Gilbert was staring at his new MacIntosh drinking an espresso. He had just finished a query letter to publishers describing his barely finished book, Death of an American Tourist. It was a comedy and had taken six years to write. A local editor had given him some free tips and he was ready to embark on the sad and lonely trip to public discovery. Sally Morton seemed to like his novel but was not so keen on Gilbert. He was grateful for the assistance but wondered why a renowned editor would be working with him at “Retail Barn” in Norristown, PA. Together they folded towels and dealt with unruly customers. Slowly, after several months she began telling him her story and giving him some encouragement. They were both English Majors after all.
Sally used to work in publishing in New York. She did well but relocated to Philadelphia after a messy divorce. Lots of “Barn” workers turn up that way. Together, they spoke about their dreams and near misses and had to endure the store’s ghastly muzak, Top 40 for teenage girls. The worst was the British band, Coldplay. So sickly, saccharine and devoid of hooks. Gilbert asked Sally if she minded hearing the song “Yellow” six times a day? Luckily, she preferred Tom Petty. Gilbert agreed, “He’d hate working here.”
Death of an American Tourist had gone through several stages. Some early portions still had telltale earmarks of the Reed College graduate. Twelve years working in advertising had not watered down the over zealous forms that reminded the reader of Beat Poets. When his career imploded he decided to tell the story. He was certain he had the skills but was unprepared for the curious arena that was authorship. It had taken two years simply studying other writers and researching material – mostly about one-off novelists – and writers with similar bones to pick and stories to tell.
Gilbert could never work out how notority was achieved. “How did Joan Didion waltz into a high profile career after college?” Gilbert did not travel in those circles. He had no circles. “It really is about who you know,” he figured. Same for Sylvia Plath. infamous poet. She went to Amherst to soak up Emily Dickenson, right? Then to NYC to work as an editor. Then a breakdown. Then she writes book, The Bell Jar (OK novel) about her experience. There was great acclaim before putting her head in an oven. Or was that afterwards? Of course, she married Ted Hughes, Great British Poet and lousy husband. There’s another one-off, the critically acclaimed, A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. Again, suicide follows. Leads to even more acclaim. Gilbert wanted to avoid the early death part but considered a fake one. “How would I pull that off?” he wondered. Let’s not mention J. D. Salinger. After a while, Gilbert’s prose hit pay dirt. Characters said things without permission. Plots developed without painful re-working. He was happy knowing that he may have captured the feel of his book in the letter with a few spirited catch phrases. He went as far as to envision glowing reviews: “Gifted writer re-defines the Great American Novel.” Was he afraid of being considered overly arch? Using too many adjectives?
Gilbert had also taken a class, How to Publish Your Novel, which went well. The teacher, Nancy Sprout had a successful memoir about her battle with cocaine addiction. She liked his work particularly, although the competition was stiff. Several women were struggling with sensitive stories where the heroines went through stages of failure and renewal. Their earnestness made Gilbert uncomfortable. He imagined these Eat, Pray, Conjugate memoirs were destined to have highly embossed covers and sell like gangbusters. It was a tough row to hoe. Staying up to date without falling into the trendy arena of books with clever, over-wordy sub-titles about the decline of the Middle Class or the imploding Middle East was not easy. Were those books written by publicists?
Eventually, Gilbert dropped the envelope in the big blue box at the end of his street. It was addressed to the agent of a young humorist who wrote pieces for the New Yorker. He said a small prayer and continued on to the local coffee emporium next to the Lesbian Bookstore. Their rainbow flag was limp and fading in the sun. In the Bean Salon, he ordered a regular Decaff in a big ceramic cup and sat down in the shade with a new notebook. Was there another writer he could emulate? He made a few notes on recent books he’d read then noticed the time. As the sun ebbed, Gilbert gunned his ancient Subaru off to the Malls just shy of the Suburbs and just shy of being late for the night shift. He swiped his identity card awkwardly and dashed to the employee changing room where he donned his brightly colored “Retail Barn” shirt ignoring the smell of feet. Or was in Doritos? Back in Textiles, he waved to Sally and threw himself into the towels.
Summer shoppers were the worst. Tanned, bullet-headed husbands in baggy cargo shorts walked the aisles, oblivious. Two-year-olds in carts gazed wide-eyed at small screens. Tattooed wives insisted on opening every towel to feel the moderately soft fabric. Sally had had a long day, “Would you mind re-folding that please, Ma’am?” The husky Amazon ignored the request, threw the towel back on the heap and aimed her face at Sally, “I believe that’s your job, honey.” Gilbert stepped into the breach and began sorting according to size and design. As the housewives retreated back to New Jersey, Sally glared. “Tramps! I don’t know how you put up with it, Gilbert.” He put a reassuring hand on her shoulder, “It’s a Zen thing Sally. And you know we both have bigger fish to fry.” She brightened behind her tears and gave Gilbert a sweet smile. The high-five was a little tired.