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Take Only What You Need
Eleanor wrote the last lines of her description of “alluring Russian woman,” and slid it into an envelope with an invoice for $100, the price of a detailed description. Katrina, the “alluring Russian woman” had taken her about an hour to write, what with the precision needed to capture the stringy muscles of her calves, the severe red of her painted-on lips, and the exact angles of her ruthlessly chopped blond hair. The character was to be the protagonist of a mystery novel written by a recent college graduate who had clearly decided that a bestselling thriller was a more worthy endeavor than a work of original literary fiction.
Eleanor had already written three other descriptions that morning, though none as interesting as Katrina. One had been for a high school senior who needed a “sympathetic character” for the final project of his seminar on the craft of fiction. The teenager’s name was Bradley Hunt, and he had explained his circumstances in a redundant letter that only mentioned his character request in its last few sentences. She had skimmed it, mostly. The middle paragraphs were primarily concerned with his desperate need for a high mark on the final project, and were far too lengthy. Eleanor suspected that his inability to be concise was as annoying to his teacher as it was to her. The description she wrote for Bradley was about a six year old named Thomas, a blind, fatherless boy who took pleasure in tricking and lying to others. The combination of the pitiful and the irritating bore a striking resemblance to Bradley himself, or so Eleanor thought.
She needed to complete four more descriptions that day if she was to make rent by the end of the week. A stack of envelopes loomed over the keys of her laptop. They awaited the inception of senile old men, precocious toddlers, and ex-cons with “pure hearts and good intentions.” Mouth dry from many cups of stale coffee, Eleanor opened the next envelope.
Inside, the request for a description was printed formally across the top of the page:
I am in need of a strong, self-determined young woman. Physical appearance insignificant. Nervous tic or defining quirk essential.
In the center of the page was the client’s name: Patrick A. Adler, and the street address in Key West where he wanted the description sent. The name was somehow familiar, as if she had overheard it somewhere while only half-listening. Eleanor browsed the internet to investigate.
The first result of her search was a list of novels. Eleanor opened the page for American Cannon. She began to read the reviews: “Pulitzer Prize Finalist has done it again! American Cannon...” Eleanor stopped reading. She returned to her search engine and entered “Patrick A. Adler,” and “Pulitzer.” The first result was a book titled A Ring in the Wind.
She slipped Adler’s request back into its envelope and went to get her coat. She left the screen of the laptop on, the cold light of its pixels doing little to illuminate the dimness of her living room.
Eleanor brushed her thumb across the spine of the moleskine notebook that she kept in her jacket pocket as she walked to the subway station. She recalled the pages of poetry, full of angst and romantic images of the city, that she had scrawled while sitting on benches in Prospect Park in the wintertime. These were the poems she did not read to anyone, because they were too honest to lay bare and she was not in the habit of exposing the fleshy parts of herself. Even when her father had called, the sound of a strained back in his voice, and asked her to read him something beautiful, she had denied him these words. They were not the triumphant fanfare he would have wanted to hear. They were poems of defeat, cold toes, Jewish ex-boyfriends, and overpriced coffee. She read to him from a book she was reading instead. He complimented her use of imagery. “Just beautiful,” he had said. “I’m so proud of you.”
Shoving through the turnstile at the Franklin Avenue station, she returned her MetroCard to her wallet, which made it only slightly thicker than empty, but not thick enough to buy food or a new pair of boots, or to pay off student loans. She walked to the end of the train platform and leaned against the mosaic wall. She flipped through her notebook while she waited for the uptown 2.
Between the pages of endlessly tinkered-with poetry, vignettes portraying a plethora of characters were written in her narrow, sprawling print. These were words she had written furtively while sitting in coffee shops and waiting rooms and once, even in the stall of a public toilet. (The woman who stood waiting in front of her for the bathroom had a very intriguing way of running her fingers through her hair.) She gave all of the people she described a new name that they would not know to answer to, and new families and friends who they had never met and did not know to love. Some had hidden homicidal tendencies, or fears of spiders, heights or odd numbers. Some were adventurers in the wilds of fictional countries, and others were construction workers and mail carriers who commuted daily on the familiar streets of Bangor, Maine. And for all of her efforts to write protagonists she could coddle and adore, her characters had a tendency to curdle over time, perhaps due to the heat of her coat pocket. They would sour, developing dirty habits or crippling addictions, until she could not bear to write their lives anymore. Her father did not know anything about these vignettes. They belonged only to Eleanor, unless she was paid to give them away.
