Story: “Kid Hermes” by Charles Rammelkamp
Written/Read by Charles Rammelkamp
“How does it feel to wake up each morning knowing you’re a fraud, a sell-out, a moral coward?” Mark Person read the e-mail from George Clark, the angry community college professor/poet whose work he had rejected and who had consequently taken to firing off bitter, mocking messages every few months to Person’s e-mail address at The Cantwell Review.
The rejection note had been bland and hopeful, thanking the poet or writer for his/her interest in The Cantwell Review and assuring him or her that the work had been given serious attention but that there was just so much good work and choices had to be made, and regrettably the editorial staff (Person and the two or three pseudonyms under which he wrote reviews) had decided to pass on this submission.
Person used to add “Good luck placing your work elsewhere,” until he received a reply from somebody named Jason Wertz, who said the implied smugness and condescension had made his blood boil. It felt so cold, Wertz said, after the two of them, poet and editor, had established a rapport (even though the “rapport” had been completely one-sided; his name remained unfamiliar to Person). People took rejection so personally sometimes. Person remembered the old joke about the competition being so stiff because the prizes were so small.
Person understood Wertz’s feelings of having established a rapport all too well. At times he felt backed into a corner to accept somebody’s poetry if a correspondence that was even remotely personal began to develop. He hated to hurt anybody’s feelings, dash their expectations. He had, in fact, accepted a few poems he didn’t really like. An editor had to be something of a priest or a spy, not leave any fingerprints, nothing by which he could be identified as a human being. How often had Person himself counted on familiarity to get his work accepted? At least give him an edge?
And what god-like pleasure he took from the reactions he received when he sent an acceptance letter. “You really made my day!” the Italian kid from Carbondale, Illinois, wrote to Mark when he accepted the delightful poem about Italian grandmothers. “I feel like doing cartwheels all across Douglas Drive.” “Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you, Mr. Person!” Sarah Cheslow of Brooklyn had written when he took her short story about an abusive rabbi and an overly protective mother. It made Mark Person wonder if an editor could trade acceptance by a poetry journal for sexual favors. But it was also a little depressing; if the insignificant Cantwell Review had a readership of more than a hundred he’d be surprised. All this gratitude for that?
Mark Person had taken on the editorship of this online journal, The Cantwell Review, as a favor to a friend who had edited it before him, a one-issue guest editorship. But after the issue went online, his friend had already moved on, and Mark had become chummy with Burt Ashe, the publisher, and with the occasional contributing editors, and he had agreed to stay on. The work was not crushing. The submissions were steady but not overwhelming. Theoretically a semi-annual, in reality The Cantwell Review published every eight to ten months, and nobody was holding a gun to their heads (though some contributors wrote impatient queries and threatened to withdraw their material sometimes, if the wait got to be too long). A college administrator by day, Mark Person did not get paid for his work on The Cantwell Review. It was a labor of love, though he preferred to describe the relationship as love-hate.
So when George Clark had written back a brief, “It figures you wouldn’t use my work,” it had struck Person as such an abject response that he had tried to soften the blow with an encouraging note, saying that he’d really liked Clark’s poems (not that he could remember them, had, in fact, already deleted them), but that there was just so much good work to choose from. He thought to add that Clark’s had been a “finalist,” but he didn’t want to lay it on too thick. Still, it didn’t hurt to lie sometimes for the sake of soothing a bruised ego. Why cause anguish over a poem?
“You don’t understand,” Clark had replied within minutes. “I knew you wouldn’t have the guts to publish my work. It’s much too dangerous and seditious for the safe little Cantwell Review with its precious sonnets and noble anti-war sentiments. You are a part of the literary establishment that only perpetuates the problem by refusing to publish anything cutting-edge or controversial.”
Person found Clark’s tone irritating. “Actually, George, I found your poems boring and predictable, anything but ‘cutting-edge.’ Sorry,” he’d written back, even though he knew it was a mistake to reply at all; you never win with this type. Still, he wanted to poke a stick in the putz’s eye.
“Boring, you say?” The response was almost immediate, as if Clark were a cat waiting to pounce. “I’ll tell you what’s boring…”
Let it go! Let it go! Person told himself, even as he shot off a terse, “Fuck you.”
It was as though Clark had been waiting for just such a response. Exultant, as if he had just checkmated his opponent, Clark gleefully replied, “Ah ha! Is that all you can say to me, ‘Fuck you?’ You’re even weaker than I thought, more intellectually bankrupt….”
