That goddamned box was metal and made a hell of a racket. Milford Grider had already greased and tightened the hinges but that hadn’t helped. Every day around noon, save Sunday, he dreaded the shriek of it opening before he heard the demoralizing clang as it shut. Milford thought the mailman must have been aware of the pain he was causing. He often ruined things for Milford just as he was getting going, which generally took him a good two or three hours of study and planning. Milford, of course, had tried to ignore the box and just keep writing. But he couldn’t. That box, and what it might contain, was what he had been working for, and, increasingly, what he’d been living for.
Milford, by now, knew what would be in the box if it concerned his writing. He had memorized the essence and style of the form letters.
Thank you for your submission. We considered it carefully, but, unfortunately, decided it wasn’t quite right for our list. Best of luck elsewhere.
This one really got Milford mad.
I have taken a look at your material, and it isn’t anything I wish to work with at this time. Good luck in finding someone who feels otherwise.
This one wasn’t any better.
After reading your work, I have concluded that I cannot offer you representation because I can only represent work about which I am extremely enthusiastic. Best of luck in your writing endeavors.
Goddamn those bastards and bitches, Milford thought. What the hell do they know. Every big bookstore he’d seen had thousands of volumes of pulp fiction. That stuff was shit, and its authors had agents, didn’t they? Otherwise, they couldn’t have gotten published. That’s what the articles and books said. And Milford believed them. He wasn’t a rebel. He’d been a diligent English student in high school and gotten all A’s and read plenty of books on his own, too. He’d done just as well in junior college and would have gone on except he decided to work the family farm so he could make a lot of money and then devote all his time to writing. The problem was, Milford couldn’t farm the way his father and grandfather had, and he’d gone bankrupt.
“Milford,” his wife, Elvira, had said, “you never did give that job what it demanded. You’ve thrown away our fortune. And our two kids, you’ve thrown away their future. What the hell do you plan on doing?”
“I’m gonna write, Elvira.”
That was fifteen years ago when Milford had begun his epic novel about a family that came over from Germany, and struggled on the East Coast, where the first generation died, before heading out West and settling in Iowa. Milford researched the family’s complex genealogical tree, scouring court records and old newspaper files, and always took very good notes.
“Milford, you’ve been staring at corpses three years,” Elvira had said. “When are you actually going to write?”
“I’m ready now.”
And he had been. But this was an enormous project whose scope seemed to expand each day, and Milford couldn’t make the parts come together. After writing several years he began pruning about half the characters, revising old stuff while forging the new, moving the story toward the present, where it would end.
Milford had always wanted people to understand. Elvira’s salary as an elementary school teacher wasn’t all that had supported the family. He worked, too. Not the writing. No one considered that real work, since he wasn’t getting paid. Milford did not entirely disagree with the logic, and worked part time on various farms when he was needed. He’d applied for several administrative positions, but based on experience he had to take the low-skill labor end of things and made about ten grand a year.
“That’s a pretty poor contribution,” Elvira had said.
“Lots of women stay home and write or paint, and don’t work a lick, while their husbands struggle their whole lives.”
“That’s the natural order, Milford.”
He had known some of that was changing, and so had Elvira. Besides, he was sure she wouldn’t leave him because there were damn few single men her age in the area, and Elvira wouldn’t have left Milford even if there had been. The truth was, she couldn’t get enough of Milford Grider.
By now, he had far more than enough rejections — ninety-two. But that wasn’t as discouraging as it looked. Sixty-nine of those rejections had been of his query letter. Only twenty-three samples were sent to those who — in the book about agents — said they accepted them with the initial letter. And, given all those rejections of his queries, Milford figured a lot of those who received samples hadn’t really gotten beyond his cover letter, and those who had probably hadn’t bothered to read much. They couldn’t have. Many of his big priority mail envelopes went to New York and back in less than a week.
That was enough urban horse shit by mail. And there was no need to call. He’d just get hung up on, even if secretaries let him through. No, Milford Grider was going to the publishing capital of the universe. He packed two suitcases, one for his book.
