My property was a shambles. Worse still, my reputation, so carefully gleaned, so scrupulously nurtured, so zealously guarded, was shattered. (Not to mention that the stock of my holding company had plummeted so far as to have disappeared altogether from the Big Board.) In short, this was anything but how a sensitive spirit should greet a new day. But - take heed - where there is woe there is wisdom too. And, being a great writer (sans due acclaim!) and a consummate artist (minus a following!), the various component truths rendering a philosophic framework to my plight were not lost on me.
The state of one's property, dear reader, is of a different - indeed, a lower - order from that of his standing in the community. It is therefore no accident which juxtaposed the term "shambles" against the term "shattered," notwithstanding their being differing parts of speech. The great artist understands instinctively that while a shambling overtakes ruined goods, it is nothing less than a full scale shattering which accompanies the loss of public acclaim. I won't even mention the loss to humanity, let alone to Art, when a great writer is pushed from the lofty pinnacle he so right occupies: no, I will not mention it, nor will I speak of the terrible cultural vacuum left in the wake of the disappearance of his books from the best seller list. No, such things are best left to the imagination. The Great Artist suffers best who suffers alone.
A sad sight, my dearest sweet readers (may I still address you thusly?), the handiwork of the great Zimrod Zardon reduced to its very foundations. No more would my smelter transmute sand to software; fortune flew as if a phoenixed corpse from those flames that so cruelly devoured my selfless dream of providing every man, woman and child on this fair planet his very own computer chip. I myself had to be rescued by helicopter from my flooded house, whose poor grounds the heartless rains had ravaged Had Art suffered a similar fate, the world as we know it would most surely have ended. Fortunately, I had kept my talent intact. Though beaten down as if into a plowshare, my circumstances and means kept clear of that within me which had once given rise to so much grandeur and doubtless would again - that precious spark, that sublime inspiration, that raw nerve of creativity from which had sprung a full-blown world: that touch of divinity which had netted me five weeks on the best seller list. It was not gone from this earth, that rárá avis. (I trust the gentle reader is enjoying my extended metaphor.)
I trust, also, that my readers are not casting glances askance at my prose for signs of a dereliction of duty. Having apprised you of the state of my being, let me now appraise it; that is to say, let me render a formal assessment of the desecration of my myriad enterprises - for, let there be no doubt: I had not lost my senses; I understood, as if I had already lived it, that one's losses are useless if not catalogued by experts. So I summoned them, one and all, to a grand summit at the conference room of the Holiday Inn. By seven P.M., the assessors were all seated. After a light buffet, I made my appearance.
In the guest of honor's seat at the head of the table was none other than the great Zimrod Zardon, architect of my grounds. Seated beside him was Smythe-Pickering, of Smitty's 'Smergencies, whose helicopter had rescued me from the flood. Scattered throughout were various experts ready to assess my estate. Bogdan Buchner had prepared a psychic reading; Kretchner, the green grocer, was set to stipulate my physical well-being; the reverend Claude Dingledoody vowed to honestly report on my chances for salvation; and, scattered about the room, was the finest assortment of experts ever assembled in one location.
I was about to enter and seat myself amongst this illustrious assemblage when the caterer gave my sleeve a tug. Introducing himself as Mister Lee of the House of Brought Offerings, and upon declaring himself a Born-Again Christian of the Evangelical school, he proceeded to say a word about my advisers.
"I tell you this in strictest confidence," he said with a little smile which emphasized the exquisite pointedness of his nose, "and in the spirit of Christian love," he added, giving a slight cough (or perhaps it was a hiccough). "Zuckerman over there," he brought my attention to a gentleman seated halfway between either end of the table, "is a Jew - so I'd be careful he doesn't try and overcharge for his services. And Mister Tyrone - he's of course black, so I'd keep my wallet pocket well-buttoned. And do you see that man with the big red nose? He's Irish: he'll drink your last drop of booze if you're not careful. And the one with the longish black hair: part Cherokee, so before you can say 'Geronimo!' he'll lay claim to your property as his ancient burial ground. And that one there, with the glasses: a fairy, so I wouldn't go near the restroom if he's milling about - as he's sure to sooner or later. And the lady - well, she's just that, so don't be surprised if she cries 'Rape!' when things aren't going her way. And Mister Mafdhi's an Arab: if he gets hold of your house, he'll paint it hot pink and purple and turn it into a harem. Just a word to the wise."
