by Walter Giersbach
“All the time ‘Where’s Rosamonde?’ Dammit, Mortimer, you’re making me insane.” Gretchen Schumacher toyed with the water bottle on her desk.
“But she’s a literary enigma. Rosamonde Calley was short-listed for a Man Booker prize for Backtracking the Trail Home.”
“Blah, blah, blah. A poignant story of hope triumphing over economic adversity.”
The angel of death across from Mortimer was about five feet tall, in her late forties, with blonde bangs arranged like a Kevlar helmet. Her smile was as tailored as her suit and composure.
“The fascinating part is she’s failed to respond to interview requests or to do talk shows. I’ve e-mailed her numerous—”
Gretchen groaned. “Mortimer—”
He plunged ahead. “The reason this is critical is that no one reads books anymore, unless they’re page-turners or bodice-rippers from an airport book stall. Jonathan Franzen says he never finishes a book because they disappoint him. James Salter, the prose king bar none, said the same thing. Long works are dead. Except for Rosamonde’s books.”
“Your Rosamonde is still alive?” The assistant publisher barked a laugh.
He wanted to shriek, “Yes,” but confessed, “I don’t know. It’s been two years since her last work came out and sold a quarter million copies. Television producers are searching for her. Publishers, literary agents, angry fans demanding she begin writing.”
“No one can disappear.” Gretchen delivered the fact categorically. “This Rosamonde is a pen name, a pseudonym for some housewife in Duluth with a houseful of brats and cats.”
“I’ll find her and get her to put her next book in our house,” he declared. He didn’t tell her that Rosamonde had begun visiting him every night in his dreams.
“Mortimer,” Gretchen shouted. “The reason you’re here is because I’m letting you go. Do you understand?”
“This publishing house is on the rocks. Nordstrom was just fired, and Bob Parish, vice-president of this group, was sent off to collect his gold watch. We’re going under — bankruptcy or merger — if we don’t get something onto the charts. Sales! That means — nothing personal — we let people go. Young editors. You. Again, nothing personal.”
* * *
Mortimer digested the news with coffee and biscotti in the trattoria downstairs. No job, just enough cash to cover next month’s rent, and then a default on thousands in student loans. Find Rosamonde or hit the skids doing copy editing and proofreading.
Real or imaginary, she was his only hope. Mortimer had dug assiduously through Facebook, LinkedIn and other social networks for any clues to her existence. Finding her was worse than J.D. Salinger holing up in New Hampshire protected by townspeople.
That afternoon, he begged an appointment with Rosamonde’s editor, Robert Dalrymple. The beefy, overstuffed man resembled a Victorian armchair with a chintz necktie.
“It’s a darling mystery,” Dalrymple said after hearing Mortimer’s story of search and disappointment.
“Well, Mr. Dalrymple, how do you communicate with her? Have her sign contracts? Discuss editorial matters?”
“I shouldn’t be talking to a competitor, but we rely on e-mail. She doesn’t answer my notes most of the time. Then one day — poof! — a manuscript will show. Isn’t that just too precious? It’s the cachet of anonymity that sells a third of the bitch’s books. I like to think the poor woman’s half-paralyzed by some deformity or suffering a crapulous disease.”
* * *
Mortimer felt dizzy as he guardedly dropped money on the bar.
“Let me pay,” Kumar said, pushing the fiver back to Mortimer. “So, about your mission to find the messiah.”
“Piss off, Kumar. I’m desperate.”
“Let me tell you, privacy isn’t allowed in this new age. Cameras are recording at every street corner, big data collects reams of personal information, paper trails unscroll every time you make a purchase. How can a person not exist?”
“Maybe she’s like those millions of Americans with no bank account, who don’t trust the government and live off the grid.”
“Rosamonde is one of them, writing best sellers? Can a writer create a world and still not be part of it?”
“Kumar, you are so scientifically wedded to mathematics that you can’t accept literary subjectivity, the ambiguity of writing, the nuance of ‘ifs’ and ‘maybes’ that are the core of literature. To you, something is either ‘on’ or ‘off.’”
“I am at least as well-read as you,” he insisted, “but I mathematically deconstruct books into syntactical quirks.”
“I expect no less,” Mortimer said sarcastically. “You’ve reduced the world to binary code.”
Kumar smiled. “You writers are so predictable, repeating words like ‘just’ or ‘and then,’ or opening sentences with subordinate clauses, and using precious semicolons. I apply an algorithm to writing, and it bares the soul. Did you know people write differently if English is their second language? White people write differently than African-Americans? Women write differently than men?”
