Underwood, Scotch, and Cry, page 1
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Letter From Brian
This is a work of fiction. The characters, events, and story contained within, are created within the fertile imagination of the author. Any resemblance to persons, whether living or dead, or any events, are purely coincidental.
No part of this publication may be reproduced in whole or in part, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, by any means electronic, mechanical, printing, photocopying, recording, chiseling in stone, or otherwise, without the written permission from the publisher, except for the inclusion of brief quotations in a review. For information regarding permission contact the publisher.
Copyright© 2016 by Brian D. Meeks All rights reserved.
Underwood, Scotch, and Cry
Brian D. Meeks
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Arthur answered his iPhone. "Hola, my friend."
Eric said, "I can't find this Salon de Paris place. I asked a cabbie, and he's never heard of it."
"I told you to call me when you got to town. Have you checked into your hotel?"
"Yes. Thanks for the room. The view of Central Park is fantastic."
"Where are you now?"
"I'm on West 59th Street."
"I'll be there in ten minutes."
Arthur hung up his phone and said to the bartender, "I've got to meet a friend. We'll be back."
"I'll keep the tab open, Mr. Byrne."
Arthur had been in Manhattan for a month. The spring had been a mix of book signings and teaching. He had barely survived. Once he had handed in the final grades, he and Wen had gone to dinner for the last time. It had been a bittersweet moment.
Wen had landed a job with J. Fletcher Agency of London, and she had seemed genuinely conflicted about moving on with her life. Arthur had been proud, a little hurt, and then mostly proud, but he had still managed to get knee deep into a bottle of Glenlivet by evening's end.
He refused to admit that he would miss her.
The next morning, he had put Maltese in his crate, packed some clothes, his typewriter, and computer into his TR3, and moved to the city that never sleeps. Arthur napped aggressively over the next ten days.
When he finally climbed out of bed, Arthur's absence from Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus had been noted by just three of his loyal readers. The size of that number stung a bit. When Eric called to see how he was doing, Arthur insisted he come for a visit.
From a hundred yards away, Arthur saw his friend standing dangerously close to a tee-shirt vendor. It appeared they might be talking, and he feared the worst. Arthur put fingers to lips and let loose an ear-splitting whistle.
Eric looked over and saw Arthur. He put his wallet away. The crisis was averted.
They met, and Arthur said, "If you feel you must buy an I-Heart-NY-and-am-a-dreadful-tourist-who-is-to-be-loathed-and- spit-upon-by-the-citizens-of-Gotham shirt, please, for me, do so on your way out of town."
Eric laughed. "Now I think I know what to get you for Christmas!"
"So, where is this Salon de Paris place?"
"It isn't far."
While they walked, Eric told a few Emily stories. Arthur suspected his friend might be in love and, for the first time, didn't feel like mocking him. When they got to the Alexander Tea Room, Arthur said, "You're going to love this."
"A tea room?"
Arthur led Eric past the sign that said "Wait To Be Seated."
Eric said, "Shouldn't we..."
"No," Arthur interrupted and continued through the center of the restaurant to a door near the back. It looked like it might be a janitor's closet, but behind the door was a long hallway with another door at the end.
"That's an impressive door," Eric said when they reached the end of the hall.
"It's from the Moulin Rouge. Apparently, there was a ruckus of some sort around the turn of the century, and the door was damaged. Look, you can see where it has been split and repaired," Arthur said. He rapped on the door twice and continued, "The owner didn't like the repair job and had it replaced, but he let the carpenter keep the door. I don't know how it ended up here."
A little window slid to the side, and two eyes recognized Arthur. The door opened, and a tall, thin man in a Victorian suit and round spectacles greeted them. "Welcome back, Mr. Byrne. This must be the friend you mentioned. Welcome to Le Salon de Paris. You may call me Mr. Jenkins, or just Jenkins."
Eric said, "Mr. Jenkins, this place is incredible. It's like I've stumbled back in time."
"We like to think of it as an oasis from the modern world."
Arthur said, "An oasis from the modern world with the fastest Wi-Fi you've ever seen."
Jenkins laughed. "Well, we don't want to be zealots."
Arthur patted Jenkins on the back. "I'm just giving you a hard time. This is without question the best place in all of the five boroughs. A divine little hideaway that feeds my soul. Five stars."
Jenkins said, "A fine review, Mr. Byrne. Let's just keep it to ourselves, though."
"My lips are sealed."
Arthur took Eric back to his spot at the bar. "It is a little quiet during the day, but at night this place is a cross between the Moulin Rouge and Cheers."
