a Menckenesque

 

 

Part One

 

 

  1. The stolon and the radix: putting into words what cannot be said

 

 

I have learned to love Montaigne. This did not happened quickly or easily, but the affection began when I read this: “I write to keep from going mad from the contradictions I find among mankind, and to work some of those contradictions out for myself.”

These words felt true to me. Perhaps I did not always write for such a perfect cause, but at least I knew I should, and that I might as well be following in the steps of a better man.

Given my many failures, I am warned by the literary agents against writing a novel of ideas. To choose a shorter subject. Use a simpler vocabulary. Write something topical. Readers don’t care about your philosophy, I’m told. They want to be moved. They are only interested in what is interesting to them, which is to say, themselves.

Accepting responsibility for my deficiencies, while taking exception to the premise, I say, in turn, I don’t care about such readers. Let them get up off their arses and move themselves. I care about the words and what they mean and what they might mean and what they should mean and not the mean itself. I don’t wish to be mean, but nor shall I be niggardly with my words. This is all that I am.

Words were my first escape in more ways than just what I found on the page in the stories I read. There was also refuge in the connotations alone. There was secrecy to be had in their use in uncertain company.

It was in ferreting about for an adjective to describe my father that I found the noun ‘stolon.’ The word I had actually sought was stolid. But that was an unfair designation and bore none of the weight of my father’s character. He was not an impassive man. Nor was he lethargic. His passions were dampered though and he had a steady way about him that made his pace seem slow. He never liked his work, I think, though he seldom said anything directly about that. He had simply labored his life away as most men do, and in his time found dissatisfaction with his choices and the results. He blamed no one else for that.

He was not a stupid man. On the contrary. Though I came to understand some of his cunning only too late. But as a youth, I thought my father’s lack for words was a measure of his intelligence and it was this standard which set me to searching out a larger vocabulary for things. Simply to be better than that.

“They’re all crooks,” could not be an adequate political philosophy by which to live. That he was clearly right from any reading of the newspapers or consideration of the actions of politicians in comparison to their words, or the simple fact that they all become rich while in office, did not reflect then on the acuity of his perceptions. Not then. Not to me.

He would caution, “People are only as good as they have to be.”

“Why vote, then?” I would ask.

“So they’ll know they’ve been seen,” he would reply.

When some priest was caught, “with his pants down,” a favorite phrase, and I questioned the worth of going to Church, he said, “Churches are built by men. You’re not there to worship the carpenter or the mason.”

Or when I had busted a dinner plate or broke a glass and swore.

“God won’t care, but your mother will. Make it up to her.”

And when I had missed my dinner by staying out too late, playing with my friends, his punishments were simple enough.

“It was kind of you to leave your brother a second portion. He’s working hard. But get on up to bed now. And get your light off quick. Mr. Edison has had his due this month.”

And when he caught me still up and reading late at night.

“You can rot your eyes and your mind at your own expense.”

My brother and I slept on the third floor. My mother called it the attic. The advantage I thought then was that I could hear my father’s approach by the limp in his uneven step on the stairs and hide whatever I was doing and get my light off. It was years before I realized that he always knew when I was awake because he would go out for a smoke late in the evening and could see the glow of my bedroom light on the window. In truth, he seldom disturbed my bad habits.

Dad used to take my brother fishing with him in the small sailing dinghy he kept, known simply as ‘the boat.’ He had an arrangement with the Yacht Club and took care of the little problems that they had with the plumbing or a broken window or a bad switch, and in exchange they let him keep it at the side of the clubhouse near the shrubbery. The boat was barely fourteen feet long and had a wide hull, a collapsible mast, and a centerboard that you could pull right up from inside. It was kept up on a metal carriage that had hard black rubber wheels and he would push it by hand down to the water whenever it was used so it was never left out in the harbor as the bigger boats were.

Unable to keep my mouth shut, or be still for more than a few minutes, nor endure the hours of tossing back and forth off some jetty that looked more interesting to me than the water we were on, and because I frequently became seasick if the roll was more than a ripple, I stayed behind. This began at a very young age, so I never really learned to set the sail properly or even to bait a hook other than what was obvious from the quick look.

Instead, when we were firmly ashore, I tried to press my father for his thoughts on the matters of the day. And got back what I have said.

“They are all crooks. No better than they have to be. Just don’t be one of them. Set your own course.”

And when I accused my father of being stolid about the great events that stirred our times, he said, “You just be sure to mind your own business and kick the ass of anyone who tries to mind it for you.”

So, in seeking for a word to describe my father, I found one close-by on the page that would probably better describe myself. I have thus often seen myself as the stolon rather than the radix. The root that went awry, never burying itself in the soil from which it came but rather traveling out across the surface of things. It was a useful division and not just semantic. Yet now I wonder if I am not, instead, simply an appendix and of little use at all. Such darker thoughts, though, do not last long. There is always something else more interesting than myself to consider.

 

I was noting recently that those cretins who control the literary estate of Willa Cather have decided, in their greater wisdom, to ignore the wishes of the author and release her letters for publication.

Because mine has been a fairly public career and I’ve used and reused so much of the small adventures that I have known as material for what I’ve written, I have little left to hide. Unlike my mother, I never wrote many letters. (And far too few birthday cards.) So that I needn’t worry now if some sordid infamy might discover me after I’ve left the building, or that there will be a letter found to reveal some darker secret.

I have already written all of it down for everyone to see!

Thus, perhaps, my ambition to self-justify here is premature. Mere hubris, once again. Wishing to shape the legacy of what is known and what I have written, now, after the fact might appear both futile and presumptuous. But who will care?

A worthy question, that.

I have no children. They would be my only sure connection to any future. I have no family remaining who might be bothered over my reputation. But even if I did, I should not worry. At the last, there is nothing more than this, the words I have written and the larger story I’ve told. I have damned myself, or not. I have imagined my salvation another thousand times, hoping in part that it might be fairly measured or weighed against the reality I have lived.

I see in that recent article that Willa Cather was childless too. However, her reputation is securely rooted in the family that made her who she was. As we are all made. And as I did, she spent most of her life in New York. She was born in Virginia and spent her girlhood in Nebraska with her family of brothers and sisters but it was the dozen years on the prairie that shaped most of her greatest work, and all of her life thereafter, not the greater and more dynamic city of Gotham. And too, there is Ben Hecht, who was born on the lower East Side of New York City, not far from where I once lived there, but spent his youth around Chicago, and that more subtle Midwestern dialect was the language he spoke thereafter.

I suppose it’s the intensity of the early years of living that makes this so for us all. Later experiences are always judged against what has come before. And the first can never be remade.

 

It is true that much of my own work has come at some loss (not all of it to the publishers). Though that has been a discouragement, it was seldom any real barricade. The gain to me has always been in the writing, and what comes after may be more fairly judged in sum by others, or not.

Ever hopeful, I have often seen my efforts as preludes, like those exquisite pieces Rachmaninoff left to us. (Never mind the pretension of comparing myself to someone so much better. That is not the point.) What I write is an introduction of some gobsmack to myself, as much as it is to the unknown reader I might hope for. Length is not the matter. Nor the subject, in fact, for it appears almost any matter can pique my interest from one moment to the next. But each thing I have accomplished was always an effort to capture some essential melody in the life that I was conscious of, and done with a presumption that the effort itself was worthwhile. As someone once said (implicitly), some music simply requires more notes than others.

If the work failed, what right have I to complain or beg for mercy? In fact I have never suffered more than I could bear. I am here, after all, to report on the depthless gray of this dawn that I see beyond my window, settled there on a pale day that appears as plain as an antique postcard found in an old book—thus not only freeing my mind from a want to go out and observe something better, or of larger measure, than I can find within but also allowing me to dwell guiltlessly in my pseudo-dimensional brain without a pang for missing the chance to see yet another splendid color there never ever witnessed before by any man (even while my forgetting of those I’ve already seen always keeps pace, it seems, with the numbers of those million millions I have yet to see), or to appreciate some perfect anti-mathematical curve, or lip of cloud, or hip. Sure!

Don’t misunderestimate this or me! The language was just the tool. The fool was I. But it was not my foolishness alone.

The mediocrity of academic language, for instance, is inevitable. Like the parsing of a golden goose. The dissection of the sentence into nouns and verbs, subject and predicate, is mostly necessary, I suppose, but teaching the language should be more than a mere diagram. My great teacher Miss Lawrence went on about those classifications of words in class at every opportunity and insisted on their use, but she seldom bothered with any specific direction, I think on the assumption that if they were seen clearly in play, their understanding would be a natural result.

She turned both biology and physics to her cause, “For the living there is no black or white. Our sight is infused by the very shade of blood that feeds the living cells in our nerves and the black we perceive with eyes closed, even beneath the covers at night, is more supposed than actual fact and easily colored by the retained image of what we use to fill the dark before us. And white is as much a blindness as the darkness was, and easily disturbed by that same pumping of blood and expectation, or a mere mote instead. Take the darkness you’ll find in the deepness of a valley at night, made all the greater by the shadow of the mountains at either side.”

She warmed to her topic, “There is a small pond below Carter Dome in New Hampshire where we have often camped. The water is always cold there, and clear, fed by a spring, I think, but ever fresh and the very best place to make a good camp. Bears will come there to drink, and deer. But I have often made note in that place of the crepuscular dark of evening and how very unlike it is when compared to the antelucan night that comes on just before dawn. Yet both are dark.”

I wrote all of that down, of course.

She assumed our love of words. More often revealing than instructing. One class with her could have me lying awake for hours to see the ‘antelucan’ night.

Yet, if everyone spoke as if their lives depended upon it (as each life does, I believe), what would the professor really have to say? You can’t teach a person to simply speak like that. They must presume the task for themselves. It is their life, after all. Grammar can be taught (or not, depending), but the better word to use instead of another, followed by one more right than the other, is not found in the classroom, though I can appreciate that a mind might in truth be awakened there if by a teacher who took care to do it. The simplest man can display his life in that way, if he cares to. As Blake did, burning his tigers in the night.

Mr. H. L. Mencken might not have liked what I do, especially the sentimentalism which is not an ingredient approved by the Reinheitsgebot, but the great provocateur is long dead – by more than half a century now – and the brief age of literary renaissance he heralded was dead well before him. I think the joy he took in words, stolen in broad daylight against the authorities of his time, and then both kept and extravagantly spent, was far too heady a mix for any age. Few others had tried to have their way with the language so openly since his time. These days we have our Tom Wolfe, and Mamet, of course. But few who try.

Another of them comes to mind. Before there was the John Williams of movie-music fame and fortune who has so used and abused the melody of others, recycling without respect or fair attribution, there was a lesser known man of the same name who wrote good books and cared about the words and what story he made with them because the tale he told was his, first, and alone. His stories were not to my taste then, having a strong academic pedigree, but it seemed to me in my reading long ago that he was trying to do something in his own way much the same as I felt the need to do. So it is, even with those who speak to other ears than your own, that they can be understood if their words are true.

I note that just lately a novel by Williams, Stoner, written in 1965, has received renewed recognition. It does him no good now, of course (he got his pleasure in the writing of the thing), but it does us all now a new world of good that we can still open our minds to looking back and see the color of his days. Though he too is as dead as Mencken, he was once a teacher in Missouri and I wonder how many eyes then and there saw the better because of him.

I read in a review of the book that he had written this: “The epiphany of knowing something through words that could not be put into words.” For me it is a thought worth a book just to think about.

In general (that is to say, applying the paint with a brush as good for fences as for walls), we no longer covet words as they did in Mencken’s time. We are no longer encouraged to pursue our own individual lives, or the words to describe it, but are wanted instead to wallow in the security of what we already know and have known. The familiar. Avoiding the offense of being incomparable.

This has become a social necrophilia. A perpetual raising of the dead. In schools, it is the teaching of what is agreed upon instead of mere fact or opinion (not history, mind you, but what has been determined to be acceptable knowledge), making for an academic zombie culture. Pathological.

I have written before of this as one more cause for the popularity of the various movie franchises that fill the theaters with remakes and rehashes that can only be distinguished by giving them numbers, in lieu of making more original ideas on film. By the numbers, there appears to be a general reluctance on the part of audiences to try something new. Am I wrong about that too?

Oh, you might say, never before have so many people climbed mountains, or surfed the crest of waves. But as the slopes of our Everests are despoiled by the garbage left by those unworthy to pursue those heights (having bought the altitudes with easy money and an attitude of deserving), the value of such an experience as currency to barter for better understanding has been inflated to near worthlessness. The wave riders have merely made themselves more plentiful food for the sharks, and their profligacy of time spent waiting in the sun for the momentary thrill leaves them then poorer on the beach in every way but most importantly because they cannot relate their experience to anyone else except in the words of unintelligent children. The sun fades their memories so quickly they must go again and again, until they are numb with the cold of it. Like the drug addict. And in the end of their lives, if they survive, they are mere husks of human beings. In the end they will be no better than the old man at the nursing home waiting for his turn at the television and eating food without the bones (likely paid for by others, of course, for he never earned enough to save).

(Hah! Is that my fate as well? Hollowed out by all that I’ve written, rather than hallowed by what I’ve attempted?)

It appears we are now obsessed with being taken care of and avoiding the consequences of anything we have done. It’s difficult for me to see how we ever might achieve more than mediocrity with that ambition, death being the only inevitability.

The body of Patrick Leigh Fermor is dead, but the bright and starry days and nights of him live forever in his work. While the surfer, lacking words enough, is unable to recall and relate his thrill only moments after the event, we can know the soul that Fermor was, not only as a foolish and brave boy who got to light out for the territory of his own time, but as an aging man recalling the better youth he was, and the better place that was then; and because he wrote it down, and then, because it could not be forgotten even when lost, he wrote it down again.

 

I think again of old Ben Hecht (another fellow who is also quite dead—that being one commonality with those great writers I admire which I would prefer to avoid for myself as long as I might). Hecht is also a man of Mencken’s time, but nearly forgotten now, reduced to white letters on a dark screen, though not in the way that the professor and author John Williams is.

Yet Ben Hecht wrote nearly anything. No! Everything!

Does that give the lie to my philosophy?

Like Hemingway and Mencken, Bierce and Twain, he too wrote for the newspapers. There was a time when his books could be found in any used bookshop. Like a good steak, they could be devoured at a single sitting. He liked to move his stories along, with characters you thought you knew immediately in context even before you were made to understand them better by the plot. But his real purpose, it seemed to me, was in the story itself. The ‘what if?’ And, like the great O. Henry, he played with archetypes so as to get to the play: the grocer, the cop, the newspaperman. But now, in our time, those types have changed. The grocer is merely a clerk at the Walmart, the cop is a public safety and traffic control specialist, and the newspaperman is a propagandist. It is difficult to read Hecht now without the assumptions of his own time seeming comic and naive, even when he was not intending fun. But the stories are still good. And you can see, from nearly every word he wrote, that he loved to write.

Perhaps this gives the better hand to Mr. Fermor. He was not a reporter. He had no cause to write other than his own love of words and the telling. Deadlines were never his raison d’etre. By those who were never so brave, or foolish, he has been faulted for confabulation. But reporters lie only to please their politics, or an editor’s prejudice, or the demand of the column inch. Fermor told of eternal truths by elaboration on what he knew to be and these are the facts that will be read long after the news of the day is forgotten. But then again, those others knew all that too. Didn’t they? Their dispatches would only be studied by academics. It is by their stories that we shall know them, and the truth in their lies is the reason why we read them still.

 

I read a comment by a very well-known and successful author some years ago that surprised me and then enlightened me in an unexpected way. The man said that any writer who wrote without prospect of being paid for it was a fool. I am indeed the fool then, but my immediate response to this statement was pity. To think that this man only wrote for hire was comparable to the prostitute who would only make love for money. The pleasures of writing, like sex, are far too great to be harbored only for the use of paying one’s bills.

That particular author’s comment, made quite seriously and in context, revealed something else to me as well. Many writers do not enjoy the process. It is for them merely work, to be done and finished with as soon as possible. Yet to spend your life doing something you do not enjoy is not only a waste of your life, but to impose that work upon others, like the tradesman who does not care what product he sells so long as it turns a profit, or the craftsman who does not take joy from the quality of his finish work so long as it does the job (or appears to), or, to return to my original simile, making love to a woman who is not in the mood and only trying to fulfill some false sense of obligation. It seems to me there are just too many people of this mind who are willing to waste entire lives with only a mediocre performance.

 

The day I received the bound proofs of my very first published novel, The Stolon, I was at the office of The Gist, where I then worked, trying to conjure the three or four hundred words from an already depleted brain that were needed to fill a gap on a page in the magazine, and that after being up all night with a friend and walking her the two or three miles uptown that morning. I was sitting at my desk without a clue. From just a few feet away, the IBM Compositor hummed as it idled, with the switch still in the ‘on’ position following whatever task I had just done, humming an impatient and mesmerizing metallic purr at me that demanded my attention like a cat in your lap awaiting your hand.

Just then, Emily Black came in the door from the elevator with a large manila envelope locked in the fingers of both hands and held to her breast. Petite, she stood on her toes a moment looking around for me while I slumped at the desk trying to comprehend why she would be there in the first place instead of at the offices of Gerard Strauss. Had I missed a page of corrections? Had I failed to mark some change correctly? She spotted me finally after scanning the floor and came over, her cheeks spread by teeth worthy of Carroll’s Cheshire Cat.

Not a word said, she plunked the envelope down, and stood by the desk and waited. The string-tie that wound around the catch on the flap somehow captured my weary eye with its turning. A few others in the room noticed. Certainly Daneen noticed. Doug Morrissey did. They drifted over to see what was up. I could feel the presence of Mr. Ritts standing at his office door behind me. Paul, who saw everything from his desk in the far corner, began to edge closer, suspiciously. It was probably only a few moments. Not a full minute. And (to complete my animal analogies) I finally came out of the stupor of staring down at the package as dumbly as a dog looking at the movement of an ant on the sidewalk. I think I even pawed at it once or twice. And only then did the light dawn on the inner geography of my personal Marblehead, and I knew what it was, and I was filled with the embarrassment of the moment and a shot of adrenaline from some unknown gland.

Emily, whose patience was legend as the editor Gerard made to deal with such dumb animals as authors are, finally said, “Open the damned thing up!”

I did as I was told.

The title of the book was in a non-descript bold face sans-serif, crudely Xeroxed on stiff blue covers along with the word “proof” stamped across, and the whole of it was perfect-bound with the contents printed double-side on plain white paper more than half a ream thick. The text, too, was Xeroxed and the copy I held had been hand-trimmed to approximate octavo size, probably by Emily herself to spiff it up a bit (I saw other advance review copies which were far more crude in appearance).

The Stolon,’ jabbed at my eyes, with the words ‘between earth and light’ in smaller type beneath, and then ‘by Angus McGuire.’ It was magnificent! Indescribably gorgeous! As ugly and beautiful at once as any newborn babe.

She said, “You understand that is not the final typeface for the cover. The art department has that.”

I knew what that meant. The Gerard Strauss art department was a small wiry fellow named Fred who was two doors up the hall from Emily’s own office. He could draw caricatures of visitors in seconds, like a Coney Island boardwalk artist, and he had a near perfect eye for typography and the balance of cover design.

Without anything more intelligent to say, I repeated, “Fred?”

She nodded, “Fred.”

Silence had spread over the desks at The Gist as eyes focused on Emily standing by my desk. Whispers were passed. Suddenly there was an outbreak of applause followed by a cacophony of spontaneous congratulations. Then a couple of kisses on the cheek and a few handshakes. For ten minutes or so, the gloom that had settled over the office that summer of 1969 was broken.

One does not savor such moments only once. I have thought of it countless times in the years since. And I can say, if I had been in any doubt before, I knew then that I would be writing for the rest of my life, not for the money, but for the pleasure of it. I had already received payment in full.

 

 

 

 

  1. Orrery: forward into an antique shop of mind

 

 

A better fore word to all of this might be ‘orrery.’

You usually only get to start a book once. But this is my own, and I might not get the second chance, so it’s just as well I start it twice.

I believe you can think of life as an orrery. Or not. Depending on your mood. But if you do, you might see some relevance. Not a heliosphere made of brass, mind you, but of glass, so that no armature or spiral or orb should wholly obscure (though some turns may distort or play with) the perspective of another.

There are those who contend that our awareness of life is that of a pretended battlefield, strewn with the fallen tin soldiers of our failures and marked and barricaded by the gaily costumed and ordered ranks of our assumed beliefs and delusions. When one file breaks, the next takes its place. We are unable to live without our defensive postures and all that we do is tactic and strategy in a war that will only, in the end, be lost. And thus the need of the fantasies we pose to hide the truths.

But I see life as an orrery, that miniature solar sphere, a planetarium without a shell, a deliberate heaven without a hell, with every part in motion posed in infinite variety of viewpoint from the ruled measurements at the rim; fragile, yes, near transparent, but also strong as glass can often be, with an articulated center to hold its limbs, true to the clockwork of some genius I do not know.

Genius. Yes. Yet I do not believe in God, nor perhaps does he believe in me. I simply do not know. I don’t disbelieve in God, in any case. Agnostic is the word for this. A lack of faith. But I am a worse skeptic with every religion I come across. Most of these theological efforts appear to me like rhabdomancy, the holding of beads or wheels or icons or the grasping of a stick, all of them dowsing for heaven.

Whatever the metaphor, what I do believe in is the narrative. To remain sane, our minds demand a story be made of what we see. I have faith in that fabric of threads, thick and thin, weak and strong, short and long, colorful and plain, each strand woven with our own hands by the way we live our lives. This fabric is not indestructible, but to cut this cloth is to sever the meanings that become our lives. To abuse this is to abuse our lives. To ignore this leaves the work unfinished.

It appears to me the easier thing to accept is some preordered design to our effort. The edicts of religion are thus comfortable but I cannot see the way that they may be better for the glory of any God who takes pleasure in his work. If his design is that we should all contribute to a single pattern, he might just as well have kept us as mere ants, wonderful creatures though they are.

I believe the divining rod of any truth there may be of God must be found within. And more. I know that, as the water witch will beckon me to a fool’s paradise if I may be too presumptuous, or the ignis fatuus of the friar’s lantern might lead me searching onto desolate ground, I am a little smarter for all the longer while I take to find that truth.

 

My friend Paul is a good fellow. A local boy raised in Winchester, he wears a Red Sox cap to most occasions except weddings and funerals. Always has, even before he started losing his hair. He also loves fried clams, about the only such food I have no deep fried affection for. And he is a “scientist’ of sorts.

Just out of MIT he went to work for Wang Computer. Then Prime. Then DEC (Digital Equipment Corp). Then Data General. Then Encore. A veritable memorial list of once ‘hot’ local tech companies which have since passed from the scene. The list is probably out of order. But no matter. What matters is that Paul has been officially out of work now for at least twelve years. I think, intentionally.

Though Paul was always good with numbers, he just could not make his own life amount to very much (his words, not mine). Lately he has taken up a little carpentry and grows tomatoes on the roof of his house in season. He makes a good chair. I have one, and I can testify to that. The tomatoes are good, but not as good as the chairs. Excellent for sitting in front of a computer for long hours.

