“At the Symposium” by Max Talley

Issue 19 / Fall 2019

 

The mailed invitation surprised Jonah Marquez. Symposium For The Arts, which held its annual awards ceremony in Santa Fe, New Mexico, had included him on their exclusive guest list: fifty nominees for ten awards, and each one could invite a significant other along. Although the engraved card didn’t list his category, Jonah had been single since Sophie dumped him last spring, so he must be a nominee.

Jonah’s novel Are You My Stepmother? was two years old, but perhaps they were late in recognizing it. He felt puzzled over the absence of an extra invite. Did the selection committee hear of the breakup and his subsequent online dating failures? He squelched those thoughts. After suffering through the stultifying heatwave that had enshrouded Los Angeles, Santa Fe’s fall weather would be restorative.

 

*

 

Jonah flew into Albuquerque and drove up to Villas de Santa Fe. The SFTA staked all invitees for two nights in one-bedroom suites with kitchens. The Villas stood just north of the historic downtown Plaza. Practically walking distance to the Lensic Theater.

The suites connected in block-long, two-story structures that resembled college dormitories. Inside a separate check-in building, Jonah saw SFTA attendees and European tourists thronged around the front desk, jostling for attention from millennial clerks.

“There he is,” shouted a slight man. Tarick Rahal, master of magic realism. “You’re a nominee, Jonah?” His face tightened. “Wasn’t your last novel published four years ago?”

“Two, actually.”

“Just seems like forever.” Tarick slapped Jonah on the shoulder.

Another man approached wearing a camel hair coat, his head tilted back as if sunbathing under the lobby track lights. David Fallow was rumored to carry favorable print reviews of his books like a rabbit’s foot. He perpetually worked a thatch of graying blond hair off his forehead, and whenever he made an incisive point, Fallow lowered his black rim glasses to allow unobstructed eye contact.

“Jonah Marquez,” he said, as if an accusation. “We’re in the same category? My novel Brighter Unfolding was released this year.”

“I didn’t pick the nominees.” Jonah sighed.

“Of course not,” Fallow replied. “But since we get to vote for anyone besides ourselves, can I count on your support?”

Jonah hesitated.

Fallow frowned. “Not to be offensive, but remind me why someone as pasty white as yourself is named Marquez?”

“My dad was Irish and my mother was South American.”

“Wouldn’t you go by your father’s last name?”

“He disappeared when I was eight. My mom got me into books. It seemed right to use her name.”

“Helpful in today’s publishing climate.” He smirked. “Your, uh, novel was an interesting exercise in writing like a child, though it can’t compete with David’s adult fiction.”

“David? David who?”

Fallow’s head twitched. “Me,” he said. “You’ll speak in the third person when you become an Amazon bestseller and are interviewed on PBS.”

“Really?”

“Yes, but ditch the kids’ stuff. Try upmarket fiction like me.” Fallow waved at two women across the room. “Excuse me, destiny calls.”

Tarick made a puking face. “Jonah, let’s meet for drinks later.”

Jonah asked directions from an employee planted by the lobby entrance.

He jerked his neck. “Hey, you’re in those movies.” His eyes went wide. “You’re so good at playing a loser. Can’t remember your name but I love you, man.”

Jonah encountered this lookalike bullshit whenever he traveled.

“You deserve a starring role, now that you’re getting older.” The young man gave Jonah the once-over. “Is that tabloid stuff true, about getting pig valves installed in your heart and the penile implant—”

“Jesus. Look, I’m not that actor, okay?”

“Seriously? So I’m wasting my time talking to a nobody?”

Jonah rushed away.

 

*

 

During Jonah’s struggle to extract his travel bag from the rented Fiat 500—a toy car amongst the hulking vehicles in the parking lot—he encountered his ex.

When Sophie published her roman à clef last spring about their relationship, Jonah expected it to disappear after a few weeks of hype and so-called “bestseller” status. Instead, her unflattering portrayal of a narcissistic male writer who preferred to pound away on his laptop rather than listen to his partner’s problems had garnered praise from reviewers and was nominated for the Symposium’s Best First Book award.

Sophie descended from an airport shuttle van helmeted by her dark pixie haircut. Her cute, pinched face made her resemble an exotic, wide-eyed bird. Damn, she looked better than ever. Jonah’s only consolation was knowing that she hated being cute and wanted desperately to be considered strange and beautiful.