"I'm not sure, but I'm confident you could be Cliff."
Just then a voice from the back yelled, "Byrne!"
Arthur acknowledged the man and took his seat at the bar. "That was just a coincidence."
"Sure it was."
The bartender set two single malts before them.
Eric asked, "So, how did you find this place?"
"I was led here by a shining star in the northern night sky."
"You can't see stars in the city, too much light pollution."
"Okay, my publisher brought me here so that I might schmooze with a local book critic of some renown."
"Schmoozing isn't your strong suit. How did it go?"
"I called him a pretentious, pompous ass and suggested he couldn't spot good writing if it were tattooed on his Jabba-the-Huttesque belly. Two days later the review was predictably unflattering."
"He asked that I never come back to the Salon de Paris or talk to a reviewer again. I became a member the next day."
"Did the review hurt sales?"
Arthur shrugged. "They don't really share sales data. My agent shared a disapproving mother look shortly thereafter."
A hostess in a red and black satin skirt, bodice, and black stockings had little trouble persuading Arthur and Eric to follow her to their table.
Eric asked, "How's the food here?"
"It tastes almost as good as Nicole looks."
The hostess shimmied. "Why thank you, Mr. Byrne. You're such a flatterer." She leaned forward and placed a menu before Eric. "Your waitress will be here shortly." She looked back to Arthur. "This one's a cutie. I hope you'll bring him back tonight."
Arthur raised his glass, "You can count on it."
The hostess, satisfied, left.
Eric took a sip of his drink. "Let's never leave."
"Wait until you taste the steaks."
"So, what's with all the art covering the walls?"
"That's why they call it the Salon de Paris. It's done in the French tradition of the salon shows of the 19th century. Much like the paintings shown then, these are all by artists who are on the cusp of renown. I think most of them have benefactors who are members here. I love it."
"Me, too. So, they're judged?"
"Yeah. On October first, winners will be chosen."
"That's got to be good for their careers."
"As I understand it—and I'm still new here—the contest, much like the Salon, is kept secret. But all of the top galleries, including MOMA, have members here, and offers of public showings are unofficially a part of the prize."
"Why all the secrecy?"
"The Salon is a refuge from more public venues, a place where Bohemianism can flourish and members can express their passion for music, art, free love, and poverty."
"Poverty? How much does it cost to join?"
"Well, let's just say it's a six-figure 'donation' that will do the trick," Arthur said and then paused. "It's more honorary poverty than actual poverty that's celebrated."
Eric raised his glass. "To the starving artist."
"To free love."
It wasn't unusual for the editor at Arthur's publisher to summon him to her office. Usually it was to provide some ego stroking for her authors, but the look on Carolyn Kohlsen's face made it clear she was not pleased.
"How are you doing today, Arthur?"
He sensed a trap. "Fine."
"Do you know how I'm doing?"
"On a scale of one to thirty-seven, I'd guess peachy. Am I close?"
"You are not close. Yesterday the weekly sales numbers came out. Do you know how your latest book did?"
"You never share sales data, so I have no idea."
"On a scale of one to thirty-seven, it was a pile of horse shit."
That stung. She was using his attempts at levity against him.
"A momentary lull, I'm sure."
She stood and walked around the desk. Carolyn was sixty but looked ten years younger. She wore a pinstriped suit and Arthur couldn't help but notice how dangerous the heels looked on her shoes. Arthur imagined she could inflict a puncture wound before he could defend himself.
"Arthur, in my forty years in this business I've never seen an author act so monumentally stupid. You just had to be...well...yourself. Not only did you offend our friend at the New York Times, you have by virtue of such a public display of your contempt offended almost every reviewer in the country."
"Nobody reads newspapers anymore."
"That's not true. This week I've heard there are similarly scathing reviews coming out in the L.A. Times, USA Today, and the Des Moines Register."
"He has friends in Iowa?"
"He has friends everywhere. People love him. And your little stunt has just begun to suck the life out of your sales."
"I have friends, too. They will rally..."
"No, you don't.
"You're my friend." Arthur said, trying to turn on the charm.
"I'm your goddamn babysitter, and I'm sick of it. You need to fix this. You need to apologize and throw yourself on the biggest sword of contrition ever seen. It needs to be public, and it needs to be now."
Arthur stood and waved his hand dismissively. "I'll not be apologizing to that sanctimonious ass, publicly or otherwise. I stand by every word."
Carolyn got right up next to him and snarled, "You'll apologize, or you're done here. Now get out. I can't stand the sight of you. You're an ass."
