Returned to Sender
We had a quarrel, a lover’s spat.
I write I’m sorry but my letter keeps coming back.
–– Scott and Blackwell
The job market for English degree graduates in 2009 was even worse than usual. The Wall Street implosion had made it nearly impossible to land anything other than a waitress job when all someone could claim was expertise in Victorian literature. Guess I should be thankful that I have three nights a week at Julian’s Bistro, thought Sheila Bixby, as she sat in Starbucks sipping a latte and scanning the screen on her laptop. Probing the online want ads had become her daily routine since leaving college, and she was about to call it a day and head back to her apartment when a listing on SomethingforMoney.com caught her attention.
Answering fan mail and performing minor administrative tasks for author. Requires solid writing and interpersonal skills. Contact . . .
Sheila responded to the ad before going home and by the time she reached her tiny studio in Chelsea a reply awaited her requesting a resume and four references. Within an hour of forwarding them, she was asked if she was available to meet at 1 PM the next day at an address in a chic section of Soho. Sheila said she was able to make the appointment and that ended the back and forth. At no time during the cyber exchange was the name of the potential employer revealed, and she could glean nothing from his email address, if, in fact, it was a he.
Who could it be? She wondered. Was it a well-known author, someone she knew? How exciting would that be? For the balance of the evening, Sheila speculated on the identity of the writer, and by the time she went to bed, she was buzzing at the prospect of meeting the mystery wordsmith. Would he/she be willing to read some of my poetry . . . maybe mentor me? Wait, you have to get the gig first, my dear. Sheila lay in bed wide-awake for several hours mulling over what fate might await her the next day. This could be so good. Please make it happen . . . please, please.
The trumpeting of her cell phone awakened her at 10 the next morning. Need to change that ring tone, was the first thought to enter her head.
“You still sacked out? Some people have the life,” said Sheila’s best friend, Kerri Simpson.
“I didn’t get to sleep until a few hours ago,” replied Sheila.
“No, nothing like that. My mind was wired because of a job interview I have later. It’s to assist an author with his correspondence.”
“Who’s the author?”
“No idea. That’s why I couldn’t get to sleep.”
“Didn’t he tell you his name?”
“No, that’s the funny thing, and I forgot to ask.”
“Where does he live?”
“Well, that doesn’t narrow it down. I think every other person in Soho is a writer. Might be Jay McInerney or Jonathan Franzen. Wow, wouldn’t that be cool?”
“I’m not even sure if it’s a guy.”
“Well, you’re not exactly Charlie Rose when it comes to asking questions. So, girlfriend, are we on for supper tonight? You can tell me who this Nobel laureate is then.”
* * *
Sheila took the subway to Soho and walked the three remaining blocks to where the interview was to take place. By the time she arrived at what turned out to be a stately brownstone, she had worked herself into a frenzy over who she was about to meet and how her future might be changed if things went well. Don’t mess this up, Sheila. Keep your cool. Be the excellent you, she kept telling herself.
She had worn her best outfit––one she reserved for important occasions––and had reluctantly highlighted her lips and eyes with the only cosmetics she owned. Sheila had always held the conviction that makeup was a concession to a testosterone-driven world, so it was seldom that she deigned to use it.
“Girl, not everyone is as naturally pretty as you are, so don’t condemn the rest of us for trying to make the most of our mediocre features,” Kerri had said, when Sheila had ranted about how women were compromising their integrity by painting their faces to please the opposite sex.
Sheila took a deep breath and pressed the doorbell. A few seconds later, a tall, middle-aged man stood before her and waved her inside.
“Miss Bixby, I presume?”
“Yes, Sheila Bixby, and you’re Mister . . .?”
“Carlyle . . . Brian Carlyle. Pleased to meet you? May I call you Sheila?”
“Yes,” replied Sheila, thinking that his name was familiar.
“Well, you can call me Mr. Carlyle, Sheila.”
