The Recluse

Minny Glorious was well aware that many fervent readers of her client, Billy Benson, would probably apply the term “recluse” to the author’s public persona. While the term wasn’t used explicitly (perhaps out of politeness) in the letter that currently sat on the edge of her dark mahogany desk, she nevertheless read the official fan club’s letter as a sign of growing frustration among the author’s most dedicated admirers. The letter nearly pleaded with the PR woman to convince the reclusive Billy into eschewing his ways and making an appearance at one of their official readings of his work.  Though Minny imagined the small club to be a sad group of bored housewives, all in their early forties, who used the nausea-inducing erotica of Mr. Benson to get their kicks, she also recognized that such opinions should not and could not interfere with her reputation as a smart, talented businesswoman.

Minny didn’t understand recluses. She had come to believe through the forging of her own career that showing strength of character and forming a respected reputation was how one succeeded in life. She prided herself in her job as a PR woman, a determined, persuasive person who could use her talent to promote others and deliver the product that people wanted to see. Billy, however, was on a different wavelength. He never made public appearances, refused to have a Twitter account, Facebook, or personal website. There wasn’t even a photograph on the back of any of his books. Billy had made it increasingly more frustrating for Minny to do her job, the thing that she felt probably most defined her.

And there was a new wrench being thrown by Billy into the otherwise smoothly-running machine of Minny’s career. The author had recently shocked his agent, editors, and the rest of the staff at Snodgrass Press by presenting his next work as a children’s book. But what Minny found even more shocking than the bizarre twist of a lowly author of erotica writing a book for children was that it was good. The editors in the office were thrilled, already proclaiming Billy as the next Robert Munsch. It was that good. The marketing staff were caught up in the hype too, floating around some crazy idea of selling Billy’s books as a two-for-one deal for mothers—the erotic fiction novel for the mom and a picture book she could give her kid.

The book, titled Salmon Ella, was a cautionary tale for children about properly preparing food, and due to the protagonist being a young salmon named Ella, was garnering comparisons to the movie Finding Nemo. If it really was going to be as big as everyone was saying, Minny was going to have the problem of denying even more requests for appearances by the recluse behind the tale, not to mention the problems she’d have controlling the wildfire of rumours that would start about a man that released no information about his life. No doubt, the little fan club had heard about the new release and their frantic letter was reflecting anxiousness to meet the author before he became even bigger in the eyes of the public.

The editor just shrugged, now fiddling with a horrible mustard coloured tie. “Like I said, he just comes to us.”

Minny crossed one high-heeled foot gracefully over the other as she sat at her desk in the office building on Clancy Street that consisted of the headquarters for Snodgrass Press. She wore bright red lipstick and her dark brown hair was pulled up elegantly. She puffed thoughtfully on a menthol cigarette. Like all the other office buildings in the city, this was a non-smoking one, but Minny guessed correctly that none of the male editors who had desks in the nearby vicinity were of the kind bold enough to challenge the confident PR woman. So she sat there puffing idly, musing to herself about the Billy Benson problem. She slid a thumb over Billy’s fan club letter, feeling the paper as she thought. Then suddenly in one quick jerk, she crumpled it under her fingers. She’d had an idea.

Quickly, she stalked over to Bruce Therrien’s desk, surprising the stocky man.

“H-hey, Minny. What’s up?” he said putting down a sandwich of peanut butter and pickle.

Minny looked disgustedly down at his lunch. “I need to contact Billy Benson,” she said. Having tried to reach Billy in the past, Minny knew the phone number the publishers had for him would no longer be in service. He had no email. Friends who might know where he was? Forget it. She knew he mostly communicated by letter, but that would take too long this time. However, she assumed that one of those letters would have an address at which he could be found, and if anyone had a copy of one, it would be Billy’s editor of six years, Bruce Therrien.

From behind thick glasses, Bruce looked her up and down curiously. “Good luck with that… You know we only hear from him when he wants to talk to us.”

“Well, I need to talk to him now. I can’t wait around.”

“Okay, I’ve got the address where you can send your letter.” He started to dig around in his desk but Minny cut him off.

“Thanks. I’m not sending him a letter, but I’ll need the address to find him anyways.”

“Oh, you won’t find him at that address. Sure, he writes his letters from there,” said Bruce, scratching his goatee. “But it’s just a cover. I think one of his relatives lives there. A little old lady answered the door last time I tried it. Probably his grandmother or something.”

