“It’s a conspiracy. Well maybe not a conspiracy, but definitely an agreement. They’re all in cahoots together so that people like me…” Here he paused and looked around the table. He nodded as if making some great concession before continuing, “People like us, can’t get published.” He leaned back in his chair now and picked up his coffee with a flourish. He would have lighted a cigarette if you could still smoke in these places, and left the floor open for anybody else who wished speak.
The young woman next to him leaned forward as if to comment, carefully holding one of the many scarves wrapped around her body parts away from the pools of spilt coffee that were rapidly making an archipelago of their tabletop, then shrugged her shoulders and obviously decided against it.
She sighed the deep world-weary sigh that can only be managed by those in coffee shops of a certain age and temperament, and let a delicate frown line crease her forehead. She knew that it gave her the appearance of being pensive without marring her delicate features, as she had noticed the result in the mirror just last week while rehearsing.
She had tried it out in public for only the first time a few days ago with great success, at least judging by the reactions of the males at the table. They had given that hairbreadth’s of a marring the attention normally accorded the relics of a saint; if not actually physically prostrating themselves before it, at least genuflecting in spirit before her altar.
This time, there was something about the look that made one think there might actually be something going on behind those eyes for a change. Not that very many of them cared what was happening in her brain if they were to be truthful about the situation.
She had shown up three weeks ago on Tom’s arm, and it had to be admitted they made a striking pair. His permanently affixed look of brooding rage offset by her delicate Dickensonian match girl/waif appearance contrasted wonderfully. They looked the perfect pair of young artistic types.
Tom had confided to Sam that they had met at a party thrown by some mutual acquaintances and had immediately gravitated towards each other. Tom was sure she was going to be the one: his muse. Sam had nodded wisely, knowing better than to say anything about her being the sixth or seventh muse in the past year.
Far be it for him to tell Tom his business; Sam was still just grateful to be welcomed at the table. The Table: he remembered the first time he came into the café and saw Tom holding court. His muse of the moment to the left, and Jeff, Andy, Sue, and Eileen sitting semi-circled in front of him.
Sam had picked up his coffee at the bar and made his way to a back corner table that allowed him the full view of the shop. Tom was in full flight that day talking about art, politics, law, and art. He always came back to art and more specifically writing. It was all very intimidating to Sam because he knew he wasn’t at all like that.
What kind of writer was he? Quiet and introspective, he liked to sit in the corner and watch the world go by. Sure, he had a couple of short stories published in magazines, but that didn’t mean anything; not compared to what that guy has published, he mused.
Wanting to get out of the house after being chained to the computer for months, he had printed out a draft copy of the novel he had just finished so he could at least get a change of scenery while doing his edits. Feeling rather self-conscious, he had carefully pulled out his manuscript from the case that first day and began editing.
At one point, he had looked up and noticed Tom staring over at him in his corner. He had quickly looked down, but not before he saw Tom lean forward to the others, whisper something, and saw all their heads swivel in his direction, and back again.
He had been slightly intimidated and made a mental note to just deal with working at home; but life had other plans. After years of neglect, his landlord decided to grow a conscience and renovate his apartment. Since this meant everything from redoing floors to painting walls, Sam had to vacate the apartment for most of the daylight hours.
As his landlord had only deemed fit to tell him the morning of that work was supposed to begin, he had had no chance to make any alternative arrangements for writing. He had grabbed his laptop and the printout of the manuscript, and stuffed them both in his case. He walked out of the apartment not knowing what to do.
He saw the café just as his arm was going numb from the carrying case’s strap cutting his blood flow off at the shoulder. He took it as a sign. He made arrangements with the owner for use of an electrical outlet, and promised to buy at least a coffee every hour and one meal a day while he was there.
Sam felt he was able to concentrate on working. It was just a little after he had eaten lunch when he felt like he was being watched. He looked up to see Tom staring over in the direction of his table again. Perhaps because there was no woman on his left-hand side that day or for some other territorial reason, his face looked a lot stormier this time when he called his disciples down into a huddle.
Deciding that his place was a lot more secure now that he had made an arrangement with the owner, Sam choose to simply return to his work. It wasn’t long before he felt the not unexpected arrival of somebody beside his table.
“So, are you a writer of some sort?” Tom’s voice was coolly arrogant, as if he wasn’t really interested in the answer, but had only dropped by out of sympathy for a stranger and was making conversation out of the goodness of his heart.
Sam looked up at the turned-up nose and the eyes staring down it towards him from under a wide-brimmed Fedora: “Of some sort? Yes, I suppose I am a writer of some sort,” Sam replied with perfect honesty.
“I’m a poet,” the other’s voice took on a resonance that had been missing earlier, as he proclaimed these words. As Sam got to know Tom, he began to recognise the voice he used when talking about the craft. Some witches of course, will object to the use of the word craft in these circumstances, thinking they have sole proprietorship of self-righteously fuelled pretensions and pronouncements utilizing that word. But they weren’t the only ones capable of diminishing a word’s meaning through appropriation.
After that announcement, he had sat down with Sam and proceeded to regale him with tales of the trials and tribulations of being a writer. This would be the first time he heard about the great conspiracy to deprive Tom of the opportunity to even have has work looked over by a publisher and agent. It would not be the last.
In spite of his writing, Sam must have seemed safe enough for Tom to invite to the table, because the next day as he entered the café, a chair was proffered and room was made for him on Tom’s right-hand side. Sam had been sitting here, long after his apartment had been finished, day after day, week after week, and month after month in the hopes that what was about to happen might just be possible.
He’d stopped bringing his laptop months ago, much to Tom’s approval, but today he had not come empty-handed. He had a business-sized envelope made out in his handwriting, addressed to himself, in his pocket, which he hadn’t mailed. It contained an offer to publish the novel he’d been writing.
He’d been carrying it for a week now, in the hopes of Tom making his speech. As the new muse had yet to hear of the foul plot to deprive the world of Tom’s poetic musings, Sam knew that the moment would not be delayed much longer. Although three weeks was a long time for Tom to wait, Sam had faith that he would not be able to resist his new audience for much longer. What other excuse could he offer for never bothering to actually set pen to paper?
Casually, Sam reached into his pocket, placed the slim envelope on the table, and slid it over to lie in front of Tom. It sat there, a bright white rectangle marred only by the blocks of Sam’s neat black writing in its centre. For a second, as it became the focal point for all eyes on the table, it seemed to glow with an internal light instead of just catching the spill from the overhead track lights.
Tom dropped his glance down at it, and looked up quizzically. Sam just shook his head and indicated that he should open it and read it aloud to the table. Picking it up and removing the letter from the envelope, Tom made a presentation of snapping open the letter with a flick of the wrist.
As his eyes quickly scanned the text of the letter, Sam saw them get bigger and bigger until they almost seemed to be bulging out of his head. Finally, he threw the letter down in disgust, into a puddle of coffee. He looked at Sam and drew himself up to his full height in his chair, stretched out a trembling hand, and hissed:
“Do you know what this traitor has gone and done? He’s gone and got himself published.” Tom was livid; he was shaking so bad Sam feared he might start crying. Instead, he simply looked at Sam one last time and said, “This table is for artists only, not for published authors. Please leave; you are no longer welcome here.” He then fell back in his chair in a dramatic gesture speaking volumes of the perfidy of friends and the cruelness of the fates.
With that Sam stood up, leaned over, and picked up the letter from the table. He carefully placed it into the envelope, pushed his chair back into the table, and walked out, not looking back and never to return.