"Appearances can indeed be deceiving," I noted, not quite certain how to respond but realizing full well the need to somehow show my appreciation to such an obliging fellow. He laughed his tiny laugh and went on in to supervise the busing of the tables, gathering up the tips my guests had left for their waiters, doubtless to distribute them more equitably. The busing accomplished, I made my entrance, to a respectable applause, and seated myself at the head of the table.
The Reverend Claude Dingledoody opened the forum with a benediction. "We thank you, Lord," he prayed, "for these wonderful Brought Offerings, and for the truly generous fellow who placed them before us." Over in the corner, Mr. Lee chuckled at this rather pointed allusion to his catering enterprise. "And we thank you, as well, for the existence of this fine motor hotel; and for this delightful banquet room. And, may it please you to bless our little forum and give it wisdom. Amen."
When we raised our heads, my eyes at once met the steely gray gaze of Reverend Dingledoody. "Now, my son," he addressed me head on, "as to your immortal soul, I can only say that your chances of salvation will greatly improve the moment you start tithing - 'Thus saith the Lord' - and keep improving geometrically with each increase in your tithe. And should you reach that holiest of sacred holies, wherein your tithe is the sum total of your weekly gross, your salvation is a foregone conclusion. Praise the Lord!"
Much heartened by this good news, I thanked the good Reverend, vowing to skip the intermediate steps and begin at once at the topmost rung: my income having gone to nothing (at least on paper), I would give it all to the church of my choice that very day. "From this day forth," said Dingledoody, "thou shalt be with me - saith the Lord!"
When the Reverend Dingledoody had finished his business and sat down again, I indicated that it was time for the assessment to begin. "And spare me nothing," I gave the green light to my advisors to speak their minds. "Don't even consider who's footing the bill. Speak the truth and nothing but the truth -"
"- So help them God!" Reverend Dingledoody stood up to interject, much to everyone's delight. When he returned to his seat, his wallet fell from his back pocket. I was just about to bring it to his attention when Mr. Lee glided over and retrieved the wallet for him; not wishing to interrupt the proceedings, however, Mr. Lee retained the wallet for the present, doubtless awaiting the optimal moment to discreetly return it.
First to take up the gauntlet was Isaiah Zuckerman, one of the keenest stock market analysts in the country. I had submitted everything pertaining to my holding company to him (the 10K's, 10Q's, Proxies, ARS's, 14B's and even some 3's, 4's and 144's). He had examined them from every angle - he even held them up to the light to make sure everything was kosher. Now he was ready with his assessment.
Zuckerman stood up, looked me straight in the eye, and began. "Frankly, sir," he spit out his assessment, "your prospectus sucks!" Everyone was aghast. "I might have contented myself with merely informing you it stinks; but the more I thought about it, the madder I got. Whoever is the architect of your harebrained scheme to smelt computer chips ought to be arrested and jailed at once as a menace to society!" All eyes fixed upon Zimrod Zardon, who, undaunted, kept at whatever calculations he was making on his dinner napkin. "And whoever bankrolled you should be made to do penance in a Savings and Loan Institution!" My banker, Horace Hoken-Poicus, was fortunately not present to hear this unkind reference to his financial judgment. "Normally I would charge a thousand dollars a minute for my services -" Here Mr. Lee nodded my way and winked "- but under the circumstances I choose to waive my fee. It is unbefitting my station to take money from a fool." With this, Zuckerman returned to his seat and finished his demitasse.
Doubtless my precious readers are almost in tears; all I can say at this point is "Hold your tears till all the assessments have been rendered." For each was as bad as the last, as witnessed by my next speaker, Tommy O'Toole, advertising executive par excellence.
"Gentlemen," he spoke gravely and in a soft tone, "what I encountered was enough to make me turn to drink." You could have heard a pin drop. Mr. Lee, for his part, left off supervising his busboys to once again nod and wink at me. O'Toole explained that what he encountered was "nothing less than a travesty of advertising. I found invoices for tee shirts, for tea cozies, golf tees, buttons and bows, soup and nuts - for every conceivable memento, except the most important: refrigerator magnets. A line of Rondo magnets might well have turned everything around and kept a once promising writer from becoming a 'has been'! I can only pray - and I pray a good three hours a day as it is - that future writers learn from your mistakes."
