A Modest Reputation

By Nick Roth

The first comment Geoffrey received was, “You misspelled alot of words and your spellchecker didn’t pick them up because they are the correct spellings of other words.” This the commenter had handwritten, not on the little card Geoffrey had provided at the front of the book, but right across the title page, effectively destroying that particular copy. The critic’s other comments, of which there were many, all of them scribbled in tiny neurotic handwriting across the same page, could be dismissed because they were apparently illiterate; for instance, “a lot” is two words.

The second set of comments, received about a month after the first, and written on the card Geoffrey had provided, came from someone signing her name, “Leonora H,” and read, “Let me introduce you to the concept of character, Mr. Wilinski. Check your dictionary for a definition. You do own a dictionary, don’t you?” Geoffrey didn’t care for the sarcasm, nor for the cowardly act of using only an initial for the last name. It made you wonder whether Leonora’s first name was even really “Leonora” or her last name began with “H” and whether the comments had really come from a woman at all. “Leonora, Leonora,” he repeated to himself, but couldn’t think of anyone named “Leonora” with a last name beginning with “H” on his route. “Introduce me to a dictionary. Ha! Let me introduce you to my balls,” said Geoffrey as he stood in front of the little lending library—a mere box the size of a birdhouse—reading what Leonora H had written. He pumped a hand over his crotch then looked up and down the street to see if anyone had been watching.

The third set of comments came from a more discerning and perspicacious anonymous reader and complimented Geoffrey on his use of “aptly availing alliteration” throughout the book, though Geoffrey had had to reread the entire novel to find the alliteration. He’d never meant to be alliterative and had apparently been alliterative without trying. Maybe that was a good thing, but it also made him vaguely uncomfortable, because if there were felicitous literary techniques—a favorite word of Geoffrey’s—and he was using these techniques unconsciously, there were probably infelicitous ones he was using unconsciously. The comment about the misspellings was, as far as it went, true, it seemed to Geoffrey, but in a novel of 62,563 words, you had to expect a few typos of that kind were going to crop up.

“Why do you listen to what these people say? Anonymous people, people who give phony names,” Mrs. Wilinski asked her son. She refilled his big orange coffee mug, sat down at the tiny kitchen table, and tried to finish the TV Guide crossword puzzle, but couldn’t think of a seven-letter word for “gruff” that had a “q” in it.

Geoffrey sat in his mailman’s short-sleeved shirt and slate-gray shorts and picked up his mug and drank, then nibbled at the last of his wheat toast. “Who should I listen to? You?”

“Why not listen to me? Don’t I know anything?”

“Because you’re my mottttttttther,” said Geoffrey, sucking butter from his fingers and scribbling into his little Moleskin notebook, on the inside cover of which were printed his name and phone number in large block letters that it would be very hard to miss. “Of course you’re gonna say nice things about the book.”

“Your sister said nice things about the book.”

“What did I say that was so nice?” Lydia asked without any real commitment to getting an answer. She sat in her pajamas eating a bowl of Raisin Bran and watched a YouTube video on her phone of a cat being frightened by a cucumber. Lydia was a woman of twenty, thirteen years younger than her brother, and in the summers between semesters at community college she didn’t know what to do with herself except to occasionally pick some abstruse topic, such as quantum mechanics or mitosis, and try and master it by watching YouTube videos on the subject. She was fully prepared to be asked by someone, anyone, about quantum mechanics or mitosis for a few weeks after she’d taken in a sufficient number of YouTube videos, but, as a general rule, no one asked her about those kinds of things until she’d completely forgotten how they worked. Actually, most of the time, no one ever asked. Recently, the question of why cats should be so frightened by cucumbers had obsessed her, though you couldn’t very well make this a study to occupy a whole summer. For one thing, there was very little scientific data on the phenomenon. For another, it didn’t seem very likely that when the reasons behind it were revealed, that they would require much intellectual energy to master. Probably had something to do with cucumbers looking kind of like snakes.

“You finished the book, didn’t you?” Mrs. Wilinski said to her daughter.

“I finished it,” said Lydia.

“So, this in itself is a kind of positive statement.”

“Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. All’s I’m saying is I couldn’t remember saying anything nice about his book.”

“I’m not gonna start with you,” said Mrs. Wilinski, “because on a positive morning, I’m not going to allow negativity to darken my day.”

