This was so good, but I was neck deep in so much great material I couldn’t see the forest for the trees. Let me make it up to you. What are you drinking? The next round’s on me.”
There was an open bar. It was the least I could do. We drank martinis and I convinced her boyfriend to send me something he was working on. I even waved my reading fee, right before I tossed it into the blue bin.
You might be asking how I slept at night. The answer: on a king-sized hydrodynamic waterbed with custom tailored lumbar support. In other words: like a heavily sedated baby.
Then One Morning…
I awoke to find the blue bin tipped over in the kitchen. The sink was drowning in manuscripts, the countertops were spilling over and all the tiles were covered in paper.
The first thing my stupid brain thought to do was check the windows. You know how updrafts have a tendency lift bins from one room to another and then dump out their contents? Yeah, well, me neither. I cycled through more stupid theories as I heaved everything back into the bin.
Had I slept through an earthquake? Skyscrapers have a way of stretching the effects. The recycling bin was on wheels. The aftershocks could’ve rolled it from room to room before ultimately tipping over.
Had I sleepwalked to the freight bay, dreamt I was pushing a stroller, and changed my infant on the kitchenette?
Had vandals sidestepped security, cracked the code for the elevator, just to throw around some papers?
None of my theories held much weight, especially since nothing else was out of place, or so I thought.
My workout regimen was built around violence. If there were home invaders I wanted to be ready to go full Batman on them. I circled the punching bag throwing high intensity jabs, crosses, and kicks. All the while it felt like someone was watching me. Smiling eyes snickered at my form, at my halfhearted anger, at my lean little body.
I didn’t bother to stretch my ligaments before I started hurling haymakers. I imagined a pair of vandals prying the freight doors open with a jack, crawling into my studio, and tip toing along with the bin. I threw uppercuts with reckless disregard for my joints. I felt those smiling eyes giggling and I just started wailing, throwing elbows and knees. I hit my funny bone and kept right on cycling through my limbs. My knuckles throbbed beneath the gloves, my kneecaps were raspberry red, but I kept leaping at the bag until I slipped, slid under it, and coasted on the sweat.
My heart was still racing by the time I got back on feet so I limped over to the treadmill for a cooldown. I hit QUICKSTART, but I couldn’t get it moving. I dug my heels in, but the belt wouldn’t budge. I felt those smiling eyes upon my reddening face and pushed harder, grunting as my sneakers slid down the Polyvinyl. I gripped the handrails so tight my palms began to blister. There was a scraping, like that of a grinding wheel, followed by a burning smell. The screen read: INCLINE—
When I finally checked the motor I found someone had stuffed manuscript pages down there.
If I was married my wife would’ve told me to call the police, but it would’ve been like telling someone with road rage to ask for directions. It wasn’t happening. Someone was making a statement and I had to disassemble my penthouse to see the extent of it.
I found pages crumpled in the light fixtures casting shadows on the walls. Pages in the tank of the toilet clogging the flush valve. Pages in the oven threaded through the racks. I found pages in places I’d sworn I’d already checked. Dangling from the ceiling fan. In my pillowcase. Lining my pockets.
I spent the rest of the afternoon going through every box left on the pallet separating the checks from the chaff. Then I took the blue bin down to the incinerator. I imagined those praying eyes watch me fling those pages into the fire they weren’t smiling anymore.
Upon returning to my penthouse I hung a camcorder from the ceiling and focused it on the elevator doors. Then I mounted a sign on the wall that read: SMILE… YOU’RE ON CANDID CAMERA.
I threw a phantom punches at the dark, until I broke a sweat and felt it in my hips. I remember shuffling into bed. I don’t remember falling asleep.
The Next Morning…
I woke up coughing. There were ashes in the air. No heat. No fire. Just ashes wafting through the room. They trailed into the hallway like a cartoon aroma. I followed them to the remains of my recycling bin.
There was an axle, a set of wheels, and a flat blue base. The rest of the 50 gallon container had been shattered and meticulously rearranged into wire sculpture. The subject wasn’t obvious from head on, I could make out a warped T shape, but when I sidestepped the sculpture’s true form took shape. It was a depiction of man in pillory, his head and hands locked between a pair of stocks.
I followed the sculpture’s sightline to the floor where I found a manuscript. A light breeze caught the corner of the title page daring me to turn it over. Someone had anthropomorphized the bin to punish it for its role in my crimes. This was next level vandalism. The kind of piece a found object sculptor would’ve spent months planning for. As it turned out I hadn’t seen anything yet.
My home gym had been and reimagined as a sculpture garden.
The punching bag had been gutted and Bowflex rods jut through the remains. It was a hanging cage for figure cobbled together from weights and leather. He was holding a manuscript in his snap hook fingers.
The exercise bike beside him had been smelted into a set of iron stocks. The seat had been positioned in place of a head. The fan had been bent into a pair of lungs, and the pedals had been sheared into hands. This figure also had a manuscript to read, as did the one fashioned from the Stairmaster, as did the one made from NordicTrack cords.
