The Pen Name
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Copyright © 2011 Geonn Cannon. All rights reserved.
"This is Christmas. The season of perpetual hope."
Alice Berg stubbed out her cigarette on the stone next to the door and glared at Ruth. Ruth finally smiled and shrugged. "Okay, maybe that's a little too cheery. But things could be worse. Look at the bright side. It's a paying job."
"I'm a lapsed Jew being asked to write a Christmas story."
"Maybe you should have used a Jewish name when you started selling your scripts."
She brought her hand to her mouth
before she remembered her cigarette was gone. She looked with longing at the
smudge of ash on the stone and tucked her gloved hands under her arms to warm
them. Ruth didn't seem to be cold, and
Ruth Rhoades, assistant extraordinaire, was the only contact she needed. Ruth brought her the mail and memos from the radio station management. The latest one revealed that the management of WSPR Radio, in their infinite wisdom, wanted her to write something special for their 1934 Christmas Extravaganza. On Christmas Eve, it would be performed live in-studio between performances of Christmas hymns and recitations of heartwarming holiday tales.
"Just cadge from Dickens. Honestly, most of the dramas I listened to last year were just reworks of Mr. Scrooge's story anyway."
"How could I possibly take pride in my work if I just stole from someone else? If I ever get that lazy, I want you to take a hammer to my typewriter."
Ruth smiled. "You? Lazy? Perish the thought." She tugged at the collar of her coat. "If you're not gonna smoke, maybe we should go back inside."
They stopped inside the door just
long enough to divest themselves of their coats and scarves before they went
The thrilling adventures of Dirk Lincoln and his sidekick, Rusty. At the end of this latest adventure, the intrepid explorers were left teetering on a cliff face with an entire tribe of bloodthirsty cannibals closing in on them. The last line of the installment went to Dirk, and she could hear Reed Powers' deep bass voice saying it. "Don't worry, Rusty. With my manners, no one's ever wanted to have me for dinner!"
She had enough of Dirk Lincoln's adventures that she didn't have to come up with a solution until late January. Or rather Arthur B. Campbell had a month to come up with it. She scratched her eyebrow and put the last page of the script back on the stack. The Christmas deadline loomed. The radio station wanted a script in hand in time to give their actors two weeks of rehearsal. That meant she needed to get started P.D.Q.
Ruth appeared at the side of the desk. "I didn't hear clacking, so I thought you might need some inspiration." She held out three envelopes. "Fan mail for you."
"Fan mail for Arthur."
Ruth rolled her eyes. "Arthur doesn't exist. These people sat down and wrote letters because of what you wrote. Doesn't matter a lick that they call you Mr. Campbell."
"Maybe not to you." She suddenly wanted another cigarette and damn the cold. She took the letters and Ruth disappeared back to her domain.
She liked to make a fuss and stamp her feet around, but she really did enjoy the fan mail despite the fact it was addressed to her pseudonym. It didn't matter who the audience thought they were praising. The work belonged all to her, so she might as well enjoy the response.
"Deer Mr Arthur Campell,"
was written in crayon, and
It was signed, "
She took a piece of tape off the
roll she kept in her drawer and displayed the note on the side of the desk.
It joined the other missives she'd saved over the years, like the crayon
drawings of Dirk and Rusty and a letter of thanks from someone in the
hospital who thanked her for creating a world beyond the little slice of it
she could see through her window. They may be thanking Arthur, but Dirk
wouldn't exist without
People on the street would never assume she was responsible for the rip-roaring action stories they heard every week on The Whisper. She was just a touch under five-four, with hair that was either russet or mahogany depending on the light. She had a splash of freckles across the bridge of her nose and big blue eyes that she felt made her look like a little girl begging for a cookie.
WSPR's programming manager was bright enough to recognize the quality of her writing, but he knew that using her real name would never fly. She didn't put up a fuss, since she'd been told from the beginning she was never going to get a job at all. Just to get paid for what she loved was a victory.
She read the second letter - a reverend who said he truly enjoyed the show but thought perhaps the violence might be a bit over the top - and put it aside. She was always open to criticism. Maybe Dirk and Rusty could get away from the cannibals by reasoning with them. She was still chuckling over the idea of a diplomatic treaty between explorer Dirk Lincoln and a tribe of man-eating natives when she began reading the final letter. Her smile quickly faded and she started over again so she could really focus on what was being said.
"Mr. Campbell, I told myself over and over again that I wasn't going to write this letter, but I finally got around to it. Whether I'll actually slap a stamp on the face and send it in is a whole different story. I don't know why I'm making it such a big deal. Out of the thousands of letters you get, I doubt you'll even take much note of this one. So why not say what I have to say and get it off my chest and you'll never be the wiser whether I send it in or not.
