6029

 

 Imprints

Daniel A. Olivas 

 

            Yeah, I’ll have another.  Liz?  Are you sure?  Okay.  Just one more for me.  But this time, no salt on the rim.  Thanks!

            Look at that tuchis!  So?  I don’t care if he’s a waiter.  Can’t I enjoy the scenery?  God, Liz, you are a snob, aren’t you?  Anyway, where was I?  Oh yeah.  Like I said, my routine Monday through Friday is pretty much set.  I wake up at about 6:30 and feed my fish and get the New York Times from my doorstep of my apartment and make coffee and try to wake up.  It’s been pretty empty ever since I kicked Tobias out.  God, what a name.  Tobias.  Of course with a name like that he had to be handsome, a great fuck, a poet and a cheat.  Like my Pop says, “No hay rosa sin espinas.”  You know, Liz:  there isn’t a rose without thorns.  What?  Cats?  No way.  I don't have cats because I'm allergic and besides I don't want to be a cliché:  professional single woman in her mid-thirties -- okay, thirty-nine -- living alone in New York.  With a cat.  I didn't have allergies until I left L.A. for Stanford.  That was the year California was suffering from a horrible drought.  So, for some reason, that made the hay fever season one of the worst in sixteen years or something like that.  So, my body suddenly says, "You're going to have allergies!"  And ever since then, I've been allergic to everything especially cats.  I don’t really hate them but they would be a lot easier to deal with if you could laminate them.

            Oh, thank you.  You’re a doll . . . Jeremy.  Give me the check.  My treat, Liz.

            Oh, this tastes good.  What?  Why shouldn’t I call him by his name?  That’s why they wear nametags.

            Anyway, when I went home for Christmas break that year, I couldn't even come close to our Siamese, Susie, because in about an hour I sounded like I had the flu.  Mom wasn't so happy.  She says, "Sandra, you've got to see a doctor."  Pop, being the voice of reason, says, "¡Qué va!"  Which means, "Nonsense!"  Whenever Pop gets emotional, he reverts to Spanish.

            They’re quite a combination.  Mom's second generation Irish and Pop's Mexican, born and raised in a little town in the state of Jalisco called Ocotlán.  They met when Pop came up to L.A. looking for work back in the ‘50s.  He answered an ad for a little apartment on Pico Boulevard not too far from downtown and Mom was the manager.  Pop says he fell in love fast and hard with that little redhead and Mom says that Pop was handsome and kind and spoke horrible English.  The “I Love Lucy Show” was really big back then so they had a little running joke where Pop called Mom “Lucy” and Mom called Pop “Ricky.”  Of course, Pop isn’t Cuban, but it almost matched perfectly.

            Yeah, I know.  Too cute.  But I should be so lucky.

            Anyway, professionally, I’ve been using my Mom's maiden name, Olson, instead of Ramirez, because I didn't want to be pigeonholed with any of the houses or their editors.  I didn't want them to see me and think, "Oh, she must be pushing the next Cisneros, Villaseñor or Anaya."  If I have a good manuscript by a Latino or Latina writer, I want to push it without any baggage like that.  Well, maybe I am being a little sensitive but I talk from a life of experience, girlfriend.  Like when I got into Stanford and Mom took me to the Bullocks Wilshire to get a bunch of new clothes and the goddamn saleswoman says to Mom how nice it is that she’s taking her maid out shopping!  Just because I’m dark like Pop.  But Mom keeps her cool and calmly says that I’m her daughter and that I got into Stanford and how I’ve been an A student all through Immaculate Heart High and all that.  The saleswoman blushes six colors of red and that was it.  I know that sounds stupid, but the publishing business is just like life in that way.  It’s not all that logical.  Just look at the New York Times Bestsellers List.  Does the list make sense?  Case closed.

            Are you sure you don’t want a sip?  Okay.  So, like I was saying, my routine is pretty much set.  After getting ready, I take the subway and get in my office by about 9:30 or 10:00 and my three college students are already working away reading proposals and synopses and putting all those unsolicited manuscripts into one of three slush piles:  HOPELESS, VERY HOPELESS and FORGET-ABOUT-IT!  If I only knew how this business worked when I was trying to get an agent for my first novel -- my only novel -- I doubt I'd have gone through the trouble.  After sending it to about sixteen agents and receiving sixteen very polite form rejections, I decided to do a focused submission to a few small presses and got it published.  It didn't do too badly.  Well, it didn't do so great, either.  So, I'm a literary agent now.

