Chapter 6: To Be or Not to Be
"Did you hear the part when he took that old woman hostage?" a coworker asked his friend.
His friend's lopsided head slowly nods. "Yeah, that was fucking scary."
"I saw the whole thing myself. Yesterday, I was at a conference when..."
Exciting stories turn into thick sand as Holden tunes out his companions and retreats to his small desk.
While listening to Led Zeppelin on his iPod, Holden stares at his Apple laptop. The demolished screen reveals notes regarding the release date of Thomas Wakeman's novel, 13 Summers Ago. Many readers claim the book paints an authentic portrait of romance in the early 1970s. It has a rousing plot, memorable characters, and a complex ending.
Initially, Holden wanted to read it. He went to Barnes & Noble, bought the book with his credit card, and flip through it in his college dorm room. But once he scanned through the third chapter, Holden believed it was the worst book he had ever read.
The protagonist Becky Sanders is a whiny teenager who shows little respect for her friends and dying mother. She has no hobbies or personality. All she cares about is graduating high school she can act like an adult. In the first chapter, Becky describes herself as an "awkward mess" and yet she attracts the attention of boys.
She crushes hard on a nineteen-year-old bad boy, while actively ignoring her compassionate best friend Miles Lincoln. Not to mention the dialogue felt forced. Staring at the screen, Holden saves his notes and shuts off his laptop. After he finishes his email to Albert, Holden will throw away the book before his kleptomaniac roommate sees it.
Phones jerk their receivers, as new writers demand to talk to their literary agents. Clacking keyboards and condescending voices did nothing to calm Holden's mind. Ancient music fades like a sun descending under the skyscrapers. He massages the intense pain on his forehead until Holden sees Thomas Wakeman walking towards Mrs. Grenwood's office.
His gluttonous body makes his striped shirt look small. Long creases ruin his pair of light brown khaki pants, while crumpled leaves sprinkle his penny loafers. How his book became a national bestseller is beyond Holden. Despite this, Holden made sure his manuscript is ready so it would land in the New York Times Book List.
Lately, the company has been going slow. Although Simon & Schuster heralded bestselling memoirs, novels, and recipes, the literary community often got bored with reading the same material. So until the staff answers their clients' calls, Mrs. Grenwood cut their bonuses in half.
After Holden hands in Albert's draft to his boss, he sent a voicemail to Jaime Hearst about her short story and decides to take a break. So, at around 12:45 p.m., he stuffs his iPod in his bag, approaches his boss's door, and gives it a knock.
"Come in." a deep voice croaked.
Holden enters the scarcely small office to see Mrs. Grenwood and Thomas Wakeman conversing with each other. Grayish-brown locks conceal Mrs. Grenwood's bony shoulders. She buttons her white blouse close to her giraffe-like neck.
"Hello there, young man."
Holden presses his lips together. There is nothing he hates more than being called "young man." Still, he swallows his pride and forces a smile.
"Hello, sir." Holden welcomed. "What brings you here?"
"We were just discussing the arrangements for my first TV interview with CBS." Thomas Wakeman grinned.
"Really? That sounds good." Holden remarks. "Is it about your book?"
Thomas's smile widen. "Yeah, have you read it?"
"What did you like about it?" asked Thomas.
Holden glances at Mrs. Grenwood who angrily shakes her head. "I doubt you want to hear my opinion, sir."
"Oh, but I do." Thomas leans in the back of his chair to observe Holden's face. "What do you like about the novel?"
"Honestly." Holden sighed, "I thought the book is horseshit, sir."
His boss drops her jaw in shock, while Thomas's cheery expression vanishes.
"The writing sucks, the plot is predictable, and your character is a horrible person," Holden went on. "She's a fourteen-year-old idiot who cares about no one. Fuck, Becca is even seeing a boy five years older than her."
Thomas makes a disgusted face. This boy had no right to vilify his novel. He worked tireless nights perfecting his draft, making sure every sentence run smoothly. What the fuck does Holden know about being a writer?
"Becca is a troubled teenage girl," Thomas growls.
"Troubled?" Holden repeats. "The only thing I find troubling is talking to a horny, fifty-year-old masochist who enjoys writing terrible shit about women."
Thomas digs his fat fingers into the chair's arms then asks Holden for his name, however, the man ignored his request and speaks to his boss. Her face burns scarlet. Her crooked lips tremble as if she is about to swear at Holden for disrespecting an "accomplished" writer. As much as she hates his coldness, Mrs. Grenwood admires Holden for his diligent work and brutal honesty.
"Anyway, Mrs. Grenwood," he continued. "I have revised a couple of drafts from your client. But once I'll get back at 1:30, I'll send her an email regarding her decision about her compensation."
"Okay. I'll see you at 1:30."
Holden sucks on the tip of his cigarette and exhales through his nose. His brown eyes lazily watch the cars pass by, leaving behind clouds of smoke. For today, he sports a faded Soundgarden t-shirt with an oversized, gray sweater underneath it. His olive green skate baggy jeans protect his bare legs from the autumn cold.
As the glass shields him from outside distractions, Holden felt as if the weight finally loosens from his shoulders. He was free from the drama, his idiotic co-workers, and that goddamn draft he revised last night. But when Allison Stone came up to him, it appears all the birds in New York had suddenly stopped singing.
"Holden, what time did Neil Gaiman said he wants to meet with Mrs. Grenwood?" she asks in an urgent tone. She leaves the door open, letting the noise flood inside the room.
