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Grand Avenue cuts through the very heart of the city, from 71st Street all the way to the harbourfront, and although it is eight lanes wide, with a treed boulevard running down the middle, the Avenue feels claustrophobic and narrow.
Rising up in straight verticals, and flanking either side, are Grand Avenue's imposing Edwardian buildings, their facades creating two continuous walls. Many of these edifices were built during the Great Potash Boom of the late 1920s, with all that that entails: sombre Calvinistic capitalist features and a grim, heavy-handed feel.
Buildings without laughter. From up on high, where the angels sit, Grand Avenue looks very handsome indeed, a veritable showcase of architectural dignity. But down below, on the level of the street, it is a far different scenario, one of littered, gritty, noisy lanes choked with exhaust and angry taxis, of mad rambling panhandlers and scurrying office workers. A world of constant din, where the echoing noise of traffic ricochets off the buildings in a constant, cacophonous roar. The noise is an eternal presence here. With nowhere to go and no way to escape, it is caught in a perpetual standing wave, a never-ending feedback of cityscape clatter. Static of the Gods.
But if the dominant sense from on high is visual, and on the street level aural, down below, in the depths of the Loop, it is the sense of smell that is most saturated and most abused. Here, in a miasma of fumes, trains rattle-bang on an endless Möbius strip of work, sweat, salt and grubby lucre. A merry-go-round where the horses have emphysema, the paint is peeling and the smell of halitosis and body odour swirls in oily whirls through the air, in the air -- is the air. Bodies inhaling dioxide, recycling waste, pressed into wedges already sticky in this: the morning rush-hour crush. In the city, the bottom layer, the lowest level, is one of smell.
Edwin Vincent de Valu (a.k.a. Ed, a.k.a. Eddie, a.k.a. Edwynne in his poetry-reading college dorm days) emerges from the underground at Faust and Broadview like a gopher into a towering canyon. On Grand Avenue, the rain is dirty before it hits the ground. Edwin had once caught a solo drop on the back of his hand, had stopped and marvelled at that single bead of water, already streaked with soot.
Edwin is a thin, officious young man with a tall, scarecrow walk and dry straw hair that refuses to hold a part. Even when dressed in a designer overcoat and polished turtle-cut Dicanni shoes, Edwin de Valu has a singular lack of presence. A lack of substance. He is a lightweight, in every sense of the word, and the morning's commute almost sweeps him under. In the urban Darwinism of rush hour, Edwin has to fight just to keep afloat, has to strain just to keep his head above the deluge. No one -- least of all Edwin himself -- could ever have suspected that the entire fate of the Western World would soon rest upon his narrow shoulders.
On Grand Avenue, the eastside underscore of sour milk and stale urine, so ever-present you start to taste it on your tongue, greeted Edwin like a familiar slap to the face. Like a worn-out motif. A metaphor for something else. Something worse.
As Edwin crossed Grand Avenue, en masse with a crush of rumpled jackets, damp shirts, and groaning attaché cases, and as the traffic echoed into white noise around him and the queasy smells of the city trailed in his wake . . . he looked up, up to where the morning sun was catching the high edge of the buildings, a mocking gold glow out of reach and almost out of sight. And he thought to himself, as he did every day at precisely this spot and precisely this moment: I hate this fuckin' city.
For all its architectural facades and historic pretensions, Grand Avenue is little more than a crowded assemblage of filing cabinets, lined up, squeezed in, one after the other, relentless and almost endless. Inside these filing cabinets you will find ad agencies, business consultants, secret sweatshops and modern software developers, pyramid schemes and investment firms, small dreams and big dreams, executives and peons, plastic cafeterias and anonymous love affairs, accountants, attorneys, contortionists and chiropractors, moneymen and mountebanks, systems analysts, cosmetics salesmen and stock-market financiers: gymnasiums of the absurd and self-cancelling circuses of unrequited desire.
You will find all this and more filed away on Grand Avenue. But most importantly, you will find publishers, an entire dizzying procession of publishers: some little more than a name on a door, some cogs in vast multimedia empires; some responsible for launching great literary careers, others responsible for Sidney Sheldon -- and every one of them clinging to the cachet of a Grand Avenue address.
Publishers infiltrate Grand Avenue like larval termites. Hidden in the maze of cubicles and corridors that lie in wait behind the sombre Edwardian facades, you will find dozens upon dozens of these publishers, swilling their swamp of words, churning the muck, breeding in captivity. Here, manuscripts are stacked high, and great mounds of festering papers accumulate. Here, women without makeup and men without fashion sense sit huddled, sharpened blue pencils in hand, scratching, scratching, endlessly scratching at the voluminous outpourings of that most egotistical of creatures: the writer.
