In which I demonstrate some initiative, not to mention: meet Angus (finally)
Conventional wisdom dictates that, upon completion of any first draft, a writer should step back. I think Stephen King noted (in On Writing?) that the magic number is six weeks; finish your first draft and then stick it in a drawer, and for six weeks do anything at all that doesn’t include reading that finished draft, after which time you may retrieve your manuscript from your drawer to mark it with your editor’s pen, and you may moan and groan and lament your general lack of creativity when you’re not admiring your own genius, though you may be in a spot if there don’t exist more moments of the former than of the latter (which may sound backward but, when revising, better to groan than preen). After all that time, you may proceed onto work on another draft, which, mathematically (at least according to Stephen King) should equal approximately your first draft minus ten percent.
I note all that because it’s so totally not what I did. After attending a brunch at my grandmother’s house, I spent part of Christmas evening polishing the first chapter of my manuscript, then wrote a single query to my dream agent—Merrilee Heifetz, an agent with Writers House, who represented Neil Gaiman, my own personal writing hero/mentor. Gaiman’s a guy who, since the events of this story took place, has topped nearly every bestseller’s list the New York Times can offer him, who’s not only had several novels and stories adapted into television series or movies but even written a few himself (including an adaptation of Beowulf directed by Robert Zemeckis). Neil maintains a blog in which he manages to refer to Zemeckis as “Bob” without its ever feeling like name-dropping, and of all the writers I can think of, I think I’d like a diverse, varied, and successful career most like his, which is why Heifetz was not just at the top of my list of agents to query but managed to be the list in its entirety, at least to start.
Because why not, right? What had I to lose?
(you’ll find out)
So I wrote up my query and polished up my first chapter, then printed both out. I signed the query with my lucky fountain pen, folded query and sample and a self-addressed, stamped envelope into another envelope, and headed down to the post office to mail it out. I wasn’t sure it was the best idea to send it out so fresh and new, but then again, I figured, most agents cite a response time of no fewer than two months, and many request two to three times that many before you even hear from then, and even then, that’s usually only in the case of a rejection. So if a rejection can take six months to arrive . . .
I hadn’t been sure when I planned to return to Manhattan, but Tom’s gig on New Year’s gave me a reason to stick around for another week during which I’d be lying if I told you I did anything productive. The agency through whom I was temping assured me they’d probably be able to find something for me, if not at my previous wage then close to. I poked around on other job sites to see if anyone was looking for literature-slash-science majors, but funny thing that combination, because not so much.
I didn’t mind too much. I had a few weeks before February rent would become an issue, and my parents didn’t seem to mind the idea of my staying with them for a little while as I figured things out. Besides, I thought, taking a week off to gather my thoughts might do me a world of good, though that makes it sounds like a more formal or official process than it actually was, makes it sound like I didn’t spend most of that week reading and watching television and pretty much slacking off to such a degree that you might as well picture me on the sofa in my boxers, scratching my balls, and it wouldn’t be far off from the truth.
Thing was, I didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t worried much about money if only because I trusted my temp agency at their word and didn’t think it would take long to place me well; I’d basically fallen into the job at the New Yorker as it had been, and Lord knew those sorts of gigs were a dime a dozen in the Big Apple, or so I thought. What else are you supposed to do in Manhattan, besides things like investment banking and driving cabs? Or maybe retail . . .
I spent most of that week thinking (for various definitions of the word), and by the time Tom’s gig rolled around I was ready for a break from my melodramatic self.
On New Year’s Eve, 2006, Foolish launched Music We Done Played at the Grape Street Pub in Manayunk, Pennsylvania, a hip and swinging establishment that had once been host to a Tuesday music night when it had been located on the nominative Grape Street. It had since become popular enough to move to new digs on the cool Main stretch, just beyond the ice cream parlor and the sushi joint. Manayunk is ten or fifteen minutes from Philadelphia proper and is a sort-of post-collegiate town, the kind of place where twenty-somethings whom a decade before would have been called yuppies go to polish the teeth they’ve already cut. It’s the sort of place where an Apple store would not only not seem out of place but would also be able to find every one of its employees within a ten-block radius.