“Get out of here. You are the worst sort of pre-literate technocrat, reducing everything to formulas.”
“I am serious,” Kumar insisted. “I can show you a website that will tear sentences apart, word by word, and tell you why the piece was written by a woman. Which your Rosamonde is, of course. Beating these mathematical models is tougher than fooling a lie detector.”
“What’s your point?”
Kumar leaned forward. “Your Rosamonde is a very unique woman.”
“Something is either unique or it’s not,” Mortimer snarled. “It’s never ‘very’.”
”My friend,” Kumar said, laying his hand on Mortimer’s arm, “you are betrayed by your emotion over this fictional person. I was going to say I can’t tell if she is American, Canadian, Australian or English.”
“Intrigued” would have been a better word. Was she lithe and lissome? Or past middle age, embittered, living alone with her cats? Who are you? he wanted to scream.
* * *
His ah-ha moment came in the middle of the night. It might have been the voice he thought he heard, telling him to scrutinize listings for Rosamonde’s six books being sold online by Amazon and others. He got out of bed and opened his laptop. Each listing had received dozens of glowing reviews, but the first always came from someone named Addison Chalmers. And, curiously, the very first review of each book was posted the day it was published. And this Chalmers hadn’t reviewed anything else at these online retailers.
Addison Chalmers was a few computer clicks away from yielding an address on East 79th St. And more. There was a magazine he had published decades ago that ended in bankruptcy, then judgments against him for selling the same apartment to five buyers, and an arrest for crashing a PEN conference. Yes, Kumar! This is the age when privacy disappears!
A few more clicks revealed Chalmers was an antiquarian book collector. Oh, and his claim to have seen the red-headed woodpecker, now believed to be extinct, was totally disbelieved.
Chalmers lived in a brownstone building without a doorman. “Mr. Chalmers,” he spoke into the grill of the intercom, “this is Mortimer Breyer. I’d like to talk with you about your work on magazine publishing. It’s for a thesis I’m writing. May we talk?”
He was buzzed in without an answer.
The door to apartment 2-C opened slowly and a man in a wheelchair peered at him. “Breyer? What college?”
“Well, it was Princeton, ’03.”
The door opened wider and Mortimer entered a dark, humid room filled with books. Books on tables and bookcases, piled on the floor, stacked on the kitchen table.”
“What do you know about me? About Progressions magazine?” Chalmers rolled backward and pointed out a chair — the only chair — empty of books. He adjusted the translucent tubes leading from an oxygen tank to his nostrils and waited.
“Not much. But I’m vitally interested in Rosamonde Calley.” It was Mortimer’s turn to wait as Chalmers slumped in the chair and his head dropped to his chest.
“Matter of time,” Chalmers muttered. Then he laughed shortly. “It was a good game, but every game comes to an end.”
“You know Rosamonde.” His statement was a challenge to learn how this hack was a conduit to Rosamonde.
Chalmers nodded. “I know you. Your e-mails to her. Goddamn incessant bastard!”
“Sorry, but I have to know.”
“No one has to know!”
“I’m out of a goddamn job. I won’t get it back if I don’t come up with a best-selling author for our imprint. I’ll lose my apartment. I’ll default on forty thousand in student loans.”
“What’s that to me?”
Mortimer shook his head. “You could — you can — help me. Put your next book in our house.”
“You going to match Dalrymple’s advance? Put the marketing and spiff dollars behind it?”
“I’ll do my best to pitch your next book to my publisher. I promise.”
“Ha!” The old man sat back and closed his eyes. “Why do people write? So many reasons, noble reasons, civilized reasons. Often, though, it’s just a voice screaming to be heard.” His eyes opened wide, displaying a startling shade of blue. “And what about you? I know you wrote for Princeton’s Literary Review. You showed promise. A couple of your short stories were good, the others crap. Now, you slog through slush piles during the day and drink at night. Just pissing your life away. I know everything about you I want to know.”
Mortimer’s mouth opened. “How’d you—?”
“You think you’re the great genius able to build monuments of literature! Like Maxwell Perkins was to Fitzgerald? You’re a loser!” He inhaled deeply.
Anger welled up in Mortimer’s eyes. “And what about you?”
The old man leaned forward until his face was inches away, filling Mortimer’s nostrils with the stink of death. “I’ve sold twenty-four million copies of Rosamonde’s novels, published in seven languages on four continents.”
