Read Mortal Lock Online

Authors: Andrew Vachss

Tags: #Collections & Anthologies, #Mystery & Detective, #Fiction, #Suspense, #Thrillers, #General

Mortal Lock (2 page)

I thought a lot about Mr. David because I was trying to come up with a solution for my problem, and I thought he might have the experience to help me.

My problem was the editor of the paper. She was a fat, pasty-faced toad, with frizzy hair and thick ankles. Outside of the paper, she was so marginalized that you wouldn’t believe she could squeeze her disgusting presence into that tiny bit of space. But when it came to the paper, everybody always gave in to her, because she did just about all the work.

That made her really valuable. If someone turned in a pile of slop, Amanda would fix it up for them—even if she had to rewrite every word. That meant a lot, especially to the crowd who needed every extracurricular activity they could grab. They were obsessed with getting into the best colleges, and they knew grades and SATs just weren’t enough. Their competition always had more than that to offer, so they needed more, too.

They were always saying Amanda was a real lifesaver. Saying it
to
her—I don’t what they said about her at the cafeteria tables where she knew she’d never be allowed to sit. Or even if they ever mentioned her at all.

But to me, Amanda was no savior, she was a roadblock. She changed
everything
I turned in. I would get it back, all marked up. The first time, I told her I wasn’t going to rewrite it. She hadn’t made what I wrote better, she’d just changed it to be what
she
wanted it to be—she was in control, and she wasn’t letting anyone else join that one-member club.

She didn’t like me saying that, I could tell. But she didn’t lose her temper or anything. She just said everyone on the paper had
to be edited, and if I didn’t “go through the process,” my article would have to be spiked.

I knew what that meant—Mr. David taught what he called “newspaper vocabulary” to all of us. He was the first person I ever heard use words like “byline” or “jump” and expressions like “above the fold” or “column inches.”

I couldn’t
stand
the thought of anything I wrote being spiked—it would be like the spike going into my own body. So I made all the changes. Every single one. Because we were so close to deadline by then, I had to make them with Amanda looking over my shoulder, watching the screen.

I wanted to spike her eyes.

3

Nothing was going to change until Amanda graduated. A whole school year away. I couldn’t live with her having so much power over me for that much time. I couldn’t let her keep changing everything I wrote. It was like she was slicing pieces off me. If I didn’t find a way to stop her, there would be nothing left. Not of my writing, so … not of me, either. By then, there was no dividing line.

I knew I could never say anything like that out loud.

Nobody would ever understand. And if I tried to explain it, they’d probably want me to see some “counselor.” That’s when I started to plan.

I waited a few weeks, then I took one of my articles home with me, all marked up with Amanda’s “editing.” By then, she didn’t watch me make the changes in front of her anymore—she knew I’d do whatever she said, even if she didn’t know why. So when I told her I’d bring the article back to her the next morning, all fixed, she believed me.

I waited around for the stupid Debate Club to be over. Then I asked Mr. David if I could talk to him for a minute. I asked if I could meet him somewhere off campus. To talk about something in private. Anywhere he wanted, but … well, it was kind of an emergency.

He didn’t even look surprised when I said that.

He drove me to a coffeehouse. Not a Starbucks, a real coffeehouse. It was all older people there, and the music they played was old. I guess it was, anyway—I’d never heard anything like it before.

The waitress knew Mr. David; she didn’t even ask him what he wanted, only me. I asked her if I could have some green tea. She waited for a few seconds, like she expected me to say something more, then she walked away.

That’s when I showed Mr. David my article. It was about a boy in our school who had gotten a perfect score on his math SATs. That kid was in a wheelchair. What I wrote about was how everyone knows kids in wheelchairs sometimes develop really powerful arms—one part of their body doesn’t work, so they compensate by building up another part that does. But the barbed point of
my
piece was how important sports are in high school, and how this boy knew he could never be part of that. He hadn’t just wanted to fit in; he wanted to excel. Arm-wrestling wasn’t a school sport, so he found another way.

