A Novel by
Winner of the 2014 Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Award for the Novel
A fresh start after being let go. Like lots of talented people. That’s what John MacManus told himself after leaving Chicago behind to become Executive Director of Quill & Pad, a venerable nonprofit devoted to advancing American letters, based in Washington, D.C. His wife, Liesl, found a teaching job. The stars aligned. Then, two months into his tenure, everything turned black—and red. To John’s dismay, Quill & Pad is bankrupt. His predecessor filed works of fiction for tax returns. On paper, in statements sent to corporate donors as well as the Federal government, Quill & Pad has about seven million in the bank. In fact, it’s only got about five hundred thousand. How can he pull off bankrolling Quill & Pad’s fast-approaching annual benefit gala—a lavish $1.2 million affair—and avoid a career-ending financial scandal? That’s just the start of John MacManus’s troubles.
should’ve worn the blue tie. The red is too aggressive. You
should’ve plucked your nose hairs. You’re generally a well-
groomed fellow, but you do have an overabundance of hair
in the wrong places. Left to their own devices, your eyebrows
would stretch across your forehead, giving you a menacing
visage, not totally unlike the angry blue eagle from the
Muppets. You pluck them regularly to blend in, to appear
happy and accommodating. It’s amazing the difference a little
An elderly black man in a white tuxedo answers the
door. He looks like he'stepped out of 1952.
“May I help you?” he asks.
“Uh, I’m John MacManus. I’m here for a six o’clock
with Mrs. Williams?”
“Yes. Mrs. Cavanaugh-Williams is expecting you,” the
servant says, gently correcting you. “Please follow me to the
You have been in nice homes in your life, but you have
never been in a sitting room before. The room is there for
sitting. It is a huge room and white in every possible way.
The walls are white. The floor is white. Even the large central
fireplace is white. On the mantel rests an ancient, weathered
statue of a horse head. You doubt it came from Crate &
Barrel. There are two white sofas, a white coffee table, and
several white chairs in the sitting room, along with a grand
white piano, which sits in front of terrace doors. The terrace
doors overlook a backyard of surprising scope. Inside the city
there is apparently a forest. There is another fireplace outside
on a large, covered brick patio, which is decorated like a living
room. It is an actual fireplace, with a chimney about twenty
feet high. You have never seen such a fireplace outside before.
“May I take your coat, sir?” the servant asks. “Mrs.
Cavanaugh-Williams will be with you in a moment.”
“Yes, thank you,” you say, handing him your coat. One
of the buttons is missing and loose thread hangs from the
coat. You sit down on one of the white sofas and leaf through
the carefully arranged books on the coffee table. There are
coffee table books of the Greek Islands, Tuscany, and Turkey,
as well as some decorative editions of ancient Greek texts
You come highly recommended. Everyone said nice
things. It was just the economy, you see, the last four years.
Lots of talented people had to be let go. They tried to keep
you on as a contract consultant, but it was just business. This
is a bad time for the nonprofit sector. Endowments have been
hammered in the crash, private foundations have reduced their
giving, and corporations are tightening their belts. Wealth has
been destroyed. Individual giving has dried up as a result. So
it was not a reflection on your performance. Anyone would
be lucky to have you. You did a terrific job with the theater’s
contributed revenue. You grew it substantially during your
tenure. It was a much larger organization. Why, you’d really
be taking a step down to come here. But it’s a step up from
being unemployed. Of course you come with the highest
recommendation; of course you were absolutely excellent.
And if there were unsaid things, what were they? That
in the end others were simply more absolutely excellent?
Others were retained when you were let go? Well, these were
difficult decisions. Difficult times. It’s been hard on everyone.
It should not reflect on you in the slightest. But it reflects on
you, and more than slightly.
You have come here from Chicago for a fresh start. Your
wife has found a teaching job. Someone was on maternity
leave, and it was good timing. The stars aligned. You have
left your family and your friends behind to become Executive
Director of Quill & Pad, a venerable nonprofit devoted to
advancing American letters. Alice Cavanaugh-Williams is the
largest single donor to Quill & Pad. You are surprised that
she was not a member of the search committee. The search
committee asked you questions about challenges, about your
experience managing nonprofit organizations, about your
reading habits, about five steps to successful fundraising.