Irritated, he puts the cigarette out in his ashtray then rests his back against his moving chair. "He wants to have lunch with Mrs. Grenwood at 12:45 p.m."
"Yep, he also told me to tell you to go fuck yourself."
Hoisting a brown file in her hands, Allison asks if he handed Albert's revised draft to Mrs. Grenwood.
"Well, what the hell did she say?"
"She said that she appreciates the draft," he says apathetically. "But she wants me to email Albert Schultz as soon as possible."
Allison's small smile distorts into a perplexed frown.
Usually, Mrs. Grenwood is never this chirpy. She would look at fifty-paged drafts and cast them aside like yesterday's garbage.
"Speaking of work," Holden adds. "I have read Jaime's story."
Allison lowers her glasses. "Who?"
"The girl who wrote a story about a bulimic person discovering her sexuality," Holden replied. "Anyway, I read her story, and she's an excellent writer. Maybe we should call her."
Allison shakes her head in dismay. "I talked to Mrs. Greenwood about it, but she said she won't publish her story."
"Why not?" Holden snorts. "Jaime is a damn talented writer. Maybe we should give her a chance."
"Because she isn't interested in publishing a story about fat people. Her words, not mine."
"Christ." Holden massages his face then gazes up at Allison. "She loves that asshat's shitty book, but she won't even look at Jaime's draft?"
"Does she have a literary agent?"
"She can't afford one, but—"
"Has she talked to Mrs. Greenwood about her story?"
Allison expresses a tired sigh. "Okay, so let her throw her dreams away. Tell her to be a chef or something."
"Wow," Holden chortles sarcastically. "That's some brilliant advice, Allison. I wish I wrote that for my senior quote."
"I am just being serious, Holden." Allison scowls.
"Serious or bitchy?"
"Both," she declares bitterly. "But that is not the point, Holden. Without people representing her, then that book is as good as dead."
She moves away to allow a woman in chic clothes to pass into the building.
"What if we give Jaime a chance?" Holden urges.
"Oh come on—"
"Fine," Allison moans. "Let's talk about it over lunch at the Grand Central Oyster Bar. I am starving."
* * *
Holden winces as the salt burns his tongue. His brown eyes examine the bankers, oil tycoons, business executives, idols, police commissioners, and movie directors who enjoy squirting lemon juice on the lobsters' backs.
It's ironic to see them talk about how much money they make when they are homeless people starving in New York. Aromas of grilled lobsters and flavorful stew fill the entire building. Spatulas chop seafood and vegetables, as chefs slave for their wealthy customers.
Veering his head to his right, Holden witnesses a working-class elderly man entering the privileged establishment. He takes his time to shovel his papers inside a blue folder before asking the shrewd manager about the job application.
Surveying the men, Holden wonders what Allison was thinking when she took him to the Grand Central Oyster Bar for lunch. Whenever he aced a test or done his chores, his parents would take him to one of the finest establishments in New York offers. But now that he graduated from Stuyvesant High School, all Holden cares about is paying the bills.
After wiping his glasses, Holden asks his parents about the thief on the news.
"Holden," Allison moans. "Kids your age shouldn't be thinking about that stuff. Just be glad that you are in a safe neighborhood without drugs, murder, rape—"
Holden releases a tired groan. "Nasty shit happens every day — especially in places like this. Why can't we talk about it?"
Allison didn't answer. She tries to eat her spaghetti, but she is afraid the creamy red sauce will get on her white pantsuit.
"Jesus Christ," she moans. "I should have ordered something crunchy."
Holden laughed as the oyster meat absorbs his t-shirt. "Yeah, me too. Do you want some of my lobster stew?"
"No, thank you." Allison frowns. "And Holden, please don't get oysters all over your shirt."
"Thank you, Mom," said Holden sarcastically. "But I am not five anymore."
Allison scoffs. She held her blond hair up in a tight bun. Wrinkles stretch, as Holden's mother gathers a forkful of broccoli.
"Honey," she frowns. "Just because you are an adult, doesn't mean I'll stop worrying about you. You are my co-worker, after all."
"Okay, but why are we here?" Holden asks in a quizzical tone. "This restaurant is pretty expensive. I mean, I have money and all, but—"
"This is not your scene?" guessed Allison.
"Have you been here before?"
"Yeah," Holden answers. "My parents used to take me and my little sister to this place when we were kids."
Allison's eyes gleamed. "Your dad owns New York Times, right?"
"Sort of," Holden sighed. "My dad owns half of New York Times, while my mom works in a cosmetics company."
Allison places her arms on the edge of the table, peering closely at Holden. Although he has been working for Simon & Schuster for two years, she knows nothing about him—except his family's business affairs.
"So about Jaime," Holden began. "I know a guy who can pull some strings for her, but he's kind of lost."
"Who is he?"
"And an old teacher from college," Holden explains after he finishes his pasta. "He used to be a part of the literary community until his wife died."
"Aw," Allison murmured. "I am sorry to hear that."
"Yeah, it is," Holden agreed. "Anyway, thanks for the meal, but I have to get back to work."
She gives him a strange look. "Really? That fast?"
"I have to honor Mrs. Grenwood's promise, Allison."
"Can't we just talk for a while?" asked Allison. "It's 1:01."
Now it was Holden's turn to be confused. "You know this isn't an actual date, right?"
Allison rolls her eyes. "Look, I know you don't care about sex, but I am interested in your ideas in helping Jaime."
"Really?" Holden asked.
"Yeah, and besides, I have a few ideas of my own."