“Well, Andrea, it’s your dollar,” Dr. Theodore Mannstein, finally said. “We can sit here for the entire hour, staring at each other. Either way I get paid the same.” Then he smiled as if they were playing chess and he had just made a brilliant move.
Andrea’s eyes shifted fractionally from what appeared to be pity to something more resembling loathing. “That’s funny,” she said, “The first sentence out of your mouth, and it’s wrong. I’m not paying for this psycho-crap; my father is. And I fully intend to give him a call afterwards and tell him he’s hired a complete incompetent.”
“Fine with me,” Mannstein said. At his desk, he steepled his fingers, then settled back in his chair. “For the record, I’m not exactly hurting for patients. Your father pulled some major strings to get you in here. And he’s paying me two-fifty and hour whether you say anything or not. Maybe this is a way you can…stick it to your dad?”
Andrea Halter was not an extraordinarily attractive girl, although she was bottle-blonde slender, and had big tits. Her features were a tad too horsy to be a knockout and when she got angry, her face flushed to the color of a rutting pig, and her eyes bulged as if she had a case of hypertension. She scanned around on the office wall, glancing at the obligatory framed documents. “Where the hell did you matriculate, Southern Cal-Bum-Fuck?”
Ted nodded knowingly and his already heavy eyelids drooped lower. “Ah yes, an attempt at a little verbal one-upsmanship. Very good. Actually, I became matriculated at Harvard. Perhaps you’ve heard of it? And matriculate is an intransitive verb once you’ve graduated. In its transitive form…”
“Oh, you’re a real grade-A asshole,” Andrea said.
“I’ve been called worse.” Mannstein looked down at her records, more for effect than for anything purposeful. “And you, young lady, seem to have…two persons living inside you?” He smiled at her and sang in a soft voice just above a whisper. “Double your pleasure, double your fun, with Double Mint, Double Mint, Double Mint gum.”
Andrea deflated slightly on the other side of the desk. “If you think having another person living inside your brain is fun, then you really are an idiot. Imagine going home to your slick little bachelor pad with your I-Pad and your HDTV, pouring yourself a glass of Cabernet and the next thing you know, you’re out on the street, looking for…men. That is unless you’re already a faggot, in which case.”
“I take your point,” Mannstein said. “So, what you’re saying is, you’re not a happy camper.”
“Hey— Way to deduce those premises, Skippy.”
Mannstein’s eyelids ratcheted up a notch. Another crow’s foot appeared at the lower edge of his eye and the skin in the folds turned white. “My name is Doctor Mannstein and you may call me that. Or if you like, you may call me Ted.”
“Okay, Skippy. Ya know you don’t spar as well as you thought you did. I just found a button.”
Mannstein smiled. It almost looked sincere. In his chair, he looked like a moderately cuddly Jewish teddy bear with extremely intelligent eyes. Mom would approve.
She imagined that every hair on his body matched the tight black curly cues on his head, protruding from his t-shirt, his underwear. Pubic head, her mind whispered.
“Soooo…who’s your partner? Is it a he or a she, or an it?”
“He’s a boy,” Andrea sighed as if she were admitting to having bad breath.
“I guess that could be convenient.”
Andrea’s eyes flared for the fourth time in five minutes. “What the hell does that mean? What, so I can go fuck myself?”
Mannstein took a long breath and stood up. He was taller than she was expecting, every bit of six four, and as such a bit daunting, if only physically. “I don’t know if this is feasible, but is it physically possible for me to have at least a brief tiny logical sidebar with somebody in there? Or are you just completely out of control?”
A moment passed. “I’m here,” Andrea sighed. “I am capable of prolonged periods of normalcy. It’s when people try to beat down the door that I get a little defensive. If someone were banging on the doors of your bachelor-pad, would you throw open the doors and yell, “Hey c’mon in! It’s party time?”
Mannstein stared out the window, listening to the words. “Nope,” he said after a pregnant moment. “I’d probably get out my baseball bat and invite them to go home.”
“Thank you for that much,” Andrea said. “And I can’t very well invite them to go home. They already live here,” she said, pointing at the side of her head.
“It must be rough.” He stared at her over the top of his glasses and blinked slowly. “I noticed you referred to where I live as a bachelor pad twice in as many minutes. What’s that all about?”
Andrea said nothing but her body language was loud and clear. She crossed her arms, then crossed her legs and began staring at a point on the ceiling.
