The Inscription

IMG_4348/Shelly Paul
Image by Shelly Paul

I was reading to a room full of people, when someone interrupted with a question about my first short story. I said something about being a novice writer and how I have grown ever since. When I resumed reading, the words fell out; the printed words rolled and fell out of the book. Some scattered on the podium, some on the floor, some fell on my clothing. I tried to resume the reading, but there were no more words left. I turned the pages back and forth in panic. The book had emptied out and the empty pages mocked me, ‘You built a career on stolen words, now the words got stolen from you.’

I saw staring eyes all around me. My memoir, my memoir is gone. I picked up the fallen words and tried to stick them back. The crowd roared in laughter at my desperation. They tread on the words, my words, the synthesis of my life’s work printed in exquisite words were being stepped on by hideous shoes of ordinary people, who cannot string together an erudite sentence, in their mundane existence. Please, please don’t crush my words, I plead with them to no avail. Please, don’t trample on my life, I begged, but the beasts stomped on it and destroyed the work of my life.

I woke up in a cold sweat and reached for a glass of water on the night stand. I drank it in a hasty gulp and switched on the night lamp. Two copies of my memoir sat there on the night stand; hand-stitched, leather-bound, giving off a rich sheen in the dim night-light. These were special copies custom-made just for me – cost me a small fortune. One was for me. The other, was for the ghostwriter who arranged the words that described my life to make it appear more accomplished than it actually was, more graceful than I could ever be, more magnanimous than I would ever be.

The ghostwriter – on whose words I built a career. For every book I put together haphazardly, she would coalesce it into meaningful work in a way, I could never do.

*

It was on her story, I started my career. I stole it, when it came in for submission, while I was working as an assistant editor with an obscure publisher. I was certain, that the story would give me the career break I was looking for. I made a few minor changes to the manuscript, replaced her name with mine as the author, then resubmitted it with a renowned magazine. That did the trick and started my career. With the name recognition that came with the initial success, I tried to build a career with my words. But it did not come to fruition, when the next two submissions got rejected.

The realization that the window of opportunity was closing on me rapidly, with the dream of becoming a rich and famous writer so tantalizingly close, I decided to do something drastic. I pulled out the original manuscript of the short story from its hiding place, found the address and tracked the writer down to her little apartment to discuss a simple business transaction.

I knocked on the door willing for it to open and when it did, I delved straight into the matter at hand without much preamble. I explained unapologetically how I got published, with my name on her story. Since I had connections – I continued without looking at her reaction or waiting for a response – and because I have had some success, I made her a brash proposition to be my ghostwriter. To show my generosity, I offered to pay twice the sum of money than any other ghostwriter.

I made my proposition forcefully, as I prowled around the cubbyhole that was her dwelling, waiting for her assent. She sat stoically on the edge of a cheap pullout sofa, which was the only furniture other than a pathetic looking three-piece dinette set. She stared at a certain point on the floor unwaveringly. She sat there with her downcast eyes, her thin face with sharp features, which became increasingly accentuated, with each second that passed wordlessly.

The silence stretched longer and longer, stifling the tiny room. I shattered the stillness loudly, pressing for a response. When there was none, I gave her my card and said she could contact me within the next two days, when the offer would hold. At the end of that period, the offer would be rescinded and there would be no other forthcoming. I walked out of the apartment, slamming the door shut behind me.

I waited for two days restively. Her lack of response was infuriating. At one point, my patience had worn so thin, that I almost visited her apartment once again, just to give her a piece of my mind. But, pride got in the way. Oh, that smugness. Here I was, giving her the opportunity of her wretched little life, while she was sitting there like stone, all high and mighty.

She called me on the third day to say she was willing to ghostwrite for me. I wanted to bang the phone on her, because I did not want to play her little mind games. Instead, I said, that since she called me after two days, I cannot offer her the same amount of money I had promised earlier. She said she did not want any money. Instead as remuneration, I was supposed to make two special copies of each book I published, one for me keep, the other was for her with an inscription from me.

I thought it was a ludicrous way to get paid, but agreed to it. I sent her the two rejected submissions. She worked on it and turned it into something spectacular. Both the pieces, got published under my name.

From then on, it was only a matter of time, before I got my first book published. I kept my promise to the ghostwriter and made two special copies of the book. It was a heady feeling to hold the hand-stitched, leather-bound book, pages trimmed in gold, with a ribbon bookmark in silk. The pages felt luxurious between my fingers as I leafed through, savoring my success.

It was time for me to inscribe the first book. I laid the book on the newly bought writer’s desk, pulled out the vintage fountain pen from the holder and tried to write an inscription. Nothing came to mind except gratitude for helping me write the book. But I could not bring myself to do that. What fool would admit to such a thing and jeopardize a promising career? There was no way I was writing anything of that sort. All she wanted was an inscription. I could always come up with something.