"I believe I may be falling in love with you. It sounds ridiculous, I know. Even as I write it, I'm laughing at how foolish I must sound. But every week I sit down and I listen to your program and it fills me with such awe at how talented you must be. There's something about your stories that the other dramas don't have. I wish I could put my finger on it. I stopped listening for the plots a long time ago, even though they really are wonderful! I've started listening for the little pieces of yourself you put into the stories.
"You give away a lot sometimes. Did you know that? I've noticed the patterns. You get angry at injustices, and you believe everyone deserves a chance to make good in their life whether they're a man, a woman, or colored. The way you sometimes write Dirk and Rusty as a father and son, taking care to address the emotion of the moment, shows that you're a tender man. It's almost like listening for a single instrument in an orchestra. It can be hard to separate, but once you've heard it, it's hard to stop, do you know what I mean?
"Well, I think I've suitably humiliated myself enough. I truly hope you don't read these letters or else I'll be very red-faced. If you do, I thank you for your time and I assure you that I won't bother you with future notes.
"It's out of my hands, as it were!
"Ms. Julia M. Hull."
"Ruthie? Do you know when the Julia Hull letter came in?"
She heard Ruth's soft footsteps crossing the cramped office and then she poked her head around the side of the desk to see the envelope. "Uh, I think it was Monday morning. Was it something good?"
"I don't know." She
handed the letter over and reclined in her chair, one leg crossed over the
other as she watched Ruth read. Ruth started out with a perplexed look that
quickly spread into a smile. She arched a dark eyebrow and looked at
"Hush. I can't let this poor woman go fawning all over someone who doesn't exist. I gotta tell her the truth."
"Of course I'm sure." She took the letter back. "It took a lot of courage to write that letter. What if one day she gathers up her courage to come down to the station and meet him in person? She'd be crushed if she found out that way. Tellin' her now is the right thing to do."
Ruth shrugged and leaned against the side of the desk. "But what if she blabs?"
"If she's as big a fan as she claims, she'll understand the importance of keeping mum. And if not..." She looked at the scripts on her desk. "If not, maybe I'll let the cannibals eat Rusty."
Ruth wrinkled her nose. "Good. I can't stand the little pipsqueak that plays him. Last week when I dropped off the revisions, he pinched my tushie."
The notes from kids could be put on display for everyone to see, but this one was just for her. She tugged at her collar, self-conscious, and rolled a fresh sheet of paper into the typewriter. She made a fist with her right hand and massaged the fingers with her left hand. Then she reversed it and shook her fingers out until they felt nice and limber.
She didn't make a plan and she didn't have a plot or even characters in mind when she began typing. The typebars rose to strike the platen and a title appeared:
THE CHRISTMAS LETTER
At the end of the day, she had a
good portion of the script finished and took a few minutes to draft a letter
to Julia M. Hull of
She signed it and stared at it for a long moment before removing the paper from the carriage. She blew on the ink to dry it, a habit she didn't even realize she did anymore, and folded the paper thrice before sticking it into an envelope. She carefully copied the address from the original envelope, wet the glue with a sponge she kept nearby, and rounded the corner of the desk.
Ruth looked up from her correspondence and smiled. "How's the Christmas play coming?"
"It's coming along. Schmaltzy family drama and a comedy of errors."
"Well, that sounds fine. But just remember WSPR's one rule about their holiday fare: Keep it holy. The manager is a Methodist, so you gotta remember the reason for the season."
"Baby Jesus, manger, and so forth, yes yes." She put on her cloche hat and wriggled her fingers into her white wool gloves. "Do we have any stamps? I thought I'd drop this letter in a box on my way home."
Ruth pursed her lips. "Oh, shoot." She opened the top drawer of her desk and shook her head. "We're all out, hon. I meant to get a book of them yesterday and just plumb forgot."
"That's okay." She looked at the address again. It was awfully close by. She put on her jacket and tugged the collar closed. "You know what, I think I'll just walk it over. No need to waste the post office's time. It's almost five, why don't you call it a day and save the rest of that for tomorrow?"
Ruth shot up from her chair like someone had hit the ejector button. "Well, twist my arm."
They dressed for the cold and
walked out of the building together, parting ways at the bottom of the stairs
"Oh! I'm sorry. I nearly ran you right over. Are you all right?"
"I'm fine." The woman's eyes
were so blue it seemed as if they had instantly frozen in contact with the
air. She had a hat pulled down to her eyebrows, but long strands of wavy
blonde hair stretched out past her face and came to rest on her shoulders.