Mannstein picked up the optical mouse on his computer and blew on the photocell. He put the light up to his eye and tried to peer into it. “Okay, cancel that last transmission. So, this guy who flops out inside your brain, does he have a name? Is he someone you can conjure up, or does he just come mercurially, like the ghost of Christmas-yet-to-come?”
“His name is Johnny,” Andrea said. “And wonder of wonders, he’s my exact diametric opposite.”
“And he’s here now? He’s hearing everything?”
“Actually, at the moment, he’s sleeping. He sleeps a lot, a consequence of which, he likes to go out a lot at night, which makes things a little exhausting for me. But, yes, he knows what I know, I mean, we are sharing the same brain.”
“May I speak to Johnny now, or do you have him chained in some dank cell inside your cerebral cortex?”
Andrea stared at Mannstein for a long moment. For a fraction of a second she seemed dizzy, as if she were about to drift off, and then her eyes fluttered.
“Dude!” her voice said amicably, cheerfully. Johnny stood up and shook, actually tried to shake Mannstein’s hand, only the fingers got messed up when he tried to transition from regular to a soul-brother handshake. “I hear ya met the bitch,” he said, grinning, his voice sounding more Philly than Bronxville.
“I wouldn’t call her a bitch,” Mannstein corrected. “She’s an extremely interesting young lady. Bright too,” he added.
Johnny grinned and gave a thumbs-up. “Coverin’ your ass. I can dig it. It’s no secret; Andrea’s got a bad temper.”
“Unlike you, who I’m assuming is unfazed by anything.”
Johnny’s face contorted. “I wouldn’t say anything. I can get pissed off, too. It just takes a lot more.”
“And I’m assuming that Andrea more or less runs the show.”
“Oh, most definitely. She’s the alpha female, which makes me the omega male. Omega’s last, right?”
“Yup. And you’re cool with that?”
“Oh verrry cool. Between the two of us, I have fifty times more fun. She’s OC, by the way, in case you hadn’t noticed.”
“What’s she obsessive about?”
Johnny hesitated. “I don’t want to get in trouble. She’s really a bitch when she gets pissed off. But I guess it’s no secret that she wants to be an author. Make that, she WILL be an author, and put it in four hundred foot letters across the sky.”
“So she likes to write.”
Johnny cocked his head. “Honestly? I don’t even know if it’s that. I know she’d sell her soul right here and now, if she could have her book in the front window of Barnes and Noble with a big picture of herself and a banner that says, Andrea Halter—Pulitzer Prize-winning Novelist!”
“And how ‘bout you?”
“Oh, I think it’d be great. It’d certainly up the scoring when I go to one of my hangouts. But I don’t lose any sleep over it.”
“Yeah, we’re a good team. The ant and the grasshopper.”
“And you write together as well?”
Johnny played with his chin as if he were stroking an invisible goatee. “That’s a bit more complicated. She’s the brains of the outfit. I’m the soul. She’s got the good vocab and she’s got everything outlined and planned out to the twentieth decimal point. But she sucks at dialogue and that’s where I help out.”
For a long moment, Mannstein just stared at the young woman’s eyes. There was no malice in them. “You’re really serious here. This isn’t some stupid parlor game to piss off your dad.”
“I admit it’s fucked-up,” Johnny said. “Oops, she wants to talk again. Nice meeting you Dr. Mannstein.” For an instant, he seemed about to rise and shake hands again, but then he sat back down.
“Okay, so you can see what I’m going through,” Andrea said. “And he smokes as well, poisons my lungs and then he drinks tequila. I hate tequila. And guess who has the hangover and the bad breath in the morning.”
“Nice fellow though. Personable. So, I hear ya wanna be a writer. Where does that come from?”
“If you attempt to go back to Freud again, I’m truly getting up and leaving. If my father contacted you at all, I’m sure you know that he’s a writer, a best-selling writer. And no, I’m not daddy’s little girl. And no, I don’t have penis envy. I just want to write, okay? That was the gold standard in my house growing up. You write, or…”
Mannstein looked at her. “Or what?”
Mannstein continued to hold her eyes. “This one sentence. Answer it…if you can.”
“Okay. Fine. Where I grew up, you write…or you’re nothing. Okay? You got me all figured out now?”
In the bathroom the next morning, Andrea peered in the mirror and groaned at what she saw. She ran her tongue along the inside of her teeth and tasted the slimy residue of cigarette smoke, tequila, and only God and Johnny knew what else.
“Are you trying to kill me?” she said to her image. “Is that the plan because if it is, I know your little peanut mind is incapable of thinking more than three inches past your dick… Oh, that’s right you don’t have a dick. Anyway, if you kill me, you’re gonna kill yourself. Did that ever occur to you?”