The perfect place for Foolish, whose music I have only just now realized I haven’t yet described to you. If you imagine a network dramedy in which Patrick Dempsey’s dreamy-but-troubled lawyer courted Mariska Hargitay’s harried-but-optimistic forensic psychologist, and then play through an entire season to that singular moment when, after months of extended courtship, the two characters finally kiss, Foolish is playing the song you hear when they finally lock lips. It’s bombastic mid-tempo pop like Coldplay decided Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack” should be more than a danceable pop tune and had to be both sultry and emotional simultaneously; like Mutt Lange and Rick Rubin collaborated on producing an album for a band equal parts Def Leppard and matchbox twenty; straight-up rock and roll crossed with massive pop.
I’ve never seen Foolish not get the room dancing, no matter the venue, no matter the crowd. Which was why Grape Street hosted the launch party on New Year’s Eve, and probably why the show sold out days before it was to occur. Grape Street is not a small place—besides a main room large enough to hold a few hundred people, it has a secondary bar, an outdoor bar, a sidebar that’s almost a lounge (generally where the acoustic open-mike nights go down) and an upstairs room that’s totally a lounge when it’s not a dance floor—but the entire place was packed by eight in the evening, and most of them were there for Foolish, which had built a loyal following around the Philly/South Jersey area.
It was very much like a massive New Year’s Eve Party among good friends and their families; the crowd wasn’t just mutual friends and their husbands or wives but also moms and dads and aunts and uncles—I’m pretty sure there was a grandmother around somewhere. It was hard to keep track, crowded as it was. Foolish played for several hours, mixing what seemed like dozens of covers among the songs on their CD, as well as the songs I’m pretty sure are required for all New Year’s Parties, “Auld Lang Syne” and what not, and I danced and drank and partied and mingled and basically had more fun that single evening than during the entire previous year. If the New Year is supposed to begin as it may continue, I should have by all accounts expected a year that would have made Gehrig relinquish his whole luckiest-man-on-the-planet title.
It was also the night I met Angus.
That was at the end of the night. Tom had invited me to the Foolish afterparty; the guys and their wives and girlfriends were headed to a local strip bar where one of them had worked as a bouncer years before. An afterhours type of joint, and I was happy to join them even though I’d never really been into strip clubs (I just don’t understand them. Don’t get me wrong, I like looking at women as much as the next guy but Chris Rock has taught us nothing if not that there is no sex in the champagne room. Ever. And while I enjoy a good tease, the one thing a good tease demands is satisfaction), so I was waiting around for the guys to break down their equipment. I’d maintained a pleasant buzz for a solid several hours, very proud I’d spent only the first hour fully sober but had never once tipped over into full-on drunk.
I was nursing a Yuengling at the bar, when Veronica approached. “Just wanted to say goodnight before I left.”
“The strip club? Nah. Not my thing.”
“Yeah, I hear you. Not really mine either, mostly.”
“Ah, come on. Totally you’re thing. You’re a dude.”
“Indeed, a dude I am.”
“Well have fun. I’ll catch you later. Let’s do something before I go back to school.”
“Give me a call.”
“Awesome,” she said, leaning in to kiss my cheek. “And happy new year.”
“Yeah,” I squeezed her arm. “Happy new year.”
She smiled, then turned to leave, and I watched her as she did so.
“She’s certainly a beautiful young woman,” came from my right a voice with a burr so deep it could have worn its own kilt, and I turned.
That was my first thought the very first time I saw Angus. I’m certain the resemblance was superficial— and probably should since this is a novel and all resemblance of any character to any single person either living or dead must be entirely coincidental—but I also must note, knowing what I later learned, from Angus and otherwise, that nothing Angus did was entirely coincidental. Instead, I will say up front: Angus wasn’t Anthony Hopkins, but could have passed for the great Welsh actor’s brother—the same clear, blue eyes; the same neat, white hair; the same wide, puckish grin. He had that charming way that transforms wrinkles into laugh lines, and they were crinkling then. “But it’s not just that, is it? Pretty, certainly, but there’s a lot more to that special young lady. I can see why you like her so much.”
“Excuse me? Do I—?”
“Know me? Not at all. You’ve never seen me before in your life.”
“That’s what I thought,” I said. I sipped the beer I was nursing.
He had before him a highball of something amber on the rocks. His fingers circled the glass’ rim, and he wore a silver pinky ring with a dark blue stone that twinkled ambient light like a tiny star.
