Cobalt Blues

“My levees are washing away like New Orleans,” Terry tells me on the phone. “There goes a chunk now. I have sung Broadway tunes for days, but my signal hasn’t penetrated their dead zone. Did I close the windows? Pay my taxes? One is always unprepared for death.”

I listen because I know I may be his only set of ears and because I know the feelings. We go back to Great Jones Street and the ’70s and who knows when his windshield melted or how he got stuck forever in the state of Denim. Terry’s passed among friends who find him housing or drop-in centers or food pantries. Now he wants the city to rescue him from the rain.

“Today I sat by the window taking notes on the flotsam, all those private parts that come unglued. I counted a Naugahyde sofa with grandmother asleep on it, a railway trestle, a clapperless mission bell, a box of medical syringes, a horsetail without the horse, a child’s yellow rubber boot, and a mailbox with the red flag up. No deliveries today, I guess.”

“When the Red Cross finds me, they’ll probably feed me wheat gluten from a salver with a presidential seal, but I’ll insist on embalming fluid to preserve what was always my best feature.” He pauses. I am watching Boston Legal and after several minutes I know I must ask

“Oh, what is that?

“My very funky butt.”

Thank God. He’s not cracking up, just desperate to know if I’ve had any response from publishers to his manuscripts. He has added another chapter. Do I think we should send it out? I’m not a fixer. Maybe a dream merchant, in his case, because I know there is little or no commercial market for Terry’s two books. One is Cobalt Blues, a novel he wrote while high on hallucinogens; the other a love story illustrated with his photos of European cities. I have tried to correct his misspellings and been told they are intentional.

Besides, I love his manuscripts the way I love my street cat Isadora, pure sass, missing a few body parts but the essentials are in tact. I know his history because we attended the same NA meetings in Greenwich Village. He had been a successful art photographer with showings at big-ass Soho galleries in the 1970s, then slid down the chemical chute with the rest of us. Hated needles, loved pills. But addiction recovery isn’t bright neon; it’s a candle flame and no doors opened just because he’d gotten clean.

Gallery owners, he’d discovered, were now half his age—and so were many of their clients. Terry found me after he read something called The Way of the Artist and convinced himself he could write a book. They were sitting on top of my bookcase—creative mistakes and all. The mistake had been mine, of course. Determined to promote my post-recovery career as a literary agent I had solicited manuscripts from anyone who would take my business card. Soon I was drowning in a tsunami called “writing as therapy.” That was five years ago and, thankfully, I no longer need to solicit business. I am proud as a mother hen to be Terry’s champion—as long as there aren’t a thousand like him.

I get handoffs from other agents who can’t rep the authors, either because it isn’t their genre or they are swamped. One of these new arrivals is a gem, a true story of drug smuggling in Paraguay that needs minimal editing, and its author is a magazine journalist with impressive credentials. Here is my ticket out of Palookaville. Drum roll, please!

I get this new client’s signed contract the same day my new intern Lauren starts. I want to ask her why everyone in Manhattan her age is named “Lauren,” but that’s impolite and besides she is an eager beaver, whether her assignment is organizing file folders or ordering my brick-oven pizza—extra anchovies. So when Terry calls, delusional with cabin fever, I conclude he needs some fresh air and invite him to meet me at my office. He leaves what he calls “a totally new treatment” of Cobalt Blues on my desk, and we go out for sushi.

Over dinner we make plans to escape to Montauk’s beaches for a long weekend. (I insist on a guesthouse sans TV.) I leave a short list of duties for Lauren, tops among them to mail copies of the new client’s manuscript to six publishers. Call me naïve, but I think they’d be insane not to want it. And want it they did. I have calls from two editors when I get back to the office on Tuesday and two more the next day.

“It’s so edgy, so original,” gushes Jeremy Doze of Doubleday. “Call me on my cell when you get a chance.” Brandi Fine’s voice message is even more effusive. “Like a new kind of magical realism, only more gritty.” Is she kidding? I call Doze first, emphasizing my client’s public speaking skills and industry connections that can only boost sales. “Great, great,” breathes Doze. “That’s so rare. I mean your client’s almost an idiot savant. There’s humor, pathos, an unmistakeable tenderness. Our novelists treat book tours like combat drills.”

Doze chatters on, but I am choking on my scampi pizza. “Novelist?” I realize if Doze has made a mistake, I want to know it before we start talking dollars. “Jeremy,” I say, “we sent you a nonfiction book.”

“You mean this is all true? A memoir? Oh, better, much better,” says Doze.

“Well, of course it’s true,” I reply. “He did all the investigative work himself, conning the drug dealers into believing he represented the Gambini family or something. It was risky as hell. Make a great movie, don’t you think?” There is a pause on the other end as Doze sifts memory cells.

“Legal might hold it up if the author isn’t willing to sign a liability clause,” he says. “We’re getting beaten up pretty badly with this James Frey fiasco.”

“Different animal,” I rejoin. “I’ll check but I foresee no problem.”

“Cool,” says Doze, obviously relieved.

“Get back to me and we’ll fax you a letter of intent.”

Eureka! Whom to call first, the author or Fine at Simon & Schuster? Luckily for me, Fine calls back just then, and our conversation is brief. “Cobalt Blues is amazing,” she coos. “Do you have any other interest?” “Cobalt Blues?” I repeat like a moron. “Uh, we do, Brandi. Look, can I call you right back. Something urgent just came up.” And I drop the phone.

Lauren is opening mail when I stand in front of her, my face white as her envelopes. “Lauren,” I say evenly, “what manuscript did you mail on Friday?” She looks up confused. “The one that was on your desk,” she moves to a file cabinet and pulls out Terry’s nicotine-stained screed, the latest version, which I haven’t even read. I take it as if it is a dead rat. Riffling Terry’s pages I can see he’s added a new chapter about running amok in New Orleans’ French Quarter.

I am more angry at Terry than Lauren, who’s made an honest mistake. Yet this nicotine-stained screed is what both editors want to buy. My mental gear strains to remember Doze’s words. “Humor, pathos, tenderness.” Both books are about drugs but have nothing else in common. I have almost sold Terry’s manuscript, but how will I sell Terry? Then I remember Doze ravings about “an idiot savant.”

I call Doze and confess the manuscript mixup. He takes it well, asking twice if I am sure Cobalt Blues isn’t a memoir. By 5 pm I have a letter of intent from Doubleday. Of course, I can’t find my celebrated author, the idiot savant otherwise known as Terry. On a hunch, I locate him at an NA meeting two nights later.

“I knew you could do it, Dar,” he says generously. “Will I get an advance?”

I am happy to tell him we have a bidding war going on, and he is probably looking at a six-figure sale. His novel is being compared to A Confederacy of Dunces and The Brothers Karamazov. The two of us can’t stop grinning as we stand in front of the brownstone he’s been renting since 1976. His quarters are so tiny he reads in the bathtub and entertains in diners.

“What will you do to celebrate?” I want to know.

“The laundry,” he says with a smirk.

Lisa Mullenneaux is a Manhattan-based journalist and poet, who teaches writing for the University of Maryland. Her poems and stories have appeared in Stone Canoe, 4Rivers, American Art Quarterly, and other journals. She maintains the art poetry blog