“I had been blessed with a gift, and that gift had to be shared.” A short story that contemplates who it is that has the authority to judge the quality of art…
by: Brenna Hosman
From 35,000 feet in the air, I came across the absolute worst book I’ve ever read.
I should’ve brought an extra book or picked up a magazine in the airport, but I found myself seated on an overbooked plane, twiddling my thumbs and debating whether purchasing inflight Wifi was worth it. It was only a two-hour flight from Atlanta back to Chicago, but I could tell it was going to feel like five. My girlfriend Julie, sitting by the window, occupied herself with her art, drawing and sketching, but mostly staring out at feathered clouds and pointedly not talking to me.
She was upset, though I think the reason was a little overblown. She didn’t have to come. I didn’t have to take her on this trip; I probably shouldn’t have. And now we were stuck together on this flight for a couple more hours, one pair of earbuds between us, which she was currently using.
I tried to make do with what was in front of me. I perused the brochure of safety instructions. I pulled out the inflight magazine and flipped through the pages, articles, and ads for places I simply must visit. With the slimmest bit of optimism, I turned to the back, but of course someone had beaten me to the crossword and sudoku puzzles. In pen, too.
I placed the magazine back in the seat pocket amid the barf bags, resigned to sit there with nothing to do but pop my ears and read the ingredients off the complimentary pretzel package, when I found jammed at the bottom of the pocket a slim paperback. A godsend.
It was clear from pulling it out and looking at the cover that I was in for a treat. I can recognize good, or bad, taste when I see it. So what can I say about this book cover? It was atrocious in all the best ways.
The title was A Moonlit Heart, which wasn’t even the most gag-inducing part. The chosen font was Papyrus (Papyrus!), and the letters were large and obnoxiously white against a dark background. The cover image was an unimpressive photograph of a lake scene at night, some stock image you might find within a minute of browsing Google Images. The photo had a yellow moon haphazardly photoshopped in shape somewhat resembling a heart. It looked like the moon was melting.
Everything else about the book was a mystery. The publisher was one I had never heard of, and the author was someone named K.E. Hornwood. No author page, no photo, no acknowledgements. Only a dedication: “To my dear Barnett.”
I read the entire thing before we landed. And while the flight itself was fine, my experience was turbulent. This book was fucking awful, delightfully so. It was within that genre of cheesy hetero-romance and wish-fulfilment fantasy. I wouldn’t have believed that it was published if it wasn’t there in my hands. I cringed, rolled my eyes, and tried to stifle my belly laughs as tears brimmed at my lashes. It was enough commotion for Julie to finally ask, “Nadine, are you okay?” but I was still too preoccupied in this magnificent mess of a book to answer.
Trust me, I had second thoughts about taking it home with me. It might’ve been enough to just close the book, wipe my eyes, and hand the neglected thing to a flight attendant. Or at the very least, put it back where I found it and leave the plane with the memory, a funny story I could share with Julie with absurd fondness. But I found myself enchanted by this strange, shitty piece of art — if you could call it art — that didn’t seem like it should exist at all. So I pocketed the book in my carry-on. Julie witnessed my act of thievery and raised an eyebrow, but she didn’t say anything, not yet.
We exited the plane and made our way to baggage claim, and I, distracted enough by my thoughts on A Moonlit Heart, tried to forget how poorly our first trip together went.
I was only supposed to be in Atlanta for work. I usually hate explaining my career to the average passerby who then asks if that’s even a real job. But just understand, I’m a culture blogger. A pretty successful one, too — about half a million clicks per month, and my Twitter’s grown close to 75,000 followers. Supposedly people like my bluntness about life from a queer perspective, my apparent not-like-other-bloggers style and voice. I’ve been told by others that my snark and sarcasm scare off some sponsors. Oh well. I think I’m doing just fine.
The job has granted me the privilege to travel across the country and write up reviews of my experiences with the best of what most major cities have to offer. When I don’t have to make trips, I can usually work from home. It’s a sweet gig.