This is the belly of the beast, the ulcerous stomach of the nation's book-publishing world, and Edwin de Valu, crossing Grand Avenue en route to his cubicle at Panderic Books Incorporated, is smack dab in the swampy middle of the quagmire.
Panderic Inc. stands near the top of the food chain. Not one of the Cabal Clan, not Bantam or Doubleday perhaps, but certainly head and shoulders above the other mid-size publishing houses. Which is to say, Panderic has no John Grisham or Stephen King on its roster, but it does have a Robert James Waller or two. Each season, Panderic publishes a full slate, not of books, but of "titles" (in the jargon of the industry, books are reduced to their very vapour essence)titles that range from celebrity diet fads to forty-pound vampyre gothics. Panderic puts out more than 250 titles a year. It barely recoups its investment from half of them, loses money on more than a third, and reaps a small profit on the remaining handful. Those magic titles, those rare few money-makers, somehow manage to fuel the entire sprawling enterprise. In the world of American publishing, Panderic is considered financially sound.
Although Panderic's specialty is non-fiction and genre novels, on occasion -- and mainly by accident -- a genuine masterpiece slips through, a book so humourless and slowly paced, so plodding and laden with arcana, that you just knew it had to be Great Literature. It was Panderic, after all, that had first published The Name of the Tulip, an "intellectual mystery" set in a medieval nunnery in Bastilla, whose hero was a middle-aged mathematician turned semiotician. The author, a middle-aged mathematician turned semiotician, had swept into Panderic's office, thrown down his hefty manuscript like an invitation to a duel and had pronounced his work to be the height of "postmodern hyper-authenticity." He then flung himself from the room and into a full-time career as an aphorist and keynote speaker ($500 an aphorism, $6,000 a note). All this in spite of, or perhaps because of, the fact that he had never had a single lucid thought in his entire life. Publishing is an odd industry indeed. And as Ray Charles once said, "Ain't no son of a bitch nowhere knows what's going to hit."
It was into this world, this postmodern, hyper-authentic reality, that Edwin de Valu now came.
Edwin has been working at Panderic for more than four years, ever since he abandoned his original career plans of becoming a professional bon vivant. (Turns out there were very few openings in the bon vivant category.) Edwin works on the fourteenth floor of 813 Grand Avenue, in Panderic's Non-Fiction Department. Today, as he does every day, Edwin stops outside to buy two cups of coffee to go from Louie (of Louie's Hot Dog and Pickle Stand). Most of the editors at Panderic favour the more genteel, la-di-da-type coffee shops, but not our Edwin. He has a rugged sense of the common man about him. Oh, yes, Edwin is the type of guy who prefers Louie's down-home java over Café Croissant's hand-roasted house blend, a guy who likes his coffee raw and real. Edwin slaps his money on the counter, says, "Keep the change."
"You want cinnamon sprinkles on your caffe-latte mochaccino, or would you prefer white-almond chocolate?" asks Louie, wet cigar in mouth, two days of stubble on his chin(s).
Every working day for the past four years, Edwin has stopped here at Louie's stand, every damn day, and never, not once, has Louie remembered him. "Nutmeg and cinnamon," Ed says wearily. "With a dash of sun-dried saffron. Extra froth."
"Comin' up," says Louie. "Comin' up."
Inside the lobby of 813 Grand Avenue, the sound is suddenly muted: echoing footsteps, the distant ping of elevators, the murmur of a hundred impending heart attacks. Only this. Gone is the constant white noise of traffic outside. Gone is the cymbal-crash symphony of the city.
On Grand Avenue, this is about as close as you can get to deliverance.
It took Edwin several years to realize he actually worked on the thirteenth floor. Technically, the address of Panderic Inc. was suite 1407, but this wasn't exactly true, as Edwin discovered one day when he happened to notice, absent-mindedly, that although the double row of buttons inside the elevator began odd-even (1-2, 3-4, 5-6 . . .), the order had been reversed at the top of the panel and was now even-odd ( . . . 16-17, 18-19, 20-21). It was only when Edwin retraced the numbers that he realized what had happened: number 13 was missing. This omission skewered everything, and threw the entire sequence off. Panderic wasn't located on the fourteenth floor; it was located on the thirteenth. When Edwin mentioned this oddity to the other editors, they just shrugged it off -- everyone except the occult editor, who blanched a bit.
