The Ghost of the Great American Novel

Once

[NYC Midnight 2013 Short Story challenge, Round 1. The assignment was to write a 2500-word short story in 1 week using the assigned genre, subject, and character. The genre: Ghost Story, subject: Caffeine, character: A Copycat. I spent a little time reading Victorian ghost stories to get the tropes down, then imagined them in modern NYC.]

The day I first stepped off that bus, a blanket of dark clouds hung over New York City. It felt like the sky was about to burst open. I had nothing but a backpack, 500 bucks, and the belief that I was going to be famous.

First thing, I sat down on the curb with a Village Voice to find a place. I was feeling lucky and called the first broker whose name I saw. I told her I could pay a thousand a month, which was a pittance here but a fortune for me.

But I knew I would hit the big time soon. I even had an agent (a friend of a friend) who was waiting to read my debut.

I’d promised a manuscript by the end of the week. I even had the FedEx envelope ready in my backpack with his name on it.

Now I just had to finish writing it.

***

My first subway ride was to a neighborhood that looked like there had been a war. It was just rows of crumbling brownstones with boarded windows and chains on the doors.

The broker showed me apartments all day, all uninhabitable: basement dungeons that stunk of fuel oil, toilets in kitchens, front doors that led to others’ fire escapes.

I didn’t know anybody and my feet ached. If I didn’t find a place today, I’d have to blow part of my fortune for some crackhead hotel or sleep on a bench.

“This can’t be right," the broker said, looking at her sheet. "You can’t get 3 bedrooms that cheap.”

She buzzed the door of an imposing building on the far west side, with its rear end facing the Hudson River. A barrel-chested man wearing a polo shirt and a lot of gold came to the door.

“I’m Bob, the owner," he said, leading us into the shadowy hall.

A sputtering fluorescent bulb overhead cast twitchy light on the peeling gray walls.

We passed a door adorned with religious bumper stickers in Spanish. A dark-eyed man peered out, crossed himself, and closed the door behind us.

"Pardon the appearance," Bob said, once we reached the end of the hall. "Last tenant lived here forever, and I can't get my super to clean it. Says it's haunted. I think he just doesn’t want to haul all that junk!"

The apartment was as long as a city block, with huge windows facing the river and the still-darkening sky. Soot and cobwebs covered everything, but the features were gorgeous underneath: rusted tin ceilings, wall sconces, crown moldings, a couple of ancient pieces of furniture, and dingy white wallpaper with a black pattern of silhouetted faces.

Stacks of papers lined the walls. There were binders, notebooks, reams of typing paper, and decades’ worth of the Times Review of Books.

“What kind of person lived here?” I asked.

"Some kinda writer. Just passed away. Maybe you’ve heard of him? James Henry.”

“James Henry who wrote ‘The Adventures of Mildred’?” I gasped.

When I was just a kid in Indiana, Henry’s novel about Bohemians in Greenwich Village had opened my eyes to the grit and debaucherous freedom that first attracted me to the city.

Bob pointed to a desk by front windows. "He used to write over there. That’s even where he died.”

I had been saddened by news of Henry’s death, only in his mid-fifties, just weeks ago. Now I was standing in the very room where he wrote and died.

"I can't get any work done in here," Bob said. "But if you’re willing to clean it up yourself, it’s a heck of a deal.”

“Decide quickly," the broker said. "Deals like this go away in a second.”

"I’ve got 500 today,” I said. “If I give you the rest in a week, is it mine?"

The owner pretended to think about it.

"When do you want to move in?" he asked.

I set my backpack on the floor.

“I just did.”

***

After I scraped together my change and ran up to the corner bodega for coffee, peanut butter, and cleaning stuff, I was tired. The place was filthy, but I was too wiped out for cleaning. I spread some newspapers out on the decrepit old sofa and passed out.

All night I had crazy dreams. Writing anxiety dreams.

I sat at Henry's desk, trying to finish my novel. Instead of my laptop, I was typing on an old-fashioned typewriter, the kind with arms that strike the page. I had written this brilliant story, but I just couldn’t get the ending on the page. I typed furiously, but the pages just came out blank.