"Oh? Most people are still at work right now. Who is it you're looking for?"
"Julia M. Hull?"
Ice eyes widened and ruby lips spread in happy surprise. "Well, aren't you the lucky one? I'm Julia M. Hull! How can I help you?"
Julia's cheeks flushed bright pink. "My stars. I never thought he'd send anyone down in person. I just... oh, heavens. You must think I'm a fine fool."
"I don't think anything of the sort. I thought your letter was very, very sweet. I wanted to... thank you in person for sending it."
"Mr. Campbell didn't send you?"
"No. Uh, in fact, he doesn't even know I came here. He was very embarrassed. He's a mite shy."
Julia smiled. "Those sensitive artist types, right?"
"That's it exactly." She realized that Julia was rubbing her palms together. "My goodness, you must be freezing. I should let you get on with what you were gonna do. I just wanted to say thank you on Mr. Campbell's behalf."
"I'm just relieved you both don't think I made a fool of myself."
"Pleasure to meet you."
"Would you like to see where... he writes the stories?"
"The office where Mr. Campbell writes. I could, um, there are times when he's out, so he'd never have to know. And I could take you to the radio station. You could see the studio. Maybe even meet the actors. I know Reed Powers loves meeting fans." Particularly the blonde comely ones.
Julia's eyes were wide with disbelief. "Oh, my goodness, I could never impose like that! I don't even know what to say. You're so generous, Ms. Berg. Thank you, yes, I would very much enjoy that. Thank you."
"Is Monday good for you? Say noon? Perhaps we could do a quick tour and then have some lunch." She began digging in her purse for a card with the address of the office.
"Well, I think that would be lovely. Do you think maybe I could eventually meet Mr. Campbell?"
"Sure. I understand." She was still smiling. "Thank you so much. I never thought I'd get a reply, let alone this."
"It's my pleasure, Ms. Hull."
"Then I must be
"And you, Alice. I'm fortunate Mr. Campbell has someone like you working for him. I'll see you on Monday."
On Thursday and Friday,
She kept the script in a manila envelope on her desk and was determined to enjoy the weekend. She bid Ruth adieu - she frequently spent her weekends upstate with her beau - and took her time walking home. She spent the weekend safely indoors, watching sleet and snow from her window as she remained safe and warm. She did a few crosswords, read a novel, and tried not to think about the special guest she would have on Monday.
Before leaving work Friday afternoon, she told Ruth that she should take a long weekend to get some Christmas shopping done before the crowds hit. She thought it would be easier to cope without her than trying to explain Julia's visit. She stopped at Woolworth's to buy a jar of men's cologne. When she got to the office, she sprayed it into the small area behind the desk so Julia would at least smell a man.
She tried to do some work while she waited, but her heart wasn't in it. She kept seeing her fingernails and wondering if she should put some polish on. Julia would probably be wearing polish, and she would look drab by comparison. She was looking in Ruth's desk when there was a knock on the door. She gasped out of surprise and put a hand over her chest as she checked the clock. Time had dragged all morning; how could it be noon already?
She straightened her red blazer, suddenly certain she should have worn the blue one or maybe just a regular scoop-neck blouse, and made sure her collar was straight. She took a steadying breath and then opened the office door.
Julia showed her teeth when she smiled, eyebrows shooting up toward her hairline. "Hi. I'm early. I'm sorry. I thought I would pace in the lobby for a while but then--" She closed her eyes and took a sudden, sharp breath. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be. Come in. I was watching the clock anyway." She noticed her blunt, naked fingernails as she waved Julia inside. She tucked them against her palm and stepped aside. "Please come in."
Julia entered and ran her eyes
along the steep angle of the roof, skimmed across the desk she thought
"Mm hmm. Come on. It's okay." She hooked her arm around Julia's elbow, an excuse to have contact with her, and guided her around to the front of the workspace. Julia took a deep breath and released it slowly. "Go ahead. Have a seat."
"Oh, I couldn't! He'd know!"
"I won't tell him."
Julia braced herself and approached the small chair, nervously lowering herself into it. She smiled as she ran her eyes over the assortment of paper stacked on the desk. She lightly touched the lava rock, smiled at the coffee mug, and let her gaze linger on the letters stuck to the side of the desk's wall. She smiled when she saw her own letter.
"He hung it up."
"It meant a lot to him."
Julia glanced at her suddenly, and
"It's true. I listened to the first serial by accident but I just got so caught up. The characters mean so much more than the plot, but they make the plot more interesting. He makes you care about them." She ran her palm over the keys of the typewriter.
