The Proof

The package lay on his doormat, slightly stained at one end.

After many months of mysterious editorial silence and inactivity, his manuscript had been returned to him.

The spreading stain on the envelope caused him a spasm of anxiety.  Suppose his words had been tainted by unknown substances? Depending on the nature of those substances, the manuscript might have to be quarantined, perhaps indefinitely. Homeland Security might get involved. 

Anthrax. Extraordinary rendition. Gitmo.

Or it might be some chemical introduced by an enemy—-he wasn’t really sure that anyone cared enough about him to be an enemy, but successful people inevitably acquire enemies—or so he was told—and he might conceivably become successful when his book hit the stands. If it ever did.

So, a pre-emptive enemy, with great foresight, had introduced a chemical substance that would erase his words from the page, dissolve the ink or whatever compound had been used, and leave his entire manuscript a bale of perfectly blank pages.

It seemed possible.

Sweating and trembling, he tore open the package.

The pages were unstained, fully covered with black type. The bundle of paper weighed less than he remembered, though. He hefted it like a frying chicken, concern beginning to bubble up again, until he remembered that his editor had warned him that the “first pass” of “typesetting” was on its way to him for “proofreading.”

This was his book in its near final form. It was up to him to comb through it like a mandrill removing nits from the fur of its mate, and pluck out the insignificant errors that still clung to his prose.

Perhaps tonight, when I have a clear time, I can sit down and really begin to address this, he thought. This was his last chance to catch any errors, make any—tiny, insignificant, hardly noticeable—changes to the text. It would really demand his full attention, his literary skill at its best.

He sat down and stripped off the manuscript-size rubber bands, carefully putting them aside for later use—office supplies were like dollar bills on the sidewalk to him—and began to shuffle through the pages. Just a preliminary scan, he told himself, just to see how bad things were.

A quick check of random pages against his memory showed everything in order.

But here was something. A typo, for Christ’s sake, a simple common word misspelled that he, his editor, copyeditor, typesetter and who knows how many other professional, highly trained eyes had missed. A fucking typo. A stain, a blotch, a taint on his manuscript and his reputation—once he had a reputation. If he ever did. It was like finding a misshapen, strangely colored mole on your dick.

Keeping his eye fixed on the typo as if it might suddenly scurry for cover, he groped for a sharpened pencil, found one, and briskly made the correction, a forceful stroke in the word itself, deleting the offensive extra letter, and a well-made symbol in the margins—yes, he knew these arcane symbols, he wasn’t completely clueless about the industry.

There. That was better.

But where there was one typo, something he hadn’t been able to see during untold iterations of the manuscript, there might easily be others.

Perhaps many others.

It was possible, after all, in this low-budget, bottom-line publishing era, that no one had really looked at the manuscript all that closely.

There might, after all, be some sort of mechanical robotic device scanning manuscript now, an automaton responsible for all proofreading, replacing whole departments of trained, experienced humans. Or perhaps the proofreading function was being outsourced to non-English speaking countries, for reasons of economy.

The manuscript could be riddled with typos, rotten with them, about to collapse like a termite-infested shack.

He leafed back to the opening page and anxiously ran his pencil along the orderly ranks of letters in the typeset copy. Beads of sweat began to run down his spine, and a small pinpoint of sinus pain blossomed behind his eyes.

He raced through several pages without finding any egregious errors—any errors at all, in fact. The production people—noble unsung heroes of the book publication process—had found all the mistakes, and corrected them. His copy was clean.

He began to calm down, to become at any rate as calm as he ever managed to be. Reading his own words had always soothed him, no matter how many times he had read them already.

He began to read more slowly, trying at the same time to appreciate the weight and heft of his words as he examined them for blemishes, to ride the rhythm of his prose while keeping a sharp eye out for any funny business.

But something was wrong. Someone had apparently made a serious mistake. These weren’t his words, the words he had so carefully and with such infinite labor committed to paper over the course of many weeks, months, years. These were someone else’s words. Someone who didn’t really write very well, had no ear for the rhythms of prose, was by all the evidence completely deaf and stupid as well.

He couldn’t have written this shit. This was awful. This was pure dreck. A page must have fallen off the compositor’s copyboard and been replaced with the wrong manuscript. Perhaps someone had placed a manuscript taken from the depths of the slush pile down on the typesetter’s desk, just for a moment, meaning to retrieve it later and chuck it in the dumpster, and the harried, overworked artisan—whose job might at any minute be outsourced to Uzbekistan—had picked it up and begun to set it.

Unfortunately for this theory, many of the words on the page seemed horribly familiar. He could remember writing them, gloating over them, reading and rereading them.

There was no doubt about it. This was his book.

But the words had undergone a horrible transformation. It was like coming out of a drugged, drunken stupor to see that the naked sleeping person on the bed beside you was a compilation of everything you found unattractive in the human form, and smelled bad besides.

But worse. Even in his most wrongheaded sexual adventures he had always woken up next to a being of the same species. He had never come to lying next to an iguana, say, or a wildebeest.