I know him. He wrote Samson’s Ghosts. I loved that book, but it scared the shit out of me. He writes horror novels, thought Sheila, not hearing what Carlyle had just said.
“Just kidding. Please call me Brian. Come into my office and let’s get to know you, okay?”
Carlyle led Sheila into a large disheveled room containing a massive mahogany desk and bookshelves that were jammed to overflowing.
“Let me take the crap off of this chair so you can sit down.”
“Thank you,” said Sheila, noticing a thumbnailed size scar on his left cheek that did not detract from his rough-hewn good looks.
“So, Sheila, why do you want this lowly clerical position? You couldn’t consider it a great career move having a degree in English from Boston College. Surely you can do better. By the way, did you have classes with Elizabeth Graver? She’s a first-rate novelist . . . did a reading with her a couple of times. Great sense of humor, too.”
“Yes, I had Professor Graver for a creative writing course. She was great.”
“Aha, so you’re an aspiring scribe. What’s your genre of choice? Bet you’re a poet.”
“As a matter of fact . . .”
“Knew it. You have the look of a poet. Sensitive, expressive face. And like all poets, a bit pained.”
Sheila could feel her face heat up. “I’ve only had two pieces published. Both in Boston Literary Magazine.”
“Well, good for you. That’s a nice start. So then, the job pays a paltry $15 an hour, but as they say, it’s good honest work. Mostly what you do is answer the mail I get from readers. It involves penning from a template. Brainless enough. You’ll be bored and probably run out of here screaming in a day or two. Occasionally, I get something strange from a nutcase, and those you just throw into the circular file. No sense encouraging those types. I suppose it’s the nature of what I write that inspires the occasional weirdo.”
“I loved Samson’s Ghosts,” offered Sheila, removing what turned out to be a notebook from under her.
“Sorry, I’ll take that,” said Carlyle, inspecting it as Sheila handed it to him. “Oh, yeah, that’s something I started a few months ago. Didn’t even miss it. I’ll have to take another look at it before chucking it.”
“You write first drafts in longhand?” asked Sheila.
Carlyle gave out a hardy laugh before answering.” I know . . . a primitive practice, but I like the intimacy of pencil to paper. It feels like sculpting. You know, tactile . . . like shaping something out of clay. I write the second draft on the computer. I’m not entirely a Luddite.”
“Oh, I wasn’t suggesting . . . “
Carlyle waved his hand and gave out another laugh. “Don’t worry, Sheila. You’ll have to try harder than that to insult me. So, what do you say? Do you want the job or what?
“Yes . . . definitely,” replied Sheila, surprised by Carlyle’s sudden offer.
“Great. Well, when can you start? How about Monday? I’m getting really backed up with all the damn correspondence.”
Sheila quickly scanned her mental calendar and then agreed to the proposed date.
“There’s a small room off of my office where the mail’s been piling up. Somewhere under the stacks is a desk you can use. I’ll leave you to do what you want with the space. Make it yours, Sheila. Here’s my card. My email address and phone number are on it––keep it to yourself, okay? If you need to get a hold of me, you’d be better off texting me. I have my cell on 24/7, except when I’m sleeping, and then it’s on my nightstand.”
On her way to the subway, Sheila felt lighthearted and excited about the prospect of working for a prominent author. This may be the best thing to happen to me in a long time, she told herself.
* * *
“So what’s he look like?” was the first thing out of Kerri’s mouth when Sheila met for supper at Qi Esam Thai Kitchen in Chelsea.
“God, you’re awful. You don’t even want to know who he is before knowing what he looks like.”
“Okay, who is he?”
“The horror writer? He does all those slasher novels, right?”
“No, he writes about the paranormal. Pretty literary stuff, actually. I read his last book, Samson’s Ghosts.”
“Oh, yeah, I heard of that one. So . . .?”
“So what does he look like? How old is he? Is he married?”
“Whoa, aren’t you full of petty questions?”
“Oh, stop playing Mother Teresa.”
