"Nothing’s easy,” groused the Old Man, as he rooted through one of the many haphazard stacks of paper surrounding his computer monitor. He was trying to fit together the pieces of Route 1’s annual Summer Fiction issue, looking for the original hard copy of a poem that might help explain whether the previously unpublished poet really meant the rhyming word to appear midway through a line rather than at the end of a line.
“There is no hard copy,” announced a voice from the other side of a bank of file cabinets. “That came in by E-mail, and that’s where the line break was.”
The Old Man, realizing he must have been talking to himself again, cursed under his breath. The scanning of this particular poem at this particular time — four days before the issue was supposed to go to the printer — was the least of his problems. The specter of squeezing all the selected works into a finite amount of space — with poems fitting neatly into boxes like pieces of art in a frame and stories beginning and ending at logical points on a page — loomed in the air.
And then there was the question of the cover.
Oh yes, the cover. When the first Summer Fiction issue had been hatched 15 years ago, as a way to fill an oversized version of the paper that would satiate readers while the Old Man took a two-week break from the routine, the cover was the easiest part of the process. Hell, the cover turned out to be the only easy part of it. For the Old Man the cover was simply a matter of grabbing one of those stacks of submissions from his desk, giving them to Stan Kephart, the graphic artist, and letting Stan draw a whimsical drawing, often featuring a couple reading a copy of the same Fiction Issue in which they were appearing. A cover within a cover.
But Kephart died in 2007 and since then the Old Man has had to piece together a cover on his own. The year after Kephart’s death the Old Man assembled a collage of all Stan’s covers. The next year he stumbled on a little poem, “Java @ Tiger Park,” describing the inscribed cobblestones in the little park in front of Palmer Square. Within minutes of reading it, the Old Man had grabbed a camera and was stooped over the stones, capturing the names of the literary lions enshrined there — all to form a Fiction Issue cover that even had a cover within a cover, a simultaneous salute to Kephart.
Last year he adapted a book cover from the Princeton Murder series written by his friend Ann Waldron, who had died just a few weeks before the Summer Fiction issue was published. But this year, days before the looming deadline, the Old Man had nothing up his sleeve. “Nothing’s easy,” he muttered to no one in particular.
And so he did what he always did when he hit the blank wall of editorial despair. He started to re-read the submissions. The reading took the Old Man to the trio of stories about a haunted house in Cape May, all created by members of an informal writing group who had each been given the same starting premise and then followed their own story-telling instincts. The Old Man knew that the trio of stories could kick off the section. And why not use an illustration of a Cape May house for the cover?
But where would such an illustration come from? Google images came up empty — lots of photos, few drawings of anything resembling a haunted house. Then the Old Man stumbled upon a poem, “Cape May.”
Too good to be true, the Old Man thought. But too good got better. The poem referred to a drawing class led by Barbara Cox. And someone else in the office had just interviewed Cox for an article on an art exhibit. The Old Man had an edge in his voice: Could someone reach out to her to see if she has a painting of a Cape May house, or if one of her students has a painting of a Cape May house?
A few hours passed. The Old Man’s edginess was turning to crankiness. Has anyone talked to Barbara Cox?
“Not yet,” came the reply. “She’s hard to reach . . . by E-mail.”
The Old Man sensed the hesitation between the word “reach” and “by” and immediately realized that E-mail was the only way anyone had tried to reach her. He seized the moment to offer one of his favorite lessons to the denizens of the digital world. “Well, if she’s hard to reach by E-mail, maybe — just maybe — she’s easy to reach some other way.” The Old Man let that comment hang in the air for a moment or so. “Let me try to reach her.”
The telephone book gathering dust on a cluttered shelf was the only resource he needed. A few minutes later a voice mail was left. Shortly after that, when the rest of the staff was gone, the phone rang and a pleasant voice announced, “This is Barbara Cox, returning your call.”
The next morning the Old Man arrived in the office, clutching a large package protected by a white plastic bag. Inside were two splendid watercolors. “We were looking for a house in Cape May, preferably a haunted house. This one they call the ‘Gray Ghost,’ and it used to be owned by the Wanamakers. This one is the Abbey and everyone thinks it’s haunted. We can use either one, or both of them, if we want.” The Old Man tried to suppress a tone of triumph.
The staff checked them out. “How did you get them?” someone finally asked.
The Old Man hesitated. If he told the truth it might encourage them to pick up the phone once in a while and see first hand how valuable — and easy — a personal conversation can be. On the other hand, this was the Fiction Issue, and the truth might not make the best story.
“Well, it wasn’t easy,” he began, “but nothing ever is . . .”
Editor’s note: Barbara Cox’s watercolor of the “Gray Ghost” appears on the cover of this issue. The poem that refers to her drawing class in Cape May appears on page 24.