Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Single Stem -- Chapter 2

Previously: A week after her husband's untimely death, Maggie is dealing with a new job, business travel, childcare problems, and a nagging doubt about whether or not she'll ever be a part of a couple again.

Chapter 2

St. Rita’s gym was buzzing with eighth grade energy. The boys on the team were jabbering to each other as they ran through their warm up drills while the girls in the stands were chattering like a flock of starlings as they eyed the boys. Maggie took up her position in the upper bleachers, where she sat with Greta Burns and Peggy Reardon, while their husbands clustered together on the first row. Mike and John were trying to fill the space, but without Franco there the gap was very noticeable.

“Peggy, would you mind if I took the carpool tonight?” Maggie asked, looking for something to do to fill her time.

“Can you? That would be perfect, Ashley has a sleep over at Missy’s,” Peggy responded absent-mindedly. “It’s date night. Oh, gosh, I’m sorry I shouldn’t have said that.”

“Please, Peggy, please be normal,” Maggie said. “Let’s talk like we always did, okay?”

“She’ll have date night herself, Peggy,” Greta said, grinning to cheer up Maggie. “And then she’ll have to tell us all the details.”

A cell phone began to ring as the game was getting underway, and slowly Maggie realized that it was her phone, the one she always carried in case her elderly parents needed something. She jumped up and raced out of the gym so that she could stand in the foyer of the grade school to take the call that could only be trouble. Her mother never called on the cell phone except for emergencies, thinking that it must cost a fortune for the convenience.

“I am terribly sorry to have interrupted a family event,” the man on the other end was apologizing after Maggie had explained the noise level in the background. “And on a Saturday, as if you were on call twenty four hours a day.”

She heard barely half of the sentence, with her mind focused on the game and Joey’s drive up the lane. Through the open door she could see Greta and Peggy, waggling eyebrows in an attempt to communicate their concern. After all, who else would be calling on a Saturday morning besides an elderly parent, and a call that like could only mean that something was terribly wrong. Just as she was began to move her hand, to give them a thumbs up, all is well sign, the words and the voice came together and Maggie forgot all about her girlfriends.

“Is everything all right?” Greta nervously whispered when Maggie returned to her seat.

“I was just asked out on a date tonight by the Chairman of the History Department of St. Ignatius University,” she said in a voice filled with amazement.

“You’re not going, are you?” Peggy said, horrified at the thought.

“Of course not, Peg, it’s against the rules,” Maggie assured her friends. It was unheard of to snap up an evening engagement for the same day it was offered, and she would never go out with one of her clients, especially when she had not even met him yet.

With Joey spending the night with a friend, Maggie had the house all to herself for the first time. Her ears kept picking up strange noises and crackling that she had never noticed before. She watched a silly movie, one that made her cry, and drank two glasses of wine while she read over Mary Ann Fowler’s latest bit of fluff. There was something about the novel that reminded her of Franco, something that stirred up bad feelings. “You were selfish, that’s what it was all along,” she said to his photograph that stood on the mantle of the fireplace. “You wouldn’t have left me alone like this if you cared about me.”

Unable to sleep, even though it was past one in the morning, Maggie decided to clean the house. She ran the vacuum over the family room rug, but it did not really need cleaning. She mopped the kitchen floor, but the wash water in the bucket was nearly as pristine as it had been at the beginning. Year after year she had listened to Franco railing about the dirty house, harping about the mess and the pigsty, while she felt guilty that her job took up too much time. She came to believe that her little projects for Theresa kept her from her household chores, and now she finally saw that the mess and dirt came from Franco. He never bothered to pick up after himself, the clutter and filth was all from him, and it had been his fault. For the first time, Maggie faced the truth, but she could not understand why was she sobbing about it now.

She sat with Joey at the kitchen table on Sunday afternoon, not wanting to be alone. “Hey, you have homework too,” Joey noticed as his mother began to leaf through a manuscript.

“If I do it right, I won’t have to go to England,” she said, to bring up the topic that had not yet been discussed. “Listen, I may have to go on a business trip in February, and you might have to stay with Rob or Cullen, just a few days. I don’t want to go, and I’m trying my best to get out of it, so maybe things will work out all right.”

“Nice to have a vacation in the winter,” Joey mumbled, his feelings very bruised. It was going to be another problem, another crisis, all thanks to Franco. Maggie felt her temper begin to rise, as if she could scream out in anger at the situation she was left in, but that would not resolve the quandary, any more than two glasses of wine helped her sleep last night.

They worked in silence, with Maggie’s red pencil making notations in the margins of Hofmeier’s screenplay. Since movies were not filmed in sequence, she had only to edit the portions that had been revised since the production began. Hofmeier had already explained to her that the entire project was now being held up until he approved these last few scenes, and Maggie was trying to be quick as well as thorough. She had never been involved in movie making, but she presumed that since time is money for any business, this delay was causing the British production company an enormous sum.

Maggie ran out to the grocery store, and returned to find her son sprawled on the sofa. “Pete D’Ascenzi called,” Joey reported from his post in front of the television. “He wants to take you dancing, he said.”

“Yeah, dancing between the sheets,” Maggie said under her breath. She would have to call him back, if only to be polite, but she had absolutely no desire to talk to him. He was a nice enough person, but he was not the sort of man that she pictured herself with. Since talking to her new client, she pictured her desired suitor as someone rather intellectual like Professor Goebel, and maybe he was a possibility. Maggie was relieved to hear Pete’s voice mail come on so that she only had to leave a message, and she hoped that it would be the end of it.

Ann was grinning like a fool when Maggie showed up at work on Monday, as if she had played a marvelous practical joke. “Sorry I gave him the cell number, but he was so insistent and I was on my way out the door on Friday when he called,” Ann explained.

Maggie and Theresa had their meeting, which was not really necessary but it was so pleasant to start the day with coffee and chatter, to recall Uncle Enzo and the time he took his nieces smelting one April. The jangling of the phones spelled an end to the fun, and Maggie raced back to her office to take a call.

“Mr. Goebel from St. Ignatius,” Ann announced into the phone. “Sounds like a real horse’s ass, worse than Friday afternoon.”

“Thanks for the warning,” Maggie replied. “Wait till I tell him that he has to rewrite half the book.”

“Oh, and last Friday I told him you were single, sorry,” Ann said quietly as she transferred the call.

“Good morning, Professor,” Maggie began in her sweetest voice. “I have all day to give you now, but do you have time to talk?”

Being accorded that little bit of respect through his honorary title was enough to soften Bill Goebel’s attitude, with Maggie’s tone calming a twitching ego. “If it will take some time, Mrs. Angiolini, your news cannot be good.”

"It's only bad news if you expected to publish this book by tomorrow, and I know that you weren't expecting that," she said lightly, trying to ease her way into the discussion.

"Quite true," he agreed. "There is the sound of extensive revisions in your voice, I would say. Perhaps it would be best to discuss them in person, say, over lunch?"

“Can we make it a working lunch?” Maggie begged. Every minute of the day had to be put to good use if she were to get out of the office on time. “I have to catch an early train.”

“I can see you in your office in an hour, if you are free,” he said. In the background, muffled, she was sure that he was telling someone to cover the lecture for History 302, which was starting in one hour. “And I will bring lunch; I know this charming little bistro that has a great chef. I am sure that you will enjoy whatever he can prepare for us.”

Maggie’s first meeting with her new client was rather awkward, since it was obviously not going to be quite what she was expecting. Bill Goebel brought more than lunch; he included wine and a bouquet of red roses in the unwieldy package that he hauled over on the ‘El’. Theresa had been dead on accurate with her description of the professor, who was not the least bit attractive. Short, pudgy and balding, he had been divorced for the past five years, after his wife decided that she needed some space. It was understandable; the man was suffocating in his attentions.

One of the first things that Maggie noticed was his sturdy horn rim glasses, which had a tendency to slide down his nose so that he had the irritating habit of constantly readjusting them. The incessant movement of finger to bridge of nose quickly began to grate on Maggie’s nerves, but he was a paying client and she had to earn a living. She cleared the top of her desk, spread out his manuscript, and for ninety minutes Maggie had to refocus his thoughts to the work at hand, while Bill went off on tangents relating to Chicago’s nightspots.
Precisely at noon, Bill presented his picnic offering with great pride. He was a regular patron of Bistro La Tour, allowing him the luxury of pleading with the owner to prepare a lunch suitable to impress an available woman. As Maggie discussed the revisions of the eighth chapter, Bill spread a buttery foie gras on freshly baked slices of rye bread, arranging them on a napkin with an eye to presentation. Over a plate of tuna salad Nicoise they made corrections to the closing paragraph. She could not remember the last time she had eaten such marvelous cuisine, a delightful meal that almost made her forget about Bill’s sliding glasses.

