Volume 2
An Online Literary Magazine
March 28, 2009


The Assignment


Bharti Kirchner


Downtown Singapore: "What if he traveled from the north hemisphere to the south, from a frozen climate to perpetual sunshine? A place molds a fictional character; it could also help push the writer on top of his game. He might be able to sell his novel..."


aolo lifted his manuscript pages, the ones he’d been having a lover’s quarrel with for the last two hours--an underdone chapter, according to his exacting standards--and was about to rush out the door when the phone in his Seattle apartment started to buzz. He didn’t want to be late. Then, for some reason, he picked up the receiver and said hello.


“Salma Lewis here.”


The effusive voice of his book agent, who’d ignored his last three e-mail messages, paralyzed him. She still had a trace of the South-of-the Border accent. He pictured her young, black-cloaked figure in high-heeled boots hustling along Manhattan’s avenues, entering publishing houses and shoving manuscripts into the hands of skeptical editors. Over the drumbeat in his chest, he returned her greeting.


Salma continued the pleasantries, surprisingly bouncy for this late hour--10 p.m. back east, only 7 p.m. in Seattle--while the back of Paolo’s polo shirt grew damp. Even though the longwinded talk annoyed him, he hung on her words. He’d met her at the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Conference last year and chosen her over thirty other agents. Over Dos Equis beer at the bar across the street, they’d chatted. She was conventional but assertive. Deal-making, she said, was in her blood. Had she, by some miraculous maneuver, made a sale?


They said good read! They’re very interested. We’re looking at six figures easy on this one.


“I have a project for you,” she said.


I’ll polish your boots, send you Pacific Northwest smoked salmon by the kilo, fly to Manhattan to clean your kitty litter box. He coined a business-like response: “Project?”


“It’ll involve some travel.”


Travel? The word slid down his throat like a soothing glass of milk. The copy shop he managed in Seattle’s University District was on the brink of folding, never mind the complications that arose from dating two women simultaneously. Who, in this era of desktops, scanners, and laser printers, would pay to make copies? Who courted two women belonging to the same writer’s group?


“Where do you plan to send me?”


“To Singapore, to do a bit of sleuthing.” Salma’s voice became sharp, familial, conspiratorial. “Constant House wants to track down one of their big-name authors.”


He admitted out loud that he didn’t follow.


“You’ve heard of Ludmila S., haven’t you? She’s been on the bestseller lists of both the New York Times and USA Today for three weeks now. Constant House has figured out Ms. S. is using a pseudonym. She’s not Russian.”


He hadn’t heard of her. Like many of his peers, he didn’t read enough. “She’s on my short list. What’s wrong with using a pseudonym? Maybe she’s shy – most writers are.”


“Matthew Horton, News Weekly reporter, is supposed to have cracked her real identity. He’s going to do an exposé, which would make it seem like Constant House is not on the ball.”


“More publicity, more sales.”


“Possibly, but Peter Lott found out and is taking this as a personal affront. He’s the new VP of the Trade Division at Constant House and has his eyes on a top job. He won’t let anything like this happen on his watch. Last year, his boss was mortified when the house published an eighteen-year-old Iraqi girl’s memoir of war, pillage, and rape, only to discover the author was a loony old Swedish guy in his fifties. Do you recall?”


“Sure, sure.” He consulted his watch and turned to face the other wall, but kept impatience out of his voice. “But Ludmila S. has written a novel, not a memoir. Can’t she invent whatever she likes?”


“Her readers assume it’s her life story. She’s Constant House’s biggest cash-cow right now. Peter is terrified they’ll stop reading her. She has the aura of a mysterious, reclusive Russian author, with a thick vodka voice. He’d like to maintain that myth.” A pause. “There’s another reason – I might as well tell you. Matthew Horton has this to say about Peter’s promotion--‘The same old administrator bounding up to the same old levels of incompetence.’ I assured Peter I’d help him any way I can.”


Salma, dollars-and-cents savvy, must have a stake in this as well. “Was she one of your early clients?” he asked.


“Yes, my very first.”


Now it fell in place, Ludmila making the young agent’s career, check after check filling her mail box. No wonder Salma wanted to hold on to Ludmila, regardless of the cost. “Does she have a manuscript due?”


“Any day now I expect her sequel.”


This phone call made even more sense, but he still had a blazing question: “Why me?”


“You’re a travel guru. I read your piece, ‘The Singapore caning incident ten years after.’ Your bio reads like the Sunday Travel section--schooling in London and New York, ski holidays in Switzerland, language excursion in Spain, trekking in Austria--and how many languages?”