“Under a pen name!”
Chalmers appeared to deflate, withdrawing. “An alter ego, a self that’s truer than the broken-down wordsmith you see here. Do you think those books would’ve sold under the name of Addison freaking Chalmers? Or Mortimer Breyer? You asshole! Your name is your soul. Mark Twain was Clemens’ soul. Lewis Carroll was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson’s essence.”
“I don’t believe it.”
“You’d better believe it. That’s why you’re bird-dogging Rosamonde. You don’t love her writing. You love her!” Chalmers leaned forward again, dropping his voice, “You want to embrace her. Be her, and leave your crappy life behind. Ha!”
“No! I’ve worked for ten years to become an editor.”
“Ha!” His shout devolved into a hacking cough. “You sat in a cubicle and read crap tossed in over the transom.”
“Look it up, dummy. Now, get out of here and let me die in peace.”
* * *
Mortimer returned to his cubicle to collect his belongings and see human resources. On his desk was his last assignment: a turgid manuscript about a religious laywoman defining her faith in the jungle of Southeast Asia. When he looked up, Addison Chalmers sat wheelchair-bound in the doorway.
“Here, dummy.” He handed over an inch-thick manila folder. Chalmers smiled at Mortimer’s incomprehension. “It’s Rosamonde’s newest book. Needs a little work — very little — but not totally beyond your abilities.”
“Mr. Chalmers, I don’t know what to say.”
“Of course you don’t. It’s a present. I know that nobody gives you presents, so don’t get teary-eyed. One more thing.” He handed Mortimer a folded paper. “The passwords to Rosamonde’s e-mail and her other writings. It’ll link to an outline of her next work.”
“I’ll see my publisher right now! Introduce you and we’ll sign a contract.”
“Ha! You don’t understand, dummy. You are Rosamonde now. I’ll take the advance for this book when it’s published. The royalties are yours. So’s the future.”
“Mr. Chalmers... Addison, can we go have a drink and talk?”
“You don’t need a drink at 10 o’clock in the morning. And I’ve got a plane to catch. Ever hear the phrase ‘See Naples and die’? Give Rosamonde my best.”
Chalmers rolled his chair out to the elevators with Mortimer trailing, begging for explanations.
In the lobby, Chalmers wheeled his machine around. “You still don’t understand! Rosamonde has taken over my life. She wants to write about generations of people failing under our nation’s false sense of exceptionalism. She’s asking why her Harvard graduate character wears a built-in time bomb for failure. She’s demanding I write her stories — not mine!”
Mortimer stepped back. “You sound like you’re channeling Rosamonde.”
“I’m no more than the agent of her messages. She’s insufferable. Invading my waking hours, kidnapping my dreams when I’m asleep. I’ve been enslaved.”
“But... she’s a fiction,” Mortimer pleaded, knowing there was more.
“You dummy!” Chalmers’ hands began waving, causing the lobby security guard to rise and look worried. “She a real person in her world. You said you couldn’t find her?” He laughed. “She’s out there, communicating with me through my dreams.”
“Mr. Chalmers, you can get help.”
Chalmers barked a high-pitched cry. “I can get out, is what I can do. Go to Italy or maybe commit suicide, kill that succubus.” He moved quickly out the lobby door.
* * *
Mortimer spent the rest of the day in Tomkins Square reading the 400-page manuscript of Goodbye, My Loves. He took the file home at five o’clock, mindlessly ate something for supper while continuing to read, and finished the book at midnight.
Rosamonde Calley’s new book laid bare the feelings of an entire young generation that had been gulled by the promise of unachievable hopes, shattered by fabricated wars that turned soldiers into monsters of psychosis, and suffered under political cynicism unheard of since the Roman orators. And now their every moment was monitored by the same engines of progress that promised to improve their lives.
Rosamonde wrote with liquid words that slipped by like quicksilver, using turns of phrase he couldn’t have imagined and metaphors that shed light on feelings he had only dimly grasped.
“My God!” he said softly when he was finished. The manuscript was a masterpiece. Everything she wrote had an immediate or tangential relation to his own life.
When he finally fell asleep, Rosamonde crawled into his mind like a demented lover. He saw hollow eyes, windblown hair and a twisting visage. She whispered through blood-red lips, “Chalmers died tonight, Mortimer. He’s gone. Now it’s just you and me. Success is coming and the story unfolds. Our adventure is just beginning.”
Copyright © 2018 by Walter Giersbach