The Hack's Progress
You know sir, you have a lovely office. These books, these chairs. The very essence of a man of your standing. Have I told you that before? I am so happy to have been chosen by you over the rest of those candidates. Knowing as you do, that I am a little different from most. Why thank you, I would like a cognac. It is so you to have crystal in your office. Rosenthal isn't it?
Pardon? You want to know how I came to get a degree? Why I returned to school? Of course what you are really asking is why I abandoned my writing. Yes, I can see how you might. Most professionals lack your sensitivity for the arts; no one else has thought to ask that question before. I suppose they are disconcerted by my former career. Make yourself comfortable sir, and I will tell you.
In your experience people are undone by drink, or greed, or lechery. I was seduced by Art. With a capital A. You may not realize this but lives are lost to Art. It nearly cost me mine.
I can see by your raised eyebrow, you think I exaggerate. But I do not. What I say is true. It was art. Or if you prefer naivete. I was foolish enough to believe my professors. Foolish enough to believe in the dream. Foolish enough to believe in myself.
I can see you don't believe me. I will have to explain. Allow me to fetch you another cognac. Comfortable? Ashtray empty? The background material will take a moment or two.
As we cheerfully bugger our way into another millennia, you and I both know the world is falling apart. We see this everyday. Even from such a graceful bunker as this you cannot help but notice the squalor that threatens us. When I grew up, I believed all that nonsense about a meritocracy and upward mobility.
I was innocent.
I didn't notice that the majority of medical students were the sons and daughters of doctors, or that to attend a prestigious school usually required a father as alumni.
You smile of course. This is not news to you. You hired me because of my marks and background. A "good fit" I suppose you call it. Sorry sir, bad joke. But you will admit it helped that Uncle Richard used to be a senior partner.
It began in school. As you know I attended your alma mater, a fine university, with a superlative faculty. I remember drinking in the firm round vowels and clean consonants of Professor Davis's pronouncements: "The novel is dead." His lectures flew from his neatly goateed chin directly into my brain. I had no need of notes. He made it all so clear. So very clear.
I still remember, that first Christmas party. I remember Professor Davis's hand, casually dropping to my right buttock. Naif that I was, it struck me as poignant. I, the novice, could provide solace to a man trapped in a marriage that was a lie! It seemed so little to give, so cruel to refuse. You understand sir. If anyone can, you must.
It was later that I discovered the highway down which the good professor drove me was a tollway without an exit. A top grade, an A given to award my insight, my sensitivity - and yes a certain earthy willingness to oblige - that very grade could be withdrawn as quickly a limp penis. I persevered however, bending over, allowing my row to be hoed. For at the end of it all I would receive a first class degree from a first class institution.
You are silent now sir. Not shocked I trust. Not a man of the world such as yourself. You see, I was willing to give anything for the leisure to polish my writing. It is that same drive that you have hired after all. You know I will apply it to fill the august coffers of Haye, Jackings and Billings. And of course your and my pockets.
But to return to my story. Life outside university became difficult. The opportunities for money to pay the rent, to buy the groceries, were limited. Even those moments with Professor Davis were not, I discovered, rare gems, chosen carefully and seldom given. I discovered from friends in my graduate seminar, that I was not alone. The professor was an equal opportunity marker. He enjoyed himself with abandon amongst the men and women that enlisted in his seminar. Indeed if Sylvie Fresh is to be believed, Doctor Davis was even willing to include her golden retriever in his generosity.
Perhaps it was due to a presbyterian value system, perhaps just better taste in wine. Or perhaps my nerves could no longer stand the constant importuning of art magazines and publishers. I decided it was no sin to print books on less than vellum. I broadened the scope of my search to include all manner of publishers. I begged for work from paperback publishers of all stripes, even those that sold only by mail order. I had hoped my experiences at the feet of Professor Davis might translate into coin. Again I was wrong; what had seemed exotic to me, such publishers found dull, even trite.
I sank to a new low and attempted to get into print in the newspapers - they laughed at my opinions. Time after time I faced rejection from overfed editors with no concerns except invitations to the trendiest restaurant openings.
I gave in to fate. I attempted to replicate my success with Professor Davis. As you know sir I do have something to offer. I was only rejected when my guess about the man behind the desk was wrong. Finally, an editor with a large publisher took pity upon my state. I remember his explanation well.
"You must face facts. You are not a novelist. At best you qualify as hack."
You could hear the distaste he felt just mouthing the word. He suggested he might find a way to publish a murder mystery. Small thanks for an afternoon that his colleagues would doubtless learn to envy over cocktails. But enough to infuse me again with hope.
I turned into my chrysalis. Scorning the cafes and taverns where I had previously spent my time, I laboured over my computer; and when I needed money, over a bar counter. After two years my opus was complete. I submitted it for publication. You can guess the response I received.
"Sorry. Not quite what we're after."
"We regret that our schedule is complete at this time."
"No thank you."
"Unfortunately the enclosed manuscript titled Bloody Ivy does not meet our criteria."
My brain dulled by rejection, I sought out Professor Davis. Perhaps he could advise me. I found him at a party given for new students to meet alumni. As usual he was near the drinks table with his left hand pointing out exotic wines to a pretty young student. His right, I noted with a pang of jealousy was pressed against the small of her back.
"Professor Davis? You remember me?"
His eyes were blank, due to drink I imagine.
"I have a novel." I plunged on. "I need some critical input."
"Piss off. We're busy." The student, a callow undergrad with crooked teeth, giggled at this commanding show of wit.
