Monkeys and Barrels

None of it was going anywhere. It had been a while. Both things were true. Both could be beginnings. So let’s go with both: None of it was going anywhere. It had been a while. I felt like a dehydrated man wandering aimlessly in a wasteland of publishing. To clarify: the publishing industry being the wasteland. Then, a chance. A dehydrated man wandering aimlessly in a desert lives for chances. Which is why the tease of mirages prove to be the death of many. Anyway, a chance: I had an appointment with the V.P. of the big publisher C.C. Burton. My friend, Lana, a fellow writer, who always backed and supported my work, had wrangled the appointment with Elaine, the V.P., who was an old friend of hers. Elaine, like myself, was of Italian-American heritage. Elaine, like myself, was from Brooklyn. And because my novel was a crooked valentine to the Brooklyn of my youth, Lana thought that it might be a perfect fit for Elaine’s sensibility. It sounded promising. Most mirages do. They glitter in the daytime and disappear in the twilight. Of course, it’s always twilight when you arrive at the mirage. I’m sure Einstein could explain it. Anyway, the meeting. I stepped into Elaine’s posh office. I saw a smallish woman dressed in a pale lavender suit seated behind a massive desk. Her hair was sculpted high. I wondered if she had sculpted it with Aqua Net. Was there still Aqua Net? Had it been banned by the Ozone Commission? My grandmother had petrified her hair on a daily basis with Aqua Net. My grandmother was long dead. Not because of the Aqua Net, mind you. Elaine appeared to be in her late fifties, early sixties. Definitely of the Aqua Net generation. Mister Fillameno, Elaine said, please sit down. I sat down in a wooden chair, facing her. I felt as if I were at the principal’s office, and was about to be reprimanded for something I had done wrong in class. Which was often how I felt. Especially when seated across from vice presidents with sculpted hair and lavender suits. Which was not often. Elaine and I chatted. About Brooklyn. About no longer living in Brooklyn (I had expatriated to Nine Peaks, a small town in New Mexico, twenty years ago). We chatted about this and that, a casual volley, which led to my novel. And why she was passing on it. You’re obviously a very talented writer, she said, and then highlighted what she loved about the book—the characters were incredibly nuanced and layered, particularly Anya in her tragic sadness. Yet, and it was a big yet—YET—the novel is too short to publish, especially by an unknown author. She needed a novel with more meat on its bones, more heft and bulk, if she were going to peddle it. I don’t remember if she actually used the word peddle but that’s what I heard—peddle. Which made me think of hot dogs peddled by vendors at Yankee Stadium. Or a BMX racer with a glow in the dark pedals. Elaine went on about pacing, character development, length, which then tied in to prevailing marketing trends, and that’s when I cut her off. I don’t write for the market. I write for the angels. And for God. Where had that come from? I had never thought of myself as writing for the angels. And God. But it felt true when I said it. I could tell Elaine didn’t like being cut off, especially right in the middle of her dissertation on prevailing marketing trends. She pursed her lips tightly. They grew ashen, then pallid. Mortuary. I thought a touch of lipstick could revive them. Lipstickless, Elaine sniped—That is all well and noble, Mister Fillameno, but I can assure you that God isn’t running the market. And he isn’t the one who will publish your books. I didn’t know what to say. Elaine had me over a barrel. Was that the right saying? Had me over a barrel? Why a barrel? And wasn’t there something about monkeys and barrels? Good luck to you, Elaine clipped, letting me know that our meeting was officially over and I should exit her office. I stood up to leave, disoriented. I was still thinking about God and the angels. And monkeys and barrels. I hadn’t yet caught up to the present moment, to what was happening. I was leaving. Was meant to be leaving. Good day, sir, Elaine said, as a sort of nudge to get me moving. I left Elaine’s office. Walked the length of the carpeted hallway. To the elevator. Took it down to the lobby. Walked the marble floor to the glass revolving doors. And stepped out onto the teeming daytime sidewalk. I felt as if I had just vacated one dream, and entered another. It felt good to be back in New York. It had been a while. And none of it was going anywhere. I started walking. I thought of previous rejections of my work, filing through the internalized catalog. Too short. Too long. Too obscure. Too much this, not enough that. It’s always something, as the late great Gilda Radner would gripe. Yes, sir, back in New York. Just another pinballing speck in the shadow of anonymity. In the shadow of monolithic buildings. This made me happy and sad. I wasn’t a young man anymore. Expect I was. Einstein could explain it. You’ve got plenty left in the tank, kid. I often referred to myself, in the third person, as kid. It was a Babe Ruth thing. He called everyone kid, no matter wat their age. Apparently because he could never remember anyone’s name. Babe Ruth. There was a man who defied the odds. A cigar-smoking, hot dog-gobbling, beer-swilling giant who announced himself to the world as legend. Who cares about age, I told myself. There’s no such thing as time anyway. Live as if you’re already dead. Then, and only then, will you come to fully embrace life and experience truer freedom. What had happened to me? Somewhere along the way I had lost my nerve. My moxie and chutzpah. Parts of me, perhaps a bit punch-drunk, had gone into hiding. They didn’t want to get hit anymore. I understood. I sympathized with those parts. I had become a dormouse on a ledge. Or a vagrant Buddha standing on the street corner in the rain. Parts of me had. Yet today, today something in me, something that had been walled up and dammed, had broken open. I owed it to Elaine. Her passive-aggressive assault on God and the angels. Her faith in prevailing marketing trends. Her use of the word peddle. I walked the streets of New York that afternoon, feeling pissed off. Feisty. Ready to take on all comers. I felt completely ready to let all my monkeys out of their barrels. Just to see them dance.

About John Biscello

Originally from Brooklyn, NY, writer, poet, performer, and playwright, John Biscello, has lived in the high-desert grunge-wonderland of Taos, New Mexico since 2001. He is the author of four novels, Broken Land, a Brooklyn Tale, Raking the Dust, Nocturne Variations, and No Man’s Brooklyn; a collection of stories, Freeze Tag, two poetry collections, Arclight and Moonglow on Mercy Street; and a fable, The Jackdaw and the Doll, illustrated by Izumi Yokoyama. He also adapted classic fables, which were paired with the vintage illustrations of artist, Paul Bransom, for the collection: Once Upon a Time, Classic Fables Reimagined. His produced, full-length plays include: LOBSTERS ON ICE, ADAGIO FOR STRAYS, THE BEST MEDICINE, ZEITGEIST, U.S.A., and WEREWOLVES DON’T WALTZ.
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