“Did I know? Besides that you wear your infatuation for her like a heart on your sleeve, I always notice. My ability to sense in the cheeks of youth the first blushes of attraction is merely but one speciality among many,” he said, and then he winked at me, and here’s where I started paying closer attention, because . . . okay, you know the creepy guy in the bar? That guy on the end over-age drinking, his salt-and-pepper hair slicked back but just a little too long, like he’s gone one too many weeks without a proper trim? He wears his mustache unironically and trims it a touch too precisely, and that’s never mind the fact that he’s overdressed in a double-breasted blazer over a dark shirt, the collar and buttons of which are open enough to reveal the gold coin he wears as a pendant in a cushy bed of white chest hair. You’ve seen that guy, throwing around his money like he’s trying to impress someone, and on his arm he usually has a woman ten years younger but no better for her wear, a peroxide blonde like a bird of prey, an objet d’artifice. You’ve probably smelled that guy, who wears too much Polo but can’t hide the reek of old desperation.
You know that guy? Because Angus?
Classy. He had a dark suit on, but it was European cut and he wore it like it had been tailored just the week before, over a black shirt whose collar was open but not ostentatiously so. Besides the Anthony Hopkins resemblance, he had that sort of movie star ease about him.
“Specialities,” I said.
“Oh my yes. Myriad specialities of various and sundry nature. A long and diverse list of skills and talents the likes of which it would take any man several lifetimes to acquire and several times that to master.”
“You must be pretty old, then.”
“Only to the pretty young. And you are pretty. Young,” he smiled.
“Wait, are you—?” I stopped short of asking if he was hitting on me. It didn’t feel like he was—just that he was a charming older gentleman—but neither was I completely certain he wasn’t.
“An old man sitting at a bar, meeting a new acquaintance after having listened to a rather splendid band? Indeed I am.”
“They are good.”
“Splendid,” he corrected. “And yes, indeed they are. Friends of yours, I take it?”
“I figured that’s the only reason you’d be sitting at the bar while they stowed away their instruments, instead of chatting up one of the numerous and rather splendid examples of young ladies currently in the room. I’d say I’m rather surprised you’re not keeping one of them company, rather than some unfamiliar old man. Then again, the only one you’ve had your eye on has only just departed, and I’d wager you’ve had your eye on her for far longer than this single evening, pleasant as it may be.”
I looked at the beer I was drinking, as though captivated by the way light shone off the green glass neck of the bottle. “That’s not a wager I’d win, that’s for sure,” and with that, I slugged down the remainder in one long, slow draw. It had already warmed to the room, and it went down as bubbles without any taste. I set the empty down on the bar and started to signal to the tender, but Angus stopped me.
“Why don’t you let me get your next round?”
“You want to buy me a beer?” I was a little less certain he wasn’t hitting on me. I wasn’t yet sure what it felt like, only that it didn’t feel like that.
“Don’t be vulgar. I might as well just piss in the bottle you just finished. No, my boy, I would much rather indulge you in one of the finer things in life,” he told me, and before I could say anything, he called over the tender, a tall, muscular blonde with sparkling blue eyes and cleavage I’m sure the band could have enjoyed from the stage twenty feet away. “Good evening young lady, and might I first compliment you on your choice of tee shirt for the evening? Your splendid body has made an old man think back wistfully on the days of his youth, and I don’t mind telling you that, though I never wanted for female companionship, very rarely did I find myself accompanied by a lass so lovely as yourself, and I hope you won’t mind my saying so.”
Like I said: from anyone else? Fucking creepy. From this guy?
I watched the girl blush. I’m sure she was used to hearing a hundred lines like that every night. She carried herself like she knew she was attractive, too—not like she was stuck-up about it, but like she was aware of it, which I’m sure she must have been, because otherwise I would have had to fault her for having been in deep denial. Even still, her lovely cheeks reddened on their high bones. “Not even a little. Thank you,” she said, chuckling as she tucked a strand of hair back behind her ear. “So can I get you boys something?”
