Editors and Other Strangers
“Space Nymphs of Aldebaran”
“What do you figure is going to happen in the Middle East?”
“I imagine the Iraqnophobes will get together with the Sultans of Slicks; together they’ll manage to divide most of the peace dividend amongst themselves,” she replied.
“Who?” he answered, then continued, apparently uninterested in her response. “It’s time to act dammit. We’ve been letting the ragheads push us around long enough. Level a few cities, a few refineries, let ’em know we won’t take any more shit…”
“That should sadden Hussein,” she commented wryly while he raved on, spouting all the gung-ho conventional wisdom so commonplace among those who use patriotism as a substitute for rational thought.
“Nuke the whales!” She raised her fist in a mock cheer.
His words became indistinct as the din in the bar grew. At one point she interjected, sarcastically, “Life, gluttony, and the pursuit of petrodollars,” which made him pause, but only briefly. It wasn’t clear whether he didn’t understand what she was saying, or if he just didn’t think it was important. At any rate it was obvious that he did not appreciate a fine, dry humor.
They were sitting across from each other at a small bar table. She was facing me; I was alone at the next table, sipping a cappuccino. I could see only the back of his head, the shoulders of his sport coat—indistinct, like his words. After one particularly witty comment of hers, I smiled and caught her eye. When he got up and headed for the bathroom, I quickly approached her table.
Maybe I should explain. I don’t pick up women in bars. I do, however, have a love affair with words. I put myself through medical school as a writer — short stories — but I discovered that it’s a tough way to make a living. First you have to deal with the solitude and the need for self-motivation, then there’s the editors. Ugh! I’d put them on a level with intestinal parasites, except that I’m afraid I’d be unfairly slandering the worms. But never mind. I got a job with a regular paycheck after I got out of school. Thank God I had been writing under a pseudonym; I can’t imagine the ribbing I’d get if anyone at work knew what I’d done. But I still love to play with words, and the way this woman used hers fascinated me.
“Pearls before swine,” I said to her as I approached. She smiled mischievously, bright white teeth shining in her dark face. Her long brunette curls shook when she laughed, and her large, clear brown eyes stared playfully into mine. “Do you always have so much fun with your dates?” I continued.
She reached into a fruit dish in front of her, extracted a large, plump date, stared at it for one serious moment. She placed it gingerly in her mouth, smiled that mischievous grin again. Talking around the sweet, sticky fruit, she said “Mother never told me not to play with food.”
“Didn’t Mother also tell you not to talk to strangers?” I asked.
“Guess I’ll have to get to know you better. Gina-Marie.” She wiped her fingers quickly on a cocktail napkin and extended her hand to me. I smiled, replied “Paul,” and shook her slender fingers once.
“So, Paul, what do you do for a living, when you’re not hanging around bars listening for bad puns?”
“It’s not what I do for a living, it’s what I do for the dead,” I said as I handed her one of my cards. I get a host of different reactions from my cards. Some people are puzzled; they don’t know what a “forensic pathologist” is. Others are mildly embarrassed; you can almost see the images of cold, basement morgues and dead bodies pile up in their minds. Gina-Marie’s reaction was altogether different. She gave a start of recognition, surprise. It left her face almost as quickly as it came, leaving me uncertain if I’d actually seen it. It was quickly replaced by that sly smile. In a mirror I saw the man from her table emerge from the men’s room. He was looking around, trying to find a route back to his table through the crowded barroom.
“Strange, indeed. I’d love to get to know you better, Paul,” she said, seeming about to explode with mirth, “but…” and inclined her head in his direction.
“Yeah, leave with the one you came with,” I said.
“If I came with him more often, I wouldn’t be so anxious to leave him. I’ll be in touch.” More mirth, but it was clear I had to leave or get involved in some awkward explanations. I never saw what she did with the date pit.
As soon as I noticed that I was losing sleep, that I was thinking about her more than twice a day, that I kept wondering how she’d react and what clever replies she’d have to any unusual events that came up, I took quick action. You see, I’m one of those “lucky” people who have fallen in love more than once. I believe we make our own luck, so I took steps to be sure I wouldn’t make any more of kind. Fortunately I hadn’t had time to find out where she worked or get her phone number, and she wasn’t listed. That prevented me from acting before I’d recognized the Seven Warning Signs. I had some accrued vacation time, so I called the morgue and told my boss it was a dire emergency, then took a ten-day vacation at the Kahala.