When I do make trips, I’m usually gone a week at a time. I didn’t really mind the routine, but Julie was having a tough time with it.
“I miss you too much when you’re gone,” she had said to me a week before the Atlanta trip. “I feel like I never get to see you.” She pouted her glossy lips.
I shrugged. We’d only been dating three months. “It’s just a week. We’ll talk, Facetime, like we always do.”
“Still, Nadine. You gotta understand how hard it is to be away from the person you love?”
I tensed and tried to play it off with a snicker. “What do you want me to do? Bring back a souvenir?”
“I want to go with you.”
No getting around that. Soon we were boarding the flight to Atlanta together, with me paying her fare since she couldn’t afford it.
For our first excursion into Atlantan culture, I let Julie pick where she wanted to go in the city. I had expected that she, a self-proclaimed aspiring artist (Why “aspiring”? Why couldn’t she just commit to calling herself an artist?), would want to go to an art museums. I would’ve been perfectly fine with that. But for some reason, she insisted on seeing the World of Coca-Cola, probably the deepest, most suffocating hole of a tourist trap that you could ever fall into in Atlanta.
I appeased her, tagging along as we went through room after room of Coke memorabilia and old advertisements, the assaultive red following us wherever we turned. There was a commitment to branding, I’ll give them that. And the museum actually did have some art: giant Coke-bottle shaped sculptures with mosaic paintings all over them. It would be cool if it wasn’t so corporate.
But that wasn’t what Julie was after. No, she came for the tasting room, the last stop before the gift shop on our tour of sugar and caffeine-fueled capitalism. It was a large room, decorated like the interior of a TARDIS, probably to look new-age and futuristic if this was ten years ago. There were different stations for each continent where you could sample sodas — “Pop,” Julie corrected me — that the Coca-Cola Company produces all around the world.
We punished our stomachs with sticky-sweet syrup that coated our teeth and so much carbonation that left us bubbly and bloated. Of all of the sodas — sorry, pop — that we sampled, I was most partial to the melon-flavored Fanta from Thailand.
But somehow Julie decided that out of approximately sixty available beverages to try, she liked the one from Italy best: the infamous Beverly, known for its bad taste, its horrid bitterness, something medicinal. Yet she loved it.
A note on Julie: I adore her, but she has odd tastes. If her love of Beverly wasn’t enough, consider how when we stopped in a Hudson News before our flight for some last-minute snacks, out of all the possibilities there, she chose a pack of black licorice. Black licorice! Who does that? I chose a bag of peanut M&Ms for myself.
I tease her for it; it’s all in good fun. That is until it comes to her art. When I met her, she told me she dropped out of art school, that it was just too expensive and that she didn’t really need it anyway. She got a job teaching art workshops at The Art Institute of Chicago, where I first ran into her.
She still pursued her own art. I’ve seen her work, and she’s pretty good: windswept landscapes so vivid you could almost feel the mist, still-lifes of cherry paint you wish to lick from the canvas. But her newest endeavor was pencil-sketched portraits. When we started dating, I asked her not to draw my face; I did not want to be a muse, immortalized in bad art.
Because here’s the thing, Julie is plenty talented in other ways, but she cannot draw a face to save her life: distorted features, crossed eyes, textures and shadows where there shouldn’t be; failed experiments discarded into uncanny valley. I didn’t want my own face tugged and manipulated by the tip of pencil lead.
On our last day in Atlanta, I spent my time at a coffee shop to work on that month’s blog post, leaving Julie alone in the hotel room for hours. When I got back, there was an unwanted surprise on the bed: a square of paper. She had drawn me.
That was the reason why Julie was so mad at me on the plane ride home.
Oh, I know what you said. But I missed your face! Can you believe I did it all by memory?”
Yeah, I could believe it. It’s not like I’m not supportive of her art; I count myself as a champion of all good art, which Julie does make. But bad art is hard for me to get behind, unless it’s that particular breed of so-bad-it’s-good. And my portrait was not good.