“So where does he live, Bruce?” She was getting impatient. Who did Billy think he was?

The editor just shrugged, now fiddling with a horrible mustard coloured tie. “Like I said, he just comes to us.”

Minny was aware of this too. For a moment she remembered the last time he’d come into the office. He was always wearing some dopey clothing, probably as a disguise. He was afraid of being recognized by “the masses,” and when asked why would mumble something like “Look at the way John Lennon went.” It was like he was a bad undercover cop, one who was completely oblivious to the fact that his camouflage just made him look more conspicuous. She remembered once he’d come into the office to see Bruce and had been wearing a hat with the largest brim she’d ever seen. The thing flopped messily in every direction. It looked like he’d bought it in a costume store, and he’d kept batting it around and shifting it this way and that on his head so that he could see. On top of that, Bruce had once told her that Billy mentioned he often did his shopping dressed as a woman.

Shaking her head at the ridiculous memory, Minny suddenly snatched the letter, which Bruce had produced from one of his desk drawers. She was going to find Billy, and at the very least this letter would provide a start.

Forty-five minutes later, Minny found herself in the dark, musty hallway of an old apartment building on Park Street. The door to 734 was faded, patches of dark green paint peeling off onto the grimy orange carpeting beneath. She could see Billy being here after all. Wouldn’t a reclusive author like to stay in a place like this where normal people would think twice about stepping inside? Well, whether he lived here or not, as Bruce believed he didn’t, this place had some connection to Billy if he was sending and receiving his mail here.

Minny straightened herself up, wishing, as always, to appear as professional as possible, and knocked firmly on the door.

Sounds arose from within, like that of a small dog or maybe mice scurrying around on laminate floors. She heard fumbling with a chain and suddenly the door swung open in one swift motion. There stood a very short elderly woman. Her eyes were slits and she was stooped in a way that craned her head towards the floor. Minny wasn’t even sure that the woman had looked at her.

“Come in, come in,” she mumbled.

“Uh… Alright.” Surprised, Minny took a cautious step into the doorway.

“Can I make you some tea?” the dry voice crowed at her. The face rose now to meet hers, but it was covered in such thick layers of wrinkles, Minny was apt to think there was no face there at all.

“Actually, I’m just here on a quick bit of business, you see.” The apartment inside was sparse; a green sofa with that plastic covering that old people kept on, scratched floors, no T.V., the smell of boiled vegetables.

Some of the wrinkles seemed to drop and widen. “Business?”

Minny suddenly realized how strange this meeting was. “I’m so sorry, I haven’t even introduced myself. My name is Minny Glorious.” She wondered why she’d been let in without even being asked that. Maybe the old woman was senile and thought she was someone else, or maybe just lonely and overanxious to have some form of company. “I work for Snodgrass Press, a publishing company. Do you happen to know Billy Benson?”

The old woman stood perfectly still for a moment, long enough that the fear she had had some sort of stroke began to fill Minny until she finally spoke.

“Billy? Are-are you his wife?”

“Oh-uh. No, no,” Minny stuttered, trying to stay clear of the mental picture that would conjure up. Minny wasn’t inclined to ever try to marry, though she could find men easily enough. Any husband would threaten her focus on her career, let alone Billy Benson. “Not his wife. I’m … just on business, like I said. So you know Billy?”

“Humph … He wouldn’t tell me if he was married anyway,” her voice came out low, like a strange growl. “I’m his grandmother and he won’t tell me anything.”

Taken a little off guard by the dawning accuracy of Bruce’s hunch, Minny pressed on.

“Well! You must be very proud of your grandson’s successes as a writer.”

“Humph … successes. Dirty … dirty. Back when I was knee-high to a grasshopper, that kinda trash wouldn’t get published,” mumbled the old woman.

“Do you see him often?”

“Comes here now and then,” she picked up a broom and began sweeping idly, though it was in a haphazard way that merely resulted in pushing a few existing piles of dust back and forth aimlessly.

“Picks up some mail. Never has any groceries for his old grandmother though. Won’t come and sit with me. Not an old bat like me. Doesn’t want to hear old Granny’s stories, just wants to write his dirty porn stories. Don’t know what’s wrong with the young people these days …” she lifted her face again, and Minny felt as though she were being stared at accusingly. She fought off the urge to appease the old woman and take a cup of tea. She wanted to get out of here as soon as possible.

