A Literary Agent's Lament

by J.F. Peterson

Dear Jax:

 "I know I'll find an ending eventually," your note read.  I pushed it aside and stared at the incomplete manuscript you had sent me.  Customers came and went from Lizzy's Ice Cream, but none disturbed me.  I ate my ice cream and swirled the melted remains, as if they were tea leaves, but there was no wisdom or fortune in them.  The story was not finished, and I did not want to return to the agency and the phone's blinking red message light: overdue, overdue, overdue.

The bells on the ice cream shop's door jangled.  A woman swept in on light steps, leaves skittering in after her, a lively cardinal in a suppressed red blouse and dun jeans.  There were plenty of empty tables, but she got her ice cream and sat opposite me, without a word.  She smiled a knowing smile I liked, and plopped her cup of peppermint ice cream on the table.  Beside it, she set down a thick and heavy leather-bound journal.

I cringed.  She had the look of an aspiring writer, full of hunger and dream.  I knew the look, too well. And who knew how many unfinished manuscripts lay in that tome of hers, with endings which would eventually come?  She had probably followed me from the agency. 

I stiffened in my chair.  I opened my mouth to say something. She reached out and put a finger to my lips.  She shook her head.  Her finger was cool, and smelled of fall breezes.  Her pulse throbbed faintly against my skin.

The finger dropped away, and she looked somewhat embarrassed.  She turned away, bent to pick something off the floor: an oak leaf, purpled with shades of Fall, flecked with orange and brown and drying around the edges.  She opened the leather journal and placed the leaf inside.  The journal was filled with pressed leaves, all kinds, each given a place on a page.  Some of the leaves were beautiful, some nothing more than shreds.  No words, no stories.

I realized I'd been holding my breath, tensed for confrontation.  My hands unclenched: not an author, not someone who would disappoint me with unfinished manuscripts after deadline.  Just a young woman who collected leaves.  "Interesting hobby," I said, nodding toward the book.

She closed the book and looked up at me.  And then that smile, that wide, playful, I-know-something smile.  Something about that smile brightened the whole room, and even I, in my cynical shell, found myself smiling back.  "I'm hiding," she said.  She looked away from me, at a painting of a boy playing baseball on the wall.  "My boyfriend.  My ex-boyfriend.  Friends.  Family.  The world."

I smiled.  "Relax," I said.  Hiding from her boyfriend, she just wanted to sit with someone so she was inconspicuous.  She obviously had things on her mind.  Her explanation seemed enough.

I told her my name and that I was out for a walk, and she told me I was not.  She twirled the spoon in the ice cream.  "You're hiding, too."

I asked her what she meant, I was just out for a walk, some air, and she shook her head, showed me that smile.  She said, "Sometimes you don't even know you are hiding when you really are.  You go out and there are all these people there, everywhere, but you don't know any of them.  And so you can pretend you're with them, you're social, you're not alone, but you are, and you hide and hope no one will notice you or sit at the table with you while you eat ice cream.  Even if, deeper down, you wish they would."  She scooped ice cream from the cup, licked it off her spoon, and cocked an eyebrow at me with a mischievous grin.

I said, "And here I was thinking I was just out for a walk."  I scraped at the bottom of my cup.  I crumpled my napkin. But I didn't get up."

"Out hiding," she said.  "That's why you pretend not to see them."  She made a gesture with her hand--at the people in Lizzy's, I thought--and suddenly there were things there I had not seen before.

The floor, the street outside, the chairs were littered with paper.  They skittered along the pavement behind the cars, and piled up against the curbs.  They flew past the window in the October wind.  "What happened?"  Had a garbage truck, one of those big blue ones filled with recycling, crashed?  Had there been a parade I hadn't heard about?

She smiled.  "Life."

I picked a scrap off the floor.  Someone had written on it in a curious jaunty script, it looked to be a page torn from someone's journal.  I read:

"...look at her now and smile because I love her.  And because I'm afraid it will be like Nina and I will lose her and I don not know if I can take that.  I smile and love her. Here in this ice cream shop, this moment: this is what matters.  This I can never lose and I love her with all I know to love with.  And know it will not be enou..."

I dropped it, reached for another:

"crap oh crap oh crap I left my keys, I can't believe I left my keys, which means I can't get the disk, which means we can't do the installation which means oh crap oh crap oh crap.   Fired fired fired.  That's what they'll do.  It'll all happen again.  I'm an idiotfoolbastardloser, I never should have taken this job.  What a mistake!  I can't believe I've gotten myself into this.  They're coming..."

I glanced about at some of the others.  Scraps and pieces of moments.  It was then that I noticed where they came from: the people.  I saw them float away from people walking the streets.   A pile crowded the countertop where people waited in line.  When the door opened, they scattered and danced just like leaves in Fall.  I saw one swirl away from a woman at another table: it appeared as a faint outline one moment, then solidified into a scrap of white that floated away and settled to the floor:

"Why don't you write?  
It's all right to say goodbye.
Right now I hate you and 
I know it's not right to love you but 
the truth is I never stopped."

The paper drifted away and the woman never noticed, just sat, staring outside while her ice cream melted in front of her.

All around me, moments of people's lives settled, unfinished stories drifting down into piles.  Unending.  People walked, trailing a steady snowfall, and I could only imagine how the city could not be buried in them.  Perhaps they faded.  Perhaps someone took them away.I looked at the woman sitting across from me.  "Who are you?" I said.

She put a finger to my lips again.  "Hiding.  Like you."  Her finger traced along your manuscript, Jax. That smile.  "Sometimes, from you."

I picked up a couple scraps.  I said, "But there's no story here, no ending.  What sort of trick is this?  What's the purpose?  Who are you?"

She plucked up the pieces from me and slipped them into her book.  There'd never been leaves in the book; just words.  Or maybe they were both, each existing as some portion of a metaphor for our lives and thoughts and deeds.  She folded the book closed before I got a good look, but I saw the words move aside to let the pieces of paper fit in.

As the book closed, her smile slipped.  More quietly, almost somberly, she said, "The ending always comes."

Sadness settled on that innocent face, and it made me want to take her hand.  I reached out.

Suddenly she was on her feet, to the door before I could react.  The scraps scattered with her movement, rose in a frenzy into the air, a wild beating of pages that tore past me.  They all gathered to her in a whirlwind as she ran out.  Bells on the door jangled at her departure, a flash of smile before she disappeared outside.  All the stories in the world went out that door.  All the beginnings and all the endings.I raced after, out into the street.  By the time I got there, she was nowhere to be seen. The wind kicked up and stung at my eyes, and the pages I'd glimpsed scattered away from me, and faded into the bright colors of leaves dancing about, in the wind, and between the cars.

I did not see the truck until after, my body tumbling away from the impact.  The sudden cacophony of squealing brakes and crunching impact abruptly cut off.  Rolling, rolling, rolling, catching glimpses of a blood-smeared grill.  Flickers of red.  I thought of my phone back at the office, its red light blinking, blinking, blinking.

And thinking, "The ending always comes, Jax.  The ending always comes."

Finish soon.

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