Her own eyes smiled back at her from the mirror and for a moment, there was mental feedback, she was a microphone lying next to an amp and her brain was quietly screeching. She looked away and felt the nausea she had felt earlier returning. She went to the toilet and crouched, and as she was throwing up for the third time that morning, she whispered in between retching, “You’re gonna pay for this you know. One of these nights, when you’re coming on like Johnny-be-Good to some little chippy bimbo, I’m going to out you.” From her vantage point, which was eye-level to the bottom of the toilet seat, she noticed the yellow-gray stains under the rim. He hadn’t cleaned that either.
In the next room, her cell phone played the first four bars of Fame on the nightstand. Wiping her face with a towel, she trotted into the room.
“Yes?” she answered, her voice neutral, not masculine or feminine. That was the deal.
“Hello, this is Sarah Bromley from the Tobias Agency. I’m trying to contact…” A moment passed.
For christsake, you can’t even remember my name for the four-fifths of a second in between looking me up and dialing?
“I’m trying to contact Ms. Andrea Halter about the job interview with Tobias Literary Agency.”
“Yes, I’m Andrea Halter.”
“Oh good. Mr. Tobias asked me to call you. There’s been a slight change of scheduling. Would it be possible for you to come in a little earlier?”
“Uhmm…” She ran her tongue along the roof of her mouth and fought the urge to retch. “Sure, of course. How much sooner?”
“Actually, if you could come over right now, we have a slot. Otherwise…” Sarah Bromley’s voice drifted off. The threat was unspoken but it was there.
“No, that’s fine. In fact, that’s ideal. Uhmm, I was just stepping out of the shower. Would forty-five minutes be acceptable?”
“Thirty would be better. I don’t think Mr. Tobias will mind if your hair’s a little wet. We’ll look forward to seeing you.”
“Great!” Andrea sang into the receiver. Back in the bathroom, she threw the phone down next to her curling iron. “We’ll look forward to seeing you? Either you have a mouse in your pocket, or you think you’re a queen Mizz Bromley.” She glared in the mirror and threw the toothpaste tube at herself. The next twelve minutes were a blur of hot shower water, rebrushing her teeth for the third time and finding something to wear. She took a quick slug of Pepto for the hangover she already had and popped two aspirin for the headache she knew was coming and gargled one more time.
In the small tree-lined parking lot at Tobias Literary, she parked in the visitor’s spot and walked quickly to the front door. As she opened it, she made a final check to make sure Johnny was locked down inside her mind. That was the last thing she needed during the most critical interview of her life. She pasted on her Clara-college smile and made a mental note that it would stay pasted on for the next thirty minutes—no matter what.
“Hello, my name is Andrea Halter,” Andrea said to the woman at the reception desk. The woman looked up, smiled, and scanned her in the time between eye blinks. It was difficult to tell what conclusion she had come to.
“Nice to meet you Miss, Halter,” Sarah Bromley said. She escorted Andrea down a narrow, dimly lit hallway with Victorian cabbage rose wallpaper. The place smelled like a library.
Sarah Bromley tapped softly at the door at the end of the hall. “Mr. Tobias, Andrea Halter is here to see you.” She opened the door and glanced at her notes. “Andrea spent two months with Harper Collins,” Sarah said in a breathy whisper. “Before that…” She glanced back at her notes.
“Franklin and Marshall,” Andrea said.
Peter Tobias hobbled up to a stand beside his desk. He was a wiry man in his late forties and graying at the temples. Except for the fact that his left leg was missing, he looked like he would have been a retired catcher on a pro baseball team. “F&M…good school,” he said congenially. “So tell me, what were you, premed or prelaw?”
“I see you know a little about F&M. Prelaw. I double majored. Philo and psych.”
“So you’re smart.”
Andrea inhaled and tried to let it out quietly. “Reasonably so…yes.” Are you going to give me an IQ test as well? How ‘bout a Rorschach test?
“And Harper is an excellent house. If you don’t mind me asking, why are you…”?
“Oh— I guess we’re gonna get right to it, aren’t we? Okay. It’s a little personal but…”
“You don’t have to…”
“That’s all right. Since I’m standing in a literary agency, I’ll use a euphemism. My boss wanted to play house in the broom closet, and I discovered rather quickly that I’m not the domestic type.”