This time, Person did refrain, even when Clark shot him another sneering e-mail an hour later, and another several hours after that, and two the next day.
Curious, Person googled George Clark’s name and found several other instances where he’d accused literary magazine editors of being frauds and cowards. A provocateur. A nutcase.
Now the e-mails came every few months, and once, Clark had even drawn a satiric cartoon of Person, depicting him as the wild-eyed captain of a sinking ship, “HMS Cantwell,” a cartoon bubble over his head with the words “Boring. Fuck you,” in ransom-note script in the middle of the bubble. In an odd way, Person had found this flattering. Still, he did have occasional anxious visions of Clark gunning him down in the street for having rejected his poems in classic “disgruntled employee” fashion. Take that, you establishment sell-out fraud, you!
But this time, once again, Person deleted the e-mail without responding. He assumed that Clark would eventually stop if he weren’t encouraged. Give the guy a little attention and he’d leap at it like a starving dog after a bloody hunk of meat.
At times Person felt like the woman who as a juror in an attempted rape case had afterward been called and asked out on a date by the presiding judge. Only after politely declining had she read in the newspaper a few months later that this judge was being dismissed for sexually harassing his female clerks. Just so, he felt blindsided by submitters’ reactions, never anticipating the naked hurt, the resentment, the suspicion.
Along with Clark’s e-mail there were eight submissions, three fiction, four poetry, and an essay on colonial and imperialistic poetry (by both occupiers and occupied).
“What if I don’t read these and just say I did?” Person asked himself, but there was no dodging the judgment of his conscience. Still, from the first stanzas of the poetry submissions he was already composing his rejection letter – composing a form rejection letter, the kind that could begin, “Dear Poet,” no need to use names. Thank you for thinking of The Cantwell Review, however…
But Person knew the sting of the anonymous impersonal rejection letter just as well as Jason Wertz, and this was how he had come upon the notion of the imaginary “editorial board.” Whenever he read something that he actually liked, but not well enough to publish, he’d write back a personal reply and refer to the opinions of the other members of the editorial board, their reservations about the length of a piece or some confusing syntax. “One reader found the imagery in the third stanza disturbing…” He tried to convey the impression that a whole symposium had been convened just to evaluate this poem. And it worked. Poets felt mollified. This was not just the arbitrary decision of an autocratic editor, the emperor of his own imaginary kingdom. No, the decision was made by a committee, strenuously arguing the merits of a story or poem, for and against.
And then it happened. Already forming the phrases, discarding them for others –
“It was a tough decision” morphing into “we really enjoyed reading your poetry” and morphing into “really knocked our socks off, but” – the sequence of poems by Gloria DeCesare knocked his socks off. DeCesare called them the “Kid Hermes Quartet,” a title that jumpstarted another mental rejection letter until he read them.
Kid Hermes Keeps a Secret
“And the angel of the Lord said unto him: ‘Wherefore askest thou after my name, seeing it is hidden?’” (Judges 13:18)
Like I was going to tell him my name,
just because he asked.
Right. Dream on!
In my line of work it’s suicide
to reveal your name. Keep it mysterious,
beyond their comprehension.
Move in and out of their lives;
spell out duties they better fulfill,
hinting at the consequences
Vague but potent warnings.
Above all, never give up your name.
They get your name, they think they have you;
you’re like a rodent caught in a trap.
All you can do is gnaw your leg off.
Kid Hermes Applies Muscle
“And the angel of the Lord forewarned [him], saying, ‘Thus sayeth the Lord of Hosts: If thou wilt walk in My ways, and if thou wilt keep My charge, and if thou wilt also judge My house, and wilt keep My courts, then I will give thee free access among these that stand by.’” (Zechariah 3:6)
Sometimes it takes a little persuading,
if you get my drift,
a little quid pro quo, with the emphasis
on quo. What the Man expects
for the favors He grants.
It’s all in the pitch.
You have to make them feel
they’re getting the long end of the stick,
even if the deal wasn’t their idea.
You have to make them feel special;
you have to make them feel chosen.
It’s the protection racket,
pure and simple.
You could even say I wrote the book.
Kid Hermes Makes the Rounds
“‘Yea, I have harkened unto the voice of the Lord, and have gone the way which the Lord sent me.’” (I Samuel 15:20)
Even before I arrive in the neighborhood,
they know I’m coming.
Word gets around,
like an odor on the breeze.
At the pool hall they slither out of sight,
preferring not to be seen.