            Anyway, once I'm in and get another cup of coffee and grab a bagel from a huge pink box that one of my favorite students always brings in – Celeste is her name, I just love her –  I start calling editors, leaving messages and looking into the status of some of my "hot properties" –  I hate that term – and then it's time for lunch.  After lunch, I've got to get the submissions ready so that requires getting the troops away from reading the mail to start Xeroxing and set up packages to get out to Federal Express by 4:00 to various editors.  I'm out the door by 5:30 or 6:00 and back in the subway.  I never read new proposals or manuscripts while at the office. That's for home – at night – and on the weekends.  No, I’m not complaining.  I’m trying to tell you about Robert.  I’ll get there.

            Lunch.  Pop doesn't understand why I call lunch the mother's milk of my business.  "Mi hija, lunch is for relaxing.  Otherwise, your stomach can't digest," he always says.  "But not in my business," I always answer.  "I make most of my deals at lunch."  I know he'll never understand – or at least he'll always pretend not to understand.  He works hard as a mechanic at, you know, the Rapid Transit District or the Metro or whatever they’re calling it now.  And he knows when he has to work and when he can relax and eat.  Poor Pop.  And I make three times his salary but I think I don't work as hard as he does.  But he's proud of his only "hija" – his daughter.  It could have been worse, he knows, because my cousin Isabel was one step away from being in a gang and her mom, my Aunt Gloria, had to pick up and move out of L.A. to the San Fernando Valley.  And it worked, thank God.  Isabel finished high school and has been waitressing at Jerry's Famous Deli for a few years now and is really doing okay.  But Pop is really proud of me.

            So, lunch.  Today, I had lunch with Robert from an imprint of one of the major houses.  My brother, Dennis, the baby lawyer, hates that word "imprints" because, as he says in his deep lawyer-like voice:  "They're 'subsidiaries.'  Why would anyone call them 'imprints'? It sounds like you’re pressing flowers or something."  Dennis is so sincere about such things.  What do you mean he’s right?  Oh, all you lawyers stick together.  Where was I?  Oh yeah.  Robert used to be with Random but left a couple years after that horrible purging – you know –  when André Schiffrin left.  I like André so much.  A mensch!  Anyway, Robert left and there was a rumor that he was involved in André's leaving but I don't believe it.  Robert has a lot of faults but lack of loyalty is not one of them.  But I'm torn about all this because Random gave two of my favorite writers HUGE deals and their books have been on the New York Times Bestsellers List  hey, sometimes the list makes sense – so I like André AND Random.  And those two writers are Hispanic, too.

            God, these mini-quesadillas are great!  You can have the last one.  Are you sure?  Okay.  But I gotta’ get to the gym tomorrow morning.  Anyway, I hate that word.  “Hispanic.” It's so government-talk and sounds like antiseptic white liberal-ese.  No offense.  My two Random stars are Chicano and Chicana.  And Random signed them.  ¡Bravo, Random!  But I like André so much!  My Catholic guilt is showing.

            I’m getting  there.  Today was my lunch with Robert.  Sometimes he reminds me of a character from Updike, you know, when Updike is taking his digs at the way publishing has become and comparing it to the old days.  Robert's been in the business for almost thirty years but he keeps up with the times and knows how to package a property and get his imprint on board.  He always sees the movie or television angle of manuscripts.  Truly goddamn amazing.  Sometimes, though, he sounds so cynical dissecting a property and trying to figure the angle.  That's when Updike is one hundred percent right on.  But I like Robert.

            So, I got to the restaurant right on time, 12:15, but Robert was already there.  The maître d’, Alejandro, is this gorgeous Puerto Rican guy who looks great in a tux and he just loves me.  Says I look "muy triqueño" – you know, dark the way he thinks beautiful women should look.

            “How’s the novelist?” he says as I walk up to his little podium.

            “Muy bien,” I say.

            He smiles and points over to Robert.  “The old man is here already.  Want me to walk you to your table?”

            “No thanks,” and I head to the table as I press a twenty into Alejandro’s waiting hand.  Why not?  He’s nice and he always squeezes me in.  So?  If he wants to get into my pants, so what?

            Anyway, Robert sees me and stands up to give me a too tight hug.  He says, "Sandra, that dress looks great on you."

            I like compliments but Robert always goes just a little too far.

