46-year-old William Prendergass III laced his fingers behind his head, leaned back against the hull of a rented rowboat on The Pond in Central Park, and allowed a smirk to surface. His career was at its apex--he was Editor-in-Chief of Manhattan, a magazine founded by him and funded by Millicent Quivers, his 51-year-old unmarried lover. He sucked on the stem of his pipe, let his Adam's apple work a puff from his mouth and said, "All my life I've dreamed of this."
Of a boat ride? Hal thought. Hal was William Prendergass III's assistant. He knew the truth behind the rumors: William had impregnated Millicent Quivers; William had blamed it on a "GOLDWATER" campaign button that, according to William, had punctured a condom on the bottom of Millicent's purse; William had insisted that Millicent bear the child and abandon it on a convent's stoop.
Hal rowed on, toward the West Side, as per William's orders. "Dreamed of what?" he finally asked.
"Running a magazine like Manhattan."
"You mean a magazine that publishes Prendergass pieces?"
Prendergass pieces, writings with neither the structure of fiction nor the truth of journalism, had--five years earlier--been William Prendergass III's brainchild. Then a filing clerk at a distinguished magazine, he wrote interoffice memos that claimed such pieces would distinguish the magazine further, and he drafted several such pieces and submitted them in-house, only to face termination.
"It is something," Hal said.
"I knew people would love Prendergass pieces."
No one loves them, Hal wanted to say. You're just funded.
William puffed smoke. "It feels dreamlike," he said. "It really has been quite the whirlwind."
Ignore him, Hal thought. Row, let him talk, and remember to ask for your paycheck.
Another puff. "It's plain magnificence," William said. "Having all these manuscripts flowing in. All these people coming to me as I sit in the center of Manhattan."
People? Hal thought. Writers didn't strike Hal as people. They called him, wrote him, irritated him. They talked about writing more than they wrote, and when they did write, their punctuation devoured his free time.
He rowed on, thirty yards offshore.
"I want to write a piece for the next issue," William said.
Again? Hal thought. "I thought you said we'd never print our own work."
William's eyes remained shut. "When did I say that?"
"When we began. You know. You said printing our own work would make us look as low as Mitch Mitchell."
"I don't remember that."
"Come on, William. You laughed at Mitch Mitchell."
"But I'm not Mitch Mitchell. Are you saying I'm not as good as Mitch Mitchell?"
Back off, Hal thought. You need that check. You need rent, milk, corn flakes, and eggs. "I'm not saying anything," he said. He rowed on, his left shoulder sore.
William eyed the skyline behind the trees on Central Park West. "I'm thinking," he said, "of writing about a certain place."
And? Hal thought.
"You know, sort of a place piece."
"I thought we said we'd publish pieces with edge."
"You're not following me," William said.
"I know of this space. In The Village. That's rented out as a store. I know the entire history of the proprietors of the store. One sold yarn and knitting equipment, another restaurant supplies--you know, industrial-size mixing bowls, huge rolling pins, that type of thing. And now it's an art gallery that has its own history of shows, some photography, some painting, some sculpture. One show in particular--and readers will love this--included this very chic display constructed entirely of paper clips."
"I like the paper clip part," Hal said.
"I don't, actually. What I like about my idea is that if I write about the sequence of shows in the art gallery as I follow the sequence of the store's various proprietors, I'd be introducing the concept of history within history."
Bland bullshit, Hal thought.
William palmed his pipe bowl. "I think that's interesting."
You're intelligent, Hal wanted to say. But an idiot. "I like the paper clip part," he said.
"Forget the paper clip part," William said. "The paper clip part is superfluous."
"I was just saying what I liked."
"So you're saying you don't think we should run my piece?"
Piece? Hal thought. He knew William's propensity to talk and never produce. "I just told you what we said originally, William. You're the chief. You'll run what you want to run."
"But you think it's a bad idea."
"I think printing one's own work is a bad idea. It's a stink-hair away from vanity."
"You're saying I'm vain?"
"I meant vanity press."
Hal rowed on. Jesus, he thought.
William lifted his chin. "Stink-hair?"
"From your playground days in Iowa?"
Hal nodded. "Ohio."
William's eyes roamed and stopped on a penthouse on the 7O's and Central Park West. Hal was still rowing. "Anyway I wasn't talking about the wisdom of printing one's own work," William said. "I was talking about my piece. You think it's bad?"
"I told you. I like the paper clips."
"Without the paper clips."
"You have an idea, William. Having ideas is good."
"But you'd vote against running it."
If my vote counted, Hal wanted to say. But he needed that check. "No," he said, rowing on.
