Coffee cups and cigarette butts litter a mahogany table. You’re not allowed to smoke in the office, but I’m the only one left from the magazine staff, so I’ve allowed myself this minor transgression. The midnight cleaning people don’t care. They know me and my nocturnal, obsessive habits. A month ago, I gave each janitor a hundred bucks for Christmas. So as Morgan passes by my glass partition with a vacuum cleaner, she smiles, waves, and nods. I smile back, cough, then blow the rest of the smoke out the window.
If the soul is damp and drizzly in November, it is barren and bitter in January. The holidays, with all their forced gaiety, gratingly familiar music, hastily wrapped presents, gluttonous feasts, and family gatherings have passed and we all have dutifully returned to work. We spent too much money on useless things, and now we’re frugal. We drank too much wine, and now we’re sober. We eat too much ham, and now we’re on a diet. And the gray skies and sharp winds seem to reflect our harsh and disgruntled moods.
But I shouldn’t complain: I’m the senior editor of the prestigious literary magazine The Essay Pond. I’m 48, on my second marriage, and have two, adopted children aged ten and six. After years of diligence and patience I’ve attained this independent, respectable, and powerful position where I’m comfortably rich and make important decisions. My office is located in Mid-town Manhattan. I’m on the 27th floor, corner of the building, and look out over Bryant Park. The view is beautiful. Sometimes, I stare out at this magnificent city and think, “Yes, I’ve really made it.” Anyone would agree, including myself, that I’m living a successful, fulfilling, and honorable life.
But most achievements, on the gently rippling surface, hide the wreckage of interminable, savage, and masochistic battles. I’m a workaholic: always have been. You don’t become a senior editor without sacrificing relationships, compromising health, and melting your retinas from decades of reading. One of my consolations is the belief that every successful person living in New York City is also a workaholic. We form a sort of secret, Mason-like cult. Walking down a busy street, I’ve always felt a glowing camaraderie as I observe strained and anxious faces, dark bags beneath burning eyes, and muttering, frothing mouths.
It’s been that way since my early twenties. As an intern, I frequently picked up the slack. I never minded staying late in the office after everyone had left. I learned quickly that in the literary magazine realm your co-workers are frequently willing to give you their unfinished assignments. Such empathy! Such kindness! My nickname at my first magazine was “The Slush Puppy.” I was always willing to accept the mundane task of going through the eternally accumulating slush pile of authors’ submissions. Don’t ask me why, but I’ve always enjoyed the job in an odd, curious way. Each submission is a possibility; perhaps an incipient glimmer of the sunrise of greatness. Who knows if this next one will be the early work, the infantile gurgling, of a literary giant? Over the years, more and more of my colleagues have become disillusioned with the slush pile. They call it “the hopeless dump,” and relegate the assignment of sifting through the trash to a lowly intern. But not me. I’ve never lost hope that I can find a diamond in the rough. Perhaps I’m a romantic.
In the old days, authors had to send their stories through the mail. This provided a natural barrier to entry because not everyone is willing to go through the arduous undertakings of putting their stories in an envelope, paying for a stamp, and walking to a mailbox. Now, anyone can whimsically write a story on a computer, click a few buttons, and email their indisputably flawless art. This is why my magazine receives over 10,000 submissions a year.
When I became a senior editor, I vowed to myself that no submission to my magazine would go un-read. Perhaps this self-imposed edict is merely a relic from my slush puppy youth. In any case, my colleagues at other magazines call me stupid and old-fashioned. When a deadline approaches, they often delete the remaining submissions. Not me. I read every single one: twice.
That is why I’m still at the office at 2am on a Sunday night. A few hours ago I sent everyone home. Tomorrow, my staff will take the selected stories and begin to create our spring issue. I have fifteen submissions left to read. I smoke another cigarette and look out the window.
Lower Manhattan is teeming with bright lights. A cold wind rushes through the open window and cuts through my clothes. The noises of accelerating cars and distant voices combine to form a metropolis whir. I cough into the crook of my elbow, stamp out the cigarette, and return to my mahogany table.
I don’t have any ashtrays because I’m trying to quit and I don’t like people knowing I break the rules. My trash was already taken out an hour ago, which is why the butts are all over the table. I’ll have to take them out with me when I leave. I sit down in the front of my nicotine pyre and read more stories on my computer.
Severe sleep deprivation is catching up with me. An ache is throbbing at the back of my neck. My vision is beginning to blur. My limbs tremble. My lips are like sand paper. I hear peculiar sounds resembling a circus and wonder if I’m becoming schizophrenic. My cell phone buzzes. It’s a message from my partner: Pat:
Jimmy scored ten points in the game tonight. Mary wore her pink dress all day. Will you be home soon?
I missed my son’s basketball game tonight because I am at the office. I think of my daughter wearing the dress that Santa Claus gave her for Christmas and want to cry. I’ll have to explain myself to Pat tomorrow. I reply,
Will be home soon.
One submission left.
I always feel unduly anticipatory before the final submission. Authors don’t know that they have an unfair advantage if they are the last submission. With tingling, childish expectation I open the email and the first attachment.
