Henry & Biggs:
Adventure Blog of a Literary Agent and His Beagle
Chapter 4: The Giant in the Dark
Date: February 9
Time: 8:50 p.m.
“Tell me again why we don’t charge a reading fee.”
Biggs drops the sheaf of paper on his desk and rubs his eyes. I know it is not a serious question, but Melissa answers it anyway.
“Because we are ethical, dues-paying members of the Association of Authors’ Representatives and we like to advertise our high standards.”
She is leaning up against Biggs’ office doorway, cradling a vat of carbonated, caramel-colored phosphoric acid and sucking it up through big green straw made to look like bamboo.
Approaching nine o’clock, the office is empty except the four of us. Tink is on her side next to me, not quite awake but no longer twitching in dream. If I cared anything about money, I would pay a lot of it to be able to see what mighty little Tinkles does to that poor, gargantuan English Mastiff in her dreams.
“So we’re advertising our high standards,” Biggs says, confirming.
“So that we can attract top-drawer writers with saleable projects.”
“So then…” Biggs pushes the manuscript on his desk slowly away from him with a pencil as if it might bite him. “Why is it that all I ever seem to read any more is bottom-drawer, unsellable crap? My slush pile is a toxic waste dump of bad grammar, misspelled words, inhumanly shallow characters and story arcs that are either pointlessly Byzantine or utterly non-existent.”
“Yeah, but every now and then…” she says, swallowing.
“No,” Biggs holds his paper-pushing pencil in the air to stop her. “Not every now and then. Rarely. Almost never.”
“You’ve had a lot of good sells.”
“No. Not in a long time. Lots of crap. Piddly stuff.”
“We’re not charging reading fees. I know you’re not serious.”
“Okay, then how about this: we don’t charge a reading fee and, instead, we assess penalties. How’s that? If after slogging through your synopsis and the first three chapters we conclude that you have grievously wasted our time, we will bill your credit card a pain and suffering penalty. It’s not a fee for services rendered. It’s purely, one hundred percent punitive.”
“You want to charge people for bad writing.”
“Yes. Yes I do.”
“Well, we’d probably be rich.”
“Well good at least to know I’m not suffering alone.”
“Oh please. You think bad literary fiction is tough? Really? Try bad erotica. There are some seriously sick little fucks out there and most of them can’t write their first name. I read one manuscript last week in which the author spelled penis p-e-e-n-u-s and demonstrated beyond any shadow of a doubt that he had no working concept of a vulva whatsoever. ”
“And the queries, my God, the queries. Filthiest letters you’ve ever read in your entire life. The only thing worse than bad porn is bad sex and the only thing worst than bad sex is bad porn written down on paper and made into a book.”
But Melissa is not through. She begins to flash her eyes and pantomime, speaking in a loud stage whisper.
“Wanda dismounted with a groan, extracting her lover’s enraged member and then padded off to answer the doorbell in her open robe! The pizza delivery boy was more than just a little surprised… and more than just a boy!”
“And… yet? ”
“Yeah, and yet. And fucking yet, Biggs. Because every now and then someone comes along who knows what she’s doing. And if I can get that one person into print, then that one person will make up for all of the others.”
Biggs leans back and puts his feet up on the corner of his desk. I know this without even looking because the chair issues the same two squeaks and a groan that it always does. One of these days that old relic is going to snap and he’s going over backwards.
“Nope. Don’t give me the one-person-every-now-and-then thing,” he says. “There’s got to be another reason we do this.”
“Yeah, there is,” says Melissa after another slurp on the plastic bamboo. “And the reason is that none of us can write for shit either. Well… you can write but for some strange reason won’t. You’re one of those super agents who can do it all. Lewis and I simply can’t.”
“Hey, of the three of us, you’re the one who’s published, so….”
“Even so. If I could knock one out of the park you think I’d be eking by in Great Neck? I know the good stuff when I read it. I just can’t write it. Why you’re here I’ll never know.”
Biggs lets the subject pass as always. I’m guessing Melissa knows better than to bring it up again. Tink rolls over on the floor next to me and stretches. She is floating in that liminal band of consciousness, neither asleep nor awake. Hearing but not listening. Perceiving but not comprehending. I know that if I so much as twitch she will lose that rare peace. We all will. So I keep my position even though my right flank is due for some relief. I look up and around at Biggs. His arms are crossed over his chest. He’s wearing his blue tie with the soy sauce stain that he thinks is too small for anyone to really notice. Behind him the window is a gleaming black square. Large flecks of white snow materialize out of night’s gloom like little ghosts drawn to the lamp on Biggs’ desk, only to be disappointed by the glass dividing two worlds. Every so often a gust of wind stirs them into an angry frenzy.
