Forbes knew he would have to borrow the rest of the money. He still had a few “clients,” and he gave one of them a call.
The client’s name was Willie Jay Lee and he published the Georgia Traveler, a digest-size magazine given away at welcome centers and hotels around Atlanta. Forbes’s job consisted of rewriting press releases from all over the Peach State about the interesting and fun things going on — all over the Peach State. Remember local interest?
His favorite feature was one he had written about horse-drawn carriage rides. These were all urban affairs, and his favorite was Colonel Palm’s Carriage Rides in Macon. Colonel Palm was a real person, not just a trademark — the sort of factoid that Willie Jay Lee liked to call An Historic Figure. He had held the largest cotton auction in the antebellum South and been shot dead in a duel. Grateful slaves had carried him to his resting place, because, the owner told Forbes, “Colonel Palm was a good master.”
Forbes loved that line because he knew that, although it was another instance of the things that make “Southern culture” a contradiction in terms, nobody would get the joke but him. Maybe Benny at the Buckhead Loan was right — Forbes really was a nigger, someone had just turned the white side out.
He had met Willie Jay Lee while drawing unemployment, aka The Un. To prove himself deserving of The Un and in conformance with the Poor Laws, he had to apply for three jobs every week, which he did by mailing out one resumé a day, Tuesday through Thursday, to companies listed in the Atlanta Media Guide, a yearly compilation issued by a local public relations firm. When Forbes reached the G’s, Willie Jay Lee liked what he saw.
Forbes had always suspected something dubious in the characters of men who had two first names — Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne, Michael Anthony — and Willie Jay Lee had three of them, like Lee Harvey Oswald.
“Well, sir, how much would you charge for this sort of thing?” Willie Jay said as they sat in his office in the appropriately named MONY Building, overlooking I-85 and the Masonic Temple on what Willie Jay always called Historic Peachtree Street.
Forbes sat across from Willie Jay’s beat-up old wooden desk in his raw-silk-and-linen jacket and said, “My usual rate is forty dollars an hour.”
Willie Jay smiled and smiled and said, “Well, sir, I dont think I can afford that.”
“Then,” Forbes countered, “how about ten dollars a page?”
Big smiles. “Well, sir, that sounds more like it! Yes sir, that certainly does!”
Willie Jay Lee could not imagine that an experienced prostitute like Forbes could turn six pages of this sort of copy in one hour; and so he wound up paying sixty dollars an hour because he could not afford to pay forty.
Willie Jay was seventy-two, and in his younger days had trod the boards of Atlanta Little Theater playing Rhett Butler in local productions of Gone with the Wind. Like most Southern businessmen Forbes had known, Willie Jay was a combination of the Old South and the New, i.e., twisted racism restrained by greed. He had a razor-keen eye for the dollar, sharpened by years of hard-bargain-driving at estate sales and auctions, where he had accumulated a treasure trove of this and that — an original etching signed by Henri Matisse, the cover sheet of Charles Ives’s 1st Symphony autographed by the composer, an artist’s pallet once owned by Norman Rockwell — all of which he kept in a tiny apartment off Peachtree Street on the way to Midtown.
Willie Jay always got a charge out of explaining how the Traveller worked, as though he had invented trade press publishing all by himself. He was mystified when Forbes asked to see his editorial calendar, and, as Forbes tried to explain the concept of a schedule of issues and their themes, coupled with a projection of planned articles, collectively referred to as The Editorial Calendar and used to inform prospective advertisers of the prime times to place their promotional notices, the realization slowly dawned on him that Willie Jay knew next to nothing about actually-existing magazine publishing. He had figured out the whole chore on his own, from scratch, and what he had not personally invented did not exist.
Willie Jay had an assistant named Pam Bamfurd, an obese Republican hysteric who believed that The Real Uhmerica had lost the Civil War and called Halloween “a Satanic rite.” Pam believed that she alone kept the Traveller on course, when it actually seemed to Forbes to get along, like drunks and the United States, by God’s grace, aka luck. Every time Forbes talked to her, she would say, “Mister Connolly, I am having the worst day of my life!” and he gradually came to understand that Pam truly did comprehend her existence as a procession of steadily worsening days, a trip in babysteps to the eighth circle of Hell, a voyage to the bottom of a bottomless pit. When he tried to explain the editorial calendar to her, she said: “How’s Willie Jay supposed to know what we’re gonna publish six months from now?”
Along with all her Southerner’s ignorance, fear, and superstition, Pam also displayed the same linguistic quirk Forbes had found among so many magazine professionals — she spoke of what we published in our magazine.
Forbes felt he could not afford to think about us.