Lydia laughed as a cat hurled itself ceilingward after encountering a faintly curved cucumber on the floor behind it. In disgust, Mrs. Wilinski turned back to her son. “But, Geoffrey, why do you go about it in such an odd way?”

“Why do I go about what in such an odd way?”

“Why don’t you send the book to a real publisher?”

“I’ve told you why.”

“They can’t all be corrupt.”

“It’s all a con, Mom. You have to have gone through the right writing program and how do you get into the right writing program? You go to the right college. And how do you get into the right college? You go to the right kind of high school. How do you do that? Your family has money. And so on and so forth. It’s a closed loop, Mom. You’re wasting your time trying to break into it.”

“But putting your book into those tiny little libraries, that doesn’t seem very efficient. I don’t even understand how those are supposed to work. Who keeps track of what’s been lent out, when it’s returned, that kind of thing?”

Geoffrey went back to his notes. He hunched over the table, his eyes close to the little notebook, and scribbled, “Idea: a man realizes how cruel the world is to midgets.” He had the curious ability to write and speak at the same time and he said to his mother, “It’s the honor system, Mom. I told you this a million times. You take a book, you leave a book.”

“Where do you get the first book to leave before you take a book?”

… Man designs some sort of stretching system for midgets …

“You have to start off with a book,” said Geoffrey.

“That seems like a flaw in the program,” said Mrs. Wilinski. “It’s a catch-22.”

… Midgets ungrateful …

“It’s not a catch-22.”

“You could start off with Catch-22, Mom,” said Lydia without looking up from her phone. There seemed to be no end of cats frightened by cucumbers. “Trade it in for a Portnoy’s Complaint.”

“What?”

“Never mind,” Lydia sighed. “How’s the book doing on Amazon, G-man? Because last time I looked it was a bestseller if you include the top two-million eight-hundred and sixty-eight thousand, four-hundred and fifty-eight books.”

“Screw you,” said Geoffrey, still scribbling in his notebook. “And for your information, the trouble there is standing out from the background noise.”

“Yeah, but what if it turns out you are the background noise, Geoffrey?”

He closed the little notebook and pulled the nylon band around it. “I don’t have time to discuss this with an idiot right now. I’m gonna be late for work,” he said and stood and gulped what was left of his coffee and slipped his socked feet into Birkenstock sandals and pushed the little notebook into the breast pocket of his shirt, just below where the patch with the seal of the United States Postal Service was sewn in, pulled his cap onto his head and trudged out into the morning light of a summer day.

He sat, at a little before one that afternoon, in his Long Life Vehicle under the shade of a tall ficus on a street in Glendale that rose toward the tall Verdugos, and there he ate the ham sandwich and Doritos his mother had packed for him and drank the Diet Pepsi she’d put into a mini-cooler, and there he listened to Howard Stern discuss his penis on the radio. The penis was, apparently, a subject that Stern could discuss at length, but one that didn’t interest Geoffrey much and so he turned off the radio and took out his iPod and inserted the tiny earbuds into his tiny ears and turned to Chumbawumba’s “I Get Knocked Down,” and there he sat looking out toward the hills and savored his sandwich and chips and beverage, and when he’d finished the sandwich, and all the chips in the little bag, and wiped the red dye (from the “Hot Chili” Doritos) from his hands and daubed his mouth with a napkin, and drunk to the last drop the molecularly-unstable concoction that is a can of Diet Pepsi, and Chumbawumba had finished its anthem of overcoming, Geoffrey sat and considered where the literary world would take him once he had broken definitively into it.

He pictured himself being asked to sign autographs after a reading at a Barnes & Noble and meeting a young woman there, a student probably, from a creative writing program somewhere, and being asked by her how he’d devised his rather unorthodox model for gaining literary recognition. “One has naturally to think outside the box,” he was saying, “or, in my case, inside an entirely different box.” Then he imagined the student giving herself to him in Geoffrey’s bedroom under the Blondie poster that was tacked to the ceiling. Then he imagined the girl herself looking like Blondie. Then he found himself wishing he had been born sooner and had been able to see Blondie perform when Debbie Harry had been at her most beautiful. He’d argued with a co-worker named Marty Zapper that Blondie was probably the most beautiful woman ever born, far more beautiful than Rihanna, whom Marty had argued for, who, in Geoffrey’s opinion, looked like a cheap tramp next to Debbie Harry. “She’s like sixty-five now, Geoffrey,” said Zapper, “how can you even compare them?” “Jeeeesus, do you not get the concept?”—Marty Zapper was an annoyance and a perpetual provocation—“If I said try and imagine Muhammad Ali and Evander Holyfield in the same ring, would you say, ‘Oh, wait, Muhammad Ali is seventy-five and Holyfield is forty-five’? Would you not get that you’re comparing them in their primes?