“In answer to your first question, he’s decent looking. Tall and thin. Angular face. Reminds me of that old actor, Gary Cooper. Remember him?”
“Nope. So how old is he?”
“Maybe 45. Yeah, I think around that . . .
“I have no idea. He didn’t mention a wife, but then again we didn’t get into our personal lives?”
“Too bad, honey. Well, you’ll find out soon enough, assuming he hired you.”
“Yes, he did. I start Monday. Now can we change the subject?”
After supper, Sheila insisted on going to Posman Books, a short walk from the restaurant, to check out more of Carlyle’s titles. She found four of his novels and purchased two.
“So, I guess I know what you’ll be doing this weekend,” said Kerri, with a roll of her eyes. “Not that you ever do much more.”
“Reading builds character. You should try it,” replied Sheila.
“Hey, I read. I’m halfway through Fifty Shades of Grey.”
“Forget what I just said about books building character.”
“Don’t be such an intellectual snob, Sheila. That book has its qualities.”
“Oh, yeah, and what are they?”
“Never mind. I don’t want to offend your virgin ears.”
The two friends shared a piece of cheesecake at Toastie’s Deli before heading their separate ways. Kerri got in the parting salvo.
“If you get tired reading, give me a call, and I’ll show you what actual human beings do on weekends.”
* * *
Monday could not come soon enough for Sheila. By late Sunday afternoon, she had read both of the Carlyle books she had purchased, finding them engaging and very well written. She was well on her way to becoming a hardcore fan of his clever turn of phrase and cunning scenarios. No shortage of talent in you, she muttered, while staring at the book jacket photo of the author. You’re not hard on the eyes either, are you? Careful, old girl, he’s going to be your employer. You know what they say about getting involved with your boss, she cautioned herself.
Sheila arrived at Carlyle’s Soho brownstone shortly before 9 AM and had to ring his doorbell several times to rouse him. When he finally appeared, he looked puzzled and seemed not to know who she was.
“Oh, you’re, ah . . .?”
“Sheila, your new assistant.”
“Yes, I remember . . . the poet, right?
“Should I come back later, Mr. Carlyle?” She asked.
“Brian . . . call me Brian. Come in. I’ll make coffee, or maybe you can?”
Sheila followed Carlyle into the kitchen, and Brian pointed to the Keurig.
“I like the Italian Roast. What’s your poison?”
“I already had mine. Drink two cups before I even attempt to move,” replied Sheila, placing Carlyle’s preferred K-Cup blend into the machine.
“I’m usually not up until noon. Night’s my most productive time. Write, or at least, pretend to write, until two or three in the morning. I’ll give you a key so you can let yourself in, or you can work my hours . . . if you’d like.”
“No, I’m a morning person. By 10 PM, I’m ready to call it a day. Are you finishing a novel?”
“Well, I think it may be finishing me . . . but, yes. My deadline is coming up on me like a bear. Look, I think I’ll catch a couple more hours of shut-eye. You can get started on the mail. Why don’t you organize it by the post date on the envelopes? You know, oldest dates first. That’ll keep you busy until I come down, and then I’ll show you the letter template you can use to pen the replies. Sound like a plan, Sheila?”
“Sounds like a plan, Brian.”
“If the phone rings, tell them I passed away, okay? See you in a while.”
Carlyle gulped down the remains of his coffee and left Sheila standing alone in the kitchen. She placed his empty cup in the sink and sought out her cluttered workroom. There must be a thousand letters in here, thought Sheila, clearing the small desk of the stacks that covered it. Just collating these by date will take a year. How long has it been since any replies were sent out? The price of literary fame, I guess. I should be so lucky.
Sheila had just begun to make a small dent in the clutter when Carlyle reappeared looking restored.
Hmm, that’s much better, thought Sheila, trying not to stare at him.
“So how goes it down here? Ready to throw in the towel?”
