Good Luck: Episode Forty-Six
The editor rushed into the mold-reeking business center, up the stairs, past the massage therapist, past the office full of young people making cold calls, selling extended vehicle warranties.
His shiny shoes sunk into the filthy carpet. He wore new dress pants and a dress shirt. His hair was slicked back. He carried an Armani briefcase in his left hand.
He was late for an editorial meeting.
Out of the two thousand submissions, some lucky winner would receive $10,000 and receive publication in the novel you’re reading right here.
As he approached the door, he heard his assistants inside talking. The editor had meant to hire English major undergrads, but had unwittingly hired killers. Second rate Manson family wannabes. Now they were inside, plotting bloody murder, what else. He carried a handgun now because of them.
He peeked through the door’s window, saw they sat in a circle at the table, dressed in black. When he’d first interviewed these killers, they’d worn tweed, had scarves and rosy cheeks, New Yorker tote bags, Keds. All a subterfuge. Now two of the killers were hidden behind ski masks.
One was carving a pentagram into the table with a dagger that also had a pentagram on it.
The killers were fixated on the postscript from the call for submissions, which the editor had thought was a joke.“P.S. To keep quality high, the editors will be killing whoever sends the worst story. So writers, keep that in mind before you hit send. Thanks again.”
The worst story.
The editor stepped away from the window and put his ear to the door. The killers said they’d decided the worst story had been submitted by the popsicle man, a short story about how much he loved popsicles and how he didn’t believe the Holocaust had happened. And sure, the editor agreed, that was the worst story but what they were discussing doing to that writer was horrifying.
“Cut his fingers off one by one.”
“Make him eat his fingers, and then…”
“Put this blade in him, pull this blade out, put this blade in him somewhere else.”
“Gouge them out, yeah, good idea.”
“Make it take days…”
“That writer will wish they were dead but it’ll just go on and on.”
The editor opened the door. “Hey guys, sorry I’m late.”
The killer with the pentagram knife smiled and said, “No worries.”
The editor nodded at the killers. The friendliest killer, of course, was the leader. Long, greasy black hair and beard. Eyes like a shark. He was just pretending the editor was in charge.
The editor sat down, opened his briefcase. The revolver was inside. He pushed it off the pile, pulled the five best stories out, set them on the table.
“So, I’ve been thinking. We should go through the slush pile one more time.”
“Why?” the friendly killer said. “We came to a decision last meeting.”
“Popsicle Man is gonna die,” said the woman wearing black gloves.
“Yeah, sure,” the editor said. “I think you’re right. But let’s look through the submissions again and then…”
“And then we kill him,” Pentagram said.
“Well, maybe… not?”
Him. The popsicle man, whose real name was Anthony Dunlop. Who lived in a memory, which was a cold day in New York City, when I had seen Anthony Dunlop walking back and forth on Bleecker Street, debating whether or not to buy a popsicle and then I had seen him buy said popsicle. I didn’t care at all that the man was going to be killed for his bad writing, but I did side with the editor, morally, I didn’t want to see Anthony Dunlop suffer, endure torture, as bad as his art was. The killing could at least be quick.
The editor opened the file folder. He said, “Let’s focus on the good before we dwell on the bad.”
The killers hissed.
“Come on now, focus,” the editor said. “Here are the top five stories…” There was a story from his mom. A story from his girlfriend. A story from himself when he was 23 and I had just met him. There was a story from himself when he was 24. There was a story from his sister, Mikaela.
One of the ski masked killers said, “You can’t give yourself the prize.”
The editor picked up his two stories and tore them in half. The killers had more respect for him after that.
One of the killers stood up, “I’m not reading the whole slush pile again.”
“Me neither,” another said.
“Okay, here’s the deal then,” the editor said. “This week, we’ll read the bottom twenty—”
“Bottom fifteen,” the editor compromised.
The pentagram knife was stabbed down between his fingers and the man in the ski mask shrieked with laugher.
“Bottom ten it is,” the editor said. He pulled the knife out of the table and stuck it in his briefcase.
“I think your mom sent the worst story,” one of the killers said.
“Don’t even start with that,” the editor said. “You guys all loved her story last week. You voted it into the top tier, and that’s all over now. We’re down to Anthony Dunlop, Jackson Frons, the crossing guard attendant who stands outside Bud’s window,” he checked his notes, “and the seven people who sent a story about their grandma dying.”
When the editor looked up from his notes, everyone was playing on their cellphones. He called the meeting adjourned, early, and no one objected.
The killers left the room. They went down the hallway past the cold call center and the massage parlor. They descended the stairs. They went out on the street. There was a diner just a few blocks away. The killers went to the diner and got a booth back in the corner and drank beer and ate mozzarella sticks and then cheeseburgers. A couple at a nearby booth couldn’t stop staring at the killer eating his cheeseburger though the ski mask. Then the killer said, “Boo” and the couple jumped and a milkshake was knocked over and they asked for the check. The killers sat debating. There was no doubt in their minds that the popsicle Holocaust story was the worst, but they entertained the idea that it might be the second worst. The crossing guard’s story was nearly as lousy. Another round of beers came out, and the debate tumbled on.
