Small Town

Page 35



“J O H N ? H O W A R E Y O U holding up?”

“I’m fine,” he said. “I was just reading my favorite author.”

“John O’Hara, if I remember correctly.”

He laughed out loud. “Well, you’re right,” he said, “but I was reading a guy named Blair Creighton.”

“Ah, my favorite author. But not Simon & Schuster’s, I’m afraid.

They decided to pass.”

“Oh.”

“I’m not surprised. Claire was hot to trot, but she didn’t get the support she wanted upstairs. Don’t be disappointed.”

“Okay.”

“Because I called Geoffrey at Little, Brown, and he didn’t have to go into a huddle, he knew what he was going to bid. You want to hear?”

“Do I want to hear? No, why on earth would I want to hear?”

“Two million dollars. John? Are you sitting down?”

“I am now.”

“That’s why I wanted to call him last, I figured he’d jump. My guess, that’s as high as we’re going, unless Esther exercises her topping privileges. Are you okay? You’re not saying anything.”

“I’m speechless.”

“You have a right to be. My next call’s to Putnam, but everybody’ll be at lunch now.”

“Is it lunchtime already?”

“It’s almost one o’clock. Make yourself a sandwich. Or pick up the phone and order something.”

“I don’t think I can eat.”

“Ha! Neither can I. If you go out—”

“I’m not going anywhere.”

“Well, if you do, be back by two-thirty, okay? And keep the line open.”

T H E A C K N O W L E D G M E N T S P A G E O F Edged Weapons thanked the magazines in which each of the stories had previously appeared. He couldn’t remember what each had paid him, but one $5,000 sale to Playboy accounted for well over half the total. (They’d never bought another, and the one they took wasn’t particularly sexy or, he thought, especially strong. He guessed the editor had just liked it.) He’d received a $5,000 advance for the collection, and it had earned that and a few thousand dollars more, between the hardcover and trade paperback editions. And there’d been some for

eign sales, and every once in a blue moon someone would reprint one of the stories in an anthology, and he’d get a check for one or two hundred dollars.

Of course he got some reviews, he drew some attention. One of the stories, about a young man concerned about his sexual identity, drew several fan letters, all of them from young men with similar concerns. He hadn’t written back, or kept the letters, but he’d been glad to receive them.

“P U T N A M J U S T W E I G H E D I N with two point two.”

“No kidding.”

“They surprised me. I thought Geoffrey’s bump would knock Gloria out of the game. It’s not horse races or bridge anymore, did you notice? All of a sudden it’s poker.”

“And now it’s up to . . .”

“St. Martin’s. They’ll have to think about this one. Last thing they knew they were looking good at one point three, and that was a whole nine hundred thousand dollars ago.”

W H E N H E G O T T O the contents page he remembered how he’d agonized over it, arranging and rearranging the stories, trying to put them in the perfect order. He’d first considered arranging them chronologically, but in the order they were written or the order they were published? Then it struck him that no one cared about the chronology, that there should be a flow to the collection.

He’d shuffled the poor stories like a deck of cards, and couldn’t remember why he’d settled on the final lineup.

If he had it to do over again, he’d put them in alphabetical order. It was clear-cut, it was wonderfully arbitrary, and how could you argue with it?

That would have put “A Nice Place to Stop” first, if you counted the A, and a title like that on the book’s leadoff story was sort of a setup for the critics. Creighton’s first story is called “A Nice Place to Stop,” and believe me, you’ll be glad you did . . .

Of course it was the story he wanted to read, but he’d avoided doing so ever since he started work on the book, and didn’t want to change things now. He read the one Playboy liked, and followed it with the only story in the book that hadn’t managed to have a magazine appearance. Maybe it was the contrarian in him, but he liked the unpublished one better.

“T W O P O I N T F O U R .”

“From St. Martin’s?”

“From St. Martin’s. And a very regretful pass from Little, Brown.”

“Really?”

“I expected it, John. Geoffrey made his best offer at the start. He loves your work, he liked it before all of this, and he told me to congratulate you on finally getting the kind of money you’ve deserved all along. He just can’t see how they can make money paying out any more than two million. He thought that would be enough to get it, and frankly so did I.”

“I almost wish . . .”

“I know. He genuinely likes your work, and they’d publish you right. But anybody who pays this kind of dough will publish you right, because they’ll have to. And they’ll like your work, too.

They’ll love it. They all get into the business so that they can sell the books they like, and they all wind up liking the books they can sell. I think it’s going to be St. Martin’s, and I think it’s going to be two point four. Can you live with that?”

He said he’d force himself.

