After I updated my last blog to note the death of Norman Mailer, it occurred to me that I had a letter from him kicking around in a box upstairs. It was 1975, I was 25 years old and beginning to be frustrated, trying to get in the door with a first novel. I had decided that the thing to do would be to form a publishing collective and publish each others' works on a small scale, which isn't really such a bad idea as long as nobody has high expectations of having it mushroom into a real business. (The flaw, of course, is that you would have to assemble a group of people whose work on some level deserved publication, which would require you to become roughly as selective as the system you were rejecting, but never mind.)
Of course, today, you'd just throw your stuff up on the Internet and be done with it, but in those days, it would require some real money to print novels, and I had the idea of a Tupperware party, hosted by Norman Mailer. Which is also not a bad idea, except, as you will read above, he declined to show up. But he had a flair for the ridiculous and for self-promotion, and he might well have done it, and it was worth inviting him.
Anyway, that's the context of the above letter, which you will be able to read if you click on it to enlarge it.
If that topic weren't enough to get me thinking about my non-career as a fiction writer, looking for the letter certainly did, because before I found it, I came across the folder of rejection slips from my two novels. Many were form letters, but a fair number were real letters, with praise for my writing, always followed by "however ... "
I've said that I'll have to keep working because I retired at the start of my career, and it's true enough -- I took about 15 years to try to become a professional fiction writer, during the course of which I found that I was good enough to get personalized rejection letters, but not quite good enough to get published. And, meanwhile, I also discovered that there were other modes of writing at which I was really quite good and that I enjoyed.
I've also said that it's good that I wasn't trying it in this age of the Internet, because I would have put my novels up on the 'Net and I'm glad they're in boxes instead. They really weren't good enough and I'm really much better at what I'm doing now.
However, for anyone curious enough to slog through 4,500 more words, here's what the kind of writing that gets personalized rejection letters, and nothing better, looks like. The first version of this story was written in 1976, this is probably a draft from about four years later, I would guess. And it's not bad. I've corrected a few spelling errors, but nothing else, and the only note I would add is that the reference to "Jerry and Linda" is to Jerry Brown and Linda Ronstadt, who were an item for a time back then.
So, here's a little portrait of a 30 year old author who had begun to make money doing other sorts of writing and would shortly direct his energies in those directions. And the title of the story really was "No Regrets."
Durham made Danny think of Beth. A lot of things made Danny think of Beth, but especially Durham. The town just didn't come up often enough to have any other associations in his mind. It was her town.
Now he sat at his desk, turning a pencil in his hand, pushing the point down into the pad in front of him and letting his fingers slide down slowly, then lifting it so that it swung eraser-end down and he could push the eraser into the pad and repeat the process in reverse. He had been doing this for about fifteen minutes, aware in the back of his mind that it probably wasn't the most productive thing he could be doing at the moment, but thinking more about Beth than of anyone who might glance over and wonder at his diligence in pushing and turning a yellow pencil for a quarter of an hour.
He should be on the phone to Roberts Electric, talking to someone there about a bid they had made on the Sioux Falls project. He couldn't find the letter and couldn't remember the name of the person he had talked to originally, except that it was a guy and his last name was Kinney. He didn't remember that, either, but he had the bid figures in front of him on a memo he had written for his boss, with the Roberts bid circled and, in his boss's cramped, round, schoolboy hand, the notation "DS — Call Kinney and sound him out."
That was how he knew it was a guy named Kinney. His plan was to call Roberts and ask for Mr. Kinney and hope that Mr. Kinney answered his extension with his first and last name.
Toward that end, he had gone down to the company library and looked up Roberts Electric in the Durham phone book. Then he looked up Beth Rossiter, just on a whim.
She had a listing, under Elizabeth Rossiter. So she hadn't gotten married, or maybe she had and was still using her own name. Or she was divorced and had taken it back. Or something. Still in Durham, anyway. Her parents' listing was three names below hers, still at the same address, same phone number. Of course, she wouldn't be living there. Not at thirty.
Danny looked up at the clock on the wall. Two-forty-five. It would be a quarter to six in Durham. Kinney had probably packed it up for the night, unless he worked nine to six. He could still make the call, since the company had a WATS line and it wouldn't cost anything to find out how late Kinney was working that night. Most likely, he was sitting at his desk wrapping up something or other and keeping an eye on the clock while he tried to finish up and get out at six. Unless he was a young guy, a kid, trying to better his position by working until seven or so every night.