“You are overwhelmed and swamped now, I’m sorry,” she said, the wine warming her outlook on life. “Not the proper way to thank you for this wonderful lunch.”

“Not at all, this has actually been the most pleasant dressing down that I have ever received,” Bill said, pushing at his glasses for the millionth time. “In fact, I may not make all these changes, just so I can have another session with you.”

“Be careful, Professor Goebel. If you disobey my orders, I can be very strict,” she replied, joking through a wine-laced haze. Unaccustomed to drinking in the middle of the day, one glass of Entre-Deux-Mers had mellowed her senses and washed away her apprehension.

“I am in fear, madam. A rap across the knuckles with a wooden ruler from Sister Maggie,” he replied in kind. “How about next Friday night, if you can meet me again I will have all my work finished. Dinner at the bistro is far better than the lunch.”

Surprised at the unexpected invitation, Maggie took in the overall package of Bill Goebel while she tried to compose a sober reply. He was a dull and dowdy college professor, attired in khaki pants and a tweed blazer that fit about ten pounds ago. Even though he was the exact opposite of Pete, Bill was no more her type than the pizza man. Where Pete was aggressive, Bill was much more subtle in asking her out, suggesting a business dinner that would masquerade as a date. Beyond their styles, she analyzed their personalities, and could not find the right qualities in either man. Out of appreciation for Bill’s clever tactics, she selected the kindest, most gentle manner of brushing him off without hurting his feelings.

“You have no idea how long I’ve wanted to go there. But Friday night is family night, I’m sorry, but you understand, don’t you?” she said.

“Bring your children, I would love to meet them,” he blurted out. He cringed slightly, as if he realized that his offer was much too forward for a first date, entirely too pushy.

“Let me explain before you make this commitment,” she said, gently touching his arm. “My son is thirteen, and he would be joined by his two friends. Have you ever seen thirteen-year-old boys eat? It’s not an appetizing sight.”

His eyes locked onto her fingertips and seemed to glow. At once, Maggie snatched her hand back, afraid that she was sending the wrong signal. She meant to be gentle, not to imply that he should ask again, but pick a different night. Returning her hand to her lap, she pictured his manuscript, recalling in detail the chapter that was devoted to the eighteenth century belief that women had to have sex after the experiences of marriage. When they went over the footnotes, she had asked him if he really believed it. He had never answered her directly, and now she was horrified to think that he just might be planning to assist her with some imagined urges. Growing nervous, she gripped her wedding ring and began to roll it up and down her finger. The symbolic power and protection of the gold band was not there anymore.

“You have only to name the time and place, madam, and I will tote my manuscript wherever I must go,” he offered in his most gentlemanly fashion.

“Work carefully on these rewrites, Bill, and call me when you’ve finished. For now, let’s stick to meeting during the day,” she said, eager to get him out of her office so that she could get back to the customers who had called during the meeting.

Maggie escorted her love-struck client to the elevator, offering a few bits of advice about the use of commas and semi-colons. She carried the bouquet of roses, hoping that Ann had a large vase somewhere in her well-stocked closet of office supplies. Bidding Mr. Goebel a good afternoon as the elevator door clicked shut, she handed the flowers to Ann. “Even roses make a horse’s ass smell better, Miss Annie.”

“A little wine makes a big difference, too,” Ann smiled back. “Are you drunk, Mrs. Angiolini?”
“Me, drunk? No, just a little happy,” Maggie said. “Look at the time; I have to get hold of Tessa Perritt in New York before I can catch my train.”

“Tell the conductor to wake you up at River Oaks,” Ann shot back, “or you’ll find yourself in Kenosha with drool trickling down your chin.”

At dinner on Friday night, Maggie was much more animated and full of smiles as she spoke to friends at the D’Ascenzi Pizzeria. While the boys played games, she sipped a glass of red wine and chatted with some old neighbors whom she had not seen since Franco’s funeral. It was a very relaxing evening after a very special day. Maggie had received her first paycheck, bigger numbers than she had seen on a slip of paper for years.

After the Saturday basketball game, Joey went home with Cullen for a so-called sleepover, which was actually a way to talk to girls on the phone without Mom listening in. Maggie knew that because Cullen and Rob did the calling at her house while Joey stood guard and kept her away from the phone. On her way home, she stopped at the hardware store and bought a can of paint. The bedroom was hers alone these days, and she was going to paint it whatever color she liked. If she was going to be happy, she would have to create her own happiness.

By the time that Joey came home on Sunday afternoon, Maggie had painted the room, washed the bedspread and polished the furniture. The armoire that had been emptied by the ladies of St. Rita’s Grieving Guild and Used Clothing Drive was now filled with Maggie’s summer clothes, all the extra things that used to be stored in the attic for lack of space. Overnight, she had rearranged the room to suit her new life, accepting the fact that she was alone now and she was going to deal with it.

“I’m going to say hi to Nonna at the nursing home,” Maggie said at noon on Sunday. “Back in an hour. Go study.”

The woman who waltzed into the kitchen at half past three was not the same person who had left earlier. Her arms were loaded down with shopping bags, deep green and shiny red paper that crackled as she deposited her treasures on the nearest chair.

“Pete called,” Joey announced as Maggie walked in the door. “What took so long, I though you were only going to see Nonna. What’s with the Rivers Oaks Shop bags?”

“I went shopping,” Maggie practically sang with joy. With her first paycheck she had splurged on a visit to one of River Oaks’ finest women’s boutiques, where Mrs. Sherman selected the outfits for her customers. Suits and cocktail dresses could be paired with the perfect accessories, and Maggie had only experienced such a delightful bit of pampering when she needed a special ensemble for Little Carlo’s wedding.

The professional businesswoman now owned a very elegant suit and a simple black dress. There was not an occasion yet for a cocktail dress, but Maggie expected that something was going to come along. One of these days, she would not be sitting at home alone, but she would be out on dates with interesting men who gave her compliments and noticed if she changed her hair style. One fine day, she would be in the company of men who would drop everything to take her to the theatre because they wanted to satisfy her whims. Some day soon, she would have love affairs and find out what it was like to have sex with other men besides Franco. Mrs. Sherman had been pretty specific about the affair business. “You cannot mourn your husband forever,” she had said, “and it certainly isn’t doing you any good now.”

Stalling on the return call to Pete, Maggie talked to her mother while she made Sunday dinner. Holding the phone to her ear with her shoulder, she sautéed a few anchovies and garlic in olive oil but her mind was not on her task. “I can leave him with friends, but it’s a long time to ask someone to take care of him,” she said as she tossed the broccoli into the mix. “Are you sure that you and Pops can’t live here for a week?”

“You know how your father is,” Angie Griffith sighed. “He won’t even go on a vacation anymore. You know, if you had married that nice Bellasteri boy you wouldn’t be in this mess.”

“Please, mom, Luca and I did not get along,” Maggie groaned, tired of hearing about that nice Bellasteri boy, the same story over and over again. Her mother had never cared for Franco, and now she would never forgive him for dying young.

“You’ve helped Greta and Peggy plenty of times, it won’t hurt them to give you a hand,” Angie reminded her daughter. “They wouldn’t have offered if they didn’t want to help out, and it’s only for what, a week or so?”

“I don’t even know yet, I’m guessing about a week, maybe only a few days.”

“So, you go away for a few days and Joey won’t even know that you’re gone,” Angie said. “It’s like a vacation for him, to get away from his mother.”

“Thanks, I feel special now. I don’t know what to do, Mom. If I wasn’t so far away, like if I had to go to New York or something, I wouldn’t feel so guilty about leaving him.”

“What about the divinity school over in Willow Park?” Angie suggested. “Maybe you could hire one of the graduate students to live in the house and keep an eye on Joey.”

There would be no easy solution, Maggie could see that, and she puzzled over her options as she sorted through the laundry. Evading the questions that peppered her thoughts, she tried to tell herself that she should be happy with so much less housework now, with one less person to care for. The piles of sorted clothes were noticeably smaller, which meant the chore would be finished earlier and she would have more time to herself, to read or work on needlepoint if she wanted. As she tossed Joey’s shirts into the washing machine, she went back to her dilemma, mulling over her mother’s suggestion about leaving her boy with strangers from the Evangelical College.

