The Man In The Yellow Hat
A meeting with my Editor. An Eminence Grise who makes house calls. These days, I am more patient than lover. It is he who lacks patience in my silken pajama presence. I am lobbied to put on a robe.
Autumnal daylight waned and my studio darkened. Uneaten homemade oatmeal raisin cookies grow stale. Slowly, I belted a faded kimono and stated the case for my latest project: a novel based upon the relationship between two paintings.
“So, in my view, there’s nothing like a projective test. Oral and written responses to a visual prompt reveal the inner workings of mind and heart. What do I see? A working man with skinny mustache. A golden field. He wears a yellow hat. So he must become ‘The Man With The Yellow Hat’ without a monkey. I am not curious about this man. I am wondering where his monkey, George, went. I want to know what lies beneath…Where did George go at harvest time? To the other side of the wheat field. Why? To visit pink toned Christina in Her Andrew Wyeth World. Yes, characters from children’s books and subjects of famous paintings visit one another. They share the same landscape. Who knows where one wheat field ends and another begins?”
My editor cringed and gagged on his Starbucks pumpkin spiced latte. The legendary Marshall Bloom thinks I’ve tossed my cookies for good. He lights the first of what will be a chain of cigarettes. I raced to my window, turned the lock, and shoved it halfway open. Marshall is a genius but there’s a limit to which I’ll humor his secondhand smoke.
“Why must you write everything in a fugue state? Why can’t you just produce some mainstream fiction, a romance, a cozy mystery or an erotic thriller? Something that can be adapted for Hollywood? Why must you insist upon reinventing American fiction as we know it?”
This is what happens when you have an affair with your editor. The man no longer knows his place. Instead of “Mad Magazine’s” “Spy vs. Spy”, we have “Ego vs. Ego.” Both of ours – colossal.
I’m the younger (albeit middle aged) female writer. A “Cherished Discovery Full Of Unfulfilled Promise. “ Whatever I’ve created hasn’t been quite good enough.
Marshall rose abruptly from the couch and attempted to smooth a wrinkled, summer weight suit. Nobody else would wear a vintage canary Brooks Brother ensemble in late October. A corpulent Van Gogh sunflower furiously paceed the perimeter of my miniscule rent-stabilized apartment. There’s a lecture coming…
“Ms. Alice Garrison, you’ve yet to demonstrate maturation since that ‘New Yorker’ piece. There are too many boundary violating, novelty seeking female voices nowadays. Especially stylized waifs from Brooklyn. Your distinct, deadpan elusiveness, while unique, isn’t helping you grow your audience.”
Grow my audience? Deliberately plant the seeds of commercial success? Feh. I’m writing for myself alone. Call me Greta Garbo.
“Mr. Marshall Bloom, isn’t such insemination a task for the folks in publicity? Surely they must earn their daily bread? Hey, I’m just trying to tell my story on a grand, multilayered scale. Like Roth, akin to Mailer, a companion piece to Updike. Perhaps Pynchon, too?”
I stretched backwards in my earth toned club chair, pointing ballet flatted toes in his direction. Marshall remained oblivious to my need for validation and comfort. An Editor before Lover. Wit, charm, and lean, bare legs failed to deflect relentless criticism.
“You’ve got lofty ambitions. I’m not saying you won’t ultimately deliver. But much of your novel is inaccessible to the vast majority of potential readers.”
“Okay, Marshall. What should I do?”
A weary Marshall plunked himself onto my patchwork couch and stubbed out his cigarette.
“Set aside latest attempts at magnum opus. I want to see what you can do with short prose. Delve into your romantic side and write. Of course, not about us.”
Tales of illicit intimacy. That’s a definite no-no. The less the soon to be ex-Mrs. Bloom knows, the better.
“Just slit my wrists and let it bleed all over the ‘Modern Love’ column?”
“Yes. But never fear. I’ve got a tourniquet.”
And that’s why I’m in love with Marshall. At seventy-seven, with decades of managing literary stables for publishers of all trades, he appreciates the risk I take each morning. He knows my terror of facing blank pages and plumbing the depths of an overly synthetic, manic-depressive mind.