However, none of that desperation showed as she took in the surroundings and registered Jonah by his tiny car. Sophie let out a triumphant gasp of a laugh. “Hey, stranger.” She waved. “Good to see you here. So we’re in the same building.” She smiled mischievously. “Practically neighbors.”

For an instant, Jonah forgot their ugly breakup, forgot the scorching insults in print and felt a ticklish sensation. His ballooning enthusiasm deflated.

“Hello, Santa Fe!” Another female figure stepped from the van in a fur-collared coat and high heel suede boots. “Whoo-hoo, we’re here.”

There was no denying it. Everyone in the literary world, in the arts in general, knew about Raina Vang, former model and current essayist in Vogue and Cosmopolitan. Her father Deon Wilson was one of the last American soldiers out of Saigon in 1975, where her Vietnamese mother had her in 1976. Local relatives smuggled Raina out of Southeast Asia at the age of four, while her mother was forced into a North Vietnamese reeducation camp and believed dead by 1980. After reuniting with her father in California, Raina ran away as a teenager when trauma from the war caused him to become abusive.

At forty-two, Raina looked incredible, with a slender Vietnamese face, large eyes, and an Afro mushrooming over her head and currently bobbing in the New Mexico breeze. Though her publishing history involved a mere four essays on her fashion sense and skin care regimen, Jonah heard that publishers had dangled six-figure offers for her memoirs. Agents tore their hair out dreaming up incentives to accept their representation.

Jonah knew the women were close friends, but Sophie chose that awkward moment to passionately kiss Raina. Their clench broke apart with Raina giggling. She lifted her carry bag’s strap over one shoulder and they both marched toward the entrance foyer.

“We’re on the top floor,” Sophie shouted back. “Spectacular view of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. You too?”

Jonah nodded with a taut smile. He could see his first-floor room, which faced onto the parking lot, the dumpster, and surrounding hedges. The women vanished inside.

 

*

 

When Jonah arrived at the Tune-Up Cafe west of the Plaza, the restaurant had filled with attendees. He took a seat by Tarick and Bianca, a South American artist living in Austin, Texas. She had printed two years of daily selfies and created a gallery installation titled: The Inevitable Decay of My Overwhelming Beauty. Bianca was a nominee for the coveted I Am Genius award.

David Fallow flitted about in a #MeToo T-shirt, interrupting conversations then retreating when the focus shifted to someone else.

Grasping an empty chair at Jonah’s table, Fallow spun it around and squatted down, tilting forward into the backrest. “We’re driving to Albuquerque to see LCD Soundsystem.” He lowered his glasses. “Coming, Jonah?”

“Didn’t they break up in 2012?”

“That just gave a dramatic arc to their Netflix documentary.”

“LCD are okay, but not great. Like Modern English mixed with Depeche Mode.”

Conversations at the neighboring tables went quiet.

“Dude,” Fallow said. “Every important music critic worships them. Do you want to go against the opinion of The New Yorker?” Fallow’s voice lowered. “I’m not pissing them off and getting my fiction blackballed by you-know-who. I’ve waited my whole writing career to spell focused with a double s.”

“You-know-who?”

“I won’t say her name and be hexed,” Fallow whispered. “Anyway, I suppose you think Bowie and Prince are overrated too?” He lifted himself up. “Just because you’re considered a literary Dr. Seuss, doesn’t mean you know jack-shit about music.” Fallow stormed off.

“Ignore that ass-hat.” Tarick laid money on the table top.

“You going?” Jonah asked.

“Yeah, it’ll take my mind off the awards.”

Bianca left a ten-dollar bill by her empty plate.

Jonah sensed he would be paying most of the tab. Never be the last to leave a table of writers. Amid laughter and boisterous conversation, many diners hustled out toward cars parked on Hickox Street.

The server brought Jonah his Chile Relleno. “Hey,” he said. “Weren’t you on Saturday Night Live like twenty years ago? You used to be really fucking funny.” He paused to study Jonah as if a scientific curiosity. “What the hell happened?”

“I’ll eat my meal now, if that’s okay.”

A gray-haired man with a mustache plunked down two chairs away. “Derek Hopkins, Manhattan literary agent,” he said. “Kudos on your last book, Jonah. Major props.”

“You read it?”

“I read the sales figures.” Hopkins grinned. “Off the chain. Anyhoo, are you in the market for a new agent?”

“Maybe.”

“What do you have to read?” Hopkins leaned in, eyes widening. “Under 90,000 words, right? The new normal.”

“I have a mystery novel.”

“I only represent thrillers.”

“It’s also a thriller.”

