“It’s…the best…shit…ever…” Travis opened his courier bag and pulled out a plastic grocery bag. He glanced around suspiciously, then hunched over and pulled out a copy of Mi Gringo. The cover flashed in the dim light as I downed half a pint of beer in one swallow.
“There it is!” squealed Molly to her boyfriend. “I told you about this one!”
The boyfriend took the book and I flagged the waitress down.
“Sween Press’s first book,” Travis said, elbowing me.
“Yeah,” I said distractedly. I indicated that we wanted another round, even though Travis, Molly, and Molly’s beau hadn’t yet touched their drinks. The waitress looked at me sideways like a curious dog for a second, then shrugged and vanished.
Silence. I was staring at the boxes of beer that filled up a quarter of the back room and wondering if it was possible to steal one and flee through the emergency exit.
“Rowe?” Travis asked.
I turned to him, then blinked at Molly and her boyfriend. He held the copy of Mi Gringo up.
“Um…oh… Oh! Um… How’s twelve bucks sound?”
He cocked his free hand at me, “You got it, buddy!”
Molly started gushing, “It’s so awesome to meet you, Rowe. I love your story…and I love that you’re willing to have it told. You’ve been through some amazing things… Hard things. Things I wouldn’t even know how to share.” She blabbered on.
My story. I was an inspiration for broken people everywhere because my childhood was, once upon a time, a news story. The innocent victim of a father gone fugitive, an abusive mother, a twisted family. Followed by years of pain and struggle. I know, with normal people, shit like that defines them. Sometimes they become the embodiment of their horrific past, or overcome it and rally those around them. For me, it felt like a movie. I couldn’t relate my current self to that lost child.
But the story sold books. Well, some books. It just made me twelve bucks tonight.
Molly was one of several groupies. I should be nicer to her.
“You’ll love it,” I said, unconvincingly.
Travis maintained a steady shit-eating grin. “We have three more titles!”
“I’ll check them out online.” Molly’s boyfriend said.
Yeah, right, shithead. I froze. Did I say that out loud?
Our second round arrived and everyone looked at me, their first round glasses still untouched.
“You people need to drink faster,” I muttered.
Travis resumed his grin. My loyal right hand man. I hired him six months ago, largely to have an underpaid warm body in my new office, which I rarely frequented. Both his hiring and my new office weren’t thanks to book sales. They were thanks to a wealthy husband and wife publishing team I called the Patrons. My saviors. Folks I counted amongst my dearest friends within six hours of meeting them. They dreamed of becoming publishers, did so with reckless abandon, and hired me to help them out. More on them in a second. Right now, I was drinking.
By the time I hit my sixth round, everyone else was done with their third, and the evening quietly fell apart. Molly, always charmed and forgiving, said she had to go. Work in the morning. Her boyfriend, who treated me like a bug, trailed after her like the besotted sheep he was.
Travis and I turned to shop talk. Selling books, working with the Patrons, how we should just walk around the bar trying to sell copies of our titles.
The waitress interrupted us with the check.
“Time to go?” I slurred.
She glared at me, then mumbled, “Yes.”
Travis raised his eyebrows and looked away.
We paid up and started out. Then something caught my eye. Something horrible. A shining pale blonde light piercing the gloominess of the bar.
I grabbed Travis and hauled him into a shadowed alcove between a pillar and a pile of boxes. He barked a protest, and I said, “Shush.”
“Did you just shush me?”
He froze when she came into view, her blonde head bobbing, her peasant dress spinning as she looked around the room, her eyes passing over our hiding place. Then she was gone.
Travis whispered, “Was that –“
“Bus she – “
“We’ve got to –“
“Yes!” I released him and the two of us ducked low and ran past the row of tables into the front bar. We bolted for the door, up the steps, and out into the night.
* * *
Here are my follies:
(1) A collection of short stories by a Mexican wildman. A writer with awards and a following south of the border, but unknown in the States. 300 copies sold in six years. This was Mi Gringo, where our story began.
(2) Another selection of shorts by an art critic. Crime stuff. Art critic becomes sleuth. It should have sold through the roof, and did move around 1000 copies, but I lost all the cash to a shyster organization. A glorified PR firm disguising itself as a company that helped small presses get books off the ground. They did nothing but lock me into a contract that demanded 60% of the net profits. More on that fiasco later…if I can tell it without choking on bile.
(3) A nonfiction entry collecting the last 10 years of entertaining articles by an author I greatly admired as a kid. Another sure thing that was inexplicably still-born.
(4) The 25th Anniversary edition of a piece of high-brow literature that came a cunt-hair away from a Pulitzer in its day. That moved 1500 copies, my best seller to date. Which managed to make a dent in the massive $30,000 debt that the first three books had put on my Visa card. Though the dent it made only got me down to around $20,000.
All still in print, all still close to my heart, the disappointment of the press was a bitter pill. Even after a few high profile magazine and newspaper features, and the accolades of the literary community, sales were stagnant. Sween Press was the coolest of the small presses, but that seemed not to translate to book sales.
I believed it was some sort of curse. There really was no other way to describe it. And that made me mad. And that made me keep pushing forward. But it had been two years since that last book, and the debt was still an albatross around my neck. $15,000 to go.
That’s where the Patrons came in. I sold myself to a pair of new friends, who had just started their own small press and rushed out a book without distribution or a marketing plan in place. I took care of that and we flogged the book onto the national scene. It caught fire on that mysterious medium – Amazon’s Kindle. 12,000 electronic copies later, we were all trying to figure out what the fuck just happened. Kindle sales somehow informed print sales, and, at a much slower pace, 2000 print copies went out the door.
I had made the Patrons rich, and they were throwing me a couple grand each month, which covered my rent and a $1000 stab at the credit card debt.
It had been almost a year since that brushfire started and, finally, their runaway best seller was starting to cool down. Publishing is always about what’s next. Always about keeping ahead of the dry spells. The nature of books, and even unexpected bestsellers, was that the gravy train would eventually come to the shattered bridge over a gorge and end in a twisted heap of smoking metal and horror. The bestseller would gradually become a no-seller, and the money will go away. Even after success, trying to duplicate that success is all guesswork, a shot in the dark. There’s rarely rhyme or reason behind what makes a book sell…and what makes it not sell.
The Patrons were scrabbling. New titles were coming together — women’s fiction, children’s stories – but my gut told me we needed something different. Something bigger. Something for the idiot masses. I was waiting for a beam of light from heaven to shine down on an author. I had given up on craftsmanship and integrity… I would follow my gut. Do exactly what instinct told me to do…and I would parlay that gut instinct, and the trust of the Patrons, into a joint book. Their press and mine presents…the next big thing.
I wanted to pay off the debt, leave DC, hide in a hole somewhere, and just totally reimagine my life. It’s hard getting through the day when you’re tired of your own life. When even your own shenanigans have become boring.
I propelled Travis across Georgia Avenue and down the side-street to the parking garage, where we piled drunkenly into my car.
“You okay to drive?”
“Maybe we should crash in the office?”
“The office smells funny.”
Travis cleared his throat, “Well, okay… Try not to get us into too much trouble.”
I squinted at the dashboard, the lights having long ago burned out, and muttered about the flickering gas light, the only source of illumination.
“Hey! Are you drunk enough to go out and buy a new fucking car?” Travis whispered.
I screamed, threw the car into reverse, and took Travis home.