Marshall pressed his arms against crumbling armrests and pulled himself upwards. For the hundredth time, I contemplated how much he needs to lose weight and quit smoking. Not that he’ll listen to me. Marshall patted my head, stroked my hair, and kissed the back of my neck. My aged, yet ardent editor.
“Veins, my darling. Only sever those. Not arteries. That’s for the Nobel, the Pulitzer. Write about heartbreak but keep it a tad light. Remember that love is a mystery. Channel Hercule Poirot and apply the little grey cells. You’ll have something for me come morning.”
“You’re not staying?”
Marshall tousled my hair.
“No pouting. Be a grown-up. You need to be alone to write. I’m very much in your way. There’s Chinese takeout in the fridge courtesy of moi – sesame noodles, fried chicken dumplings, hot and sour soup. That should constitute sufficient gastronomic inspiration.”
Marshall donned his unseasonable trademark hat of golden straw. He proffered a courtly bow and limped through my glowing doorway. The last rays of sunlight departed with him. Alas, my beloved editor isn’t much of a muse. I flicked on my secondhand lamps and sauntered across slippery hardwood floors. It was time to raid liquor cabinet. Pinot noir will do.
A barren computer screen glared. It’s a struggle limiting myself to genteel sips of Vampire’s Delight. What on earth am I doing with this story? Where does a comparison of these yellowed paintings lead me? Why has my mind cross-fertilized the music of “Fields of Gold” and “We Will Rise?” Am I doomed to only create inscrutable, masturbatory, or derivative work? How come when male writers engage in such practices, they are considered innovative?
If one tells a straightforward story, there’s a place for it. Conventional tales of woe or murder, with requisite twists and turns; memoirs of abuse, illness, or mid-life loss of love, lilting descriptions of exotic destinations, all written in M.F.A. speak –for these depictions of human experience, there’s a ready-made audience. Even the frothiest Chicklit gets more respect than my outside the box endeavors.
Pouring a second bulbous glass of pinot noir, I contemplated all those awkward cocktail parties. The less than tactful inquiries about when I was last published. Those annoying questions about what, exactly, I write. At first, I say that my task is to seek divine revelation and conjure wonder. Heads shook with puzzlement. Literary Fiction, I tell them. I write Literary Fiction.
Literary Fiction…Litter Airy Fiction. Sounds like a disease for flakes. A fatal one.
My oval bearskin rug beckoned. Sirens whispered “Nap…” Eyes swiftly closed. When they finally opened, it was midnight. I dragged myself to my desk and stared ferociously at the empty screen. Pages and mind remained blank. Postulating a relationship between “The Man with the Yellow Hat”, “Curious George”, and “Christina” of “Christina’s World” led nowhere.
Shivering, I marched to the window, slammed it shut, and made my plea for enchantment.
O Muse, why must you be so capricious? Why is it that I write best when newly in love or recently heartbroken? Why do quicksilver phrases elude me in the dullness of ordinary days? Does having won another’s heart quell acute suffering and silence my gifts? Must I lose in order to create?
Cellphone buzzing interrupted prayer. A number flashed on the screen. It’s Grace Hermes, Marshall’s steadfast personal assistant. She does not call -especially in the middle of the night.
“Is that you, Grace?”
“Alice…I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be. I was awake. Marshall left me with a mission. I’m trying to get that ‘Great American Feminist Novel’ going at long last.”
No reply. I hear sniffing. Snuffling. What could Grace be allergic to?
“Grace, you’re making very odd noises.”
“Grace! Those were strangled sobs. What’s going on?”
“It’s Marshall. He was in the hospital, with Mrs. Bloom. A massive heart attack. Gone. Just gone.”
“His wife was with him?”
For Grace, tragedy becomes a teachable moment.
“Alice, she’s next of kin. Her phone number was in his wallet. She’s on the health insurance. The papers weren’t going to be filed until next month.”
“I…I thought Marshall would have taken care of all this ages ago.”
“Alice, Marshall loved you. He was waiting…Waiting for you. He just wanted you to write.”
“Good night, Grace. Thanks for letting me know.”
Cellphone angrily tossed among the fuzzy pillows of my decrepit couch.
Where has he gone, my precious Man in the Yellow Hat?
Wandered away, across golden fields,
Wind-blown acres of wheat and barley…
I am the pet monkey he has left behind.