Joey was her responsibility, and if she hired someone to come to the house, she would be paying for her son’s care, which seemed more reasonable than expecting Greta to foot the bill. Neither Peggy or Greta would accept a dime if she offered, but Maggie could not even think about delivering Joey to their care when it would be a free ride. More than anything, she wanted to do things on her own, without having to rely on anyone to fill Franco’s place. It was Franco who should be looking after his son, her mind told her; the man who had fathered the boy should have some stake in his care. This was supposed to be a team effort, mother and father together, but Franco had eaten his way out of the job. Grief enveloped her, crushing the air from her lungs with a choking embrace. Maggie slumped to the floor of her basement laundry room and wept, her self-pity and sorrow churning together as if swept up in a swirling flash flood.
Technorati tag:

Monday, October 30, 2006

Single Stem - A Novel In Serial Form

Single Stem
A Novel
Cian O hAnnrachainn
...If all the young ladies were blackbirds and thrushes,
all the young men would go beating the bushes...
Chapter 1
He was the kind of a man who would sit in the football stadium in the middle of winter, joining his friends in spelling out the team name on their naked chests. The life of the party was a good phrase that summed him up, if anyone should ask about her husband. Maggie stood in front of the antique gilt-framed mirror in her room at the Strand House Hotel, practicing her little speech over the muted noise of the London traffic below, rehearsing until she could utter the phrases without tears or bitterness. He was the life of the party who partied until he died, never listening to his doctor because Franco did not like bad news.

Her shaggy hair had been highlighted and styled for tonight’s party; her perfectly manicured nails were reflected in the mirror as she applied her makeup. Taupe and coffee shadows accentuated her brown eyes and red lips complimented her nails. She smiled at her reflection. There was no need to reminisce about the good times or spill out all the hurt. Maggie had confessed enough to Bea, Cindy and Pam already, after knowing them for less than a week. Besides, it had to end eventually, and tonight was as good a time as any to lock up the past and put it all away, to walk straight ahead into the future that was opening up in front of her. Maggie did not want to see the old nightmares again.
Brushing off a stray fleck of mascara, Maggie looked back over the journey that had brought her here to London, a long trip that had begun just after Christmas. She closed her eyes for only a moment, to scan the photo album that was etched forever in her memory. There was Franco sitting in his favorite chair, the remote control locked forever into fingers rigid with rigor mortis. Like snapshots, she flipped through the days and weeks that followed, recalling her bright red toenails, painted to match the crimson lingerie she had selected for the funeral. Her first day at work, her first date as a widow; every image reflected various representations of Maggie Griffith Angiolini stumbling through life until she came to stand in front of an antique mirror, adjusting the collar of her raincoat. It was time to close that book, to put the pictures away and set off on another journey, along a different road.

Maggie stepped into the hallway of the West End hotel, pulling the door shut behind her. She tugged on the knob to check the lock, and then she walked away from her past.
* * * * *
The closet was empty, pretty much, and Maggie slammed the door shut after ripping her one and only pair of tailored trousers off of a hanger. “I could have used clothes for Christmas,” she grumbled to a ghostly memory. A gift certificate would have been better than what she got that year. “Should have asked the surgeon to sew your mouth shut.”

After a week, her dreams were still full of the funeral and the sad faces of the mourners. Her once neatly ordered life had ended a week ago, and she could not get to morning Mass because she had to catch the train. For years, as their money problems escalated, she had accepted the bumps in the road because that was how life was supposed to be. Today was Monday, Day Eight of the rest of her life, and the road bump felt more like a bone-jarring pothole. Thanking God for small mercies, she declared to the Lord that she was actually very grateful that Tsio Carlo had fired her on the day of the funeral. She was going to be better off, in the long run. Some day. Eventually.

Waking Joey up an hour earlier than usual was decidedly unpleasant, with a teen-age surliness greeting Maggie’s gentle prodding. “If Dad was alive,” Joey began to mumble.

“If I won the lottery,” she grumbled.

She had to go to work and their son had to revise his life because Franco was too lazy to change his ways. He never thought about his family, about the pile of debt and all the money that they had put back into the family business when sales slacked off. Had he ever given a single minute’s thought to the mortgage that had to be paid every month? All he seemed to have were big plans, to send Joey to the Jesuit prep school and expand the material yard, with nothing to pay for it except hot air. Now Franco was gone, the expenses were still there, and Maggie was on her own.

Joey stumbled angrily out of the car when they reached the Burns’ home. Mrs. Burns would be driving him to school every morning while his mother went to work, and the boy resented the adjustment to his life. Even as she sat in the kitchen with Greta, sipping a cup of coffee, she could hear the television vacillate between ESPN and MTV, while Joey grumbled about fate’s cruelty and the unfairness of life. Sooner or later, everyone learned the same thing, but Maggie ached for her son, struggling to cope when he was too young to handle the lesson.

“I had a great idea last night,” Greta said with excitement as she poured out a second cup. “I can take Joey here after school on Fridays and he can spend the night with Rob, so you can have a man over when you start dating again.”

“Excuse me?” Maggie spluttered.

“Listen, Maggie, I know that your life was no bed of roses with Franco, so let’s be honest. You’re still fairly young; you are attractive, interesting, great at party chatter. Plus, you will be working in the Loop where the odds are decent that you will meet someone,” Greta spelled out her logical reasons.

“And I am such a babe that you think I’ll be dating by this Friday,” Maggie said.

“Not this Friday, you’re such a comedian. Eventually, that is all I am suggesting, just know that when you do start dating, Joey has someplace to go.”

“Thanks. Greta, but to be perfectly honest, I really don’t know how to date anymore. Things are different now, I mean, for us the big question was whether or not to kiss on the first date. Now I have to worry about how many dates before I have to sleep with some guy.”

“I heard three dates,” Greta said. “Unless the guy is really hot, then the first date is perfectly acceptable.”

“All right, all right, I get it. Start reading Cosmo,” Maggie said. She laughed, smiled, and laughed again, posing as a woman who was recovering from the shock of finding her husband, cold and stiff, sitting in the family room with the television flickering in the early morning darkness. “I better run or I’ll miss the train.”

Traveling on the commuter train from River Oaks to Chicago, Maggie stared vacantly out of the window with her morning newspaper opened on her lap. The time had come to admit that Greta was right, that living with Franco was no bed of roses. If Maggie had faced the whole truth, she would have realized that it had been endless squabbling for at least the past eight years. A separation was looking awfully attractive, but there was Joey to consider, and he was everything to Maggie.

Shifting on the vinyl bench, she let out a quiet laugh as she recalled a phone call to the rectory. Only three days before Franco died, she made an appointment with Father McManus to arrange for marriage counseling, when she realized that she would lose her mind if she did not change her life. Her husband’s death was very nearly a thoughtful gesture on his part, solving a serious crisis by ending the union without the necessity of a divorce. It was the only thoughtful thing Franco had ever done for her.

“Mind if I look at your sports section?” the man next to her asked, waking her from her reverie.

“Oh, no, of course not,” she fumbled with the sections. “Hawks lost again last night.”

“Do you follow hockey?” he asked, and Maggie turned to look at him. She had no idea if it was wise to talk to a stranger, or if it would be rude to ignore him.

“My son does,” she said, trying to think of a suitable answer.

“Not your husband?”

“He’s a die hard Bears fan,” she replied, her answer tumbling out before she could decide if she should be chatting amiably or treating her seatmate like a dangerous pervert. The man began to read, and Maggie shifted on the vinyl cushion. From Dearborn Ridge to Evanston, she tried to determine if she should have said that there was no husband, and from Evanston to the end of the line she contemplated what effect that pronouncement might have had on her companion.

From the train station she moved east, washed on a wave that surged down Washington to LaSalle. It seemed as if only Maggie was looking around at the people who were hunched over, striding along the street and battling against the cold wind that whipped against them. A suggestion of a smile was creeping across her lips as she traveled as one with the throng, battling through the sea of heavy coats and scarves at LaSalle and Washington when she had to leave the pack and turn north, to the offices of Quinlan and Associates. Walking through the Loop made Maggie feel alive, as if she had been marooned on an island and was brought back to civilization after a fifteen-year absence.