At the laundry I spell out
the number of burnt-offerings and sin-offerings
the boss man demands,
the scarlet, the hyssop, the heifers,
They’re all so deferential when they meet me,
but I know when I go
they make fun of my limp,
the scar on my cheekbone
where the boss man once made it plain
who was the boss.
Kid Hermes Gets Serious
“Then the angel…said unto me, ‘Knowest thou not what these are?’” (Zechariah 4:5)
LBJ called his “Jumbo”
when he took it out to intimidate
the other senators and congressmen.
I know I only get my power
no authority on my own,
but it doesn’t hurt
to have a set of these
to make my point
when time comes to close the deal.
Animated, Person dashed off an e-mail to DeCesare, CANTWELL REVIEW ACCEPTANCE in the Subject line. “Congratulations. The Cantwell Review editorial board would like to publish your ‘Kid Hermes Quartet’ in the next edition, if the poems are still available. At your earliest convenience, please confirm that these poems have not been accepted elsewhere. Thank you for submitting your work to The Cantwell Review.”
But the days passed without a response. Where was the “Yes, yes, yes! You have validated my existence!”? The thing was, he really liked the poems. What if he just used “The Kid Hermes Quartet” without her permission? She had submitted it, after all, an implied consent to use her work. Person remembered the poems he’d submitted that had been accepted by more than one journal, stipulating “no simultaneous submissions” and “first-time publishing rights.” With no money or contracts passing hands, he’d always wondered what the consequences would be. “We have ways of knowing,” his mafia-like editor friend Vince Sammarco had once darkly hinted. Would a hit-man be summoned? Blackballed for life from the small press world?
After three days without a response, Mark sent another e-mail to DeCesare with a deadline of one week. The deadline struck him as one of those fake troop-withdrawal dates from Afghanistan or Iraq. Nobody really believed them. It was not as if The Cantwell Review was about to be published any time soon, after all. Stop the presses! Stop the presses!
And then the deadline did pass without a response. Now what?
“Fuck ’em,” Burt Ashe sighed over the phone, “We can hold it until the next issue if we have to, but frankly, I don’t see what you like about them so much, Mark. They seem kind of clumsy to me, and the epigraphs are pretentious. What do they even add?”
“The poems play off of the epigraphs,” Person protested. “That’s what I think is so cool about them.” In truth they had struck a nerve. Person identified with the Kid Hermes persona. It was as if this were his role at The Cantwell Review, giving voice to his own desire to hide his name, slip in and out of the writers’ lives. Grant rewards.
“This ‘Kid Hermes’ shit? Seems a little too cute to me. Grafting a prizefighter’s nickname onto a Greek god. And a Greek god with Old Testament quotations? WTF?”
“Well, duh. I don’t think she’s trying to present a consistent religious point of view.”
“I don’t think it matters, Burt. I think it’s charming.”
“Funny how she adopts a male’s point of view, especially in that one about Johnson’s dong, which I didn’t particularly ‘get,’ by the way. I guess you’d call it transgendered verse, huh? Writing about the angel’s cojones. But look, you’re the editor. If you like it, we’ll use it, but we do need her permission. I mean, there are standards of protocol, Mark.”
In all the years he’d been editing The Cantwell Review Mark Person had only met the publisher once. Burt Ashe lived in California, Person in Virginia. They conducted all their business via e-mail and cell phone, more often than not leaving voicemail messages, playing telephone tag: Business as it is conducted in the twenty-first century.
“I guess you’re right,” Person agreed. “She may come through yet. I’d really like to use her poems. But I see your point about that last one, ‘Kid Hermes Gets Serious.’” Already Person was revising the acceptance e-mail in his head. Several of our readers found “Kid Hermes Gets Serious” confusing and obscure. The consensus was that the poem does not add to Kid Hermes’ character. We’d like to take the first three and change the title of the sequence to The Kid Hermes Trilogy, unless you have a different title you’d like to use… “ Maybe I’ll just take the first three. Have you got a new webmaster yet to do all the coding and shit?”
“I may have to do it myself,” Burt said grimly, and Person knew it would be months before the next issue actually went online, no matter who did the internet stuff.
The next morning, Person checked The Cantwell Review e-mail just in case DeCesare had come through. But neither of the two messages in his inbox was from her.
But when he opened the first one, he was shocked by what he read.
“So if I send you poems under a fake woman’s name you’ll consider using them, is that it? The joke’s on you, Person. I am Gloria DeCesare! Go ahead, use my Kid Hermes poems. Sincerely, Jason Wertz.”
And the second one?
“You spineless sell-out,” he read. “If only you had an ounce of courage or integrity…”