Danny had done that for awhile, when he was first on the job, tried to "better his position". He found that the best thing to do was to hand his boss something at about five minutes to six, when the old man was about ready to leave, and then make sure there was something fresh on his desk when he got in the next morning, so that he'd realize Danny had been working late again. Then he discovered that he could just do something during the day and hold on to it for later. He'd hand in whatever he had done in the afternoon, as always, right when the boss was on his way out the door, and then he'd slip the hoarded piece onto the guy's desk and go home himself about ten minutes later. Someone should tell Kinney about that. Someone should also tell Kinney that neither method had produced much results.
What was she doing still single? He hadn't the foggiest. He could eliminate things, of course. Whatever it was, it was something you didn't have to be married to do. Another triumph for deductive logic, he told himself, wondering if there was anything that only married people could do. Besides get divorced. He realized that the only way he was going to find out was to dial the number and ask her.
"Beth isn't here," the cool but friendly female voice would say. "She'll be back Thursday, can I take a message for her?"
"Well, I'm kind of an old friend and we haven't seen each other in about ten years. What's she doing these days?"
"Ten years? Wow, that's a long time! She's flying for Eastern Airlines..." No, scratch that. "She's flying for United Airlines. I'm her roommate, but we're on different schedules. She's out in Sacramento now."
"Sacramento? No kidding? Hey, that's where I'm calling from..."
No, she wouldn't be a flight attendant. Not Beth, not by a long shot. She'd already seen enough of the world, and, anyway, she wouldn't be a stew. Not that she wasn't pretty enough. They'd have used her face on ads and posters and everything, if they'd had somebody that beautiful flying their friendly skies.
She sure was pretty. He flipped the pencil a few more times, just thinking about how pretty Beth was. That had made it tough, sometimes, but not the kind of tough you really mind very much. Guys would check her out and then kind of size you up, and then check her out again. Back then, it wasn't such a touchy issue, checking out girls, but Beth had always resented it. She wasn't one of your late bloomers. Guys had been checking her out since she was twelve years old. She hated it.
"Feminist Socialist Alliance House," a stern voice would say. "Amy Solidarity speaking."
That would kill him. That whole political thing had been such a waste, that whole thing she'd gotten caught up in after they broke up, that whole bunch of idiots. He'd been active, but back when there was some sense, some taste, a little class. He didn't begrudge her the activism. But those fools who talked about "our brothers in Cuba" and "our brothers in North Viet Nam" and all that, those socialist parasites with their berets and goatees and old military jackets and big trust funds, that was a real bunch of jerks. She started going out with that smirking dilettante who edited the campus paper, Dave Corrado, with his briar in his cheek and that stupid, smug, "I'm above all this" expression on his face as they sat at the tables in Rourke's while their friends ate pizza and plotted the overthrow of their mommies and daddies.
Hadn't the political thing died out when she broke up with Corrado? Or did she break up with Corrado when she lost interest in politics? He took the pencil in a firmer grip and began to doodle, drawing a face, beginning with the eyes, then nose, mouth, outline. He added hair, a moustache and beard. No, she broke up with Corrado because she was tired of Corrado. Anyway, he had heard about Corrado. He was in Chicago, editing some local magazine and winning awards. Award-winning Dave Corrado. Award-winning Dave wanted to get married right after graduation, but Beth wasn't having any musical chairs, thank you. Circle all, and marry the person you're dating when the music stops. She was too smart for that old trap. Still, she wasn't perfect.
"Hey, sorry to ring you up so unexpectedly. Are you busy now?"
"I'm just putting dinner on the table for the kids, but I can talk. I've just got to get Jason and Jennifer fed early so they can get to their ... " What? Kids don't go anywhere at night, not on a school night. "I wanted to get the kids to bed early, so I'm feeding them now."
"I was. Not anymore. After five years, he just walked out on me." Wait a minute. Who in his right mind would walk out on Beth Rossiter? "I had to leave him after five years, Danny. He was married to his job. I was just a showpiece, the cute little executive wife. It was strangling me. And then he started drinking ... "
"I'm sorry, Betsy. Gosh, that's rough. Are you okay now?"
"It's better. I'm okay, I guess. I've got a job and my mother watches the kids during the day, so they don't have to be left with a stranger. I had to move back here, of course. Oh, Danny, I've made such a mess of my life!"