O'Toole sat down, and my poor spirits sank. In retrospect it seemed so simple; had I been a writer with his finger truly on the pulse of his public I would have known that refrigerator magnets was the way to go. If only I had it to do over, I would scrap the tee shirts (they shrank anyway and my logo ended up looking like a paen to poor spelling) - and all the rest. I would have put all my money into magnets. I guess I'm more a novice than I imagined. I apologize, dear reader, for my provincialism.
There was some hesitation regarding who might speak next, as if no one wished to add yet more insult; finally Mr. Mafdhi arose and delivered his particular verdict. His specialty was taxes, and I dreaded his words perhaps more than anyone else's, since I truly had never gotten a handle on that most elusive of subjects. Let me just say a word first about his appearance, as it struck me as especially befitting his station. He wore an impeccably tailored charcoal gray pinstripe suit, a crisp white shirt, a matching tie and handkerchief, and sported a first rate haircut.
"Had I a harem," he began and, sure enough, Mr. Lee, who had been milling about conscientiously, nodded my way and winked, "I would be no more vexed choosing the loveliest than I am here choosing the most interesting tax our host has left unpaid. Of course, there's capital gains and losses; there's user and buyer and seller; there's specialty and non-specialty; pre and post; and the whole gamut which, were our illustrious host a conglomerate, he could of course ignore with impunity. As it happens, however, he is too small to benefit from the myriad loopholes in our tax laws and much too big to warrant a tax credit. Therefore, I estimate him to be in arrears to the IRS right up to his tailbone - and perhaps then some. His only hope is to leverage a buy-out, put his holding company in trusteeship, appoint a board of directors, and skip the country, leaving his tax burden to them. If, however, he chooses the moral course, they will undoubtedly throw the book at him."
"How much do I owe?" I asked.
"Upwards of a hundred million," came the shocking reply.
"But my company was never worth more than a few thousand," I protested.
"Your taxes, sir," Mafdhi replied, "are based upon a rather complex formula which takes into account the average corporate shortfall, which must be borne by someone - so why not you?"
Why not indeed! "Is there no way out of this mess?" I begged to know.
"Not unless you have tons of political clout," Mafdhi advised. Lucky for me I had the presence of mind to invite a political strategist to join the assessment. And, indeed, as if responding to a cue, he at once stood up the address the gathering.
"Hi," he said in a somewhat effeminate voice, "I was afraid I'd be late: I got locked in the restroom." Mr. Lee took the liberty of stopping his supervision of his busboys to once again acknowledge his having told me so. "Worse yet," this fellow, whose name was Brian Adou, added "it was the ladies room and I didn't realize it till I was already in there! Anyway, to get right to the point, I cannot recommend too strongly attaching yourself to a powerful political ally. Writers, by nature, have very little political savvy: they're as apt to be socialists or fascists as Democrats or Republicans! And they generally find themselves on the losing side in any political tug-of-war. To put it bluntly: they just haven't the foggiest notion of what power is all about. And one further piece of advice: avoid a liberal Democrat or an Independent like you would the plague! A Southern Democrat might be your best bet. And it wouldn't hurt to suck up the the Secretary of the Treasury if you can manage it."
I thanked him when he finished (I guess what he said entitled him to a "thank you," though I'm not certain), and turned to the next advisor. Boris Trueheart, a full-blooded Cherokee, stood up. (Mr. Lee, incidentally, made his one and only error that day in presenting Trueheart to me as "part Cherokee.") Trueheart's specialty was computers; and, I dare say, no writer worthy of the name would have neglected to have that field represented at his strategy session. (Perhaps, dear reader, I confess too much in using the heretofore absent term "strategy"; but I should point out at this time that what began simply and honestly as an assessment of my losses grew to become, in retrospect, a strategy for my artistic renaissance.)