Julie shuffled her feet. Squeezing her hands together, she looked up at me. “Well,” she said, “what do you think?”
I’m incapable of bullshitting. Pokerface is not an expression my face makes. According to Julie’s sketch, an expression that my face can make is a crooked, brooding scowl, lips pursed in a sneer, a nose (that I’m already self-conscious about, by the way) made oversized, prominent, ridged. I knew I couldn’t lie to her, so I said nothing at all. But I guess my hesitance (and the expression on my face, however she saw it) was enough.
“You hate it.” She sat on the bed, eyes swimming, treading water. “Oh God, you hate it.”
“Julie, I didn’t say—”
“I get it! You think I suck. I’m a bad artist, aren’t I? You don’t have to say it.”
So I didn’t say it. But she went on like that the rest of the evening, a one-sided rant critiquing herself and her art, until she resorted to silence the next day on the plane.
She didn’t reanimate herself until I gave her A Moonlit Heart to read, and guess what? True to her tastes, she liked it.
I had been blessed with a gift, and that gift had to be shared.
As soon as we got back, I began to post the book’s most egregious quotes on my Twitter. “Take a look at this shit I found over the weekend,” I captioned. “Anyone know the author?”
At first, it was only my most active followers who interacted: “omg Nadine that is SO funny,” and “UGH this must have been written by a man because the way he describes women…cringe.” I went to bed satisfied that there were others who now knew this book.
But I woke up with my phone blowing up with notifications. My tweets had amassed nearly 200,000 likes. It looked like virality had swept the book quotes to parts of Twitter outside my audience. Most indulged in the light-hearted mockery of A Moonlit Heart. There were trolls claiming it was a hoax I made up or that I was a bitch (mostly true). Half of Book Twitter was in a frenzy hunting for other copies of the book, and the other half were engaged in debate on the ethicality of publicly lambasting some unknown author’s writing.
“All I’m saying is that if you manage to publish a book, you should be fine with people critiquing it,” one user wrote.
“But this is someone’s art! Twitter’s taking things too far, as usual…”
“That Nadine chick deserves jail. It’s gotta be illegal to share someone’s book w/o their permission and be so hateful!” (I blocked them, of course.)
I soon realized that I likely had the only copy of A Moonlit Heart. There was no place to buy it, it seemed; trust me, all of Twitter checked. The sole copy in my possession already had microtears along the cover’s edges, pages with dog-eared creases, and a coffee splatter on one of the pages. Those were all improvements.
Julie, for her part, wasn’t the online type. As far as I knew, she didn’t see the discourse online about me and the book. But she must have noticed I was on my phone more than usual, because she rolled her eyes each time it pinged with a new notification. She was still so quiet; I didn’t know what to make of her prolonged silent treatments lately.
“Jules, you alright?” I asked. On the couch, she flipped through pages of A Moonlit Heart.
She sighed and swept her shaggy hair from her face. “Yeah, I guess.”
“‘I guess’?” I sat down beside her. “Don’t bullshit me. What’s wrong?”
Julie tossed the battered copy onto the coffee table. “I just don’t understand why you have to be so mean about the book.”
“Really? But Julie, the book sucks. It is objectively bad. What else is there to say?”
“It’s not so bad. I mean, the author seemed pretty passionate about it. It’s kind of sweet.”
“Why do you say that like it’s a bad word? It feels cruel, what you’re doing.”
“And what am I doing?”
Her cheeks were glowing pink. “You’re putting someone’s hard work on blast like you’re some kind of arbiter of good writing!”
“But I can judge. I’m a writer.”
“You run a blog.”
She said the last word so derisively; I was taken aback. Julie had never said anything to knock my career. It gave her a free trip to Atlanta, but this was what she really thought of my job.
I made a motion to stand, but Julie grabbed my arm. Her hand was damp; early on in our relationship I learned that she sweats when she’s nervous.
“Wait, Nadine, that wasn’t nice of me to say.” Her eyes were honest. Her earnestness always gets me. “I just think — can’t art simply mean something special to the artist?”
