walked into the office at 10 o’clock in the morning and sat on the edge of my
desk. He ripped out a chunk of pages from his little black notebook and slapped
them down. “Ten solid pages,” he said, and then he reached over and slid his
hand around mine. My skin seemed to sizzle where he touched it. I tried to pull
away, but he pressed down with his thumb, putting the tiniest pressure on me to
leave my hand where it was. It seemed so intimate and inappropriate, so typical
of what a man believed he could do simply because he was a man. I wasn’t going
to fall for it, even if he was a famous author. I wanted to be a writer, not a
writers’ plaything. I pulled my hand back again, but he squeezed even harder.
I met TJ’s gaze. He really was quite handsome – tall and broad-shouldered, with thick wavy hair that was slicked back with Brylcreem just like in the ads. He seemed to crackle with energy and I kept thinking that of all the desks to sit on and all the hands to hold, he was sitting on my desk and holding my hand.
“Is that TJ delivering the goods?” Jamison called from his office.
Three days before – the first time I laid eyes on TJ – Jamison had given him a warning. I was sitting at my desk throughout that whole exchange, but they’d left Jamison’s office door open and I could hear every word.
“I don’t care if you write about the New York Yankees, UFOs or Commie spies,” Jamison said, citing half the headline issues of the summer of 1952, “but you’ve got to write something. You make it all up anyway for God’s sake, how hard can it be?”
TJ laughed and then he objected. “I can’t spit out a novel just because you asked for one. I need time to land on the right idea. I need time for things to percolate.”
“We don’t have time,” Jamison said. “Scribner is coming out with a Hemingway book about fishing, and Simon and Schuster have got a new Steinbeck. We need something to put up against them. Awards season is just around the corner, and if Peril on the Sea wins anything, that’s the time to make an announcement about your next project. If we have nothing to say, we’ll look like a pack of fools.”
TJ waited a beat. “Maybe we are a pack of fools.”
“If you believe that,” Jamison said, “Then maybe you’re not the writer I need to be supporting.”
“You wouldn’t dare drop me,” TJ said, but there was a question in his voice; he was testing Jamison, asking, “Would you?”
“If you don’t come up with a new idea I’ll have no choice.”
Suddenly TJ’s bravado was back. “Then I’ll just go to another publisher.”
“What other publisher is going to foot the bill for your gallivanting around New York not writing?”
“I hardly think gallivanting is a fair assessment,” TJ said, “I go where other writers go. We talk. We chase the muse.”
The men laughed – a crude guffaw – and then TJ continued. “Speaking of which, that new secretary of yours is quite a looker. Slender, blonde, very nice.”
I felt the heat rising to my cheeks. I was 21 years old and had been hearing similar things for many years, but this felt different than boys talking about me as if I were a piece of meat on display at the butcher shop. This was a bestselling author and the heir to the throne of Fenwick Publishing. I felt a confusing mix of outrage and embarrassment, and a dash of something like excitement at having caught TJ’s eye.
“Her name is Lucy Lawrence,” Jamison said, “Give me ten solid pages, and then you can seduce her.”
TJ scoffed. “You can’t tell me who I can and can’t seduce.”
“I can and I will,” Jamison said, “I’m serious about those pages and this seems as good a way as any to prove it. Stay away from my secretary until you hand over ten pages.”
Part of me wanted to believe the whole exchange was just a joke, but three days later, there TJ was with his ten pages and his hand wrapped around mine like he owned it.
He leaned across the desk. I could smell his Barbasol aftershave, the starch of his collared shirt. “Give the boss an answer,” he whispered. “Tell him I delivered the goods.”
I had the sudden clear sense that TJ was laying some kind of trap but I couldn’t figure out what it was or how to stay out of it. I wasn’t even sure I could speak. My mouth felt dry. The blood seemed to have drained from everywhere in my body except the place where TJ’s thumb rested on my knuckle.
“Yes,” I finally croaked, “TJ’s brought some pages.”
“Excellent,” Jamison called, “Send him in and type up those pages right away, will you? I want to have a look at them.”
TJ let go of my hand, and I remembered my place. I stood up. “Can I take your coat?” I asked, stepping around the desk. I was wearing heels – the black suede peep toed heels I bought when I first came to New York – but even so, he was nearly a foot taller than me.
