CHAPTER FOURTEEN: The Mercury Agency – Midtown
Juliana Florentine could have been a model. She was gorgeous; men couldn’t walk straight around her. And she knew it. Her corn-colored hair was as straight as the Nebraska wheat fields where she grew up. Her flawless skin lacked even a freckle and her lips could have doubled the sales of any cosmetic product. But Juliana didn’t want to sell lipstick; she loved books more than anything else she’d ever known. She left the family farm to come to New York City, where she would eventually find work as a literary agent. From a midtown tower that stood straighter than even the wheat from her youth, Juliana had a Thirty-Third floor view of the fields of Manhattan. She would watch the sunrise every morning from her window, creeping up from behind Brooklyn and over the East River; the sun turning the Queensboro Bridge into nothing more than a thin jumble of matchsticks.
When Tommy finished his final draft for BLANC, he queried every agent in the city. His literary professor at Hunter College suggested the Mercury Agency and Juliana Florentine specifically. She was an up-and-coming agent, not yet jaded by the industry, and she’d be eager to find the right fit for Thomas Mueller’s debut novel. After reading the manuscript, Juliana was excited about the book’s potential and she asked Tommy to come see her. Tommy couldn’t concentrate in that first meeting, and it wasn’t because of the extraordinary opportunity he had within his grasp; a button on Juliana’s shirt was undone, and he had to continually stop himself from glancing towards the lacy pink bra underneath. Tommy still had high hopes that he might see that pink bra again, but it had been almost ten years now without a second sighting.
Tommy’s latest work was supposed to go to the printers in a couple of days, but Juliana asked him to come in for another meeting first. As soon as he sat down across from her, Tommy knew it was there. He saw it peeking through her shirt: the pink bra had returned! And its reappearance was sure to herald great things.
The manuscript for The Manhattanite was sitting on her desktop. Juliana chose her words carefully, tapping her pen up and down between her teeth. “I don’t know what to tell you Tommy.”
“That’s a pretty horrible way to begin a meeting that you scheduled.”
“Okay. The situation is this: our publisher is suddenly having second thoughts about the book.”
“Are you shitting me?”
“Certainly not. I’ve convinced them to go ahead with it, but I wanted you to be aware of the position we’re in here.”
“Come on Juliana. You know I’m trying to do something important with this book. You liked it, right?”
Juliana thought about it. Her pen found its way between her teeth once again. “I read it.”
“That doesn’t answer my question,” Tommy muttered. “Actually, I guess it does.”
“I know we have a book deal with you Tommy. That’s why I was hesitant to say anything after I read it, but now our publisher is seriously afraid they’re going to lose money on it.”
“So what? Haven’t they made enough off of me so far?”
“It’s never enough Tommy. You know how it works.”
“What didn’t you like about it?”
She flipped through the dog-eared manuscript, thinking carefully about the scope of the story. “You’ve got a guy who meets a girl. That’s about it. Nothing really happens in the book. Nothing at all.” There were red circles and underlines and giant X’s all over it. Tommy noticed that one page was even torn in half; whatever the reason was, he had no idea.
“What do you mean nothing happens? They’re in love. Love happens!”
“What about change though? Adversity? Misfortune? What about loss and heartache? Isn’t that what we’ve come to expect from great novels?”
“But I don’t want anything more to happen to them. They’re happy the way they are.”
“And your main character. You tell the reader repeatedly that he loves New York as much as he loves his girlfriend. How is that possible, really? They’re two completely different things.”
“I don’t see why they can’t be mutually exclusive.”
“It just seems a little preposterous to me. And more than a little pretentious.”
“Pretentious?” Tommy couldn’t help the feelings he had, and he was certainly not going to apologize for them. All he ever did was love his city. He loved how Manhattan could make him feel so small. It was a strange feeling, to appreciate being small, even bordering on insignificant. But the city ruled Tommy, it owned him, and he didn’t want it to be the other way around. Tommy forgot all about the bra. “I like it the way it is.” He stared out the window towards the stream of headlights on the Queensboro. Manhattan always seemed to be letting more bodies in than the number it was sending back out. How many of them were coming into the city with fresh novels of their own?
“Tommy?” Juliana was used to losing Tommy to her window. She knew how much power the view had over him. But there was more to writing about Manhattan than simply writing of it.
Tommy took the printed manuscript into his hands. The Manhattanite was the first book Tommy had written by hand on paper. The scratching of lead and the scent of sharpened pencil helped him create a distinctive new voice. He flipped through the pages, absorbing every word he’d written, taking it all in as though he was the world’s fastest speed-reader. He began writing the book in a tiny Harlem café. He remembered how it really didn’t start coming together until the day he met Rachel Ponzini. As soon as the final draft was done, as soon as THE END was written, Tommy plugged all of the words into his computer and printed out the manuscript for Juliana. His soul had never felt so good; like it was exactly in the place it was meant to be.