“Sure, if it’s good.”
She was quiet for a couple beats. She looked down at her chipped nails. “Do you think my art is sentimental? Because I love my subjects too much?” She paused, bit her lip, then muttered, “Is that why you hate your portrait?”
“What? No!” So much for no bullshitting. “It just shows how much you care as an artist.”
Julie held up the book. “Yeah, just like this Hornwood person.”
“Well, that’s different.”
I didn’t have a great answer. But I looked down at Julie, saw how young she looked. “You’re still growing as an artist. You have all this potential. Hornwood didn’t even bother to improve their craft before publishing. But you still have time and possibility. You can work to become better, but it’s too late for A Moonlit Heart.”
I took her hands in mine. She physically softened, melted into me, and a small smile surfaced on her lips. “I guess that’s true.” She embraced me then, arms stretching to meet behind me. “Can I work on your portrait some more? Would you mind?” she whispered in my ear.
I grimaced, but she couldn’t see. “It’s your art. I want it to be great.”
“Nadine, I love you. You know that, right?”
I knew. “I know.” Then I kissed her, an honest act, an offering of something true, but also something to shut me up from saying anything dishonest.
There was something I kept from Julie when I brought the book home. Wedged in the pages of A Moonlit Heart, acting as a kind of bookmark, was a boarding pass, presumably that of the previous owner. “Beverly Eisentrout,” it read. What a name.
I knew that if I told Julie about it, she’d freak out that I’d stolen this woman’s book, and she’d insist that I find a way to return it to her. So I didn’t say anything about it. I stowed the boarding pass at the bottom of my drawer of workout clothes.
But I became curious about this Beverly person. I wondered about the kind of woman who would have somehow procured a copy of a novel like A Moonlit Heart and then abandon it on a plane, halfway through reading it based on the placement of the boarding pass. No doubt she saw its awfulness, didn’t even consider it worth her time to read. It wasn’t even worth taking with her, so she stuffed it down deep in the seat pocket for some poor sap like me to find it.
But who knows? Maybe Beverly enjoyed this book and simply forgot it on the plane as she disembarked. Maybe she realized once she was home that it was missing, and that a rarity such as that book would be near-impossible to secure again. Maybe it meant something to her.
In my downtime, I let my curiosity play private investigator. Beverly Eisentrout turned out to be pretty easy to track down, based on the uncommonness of her last name. I worried that she might live anywhere since Atlanta has the busiest airport in the world. But, conveniently enough, Facebook told me she was an Atlanta native.
I got the crazy idea in my head to pay Beverly a visit and properly return her book. I wanted to see the type of person she was, the type of person who might read A Moonlit Heart for reasons other than to make fun of it. Or perhaps we’d bond over how bad we both thought it was, trashy art that could connect people across distance, the only good purpose this book could serve.
Julie didn’t know about my on-the-whim decision to find the owner of the book, but she did know that I would be going out of town again. I told her that there were some important cultural spots in Atlanta that I had missed. I said I would be going alone this time.
“Why can’t I come with you?” she asked.
“I don’t think we had a very good time together before.” Which was true. “Plus, I can’t afford to pay your way this time.” Which was not true.
She hung her head, and not for the first time, I wondered if her sulking and pouting was just a little put-on. But she was earnest to a fault, so I put my arm around her.
“It’s only for a few days this time. I’ll be back before you know it.”
“I’ll miss you. Like always.”
“Don’t,” I said. “Maybe you can take this time and work on your art more.”
I kissed the part of her forehead that her bangs didn’t cover and gave her a reassuring squeeze. She smiled sweetly, and though I looked forward to traveling the next few days alone, it was a smile that I realized I was going to miss.
It was almost too easy to find where Beverly Eisentrout lived. A quick skim through the phonebook in my hotel room’s drawer gave me her address. She lived in the northern part of the city, so that’s where I headed.