The station began to hum. The crackling intercom announced that a train was coming soon. Eleanor shoved her other hand into her coat pocket and looked down at her shoes until the train pulled in. She found a place to stand beside the door, next to a black teenager with dark-washed jeans and music leaking from his headphones.
She was almost certain his name was Dex. He was thin, but hardened under his clothes; he did one hundred pull-ups on the bar over his doorway every morning. His girlfriend, a girl who was shorter than him by a little bit but slightly outweighed him, sometimes wished that he were bulkier. For that reason, he exercised frequently and obsessively. From these imagined details, she conjured an entire lifetime, which she began to sculpt in her notebook. She constructed a childhood with relish, finding secrets tucked amongst the stubble on his chin and refining them with pen on paper. She filled line after line with Dex’s life.
Dex looked Eleanor directly in the eye as she glanced up from her writing to look at his face again. His eyebrows pulled together slightly. She snapped her moleskine closed and looked instead at her own reflection in the window of the door opposite her, and tilted her head from side to side, trying to find an angle that made her round cheeks harden and her eyes slant in a way that was more alluring than their current allergy-reddened, wispy-eyelashed state.
At Borough Hall, she shuffled to the exit of the train car and barely avoided shoving a woman with a pierced lip who was slouched authoritatively in the threshold. At street level, Eleanor marched, hands once again in her pockets, down Court Street, past the fast food restaurants and clothing stores that looked permanently soiled.
She passed the coffee shop where she and Ben had slaved together over endless drafts of stories that were smothered by their obsessively editing pens. Ben was the native Brooklyn boy who introduced her to the subway system, the dark and close-fitting clothing of big-city dwellers, the callousness of New York winter, and, after a few months of dating, his tutting Jewish grandmother. Ben’s words had always fit the page better than hers. Even the love notes he sent, nonchalantly composed during classes or on bar napkins, had a shimmering grace in their every phrase. After a semester of working together, of course she fell in love with his writing, and in love with him by association.
Now, she walked into the Barnes and Noble and went directly to the kiosk at the back of the store where employees offered lackluster advice to customers who were not independent enough to explore a bookstore unassisted. Ben had often made that commentary about the sheep who frequented Barnes and Noble. Eleanor, though, maintained a love for the clean, bright, and spacious layout of the chain store.
“Excuse me?” she said to the blond woman about her age who stood in the kiosk.
“How may I help you?” said the blond, eyes blank and staring at something on Eleanor’s shoulder.
Eleanor reached up and ran a hand across the shoulder of her jacket. “Patrick A. Adler - where can I find him?”
“Third floor, on the left as you come off the elevator. You can’t miss the tables - they’re all set up especially for the signing tomorrow.”
“He’s coming here tomorrow. Do you want a pamphlet?” The blond clearly did not want Eleanor to want a pamphlet.
“Oh, uh... no. I’ll just - When is it?”
The blond clacked on the keyboard of her computer. “Four o’clock. The details are on the website if you want them.” Eleanor thanked the blond and went looking for the escalator.
On the third floor, four bow-legged tables supported the weight of Patrick A. Adler’s career. One table, dedicated to a celebratory five-million-copies-sold edition of A Ring in the Wind gleamed, new book jackets catching the fluorescent lights. A gold medallion, stamped in the upper right hand corner of each, read: “Pulitzer Prize Finalist.” Eleanor wondered what it would feel like to be so universally hailed. With the publication of one book, Adler had validated every novel, poem, and shopping list he would ever write. They were now a matter of public interest. Eleanor took up a copy of A Ring in the Wind and paged through it with her thumb before going downstairs and buying it with the overdrawn credit card that she reserved for emergencies.
She began reading on the subway ride back. Skipping a foreword written by an academic sycophant, she took to the text with her pen. She bracketed sentences and paragraphs and sometimes whole pages, awed by the cadence of Adler’s words.