You were prepared and eloquent. You’ve always been good
in interviews. You talked about mission alignment, about
expectations, about the importance of strategic planning. You
analyzed their tax returns, explained where efficiencies could
be implemented. You talked about systems and programs and
the public good. You plucked your eyebrows prior to meeting
with the committee.
It has now been about eight minutes in the sitting room,
and a new servant emerges. A young woman of Hispanic
descent enters the room, dressed in a maid’s uniform, carrying
a huge silver platter. The maid’s uniform looks almost like
a Halloween costume. You stand up to help her because
the platter is so large, but she will not accept your help. She
seems startled that you even offered. On the platter there
is an enormous bowl of freshly made hummus. You have
never seen so much hummus in one place. It is a quantity
roughly the volume of a basketball. Surrounding the bowl of
hummus there are a dozen radish bulbs, uncut, and apparently
unwashed, as if they have just been plucked from a garden,
with their huge leafy stems overflowing from the platter.
The servant sets the platter down in front of you.
“Would you care for something to drink, sir?” she asks.
“No, no, thank you,” you say.
“Mrs. Cavanaugh-Williams will be with you shortly.”
After she exits you realize you have no way of actually
consuming this hummus. There is no knife, there are no small
plates, and all the radishes are uncut. You are very confused.
Are you supposed to eat the radishes whole? How does this
You sit back on the couch and text your wife:
“In huge house with radishes.”
You browse through the picture books of ancient
Mediterranean ruins, one after the next, until you exhaust
them. A half-hour has now passed, and you need to pee.
Should you pee? What is the proper etiquette in this situation?
What if she’s suddenly available and you’re off urinating? You
decide you should hold it, but then fifteen more minutes pass,
and now you have to pee. You get up and make your way to
the foyer, where the original servant is apparently waiting,
afraid you’re about to run off with the China.
“May I assist you, sir?”
“Uh, yeah, I just need to use the restroom?”
“Very good. It’s just this way.” He leads you to a door in
the foyer and smiles. “Mrs. Cavanaugh-Williams will be with
you in a moment.”
“Thanks,” you say, and you enter the bathroom. There is
no toilet visible. In front of you there is an elaborate pedestal
sink and cloth towels. Above the sink, where the mirror
should be, there is a painting of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
It’s a very large painting. It’s just Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s
face, in a gold-leaf frame, where the mirror should be.
There is also a staircase in the bathroom. You have
never been in a bathroom with a staircase. It leaves you
momentarily confused and paralyzed. It leads up a full floor
to a tiny commode, and you ascend after you recover your
bearings. You piss in the second-story commode. Then you
walk back downstairs and wash your hands, staring at the
photo of Franklin Delano Roosevelt where your face should
be reflected. When you are finished, you exit the bathroom,
and the servant is waiting for you right outside the door. You
almost want to give him a report.
“Mrs. Cavanaugh-Williams will be with you in a
moment,” he says, and he walks you back to the sitting room.
You have now been waiting three-quarters of an hour,
and you’re starting to get hungry. Those radishes ain’t looking
so bad now, but you resist, and you settle back down on the
couch. You sigh, pick up the Plato, and get through a good
chunk of Republic before you hear footsteps descending on a
staircase. At some unknown instinct you stand up.
A thin, grey-haired woman in a very understated black
dress enters the room. She smiles graciously, and you notice
her elegant pearl necklace. She extends a bony hand to you,
and you take it over the coffee table. She places her other hand
on top of yours.
“Mrs. Cavanaugh-Williams,” you say.
“John,” she smiles, patting your hand with hers. “We’re
so lucky to have you on board at Quill & Pad. I’m so glad we
got a chance to do this.”
She pulls her hand away and walks back up the stairs
without another word. The servant immediately brings your
coat and escorts you to the door.
Matt Burriesci is the author of Dead White Guys: A Father, His Daughter, and the Great Books of the Western World (Viva Editions, 2015). From 1999-2011, he served in various capacities at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP), including the organization’s Executive Director. He also served as the Executive Director of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation, which bestows the largest peer-juried prize for fiction in the United States. From 1997-1999, he served as the Marketing Manager for the Tony-Award winning Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier. He received his BA in English & Rhetoric from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, he studied Shakespeare during an Honors Seminar at Oxford University, and he received his MFA from George Mason University in 2002.
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