“Well, yes, my dear, I’m certain you can, in fact, get us something, as I’m sure your employment here is based only secondarily on your fine features and primarily on your ability to procure refreshment. I say this merely to point out that ‘can’ is solely indicative of one’s ability, whereas ‘may’ indicates an actual action, and so, being that I am certain you have the ability to pour for my new acquaintance and me, should we require the whetting of our respective whistles, the beverage of our choice, I will tell you that what you may do is pour for each of us your very finest Scotch. And by Scotch I mean real Scotch, and by finest I mean the sort you keep on the shelf so high you will require a stepping stool to retrieve it from its perch of honor, if only so that my acquaintance and I might at the same time enjoy the sight of you reaching for it.”
She considered the order a moment, then leaned forward, as if conspiratorially, and also as if she didn’t realize she was displaying what was, at that point, anyway, her very finest attribute: cleavage so deep it shorted what few circuits my brain ever actually has. “I’d normally tell you a Johnnie Black—,” she said.
“In a pinch, I suppose, if it’s your finest—.”
“But I think we have a Johnnie Blue hidden away somewhere. I’ll have to ask our manager—.”
“I would most certainly make any trouble to which you ventured worth your every while.”
“It’s not my whiles I’m worried about, and it wouldn’t be trouble, although it might take a few minutes.”
“Ah, but anything worth enjoying is worth waiting for,” Angus said, then looked at me. “What do you say, my boy? Have you some time in your youth to spare?”
I looked back to the stage, where Tom and the guys were still dissembling the drumkit and packing away instruments and cables and pedals. After which they’d have to walk around, mingle, thank everyone for coming—“Yeah, it looks like I’ve got a few minutes.”
The bartender nodded and headed away.
“Ever had a fine Scotch?”
“I had my very first taste of Scotch a few weeks ago. My old boss gave it to me as a sort of Christmas bonus.”
“May I presume that by calling him your old boss, you’re saying that in addition to being your Christmas bonus, it became your severance package as well? Or are you, in fact, referring to the poor man’s age?”
“No, you’re right. I was working up at the New Yorker. But I was temping.”
“So interesting how the verbification of the word conceals its true nature.”
“I think I might’ve been starting to realize that. But I’d been there for, like, a year? I guess a little more. Anyway, I asked if I could come on full-time, but it turned out they hadn’t even realized I was there, and they decided they could save twenty or thirty thousand bucks by cutting the budget that paid me. Can’t say they were wrong. My boss gave me the Scotch as a holiday bonus slash severance package slash parting gift.”
“And was it a fine Scotch, or are we insulting my homeland?”
“Can’t tell you for sure. What little I drank I mixed with Sprite—.”
“My dear boy, that’s blasphemy, pure and simple. I presume, at least, it was not the Johnnie I’ve just ordered for us . . .”
I shook my head. “I think it was a Glen. Glenlivvey? Glengoin—?”
He held his hand up. “Really, my boy, you must stop talking. The pain you’ve done me so far I can attribute to blissful ignorance, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to forgive your adding further insult to current injury. Tell me at the very least that there was a celebratory occasion for the consumption, and that you weren’t attempting to drown your sorrows over your lost—.”
“Oh, no. I actually was celebrating. I’d just finished a novel I’d—.”
“So you’re a writer,” he said. “I straightaway sensed some creative energy about you. I thought you might be musically inclined, but then realized that you would probably have been on stage earlier. I briefly thought you might be an actor—you’ve got the looks, not to mention the charisma—but you don’t exactly seem to crave attention. I’m not saying you mind attention, don’t mistake me, but you seem comfortable enough without it. Which leaves few other options. Painting, perhaps, or sculpting—.”
“Believe me, you don’t want me around sharp tools.”
“Exactly why writing seemed most likely, though if you don’t mind my saying so, you’re certainly in better shape than most writers I’ve known. The very act tends to lend itself to a sedentary existence, but you?” he said squeezed my upper arm to emphasize; his grip punctuation-quick. “Exactly. Trim and fit as an Olympic swimmer, and I’ll bet you’re not just any writer but a good one. I’ve got an eye for talent. Which brings us to the most important question one can pose to a writer, namely with what topics and subjects said writers concern themselves with. So tell me, dear boy,” he said, shaking his wrist to slip his watch from the cuff, “In five words or ten seconds, whichever comes first, what is your novel about?”
“Time travel,” I replied.
He raised his eyebrows. “You still have three words. Or nine seconds.”
I shrugged. “Don’t need ‘em. I mean, sure, it’s more complicated. It’s a hundred thousand words. But you want five, and it’s about time travel and what to do with it. Or at least, what the characters I was writing about did with it.”