Eleanor came through the door of her apartment building, one hand fumbling with locks and latches as she continued to read. She walked into Peña, her landlord, at full speed. He was unfazed, and did not budge from his place filling the narrow hallway that led to the stairs.
“Oh, it’s you,” said Peña.
“Yes. I live here. Now, if you would just let me -” she tried to shimmy through the narrow gap he left between his sagging belly and the wall. He smelled of pomade and salty TV dinners.
“If you wooden mind, I want to make a little of money at the end of this week, yeh? About time you figured out how to turn pretty words into dolares, you think?” he grinned. His teeth were a brilliant white that stood apart from the dark brown of his skin. They were veneers, and only a month old. She had almost laughed out loud when she saw them for the first time.
“I haven’t missed a single payment, Peña. And I think I have it figured, anyway.”
“Oh, but tell me, please.” His arms spread in a welcoming gesture. He scowled. “Tell me you have invented the perfec’ machine. How does it work, m’hija?” Eleanor was already past him and ascending the staircase.
Evening had settled on the furniture in the living room, and left it looking old and dingy. The apartment was truly dark now, with no light to creep in between the slats of the closed blinds. Eleanor read for hours, into the rare, tranquil hours when the sounds of traffic outside became infrequent.
With every underlined word, she was reminded of swapping manuscripts with Ben and writing elaborate praise in the margins of every draft. He returned hers with sentences marked in red with words like “awkward” and “necessary?” written beside them. Then, he would kiss her, showering her with consolation prizes, and hold her hand through painstaking revision. Her words became his words, in those days. They morphed slowly until they fit on his tongue more than on hers, and she could only nod with each change he made. Some part of her had craved his touch purely because his hands were the same ones that printed florid verses on the pages of countless moleskine notebooks. At times, she had fantasized about him taking a pen to her skin and tinting her with his language, each letter like a minute scale or feather that would cause her metamorphosis into an illustrious poet.
There came a point, though, when she could no longer ignore that he was not an exceptional lover, nor an exceptional person, but was really only an exceptional writer. She realized that no amount of effort on her part would make their relationship symbiotic, because his talent would never truly infect her. An infinite amount of skin on skin contact never did cause his skill to slough off onto her. Developing a taste for his kind of dark-roast coffee, wearing his old clothes, and writing in notebooks that resembled his did not turn her into him. They did nothing to lessen her envy of him. His presents of used philosophy books and collections of essays were still stacked on her bedside table, though she lacked the motivation or interest to read them. He referenced them often in conversation, though he knew she was not privy to his knowledge of the texts.
Eleanor was the first in line for the book signing the next day, heavily pen-marked copy of A Ring in the Wind in hand. She arrived a full two hours before Adler did, and almost didn’t look up when it was announced that he was in the building. She was busy paging through her moleskine again, considering the awkward ways in which her lines fell, like the pleats on an ill-fitting dress, and comparing them to Adler’s mellifluous prose. Once he was situated behind a stack of American Cannon, leaning his elbow on a few stacked copies, Eleanor was allowed to approach him, book clutched over the slight paunch of her belly, which was fed on cheap fast food. She did not look up at him, choosing instead to keep her eyes on the book. She pressed it against her pants, as if to hold in place the message she had written in the front cover: “Adler: I would like to speak to you after the reading. It is very important to me that we talk. I will be waiting for you to finish the signing. Please do not leave without speaking with me.”
Adler opened the book when she set it down on the table in front of him, and she watched his hands as he signed his name and wrote an often handed out pleasantry on the book’s first page. He closed the book, pressing the top cover down with finality, and pushed it to the side for her to pick up and carry away. His hand on the glossy cover was gnarled, its joints bulky and contorted. The fingernails were ragged and the cuticles bloody in some places.
Eleanor took the book in hand again, and walked away into the New Fiction section, where she sat cross-legged between the shelves and opened her moleskine to a new page. She began with a description of his hands, and continued up the arms to the shoulders and torso that she had not really seen, and the face that she had not looked at, even for a moment. In her mind he was old - seventy or so, - and had a face that hung from wrinkles around the mouth and beneath the eyes, as if the glue had come away from all other places and the skin were near falling off completely. His fingers, victims of rheumatoid arthritis, were permanently half-clenched. Adler was tanned, due to time spent in a house in Key West during the winter season of New York. In her description, he was childless, with an ex-wife who wanted from him a share of the money he made from his literary success.