Trueheart held up a miniature PC and, in a beaming voice, expressed confidence that "with one of these I could extend my reach as far as the human eye can see." I awaited the customary response from Mr. Lee, but at the moment he was busy preparing my bill and evidently missed Trueheart's comment. "For what is a writer if not the most elegant extension of a personal computer God ever saw fit to create? And what is vision if not the crown prince of software programs? In fact, I have proposed to Microsoft a new software package: Poesy and Prose, for today's writer. Be that as it may, I am here to put the fear of God into slip-shod artists and hacks of every description, who sit in front of outmoded processors imagining they can draw inspiration from circuitry capable of storing but twenty-seven gigabytes of data! One neither creates a masterpiece nor sits a coven of angels on the head of a pin. To make a long story short, I have examined the PC you were using and, sir, I cannot believe you managed to sell a single copy of your book. From such outdated equipment I would expect a novel hopelessly out of touch with the times. Perhaps you could market it as memorabilia, but certainly not as a work of modern American fiction! With anything less than one-fifty gigabytes you are merely playing at the fringes of great literature; and your work cannot possibly be taken seriously."
Here I felt duty bound to protest. "Pardon me, sir, for interrupting," I said, "but my equipment was certified state of the art when purchased!"
"And when, may I ask, was it purchased?"
"Barely six months ago," I assured my guest.
"Six months ago! My God! For a computer, six months is an eternity! It's ancient history! Six days maybe - but six months? And you call it state of the art? My dear sir, the only state such antiquated equipment is in is the state of ruin - and deservedly so!"
"What do you recommend?" I asked.
He handed me a brochure. "I recommend this," he said. "Six months from now, however, it too will be hopelessly outdated and, I quite assure you, your writing will become lackluster and ever so labored. That is the price of greatness, I'm afraid."
Trueheart sat back down and Heronymous T. Tyrone arose. He was tall, gaunt and quite dark complexioned. "As you all know," he began, "I played semi-professional basketball for many years. I was nicknamed 'The Reach,' and I could easily slip my hand right around you to fish out your wallet if I chose." This one, Mr. Lee interrupted his billing long enough to underscore with the wink and nod I had grown accustomed to, adding one new gesture this time: he put his hand protectively over his back pocket. Meanwhile, Mr. Tyrone had begun speaking. His specialty, as you might have guessed, was sports and athletic contests of every description. "I majored in Philosophy at Cambridge on a Rhoades Scholarship," he explained, adding that this was "all the better to comprehend the basis and importance of sports in human society. It's made me one hell of a sportscaster! And as I look over your résumé and and bio," he spoke to me directly now, "I understand a priori exactly why you bombed as a writer. You have no athletic background - not even as a sports feature writer. How could you possibly hope to portray the dialectics of human interaction if you've never donned a jock strap or watched others do so or at least written about it? My advice to you is simple: stay out of museums and cafés; and take thyself epistemologically, metaphysically, ethically, aesthetically and theologically out to the ballgame. You'll be one hell of a better writer for it."
Mr. Tyrone, with great flourish and to the delight of everyone, executed an imaginary jump shot into my champagne glass before returning to his seat. Not, I might add parenthetically, that my glass held champagne; rather, it was a non-alcohol sort of wine beverage which, Mr. Lee had assured me in advance, was much less a devil's brew and much less costly. Be that as it may, my next and final guest arose most elegantly from her seat to render the final assessment of my state.
Miss Penelope Cornatious was a graduate of the Wharton School and an alumnus of Radcliff, so she knew good taste and breeding like she knew her own name. Her specialty, as you might guess, was precisely that: good taste and breeding. Many a writer has been saved from ruin by consulting this wonderful woman. "It is ever so easy," she graciously began, "to slip into that most Philistine mode of substituting detail for style. The amateur writer gives himself away by insisting upon filling his work with themes and messages and homilies of every description. He forgets, time and again, who his audience is and what their values are. The class of people any writer worthy of the name writes for is not interested so much in little somber blue, green and orange or purple philosophical notions as he is in those brilliant flashes of expression that so perfectly mirror the essence of his lifestyle. The masses, or some other tiny being in a white beard and overalls, imagine meaning to be the hallmark of great literature: to appeal to such myopia is to produce a work hopelessly pedestrian. That much having been said, let me now move from the general to the specific. Frankly, sir, your work is such an assault on good taste and breeding that with its preponderance of heavy handed maxims and axioms and value judgments and what-not - disguised, and not too cleverly at that, as art - that it reads more like one massive 'gang rape' of, rather than paen to, literature!"
