Just in time for the opening bell (or is it more approrpriately an opening toast) of AWP in Boston tomorrow, we present Daniel Torday's "A&W&P." We first ran this story before AWP last year. We're starting to feel a little tradition coming on here.
Get drunk and come by the Hobart table this weekend. We're sharing space with Lit Ragger. We'll be happy to sell you books and journals.
- after John Updike
In perambulate these two girls in Rick Santorum t-shirts and stonewashed jeans. I’m in the second row of presenters’ tables, Row J, with my back to the entranceway, so I don’t espy them until they are over by the Paris Review table. The one who caught my eye first was quaffed with frosted-blonde hair and a necklace with pearls the size of Gobstoppers. She was a salubrious kid, with puffed ruddy (sanguine? Would that be a better adjective here?) cheeks that make you think of gelid mornings on an Illinois farm. I stood there with my hand on a copy of the new Salt Hill Journal, trying to remember if I’d received my $8 remuneration for it yet. I ask the kid in the Diesel skinny jeans if he’s paid and he just looks at me not saying anything. He’s one of those hipsters who, with a look, can make you feel sophomoric, like it’s literally sophomore year of high school again, like you should just head home to play Legend of Zelda in your basement, and I know it made his day to trip me up. He’d probably been lifting magazines from bookstores for twenty years and never been called on it.
He runs his hands through his unwashed hair as he leaves my table. If he’d been born at the right time they would have castrated him and had him mezzo-soprano in a boys choir. By the time he’s sunk into the crowd over at The Kenyon Review table, the Santorum girls had circled around and were coming back my way. They didn’t even have their AWP lanyards around their necks. One of the two was fleshy, with the Gobstopper pearls, and the other was tall, with auburn hair layered and framing her face in a Hilary Clinton cut—you know, the kind of girl that other girls think bears “leadership qualities” and “gravitas” but never quite makes it, which is why they like her so much. She was the queen. She was the more comely of the two, and she seemed to walk only on the tips of her toes, as if her feet needn’t touch the ground. You never know how these women’s minds work (do you really think there are thoughts in there, or just a replay of last night’s Fox News running through their heads?) but you got the idea she had talked the pearl girl into coming here with her.
She had on a kind of heather-gray—beige maybe, I don’t know—super-tight Santorum shirt, and, what got me, the letters of his name were stretched so it just said, “antoru,” with maybe half the last letter so you could think she was canvassing for a candidate named “antorun.” The shirt was so tight she might as well not have been wearing anything at all. The more t-shirt there was, the less she looked clothed. She had sort of ashen blonde hair inevitably dyed at some $200-a-cut Bumble-and-Bumble carrying salon, and a prim face. Waltzing into the AWP Bookfair with a Santorum t-shirt on, I suppose it’s the only kind of face you can have.
So she must have felt in the corner of her eye me and over my shoulder Rosenblum, but she didn’t tip. Not this queen. She kept her eyes moving across all the journals, and buzzed the one with the pearls, who kind of huddled against her for relief. The sheep perusing the journals and indie-press books were pretty hilarious. You could see them, when Queenie’s “antoru” dawned on them, kind of jerk, or hop, or hiccup, but their eyes snapped back to the tables, to checking out the new West Branch and a copy of The Cincinnati Review. I bet you could start singing Lee Greenwood’s God Bless the USA at the top of your lungs in the Bookfair at AWP and the people would by and large keep perusing the new issue of Ploughshares, and muttering, “Oh, yes, a new Jim Shepard story, no, ah, yes, and a Michael Burkhard poem—wonderful!” or whatever it is they do mutter. But there was no doubt, this grated on them.
You know, it’s one thing to have a girl in a Santorum t-shirt out on Michigan Avenue, where with the wash of crowds nobody can ogle each other much anyway, and another thing inside the AWP Bookfair, under the fluorescent lights, against all those tables of journals and books, with her high heels padding along over the wall-to-wall carpeting.
“Oh, help me,” Rosenblum said beside me. “I feel so conflicted—those family values mixed with that body I’d value in making family. Or trying to, anyway.”
“Brother,” I said. “Hold me tight.” Rosenblum’s married, with two babies already providing material for a realist novel on domestic strife in the Tom Perrotta mode, but as far as I can tell that’s the only difference between us. He’s thirty-two, and I was twenty-nine this April.
“Is it done?” he asks, the uxorious married man finding his voice. I forgot to say he thinks he’s going to be editor-in-chief of The Southern Review some day, maybe in 2058 when the magazine’s full of ads for sportswear, bought up by Random House or something.
The Santorum girls reached the New York Times table and they were asking the sales rep something. He pointed, they pointed, and they shuffled out of sight behind a huge poster for the newspaper. All that was left for us to see was the Times rep patting his mouth and looking after them sizing up their joints. Poor kids, I began to feel sorry for them, they couldn’t help it.