Then suddenly Billy’s grandmother said, “Don’t know why he can’t pick up his damn mail at the hotel …”

Minny leaned forward anxiously. “Sorry, where’s that?”

The old woman’s small peepers seemed to close more tightly now as she scrutinized her guest. “Well … he don’t want visitors you see …”

“Oh, ma’am, I assure you Billy’s privacy will be respected. But I am on urgent business from his publishers and need to see him immediately. Would you mind telling me where I can find him?”

“Hmm … well what do I care, after all? No good grandson,” she mumbled again, continuing her sweeping. “Billy lives in a hotel on Solitaire Boulevard. Only child. Inherited some good money when his dad passed, see. His father was a tycoon in the board game business. He was such a schmuck …”

She continued to babble some inaudible nonsense about the father when Minny interrupted. “A hotel? What room? Can you tell me?”

“Huh? Oh, don’t know honey, don’t know. You’ll have to ask the manager. Billy says he’s the only one who’s in the know.”

The glow of the flashlight caught it all, slowly. Broken bottles, furniture piled upon furniture, trash, dirty clothes, books. It was like a war-torn battlefield littered with corpses.

In another twenty minutes, Minny was outside Hotel Solitaire. She had haggled only for a moment with the manager, who initially pretended not to know who Billy was. But once Minny flashed her business card, explaining that the situation was of dire importance, and using her God-given charisma on him, the manager decided promptly that it was his duty to help this damsel in distress and show her to Mr. Benson’s quarters.

Minny was led down the brightly lit hallway of the eleventh floor, passing a few identical heavy-looking blue doors with gold trim until they reached another emblazoned with the number 1103. The manager seemed to hesitate for a moment with the key in his hand. Was he questioning his loyalty to the author that resided inside? But what respect did he owe to a man who wouldn’t even share his life with his grandmother? He was probably just afraid of losing business, Minny decided.

“Maybe we should knock first?” Minny suggested.

“No,” said the manager, seemingly distracted by thought. “He won’t answer if you knock.”

Finally, the manager sighed, seemingly resigned to the action he was about to take and plunged the key into the lock, turning the handle at the same time. The door opened just a crack, but no light was emitted from the room behind.

“I almost forgot,” said the manager quietly, casting a nervous eye towards the crack. “You’ll need this.”

Out of the pocket of his jacket he pulled a small flashlight and placed it in Minny’s hands. Then quickly, he withdrew the key again, winked to Minny and skipped off down the hall.

Minny watched him go and then took a breath. With one hand, she slowly pushed the door further in. What emerged was only more blackness, and Minny began to understand the manager’s insistence on the flashlight. But no, wasn’t this nonsense? Billy was probably taking a nap and would turn on a light when he realized he had company.

“Mr. Benson!” she called. “Billy!”

Not wishing to intrude by venturing further, she knocked on the doorframe.

“What’s going on here?” a voice suddenly bellowed. “I thought we had an agreement, Kostopolous? Kostopolous?”

A great crash sounded next and Minny hastily fumbled for the switch on the flashlight. The sound of bare feet slapping and something being kicked accompanied the sudden appearance of light.

There were heaps upon the floor. Heaps and heaps. The glow of the flashlight caught it all, slowly. Broken bottles, furniture piled upon furniture, trash, dirty clothes, books. It was like a war-torn battlefield littered with corpses. She realized this was the home of someone who rarely left. A terrible smell assaulted Minny’s nose and she now found herself running her hands up and down the walls, frantically looking for a light switch.

She found one, finally, and the great mess of the room suddenly became altogether more real. She stumbled back a pace towards the door, which she’d let close behind her. There stood, among the mounds of rubbish, like the ruler of some decrepit kingdom, Billy Benson holding a blanket in front of what was his otherwise naked body, his skin white as a ghost against the black curtains that kept out any intrusion of daylight.

Minny screamed, throwing her hands over her mouth.

Billy looked at her, eyes bugged out. A long, mangy beard shot out tufts in wild directions, and his hair appeared to function by the same code.

“Who are you? Where’s Kostopolous?”

“Wh-who?”

“The manager. He’s the only one who could have let you in!”