I walked home to save bus fare. I was in a stupor. I could sink no lower. What could be wrong with my novel? My opus, banging against my leg in a cheap plastic grocery bag, I wandered the streets trying to imagine what my problem was. In the solitude of my putrid apartment, I shed my clothes and prepared for bed.
I had once been proud of my body, my carefully groomed hair, my muscles well toned from exercise. Now there was a growing belly, and flaccid skin, green white under the bilious fluorescent light. My hair cropped short for convenience and price, no longer looked even avant garde. I know it is hard for you to believe having seen me more recently but it is true. I had let myself go.
After that dreadful night I determined I would not give up yet. I would try one more avenue. I would find critical help. I returned to the editor that had inventoried my talents. For several afternoons of sport involving a vibrator, silk scarves and a quantity of relaxants, he agreed to read and critique it. Sir. Are you alright? You look quite pale. Here. Have another splash of this excellent cognac. I can guess what you are worried about. Don't. I gave the firm's insurance agent my blood test results before signing the contract, and an excellent contract it was. Most generous.
That afternoon began as always. The meeting in the hotel room - he could not bear the squalor of my apartment - the initial scuffle followed by a more leisurely encounter to satisfy his perverse pleasure. Finally, leaning against the bedstead, released from his bonds, he lit one of the tacky little cigarillos he affected. You have no idea how relieved I was on learning that you were a cigar smoker, to find you knew the value of a good Cuban, sir.
"You know" the editor told me. "it isn't as bad as I feared. I think mostly it's just missing the personal touch, the passion of it all. The crime itself is almost executed by remote control. We get no feeling for the agony of the victim, for the anger of the murderer."
I could not believe what I was hearing. I looked up from folding the aviator scarf into my gym bag. There, he sat, as smug and self satisfied as all the rest of them, content with his six figure job, his wife and child, his little liaisons. "Liaisons". That was how he referred to me. I remember coiling the scarf slowly around my fingers, the fabric still damp with his exudations. I tried to form a coherent response.
"There, there, my little hack. You'll be better for such honest criticism."
I pivoted, throwing my legs over his chest, and looped the scarf over his head. He chuckled imagining the new pleasures he was about to experience, as I wrapped the scarf around his throat twice.
I still remember that small crease of uncertainty that formed on his forehead, just over that repulsive face-wide eyebrow of his.
"They say when you die the orgasm is the best ever." I said. He grasped my wrists but he was already too late.
I jerked my arms apart. Hard. Little hack indeed! I outweighed him by at least twenty pounds. Those hours spent at the gym were not completely lost. It was all over surprisingly quickly. Alas! Although he achieved a certain rigidity, he died without that ultimate experience.
I unclenched my jaw and began to get dressed. Passion. Anger. None of these bureaucrats know the meaning of either word. They are cushioned from such sensations, hidden as they are in the suburbs. They get all sensations as voyeurs, by watching us, the maggots the scum, the impoverished artists as we struggle, as we actually do.
I thrust my things into my bag and, after wiping down the room, I left. I knew enough of the editor's habits to know I was safe. He no longer bragged of our encounters because his wife threatened not just divorce but financial humiliation if he cheated again. She was rather like your wife when you stop and think about it.
Sir! Are you alright? Oh dear! You’ve splashed some on your desk. Let me get that. We wouldn't want the cognac to strip the lacquer off this fine desk. A Phyfe isn't it? I'm afraid the leather may need refinishing.
Now where was I? Oh yes, you were upset because of my little crime. Have no fear sir. My research into crime technique had paid off. I was never suspected, never even questioned.
Now you see how I was driven to this end. I have no regret. There is no hope for a mere hack, but there are other opportunities. As you know, I had no trouble successfully navigating the perils of a joint law-business degree, and I cannot tell you how grateful I am to you for offering me a place here. Of course my experience with the publishing industry can only help us in our suit to pry open the copyright act. Clearly the widows and families of authors have no right to such properties. Great Art belongs to the world. I am sure our publisher clients will find me sufficiently aggressive.
Ah, I see I told you too much. Nosir if I were you I'd put that phone down. What if our private little job interview became public? Not even the mahogany panelling of this office could protect you from the tabloids.
No evidence? Sir, I see you have underestimated me. Allow me to play something for you. I took the precaution of recording my job interviews so I could review the questions at my leisure. Yessir, my briefcase was wearing a wire. Extraordinary how good the mikes are these days isn't it?
I believe if you check your criminal law you will find some aspects of our little encounter are an offense in this jurisdiction. Of course I would have to claim duress but as you know the courts view job interviews as just such a situation. I made rather a study of the precedents. I am sure you have no need of my research. You know I am right.
Oh dear. You are quite pale again. Don't worry sir. There are only a half dozen copies of the interview extant, and they are all in secure locations. Periodically I like to listen to it, for my own enjoyment. It really was quite romantic the way you set forth your proposal sir. You have no idea how entertaining you are sir when in the throes of passion. True, you are not quite as inventive as some members of the artistic community. But you are charming in your own way. Healthy. Straightforward in your needs. And of course there is always your lovely clear baritone.
Now sir there's no need for that kind of language. I can see where these little revelations may have startled you a bit but don't worry. I think the murder of that editor cured me of my remaining ideals. From now on I shall follow in your august footsteps! I shall be a normal member of society! A fine upstanding member of the bar! And, of course, a credit to Haye, Jackings and Billings.