An hour later, the shuffling of feet and tapping of fingers of the linewaiters was reduced to that of only a few people. Eleanor returned to the table, then. Adler was still sitting behind a stack of his own words, a fortress, or a levee, protecting him from anything that might threaten his position.
“Excuse me?” she said.
“Are you that first girl?” he asked. His head was turned away from her, looking across the room at the table filled with copies of A Ring in the Wind. His hair was brown, and combed back with gel in the style of Wall Street bankers. His skin fit him better than Eleanor had expected. There was a youth about his posture in the seat.
“Yes. I would like to speak with you about your writing. I’m a writer, and I’ve only got about halfway through A Ring in the Wind, but I -”
“I’m not the person to go to for the secrets of writing, if that’s what you’re asking me for.”
“I wasn’t asking for your secrets, no. I just wanted to discuss with you the way you develop your characters because I find it very interesting and -”
“I can’t tell you how to make your characters interesting, either. They are either relatable or they aren’t, and I have been fortunate enough to write characters who are, and they have driven my stories to be what they are. I’m sure you’ve noticed that about the book.”
“The importance of character.”
“Oh, well yes. Of course. How could character not be important?”
“That is the sort of question a person asks when they understand the rules of fiction but haven’t yet learned how to manipulate them. I’m afraid I can’t help you there. As I said, I’m not a source for the secrets of good writing.”
“I understand that. I was merely asking about your personal process. How do you get to know a character? Do you discover them as you go along?”
“As you said, it is a personal process. I’ll not be made into an instruction manual on how to write character.”
“I don’t think I’m making myself clear -”
“Then I suppose that is where you struggle in your own writing. That seems like the best place to start if you aim to improve.” He looked her directly in the eyes as he finished speaking. He blinked, but somehow did not stop staring. He was young: no more than forty, and had brown eyes that were watery, as if near tears. He was blemished, covered in moles and freckles, but his skin was smooth and without wrinkles. Eleanor turned her eyes to her own hands, holding the book.
“Thank you for your time,” she said. She waited at the table for a moment more, expecting a response from the man hiding behind the books, but none was forthcoming.
They each left the Barnes and Noble within minutes of each other, by separate exits, and one with an entourage of agents and publicists in tow. One walked five blocks to the subway and returned to an apartment sandwiched between the home of a shut-in Russian grandmother named Katrina and the even smaller dwelling of a couple who made love loudly whenever the Giants won a game. The other was ushered into a waxed black SUV and chauffeured to an apartment on Central Park, which was used only in the spring and fall seasons, when the weather in New York was balmy and pleasant and could turn in a matter of days or hours.
Eleanor continued reading A Ring in the Wind on her sofa. She attacked the second half of the book with a red pen this time, bracketing half-page long sentences full of adjectives and writing “necessary?” in the margins. Adler’s pretty words droned on, filling pages with no discernible direction. Eleanor scratched at the facade of the prose, defiling the smooth edifice of each paragraph. She reached the end of the book hours after the restaurants in her neighborhood stopped delivering dinner. She was not particularly hungry, though. She closed the book, whose pages were now warped from the marks she dug into their margins. She left it in the bedroom, perched atop the stack of Ben’s gifts that gathered dust on her bedside table.
At her desk once again, Eleanor opened a new document on her laptop. She typed out a heading for the page, stating the P.O. box where her payment was to be sent within three days of receiving the invoice. She also included the price of Adler’s request, $1,000. This was also the price of four weeks worth of groceries, a new winter jacket, and next month’s rent. Below the price, she described the installment plan that was to cover what she called a “discretion fee.” $2,000, sent every week until she decided that the payment was sufficient. She added a clarifying note: It would be a shame if your readers were to find out that your characters, so integral to your stories, are not your own. She printed the document and folded it in neat thirds, slid it into an envelope, and sealed it.
The next morning, she bought a freshly brewed iced tea from the shop across the street from her apartment building. It banished the sour taste of black coffee that had lingered on her tongue for months. She dropped the envelope in a mailbox as she sipped her beverage and walked toward Prospect Park.