Meanwhile, the editor was on his own journey. He crashed across the rivers, scaled the hills, traversed the valleys, walked out of the maze of forest, cut across the forever field of wildflowers and swaying grass. His briefcase was in his hand. His hair was messed up from the travel. He knelt down and wet his hand in a pond full of lily pads and croaking frogs. He slicked his hair back. The sun was in his eyes. In the distance, he saw my house of memory. The house was in great disrepair. The front porch had collapsed and the windows were all broken out. He walked onto the property. He walked around the side of the house and saw two children on the woods line, digging a hole, sharing a shovel. The editor realized it was a grave. There were twelve other graves. He stood looking at them. The editor’s name was on two of the graves.
“Lots of people been getting sick,” the resting child said.
The child with the shovel looked at the editor and said, “Sick as dogs, and they die.”
The editor asked the children if they knew where Anthony Dunlop was. The children checked the names on the graves and said that whoever he was, he must still be alive in the house of memory. The editor said he was looking for the door to a memory from December 2018. The children said they might know where that door was in the house, or they might not. The editor opened the briefcase and showed the children the knife with the pentagram. He said they could have the knife if they took him to the memory, so they did.
The house smelled like fire. Memories stumbled around in the common area. Furniture was broken. Memories kept coughing. The editor covered his mouth, and the children led him through the filth and down the hallway.
The editor didn’t know that the children were me and William, ages seven and nine. A lot of times you could meet your friends and companions at other times of their lives and not recognize them. It doesn’t matter.
The children opened the door. New York City was behind the door. It was a cold day. I was 37, and shivering without a coat, leaning against the brick wall on the other side of Bleecker Street and the wind ripped and sapped a newspaper into me. I laughed, kicked it away. I was waiting for my wife, but also in the memory, usually a man in a blue suit came and looked in the window and thought about buying a popsicle but in this version of the memory, he never showed up. The editor walked down Bleecker Street and said to the memory of me, “Where is the popsicle man?” The memory of me said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
The editor searched the other rooms down the hallway. He’d open one and there would be a memory of some random people screwing in a blank walled condominium, and then he’d realize the memory was the memory of a pornographic movie I’d seen and long forgotten, he’d open another and find a backyard barbecue, horseshoes and my family members laughing, he’d open another door and it would just be me reading a book. Just when he was about to give up his search, he found Anthony Dunlop, the popsicle man, hiding out in one of my memories of a vacation I took, a ski lodge I’d rented out with a few of my friends in the Vermont woods, offseason of anything and everything.
The ski lodge was quiet. It had seven bedrooms. The editor saw there were no cars in the driveway. He crept up the stairs and searched the rooms. In the last room at the end of the hallway, he found Dunlop, still wearing his blue suit, napping in an EZ chair.
Dunlop was sleeping under a quilt with an American flag gripped by a golden eagle.
The editor walked farther into the room, pulled his own ski mask on.
He looked at Dunlop’s face. Wrinkled, thin purple-lipped, a slight mustache above the mouth.
The popsicle man began to snore. That was enough. The editor shook him awake. Dunlop woke, and didn’t realize what he was looking at at first. A man in a ski mask stood over him, gun in hand, pointed at him. Dunlop screamed.
“Be quiet,” the editor said.
The popsicle man was wild with panic. He kept squirming farther and farther up in the EZ chair. Soon it would tip.
“Stop that,” the editor said
“Who are you?”
“You know who I am. You sent a story to me. I’m the editor.”
“So you sent the worst one.”
“I don’t believe it.”
Dunlop whimpered. “There must be some mistake.”
“There’s no mistake,” the editor said.
“I’m a good writer. I’ve been writing my whole life! People tell me I’m good!”
“People lie to you.”
“I’ve been published a lot! One of my poems won a contest!”
“Be quiet,” the editor said. “It’s done. You knew. You read the guidelines. You submitted. You were the worst. Now you’re gonna die. But I’m going to do it quick. Other people wanted you to suffer. I don’t want that.”
He shook his head, “I’m a great writer.”
“They all say that.”
The gunshot woke the cat who slept on the couch downstairs. When the editor opened the door to go back into the house of memory, the cat ran into the house, and jumped out a broken window, and ran.
The editor left the house of memory, crossed the fields, cut through the forest, climbed the hills, crossed the river, and then he opened his eyes and was back in North Carolina. There was blood on his dress shirt. He noticed it for the first time. He disposed of the shirt in a gas station garbage can, wore his undershirt the rest of the way home. He took his cellphone out of his briefcase and called into the pharmacy where he worked and told his boss he would be out sick the next day.
“I’m just sick,” he said.
“Well, if you need any medicine, you know where to go.”
“No, no. Thank you, but no.”
“Think you’ll be well enough to come in on Monday?”
“I’ll be there.”
The next morning, I called the editor and told him the good news. My story, “Self Control” had won the contest. The story was going straight into my novel. Hurray. I’d won the $10,000! He hung up the phone. I didn’t talk to him for days.
The following editorial meeting, the killers didn’t show up. The editor learned that, on their own, the killers had selected the crossing guard’s story as the worst. They’d gone to see her without telling him. And she had been made to suffer.
He closed up the office, walked down the block, returned the key to the landlord. The office was available for rent again.
I checked my account, saw the prize money in it, felt relieved. I paid the back mortgage and this month’s mortgage. I bought Rae a back birthday present, a back Christmas present, and a back Valentine’s Day present.
I called the editor, but his phone was disconnected.
Then a letter from him came in the mail. It read:
“Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Find a new editor.”
Artwork by Rae Buleri