“I was trying to write a real novel here. This was meant to be where my career really started, you know? It’s obvious they just don’t get it.”
“And me?” Juliana asked.
“I guess you don’t get it either. I put my heart into this book.” The funny thing was Tommy didn’t realize he’d written so deeply about love until after Rachel had left him. He tossed the manuscript back over to Juliana. What he really wanted to do was to toss it in the garbage. He stood up, indicating the meeting would be coming to an end under his terms.
“I just think that you’d better start working on your next book. And I think your next book should be more like your first book.” She clenched the manuscript in her hand to help emphasize her words. “To ensure this book is not your last book. You’ve got an audience to think about here Tommy.”
“What am I supposed to do? Spend my life writing about murders and conspiracy theories and mistaken identities? When can I stop appeasing the masses and start pleasing myself?”
“It’s all about the masses Tommy.” Juliana gestured at the window, out towards nowhere in particular. “They control all of this. Not you. If they want vampires, we give them vampires. If they want harlequin romance, we’ve got a million authors just waiting to churn another one out. If they want Kaspar Delancey to come back from the dead, then he’ll have to eventually.” She held the manuscript back out for Tommy. “Do you want to take this with you?”
As soon as Tommy walked out onto the East 53rd Street sidewalk he dumped the manuscript into the nearest garbage can. Maybe some lucky bum could find a tiny bit of enjoyment from it. Maybe use it for toilet paper.
He walked only a few steps more before stopping suddenly. Through the fluid wall of yellow traffic, Tommy spotted Patrick. He was outside the Duane Reade, talking to someone Tommy didn’t recognize. Tommy froze, unsure what to make of such a surreptitious meeting in this crowded corner of Manhattan. Tommy hid behind an oversized planter in an attempt to go unnoticed. He looked closer. It was definitely Patrick Kohn. But this other man; who was he? Tommy assumed the only possible role the man could play would be as a real estate agent, but he certainly did not appear so. He was overweight and had long, greasy hair. He was eating a hoagie, the kind of sandwich one might find in the back of a Seven-Eleven. Sauce dribbled down the side of his face and he wiped it off with his hand only to relocate it to his dirty sweatpants.
Before any further evidence could be gathered, a delivery truck stopped for a red light, obstructing Tommy’s view. He scuttled down the sidewalk far enough to see past the vehicle, but Patrick and the other man had already begun walking away, heading west along 53rd Street. Tommy didn’t want to wait for the next pedestrian light, so he slipped through the oncoming traffic instead. Three or four horns bleeped at him, but he didn’t care. He followed the two men at a safe distance for another block, before they turned again onto Lexington.
Tommy ran into the blitzkrieg of late afternoon foot traffic. Men and women in power suits saturated the sidewalks; six-dollar coffees in one hand and electronic gadgets in the other, all of them working their meetings around tee times and pedicures. Tommy tried to see above them all, but was only met with Midtown’s furious cacophony. The clinking of café dishes over soft jazz. The futile honking of gridlocked traffic. The constant growl of engines. Rolling suitcases trailing behind fresh-faced tourists. Pigeons cooing. A child laughing. Another screaming. Every kind of heel click-clacking across concrete sidewalks, iron basement hatches, wooden planks and crumpled newsprint. A truck backing up. Squeaky messenger bikes and motorcycles whizzing, making up their own traffic pattern rules. Even in the distance, the seagulls could be heard, yelping like wild dogs. Tommy had lost sight of the two men.
There was a subway station on the corner, and after a moment’s consideration, he decided his best chance would be to take a closer look. He loved that smell every time he went underground. As diverse and ever-changing as the city’s scents were, its subway system somehow maintained the same aroma at every station. He swiped his Metrocard and darted from one end of the station to the other. His heartbeat reverberated off the wet tunnel walls. Astoundingly, there were not many people waiting for the train, so it was easy enough for Tommy to scan each and every body. But there was no sign of either Patrick or the oddly mysterious man anywhere. He’d lost them. He sunk a little further down into the island. Tommy was dumbfounded how anyone, especially Patrick Kohn, could lose him in his own city. It simply was not possible. He had to be somewhere, amidst the city’s steam and sewage and cables and wires and concrete and glass and parks and puddles. Once again, Manhattan had forced Tommy to recognize just how small and powerless he really was. Only this time, he realized that he did not relish it quite so much.
And the city breathes in.