Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Last Chapter

Shelly took a last look at herself in the mirror. Looked OK. She dropped her compact into her purse, just in case.

"Today's meeting with Barry should go well," she told Steve. "I'm sure it's all a tiny misunderstanding."

Steve didn't say anything. Steve never said anything, anymore. Steve had died, what, was it now almost ten years ago? It wasn't something Shelly liked to think about, especially since she hadn't told Barry.

"Anyway, I should be home before dark," she said. And, "Bye, honey," as she closed and locked the door to her tiny apartment behind her. What remained of Steve, a silver plated tin jar full of his ashes, continued to sit silently on the small lamp stand by her bedside. It said nothing.

Shelly took the subway downtown, then hurried up into the busy streets, glad to be above ground again, away from the constant taint of urine and body odor that a battalion of cleaning staff never were able to remove, no matter how much bleach they blasted on the dank stone down there.

Barry had told her to meet him at JoJo's. His office was just a couple of doors along the street from the restaurant, so they had met there often enough that the wait staff knew her on sight. Today Raoul was tending reception. She could see Barry sitting at their accustomed spot by the window and waved at him. As Raoul lead her to the table Barry smiled. It melted her heart, the way it always did. She almost smiled back, but controlled herself just in time.

If she lost this account, all would be in vain! Everything at all times must be completely professional. She sat down opposite him.

"Hey, Barry," she said. "Have you been waiting long?"

"Actually, I took the day off," Barry told her. "I was hoping we could enjoy a leisurely lunch and then talk."

Damn. That'd take an entire day, not the brief meeting she'd promised Steve. There was no help for it, though. She forced herself to smile back.

"That sounds nice."

Barry had already looked over the menu. JoJo's served a kinda sorta French cuisine. It was OK, but Shelly had never figured out what was so French about it, besides the prices. But Barry was always paying for both of them, so she hadn't worried about it much. By herself, she could not have afforded it.

Lunch passed with inconsequential chatter over servings of steak and chicken, and she had to be careful not to eat too much, if she didn't want to feel as if she were starving tomorrow.

"Are you still living at the usual address?" Barry asked her.

"Um, yes. Why?"

"I thought you and I needed some time to talk things over. I'll call a cab later to take you home."

That didn't sound good. Shelly realized her work was not as good as Steve's work, but what else could she do? Steve had to keep turning in manuscripts. That was all there was to it. She had found Steve, collapsed in his apartment, arranged for a quiet funeral, and kept his ashes. She supposed someone was collecting the royalty payments. She was just getting her usual share, barely enough to keep her apartment. There was no time to expand her agency. No time with all the writing she had to do.

She gather her courage and asked, "Is something wrong?"

"I don't know how to tell you this," Barry said. "I suppose there's no good way to say it, so I'll just have to come right out and tell you."

Shelly realized she was holding her breath. She tried to calm herself down. Breath, girl. When she didn't say anything, Barry continued.

"I've been Steve's editor for twelve years now, right?"

"It'll be twelve years this June," Shelly said.

"Remember I told you that Steve's books were good, but not marketable in the US?"

"Yes, I remember," Shelly told him. "That's why we were going to your UK partner."

"Well, here's the thing. There is no UK partner."

"What? What do you mean?"

"I mean, we haven't been selling Steve's books in the UK."

"I guess I don't understand. Why would your company... wait. You have been paying Steve royalties, so where are you selling the books?"

Shelly suddenly had the suspicion that Barry's masters had created a huge copyright nightmare, and that her secret was about to be revealed to the world. No, she couldn't allow that to happen!

"Barry, whatever happened, I'm sure Steve will understand. We can work it out," she tried to soothe him.

"You misunderstand me," Barry said. "No copies of Steves books were sold, ever."

"What were you paying him for?"

"I'm sorry," Barry said. "It's all my fault."

Shelly had clenched her hands in her lap to keep them from trembling. Now she let go and reached out to pat Barry on his arm. He covered her hand with his, gave it a brief squeeze, and let go. She looked at his face and was surprised to find tears in his eyes.

"Barry, nothing can be that bad. It's just books and money. We'll work it out."

"No, I don't think you understand," Barry told her, leaning forward in his seat across from her, his voice tense and urgent. "There is no publisher. There are no books. I'm not an editor. Shelly, when I first met you I told you I was an editor because you told me you were looking for one, and I was struck madly in love with you from the moment I set eyes on you. Shelly, forgive me for betraying you like this, but I could not bear to never see you again. I had a little money, and I used that to pay for Steve's royalties, and your commission. Every sales meeting we had here was my little piece of heaven. But my money is running out. There were some bad investments..."

Shelly managed a little laugh.

"This is a joke, right? A joke in very poor taste, right?" she asked him. Then she got up, slapped his face, and walked out of JoJo's, her back held straight.

On the way home she felt curiously calm. Her world, destroyed. Nothing was left. Steve, gone. Not that he'd ever amounted to much. Her career, stillborn. Because of Barry. And Steve, of course. Her life, over. It wasn't until she was turning the key in her apartment door lock that she began to sob. By the time she had closed the door behind her and shot the bolt she was bawling like a child. Wailing, she sat at the small table in her kitchen, across from the second-hand laptop she was using for her writing, and let the tears run down her face. They washed her waterproof mascara into blueish black runnels that collected under her chin and dripped unheeded onto the table.

When morning came she woke, still sitting at the table. Her face had gummed itself to her arms, pulling like some kind of glue when she sat up.

"I must look a sight," she said. Then she realized there was no one to say it to. She walked into the bathroom, used the toilet, and ran the water in the sink until it was scalding hot. Then she scrubbed her face until it glowed. After combing her hair into some kind of presentable shape, she went into the bedroom to fetch the silver plated tin that contained Steve.

"Sorry, lover boy," she told him. "It turns out you're not the only one." On the way to the door she paused, went back into the kitchen. She unplugged the laptop and wrapped the chord around it. After she put on her shoes, she clamped the laptop under her arm and carried it and the tin down to the trashbin. They made a satisfying thunk.

Back in her apartment, she gathered up some clothes, stuffed them into a small day bag, and added her cosmetics. Fourty minutes later she was waiting on the stoop of Barry's brownstone. She rang the bell.

"Yes?" came Barry's voice, after a few moments.

"It's Shelly. May I come up?"

"What? Oh, sure, sure, just a moment," and the door buzzed. Shelly pushed it open and hurried up the stairs. She'd felt committed earlier that morning, but now it seemed that something was trying to turn her back. Determined to see it through, she pushed herself forward.

Barry was waiting for her beside an open door. He didn't give her day bag a second glance but invited her inside and lead her into a small office where he asked her to have a seat. Then he sat down next to her.

"Do you forgive me?" he asked her. That took her a bit by surprise.

"No. Yes. I don't know," she said. "You know, I have a secret, too." Then she told him about Steve, how he was dead, and how she'd been writing all of his books these past ten years, desperate to keep people from finding out he was gone.

"He's the only author I ever was an agent for," she told Barry. "I never had time to do anything else after he died. So when you told me you never sold any books, I thought at first everything was gone. But then I realized, if you never sold any of his books, then they're still there to be sold. So you will now help me sell them. You will put me up here in your apartment, and I will keep an eye on you to make sure you do your job this time. We can sell them under Steve's name, if that sounds good. Or under my name, since I wrote most of them. Or under your name, if you think that'll work better. I don't care. But I want them published."

She looked at Barry expectantly. Please say yes, she thought. Because you're the only reason I did any of this. The only reason why I stuck with Steve, so that I could keep shopping books to you. I've loved you for twelve years, and I'll be damned if I let that end now.

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