Dear The Essay Pond Editor,
For the past year I’ve steadily submitted my stories to your reputable magazine. I don’t understand why you haven’t accepted them because they are very, very good. They are much better than the garbage you choose to publish. So I’ve decided to try a different method. Here I go:
I am living in grinding poverty. My life is wretched and miserable. I have no friends and I am very, very lonely. My only pleasures during the day are eating, shitting, and masturbating. I’m a dishwasher and I hate my life. My mother died a week ago and I am very, very sad. Yesterday, I was attacked on the street and robbed of my precious belongings.
My landlord is very mean to me and is trying to evict me. I have nothing left except my writing and I don’t know what I am going to do if you reject my story. Wait, take that back, I know exactly what I am going to do if you reject my story:
I will kill myself. Simple as that. If I receive another rejection from you, I will hang myself right away. Do you want my death on your hands? Can you go on living knowing that you caused my death? You can easily prevent a tragedy if you accept my work. I promise that it is a masterpiece.
If you give me this chance I will take the literary world by storm. Please please please help me out. All you have to do if put my words in your magazine.
So will you be my savior or my murderer?
I open the second attachment:
An Excited Editor
On a cold, windy, winter night an editor reads a story in a literary magazine office and it is the best thing she has ever read. The editor jumps up and down in joy. “Yes! Yes! This is it! This is the story I’ve been waiting for my entire life! It speaks directly to my soul. It is full of energy and interesting things! Why hasn’t the author been discovered yet?”
The editor prints out the pages, runs to the elevator, impatiently rides the elevator down to the ground floor, and runs really fast outside.
The city street is busy and loud and the editor is crying in ecstasy. “This story is really really good!” he shouts. Strangers stop and ask him why she is acting so crazy. “These words are like a beautiful! This story is wonderful!”
“Is it really that good?” someone asks.
“Yes! Yes! It is! Even after we all die, these words will remain for future generations to read and relish! I will make sure that my magazine prints this story right away, so the entire world can experience this bursting, wonderful, eternal happiness!”
“Hooray! Hurrah!” Everyone around the editor starts cheering, holding hands, and dancing. People start spontaneously hugging and kissing one another. The atmosphere feels like an endless fountain of love and there’s no more problems or evil in the world.
Everybody wants to read the glorious story.
“Follow me!” the editor yells. “Let’s go to Bryant Park!” A large crowd of people follow the editor to Bryant Park.
Soon, there are hundreds and hundreds of people sitting in a circle on the grass in Bryant Park. For the rest of the night they each take turns reading the story and crying at how good it is. The story is very short so everyone gets a chance to read it. An elderly man finishes it and shouts,
“I will tell this tale to my grandchildren!” A business woman in a pants suit reads it and shouts,
“I am inspired! I will quit my boring, well-paid job and pursue my dream!” A child reads it and shouts,
“I don’t understand it, but I know it’s very, very good because people are talking about it!”
Right after the last person reads it the sun breaks through the horizon. The light shines beautifully on the tall tress that are located on the perimeter of the park.
“What now?” everybody asks at the same time.
“I don’t know,” the editor profoundly replies. “All I know is that because this story exists, the world is a much, much better place.”
After the finishing the story, I sigh. Then I read it again, skimming over the last couple of paragraphs. A knock on my glass partition interrupts my thoughts. It’s a different janitor: Tracy.
“You gonna be here all night?” he asks.
“No, I’m almost done.”
“You work too much.”
“It’s what I do.”
“Have a good night.”
“You too, Tracy.” Tracy leaves and turns off the lights in the main room. I type my last email.
Thank you so much for your submission to The Essay Pond. We reviewed your story, “The Ecstatic Editor,” with interest but unfortunately we have not selected it for publication in our magazine.
We wish you the best of luck placing your work elsewhere.
The Senior Editor
With that I log off, shut my computer, clean up the cigarette butts and coffee cups by sweeping them into a bag, and kill the lights. My limbs drag as I slowly walk to the elevator. My work is done.
Inside the elevator I feel a warm blanket of blissful calm. I’ve always enjoyed riding alone in elevators. I use the time as meditation: focusing on my body and my breath. I observe the numbers as they blink during the descent. 21…17…11. My ears lightly pop.
Downstairs in the marble lobby I walk to the security guard’s desk.
“How’s it going?” I ask.
“Oh, it’s going.”
“You take it easy, now.”
“Have a good night.” The security guard smiles. I also gave her a hundred bucks for Christmas.
Outside, I pause on the sidewalk. Strangely the city feels empty and still. The sounds of the approaching traffic seem to be coming from a distance. The dark trees of Bryant Park are moving slightly in the wind. My eyes begin to water. A feeling of rapture rises from my toes and into the tips of my fingers. I live for these moments: the quiet satisfaction of a hard-earned reward after hours of strenuous labor.
For a moment, in the mist of my exhausted euphoria, I remember something about the last submission. What was it called? The Expert Editor? The Envious Editor? The Everlasting Editor? I can’t remember. And what was the author’s name? John Smith? Jackie Smith? No, that wasn’t it. Doesn’t matter. Anyway, tomorrow I begin work on the putting together the spring issue. I’m sure that will be exciting. I drop the cigarette butts and coffee cups into a nearby trashcan and walk home.
J.W. Kash lives in New York City. He has been published in The Tishman Review, The Unbroken Journal, The Vignette Review, and more. This August he will begin studying at Columbia University to earn his M.S. in journalism. More of his work can be found on his website here.