My piece was supposed to be all about his perfect score. But I wrote it about how that kid didn’t like the place people wanted to put him in, so he made one for himself. And then he rolled his wheelchair right into it.

Mr. David read it right there, sipping his coffee. Not too fast, not too slow … the way a real editor reads, not the way a teacher grades.

When he was finished, he looked over at me, but he didn’t say anything.

“I know I must be doing something wrong, Mr. David,” I said. “Every time I turn anything in, it comes back looking like this.”

Then I handed him Amanda’s edits. “The thing is, I can’t figure out
what
I’m doing wrong. I mean, I always make the changes she tells me to, but they never make sense to me. This isn’t an ego-thing; I just want to improve. I need to be the best writer I can possibly be. But how can I learn to be a better writer if I just keep changing what I write without ever knowing why I’m doing it.”

“Doesn’t Amanda explain her edits to you?”

“I … guess she does. I mean, the first few times I asked her, she said some things. But she only used adjectives, and those are … well, flabby. If someone says they want to change what I wrote because it needs more punch and they don’t tell me what ‘punch’ is, I can’t get better. And I
have
to get better.”

Mr. David gave me a look I didn’t understand. I waited a long time, but he didn’t say anything. So I did.

“I’m not criticizing Amanda,” I told him. “She must know a hundred times more about writing than I do. I’m just … embarrassed, I guess. I mean, how come I don’t get it? I
try
. I read her edits over a dozen times, but I still can’t see how they make whatever I wrote better. So I know I must be missing something.

“I need to find the key, Mr. David. Because if I can’t unlock the door, I can’t get inside the only place I want to be. The only place I truly belong.”

“Surely that’s not the school newspaper, Seth?”

“No, sir. I want to be a writer. I want the best writer I have in me to come out. I know how important it is to learn from others. But if I can’t even do
that
, how can I ever hope to …?”

Mr. David sipped his coffee again. Took off his glasses and rubbed his temples. Then he said something to me I never forgot:

“You’ll get better at it, Seth.”

“But how can I get better if—?”

“Better at manipulating people,” Mr. David cut into what I was
saying. “You just keep practicing.” He sounded sad when he said that.

He drove me home without saying another word.

4

Amanda never edited another of my pieces. She just ran them exactly as I turned them in, word for word.

Mr. David never spoke to me again, except in class, and then only when he had to.

I was sorry about that. I had learned so much from him. One of the books on the “optional” list he handed out is where I first read about how some editors have a need to mark their territory. The book called it “pecker tracks,” but I knew that was probably a real old expression, from before women were in positions of power. Like editors were.

5

The literary magazine in college had an editor, too. But she didn’t believe art
should
be edited—she would say things like “Kerouac and Corso showed us all the way.” I thought what they wrote was some kind of drugged drivel. But everything in her magazine—and it
was
her magazine, the same way the high school paper had been Amanda’s—was “art.” And one doesn’t judge art. At first, I thought she was being sarcastic. But she was worse than stupid; she was a believer.

By then, everyone knew what a gift I had. But they saw only the part I wanted them to see. I had to hide the other one.

I wasn’t just a writer; I was a researcher. I could scan gobs of material really quickly, and weave it into whatever I was writing. So getting an A on a short story or an essay, that was nothing.
But for something like a term paper—one where they counted the footnotes without actually reading them—I needed my second gift … the one nobody knew about.

6

After I graduated, I had to make a decision. Not about being a writer—I
was
a writer—but how to find the quickest way to force others to acknowledge it.

I was accepted by every MFA program I applied to. But I applied only to make my parents happy; I wasn’t going to spend any more years of my life getting some credential that wasn’t good for anything except
teaching
writing. A few of my college professors had that MFA degree. I always took their courses, but none of them taught anything I could use … like how to get published by the best houses.

All they did was pose and posture. One of them, he was so “ironic” that he was always able to get a couple of the girls taking his class to think he was brilliant. He never saw the irony in that.

