Henry Bay sees an America no one else does — a series of small, intense worlds formed by odd hobbies and extreme sports. He works for a long series of enthusiast magazines, from Row! (“The Coxswain That Comes in Your Mailbox”) to Cozy, the Magazine of Tea. “Wherever I worked, I was the civilian,” he says. “At Ice Climbing I was the only staff member who still had all ten toes, and at Metal Detector Treasures I was the only one without twenty rings on his fingers.” But when Henry gets married, he has to leave the road and get a stable job. He finds one at Clean Page, the dreaded media conglomerate that’s swallowed up even more magazines than Henry has worked for.
Clean Page had been buying magazines for five years. People at my jobs called it what people always call these things: the Death Star, the Evil Empire, the Brain Police. A Clean Page executive named Walter Denise had called me twice, making jokes and trying to hire me. I’d said no both times, but now I called him. He mentioned a salary a third higher than I was making at Wakeboarding and set a meeting for me and Tom Patrick, the founder and CEO. We agreed to meet beforehand at a Starbucks near their office.
Walter was waiting when I got there, a stocky bald guy in his thirties with an orange beard, drinking cappuccino and shaking his head over a copy of Decoupage!, which they’d just bought. We shook hands and I held out my résumé. “Jesus,” he said when he saw how long it was. “So do you know how to do all these things?”
“No, I tend to retain the wrong parts,” I said. “Like the slang.”
“No, the slang is the good part. What do you think we do for fun all day? ‘Look out, you’re going to sam.’ ‘No, I’ve got slab hicks on my downtown plate. Don’t be such a Clive of India.’ ”
He handed the résumé back to me. “Here’s the deal with Tom. Eight years ago he was going around in a Hyundai delivering PennySavers to liquor stores. He lived on Nabs. That’s the guy you don’t want to fuck with. The guy that had to wait. People call me up and go, ‘Why does he yell and scream all the time?’ That’s why he yells and screams.”
“That sounds a little scary,” I said.
“That he yells and screams all the time.”
“It’s not scary if you’re here.” He finished his coffee. “It’s scary if you’re sitting out there working for Wakeboarding.”
On the outside the Clean Page building reflected light like five stories of cop sunglasses. On the inside it had the kind of fluorescent lighting that puts a vampire in your motel mirror. Ten feet into the lobby the fresh air gave way to synthetic-fiber molecules defecting from the carpet. Walter and I took the elevator to the top floor and started past the receptionist, but she held up a finger and talked into her headset: “Walter plus one to see Tom.”
“Henry Bay,” Walter said.
“Do you have a visitor badge?”
“He can’t have anything on his nipples,” Walter said.
“Nobody likes you,” she said. Walter nodded and led me down the hall past framed covers of Spearfish, Skysurf, and Quick Raffia.
Tom Patrick was in his thirties, tall and trim, with short curly brown hair and ice-blue eyes. He wore a blue shirt, red tie, gray suit pants, and black socks, his wingtips parked in a corner.
“People hate us.”
“I don’t think —”
“Hate us. Because we came along and said ‘What if this was a business?’ We go to buy someone, the first thing they say is, ‘Gee, do we have to leave North Dakota?’ I say, ‘No, because we want to preserve that unique character.’ They say, ‘Oh, that’s great, because my brother Zeke is here, and my dog.’ I don’t want them near here. A square foot in North Dakota is free. But the product needs to meet minimal standards. So that’s you. Anything you need, Walter is here.”
I started to say something, but Walter clapped his hands on his knees, said, “And we’re off,” and stood up. In the hall he said, “That was good. So Monday,” his hands wafting me onto the elevator.
There was a vending alcove off the parking garage. I wasn’t a candy bar enthusiast but I started feeding dollars into a machine and didn’t stop till I’d bought a Payday, a Hundred Grand, a Butterfingers, a Snickers, a NutRageous, and a Dark Milky Way. I finally have a job with dental, I thought. I should use it. I ate the Snickers before I started the car but I couldn’t touch the other ones. When I got to Santa Cruz I left them on top of a newspaper machine, figuring that with all the kids and homeless guys walking around, someone would end up eating them. No one said it had to be me.
Excerpted from The Enthusiast by Charlie Haas. Copyright (c) 2009 by Charlie Haas. Reprinted by arrangement with HarperCollins Publishers.
Charlie Haas wrote the movies Over the Edge, Gremlins 2 and Matinee. He reads from his first novel, The Enthusiast, on Thursday, June 18 at 7:30 p.m.; Skylight Books, 1818 N. Vermont Ave., Los Feliz.
Further reading from the Weekly Literary Supplement:
“How Fiction Works: King James and the Battle for the Novel,” by Nathan Ihara
“Geoff in London, Interview in Absentia,” by Tom Christie
“Wet Metal: An Excerpt From Blame,” by Michelle Huneven
“The Calm: An Excerpt From Silver Lake,” by Peter Gadol
“Old World Meets New Age in Thriller Nowhere-Land,” by Judith Freeman
“Publishing Your Novel Online,” by Alan Rifkin