Well, maybe one kid. Not two. She didn't even want kids. She wouldn't have two.
Anyway, she wouldn't tell him that she'd messed up her life. She'd be plucky or distant, maybe, but she wouldn't cry on his shoulder. Distant, yes. Very likely.
"Oh, hello, Danny."
"Well, how's it going?"
"Very well, thank you. And yourself?"
"No regrets. I'm married, you know."
"I didn't know that."
"Yeah. Almost nine years now. You?"
"I was. Not anymore."
"Gee, Betsy, I'm sorry."
"Nothing to be sorry about. It didn't work, that's all. Happens to a lot of people."
"I just meant I wanted you to be happy. It must have been kind of rough, going through, you know..."
"Not really. We just decided to call it off. We got a no-fault divorce and the whole thing was over very quickly. It's a fairly streamlined process these days."
"I suppose. Still, the process is a little painful at some point, I would imagine."
"I'm a big girl now, Danny. I'm not nineteen anymore."
"Right. Well, I'm glad you're doing well."
"I'm doing quite well. Look, are you in town or something?"
"Um, no. No, I'm out in Sacramento."
"Well, why did you call? How did you get my number?"
"I just looked it up in the Durham directory and there you were. So I thought I'd give you a buzz and just see how you were doing these days."
"And have you satisfied your curiosity?"
"Good. Good-bye, Danny."
That one was pretty likely. Boy, she could really turn on the old coolers when she wanted to. When they broke up, or, really, when she told him to get out of her life, boy, she was like ice for months. Polite, but icy. He tried to talk to her, but he always ended up feeling worse than before. Nothing got past that armor of hers. They would talk and nothing would get said. He'd keep trying to get things rolling and she'd keep heading them off.
She'd say there was nothing to talk about, that it wasn't anything he had done, that she still thought he was an alright guy but she didn't like feeling like a possession. That was what she kept saying. A possession.
What a crock. He'd never treated her like a possession. Sure, he didn't like it when guys ogled her, but she didn't like that, either. And maybe he liked to stay in in the evening instead of going to some party or something. And, yeah, he wanted some kind of commitment from her. But not marriage or anything, not yet. Just, something. She kept asking if he wanted to give her his high school ring or let her wear his letter sweater or something. She could be really sarcastic when she didn't want to talk about something. All she would have had to do was to somehow let him know that it was okay, just tell him that she loved him once in awhile. He could have backed off on it a little, if she had just given him some kind of sign.
She couldn't do it. There was something about her that couldn't make any sort of commitment, and it drove him out of his mind. Take, take, take, that's what it felt like.
Finally, he told her that. She told him that she was giving just by being there, by being around. Yeah, right. Taking is a form of giving. And then she replied that giving could be a form of taking and he accused her of twisting words to be clever and she said that he was taking from her by insisting on giving so much, so ... what did she say? So publicly? No, but something like that. Ostentatiously? Unyieldingly? Something. But she said he was draining her and sucking her dry and reducing her to less than a person. And he said that he was trying to give her a chance to be more than a person, to be a part of two people. And then the next day, she called him to tell him it was all over and she couldn't take it anymore and he shouldn't come around her place but they could still be friends like before they started dating.
Boy, that was really something. He pressed down too hard with the pencil and snapped the point off. He picked up the tiny graphite cone and tossed it into the wastebasket, then glanced up at the clock. Three-thirty?
Good grief, he'd been sitting there for an hour. Kinney was gone by now, and even if he was still there, the switchboard would be closed down for the night. He'd have to get in early and try to catch him before he went to lunch. Eight would be eleven there. That would work. He glanced around the office and saw everyone else working away. He tossed the pencil aside and picked up a felt-tipped pen and a pad with some notes on it, then opened one of his binders to a page with some meaty looking specifications. He sat back in his chair, cradling the pad on one leg and trying to look as if he were studying the figures.
Of course she wanted to be loved. Everybody wants to be loved. It's just that she was afraid of being vulnerable, afraid of being hurt. Why couldn't she trust him? He didn't want to hurt her. He kept reaching out to her, but she was afraid, afraid to be loved, afraid to love. And she was still single.
"Danny? Are you here, in town?"
"No, no. I'm in Sacramento,"
"That's so far away." Come on, she wouldn't say anything that corny. "Sacramento? How did you find me?"