“There must be no mystery. Zero.” Hopkins frowned. “Can’t sell that. Anything else?”

“A literary fiction novel.”

“Sorry, can’t pitch books about nothing. I handle upmarket fiction.”

Jonah sighed, his stomach twisting. “That’s a bogus industry-created term. What does it even mean?”

Hopkins recoiled. “It mixes the quality of literary fiction with the plot-driven narrative of genre fiction.”

“Right. Maybe go shove it upmarket your ass—”

“Jonah Marquez?” A thirtyish woman with long brown hair advanced and Hopkins staggered away from the table as if gut shot.

“Yes.” Jonah sighed. When an attractive woman approached him of late it meant one thing. “Would you like a signed copy of my book for your son or daughter?”

“No, I’m a journalist,” she said. “Wanted to interview you for a piece.”

“Regarding who?” Jonah felt skeptical. David Fallow was suspected of employing a writer to chronicle his exploits, like some nineteenth century western gunslinger.

“About you, and your work.” The woman joined him at the empty table. “I’m Maddie Berenson.”

“I wrote Are You My Stepmother From Hell? as a satirical novel,” Jonah said. “My editor shortened the title, simplified everything into homilies and inspirational messages. They added drawings and it took off as New Age, as a children’s book.” He put down his fork. “My agent wants me to stick to sequels.” He frowned. “I’ve made decent money, but it killed my literary career.”

“I’m more interested in your future.” Maddie smiled. “What are you working on?”

“It’s called, Professional Victimhood: Please Climb Off Your Cross.”

“Self-help or novel?”

“Both. You a full-time writer?”

“No, an empathic life coach and aromatherapist. This is my side hustle. You know, the gig economy.”

Jonah was warming to Maddie and the way her leg naturally nestled against his, so he ignored her trite buzz phrases. “From New Mexico?”

“Born here and now in California, Silver Lake.”

“Yes, Silver Lake…”

“I’m not a hipster,” Maddie insisted. “I live among them, but—”

“Not judging,” Jonah said. “I’m forty-eight and don’t care how people identify anymore. One of the main benefits of getting older.”

“Good for you.” She nodded in sympathy, as if he’d announced he was ninety and still capable of hobbling to the bathroom and urinating by himself.

Later, they drove toward the Plaza to huddle on high stools at the hammered copper bar inside Rio Chama. After Jonah ordered drinks, Maddie excused herself, leaving her purse and phone atop the bar. When a text pinged and brightened the phone’s screen, he bent over to read it.

We need background details and friends’ opinions on our subject. Did you interview the writer guy?

Jonah sipped his amber ale while considering the message.

They moved on to Cowgirl and Jonah found himself dancing drunkenly to Hogswallop, an Americana band. Dizzy and sweaty, he swayed outside onto Guadalupe Street where Maddie pressed her mouth hard against his, forcing Jonah’s head backwards. His hands roamed over her body.

Maddie stroked him for an instant before pushing away. “This isn’t right.” She shook her head with her eyes closed.

“You don’t date writers?”

“Not ones into awards and fame, who try to network and star-fuck their way to glory.” She retreated a few steps. “They would have to be detached, devoted to their art. A Bukowski, a Cormac McCarthy, or Margaret Atwood.”

“What if I was?”

“Would you walk away from the glitter and acclaim? I’d respect someone who could do that.”

“Sure, why not?”

“Then hike with me on the Big Tesuque trail tomorrow at four. It’s a local tradition, watching the Aspen leaves turn gold.”

“The award ceremony begins at four.”

“Yup, you’ll have to decide which is more important.” She nuzzled her moist, beer-flavored lips against his face. “Me or your bullshit ceremony?”

“Screw it, I’m not going to win.” He smiled.

They walked west to her car and Maddie hugged him. “See you tomorrow.”

 

*

 

The following morning, Jonah jogged around the circular Paseo de Peralta. When he returned, Fallow paced the lobby studying a sheet of paper while muttering.

“What are you doing, David?”

“Practicing my acceptance speech.”

“You certain you’ll win?”

“I’m nominated in two categories, so a decent chance.” Fallow frowned. “I’m white and fifty, which are handicaps…”

“Really?”

“In literary awards this decade? Yes.”

“No, I mean I thought you were mid-fifties, at least.”

“I deserve one,” Fallow continued, oblivious. “Unlike my contemporaries, I haven’t given up on the dream.” He stared at something indeterminate outside the window.

“What dream?” Jonah asked.

Fallow shook a fist. “I still plan to write the Great American Chapbook.”