Julia shot up out of the seat. "No! I couldn't possibly. That would be a step too far, I think."
"Wow." Julia's voice was quiet, and she reverently put the lava rock aside and picked up the script. "But I can't do it in his chair. I mean, that's--"
"That would be perfect."
She walked past
Every now and then Julia would
respond to something on the page. She would chuckle, or gasp, or she would
whisper a response to something on the page. "Oh no!" or "She didn't!" or something else that
A few minutes later, she heard a quiet voice. "Do you know if there's a happy ending?"
"I don't want to know the actual ending, I just... I want to know it's happy for everyone."
"Yes. There's a happy ending."
Julia looked relieved. "Good.
Thank you." She looked back down and resumed reading, and
Fifteen minutes later, Julia
turned the last page and stacked the papers neatly once more. She tapped them
against one shapely thigh to straighten them.
"He's really amazing, isn't he? I mean, the emotion comes through in his Dirk Lincoln stories. But this is just... it's so emotional on the face of it. I'm, um, very glad I wasn't listening to this at work. I might have embarrassed myself a little bit." She touched the corner of each eye with her pinkie. "You've really made my day. I hope you don't get in trouble with your boss."
"No, I won't, I'm sure of it."
Julia looked toward the window. "I should probably leave soon. I've stayed a lot longer than I planned. Mr. Campbell could come back any moment and you'd sure get the worst of it."
She glanced at the tiny watch face hanging off her wrist by a slender chain. "I believe that ship has sailed. But it was very worth it."
"You should have said
"You were the perfect hostess. I had a marvelous time. And I feel so selfish asking if we can meet up again--"
"No, I'm off on Wednesdays. That's how you caught me last week." She smiled again. "Could we do it this Wednesday? If you don't have to work, that is."
"I'll arrange something. And I'll make sure that Reed Powers is in the studio so you can meet him. Say the same time? Noon?"
"Yes!" Julia perked up, and then withdrew as if trying to hide her excitement. "Do you think... do you think Annabelle Cole will be there? I've always wanted to meet her. Ever since she played Bessie Alleyne in Seven Seas Scourge."
"I'll make certain of it."
She handed back the script.
"Thank you for a really wonderful day,
"It was great for me, too."
And considering she hadn't written a single word, that she'd sat in an uncomfortable chair and basically did busywork when she could have been eating or catching up on replying to other fan mail, she was surprised to discover that she truly meant it.
She imagined Julia tuning in, on the edge of her seat to hear the "exciting conclusion." She didn't care what the radio station thought or if all the other listeners were happy with how things wrapped up. She only cared about whether Julia would like it.
When she and Ruth left the office for the night, she'd only managed to write the opening teaser where the announcer would recap the events of the past story to refresh people's memories. She could almost imagine Dirk Lincoln standing on the cliff, hands on his hips, impatiently waiting for her to detail his awe-inspiring escape. When she dropped the cover over the typewriter, she actually whispered, "Sorry, Dirk. Maybe Thursday."
"Hum, I have something to do at the radio station. A tour."
Ruth appeared at the edge of the
desk. "A tour?" Her nostrils flared and she looked at the wall
"No! I would never." She stood up and gathered her things so that Ruth wouldn't see her blushing. "I just... it..."
They walked out together, and
"Honey, that doesn't make a lick of sense unless you're talking about a man."
She went home and changed into her pajamas while the late afternoon sun was still shining through the window. She put curlers in her hair and scrubbed the makeup from her face, staring at the wide-eyed waif who returned her gaze in the mirror. She pressed her lips together, turned her head one way and then the other. How much easier life would be if she really was Arthur Campbell!
She'd once owned a man's suit. Maybe with the right wide-brimmed hat and gloves... no. No, she would never be able to pull it off, and it would just be building a bigger lie. She sighed and went to bed very early, lying on top of the covers with her hands laced over her stomach as she thought about Julia, the way she'd settled in so easily in the windowseat and the way she had spoken about "Arthur's" work.
"Why can't she be talking about me when she looks like that?" she asked. She kept her voice low, afraid the neighbors would overhear and instinctively know what she was talking about. A tear rolled from the corner of her eye and gathered in the dip between her jaw and ear. She rolled over and pressed that ear against her pillow and decided she was going to be completely professional in the morning.
Even if it killed her.
WSPR was a small red-brick
building with a tall broadcast tower stretching from its roof to a tall red
beacon. The call letters were displayed between the top floor windows in
tall, narrow letters.
