2 March 2003 | Vol. 3, No. 1

Closet Fiction

…There let the pealing organ blow,
To the full-voiced choir below,
In service high, and anthems clear
As may, with sweetness, through mine ear
Dissolve me into ecstasies,
And bring all Heaven before mine eyes.
– Milton, Il Penseroso

"I would like to—I mean, I do write what I call closet fiction—"

Dr. Edwine was pontificating at his own reflection in a brandy Alexander puddle (a man his size had no fear of a ladies' beverage redounding poorly upon his masculinity).

"—as radical as that might sound to followers of the public reading circuit. And I really—"

It had become customary to let clients spew their pet irrelevancies for the first few minutes of these meetings, so they could pretend they were still artists even though they were about to become moderately rich. But the day was beginning to fizzle out, and this perfect oaf had yet again sheathed his elongated butt in the same vintage checkered petroleum products he'd worn since showing up in town. They were beginning to smell just like a Sunset Strip glory hole in the hectic days before AIDS. So the long-suffering stylist interrupted him in mid-spew:

"Golan and Globus' people are talking seven figures."

Dr. Edwine just gave off a look somewhat blanker than usual.

"Is the cocktail pianist playing 'I Did It My Way' too loudly?" asked the stylist, reaching out both hands to pat the slightly baggy, orange-bristly cheeks. "Don't be a mensch. Or do be, I don't care. But did you hear what I just said? Seven figures. Siete. Nana."

"—yeah?" Dr. Edwine stared into the brownish spaces over the bar. "Oh. You mean they don't count the two figures behind the decimal point? I always wondered about that."

But still there was no recognizable emotional response. So the stylist just stared at him awhile until social discomfort forced a reaction.

"Hmm," Dr. Edwine said, stroking his admittedly wonderful Arafat-esque beard with the fingers of one hand while tallying on the others. "Oh yeah. Seven. That is sort of a whole bunch of money, isn't it?"

He exerted to lift his voice to some semblance of excitement, or even interest, obviously just to be polite. Here he was, on the verge of achieving about eighty-five percent of every other American's wet dream, and he was only concerned about not hurting his stylist's feelings. It was obvious that this large alien presence on the other side of the table, surrounded by his sugar- and fat-coagulated empties, could never be deflowered. At least not with money.

"That advance you laid on me put us over the top for good," said Dr. Edwine. Then he frowned a bit and added, self-consciously, "Fiducially speaking, I mean."

"Of course," said the stylist, trying not to sigh.

"I mean," said Dr. Edwine, "we've got enough to live off the interest till the four of us die. All we need is about twenty-five, um, kay a year, or maybe thirty, if we move back west and keep our heads down. Matter of fact—"

He shifted in the chair that was about three sizes too small for him, and paused a moment. He was apparently thinking, and that boded ill. Clearly, it would soon be time to deliver the standard apotheosis speech.

"—I already missed my youngest's baptism," said Dr. Edwine. "And, seeing as how there's nothing between here and there except a little sand, I'd like to just grab a plane and—"

"Think of it, Dr. Edwine," the stylist began to recite in a near monotone. "Your words, your very own words, will be distributed thickly and widely enough so that, even in an—um, what declension of the word scenario would a good Latinist use here?"

"What case?"

"Worst.... Never mind. Where was I? Oh, yes. So that at least one copy of you is likely to survive whatever holocaust the big boys in Washington have cooked up for us. From that point on, you will have a crack at immortality. You might even become the divinely inspired author of canonical scripture, if you get some of those enormous relatives you're always talking about to bury a couple copies in a jar, Qumran-wise, in the Utah Salt Flats."

Nothing. Nary a flare of either booger-packed nostril. Christ, not another level-headed one with wholesome values solidly in place. Guilt, the cheapest of shots, but sure-fire in the case of these hicks, would have to suffice.

"Besides," (a much bitchier voice now) "you agreed in writing to pitch in with the promotion. In any case, you'd be obligated on a strictly gentlepersonly basis. After all, it's not you who're taking all the risks."

The stylist let that sink in a couple minutes, shifted on bored buttocks and continued.