Willie Jay’s target audience was people who come to Georgia for fun, a trip Forbes never could quite fathom once he had stopped drinking. He himself never went beyond the city’s perimeter highway — that is Erskine Caldwell country out there, Jacques, Hazel Motes territory, Bubba fucking his cousin in Smyrna and dark deeds with chickens in the outhouse, Percy Grimm throwing Joe Christmas’s testicles over his shoulder, teasing nihilistic Southern blondes, Cobb County Republicans feeding on their young, and, presiding over it all, Christ of the Appalachians, a monumental poured-concrete statue of the Son of God near the southern end of the Trail, so tall the FAA required that a flashing red warning light be mounted on His head. “Best seen from the air,” n’est-ce pas?
The Traveller was what Southerners call meaningful work. It meant that all the wars fought by Southerners were, tragically, absolutely necessary. For Forbes, it also had a more personal meaning: as a writer, you are a failure.
And, sitting at his desk staring at the telephone and calculating how much of an advance he might ask of Willie Jay, Forbes acknowledged again that he was indeed a failure. There followed a searing, reassuring flood of self-pity, and he knew, again, that he had not yet gotten past his failure. For, since he had not died from the failure, it had to be a bridge leading on to something else, and he longed to be truly Elsewhere, and he also knew that his self-pity was at least part of the fee to get there. The feeling was “the price to pay,” as Chick of the Many Years would have said, ever ready with a commercial metaphor for Life Itself. But Forbes preferred to think of his self-pity as the defective reaction to the real, the obvious, the true, a feeling he would have to finally transcend in order to experience some more appropriate response — response as in responsible, he thought, as in able to respond.
What form this response might take he did not know yet. (Yet was an important word with Forbes. He always remembered the night, years before, after a meeting at the DADA Club that Chick had asked him, “Do you believe in God?” and he had said, “Not yet, but I’m going to.”) So he knew that, barring death, he would cross his bridge, travel his personal trail of self-pitying tears to an end that was in fact another beginning, because there was always a beginning again, whether he wanted one or not.
He had not wanted to begin again at the beginning, nineteen years before. He had not wanted to stop drinking. Rather, he had wanted the drinking to work: he had wanted to drink and stay sober. But he knew, as all drunks eventually know, that this goal was, in two words, Im Possible, and thus he found himself rolling around on the dirty carpet of Mickie Huston’s living room at three in the morning on a Saturday, crying because he could not drink.
“Could not drink”?
Where had that come from?
Years later, the uniqueness of that situation came to him, that he had been in pain to the point of tears without reaching the point of drink. A first in his little life. Aka: sobriety. He had not, while rolling around hysterically on the carpet, noticed. Nor had he wanted such a beginning, a mindless yawp, out of control. Who would?
And now, here, he had failed all over again. He sighed, sitting at his desk, looking at the phone, recalling all the times that he had had to borrow money when he drank. No wonder he was a failure.
But at least he had failed after Herculean effort, in a failure it had taken generations to produce, the distillation of the denial of two Confederate bloodlines, refusing in their hearts of hearts ever to surrender, though beaten objectively, ever to cry mea culpa, though proven full of will and sin, the kind of convoluted reasoning that takes brain cells and twists them in upon themselves, calling forth from areas of ethanol-induced brain damage a phantastic delirium of troublemaking boogie men, night riders and other spooks haunting the Gothic imagination of The South: outside agitators, spy rings, enemy agents, Nigger Jew Communists, unUhmerican activists, Islamofascists, and all other foreigners, all opposed to our heroic death squads, our valiant wet boys, human degenerates subverting law and odor, defying our Confederacy’s voluminous body of little nujolneeding-there’s-a-reason rules, devised with ouija and proven by algebra, cunningly framed to ratiocinate away the vote, the choice, the unpleasant real, the unwanted true, the painful, obvious guilt.
All of which, Forbes thought, was what sent young Quentin Compson screaming from his Harvard dormitory into the iron cold New England dark crying I dont hate the South! I dont! I dont hate it!
But that’s only because he has not seen it lately:
But, Forbes reflected as he reached for his phone, we’ve got trouble here in the City of Jefferson, Luster has taken another wrong turn again and thus is our sleep troubled by adolescents in oversexed cars nightly roaming the pill villages to scary African beats, smoking cigarettes, chasing shots of NyQuil with Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer, pushing over mailboxes en route to a pool party where they tear to pieces young Robbie Calliope, aka The Kid From The Other Side, first knocking him unconscious and then passing the evening, in the words of our family newspaper, “urinating” on the body. Leave it to Beaver. Robbie had a choice, you know. He could have been murdered at home. Personal responsibility, see?
What? What’s that you say? Can you speak a little louder?
I DO! I PROMISE I DO! I DO HATE THE SOUTH!