Julia didn't care about her. She
cared about Dirk Lincoln and Arthur Campbell, two fictional men who wouldn't
exist if it wasn't for
She spotted Julia at the corner and resisted the urge to start waving. She waited patiently until Julia reached her, and they reunited at the front doors. She was so focused on Julia's face that she didn't realize she was carrying something until it was thrust into her hands. She looked down at the leafy red plant and looked up with a question in her eyes.
"It's a poinsettia. For the office. You didn't have a lot of plants." Her eyebrows knit together. "Maybe that's because you don't like plants. Oh. Well. I just thought I'd do something nice for you. For everything you've done for me. And I just thought, well, it's close to Christmas and if you don't like it you can just throw it out after the New Year or--"
"Julia!" She was struggling not to laugh. "I love it. Thank you so much." She juggled the pot, which prevented her from greeting Julia with a hug as planned. Maybe that was for the best.
"I hope Mr. Campbell won't mind you putting it in the office."
"I'm... sure he won't. Shall we?" She gestured at the door and Julia nodded eagerly. She held the door open for Julia and took a deep breath of the cold December air before following her inside.
"Oh, that was splendid. I can't believe I actually met Reed Powers. He sounds exactly like Dirk Lincoln!" She put her palms against her cheeks and closed her eyes. "Oh, listen to me."
"I most definitely am,"
"I'm sorry. I must sound like a child."
"You sound like someone who had a very good afternoon. I'm pleased I was able to give it to you."
Julia breathed in deeply, let it
out, and then shuddered. "Oh, it's chilly." She was forced to turn
sideways to look at
Julia shook her head and faced forward again. "It's nothing important."
"Oh! No." Julia forced her excitement down and forced herself to shake her head. "It's not that. Um. Oh, this is my building."
"I know. I remember."
"Right." Julia laughed nervously. "Can I invite you up for some coffee to thaw you out before the walk home? It's the absolute very least I can do for everything you've done for me over the past week. And you've gotten not a thing in return."
"Then make it a plant and a cup of java."
It was tempting. Too tempting. Dangerously tempting. She looked down the street and dreaded the distance to the bus stop. Coffee sounded wonderful right then, like something out of a dream that couldn't possibly be real.
"Okay! Come on up."
It smelled vaguely like citrus; oranges to be specific. A small love seat was facing the door, and she saw a cramped kitchen off to the right. Julia tugged off her gloves and unwound her scarf as she went into her private space like a queen surveying her kingdom. She stopped next to an armchair and rested her hands on either side of the doily on the headrest. "This is where I sit when I'm lucky enough to be home for a broadcast."
The chair was turned slightly away from the couch, and she would have had a view of a blank wall beside the white-brick fireplace. She pointed at it. "So that's the screen, huh?"
"Yep. Most of the time I just
sit there with my head against the back, my eyes closed, and the whole
apartment just falls away. I owe Mr. Campbell a lot. Thanks to him, I've
vacationed in the wilds of
"Do you want to sit? I'll get the coffee brewing and we can have a chat. A normal chat, I promise. No going on and on about Mr. Campbell's work."
"I would like that."
"Make yourself comfortable, please."
The only truly interesting
photograph was a small frame on a table next to the couch, showing Julia and
another blonde woman with an inverted pyramid of a smile. Her chin was sharp,
but her cheeks were soft enough to make up for it. Julia returned, followed
her gaze, and said, "That's
Julia sat down. "There's something I wanted to say down on the street, but I think I've embarrassed you enough in public." Her shoulders rose as she took a breath, and her lips formed a small flower bud as she exhaled. "I just wanted to say that it's no surprise Arthur Campbell writes such amazing, well-rounded female characters with you in his office day in and day out. I told you that I can read between the lines and see what a great man Arthur Campbell must be, and I'm sure he still is. But I've spent a few hours with you, and I see so much of what I love in the stories embodied in you.
"You're his muse, aren't you? He just... he just copies what he sees in you."
Julia leaned in and kissed
"I'm sorry." The voice was meek.
"I'm so sorry."
Stop, stop, stop, stop! echoed
"I'm Arthur Campbell."
Julia said, "Oh. I
"You seemed so uncomfortable... I just thought... I would... play along. And I was having such a good time with you that I... didn't want it to stop. I hope you'll forgive me."
"Well, we're not even."
"Now we're even, Mr.
Campbell." She touched
"Of course." Julia
looked down and ran her hand over the cushion between them. It seemed much
smaller than it had a moment ago and
"That could take a while. I am a writer, after all." She couldn't stop herself from smiling. "And you do have an awful habit of rambling on and on when you get excited."
Julia leaned closer, mischief in her eye. "If you think I go on and on about the radio, you should hear me when it's something I'm really passionate about. Brace yourself, Miss Berg. You ain't heard nothin' yet."