After the last company let him go, he sold his house in Concord and split the proceeds with his wife. His kids are grown now. He lives alone in a converted garage in Waltham which used to be the parking space for the building he once worked in when he was at one of those computer companies I mentioned. A very good space. Wide open. Plenty of room for standing equipment and piles of lumber. At night he only has to brush the wood dust off his blankets and tumble into bed.

Thankfully he gave up smoking years ago and has quit drinking anything stronger than beer. In other words, he is not aggressively self-destructive.

When we were both at the University of Massachusetts in 1965, he was a science major and I was whatever I was. He advertised on a bulletin board for someone to help him write a paper. I did it for $10. Maybe $5 and a beer. Not sure anymore. I know he bought the beer. The relationship sort of worked out from there. He had to submit a proposal to the people at Wang way back in 1972. I wrote it for him.

He has done me the favor of reading over several of my stories through the years to make sure I did not get the science too terribly wrong. In return I have refashioned some of his articles for the trade magazines and the one book he wrote on “the integrity of information transfer,” so that they were all modestly literate.

Paul speaks in numbers, or as I have described it to him, ‘numbotics,’ with emphasis on the numb. He has a natural understanding of math, a strong grasp for the vagaries of verification, and an eye for detail. More recently, he is the one who keeps my computer in working order here in South Boston. I wouldn’t have a clue what to do with it otherwise.

Paul was here just yesterday. Something was wrong with my Mac, and he fixed it. He can do that. Actually, he installed a whole new hard drive for me in a couple of hours because I was evidently overworking the old one. The evidence was there before us: I save too much of the research I use when I’m writing.

“Do you actually need all this stuff?”

“I don’t know.”

“Why don’t you just get rid of it then?”

“I’d have to go through all of it first, piece by piece, and decide which stuff I might still need or I should keep for reference. That would take longer than I probably have left to live.”

I cannot bring myself to admit that what he sees is only a virtual representation of all the paper files I have now in the basement, box upon box, from the days when such information had to be had by hand. I don’t trust this machine.

We drank some beer, and for the most part talked about former times, and he gave me the update on his kids, and then he left. I suppose that is the nature of old friendships, after a while. Neither of us wants to talk much about our current circumstances, and the past has a quality of timelessness that allows for endless variations on the same old themes: women and money. He talks about his kids more than himself and for that I am grateful. Not having any kids of my own leaves me out of touch with much that is going on now.

Paul and I rarely talk about politics. For many years he was a mainstream Democrat and pretty much voted the ticket, like almost everyone else in Massachusetts since the days of Jack Kennedy. I know that. These days, from remarks he’s made, I think he has altered his views somewhat, but I think this is only another version of the old saw about most conservatives just being former liberals who got mugged by reality. The foundations for us both are still the same, so there is no point in pursuing that. He still refers to me as his anarchist friend, though I have never been an anarchist. That joke started in college and seems to please him somehow. His cosmos has always been an ordered one, as rigid as the armatures of a brass orrery. I suppose the disorder in my own life puzzles him.

When he worked for all those former computer companies, he used to put 10% of his income away in stock and bonds, like a Mormon with a tithe. Always. After his divorce, he still had quite a lot of money left, and that is what he lives on today. By contrast, I think he sees me as his personal charity case. It is incomprehensible to him that I should have saved nothing of value. I have tried before to explain to him that I have attempted to save everything of value. By writing it down.

This last puzzlement was the larger part of our conversation yesterday—the portion that touched on money. But we have had another ongoing conversation for the past forty years which I think is worth something.

It has to do with numbers.

Forty years of good argument cannot be easily summed, but never lacking the hubris for such efforts, I will try.

Paul sees human beings as just another of the creatures of the earth, the spark of life being merely an electrochemical phenomenon and all the pretense to civilization and philosophy simply being our delusional comforts against facing a cold dead universe. I do not. But Paul thinks he has the numbers to prove it. I agree that he has a bunch of numbers, but likely (given the short tenure of human history) not the right digits, and, in any case, math is merely the artificial representation of the reality we are trying to grasp. The numbers themselves are not an existential reality much less a satisfactory empirical representative of that. He sees numbers as an acceptable language, and the only way to efficiently represent reality so that it may then be related to others for practical use. I remind him of the very ‘numbotics’ which brought us together in the beginning. I suggest that all the algebra and calculus he can conjure is insufficient to deal with sentiment, or love, or passion.

Naturally, I quoted my favorite Yeats to him, a habit he hates even though I have given him the book of all the man’s poems and he has no excuse for not reading them for himself other than to say, “They are pretty enough but they’re contradictory and confusing.”

And I have pointed out to him repeatedly that life is exactly that.

“Though I am old with wandering / Through hollow lands and hilly lands, / I will find out where she has gone, / And kiss her lips and take her hands; / And walk among long dappled grass, / And pluck till time and times are done / The silver apples of the moon, / The golden apples of the sun.”

Paul’s answer is that, “She’s already out there in the dappled grass with her boyfriend now, having plucked me for all she can get, and the apples have worms, and the sun is obscured by cloud.”

No argument, just now, with that.

But I say, “And what do you tell your kids? Trust but verify? Always cut the deck? Get a prenuptial agreement?”

“I tell them that they’re on their own. What little I’ll have left they can have but it won’t be enough to pay for the stone.”

I liked that. I told him that.

“Can I use that line? ‘It won’t be enough to pay for the stone.’ It fits many uses.”

“It’s yours now. Do what you do with it.”

“And you don’t care more than that?”

“No. They’re just words.”

“Ha. I didn’t mean the words. I meant about your kids. You don’t want to leave them something more?”

“Than money?”

“Than money, which is just numbers again. Just a count of the value you have left that can be traded off to strangers. Don’t you want to leave them something more than that?”

“I loved them. They know that.”

“By the numbers, I suppose.”

“No. At least you taught me that much, Angus. The numbers don’t matter to that.”

“What value is it then?”

“You mean, my love for them?”

“Yes.”

“I don’t know.”

“And that is all that Yeats has said, and still is saying, long after the flesh of him is dust and the apples have no value even to the worms. What means more to you? The cost of the stone, or that you will be missed, or ever did whatever made them care?”

“Your sentimentalism is growing on me, Angus. Maybe it’s time again to try reading that book you gave me. I’ll let you know.”

And there I was, left thinking about the Diet of Worms.

 

 

 

 

  1. Don’t look back unless you need salt

 

 

“The past is a stone gaol for some, a source of shame and blame, whilst they themselves act as sheriff of their own keeping. Others take the future as the key to any lock, and the past to be but a good step up to see what lies ahead.”

What Mr. Billington said . . .

 

Perhaps a third try will do it.

My only request is this: that you allow me to be wrong.

And forgive me then if I too often quote from myself. It is only because I know (or believe that I know) that I am the best authority on the subject at hand. Though we both know how often authorities are mistaken.

The facts are these: when you wake up one morning and realize just how profoundly stupid you are, your options are limited. You either continue with the farce and pretense, tie your shoes and get on out the door (option #1, we’ll call that), or else you withdraw beneath the covers of your bed, wishing for an end to the hopeless misery and shame of your existence (option #2).

True, there really is a third option, something somewhere in between the first and the second, but that’s only what most of us have been doing all along. It has no drama. It bears no scrutiny. Hypocrisy is boring. Why should you care where the lie ends and the truth begins if the person you’re dealing with is no better than yourself? And of course, the second option has no long-term interest. Wasting away beneath the covers has even less appeal than believing in hypocrites, except perhaps to those aficionados of a zombie culture.

No, I have always grasped at the first.

I am, thus, the unreliable narrator of my own autobiography, too old to pretend the naïveté of Huck Finn or Holden Caulfield, too cowardly to play Marlow voyaging into my own Heart of Darkness. What I see, after all, is only my reflection in the mirror of things, not even the quicksilvered film behind the glass, nor the glass itself. The imperfections of that surface are too easily lost in the myriad blemishes with which I am well familiar. What lies beneath might now be beyond my reach.

Writers often live mediocre lives. For the most part, they are cuckolds to the passions of others. Too often they are mere observers. They may imagine fabulous things, but the events they have known are more mundane. This fact, and the knowledge that his own days of adventure were over, may be what drove Hemingway insane rather than any genetic disorder. He wanted to know what was true, and to write it down as well. A fearsome task. Yet, in the end, he seems to have misunderstood whatever it was he learned, or learned nothing at all. He died an unhappy man, having screwed himself.

I can count all the true adventures in my life on one hand, fewer than the average fellow, I’ll bet. But I have used those few in a hundred different ways.

Though I have changed the names of some of those mentioned here to protect their privacy, or perhaps avoid another lawsuit, there is one of those I must live with. Angus is what my father called me. It was a compromise with my mother. She wanted Fergus. She got half of that, and little more. (At least she never called me ‘Gus’ or any other diminutive.) The original of Angus was Oengus, the mythic Irish god of love and poetry. I knew this for a fact at an early age and attempted to assume the spirit of the name for all it was worth. But I can’t blame my foolishness on an ancient god. That was all mine.

Oengus mac Fergusa was a king of the Picts in 6th century Scotland, a fact my mother, with her Hebridean blood, apparently did not know nor care about. The Irish Oengus, however, was a member of the Tuatha De Danann, a pre-historic people who had conquered Ireland before the Catholics got there and about whom we know nothing now but legend (i.e., lies told to make us feel better about our barbarous past).

As a twelve-year-old I would fall upon my grandfather’s copy of S.C. Hall’s History of Ireland, whenever we visited. Its three volumes in elegant green leather binding were filled with fabulous lithographs of the Irish countryside and offered ready illustration to another but less imposing title which nestled close-by as well, The Story of the Irish Race by Sumas MacManus. The leather spine of the MacManus book was dun brown and edgeworn but the more enlightening to read. I think I was the only member of the family alive who ever opened either of them up, and those books along with an ancient looking Douay-Rheims Bible (which was for the most part incomprehensible to me), and a brand new looking signed copy of James Michael Curley’s I’d Do It Again, with a few black and white pictures of Mr. Curley doing this or that, had pride of place in the oak bookcase (think ‘altar’ with knickknacks) of my grandparents’ front parlor just below the framed portrait of Pope Pius XII.

Now the Oengus of myth had a sword, Moralltach, the Great Fury, given to him by Manannan mac Lir, which added to that demigod’s supernatural powers in the way that the sword Excalibur enhanced King Arthur. Lacking such a device, I took to heart the phrase that says ‘The pen is mightier,’ and chose the more accessible tool as my weapon. All of this was very grand, but there is more.

That fine writer Frank O’Connor said of the Irish mind, “To primitive man the greatest possible nightmare is the loss of his identity, which may occur at any time as the result of a loss of memory. If he does not know who his father, grandfather, and great grandfather were or the names and events associated with the places where they lived, he is nobody.”

It is thus that I have always followed the dictum, ‘What is not written will be lost.’ I have never trusted my own memory and would not expect that trust from others.

My enemies have often touted that I was named for a cow. This is the sort of low and trenchant blow that cannot be easily ignored. By my senior year, a loud ‘mooing’ would often issue forth from the fences at the north end of the high school as I came up from 6th Street. True, for a time I could turn the insult around to the male of the species and accept the label of being a bull. But I have no background in animal husbandry or ranch life. I did not know that the species ‘Angus’ had no horns, until some years later when an editorial against me in the New York Times made much of the fact at my expense. I answered in return that at least I was bullheaded.

Not being a reading man, however, my dad did not reckon with the deeper history behind the name he had given me. When I told him that the original Angus had been conceived out of wedlock when that demi-god’s father, Dagda, the ‘All-father’ (nicely named), had seduced his mother, Boann, (as in the River Boyne), Dad was bothered. My mother’s name is Bonnie Anne, you see. When I further informed him that, according to legend, Oengus also tricked his father out of his home and displaced him, Dad said exactly what John Wayne said to his nephew in The Searchers, “That’ll be the day.”

But that day has come and here I am, back in my father’s house. And the joke is on me. I never wanted to be in this place, first or last.

You cannot know, nor will I admit to, all of the dreams I had. I can still be shamed. Embarrassment will yet tighten those sphincters of my being that still function. When once I had accepted the self-appointed role of political thinker as artisan, assumed the grandiose mantle of the ‘Russian’ novelist and American iconoclast rolled into one and affected the singular voice in opposition to the madness of my time, I had already imprisoned myself in a glass palace, and it was all too late for having hardly begun.

(Ah, glass used as a metaphor again. I do have my habits. But at least you can see through them.)

I have no one else to blame for what has been. From the first, my pursuit of happiness was a sort of Victorian conjure, gaudy and overwrought. However pretty it might have appeared or sounded to my own ear, at heart it was out of time. The failure of my attempt to touch the hem of immortality was fairly spoiled by my overreaching up that particular skirt. I have deserved the slap in consequence.

And now I am here, with only metaphors and similes gathered about me for comfort.

 

As anyone might have guessed from the things I have written, my parents’ marriage was a miserable one. My brother and I grew up in a house of argument and discord.

What my mother got out of the deal, I can’t tell you. She was not one to confide her problems to her children. Or her husband, for that matter. Bonnie Anne MacAleer McGuire was a self-contained sort of woman who went about her business from day to day as if she understood that there was no other course and no escape. By my own recent calculation she had married my father only six months before the birth of my older brother, Eddy. He was not premature. He weighed eight pounds then and weighs 240 now.

I could not have taken that into account when I told my father about the Irish legend, but I imagine he got the point. He roared at me. However, I did not find the facts in the marriage certificate, or my mother’s letters, until I moved back to the house this past year.

In attempting to understand her, you should know that Mom cooked the same meal on the same day of each week, depending on the season, and bought the same groceries at the A&P every Saturday in order to do so. Sunday, roast chicken (this would make lunch sandwiches later in the week). Monday, macaroni. Tuesdays, lamb stew. Wednesday, spaghetti. Thursday, meatloaf. Friday, fish. Saturday, pot roast. In warmer months, the pot roast became a steak for the grill in the narrow back yard and the meat loaf became hamburger. Hotdogs and beans were the pinch-hitter to mix things up occasionally.

As a kid desperate for variety, I would often pick some bright package off the shelves at the market as I trailed behind her in the aisles and then run around in front of the grocery cart and hold it up in front of my face like a mask.

She’d say, “Put that back now, Angus. Don’t play.” Every time. But I did it anyway. I never lost hope.

If this sounds very cold, it was not. She was a most loving mother. I never wished for another. But she was always reserved. Not often girlish. She had that internal life apart from her family which she never shared. And when I had become a writer and looked to her for some substance in this regard, she did not offer up any additional detail. All of that I had to discover on my own, years later, in her letters. That she had been a writer too.

Mom always dressed neatly. Properly, I would say, but not to be pretty. She was that without trying. She worked at Jordan Marsh during the Christmas season every year and her clothes were always up to date and bought at the sales there after New Year’s. I think, in fact, that she was genuinely beautiful. Because she got too much of those sort of department store odors there, she never wore perfumes. A red-head, and green-eyed, she tended to like colors more subdued. Certainly this is a prejudiced assessment, but (in full Oedipal denial) she was indeed the template for a lifetime of yearning on my own part. I have always judged the women I knew by the standard she set. For instance, I have never liked pants on a woman so much as a dress—a statement which will bring up the ire in every petty ‘feminist’ mind. As if pants make a woman. Or a sharper crease in the pants makes a gentleman. Neither is true. I’ve had nearly as many female bosses as male ones through the years and not noticed a difference; they were all boneheads. Most of them. But a dress on a woman is a very pretty thing to see.

Her husband, and my father, Francis Edward McGuire, was the son of a dockworker (his father being the truer and original Angus McGuire), and one of eight children. His mother, the former Mary Delaney, worked as a ‘cleaning lady.’ When I knew grandma, she was deaf, and her voice off key, but she liked to tell stories and would keep her black eyes on you so you would stay put until she finished. I suppose there is some resonance in that for me.

My father, ‘big boned’ as they say, six-foot, two inches and always burly, black-haired and darker skinned than my mother, was a man who “cast a larger shadow” as a friend once said, “as if the sun had caught more of a man than you could see.” He worked a variety of jobs during my youth, including his stint in the Navy and with the post office, but for the longest time he worked a web press at the old Herald-Traveler when it was a bed-sheet newspaper. The union caused the end to that (and a bad bit of mismanagement by the bosses attempting to compensate) and I never heard a good word about unions in our house afterward. But that was his job when I was conceived, so I will claim some printer’s ink in my blood from the very start.

My mother’s father, James MacAleer, a thin man who had a ‘dry look,’ as my father would say it, though I would call it desiccated, was of Scottish and Episcopal extraction. He was a minor Boston politician for a time and ended up in a job at the courthouse, keeping a chair warm, and directing traffic in the halls with the same voice he used on us children when we visited. He was a Republican and not fond of his son-in-law, but not because Dad was a Catholic or a Democrat. It was a darker grievance we never knew the cause of then.

Mom’s mother, born Elaine Kendrick Black, was a ‘housewife.’ I take this to mean she did not work for a paycheck, which meant that her husband must have drawn a good salary for the work his posterior was doing. I do know for certain that Grandma MacAleer, a pleasant looking woman who had false teeth and a faint mustache, made excellent chocolate chip cookies and this was a major matter of unhappiness to me as a child, because her daughter would never do the same. Perhaps that was the symptom of the contrariness I was to inherit. She was, however, the source of my saying that I was one-quarter Black and thus qualified to speak on certain racial issues denied to others.

So you see some of the thinner strands of my inheritance. For the greater part of my life, I took little note of them. I was not given to value matters of genealogical importance. Not as I have come to do. I thought I was making my own way on the earth and had no such bounds or bonds. But the gods are wiser than that.

 

The matter of greater interest has always been, to me at least, the fellow who sallies forth, “To live the lie openly and with great heart. ” This course is not a fraud or a wrong. It is to make the most of a terrible situation: you are conceived out of lust more than love, born helpless and almost totally ignorant, are allotted far too little time to improve yourself, and then you are going to die.

How will you get about? Whimpering all the way to the guillotine, or whistling your own tune?

All that established, I would begin this effort to forestall my recent slide toward oblivion, as well as counter the false biographies written by those unfamiliar with the true lies and perhaps more influenced by their unfriendly persuasions, with a reconsideration of a few of the reasons I’ve come to this state of present affairs and thereby perhaps enlighten my path forward, now, on this final leg of the journey I have made—perhaps even to some better outcome than I’ve managed before.

That is to say, these are my excuses.

I am (or was) a child of great riches, delivered into the middle of the most prosperous century yet known to mankind. I was born in the United States, during the month of July, in 1947, at Boston Lying-in Hospital (thus my affiliation with the truth was compromised at the start), given a modest but adequate education, and offered the opportunity to make use of several guaranteed freedoms. I was raised only a stone’s throw from the ‘Athens of America’—technically within its perimeters—but we always knew we were outsiders. That’s why we threw stones.

As my father said more than once (perhaps a thousand times for he was given to such crudities), “If Boston is ‘Bean Town,’ South Boston is the fart.”

Yet, on a typical day here now, I feel as isolated as I might in a cabin in the woods. Perhaps it is not as modest as Thoreau’s ten by fifteen, but it certainly lacks the view. There is no one on this side of the Fort Point Channel I can have a beer with anymore. Though this was not always the case. (In the longer run, the renewal of Southie by fresher and younger blood is a good thing. I know that. East Broadway never looked better.) But, having been brought home again by circumstance, I cannot help but miss the people I once knew and the places of that other time.

Not to worry. I’m not friendless. Not nearly. Simply, though, I have already lost more friends to death and attrition. Far more of those casualties to ancient battles, won or not, than now remain.

My tendency perhaps might be to harbor those few buddies who have survived the wars with me and treat them with special care. But that’s not likely. My nature says, ’tis better to bend my elbow at the bar alone than have to pander out of a fear of loneliness. Better to be wrong for the right reasons than right for the bad. Having never been on a real battlefield except as a correspondent, nor had my life held visibly in the hands of a comrade, or held theirs in my own, perhaps I can only guess at what it is to have absolute confidence in one’s friends. But the accumulated experience of a lifetime speaks to me without doubt.

My guess is that, if they be friends, I should not need to explain myself to them, or they to me. If they know me, they should know what I am about. Though the loss is keen. A friendship is the tide that rises and falls between two. A failure is not alone my doing. And if a need arises, they will know where to find me.

If they do not know that much, they are not a friend at all.

 

And that is not to pretend that any who know me would be a friend. As likely, it might make them an enemy. I have always cherished good enemies as well.

But those casualties caused by blind faith are the most painful to consider now. A memoir is an account of one’s friends as much as anything. Those who have died have no care about what I write here. Yet, for those who have become estranged, I cannot help but feel the larger loss.

To my great discredit, the former I only started truly noticing in recent years. I’ve been that preoccupied with my own game. And the latter now plague my mind with doubts for my own veracity and fairness. As Hamlet knew, it is easier to contemplate the dead.

When I first and finally became aware of my losses, I was still living in New York. Timothy Bailey’s wife, Pat, called with the sad news. I got on the train that afternoon and was home for the wake.

The loss of a friend to mortality is painful enough. But it is quick. And then it is done. And if they are a true friend, you begin missing them immediately for all those qualities that made them dear to you. Only hours later you’ll find yourself smiling and it is then that the good Irish wake begins, and if not then with the others who knew him, or her, at least with yourself in the quiet of an evening and a cup in your hand. The good is there, and the bad forgotten, or turned into jest for being the mere human flaw of a better man than that in full.

“We would not die in that man’s company, that fears his fellowship to die with us,” Mr. Shakespeare is said to have said.

As I’ve said, there is a more painful loss.

That is the cost of a friend to a narrowing of mind. It is a sort of dementia that strikes some people long before age has afflicted them. They forget what has been the cause of friendship between you, and what it has meant, and turn to some other faith or another that has captured their souls. Sometimes the religion of petty grievances. More often, the politics of ideals. The greater loss is in that, I believe. The loss of the person you knew, when the soul in themselves has been possessed by some true belief.

 

I think immediately of the old Jack Finney story, The Body Snatchers. The story was good enough to keep you awake at night beneath the covers until you trembled yourself to sleep. It came, I remember, in a few weekly installments in Collier’s magazine when I was a boy of seven or eight. Just about the time I had begun to read on my own.

I used to sweep the floor at Bailey’s Barbershop when it was down at the turn on Broadway. Tim would let me have the three-week-old magazines and I started by taking home the bigger ones, like Life and Look, with the most pictures, and ended up waiting impatiently for the next issue of Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s. Pictures enough, of course, but also filled with good stories in those days.

Yeah. I was seven or eight. For about half an hour every weekday afternoon, and an hour on Saturday because it was busier that day, child-labor was at its darkest. One glorious daily interlude when I got to be around grown-up men and breathe the heady ether of pomade and witch hazel, Vitalis and Kreml, Bay Rum, Wildroot and Aqua Velva, all while listening to talk of Dodgers and Democrats, Red Sox and Republicans, along with the price of finished lumber, cut beef and heating oil, for which I received two bits and at least one hard red and white peppermint each day, all the magazines I could read, a haircut every two weeks, and a real education through the conversations I overheard.

Besides that, Timothy Bailey was what they used to call a ‘good egg.’

