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Authors: William Bayer

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BOOK: Punish Me with Kisses
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Things had gotten a little better after that. At least now he seemed to want a relationship: occasional squash games, lunches at his club, father-son type stuff. She went along with everything he suggested, never turned him down. She wanted desperately to get to know him, break through the aura of coldness and self-absorption which always surrounded him and made her feel cut off. If only she could be like Suzie, she thought; if she could be fascinated by his business dealings, turned on by his power plays; if only she could take Suzie's place and give her father back the daughter he'd loved the best. But it was impossible. She didn't know how to be like that, wasn't interested in business, couldn't have faked interest if she'd tried. She sometimes thought that if he'd had a choice of which of his daughters he must lose, he would have chosen her.

After the call she stared out the window for a while. Then, annoyed at herself, she decided to go out. The city seemed to be full of young people in tank tops and track shorts wandering hand-in-hand. There was a black kid standing on the corner of Lexington and Eighty-Sixth. "Smoke, smoke, smoke," he whispered again and again under his breath.

She wandered into a discount bookstore, prowled the tables, picked up novels, speed-read dust jacket copy, glanced at authors' photographs. All the male writers under forty sported beards; all the women stared out defiantly as if to say that their pens were mightier than the men their novels flayed.

After a while she felt dizzy—too many books, too many covers competing for attention, most of them second-rate, a waste of energy and trees. Like a lot of English majors she'd gone into publishing because of her love for literature. Publishing, it turned out, wasn't about literature at all. It had to do with a product—"books."

Back on Eighty-Sixth the black boy was still purveying dope.
Gimbels
was open; a Labor Day Sale was on. She went in, rode the escalators, looked at tennis rackets and jogging shoes and close-outs on designer sheets. She stayed in the store until it closed, then walked over to Carl
Shurz
Park where she stood by the balustrade, watching the scows go by and the holiday traffic jam up on the FDR. When the sky turned dark she looked for a restaurant and settled on a coffee shop, where she ate a hamburger and drank a glass of milk.

When she wandered back to Eightieth Street, she found a dark van parked in front of her brownstone and a small group, whom she recognized as patients of Dr. Bowles, standing around on the sidewalk amidst a heap of boxes and sacks. They stopped talking when she came close, nodded cautiously. There was something cliquish about them, something smug, as if they possessed special knowledge, knew the secrets of the world.

Upstairs her unread
slushpile
manuscripts confronted her with reproach. She couldn't even bear to skim them. Instead she turned on TV and watched a talk-show, a group sitting around in Saarinen chairs arguing fiercely as they puffed on cigarettes. She wasn't interested in what they were saying but was intrigued by their intensity. She felt numb, cut off from that sort of passion. She felt she was waiting now to be renewed, released.

Yes, she thought, I'm waiting, waiting for something to happen, an author to discover, a wonderful manuscript that will sweep me away to another world. Or perhaps I'm waiting for something to happen in my life, someone new to come and free me, a lover to appear and take me in his arms.

 

I
t hadn't been, Penny decided at 4:00
P.M.
on Friday, one of her better weeks. The temperature had risen into the nineties, the worst September weather New York had seen in years. The holidays were over. Subway rush hours were a nightmare. The city seethed with sweat and rage.

At dawn on Tuesday, running through the humid mists around the reservoir, she was suddenly confronted by a middle-aged man with thinning hair who jumped out from behind a bush, pulled down his pants, wagged his genitals and grinned at her. "Oh, gee whiz," she said, pretending she was shocked, nearly knocking him over as she sped by. For another hundred yards she endured his screams: "That's right! Run! Run! Ha, ha! Fuck you!"

That night when she answered her phone someone started breathing heavily at the other end. She hung up, and then it rang again. "I know who you are," said a soft Hispanic voice. "I know where you live. And
I know
when you're going to die." There were no more calls, but she contacted the telephone company anyway. Her number was already unlisted; now she'd be unlisted once-removed.

On Wednesday she called her father and arranged to play squash with him late that afternoon. She left her office early, took the subway home to retrieve her racket and her shoes, took another subway back to midtown, rushed on foot through the sultry New York streets in order to meet him at the Racquet Club at five. She arrived just in time to receive a call from his secretary: He was tied up in a meeting—would she mind if they postponed their game?

All was not going well at B&A, either. Today she'd been informed that Roy
MacAllister
, the editor-in-chief, wanted to see her before she left. There was something ominous in that, a summons late on a Friday afternoon. Was he going to fire her? Had she done something wrong?

More and more lately she had the feeling she was being left out of things, lunches with authors, meetings where important projects were discussed. She wouldn't have been as bothered by this, or by her numerous assignments to menial tasks, if it weren't that the other trainee editor with whom she shared a cubicle, Lillian Ryan, seemed to be included when she was not and lately had started bossing her around.

"Finish this up for me, will you, Pen," Lillian had said, stopping at her desk at noon on Thursday, dropping off a sheaf of handwritten author's corrections and the manuscript into which they had to be typed.

"Why me?" Penny had asked.

"There's no one else, and it's got to be done. I've got a lunch date with this guy from the Literary Guild, and Mac wants this stuff by four."

Penny had accepted the extra work with resignation, took the elevator down to the
coffeeshop
in the basement, bought herself a cream-cheese-on-rye, returned to her desk, ate her sandwich, and dutifully completed the task. She tried not to resent it, but when Lillian stuck in her head at three forty-five, glanced at what she'd done, nodded her approval, snatched the papers off her desk, and started into the hall, Penny called her back.

"Hey—wait a minute."