The walk past the secretary was a little chilly. Arthur had been called an ass plenty of times by people he held in contempt. The problem with Carolyn was he respected her. She was brilliant, and he trusted her judgment.
She was wrong about one thing. Eric was his friend.
Arthur had planned on taking a cab back to the hotel to meet Eric but chose to walk instead. He wanted to argue with Carolyn, lay out his case, explain why he so hated the man who now threatened to bring him down, and convince her that it was a just cause. He wanted her to join his battle against...and Arthur hated to even think his name...Landon.
Landon Barton had been a book reviewer for the New York Times for only a year. He had worked for all the top papers across the country, and each time he had worn out his welcome almost as fast as he had built an adoring audience.
People loved his sardonic wit. Even Arthur had enjoyed a few of his columns back in the day, but eventually it became clear to Arthur that Landon knew little about prose. What's worse, Arthur realized Landon had a formula. He would like a book, hate three, like another, hate two, and then review a classic work, which he always loved.
Arthur had noticed this almost ten years ago and, out of curiosity, had twice gone back through the archives at the school library to see if the pattern still held. It did.
It wasn't the formula that bothered him the most; it was the reviews of the classic works. They were always thin on true analysis and full of hyperbole. Arthur doubted Landon had even read Faulkner's As I Lay Dying because there wasn't a single mention of the stream of consciousness style in his review.
The final straw was the almost Bieberesque, fan girl adoration Landon had heaped on Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell To Arms. Arthur hated Landon more than he hated fruit in Jell-O.
His iPhone buzzed. It was Eric texting him.
Arthur called back. "Hey, I just got out of the meeting a little bit ago."
"How did it go?"
"It was fine."
"Where are you now?"
"I'm walking through Central Park West along the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir."
"I'm looking out of the window. Is that the big lake?"
"You got it, buddy."
"Why didn't you take a cab back?"
"I needed to work off some of that massive lunch. You think it's easy keeping this girlish figure?"
"I wasn't going to say anything, lest it go to your head, but you do look good."
"I didn't want to tell you before. I'm more than a little ashamed. I've done something unthinkable that will likely cause you to lose all respect for me."
Eric laughed. "Oh?"
"Last week, I accidentally joined a gym."
"How do you accidentally join a gym?"
"To be fair, it wasn't really my fault. I was simply out for a stroll, and I passed by Max Fitness. A woman decked out in purple workout gear, with a long blonde ponytail, used her considerable cleavage to make me stop and talk to her. She asked if I belonged to a gym."
"I think I see where this is going."
"Well, my friend, don't think I didn't put up a fight. I did. She isn't the first bubbly blonde to try to rope me into exercise."
"How did she get you?"
"It turns out she wasn't stupid. Not only did she speak well and use adverbs properly, she also h
"You've always been powerless against an attractive fan wielding boobs and praise."
"I've worked out four times this week and started walking more. I'm so ashamed."
"So, what do you want to do?"
"I'm right near the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Why don't you meet me there? Hopefully, some modern art can help ease the pain of this shocking news."
"I think it just might. I'll see you there."
Arthur hung up the phone. He had taken poetic license with the story. It hadn't been a blonde, or even a woman; he had just decided he wanted to do something different. It was a better story the way he told it, though.
That's what writers do. They take a kernel of truth and imagine how it might be with just a bit of tweaking. In truth, nobody at Max Fitness had ever recognized him. There were quite a few fit women about, but without a cloak of fame, Arthur didn't bother trying to compete with the younger and much better-looking male patrons.
It didn't matter. Arthur missed Wen. He was glad for her and would eventually move on, but not right now.
The exercise was a nice distraction, though. For the first time in his life, he had tried lifting weights. A kind instructor named Joel had shown him how to use the machines. Joel looked like he was in his mid-twenties and, if the need arose, could lift a Buick over his head.
The thought of exercising for exercise sake had always seemed ridiculous to Arthur. Why would someone go running if they weren't being chased by an angry husband? He couldn't see the point.
Still, after four trips around the 'circuit,' he had lived the past week with sore muscles that were less of a burden than he would have imagined. He could almost understand the attraction. Something about pain earned lent a sense of accomplishment to the whole exercise thing.
He got to the edge of Central Park, crossed the street, and went inside the museum. Arthur had been here a couple of times before. Their exhibit, Frank Lloyd Wright's Usonian House and Pavilion, was brilliant, and he knew Eric would like it.
Arthur also knew that Eric liked Kandinsky and hoped the museum still had his works on display. They had a number of fine pieces in their collection. He wandered over to the stand with the literature about current and future exhibits.