“I-I told him I had to speak to you. I’m Minny Glorious, I do PR for authors with the company who publishes your work, Snodgrass Press. We’ve met before, once or twice maybe.”

Billy narrowed his eyes. “We’ve never met. I’m going to have to have a good chat with Kostopolous …”

“Right, uh… okay,” Minny shook her head clear and straightened up. What way was this to conduct business? “Mr. Benson, would you put some clothes on please? We need to discuss your career.”

“I told them I only discuss business by letter.”

“This needs to be taken care of now.”

Minny’s tone made Billy freeze, look at her, bushy eyebrows raised. There was silence for a moment and then he said, “Fine,” and took a seat on the couch behind him, indicating for her to find a piece of furniture to do the same.

Minny moved further into the room now, stepping carefully around the rubbish that lay around. She went through a stack of old chairs which were piled close to Billy’s couch, looking for one that had all four legs fully functional. Finally she found one and pulled it out, seating herself across from Billy, who looked particularly ridiculous, watching her with his hands folded over his lap, which was in turn covered by the raggedy yellow blanket he held.

Minny tried to smile but the ridiculousness of the situation, her incredulousness at the person who sat across from her, not to mention the smell, made it impossible to do so.

“So,” Minny began, taking a breath, trying to focus. “Mr. Benson, you’ve delivered us a new book. A children’s book… They say it’s going to be big.” She gestured with her hands. Every word, every movement felt silly right now. She couldn’t take it.

“How,” she tried to stop herself. “How can you live like this?” she suddenly blurted. “How do you expect this new book to be a success when you live like a disgusting, filthy—do you not care what they think about you? What anyone thinks about you? This new book is going to garner you a whole new fan base, there are fans already who are nearly pleading with me to meet you. But I can’t—” she gestured towards him. “I can’t show them this. Hell, they don’t even need to meet you. They just need something. Give them something. Give me something.”

A slight smile was forming in the corners of Billy’s mouth. It was hard to tell under the beard, but it was there.

“Let me explain something to you,” his voice was quiet, low. He looked deep into Minny’s big dark eyes, heavy with eyeliner and shadow. His own eyes were puffy, red around the edges, crusted with sleep in the pockets that were carved close to the bridge of his nose. “We all exist in the world as two people: the person who we know ourselves to be and the person who others think we are. It is my belief,” and he held up a finger scientifically, “that if you let the latter dictate who you are, ‘you’ actually cease to exist.”

“Now,” he continued calmly, and Minny stared at his grimy blanket disgustedly. “There are those who spend a lot of time wishing to have their identity validated by others, who feel the need to live the way others do…” He gestured around him at the dilapidated den, indicating that he was the opposite of such people. “Who feel the need to share everything about themselves ‘out there,’ as if their thoughts and feelings aren’t real unless somebody notices them. These are the people that want a Facebook page, or a Twitter account. What those people really need,” he leaned forward and his grin became broader, more apparent beneath the scruff, “is a fucking diary.”

He settled back, satisfied it seemed, crossing a leg across the other one and opening the blanket just a tad too much for Minny’s comfort. “So the answer to what you’ve come here to ask me, to plead with me to do some sort of publicity for my latest work, is no. I’m quite satisfied to remain an anomaly. People can think what they want about me. But I have no need to feed them facts about my life. For what purpose? For them to distort those facts? For them to dig so deep into their conception of my life, that I end up heeding them and losing my own conception of myself? Absolutely not. It’s not worth it.”

There was a stack of ratty-looking books amid a tower of old take-out containers next to Minny, and she picked one of the books out with two fingers, trying not to touch it too much.

“Well Mr. Benson, if that’s your choice, then all right. I have another idea that perhaps you’ll be okay with. The other choice is that you publish this new book, Salmon Ella, under a pen name. Then you let me control that name. I’ll create the person behind it, make up their likes and dislikes, make them a website, offer some fan trivia. Of course, that man won’t make any appearances either, but at least this way there’ll be some control to what I can do with their public image and it won’t be your life being put out there. It’ll be some imaginary figure. You don’t have to be involved. Just give me your consent, and you’ll have your book published and get your royalties without having to deal with any fame, since that’s not what you want. Right?”

Billy looked at her for a moment. “If that’ll make your life easy, ma’am, then do it. I couldn’t care less.”

Minny got up, anxious to leave the stench and filth of the room. She held the book in her hands still, a copy of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. She had one more thing to say before she left this cuckoo’s nest.