Tim had joined the marines when he was 17, fought at Chosin Reservoir behind Chesty Puller in Korea at eighteen, lost an eye, got the Purple Heart and then hid that badge inside the clock on his mother’s mantle so no one knew of it until she herself died and they found it there. He was unlucky with women until he met Pat Norris, but that’s a story I will save for now. He was a friend to all I was aware of. He was at my father’s funeral when few others were. Dad was that hard a man, but he liked Tim, and Tim never forgot a friend.

He used to dance around behind you as he cut your hair so that he could get the view that the rest of us get standing still with our two eyes. He was a thin man and behind the red and white apron he always wore, his legs would flex and he would go up and down and sidewise at a rate that would have exhausted anyone else in an hour. This was comical to us kids and we’d stand at the window and watch. He must have seen us laughing and known what it was we were laughing at. But yet, he always came through for the Little League sponsorship every year.

And then one time he bent half his body around the doorjamb and tapped me on the shoulder and said, “How’d you like to sweep up for me? Just take a minute and then there’s that bowl of peppermints in here you like so much when your Dad brings you in.”

Just as fast as that I had my very first job.

 

The movie they made from the Jack Finney story was horrifying enough to leave that particular nightmare imprinted upon my genetic code for life. Not the later remakes, but the first, with Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter. Don Siegel was a great budget movie director and he used to bring home the goods (thankfully, he taught a little of what he knew to Clint Eastwood, either intentionally or by osmosis).

I’m drifting far off topic, I know. I was talking about the loss of friends. But one last thing before I get back to that more somber subject.

I have been criticized for resorting to certain metaphors and similes once too often. I plead guilty. But it is not laziness that does it. It’s fondness. I have probably used references to that Jack Finney story a hundred times over the years. Because it was seminal to the shaping of a young mind. It set me on my course. The pod-people have always been my true enemy in life—those aliens who take possession of healthy minds have always been my adversaries.

And that brings me back to the place I was driving at by taking 6th Street up over the Heights instead of simply crossing down to Broadway where double parking doesn’t bring traffic to a complete standstill like it does on the backstreets.

I knew a fellow for nearly twenty years, worked alongside of him, ate many a meal with him, drank good beer with him, and for most of those years I would have thought he’d take a bullet for me. He certainly spelled me a hundred times when there was more on my plate than I could handle. But I’ve typically taken on more than I could handle. Perhaps I wore him out . . . No. He was always better than the task before him. Wore the friendship out? No. My own experience has shown that a trial can make friendship stronger . . . Perhaps his wife turned against me, then. But I don’t think so. She was dependably a sweetheart and never gave me the fish-eye no matter how foolish I found a way to be. No. It was just my friend. I won’t use his name. There is no need to embarrass him. I am fond of him still, no matter what true religion he has found.

But the loss of such a friend—a slow loss without apparent cause—will eat at you from inside out over time. That leaves a greater pain than the quicker loss of death.

Those are the unhealed wounds.

 

 

 

 

  1. Within sight of blindness, or the degrees of my miseducation

 

 

My eyes began to weaken shortly before I turned twelve. My dad blamed the reading. He threw all my magazines out. All my comics. All of my more recently collected paperback books. He forbade me to have them in the house. He wasn’t going to have any son of his wear glasses.

My brother Eddy, who never read a postcard all the way to the end, has better than twenty-twenty vision even today.

I have wondered since if perhaps my father might also have been possessed by that Catholic worry which was then still very much prevalent concerning boys and their ‘sexual awakening,’ as it was so often described on the covers of certain paperback books. He needn’t have worried in that case. I would have already been totally blind if the rumors were true.

Thankfully, this penalty period lasted less than a year. Partly due to the intercession of my mother as referee. But once the glasses were on my face for good, I started to bring in more paperback books again. One at a time.

My addiction was fed by a variety of part-time jobs: bagging groceries at the A&P., making home deliveries for Kennedy Butter & Egg, and shoveling out parking spaces in the winter. Admittedly, some of my A&P earnings went to Saturday afternoon matinees at the Strand Theatre, which was next door to the market, and never made it home.

I still have many of those same little pocket-sized paperback books—the Avons, Bantams, Dells, Signets and Ballantines—on a shelf downstairs. I took them out of a box first thing when I got here, as a comfort. I can look at the spine of any one of them and tell you the story, and when I read it, and what I else was doing at the time. They are as much a part of my history as anything I have done.

The paperback revolution had begun years before, but when I came of age, it was in full rage. Now, of course, all of that is on the internet, or about to be. Many of those titles you will find free for the taking in digital form on one site or another. At least, so long as we are not attacked with an electromagnetic pulse weapon and all power is lost. But at the time books were to be had in hand, yours for eternity for only thirty-five cents. Fifty cents. Seventy-five. They fit in your pocket. No wires. No batteries required.

However, it is noteworthy that my escape from these premises and this ragged peninsula began, paradoxically, when my father threw away all of those magazines and comic books. Enraged, I ran away from home for the first time. Yet unfamiliar with the unforgiving nature of physical geography as opposed to the dreamlands in my head, I made it only so far as the leafy premises at World’s End, a gerrymander of terminal moraine and rock that divides the southern waters of Massachusetts Bay and then a family favorite spot for Sunday excursions. I thought I’d be able to pitch my makeshift tent there (this being the Pollocky canvas sheet my father used each autumn as he painted one side of the house or the next in his continuing round-robin with the elements), and live rough (lacking a knapsack, and, not for the last time, I had packed all my goods in my father’s old Navy duffle), and fish for food. The proprietors of that semi-wild real estate thought differently.

Several times after that I ran away again but I did not truly leave this paradise of triple-deckers and mean streets until I was seventeen. And then I was sure that I would never return, except to give my mother a kiss on selected national holidays. Once more, I was wrong.

 

Planning those escapes shapes the earliest memories I have.

I know exactly where this plotting was first done. It was in this very room on the third floor of my father’s house. That point of fact is confirmed because even now a seagull sits outside my window on the sagging gutter, black eyes bearing alternately on the garbage in the alley below, just as he did then—or at least an ancient forebearer of his did. One of his tribe has made his perch for the season right there, with the sun in the mornings and the shade of the brick chimney midday, at least since I was three. Over the years many other seagulls commanded that place, but the one I remember most specifically had a mangy coat of black, brown and gray feathers and I wrote at the time (my first recorded critique) that he looked like a bum. Specifically he looked like Charles Storrs, hunched forward in the wind, right down to the mottle of his beaky nose, thin lips, and weepy eyes.

I drew a picture of him on the stiff blue cover of a school assignment book, and I have that now for confirmation.

Charley was a most common sight in our neighborhood, at least to those of us who frequently loitered in the alleys thereabouts. Given my rude habits, I told him he looked like that seagull, and he recalled many times afterward that I had said it. He thought it was funny and laughed on each occasion, with several discolored teeth still showing in those early years.

No, I did not write out a plan for escape when I was three years old. I am sure, however, that it was born then, after first being banished to that small room upstairs away from the ready comforts below. It first occurred to me to write the plan down in the assignment book when I was seven, when the scheme had been re-told more than once to various friends and associates. I was keen on getting someone to go with me, you see. And I had soon established certain facts of the matter. For instance, I would need a car for my escape.

When I was seven, I wrote, “Charly Stors say the best car for my excap is a ford. It had a short kluch and sters quick. Becas I am stil small for my age I need a car like that. Charly is a scavagr i no. He looks like a seagul. My father says seagul are scavagers and Charly is to. Charly has ben to New York and that is wher I wan to go.”

I most likely had been asked to write something by Sister Elisabeth for class. I don’t remember the exact assignment. Something along the lines of what I might do for my summer vacation, most likely. I do know, however, that the assignment book came back home to my parents. I had been rather too explicit in my aims.

“I wan to go to New York because It is the bigest plac in the word.”

Why I thought my secret would be kept by Sister Elisabeth is a mystery but I have reckoned since that it was the result of a misunderstanding. I already knew that anything I said to Father Ted in confession would go no further. He could be trusted.

Mom took it all very seriously. I was watched more carefully from then on, I believe. She also spent more time trying to impress me with the importance of spelling during that summer. I see her pencil marks now on the pages of the booklet. It was she who kept it. But I am afraid this is one of her key failures, given my choice of professions. I am still a pathological speller, homonyms being my weakest link. Editors have long despaired.

Charley Storrs’ special talent was to spot valuable stuff in the trash. Especially metals. There was a yard then over near Roxbury just beyond City Hospital where he could take his ‘salvage’ and they would pay him cash on the spot. And Donovan’s was then one of the first good drinking establishments as you came up Broadway just this side of the Channel. Charley usually dropped in at Donovan’s on his way back and got some hard food and hard liquor to go with it.

I actually went the whole course with him once when I was sixteen. He had a heavy chrome bumper that had been ripped off a car by a bus and then abandoned on the curbside near Emerson Street and he needed my help to carry it. Perhaps I should have taken that as a sign of his weakening, but I didn’t.

Charley was one of the few people I could consult on a regular basis in those days without raising suspicions. I acquired a fair idea of just how big New York was, from his anecdotes. He had been decommissioned from the Coast Guard there in 1945, had lived in Greenwich Village during what sounded to me like Bohemian glory years, had started his serious drinking there and never stopped.

He talked as he walked. Sometimes when no one else was there to listen.

“I was just a Seaman but they taught me how to use a camera in the service, cause they always wanted documentation when we came up on a wreck of one thing or another. I was the man. Careless then. I’d go into anything, fire or wet, and not think twice. I liked it. Interesting work. And when the Coasties let me go I went and got a job with a guy in the Village who used to take pictures of the girls. I was his assistant. The pictures was supposed to be for the artists. That’s how he got away with it. He even advertised on matchbooks. I think that’s when I really started to drink. Hard to bear seeing that much female flesh every day.”

But once he understood my interests, Charley never forgot to work in some detail that he thought would encourage me, along with his other recollections.

“The best deal in New York is the hotdog. A nickel. The second best deal is the Staten Island Ferry. A nickel. Get yourself a couple of cokes—that’d be a nickel each—a couple of hot dogs and a girl and you can go on a cruise with your date for four bits and you still have ice cream money for the trip back. What a world!”

The same exact date cost me all of seventy-five cents when I first started living there in 1966.

In Southie, the bigger kids tended to command the streets, so when I was little, we liked to do our loitering in the alley between Fifth and Sixth. Myself and Zeph Thomas and Jimmy Green and Donny Sullivan and the others used to gather there by the fence in back of Zeph’s house after school. His father had put up a basketball net on the fence and even after the net had long since rotted away, we would take shots with a ball that would not bounce, but still threw real well, and we would talk for hours. Much of that chatter was about where we would escape to as soon as we could manage it.

We always knew that stretch of the alley by heart due to the probing of our own curiosities. Charley Storrs used to start his day up at the top near the high school, where much of the best stuff was thrown out. He usually had some sort of two- or four-wheeled device and as he made his way ‘Down East,’ as he liked to say, and he’d peek in at us from the end of the block as he passed and call out in his husky broken voice, “Anything?”

We’d give him the report.

“Mr. Connor’s is got a barrel full of paint cans”

“Don’t want no paint cans.”

And he would salute us and pass on.

It was later, when Zeph moved away and even the rim of the net had rusted and collapsed and that old ball couldn’t be found, that Charley would come all the way into our stretch of the alley and check on the barrels for himself and that is when I really got to know him better.

He’d fill every available space on his ‘carrier’ (a supermarket cart or a battered hand truck), then cross down to the boulevard and make a pit stop at the L Street Bathhouse before heading back out on the flat along Columbia Road toward Southampton Street.

To me, Charley seemed to be the very epitome of independence and self-reliance. He even used to roll his own cigarettes. The first person I ever saw doing that.

He would lean back on a fence while rolling himself a smoke so that it looked like he had an invisible chair beneath him. He said he learned this trick in the Coast Guard when he was on watch. It cut down on the wind and countered the roll of the ship.

I was reminded of Charley again years later when I read Nicholas Monsarrat’s wonderful account of service in the British Navy during war, Three Corvettes.

Monsarrat has a line in there about his ship, “A Corvette would roll on wet grass.”    Charley never related the kind of visceral detail Monsarrat does so well, like the look of the battle dead floating in life jackets face up as if they were asleep, but the reading of that book seemed to recall and give a larger life to those sparser facts I had heard from my friend long before.

He’d say, “You didn’t need to roll your cigarettes when I was with the Coasties. You just set your paper down on any ol’ flat thing and pour your cut on there and in a minute the ship’ll dip back and fourth a time or two and your smoke will be rolled up for you as neat as can be.”

Once I asked Charley, “Don’t you get cold going around looking for stuff in the winter time?”

He waved a bony hand at me. “Hardly. If you ever felt that greasy cold on a ship at sea, you can never complain about this little bit.”

Still, I wondered, “How did you end up in Boston? Why didn’t you go south where it’s warmer? Like to Miami?”

In fact he had a little touch of the South in his voice that I never got him to reveal the source of.

“Oh. I came up here looking for somebody I knew. Never found her.”

“Why do you stay here?”

“Thought she might turn up.”

“Isn’t there a lot more salvage to find in New York?”

“Too much! Too much treasure there. Enough to kill a man with a will as weak as mine. Boston is just about my speed.”

“I can’t wait till I can go to New York.”

“You may be just the man that can handle that. But listen here . . . Don’t live uptown. They charge extra there. Downtown is fine. You got Katz’s and Mo’s there, and the Broadway House. The cheapest theatres in town are on 14th, and there’s always someplace to sleep downtown. They’ve got SRO’s like palaces there. Nothing like that uptown. I tell you what.”

I stayed one night in a ‘single room occupancy’ on Houston Street during my second runaway to New York in 1964. Perhaps the scariest night of my life. Cockroaches big enough to cast a shadow and make a noise as they scampered, unnatural human sounds syncopated with the cry of steam and the knocking of iron pipes and the smell of the blocked toilet on the hall. All of it included for the price of $3.

No one, to my knowledge, knew where Charley lived in South Boston. I suspected that it was somewhere over near the Edison plant in a basement of one of those tenements there. But I was told by my father that on special occasions he was seen at the Veterans’ Post dressed in a dark suit and white socks, shined shoes and red tie, with a red or white carnation in his lapel.

Charley Storrs disappeared during the blizzard of 1978. Not that anyone was sure of that. He was simply never seen again afterward. Perhaps he went south. But I have tried to keep him alive in a few of my stories.

 

 

 

 

  1. Sergeant Eddy at the Battle of Villa Fiorita!

 

 

When I was very young, my brother Eddy, only a year and a couple of months older, was made to take me to the Saturday matinee at the Strand Theater. He hated this and, though forbidden to actually hit me, would torture me in every other way possible, I suppose in the hope that I would refuse to go the next time. It was always a double feature, often a western and a comedy plus a cartoon. Maybe even an installment of a serial. Abbott and Costello, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. These films are almost totally lost to memory now, forgotten or buried in a mind otherwise chock full of the trivial and worthless. The few movies that I do remember from the time are distinguished by some odd point of reference, like Them, which had giant ants, or The Crimson Pirate, which had Burt Lancaster jumping from roofs and bouncing on window awnings. That trick with the awnings appeared to me to be great fun and was the subject of a terrible argument afterward with my brother, with me insisting that it was possible, and him pointing out the weakness of my case while standing in front of Kennedy Butter & Egg, where the awning had been ripped merely by the wind and flapped that day in an argumentative breeze.

My mother would give Eddy a quarter more than the price of the tickets for the occasion, but he would not share the popcorn until he had eaten all of the buttered pieces off the top. The Coke would be sucked down to the ice before I took a second sip. There and back he would walk quickly ahead, forcing me to run to stay up. He made me use the toilet when he did. He would elbow me if I laughed too loudly. Nothing I can remember seems less petty than those sorts of things, though they seemed mightily oppressive to me at the time.

And once, I am told, he even lost me.

I actually do remember a portion of the incident, but not for being lost. It appears that I wandered down L Street beyond Broadway, while he was speaking with some of his friends at the corner. What I remember is sitting in a strange kitchen, eating a peanut butter sandwich, along with a dog that licked my face after every bite. A woman on East 3rd had seen me wandering alone and taken me in while she called the police. Neighbors and neighborhoods were that way then.

However, I must have already been forming some personal opinion of the films I was seeing without realizing it. Certainly I caviled at foolish plot devices or reveled in the glory of Cinemascope. But it never occurred to me to be intellectually critical of the art itself. The movies were then just another fixture of daily life, a given, not to be investigated beyond the Technicolor surface.

When I later used to go to the Strand on my own, or to the old Broadway Theatre further along, I know I went to escape as much as to enjoy. I wanted to be someplace else, wherever that someplace was. I absorbed without caution. Even the fabulous filmmaking in pictures like North by Northwest or Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia did not fully awaken that portion of my mind that must ask ‘Why?’ in order to be fully engaged.

That, given the right time and circumstance, was to be accomplished by Dorothy Malone. But more on that elsewhere.

 

Writing out my imagined future was my answer then. These were tortured scripts on composition books written each night before I was made to turn out the light by my father’s command—that order delivered from the bottom of the stairs, and after which I would pretend to go to sleep. Those notebooks were done in an awkward hand that changed direction with whatever impulse possessed me on a given evening, or perhaps it was due to the position of my elbow on the table as my left hand supported my oversized head. Naturally, I lay there in the dark after, with the crepuscular shadows of my room now my private theatre, and extended those adventures into new realms. Possessed of a good idea (the few of those writings I have since taken the time to read survived in the stash my mother kept in a stack of tomato boxes with some other knickknacks in the basement), I would generally follow the plot lines I had seen at the movies. They were no better than the Hollywood haircut some of my own stories got in later years. But that would have been the course of least resistance, rather than the more developed plots in the paperbacks I was reading at the time. The printed word already had an immutable authority to me. Importantly, I had become aware of the greater difference between the two mediums.

True, what happened on the screen was etched in film by the composite arts of writers, actors, directors, musicians, etc. What was on the page was strictly between the author and myself, and the author was not around to protest if I took liberties. But it was the very nature of that group effort in making the movies which begged for my further assistance while the bargain between myself and the author of a book was a more absolute trust. Thus, a few of those fat composition books have the beginnings of my first novels. I can readily see the influences of actors and directors and even cinematographers there in pages describing places I had never been and events which I had no additional knowledge for. A cowboy opposes a wicked marshal. A soldier, fleeing the Nazis, is saved by a shepherdess in the mountains.

But clearly then, I saw the conflict that was mine, between the place where I had been born and raised, and what I wanted out of life. I played the part of my own hero fighting the injustices of that ‘world I never made.’ My father received billing as the villain in most of these efforts. I was never balanced in my judgments. I was already headlong in progress, careering toward the goals I was resetting anew each day, and careening at each sharp turn.

 

Eddy, who slept in another room on the third floor and was the issue of the same parents, raised in the same house, fed the same food, and schooled by many of the same teachers (he too was in love with our English teacher Miss Lawrence in his turn), is as different from myself as a creature in the same forest is from any other species.

Like my father, he was never fond of books. But he knows about fishing, can bait a hook with his eyes closed, and owns a gun. More than one, I hear. I even sent him my father’s pistol when I found it in the house recently. In Texas, I suppose, Eddy will be able to make use of it. (It had no permit and keeping it was thus illegal in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts now in any case.) This was a .32 police special and I took notes on it before shipping it out because I thought it might be a good detail in a story. I even fired it in the basement and did some damage to a box of my own notes from the year 1977. My father had hidden the weapon beneath a floorboard in the bedroom, just in reach of his hand if an intruder had ever entered the house at night. That never happened, of course. But then, I think, if any foolish fellow who thought to rob our home had he seen my father first, he might have had second thoughts on other grounds.

 

I am reminded of ‘The Battle of the Villa Fiorita’ (not to be confused with the excellent novel by Rumer Godden which supplied the title I gave the event), and one of the key incidents of my childhood. It is a relation of my greatest triumph as well as my worst ignominy. Or so I have thought since.

In the winter of 1964 (my guess is, it must have been February because my brother had not yet left home for his hitch in the Navy) we had a great snow. At least two feet of the best snow we had had that season, and as we usually did, after digging out the family parking space and picking up some extra loot from the older neighbors who could not dig their own cars out, a group of us congregated on the open rise at the M Street Park and began to build our respective battlements out of the mounds accumulated there from the snow plows.

The name I tagged our fortifications with that day came to mind because the Rumer Godden book, The Battle of Villa Fiorita, was then very popular and on display everywhere. Everywhere that I was wont to hang out, at least. I liked the title, but did not actually read the book until years afterward. We were always in need of a grand name for our projects, so when I spontaneously offered ‘Villa Fiorita!’ it was adopted unanimously, sounding wonderfully exotic, and was then hollered repeatedly all that day, perhaps mysteriously to the ears of that Irish neighborhood, in the same way that Mexican revolutionaries might have once yelled ‘Viva Zapata!’

The divisions of our armies were along the battle lines of established friendships rather than the close approximation of our respective homes. The forts were often enormous affairs, depending on nature’s allotment, with tunnels and ditches, ramparts and scarps, parapets, and a parade at front where we might taunt the enemy. There were no specific rules to the matter. I think we always made it up as we went along. But our actions usually followed some unwritten code of behavior which I find it difficult now to put into words, as it was purely felt and not written—much of it, I think, absorbed from the endless war movies we all had been exposed to.

At some undesignated moment, the first snowball would be thrown (often well before any better defenses were built), and this bombardment went on for an hour or so until arms were tired, and a lunch was required to refuel. All during this flurry of missiles, some of us would continue to construct while the others engaged the enemy. Bathroom breaks were taken individually and, especially as it grew dark, at an edge of the park where the snow plows had created some better privacy with the greater heights of some piles.

Late in the afternoon, as the shadows grabbed at our positions, and already well weary of the lobbing of snowballs into the arcs necessary to penetrate to the rear of our opponent’s fortification, we would begin our forays. This was usually done by small units, two or three, in blitzkrieg fashion, with crooked left arms clasping six or seven well fashioned snowballs tight to our bodies and with a half dozen more in our pockets.

At this point our gloves would have been long since soaked and discarded, and we would be fighting with bare hands and refrained from actually holding the ammunition in our fingers until the very last instant so as to preserve whatever warmth we had left within us. If the enemy was smart, they were prepared, and with our approach, some reserve unit would arise from a hidden bunker and pummel us with their own munitions. If we were lucky, we might make it to the crest of the enemy’s own ramparts and be able to fire down on the unready at close range.

That day, with better fortifications and ample ammunition, the engagements went far beyond the fall of night. Streetlight blazed silvering onto snow trodden into rough ridges and lumps. I was so tired by then, I simply lay against the backside of my own wall of defense, fashioning snowballs one at a time and lobbing them over my shoulders, indiscriminately. Half the army had deserted—gone home to dinners and warmth. Those who stayed were determined to be the last and thus the ‘winners.’

Of itself, that is one of the great moments of childhood. The moment of total exhaustion from having played yourself out. Laying back in the shadows, comforted by the enveloping snow which is, oddly then, no longer cold, with the night sky darkly gleaming of twilight above. I remember remembering that moment again and again very fondly, if for no other reason than what came next.