Now here comes the sad part of the story. It’s evening so the Bookfair’s clearing out, so there was nothing much to do but lean on the table and wait for the girls to show up. The whole room was like that issue of McSweeney’s made to look like a newspaper, and I didn’t know what section they’d appear in. After a while they came, though, Queenie still leading the way with a copy of Salt Hill clearly in her hands. How’d she get a copy? I’d missed she’d picked it up? Well she saunters up, hands me the journal. Up close I can see she’s mostly perfect: eyebrows in lines straight like they’re in iambic pentameter, this nose so thin I’d debase myself enough to call it aquiline. She’s got foundation enough on her face to serve it at IHOP but it only makes her hotter like one of the girls who wouldn’t talk to me in high school. And for the first time I can see the “S” and “M” on her shirt—the sadism and masochism not lost on me—bulging like they’re beckoning to leave “antoru” for good. Still with that prim look she lifts a folded ten out of the tight pocket of her acid-washed Guess jeans. The issue went heavy in my hand.
Then everybody’s luck begins to run out. Cressida Smith comes in from listening to the Margaret Atwood reading she’s come to the conference to see and is about to scuttle her way to say hi to a friend at PMS (poemmemoirstory) where she hides all day while we’re selling issues—when the girls’ shirts touch her eye. Cressida’s pretty dreary, is doing a PhD on world dystopian literatures along with her MFA, and she doesn’t miss much. She comes over and says, “Girls, the RNC is in Tampa Bay in a couple months, not here in Chicago.”
Queenie blanches, though maybe it’s just all that foundation on her cheeks I was noticing for the first time, now that she was so close. “My friend here is working on a piece for theNational Review on academy-funded magazines.” Her voice startled me, the way voices do, coming out so sharp and intelligent, yet awfully Midwestern, too, the way “academy” sounded all nasal and yolky. All of a sudden I slid right down her voice into her dorm room. Her friends all sitting around with Crayola markers making Pro-life signs for some rally. Drinking two Mike’s Hard Lemonades and feeling trashed. When we have someone over to my apartment these days if it isn’t a $12 six-pack, it had better be PBR tallboys.
“That’s all right,” Cressida said. “But this isn’t the RNC in Tampa Bay.” Her repeating this struck me as funny, as if she’d been planning the line for weeks in case something so odd as two girls in Santorum t-shirts showing up at AWP was to happen. Queenie’s foundation was starting to look a little muddy now under the fluorescent lights, and the one with the Gobstopper pearls chimes in. “We weren’t doing any perusing of all those snooty journals. We just came in for research.”
“That makes no difference,” Cressida tells her, and I could see from the way her eyes went that she hadn’t noticed she was wearing a Santorum shirt, too. “We want you to care for this work when you come in here, to support the literary community.”
“We don’t care,” Queenie says suddenly, her lower lip pouting, her moral indignation piqued now that she remembers her place, a place from which the crowd at AWP must look pretty boring. The cover of Salt Hill flashed in her very blue eyes.
“Womyn, I don’t want to argue with you. After this just head back to whatever Focus on Family lecture you came from. We don’t need your kind here.” She turns her back.
All this while, a bunch of other people had been showing up with their conference totes, but, you know, sheep, seeing a scene, they had all bunched up to the tables next to us. I could feel in the silence everybody getting angsty, most of all Cressida, who asks me, “Elijah, have you gotten paid for this journal?”
I thought and said “No” but it wasn’t about that I was thinking. I go through the notebook, looking at the details of the eight copies of the journal we’ve sold in two days of the conference. I uncrease the bill, tenderly as you may imagine, it just having come from the acid-washed pocket pressed against hips before me, and pass two dollars back into Queenie’s hand, all the time imagining how I’d write the scene if I was going to hand it in to workshop.
The girls, and who’d blame them, are in no hurry to get out with a crowd riled, so I say “I quit” to Cressida quick enough for them to hear, hoping they’ll see I’m taking up the mantel of their freedom of speech and take me with them, their unsuspected hero.
“Did you say something, Elijah?”
“I said I quit.”
“I thought you did.”
“You didn’t have to shut them down. They have as much right to these journals as we do.”
“They weren’t going to read it and you know it.”
I started to say something that came out “hail-to-the-thief.” It’s a line from a record I’d been listening to a lot lately.
“I don’t think you know what you’re saying,” Cressida said.
“I know you don’t,” I said. “But I do.” I pull off the Salt Hill t-shirt I’ve got on over my long-sleeved navy American Apparel shirt. A couple people that had been heading for our table begin to knock against each other, like nervous students up that week for workshop. Cressida sighs and begins to look very superior and dialectical. She’s been in my workshop for two years, and she’ll surely stay on to edit the journal, which has a rule that you can only be published in it three years after graduation. It’d be a good publication. They sell it in Barnes & Noble. “Elijah, you don’t want to do this to your work,” she tells me. I don’t. But it seems to me that once you’ve created a character, you’ve got to stay true to that character, unless you know what you’re trying to show has changed in him. I fold the t-shirt and put it on the table. “You’ll feel this every time you write,” Cressida says, and I know that’s true, too, but remembering how she made that pretty girl feel bad about her work, no matter what it was, makes me so tight inside I grab my free copy of the journal and head out into the hotel lobby.
I look around for the Santorum girls, but they’re gone, of course. There was just every writer I’ve ever seen at the lobby bar. Looking back into the book fair, I could see Cressida at my place behind the table, selling copies to a couple of sheep. Her face was sanguine and her back stiff, as if she’d just finished an hour of Bikram yoga, and my stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard it was going to be for me to ever get published.