Theresa Quinlan had a very successful editing firm, with a strong reputation for quality work. For years, Maggie had been employed on a casual, part-time basis, working at home and earning some much needed cash. Knowing that Franco had not left much behind but debts, Theresa came up to her cousin at the post-burial lunch and told her to be at the office on Monday morning. “Full time, with flexible hours,” she added when Maggie balked.

“How can I work full time with Joey’s schedule?” Maggie protested. “Practice of some kind every night after school, he has to be picked up at three thirty every afternoon.”

“What part of flexible hours don’t you understand?” Theresa said. “Don’t argue with me, Mags. I’ll tell my mother. She’ll talk to your mother.”

“That’s just plain mean,” Maggie said.

“I do what I have to. Look, you already have some regulars.” Leaning closer, Theresa offered a confidence. “Besides, I put out the word that I was expanding and there’s a stack of manuscripts in the office just waiting for you. You need a job and I need your help. See you Monday.”

One of Maggie’s strongest qualities was her ability to be headstrong when it came to revisions, using a gentle approach that put the writers at ease and left them remarkably pliable. Even though Karl Hofmeier, the eminently successful military fiction author, was fully aware that she was a manipulator, he was adamant that Maggie, and only Maggie, could read, red-pencil, or even touch his manuscripts. According to Theresa, the old man made grammatical errors on purpose, just to keep his editor on her toes. He lived for conflict, now that he did not have any wars to fight.

“He’s in his own world,” Theresa said. There was no point in postponing the unpleasant part of their Monday morning meeting, and it was more in her style to start with the bad news and end with the good. “Where that world is, none of us know, but he thinks you do.”

“Yes, and no one else in this office will work with him,” Maggie put in, winking over the steaming cup of coffee that she was using to warm her fingers.

“You cannot imagine what the script supervisor at the BBC said to me about dealing with his tantrums,” Theresa said.

“Don’t tell me, he must have said, at least a dozen times, that one has to eat a lot of shit in this world,” Maggie said.

“Not everyone finds that as amusing as you do,” Theresa remarked with an arched brow. “However, since you know where he’s coming from, you are the one to get things back on track. London’s a fantastic city, you’re going to love every minute of the trip.”

“But I can’t just hop on a plane and fly to England,” Maggie insisted.

“I know, and I explained the whole situation to our buddy. He’s coming back from London, and you can try to work things out here. Just don’t count on it.”

“Look, Theresa, if you really need me to travel,” Maggie offered, feeling a little guilty about making her cousin’s job more difficult. She owed everything to Theresa; after all, her cousin had given her a job when she needed one so badly.

“Joey is way too cute to be left alone without adult supervision,” Theresa said. “I’m trying to give enough time to make arrangements.”

“Now, tell me about this professor from St. Ignatius,” Maggie said as she pulled the next manuscript from the pile on her lap.

“Divorced, not particularly attractive but very bright,” Theresa spoke with a straight face. “Chairman of the History Department, specializing in American history before the Civil War.”

It was Maggie’s turn to raise an eyebrow. “Some information I do not need.”

“Only trying to be helpful. It’s non-fiction but not a textbook. His previous book was a history of social customs in the United States before the War of 1812, and Leticia cleaned up that one. However, since Leticia cannot stand the guy, you, oh lucky junior editor, have inherited another client.”

“Next?” Maggie asked as she transferred the manuscript to the bottom of the pile in her lap.

“Historical romance, fiction, Mary Ann Fowler. Brain candy, but I know you’ll enjoy it; she has a light-hearted style.”

So began her first day, enough work to fill twelve hours, with a bundle of phone calls to handle from the time she arrived until she left to catch the 2:23 to River Oaks. With one manuscript stuffed into her canvas tote, she dashed from the office, rushing out of the elevator and bumping into the good-looking lawyer from the tenth floor as he was about to board at ground level. “Pardon me,” she mumbled, completely flustered and red with embarrassment.

If he were not already married, Maggie believed that she would be grinning like a fool to get his attention and goad him into saying the first word. He always checked her out when they rode in the elevator together, and she used to think that it was not so bad to be noticed and admired, even in an overtly sexual sort of way. Now that she had to face that sort of notice without her husband to hide behind, Maggie panicked.

“My pleasure,” he smiled, the face of a man who was not overly concerned with his vow of fidelity. Maggie returned his glance with a quick and nervous smile before fleeing in fear, nearly running down the street to the train station.

Her car was idling in the parking lot of St. Rita’s School when she caught a glimpse of Joey saying good-bye to his friends. “How was your day?” she asked her son as he dropped his backpack onto the floor of the car.

“Fine,” was his usual reply. “How was work?”

“You know, Joey, it was really good,” she said with a smile. “No, better than good, it was great, to go to the city on the train and then get caught up in that chaotic rush of people on the streets. Except I couldn’t get to St. Peter’s for noon Mass, and I feel like I missed something important in the day.”

“So go twice on Sunday,” Joey suggested, mocking his mother’s excessive devotion.

They sat down to a quick dinner because basketball practice was at six o’clock. Freewheeling conversation about their days, about teachers and about writers, flowed warmly across the little table. Back and forth over the chicken parmesan, with a minor skirmish over the consumption of salad, mother and son chattered. Maggie found it peaceful, even fun, without Franco storming about the quality of the meal, or tearing into Joey for no good reason except that Franco was mad at the world because he could not consume a whole chicken for his evening meal anymore. At that instant, Maggie was glad that her husband was gone, and the sensation filled her with guilt and remorse.

* * * * *

As if by some miracle or a slight decline in the testosterone that had recently begun to surge through his body, Joey got himself out of bed on time the next day. To the worried mother, it looked like he had immediately adjusted to his new circumstances. Maggie pondered that as she stood on the platform waiting for her train, always trying to decide if her son was getting on with his life or masking his sorrow. “Am I getting on with my life?” she asked herself. She realized that she was staring into the windows of the coffee shop across the street, watching the couples having intimate chats over breakfast. She had gone there once with Franco, after she was released from the hospital following her last miscarriage. “It was a blessing that you lost it,” Franco had said. “We can’t afford another baby, and you don’t have time to take care of it anyway, with your job.” A gust of bitterly cold wind blew across her face, and Maggie noticed that tears were running down her cheeks.

Her seatmate was mentally dubbed Mr. Accountant as he slid into place at the next stop. Oddly enough, it felt like Sunday Mass at St. Rita’s, where everyone sat in the same pew and saw the same faces, even if no one knew a name. She always talked to the geriatric couple that sat in front of her every week, so Maggie offered the sports section to the gentleman as if he were an old neighbor. All he did was thank her, and that was the extent of their conversation. At the end of the line in the city, Mr. Accountant returned the section, bid a friendly farewell, and that would be Maggie’s morning every day that week.

“He’s back,” the receptionist warbled menacingly to Maggie as she entered the office. Ann Majik was more of a concierge in the truest Parisian sense, the guardian at the gate who knew everyone’s business.

“Mr. Hofmeier’s here?” Maggie asked excitedly.

“He has an appointment at nine with his favorite editor,” Ann put in. “And when I talked to him five minutes ago, I’d say that he is seriously jet-lagged. And crankier than usual.”

Theresa and Maggie held their usual morning meeting, to exchange completed manuscripts for raw material while the pot of coffee was slowly drained. They had grown up surrounded by pots of coffee, as if the beverage was a dark flowing talisman of their families. Every time someone stopped by for a visit the coffee pot was set to perking at once, practically before the visitor’s coat could be removed. Theresa was a Quinlan, and Maggie was a Griffith, but their mothers were the Barletta sisters, a couple of Bridgeport dagos from Chicago’s south side. Coffee and biscotti was a way to say hello to anyone who dropped in, a mark of hospitality that was passed down from mother to daughter.

“I have no idea how things were left in London,” Theresa confessed as they planned ahead. “Maybe I can get them to wait until February.”

“What am I going to tell Joey?” Maggie sighed. “His whole world is upside down, and now I might be flying to England.”

There was no time for an answer, not with the booming voice of Karl Hofmeier echoing down the corridor. He had retired from the United States Marine Corps nearly twenty years ago, but he was still the bristle headed lieutenant colonel and a Green Beret for all time, barking out orders instead of holding a conversation. Maggie loved him because she knew that he was nothing more than a lovable teddy bear, which she discovered by reading his novels. Hofmeier entrusted his works to Maggie’s hands because her father was a south side Irishman, a former corporal in the United States Marine Corps, and a veteran of Iwo Jima. Besides, she was in on his secrets, had become aware of his sensitive nature and enormous capacity for love, and she guarded that secret self as closely as he did.