With his two cups of coffee held before him (and well we might wonder for whom the second cup was meant), Edwin pushed open the glass doors of the office with his shoulder and entered sideways into a world of words. A world of words and frantic shuffling papers, a world where all those people in college English courses who had such promise, such potential, ended up: editing grammar, marking up manuscripts, scratching away and dreaming of the day they would open a window and stretch their hands outwards to touch the gold-rimmed edge at the top of the city, up to the higher reaches, where the sunlight reached . . . Until then, they had books to edit, cover copy to produce, long green fluorescent hallways to traverse, photocopies to make, deadlines to meet, pruning shears to wield, prose to emasculate.
Ten past nine and already the place was humming. People rushed past, hurrying nowhere with great purpose. The plants at Panderic were plastic, and even then they looked as though they were dying from a lack of sun.
As Edwin passed his own sorry little cardboard-and-Scotch-tape cubicle, his heart sank. There, stacked high on his desk, was a tower of paper. Thick slabs of manuscript. Slush. Unsolicited, unagented, unloved. This was where dreams came to die. Book proposals, cover letters, entire manuscriptsthey gathered like so much detritus on the desks of publishers everywhere. Edwin's cubicle was thick with the stuff. "What the hell?" By the time he reached May's office at the end of the hall, Edwin was well into a slow boil. May's door, as always, was not entirely open, but not entirely shut either. ("Ajar," his editor's parsimonious mind immediately chimed in, wanting to pare down that previous sentence to the starkest elements possible, editors being notoriously unsympathetic to rambling author asides.)
"What the hell," he said as he entered May's office, "is that pile of slush doing on my desk? I thought we hired an intern."
May looked up from her desk. "And a good morning to you, too." In the context of publishing, May Weatherhill was considered successfula young modern career woman with a suitably overblown, underpaid title: Associate Editor-in-Chief, Non-Fiction, Excluding Biographies but Including Angels and Alien Abductions (which, many claimed, really should have been handled by the fiction department anyway). May was a slightly plump, slightly shy, slightly attractive woman. Well, plump isn't exactly correct. She was heavy-set. "I don't have breasts," she joked. "I have a bosom. I'm a neo-Victorian in that respect." Where Edwin was thin and taut, May was filled with folds and half-hidden hollows.
Oddly enough, and unbeknownst to her, May's most notable attribute was not her bosom, ample though it was, but her lips, her red waxy lips. They were of a shade found almost nowhere outside of Crayola. It was as though they had been painted on, as though they really were made of wax, stuck on as a party prank and then never removed. People didn't look May in the eye when they talked to her. Instead, they stared, fascinated, at her lips. Like most editors, May was pale to the point of anemic -- but with May, it went far beyond that. May Weatherhill was made of porcelain. Soft porcelain. Warm porcelain. But porcelain nonetheless. Beautiful and breakable. Even when she laughed and even when she smiled, it always looked as though her thoughts were somewhere else. "Existential eyes": that was the alliterative description Edwin had once given her. "Hazel," she had replied. "You're confusing hazel eyes with French philosophy." "Perhaps," said Edwin. "And perhaps not." May was constantly veering from one diet plan to the next, something that had long baffled Edwin. When you had existential eyes, who needed to diet?
Still, if nothing else, May did have that indefinable substance called power. Power surrounded her, power permeated her; it was her own brand of perfume. This was partly because of her position at Panderic, but more importantly, it was because she had the Ear of the Publisher Himself. ("And his balls," one of the more catty male editors had suggested.) May Weatherhill, middle manager, confidante of the CEO, head of the department, had hired Edwin de Valu, and she could have fired him as well. Could have fired him at any time, could have fired him right then and there, could have fired him almost on whim -- and God knows it wasn't like Edwin didn't give ample cause for termination. But she never did. She never used threats, veiled or otherwise, against Edwin because . . . well, there was the Incident at the Sheraton Timberland Lodge. And that had changed everything.
It was during a book conference upstate when, heady on champagne and silliness, Edwin and May had tumbled into bed, half-laughing, the way friends sometimes do. And then, next thing you know, they were breathing hard and pulling at each other's clothes and licking sweat from each other's necks -- and not in the way friends sometimes do. The next day, while attending a mind-numbing presentation by "an acclaimed author" (or perhaps it was an acclaimed agent), May had felt a slow single trickle -- the "essence of Ed," so to speak -- creep down her thigh, and she knew then that nothing would ever be the same between them.
They never talked about it. They circled around it at times, dancing dangerously close to the cliff, but they never mentioned the words, now anathema, "Sheraton Timberland Lodge." It had become their Alamo, their Waterloo, the synecdoche watershed of their friendship.