As a writer, I may not be in her caliber, but I excel at my work. She did not write the book. I did – my idea, my hard work. What did she do? Some editing, proofing? Why should I thank her for that? Seemed ridiculous. I am sure I could think of something. But I could not.

A day went by. I could not think of anything. I searched for quotes I could borrow, tried the trite phrases writers use when they sign autographs for customers who bought their books. Nothing worked.

Day followed day and the book sat there mocking me, just sat there quietly, wordlessly, scornfully, just like her. I knew she was mocking me. She did not have to say a word, I knew her every thought. Oh, I could read her mind like an unsophisticated book. What was I going to do, if I could not even conjure up a simple phrase to write in that hideous book? What would she think of me?

*

After a fortnight, the sight of the book became unbearable and I took it to her. She opened the book and saw the empty page, looked at me quizzically, one eyebrow raised in question.

I explained that I was not being fair to her and that I intended to pay. I pulled out the check book dramatically from my finely tailored suit and pulled out the pen and looked around for a writing desk. She said she would not encash the check and she did not need the money.

Biting down my anger, I tried to persuade her to change her mind. She stuck to her demand for the inscribed book. I changed tactics by offering to help her build a literary career. She could be rich and famous, in fact more rich and more famous than me. Then she wouldn’t have to toil in obscurity holed up in some building, working behind a desk. She shot me a wicked gleam and said that she enjoyed her job and that her literary work was already rich and famous.

Oh, that rankled. That smugness, that hint of a smirk, oh, it was the same expression that made me squirm, when I told her how I published her story under my name. I could not stand it anymore. I inscribed the book right there in front of her, ‘Only a fool would miss a golden opportunity’, and signed it with an angry flourish, that ruptured the page with the ink bleeding into the dedication.

She smiled a crooked smile and took the book.

*

I was determined, never to go back to back to this woman of such vile and cunning. But no matter how much I tried I could not write like her. So, when the draft for the next book was completed, I hired a professional ghostwriter to write the book. This time, there was no bizarre request. This writer accepted money as remuneration, like a sane and reasonable person who understood the transactional nature of our civilized society.

The book was a success and brought good money. But I despised it. Nothing was as good as her writing. I did not want to write another book without her wizardry.

I swallowed my pride and went back to her when it was time for the third book. She agreed with a bright smile, with the same stipulation. I tried to persuade her once more to take monetary compensation. She refused. I asked if there was anything else I could do for her. She refused with an obstinacy I have begun to accept with resignation.

In the next book, I inscribed, ‘I don’t know what to write.’ Over the years, I worked hard and put together a draft of literary work, which she would coalesce into something I could only dream of.

*

We built a professional camaraderie as time went by. My thirst for money and fame became secondary to the urge for creating meaningful works in literature. I took my time in putting together books both fiction and non-fiction.

I would hand her the best draft, hoping there would be very little need for corrections. But there were still plenty of re-writes, even though over time I improved a lot, not just as a writer, but as a person, as I tried to live up to the loftiness of the words in my book.

In the years that passed she appeared to become a little mellow and even less condescending. Yet, she showed no sign of yielding on the singular requirement for her to be my ghostwriter. I could not find another inscription and kept writing the same thing over and over again, ‘I don’t know what to write.’

When it came to my memoirs, I was determined to go it alone, but once again I found myself at her doorstep, because who knew better about my work than her.

She worked her magic again. This book was a poignant success. It was the source of pride and also nightmares filled with runaway words and mockery of empty pages.

*

I picked up one of the rich leather-bound books and opened it. The words were all still there as they should. I sighed in relief, staring at the words without reading them. Somewhere along the way I should have dozed off. The daylight peeked through the glass doors and woke me up in the bed.

I could not endure another day of appointments for book-signings and readings and this and that. At first, I thought about calling my secretary and have her cancel the appointments. But that would mean a flurry of phone calls to know why I cancelled and all this would still have to be rescheduled. The thought of that tedium sapped my strength. So, I went through the motions monotonously, without thinking.

The drive back home washed away some of the weariness. The city was shimmering with the beauty of a bejeweled woman, obscuring the dazzle of the starlit sky.

A slow realization came upon my mind, found its way to my heart and fell with a thud. I pulled into the driveway, parked the car and turned off the engine. I sat there for a long time, as a catch in my throat got tighter and tighter.

At long last the clasp released, I began to breathe easily. I unlocked the door, went straight into the bedroom, picked up a copy of the memoir and wrote the inscription:
“Dear Elsa,
Thank you for co-writing all my books. They would have never been as sublime, without your touch.”

*

I brought the book, handed it to her humbly, eyed her steadily. She opened the book, looked up into my eyes and smiled her small smile. I thought, I saw triumphant pride on her face. She thanked me with genuine warmth.

She also said, that since she was my co-writer, I will have to pay her the fair share for the book and all the subsequent ones we would be writing together.

-*-*-*-

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