The Kahala Hilton is a subdued resort on the other side of Diamond Head from noisy, touristy Waikiki. A great place to go when you don’t want a real island paradise, but the kind you pay for instead. The vacation was a dream. I was up at five A.M. every day (one of the joys of jetting westward). I would exhaust myself swimming in the warm tropical ocean, then guiltlessly eat a huge breakfast. I spent my days reading in the sunshine, and my evenings with a lovely young lady who had come along with friends of hers. She went sightseeing with the couple all day, but felt out of place with them in the evenings. The timing was perfect. She helped me get my perspective back, but we were both about ready for it to end when I had to leave. Most important, I had virtually forgotten why I came.
“‘Space Nymphs of Aldebaran’!?! Jesus!” As the answering machine played her hysterical laughter, I groaned. She continued: “it’s Gina-Marie, 385-9125, give me a call.” I snapped off the machine and was dialing her number before I even thought about it. I was horrified. Nobody, nobody outside of my accountant and my old editor knows my pseudonym. And I’ve never met the editor, never even talked to him on the phone. We handled all of our business by fax and electronic mail — he doesn’t even know what city I live in. Well, she’d discovered it. And of course she’d found “Space Nymphs.” The story isn’t nearly as bad as the title, and the title wasn’t my idea. It was the invention of that low-life editor trying, no doubt, to boost newsstand sales. The son of a bitch probably told Gina-Marie my pseudonym. Someday I’ll look him up and…
“Hello?” Her voice took me by surprise. I hadn’t thought of anything to say. I suddenly realized how much I wanted to sound witty. Damn.
“This is Captain Matthew O’Leary of the Tauruslight,” I said, borrowing the identity of my protagonist. I hadn’t read the story in eight or ten years, and wasn’t sure she’d read it at all, so I decided to work more from the title than the content. “We’ve had reports of Space Nymph activity in your sector. Confirm?”
“All’s quiet here, Captain.” She gave her voice a husky, pseudo-male quality. She’d read the story. Where the hell had she found a decade-old pulp science fiction rag? She went on: “Fleet Central has entrusted me with some confidential information. They are concerned that if it isn’t conveyed personally to you, and promptly, it might, uh, fall into unfriendly hands.” Oh, hell. Blackmail. “I strongly suggest that we rendezvous at, say, nineteen hundred thirty hours Friday.”
What could I do? I was dying to find out where she’d gotten her information, and though I was sure her thinly-veiled threat was made in jest, I didn’t dare take the chance that she might reveal my secret.
“Andreano’s at the Plaza?” I suggested.
“Aye-aye, Captain,” and she hung up.
I didn’t get the information I was after, but we had a grand time. We stayed at the Plaza past two A.M., just talking. Her evasions, whenever I chanced to ask her who had revealed my secret, were worth the price of admission. “I have my methods,” she might say, “I’ve used a nom de plume myself on occasion.” Or, maybe, “a girl’s gotta preserve some mystery, you know.” I asked where she got her talent with words. “A relatively recent acquisition. I read a lot. You wouldn’t have recognized me — my words, I mean — ten years ago.”
We were still in bed, tangled around each other, when the sun came up the next morning. When I opened my eyes she giggled, and whispered “Space Nymphs of Aldebaran.” I felt compelled to tell her what had happened, how that dirtbag editor had insisted on changing the title, and had made dozens of niggling little changes to the text. “Didn’t it make it better?” she asked, “not the title, maybe that was a joke, but didn’t all the changes, the different perspective, improve the story?”
“That’s not the point,” I insisted. I wasn’t about to concede that the creep might have been able to improve my work. I suspect, though, that she’s right. What made it so hard to take was that the changes were good. I should have seen them myself.
“Anyway, you shouldn’t be so quick to put down someone you’ve never even met. Your editor might have been a wonderful person. You really should keep an open mind, you know.” Then she kissed me again, which absorbed the next few hours until she had to leave.
So that’s how it happened. Her phone’s been disconnected, and she never did tell me where she works or what she does, and I still don’t know how the hell she found my story. But I’m sure we’ll get together again. Somehow. In the mean time, Gina-Marie has rekindled my darkest desires; I want to try writing again. My head is swimming with ideas for stories. In a few minutes, I think I’ll fire up the old fax machine and see if George Martin is still working as an editor over at Ballentine. It might be nice to meet the bastard after all these years. I have a feeling I might be in for a surprise.
— Ron Risley – 21 Aug 1990