That’s when my brother arrived. Eddy had been sent by my mother to get me. I refused to go. And he was not about to take ‘no’ for an answer. I threw my best reserve of snowballs directly into his attack. He repelled every feeble toss with a fresh-armed flick of a wrist or hand. Then he grabbed me at the waist, like a lineman on a quarterback, and lifted me into the air and over his shoulder, my legs flailing, while I beat on the thick of his coat at the rear with one hand and grasped hold of my falling glasses with the other.

Though little more than a year older, he outweighed me then by at least thirty pounds of muscle, and carried me all the way home in that fashion. Ignobly. Half a dozen or so of the others followed his progress, with friends taunting him, enemies taunting me. I was humiliated and too exhausted to resist with much more that expletives.

(An interesting side note to this is the scene in the Quiet Man when John Wayne carries Maureen O’Hara home from a confrontation with her brother. There is some resonance to it for me because Maureen O’Hara, always a red-headed favorite of mine, is also in the movie they made of The Battle of Villa Fiorita. But the book of that is far better.)

However, to fully appreciate the hyperbole I am capable of, you should note that it was this scene that I recreated a bit more dramatically in The Wilderness, twenty years later.

If you missed it (as too many did), that Civil War tale, re-told in letters, involved a Sergeant Michael Harris of the then much diminished 69th Regiment, first known as the “Irish” at that time for the large number of immigrants in the ranks. Many of these men were escaping the famines, and found their allegiances according to the harbors where their ships had anchored. Yet others had left Ireland for the conflict at the behest of the Fenian Brotherhood, in order to learn how to be soldiers so that they might return to fight for their own independence, and this was the case with Private James Harris.

The 69th had been decimated again and again from Antietam in 1862, right up to those confused confrontations in ‘The Wilderness,’ during the approaches to Richmond of 1864. After a day of close fought skirmishes, Sergeant Mike, a fine shot, is sent back out to the battlefield at dusk to ‘shoot horses,’ a euphemism for the elimination of enemy stragglers (and potential snipers), as well as those Confederate wounded who were dying but could not be taken in to the overwhelmed medical facilities, and to secure the identities of those Union dead who had fallen amidst the ‘thickets of pine scrub, oak and cedar,’ as one participant described it.

There, at last, having previously obeyed the pleas of their mother to find her youngest son, and after three years of searching from the streets of Cork and the alleys of New York to the bloody fence rows of Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, the Sergeant finds his own brother among the Confederate dead and wounded. The younger Harris lay there beneath a Union soldier who had fired his weapon too late when James, out of ammunition, had brought his bayonet to bear.

 

Seeing the wide eyed and familiar stare of that white face in the gloom, Sergeant Harris pulled the other soldier’s corpse away from his brother’s embrace.

            “Are you dead?”

            Pale lips moved a whispered voice, “Not yet, I think. Are you the angel? You look like my brother.”

            “Ha! Mommie has sent me to bring you home. She won’t be wanting you cold.”

            James squinted with uncertainty, “It’s an odd dream to be having at the last then. I thought I’d be seeing sweet Connie now.”

            “Too late! She’s married the Daugherty lad. They’ve two kids already. You won’t be seeing much of her again, I think.”

            “That’s you then! I can tell it by your mocking. But is that all the news there is? All there is of the life of me? Just a mistake?”

            “No. God doesn’t make mistakes, I’m told. And you’ve more and better blood in you than that! If I can get your body to a nurse, you’ll be taking that furrow of bone and flesh I see on your head along with you as a scar of salvation and you’ll be a hero from here on out. But listen my boy, say you can’t recall your name. Tell them you’ve lost all recollection. Just don’t do any remembering to the doctors about who it is you are, at least until after the muster.”

            “Is my cause lost then?”

            “No. No, James. You can return if you want to Irish soil and die there instead, if that’s your wish. If that’s your choice. But now, let me take those greys off you and put on the blue of this fella you’ve killed. He needs them less.”

 

Arguing with his brother as he was carried like a sack of potatoes back through Union lines, James lost consciousness and later did not need to feign memory loss, as those who did read that novel would know. And it was Michael who returned home to fight in his brother’s stead for the Irish cause. But James remained in America, changed his name to McGuire, fell hopelessly in love with a Massachusetts girl, and never returned to take part in the Irish Rebellion for which he had trained, nor to see his Mommie again.

 

 

 

 

  1. Zeph and the Gumm

 

 

As I’ve said, I have little of my writing from the years before leaving home. I believe one of my first attempts at a ‘story’ involved Charley Storrs, but that memory is vague. I am certain, however, that I wrote down some of what I knew concerning my friend Zeph. That too is lost, though I re-wrote it just a few years later and that is the version I still have.

Zeph Thomas and I were never friends, as in buddies, but closer than that, being nearly brothers in the manner of neighborhoods of that time. Zeph’s family lived in a near identical triple-decker on 5th Street and our back doors were umbilically connected by the twists and turns of obstructions in the alley that was as much the thoroughfare of our young lives as the streets—more so for the privacy those narrower precincts allowed (I learned far more of life amidst the Technicolor garbage and trash that was barreled back there in heavy galvanized metal than from the thick color-separated pages of the textbooks at school).

From the time that I could walk and first struck out on my own to see the world (perhaps three years old), until Zeph’s family moved off to Quincy when I was eleven, I would wander into his home at will and witness there the struggles of another nearly identical and small but dynamic universe that wonderfully paralleled the family unit I knew best. The arguing of his parents was as normal to me as what I witnessed most evenings on 6th Street. The packages and containers of food in their cupboards mirrored those in my own kitchen. For a time, early on, before he started losing weight and had lost a couple years of growing, we wore the same clothes and often ended up a day having somehow exchanged a sock or a shirt.

Zeph’s struggles with his health were the cruel reality of a life that must be confronted and overcome or else abandoned. What influence does such an awareness play on the mind of a child? Certainly it changed him, but finally it altered us both, I think. And on the brighter side, being a constant witness in their home to his older sister’s frequent nakedness, teasing my still undeveloped glands, girls were to later offer me fewer physical surprises even as I had gained a clearer prospect of the future potential pleasures.

The most common threads to knit this experience were the television shows we all watched. I will avoid the dumb nostalgia of recalling the content of the shows themselves. They are as ubiquitous on the internet today as the movies which were then already mesmerizing my brains. More specifically, I am not sure any one of them was particularly valuable, no matter our enthusiasms of the moment. The true importance was in the accumulated impact of them all, I think. At least, until The Twilight Zone entered our lives in 1959. Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, Howdy Doody, Milton Berle, Jack Benny, Davy Crockett, Have Gun Will Travel, Gunsmoke, Maverick all had their agglomerated impact in the fact that we had each, while nestled in our separate homes, seen the same imagery, day upon day, and afterward traded in their riffs and skits when we were together as if they were all a part of one continuous everyman play. Ironically, it was the surrealism of The Twilight Zone that first confronted our young minds with the unreality of all the others. At least in my own case and, I believe, in Zeph’s as well.

His father worked at The Boston Gear Works on Hancock Street in Quincy as relentlessly as my own father then attended to services for the public mails at the United States Postal facility on South Street. Both of them would be at home on Saturday and Sunday, so that any fun to be had in life was left to the weekdays, often at the expense of school when necessary, which was always. But in the summers, our spirits were as free as our bodies for five days of the week. Excepting, of course, for that period when Zeph was incarcerated at the children’s facility at the Quincy Hospital and preparing to die from chronic nephritis, and the year afterward when he didn’t, but was still made to stay indoors.

Zeph’s kidneys failed him at a time when there was no alternative treatment for that disease other than prayer. Because I could not visit him at the hospital, I visited his sister, Linda, instead, and was then told whatever it was she had heard through her parents’ conversation. Much of it was whispered in low tones across a kitchen table on milky breath. She seemed in need of someone to tell of her fears. I was a foot shorter than Linda and barely eight years old, but I had a child’s crush on her, and had nothing else to do but listen.

I also wrote Zeph letters which I am quite happy not to have today. These were mostly filled with recountings of the many episodes of the television shows he was missing. At the start, the recapitulations were related in a vocabulary that was then below my grade level, this being years before I owned my first dictionary. The letters were carried to the hospital by Linda, who was permitted to stare at her brother through a glass window into the children’s ward before returning with whatever answers Zeph had managed to produce for me, the most of which I had so much difficulty deciphering that I needed Linda to read them aloud to me. Importantly, those short sentences were always illustrated by elaborate drawings done in crayon and were often his re-imaginings of the plot lines that I had sent him the week before.

I believe this process was what opened some secret passageway for both of us to the telling of stories later on. I was just then about to discover the wonders of the Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s as a consequence of my job sweeping at Tim’s barbershop and soon afterward Zeph had been assigned a home tutor by the school on his return from the hospital. By 1955 we were both somewhere above the ranks of our classmates in matters concerning the use of the English language, as well as in the frequent abuse of a fair assortment of the swear words we had cherry-picked from adult conversation (but never ventured the use of around the adults themselves). Zeph took his fabulations further in the direction of illustration. I continued to supply the stories.

I have only one of those stories now, staple-bound in a stiff blue construction paper common to that distant time. My mother had saved it and later inserted it in the shelves downstairs along with those of my published books which I had sent to her through the years.

I had it in my hand just now.

The basic tale is not my own. It’s Zeph’s story, retold by me, with his illustrations. Sadly, it could never be intelligibly reprinted as it was, nor could the uneven crayon illustration be reproduced, but it was this same story which I first attempted to rewrite for the stage a dozen years later as The Matthew St. Passion.

The thing that had caught my interest in Zeph’s account was the matter of original sin. I had not then, nor have I ever since, believed in such a thing, or that any God worthy of the name would plague his creations with an affliction for no other purpose than torment and redemption through obeisance. Catholicism is riddled with such memes, cloaked as ‘mysteries,’ conjured to keep the faithful in line while afraid for their own salvation. How dare they live with any bliss other than what might be dispensed by subjugating themselves to the will of the Church. And yet, every Catholic I know would object to this construing. But I don’t argue the case. I was simply taken with the thought of children in a ward where death was a constant presence. What might be ‘sin’ to them?

The play was never actually produced because the casting of young children was too great a challenge and the subject matter too dark, so I rewrote it once again as a short novel and that was published in an anthology which sold poorly as anthologies are likely to do, so I’ll give you one portion of it here, just for the weight of it, balanced against what humor I perceive in the universe.

(I should also note for those unfamiliar with the territory, that Matthew Street is a series of vacant lots now of debris and piles of brown road salt close by the old B & M tracks through Quincy, but then it was a neat double-file of triple-deckers. The old Catholic hospital there is long gone as well—replaced by a parking lot for a platform stop on the MBTA Red Line).

 

Nurse Gumm sat at her small desk by the double doors. Her eyes were apparently closed and because there was yet insufficient light from the street window at the other end of the ward, there was not the advantage of that slight glint from the reptilian parting of the eyelids which would warn him if she were taking notice. Zeph, his bed closer to the desk, remained still, while each thin blanket in the other beds—nine at either side of the half dark room—moved almost continuously with squirming beneath, the surface shapes altering with a knee rising here, or an arm reaching toward an itch there, the pump of a torso flexing with a cough, or the pale peeking of a face from the white edge of a sheet. Because the children in the ward could not be sure if Nurse Gumm was awake or asleep, they tried to move in slow motion, as if that more deliberate effort would be less detectible.

            Each bed was gated at both sides and, while lying flat between, these low metal fences could easily be imagined by the children as walls and the pretended seclusion they offered as being real. The younger children, the six-year-olds, were more likely to accept this as fact. The older children pushed the thin blanket higher on the side toward Nurse Gumm and attempted to gain some greater privacy in that way.

            Most of the children had been awake for the last hour. But there was no clock. There was one disk high on the wall in the room beyond, and this might be seen briefly during the day, as the double doors opened and closed. It was believed that a clock would make the children’s time in the ward drag. So all day long the nuns and the nurses looked at the watches on their wrists in a continuing reflex motion, adding to the twitch of all human activity there.

            Half of the lights in the ward had been switched off by Sister Sarah at eight o’clock the night before, casting an amber gloom over the entire room and establishing the beginning of ‘night’, and then half the lights remaining were cut off at nine, leaving the ward in a semi-darkness that appeared dark to unaccustomed eyes. By 5:30, when Nurse Gumm arrived, as she always did, precisely, and took the empty seat that was occupied by Sister Sarah in the afternoons and evenings, many of the children had slept well more than eight hours. At least those had done who could sleep at all. But this was Saturday, and most all of them were already awake with anticipation.

            As she always did, no matter the day, Nurse Gumm immediately set out a paper bag onto that clean beige colored plastic surface of the desk, and then beside it an empty coffee mug. The bag contained her lunch, a white bread sandwich filled with cheese, and a banana still green at the ends. Arranged, she would immediately fill the mug from her thermos before taking exactly three sips, and finally fold her pink hands atop the desk and await the six o’clock bell. For every child in the ward, that half-hour interval following Nurse Gumm’s arrival was the longest wait of the day. Those children who had an urgency to pee and not catheter, felt the burn of it. The accumulated phlegm of the night hours choked at their throats. Most of the furtive eyes behind the side rails darted again and again to the large bright window beside the double doors.

            When the ‘morning nuns’ arrived, the first sign of them was the quick look into the ward from that window. Moments afterward, simultaneously with the scream of the bell and a ‘thunk’ of the double doors forced open abruptly by wide hips, the bedpans would be brought in, and the rolled lengths of plastic tubing, and the towels, and white enamel trays with the small pointed razors laid out in neat rows atop a blue paper mat and the glass vials for taking blood arranged with the names already affixed. The squeals and moans would rise then in the air to an aria of pain and the anguished squirming beneath the thin white cotton blankets would become, as Zeph imagined it, like the twitch of maggots in the gaping wound of a dead cat beside the road—just like the one he had seen in a gutter on 5th Street—while the black and white habited nuns scurried from bedside to bedside, and Nurse Gumm patrolled the center corridor between the beds with her hands now folded as neatly behind her on the mantle of her large rump as they had previous rested on the desk.

            This morning, as Zeph balanced high atop the bed pan and relieved himself joyously while holding tight to the cool metal gate at either side—so proud now that his own catheter had been removed—he looked over at the small paper bag of Nurse Gumm’s lunch and to the mug close beside it and began to plot what he would find a way to do some day soon. What he had in fact done, one day. Amidst the bustle and hurry and shush of the nun’s in their habits, and the cries and screams of those who were having tubes replaced or removed, and the anxious dancing of the others on their beds as they awaited the razored prick of another finger on their already bandaged hands, Zeph would one day slide off unseen and deposit two or three lumps of hard shit in that paper bag and pee into that mug.

 

It was some years later, before I had first discovered Flannery O’Connor and her more blunt means of addressing such matters, when I attempted that early version of The Matthew St. Passion. My most significant literary influences then were Rafael Sabatini and C.S. Forester, and I was very self-conscious about presenting a context which I knew would be seen as religious. Miracles are often misunderstood as being encumbered in that way. But film had already given me some vocabulary for such things. I might not have the advantage of ethereal music, but I could conjure a blinding light well enough in a few words. Fortunately, I got the idea for the story down on paper when it was still raw to my senses, and before I could become too self-conscious about certain things, like grammar or blasphemy, so that when I later addressed the subject again, I was somewhat better prepared to take and deal with the consequences.

 

Two beds away from Zeph’s, across the thin and always prone body of Andy Dougherty, who had a spine which had never properly formed though he could use his arms and hands in extraordinary ways against his mouth to express himself with original sounds, and beyond a girl named Angela, who was always pale and fragile from suffering some sort of sepsis which went unrelieved by weekly transfusions until the day she was wheeled away with eyes open in terror never to be seen again, there was another girl named Barbara Leigh. This girl was red-headed and had been allowed to keep her hair long and fastened in pigtails for mysterious reasons which probably had to do with some parental edict overruling the usual processing whereby every girl’s hair was cut as high as the nap of her neck and boys all wore crew cuts.

            This Barbara was also freckled faced, not in the delicate manner of white bread advertisements, but so thickly that at any distance she appeared to have a dark complexion. She too had a kidney problem, and because, at eleven, she was the oldest in the ward, she was looked up to, both physically and morally, in every crisis by all the other children there but most particularly by Zeph. Zeph had no fear of older girls. His sister had trained him well enough for that. But Barbara put him in awe. He could not take his eyes off of her. Even in the plain pink-and-white striped gown all the girls wore, she appeared to have a body dangerously close to that of a woman. And Zeph knew this better for a fact because he had looked very carefully when she had raised her gown to show him the stitches where they had removed one kidney.

 

In my own mind, of course, I had cast Zeph’s older sister Linda in the role of Barbara. I had never met the real Barbara and had no other idea about her than Zeph’s own descriptions, which were drawn in crayon and impressive for being explicit more than anatomically correct.

 

In the place of wheelchairs, as an eccentricity that was part of the advertisement for the hospital being a unique institution for children, every patient was assigned what appeared to be more of a small wooden wagon. Each of these devices, shellacked to a nut brown, had a high back to contain a pillow and low wooden slatted sides in imitation of the larger beds, as well as oversized wheels rimmed in hard red rubber that could be turned by the pressure of a single hand. All of these had been donated by Paine Furniture Company and were emblazed with their logo on both sides. Lined up in the hall with the children waiting impatiently to be pulled away to the TV room, the repetition of the benefactor’s name offered an odd statement of fact.

Every Saturday, a day of nearly religious significance to some of the children as well as the staff, they were each helped into a separate wagon by the nuns. Despite the lingering odors, and because their own families came to see them on Saturdays, the nunss were especially smelling of fresh body powder that day and wearing newly ironed habits with the fabric stiff with starch that ‘shooshed’ as they wheeled all of the children in the ward along a hall to the largest of the rooms, the one containing a television, where they could watch the morning shows.

            The ceremony was conducted just after the letting of blood and urine, and the breakfast (which was for most of them a grey paste of oatmeal and a small paper cup of thin milk, along with a triangular piece of toast dabbed with red jelly, but this was nonetheless a great improvement over the apple cider and stale graham cracker they got at lunch), and the nuns would hurry again after that meal to remove the trays, and the stiff fabric of the starched habits would make the sound of ‘sush, sush, sush’ as they moved even faster to get the job done and every one of the children in the ward arose then en masse, as if in rebellion against being told to be quiet, and pounded hands against the low metal gates of their beds to make a racket, and some danced crazily on the beds, hard enough to make the springs speak like the mattresses of their parents in the night. They would all then wave their arms and hands, and chant in unison for the wagons until they were each wheeled into the wide hall before being taken off to the television room one by one, and the only thing that could be heard in the silence afterward was the voice of Mel Blanc and then the uncontrolled laugher echoing out.

            It was in the semi-darkness at the back of the television room, where the blinds were closed so that they could better see the grey imaginings of Chuck Jones or Tex Avery, and while all the others were more intent on the flicker of Bugs Bunny, that Barbara had raised her gown for Zeph to see the stitches where her lost kidney had been. The threads there were as large and black as the sewing on a canvas bag but these were fastened on a purpled storm of swollen flesh, an ancient looking apple-sized glob at the side of a body that was pink and new and hardly freckled at all.

            Zeph whispered a joke. It was a crude joke about girl’s anatomy and cross-eyed doctors and misplaced stitches. It was the quality of humor that he knew best from hanging out in the boys’ section at the L-Street Bathhouse. But it was most appropriate to this time and place. Certainly Barbara knew she was revealing her nakedness to a boy. She must have even hoped for some response. And Zeph, for his part, did the gentleman’s thing and had made a joke of it. Barbara had laughed. Encouraged, Zeph made another joke, cruder still, and she had laughed harder, the sound of it absorbed by the other laugher in the room as Elmer J. Fudd attempted to shoot the cunning Bugs right there in his rabbit hole with a shotgun. And then, over the raucous response, as Elmer blinked away the black soot of the backfire, Barbara had screamed.

            Stitches had broken loose from on side of the incision and a gray pus of infection spilled out and an awful odor had welled up between them and her face had whitened as if she had no freckles at all.

            All of a sudden then, Nurse Gumm had appeared, pushing Zeph’s wagon aside, and Barbara was pulled away, put in an ambulance just below the windows at the end of the ward, and taken to another hospital.

In spite of Zeph’s questions, she was never spoken of again.

 

That story has something of a happy ending. The real Barbara had not died. She had lived to sin again. Perhaps it was even the joke that had saved her—a joke which had revealed the inner putrefaction that lurked within.

The metaphor in the piercing of inner infections worked well with much of what I thought I was now about in my life. It worked in my favor for a time. And to give you some idea of how Zeph Thomas got along in life, you have to understand that for some years before he became better known as an illustrator and book-cover artist, and during those rough times of forced busing in South Boston, he perversely benefitted. Many people who saw his name on a roster of available talent, before meeting him, thought he was black, but only because of his uncommon name. He told me the art directors were often surprised when he showed up for an assignment. But Zeph was as cursedly Irish as I was—that is, by half, though his other part was Puritan English, so he never benefited as I did by the alternate idea that everything that isn’t Scottish is shite.

 

 

 

 

  1. The gifts of Surcease and sorrow

 

 

When I think of Christmas, I most often think of Surcease Sullivan. That cause is a little more difficult to explain.

As it was in every house I knew of then, Christmas was the high point of the year. As well as the ultimate dirty trick. A rising wave of expectation that fooled us annually, deluding us with the narcotic of our own greed to a peak delirium before dashing us on the cold rocks of January.

I have always judged the quality of that annual event as BG and AG, and let the coming of Christ be more properly accounted for by others. BG, my Christmas gifts were things which were totally useless to me, or even detrimental to my health (with the small exception of various articles of clothing which my mother had purchased while working her seasonal job at Jordan Marsh). AG, awakened to the first mysteries of life, I was forever after enchanted by its many wonders, no matter the size. BG, the key event of the season was to be taken downtown (which was in truth kinda fabulous for what else I glimpsed in passing and for the warm blueberry muffins with the hard crust of sugar on top to be had and which I still miss) and force-marched through the Jordan Marsh Christmas Village, where the meaning of the holiday had been translated to the stiff likenesses of wooden figures in displays where the eyes never seemed to meet, and to there endure a near encounter, while waiting in line, of a glassy-eyed Santa amidst the crying of other children and the swatting of mothers who had previously spent their last ounce of patience from a limited budget. AG, this holiday free from the punishments of school was abused by plotting impossible future escapes and thinking deeply about those things that were most forbidden. BG, before glasses, the world was a kaleidoscope with no focus. AG, after glasses, “I seen my opportunities and I took ‘em,” as the bank robber said—at least in my own mind.

For instance, BG, the usual Christmas gift was something like the pair of gleaming new hockey skates I received one year. These were a near perfect sculpting of maroon and black leather set above the curving of steel blades. I easily imagined them as the footwear of Norse gods who soared on icy skies. The leather smelled of . . . leather. An odor which had long since been perfected to increase the flow of hormones in youth and stir the loins. I set them up on the chest of drawers in my room, and for a week or two, I studied them for the pagan art they were. But then I was made to wear them. To display my inability to balance on the ice, armored in my brother’s old helmet and pads, and to play a game that offered me no chance of winning, where the simplest nudge from an opponent would put me on my ass. That pair of imperfect devices, the leather already scarred from their brief use after having contributed to my ignominy, were then relegated to a closet and forgotten.