“I see. Well, I can assure you that won’t happen here, primarily because we don’t have any broom closets”. Tobias gazed in Andrea Halter’s eyes and saw that she was not amused. With some difficulty, he held himself up on the desk and handed her a small stack of query submissions. “I’m sure you know the drill by heart. These are query letters, the lifeblood of why we get up, put our pants on, and go to work every morning.”
“Yes, I’m familiar.”
“People spend five years, ripping their guts out to get it down. Then they spend five minutes on their query letter and…”
“Yeah, I know. Same thing at Harper. Would you like me to scan them now?” Andrea said. As soon as she said it, she knew it was too abrupt.
“Uh, yes. That’s the plan.” Tobias’ eyes darted to his Sarah Bromley, his second in command. “Oh and to be fair with you, Sarah and I have deposited a red herring in here. One of them is an early query letter from a successful writer whose manuscript went on to become a best seller. Name’s changed of course.”
“I’m assuming we’re going for speed?”
“Speed, yes,” Tobias answered. He sat back on the edge of the desk and tried to find a comfortable position. “But if you could give me a word here and there as to why you’re canning one, it’ll help me understand how your mind works.”
“Sure. No problem.” Andrea picked up the first query, scanned it in less than a second, and tossed it on the desk. “Typo,” she said and picked up the next one. “Coffee stain.” She picked up the next one. “This one needs a fresh ink cartridge,” she said tossing it down with the other two.
She picked up the next one and held it in front of her face, her eyes scanning rapidly back and forth. She looked like a well-oiled android. “Too many ellipses,” she said. “I’m guessing whoever wrote this also writes screenplays.” She allowed herself a tiny glance at her possible future boss, her eyes twinkling in self-complacency.
“An astute observation,” Sarah Bromley said, her eyes more dour than the new girl’s. “However, the goal here isn’t just to fill up the trash can. If that were the case, we could just install a chute directly from the mail slot to the dumpster and cut out the middleman. I think the goal here is to find good writing.” She looked to Tobias for affirmation.
Peter Tobias drew in a long breath and nodded. “That’s supposed to be the goal.”
Andrea’s eyes darted between the two of them. “At Harper, they taught us that there were so many metric tons of queries every day that the prime directive was to separate the wheat from the chaff. If the writer can’t get his act together in the query, he isn’t going to have it together for a hundred thousand word novel.”
“True,” Tobias agreed. “And I like your approach…I think. It’s just that we’re a tiny bit smaller here. And we’re not a publishing house. There’s a difference. You may go ahead and luxuriate in the extra two and a half seconds to scan for content…just on the off chance we have the next Grisham or Conroy here in the pile only they can’t tear themselves away from the evil ellipsis.”
Andrea smiled, but only with her mouth, and went back to scanning the queries only slightly slower than she had before and without comment. Five queries down she slowed, then stopped. She held up a crisp twenty-pound bright white sheet of paper, her eyes scanning more slowly now. “This is probably your red herring,” she said, handing Tobias the sheet.
Tobias put his glasses on and scanned it. “Yup, you got it on the first shot,” he said.
Tobias looked at her. “There’s an only?”
“Whoever wrote this has what I call thesaurusitis. It’s too verbose. It comes from running everything through a computer. Use becomes utilization.” She stared down at the page. “How many people know what simulacrum means? It’s snobbish. It defeats the purpose of what writing is supposed to do…communicate.”
Peter Tobias looked at Sarah Bromley, batting his eyes like a chorus girl. He didn’t want to say just yet who had penned that particular query. “Well, I can see you’re gonna need your sneakers,” he chuckled.
Andrea glanced at her feet. She was wearing navy-blue sling-back heels, which matched her navy-blue suit. “S’cuse me?”
“It’s an in-joke,” Sarah said. “I’ll tell you later…assuming there is a later.”
“I see,” Andrea said, feeling like she had already lost the job. “Well, jolly good then. I’ll be shuffling off to Buffalo. Thank you both so much for your time. By the way, since we’re all asking ultra personal questions. What happened to your leg? Frostbite on some trek to the Angies? Or a big crock perhaps on a safari?”
Peter Tobias’ eyes narrowed slightly. “Actually it was a barracuda.”
Andrea stopped. “Oh— I’m sorry. I didn’t really mean… It must have been painful.”
Tobias smiled good-naturedly. “I don’t even remember it. It was, in fact, a Plymouth Barracuda, 1968 vintage I believe. It impacted my little Volvo P1800-S…they didn’t have the Jaws of Life back then. They had to hacksaw me out; unfortunately the leg stayed with the car.”
“We’ll let you know, Miss Halter.”