“And what did they do with it?”
“You’ll have to read it and find out, won’t you?”
Angus laughed and did a little circular hand gesture as if in concession, and that was when a guy in a blue blazer over a tee-shirt showed up. His jeans showed signs of wear—contrast wrinkles and fraying—he hadn’t earned, but he carried with him a bottle. “Heard you boys ordered some Johnnie Blue. We don’t get many orders for the good stuff, so I thought I’d deliver it to you myself,” he told us, setting down before us two small glasses, then unstopping the bottle.
“May I conjecture by your personal visit that you’re the owner of this fine establishment I might call a tavern were it not so magnificent?”
The man smiled as he sploshed into each of the glasses a vital measure of amber liquid I could smell even where I sat, sweet heft with hooks. “I am. You like it?”
“Oh, aye,” Angus said as the man finished pouring. I reached for my glass, but Angus stayed my hand. “Not yet, not yet,” he said, then to the owner: “Might we in addition request a small glass of water?”
“No problem,” the man said as he turned to fill another glass.
Angus said: “Have you owned this fine establishment very long?”
“It hasn’t been here very long,” I said. “It used to be around the corner, on a side street. Actually on Grape Street. But it got so popular—.”
“Actually, they closed it. I’ve owned the actual building for a decade or so,” he said. “We used to be more of a dance club. But I partnered with the guys over at Grape Street when their lease ran out, and we took out a loan to renovate the place.”
“Which you’ve done spectacularly,” Angus told him. “The acoustics alone—.”
The man smiled. “That was kinda my pet. Trying to get the room to sound perfect no matter what sort of music was playing. Wasn’t cheap, let me tell you,” he said, as he slid the water onto the bar.
“Ah, thank you,” Angus said, and with that he dipped two fingers into the water, then flickered a few droplets of water into his glass, at the same time tracing in the air a pattern that would have looked like a priest’s signing of the cross if the cross were both ornate and Arthurian. “Just a few drops of water breaks up the surface tension of the Scotch and allows more of that delicious aroma to escape, which, need I tell you, renders a fine drink yet finer.”
The owner smiled. “You know how to drink your Scotch.”
Angus looked at me expectantly, and so I dipped two finger tips into the water and then flicked the drops into my own glass. “Your lack of subtlety makes up for your lack of finesse. But we can work on the latter easily enough,” he said, picking up his glass and holding it up just above the bar, toward me. I picked up my own and clinked his glass.
“To the New Year,” Angus said.
“Agreed.” He was right about the aroma; even as I sipped it, it seemed those hard edges had become sharp hooks. That scent could have easily become addictive. The Scotch itself went down smooth and easy, and I wasn’t sure, exactly, what I tasted in it: Oak? Peat? Smoke? The flavor seemed iridescent, one color at first that slipped into others like a chameleon on a roller-coaster, or perhaps holographic, moving around and capturing a tiny story in a single image. I couldn’t decide if I liked it, though I tried. It was too elusive. All I knew was I wanted to chase it.
Angus and I both set our glasses down after that first sip. Like there was something in the Scotch that demanded it be enjoyed slowly. “Now that, my good sir, is a Scotch as fine as fine can be. I haven’t had a drink that good in many, many years. Nor an evening this enjoyable. I must commend you on knowing how to host a party. You can rest assured I will let my friends know about your fine establishment.”
“I appreciate that,” the owner said. “We’d be honored to have more fine connoisseurs like yourselves. In fact, why don’t you let me make this a double, on the house, simply in honor of the fact that you appreciate the finer things in life.”
Angus looked at me. “What do you think, dear boy?”
“Isn’t it, like, against the law to decline such an offer on such an evening?” I asked, and I smiled at the owner. “I think it might be a personal insult, in fact, and I would never insult you. We would be much obliged, and well honored by your hospitality.”
The owner laughed. “You sound like him,” he said as he added another splash of that wonderful amber liquid to our glasses. I swear I might have become intoxicated by the scent alone if I hadn’t already been there. “You guys related? Uncle or something?”
“Actually, don’t tell my new young friend yet, but I am a businessman about to make him the proverbial offer I’m hoping he will be unable to refuse.”