AG, I would have had a crisp two-dollar bill in hand, due to the naïve kindness of Grandma MacAleer, and if I waited until Pauley Brown spelled his father at the counter during lunchtime at the 4th Street Spa, I could use it to buy a copy of Playboy magazine—this at a time when the Christmas issue of that once great publication was a thing of magnificent and splendid wonder. I have always thought of Thomas Jefferson and naked ladies in the same frame as a consequence.

 

But a tale that did not have a happy ending and which began before my need for glasses and continued well after that as it has been with me all the years since, making its appearance in half a dozen tales under various guises, is the story of Surcease Sullivan.

The first time I smoked pot I had at least earned it, in a way. We were then all of ten years old and waiting impatiently for our pubic hairs to darken. Zeph Thomas was still the assumed leader of our small gang of five or six. Our numbers then included Pauley Brown, Billy Toomey, Jimmy Green, and Donny Sullivan.

And Zeph was always possessed of the most astounding ideas.

At the time, there was a fat and pimple-faced thug at the high school who sold grass by the nickel bag, but he refused our entreaties because we could not be trusted to keep our mouths shut. As it was, he made it to prison before he might have graduated from the 12th grade, but that is another story. Nonetheless, not being included in his customer base was, to us at least, outrageous.

When summer came, we would often sit on the sand in the shadow of the seawall at the far end of Carson Beach near by the Head House Spa and smoke cigarettes swiped from our parents and complain about our mistreatment while we gazed and appraised over the half-naked bodies of the older girls who used that section to get away from the oversight of the lifeguards at the ‘official’ beach. It was on one of those occasions that we smelled the tinctured aroma of burning pot in the air, a fragrance we were already familiar with from the various nooks and crannies around and about the Dorchester Heights monument immediately behind the high school, and we quickly scrambled to scout out the source.

There was none that we could see. The plump and oiled bodies of a couple of dozen teenage girls, their Irish tans as pink as baby bottoms, were arrayed in the sunlight before us but there was not a sign of smoke other than a few cigarettes. Surcease Sullivan was there too, bursting the frill of fabric on a bikini and with this excuse I took the chance to look at her a little more directly than I usually had the nerve to do. She caught that bit of study and looked directly back at me with a glare, as if I had no right to be interested in the exposed flesh of a fourteen-year-old. We all looked harder then for the source of the illicit aroma, each of us separately prowling amidst the colored towels and the dingy sand, like we were looking for dimes that might have been dropped. All we saw were cigarette butts and bottle caps. Then suddenly Zeph gave a ‘whoop,’ and motioned us back to the shadow of the seawall.

“Look,” was all he said, and we all stared out over the water as he pointed. After about thirty seconds a pale cloud of smoke drifted from one of the sailboats moored in the bay. A green tarp had been fastened up over the empty boom for shade and no one could be seen there, but in the still air of that afternoon, with the boat rocking a bit too much against the tide, the evidence for what they were doing there lingered up around them before catching some invisible drift and wafting toward us on the beach.

The plan was then made in seconds.

We took turns keeping an eye on the craft until sundown, when two men and a woman dragged a bag of Narragansett empties into a dinghy that was tied at the far side, with the clink of the bottles ringing bell-like in the dusk, before they rowed away to the Boston Yacht Club. It was low tide that night. That meant that we could actually walk two-thirds of the distance to the boat in question. And there would be no moon until much later.

This was some years before the harbor was finally cleaned, and at the time, the bottom was a mixture of sand, effluvia, debris, and undigested organic waste that felt like walking on shit, or as we imagined that feeling to be, especially as it squoze up between our toes. We were happy to swim those last yards, just to be free of the dark and sucking touch of it.

Zeph, the thinnest of a thin scraggle of nearly naked boys, went up on the bow using the buoy rope. He pulled me up behind him and we all went in beneath the green tarp. Zeph had the candles and the Zippo. We found the clear plastic bags of pot and the box of rubbers and an unfinished bottle of Jack Daniels in the bulkhead.

All of this, to our ten-year-old minds, was equivalent to a found treasure. Jimmy Green was the brain who cautioned us to simply take it away immediately and not smoke any of it there where we might be caught by the tide, or by the randy owner, returning. And we did that. In fact, there was something so nicely methodical about the business-like business of getting away with the loot that we became giddy without even having smoked our first joint. Pauley Brown had a garage at his house in which his father used to store items for his small convenience store as well as stuff acquired for next to nothing at the postal auctions (Mr. Brown had actually worked at the Post Office with my own father before being fired) and we had long been accustomed to using that place as a perfect ‘hideout’ to smoke cigarettes in bad weather. We carried our loot there, stashed it away in a corner, and went away to our respective homes before midnight.

At this point I would like to report to you that we were found out by Pauley’s father or someone else and punished for our evil deed. But we were not. We smoked the weed over the next few weeks, and learned about the bite of Jack Daniels’ dog, and divvied up the rubbers between us. (I never used mine. By the time I had an opportunity, I was worried they were too old and might break and threw them away. )

I report the former episode simply to establish the time by which I had already taken a fairly open-minded stance to the use of drugs and how this was to affect my opinions on the matter later. Ten is a tender age for assumptions.

My own reaction to pot was akin to my experiments with the rye my father kept in the cupboard. I fell asleep before I could gather enough evidence to write the details down. Afterward, I felt exhausted and was unable to do anything much for days. That one season I must have had the ‘summer flu’ half a dozen times. My mother was suspicious. My father was not. He knew.

Toward the end of August he came into my bedroom one morning and told me, “Time to wake up. You’ve wasted your summer. Now that’s it. Go down to Tim and tell him you’re sorry for missing work again. Then come back and clean up the yard. When you’re done with that, I have some paint you can make good use of. You can see Mr. Zeph and your buddies again when school starts. Not before.”

“I was just sick. Can’t I even be sick?”

“Right. That’s why you’ll be staying home for the next two weeks. You’re going to get over it.”

And that was it. No lecture.

 

There were only a few of us who knew that Surcease Sullivan’s first name was not Circe. She had come up with that alternative name herself while still in grammar school and then proceeded to live up to her assumed identity at every opportunity, but when I first knew her she was still the more precisely alliterative Surcease and the pleasantly chubby red-headed sister of Donny Sullivan, who was a near neighbor on 6th Street. In keeping with that change of name, I know too that she never gave her parents the surcease they might have wanted when she was born in the midst of eight brothers and sisters. I assume her father had never discovered a good use for latex, or else his Catholic faith had made that solution impossible.

Donny was okay. He was a bit quieter than me and I liked him well enough because he would listen to my reveries. But it was his sister who attracted me to their house at every opportunity. Though she was four years older, I was well aware of the physical changes that were taking place in front of my eyes.

Donny and I were on the same Little League team. He could hit and I could run and between us we made one good utility player. Donny introduced me to the weird fantasies of Howard Philips Lovecraft and dark heroics of Robert E. Howard. I introduced him to the sea adventures of C.S. Forester and the Roman adventures of Rosemary Sutcliff and later to the derring-do and cloak and dagger of John Buchan. Donny was as chubby before puberty as his sister had been, but afterward he stayed that way, while her body fat rearranged itself. And it was that more visible truth, after Zeph moved away from the neighborhood and Donny’s house became the locus for my daily wanders from home, which brought me there. But knowing his sister was around inspired me more than a need for further literary discussion.

I was thus a witness to a tragedy.

The nineteen-sixties were quite cruel. The rebellion against authority was manifest in a thousand smaller revolutions. Sex and drugs were just the most visible part of that. My father’s realization of my own early profligacies resulted in a clamping down that greatly reduced my field of activities over the next years. I was suddenly not allowed to stay out after dark without a good excuse. Working odd jobs at the barbershop and the grocery became my one easy means to escape home. My television time was cut to an hour or less, depending on the night. Thus I turned more to the pages of the books I had found. And I suspect, given his belief that my reading habits had contributed to my deteriorating vision, that my father might have blamed himself a little for the result. I certainly did.

But the Sullivan home was a different matter. Going over there was an acceptable alternative to hanging around at home, and, unlike Zeph, Donny was known to be fairly square in every visible way. (He was gay, but I don’t think my father had even considered that possibility at the time.) The place was a madhouse. All eight children, born two years apart almost like clockwork, were always in motion at once. The TV blared at all hours. Donny’s mother produced endless loaves of bread at lunch time and the largest jars of peanut butter then commercially available. I never ate dinner there that I can remember, but she had an iron pot on the stove which I was told had stew in it, and that moist smell of cooked celery and carrots and onions permeated everything in the household, year round. Mr. Sullivan worked at the Fore River Shipyard, doing I don’t know what.

Circe would have graduated high school in 1961. But she did not.

He bedroom, on the third floor of their house, was no more than closet beneath the eaves, with a small window. I could see most of that window if I stood on a chair and looked out from my own bedroom between the chimney and the slanting roof at our house. I remember the yellow of it across the night, as a beacon. I can see that same window right this minute, just by standing there, and it tells me I must have been a full foot shorter then than I am now. At least.

I knew it was her window by some investigation, having gone up the backstairs from where Donny shared a bedroom with one of his brothers. My attraction to his sister was that strong. Because she worked afternoons when Donny and I were home from school, I knew she would not be around.

But once, on a raining winter day just before Christmas, with the hall above nearly darkened, I crept up the stairs to look again into that narrow space as I had on several previous occasions. An odd historical curiosity of mind now. I don’t know what I might have been looking for other than just to see her things—magazines on the bed, lipsticks and combs jumbled on a small dresser. A picture of Elvis and another of the Everly Brothers.

On that one day, having peeked around the open doorjamb, the covers beneath the magazines suddenly moved. She sat up.

“What do you want?”

“Nothing.”

“You shouldn’t be up here.”

Through the gloom then I saw that she was completely naked. The surprise froze me in place for an eternal instant.

I said, “Sorry!”

And ran away back down the stairs.

That might have been the longest conversation I ever had with her. The image of her there, the flesh tones alive and warm even amidst the gray of the room, the curves real and three dimensional, moving with a bounce as she reached out and closed her door, was for me a gift of the ages.

 

I first noticed that Circe was missing from the ranks at the Sullivan house sometime in 1964. Prior to that, I think she had been working at a beauty parlor but she was home most afternoons at five, ‘getting her make-up on’ to go out again. She was stunning, with or without makeup. She had her hair long enough then to turn up atop her head in mysterious wends and twirls. Her eyes flashed with a blue that seemed artificial. The line of her bust would have lowered the eyes of any man in the room. She was broad-hipped in a way that made pubescent boys like myself conjure endless pleasures. She seldom spoke to me, which is just as well, because in my experience many women have spoiled that illusion of perfect beauty in just that way.

And in 1965, she was dead. A heroin overdose.

Afterward, the stories about her grew wildly. They said she was pregnant when she died. They said she had become the girlfriend of some South Boston ‘punk hood’ (a redundancy in those days when most South Boston hoods did not live long enough to be much more than punks). But I don’t know any of that for a fact.

What I do know is that Donny had previously given her his share of the pot we had stolen from that sailboat. As a Christmas gift, he said, but only in a mumbled excuse for not using it himself, I think. He was always after that regretting any part he might have played. I told him he was wrong to think like that, but I have always and after believed in consequences.

 

 

 

 

  1. Watson and the Shark

 

 

Watson is a magical name. ‘Watson, come here,’ was clearly said by Bell. ‘Elementary, my dear Watson,’ is an answer known too well. And then there’s the Watson of IBM, and the Watson of DNA.”

 

But for me, there is even more wizardry than that!

Years before his invention, I was managing the fears I had for my own fate with the philosophies of Mr. Billington. A character apart. My own Montaigne. Always ready with the advice I needed to obtain. And always wise, even when he withheld his truths from me so that I might have the pleasure of discovering them for myself.

As I say, this all began before I knew the man.

Considering everything that happened to me in 1961, the most important thing of all occurred at the Museum of Fine Arts during a classroom expedition. And that was because of something that happened to a cabin boy who had foolishly gone for a swim in Havana Harbor in 1749.

After glassy-eyed inspection of dozens of portraits of distinguished citizens who appeared to us as dead as the still-life paintings hung between, I was not the only member of my class that stopped cold and stared, as Miss Rule (this truly was her name) read from the entry in her pamphlet about a larger John Singleton Copley canvas called Watson and the Shark. The subject alone was arresting, and made cinematic by the size of the canvas. The pale naked body of a young man, foundering on his back, his long blond hair loose in the green waters, was about to be swallowed head first into the open maw of a great shark.

But the parts of the composition begged to be studied. Above the rising shark, and the victim, a small open boat with nine people has arrived. Two of them, in the baggy white shirts of sailors of that time, are reaching for the flailing arm of the unfortunate swimmer. One is standing with his foot braced on the bulwark of the bow, grasping the pole of a grappling hook and about to plunge it into the beast. Three, seated at the center of the dinghy and another at the very fore, are attempting to row. A stout man is holding fast to the shirt of one of the two who are reaching out, and another figure is standing high to the other side, at the back of the action, observing and gesturing. Behind them on the raised horizon-line is an expanse of Havana harbor with ships at anchor. In the dark waters between, the wing of a seabird suggests another guest is coming to the feast.

But our eyes that day were quickly drawn back to the gasping young Mr. Watson, and the small teeth of the shark with its beady eye turned toward him, then to the urgently extended fingers of the two pairs of reaching hands, and up again to the determined face of the fellow on the right, jaw clenched, and hair already flying back from his thrust with that grappling hook aimed harpoon-like down at the shark’s back. We pause longer on that, wondering if his strike will be true, or even enough. And then look behind him to the standing observer, a black man in a cream color frock coat, and on down once more to the two rowing sailors at the center of the boat, their backs to the scene, faces turned round to us but blank and trying to see over their own shoulders, perhaps unaware of the ghastliness. (Those two might be twins for the fact that they look so much alike.) The man furthest to the stern in a beige long coat and attempting to help with the rowing, has a look of hopeless concern. The man holding fast to the white shirt of one of the reaching rescuers is older, balding, and perhaps more angry than afraid. The single rower who is sitting well into the bow on the right is almost hidden beneath the legs of the man with the grappling hook. Uncomfortably so.

The first reading of the painting in the eyes of a fourteen-year-old is one of a moment of adventure and peril. The scene is dynamic, with all of the action fashioned into a pyramid, the focal center at the top on the calm face of the black man balanced against the fierceness on the lighter face of the man to the right grasping the pole, down to the naked body of the swimmer and the shark at the base. Breathtaking.

But fourteen-year-olds are a critical lot. We are just then reveling in our discoveries of hypocrisy, untruth, lies, and prevarication. We are not so easily persuaded by the subtle artfulness and lies of a painter when what we know is so much larger and fresh in our brains. We want certainty. Veracity. Authenticity.

Grown up in the midst of a harbor we knew that the small boat could not be handled in the way shown and would be unbalanced by the weight of all those inside positioned so far forward, causing the stern to rise high instead. But if the rower in the bow had been moved back, he would have been unseen behind the bodies of others, and thus a lie was told for effect. The dangerous beasts of the earth are a primary focus of any boy and many girls, and we all knew a shark’s eye would not turn forward to see its prey. Another lie. The reflected light upon the seat is untrue and done again for effect.

The painting is still one of my favorites, after more than fifty years. All that caviling has not survived the impact of that first sight, nor the many times I have seen it since, and stopped and stared, and reimagined the moment from my own store of conjured fears and anxious hopes.

I know now that Brook Watson was an only child, had been orphaned at the age of six, and sent from Plymouth, England, to live with his uncle, a trader in Boston, Massachusetts. A mere eight years later he was cabin boy on a merchant ship in the West Indies, and it was there that he encountered the nemesis which would make him famous to other fourteen-year-olds in centuries to come.

But real Mr. Watson was to be renowned in his own right and not only for a happenstance. One day he would be Lord Mayor of London, a Peer, a founding member of Lloyds, and a wealthy merchant. Having returned to Boston at the age of fourteen with only a peg and a single leg to stand upon, he found his uncle bankrupt and unable to support an invalid. Of necessity, that pale and drowning youth would soon be a soldier with a wooden leg.

Those unlikely fortunes of a cabin boy were doubly inspiring to at least one South Boston kid, but not to be a merchant, or a sailor or a soldier, or a Mayor but to be a fabricator of such incident. And there are ironies to that kind of encouragement. The animus which possessed me was to be more like John Singleton Copley than Mr. Watson. To make such moments up in whole cloth from the threads of thought that entertained me. But in words, not in paint like my buddy Zeph.

Mr. Copley had never been to Havana, nor ever seen a shark. He met Brook Watson years later when they were both well-off royalist-American expatriates living in London. He knew the power of chiaroscuro and cadmium yellow but was not familiar enough with boats to know the way they handled. But then, reconjuring that single moment in time, he had caught the imagination of those unforeseen teenagers two centuries later, just long enough in passing to suspend disbelief and allow an escape from the narrower channels of their own lives.

On the bus home from the Museum of Fine Arts that day in 1961 the conversation amongst the gaggle of boys was all about the shark and Watson and not a word about the Rembrandts and Vermeers or the Van Goghs or anything else we had seen (perhaps a few elliptical comments about naked ladies, but nothing more because Miss Rule was there keeping watch). What an accomplishment! How could I want more attention than that?

 

You understand that making Watson the villain of that first published novel in the Mr. Billington series was not done lightly, then. It was simply an irresistible choice. His peg leg bumping on the cobblestones and thumping on the sidewalk boards was too perfect a way to announce the approach of danger. And if my Mr. Billington was to be a spy, he must have a worthy opponent.

Understand, as well, that I have never liked villains who were truly evil. Not that they don’t exist. We have had enough of them. They are perhaps too painful to write about for someone such as myself who has been saved from the realities of their actions by circumstance and thus made only to imagine such beings. A reporter might tally cold facts as an impersonal exercise of historical recreation, but to write creatively about the actual human cost of monsters like Stalin or Mao is debilitating. At least to me it is, though I appreciate the need of survivors such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn or Nien Cheng to exorcise their demons in that way. Let the history be told. But I have never known such misery myself. Perhaps surviving such horrors does make one stronger at the broken places as Mr. Hemingway has said, but if you’ve never had to endure, does it mean you cannot imagine enduring?

I must plead my case as a coward who cringes at the very sight of blood. As a privileged child of better times and places, I am not at all inured to it. I am not benumbed to that level of wickedness which can only depress me with horror. I have lived a fortunate life and never felt the ‘tooth of the wolf.’ My sorrows have always been within the bounds of the banal and the mundane. Thus I must invoke a mere figment of evil, having never seen its face, and this puts me to shame. Better to hide my ignorance beneath a show of the more common depravities, the viciousness of the everyday thug and the ordinary people who compromise themselves for small advantages. Having known such villains enough, I might find the degrees of that degradation more within my own abilities to write about.

Watson is more of this kind. But perhaps worse than your neighbor who cheats on his taxes, he more actively seeks his chances. A hard businessman interested in results rather than means. A canny merchant like his uncle before him, he engages in the triangular trade of his day (in truth, a rectangular trade): sailing from Boston on the great current to England with furs and tobacco and rum to exchange for gold and silver, and from there south with the winds to Africa to buy slaves, thence west to the Indies to sell the slaves for sugar, and again north on the currents to the Carolinas and Boston to turn the sugar to rum and load once more with furs and tobacco. A rough trade. Much of it evil, but common enough in its time.

The human cost of that business was kept well hidden from those Boston families who benefitted most by it, and few, like Watson, had ever ventured to the sources of the wealth they accumulated. Much as people today ignore the underlying cost of the toys they play with that are made in China. Always better in our own time to vacation in Amalfi than to tour a factory of fourteen-year-old workers in Shenzhen or Suzhou.

But, of course, you understand, we are much better people now than they were then. Right?

And this is the Watson I chose as my villain. Appreciative of his privileges, he is loyal to his King, and happy to inform the authorities about those in Boston who are fomenting rebellion. He has, in fact, set his eye on one in particular, a bookseller who, despite modest circumstances, receives regular shipments of books from all ports and appears to ship more than he receives. And yet, Watson’s secret inspections of the parcels bound for England on his own ships have turned up nothing.

Watson pays regular visits to Mr. Billington, inquiring after this or that. The bookseller is garrulous but never careless. Though the blackguards Dr. Warren and the metalsmith Revere frequent the premises, Billington appears too innocent of their conspiracies. And the loyalist spy Dr. Church has already passed the information on that Billington is not a member of that clan of snakes, ‘The Sons of Liberty.’ But that means little to such a wicked conspiracy.

And that’s the sort of contest I can better handle.

My Billington has already survived worse trials with the loss of the woman he loved, and, along with her, his best friend. His family history may make him suspect to some, as well as a previous charge of murder brought against him. But also, for his own part, he has always been wary of joining with others. He hasn’t his childhood hero, Ben Franklin’s, natural friendliness, or the ability to affect that, so he has turned to the written word and the humor to be found in the commonplace. Bent on discerning the truth in things present and past, he has become something of a detective as well as an aphorist.

But perhaps one scene in the shop would do to explain, as Revere gives the very book to Billington that is to be shipped to their agent in England and used to reveal the secret cipher devised by Franklin and used between the rebels for the next months. It is in a volume chosen precisely because it was uncommon yet plain in appearance, and Dr. Warren’s corresponding copy was now safely put aside:

 

Revere extended the psalm book to Billington in exchange for the penny that was their agreed code of acceptance, but stopped his hand midway, his eyes fixed suddenly on some mid-distance between them. Billington listened. The distant thumping against the boards fronting the near shops was enough caution, but the arrogant gait of it was the signature.

Billington moved to raise the bar on the side door. This way. You won’t have to deal with him if you go by the canal path by the mill.”

Good!”

Revere raised his hat an inch in salute and went out the door without hesitation.

The thumping having grown louder, it now broke cadence suddenly as the walker came to the alley at the far side and then, with the ditch straddled, he began a quick crossing of the cobblestones, the iron cap on the hickory peg strapped to the stump of his left leg sounding more as if a hammer were striking a two-penny nail, right up to the bookshop door.

The hesitation was brief, as if the man was listening for other sounds before door opened abruptly behind a muscled hand. Mr. Watson ducked through the jamb and raised his hat immediately.

Good day, Mr. Billington! Has my book come?”

The thick blond hair on Brook Watson’s head was fastened back in a bulbous queue and tied with a string of leather, not loose or fastened by a ribbon in the latest style. He was not a vain man, as he could be, given his success. His shoulders were half again wider than Billington’s and there was no stomach pressing at the buttons of his vest. He stood there with legs apart as if the floor might shift and heave with the swell of an ocean beneath. His eyes were a cold winter blue and could chill whomever they set upon if he were in the mood.

Billington forced a smile against that. No sir. As I said before, likely a week or more.”

Watson waved dismissively into the air with his hand. You could have sent to London in the time I’ve waited!”

The roads are dry but New York book dealers dislike catering to the Boston tastes. Perhaps you are correct and I should have sent elsewhere. But it is done.”