            "It shows off your curves wonderfully!  Been working out?"

            See!  So, I ignore his leer and say, "What?  This old schmatte?"  Why do you laugh when I use Yiddish?  Come on, Liz.  Everyone does.

            Where was I?  Oh, yeah.  Robert's on wife number two – no, wait – number three and he can't help but flirt.  He's not bad looking.  Third or fourth generation German.  Thin.  Very thin.  His hair is all gray now but he has lots of it and it looks great.  He kind of reminds me of Peter O’Toole but with better skin.  He’s shorter than you’d expect.  With me standing five-foot-eight, and then add my heels, I tower over him.  And he wears these beautiful suits.  God!  You just want to rub your hands all over the fabric so badly!  Don’t give me that look, Liz.  I don’t want to sleep with him.  Jesus Christ, it’s always sex with you.

            Anyway, even though I start sitting, Robert says, "Sit, sit.  I've already ordered for the both of us.  The halibut.  Your favorite."

            Shit!  I think.  I hate it when he orders for me.  I had halibut once and told him I liked it so now he thinks that I must have it every time we eat there.  All I wanted was a little salad after my splurge last night.  No comments, Liz.  I’m allowed to splurge two nights in a row.

            So, Robert continues:  "And I've ordered a small mixed for you, too."

            Goddamn him!  But I smile and say, "Robert, thank you.  You're so thoughtful."

            Okay.  So, I'm a chicken shit.  Anyway, we go through some old business and he's actually very well behaved.  Eventually the salads come and we start to get to some new stuff.

            "Robert, I have a wonderful new writer for you," I say.

            "Oh?" he says.

            "He's written a beautiful short novel."

            "You mean a 'novella'?  You know nothing under 50,000 words sells.  Can it be expanded?  How many words is it now?"  God, of course I know how a novella is defined.  But he likes to lecture.  So, time to re-group.  How do I bring him in?

            "It's longer than The Old Man and the Sea.  About as long as Remembering Laughter."

            His jaw literally drops.  He says, "Jeesuuus Christ, Sandy, you're getting Phi Beta Kappa on me.  Hemingway?  Stegner?"

            So, I back off and think fast:  "Okay, okay.  How about The House on Mango Street?"

            "All right, that's a little better but Mango Street was a total fluke and you know that.  So, how many words?"

            Did I leave that last remark stand unchallenged or did I move on?  Maybe a salad fork shoved gently but firmly into his left eye would have been good.

            I say, "It was a great book.”

            Robert gives me a look that says, “Give it up, girl!”  So, he presses on.

            “How many words?”

            “Twenty-seven thousand plus."

            You know, Liz.  Point of View.  Oh yeah!  You lawyers are worse!

            Anyway, I answer:  "First person in the prologue and epilogue -- through the eyes of the grandson reminiscing and then third person omniscient for the intervening chapters."

            "Title?" he asks.

            "The Courtship of María Rivera Peña."

            "Catchy.  Sort of like The Courtship of Eddy’s Father."  Robert closes his eyes as he says this.  The restaurant grows hotter and noisier and I notice other agents sitting talking to other editors.  And we’re all trying to ignore each other’s presence.  What a goddamn business.  Robert eventually wakes up from his trance:  "Should be shorter, though.  How about, The Courtship of María Peña?"

            I say, "No, because the name 'Rivera' has symbolism to it.  Besides, that's not how Mexican names work."

            "Symbolism?"

            "Yes.  'Rivera' means 'riverside.'"

            "Go on," says Robert as he puts more food into his mouth.  For a thin man, he sure knows how to eat.

            "And her husband-to-be is named 'Isla.'"

            "So?"

            "You know, 'riverside' and 'island.'"

            "Oooohhh.  Good.  Very good.  Cute."

            Robert always likes things like that.  Good  boy, Robert.

            And then he ruins it:  "I like that.  And it kind of evokes Geraldo Rivera, too."

            You like Geraldo, Liz?  God, why are we friends?

            Anyway, he says, "Okay.  Ethnic writer?"

            "Yes.  Hispanic."

            I know, I know.  But Robert can’t deal with terms like “Chicano.”  Liz, when in Rome. . . .

            "Go on," Robert says.  Then the waitress comes by with our lunch.  Someone else swiped my salad before I realize what was happening.

            Anyway, I say, "Imagine a smaller Joy Luck Club or Roots."

