Friday, November 29, 2019

Hustle by Brian Moore

An up-and-coming writer happens upon her best selling idol in a restroom; by Brian Moore.

Kate's badge is lavender. Lavender means she is a conference presenter. The status of presenter comes with special privileges.

For instance. Presenters have access to the President's Lounge: plush, burgundy furniture, exquisite reprints of Degas and Monet arranged dramatically on all the walls, and a buffet of foreign cheeses and cream-filled pastries. Presenters also receive five complimentary tickets to the wine bar, six dollars a glass for attendees, and Katrina intends to redeem every single ticket before she leaves tonight. Best of all, access to any seminar, workshop or speech is free. The only exception is the evening gala with Eilleen Gatrick.

Katrina substitutes brie and eclairs for her Tupperwared breakfast of yogurt, a bruised banana and two Oreos pilfered from her son's lunchbox. She sinks into one of the comfy red chairs and flips through the conference program, balancing a glass of white in her left hand. She stops at Gatrick's page.

Eilleen Gatrick is the internationally renowned author of over fifty novels, anthologies and poetry collections, including the bestsellers Da Vinci's Dog, The Syncopated Woman, and Coleridge: A Requiem. She is a multiple winner of the Giller, the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, and IMPAC. Her works have been translated into forty languages and her novel The End of Man will be released as a movie in December, starring George Clooney. The Ohio International Writers Festival is privileged and honoured to host Ms. Gatrick at this year's Authors Emeritus Dinner.

Katrina read all the Gatrick novels in university. Words like distinguished, preeminent, and greatest of her generation tag along behind the woman like lost puppies. Katrina studies Gatrick's publicity photo. She is unimpressed. Matted grey hair frizzed like a wet dust bunny. Much too much makeup. Looks like she went to an underground bomb shelter in 1959 and never came out.

God, the wine is good. The hell with the diet. I need another profiterole.

Katrina leaves the lounge and makes it as far as the publisher booths when her bladder signals desperately for help. She stops a teenager with a yellow badge.

"Excuse me. The Ladies' Room?"

The girl waves in the direction of the elevators. Not impressed by purple badges.

Katrina, in heels, is at full trot when she bursts into the restroom. She launches into a stall and locks the door. She's sure she didn't drink that much but her body is aiming for some kind of urination longevity record. Finally, she slows from Niagara to Mississippi to trickle and then stops. Thank God, she's alone.

Two voices approach the restroom door, just loud enough to be heard above the murmur of the exhibition hall.

"I hope you had a good flight?"

"Well, let's say it was unremarkable."

"Your book display is ready in the Wellington Room."

"Very good."

"We're expecting a long line-up before the dinner. Would you like to pre-sign your books to save time?"

"Oh, I think we must. We can save ourselves an abundance of inconvenience."

"I'll have them ready by four PM."

"Thank you."

"You're welcome, Eilleen."

Someone enters. The stall next to Katrina swings wide and then locks. A belt buckle falling to the floor. Humming. Some kind of classical overture shit.

Which of the two women is beside her? But Katrina knows. It has to be her.

There is no mistaking that voice, that flat, coldish timbre that snores into your ear like static between radio stations. The inflection so slight, so semi-tonal, that the nuance insinuates to the rear shelf of the brain like subliminal advertising.

This is a writer Katrina has studied, dissected, and emulated. She wrote an essay about Gatrick in her Voices of Contemporary Feminism course. She has binders of short stories written in the same crisp, lacerating style as Gatrick, before Katrina gave up and blundered into her breakout book, The Foodie's Companion to Irish Cuisine, which still sells moderately well at Barnes and Noble, $6.99 on Kindle, generating enough residuals to pay movie night once a month. And there is also Katrina's unfinished novel, her special, undelivered baby, written in a bitingly insightful Gatrick cadence, the one she cried over at three AM night after night for two years because it just wouldn't work, wouldn't ever be good enough. If only she could have got it into the right hands. Gotten the advice of a master.

What is the etiquette for sharing a restroom with an icon? She can't let this opportunity slip away. She formulates strategy. She could leave the stall first and keep washing and drying her hands until Eilleen emerges. Or, wait until the door opens and then dash out, feigning surprise and delight and initiating erudite small talk. Perhaps I could buy you a coffee? A glass of wine? I have this interesting manuscript that just needs a few tweaks.

More humming. Almost singing. Katrina recognizes snatches of Don Giovanni. And then a prolonged grunt. A whistle of gas.

The miasma drifts and envelopes Katrina. It's the kind of portable toilet, wrinkle-your-nose fragrance you get at the end of a long, hot, beerfest afternoon when the line to the Ladies goes all the way around the corner.

Katrina decides to wait, rationing oxygen. It will be more natural and spontaneous to let Eilleen reach the sinks first. Katrina will flush and stride confidently to the mirrors, adjusting a stray ringlet from her temple, posture erect in a perfect cream blouse and black Michael Kors skirt from Winners.

My God. This woman has the bowels of an orangutan. What the hell did she eat? Bean salad? Burritos?

How long is this going to last?

The smell settles in, like a mother-in-law arriving with suitcases. Katrina uses the time to list questions she could ask, prioritizing their order, sculpting them into piercing brevity.

Minutes pass.

Like mustard gas across trenches, the toxin begins to clear, and Katrina inhales luxuriously.

And still, with the humming. You don't have to do the whole damn opera. The seat starts to leave a brand on Katrina's thighs.

The music abruptly changes to something by Ed Sheeran, a ringtone.

"Hello?" Eilleen says.

