Thomas Beller

“Scratch my back,” she says.

I commence scratching.

“To the left,” she says.

I go left.

“The other left.” she says. “Up. Higher. Down! Oh! A little to the right, under the shoulder blade. Yes! Oh God!”

Then her body relaxes and the emergency is over. In the realm of back-scratching I am beneficent. I am a giver. It feels great to be a giver of something you have to give, like scratching.

This important domestic duty out of the way, I commence my day, which leads me to the offices of Open City, the literary magazine I edit with a small team of colleagues. The office is a tiny room located at 225 Lafayette Street, an old bank building; the doors to every office are frosted, and many of them have the firm’s name written in gold letters, and walking down the long, winding hallways, the floors buffed to a sheen, you feel like you might be paying a visit to a private detective sometime in the ‘30s. But the building’s tenants are not exactly living in the past. Here is how Sam Lipsyte described the place in his story collection Venus Drive, which is Open City Books’ second title:

The building where I work used to be a bank. Now it’s lots of little start ups, private suites, outlaw architects, renegade CPA’s, club kids with three picture deals. It’s very artsy in the elevators. Everybody’s shaved and pierced in dainty places. They are lords of the tiny telephones, keepers of the dogs on battery operated ropes.

The Open City  office is occupied on a daily basis by Joanna Yas, the supertalented managing editor of the whole book/magazine operation. She is very on-the-ball, Joanna, but aside from Alecia, the intern who comes in twice a week, there is often no one there but her, so I make it a point to come in a few times a week to try and keep the place lively and get things done. Today’s task involves perusing the galleys to our next title, Megan Daum’s spectacularly witty and insightful collection of essays, My Misspent Youth. We’ve only recently started doing books, and it’s going very well. Sam’s book is a hit, and our first, David Berman’s Actual Air, was, by poetry standards, a best seller. (Sample line: “I remember Kitty saying we shared a deep longing for/ the consolation prize, laughing as we rinsed the stagecoach.”) Both Berman and Lipsyte were the editorial calls of Robert Bingham. He was two for two, really, on the books.

I briefly contemplate the slush pile, which we keep in a wicker basket. Sometimes I’ll spend an hour or two drifting through the stories in there, scribbling curt notes of rejection and resisting the temptation to say too much in them; the fact is that most writers get form letters without any evidence a human actually having read the thing, and if you read something long enough to know why you don’t like it, you have, even if just for a moment, become a kind of scholar of that person’s work, and there is the temptation to hold forth on it for a bit. The problem is that to write a long letter, or even a short note, often provokes so much excitement in the recipient—who may have been sending out stories for years without having a heard a word from anybody—that they then immediately send you their life’s work in rapid installments, none of which you are any more interested in publishing than the first one. But I usually write a few lines just the same.

Today though, out of laziness or having other things to do—including a ton of mrbellersneighborhood.com related stuff; I now think of the Neighborhood as Open City’s bastard, nonfiction cousin—take a pass on the slush pile. Joanna and I talk about the lineup for the next issue; she shows me an art project she likes which consists of drawings of underwear and reminds me that I still haven’t read a previously unpublished Ford Maddox Ford story, “True Love and a G.C.M,” (Sample line: “Instead, he let himself go in a denunciation of Gothic architecture.”) that, several months ago, I’d felt triumphant in getting my hands on. One of the strange preoccupations of mine, ever since we started Open City, has been seeking out the unpublished work of dead writers. We’ve published Cyril Connolly, Richard Yates, Jerome Badanes, Alfred Chester, and Gregor von Rezzori, among others, and we’ve been talking about anthologizing them in a book called The Open City Book of the Dead. Joanna informs me that Kip Kotzen, one of our contributing editors, feels that it’s a terrible title. My own big concern is whether we  should include some work by Bingham.

Then it’s time for lunch. It is a very unusual lunch in that Joanna and I are taking out Vestal McIntyre, the author of a story called “Octo,” which appears in our current issue. We found the story in the slush pile. It is almost certainly the best thing we have ever found in the slush pile, and possibly the best piece of writing we ever published. It’s just a great story.

What happened was this: Daniel Pinchbeck, my co-editor, and his girlfriend had a huge brunch one Sunday for the purpose of trying to get through a mountain of slush. We had all sorts of people who had been involved in the magazine over to his girlfriend’s house for a kind of slush-reading brunch. At one point Betsy Schmidt got up and left abruptly. She was pregnant. She said I should have a look at this one manuscript she had just read. She had written a note on it saying, “I don’t know if it’s just hormones but I think this story is great.”

It was a 34-page story about a slightly disturbed 12-year-old and his pet octopus, Octo. By Page 18, I was moved and amazed by it and convinced it should end there and already formulating my case for cutting the second half of the story. Then I read the second half of the story. It had been a cold day in January, the sky white with clouds, and at dusk it had begun to snow. We raced out to my car and drove to the address on the cover letter. There was no phone number and he was not listed. He had submitted the thing six months earlier. For six months “Octo” had sat in our slush pile! I was terrified that he had sent it elsewhere. We pulled up to Rivington Street; he seemed to live in a huge school building that had been converted to apartments. We found his name, buzzed, and stood there while snow fell in fat dry flakes around us. It was very exciting. But no one was home. Then Vanessa Chase, who was part of the search posse, spotted the name of a college friend, who was home, so we first paid a brief visit to the friend who greeted us at the door with a look of confusion and slight embarrassment to have been dropped in on, and then we went to Vestal McIntyre’s door and I shoved a note under it saying please call, we want to buy the story. His roommate called later that evening and said he would call from work, which turned out to be the graveyard shift at Florent, a restaurant that is open until 5. Sometimes it’s a wild scene of club-goers and transvestites and outré tourists, but it was Sunday and snowing and when I burst into the place it was empty.

“Where’s Vestal McIntyre!” I bellowed at the maitre d’, who clutched his menus to his chest, looking alarmed, and said, “I’m Vestal.”

I introduced myself. No, he had not sold the story elsewhere. Yes, of course we could publish it. We drank champagne and toasted and I sat there at the counter talking and talking about what a great story it was while he put his hand on his chest in the self-deprecating manner of a beauty queen who has been paid a compliment and laughed. Later on he showed me his tattoo. On his back was a huge tattoo of an octopus.

Our lunch was very nice. We had red wine and salad nicoise, and Vestal was his usual calm, civilized, demure, and charming self; he told us of his temp work at an advertising agency copy editing; what he’s working on; the novel that his agent is sending out. I encouraged him to write more stories.

“But aren’t collections of stories almost impossible to publish these days?” he said.

“Well, I think I can say with certainty that Open City books would be interested.”

We all laughed, and I felt like a big shot. When we came outside of the restaurant he unlocked his bicycle, which was locked right next to my bicycle. We each had these blue-and-orange Open City stickers on our bikes. It was like Team Open City. I gave him a mrbellersneighborhood.com matchbook and patted him on the back.  All these trinkets and souvenirs and ceremonies! Anything to compensate for the fact that the money is so paltry, and you can’t really do anything for another writer but wish them luck. We all shook hands, and then our star author biked home.