Able Was I Ere I Saw Elba

by Stephen Baily

“Ten, please.”

“You got it.”

After leaning out into the lobby to check if anybody else was coming, he pulled the folding gate shut, hit the starter button, and eyed me in the convex mirror above his head.

“Here for an interview?”

I blinked. “How did you guess?”

“You have that look.”

“What look is that?”

“Like a cringing dog. Listen, I know it’s none of my business, but you want some advice? Before you go in there, take a deep breath and say to yourself, Napoleon at thirty was master of France. Trust me—it works like a charm.”

The charm didn’t seem to have worked too well for him—or at any rate his uniform was so seedy I had the strong suspicion, if he turned around, I was as sure to smell booze on his breath as he was to smell it on mine.

“I’ll give it a try.”

“Good man. Here we go. Tenth floor. Skinn and Flynt Publishing.”

I was unprepared for the vastness of the space I stepped out into. It could have done duty for an airplane hangar, if it hadn’t been broken up into a maze of workstations. At the counter opposite the elevator, the big-haired receptionist pointed me to a distant tall window.

“That’s Mr. Eichelberger under it.”

In his shirtsleeves, with his tie loosened and askew, he waved me into a chair drawn up close to his own, without bothering to look up from the Danish he was scarfing down over his desk.

“So. Why do you want to work here?”

“I don’t.”

He lifted a brow. “Come again?”

“As I told you on the phone, Marylee Bradley is a friend of my wife’s, and she happened to mention to her you have assignments for freelancers.”

After wiping his mouth on his wrist, he clasped his hands behind his head, so that his elbows stuck out like bat wings above his sweat-soaked armpits. As he tilted back in his chair, the button over his gut popped out of its hole, affording me a glimpse of the hairs matted on his navel.

“I assume you brought your résumé?”

I shook my head. “There wouldn’t be anything on it, other than that my degree’s in comparative anatomy.”

“Let me guess what you’ve been doing since you graduated—writing a novel, am I right?”

Without waiting for me to reply, he continued: “Is there anybody in this town who isn’t writing a novel? What’s yours about? The travails of a sensitive adolescent, no doubt. What would the world do, I wonder, without sensitive adolescents?”

His chair complained loudly as he returned it to the perpendicular and, leaning forward, laid a heavy hand on my thigh.

“Kidding aside, I’m not unsympathetic to your plight. I’ve been there myself. I know how it is.”

I was still trying to ease my leg away without being too conspicuous about it when he withdrew his hand and reached into a drawer.

“You lack the background, true, but—for Marylee’s sake—I’m willing to give you a shot.”

My hopes, which I’d allowed to rise, sank when he produced from the drawer, not a thick manuscript, but a single sheet of paper.

“We ask every applicant to take this. That desk over there is free. You’ve got half an hour.”

I pretended to be oblivious of the smug glances I attracted from the vicinity as I sat down at the desk he’d directed me to.

“Correct the following passage for grammar, punctuation, and spelling,” the instructions said. “Do not rewrite. Use standard proofreader’s marks.”

Never having heard of standard proofreader’s marks, I figured I was cooked, till my eyes descended to the text in question.

“Isabel,” it began, “was a small small boned girl, whom her parents worried made too big of a fuss over dietery compliments.”

After reading this sentence again to make sure I hadn’t hallucinated it, I resolved to seize the possibility it offered me of bluffing my way out.

“Back already?”

“Excuse me,” I apologized to Eichelberger, “but I find it hard to believe someone who writes like this could get a book accepted.”

He laughed. “You’d be surprised.”

“Not to speak of the tone-deaf diction—the solecisms—the sloppy spelling and punctuation—the author—even supposing she has X-ray vision—is flat-out wrong.”

“About what?”

“As you may have forgotten, the two hundred and six bones in the human body fall under six categories: long, short, flat, subdural, sesamoid, and irregular. Small, you’ll notice, isn’t among them.”

“So, if I understand you right, you’re saying Isabel should be rejiggered into a short, short-boned girl?”

“I’m saying Isabel should be left to stew in her own shortcomings, because she doesn’t deserve rejiggering, let alone publication.”

He paused, unembarrassed, to button his shirt.

“Tell you what. No need to finish that. Leave your number at the reception desk and we’ll be in touch if and when we require your services.”

Another elevator than the one that had brought me up took me back to the lobby. Alas, its operator had no sage counsel for me to reflect on as I walked down Park Avenue South past Union Square and across Fourteenth Street. The row of secondhand bookshops on Fourth Avenue called to me to no purpose. They might have been so many dingy cemeteries for moldering authors. At Astor Place, a guy shuffling toward me stopped and stuck a hand in my face. The hand was clad in a ragged mitten that was missing its thumb. In an access of fellow feeling, I searched my pockets and finally dug up a nickel he examined with disdain.

“Napoleon at thirty was—don’t you know—master of France.”

Or so I’d have had him say if it had been up to me. Had it been up to me, I’d also have had him say he was on his way to bum some money off an elevator operator of his acquaintance. Only of course it wasn’t up to me and what he said to me in fact was: “Thanks for nothing.”

A small object that could only have been a nickel ricocheted off the back of my head and skittered along the sidewalk into the gutter as I turned east on Eighth Street. The light was changing on Third Avenue, but I gambled with my life and won, and—except for a badly confused rooster that crowed at me from a second-story fire escape—proceeded unmolested along St. Marks Place till I came to the fifth walk-up from the corner.

My wife, who was spoon-feeding some kind of orange mush into the baby in her high chair, raised her head like a cobra when I let myself into our two rooms.

“Marylee called.”

“She didn’t waste any time, did she?”

“She said her boss thought you were demented.”

“It’s entirely possible.”

“As if it wasn’t bad enough I had to crawl to my parents for the rent, you had to go and make a fool of me in front of my friend. No, don’t bother looking in the cabinet. You won’t find it. I poured it down the sink.”

>>>><<<<

STEPHEN BAILY has published short fiction in some fifty-five journals, including, most recently, Bullshit Lit (forthcoming), Ink Sac, Mercurius, Mad Alice, and Horror, Sleaze, Trash. He’s also the author of eleven plays and three novels, including “Markus Klyner, MD, FBI” (Fellow Traveler Press, 2021). He lives in France.

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