“Why thank you, Lucy Lawrence,” he said, and then he winked as he handed me the coat and stepped into Jamison’s office.
I sat down and pressed my hands to my face to clear the buzzing in my brain. How ludicrous it was to be knocked off balance by the first author I’d ever met. I rolled out the letter I had been typing, rolled a fresh piece of paper into the Olympia and began to decipher TJ’s cramped, left-leaning scrawl:
Once upon a time there was a man named John Doe. He dreamed of talking to aliens and sat out each night looking for UFOs in the night sky. By day, he prowled the streets of New York hunting down Commies. The Reds were lurking everywhere, just like the aliens, and you never knew when they might appear. The one thing John didn’t want to do was just be a regular Joe like his brother, Joe, who went around telling anyone who would listen that there was no way this upstart, Mickey Mantle, could take the place of a Joe – DiMaggio, that is – and he skipped out of work as often as he could to try see the proof that he was right…
It was a farce. A ten page charade. It seemed like an incredible boorish thing for TJ to do. I had the thought that I should take the pages and throw them in the trash can – to protect TJ and to protect myself. Down in the typing pool they said Jamison fired girls whenever he got mad and they said that he got mad at the drop of a hat. But I wasn’t going to be so easily dismissed. This job was an opportunity of a lifetime. I needed to be up here in the editorial offices so I could learn what it took to get the story that was stuck in my head onto the page. I finished typing TJ’s pages, but before I could think of what to do with them, Jamison called to me. I walked into his office, handed over the pages and walked back out, mindful to look anywhere except into TJ’s eyes.
There was silence for one minute, then two – and then Jamison began to bellow.
“Do you take me for a goddamn fool?” he shouted. “I said I wanted ten solid pages and you bring me this nonsense?”
TJ didn’t answer. I imagined that he was grinning, smirking. He’d made his point: you can’t rush a bestseller.
“What am I supposed to tell my father, TJ?” Jamison said, “I promised him a blockbuster and you can’t even give me one decent paragraph. What the hell is wrong with you?” I could hear that Jamison was scared – of his father, of failure – and I felt a wave of sympathy for him. I tiptoed towards the office door, thinking I should close it and give the men some privacy.
“Interesting choice of words,” TJ said, “Hell.”
He was sitting on the couch by the window. I saw him sink down and rake his fingers through his hair. I saw him lower his head into his hands. I quietly closed the door, but I stayed standing right outside so I could hear every word.
“You want to know what hell is?” TJ continued. “Hell is capturing the world’s imagination with one book and then having nothing else to say. Hell is writing a novel about the moral choices of war and realizing that no matter what you write next, it will be shit by comparison. There are a million stories out there and I hate every single one of them.”
I held my breath. TJ Wright was talking about how hard it was to pick an idea that seemed worthy of being told, but I had already done that – or perhaps it was that the story had picked me. It had settled in my mind like a swarm of bees. It buzzed there, humming and alive, demanding my attention. The trouble was that as soon as I tried to set pen to paper, it scattered. Poof! Gone. I could almost hear it laughing at me.
“I don’t care about your demons,” Jamison said, his voice wound up to a fever pitch, “and I don’t need a prima donna writer making weak excuses. What I need are a few solid pages about your next goddamn book so I can give the guys in sales something to talk about.”
Right at that moment – in the middle of Jamison’s diatribe – I saw Joseph Fenwick step out of the elevator. Even with the office door closed, anyone could hear Jamison’s voice echoing through the hallway. Joseph appeared to be heading the other direction, but when he heard his son yelling, he stopped and stepped towards me instead. I stood to attention, as if I had a reason to be standing at the door eavesdropping.
“What on earth is going on in there?” he barked.
“Jamison is speaking with Mr. Wright,” I said, because I hadn’t yet learned how useful it was to lie or even to veil the truth.
“TJ Wright?” Joseph asked. His face turned red. He flung open the door, and blew straight into Jamison’s office.