No, no, no. Not on the toilet. Can it really be that urgent? Can't you wait?

Katrina is having difficulty following the half of the conversation she can hear. Something about lunch in Manhattan on Tuesday. An interview with The New Yorker on Wednesday. Eilleen says the timing will be very difficult and she is feeling the stress, the word stress thrusting like a volcanic island from her Dead Sea voice.

Time elongates. A relativistic dilation expands without horizon. Katrina is sure it has been hours since she sat down. She lowers her head between her knees and takes deep breaths. Her back hurts. She's losing sensation below the pelvis. I'll give her five more minutes, no more.

"Well, I should go," Eilleen says. An insistent whisper from the caller. The conversation resurrects, slogs forward, like a pregnant turtle dragging across a beach. There will be no end. This woman, this bathroom, this fetid purgatory. A miniature drawing of Katrina's entire tragicomic life unfolds like a popup book.

She hears a clattering sound of metal and plastic on tile.

A smart phone spins across the floor, stops between Katrina's toes.

The screen blinks at her, one great luminescent eye, questioning.

A small voice says: "Oops."

Thank God. It's not a video call.

The name on the screen is Emile Hollande. Grand-maitre of the New York publishing world. Editor-in-Chief. Queen-maker.

Katrina is too shocked to hyperventilate.

The same small voice, getting smaller, says, "Excuse me."

Katrina pulls up her panties and shimmies down her skirt. She reaches for the toilet handle but hesitates.

"Yes?" says Katrina.

"Could you -?"

"Yes?"

Long pale fingers, like articulated worms, float under the partition between the stalls, flutter, delicately.

"I wonder if you might pass me my phone. I think it's on your side. I seem to have dropped it."

Emile's mosquito whisper buzzes up, puzzled, from the floor.

"This phone?"

"Yes. If you would."

More fluttering.

"Please." The monotone is anxious, supplicant.

Katrina thinks of all the washroom pranks inflicted on her in high school: the cups of cold water thrown on her head, the wedging shut of the door so she had to crawl out the space at the bottom, the stink bombs lobbed into her lap. The litany of latrine tortures. She was always on the receiving end, the nerdy victim. But those were nothing in comparison to this. The roles are reversed. Katrina has Eilleen Gatrick's phone, her world, her catalog of elite addresses, literally at her sandalled feet.

"Just a moment," Katrina says.

Think, think.

She makes rapid adjustments, notations.

She spins the barrel of the paper holder at her elbow, reams of tissue, wound around her hand into a white velvet mitt. She lifts the phone gingerly, a relic of bacteria.

"Hello, hello?" squeaks Emile.

"Here you go." Katrina offers the phone like a chalice.

Eilleen's palm seizes and retracts.

"Thank you."

"Of course."

Katrina flushes and stands, stretching the ache from her forlorn spine, needles of sleep in her dented rear end. She slings her purse over her shoulder and exits to the sinks.

Now who was waiting for whom?

This really is a lovely restroom. People could camp out here, hang paintings, invite guests. The basins are elevated and vaguely Japanese in their pale geometry, more like enormous, elegant dinner plates than laving receptacles. The spouts taper and gleam. The counter: an ebony river. A lot of thought must have gone into the design. Katrina dabs water on her hands and dries them in the whooshing air machine. She feels very relaxed and calmed. She begins to hum something operatic.

A matching flush from the toilet behind her. Eilleen emerges and her eyes flit to Katrina and away but Katrina saw that glance in the mirror. Eilleen digs into her purse. A ragged ball of tissue pops out and she stuffs it back in and extracts a comb.

"This has been a wonderful conference," Katrina says.

"Oh, yes." Eilleen tugs the comb through her curls.

"Have you been here before?"

"No, this is my first time."

"One of the better venues in the Midwest. Have you been to the Food Writers Show on the third floor?

"No, I'm afraid -"

"They're doing some very innovative things this year, crossing genres from culinary to literary, an Eat, Pray, Love kind of vibe but more inventive. You should check it out."

"Well, that isn't quite in my oeuvre."

"Oh, do you write?"

"Yes, I have had -"

"Harlequin is right next door."

"No, I mean -"

"There's a fantastic new author in the main exhibition and she'll be speaking at three PM. Katrina Crosby. I highly recommend her. Perhaps I'll see you there."

"Perhaps."

Katrina smiled. "Glad you got your phone. Don't forget to sanitize it." She turned without looking back.

Outside the restroom the Cincinnati sun shone through the gallery windows bright and warm and inviting. Katrina crossed the floor to the bar, ordered a flute of champagne, handed the man a twenty and told him to keep the change. She drifted to a corner away from the murmur of the exhibition hall and slid out her phone. She scrolled through the contacts, so many new, delicious, freshly-inserted names, and tapped a lacquered nail on the screen. The line rang, went to mail, a dulcet man's voice.

Emile. Hoping you are well. We haven't met but I'm looking forward to sharing some ideas. Eilleen recommended you to me. Oh, and by the way, she says she'll do the New Yorker interview. She sends her love.

If you need my email just ask her to forward it from her contacts list. Thanks so much.

4 comments:

  1. Funny story....ego and writing and a chance restroom encounter.

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  2. Moral of the story....don't meet your idol in the bathroom. Very enjoyable work. Thanks for sharing it with us.

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  3. Very humorous. Never trust a stranger with your phone (especially if you are rich and famous)!

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  4. 'A whistle of gas,' Gross. And so good. Really wanna know if it worked out for Katrina. Not sure I want it to.

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