A woman, falling from the grace of wealth, miserably fails to escape insignificance.
Operandi had invited me to "Salon Moda at the new Moda Operandi
offices, providing complimentary, invite-only shopping appointments."
The event was to take place in New York in February. I was working
and living in Europe at the time. Traveling expenses would be
significant, not to mention shopping expenses (M'O is quite
high-end). My wealth had declined dramatically over the past two
years. I should not have given the invitation a second thought. I
didn't. I transferred USD 12,500 from a savings account to my
current account to fund business class traveling, a three-day stay in
a decent hotel and shopping at "Salon Moda".
mentioned, in no particular order, books by a variety of authors,
from different regions of the world. "I adore Sontag", I said. I
recently finished The Benefactor. It's so... odd. I thought it
failed and then, suddenly, it didn't. Do you read much?"
"I've been invited to a fashion event."
"Are you in the fashion business"?
"No, the ones browbeating silly women like me into shopping high-end fashion are. I'm at the receiving end, at a price, of course. I'm game to them."
"So it's a fashion shopping event?"
"Rather sad, isn't it?"
"Why would you say that?"
Because there are things you that would brag about among your friends, or your rivals, but then, in confrontation with a mind which you instinctively feel is greater than yours or your friends' or your rivals', a mind, most of all, entirely indifferent to those things, they shrivel up to something laughable and pathetically pipsqueak. I felt ashamed. But I gave my shame a different face, less damning.
"Just think of the expenditure. A fortune in exchange for a trifle of fabrics. I should feel ashamed. I think feeling sad is the least I should admit to." I made it sound like a bon mot.
"The exchange may result in something similar to Jack's trading his mother's cow for a bean: a miracle. ... Not that I see you as someone in need of one", he hastily added.
But he did of course. The effortlessness with which he had sounded my shallow if murky waters was depressing. In less than 15 minutes of a conversation, carried on as randomly as its beginning was coincidental, he had laid bare the upshot of my decades of life: in need of a miracle.
"No, I don't, I think. Anyway," (smilingly) "I can see at a metaphorical level the promise of a miracle contained in a fertile bean - but in luxury shopping?" He must not leave me stranded, not at this point, not uncovered and shivering with defeat. I would be destroyed.
"No end to what a fertile cow might have brought her owner. I don't think the promise of a miracle is in the bean, not even taken as a metaphor. I think it is in fortuity, in inviting fortuity to intervene in one's life, preferably with an ingenuous mind, like artless Jack's. "Ashamed, yet artless?"
"I think the gist of what I'm saying is: whatever of the costs expended on all this, for better or worse, opportunity is traveling with you ... probably is wherever you go. Don't let shame put the lid on it. You don't strike me as an artless person; I concede that to you. But, as I said, artlessness is preferable. The Fates may just have to push a little harder in your case. Consider moving along."
It seemed that we had after all tacitly settled on the understanding that my life did need a push, by the upside of fortuity, a miracle, the Fates, whatever. I felt safer. We were down to the matter. He would not let go of me at this point. I folded my hands in my silk-skirted lap.
"Do you mind telling me what work you do?"
"Not at all. But you haven't told me about yours."
"Law. Did. I'm out of it."
"You strike me as rather young for retirement. Are you getting back in?"
No way! If the Fates would want to side with me, this is where I wanted them to come in: find me something outside the law, anything, but paying as least as well, independent, too, no seniors, no peers - or deposit 2 million dollars in my bank account. My needs were simple. Alternatively, if not preferably, find me a publisher for the stories I had begun to write; make them a success; no monetary conditions upfront.
"I'm still considering", I replied.
"I'm a publisher. Not so long ago I completed setting up my own business. I'm flying to Chicago to tie up some loose ends that were left dangling when I parted with the publishing house I'd been working for. I'd been with them for almost 15 years."
"But that is fantastic! What made you do it, leave, set up your own house?"