“My father built this company with nothing more than a dream and a printing press,” Joseph yelled, “and he didn’t do it so that you could come in here and bully our prized writers. You’ve coasted through every opportunity in your life, Jamison. It’s going to stop, right here and right now. You either prove that you know how to handle a writer of TJ’s stature and deliver a bestseller, or you go find another line of work.”
I quickly left my post at the door and walked the few steps to my desk. I busied myself with the mail, trying to make it seem as if I had pressing matters to attend to.
Joseph dragged TJ out of Jamison’s office and slammed the door. “Let’s get out of here, TJ,” he said, “My son has a little thinking to do.”
The two men were now standing directly in front of me.
“Can I buy you a late breakfast at the Algonquin?” Joseph asked. His tone was so ingratiating that I thought TJ would surely laugh at him and say, “You can’t buy me off that easily.” That was what the cavalier, larger-than-life author I’d read about in Life magazine would have said.
But the man in front of me didn’t laugh. He drank in the attention and the praise as if it was his due. I could see in that moment that he wasn’t putting on a show. He didn’t have an idea for his next book and he was just as scared about it as Jamison. He needed someone to take him out for a lavish meal and tell him it would all be okay. “Breakfast would be wonderful,” he said. “Thank you so much.”
“I’ve got to talk to someone on the other side of the floor,” Joseph said, “Give me five minutes.”
Once Joseph left, I stood, got TJ’s coat and held it out to him. I navigated the simple exchange so that I was certain my thumb wouldn’t brush against his hand or my fingers graze his wrist.
“You didn’t rat on me,” he said quietly. “I thought you might refuse to type those pages or come in and complain.”
“And be fired for being the bearer of bad news?” I asked.
“Good point,” TJ said. I made myself look at him and saw a smile playing at the edges of his mouth. He didn’t care how many girls came and went from this desk and he probably didn’t care how many came and went from his life.
“You should be ashamed of yourself,” I said.
TJ raised his eyebrows and cocked his head. “Ah, so you
objected, but you still played along?”
“I was just doing my job,” I said, “Which is more than anyone can say for you.”
“You think it’s that easy?” he whispered fiercely, “Coming up with a good idea for a novel? You think there’s a department full of ideas over at Lord & Taylor, and you just waltz in and pick one out like a pair of shoes?”
I suddenly pictured it – a department of ideas. They were displayed on little pedestals, and in gilded niches in the wall. They winked and glittered in the light. People came in and browsed among them, picking them up, carefully testing out how much they weighed and how much they cost. In the middle of the room, just waiting to be snatched up, was the story of Perfect Red – a French engineered lipstick that women swore had the power to make a man go wild with desire. I had conjured up a fictional story from the frenzy surrounding the real Perfect Red and it had been haunting me for months now, like a ghost in the attic, but I hadn’t written one word.
I forced myself to look TJ in the eye. “No,” I said. “I don’t think it’s that easy at all.”
He cocked his head and peered at me. “Meet me for a drink tonight,” he said.
I wanted to say yes. TJ would know what I had to do to get the story out of my mind. He would know the steps needed to shake it loose and pin it down. One drink with TJ Wright could stop the madness. I shook my head.
“You’ve got a fellow?” he asked, “Is that it?”
“No,” I said, pointing to Jamison’s office. “I have a boss who traded me to you like a baseball card, and the least I can do for his dignity and mine is to make you uphold your end of the bargain, which, I believe, was ten solid pages.”
TJ threw back his head and laughed, and when he had gained his composure, he said, “You don’t miss a trick, do you?”
I glanced at the door to make sure Jamison was staying safely behind it. “I’m smart enough to listen to what my boss says.”
“So you’re a rule follower, are you?”
I laughed as if he’d completely misread me, but he hadn’t. In school, I was the girl who turned in every assignment before every deadline. In the typing pool, I was the girl who was the last to leave at the end of the day. Working hard and following the rules was the only way I knew how to move forward on a path, no matter where the path was leading. To me, fast typing was my gateway to the secret world of writers. That was why at night in my rented room at the Barbizon Hotel for Women, I sometimes lay in bed listening to the sounds of the city and holding my hands in the air in the proper typing position, imagining where the centering “g” would be, memorizing the reach for “p.” Doing anything outside of what the rules prescribed was a distraction, at best, a disaster, at worst.