            Robert’s face lights up like my computer screen.  "There's that kicking fetus of a mind that I know and love."

            Damn!  That's a test!  Who wrote 'kicking fetus of a mind'?  I couldn’t remember. Woolf?  Hemingway?  No, not Hem.  Stein?  Who was it?  Oh, yeah!

            "You shouldn't steal from Fitzgerald especially from an unfinished manuscript."

            I know I’m good, Liz.

            "Now, that's my Stanford Phi Beta Kappa talking," he gushes.

            Yup.  Don't mess with my bad ass.  Anyway, he’s interested now.

            "Movie potential," Robert continues.  "Could Edward James Olmos play the lead?  I like him.  He made 'Miami Vice.'"

            Maybe a fork in each eye would have been appropriate.  What?  You agree with him?  That’s not the point, Liz.  Oh, never mind.

            So, I go along for the ride because he’s interested and I say, "Yes, Olmos probably could play the lead when the protagonist is a little older.  After he's married.  And Los Lobos could do the soundtrack."  As I say this, I scrape at the halibut with my fork pretending I was trying to get under one of Robert’s eyelids.  Yeah, I know I’m a little sick but that’s how you avoid doing things like that in real life.

            Anyway, then there’s silence.  Just the sound of Robert chewing on his duck intermingled with the din of the lunch crowd.  He always orders duck.  Then he startles me.

            "Can't think about it.  I'm on a self-imposed moratorium on ethnic writers."  As he says this, he lifts his glass of  ice tea to his lips but doesn’t drink.  He just holds it there, suspended like it was hemlock and he knew that it would be his last drink.

            I didn't know what to say!  A hot property was a hot property!  Robert didn't care who wrote the book as long as it was good and could sell well.

            "What do you mean?" was all I could manage to say.  I felt deflated.

            "I'm getting a reputation."

            "What?" I sputter.

            Then he starts:  "I'm getting a reputation with some people-on-high as a promoter of ethnic writers and that's not the rep I want.  Too limiting.  It also makes me look too liberal.  Someone like Rush would never come to me.  Remember what happened to André?  That’s why he was shown the door."  I swear to God he said it.  And he puts another piece of duck in his mouth.  I tell you, I could've shat right there.

            So, I say, "So, what?  You're a success.  Your books sell.  What more do they want?"

            Robert starts to smile.  Slowly at first.  Then a full-faced, goofy grin and then laughter.  I think, what the hell’s going on?  Did he finally lose it completely?

            “Gotcha’!" he says as he lets out an uncharacteristic snort.

            I think, that little son of a bitch!

            And then I say, "Robert, you son of bitch!"

            He wipes a tear from his eye because he’s been laughing so hard.  "Sandy, you've got to lighten up a bit,” he says.  “You've brought me wonderful projects and almost a quarter of them are ethnic.  They've done pretty well.  And, even though you're nothin' but a white girl, you're my best source for that kind of work."

            What did I say?  I said, "Half white."  No shit.  Guess I was just pissed.

            "What?" he stammers.

            "My father is Mexican.  Born in Mexico.  Mom's Irish."  And I let out a big breath.

            Robert froze for about twenty seconds.  At first he realizes that his little joke hit closer to home than he planned.  Then I could see him searching his memory for any racist remark he might have said.  Did he ever use the word "spik”?  I think he couldn’t remember anything so he looks relieved.  Then he searches my features to see if he could discern my hot Aztec blood.  His face suddenly lights up.

            "I should have known!  I see it now!  That's why you're so beautiful in that exotic way.  Not quite white, not quite ethnic."

            Oh, God, I think.  Not this shit.  Hey, Liz, you don’t get this stuff.  It gets old after awhile.

            Robert then says, "Why do you go by 'Olson'?"

            And I explain.  And the more I explain, the madder he gets.  Finally, he says, "Sandy – if that's really your name. . . ."

            Ouch!  He knows how to throw ‘em.

            "Sandy, do you know how many Hispanic agents there are in New York?  Huh?  Do you?  You could be one of a handful and you go by 'Olson'!  That's plain stupid!  By the way, what is your father's name?"

            I say, "Ramirez."

            "Beautiful!" he almost yells.

            Then there’s silence, which is very unusual for Robert and me.

            "Look," he begins slowly.  "I'll read that novella.  I feel exhausted.  It's very strange to know someone for eight years and find out she's really someone different."