Her house was a small, quaint, brown brick cube of no discernible note, other than that it butted up against the campus of a high school. It was mid-afternoon, and I could hear even from her doorstep the squeals and chatter of teens just let out from class.
I didn’t know what I would expect from Beverly. In my mind, she was a middle-aged housewife, “trendy” in that Southern woman kind of way, bleach blonde and paisley prints. Her home probably had crosses on the wall or a random fleur de lis, tables lined in burlap.
But when I finally knocked on the door, my copy of the book in hand, the woman who opened it was not at all who I had in mind. She appeared to be in her seventies, with light gray hair and a striped, grandmotherly sort of sweater. She squinted at me through her bifocals.
“Um, hi,” I began, wondering why I didn’t just leave the novel in her mailbox and book it home. “Are you Beverly Eisentrout?”
“I am.” She smiled, her overly pink lips pulled thin.
“I’m Nadine. And well, this might sound a little strange, but I found this book on a plane a few weeks ago. Your boarding pass was inside it, so I wanted to return it to you.” I held the cover up, rips, fingerprint smudges, and all. “It has some wear on it. Sorry about that.”
“Oh really?” She brightened. Beverly grabbed my hands holding the book and welcomed me in. I followed, figuring there was nowhere else I could go. Inside smelled of vaguely of cat piss — with no cat in sight — masked by peach air freshener. “Isn’t that just magical?” she continued. “I sure do appreciate you taking the time to come all this way. Here, won’t you sit?”
I sat on her dark pleather couch, sinking with a plastic yawn. I could hear music playing somewhere close by and figured it was the nearby school’s marching band out for practice. It was Boléro: familiar, slow, steady. I anxiously tapped my foot to the beat.
Beverly settled into a rocking chair across from me. At some point she had wrangled the book out of my hands, and now it sat in her lap, perfectly at home, like a lost pet returned and clinging to its owner.
“So,” she said, “what did you think of the book?”
I chuckled. “Well, it’s no Shakespeare, I think we can both agree.”
She simpered, tight-lipped. “No, of course not.”
“Did you happen to see my post about it online? The book went viral.”
“Viral? Sorry, I don’t know much about computers. But if you shared it with others — that’s just lovely!”
“I was wondering, where in the world did you find such an awful book? You must have the only copy in existence!”
“Actually, I do,” she said, looking away. I watched her mouth quiver, words half-forming on her lips until she said, “Because I wrote it.”
I cocked my head. Her voice was so quiet. “What?”
“I’m K.E. Hornwood.”
This took a turn, didn’t it? This sweet older woman had written the worst book ever, and I just said so right to her face. I imagined a reverse-Misery scenario in which the author kidnaps me, holds me hostage, tortures me with readings of her book until I’m forced to admit that it’s the best piece of literature I had ever read. I deserved that fate.
But then Beverly started snickering, and not in any kind of menacing way. “Oh child, it’s okay! Don’t look so startled. I’m not mad or anything. I know my book isn’t the greatest thing ever written. It was a passion project. Something I did in my spare time.”
I cleared my throat. She never offered me anything to drink. I could still hear the marching band playing. The drums were losing tempo, too ahead of the beat. My foot tapped to match. “So,” I choked out, “you’re a published author. Congratulations.”
“Oh, don’t bother with praise, dear. I self-published anyway. As I said, it was a hobby of mine way back when. Goodness, it’s been over a decade since I finished it. You noticed I used a pseudonym. I didn’t want my children finding the book and discovering I wrote such…risqué content. Well, you understand. Plus, as much as I love him, I never cared much for my husband’s last name, rest his soul.”
“Your husband? Is that Barnett in the dedication?”
“Ah, yes. Barnett. You see, he knew I liked to write. He helped me print A Moonlit Heart, paid for it and everything. He was sick, and, well, I wanted to write something for him, something to honor him. Something to memorialize all our best memories.
“See, he was like you. I could tell he didn’t really like my writing, but he never said so. He’d lie, say he loved the book. Told me I should write more. He was very supportive, even if that meant he was a little untruthful at times. But I guess that was his way of showing he loved me. He let me believe I was talented.”