“Are you making it?” Biggs asks finally.
“Financially. Are you getting by okay?”
“Hell no. You?”
“If this keeps up, I’m going to have to start feeding Henry Agatha’s cat food.”
I sit bolt upright. Not because I have heard my name, which is obliviously what Melissa is thinking, but because I am forced to contemplate the horror of having to eat the same putrid sludge responsible for the malignant stench that tries to suffocate me every day of the week.
Tink sits up suddenly, not knowing why, and looks at me for information. Her eyes are slightly glazed. The triangular tip of her little pink tongue emerges slowly from its tiny incarnadine cave, pushing aside thatches of white hair like a slick baby kangaroo carefully coming out of its pouch for a look at the world. I lay back down, hoping I have not wakened the beast. Hesitating at first, Tink yawns and takes my lead.
“I made more money as a bar tender,” says Melissa.
“We need some winning projects. We need the next JK Rowling to walk through the door. Stephen King. Stephanie Meyer. George R. R. Martin. We need the next Sue Grafton to stroll in and say Hey guys! I’d like you to get me a book deal for every fucking letter of the alphabet! Numbers would be even better. A whole series called Integers.”
“Don’t hold your breath.”
“We’re just not attracting the right authors. I’m tired of trying to sell unoriginal drivel. I’d almost settle for original drivel.”
“Want me to broaden?” Melissa asks. “I could do children’s lit.”
“Children’s lit and erotica?”
“What. It’s not like the clients will ever meet each other. It’s not like the queries will actually touch pages. If you’re really worried about comingling I could use separate in-boxes.”
“Funny. No, you don’t need to broaden. You’re doing fine. Lewis is doing fine. I’m doing fine. Its just… we’re not really doing so well.”
“You’re contradicting yourself.”
Biggs sighs. It is the sound of hope hissing out of him like air from a punctured tire. Poor Biggs. I sigh too.
“Maybe it’s just the economy,” he says.
“Maybe. More likely it’s Amazon and the self-publishing frenzy. Everyone’s doing it for themselves now. We’re being digitally democratized right out of business. We’re going the way of travel agents. And book stores.”
“I want to be in the one-percent, Mel. I’m tired of being a ninety-niner.”
“Hey, tell it to those yahoos in Congress.”
“Congress won’t return my calls, so…”
“Filibustering mother fuckers. Going to the moon was a damn-sight easier than basic financial reform. Hell, going to the moon was easier than getting a majority of our elected representatives to pass a continuing resolution to avoid defaulting on our debt obligations and knocking our credit rating down to someplace below Liberia. And you’d think, you’d think, that creating and empowering an agency to protect financial consumers against predation would be easy, or at least uncontroversial. But you would be wrong. Very wrong.”
“You know, watching C-Span as much as you do is going to rot your brain and shorten your life.”
“The richest one-percent of Americans account for over a third of our nation’s net worth. A third!”
Melissa’s escalating pitch pulls Tink out of her languor. She stretches and sits up, focusing on Melissa’s face as if there is nothing she loves more than evening obloquies on income inequality.
“Well, it’s not quite that bad,” says Biggs, because he is as naïve as he is loveable.
“The hell it isn’t. And that includes housing. Take housing out of the picture, and the one-percent control forty-three percent of the wealth. The richest twenty percent of Americans control ninety-three percent of the country’s wealth.” She jabs the plastic bamboo in his direction. “Ninety-fucking-three percent. We should be rioting in the goddamned streets. I mean, what the fuck is going on, Biggs? And those numbers are old.”
“Alright, alright. Jeez. I believe you. I’d riot with you but I don’t have the money for a pitchfork or a torch. I just want a solid piece of fiction I can sell. Is that too much to ask?”
“Gary thinks we’re ten years away from armed rebellion.”
“I’m sure he does. Wait, who’s Gary?”
Melissa rolls her eyes and slides the plastic bamboo straw slowly in and out of her cup. It makes a kind of low groaning sound. Tink and I exchange glances and I know we both now have mental images of the naked-monkey couch Olympics.
“Oh. Well what happened to Bruce? I thought…”
“Bruce? Biggs, Bruce was like six months ago. He violated his parole in August.”
“Sorry. I just can’t keep up with your sex life.”
There is a small, almost inaudible bump from outside that vibrates into the soundscape. Biggs and Melissa are oblivious.