I will not tax my reader's patience by reporting on Mr. Lee's response; suffice it to say simply that the word "rape," however used, drew his attention from his billing and supervision.
"Your style is so labored," she continued on, "I feel I understand mid-wifery in its every tiring detail. Your attempts to substitute wisdom for wit, besides falling flat, so betray your working class roots I felt I had donned a blue collar. I should be very much shocked if anyone beyond Pig-town has bothered reading your work. I looked in vain for evidence of dactyl or trochee; even a lowly iambic was not to be found: I realize these are, strictly speaking, poetic cadences, but I think you'll find the best prose makes ample use of them as well. Tractors, train tracks and dungarees of every size and shape I found aplenty, however. And on that sad note, I rest my case."
Miss Penelope sat back down, and since she had already trampled my poor spirits under foot (I dare not say steamrolled for fear of being accused of once again substituting concrete reality for ethereal prosody), I had no fear of their being sat upon in the process. My only solace was knowing I had not written a single word of "tractors," so her assessment could not be taken entirely at face value. (Unless, of course, she had gotten hold of a pirated copy of my novel which had been altered by some farmhand from the corn belt!)
Now the assessment was over: now, gentle reader, you may weep, as freely as your heart commands; for, now, my situation is laid bare before God, man, beast, machine and you, my wonderful readers. But at least, for all the pain and sorrow and hideous humiliation, I was better off than before, for now I knew absolutely what it takes to be a great writer in America today; and I could chart my course accordingly - a course as wise and true as my previous one had been foolish and false. I can only thank my guardian art faeries and muses that I discovered the leeward and wayward errors of my course before I had wrecked entirely on some shoal of mediocrity, never to rise beyond the vain attempt to substitute matter for meter, relics for software, tee-shirts for magnets, holding companies for conglomerates, and any number of other similarly illiterate faux pas.
I heartily thanked my illustrious guests for their invaluable advice, and assured each one that I would take their advice to heart just as soon as I got my artistic house in order. This reference to the word "house" seemed to have roused my guest of honor, Zimrod Zardon, from his lethargy, for he at once gathered up the paper napkins surrounding his plate and came over to me. "No doubt you're as put out as I am," I addressed him. He looked at me oddly and replied, wittily as ever, "My lease is paid up through 1979. I shall not be put out."
"But we're way beyond 1979," I pointed out.
"In that case," he mused, "I myself may have to live in this dream house I designed for you." Here he presented me with the napkins. "The heating and cooling systems," he pointed out, "make use of asphalt instead of conventional elements. Any road surface you choose to build on - except one of concrete - will amply provide for your every comfort, winter or summer."
"Won't traffic be a problem?" I asked.
He showed me another napkin. "Not with this system I designed to re-route traffic through your garage."
"Where will I park?"
"It's a three car garage. Room for your car plus two lanes of traffic. My design will revolutionize the way the world lives. A house will no longer be a home but a piece of the ecosphere. I call my design 'Geodesic Dome.' The world will know my name yet!"
"'Geodesic Dome,'" I mused. "I seem to have heard that term before somewhere."
"Doubtless you overheard me muttering it to myself."
"This was well before I met you," I said.
"Ah! In one breath you demolish half of human knowledge: pre-cognition, thought transference, parallel universes, non-being and all manner of anti-matter, not to mention the transmigration of souls, just to name a few. The scope of your intellect boggles the mind!"
With this, he abruptly walked out of the room and, in fact, was never seen or heard from again. I had no time to contemplate either his design or his departure, however; Mr. Lee summoned me with a gesture indicating his bill was ready.
"It was a pleasure doing business with you," he said with a courteous bow then took his leave, disappearing into the kitchen.
Something about the bill didn't seem quite right; it almost felt noticeably heavier than it should have - and no wonder! When I perused it, I discovered double entries of virtually everything on the menu. I could hardly believe my eyes. "Surely this is a mistake," I said to myself as I went in search of my caterer.