“Good God, you can’t expect anyone to read all that.”
“It’s only two hundred fifty thousand words, Elvira. That’s about eight hundred book pages. Plenty of books are longer than that. And do you think those authors spent fifteen years making everything right?”
“Maybe they were so skillful they didn’t need as much time.”
“A book of this magnitude, show me which one.”
Milford packed another suitcase for his clothes, and Elvira drove him three hours to the nearest airport, where he caught a flight to Chicago. After a four-hour layover, he took off for New York. It was late at night when Milford’s taxi brought him into Manhattan, and the timing was just right. He could rest in his compact hotel room — a bargain at three hundred seventy-two bucks a night — and plan his routes for tomorrow. Milford got out a city map and was amazed how small Manhattan really was. All those people, all that money and power and influence, and all of it shoved down to the tip of a thumb surrounded by cold green sea. Milford organized all ninety-two agents by zip code and address and identified their locations with x’s on his map. It was a daunting itinerary, but Milford was sure he’d get results well before he’d have to call on everyone.
About nine o’clock on a Tuesday morning, Milford Grider, wearing a blue work shirt, jeans, and black cowboy boots, stepped onto a Manhattan sidewalk, carrying a suitcase. He was an imposing figure at six-foot four and more than two hundred twenty pounds, and had very large hands and size fifteen feet that made each step a statement. He raised his free left hand into the sky, and a cab pulled over.
“Do you know where these places are?” he said, offering his map.
The cab driver nodded.
“Broadway, Madison Avenue, the East Seventies, the West Twenties, potentially I’ve got a lot of stops at any of em.”
“Start with East Seventies,” said the driver.
That’s what Milford did. He started in the high East Seventies, and at his first stop the startled secretary said, “Do you have an appointment?”
“No ma’am. I’ve got a manuscript.”
“I’m sorry, but you must have an appointment. Besides, Ms. Walters-Braithwaite is out to lunch.”
He didn’t argue there or on East Seventy-Fifth or East Seventy-Fourth or down in the East Sixties, either. A few times he thought the wary people he talked to might have been secret agents, but figured it really didn’t matter. Maybe things would change on Broadway or Madison Avenue, but probably not. Those places sounded pretty highfalutin. The West Twenties. That felt better. Milford raised his left hand into the sky and decided to change tactics.
After a polite and efficient cab driver deposited him where he needed to be, Milford crushed the handle on his suitcase and marched into the office of R. Stanton Bentley.
“Milford Grider to see Mr. Bentley, and don’t tell me he’s out to lunch because it’s after three p.m.”
“Do you have an appointment?” said the secretary.
“I don’t need one.”
“Sir, we don’t permit would-be authors to just storm in.”
Milford ignored her, stepped to the nearest closed door, and jerked it open.
“R. Stanton Bentley?”
“I am. And who are you, sir?”
“I’m Milford Grider here with a family saga.”
“Leave at once, sir.”
“I just got here after fifteen years writing, and I’d appreciate five minutes of your time.”
“If I gave five minutes to every self-important amateur, I wouldn’t have time to perform for the clients on my list.”
“And who’s on your list?”
“A number of best-selling authors.”
“Archibald Davis and Meredith Bronson.”
“Never heard of Meredith, but Davis is the most commercial bastard I’ve ever read. Are you telling me he refines every paragraph?”
“If you don’t leave at once, I’m calling the police.”
“Don’t bother. I’ll sprint from any lizard who represents Archibald Davis.”
Milford was getting very tired. This process was much more stressful than looking for a job, and experts say you should never do that more than three or four hours at a time. Milford was already more than six hours into this long day. All right, he thought. Just one more cold call. On the floor below. Dorris Rathenau Literary Services. He walked into an empty reception area.
“Hello, Milford Grider here.”
A short slender woman entered the room.
“May I help you?”
“Yes, I’d like to talk to Dorris Rathenau.”