“Thank you for accepting, Mr. Benson. I’d like to say, also, that your philosophy is very interesting, but don’t you too feel the need to live like others? I mean all this,” she gestured around the room, “All this is just to look the part so to speak isn’t it? To look like the mad artist, the reclusive author? Like Salinger, or Proust, or Pynchon? I think you do care about what people think. I think that you want them to think of your reclusiveness as some romantic mystery, as some sign of genius.” She threw the book down onto the pile she had pulled it from, and the whole thing toppled over.

“Goodbye, Billy.”

*     *     *

The pseudonym plan began well at first. Billy had written to the publishers that he wished for Salmon Ella to be published under the name “Eric Yahtzee,” and Minny went to work creating a website and short biography for the “new” author. No one in the office suspected Minny had anything to do with Billy’s choice to publish the story under a different name. It made sense considering the marked contrast between the nature of this new work and his previous books.

After some time, however, Minny found herself exhausted at trying to form the character of Eric Yahtzee. She had Twitter accounts, social networking pages, and she was finding it difficult to come up with new things for Yahtzee to say. She became aware of inconsistencies with the types of attitudes he displayed. She began to liken herself to an author writing a character sketch and finding it impossible to make the person rounded, interesting, or real. It was more work than she’d bargained for. She tried to get into the history of her author, thinking of what kind of family he might have grown up with, when she suddenly began thinking about Billy’s poor old grandmother. And she had a new idea.

It was then that she began visiting the old lady at her cramped little apartment in downtown, pretending to be paying friendly visits, saying how she felt bad for her that Billy never visited and that she was so lonesome. And while she was there, she would ask about Billy, what his life was like growing up. From these visits, she built the biography, the character of Eric Yahtzee. Granny was feeding her the material the whole time, and Eric Yahtzee truly did start to become Billy Benson.

Minny was feeling good, the promotion for the new book was doing well and her pride in her cunningness and in her career was refreshed. She smoked happily at her desk on Friday afternoon, congratulating herself on a job well done. Stretching her shoulders and neck satisfactorily, she settled back in her chair, planning to take it easy until 5’o clock, a gift to herself.

Suddenly there was the sound of frantic feet rushing behind her, and, springing up to fix her posture, Minny quickly swiveled around on her chair. It was Bruce Therrien, sweaty, mouth quivering. “You’ve got to fix this!”

“What? What?”

He looked at her, eyes big. He began pacing. “No, no … This was supposed to be a big one. A big seller. You haven’t heard?” He stared.

A knot formed in Minny’s stomach. “Heard what?”

“Billy tried to publish a short story with a men’s magazine…”

“Right. So? He’s writes erotic fiction.”

Bruce started pacing again, glanced at her nervously now and then. “You didn’t hear? Well, it looks like Billy sort of combined his talents for erotica and children’s tales into one story … the magazine was outraged. Called it a monstrosity of nonsense and pedophilia. And the worst part … he tried to publish it under Eric Yahtzee …”

Whatever had formed itself in Minny’s stomach now plummeted to the bottom.

“They recognized him as the author of the much-hyped Salmon Ella, and they’re badmouthing him in the press. For a children’s author, this is devastating.”

Minny stared. She felt defeated.

“Billy wrote. Probably trying to explain. It’s for you.” Bruce handed over a thin piece of lined paper filled with Billy’s spidery handwriting.

She read it over. Billy had a reason for his blunder, but Minny was sure it wasn’t the ridiculous one she saw in front of her now. Billy claimed to have mixed two stories he was working on, sending them to the magazine one late night after ingesting LSD because “that’s something Ken Kesey would have done.”

The book she’d thrown at him. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It was a clue. She’d been sabotaged. He probably didn’t like her using the bits about his own life for Eric Yahtzee’s character. And how had he known? Paid poor Granny a visit finally? Or had he been keeping tabs on what she was writing?

It didn’t matter. She had damage control to do.

Matt FournierTristen Matthew Fournier grew up in the frigid environment of Yellowknife in Canada’s far North. Finding that typing warmed his numb and frost bitten fingers, Fournier set out to be a writer of prose fiction and poetry, exploring human nature while blending humour and philosophy. This led him to study at Concordia University in Montreal where he has completed a degree in creative writing. He has previously published with Buttontapper Press.