May had recently edited a quirky lexicon of obscure words for Panderic. It was titled The Untranslatables, and was a light-hearted look at certain terms that were lacking in the English language. Entire feelings, entire concepts, went unexpressed, simply because no word had ever been coined to capture them. Words like mono-no-awaré, "the sadness of things," a Japanese term that defined the ever-present pathos that lurks just below the surface of life. Words like mokita, from the Kiriwina language of New Guinea, meaning "the truth which no one speaks." It refers to the tacit agreement among people to avoid openly referring to certain shared secrets, like Aunt Louise's drinking problem or Uncle Fred's covert homosexuality. Or the Incident at the Sheraton Timberland Lodge. Or the fact that Edwin is married. These, too, were mokita. This is what drew Edwin and May together, and this was what kept them apart: a thin, impenetrable wall of mokita lay between them.
"He's a married man, he's a married man." May would repeat this to herself whenever her self-control began to lapse. Whenever she was tempted to touch him, softly, on the nape of the neck. "He's a married man." And yet the more she repeated this phrase, the more sexy it started to sound.
"We did have an intern," said May, smiling her thanks as Edwin placed the cup of coffee before her. Not a deep smile, you understand, and certainly not a flirtatious one, but rather a small smile that said, "I know why you bring me coffee every day. And I know that you know that I know. And yet I find it strangely endearing nonetheless." (May could say a lot with a single smile.)
"So why isn't the intern handling the slush pile?" said Edwin. "I mean, how hard is it to stuff rejection letters into an envelope?"
"The intern quit. Mr. Mead had her washing his car and running laundry errands. Turns out, it wasn't what she had in mind when she said she was looking for an 'entry-level position in publishing.' Apparently, she was expecting something more fulfilling. I believe she is now shovelling out the pens down at the docks. Said it wasn't a big difference."
Edwin sipped his coffee. "Bloody interns. Whatever happened to the good ol' American work ethic?" The cream in his mocha latte had uncongealed -- if that is the word for it -- creating a not unpleasant oil slick of unsaturated fat. Louie's cappuccinos were the best -- if indeed that was how you pluralized "cappuccino."
"Until we get someone new," said May, "we're all going to have to chip in. I gathered up last week's submissions -- I think there were around 140 manuscripts, and maybe as many proposals -- and I divided them among editors, more or less at random. I think you got a dozen of them, and yes, I already printed off a stack of 'after careful considerations' for you to reply with."
"Why do we even bother? Why not just hire a trained chimp to go through them?"
"Remember the General? Remember his unagented, over-the-transom offer for -- and I quote -- 'an insider's look at the war in Kosovo'? Remember how fast we turned that around?"
"Ah, yes, the General. Mad Dog Mulligan himself. How could I forget? The last of the NATO bombs hadn't even hit the ground and Operation Balkan Eagle was already on the stands. We scooped Doubleday and Bantam by a week. It was . . ."
"No, that's not the word I'm searching for. It was awful. Absolutely awful. As far as I'm concerned, Balkan Eagle was both the apex and the nadir of disposable publishing."
"Apex? Nadir? I love it when you talk dirty to me," and as soon as she said it, she regretted it, wished she could backspace delete the comment. "Edwin, just do it, okay? Clear the slush as fast as you can, because more is on its way."
"The slush never stops coming, does it." It was less a question than it was a statement of fact.
"Never," said May. "It's a hallmark of civilization: unwanted, unagented dreams. The slush pile is one of the few irreducible elements of life. Just think of yourself as -- oh, I don't know -- Sisyphus with a shovel, I suppose. And don't forget, there's a meeting at ten."
"Oh, God. Is Fuck-Face back already?"
"Edwin! You have got to stop referring to him like that. You were an English major, for God's sake, you would think you'd have a better repertoire."
"I'm sorry. Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa. What I meant to say was, 'Is Shit-for-Brains back already?' "
She sighed. It was the sigh of someone who has given up on ever reforming a lost cause. "Yes, Mr. Mead has indeed returned. He flew in early this morning and he wants everyone in Conference Room 2 at ten o'clock-sharp."
"Got it. Room 10 at two o'clock."
He turned to leave and then stopped. "Why don't you have any slush?"
"When you divvied up the manuscripts, why didn't you take some, you know, to share the misery?"
"I did. I took thirty manuscripts and maybe a dozen proposals home with me Friday. I did them that night."
"Ah, I see." Edwin paused just a beat too long. Long enough to let the comment hang in the air. Long enough to underline the fact that May had spent Friday night alone, with her cat, reading book proposals and unsolicited manuscripts. "I should, ah, get back to my cubicle," said Edwin. "Meeting starts in half an hour. I figure I'll be able to get through most of the slush by then."
Copyright © 2002 by Will Ferguson
May watched him leave. Drank her coffee. Thought about all the many mokitas that clutter our lives and give it its texture and meaning.