Another one, all he did was scream at students. He’d make us read our work out loud, in front of the class, and then he’d do a “critique.” After that, the class would all give “feedback.” Like the professor was the king shark, so he got the first rip, but he’d leave plenty for the others to feed on.

Once, after I finished reading, he said my story was vapid. “Writing isn’t just mastery of words,” he said. “Even the most perfect prose will die on the vine if it isn’t nourished by narrative force.”

I could feel the class nodding approval, waiting to jump in. But I was ready. I’d been waiting for it. Training for it like a prizefighter.

“Who says so?” I said to the professor. “You?”

“Well, I
am
the one who gives out the grades.”

The class laughed. A herd of sheep, bleating on command.

“Sure,” I said. “But this is the
only
place you get to make those kinds of decisions.”

The class went quiet, not knowing what to do … waiting for their next cue.

“Is that supposed to be clever?” the professor said. “Or just some deep profundity you read in a comic book?”

Some people in the class started to laugh, but they were nervous laughs, like they weren’t sure they were doing the right thing. When the rest didn’t join in, they stopped.

“It’s just the truth,” I said to the professor. “In this little class, you get to decide what’s ‘good’ writing and what’s ‘bad’ writing. But out in the world, you don’t get to make those decisions, other people do. And they already made their decision about your writing, didn’t they? Otherwise, you’d have a whole bunch of your own books published by now, wouldn’t you?”

“You apparently have some serious problems, young man,” the professor said, his face all blotchy from trying to sound blasé while he was raging inside. “Maybe the school counselor could be helpful.”

Nobody laughed at all.

After class, one of the girls came up to me. “That was the most amazing thing I ever saw,” she said. “I would have been terrified to stand up to him like that.”

“The only way you can be hurt is if you care,” I told her.

She didn’t understand what I meant until the next semester. Once she saw for herself what I meant, she dropped out of school. I don’t know what happened to her after that.

7

I didn’t want to teach. And I was sick of all the generic advice. I knew that desire
isn’t
all it takes, and “try, try again” is wasted when “again” is a synonym for “infinitely.”

What I found out is that everyone wants to be a writer.
Everyone
. Right this second, more people are writing books than reading them. They don’t understand that only a micro-percentage of them actually have that special gift.

Not that I blame people for being confused about that, especially people my age. Anyone can get “published” now. Some of them put their writing in their blogs, beyond-all-doubt convinced they have thousands and thousands of “fans.” Some of them use one of those “print on demand” outfits. Amazon will “publish” your book, guaranteed. All you have to do is agree to make it a “Kindle original.” Now any twit can e-mail all his Facebook friends with a URL that proves he’s a “writer.”

They’ve all read actual books that seriously suck, so they know the bar is low enough for them to jump over, too.

They don’t look at writing as an art. It’s not playing the violin, or sculpting, or opera singing. They think being able to do those kinds of things is
truly
special—a God-given “gift” that might take a whole lifetime to perfect. Everyone’s heard of child prodigies in the “arts.” Three-year-olds who play the piano, kindergarten kids who paint … they’re on TV all the time. But writing, who
can’t
do that?

I read a survey once: almost ninety percent of the respondents rated themselves “very good” drivers. If the question had been: “Do you have writing talent?” the percentage would probably be the same. And just as accurate.

That’s because writing has no standards of value. It isn’t measured by how many pounds you can lift. Or who is first across the finish line in a race. Those are objective criteria, uniformly applied. Writing is nothing like that. What’s “good” is what people say is
good. Only a privileged few people get to say that; the rest are entitled only to listen to their wisdom.

The
literati
rule. And the sheep obey. Even if the opinions they are told to treasure
call
them sheep.

And it is beyond dispute that any book can instantly turn from rancid to wonderful the instant someone makes a movie out of it. That’s the closest thing to a yardstick people ever have about writing. And if the movie turns out to be a hit, everyone runs out to buy the paperback of the book they wouldn’t touch in hardcover.

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