Writer Incognito

Fiction
James Steimle


Stack o' Manuscripts
Photo Credit: Jürgen Fauth

Beneath a tower of files and two books from the law library, I first found the clue that Art Lamon was more than a certified paralegal.

He admitted I should not have spotted the manuscript, that he had been careless. “What if the boss had discovered it?” he said with a nervous laugh. “Would have axed me within seconds for engaging in recreational activities on the job.”

I asked questions. He explained that he dabbled with words here and there at lunchtime. When he had arrived at seven thirty, he’d placed the pages on his desk, then dropped helpless into his daily workload, forgetting the secret treasure. It was only a hobby, he told me.

And I actually believed him.

That’s how it started. With the flood of other employees running from desk to copy machine to inbox and to coffee breaks, I thought no more than to inquire if he’d permit me to peruse one of his stories someday.

“Yes. It will cost you a dollar.”

I laughed.

He laughed back, a mirror of me, except he stood as serious as a professional.

“Okay,” I said.

The next day, I handed him a buck. He handed me a pinch of pages. I felt swindled, hid them from my boss, forgot about them, and when the day dragged to an end, the invisible string wrapped around my finger flipped an internal switch and a light bulb went on in my mind. I grabbed the printed tale and sped home. After eating, watching a couple of sitcoms I had seen before, then a little depressing news until I couldn’t stand any more, I went to bed beside a slumbering wife. I brought Art’s twelve pages with me to my pillow and covers. Under a soft light, I read.

The strangest thing happened. In the beginning, I smiled at the musical lines of prose, and I thought, Art wrote this, huh? Interest took me, but then I started to dream. Visions surrounded me—a world created by Art Lamon—I was riding a boat up the Amazon, looking into murky waters for fear of another giant anaconda like the one which had launched itself and struck our curious dog, Italy, who thought the water wondrous and alive until it ate him; I feared if I gazed too deep into the swirling pool, I too might get sucked down, feeling the sharp points of fangs as they gripped me and dug into both sides of my head. I dreamed all this, yet I was awake.

When the story slammed to an end, I looked at the ceiling, and it seemed foreign to me. When I reached for the light above my nightstand, I stopped, scratching the ribbed plastic switch, and gazed into the yellow glow from the lampshade.

Was I home?

Of course.

This is my home?

I shut off the light. I closed my eyes. I tried to dream, but found myself already there, lost in the Amazon, shouting the name of my vanished guide.

In the morning, I raced to work, tossed my belongings onto my desk, and ran to see Art. I held out another dollar bill.

He laughed. “No, I couldn’t.”

“You must,” I said. “Give me another story, or I will never sleep again.”

“Okay,” he said with his eyes shut. He wiped his brow, grinned at the dollar bill, and gave me a story every week from that moment on.

In time, I shared the handwritten dreams with Malinda.

“Here’s a dollar,” my wife came to say, holding up the crisp paper with two hands.

I wiped the breakfast off my face and dropped my napkin beside my plate. With all ten fingers, I took the money. She gave me a kiss, and I went to work.

When I returned with a new story from Art, Malinda pulled it from my briefcase before I had a chance to read it. She hopped around the house, doing leprechaun dances, pouncing into the air as if born on springs. She laughed and waved it at me, then fled as I chased her down the hall. “No, no, no! I have to read it first.”

“Fine,” I said, but I wanted to tackle her and take the story. I drank hot chocolate instead, failing completely to notice any flavor at all. I sat on the porch and watched the birds in the trees. I couldn’t hear them singing.

My wife screamed and laughed at the same time when the story ended. She gave it to me, yet I had to peel her fingers off the pages. “I want to read it again,” she said with a gaping smile.

“When I’m finished,” I said.

“When you’re finished.” Then she stood over me, her jittery hands about to strike and clamp the manuscript to steal it away from me. She held back, restraining herself like a cigarette addict pretending there wasn’t a pack sitting right beside her while her partner blew smoke moons and clouds and planets with rings. She stared at the birds hopping from branch to branch. When I looked over, I knew she didn’t hear their musical peeping either.