“Sometimes I’m a rule follower,” I said, “and sometimes I’m not.”
“Not exactly an answer that would stand up to Senator McCarthy.”
“I don’t believe I’m on trial,” I snapped, “and I don’t believe that’s anything to joke about.”
He lowered his voice to a whisper. “And I don’t believe Jamison Fenwick owns you after a few days on the job.” “What does it take for that, a week?” I hissed back.
He laughed again, and then stepped closer to me. He reached for my hand and took it in his the way he had earlier. I felt the same buzzing on my skin, the same warmth spreading out from that one hot point. I imagined what his lips would feel like on my hand and then I imagined what they would feel like on my lips. “Let’s break the rules and go have a drink,” he said. “You can be my muse. My golden-haired muse. You can help me find my next story.”
I yanked my hand away. I’d heard what TJ had said earlier about chasing the muse. “You just want to use me to thumb your nose at Jamison the same way you used me earlier to thumb your nose at him with those pages.”
“You shouldn’t be so quick to judge my actions,” he said.
I tossed my head, sending my bobby pin curls flying. “I think your actions are despicable.”
His tone abruptly changed. He shuffled his feet, looked away. “I’m thumbing my nose at Jamison to buy time,” he said, even more quietly than before, “I actually don’t have a good idea for another book. I don’t have anything. I was the toast of the town when my first novel came out six months ago, and now? The well has run dry.” He held his palms to the sky – empty – and let them slap against his thighs. “Ten solid pages,” he said, “might as well be ten thousand.”
He looked so lost and forlorn that I had the impulse to put my arms around him and tell him everything was going to be okay. I softened. “Look,” I said, “You talked before about a department of ideas...”
“That was a joke,” he said, “Surely you got that.”
“I did. But just pretend for a minute that there is such a place exists. Just imagine it. What would you look for? What would you take home?”
He looked at me again – straight into my eyes – and I realized that he was paying attention to what I was thinking, not to the scarf I’d had since tenth grade or to the dress I’d gotten at the end of the season sale at Wanamaker’s. He was seeing me. He waited one beat, and then another. “I’d look for something that haunted me – something I couldn’t get out of my head,” he said, “It doesn’t really matter what the topic is. It matters how it feels. That’s how I knew that I needed to write Peril on the Sea. I could feel it. I could feel that it wasn’t going to go away unless I wrote it. That’s what I’m waiting for – to be haunted.”
I felt my throat tighten the way it does right before you’re about to cry. I looked at my shoes so TJ wouldn’t see my eyes well up. So this was the way forward. This was the right path to take. Obsessing over the story of Perfect Red didn’t mean I was crazy; it meant I was on my way to becoming a writer.
“What?” TJ asked, concerned by my silence. “Did I say something wrong?”
“No. Just something very helpful.”
“Good,” he said and grinned, “So that means you’ll come have dinner with me?”
Hadn’t he suggested drinks before? Now it had expanded to dinner. What would it be after that? I shook my head to try to clear my thoughts. Dinner with TJ would give me a chance to learn more about writing. But what did he mean about my being his muse? Was he serious about that – about needing someone to inspire his work? Or did he just want to kiss me? And if did want to kiss me, was that such a bad price to pay for the information I wanted? It actually seemed like a good trade, especially because I wanted to kiss TJ, too.
I met his gaze – and panicked. He didn’t look like he wanted to kiss me. He looked like he wanted to devour me. I hadn’t considered that level of desire. It scared me, and since I had an easy way out, I took it. “I believe Jamison said you had to write ten pages first,” I said,
Just then, Joseph walked around the corner, along with Marcia, a secretary from the finance department whom I had befriended in the typing pool. Marcia was wearing Perfect Red lipstick. Every girl in the city except me, it seemed, was wearing Perfect Red lipstick. It felt, at that moment, like a personal taunt. Marcia must have read something in my face, because before they all got into the elevator, she came up to me, leaned down and whispered, “Try Perfect Red on the novelist. It works.”
I stood there aghast, wondering whether I should do everything I could to get close to TJ Wright so that I could learn how to tell the story of passion that had taken hold of me, or whether I should do everything I could to stay away from him so that passion didn’t swallow me whole.