“Muhammad Ali is dead, said Zapper, nonplussed. “Died a few months ago.”

“Not the point,” Geoffrey had sighed.

But this wasn’t all Geoffrey thought about as he sat in his LLV, digesting his lunch, because his mind, he would be the first to admit, tended to wander. Today it wandered toward a figure who seemed to be walking down the street far up the slope and the question that arose was this: would this person walk past the LLV? Until now Geoffrey liked this street and habitually chose it for lunch because few people tended to walk down it, and if for some mysterious reason this was going to change, he would have to consider more often utilizing his B and C locations (a street near the Brand Library and one on Wentworth near the Hanson Dam Recreation Center, respectively). He didn’t like being looked at while eating lunch, for two reasons: 1) he was eating and no one likes to be looked at while eating, and 2) there was often something accusatory in the looks he got from passersby, as if he were committing some sort of crime for taking his measly half-hour to eat lunch while on the public dime. “False!” he said to the tiny figure a good quarter mile up the sidewalk, whom he imagined giving him a dirty look as he passed, if he ever did pass. False because, first of all, he wasn’t on the public dime. No, the United States Postal Service operates as an independent branch of government and isn’t underwritten by tax dollars. No, it is not. The Postal Service makes its money by charging for the services it provides. Naturally, due to the ruthless practices of FedEx, UPS, and the like, there’s the occasional shortfall, as there had been the year before to the tune of eighteen billion dollars, picked up by taxpayers. But even this was a mere sixty dollars per person if divided by the county’s population. Second, even if he were only being paid with tax dollars, the United States Postal Service would be subject to the same labor laws as every other business and under those laws a worker must be given at least half an hour for lunch. So you’d better have thought it through before you started giving dirty looks to postal workers sitting in their LLVs taking their lousy half-hour for lunch.

The figure drew closer and Geoffrey was ready to start the truck and continue on his route when he saw that the man was waving something in his hand. Probably he had a letter he wanted to mail, and Geoffrey rolled his eyes and pretended to be going through some of his bulk stack on the floor as the man made his way to the truck.

“This yours?” the man asked when he got to the LLV, leaning his big, ruddy, old-man’s face through the window and waving a book around. Geoffrey took the book and looked it over. There was a drawing of a horse standing on its hind legs, its mane thrown wildly to the wind, its mouth open, and its eyes wide in what looked like a combination of horror and anger.

“Where’d you get this?”

“I’ll tell you where I got it. I got it out of the little lending library in my front yard is where I got it. And I saw you put the damned thing in there on Saturday. So I took it out and read as much of it as I could stand. I got a twelve-year-old granddaughter comes and stays with us sometimes in the summer and she might have taken this book out of there and read it. There’s a man having sex with a horse in this damned thing. Do you understand what I’m saying, Mail Person? What kind of a book is this to put into a little private lending library, for Christ’s sake? And what business does a mailman have going around sticking books in there anyway? This is for neighborhood people walking by.”

“I guess I have as much right to put a book in there as anyone else,” said Geoffrey.

“Did you even read this damned thing before you put it in there? Is this the kind of trash you think people ought to be reading? Is this your idea of a thumb’s up read? Guy who wrote this is barely literate. Doesn’t even seem to know the difference between the possessive and contractive form of ‘its.’”

“I do know the difference,” said Geoffrey. “I know the difference perfectly well, I just don’t tend to notice it when I’m proofreading.”

The man paused, his head drawing slightly back out of the window and into the sunshine. “You don’t mean to tell me you wrote that thing?”

“Well, I guess you didn’t care for it. I’ll put you down for a negative review.”

“A negative review? I have half a mind to report you to the Postal Service. Is this what you do on your mail route? Go around putting pornographic literature into little private lending libraries? Is that your idea of a kick?”

“Well, I guess you think Lady Chatterley’s Lover is pornographic. Or Ulysses. Or Tropic of Cancer. That’s where we differ, I guess. I consider that stuff literature.”