Outside, a thunderstorm raged. Through the rattling window, I heard a shrill voice, faint in the distance, but growing closer:

“Give it to me!”

I typed more desperately as its shape flew closer, a pale, winged figure, surrounded by dozens of smaller creatures that fluttered around it like bats.

I typed even harder, until finally I heard the deathly figure crash through the front window.

The cold wind and rattling of papers woke me. The dark room was filled with as swirl of flying shapes. I swatted at what turned out to be a typhoon of papers.

I squinted to see that the top pane of one of the windows had fallen out of the frame with a crash, shattering the glass and letting the storm winds blow in.

Amid the chaos, I found a trash bag and some duct tape, which I wrestled into place against the wind and driving rain to cover the gaping hole.

All was quiet again, except for the beating of my heart and the wind rustling against the plastic in the window.

***

In the morning, I gathered up the hundreds of papers scattered around the apartment. Most of them were filled with typewritten prose. As I collected them, I noticed descriptions, characters, dialogue.

This was a novel.

It was hard to make out the plot. Something about deposed royals and lost fortunes. But the writing was fantastic.

I pieced the numbered pages together, trying to reconstruct the story. I thought I knew all of Henry’s writings, but this was something no one had ever seen.

Then I picked up a page that was completely blank, save for a single phrase typed in the center:

help me

I dropped the page to the floor.

Certainly this was just the quick prayer of a blocked writer, but a chill passed over me as I read it.

It felt like it spoke directly to me.

***

Even after the storm passed, sunlight never made it into the apartment. The place still lay in cold shadows.

As I cleaned, I stacked the novel pages in the corner of the desk, without reading them, for fear of more messages.

When I swept under the desk, the broom banged into something big and heavy. I slid the black hard-bodied case out from beneath and opened it.

Inside, there was an old manual typewriter, just like the one I had dreamed about. James Henry’s typewriter. I lifted it onto the desk. I fed in a sheet of paper and hit a couple keys, which jumped and pecked at the page.

Here’s what I wrote:

Ok, let’s write a novel.

I think someone might have misunderstood what I meant.

***

That night, I pulled my little French press from my backpack, made some coffee, and sat down to write. I pushed the old typewriter aside and placed my weathered laptop in its place.

I sat for a long time, staring at the screen and waiting for words to come. I stroked the keys with my fingertips. I adjusted the margin size. I typed half a line and deleted it.

Nothing.

Perhaps inspired by the romantic image of myself as the tortured writer, sitting in this gorgeous New York apartment throwing my novel into the waste bin one crumpled sheet at a time, I closed my laptop and inserted a sheet of paper into the typewriter.

I touched my fingers to the keys. As soon as I made contact, it was as if someone else were moving them for me, typing words for me:

help me

I jerked my hands away from the keyboard. I hadn’t meant to type that.

I touched my fingers to the keys again, and they took off:

finish my book

I shuddered. I hadn’t meant to type that either.

I just barely touched the keyboard again, when my index finger felt like somebody grabbed it and typed:

jh

What was happening?

Was this some weird supernatural thing?

Was this James Henry?

I jumped up from the desk and shook out my hands to get rid of whatever was making them move.

I wanted to run outside, but something inside me compelled me to sit down at the desk once more. I took Henry’s unfinished manuscript in my trembling hands and began to read.

***

Several hours and cups of coffee later, I knew that “The Fall and Rise of the Westerfelds” was the greatest novel I had ever read. The story of a family forced to leave its nobility in disgrace, stowing away to the new world as paupers and working their way up from the streets to build a corporate empire, touched on nearly every aspect of human existence, from love to despair to faith to mortality, illuminated beautifully through each character’s struggle.

Genius.

The combination of the caffeine, terror, and the thrill of reading something so fantastic had my heart beating out of my chest. The manuscript was so good, I wanted to throw it down and finish my own novel, but I couldn’t wait to read the next page—nor could I stand the thought of how meager my work was by comparison.