"Just looked you up. So, how've you been?"
"I'm all right, I guess. It's been a long time, Danny. I've thought of you."
"I've thought of you, too, Betsy. I've often wondered whatever happened to you, and I thought, well, hey, what the heck, give her a call and find out."
"I'm glad you did, Danny. I had no idea where you were. I've asked about you from time to time, when I ran into somebody from school."
"I'm not in touch with too many of those people any more. I get a card from Bucky and his wife at Christmas, but that's about it, and usually there's just a note, you know, a sentence or two. Other than that, I'm just not in touch with anybody from school."
"I've thought about you, about us. I've thought about the way things turned out and I've tried to understand why. I guess it was all my fault."
"Oh, I wouldn't say that, Betsy. It was just one of those things. Wrong time, wrong place. If we'd met somewhere else, maybe later in life, well, who knows, right? But don't blame yourself."
"I do, though, Danny. I can't help it. I was just so selfish, so insecure. I keep thinking that if I had just tried a little harder."
"Well, we were pretty young. Nineteen, twenty, you know, that's pretty young to be taking on such a major commitment. But it was good while it lasted, Betsy. No regrets."
"I wish I could be that philosophical about it, Danny. I really do. I just loved you so much. I guess I still do. I know I should have told you then, but I'm telling you now."
"Hey, listen, Betsy, I think you ought to know, I’m married."
"Oh, no, Danny!"
Right. And he'd give her the letters of transit and send her off in the plane and then he and Claude Rains would walk off in the foggy drizzle together. It was right alongside California sliding into the ocean on the list of probabilities, anyway, Beth Rossiter breaking into tears on the phone. If she was regretting her life, she wouldn't be sitting around thinking about it and weeping and wishing things were different. Something else. She'd take some indirect route, something self-destructive if she was all that twisted up by the way her life had gone.
"Danny? How did you find me?"
"Just looked you up in the book."
"I thought maybe someone had given you my number."
"No, I'm not in touch with anyone from school."
"I didn't mean someone from school. I just ... you haven't heard anything about me, then?"
"No, I just ran into your listing when I was looking up ..." In the background, he'd hear a loud, slurred voice. "Hey, baby, hang up that thing and get back here! I want to have a little party!"
"Danny, I have to go now."
"Beth, are you all right? What's going on there?"
"I'm fine, Danny, really. But I'm very busy..." and then the voice would come on the line,
"Look, Buddy, call her some other time, huh? I'm only in town one night and I'm on kind of a tight schedule, understand?"
Naw. Not Betsy. Couldn't happen, or, at least, not like that. Maybe some rich tycoon type, sitting there in her place, smoking a cigar and drinking a brandy and waiting quietly until she was finished on the phone.
No, that was absurd. Just because she's single and beautiful and has her number in the directory doesn't mean that. There are a lot of reasons why a pretty girl would still be single at thirty.
"Oh, I haven't been able to get around much since the accident, Danny, but I'm learning to do a lot more for myself, you know? Living alone has been such good therapy, and they say that with a couple more operations, I may regain the use of my ..."
This was getting ridiculous. Danny picked up the phone and dialed into the WATS line, punching out the number he had written down. He heard it ring, across the country in Durham.
"Hello, Betsy? Dan Shevlin."
"Well, hello Danny Shevlin. A little voice from the past."
"Yeah, I thought I'd give you a ring. It's been ten years, you know."
"Ain't neither of us getting any younger, Danny Boy. You sound really long distance."
"Oh yeah? You see much of Jerry and Linda these days?"
"Not since they broke up," Danny laughed. "No, I was looking up the number of a company we're thinking about doing some business with in Durham and just for the heck of it, I looked you up and there you were."
"Well, I'm glad you did. Who are you involved with down in this neck of the woods?"
"Roberts Electric. They're a little manufacturing outfit that is bidding on a project for us."
"Oh, sure, I know Roberts. In fact, I'm working with them myself at the moment."
"Really? What are you doing with them?"
"Oh, they're expanding a little, building a new plant outside of town and I'm helping them find a site and get the paperwork on it all lined up."
"What are you in, real estate?"
"Yeah, I've been doing it for a couple of years. You know I went to law school?"
"Tell you the truth, I haven't heard a word about you in years."