“Five and I won’t go hungry in several others.” It must have slipped her mind that he used a pseudonym himself. Paolo Augustino sounded more literary on paper than Philip Smith Jr., or so he’d once explained to her.


“And you’re persistent to a fault.” She paused. “You like to send lots of e-mail.”


“Any luck with my manuscript?”


“It’s making the rounds. I’m just getting started. You know it’s not easy to find a home for dark literary fiction, though I must say I adore your images. Like when your protagonist spotted his grandmother’s weathered face on the ridges of a pumpkin. He’s cute.”


He heard her sigh. He’d published a profile in Granta, a travel essay in the the Washington Post, a film review in The New Yorker, and even slipped a 1000-word memoir piece into the Sunday New York Times “Lives” column. But he’d missed the boat on fiction. If he took this assignment, at least he’d qualify as a sleuth.


He asked, “Who is Ludmila S.?”


“All we know at this point is she lives in Singapore.”


Travel slogans popped into his head: exotic Singapore, sarong-and-top “Singapore Girls,” and Singapore Sling cocktail, but they didn’t convince him. Although he’d worked as a stringer in the past and as a travel writer for magazines, at present he was drunk on literary fiction, with themes loftier than common folks constant scrambling to entertain themselves.


“Why don’t you e-mail Ludmila and ask her pointblank who she is?”


“My e-mail reaches her via a circuitous route. Whoever is the intermediary probably strips out most of the stuff. Or, she could be a devious person who’s getting a thrill from all this. Her e-mails are brief and to the point. She doesn’t reveal much.”


An intriguing celebrity! Although he was ready to get his feet wet, he’d play this for what it was worth.


“It’s pretty urgent, Paolo. Matthew Horton, the reporter from News Weekly, is supposed to be flying there next week.”


“How can I compete with him? He’s sure to have more information and resources.”


“Peter will be in constant touch with you and guide you, and I’ll be available, too. Locate Ludmila, invite her to a drink, bug the hell out of her, and get her to confide in you . . . even use blackmail, should that be necessary. Peter wants to reveal her story in a press release before the News Weekly article comes out. If it doesn’t kill the story, it will at least diminish its newsworthiness.”


“And I suppose you couldn’t fly there yourself?”


“If the word gets out that a New York literary agent is in town, her own agent for that matter, she might go underground. Worse yet, we could lose her. Besides, this is a busy time. My cabin in upstate New York was flooded in last month’s storm. Contractors are tearing down a wall. This week I have an auction and two authors coming in town.”


“I suppose hiring a private detective is out of the question?”


“It is. Private detectives don’t write. You might be able to spin a feature story off from this, possibly one for The New Yorker. You’ve done a number of short pieces for them, haven’t you? As a pseudonymous writer yourself, you might be able to throw daylight on the subject-–why does an author hide behind an assumed name?”


A draft of air rushed in through an open window. She was baiting him, but he had to admit that he liked the bait. Perhaps she’d trot the streets of New York harder to sell his manuscript. He could easily whip out a piece on the pseudonym topic. And all writers, by their very nature, were spies. To get any kind of a story, you spied on your protagonist, the villain, your grandmother, and even the neighbor’s Chihuahua puppies. He checked his watch again: bargaining time. “Don’t forget I have a day job.”


“How’s the copy shop work going?”.


“Great! Business has been picking up.” It soured his stomach to skew the facts. “My boss wants to launch more stores.”


“Well, we don’t have much time. I’d like to have put someone on this yesterday.”


“What kind of pocket money are we talking about?”


“Three thou a week plus roundtrip airfare--that’s all I’m able to negotiate.” Salma’s voice carried an old-world reassurance. “There’s a hidden benefit . . . If you make a good impression on Peter . . .”


That got Paolo’s antennae up. And the fact that this assignment would pay about five times more than his salary at the copy shop. How very shrewd of her to consider him. He’d done Europe, proven that he could sniff things out in a hurry in a foreign locale. Besides, after a whole year of fictional challenges leading him nowhere, he was poised for a real-life game. But what was the catch?


“I’ll think about it.” He raised his eyes at the ceiling light and wondered if he could bargain for even more. “Call you first thing in the morning. And, please let me know if the editors have any suggestions to improve the manuscript.”


Salma’s sigh, followed by her goodbye, floated over the line. Paolo hung up and, once again, stared down at his pages, another candidate for rejection in the making. But then, who knew? Didn’t he see somewhere that Stephen King hadn’t made the cut on his first, second, third or even fourth try? Paolo still had a few more tries left. He was only thirty-three, adult enough, with dreams still lurking on his mind’s database. Salma’s strange assignment could push him toward his goal of publishing a novel. In a recent conversation, a peer had confided that he’d kill someone, if that was what it took to get a novel published, except that he hadn’t found the person to kill. Paolo had laughed, feeling the bite of desperation himself.