 

*

 

Jonah met Maddie at the trailhead parking area, and they hiked the rock-encrusted dirt tread. Approaching 9,000 feet above sea level, Jonah sucked in thin air and gulped down bottled water as he led the way up the slope.

“I’m really over the online dating thing.”

“I feel you,” Maddie replied from behind.

“Match and Tinder are so ephemeral,” he continued. “You like someone’s photo then move on. You date someone and it seems special before one person ghosts the other, blocks them, or finds someone else.” Jonah craned his neck to observe Maddie working her thumb rapidly across her phone screen. Jesus, was she on Tinder, swiping left and right to meet some horny, hipster mountain man for a breathless, high-altitude quickie?

Maddie noticed and dug her phone into her vest pocket. “I missed my girlfriend’s wedding. Scrolling through the photos. What were you saying?”

“Nothing really…”

“I watched Wonder Woman again on Blu-ray. What a transformative film.”

“I didn’t see it.”

“Are you anti-woman?”

“I’m sick of superhero films. Too much CGI and endless battle scenes.”

“Wow, not even Captain Marvel?” Maddie said. “We support feminism through social media posts and movie choices. It’s not a superhero film, it’s a parable, an allegory.”

“Okay.”

Maddie’s phone pinged but she ignored it. They finally rested atop a rocky outcropping with a view. Jonah gazed down the jagged range that resembled a dinosaur’s spine toward the high desert plain where Santa Fe lay; Maddie munched on a protein bar.

“Do power bars help you hike?” he asked.

“No, it’s cannabis-infused. I gave one to that Fallow guy earlier because he really needed to chill.”

“Did he know it was treated?”

Maddie laughed through her nostrils and shook her head.

“Let’s talk in my car,” she said after they descended. “I was kind of blitzed last night.” Maddie’s face reddened inside the Subaru. “I may have come on too strong. I barely know you.”

Jonah nodded.

“I mean, I want to get to know you, but the old-fashioned way. When my article’s done.” Maddie squinted at the shack just downslope. “Is that what I think it is?”

“An outhouse, yeah.”

“I really, really have to go.” She squeezed his wrist before dashing toward the rustic structure.

Maddie’s iPhone lay abandoned on the driver’s seat. Jonah examined her contacts until he found the 323 area code number from last night. The most recent text read: Let me know when I can call.

Now is good, he responded. In a minute Maddie’s phone rang.

Jonah answered with a high-pitched cough.

“That you, Maddie?” asked a man. “Have you interviewed the loser yet? We need details on his humiliation.”

“Uh-huh,” Jonah said in a sing-song manner.

“I can barely hear you. The Raina Vang story is going to be huge. How she swooped down on Sophie, got her to ditch her boyfriend, then snagged all of Sophie’s publishing connections. Raina may have a secret husband too. I need everything you have by tomorrow. We’re going to preview this online, then print. Okay?”

Jonah disconnected. He exited the Subaru and crammed himself into his nearby Fiat. As he pulled out onto the winding Hyde Park Road, Jonah witnessed a distressed Maddie waving her hands. He soon plunged around two hairpin bends, losing sight of her in the rearview mirror.

Jonah arrived at the Lensic Theater mid-ceremony. The usher stopped him. “You’re what’s-his-name. I love your music, dude. Especially the stuff before you joined that cult.”

“Please, I just need to sit down.”

“They really make you sacrifice one of your boys to their celestial leader Zorbu?”

After Jonah located the correct row, he realized he wasn’t a nominee, instead seated in the guest section. Sophie’s guest. So, this was her scheme.

A handsome black man with a disgusted expression slouched next to him. “You here supporting someone?” Jonah asked.

“Yeah,” he said. “My wife, I mean, my sister.”

“Freudian slip.”

The neighbor scowled.

Sophie smiled wickedly back at Jonah from ten rows ahead where she sat bunched together with Raina and some well-coiffed men in suits.

When Haru Tanaka won the Creative Creative Award, Jonah noticed Fallow twitching in his seat. A hush fell upon the auditorium as a bald, bearded man took the podium to announce Best First Book.

“The winner in this category was not listed as a nominee due to the recent publication of her book. Congratulations to Raina Vang.”

Thundering applause sounded and many stood.

“The compilation of her iPhone texts, Facebook posts, and Instagram photos into a fictionalized memoir, It’s My Life, was only released Friday night. However, our panel of judges and sensitivity readers feel this is the most authentic fictionalized memoir ever.”