Then, just as the story reached its climax, Henry’s masterpiece stopped short:

Before he died, Mr. Westerfeld turned to her and said,

Then nothing.

I groaned.

What had Westerfeld said? The entire fate of the dynasty depended on it.

There was only one way to find out.

I slipped another page into the typewriter.

Before the mysterious force could move my fingers, I typed:

Do you know how it ends?

Involuntarily, my fingers sprang into action:

yes now i do

help me

I typed:

OK, I will.

***

The next days were a blur of coffee and typing as Henry and I worked through the final chapters. I barely ate or slept.

Those final, fateful words that Westerfeld spoke to his bride did indeed change their fortunes—and might change the fortunes of the western world itself, were they fortunate enough to read it.

It was on the 3rd or 4th day of our collaboration that I remembered I was supposed to finish my own manuscript by the end of the week.

I got up to stretch my legs and, walking by a stack of newspapers, glimpsed an author’s caricature on the front page, holding a pen aloft like a sword.

With little sense at that point of where I ended and the surroundings around me began, I saw myself, for a moment, as that famous literary knight.

It was then that I realized I could pass off Henry’s manuscript as my own.

I tried to wipe the thought from my mind as soon as it appeared. There would be no honor in posing as the author of Henry’s book. I would be nothing more than a copycat, not a real author.

But if my debut were this fantastic, they would let me publish anything I wanted after that.

I tried to choke the notion down, but it kept coming back up.

***

On the evening of the 5th day, Henry guided me to type the words:

The End.

I nodded, calmly, as I pulled the final page of the manuscript from under the roller. My heart raced as I casually placed another sheet into the typewriter, typing in my name and address at the top, then the name of my agent.

I began typing a note:

Dear Tony,

Please find the enclosed manuscript of my debut novel

When Henry broke in:

WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING?????

My fingers jumped off the keys, but my fingers got so heavy I had to put them back down. He made me type:

THIS IS MINE

Using all of my strength, I fought to type a message back:

Sorry

I quickly scrawled a handwritten note to Tony on a blank piece of typing paper and placed it on top of the stack of papers that was the manuscript.

As I fished around in my bag of the FedEx envelope, the wind blasted against the windows.

Bang! The first window shattered.

Bang! The second, then the third, one by one, until all the windows had burst. The cruel river wind howled into the apartment and tried to tear the manuscript out of my hands, but I managed to stuff it into the envelope.

The wind seemed suck me back into the apartment as I fought my way to the front door, with the envelope tucked under my arm. The wind grew stronger, smashing old flowerpots against the walls, hurling the wall sconces to the floor. I ducked the slings and arrows of flying pens and pencils as I lurched for the door.

I could only pull the door open about an inch before the pressure slammed it shut again. I braced myself with a foot against the doorjamb and pulled again.

With a clang, something heavy slammed into the back of my head. The pain shot through me like a knife. I reached back and my head was warm and wet with blood.

The wind had flung the heavy typewriter at me.

Dizzy, I lurched backward, with enough force to yank open the door. I leapt into the hallway as the door slammed shut behind me.

I stumbled to the mailboxes, and with the last of my strength, hefted the FedEx up onto the ledge, hoping the mailman would be kind enough to drop it off for me.

Then everything went black.

***

I awoke to a cold, white light.

I was in a hospital bed.

The building super was sitting in the chair.

“They say Mister Henry died trying to finish that book,” he said. “Drank so much coffee he killed himself. Looks like he almost did the same to you.”

I was too weak to say anything, just to nod my head.

***

A few days later, they released me from the hospital, and I went back to the building to break my lease. Bob screwed me out of half the deposit, but other than that, he let me go pretty easy.

“Sorry about everything,” he said. “Oh yeah, and this came for you.”

It was a FedEx envelope from Tony the agent.

“Excited to see your manuscript,” the note said. “Can you send another copy? These pages are blank.”

I pulled the manuscript out and, sure enough, every last page was completely blank.