“Not quite, but it looks like these have been collecting for some time. I found one letter with a two-year old postmark.”
“Really? Jesus, I didn’t think it had been that long since Carson left. My last mail boy got a better job, which apparently wasn’t hard, and left me in the lurch. I’ve been so caught up in this damn novel that I lost track of time.”
“A long one?”
“Long . . .? Oh, you mean length? Not really, it’s just been slow in coming. The frigging thing has fought me at every turn, but I think I have it in the corral now. Good, too. Maybe my best.”
“That’s great, Mr. Car. . . ah, Brian. I read your last two novels over the weekend.”
“Marathon reader, huh? Well, I’m not sure about those, but this new one should make the critics a little happier. Not that they’ll ever warm up to me. I’ll always be a horror hack to them. Look how long it took Stephen King to get any respect.”
“Oh, I think you’re writing is much better than his.”
“Well, coming from an English major, I’ll take that as a high compliment. But you shouldn’t look down your nose at King. He’s pretty damn amazing.”
“I didn’t mean he was . . .”
“Don’t sweat it. He’s not God, just close to it. Ready for lunch? Let’s go down to the Rail Line Diner. You been there? Best pastrami in the city.”
“Oh, I brought some yogurt, and I really should make more headway here. It’s kind of slow going.”
“Yogurt? That’s not food. It’s a pharmaceutical. C’mon, I’m the boss, right?”
Yes, sir,” answered Sheila, grabbing at her purse.
“You don’t need that. Lunch is on me,” said Carlyle.
“It’s one of my appendages. I feel incomplete without it.”
“Well, I certainly don’t want you to feel incomplete,” said Carlyle, smiling warmly.
Is this the smart thing to do? I really should insist on keeping things strictly professional, but he’s so damn attractive. It’s only lunch, right? Not good . . . not good, thought Sheila, as Carlyle escorted her from the house.
* * *
Just short of two weeks later the relationship between Sheila and Carlyle had morphed into a full-blown affair. Most of her time at the brownstone was now spent in Carlyle’s bedroom. While Sheila had enjoyed a modest number of sexual experiences, none had been as intense and satisfying as this one. Carlyle made love to her with a passion she had only imagined possible, and she felt herself succumbing to feelings that frightened her. Don’t fall in love with this man. He’s your boss, for God’s sake, and he’s at least 20 years older than you are. You’re such a dumb chick falling into the sack with this man. What do you know about him? He never talks about his past. Does he feel anything for me besides lust? These and similar thoughts obsessed Sheila when she wasn’t with him
Slowly Sheila began to believe Carlyle had become as deeply smitten with her as she had to him. He had plied her with flowers and sexy underwear on several occasions, and his appetite for intimacy remained undiminished. When Kerri had asked her about the relationship, Sheila had let slip that she was falling in love with Carlyle. This brought a predictable reaction.
“Oh, honey. You’re just going to get hurt. This guy has probably bedded more girls like you than he can remember. Don’t go there.”
“I’m already there,” responded Sheila, coldly. “You don’t know him. You think every guy is a bastard.”
“Most are, Sheila. And I bet this guy is no different. They just want to screw some young thing until something better comes along. Watch out for yourself.”
“I know what I’m doing,” protested Sheila, who then hung up on her friend before she could offer more uninvited advice.
He feels something for me. I’m just not a piece of ass to him, she reassured herself. A few minutes later, she received a call from Carlyle telling her not to come that day because he had an old friend visiting from out of town for a few days. She was tempted to ask him if it was a former girlfriend but then chided herself for being suspicious.
“I’ll see you Monday, babe. By the way, I’m amazed at how many letters you’ve managed to crank out, ” said Carlyle.
Yeah, considering how little time I’ve had to devote to them, thought Sheila, after they hung up.