"I wasn't going to tell you this, but probably you've already guessed it anyway. You were chosen literally at random. You're the communications industry's equivalent of a sweepstakes winner. The only prerequisite was that nobody, but nobody should be able to accuse us of cronyism or star-currying this time, as they did after our previous efforts with Harvard graduates and rock musicians. For you, Dearie, are as obscure as obscure can be. You're a middle-class male WASP, a Dr. Nobody from the—"

"I believe it's called the Intermountain Wastes," twanged one of the consultants, who were just showing up, unbuckling and peeling off their expensive deerskin driving gloves and flopping them casually on the table, heedless of the accumulations of tan fluid.

"—of all places. And you've spent your entire adult life in boring, déclassé dumps like Asia, where nothing of any interest could ever happen. You've fewer good connections than a Taiwanese word processor."

"But wait a minute," snarled the other consultant. "If that's the case, then what could the strategy possibly be?"

The stylist turned away from the "author" and began to talk shop.

"This one's not too old. He could just squeeze in under the wire. But he's too decrepit (forgive me, Love) for the Brats. And the public's gotten wise to the dewy youth thing anyway."

"Yes," said a consultant, "I'm afraid generation mongering has been played out for the next few seasons."

"So, in the absence of any fresh ideas," said the stylist, coolly surveying the various vacant brows around the table, "the promo will probably wind up being the industry's final last-ditch effort, in this century, at least, to revive the old McCullough/Doctorow/Irving ruse—"

"You know," one of them said to Dr. Edwine, "where the sheer size of the advance itself constitutes the cornerstone of the whole ad campaign?"

"Huh?" he said.

"—but this time with the Judith Guest twist added."

"You know, Dr. Edwine. Over the transom? The first unagented contract since Ordinary People?"

"Transom, oh yeah," said Dr. Edwine, inspecting a surfboard-sized thumbnail.

"Now, in consideration of the mid-list feel of this number, the advance could only be in the upper-mid six figures, of course. Slightly lower than Helprin's. But it's more than enough to attract attention in these days of deep recession."

As if another indication of his flaccid incorruptibility were needed, Dr. Edwine not only failed to pay attention to this last bit of the conversation, but indicated, through more of his ear-splitting body language, that he'd only noticed one thing so far this afternoon: the cooling of the rapture he'd once been able to elicit from the stylist and associates, his three mentors in grooming and personal hygiene.

The adoration-starved goon now tried to stoke up the original fervor with an obvious attempt to call attention to his personal trademarks. He crossed his legs, exposing about three feet of hound's-toothed shin, and, with audible effort, tried to recreate the smile he'd flashed at himself in the first of uncounted L. A. booze puddles. He succeeded in grunting up only a very sappy approximation.

The stylist wondered if maybe they'd come on a bit too strong, too soon. This was a new world's record: Dr. Edwine was already self-parodying, before things had even gotten off the ground. Everything was lost.

What the hell. At least now they could find out the answer to the question which the three of them had been asking themselves and each other, from the first moment he'd galumphed off the All Nippon Airways 747 with no luggage but a manuscript box. At the secret signal, the gay banter suddenly ceased, and they got more serious than "their Dr. Samuel Edwine" had ever seen them.

The stylist looked at him with narrowed eyes and said, "We're just curious. We're not really part of the firm that's doing your project, as you know. We're just contracted consultants. So we don't give a shit. The nightmare legalities aren't our problem. With the budget those maniacs have allotted, you're guaranteed to make some kind of splash in the media; and whatever happens to your reputation, which is your problem, your presentation-self will now and forevermore be unassailable. It will always reflect well on us, like—"

"—like giant hot sunshine bouncing off wet teeth," interposed one of the consultants in mock rapture, getting a kick in return.

"Whatever. So you can be honest, Dr. Edwine. Your secret's safe with us."

In unison they glanced at the atrocious carbon copy tucked under his enormous arm, which he, in his naïveté, had brought along, thinking they might want to discuss it. Everyone, including Dr. Edwine himself, seemed to wince at the odor, which the thing had retained all this time, of chewed-up vitamin-B complex supplements.

It was the unmistakable scent of an obsolete, FDA-banned, carcinogenic type of capsule no longer available anywhere in the free world outside a certain medium-large salt-flat community, eight hundred miles to the north and east, tucked