Yet these words, these sentences and paragraphs bore no apparent relationship to what he had always believed was his own personal approach to literature. They seemed to have been sent from another dimension to mock and torture him by their resemblance to words he had actually written. They were a parody of his style, a very cruel and heartless mockery of his best efforts.

It was shit. He had written a four-hundred-page bale of crap. It was all over.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have quit the day job after all, he thought. At least shouldn’t have burnt my bridges so dramatically, telling them all to go fuck themselves and mooning the order department. That had been a strategic error.

Frantically he paged through the sheaf of typesetting, reading random selections on the theory that the really awful stuff he had stumbled on was an anomaly, a rotten passage unnoticed by himself or his editor until now. But everywhere his eye came to rest it found something deeply objectionable.

There was no escape.

How could this have happened?? he asked himself. How is it that no one had noticed until now that the manuscript was completely without merit, laughable in fact, offensively, putridly bad?? Why didn’t someone tell him to his face?

Maybe after all this was a set-up, a carefully planned practical joke designed to expel him from the publishing world and deter him from ever trying to write and publish again? Were his agent and editor and everyone at the publishing house waiting expectantly for his response, holding back their laughter and derision until the ripest moment?

Or perhaps they knew, but couldn’t help themselves. His agent, say, had gotten in too deep at the track, borrowed heavily and lost more, and was now in some serious trouble. So serious that he had taken that letter he had been saving, with its accompanying photographs and signed confessions, out of the deep drawer of the desk and got on the horn to his editor.

That’s it. It was all a scam, driven by criminal debt and fear, blackmail and worse. His editor, forced to publish a manuscript, any manuscript—his manuscript—as part of the conspiracy, his agent, a step ahead of legbreakers, blowtorchers andworse, putting the pressure on, twisting the knife. His manuscript—it could have been any manuscript, but it had been his—chosen as the excuse to move considerable quantities of money from the publishing house to obscure criminal enterprises.

His editor, of course, would kill himself rather than face up to the shame when it all came out. It would be the only course left open to him.

His agent might survive for the moment, but would never work again, and would soon be dragged under by his gambling jones and find himself in a locked car trunk, speeding into the desert.

He would be left all alone to take the blame, the shame, the derision of the crowd. His book would become a byword for the fraudulent, his name itself reduced to a shorthand reference to scandal and criminal incompetence. Perhaps it would even become a verb, to be applied in less and less relevant situations by journalists and cubicle rats until it lost all meaning and winked out, depriving him of even that negative celebrity.

He sunk his head in his hands, his elbows prodding the pile of typeset pages out of shape until it spilled across the tabletop.

There was only one thing left to do.

He lurched to his feet and stumbled across the basement—his “office” was in the basement— to the cabinet under the big laundry sink.  There was a half-gallon of barbecue firestarter in there, he knew, and he had a use for it now.

But he pulled a very diverse collection of cleansers out of the cabinet without finding what he was looking for. Dimly he remembered a neighbor borrowing the can of firestarter, promising to bring it back or replace it.

Then in the very back of the cabinet he found the bottle of rum.

It had been a gift from someone, someone who had been in the Caribbean on business, and had brought back this extra-strength, doubleproof firewater, unobtainable off the island.

The writer had never been much of a drinker. At least not anymore. It had been months, weeks, days, since he had gotten seriously fucked up.

But alcohol burned. With a hard gemlike flame. Or at least a writhing, blueish one. Dimly he recalled various flaming dishes borne by hurrying waiters past his table at expensive restaurants.

He carried the rum back to his workspace, cracking the seal off with a practiced hand, dropping the screwcap in the trash. He wouldn’t need it.

Alcohol burns.

Holding the bottle above his head, he tilted it and doused himself down with 151 proof rum. The powerful reek of it filled the dank basement room and made his head swim. He lipped the bottle and took a swig. Then he shook out a fair amount of rum over the manuscript, the tabletop, his computer keyboard. Fry it all. Up in smoke. Leave no trace behind. He took another swallow. The rum burned all right, all the way to the soles of his feet. It felt great. He took another drink.

Suttee, was that the word? A pyre, an incineration. He felt his pockets for a match.

Damn. Since he quit smoking the month—week—before he no longer carried them.

But there was a book of matches in the drawer of the desk, wasn’t there? He thought he remembered that. He rummaged through the drawer with one hand as he tilted up the bottle with the other.

Fuck it. No matches. He took another drink, killed the bottle. He wished now he hadn’t used so much of it on the desk top. Perhaps it could be licked off, or maybe blotted up with paper towels and wrung into his mouth? Use manuscript pages, that might work. But they were not especially absorbent.

It suddenly came to him that he had another bottle of rum, another gift from a different Caribbean traveling friend, in a cabinet upstairs. He lurched to his feet and made for the stairs.

Maybe some kitchen matches up there too.

* * *

Several weeks later his editor in New York received a brown paper parcel, well before the deadline. Relieved that no nagging would be required to get the proof returned, the editor tore open the package.


A powerful alcoholic miasma came out of the envelope along with the typesetting. The first few pages seemed to be missing, and the top and sides of the proof were curiously stained and wrinkled.

What the hell?? the editor thought.

He must have been celebrating.


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