“I am very sorry about your recent loss, Mrs. Angiolini,” Hofmeier murmured as he stood in the doorway of Theresa’s office. At the age of seventy-eight, he had become depressingly adept at offering condolences, as his long time friends began to drop by the wayside.

Maggie brought him to her office, a cluttered and windowless space that seemed crowded by Hofmeier’s large frame. In the harsh light of the fluorescent fixture, his chiseled features stood out in relief, and his standard issue marine crew cut seemed to sparkle like sterling silver. With large, strong hands, he delicately removed the paper wrapping from a clump of carnations and handed the bouquet to Maggie. It was the sort of arrangement that was available in the local supermarket for a few dollars, but the gesture touched Maggie deeply. Wiping away a tear, she thanked him and cleared her throat, trying to begin like a professional businesswoman. “Did you have a good trip?”

“Horrible trip,” he shook his head sadly. “I hate planes, hate sitting still for eight hours with the same movie playing over and over again. I’m too old for those goddamned long rides, that’s why you’ll have to go for me.”

“First let’s try to take care of this here at home, and then no one has to go anywhere,” she suggested. “I finished the first round of corrections, and this weekend I’ll clean up the scenes that you rewrote in London. If I have to make any changes or corrections, it’ll be to more closely follow your book.”

“See, that’s it, you understand my novel,” Hofmeier nodded strongly, gesticulating with his meaty fist. “Those assholes in London don’t know shit from shinola.”

“They can’t possibly understand that this novel was based on your real experiences,” Maggie explained, calm and soothing. If the man ever were to eliminate swearing from his vocabulary, he would be essentially speechless, a thought that brought a gentle smile to her face. “And they have their own ideas, probably influenced by their parents’ experiences during the blitz.”

“There’s one scene that you have to keep in for me, Mrs. Angiolini,” Hofmeier was agitated. “The soldier discovering his sweetheart, after she was killed in the bombing. That fucking director doesn’t want the soldier to dig in the rubble with his bare hands, too hackneyed he said, the little shit.”

“Take it easy, I know that it really happened,” Maggie said, her voice full of sympathy as she gently touched his hand. She could feel Hofmeier’s sorrow so acutely, as if it were a spark that surged through her fingers. “I’ll make sure it stays as written, and I promise not to tell the director why it has to stay. No other suggestions are acceptable, all right?”

“Go there for me, Mrs. Angiolini,” he said, jumping up so that he could more easily wave his arms about. “Make sure they film the scene the way I wrote it. Don’t let them fuck it up; that director is the biggest asshole in the Western Hemisphere and he can’t be trusted.”

“I’m sure it’ll be done correctly,” she said, catching her lips sliding into a condescending smile.

“Damn straight it’ll be done correctly, because you will be there,” he vowed as he lunged at the phone on Maggie’s desk and dialed a number. “Miss Kolasa? Tell my shit for brains agent to call London. No, my editor’s going there to supervise the script. She goes, or this whole fucking deal is off.”

“Mr. Hofmeier, please, I really can’t go,” Maggie was protesting as the old marine rattled off his instructions to the agent’s secretary. Karl was at full throttle, spitting out obscenities with his orders, and determined to have his way. Maggie could say whatever she wanted; he was not listening and he was not changing his mind. Maggie chased after him as he stormed out of her office. He was remarkably limber and quick for a man his age.

“Miss Quinlan, tell your cousin that she has to go to London,” he bellowed down the hall as he plowed ahead to the office.

“What’s wrong, Mr. Hofmeier?” Ann asked from her post in the center of the suite.

“He wants me to go to London with his screenplay,” Maggie half-whispered.

“I’ll go if you don’t want to,” Ann said gleefully. “Can I go instead, Mr. Hofmeier?”

“Mrs. Angiolini must go, Mrs. Majik. And I can find a new editor pretty damn quick if I have to,” he threatened. That statement was enough to get Theresa off the phone at once, bouncing out of her office with the spring of a jack in the box.

“Of course Maggie will take care of this for you,” Theresa said, clucking and cooing over her very famous client as she slipped her arm through his. “Don’t we always take care of everything for you? Besides, you don’t want to give up Maggie; she red inks your books better than anyone and you know it.”

Watching Theresa escort their most valuable client into the sunny office, Maggie prayed for success. Peaking around the corner of the doorframe, ears wide open, she waited to hear some kind of debate, a give and take that would end in her favor. Hofmeier silenced Theresa with one wave of his hand, grabbed a notepad and wrote with an officer’s strength of command. The only sound was that of a pencil scratching fiercely against the paper, as if Karl meant to engrave his message into the desktop.

“Confidential, Miss Quinlan, destroy it after reading it, for your eyes only,” he barked.

Apparently he was satisfied, because Hofmeier turned around after handing his secret message to Theresa, and he strode briskly out of the office like the ex-Marine that he was, waving a solid farewell to Ann and Maggie. The door was closed with a firm slam while Theresa began to laugh as she read the note, marching orders from an officer whose command of the English language did not include the phrase “I can’t”.

“So, Mags, do you need to update your passport?” Theresa said with a broad smile.

“What about Joey?” she gasped in terror. “How can I go out of town?”

Theresa brushed aside those worries as she returned to her office, leaving Maggie to deal with a very large problem. Two people were on hold for Mrs. Angiolini, giving her no choice but to hurry back to her own office and get to work, temporarily ignoring the issue of business trips. She worked through lunch, never noticing the time until Ann rang the little office and reminded Maggie about her train.

After basketball practice tonight, she would do what she had done all winter; she would take Joey and his friends for pizza. Sitting on the train that was empty so early in the day, she found herself thinking about Franco, about their first few years together when they had been happy. So many Friday nights became impromptu barbecues with their friends, where Franco would make a batch of his famous margaritas and everyone would be laughing and joking. What had happened, she wondered, to turn that jovial man into a jerk, someone who stopped paying compliments and began to throw out cruel jibes and outright insults. She hung on for so long, expecting that jovial man to return when their son was older and she was working full time to ease the financial burden. It was the anticipation of better times that kept her going through the storm, that and the fact that a divorced woman could not receive the sacraments if she remarried. The very idea that she would have to confess to adultery if she started dating again was enough of an embarrassment to goad her into mending their marriage. After all that misery for so many years, she felt that she had struggled for nothing because Franco had died, cheating her out of some obscure reward.

Maggie sat at her usual table at D’Ascenzi’s Pizzeria, a spot that gave a clear view of the video game room that was tucked in a back corner. Joey and his buddies were clustered around one of the games, playing at racing sports cars through Death Valley, while she sat with a slice of pizza growing cold in her plate. “Maggie, I made that with my own hands,” Pete joked as he slid into a chair across from her. “No good?”

“Oh, no, sorry, Pete, it’s fine, I’m just tired from work,” she fabricated a response. The truth was that she could not swallow the food tonight, not when she so clearly remembered the very last time that she had sat there with Franco. They bought a large pizza and she ate one slice while Franco ate the rest, washing it down with a pitcher of beer. She could not stop him in a restaurant, not when he would berate her so loudly and she could not tolerate the humiliation in public. Go ahead and choke on it, she had thought to herself, and then a couple of days later he was dead.

“Everybody been wanting to give you a hand?” Pete asked as he took a large bite from a leftover slice. “But you need anything done around the house, you call me. I still charge only a good plate of spaghetti and a couple meatballs.”

“Thanks, Pete, I will. About all I can afford is a handyman who works for his meals,” she replied.
“You’re the nicest lady I ever met, Maggie, I mean it, and I figure this is a rough spell for you. With Joey, if you need a man to talk to him, straighten him out about girls or something,” Pete offered, looking in Maggie’s eyes in a way that made her squirm. She had been married for so long that she had forgotten how a man looked at a woman he was attracted to, but the image was being dusted off just then in her mind.