"Good. Then let's draft it as soon as we get back. I'll dictate and you write. I've always wanted to write that way. You know, by just talking."
Hal imagined himself at the typewriter in the office. William would pace, stroke the jaw, re-light the pipe--all the cliched habits of The Writer with no one but Hal to find them absurd.
"I mean, what does the keystroke have to do with it?" William asked. "The keystroke is secretarial." He puffed. "For peons."
"I strike the keys when I write," Hal said.
"Why do you say that?"
Hal cleared his throat. Why am I rowing? he thought. "I'm just saying I strike the keys. I accept it as part of the process. The grind--which, for you, would be the striking of the keys--is how you know it's work, and the fact that it's work makes it good."
William nodded. His smirk disappeared and he grabbed his jaw: William The Thinker. "What makes it a grind for you?"
"None of it."
"You don't view the keystroking as labor? You know, as opposed to...management?"
"I don't mind striking the keys."
"Then you won't mind typing my place piece when we get back to the office."
Be assertive, Hal thought. No. Be prudent. Remember the big picture: rent, food, contacts. Then he heard himself blurt, "Yes, I'll mind it."
William squinted. "Excuse me?"
"You heard me."
"But you just said you don't mind the keystroke."
"Correct. But I won't write your piece. I won't hear it, type it, edit it, or lay it out. I won't have any part of it."
"You won't have a part. It'll be mine."
"As long as subscribers don't criticize it. And as soon as they do, you'll tell them I wrote it."
William sat up. "Says who?" His left eye seemed to shrink. Then it twitched, and he swallowed, and both of his eyes crossed slightly. His hand rose--bargaining with God?--and his right eye twitched and stayed shut. Then both were shut. They opened as blood-shot whites. A seizure, Hal thought. He'd seen William take pills that, until then, had worked.
William attempted a calm face. "Says who?" he managed.
He wants to b.s. his way through it, Hal thought. Letting him b.s. usually calms him, but answering him will anger him--and probably worsen the seizure.
"Huh?" William said.
Screw him, Hal thought. Coddle him and you'll end up with health problems of your own. "Says me," he said.
William's chin rose, and saliva slid toward his ear, and his left hand groped for his tongue. Then his head plummeted--knocking an oar into the water--and yanked him onto the boat's floor. His fingertips held his tongue despite spasms that pulled his elbows over his head. Then the spasms won, both arms flailing, a wrist bone striking the hull. Then his head struck the hull. Hal knew it was crucial to lodge something between the teeth. "Oh," William moaned. Lodge what? Hal thought: the boat was empty. My wallet, Hal thought, but his wallet was in the office--because William so often "forgot" his.
"Or!" William screamed. Or? Hal thought. Oar. He yanked the remaining oar from its lock, aimed its tip toward William's chattering teeth--and accidentally battered William's nose. Still, he tried to finesse the oar between William's teeth, as did William's quivering fingers--until a spasm jolted the oar over the side of the boat.
It floated 3 feet away. Hal tried but couldn't reach. No one was on shore. A rented gondola glided over the other end of the pond; Hal waved and whistled as it slipped into an inlet and disappeared.
William flailed and gagged. The oar was 8 feet away--and headed toward shore. Dive after it, Hal thought. As a child he'd failed swim lessons, though he remembered one rule: Never swim in shoes. Undoing the knot in the laces of his left Salvation Army wingtip, he glanced at the oar. 2O feet away. He picked at the right wingtip's laces. 3O feet. William's face was the redness of ripe cranberries. The knot wouldn't give. William flopped like a lip-hooked trout. 5O. Then the knot loosened, and both shoes were off, and Hal stood and dove and dogpaddled as fast as he could. The oar, he imagined, floated 6O feet ahead; his splashes kept him from seeing it. He slowed his arms to steady his breathing and attempt a breaststroke: there was a speed at which he could risk his own life, another at which he could glide.
It was best, he decided, to proceed collectedly. If he had enough wind when he'd reach the oar, he'd swim it back to the boat; if his wind felt too taxed, he'd get himself to shore, then sprint to find help. Maybe he'd need to pause--to catch his breath?--but he'd try his best to run quickly.
About the author:
Mark Wisniewski's novel, CONFESSIONS OF A POLISH USED CAR SALESMAN, is in its second printing. His collection of stories, ALL WEEKEND WITH THE LIGHTS ON, was published recently by Leaping Dog Press. More than 200 of his poems and stories have appeared in magazines, and he's won a Pushcart Prize. His recent moves have been from Pennsylvania to Manhattan to Queens to Lake Peekskill, New York.