I squirmed uncomfortably. It seemed I sunk lower and lower into the couch. A trumpet player from the marching band missed a crucial note. “It didn’t hurt your feelings at all?” I asked. “To know that your husband wasn’t being honest with you?”
“Oh, sure, it stung, but I think I always knew. You see — Nadine, wasn’t it? Nadine, we all have different ways of showing people we love them. I wrote a book for my Barnett. Was it a good book? Well, no. But I did it because I loved him. And in turn, he showed me love by supporting me. That’s invaluable. Do you have a young man at home, Nadine?”
“Something like that.” I wondered what Julie was doing, how her art was coming along.
“Okay! So you understand what it’s like to care for someone so deeply that you would do anything to lift them up and see them shine. That’s what I hoped to do for Barnett with the book.
“Can I let you in on a little secret?” Beverly gave me a mischievous look.
“I purposely left the book on the plane.”
I felt a bit like a fool for taking the bait. “Why?”
“My book was never meant to be an instant bestseller or anything. It was a memento for me to keep. But this is Barnett’s book. I know him, but there are so many people out there who didn’t know him. I figured planting the book on a plane was one way to get his story to reach readers from all around. Like you.”
I slyly checked my watch. The band had stopped playing. “Looks like it worked!”
Beverly picked up the book from her lap and admired it. “It appears it did. Thank you for reading it. Even if you hated it, it means the world to me that you gave it a chance at all.”
She held out A Moonlit Heart to me. “Oh, I thought you would want it back,” I said.
“I don’t need it. It’s as good as yours now.” She pushed it into my hands. “You don’t have to keep it. But promise me you’ll leave it where someone else can find it?”
Beverly and I said our goodbyes. She insisted on giving me a hug, and I patted her shoulders gently. She wished me safe travels and told me that I should keep in touch any time I’m back in Atlanta. I said that I would. Not likely to happen.
The flight home was a nicer time than before. I had Julie on my mind instead of in the seat next to me. And I brought a book of my own to read this time. It was a good one.
When the plane landed and before my seatmate or any flight attendant could see, I took out my copy of A Moonlit Heart and stuffed it deep in the seat pocket in front of me. Rips, fingerprint smudges, and all.
Julie picked me up from the airport, and I could sense she was in a much better mood. Her expressions buzzed with energy, and she bounced in her seat as she drove.
“Hey, what gives?” I teased. “Miss me much?”
“Yeah, I missed you.” She grinned, scrunching her face in the cutest way that distracted me from how much of a broken record she could sometimes be. “I’ve got a surprise for you.”
I could already sense what was coming, but Julie still made me close my eyes, even as I blindly climbed two flights of stairs to our place. She led me inside, and on the count of three, I opened my eyes to her latest masterpiece.
She’d upgraded. Rather than on a small piece of notebook paper, Julie had sketched this portrait on a larger piece of canvas set up impressively on an easel. I was her subject, of course, as far as I could tell. She nudged me forward so I could get a closer look.
I must admit it was an improvement. My face was not head-on like in her first attempt. In this piece, I was half-turned away, showcasing more of the back of my head than my actual face. I was in profile, which still highlighted the poor linework of my nose, the too-pursed lips, and the too-low placement of the eyes. But there was mystery in the look I gave. Hesitance, a downcast gaze suggesting deep thought. A possibility that I might turn toward the viewer, or away.
“Well, what do you think?” Julie asked, unable to contain the question any longer.
It was not a perfect piece of art. This could never hang in a museum, and Julie still had a long way to go with her artistry. But I couldn’t lie to her.
“I love it,” I said. “I really do.” And I think it was true.
Brenna Hosman grew up in east Tennessee and attended the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. She received her MFA in creative writing at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio, where she served as the fiction editor for Mid-American Review. She is currently the production coordinator at Indiana University Press. Her work has been published in The Write Launch, Passengers Journal, and Electric Literature’s The Commuter.