Sheila sensed there wasn’t something quite right in Carlyle’s voice but chalked it up to her distrustful nature. An earlier lover had duped her, and it had left her damaged. After that ill-fated experience, she had sworn off men for two years. And she had kept her guard up, but it was now apparent that she had let it down completely with Carlyle. Don’t do this to yourself, Sheila, she warned herself. You’ll just drive yourself crazy thinking the worst all the time.
Despite her attempt to dispel her doubts, she found herself standing in a doorway across the street from Carlyle’s house watching for anything that might confirm them. This is just not right, she told herself, but then she saw Carlyle exit his brownstone with an attractive woman on his arm. An old friend, my ass! You bastard!
The couple climbed into a waiting taxi and nuzzled each other as it sped away. Sheila remained in the shadow of the doorway trying to process what she’d just witnessed. He can’t be doing this to me. Why? It’s been so wonderful. Maybe she is just an old friend, she reasoned, but couldn’t sustain that notion. Kerri’s right. Men are all cheating sons of bitches.
* * *
After a torturously long weekend, Sheila went to Carlyle’s house Monday morning determined to confront him about the mystery woman. She used her key to let herself and went to her office. Maybe I should just go up to his bedroom and have it out with him right now, she considered, but then decided to wait until he appeared.
While trying with little success to pen notes to Carlyle’s long neglected fans, an idea struck her. No, wait until you talk to him before you do anything like that. Maybe that woman wasn’t . . . But it would be perfect, wouldn’t it? So wickedly perfect, Sheila smiled to herself and pushed the envelopes and papers aside. Wicked . . . but so right, she mumbled and sat back and put the buds of her iPod into her ears.
“Hey, Sheila. How you doing, sweetie?” said Carlyle, when he emerged a few hours later.
When he attempted to kiss her, she pulled away.
“Whoa, you okay? You don’t look yourself. Sorry about being busy with my friend. Hadn’t seen him for a long time.”
“Him?” asked Sheila.
“Yeah, an old writer buddy of mine. We go back years.”
“Would I know his work?”
“Doubt it. He hasn’t published much. Mostly stories in small, obscure magazines.”
“So what did you guys do?”
“Hey, why the first degree? We just hung out. Went to a Knicks game. Farted around. Got caught up with one another’s lives. It was good.”
Sheila suppressed her urge to call him a liar, instead deciding on implementing the idea that had struck her earlier. You’re going to get screwed, mister, but not the way you like to do with me.
“Well, I’m glad you had fun.”
“Speaking of fun, care to come upstairs for a little touchy-feely?” asked Brian, rubbing the back of Sheila’s neck.
You’re insatiable. Couldn’t get enough ass from that other woman? Thought Sheila, feeling her anger intensify.
“No, I’m not feeling too great, and besides, I really have to earn my $15. I’m beginning to feel guilty about taking your money.”
“Well, then, let me give you a nice raise, if you know what I mean,” said Carlyle, pressing his midsection against Sheila’s body.
You prick . . . “Not now!” snapped Sheila, pulling away.
“Jeez, okay,” replied Carlyle, moving away and holding his hands up in mock surrender.
“Sorry,” said Sheila. “Not feeling well.”
“Maybe you should go home until you feel better,” said Carlyle, with a note of sarcasm in his voice.
“No, I’ll be fine. Working will take my mind off it.”
Carlyle left the room without saying anything further, but it was clear he had been taken aback by Sheila’s sudden frosty behavior.
* * *
Carlyle kept his distance from Sheila for the next several days, and that suited her perfectly as she initiated her plan to avenge his deceit. Instead of using the usual template for replying to fan mail, Sheila had devised another one. We’ll see what your admirers think when they get this in the mail. Her message read as follows:
Dear Pain In the Ass:
Please don’t bother me anymore more with your insipid missives (do you understand such words? I doubt it!). I have better ways to waste my time than to respond to your pathetic questions and requests. If you had half a brain, you would know that authors regard letters from idiots like you as the equivalent of junk mail. Get a life, fool!