I was shocked, dear reader, at what I beheld upon opening the kitchen door; were I not so keenly aware how deceptive, indeed incriminating, appearances can be, I should have been downright scandalized. For there was my caterer, Mr. Lee, standing before me with his right hand down the pants of one of his busboys and his left hand holding a fifth of rotgut. He at once sensed my presence - undoubtedly saw me out of the corner of his eye, though given the keen honest perceptions of those blessed with fine pointed noses, I am tempted to speculate that he more likely sniffed my presence (I could go on and on about the virtues of persons with pointed noses, so great is my admiration for them; but I will only say that I consider it the bane of my existence that I was not born with one).
"Own up to it!" Mr. Lee chastised his busboy. "I saw you put that Weiner schnitzel down down your trousers! Now where is it?"
"It's sure as hell not in there with my ten incher!" the impertinent lad retorted.
Mr. Lee withdrew his hand. "I could have sworn I saw the sassy punk put it down his trousers," he said to me in a voice I can only describe as "tipsy."
"You don't sound quite yourself," I ventured - and a good thing I did, for it prompted him to take a closer look at the bottle he was holding.
"Jesus H. Christ and Sneaky Saint Pete too!" he exclaimed, hastily setting the bottle down on the nearest counter. "I was so thirsty after my work that I grabbed up this devil's brew, thinking it was soda pop! Oh Lord, oh Lord, what have I done! My soul is as good as lost, for the dear sweet precious Lord Jesus will not abide a drunkard in his house! You're looking at a fallen man, sir, a fallen man!"
"Then that hot pink bedroom with the purple curtains and mirrors on the ceiling you swore belonged to you is the perfect place for you!" the busboy said. My heart went out to Mr. Lee, to be insulted by so insolent a subordinate - as if a man of such taste and breeding could so much as set foot in a room such as that boy just described. It made the task at hand - straightening out my bill - that much more difficult; but, as my dear readers well know, no businessman worth his salt can bear for very long having overcharged his customers for his products and services, so I proceeded to present my findings.
"Each item seems to be double-billed," I explained as I handed the bill to Mr. Lee.
"Impossible," he replied, "I did the charges myself." And indeed he had, for I saw him.
"Hmm," he mused as he looked the bill over. "It appears in order, sir," he answered.
"But there are thirty portions of each entree listed, when there were but fifteen diners."
"Each one must have gotten two portions," he concluded.
"But they didn't," I protested. "No one got more than one portion."
"Sir," Mr. Lee explained, "I am not responsible for the poor appetites of picky eaters. Two portions apiece were there had they wanted them. Now I'm left with fifteen full portions which will spoil before I can contract them to another assignment."
"But I didn't ask for two portions apiece," I again protested.
"I assumed you would want them," Mr. Lee admitted. "I am at fault. God is punishing me already for my drunkenness, however unintentional it was."
He began to whimper and I took pity on him. "I will take the other fifteen portions," I said, "and distribute them to the needy. Where are they?"
Mr. Lee began searching frantically; he even checked his own pockets. "Have you got them down there after all?" he demanded of his busboy.
"Where would I put 'em?" the insolent lad replied. "My ten incher takes up all the space I got down there between my legs - as you well know!"
"Then they've been stolen," Mr. Lee concluded. "And with such an unsavory lot as those you dined with, sir, there's no telling who made off with them!" He looked at me as if to say "What now?"
"I cannot in good conscience pay for merchandise I never received," I maintained, and rightly so, even if it did mean a loss to so fine an entrepreneur. Mr. Lee grabbed the bill and corrected it.
"I should have known better than to ever deal with a best selling author," he muttered as he returned the bill to me - a sentiment I attribute solely to the alcohol, insofar as it belied everything else I knew of the man. I wrote him a check, handed it to him, and took my leave of the Holiday Inn.
Let me add one final word concerning the evening's affair. Later that week I was apprehended by the police on a charge of "theft and rape, in that order." Mr. Lee, still under the influence no doubt, had summoned the police and filed a complaint against me. Needless to say, when he returned to his normal sober state, his mind cleared and he dropped the charges, calling it a case of "mistaken identity." And that ended it. (But it did not end my admiration for the man, for if I have a nettle of pride in my makeup it is in my ability to look, as the great artist must ever look, far beneath the outer trappings of a man to his true character.)