            Robert can be so dramatic sometimes.  But I like that about him.  Anyway, as we finish our lunch, we talk about our lives instead of projects.  Though he's a flirt, he suddenly becomes more relaxed, more serious.  No, Liz, it wasn’t just an act.  He got real.  So, I learned that his daughter from his first marriage was just finishing at Brown and was interning for one of the houses.  His son was doing great in high school.  Very athletic.  Football, for Christ's sake!  His current wife, Marilyn, started writing short stories and one of them was just accepted by Glimmer Train Stories.  It’s one of those literary journals that are piled all over my apartment.  Anyway, Robert looks so full of pride as he tells me how it was her very first submission.  And – I couldn't believe it! – Robert has a 60,000-word novel on his hard drive at home but he's never submitted it to anyone!  It's loosely based on HIS great grandparents’ trek to the United States from Germany and their settling in the Midwest.  So, I encourage him to submit it to André and he laughs and says that I shouldn't think that he hasn't thought of it.  When we finish our lunch, he looks at me with eyes more like my father's than that of a fifty-five year old sex maniac.  Really.

            So, we eventually get up to go and Alejandro gives me a little wink as Robert and I walk out.  Robert flags a taxi for me even though I’m quite capable of doing it myself but he’s just that way.  We hug, without a word, and I hop in and Robert closes the door with a quick flick of his wrist.  And I head back to my office to make my West Coast calls before those folks went to their lunches.  But first, I went to talk to my secretary.  I’m getting there, Liz.  I know it’s late.

            Anyway, I say, "Ray, could you order some new cards and stationery?"

            Ray looks up from his daily Swiss on Rye with lettuce and lots and lots of tomatoes.  He always has little treats waiting by his sandwich.  Today, he’s lined up six miniature Mounds Bars to the right of the telephone looking like little parked cars.  A can of Diet Coke stood watch over it all.  He gives me a mournful look that’s hard to take seriously especially with his shaved head and very chic goatee.  When he interviewed with me two years ago, he had nicely trimmed blond hair with a part on the side and absolutely no facial hair.

            He says, "Why, Sandy?  I just ordered them."

            "I want my name to be changed."  No shit, Liz.

            And he looks bewildered.  "To what?"  As he says this, Ray puts his sandwich down for emphasis.

            "To 'Sandra Olson Ramirez.'"

            Suddenly, Ray perks up.  "You're getting married?!?"

            I know.  I laughed, too.  But you know Ray.  Always hopeful.  Always old fashioned.

            So, I say, "No.  I'll explain later."  Then I reach down to Ray’s desk and pick-up some manuscripts that had been delivered during lunch – while slyly swiping one of his Mounds Bars – and head to my office to start making my West Coast calls.  Okay, that’s what happened today.  All right, all right.  It’s not such a big deal to you, but to me it is.  Hold on.  Let me put a nice tip here for, what’s his name?   Jeremy?  Hey, it’s my money.  Besides, Jeremy did a great job.  Okay.  Let’s go, Liz.  I’ve gotta’ get up early to get to the gym.  Hey, you know who just joined?  I saw him last week on the StairMaster.  You know, the guy from what’s that show?  The one you like.  Yeah.  That’s him.  No shit.  But he looks better on TV.


© 2002 Daniel A. Olivas

Daniel A Olivas’ first short fiction collection, Assumption and Other Stories, is forthcoming from Arizona State University's Bilingual Press.  With this collection, he was one of ten finalists in the 2000 Willa Cather Fiction Contest sponsored by Helicon Nine Editions.  He is also the author of the novella, The Courtship of María Rivera Peña (Silver Lake Publishing, 2000).  His fiction, non-fiction and poetry are appearing or forthcoming in dozens of journals including Southern Cross Review, Exquisite Corpse, THEMA, The Pacific Review, The Raven Chronicles, Red River Review, to name but a few.  His fiction and poetry are featured in several anthologies including Fantasmas: Supernatural Stories by Mexican American Writers, edited by Rob Johnson (Bilingual Press, 2001), that includes his story, The Plumed Serpent of Los Angeles, which first appeared in Southern Cross Review.  He received his degree in English literature from Stanford University and his law degree from the University of California at Los Angeles.  He practices law with the California Department of Justice specializing in land use and environmental enforcement and makes his home in the San Fernando Valley with his wife and son.

olivasdan@aol.com

 


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