So it went for weeks, then months. After a year, she asked me, “Why does Art work with you?”

“What do you mean?” I bit into an apple as the sun set down the road. The asphalt lit up with twinkling stars, and I thought of Art’s tale of spacemen with guns drawn pressing through an alien valley after their ship went down. The sky glowed orange in the story. And the astronauts could see the stars.

She took my apple, took a chunk out of it with her teeth, then handed it back. Rubbing away the dripping juice from her chin with the back of her hand, Malinda looked at the orange clouds in our sky. “You said he got the job a year or two after you?”

“About a year-and-a-half,” I said.

“And he writes these stories?”

“Well hon, I’m not scribbling them myself.”

She giggled. Of course you’re not, her face said. You’re not that smart. “I just don’t get it.”

“What?”

“Why a man who can make up all these worlds… all these lives… all these experiences… works with you.”

I smiled, though I knew I didn’t make a particularly happy face. “Thanks.”

She poked me in the side.

I jumped.

“You ever ask the guy if he published one of these stories?” she said, taking my apple again.

I knew I wouldn’t get it back this time. I rubbed sticky fingers along the coarse threads of my blue jeans. “Sure I asked him. He doesn’t like to talk about writing at work. I think he’s afraid someone else will figure out our little secret.”

“He’s written books?” she asked, sniffing the air.

I nodded to my wife. I smelled the meat of a barbecue sizzling next door. A living haze rose like one of Art’s fictional spirits up and over the wall separating our place from the neighbor’s backyard. “So much you can’t see in a man, isn’t there?”

“So much to see, all kept secret. Hey,” she said, “what if he’s hiding out?”

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t know. What if Art Lamon has another name. What if he lives another life? After all, would you publish with a name like Lamon?”

I looked at her. “What’s wrong with that?”

“No,” she said, lifting a finger. “What is right with hiding your identity?”

“Well, now I don’t get you,” I said, though I already had an idea where she was going. The idea shook me, because it seemed improbable—impossible—and very realistic at the same time.

She said it: “What if we might recognize Art’s work in bookstores and libraries if he gave his real name or told us his pen name, his pseudonym? What if Art Lamon has made it?”

“Made it where?”

“Oh come on. Think about it. Everyone wants to write a book. Everyone has personal computers, these days, but what if Art Lamon did it—I mean, really did it. What if he wrote the Great American Novel and didn’t tell a soul about it other than his publisher? ‘Here’s the deal: publish under this false name; I never appear in public; we use the picture of another man on the dust jacket; I’ll write you as many books as you want.’ I can hear it now.”

I laughed, because she had never met Art Lamon and spoke his words with the voice of a large burly man with throat cancer.

She gave the voice of the publisher a pinched New Jersey accent. “‘My dear Mr. Lamon. Why would ya want to hide ya name and ya face from the American public?'” She pulled her chin into her neck to play Art’s part again. “‘No more questions, Mrs. Robinson, only stories.’ Only stories.”

“Nope. Can’t see that. No way.”

She grabbed my knee. “But what if he’s rich and famous and powerful with a pen, a magician who regularly carries us common folk to faraway lands—and he’s hiding out because he wants to watch us, to live with normal people. Each day, he’s planting seeds and harvesting new ideas from the water-cooler gossip, from the business plans and failures, from the whispered drama between two employees here or two others there, from the secrets oblivious friends slip into his inbox, from the—”

I leaned my head back and laughed.

“What?”

“Art doesn’t stuff his chin between his collar bones when he speaks.”

We chuckled about it until the close of the day left the sky purple and gray.

At breakfast the next morning, Malinda stood beside me without makeup and grabbed my elbow. “Ask him,” she hissed.

“For another story?” I said with toast in my mouth, one arm through my jacket, and the other juggling my briefcase and my lunch bag.

“If he’s famous.”