“You are. Are you looking for lodging?”
“No, ma’am. I want to publish this family saga.”
“You need to send a query and the first two chapters.”
“You sent me a form letter.”
“Really, sir… is it Grider?”
“Really, Mr. Grider, that’s the end of it for me. I have to make decisions and move on. I receive more than two hundred samples a week, as well as the complete manuscripts that I request.”
“Here’s the complete work, an epic family tale.”
“I’ve already communicated to you, Mr. Grider, that I didn’t wish to see any more of your work.”
“How much did you actually read?”
“I don’t know. Generally, I can tell in the first two or three pages if the writer’s any good.”
“My work doesn’t excerpt very well. You’ve got to read the whole thing.”
“I spent fifteen years working on this, and I came all the way from Iowa.”
“Thousands of aspiring writers have passion, Mr. Grider. But none have the temerity to just walk in here with a suitcase.”
“That’s my point. I’ve got uncommon passion.”
“Another agent may feel quite differently about your work. It’s utterly subjective.”
“Listen, Dorris, my favorite parts of the book aren’t the start. I don’t know why, but it was always the toughest. Nobody liked it for years, and I really didn’t get the start right until three years after I’d finished the end of the book. Can’t you take a quick look at my chapter about the family’s most tragic years in Iowa?”
“Since there’s bound to be only one Milford Grider, I suppose so.”
They went back into Dorris’ office, and Milford put his suitcase on a big walnut table and pulled out his manuscript and pushed it high on the table, then shut the suitcase and picked it up and shoved it into a corner of the room. They each sat in a big soft chair.
“My secretary’s ill today, Mr. Grider. Actually, she may have been the one who read your sample chapters.”
“She also serves as my editorial assistant. She’s a very literate person, and has already written three novels.”
“What’re the titles?”
“They weren’t published.”
“I rejected them, but they showed promise.”
With big hands Milford delicately peeled off roughly half the manuscript and set it on the table. Then he stuck a long left index finger about fifty pages down the second stack, onto a piece of firm red paper — the kind that divided all the chapters — and flipped it up at the corner and pulled out the special section and used a strong hand to shove it into Dorris’ soft ones, and she began to read. Fifteen uninterrupted minutes later, she said, “Must you stare at me like that, Mr. Grider?”
“Don’t worry. It’s interesting. You’ve got me turning the pages. But, of course, I’ll have to take it home before I make a decision.”
“Are you married?”
“I’ve been divorced twenty years.”
“You’re married to your career.”
“Essentially, yes. I read manuscripts at home almost every night.”
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
“That isn’t a professional question, Mr. Grider. Would you like me to inquire about your domestic life?”
“I divorced my wife several years ago. She was a good woman but we became more like brother and sister. I’m not condoning what I did, going out with other women. But I couldn’t help it. I’m sure you understand.”
“Really, I don’t. You sound like my former husband. Men have a different biological imperative.”
“I think we’re about the same, Dorris. I can’t resist certain petite women. And those special ones feel the same about me.”
“I’ll review this at home and let you know,” Dorris said, rising and organizing the manuscript.
Milford also stood, and stepped long to the inner office door, and locked it.
“What are you doing, Mr. Grider?”
He stepped back to Dorris, standing very close and tall over her, and put a big hand on each of her small ones and took them off the manuscript and put them on his shoulders, then reached both hands around under her bottom and squeezed gently lifting her onto the big walnut table.
Milford kissed her hard on the mouth and kept on until she pulled her head away.
“All right, Mr. Grider. That’s quite enough.”
Milford kissed her again and again before he pulled the zipper down her back.
“Mr. Grider, I have pepper spray. Did you hear me? This is outrageous. Really. Stop. Will you? Please. Stop. My god. Mr. Grider. Oh oh, please…”
The agent from across the hall, Mildred E. Kimmel, pounded the door and shouted, “Dorris, are you all right? Let me in. What’s going on? Dorris, answer me.”