Which confirmed that he had not, in fact, been trying to flirt with me; his old world charm aimed at persuasion, a subtlety that removed from his business pitch both the business and the pitch, at least superficially, and which I can’t say wasn’t effective. I’ve read articles in books and magazines that the most effective way to pick up women is to remove the idea of the pick up from the situation; that the key to effective effort is no effort whatsoever. Take me, for example: if Angus had opened with his pitch—which even then I wasn’t yet sure of, keep in mind—I probably would have shut down. I tend to when I think people are trying to convince me of something, or even worse, sell it to me. I would rather do my own research and make decisions for myself, after careful consideration, which means that I am always inherently suspicious of salesmen. Not like I think they’re going to steal my wallet, but I know they want me to do something, and wanting me to do something is often the surest way to convince me not to.
But Angus had made me genuinely curious. Wouldn’t you be? Heck, aren’t you?
“Ah. Well, then, I’ll leave you two to business. Thank you again for your patronage,” the owner said, and with that disappeared with his bottle.
I took a sip of my Scotch, waiting for Angus to begin whatever pitch he had, but he did not. I said, “I didn’t think you were hitting on me.”
Angus laughed. “Even were I interested in the male form, and even if I hadn’t seen the way you looked after the young lady to whom you were speaking before we made our acquaintance, it’s easy enough to discern that I would have been barking up the proverbial incorrect tree, as it were.”
“You realize I’m probably not interested in whatever business proposition you’re going to pitch me.”
“I don’t know how you can be sure of that, especially considering you haven’t heard what I have to say, or even what I might be able to offer.”
“Unless you’re a literary agent, I don’t see how you’re going to help me any.”
“Surely you don’t believe that the only endeavor with which you might require the expertise of an outside source is in matters of literature and publishing? Given that you know neither the scope nor the range of my specialities, I’d request that you not be so quick to dismiss them out of their turn,” Angus told me as he reached into the inner breast pocket of his blazer, pulling from it a brushed-silver business-card holder from which he withdrew a card. He set it down on the bar and slid it toward me. I noticed, as he said it, though, he didn’t explicitly say he wasn’t a literary agent. “On the other hand, I would not expect you to trust me so quickly and easily, but if you take this card, and keep it with you, and call upon my services when the mood thereupon strikes . . . well, certainly, you have nothing to lose by accepting the card.”
I picked it up and scanned it. Just off-white, with black type embossed enough it shone, however vaguely, in the dim light. A handful of words: Angus Silver, Proprietor, Futures Trading, and then a phone number. “Angus Silver.”
“That’s me,” Angus told me, extending his hand. “At both your service and disposal.”
“Futures Trading?” I accepted his hand. “Like oil and steel and stock market futures?”
“My areas of speciality are diverse in nature and nearly exponential in number, but suffice to say that the nature of my business covers just about everything.”
“There is more than money to be found in the future, and that, dear boy, is where I come in.”
“Still, I don’t—.”
“Have a current position with any company? Really know what your own future is going to hold?”
Whatever protestation I had been about to make died on my tongue.
“I’m not asking you to commit to any business here and now. I’m merely asking that you put the card away, slip it into your wallet, and perhaps give me a call should you wish for some certainty.”
I considered the card. I figured I didn’t have much to lose even if I wasn’t exactly sure of anything I might gain, so I took out the cigarette case I use as a wallet and slipped the card between the cash and the plastic, and with that effectively ended the scene, because that’s all that needs establishing. Every scene should either reveal something about character or advance the plot, and now the plot is advanced; I took Angus’ card and set the story moving forward again. I mean, sure, we spoke a bit longer as we finished the Scotch, and then I excused myself, as Tom and the guys had finished packing the gear and I usually helped them carry it out to the van, which I did again that evening. After which we piled ourselves into the cars and drove to the afterparty, none of the fun of which can be adequately described here, so I say we just move on to the next chapter, which fast forwards a few days, and which will reveal Angus’ function in this story:
And finally Angus appears!
But what’s he do, besides buy our young narrator a drink? Who is he? What does Futures Trading do? Is our young narrator going to become a key player in the sorts of situations that caused the economic crises of the past few years?
Because really, at this point, can we put anything past our young narrator?
Find out next week in another Exciting installment of Meets Girl!
At this point, there’s really no reason not to! And the installments won’t last much longer.