Raina sashayed toward the stage in a bright red dress. Jonah could see Sophie’s head sunken into her hands. Most of those in attendance likely had no idea Vang’s whatever-it-was had just been published.

“Thank you to everyone who helped me love myself,” Raina said into the microphone. She read a long list of editors, agents, and celebrities but failed to mention Sophie.

Suddenly a disoriented man with glazed eyes lurched toward the podium. David Fallow.

“I deserve this fucking award,” he bellowed into the mic. “If not for my current novel, then for last year’s Wellness Forthcoming.” He grabbed at the silver phallic trophy.

Raina elbowed him in the stomach, her smile a strained gash of lipstick and white teeth. Security tackled Fallow, but he escaped to bolt up the aisle with two stern men following. “Peace and love, everybody,” Raina shouted.

Five minutes later, Jonah left the auditorium. In the lobby, he encountered a disheveled David Fallow wrestling with Haru Tanaka. “I’m the more creative creative, you bastard,” he yelled. Security waited, ringed around them.

“Your white male dominance is over,” Tanaka said.

“I’m woke.”

“I was born woke.”

“I was woke in the womb!”

“Bullshit,” Tanaka replied. “I support Black Lives Matter.”

“I’m wearing their pin.”

“I saw Black Panther twice. Donated at the box office.” Tanaka broke free. “You’re done Fallow. Move to Nebraska or Idaho with your own kind.”

“I’ve read up on you,” Fallow said, gasping for breath. “Rich parents and you attended a Swiss boarding school. I accuse you of Asian privilege.”

Tanaka looked stunned, his face flushing. “That’s not a thing yet.” He trembled.

“You’re no Murakami.”

“I’m the more PC version. That’s all that matters right now.” Tanaka straightened his clothing before exiting the Lensic, clutching his award.

Sophie materialized at Jonah’s side. “I punished you with the invitation because I was in such pain from dumping you that I didn’t know I was still in love, so I needed to hurt you. You understand, right?”

“Uh, no.”

Sophie slapped Jonah’s face.

Conversations stopped when Raina appeared holding her trophy aloft amidst five men awash in cologne. Sophie wedged through them.

“Congratulations, love. It’s us females fighting together against a male dominant culture.”

Raina gazed at Sophie with cold indifference. “No, it’s women of color against a white privilege culture.” She brushed Sophie off to move with her retinue toward a limo outside; the handsome black man who had sat by Jonah trailed at a discreet distance. His expression showed exhaustion.

Maddie confronted Jonah near the concession stands. “Okay, you figured out I was bullshitting you, but you read my private texts. Anyway, I’m so fucking done with that sell-out magazine. Let’s get lost.”

“Seriously?”

“Well, after I get paid for my story on Raina….”

Jonah sprinted for his parked car.

An aged Native American sat on the curb with a placard: You are meaningless. Leave my land, art elitists. Please get the hell out.

A Symposium official wearing a tuxedo dashed outside to hand him an unused award for Best Haiku.

“Wait.” Maddie kicked at the Fiat’s bumper after Jonah locked the doors. “You don’t know what you’re missing. I’m hip, I’m hot.” When he didn’t respond, she added, “You woman-hating narcissist.”

“No, I hate everyone, including myself.”

“You’re like the Hitler of children’s fiction,” she shouted. “You’ll die lonely, buried in a cis-gender graveyard, anonymous. A misanthrope.”

“Your last album sucked,” said the familiar usher, piling on to the insult party.

Jonah pulled away from the curb, only able to drive five mph in downtown traffic. Fallow jogged alongside the Fiat.

“Listen, Jonah,” he said. “We’ll start a compound, a retreat up in Marin or Oregon for white male writers. Do a GoFundMe campaign. Get Sean Penn to kick in some major backing. A men’s empowerment group.”

“We’re already empowered,” Jonah said through the cracked window.

“Okay, a male enhancement group, but we’ll allow anyone in. Total tolerance and inclusion. Don’t go back to LA. We’re finished there, dude.”

Upon reaching Saint Francis Drive, Jonah accelerated as he searched for the Interstate 25 South sign to Albuquerque.

 

Max Talley was born in New York City and lives in Southern California. His fiction and essays have appeared in Fiction Southeast, Entropy, Gravel, Hofstra University – Windmill, Bridge Eight, and Litro, and are upcoming in Santa Fe Literary Review and from Digging Press. Talley’s novel, Yesterday We Forget Tomorrow, was published in 2014, and he currently serves as an associate editor for Santa Barbara Literary Journal.

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