“I can’t do that,” I said. “It would be insulting.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You said it yourself. Everyone wants to write a book. Plenty of people scratch something together on their personal computers, a little here, a little there, over a year, then two, a decade—a book. Alas, they send it into the real world. It’s a jungle. A rat race. Piles and piles of work from wannabe novelists choking the desks of every editor in America. Frantically struggling for breath among these heaps, the editors produce small rejection notices in an attempt to sigh it all away. They take the good stuff, dump the rest. So if Art really hasn’t published anything, which he has already suggested, it might be a painful subject. You understand now?”

“Ask him anyway.”

I went to work with a dollar bill in my wallet.

“Where’s Art?” I asked Ronda, who sat at the desk next door, an hour before lunch.

Around a huge wad of pink gum, Ronda said, “Sick today, I hear.” She looked at the workload on Art’s desk and shook her head. “Hate to be him when he gets back.”

With a smile, I ripped a yellow sticky note from the pad beside his terminal. For your next story, I scrawled. I taped it to the dollar bill and set it on Art’s keyboard. After a moment of standing there and staring at the buck as I thought about my wife’s request, I picked up the bill and the note and added, P.S. My wife thinks you’re a famous writer incognito.

The next day I passed by Art’s desk a little after nine thirty. Art was sick again. At least, that’s what another coworker told me.

The following day, a Friday—the day when all of corporate America holds its breath, then lets out a long weekend sigh—I came early to Art’s desk again. Eager for a story, I only found piles of manila-clasped labor. I smiled at it and spoke aloud because I knew Ronda sat close enough to hear. “He’ll never catch up now. The boss’ll kill him, don’t you think?”

Over her nail file, Ronda said, “Art’s not coming back.”

I laughed, but heard a twist of fear in the sound bubbling from my throat. “Why do you say that?”

“Came in early this morning. He was gathering personal things from his desk, then he sped out of here before the boss arrived. I think he came in early yesterday too, but left before I got here.”

“You mean… he was here? Today? I heard he was sick again.”

She shook her head. “Not coming back. Here. This has your name on it. He’s passing out work, I’m telling you. Don’t hand it back to me.”

I snapped the folder out of her hands and tore it open. Ronda barked a rebuke and retreated to the small lamp on her desk to better examine her nails.

As I expected, a story of three pages waited inside. I read the title and felt a cold sweat break out on my forehead.

Work proved doubly hard that day, and when I finished, I couldn’t sigh no matter how thankful I had been for the arrival of the weekend. My life had also ended.

No more Bermuda Mysteries. No more Dark Side of the Moon stories. No more tales of Arabians at Night. No more Romancing on the Gold Coast of Africa. I would have wept on the drive home, but all my tears evaporated and turned my eyes into dusty granite balls that rarely shifted left or right to spy for oncoming traffic.

“What is it?” said Malinda. She had taken my briefcase with a grin, expecting the answer she had awaited for days now. Hoping, at least, to read Art’s story first, if I had brought one. Her pale face told me she already knew the deflating message I bore.

Instead of speaking, I handed her the final story, still clasped in Art’s manila file folder.

She opened to the first page. She read the title, then crumpled to her knees.

Art’s last tale was good, very good, of course. Malinda and I read it only once. We did not comment. We did not jump for joy at the end. We still have it on a shelf somewhere, but I will never read it again.

When I dream at night, now, I try to go places I’ve never been. I play a little game: concentrate and relax, attempting to see people whose lives I would want to watch. I imagine ancient times and quantum possibilities on distant planets. I guess the stories just don’t come to me like they came to Art. When I shut my eyes after all my attempts to wander via astral projection while my body shudders under the covers, I find myself cold next to Malinda. She tosses back and forth, unhappy with her two-dimensional dreams. I keep my eyes shut. I go nowhere. All I see is that last title burned into the back of my eyelids. It makes my throat coarse, my tears dry, my breath shallow.

As I go about my life, nodding with wet eyes at Art’s desk and the new guy who sits in Art’s chair, I see those words still in my mind.

“Sweet Guilt of the Innocent.”

It was a story about us.
pencil

James Steimle’s fifth-grade students find him entertaining, but he thinks it’s only because writers are actors. He prefers to perform in writing, but will dance in whatever spotlight he can find. Email: jms1[at]steimle.us

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