It wasn’t long before Sheila was receiving replies to her venomous communiqué. The senders invariably attacked Carlyle for being a horrible person, and many said they were even burning his books in retaliation for his nasty response to their letter. One envelope contained a copy of Samson’s Ghosts with feces smeared over its pages. Sheila was tempted to give it to Carlyle, but thought better of it fearing he’d find out about the nefarious letters she was sending to his fans.
Things began to take an even more aggressive turn as she continued to send out her letter bombs. On several occasions, garbage was left on the steps of Carlyle’s brownstone, and obscene graffiti was scrawled across its walls. Another time, a rock came flying through a window, nearly striking the author, who was completely nonplussed by the attack.
“What the hell is going on? I’d call the cops, but I don’t want to draw attention to this shit. It would just inspire more loonies. I’ve gotten some pretty strange shit before from wackos, but nothing like what’s happening now,” bemoaned Carlyle, and Sheila could not help but chuckle to herself.
The attacks from disgruntled recipients of Sheila’s vitriolic dispatches continued unabated to the point that she decided to stop sending them. She worried that Carlyle might actually contact the police out of desperation and then she’d be discovered as the culprit behind the incidents. She figured that eventually things would quiet down. What she did not imagine is that her revenge letter would cause one of Carlyle’s former disciples to completely flip out.
* * *
Harry Belton had bought a ticket from his home in Davenport, Iowa, to New York City for the sole purpose of righting the wrong he felt his favorite author had perpetrated against him. I bought every one of his goddamn books and loved all of them, and then when I ask him for a lousy autograph, he calls me an idiot and pain in the ass. Well, let me show him a little pain, he thought, feeling for the handgun tucked in his tote bag under his seat on the Greyhound bus. Two days later he arrived at his destination and took a cab to Carlyle’s address, which he’d found after a careful search of the Internet.
Following weeks of awkward silence between Sheila and Brian, the two had begun to communicate in more than just monosyllables. Sheila started to believe that her reaction to his seeming duplicity had been overwrought considering that the two had never raised the subject of exclusivity during their brief romance. Her friend Kerri had helped her see how precipitous it was of her to react like a jilted lover when she and Carlyle had really just been having casual sex.
Soon the two had renewed their intimacy, and Sheila was feeling much better about her life since she’d spied Carlyle and his female companion mugging in the cab.
“I’ve missed this . . . you. How about we spend more time together? Maybe get away . . . take a trip?” asked Carlyle, gently stroking Sheila’s cheek as the two lay naked in bed.
“No rush. Let’s see how things go, okay?” answered Sheila, moving on top of Carlyle.
“You’re the boss, Madam Poet,” he said, pressing his fingers into her backside.
After making love, they napped until the late afternoon sun shone into Carlyle’s bedroom. Sheila was the first to wake up and found that she was suddenly full of remorse for what she had done to alienate Carlyle’s fans. She immediately thought about sending out a new letter claiming the first was a terrible mistake and had been accidentally excerpted from one of Carlyle’s novels in which a demented character tries to sabotage the reputation of a renowned writer. They might believe that. A long shot, but maybe I can undo some of the damage I’ve caused, thought Sheila, climbing from bed.
“Hey, where you going, lovely lady? Sure, a little quickie, and you run away,” joked Carlyle.
“I’ve got to get to work. Remember, I’m your employee.”
“And so much more,” said Carlyle, blowing Sheila a kiss. “Let’s go out to dinner. Let me shower and dress. I’ll come down to fetch you in about an hour.”
“I brought some yogurt,” replied Sheila, with a playful smirk.”
“An hour, my dear. And be ready for some real food.”
* * *
Harry Belton had positioned himself in the same doorway that Sheila had used to hide herself while spying on Carlyle weeks before. When he saw two figures emerge from Carlyle’s brownstone, he removed his gun from inside his jacket and took aim.
Here’s the ending to your last novel, asshole, he thought as he pulled the trigger.
Michael C. Keith teaches college and writes fiction. www.michaelckeith.com