"A bit of Jack's perhaps?" He smiled. "The cow was rather fat, I have to admit, and the bean's quality is yet to be probed. The publisher I worked for became part of a global company about two years ago. I had been working on a project to make promising new and re-entering writers - novelists, poets - marketable. I had done some research, uneducated, nothing profound, a lot of it involving little more than my own observations and ideas, hunches. What you see with the works of many new writers is that they are introduced on the market in highest sellable quantities at lowest possible production costs; the retail price is pitched so as to settle the balance at the rate of return the company requires. Take poets. We published one who had debuted ten years ago. His first collection had received universal praise, unheard of for a firstly published poet. He produced nothing in the following years, wasn't known to be writing still. He was all but forgotten when suddenly, after ten years, without prior notice, we received 15 new poems from him with an overarching introduction couched as a critical essay on the poems. We immediately felt that publishing this would be a major literary event and critics whom we had sent the embargoed manuscript to returned enthusiastic reviews. The collection was produced in inexpensive paperback. As even acclaimed poetry is only rarely seen to become a hot-seller, we turned out the collection in modest quantities. Retail price was set at 30 dollars. Which was pretty stiff for a 40-page paperback whose jacket and content design did nothing to conceal the clampdown on production costs. The relatively high price had to make up for the relatively low quantities put out on the market, to secure the rate of return that was required on any project. From a shareholder value point of view of course. More than 60 percent of all volumes ended up in shops' and warehouses' remaindered book sections at 30 percent of the original retail price, leaving the smallest margin over production costs. Well, the hunch I got stuck on, still am, is: what if we had published the collection in an insanely luxury edition, the first 50 numbered perhaps? Say at 120 dollars, the numbered editions at 200? A must-have not just for the culturally educated well-off but for true lovers of poetry. As it was we had to sell 4 to 6 of the actual books to make the amount of money that we would have made on every single luxury volume. And I doubt that the majority of the luxury editions would have ended up among the stacks of bargain books."
"And so that was the idea that you were working on when the new owner came in and cut you short?"
"Basically, yes. I hadn't had a chance to test it. I will have to do the test run at my own risk and expense. I'm not pessimistic. The poet I mentioned? He said he would switch to me as his publisher."
"And promised to definitely send in his next manuscript sometime over the next 10 years?"
"Getting in new writers who have a realistic perspective to success, artistically and commercially, is a challenge. But you would be surprised at the amount of writers, passed on and alive, who are out there to be rediscovered and whose work is freely publishable or perhaps copyright protected but no longer under any contract. That is where I will start. I have resources to stick it out for a while. What comes in too, and not just passingly, is my love of books as things you can see, touch, feel the weight of in your hands. A bibliophilic book I see as a Gesamtkunstwerk of literary content and design."
"In need of a partner who is sticking it out idling on reserves she is expending with a negative return rate at best?", I heard myself ask. Was I being facetious or just downright raving mad? Definitely not serious! I couldn't listen to my saying this as if I meant it! But couldnt smile it off either.
"I don't think I need a partner. A partner is not accounted for in the business plan that I drafted to obtain a loan. But if, let's say, I expanded the business plan a little, to allow for some additional equity to be poured in - well, I don't think the bank would object to that. Seriously, would you consider stepping in?"
Seriously, of course not! Would I say a thing like that to someone I had met in a tin can whose trajectory had caused our paths to cross temporarily, whom I had polite conversation with prompted by no other circumstance than that we were in adjacent seats and both immune, but not even for reasons we shared, to the lures of inflight entertainment? Would I suggest investing in the business of a man whose background, education, skills, life I knew nothing about - not to mention his business plan? Come on!
"I would. But there is something else... "
"Waiting", he smiled.
"I have stories. Stories that I wrote. I have a portfolio of unpublished short stories. I have been writing them with an eye to publication. What I mean is, I took it professionally from the start. My stories are not the kind of half-baked scribbles of someone who thinks they might be the next NYT bestseller if only one out of the ten publishers she has sent them to would acknowledge their greatness or commercial potential. My stories are the result of hard work, work I set out to be paid for."
"But as yet unrequited."
"Yes. But not as a result of my stories being turned down by anyone. I have simply not yet gotten to the question of how to market them, who to approach, in what way. Read my stories. They're on my notebook. Ill hand it to you. I would be willing to contribute them to your venture. They would not be a contribution in kind. I would consider co-investing financially. I don't know about the financial soundness of what you have set out to achieve. But I do know that what I feel about books agrees a great deal with what you told me about your love of books."
I retrieved the tablet from my tote. I selected then opened the file. I handed the notebook to him.
`"They're very subjective. They feed on me. But they're not about my life."
He began to read.
Save and close. I shut down the machine, stowed it in my tote. I leaned back. I looked sideways at the man sitting next to me, across the aisle, whom I had noticed, been impressed with, overwhelmed by, in the departure lounge. What a coincidence. But, no, he would not be the man I could have had the conversation with I had so painstakingly constructed, its artificiality aside. It was a complete miscast. My imagination ran too shallow for him. He looked up from the book he was reading. Our eyes met. But, even if he smiled, more than our eyes would not, ever.