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So many disappointments, so many failures. He tried to forget them all, but he
never forgot the image of a girl – he was haunted by the vision 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.
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 and
123rd Street. The mailman would leave it there while he circulated down the
street on one side and up the other. He would then get back in his truck and
drive up 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 in the lobby downstairs, Billy
would stand up and nonchalantly walk down the three flights of stairs as
leisurely as he could. 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 submittals. To look at the mail box one might think both men
lived at 12-13, 123rd St. but Lyle and Billy were one and the same person. Long
before he ever started to write, he was sure that the name Billy Baxter could
never appear as an author, it was a good enough name for his night time job as a
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 to an old
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
“After careful consideration we feel that your novel, although containing some
strong examples of characterisation, dialogue, 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 a 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. 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 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
never forgot the mustard.
Yet all the while, his mind was elsewhere. The image of the girl floating above
the skyline haunted him constantly. She soared far 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 grossly 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 the 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 at all. But, this is New York after all, 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
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’.” 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 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
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 old vision 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
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