What else might you have instead for me to read?”

Ah, well! The new pamphlet from Samuel Johnson is in. Right off yesterday’s boat, it is. An exhortation to the electors of Britain to fulfill their inheritance I believe, but I haven’t read it so I may not comment.”

Fresh snake oil! Good! I’ll have that then for my wait . . . And what’s this?”

Watson’s hand dropped down to the table where Revere had left the slim volume he had delivered.

Billington responded too quickly. Nothing. Just a book of psalms.”

It’s old, I think!”

Billington attempted to recover a calmer tone in his voice. Done before either of us were born. In 1640 I believe. By Mr. Daye, in Cambridge then.”

Watson leafed the pages.

Those fellows were a religious lot, were they not?”

Very.”

Said their prayers at every turn.”

There was cynicism in the merchant’s voice.

Billington averred. Perhaps they had reason. But they had work to do. The prayers were salve for the blisters.”

Watson smiled.

Better to sell books then, I think, or to manage trade from a desk, perhaps, like the two of us.”

You’ve done more in your life than that, I believe.”

A little. But it’s only the command of a desk I hold now.”

Billington offered a skeptical smile, appropriate to such false modesty. But one with drawers as deep as Guinea and China, I hear. You travel in your head each day more far than the most venturous of men.”

Watson’s bushy eyebrows arose in revelation. That is an insight you have on me then!” But there was concern on the man’s face as well, possibly over being understood in ways he would prefer to keep to himself. Wrap the Johnson then and I’ll be on my way. And this . . .” He raised the psalm book into the air. Perhaps a prayer will help me through these trying times.”

Billington was caught for an excuse. I don’t think—“

Watson turned half away, uninterested in any refusal. Reminds me, I need a bell repaired for the Montherlant. You haven’t seen that fellow Revere today? His shop is closed.”

Billington wondered what the man might have seen. Had he followed Revere on the street?

As a matter of fact, he was just here! Rushed away saying he was late for something.”

Ah. Timing is everything, you know.” Watson paused, But given enough time, everything can be yours,” and laughed this as if at a hidden joke.

Suddenly, the side door opened and Revere stuck his broad head back in. His eyes immediately seized upon the Psalm book still in Watson’s hand.

Ah! Just the matter! I knew I’d left something behind!”

Revere doffed his hat to them both as he entered and reached for the book.

Watson pulled it back from the extended fingers. I was just about to purchase this. But it’s good that you’ve come back. I need a ship’s bell repaired.”

Revere nodded and smiled as he might to any unwanted customer.

Yes. Well, the bell is an easier matter. Leave it by at the shop and I’ll take care of it myself, though I am thoroughly tired of bells. To my alarm, I hear them now in my sleep. We have just completed the casting of three church bells in a row and testing them is the worse part of that, I’ll tell you—one bit of foam in the molten mix and the whole work is wasted. But the book, that I must have. It was my mother’s and I was only just here asking if Mr. Billington had another to give my son, because one of my daughters has already laid her hands on this one.”

Watson’s frown turned the ends of his thick brows high. It is yours, then?”

Yes. Look. My mother’s name is at the back of the title page. Deborah.”

Mr. Billington nodded, And I was about to say, that it was not my book to sell.”

Watson turned the first pages, holding them at arms length to read the name inscribed. He said, Ah well,” as he paged the remainder a moment more as if looking for something in the margins. I suppose I have these prayers in some other book on my shelves already . . . Here it is.”

He handed it over to metal-smith.

Revere, I’ll have your ship’s bell whenever you’re ready,” doffed his hat in thanks and quickly went out the door again.

 

I greatly enjoyed the construction of my climax in that book, with Mr. Watson playing the shark instead, and Mr. Billington awash in other troubles of his own making, his fate finally in the hands of the recently fallen Dr. Warren and the busy Mr. Revere. But I think I enjoyed most the reaching back into a more innocent moment of my youth, to my old history teacher Mr. Pierce, so late in the game, and Miss Rule, and finding inspiration.

That book sold tolerably well, I suppose.

 

 

 

 

  1. Going Hemingway; a freshet to the sea of memory

 

 

Generally speaking, I have no idea what I was doing as regards the opposite sex prior to turning sixteen. Though acutely aware of them and their shapes and sizes and colors and smells, I think I had been put off by one encounter or another highlighting the fact that I had ‘four-eyes’ and weighed less than a good lobster trap washed up on Carson Beach. Thus my few obsessions with the opposite sex until that time were mostly of an embarrassing nature and since forgotten or appropriately repressed.

Mrs. Pierce, nee Hildred Lawrence, was like many teachers I have known. She had no children of her own. Probably all of thirty-eight years old at the time, she spoke and moved with the enthusiasm of a girl of twenty. She had potato eyes, small and darkly wrinkled and bright green at the center as if a bud of thought were about to sprout, but they were on all sides of her large round head and allowed her to see everything that needed seeing. No chance to get away with a thing.

Those small green eyes were set above broad cheeks that smiled readily, on a face parched by the fluorescent lights to a pale and blemished pink and white. She did not flush at the words and things she saw so much as splotch and stain. She sweated as freely as an athlete and easily darkened whatever fabric she wore. Her hair, thin and already marked by grey the first time I had her for a class, was cut fairly short and curled artificially so that on rainy days, by afternoon, there had been a general collapse of her morning’s artifice and what was left collected around her ears. In unnecessary embarrassment on those moist days, she would often pull her hat on long before it was time to leave. Also, she did not have a bosom which would attract the eye of a sixteen-year-old boy, nor much of a curve that would define her hips.

Yet, when, in June of 1964, she married Jacob Pierce, a history teacher I will mention again in reference to another matter, the whole event shocked us all. What could be the reason? Certainly not sex!

The real problem with that shocking marriage was that half the boys in her Junior English Literature class, including myself, were in love with Miss Lawrence. Clearly this was not a matter of looks so much as personality. She was a sweetheart.

Miss Lawrence’s first passion was hiking, which she did almost every weekend. She had managed to climb each one of the Presidentials in New Hampshire at least once and daily referred to her experiences there to find a bit of juice for the dry text she was made to use in class. Incredibly, at least to the boys, she could shoot a gun, and did. She had shot a deer (more than one) skinned it, and eaten the remains. To this day, she is the only woman I have ever known who happily went hunting.

Most astonishingly, this Bambi slayer and carnivore would say things like, “These are the freshets of the narrative on its way. Without them the story would become stagnant and stale. You have known its course from the start, and its destiny is the sea. These vignettes renew the text. They give that journey the color of life, and make the passage unique.”

If we had been more observant we would have noticed that Mr. Pierce came back to school on Mondays as splotched and mosquito bitten as his future wife. We were all well aware though that her second passion (I suppose, other than Mr. Pierce, but that was beyond our imaginings) was for the creative use of words.

She said, “You will see that Nick Adams does not express his feelings. His emotions are implied by the landscape he observes. I want you to note that Mr. Hemingway breaks all the rules of good writing and then re-makes his own. Rivers are ‘big.’ How big? He leaves that for you to judge.”

I raised my hand and she nodded at me.

I stood, as she required of anyone who wished to speak in her class.

“I don’t see why we should care how big the river is, and the only reason we know it has ‘two hearts’ is because of the title. ‘Nick sat down.’ ‘Nick walked.’ ‘Nick looked.’ ‘Nick watched.’ ‘Nick did not see.’ Nick is a pain. We don’t know who he is. Why should we care anything more about him than that river, unless maybe we’re a trout?”

This was a much-calculated response. I had dreamed it up the night before, reading the assigned text and imagining a way to get Miss Lawrence’s attention.

In that class we had those big Scribner’s paperbacks that would lie out nearly flat on the desks and there was something impressive in the sight of all those books, open to the same passage. From where I stood, they made a complimentary pattern of square white pages aside the winter-white Irish faces (some Polish, some Lithuanian, as I have said) of the other students that were turned to me. And that picture is magnified in mind just now, with Miss Lawrence at the front of it all, elbows bent and fingers clasped just below the negligible swell of her breasts. It was her voice, however, that betrayed her concern, never her face.

“Nick is shell-shocked. He has just returned from the war. The author’s attention to the detail of the trout is part of Nick’s focus, a small grip on the reality of the present, in the midst of a world which has been burned away.”

I objected. “But that’s not part of the story.”

She said, “But it is context.”

I said, “Shouldn’t the context be in the story?”

She sighed. “Not necessarily. You can sit down now, Angus. I’ll try to cover that subject a little more later on.”

This day was a supreme victory. She did indeed cover the subject later, though not to my satisfaction. But I had made her aware of my existence. I had given her reason to believe I had read the assignment and cared about what I read. Crucially, I had diverted her from calling upon me later with some surprise question that I might not have considered well enough in advance or about which I might not have anything intelligible to say. Most importantly, she had taken note of me.

But someone else had as well.

The more subtle attractions of an older woman in that turning year of adolescence were for me soon displaced. My inconstant adult nature had begun to form. I was now to discover that love was not what they said it was.

 

Ernest Hemingway used a shotgun to finish the most important job he thought he’d left unfinished in 1961—at least the last task he knew he could handle when all else was stolen from him. For a man who wrote so neatly, so cleanly, so precisely, he certainly used the wrong tool for this, which shows you, perhaps more than anything else I think, that he was crazy at the time.

I first read about Hemingway’s death in Life magazine, while at Tim’s barbershop. I was just turned fourteen. I remember standing in the midst of the close Saturday crowd on that moist and raining summer day with broom in hand, reading the entire article. The only funny thing about this is that I also remember very well my reaction at the time: I wondered why no one had told me.

Already then I had the man’s picture on the wall in my small third-floor bedroom. He was the writer’s writer and if I wanted to be a man like that, I had to have some icon for the fact. Though I was born the same month as Hemingway, which was also the same month that he died, in truth, I readily admit, that is about as much as we ever had in common.

I stopped wanting to write like Hemingway very early on. Perhaps you noticed.

But that does not entail my regard for him.

Nor does the fact that he stuck his favorite twelve-gauge shotgun in his mouth and blew out the brains that troubled him. It was within his rights to do so. We can only argue whether it was the responsibility of those who cared for him to keep it from happening. Or whether he was mean for having left this mess for his wife Mary to clean up after him. Hindsight certainly offers alternatives.

I have a lot to say about Hemingway, most of which I will keep to myself. For instance, I am well aware that he had survived numerous concussions and this by itself might have caused some sort of dementia. Possibly. Certainly he knew what would be left from his final act for Mary to find, crazy or not, and perhaps this was an act of madness done more in anger at what he realized had actually become of himself. But I will mention a couple of other things I think are worth noting here along the way.

I believe the man was suffering a severe depression due to the effects of hemochromatosis, a hereditary liver disorder common among people of Celtic origin especially, that causes an over supply of iron in the blood, and this then poisons other organs, including the brain. The disease exacerbates liver problems, as well as diabetes, high blood pressure, joint pain, heart disease and, importantly, depression. Though it was not then proved to be genetic, it was known that Hemingway’s father suffered with it, and had also shot himself, as did his grandfather before him. Both his brother and sister committed suicide as well.

The exact effects of the disease may be debated, but one matter cannot be disputed. Blasting the brain with a jolt of electricity will not cure it any better than using lead shot. Because he was acting erratically, the brilliant doctors at the Mayo Clinic administered electroshock therapy to Hemingway as many as 15 times, essentially, in effect, for a liver disorder which had already been diagnosed. And even though they knew about this underlying issue. Or in spite of it. And the doctors did this, twice, within a few months, to a man for whom memory was the most important tool.

No matter what the disorder was, electroshock is a treatment which, along with bloodletting for bad humours, and the administering of Ritalin to ‘hyperactive’ children (i.e., children who are not doing what they are told), lobotomy for adults who are not co-operative, the aborting of inconvenient children, and euthanasia for the unwanted aged, will quite justly be written about in years to come as sad proof of how primitive our society was. (Though, ironically, bloodletting would have been one of the few treatments useful for the effects of hemochromatosis.)

In most important ways, what we think of as the practice of ‘medicine’ today has greatly degenerated from the age of Hippocrates. As an example, here is just a portion of that ancient oath: I will prescribe regimens for the good of my patients according to my ability and my judgment and never do harm to anyone. I will give no deadly medicine to any one if asked, nor suggest any such counsel; and similarly I will not give a woman a pessary to cause an abortion. But I will preserve the purity of my life and my arts. I will not cut for stone, even for patients in whom the disease is manifest; I will leave this operation to be performed by practitioners, specialists in this art. In every house where I come I will enter only for the good of my patients, keeping myself far from all intentional ill-doing and all seduction and especially from the pleasures of love with women or men, be they free or slaves. All that may come to my knowledge in the exercise of my profession or in daily commerce with men, which ought not to be spread abroad, I will keep secret and will never reveal.”

That our technology has permitted us to advance the practice of medicine despite such a failure of philosophy ‘in our time’ speaks well of our creativity, not our morals.

 

The year before I graduated from high school – the same fateful year I had Miss Lawrence as a teacher, and then, chimerically and chameleonlike, transferred my affection from her to Mary Ellen Radziute—I remember reading Hemingway’s memoir of his early years in Paris, A Movable Feast. That book was the last he had finished, written just before his suicide. And one more odd thing happened then: I puzzled for the first time over how he might have felt about what he could not remember—what was forgotten—more than what he was able to recall. What prompted this curiosity in the mind of a raw youth, I have no idea. My few surviving notes don’t say. But that’s a particular cause that I have come to better understand today.

I suppose I am blessed by having kept so many of my own rough scribbles and annotations through the years, that I might now spend more time leafing through unsorted papers and trying to catalog the written piece about a past event more than confronting the truer memory of the happening itself. A true mixed blessing. Better, I think, to re-remember the thing as Mr. Fermor had to do when he wrote A Time For Gifts, whole cloth.

Obviously, if we had computers then, I would have been saved this inconvenience of recollection. But just as often today, on my way through bundles no longer held tight by their desiccated rubber bands, I will see some other pressed rose of a matter, stiffened and browned, loosened petals lacking the lurid color of memory, but still with thorns that hook to the skin of my fingers and I must disengage from that before I continue, or else alter my direction to suit the new priority. Yet to me that engagement often feels as if it is just as well. A proof of my existence—that I am not merely a figment of my own imagination. Or a Flatland figure trapped on the endless journey along a Mobius strip as depicted in an Escher print. Or is that a visual redundancy of some sort?

The writer’s oath, I think, is ‘God dammit,’ much as it is the plumber’s or the auto mechanic’s when leaks persist, thumbs are bruised, or bolt threads ruined. It is a declaration of the injustice and meant to be heard by higher authority. Short and to the point. No apologies. No pledges that might interfere with the creative impulse. No need to worry about the harm done, even perhaps about the harm others might do to you for touching on the truth. (They cut off heads these days for doing that, and in ancient times made hemlock beverages.) Still, there are no promises made. You cannot guarantee to tell the truth you do not know, nor suppose that you might cure the ills of society you have not suffered. Society treasures its ills, anyway, or it would do away with them. It why they like to read about them, and watch them portrayed in movies. Your play as an author is in exposing the carbuncle to view, be it an abscess or a gem. For the interest alone. To do no harm, you would need to avoid exposing the flesh to air or the dome of garnet to light. Both need cutting to be cured or made better. Incision releases the ill humors but might trouble the nose. Facets may release the inprismed light to dazzle the eye.

Enough of that! It is not your curse to suffer. Authors are all masochists. The point is this: it’s a job, like any other. And making more of it is up to the author.

 

 

 

 

  1. Mary Ellen, love is not what they say it is

 

 

I should have married Mary Ellen Radziute. Certainly her father thought so.

Even allowing for my own Dad’s height, her father was, at least to me, enormous. A Lithuanian man, Mr. Radziute had come to America with his parents as a boy but managed to retain a strong accent and a fairly small vocabulary of clipped English words which he had first learned living in an Italian neighborhood and which he spoke quickly in a sort of hatcheting cadence, all of which added to his fearsome image. He was a bricklayer by profession, at least six foot four, broad shouldered, and cast a weather-like shadow wherever he went. Mary Ellen, thankfully, looked more like her mother, tall and green-eyed and nearly blond. (Yes, many of the girls I fell for were green-eyed, you will see.)

She and I had begun secretly dating by October of that junior year. I can’t tell you now how this began, but it was April before I managed the courage to walk her all the way home. Shortly afterward, Mary Ellen told me her father wanted to see me. Someone in the house, probably her mother, had observed me from the window.

This is an event, the memory of which still tightens all the sphincters in my body.

I put on a clean pair of jeans and a new shirt my mother had bought me at Jordan Marsh for Christmas but had remained in the package until that very occasion so that the creases were definitive. The day chosen was a Saturday, a half-day for her father, who would be home from work by the appointed hour. I remember choosing the time myself because the Red Sox would be on and give us a distraction if there was a lag in conversation, if some conversation were required—and Sunday, the alternative, was out of the question. On a Sunday I would have to go to Church with them or stay for the large midday family meal, which I did in fact, happily, on several later occasions.

Mary Ellen should be described.

She was not a beauty then. She was simply pretty. She was smart. And she had early on developed those attributes which a boy of my age felt to be more important than any others. Her ambitions in life, or at least the ones she expressed to me, were fairly straightforward. She wanted a big family. At least as large as her own. She had three brothers and four sisters. These numbers, given my own smaller clan, appeared to me enormous and beyond any reckoning.

Our first date, the autumn before, had been a walk to Sullivan’s for frappes and hamburgers, purposely steering clear of the closer Head House Spa to avoid any comments from friends who were more likely to be hanging around there, and then a slow stroll around Castle Island. We had talked often enough before that, of course. Mostly about a movie or some event of the moment. But that day of our first official date I had waxed on poetically, I thought, about the wonders of New York City, as this was shortly after one of my attempts to run away from home and that first taste of mighty Gotham had already resulted in an altering of my genetic code. Given that Mary Ellen was in Miss Lawrence’s English class with me, I’d already confided to her my desire to be a great and famous novelist. In retrospect, I suppose I did almost all the talking. And for whatever logic that overwhelms the reasoning power of a sixteen-year-old girl’s mind, she listened.

Perhaps that was the cause of first attraction. A girl can predictably capture the ego of any young fellow, along with the id, by simply listening, or appearing to.

I took her to several movies downtown that winter. I kissed her during the first one and cannot to this day recall what the movie was. She was in fact the first girl I had ever kissed outside of family requirements. We had taken to doing quite a lot of kissing by the following spring and that first meeting with her father.

He was sitting on the stoop when we arrived. I could see him all the way from the corner, sitting there, and though I was certain he saw us, he did not turn from his chore of removing the dirt from beneath his fingernails with a short pocketknife.

Their house was not much larger than ours, and connected to another at one side, which they owned but rented out. Indoors our homes matched almost exactly. Even to the picture of John F. Kennedy in the dining room. The biggest difference between the two houses was that her father had encased the entire first floor with a facade of yellow brick. It was most impressive. A veritable castle, I thought.

Mr. Radziute was still in his work clothes when we arrived. He did not offer his hand in greeting.

He looked at his daughter and said, “Mama wants you about something.” And he hiked his thumb toward the door behind him.

Mary Ellen took a large breath and disappeared.

I was still standing on the sidewalk. The jeans were loose enough to hide the shiver of my kneecaps, but I remember having a facial tick that would have suited Humphrey Bogart more than myself.

He said, “Whad’a ya doin’ there?”

I said, “Not much.”

He said, “Nothin’ much? Nothin’ at all. Sit down.”

I said, “Yes, sir.”

I sat on a lower step where there would be some room between us, but sadly, well within the reach of his right arm.

“You like my Mary Ellen?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good. She’s a good girl. She is. B’d I wanna see her stay that way ’til she pick herself a good fella and she wanna get married.”

This statement told me several things, the most important of which was that Mr. Radziute did not yet know the unfortunate truth. Mary Ellen and I had already gone way too far toward the imperatives of wedded bliss.

I said, “Yes, sir.”

“Wad’aya gonna do?”

There were two ways to take this question. One would refer directly back to the unfortunate fact of my premature relations with his daughter. The other, to my mind, was a perfect misdirection.

I said, “I plan to be a writer.”

He straightened, sniffed at the air as if at a passing stink, sat back about six inches, and looked down the length of his considerable nose at me. The nose had been broken at some time in the past, and took a small deviation or two on a path to the end, but it was still pointed at me.

He was not to be misdirected. “When you wanna get married?”

I was still sixteen, a fact he must be aware of, so I assumed I could offer him a very rough date for the yet unproposed event which might fall sometime after graduation from High School.

I said, “Maybe a couple of years.”

Without missing a beat, he said, “Make sure you don’t put your dick where it don’t belong until then.”

I think my whole body flinched. I cannot to this day remember what words exited my mouth. I suppose I said, “Yes, sir.” It would have been the safest thing.

With that, he got up, the bulk of him blotting the light of the sky, and went into the house.

I wandered home like a kicked dog.

But in writing about this occurrence several times in later years, I have always suffered with the thought of what Mr. Radziute had observed down the length of that great nose.

At sixteen I was already over six feet tall, but I weighed well less than 150 pounds. I was sporting long hair by that time, because it was the fashion, and my glasses were large and black rimmed in the style of the late Buddy Holly. I had started to shave more out of desire than need. I could not have been impressive. Mr. Radziute’s daughter, on the other hand, already looked like she could mother an army.

 

Mary Ellen was cast in a dozen major fictional roles by me in the following years, often filling the Capraesque part of a Jean Arthur admonishing her man to do more, or less, to risk all, or not, and often won her hero in the end (that is, if he survived his own stupidity). She was a perfect steady foil to intemperate action and foolish endeavor. Where my character was habitually leaping to conclusions and thus causing occlusions, her hand was often the one extended for comfort.

The single most remarkable characteristic about Mary Ellen, given her generosity, kindness and intelligence, is that she has no sense of humor. I attributed this one genetic trait to her father. All the other qualities I was instantly fond of, including her looks, had just as clearly come from her mother.

And because I was always given to taking myself too seriously, my only defense has always been to attempt lightening the mix with the ridiculous.

Once, she asked me, “If you are not going back to college, what will you do?”

“I thought I would go to France.”

“You can’t speak French.”

“I’ll learn when I get there.”

“You have no money. You can’t even afford a movie ticket.”

“I thought I’d swim.”

“It’s too far.”

She would listen to any idea I had for yet another project, as if the previous proposal had been totally forgotten (yet she already knew that I seldom gave up on anything, no matter how outrageous).

“I think I’d like to go to California.

“You might need to get another pair of shoes if you do.”

This was not a non sequitur. I had already said I wanted to walk. It was simply her first thought—not how long it would take, or the route I was thinking of. I suppose she knew I would tell her all that as well if she just waited a moment. But I seldom budgeted for shoes.

She asked, “What would you do in France?”

“I’ll sit in a sidewalk café and pretend to write and watch the people go by.”

“How will you pay for your food, or for rent?”

“I would have to find a mistress, for that, I suppose. An older woman perhaps. Someone rich. I’ve heard that French women are enchanted by the way American men speak.”