But I hear it. I pluck it from the silence like a slow-falling leaf. Like a soap bubble floating out in the back yard of my puppyhood.
Instantly, I am on my feet, tail up and sounding off, letting whatever is out there know that I am on duty. I doubt whether Tink heard it, but now she is up too, taking it on faith and splitting the air. Melissa and Biggs try to call us down but we are not having it.
I bolt through the door and down the hall, heading for the window in Melissa’s office, Tink right behind me. She’s up on the back of that chair like a whale spotter up in the crow’s nest of a clipper ship. I circle the center of the room, filling it with my warning. Biggs shouts at me from his office to shut up, which I don’t appreciate because I am only looking out for him, but I will not be deterred by his lack of understanding and his naïve assumption that I have simply imagined danger for my own amusement. I know it when I hear it.
The two of us barrel back down the hall, skidding on the fake Persian throw rugs, and into Lewis’ office. Here there is another large window, but no real way to get up to it unless you happen to be a filthy cat that walks on top of furniture like an animal. The room stinks like Agatha and the residue of her food. I do my best to ignore it, propping my front paws up against the credenza beneath the window and bellowing out in the direction of the same small patch of woods that borders Biggs’ office.
I pause and listen. Tink stops too and watches me, ears twitching, her tongue now less like a hairless marsupial and more like a slick pink cobra on its way out of the basket, looking to settle a score with the flautist. All is silent except the sound of Melissa’s voice through the wall, going on about the health care so conveniently available to Congress and members of the Supreme Court. I block her out, isolating the silence, listening for ripples in the calm. Tink takes a breath but I shoot her a quick look and she holds it.
And then there it is: footsteps. Faint. Muffled by snow and brick. But definitely footsteps.
Tink and I explode in a furious, kinetic ball of sound. Tink is the first out of Lewis Glume’s office, but I am all over her on the way down the hall to the front door where we skid to a stop and raise holy hell.
Melissa curses and stomps down the hall barking for us to be quiet as though we’re a couple of shrieking children and not defenders of the realm. We ignore her and keep at it. Now more than ever, we cannot risk the misimpression that we are easily cowed by stern commands. Whoever is out there needs to know us for the savage bloodthirst in our veins. The pride of my lineage is on the line and I will not desist.
“What the fuck, you guys?” says Melissa. “Nothing is out there. It’s just the wind. Tink, stop it. It’s just the fucking wind!”
Melissa bends and scoops up Tink in one fluid movement. She uses the side of her foot to push me away from the door. I could easily get around the foot and its leather holster. When she is not on the couch, Melissa is not so agile.
But I let her push me back a good ten feet anyway. Because I know what’s coming. No one could witness our display of canine ferocity and be certain that there is no threat on the other side of that door. No one. Certainly not Melissa Lang. Curiosity is the undoing of cats and humans alike. Deservedly for the cats, pathetically for the humans. But for the canine, curiosity is nothing less than the gateway to opportunity.
Melissa opens the door a crack and looks outside, poking her head out into the snowy night.
“See?” she says, pulling her head back in. “It’s just…”
I am through her legs and out into the blowing snow before she can finish her sentence. Melissa is instantly shouting my name. Tink goes crazy in her arms, urging me on. I clear the walkway and the dumpster and the northern half of the parking lot in seconds, leaving the civility of shoveled concrete and rounding the corner of the building at a dead run. Plunging chest deep into the snow, I head for the narrow strip of woods in the back of the Bigelow Literary Agency.
The man, for I think it is a man, is like a small building. He is very close to the wall as I round the corner and I do not see him until it is too late. His hand is around my throat like a vise, sealing oxygen from my lungs and squeezing the blood up into my head. He lifts me by the neck out of the snow. My ferocious voice is snuffed out like a small flame and I wriggle pointlessly in the cold, airy dark, my back to the thing that will kill me for an audience of indifferently snowy trees, each of which Tink and I have indifferently anointed at some time or another.
As my feet twitch in the wind, I get a queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. Beagles, for all of their inestimable ability, were never meant to fly.
But I do fly.
This giant of a man flings me with such ease that he may as well have been flicking a dead fly from his sleeve. The snowy ground is so far below that I cannot see it without also seeing the tops of the two cars in the parking lot for which I am destined.
As I sail high up into the night, the only thought that surfaces through the blind, oxygen-starved panic in my head is that this great big monster of a man, who for some unknown reason was lurking out behind Biggs’ office window, had absolutely no scent.