Pete sat there chatting, leaving his brother Rocco to tend the counter and take the orders. Pete’s current girlfriend was sitting near the window and glaring at Pete, but he carelessly ignored her as he made his move on Maggie. He was a man who had been married twice already, the kind of guy who never understood why his need to go hunting in Wyoming for three weeks was such a point of friction with his wives and girlfriends. When his first wife complained about the trips to Las Vegas that were men only, and his second wife screamed over the fishing trips that took place nearly every weekend, he dumped them for trying to run his life. He was like Franco in that way, Maggie always felt, a man who lived in his own universe, and he was the center of that universe. A woman had to revolve around him like he was the sun if she wanted a relationship, and sometimes that was just more trouble than it was worth.

“Oh, my, it’s ten o’clock already,” Maggie said as she glanced at her watch. She rounded up the party of Joey, Rob, and Cullen Reardon and headed for home, with Pete’s invitation to breakfast left hanging in the air. He was just another one of Franco’s old friends, someone she had seen so often that she could not remember meeting him for the first time. It was impossible for her to picture the two of them together, because she could not imagine what they could possibly talk about. On top of that was the gnawing she felt, deep in the pit of her stomach, nibbling at her pride. Somewhere a voice was telling her that Pete offered breakfast and expected sex.

His proposition was made because she was a living, breathing, and available female, and Maggie felt that she was entitled to more than that. Every lady on the planet could proclaim that women were now sexually liberated, but Maggie would hear nothing more than a variation on an old theme. Men had always been trying to get women to have sex with them, and for a long time, women had resisted until the situation suited them. Maggie did not see any newfound power in the modern morality, not when women gave up the little control they once had over relationships.

The dating scene had revolved completely around from the old days of chastity and virtuous ladies, to the point that sexual activity was part of the package of dating and courtship. Sex was so expected that Maggie feared for her future, foreseeing a choice of giving in or being left alone. Sooner or later, she would have to decide if male companionship was more valuable than her self-esteem.

Technorati tag:

Saturday, October 28, 2006


For all the critiquing and studying that I've done to improve my writing, I think I've made things worse. Worse by becoming average, by writing like all the rest.

After sending off a batch of queries last Friday, I've gotten rejections back by the armload, but the worst rejections came from queries that included a sample chapter. Granted, the query letter might not be brilliant, but I'd expect that an agent who asks for samples of the writing will look at them in spite of a weak query.

That means that Ned Leavitt and Jill Kneerim were not hooked at all by the query or the first pages. Not even intrigued enough to put them aside for a second look. Within eight days of mailing out the material I've received a definite no. There was nothing in the packet that drew more than the most cursory of glances, followed by a speedy rejection.

Eight days is the fastest I've ever been turned down with sample pages. Maybe I've made a mistake in trying to follow Noah Lukeman's advice. Perhaps I'm better off to not go through critique sessions and just follow my gut, reading other novels like mad to see how it's done rather than being instructed on how to do it. I fear that I'm becoming a mundane, run of the mill writer, adequate but not standing out from the crowd.

Time to put all manuscripts aside and go back to reading. Somewhere along the line, I hope to find my voice again.

Friday, October 27, 2006

The Prose of Jim Webb

It's all over the Internet now. The man running for the US Senate from Virginia is a novelist. Yes, a published one, with such imprints as Bantam Books, William Morrow and Avon. A legitimate, honest to God published author who no doubt has a literary agent to represent him. An agent, for the love of Christ, someone who read his manuscript and thought it was brilliant.

I'm not here to debate the tawdry topics, the rather blunt sexual references and the very nasty attitude that a male character displays towards the females in the novel. No, I'm only saying what every other unpublished writer is saying.

How the hell did this shite ever make it past the slush pile? Sweet God in Heaven, this garbage gets printed and I can't get an agent? Here's a sample: "Quick, grinding voices, turgid with repressed passion." This is what the publishing houses want? Jesus, Mary and Holy Saint Joseph.

But wait, there's more: "His muscles were young and hard, but his face was devastated by wrinkles." Devastated by fecking wrinkles? Devastated?

That is what passes for good writing these days? And it's come from the imagination, and the pen, of a man who wants to be a United States Senator. God help us all.

Update On Responses

Now I thought that Svetlana Katz was quick, but Pamela Malpas at Harold Ober is no slacker in getting the rejection out fast. Only a day later I've gotten the old 'too busy to take on another client' scrap of heavy paper. No doubt about it, she's not interested in getting queried. Unless, of course, my query letter was sparkling, or presented a topic that she knew was going to be an easy sale.

Truly it's a day for miracles. I heard back from Steve Axelrod, the first time after sending off three queries. Maybe he saw that I was not going away without good reason, so he took the time to drop the rejection card in the SASE and hand it back to the postman. His rejection took two days longer to accomplish than those given by Ms. Katz and Ms. Malpas, but there's something to be said for speed. No questions, no long period of wondering. It's a no, and so, move on. Maybe Monday. I'm growing weary of the printing, the mailing and the rejections.

All those lovely Priority Mail envelopes sit by, gathering dust, waiting to be filled with sample chapters or a full manuscript. Pray that they don't fade to yellow with age before they can be called into action.

A House Divided

No surprise that a British/Irish study has reached such a conclusion. The north of Ireland is very small indeed, far too small to make many things economically feasible. Bigger scale being more efficient, the two governments have declared that North/South economic cooperation makes sense.

Putting the entire island on an electrical grid is one example. What's the sense in building an entire system for one little corner, when you could add it in to the whole place and build the system much more cheaply. It would be grand to have an underground liquid gas storage terminal, but only one is actually needed given the population. It's silly to build two for the sake of some political border. As for mobile phones, it makes no economic sense for the entire island to not be on the same page.

Then there's infrastructure, such as railroads and roads. Why can't someone hop a train in Dublin and use public transportation to get to Antrim? It makes sense, if you're trying to get more people into Antrim's shops, and there's a lot of people, and tourists, in Dublin. All in all, the joint government commission has stated the obvious. The partition should not be so absolute as to create an isolated colony that costs more money in the long run and cannot compete effectively on the world stage.

Did you hear that screaming? Just now. There it is again. Sounds like a crowd of dinosaurs yelling "NOOOOOOOOOOOO."

That would be the unionists throwing fits. The very idea of doing anything in tandem with Dublin must surely mean that the Republic is going to make the north a colony, rather than the colony remaining part of Great Britain. Why, it would poison North/South relations, as far as Reg Empey can see. Danny Kennedy thinks the document is the product of Sinn Fein, making the Six Counties a part of the Republic just like they've always wanted.

Dinosaur Kennedy looks on the north as vibrant, confident, and a component of the United Kingdom. Some of that cross-border economic cooperation is fine, but this latest study threatens the very integrity of the Belfast Agreement. Yes, that agreement, you know the one, the agreement that they've been trying to modify lately at St. Andrews in Scotland. Well, when it suits the purpose.....this is politics, after all.

Gregory Campbell is practically frothing at the mouth over this latest report. It had better be a practical motivation that's driving the governments to consider cooperation, and not a matter of politics. No indeed, he'll not stand for that. If the clerks in Dublin want to meekly propose something that would treat the Six Counties as a sovereign government, with a clear delineation between countries like other nations do, then maybe he might consider. But an all-Ireland anything? Never. No, not ever. No, no, no.

There was a time when London wanted the port of Belfast, back when shipbuilding was critical to the war effort. There was a time when the mills were of economic importance. That time has gone, and the economy of the north is entirely dependent on hand-outs from London. The Six Counties have become an expensive indulgence that gives back less and less return every year. The dinosaurs parade their loyalty, their resistance in the face of bombs and bullets, and they expect the gratitude of a nation. Charming notion, but it's all about the money, the cost to the Exchequer, and doesn't it look as if London would like to be rid of the lazy sot of a colony that eats at the table but never pays its share of the rent?

Thursday, October 26, 2006


The dust has yet to settle on my keyboard and I'm hearing back from Svetlana Katz at Janklow & Nesbit. I shot off a query to her on Friday, six days ago. It's possible that she received it on Monday, if the USPS was particularly prompt.

Here we are six days later, and already I've got her rejection in hand. Efficient and fast do not begin to describe the rapidity of the answer. Was it that bad that she had to get every scrap of it out the door as soon as possible?

"...I am inundated with requests for assistance and representation" she says. Of course, Tina Bennett said exactly the same thing. Even the bit about allocating time effectively, and being forced to decline participation in many worthy projects. Is it a form rejection, do you think? How convenient, to have a one size fits all rejection that the office secretary can stuff into SASEs.

