You must login to vote
by Harry Buschman
So many disappointments, so many failures. There were times when Billy Baxter could put them out of his mind and forget them, but he could never forget the image of a girl. He was haunted by the vision of a girl floating lazily above the city rooftops in the evening buoyed up by the insubstantial strings of his golden hope, like a wind-blown and unstable Thanksgiving’s Day balloon.
Across the street from Billy Baxter’s apartment the mailman’s truck arrived at 10:30 every weekday morning at the mailbox that stood on the corner of Lenox Avenue and 123rd Street. The mailman would leave it there while he walked with a measured step down the street on one side and up the other. He would then get back in his truck and drive one block north to 124th Street. Billy Baxter, looking down from his third floor window, would hold his breath as the mailman approached number 12-13. If he passed by, his heart would sink and the rest of the day he would ask himself again and again why he ever decided to be a writer.
If the mailman stopped at 12-13 and disappeared from view in the lobby downstairs, Billy would stand up and nonchalantly walk down the three flights of stairs as leisurely as his eagerness would allow. His heart would beat like a trip hammer when he opened the inner lobby door and looked at the letterboxes on the wall.
Billy’s letterbox bore his name and that of Lyle Bluestone, the name that appeared on all his submitted manuscripts. To look at the mail box one might think a gay couple lived there, but Lyle and Billy were one and the same. Long before he ever started to write, he was sure the name Billy Baxter would never appear as an author, it was a good enough name for his night time job as the star sandwich maker at the Empire Deli, perhaps - but never a name for an author.
There might be nothing in his letter box but a bill or a request from a fellow alumni of City College to cough up a contribution to the college fund, maybe a catalog from North Slope or L.L. Bean – but nothing else. Worse still, there might be a rejected manuscript from Ballantine or Doubleday, (if they bothered to send it back at all). It would be too big for the mail box and the postman would have to lean it against the wall, it would slump there like a homeless person taking refuge from the cold. With luck there would be a conciliatory note inside saying:
“After careful consideration we feel that your novel, although it contains some strong examples of characterization, dialogue and structure; comedy is not right for us and we don't have the time, development money, sense of humour or inclination to pursue it further. Keep up the good work and try again, but at the moment Ballantine etc., etc..”
Billy would then turn slowly and, like a rejected suitor, slowly climb the three flights of stairs to his apartment again and sit like a stone in the chair by the window. After an hour or so, the image of the girl would appear to him again. He would get up and stretch and say to himself “Yes, yes, I see you.” He would pull the cover off the IBM Selectric and pick up the thread of an abandoned story again. Occasionally he would sit back and consider the fact that he was really not interested in writing well. Anybody can write well, he told himself. What interested him most was that other people thought he wrote well. But other people were non-committal. Some would say, “Yes, I read that Billy. Did you write that? I didn’t know you wrote stories.” That was not enough for Billy - he wanted to be known as a writer, not as someone who wrote stories.
The bitter gall of discontent bored within him and his concentration would drift as he sat before his IBM Selectric. Self-pity would build up to the bursting point and he would get up and stand by the window overlooking the street. There, he could watch the busy people below. Everyone, it seemed had a purpose in life - a place to go and something to do. Billy had nowhere to go until he left for his job at the Empire Deli and Takeout at 9:00 PM.
He often wished he hadn’t won the $500 prize for the best subway story of the year in the Daily Mirror. The victory had given him a false sense of accomplishment – he thought he had a foot in literature’s door. Now, five years later, the money long gone, he realized how presumptuous he was. Long before he reached that literary door, it had been slammed shut and securely locked. Nobody remembered the story of the “A” Train.
Whatever success Billy lacked as a writer was made up for as a sandwich man at the Empire Deli. The deli was across the street from the NY Times editorial offices on 43rd Street and the paper was in full swing on the night shift. The people at the Times ate all night long – sandwiches, pizzas, coffee, soup. There were nights Billy was sure there was a party going on across the street; not a banquet of the elite, but a party serving the rough and ready food of the newspaper man. Billy was an excellent sandwich man, he could build a pastrami on rye so high no human mouth could possibly open wide enough to bite it. It had to be nibbled at from the sides and top to whittle it down to size. The line was always longest in front of Billy - he gave the biggest pickles, (sometimes slipped in an extra). He always stuffed a handful of napkins in the bag and he never forgot the mustard.
Yet all the while, his mind was elsewhere. The image of the girl floating above the skyline haunted him constantly. Her voice called to him above the the frantic shouts from the kitchen and her presence overcame the scent of mustard and sauerkraut.
Her face had never been crystal clear to him. As she hovered above the rooftops he remembered her hair was sort of blond, her eyes bluish and her mouth full – yet not blubberly full. In short, he didn’t know exactly what she looked like or who she resembled, yet he would instantly recognize her the moment he saw her. He was sure of that.
The girl kept him going through the night. He knew she would be waiting back at Lenox Avenue when he got home, and even though he failed her so many times in the past, he knew she would be faithful ... and someday the mailman would come. Some day he’d leave the letter he waited for. Acceptance!
Perseverance, when carried to extremes can often make fate throw up its hands and surrender. There were few people more persistent than Billy Baxter, (or Lyle Bluestone for that matter) and it came to pass on a summer Saturday. The mailman stopped, and even though he wore his usual poker face, there was something different about him. Billy stood at his third floor window and waited until the mailman came out of his building and walked up the street. He almost ran down the stairs to the lobby, this time with a sense of anticipation. He opened the inner lobby door and there was a gray envelope peeping out of his letterbox.