"Huh?"

"Aren't you forgetting something?"

"What? Oh, yeah—thanks for helping out."

Lillian Ryan was her adversary, a competitor she couldn't seem to beat. A plump, earnest eager beaver, she wore an inordinate amount of blue eye shadow and plum lipstick that made her mouth look like a bruise. She sashayed down the corridors puffing on cigarettes, a mistress of office politics, a dragon-lady of belles-lettres. She did not intend, she told Penny many times, to remain a trainee editor very long. Penny didn't either, if she could just find a way to push herself ahead. She hated the role of doormat, longed to be aggressive like Lillian, but not so obvious or cheap.

Now she was worried. The summons from
MacAllister
did not bode well. "Mac" could be charming but also ruthless; she was impressed by him, drawn to him, but sometimes he scared her, too. He wore black leather jackets over black turtleneck sweaters and was successful on account of his manipulations rather than his taste in books.

When Penny arrived at his office promptly at a quarter to five he was on the telephone and didn't bother to look up. This was one of his favorite office tricks. Another was to terminate an interview by picking up something to read, leaving the person standing there, not knowing whether he or she had been dismissed.

"
—and
you can tell that son of a bitch,"
MacAllister
was saying in a tone Penny knew he reserved for minor agents, "that he's never going to get that kind of deal from me because that kind of deal is utter crap." He slammed down the phone.

"Sit down, Chapman," he said, waving her to a chair. "Do you like working here? I want the truth."

"Yes, of course," she said.
She was going to be fired
. "Why do you ask me that?"

"Why on this terrible sweltering Friday afternoon do I call you in here and ask you
that?
Very simple,
Ms.
Chapman. I'm sick and tired of your little elfin bullshit, this feeling you give me that you're always on the edge of tears. If you don't shape up I'm going to transfer you someplace far away out of my sight." He sat back and stared at her. She felt crushed, didn't know what to say. Then he was roaring with laughter. "Just a joke, Chapman. Just a joke."

He was so full of tricks, rapid changes of mood—warmth and colleagueship but unnerving vulgarity, too, insults and put-downs contrived to ruin one's day.

"Look, I've always liked your guts, the way you stood up for yourself at that nutty trial. You do good work. Keep your snotty nose clean. You're steady and reliable, and your readers' reports make sense. Your problem is you're too passive. Publishing's a business, not a seminar in American Lit. Look, I want you off that
slushpile
. I want you out meeting agents, the young hungry ones, the independents, the kids your age. I want to know what's going on with them. And the young writers, too. Village Voice.
Soho
News. The whole underground thing. Let's get them in here, get a look at them, sign some of them up for a couple of grand and see what they can do."

He paused, then gave her a flashing smile. "I'm making you an assistant editor, and I'm giving you a small expense account. Not much—take them to lunch at spaghetti joints. That's what they like anyhow. Starting Monday you're running with the big boys. Now get out of here. I gotta make some calls."

Penny, head reeling, nodded her gratitude, then wandered back to her cubicle in a daze. It was nearly five o'clock, and as usual she found that Lillian Ryan had already divided up the
slushpile
, keeping the manuscripts that looked interesting for herself, piling the rest on Penny's desk.

"God, you were in there long enough," Lillian said. "What did he want anyhow?"

"I must be dreaming," Penny replied. "He made me an assistant editor." She shoved the manuscripts back at Lillian. "He told me I'm off this stuff."

Lillian winced. "Gee, Pen—that's great. Really great." She tried to smile but her eyes betrayed her injury. "I mean, you deserve it. You really do."

 

P
eople were rushing back and forth on Third Avenue, heading for bus and subway stops, anxious to get home, change, start their weekends. Some would be heading out to Connecticut or Long Island, while others would be staying in town to go to singles' bars, discotheques, encounter groups or off-Broadway plays, or into lovers' arms. And she, what was she going to do now that she was so suddenly and wonderfully unburdened of her weekend load of illit
eracy?
Maybe I should celebrate,
she thought,
buy a dress, go to a movie, eat out someplace decent for a change
.

There was a subtitled French film playing at the Fine Arts. She stood in line among waiting couples, feeling detached. Everyone else had a partner, lived with someone, went out on dates. When the people who'd been in the theater started coming out she tried to read their faces. Was the film happy, sad, suspenseful, profound? Maybe, she thought, it's one of those pictures to which you're supposed to have a confused response.

Afterwards, back on Third Avenue, walking past people standing in lines at the various cinemas, she felt despondent, listless, sad. Thoughts and memories started crushing in: Robinson glaring at her as she faced him from the stand; her father's face, grim, square-jawed, as he stood in the cemetery in Greenwich watching Suzie being lowered into the ground; Jared, entering the visitor's room at the jail, his face expectant, curious, perplexed; and Suzie strutting beside the pool on a cloudless windless day, throwing back her head, her copper hair catching the Maine sun, laughing, hawing, her chin stuck out crazily—

She was hungry; she decided to go to Chinatown. The subway rattled and roared. Across the aisle sat a young black couple, arms about one another, sneaker-clad feet entwined. On Mott Street she wandered through crowds more intense, more feverish than the movie and discotheque people uptown. The alleyways smelled of incense and garbage and herbal tea. She finally settled on a little restaurant on the second floor of a tenement on Pell Street.
I'll never be recognized here
,
she thought as she mounted the narrow stairs.

A waiter with a jack-o'-lantern smile showed her to a booth. She studied the menu, chose a dish, sipped some tea then stared at the empty seat across.

"Penny."

BOOK: Punish Me with Kisses
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