“Well, you have the talking part down, but I think you have the thing backwards. Isn’t it American men who are enchanted by the way French women speak?”

“Maybe. I might have gotten that mixed up. But in the movies, Frenchmen are always trying to act like Humphrey Bogart or James Dean. Maybe that’s what they like. I’ll act like Humphrey Bogart.”

“You’ll need horn-rimmed glasses. That’s what he wore in that movie, wasn’t it?”

“I think so.”

“And a hat with a wide brim you can turn up in the front.”

“I’ve already got one of those.”

“At least the glasses then.”

“I need a new pair anyway.”

“But you won’t get much writing done – just pretending and sitting in a café all day.”

“I’ll do that at night.”

“But you’ll be busy sleeping with your mistress then. You won’t have time.”

“I’ll wake up early.”

 

Just as I cannot tell you precisely when my infatuation with Mary Ellen began, I cannot tell you when it seemed to end. Mostly, I think, it was a matter of the time between. Absence is supposed to make the heart grow fonder, and I know that I thought of her nearly every day, but I always had other fantasies to pursue. Things to do. And women were a mystery to me that I desperately wanted to solve. I could not comprehend their motives unless I pretended that they were the same as my own. But on the face of it, that was absurd.

After I left South Boston, our visits became less frequent. Mary Ellen was in school and away from home as well. And later she was living on her own in Weymouth with a roommate. Time then simply passed, too full of itself to account for now. But I remember very clearly seeing her during that Christmas of 1967. An awkward visit. We went out together like a couple of strangers.

Lacking funds, the date was not elaborate. We ate Italian food in the North End, drank too much espresso, and then I walked her all the way back. I cannot remember if it was cold, but I do recall holding her hand then, better than anything else I did or said. And as usual, I did most of the talking as well. Perhaps more so because she in turn was quieter still than she usually was. I gave her a toy I had bought at Macy’s in New York. It was a monkey, caught between two sticks by string. It climbed and swung if you manipulated it just right. I cannot tell you why I chose that thing other than to say it made me laugh. I wanted to make her laugh too. And she gave me a book of poetry.

 

 

 

 

  1. My curriculum vitae at the ossuary of truth,

or a brief misdirection to the mysterious mountain

 

 

Adversely, when I turned eighteen, I tried to enlist in the Marines. My father had been in the Navy, and going for the Marines was an act to do him one better, I think. I often wonder what would have become of me if the Marines had had their way for four years or so. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on your point of view concerning my career, I was rejected. I was technically blind without my glasses, had mild asthma, and several food allergies, as well as a police record for stealing a car. To my father’s everlasting disgrace, I was issued a 4-F draft classification.

Instead, I went to college. At the insistence of the dean at South Boston High, Mr. Cunningham (who saw no hope for me otherwise), I had applied at the University of Massachusetts and been previously accepted. It was the easy option.

U Mass was, at that time, a hotbed of public dissent and mostly private premarital sex. Marxism was in the air like pollen. With my allergies, I did not last long.

The progressive mind of the moment was that dissent was fine in the streets, but not to be condoned in the classroom. By October I had established on-going arguments with the instructors in three subjects—American History, English Literature, and Political Science—all of whom signed a letter at the end of the semester suggesting I was not yet mature enough for a college environment.

I had jobs then as well—two, actually. One was in a bookshop just off campus, unloading boxes of assigned texts and stocking shelves, and the other in the cafeteria cleaning up the messes on tables and floor left by my middle-class betters. I managed to feed my mind with a staff discount on books while feeding my body from the hot-trays at the serving counter that remained half-full after lunch hours had ended. In the evening I took advantage of the pre-marital sex offered.

The arguments with the instructors appear to my mind now to be rather innocent.    Surely, I said, in ‘American History/Origins,’ the tribes from Europe who invaded North America and displaced those who had been here previously were doing much the same as those ‘native Americans’ were doing to each other, with the Comanche slaughtering the Navaho and the Navaho slaughtering the Hopi, Iroquois slaughtering the Delaware and Huron slaughtering the Iroquois. The tear in the eye of the aged Indian for all that his people had lost (a sentimental image in a television commercial popular at the time) was not so different than what a Highlander might have felt for the picturesque ancestral home in ruins as he gazed over grazing sheep after the Clearances, nor the Irish Catholic harvesting rye on land that once belonged to his kin, but now was used to pay the rents on a London townhouse for a Protestant. This argument was not made to ignore the brutality of the European invader, but to recognize in context the savagery of the age. The French, who in class were being praised for their kinder relations toward the Indians, were quite busy at the time slaughtering Huguenots by the thousand on the streets of Paris. It appeared to me that racism, though always real, was less important than the more common bigotry of human stupidity and meanness.

Rather than argue the matter, the instructor assigned me the task of writing something about it for a paper, and to otherwise keep my mouth shut.

My English instructor was quite taken with the work of Shakespeare. Fair enough. I was too. But his harping on social themes hidden in the text at the expense of the poetry made an easy target and I was moved to note in class that ‘Shakespeare,’ the man, was likely an ill educated actor who had benefited from a chance acquaintance with the Earl of Oxford who in turn, under severe Royal scrutiny, needed an outlet for his own compulsive writing. There was no evidence that the Shakespeare of Stratford himself could sign his own name twice in the same way, much less fluently speak several languages and read Boccaccio in the original, nor gain access to the inner working of the Royal Court. I had only recently then found a copy of an old volume at the Brattle Bookshop in Boston by John Thomas Looney and discovered his thesis concerning Edward de Vere.

I might just as well have thrown a bag of feces, if you could have seen the instructor’s face. This matter was settled! There was no room for argument. Where did I get such a preposterous theory? Well then, wasn’t the idiot’s name sufficient? Looney, for Christ’s sake!

But, I objected, it was far from settled. This Shakespeare, the man, did not even see to it that his own daughters were able to read or write, nor could his wife have read his plays. Most of the population of England at the time was illiterate. Actors were notoriously poor, looked down upon, and beholden to rich benefactors, yet Shakespeare retired from the stage in midlife, a wealthy man.

The instructor was not interested. I was.

My Political Science instructor was quite taken at the time with the ‘Great Leap Forward’ and the revolution of Mao Zedong in China. She more than suggested a similar restructuring of American society was in order. I asked if she then favored a similar dictatorship here that could enforce such radical changes. To her credit for honesty, she actually said ‘yes,’ but softened the answer with the vague notion of a ‘popular dictatorship’ which might wrest control of the economy from the capitalists and American elites.

This same professor was later a great proponent of the ‘Cultural Revolution’ if I remember correctly. A true ‘people’s revolution,’ she said in an article in a national magazine the following year. But that first and only September of my college career I asked about the many reports concerning mass starvation in China. She said this was American propaganda. The conversation went downhill from there. Thankfully, unlike the other two instructors, she had the pleasant habit of lowering her voice when she was angry. I at least appreciated that.

After the first semester, I spent half an hour in January arguing with a dean over whether I should be dismissed or not. My grades were good enough, true, but I had been labeled a disruptive influence. This argument I won, temporarily. I was allowed to remain in Amherst until May, pending a second review. I can remember very clearly, at this moment, the great happiness I felt as I left that dean’s office. I actually let out a whoop. The eyes of half a dozen desk-sitters turned my way. Most of them were women and I couldn’t express aloud to them the cause of my joy. It was, of course, that the extracurricular sex would continue.

A deal of my own disagreements in life are petty (perhaps most, in truth), involving matters such as the grammatical use of ‘that’ and ‘which,’ and cautions about the limits of clauses, rather than life or death. For all that of which I am accused, I don’t actually enjoy argument. Being attacked personally for the act of even considering an idea in writing, much less believing it, is dispiriting. Even exhausting. Too easily, I become emotionally involved in the process. As much as I love discussion, the art of actual conversation appears lost today. And for that reason I dreaded going to classes that spring. I could not sit quietly. So I became preoccupied with alternatives.

 

Janik Nazaryan was my roommate at college that first and only year of my ‘higher education.’ He was a music major, studied composition, and aspired then to be a composer rather than a musician or teacher.

His was a profession of love for a particular act of creation I had never properly encountered before. Prior to that my only real contact with music was what played incessantly on the radio and most of that I found both ridiculous and repetitive. The love songs that we nice enough if you didn’t listen to the lyrics—lyrics that were banal at best but repeated again and again as if they were the essence of some truth the performer was trying to convince himself of as much as the listener. My favorite music as an eighteen-year-old arriving at the college was what I had heard at the movies. I thus believed that Maurice Jarre’s score for Lawrence of Arabia was the finest achievement in music known to mankind. Miklos Rozsa’s musical soundtrack for Spartacus was close behind.

After being rejected by the Marine Corps, I had barely gotten the final and necessary paper work in on time for admission to the University of Massachusetts. ‘Unfortunately’, I was informed by letter, all regular dorm space had been allotted, and I would have be placed in ‘overflow’ housing . . . What I got was the former parlor to a mansard-roofed Victorian on North Pleasant Street. Compared to the best of the regular student accommodations, modernist ‘hives’ of cement and glass, it was a palace. Twenty-by-twenty, with twelve-foot ceilings and a non-functioning fireplace faced with a white marble mantle that gave the entire affair an elegance far beyond anything I had ever known before in my life.

Two beds and two dressers had been left for us. The pale green walls smelled of recent paint and the yellow pine wood floor glowed with wax. I took one side of the room and Janik the other.

We had arrived at the same moment, after sitting in a hallway near the admissions office with our belongings piled around us and other students coming and going with difficulty over our obstructions. A Junior finally appeared and took the sheet of paper we had each been given to complete and led us out the door and down the sidewalk, trailing like a couple of refugees hobbled by our belongings. I don’t remember the Junior offering to carry anything but he did appear impatient at our slow progress. I had a duffle, a suitcase, a backpack, and a grocery bag full of food packed by my mother. My father had left me in front of the admissions office at six o’clock that morning and driven back to Boston and to work.

Janik had two suitcases and a trunk. He dragged the trunk by a handle on the cement because it was too heavy to lift. The hog-like sound of it echoed from every upright surface we passed.

Once inside, the Junior handed each of us a single key and another sheet of paper, said, “Follow the instructions on that,” and left. Both of us stared at the room a moment in total silence. It was not what either of us expected. We each wondered aloud if there had been a mistake. Then we both barked a laugh, flipped a coin, and took our sides. I remember well that, simultaneously, we leapt upon our bare mattresses, lay on our backs, and giggled like little boys.

There were minuses to the place, but those were insignificant. The high ceiling took all the heat from the radiators so we ran a table-fan almost continuously for the winter. The hot water in the bathroom ran out after about five minutes, so showers were quick and were taken at opposite ends of the day (I took the mornings). We were not expected to use the kitchen that still remained in the old house, but the students in the other rooms all did, so we joined in that until the dirty dishes in the sink made it inaccessible. The cafeteria was almost ten minutes away. We set up a hot plate on a dresser for coffee and tea and whatever. Most of the school year we were able to keep milk just outside the window until a neighborhood cat discovered the bounty.

Janik had a small wardrobe in one of his suitcases, the trunk contained books and records, but it was his other suitcase that changed my life. For it was not a suitcase at all. It was a KLH Model 11 portable stereo record player with detachable speakers. I think I was still on my back when Janik suddenly got up, opened the magic suitcase, and put on the first record. That piece was The Mysterious Mountain by Alan Hovhaness.

I had never thought in a musical idiom. My love for Maurice Jarre was inextricably linked to the visual images created by David Lean and the vicarious emotional experience of living through a T. E. Lawrence who was more Peter O’Toole than ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ in the first place.

Janik’s love of music was a radix—a root to his cultural past. I am not sure if, until that moment, I even knew what an Armenian was. More importantly, this was ‘classical’ music, the musty stuff found in the back room of the record shop. Now, with the door opened, I went through.

Actually, I lay there without moving and saying little other than my initial question, “What is this?”

In that one trunk, Janik had the Martha Argerich piano recordings of Chopin, the Gershwin Rhapsody played by Gershwin himself, Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto played by van Cliburn, and lots of Beethoven and Brahms, Shuman, Rachmaninoff, and Prokofiev. Because of Janik’s major, much of it was piano music and thus very accessible to someone like myself. I have been in love with Martha Argerich ever since. I did not know that ahead of me were affairs of the violin with Anne-Sophie Mutter and lately Janine Jansen, or of voice with Renee Fleming and Anna Netrebko. In memory, that year was lived against a soundtrack by Beethoven, Brahms, and Chopin. Only later did I learn to truly appreciate Rachmaninov or discover the Scandinavians I relish so much today. And to think that Mahler was still ahead of me! An ode to spring, the eighth symphony by the German composer Joseph Joachim Raff plays on my computer as I write this.

Such a list is necessarily incomplete. In the case of discovering music, it is worse than that. Despite my own specialty, I cannot conjure words to explain the first hearing (or the hundredth) of Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto as translated by the hands and spirit of Martha Argerich, so I won’t go on about it here. The importance to note is that this discovery of joy in a medium for which I had then no preparation, and still to this day no true rational comprehension after so many years, is humbling. If I cannot begin to explain the effect of the Sibelius violin concerto on my brain, how am I to explain the other emotions which have driven so much of my life?

 

But despite his fabulous gift, I was to expel Janik from our rooms on a number of occasions—the first time only a couple of weeks after our arrival. Mary Ellen had called on a Friday and announced that she was coming. She was working part-time at Filene’s Basement by then and enrolled at UMass in Park Square, but given the number of State holidays in Massachusetts, she was often free to visit. I suppose Janik’s patience with this was helped by the fact that his own girlfriend was still back home and offered him an appropriate destination.

At this moment then, the aesthetic mind in me was torn, not to shreds, but at least apart. Suddenly I was made even more greatly aware of the near infinite variety of human pleasures. And coupling with sex and music, there was film.

 

Despite the years of preparation spent in the dark at the Strand and Broadway theatres in South Boston, I will readily admit that my real seduction by and longer affair with film truly began during that same first year at college. In fact, I can testify, it began precisely the last week in September 1965, on a Friday night, some time after 8:30 pm.

There is, or was, very little to do in Amherst on a weekend. Mary Ellen appeared with her small leather-cornered suitcase and called me from the Student Union. Rather, she called the single phone in that temporary dorm, which was a pay phone in the hall, and this was answered by a fellow upstairs who was waiting to hear from his own date and practically broke his leg getting down to answer the ring. I was already used to ignoring it.

After settling things with Janik, who had decided it was best to take the bus on an unscheduled visit home, I opted for spending what little money I had on a feast at the most exotic restaurant within walking distance, The China Seas. I had previously noticed an AV club poster at the Student Union for the movie of the week, The Big Sleep, and never having seen it before, that sounded perfect then for my intentions with Mary Ellen.

There is an important corollary to the axiom that people will not listen to what they do not want to hear, and that is they will not observe what they do not want to see. But there is an associated proposition that has gotten the better of me: that you will most often discover new things when you least expect it. If you are looking for something new, you are more likely to choose according to what is most familiar instead. But like the moment when Janik put the Hovhaness Mysterious Mountain on the record player, what happened at the AV club that night was transforming. At least it was to me.

Mary Ellen did not understand the plot of the movie. She thought Humphrey Bogart looked too old for Ms. Bacall. She thought the movie was too long. And there I was, wishing that it would never end.

This was accomplished almost as if by misdirection. Funny moments. For instance, early in the film and to get out of the rain, Bogart had just run into a second-hand bookshop across the street from the object of his sleuthing, and there meets Dorothy Malone, a comely bookseller. Never have I ever met a bookseller quite as gorgeous. But naturally she was hiding her talents behind thick-rimmed glasses (appealing enough to me), with her hair pinned back. Superman was able to effect much the same seamless disguise by wearing glasses and a gray business suit.

Bogart sees that he must wait awhile as he keeps an eye out through the front window of the bookshop for the suspect across the street, and after a few good moments of repartee with Malone during which she aptly describes the suspect for Bogart, he makes an offer she couldn’t refuse.

Bogart: You’d make a good cop.

            Malone: You gonna wait for him to come out?

            Bogart: Yeah.

            Malone: Well, they don’t close for another hour or so. It’s raining pretty hard.

            Bogart: I got my car. [He looks over at her again ] That’s right, it is, isn’t it? You know it just happens I got a bottle of pretty good rye in my pocket. I’d a lot rather get wet in here.

            Malone: Well . . . [She locks the door to the shop and flips the sign over to ‘CLOSED.’] Looks like we’re closed for the rest of the afternoon. [She takes off the glasses and pulls the pins from her hair.]

My jaw dropped. I was breathing an air I had never known before.

And I wanted to own my own bookshop as well.

Later Bogart is talking to Lauren Bacall in a bistro. He has expressed an interest in her that goes beyond the case he’s working on. She clearly feels the same, but is wary of his involvement. They begin dealing words of innuendo like cards in a poker game.

Bacall: Well, speaking of horses, I like to play them myself. But I like to see them work out a little first, see if they’re front-runners or come from behind, find out what their hole-card is. What makes them run.

Bogart: Find out mine?

            Bacall: I think so.

            Bogart: Go ahead.

            Bacall: I’d say you don’t like to be rated. You like to get out in front, open up a lead, take a little breather in the backstretch, and then come home free.

            Bogart: You don’t like to be rated yourself.

            Bacall: I haven’t met anyone yet that can do it. Any suggestions?

            Bogart: Well, I can’t tell till I’ve seen you over a distance of ground. You’ve got a touch of class, but, uh . . . I don’t know how far you can go.

            Bacall: A lot depends on who’s in the saddle. Go ahead Marlowe, I like the way you work. In case you don’t know it, you’re doing all right.

As usual, with the film over, I spent most of the rest of the evening talking, but this time about movies and dialog and writing. Mary Ellen was patient.

I cannot say that any of my own screenplays written since were nearly so good as what Mr. Faulkner and Miss Brackett dreamed up to realize the confused plot of Mr. Chandler’s book. But I tried. At least the effort was appreciated at the time.

Always the stolon, I suppose. My own roots were never deep. Instead, I travelled out along the surface from those beginnings, found my nourishment along the way, and flourished where I could. What makes a human being respond to some soil and not others? I can’t say. I’ve never seen the pattern there.

What was it Mary Ellen saw in me, while I was falling in love with Dorothy Malone?

Reading about the characters in mythology, we often see them act in ways that astound us. We think, why did they do that? What was their motivation? And for that very reason, myth is often rejected by academics as mere fantasy and religion—for the seeming absence of cause and effect demanded to make science from mere data. Yet in our lives, we often act in just this manner. Especially in matters of love.

Lauren Bacall is cute, as she toys with Bogart over the unambiguous wordplay that ends with, “Depends on who’s in the saddle.”

But my heart had already been won by the bookseller.

 

 

 

 

  1. Reports of my survival have been exaggerated

 

 

That May of 1966 I went home briefly to South Boston, received the blessing of my sainted mother, and the cuff of my father when I told him I was off to New York, packed his old Navy duffle with anything I imagined to be a necessity, and caught the train at South Station. (I see there the “cuff, and the ‘off’ and the ‘duffle.’ Alliteration has always been my bane—according to some. It is there because I enjoy the sounds of words and have always thought such music was part of the transfer of meaning. Poetry is the soul of all good writing, and the music of poetry is what is most wanting in what else I read today. Defensive lecture done.) My objective was even more specific than New York City. I intend to go the extra mile from the terminus at Grand Central to Pennsylvania Station. That was my touchstone.

I’m thankful now that I had actually gotten to see the original of that grand old railroad palace. The voluminous main concourse was large enough for two Zeppelins. Steel girders, proud in their nakedness (reminding the child in me both then and now of a humongous Erector set) arose stadium-like to a sky of pale and web-faceted glass. Bold colored advertisements, billboarded with their own lights, spoke out from the walls. The smells were a musk of cigarettes, sweat, and perfume, mixed with wafted car-exhaust and raw metal. The sound was a re-echoed clatter, clash and din of hurried voices, the click of high heels and slap of shoe leather on marble, and of doors shut and opened and shut again, all background to an unintelligible drone of authority from above, announcing arrivals and departures.

But some time before I arrived in this Batman’s Gotham to stay for good, they began tearing down the old Penn Station. Luckily, I had run away from home before, during high school. Twice I had slept on the broad oak benches there along with dozens of other waiting passengers and vagrants, and paid my quarter for use of the shower and dressing room. The first of those escapades was in 1963, and after narrowly escaping the grasp of a NYC truancy officer in the narrower concourses at Grand Central Station. This had happened almost immediately upon my first arrival and I had fortunately found my way to the even grander spaces on 33rd Street and Eighth Avenue, where that larger station was yet open and the pigeons still flew in the girdered heights within, and this had seemed to afford me some sort of greater comfort by its shear expanse as well as safety from the weather and the random evil doer, as well as proximity to the relatively clean, white-tiled restrooms, and an even greater variety of affordable food stuffs in that age before the fast food chains had spread their mediocrity coast to coast. I thought then that its grimy, vaulted, and shadowy excellence was the most beautiful place I had ever seen. To me it was a veritable cathedral for a religion of the misbegotten.

But by the time I returned a second time the following year, the upper reaches were closed. And when I finally arrived in New York to live, the underground of the station was already a maze of plywood channels and work lights. The great station was gone.

 

Too tired to go back to the still majestic and ordered precincts of Grand Central after discovering the catastrophic destruction of Pennsylvania Station on that night, I slept in a remote remnant of the palace; a lost prince with no idea of his own loss. I was not a vagabond but a pilgrim whose holy city was the biggest brightest busiest place on Earth.

That first night I found a remaining marble bench in a dark and narrow space behind a work structure, only a few feet from the ebb and flow of humanity and the hollow tread upon the boards that was a modern cacophony of what was, for the moment, another sort of music to my ears.

 

Except for what my father still called ‘rubbers,’ and the cost of basic tuition, I had spent almost nothing of the money allowed by the student loan during the previous year. I had even returned my textbooks for cash at the bookshop the first chance I got. In addition, I had a small savings of my own from the various part-time jobs I’d started working when I was eight or so. A portion of this was on my person when I arrived in New York on that day, in the form of three one-hundred-dollar bills, which I had tucked safely, if uncomfortably, in my shoe.

The Daily News had a list of apartments available in the classifieds, and the morning after I arrived, I scanned this while sitting over my coffee and muffin at a Chock Full o’Nuts, rejecting anything that was more than a hundred dollars a month . . . that’s right. A hundred dollars a month. In Manhattan! But I was sure I could do better still. And I did. After numerous phone calls from the dank confines of a booth, and repeated interruptions by a fellow who looked and smelled as if he had been sleeping in the station himself, but for a year without a bath, I had run out of dimes. I then picked the name of the realtor with the largest number of listings and went over to Third Avenue near Madison Square and sat in a tight and constantly busy little basement office for several hours, waiting for my turn.

The fellow I finally saw picked up the first piece of paper on his desk and said, “I’ve got just the thing for you.”

I said, “No. I need something cheaper.”

He shuffled a few scraps, pulled one out and said, “How about this?”

I said, “Cheaper.”

He shuffled again. He pulled out a hand-written sheet on yellow paper. “I got something on Avenue A that is absolutely the cheapest thing on the market right now. Take my word for it.”

I said, “Okay.”