“Hah!” said the old man. “Do you mean to sit there and compare yourself to James Joyce, Mail Person? Is that what you just said? That this book of yours is like Ulysses? Well, you have a loud wake-up call coming, man-about-town, because I got news for you. That book is about as much like Ulysses as a turd is like a rose.”

“Well, I guess you’re entitled to your opinion and I’m entitled to mine,” said Geoffrey, and started the truck. “Now, if you don’t mind, I’ve got public business to attend to,” and he put the LLV in gear and drove toward the hill before remembering he wasn’t on a through street and had to turn around at the end of the block and again pass the man, who stood and slowly shook his head as Geoffrey passed.

Geoffrey Wilinski didn’t drive very far, only up a nearby winding road, and found himself on a suburban street high up on a hill overlooking the Bob Hope Airport. He didn’t care for these encounters with the public. In fact, in general, he was not particularly well cut out for the life of a postal delivery person, who must, on a daily basis, deal with humankind in all its myriad and largely unpleasant forms. Nor had this been how he’d started at the Postal Service. He’d begun as a sorter and was perfectly happy inspecting mail that the machines couldn’t sort—there was a certain satisfaction in being better than a machine at something, at anything—and he would have liked being left alone to throw mail into various boxes if his mother hadn’t pushed him into the higher-paying position of mail carrier. “The mailman is the public face of the postal service, Geoffrey,” she’d said to him. “They’re the backbone of the whole organization.” Where Mrs. Wilinki got such phrases, who knew? Magazines probably, or the internet—though she didn’t seem to be any good at working a computer—or maybe Mr. Culpepper next door, who was a blowhard and liked to lecture Mrs. Wilinski on local Burbank politics and was always using phrases like “that’s the bureaucratic mind for you,” and “the do-gooders in Washington.” He was some sort of libertarian or anti-monetarist or something equally obnoxious and was, according to Geoffrey’s mother, a frequenter of city council meetings, where he probably hectored members about some state of roadway disrepair he’d discovered while pedaling his recumbent tricycle around town in a one-piece spandex suit.

Geoffrey sat in his truck on the hill and held his novel in his lap and thumbed through its pages, expecting to find it had been molested by Mr. Monjot—that was the man’s name, if he lived where the little lending library stood at the edge of a perfectly manicured front yard on Ogden Lane—but its pages were clean, none so much as dog-eared, though Geoffrey did discover a tiny arrow, marked in pencil, next to the passage where the novel’s hero, Saul, made love to the horse, a roan mare named Whinnie. He reread the scene to make sure it wasn’t pornographic. But it seemed to him the episode was tastefully written, the act of love only alluded to, and, in one sense, Monjot’s criticism had been positive, since the man had realized, without Geoffrey ever having used any purely mechanical language, that Saul had, in fact, made love to the horse. His sister Lydia hadn’t figured it out, and when he’d explained to her that this was what had happened, all she’d said was, “Ewww, Geoffrey. Ewwww. Do you, like, want to fuck a horse? Is that your fantasy? Because, like, forever, I’ve been under the impression you wanted to fuck the 1978 version of Debbie Harry.”

He reread the description on the back of the book to consider whether one might be misled by it. But it said there, very plainly—though, unfortunately, in kind of small type—that, “Saul is a night watchman at a glue factory in the days when glue is still made of horse hooves and Saul has come to sympathize with the horses being sent to their doom so that little boys can bind the parts of model airplanes together with the poor animals’ hooves. He develops a particularly intimate relationship with one horse and concocts a plan to free the horse and all its compatriots, the devising and carrying out of which is the subject of Nay!

Geoffrey looked up from the book now toward where the two great Southern California valleys, the San Fernando and the San Gabriel, came together down below his little mail truck. “Eat me, Mr. Monjot,” he said to the soft wind rolling up through the sage. He put the sunglasses that hung from a lanyard around his neck back onto his nose and pushed them up with his middle finger. “Suck my balls, little man,” he said and then put the earbuds back into his ears and played Chumbawumba’s “I Get Knocked Down” again.


Nick Roth attended UCLA and the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. His stories have appeared or are upcoming in Failbetter, The Forge Literary Magazine, Shooter Literary Magazine, Flexible Persona, Rivet, Duende, and Prick of the Spindle. He lives in Los Angeles.