I wandered from room to room with my mouth hanging open. Every refrigerator coil, every table leg, every fan blade had been warped into the same loathsome form. Even my art deco Olympians had been forced to gaze upon manuscripts of their own.
My legs wobbled under the weight of the situation. My lungs couldn’t take it all in. The room started spinning. I found myself sitting amongst the sculpted shadows, cursing the day I quit smoking.
I crawled toward the freight bay to find the elevator doors had merged. They’d one solid piece with no visible crease. The camcorder was still hanging from the ceiling, but the sign no longer read: SMILE… YOU’RE ON CANDID CAMERAit read: QUIET PLEASE… THIS IS A READING SPACE.
“To hell with that noise.”
That’s when I felt those smiling eyes upon me again. The hairs on the back of my neck raised as they tracked along my spine and settled on the back of my skull. I took a deep breath, plucked up my courage, and turned around. “Fuck you and fuck your library!”
There was no flesh on the face staring back at me, just exposed muscles glistening like grape jelly. There were no lips to keep the drool from seeping down its chin, but it was clear this face was happy to see me. Its Zygomaticus minor and major pulled the corners of the mouth like bungee cords stretching a tarp. The Orbicularis oculi, the fiber around the sockets, was crinkled, confirming my suspicions. Its eyes were indeed smiling.
Back at the agency I wondered how many of the authors in our slush pile were dead already. Here in the freight bay I counted nine purple people. They slunk along the concrete, altering between their knees and their elbows. They rolled over one another, dancers performing a choreographed floor routine, and they kept their smiling eyes on me the entire time.
I met the gaze of ghost looming over me.
“Thank you for submitting your manuscript, but unfortunately, at this time, it isn’t quiet what we’re looking for. Best of luck to you.”
The ghost raised a long narrow finger to my lips. “Shhh…”
And Of Course…
I woke up in a pair of restraints with a manuscript laid before me. I read the title page and a set of purple fingers pinched the corner and flipped it over. My day went on like that. When my stomach growled a purple arm lifted a dry bowl of cereal to my muzzle and I kept right on reading. When my bladder was full a hand unzipped my pants and positioned my stream into a pitcher, and when I had to go number two… Well, you get the idea.
The sun rose and fell. I didn’t fall asleep so much as I passed out. When I came to those phantom fingers were right there, tapping the page, knowing right where I left off.
I prayed there were only nine manuscripts, one for each purple person I’d seen on the landing, but after ninth one the pages kept right on coming. The ghosts were making me earn every check I’d ever cashed.
The average person reads four books a year. Books that have been vetted. Books that engage their imaginations and impart them with wisdom. Good books are dear friends. They stick with you, give you a perspective, and a sense of belonging.
Bad books are like toxic friends. They dominated the conversation, leave no room for interpretation, and tell you how to feel. Their appeals to emotion fail to resonate. They trigger your judgement rather than your imagination. They makes you feel disconnected.
Bad books were all that were on the menu as my restraints were slowly realigning my spine.
There were more infidelity fantasies by people who wouldn’t know eroticism if it bit them on the genitals. More self-help books by people who were nowhere near getting their shit together. More endless sword and sorcery journeys to nowhere in particular. More meandering melodrama. More edge lord gore. More goddamn Christ metaphors.
My life was nothing but purple digits, walls of text, and schlock. Until…it wasn’t. Until I’d happened upon an oasis in that endless desert of bullshit. A story that moved me. A story that broke my heart. A story that made the purple fingers rescind while I considered what I had just experienced. A story that I left smeared with tears.
As the years stretched on I prayed to read another like it and every so often I did. Eventually those purple fingers turned their last page and there was nothing left to read.
You Probably Saw This Coming
When Ebenezer Scrooge woke up from his nightmare he flung the window open and asked the first kid he saw what day it was. Easy for Ebenezer. He didn’t live on the 88thfloor. I rolled out of the waterbed and crawled toward the elevator. My exercise equipment was right where I’d left it, as were my art deco Olympians, and all of my furnishings. The only difference was the manuscripts were back on the pallets.
Manilla envelopes were stacked floor to ceiling. I examined one to find my own handwriting. It turned out that I was the sender. I opened it and sure enough I found a check. I was giving the author their money back. I was giving it all back. I wish I could tell you my time in that pocket dimension had softened this blow to my checkbook, but I was going to feel it.
The only consolation was the small stack of white envelopes on the other side of the room. I opened one and found an acceptance letter. I was taking on a new batch of clients. These were the authors whose manuscripts had kept my sanity from slipping. The oases. The ghosts were letting me hold onto them.
I leaned against the freight elevator doors and considered these developments. That’s when I saw the camcorder and thought to move the manila envelopes to see what had become of my sign.
It read: NOW EXITING QUIET ZONE. PLEASE WATCH YOUR STEP.
I took the sign’s advice as I got onto the elevator and hit the button for the lobby.