"I kicked around for a year or two and then went to Madison and picked up a law degree. My boyfriend and I had a practice down here for awhile and then, well, we handled a couple of commercial projects for some clients and decided to go into it full time. In fact, he's down in Charleston tonight, putting together a kind of industrial park deal with some people down there."
"Sounds like the big leagues."
"Probably sounds bigger than it is. It pays the rent, though, and it's better than trying to compete with the four million lawyers that seem to have shingles out in every town in the country. So what are you doing?"
"I'm in procurement for a company out here."
"Oh. What do you procure?"
"Whatever they need. I kind of coordinate materials for various projects. Take bids, check out specs, negotiate here and there, and then I make recommendations to the people who do the actual accepting and rejecting."
"Is that a good thing to be doing?"
"Ah, well, you know. A lot of it is pretty routine, but you're dealing with different people, different companies each time, and the projects are fairly diverse, so it keeps you thinking."
"Really hate it, huh? Why don't you quit?"
"I can't do that, Beth, come on."
"You always were hung up on propriety. So you bought the old Protestant Work Ethic, huh?"
"No, it's not that. But, heck, I've got a wife and two kids depending on me."
"Two kids? Danny, you've got two kids?"
"Sure do. Six and three. Boy and girl, Terry and Deirdre."
"Ah, there's a good Irish lad. But listen, they love you, don't they? Your wife and the kids?"
"Sure. Sure they do."
"Make yourself happy, then. That will make them happier in the long run than to have you breaking your back in some job you hate. It’d be better for all of you, you know?"
"I suppose, but, well...you're still single, huh?"
"Is Smokey the Bear a Catholic?"
"Well, you're in a different mindset. No kids..."
"I assumed that. I just meant, with no kids, you can afford to take an idealistic view of things. You don't have the kind of responsibilities I’ve got.”
"That's what I'm talking about, Danny. Responsibilities. If that family of yours is together at all, they must see that you aren't happy working as a procurer."
"I use another term whenever I can. So, then, it's just you and your boyfriend out there, huh?"
"Yeah, Danny. Just the two of us, and our horses."
"You finally got your horse, eh? That's great, Betsy."
"A dozen of them. We raise Morgans, show them, sell them. It's just a hobby, but it keeps us off the street.”
"Hey, that sounds fantastic. You must live on a farm, then, huh?"
"No, Danny, we live in a condominium apartment in town. Fortunately, there's a large service elevator and the doorman is really good about walking the horses every morning."
"All right, all right."
"So, any chance of your ever getting out this way?"
"Oh, I kind of doubt it. You aren't exactly sitting at the crossroads of America, you know."
"Not from out there, I guess. We see people from school, though, sometimes, driving through on their way to Florida. We're not totally out of the way."
"Out of mine, I'm afraid."
"You never know. If you ever do wind up traveling this direction, stop in, Danny. We'll pour you a drink and show you around the place."
"I'd like that. I don't know how likely it is, but who knows?" He paused a moment. "Well, I guess I'd better get back to the salt mines."
"That's right, it's still work time out there, isn't it? Goofing off, Danny?"
"They let me take ten minutes or so off once in awhile if I want to. But I really had better get back to it. Not like you real estate bums, work two hours a day and then go out and play with your horsies."
"You ought to get a license, Danny. You might find you like being a real estate bum."
"I'll take it under advisement, counselor. Well, I'll call you again in another ten years."
"Don't make it that long."
"I won't. Promise."
"Good. Well, I'm glad you called, Danny, and, seriously, if you get out to the seaboard anytime in the future, I expect to see your smiling face down here."
"You will. So long, Betsy."
"Bye, Danny. Thanks for calling."
"Yeah. Take care." He hung up the phone and looked at the clock. Seven-fifteen out there.
Kinney would be gone for sure, unless his idea of "bettering his position" included acting as night watchman.
Well. He could clean out his drawers a little and maybe find that letter and then call Kinney in the morning. He pulled the wastebasket closer and opened a drawer. There was a lot of stuff in there that could be thrown out, and the rest of it really needed to be better organized. That was his real problem. If he just got his desk set up so that he could find stuff, he could get back to work on the Sioux Falls project then without getting bogged down with little companies like Roberts Electric just because he couldn't find the stupid letter. He couldn't be as productive as he ought to with that mess in his desk. Papers all jumbled together, you couldn't tell what was in there and what wasn't. It was ridiculous.