Is it any wonder she could get back to me in a matter of seconds? Onward and upward, as the mountain climbers say. Sure is an awfully high mountain to climb.

Deal Or No Deal

So you want to work in Ireland, do you? You'll need a permit. No one can just turn up on the shores of the Emerald Isle and find employment without the proper paperwork. You want that permit, don't you? What's in it for the Irish, so?

Tony Killeen, the Minister of State in the bureaucracy that regulates employment, has cooked up a very clever bit of business. It seems that he was in New York and discovered that Americans have a powerful interest in relocating to Ireland. A sizeable chunk of the population claims Irish ancestry, and apparently there's a few of the descendants who'd like to go back to the aul' sod. Twenty years ago, it would have been laughed at, but with the Celtic Tiger still purring, there's plenty of work for technologically savvy, educated people.

Speaking of twenty years on, there was a time when the Irish flocked to America, year after year, in search of honest work and a decent life. Ireland was one of the poorest countries in Europe for a long time. There's well over 10,000 of them today, living in the US as illegals, keeping a low profile and praying that Congress will pass some sort of amnesty bill. They're afraid to go home to visit, afraid that they'll not be let back in and so lose all that they've built up. Mr. Killeen would like to help the Irish in America so that they might travel back for the funerals and weddings that they now avoid.

Here's the deal. Last year, about 4,000 Americans went to Ireland for work, but only 1,700 Irish made the reverse trip. Quite the net gain, Mr. Killeen has noticed, and there's a way to equalize the work permits. Now, he's not after some kind of preferential treatment for the former denizens of the Shamrock Shore, not a bit of it. All he's proposing is a cozy little bilateral agreement between governments, a way to help the undocumented in America and ease the way for Americans to become documented workers in Ireland.

Sounds simple enough. Even a quota system would be acceptable to the Minister, wherein Ireland grants X-amount of green cards and the US would hand out, oh, say, five times as many. The undocumented Irish could be covered in no time. Americans could have an easier time emigrating and finding work, and isn't that a lovely arrangement for all?

As long as the Yanks don't find out that Ireland is not the best place in which to fall ill. The national health care system is so overburdened that patients often wait for days on a hospital gurney in the hallway, with no beds available in the wards. Not a very comfortable way to be sick, would you say? Then there's the whole 'rip-off Ireland' business, which you'd want to take into consideration when you find out how much you'll get paid at your Irish job. Costs for everything are higher than in most other places, making Dublin a more expensive city to live in than Boston. Education for the little ones? The Catholic Church still runs the schools, so if you're keen on a parochial education, you'll be thrilled to bits.

The Garda Siochana just pulled ten million euro worth of heroin off the streets, and there's an improvement right there. Now, if they could just pull the binge-drinking teens off the streets before they beat one another to death....you don't have teen-agers to worry about, do you?

I have a feeling that Congress would be happy to grant amnesty to the illegal Irish immigrants, but it's equal rights for all and it's not as simple as declaring the Irish welcome and all the Arabs in Michigan are still a bit dodgy. Crafting an agreement between two sovereign nations could very well be the answer, a solution that leaps over a small roadblock and erases one very small part of the undocumented worker problem.

Sowing The Seeds

New agents in well-known agencies are oh so ripe for the query. Hot for clients, they're more willing to ask for a partial and maybe take a chance on an unpublished author. Ah, the dreams that rise out of the jar.....

I'll be keeping my eye on DeFiore and Company in the upcoming months. Now, if I was living in New York and feeling bold, I might go after the position myself and become my first client. Who hasn't thought of it? Be honest now.

Here's the listing as it appears in Publishers Marketplace:

Small, high-profile literary agency seeks assistant/associate. At least one year prior related experience in book publishing essential. The position requires a brilliance for mutli-tasking: you will be responsible for routine office work (filing, phones, typing, mailings), financial work (keeping track of office bills and author statements and royalties) and reading and writing reports on submissions from potential clients. All the while keeping our clients and their publishers dazzled with your grasp of things… The right person will have a mix of qualities not often found in one person: an ability to track multiple details, an ease with a calculator and computer, and a creative spirit and discerning editorial eye. You will learn everything about the literary agent business, get to know editors and authors, and will be encouraged, in time, to develop your own clients. Please send a resume and letter describing why you think you'd be right for this job to: resumes@defioreandco.com

The lack of a mention about the salary is worrying, considering the fact that the job description sounds a bit like one step above slavery. There's some long hours in there, and then there's the slush pile that your superiors are likely to send your way. Still and all, if you're hell bent on becoming a literary agent, there's no better way to learn the business.

A couple of months, and the new employee will either be long gone or desperate to develop some of those personal clients and hand off the office chores to some other gullible individual. In the meantime, I'll go back to the long list of agents not yet queried on Manuscript 5 and keep plugging away on the aul' work in progress.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The Minnow Eats The Whale

Big companies take over small companies. It's logical, given the scale of financial strength in a large firm. That's also how big companies get even bigger, growing into the size of a monopoly...and then the law kicks in and the behemoth can grow no more.

Leave it to an Irishman to reverse the natural order of things. Barry O'Callaghan, the man in control of the publishing firm Riverdeep, is about to swallow Houghton Mifflin. It's all a very friendly sort of take-over, given that the chief executive of Houghton Mifflin, Tony Lucki, is claimed as a friend of O'Callaghan. He was a director of Riverdeep, in fact, so he surely knows what he's getting himself in for. Two of Riverdeep's managers worked with Houghton Mifflin, making the whole deal sound more like a marriage after a decent period of dating. Rather unusual, however, for a smaller firm to buy up another that is worth somewhere in the vicinity of five billion dollars. Riverdeep is valued at around one and one-half billion. Hardly small beer, but unquestionably it's the baby in the family.

Riverdeep is famous for their educational materials, especially software and on-line education items. Houghton Mifflin is big on education as well, but they fear they are being left behind in the age of technology because they only produce books. Bit by bit, the folks at Houghton Mifflin feared they would be last in the race as the Internet took over, with Riverdeep leading the way. And so, the wise folks at Thomas H. Lee, Bain Capital and Blackstone decided that the time was right to unload their investment, which cost them $1.6 billion to buy back in 2002.

Sure and it's a marriage made in heaven. Look for a rise in the cost of schoolbooks next September. Someone's got to pay the interest on Riverdeep's borrowings to pay for the purchase, and it won't be Mr. O'Callaghan or Mr. Lucki.

Technorati tag: ,

Monday, October 23, 2006

Serialized Fiction

Returning to a fine old tradition, the Chicago Tribune is running a serialized version of Audrey Niffenegger's novella. Secret Life, With Cats is advertised as a ghost story, and the first chapter has appeared today. The audio version of story is available at: Tribune website

Ms. Niffenegger is the author of the highly successful The Time Traveler's Wife, but when not being an author she is a teacher at Chicago's Columbia College. For years, it was the place to go for training in radio and television, and their MFA program has been moving up in the ratings.

The entire short novel will be presented in seven installments, and the first one is so brief that you could finish it up before your cuppa tea grew cold. It is almost entirely backstory, with not a word about ghosts. The opening sentences set up the premise, with the author (it's told in first person POV) musing on a surprised inheritance of a house. I can't say that it would pass the literary agent sniff test, lacking as it does any sort of action. In a literary way, I feel that someone pondering the disintegration of their marriage is intriguing, but thus far I have not found an agent who feels likewise. But then again, this is not Ms. Niffenegger's first go round, and you can't be guided by the opening of a second novel if you haven't published your first.

I for one am delighted that a newspaper is printing fiction as a week-long series. It was good enough for Dickens, and we're still reading his works. Who knows, maybe a daily dose of make-believe could generate a bit of interest in reading for pleasure once again.

Dead Letter Office

An undeliverable letter is a very sad thing indeed. Someone took the time to write, to pass along a bit of news or a few words of gossip, but the sentences remain unheard. Such is the tragic case of the missive that James Walsh sent to his wife in 1843.

Postmarked in Clonmel, the letter turned up recently at a philatelic auction in Sydney, Australia. Although it was addressed to Mary Walsh in Tasmania, the item was in the possession of an American collector, and no one seems to know where it was from 1843 until said collector acquired it in 1973. Normally at such auctions, the only thing of interest is the stamp and so the only thing available is the envelope to which it is attached. In this case, the contents remained, and historians would like to know more.