He wandered into the bedroom, his mind seesawing between hope and despair, emotions that became indistinguishable by the time they hit him. He closed the window. After changing into a freshly laundered sport shirt, he faced the bathroom mirror, combed his hair, and smoothed his perplexed expression back to normal. Once again, hope, lady hope, snuggled up to him.


What if Ludmila S. took an interest in him and became his mentor? He was tall and slender, with olive skin and an occasional bewildered look in his eyes that women found irresistible.


Last week, he had a sushi tryst with a twenty-something poet, Sumona, from his critique group. She gazed at him longingly, like he was just the adjective she’d been hunting. The week before, he had gone out for drinks with Annette, a forty-something fantasy writer from the same group. Blonde, buxom, and overpowering, Annette was known for recasting her former lovers as antagonists in her fiction manuscripts. She’d been calling him daily.


Why would Ludmila be any different from these two women? His watch said 7:30. He hustled out of the apartment and jumped into his Volvo.


ith a peek at his watch, Paolo entered Edna’s bungalow in Ballard. The critique group was waiting at a large round table. They were good about waiting.


Edna poured him a muddy cup of coffee from a glass pot. A sixty-something woman from the era of bouffant hairdo, strident pink lipstick, and three-strands of pearls (all of which she’d displayed at one time or another), she was gracious. She slid a platter of pastries toward him. “Sumona made these.”


Sumona, a petite, nose-ringed woman with thick, Moghul-queen eyebrows, stirred. She had recently emigrated from Bristol, England. She sat next to Alice--round-faced, outspoken, pastels-and-frills romance writer.


Paolo picked a sablé from the platter; the first bite had a buttery note that struck a childhood chord (a quarrel with his sister about who had wiped out the cookie jar). He watched as the redneck--Rob, from Everett--stole a sleazy glance at Sumona, even though the pearl blonde, Annette, dressed in animal print and positioned across from him, would have lapped up that glance. Sumona lowered her pinked face.


Paolo put the crumbling cookie on a napkin. He wanted to wring Redneck Rob’s football-player neck for putting the poetic pastry-maker in an uncomfortable spot. He fancied her himself.


“Who goes first?” asked Brendan, middle-aged, with nose in the air, clad in an expensive white shirt that fit too snugly.


“You,” Edna said, all charm. Her generation still deferred to men. Paolo didn’t agree with her on that principle.


Brendan began reading, the ceiling light overly bright on his damp forehead. His pages entailed a study of open marriages in America. He wore a tone of importance, as though he was the foremost expert on the topic. He and his wife had such an arrangement, he’d once confided to the group, although it was common knowledge that she was the more “open” of the two. On this evening judging by Brendan’s defeated posture, Paolo concluded she must be out with some other dude. The piece Brendan read smelled of tattered yellowed flea market paper. He didn’t have one strike-it-rich sentence and his only case-history was himself.


Once finished reading, Brendan sat back in pride of ownership. Praise poured over him, whether due to sympathy for his home situation or group solidarity, Paolo couldn’t ascertain for sure. He pushed his chair back, making a small scraping sound and hoping someone would suggest him as the next reader. After that phone call from his agent, Paolo could certainly use a dose of nurturing.


No one nominated him. He gritted his teeth.


Her voice booming, Alice acted out a scene from her romance novel. A breathless hero (preppy, New York) accidentally meets the beauteous heroine (from the barrios) on the sidewalk of Miami (downtown, humid). Just before leaving the house, she’d spent twenty minutes selecting the right pair of shoes--satin slingbacks, with three-inch heels. And, of course, he literally falls at her feet, shoes rather, after slipping on a plantain peel.


Everyone applauded. A few others took their turns, and there was plenty of good material, if not too original, if lacking subtlety. They tried their best--there was honor in that. Paolo cast pleasant glances, jotted favorable comments, and verbalized both praise and suggestions for further clarification.


With the evening wearing on, Paolo’s lower back turned rigid. Finally, Edna, a lavender-blue shawl making a flower about her throat, nodded at him. He took a shallow breath with half the usual intake of oxygen, and began reading a scene from his novel-in-progress, titled “Once.”


The story took place in Holland. Eric, the protagonist, had lost his prized gold ring. He searched for it on the sidewalk, at the café, by the canal, and through the clutter of the post office’s lost-and-found shelf; it wasn’t to be found. In despair, he flew out on the street. A strange darkness had fallen at 2 p.m., one that reduced his person by half and his thinking ability even less.