It was a limp envelope – one piece of paper inside – no more. The name, typed neatly, “Lyle Bluestone.” Address – nothing more. It felt electric, and he handled it gently. He wanted to open it here, right here in the lobby. But he thought better about it. It should be slit neatly with a sharp knife because he wanted to treasure it forever.
When he got back to his apartment, he walked hurriedly to the kitchen and pulled the sharpest knife out of the drawer.
375 Lexington Avenue
New York, NY 10001
Dear Mr. Bluestone;
Your novel, “A” Train looks promising. Come in and see me 3:30 Friday, the 6th.
M. Kaplan, Pres.
It wasn’t the warmest of acceptances, in fact Billy wasn’t exactly sure it was an acceptance. But, this is New York after all, and he reminded himself that big important men like Mr. Kaplan couldn’t permit themselves the luxury of warmth. They had to keep writers at arm’s length. The warmth would come later – for now, this would do. He made a copy of the letter in the drug store across the street, put it in a simple unpainted frame and hung it above the IBM Selectric.
He counted the days. Five! God, how could he wait that long? He would be a wreck before Friday rolled around.
He wondered if he should do a final edit on “A Train.” No, probably not – after all, they accepted the story as written, it would be a mistake to change anything now. What should he wear? What price should he settle for? What attitude should he assume? He didn’t want to appear too eager to please or too eager to accept editorial criticism; and yet ... he knew deep within himself that he would gladly do anything they asked him to. The ebb and flow of possibilities plagued Billy all week. He rehearsed his answers to every question he could imagine and by the time Friday rolled around he was as ready as he could ever be.
He killed time in the lobby of Phoenix Press. At the newsstand he bought some chewing gum to sweeten his breath and relax his jaws and looked at the display of book covers. He noticed they were not new, they were the covers of books published three or four years ago. It occurred to him that Phoenix Press might be falling behind a bit.
Suddenly it was twenty past three!
He approached an extremely thin girl behind a kidney shaped desk in the lobby of Phoenix Press. She was absorbed in a “People” magazine, and as she read she slowly moved her lips.
“I’m Lyle Bluestone, ma’am I have an appointment with Mr. Kaplan.”
She looked up at him and her lips stopped moving. “Yer who?”
“Bluestone, Ma’am, Lyle Bluestone.”
“You got an appointment with who?”
“Mr. Kaplan, ma’am at three thirty.”
The girl put the magazine down and pushed a button on her desk phone ... “There’s a guy here ...” She put her hand over the mouthpiece and looked at Billy. “What’s y’name sweetie?
“Lyle Bluestone.” He said it slowly and as clearly as he could, mouthing the words so she could read his lips.
“He said he’s Loose Blyestone or sumthin’ like that.” She turned to Billy and said, “Go on into cubicle five. Alice Guida.”
“I’m supposed to see Mr. Kaplan.”
“Nobody sees Mr. Kaplan,” she said, returning to her magazine, and somewhat under her breath she added, “... through that door ... cubicle five, Alice Guida.”
Billy was about to argue, but thought better about it. He opened the door to the office and saw a line of ten gray cubicles. He counted off the fifth one and saw a woman with blondish hair inside, bluish eyes and a full mouth too – in short, a woman not too different from the girl in his vision.
“You Lyle Bluestone? I was wondering what you’d look like.” She grinned evilly ... “Is that the name we write on your check, Lyle? You don’t look anything like your name.” She pushed a steel folding chair at him and motioned him to sit.
She sounded a lot like the Times women who walked in the deli and ordered liver and onions with a beer chaser.
“I’m sorry I don’t look like my ...”
“Never mind that,” she interrupted. She waved a well thumbed version of his manuscript in front of him and asked, “You write this?”
“Right off the bat, Lyle, let me tell you, okay? It stinks. Let’s go from there. Kaplan wants a subway book, see?
“I don’t understand.”
“Course you don’t. How could you – you’re not in the business. What it is, is this Lyle. Ballantine made a killing with a book called “Making All Stops.” It sold 350,000. Kaplan wants to get in on the action. He wants a subway novel ... that’s the only reason you’re here.” She looked at Billy dead-pan. “It’s not because your story was any good, it’s because it was the only one we had.”
“You don’t think it was any good ... “ he began.
“It’s a dreadful story, Lyle. You’re gonna have to listen very carefully, okay? It’ll never be good, but if we work real hard we can keep it from being an embarrassment to Phoenix Press.”
“Maybe I could resubmit.”
“Don’t be silly. We don’t have time for that nonsense.” She handed him his dog-eared manuscript and and held up a fresh one. “See this, Lyle? This is our rewrite. Read it over and sign it. Have it back here Monday morning and we got a deal. Okay?”
Billy took the fresh manuscript from her and stood up. He saw the title “Uptown Love” on the first page. Under it was the name, Lyle Bluestone. It seemed to Billy – at that moment, just the kind of thing Lyle Bluestone would write.
“I don’t have to read it over, Ms. Guida. Got a pen? I’ll sign it now.”
So many disappointments, so many failures. Now he could forget them all. He could stand straight, look the world in the eye and say, “I am a writer!” He walked out of Alice Guida’s cubicle number five and through the lobby to street below. He looked up briefly at the city skyline in vain for the image of the girl – he was haunted by the vision he once had of a girl floating slowly above the city skyline in the evening buoyed up by the insubstantial strings of his golden hope, like a soaring and unstable Thanksgiving’s Day balloon.
She was nowhere to be seen.
©Harry Buschman 2005
The art of art, the glory of expression and the sunshine of the light of letters, is simplicity.