H E R E A D A N O T H E R S T O R Y, one of the earlier ones, and decided it wasn’t bad. He’d do it differently now because he’d learned a lot, he’d probably compress some of the earlier material and enlarge some of what came later. And there were elements that seemed simplistic, but that might be nothing more than the judgment of middle age upon his youthful self.

Not bad, all in all. But if there was anything that hinted the author would one day be in line for a seven-figure advance—nine, if you counted the two zeroes that came after the decimal point—

well, he was damned if he could see it.

“P U T N A M ’ S O U T.”

“You figured they would be.”

“I never thought we’d get that last bid out of them, but once we did I couldn’t really guess which way they’d jump. But they’re out, and wish you well.”

“So it’s St. Martin’s.”

“Unless Crown decides you’re worth that plus fifteen percent.

That’s what they have to come up with to top the auction and take you home with them.”

“In other words, they have to pay your commission.”

“Hey, I never thought of it that way. I like that. Now let’s see if Esther likes it.”

W H I L E H E W A I T E D , H E called the deli. He was out of cigarettes, and it was no wonder, he’d had one going pretty much throughout the morning and afternoon. He told them to send up a carton, and while he was at it he ordered a sandwich and a six-pack.

While he waited, he tried to figure out how much to tip the kid.

He usually gave him two bucks, which seemed to please him well enough. But this was a special day. He could give the kid five bucks, or ten. Jesus, why not give him twenty? All of a sudden he could afford it.

And what would the kid make of a twenty-dollar tip? In this neighborhood, a man tipped you twenty dollars, he probably wanted more than beer and cigarettes. And how would the kid feel next time he came by and got the usual deuce? Confused? Disappointed? Pissed off?

By the time the kid showed up, his philanthropic impulses had passed. Here you go, he said, and handed him two dollars.

“L I S T E N , ” R O Z S A I D , “W E ’ V E got to celebrate. I hope you haven’t got any plans for tonight.”

“You’re kidding, right? I haven’t got any plans, ever, until they set a trial date.”

“You do now. I’m taking you out to dinner.”

“Well . . .”

“No arguments, sweetie. Tonight, and my treat, and it’s got to be someplace elegant, someplace break-the-bank swank.”

“I gather the auction’s done.”

“Oh,” she said, with studied nonchalance. “Oh, didn’t I tell you?

Yes, it’s all wrapped up.”

“And the winner is St. Martin’s at two point four.”

“Wrong twice,” she said. “The winner is Crown, and the price is precisely . . . hang on a minute, I’ve got it written down here somewhere . . .”

“They topped the bid, then?”

“They did indeed. I guess Esther Blinkoff really is your new biggest fan. Here we go. Three point one oh five, oh oh oh.”

“Three?”

“Three million, one hundred five thousand dollars.”

“You know,” he said, “when it got above six figures, which it did the minute they gave us the floor, the numbers stopped being real.

Do you know what I mean?”

“Uh-huh.”

“But this is . . . I mean it’s all more money than I can get my mind around, but two million is more than one and three is more than two.”

“My little number cruncher.”

“I’m not making any sense, am I? Three point one oh five. Wait a minute, that’s wrong.”

“It sounds kind of all right to me.”

“St. Martin’s bid two point four, right? Plus fifteen percent—

well, I’m not going to figure it out, but it doesn’t come to over three million dollars.”

“You’re right about that, and I’ll explain over dinner. And it’s your birthday, bubbeleh, so where would you like to go?”

“We could go to a diner and it would feel like a celebration to me. I haven’t been out of the house.”

“You haven’t? Literally?”

“I took a walk yesterday, down to the corner and back. And the other day I went out for a beer. To the Kettle of Fish, if you can believe it.”

“Isn’t that where . . .”

“That’s where. It felt weird walking in there, but that was me.

Nobody else seemed to notice, and this one old fart said I hadn’t been around lately, had I.”

“I know where I’m taking you. At first I thought it should be someplace like Le Cirque or Lutèce, or maybe Union Square Café—”

“Any of those would be great.”

“—but this isn’t about food, this isn’t about putting on the Ritz.

This is about going out in the world in triumph.”

“Meaning?”

“Stelli’s.”

“God, I haven’t been there in ages.”

“Is it all right? Because if it’s not—”

“No, it’s perfect. What time?”

“Nine o’clock? We’ll make an entrance. Can you hold out that long?”

“I’ve got a sandwich in the fridge. If I get hungry between now and then I’ll work on that. Let me see, Stelli’s. I guess I’ll take the One train to Eighty-sixth and catch a crosstown bus, or am I better off . . .”