"This is horrible, this stuff about your mother. Just awful, Susie."
Not since my father had someone called me Susie. And not since my father had the endearment arrived with such menace.
"It's what I call 'writing writing,' and you simply must not do it. It's beneath you."
Though it was my first writing submission to Judith, she'd tasked me with assistant duties well before I worked for the Reader. Each Thursday I'd load my arms with foot-tall stacks of inky issues to send her friends and family tear sheets of her stories.
"None of this PR crap anymore. It's a bad habit, and I'll be the one to break you of it, by God. Stop watching that loathsome thirtysomething and read a book."
Deemed undereducated and functionally illiterate, I was to begin "at once" my supplementary education. "You might as well start at the beginning of the alphabet," she sighed. "Jane Austen will hold your interest. She talks about clothes and class." (Years later, when I mentioned reading Proust -- proud to be well into the ps -- she dismissed it as "decorative" and hung up the phone without saying good-bye.)
Over the years, my editing remained inconsistent at best, the ragged graph of remedial learning made public on the paper's weekly pages. Misspelled proper names, unnecessary articles, egregious "-ly" endings filled a bottomless repository. For every seamless rewrite or "good catch," two mistakes were missed. When the final misdeed toppled a tower of carelessness, the tone chilled, the message clipped, the phone grew silent.
One more grammar checklist instigated, another poetry course suggested. Hadn't I parsed a sentence in grade school?
When I did write, pandering to her prurience became the subtext of every assignment. More blood, more pus, more viscous yellow mucus, more fetid, familiar body odor of unwashed armpits and "lady parts," as she called them. The more baroque and visceral my description, the better the shame on the page.
"I want praise," she'd demand after finessing a feature or teasing out a recalcitrant story subject. I was often second if not first reader, losing myself in story and style instead of corralling wayward words and errant commas. "We don't pay you to read, Susie. We pay you to find my mistakes."
Fifteen years later, when good reviews of her third book Fat Girl surfaced early and often, daily dispatches arrived in lieu of other communication. As blurbs increased in number and status, I struggled to find fresh ways to respond. "This is wonderful!" and "You should be so pleased..." reduced to "Bravo!" and "WOW."
I couldn't finish the book, and by then our story had soured. I'd grown tiresome and untenable, and she was done with all that.