The ring was, of course, symbolic, a stand-in for a misguided soul.


Paolo sailed through the pages. His sentences had repeating patterns to create vertigo. He read well, better than the writing warranted. When he finished, he allowed a pause, which ballooned to several seconds of group silence.


Edna, kind soul, came to his rescue. “Oh, Eric is a charmer. He’s my son’s age, or else . . .” She let her eyes roam the table, silently urging others to chip in, then poured coffee in her cup.


“I hate foreign words,” Annette gave a little laugh. “They’re like . . . insects that crawl out of your picnic sandwich. Are you going to have a glossary at the end of your memoir? I mean your novel?”


Paolo picked up his ballpoint. His novel wasn’t a memoir by any stretch of the imagination, and sprinkling foreign words was but second nature to him. “Let me think about that.”


“I like this better than last week’s,” Redneck Rob proclaimed. “The plot has progressed.” Thanks a lot, Rob. This is last week’s chapter, with minor tweaks.


“Why do you have to write this literary crap?” Alice blurted out. “Why don’t you make it a romance? The guy, obviously, needs a chick in his life.”


“I have to write a soap opera?” Paolo chuckled, taking this as a joke. “That’s just not me.”


Alice’s face flushed. “Oh, your superior self. Wake up, my friend. The literary novel is dead. Genre fiction is all people read now.”


Paolo’s eyes searched the other seven faces, but failed to read concurrence with his viewpoint. They consumed mass-market mysteries and romance in their spare time, if they picked up any books at all. How would they parse him or his writing?


In the lull, he considered the matter, he, the new global nomad. He’d moved from Paris to Seattle, with a three-year stint in New York in between, as a 21st century citizen who dashed to wherever job opportunities blossomed. He had language skills, computer programming acumen, journalistic savvy, a mind capable of inventing powerful imagery, and a literary agent. And this group was asking him to slide down from such a high perch to the ground? In his pissed-off state, he considered getting up and stealing away into the night. He could hear the drizzle outside. Rain had not been predicted.


Edna, serving pastries one last time, nailed him with a wink. He passed the plate. He felt what a levitator must feel, being there, but floating above it all.


Redneck Rob threw him a dirty look, but in Annette’s gaze Paolo read a late-night desire. Had to be another time. He stood up, whereupon she tossed him a “life’s shitty, you’re shitty” glare. Sumona exchanged a not-so-friendly look with Annette, then both gave a sideways glance at him.


Edna, perceptive Edna, rose and faced him. “Can’t wait to see what’ll happen in your next chapter.”


The meeting was over. The group collected possessions, hauled coffee cups to the sink, and smiled, in recognition of one another’s worth as writers. Paolo hurt inside, but followed the routine. He met with freezing glances, people turning cold shoulders toward him. Quite possibly, he’d ruined his place in the group.


He waved at them from the door. Adios, biday, au revoir, arrivederci, he said silently, recalling farewell greetings from languages he’d either mastered or trifled with. Then he began his block-long walk to his Volvo. Drops of cold rain hit his face and shocked him to wakefulness. He wiped his face with the back of his hand. The neon sign of a gym ahead, visible through the misty darkness, read: Get in shape.


What if Alice was right?.


What if he wrote a bodice-ripper, instead of a snobby, constipated literary novel? A writer must reinvent himself, or get buried. What if he got in shape and used that side of the brain he hadn’t paid attention to thus far? What if he traveled from the north hemisphere to the south, from a frozen climate to perpetual sunshine? A place molds a fictional character; it could also help push the writer on top of his game. He might be able to sprout purple prose from the steamy sand on a tropical beach. He might, finally, sell his novel.


As soon as he reached home, he got his suitcase out. He shoved in clothes, shoes, and the manuscript. He sat in front of the computer screen and began checking ticket prices on the Net. His agent’s offer might have come to him as a windfall.



BHARTI KIRCHNER writes novels, cookbooks, essays, short stories, and magazine articles. She is the author of eight books, four of which are critically acclaimed novels. Her first novel, Shiva Dancing, was chosen by Seattle Weekly to be among the top 18 books by Seattle authors in the last 25 years. Her short story will soon appear in Seattle Noir, an anthology of mystery short stories to be published in 2009. Her work has been translated into German, Dutch, Spanish, Thai, and other languages. Twice she has won Seattle Arts Commission’s literature grants. An award winning cook, Bharti is also the author of four popular cookbooks. She has written numerous articles and essays for various magazines and anthologies, and book reviews for newspapers. For more details, go to www.bhartikirchner.com.






Home | Search | About Us | Submissions | Mailing List | Links | The Writer's Workshop