Mary Walsh was transported in 1842, charged with stealing a piece of cashmere wool. Her sentence, as was typical at the time, was seven years. Despite protests and petitions that the sentence was excessive, Mrs. Walsh was put aboard the Hope and sent off to Van Diemen's Land. She left behind her husband and two children, taking along her infant daughter. No bottles of baby formula available back then, and there was no other choice but to keep mammy and baby together until baby was weaned.

By all accounts, the year-old infant was dumped in an orphanage in Tasmania and Mary was put to work as a servant. About a year after Mary arrived in Hobart, Tasmania, her husband hired a professional letter writer to inform her that he and the other two children missed her terribly. He included a few lines about local gossip, about the people and places that his wife knew well. As far as anyone can tell, Mary never received the letter, perhaps because she was living at a different address than the one her husband had. The baby died about a year after that, Mary was given her ticket of leave in 1846 and then was freed after her seven years were up.

Like most other Irish transportees, Mary had no money for her return passage to Ireland, transportation provided to but not from prison. Historian Elspeth Wishart of the Tasmania Museum and Art Gallery is hoping to find out what happened to Mary, whose existence cannot be traced beyond the issuance of her Free Certificate. As for her husband and two other children, they too are lost in the past. All that is left is a touching letter and the profound sense of heartbreak and injustice.

Perhaps in another two hundred years, some of my letters will turn up at a philatelic auction, the stamps postmarked in Illinois, the letters sent to New York City. Who is this Steven Axelrod of the Axelrod Agency, a historian might ask. The letters were never received, left perhaps in a dead letter office somewhere, unread, the queries unanswered, the author unpublished.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Congratulations To Us All

How can I sit on such riches and not share them with all? Yes, it's true, that's riches I'm talking about. I've won a lottery in England. Don't know how I did that, considering the fact that I never bought a ticket.

Ah, I see. It was my e-mail address popping up, completely at random. Just the luck of the Irish, is it? Aren't we a lucky race? You've only to look at the Great Hunger to see how lucky we really are. I'm one of six most fortunate people, out of a total of 40,000. What I don't like is that the folks running the Heritage Lottery have made me a third category winner. I'm top of the range, surely. Shouldn't I be a first category winner?

Now it's up to me to claim my 1.5 million pounds. Here's where the sharing comes in. Everyone can contact the claims manager and get a piece of the money pie. All you have to do is set up an e-mail account at one of the free servers, like yahoo or hotmail. If you really want to annoy them, use g-mail, which is what they used to send their message to me. Use a public computer so that the ISP isn't traced back to you. Have the following numbers handy:
(i) Winning numbers: 35, 19, 20, 31, 18, 41
(ii) Email ticket number: 205-0-4051
(iii) Lottery batch number: 311-4GD
(iv) File Ref. number: HLF/66-CAW662006

Then, fire off an e-mail to the following gentleman, claiming the prize:
Mr. Edward Pinto,
7 Holbein Place, London, SW1W 8NR United Kingdom
Email: claim_officer@sify.com

Change the numbers around, send to them frequently, and who knows how many millions you'll have at the end? So thanks a million to Mrs. Helen Palmer, The Director Promotions of Heritage Lottery Fund. I'll get on that e-mail to Mr. Pinto right away. I wonder if he'll need any other information from me? You know, things like the number of my bank account, the routing number, that sort of thing? Amazing, isn't it, how the scammers get more and more sophisticated and subtle to rob people? No more direct request for your information, now it's a sneak attack as they try to pull the wool over your eyes from behind.

You'd think that most people would know that there's no free lunch, you can't get something for nothing, and if it's too good to be true, it isn't. Greed can be a dangerous thing, and that's why it's one of the seven deadly sins.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Veiled Threat

Women should be seen and not heard. Or, in the case of Aishah Azmi, she is neither seen, nor heard.

In her native culture, Ms. Azmi is supposed to be covered from head to toe, shielded from the eyes of men. In the culture in which she lives, in England, she is supposed to be teaching children and they are supposed to be able to hear what she says. Therein lies the conflict.

After a month as a teacher's aide at a Church of England primary school, Ms. Azmi was given the sack because she refused to remove her veil when working if men were present. This being the western world, there were always men present. So there she was, at the head of the class, her voice muffled by black fabric, but her modesty was intact. One must have priorities, and she was the number one priority. The kids had to come in second, their rights sacrificed to hers.

And don't think that a few of the mums weren't behind it all. "I thought I was sending little Jasmine to a proper Church of England school, Headmaster. Not a madrassa," said with a look down the nose and a lifted brow. Out in the yard, gathering in their tight groups, they would have been cackling away. "Who does she think she is? Holier than thou, the cheek. Religious my arse she's got a nose you could park a reticulated lorry in and I'd cover it too." Women can be cruel. Especially those who are glad to be rid of the old men's club that governs Pakistani women. They came to England to get away from it, and when they found it in a position of authority, in front of their children, they would have gone all out to excise it. The fact that the kiddies couldn't hear would have been used as a convenient excuse, but there was undoubtedly more to the story than the surface issue.

Of course Ms. Azmi played the victim card after she lost her job. It was discrimination against her religion, and don't mind the fact that other Muslims from other countries don't go around veiled. This coverage business has nothing to do with tribal customs of the region she comes from, oh no. That's what the court said, by the way. No.

There was no discrimination based on Ms. Azmi's religious beliefs. She was fired because the children she was supposed to teach could not hear or understand her. In plain terms, she was not doing the job she was hired to do. If that interferes with some non-secular beliefs, then get another job, but it was not Ms Azmi who was the victim in this. As far as the employment tribunal was concerned, it was the children who were the victims of Ms. Azmi's determination to be veiled and to hell with the kids' learning. The court gave her a few pounds to make things look good, and once she pays her solicitor there won't be much left. A few British officials, including Tony Blair, got a slap on the wrist for giving their opinion on the case while it was being heard.

Ms. Azmi is ready to take the case to a higher court, the European Court of Justice, and drag poor old Tony with her. After she lost, she said:
"Ministers' intervention in my case, against the code, makes me fearful of the consequences for Muslim women in this country who want to work. Muslim women who wear the veil are not aliens. Politicians need to recognise that what they say can have a very dangerous impact on the lives of the minorities they treat as outcasts."

If you're Hindu, don't take a job castrating cattle, refuse to do the work, and then claim that you're being denied the right to work because of your religious beliefs. If you're Muslim, don't accept the position of pig sticker at the slaughterhouse, refuse to touch unclean animals, and then complain about discrimination against your faith. And if you're a teacher, and the kids can't hear you teach, don't whinge about getting fired when you can't do your job. Adapt, or go work somewhere else. That's what it means to live in a free country. Welcome to the western world.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Debtors' Prison

Judges are certainly getting creative these days. Take the case of Alexander Brennan, a Dubh with a serious drug habit. He used to have a serious drug habit, at any rate, and now he's paying his debt to society. Literally.

Judge Mary Collins heard his plea. Yes, he was guilty. While working as a waiter, he would scan the customers' credit cards twice, once for Alexander and once for the business that employed him. All in all, he managed to lift 18,000 euro between April and September of 2004, when he was toting and carrying for the Morrison Hotel in Dublin. That's rather a lot of skimming, and a sensible individual would know that he would get caught. Time and date stamping of transactions would provide a fairly noticeable clue. However, Mr. Brennan was most definitely not a sensible person, not when he could burn through that much money on drugs in those few short months. It's a wonder he could function at all.

Having been caught, he cleaned up his act and is now drug-free, ready to serve his sentence. He's been good as gold, as good as St. Patrick himself, and everyone is confident that he will go and sin no more. So recontrite is our boy that he has been hard at work, paying back what he took. Five thousand euro has been reimbursed, with another thousand on hand. He'll pay it all back, every cent, but he needs more time. There's only so much a man can earn waiting tables.

The judge in her wisdom must think that it is punishment enough, for now, that the miscreant must scrimp and slave and save to pony up the remainder. With that in mind, she has remanded him on bail for a further two months to come up with the rest of the cash. Once he has paid everything back, only then will she finish up his case. For all intents and purposes, the young man is presently incarcerated in a modern form of debtors' prison. Unlike the bad old days, however, he has the opportunity to work to get the money to pay his debt. So very wise, this judge. In this case, it's a punishment that fits the crime. Not so very different from going to the bank and getting the loan of the 18,000 and then paying out the installments. Wonder what he's put up for collateral? Oh, of course. His freedom.