But he didn’t take me to see it. He handed me another scrap of paper with a hastily scribbled note and said, “Take that to the address on St. Mark’s Place.” As I was leaving he added, “Knock loudly. Vlad can’t hear very well. It’s the furnace.”

I said, “Brad?”

He said, “You can’t hear very well either, can you? You’ll make a good pair. It’s Vlad.”

The only person I was aware of at the time with that name was ‘Vlad the Impaler’—the prototype for Count Dracula. This was not auspicious. Outside it had suddenly grown dark and stormy and it was not yet noon. As yet unsure of the subway system, I walked the twenty blocks or so in the rain. The umbrella I’d bought from a vendor at the door of Penn Station turned inside out with the first gust. It was difficult to manage holding it up, in any case, given the duffle and my backpack. The duffle weighed about seventy pounds, but felt more like what I imagined could be a dead body.

The realtor had been correct in his guess. I rang the bell on the small exterior basement door near the corner on St. Mark’s several times. No one came. The rained poured in solid streams from roof culverts five floors above and splattered on the cement only a few feet away. I yanked at the door handle to get away from the splatter. It opened. There was a single bare light bulb in a ceiling socket about thirty feet along a narrow hall. The hall smelled of spoiled milk and cats as I followed the sound of a television until I came to a door labeled ‘Sup.’ I knocked. I knocked again. The television sound was turned down abruptly and I knocked for a third time.

The door opened to the suffocating heat of the furnace, and the smell of cats, and sweat and boiled cabbage. Vlad himself blocked the binding light from an unshaded lamp. He looked as if he weighed in at about three hundred pounds and appeared at the door in a ‘wife-beater’ undershirt with enough hair protruding from his armpits to give home to a nest of subterranean pigeons. Behind him, on a dramatically sagging sofa, a woman who was easily his match in size, sat with her legs splayed out before her, stretching her garment to its limits. A cat lay inopportunely in her lap. I am not sure that what she wore was actually a dress, but each seam was pulled to the limit, from her knees to the unlikely enormity of her breasts. A table fan was positioned on the floor in front of her to achieve a maximum gain from the airflow.

I said, “I have come to see the apartment.”

I suppose the realtor had called him to say I was coming.

Vlad said, “Ya!” grabbed several steel rings of keys from a nail and put a work shirt on without buttoning the front. His wife continued to nod at the single word he had spoken as if in consideration of a lengthy speech.

I later learned that Vlad had managed to reach the United States from Rumania just after the Second World War. I suspected him of being a Nazis collaborator or at least KGB agent. In the twenty years since his arrival, he had gained an English vocabulary of just two words. But he also spoke French.

Vlad pushed by me in the narrow basement hall with no apology. It was the greatest intimacy I had ever experienced with a strange man up to that moment in my life, other than in an altercation, and one I would use not long after in my first attempt at writing a novel. I followed him back down the passageway, noting that his head tilted to one side at just the right moment to avoid the light bulb. It was only then that I fully realized that he had to be several inches taller than myself. I was all of six foot two in my youth and I guessed that he was only an inch shorter than Mary Ellen’s father but several inches wider.

Out the door and into the rain again, dancing through the splatter from the roof and then around the corner to Avenue A. Up the stoop and through a set of heavy double-doors. His hand tapped the tarnished brass of the mailboxes as we passed those, as if to say it was something I might want to take notice of. I did. Every one of them had been broken into and the interiors gaped behind broken tongues, the metal was clearly so abused they could not be closed shut again.

But Vlad had not stopped his forward progress. I gripped my duffle a little tighter in front of me and lunged to fit through the closing second door just in the nick of time. Up four flights of stairs. The smells of cabbage again. Polka music. A Frank Sinatra song repeating the words “Come fly with me,” over and again in a well-established groove. The smell of pot, so familiar to me from the college dorm, increased as we ascended. Then down another shorter hall. Vlad fumbled with the keys briefly in a dark corner. Suddenly a door opened and he pressed his body unconvincingly to the side and let me slip by.

I was met by a steely gray light from a grimy window.

Surrounding me immediately was an eight-by-eight kitchen fully equipped with a three-burner gas stove on short cast iron legs stationed above a battered cabinet, a Kelvinator refrigerator that might have been manufactured before World War Two, a sink darkened to several different hues of brown and green by the minerals in the water as well as the scurry of numerous small creatures, and a tallish window imprisoned by iron bars that looked directly out upon another window which appeared to match it exactly, these set in the motley colored brick wall of an airshaft.

To the left a four-by-five bathroom had been fitted into a turn of corner space which architecture would otherwise have demanded for the same airshaft. This polygon contained a toilet with a partially whitish plastic seat (much of the surface of that had peeled back to a black and graying wood), and the taller metal box of a shower without a curtain which had rusted orange at the seams.

Stepping to the right I found a second room, windowless and dark on that cloudy day, and a third and fourth room ranging beyond, each having a single window and access to an airshaft fire-escape.

Both back rooms were about ten by ten. The measurements I remember well now because almost nothing I could acquire by way of used furniture would fit comfortably in the spaces given the massive iron steam radiators that hulked on the floor in front of each window.

In less than the three minutes it took me to walk to the rear room, appraise the many fine appointments, and back again, Vlad used his two English words, “You willin’?”

As he spoke I tripped over something which had been left in the second room. From the confines of a thick cardboard tomato box, a jumble of old books loomed on the scared floor in the half-light, apparently abandoned. Vlad’s eyes lowered with the tilt of his head and then a meaty fist arose with thumb extended and jerked over his shoulder. Clearly he had intended to throw the box away. I saw it as an omen of sorts. An auger.

I said, “Yes. But leave the books.”

He rubbed his stubby thumb on his forefinger. He appeared to be waiting for a gratuity. Vlad had few front teeth but the ones at the sides were dark with gold. They spread his stubbled cheeks in a smile which, to the unfamiliar eye, seemed grotesque. It was genuine, however. He always smiled in exactly the same manner afterward, whenever I delivered the rent check.

I said, “Thank you,” and with the added space of the kitchen around us, I slipped by and made my escape.

The rain had appeared to relent on my return walk to the realtor’s office, and I remember starting to whistle. That was another habit my father detested. It was also a jinx (which any Red Sox fan would understand, instinctively). I whistled until I was about ten blocks away from the office. And then the skies opened in a fury.

As I arrived back, the people waiting in the small front space at the realtors office actually got up to avoid contact with me. I was shedding water like a broken lawn sprinkler. The agent himself waved me in immediately.

“Like it?”

“It’s okay.”

The realtor said, “That’ll be $55 per month. A great deal! I need the first and last and two months’ security. That’ll be $220. In advance.”

I took off my shoe. In my memory I recall pouring out a small stream of liquid before extracting the three one hundred dollar bills with some difficulty from where they had lodged at the nether end. I handed those over in the condition I found them. The fellow unwadded them gingerly, nodding his head the whole while as if he had a palsy. I signed the paperwork in three places. He gave me two keys, a piece of paper explaining the Con Edison bill, and the change in four twenties. It was done.

I think the memory of a stream of water from my shoe might be lifted from a Buster Keaton film. Likely so. It is often difficult for me to separate the reality of those years from the films I started seeing almost continuously at the time in all the old movie theatres scattered around town so as to avoid going home to my apartment after work in the evenings.

 

On day two, I began applying for work at every venue that seemed appropriate to my superior talent and intelligence. In my previous careers I had acquired an excellent grasp of the dynamic and logic of unloading a truck, moving piles of heavy square objects, unloading and stocking shelves according to the alphabet, sweeping snipped hair from corners, mopping floors and tables, moving trays of dishes garlanded with the remains of food that had been too ugly to eat in the first place, and placing the dishes in the rack on a conveyor belt that went into a washing unit at one side and came out the other cleaned and needing to be stacked and carried to the appropriate racks in the cafeteria. There were no classifieds that day for jobs that fit any significant aspect of those aptitudes.

Because I had had some experience with the same outfit in Boston (another story which I will leave for the moment), I noted the closest address for a Manpower Temporary Services office in the hopes of quick employment and managed to get there before nine AM. About one o’clock, after having held my position in a small plastic chair, in a row of small plastic chairs placed close enough together so that the legs could be locked one to the other in order to inhibit any attempt to lift the thing and throw it across the room in frustration (most of these being occupied by an ill dressed and relatively unwashed and motley crew of wannabes, has-beens and never-woulds), with all of us beneath the semi-continuous irritating buzz of long fluorescent light tubes which had needed replacing the previous year, I had lost what little patience I had inherited from my father, and left.

I stood then at a bench in Union Square (the bench itself being festooned with what the pigeons had left behind) and ate a Sabrett hotdog which had never risen to room temperature before being placed into the inadequate cut of a thick piece of moist bread and heaped with mustard, hot sauerkraut, and onions. I distinctly remember the surprise against my tongue of the cold hotdog amidst the hot sauerkraut.

All of this is by way of verisimilitude, the detail of which lingers now can only be remembered due to frequent retelling. I wrote much of it down at the time and submitted it to an alternative newspaper in Boston under the rubric ‘A Boston Boy Makes his Way in Gotham.’ This piece was, to my later surprise, actually used, though I was never paid. I spotted it at the bottom of the parakeet cage in a friend’s apartment when I visited Boston briefly to see my mother and pick up a few additional items on the 4th of July. Even obscured by the droppings, I could tell they had edited some of my choicest descriptions.

Standing at that bench in Union Square, surrounded by an army of pigeons while keeping one eye peeled for a sudden outburst of rain, I saw a fellow with a sandwich board advertising a new Korvettes discount department store which was opening near by. A new store might be in need of some help, I wisely thought. And they did.

I spent most of a week there doing a job for which I had been well trained, unloading trucks of boxed goods for the imminent ‘Grand Opening,’ and at the handsome rate of two dollars and fifty cents an hour. We were paid promptly that Friday by embossed check, which I cashed immediately. But when I returned the next Monday as instructed, the backs of the trucks were closed and padlocked and several fellows from the Teamsters Union were picketing the loading dock. Undeterred, I went inside through the bay doors, wending my way through a chaos of unopened boxes and stacked racks, and inquired of the first person I found sitting at a desk, rather than actually working (assuming them to be management), if there were any other employment opportunities available. There were. For the following several weeks, rain or shine, I paced the cement squares at the north side of Union Square, wearing a sandwich board. My resume had grown by another entry.

 

It is important to note here that I have never paid for sex in my life.

This fact has often been questioned by some of my enemies and several friends with active imaginations and reports to the contrary should be disregarded. The problem first arose because of an article I had written just about this time concerning my neighbor at the far end of the same fourth floor hall in the building where I lived.

Trudy was a decent soul in every way except for her sense of the value of her own body. She sold it very cheaply. I believe the going rate was twenty dollars but I did not include that fact in the piece, nor her actual name.

I became aware of her existence the first night in my new home. I had no curtains. The windows in the back two rooms looked across the airshaft at her own. It was difficult for an eighteen-year-old—for I was still eighteen at the time—not to look. She preferred candles but otherwise the illumination was more than adequate when I had turned my own lights off.

I was fairly certain she knew I could see her. And this was a level of exhibitionism that far exceeded any flouting of assets I had witnessed that first year in college. As a point of reference, when Trudy and I later became comrades in arms (so to speak) in our protests to the building management for various improvements, such as the replacement of light bulbs in the hallways and the sweeping of those halls when there was at last sufficiently illumination to see the accumulation of detritus there, Trudy started closing her curtains before entertaining guests. Most of the time. She was a good friend.

But I had never known a prostitute before that and talking to her about her profession became a source of raw material that I hoped would give my writing sufficient prurient value to appeal to many of the editors who might not otherwise be interested in the accounts of another mere raw youth in New York.

Dramatically, my first face-to-face encounter with Trudy was due to some misunderstanding between herself and a client. He appeared to want to kill her with a knife and she was most interested in avoiding that fate. She screamed.

From my window I could see her, entirely naked, leaping across her own furniture to avoid someone who was definitely holding a sharp object. His back was to the window and the shadow he cast in the candlelight was easily the match for the cover on any old paperback mystery I had ever read.

Another matter of note: I am not brave. Never have been. If given some time to consider the danger involved, I might easily have opted for simply yelling from my window. Which I did. But the dark figure in the windows across from me did not turn as he continued to stalk Trudy in a space no bigger than my own.

I went out the door and down the hall in bare feet and my pajama bottoms. Because I had mistakenly left the pajama top in South Boston, I was wearing an old sweatshirt that was moderately clean.

I got to Trudy’s door just about the time she screamed again. The door was locked, so I hit it with my fist and yelled back. I have no idea what I said. Probably, “What’s going on?” or something equally pathetic. Inside the noise of the chase stopped. Something else crashed to the floor and broke. And then the door jerked open.

In front of me was a crazed lunatic. That’s what I saw. Actually he was a sociopath with violent tendencies who felt cornered. He was about six inches shorter than me, had a crew cut, and several tattoos on a muscled torso. He had his pants and shoes on, but his shirt was off and he held that in one hand along with a jacket in a defensive wad. In the other hand he had Trudy’s carving knife.

He lunged at me with the knife as I leapt back against the wall of the hall in some manner—likely a move made with the instinctual flexing of my bare toes. He then swung the knife in the air between us and ran to the stairwell and disappeared.

Trudy stood at the far end of her apartment, stark naked and glowing with sweat in the candlelight. That is an image I will not forget.

Incongruously to my mind, she asked, “Are you hurt?”

I said, “No. Are you?”

She said, “I’m alright. Are you sure you aren’t hurt?” and pointed.

The second question made me look down at my sweatshirt. It gaped darkly open across the middle. I pulled it up from the bottom to look at my belly. Not a scratch.

When I wrote about the incident shortly afterward, I embellished. I think at the time I was still smarting from the rejection of my services to the Marine Corps. I needed to fortify my ego with some small bit of male heroics. But the story sold and was later anthologized and I believe it is the one primary source for those who think I frequented prostitutes in my youth. Or any other time for that matter.

Trudy showed her thanks by buying me a new sweatshirt and becoming a good neighbor. Most importantly, by acquiring curtains.

 

 

 

 

  1. Ben and me, or the gist of it

 

 

After a few weeks of getting a farmer’s tan on the streets of New York while sandwiched between two rectangles of white painted Masonite decorated with the Korvettes department store logo running corner to corner on either side, and walking around like one of the playing cards in Alice in Wonderland, I was ready for a new assignment.

On the third floor of the building just across on Broadway from my base at the north side of Union Square, there was a another sign which I found inexplicable. Every day I had looked at the letters, each one filling a single upper pane of glass in a succession of double-hung window frames, and tried to decipher their meaning. I could have simply walked across and looked at the directory in the lobby but that would have spoiled the mystery of the matter.

‘GIST’ might be the suffix on the word ‘psychologist,’ or ‘neurologist,’ or ‘genealogist’ or ‘limnologist, or ‘hydrologist, all good eleven letter words when playing a game of strip-scrabble with other English majors during my brief bout of higher education at Amherst. But there were only six additional panes of glass on that floor to accommodate the letters for the root word. Mycophagist was a ten-letter favorite of mine because I had always played dirty and employed the rule that if a word is wrongly disputed, the loser must give up an additional article of clothing. Oddly spelled words were excellent for this. But I doubted its use in this case. Mushroom worshipers usually lived in wooded areas.

For days I studied those four letters and could find no use that might especially apply to the third floor of a ten-story nineteenth century office building. I finally gave up and investigated. But the lobby directory was no better. It simply said ‘Gist 3rd Flr.’

I leaned my sandwich board up by the elevator where it might gain some additional attention while I was negligent in my duties, and took the stairs.

Opening the door at that third floor on that day was a wonder to my eyes.

A couple dozen desks closely crowded one to the other, and about as many people, none apparently much older than myself, all scrambled about with sheets and scraps of paper, talking to one another, or themselves, while several bent at the waist over light-tables with their faces eerily illuminated by a green florescence. Two of them sat at bulky looking typewriters carefully tapping out copy. One was speaking to a group of three or four, his arms gesticulating wildly. The air was filled with their words and the smell of hot wax and rubber cement, all of it with the sound of the Rolling Stones wailing from two large speakers at the far end of what appeared to be just a single room that occupied the entire floor.

I had, it seems, not fallen through a rabbit hole in the ground, but arisen through that side door into the new world of magazine publishing. Albeit a small magazine which would be bankrupt within three years, but a fair introduction to the process. To learn more than my eyes and ears could comprehend, I tried then to speak to the best looking woman in the room. She ignored me and ran off to one of the compositors with a scrap of copy to be reset. I turned and spoke to the next person in the line of desks closest to the door, a long-haired and heavily-set fellow with glasses as thick as my own, and also the largest person in the room.

That was Doug Morrissey. I have always called him ‘aka’ which I pronounce with each letter distinct, as for the abbreviation of the phrase, ‘also known as.’ His friendship has survived many trials through the years, though we seldom get to see each other these days. He changed his name not long after that to ‘Morris’ because he thought it sounded a little more Jewish than Morrissey and he works for a film production company now in Hollywood and won’t leave the West Coast for less than six figures.

Wheeling my eyes over the display of activity, I said, “What goes on here?”

He said, “What does it look like?”

I said, “Controlled chaos.”

He said, “That’s it! That’s The Gist!”

I applied for work that day. And again the following week, when the job with the billboard ran out. The third time in the door Doug recognized my face and asked, “Can you type?”

 

I must suppose that in ancient Rome, while Legions of Roman sons were dying in Illyria, the scribes spilt as much ‘ink’ over the latest social disgraces of Cillius Maximus as ours do today over the antics of a Kardashian or a Bieber.

But I would be wrong.

Though the first ‘news service’ might be claimed by the Romans with the ‘Acta Dirna,’ which were government bulletins on stone or metal, posted on the byways and issued by Julius Caesar primarily to acclaim his own accomplishments (closely akin in our own time to the daily product of the New York Times in its promotion of the works and sayings of Barack Obama), the first attempt at a private ‘newspaper’ was the Relation aller Fürnemmen und gedenckwürdigen Historien, issued in 1605 at Strasbourg, in the Holy Roman Empire, by Johann Carolus. Thus this Mr. Carolus became the founding member of the Order of Ink Stained Wretches, beginning a proud tradition, and must rightfully be acclaimed the most profoundly important of those many relatively unknown heroes who handed us our civilization on a platter of movable type. Sadly too, he himself also represents a most obvious and glaring example of the ephemeral quality of ‘the news.’ The Relation was a quarto-sized ‘one-sheet’ and thus had a greater need of the subtitle ‘All the news that’s fit to print.’

Our Mr. Mencken would likely claim (and proudly so) that Mr. Carolus was a man of his own German ancestry in spirit and might even have found, had he thought to look, a particular mountebank in the woodpile who sowed some actual genetic link, but the first ‘broad-sheet,’ or folded folio was, alas, to be the effort of the Dutch. (True, not far removed from the German roots. Perhaps the profligate issue of a German mountebank on holiday?) The Courante uyt Italien, Duytslandt &, was edited by Caspar van Hilten, in 1618, at Amsterdam. This sheet too was printed on only one side and thus made no pretense to offering both sides of any story. It is in this way that the foundations of our modern habits were laid down.

The first independent (i.e. private and not government subsidized) newspaper in America, The New-England Courant, was issued in Massachusetts in 1721 by one James Franklin. James had some other issues with his younger brother Ben, but contrived to imbue the lad with the better spirit of any journalist, taught him to spell and set type, the rigors of accurate reporting, to keep those reports brief and pithy, and, most importantly, to be the servant of no man (including himself it appears). The New-England Courant managed to survive a mere five years before the colonial authorities in Olde Boston Towne shut James Franklin down. But for this effort I place that singular achievement in the pantheon of human accomplishment and happily recognize the link between the older brother’s effort and that Declaration of Independence, which our Ben was to one day collaborate on with Mr. Jefferson.

However, in keeping with the obscurity of his spiritual ancestor, Mr. Carolus, there is no monument to James, or his workplace in Boston. (There is a brass plaque on a rather nondescript twentieth century office building noting the birthplace of Ben, which would also be, I assume, the origin of James. At least that is something, I suppose.)

 

In any case, from the very beginning I made no assumptions about the role of the journalist and reporter. Most do their jobs as best they can under difficult circumstances—sitting around courthouses for days on end twiddling thumbs, theirs and others, or poring over illegible or incompetent police reports, listening for hours to politicians prevaricate, or to first hand accounts offered by witnesses with the usual public school education, and then, guided by the prejudice of editors whose first interest is in never being demoted to the chores and wages of a mere reporter again, as well as the worries of advertisers who supply the monies for their salaries, they must conjure a mere précis of a given reality and capture a semblance of the truth in only a few hundred words and in sentences very much shorter than this. Whatever deeply held antipathies and aversions the reporter might harbor in his own right, he must shape his copy to suit not only the preconceptions of the editor and the demands of advertisers and the newspaper’s corporate sponsors, but to feather the nest of the political hegemony that allows them easy access to the information needed to create reports in the first place.

I am not sure I ever really wanted to be one those, though I did fantasize about the possibility. I watched Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in the movie His Girl Friday at least four or five times (more in awe of Ben Hecht’s words and their delivery by Russell and Grant). Thus armed with the necessary training I thought any reporter should need, I first set out, freshly certified via high school diploma, to find a job with one of the few remaining papers in Boston still surviving from the days when Kenneth Roberts had begun his illustrious career at the now defunct Post. Happily, my applications at the Record American, and the Herald and the Globe were overlooked. So I tried the Marines instead. But they too had found both my particulars and my prospects wanting. So as a last resort, I had resorted to college.

In the end, however, I wanted only to write, much as Kenneth Roberts had. And though I had taken Ben Franklin as an early hero, it is noteworthy, at least in these pages, that my first awakening to that specific genius of journalism had been in the reading between the kindly drawn pictures of Robert Lawson’s Ben and Me while sitting in the children’s section at the South Boston branch of the Public Library. And then, more dramatically, in those fabulous historical novels of Kenneth Roberts like Northwest Passage, Arundel, and Rabble in Arms. Thus, Roberts had been an inspiration to me well before I read his memoir of the working life as a young reporter in I Wanted to Write.

Actual reporting, however, eluded me. I was always far too ready to make things up if I didn’t have a first hand account. Too quickly, I lost the original context of an event in the extrapolated phantasmagoria of imagining what might be.

I was simply far better suited to being a novelist, right from the start. But I had to learn of this distinction through some experience.

 

An IBM Compositor was the miracle in small-press publishing of the hour. Slightly larger and, at a solid fifty pounds, a good deal heavier than the more common IBM Selectric, it made typesetting something that could be done at a desk in an office. It was cumbersome and the early models required typing everything twice, but it did the job well enough to pass muster—as in creating professional looking justified copy ready for paste-up.

I had no idea at the time, having never laid eyes on one before, but this small desk machine was then state-of-the-art. Mr. Nelson, both de facto owner and office manager at The Gist, had leased two of them, albeit requiring regular visits from the uptown IBM office, but they were far less expensive than sending copy out to be set on a larger Linotype. This made it possible for an entire publication to be produced photo-ready for the offset press in that one room. And it was—every Wednesday.

For The Gist was attempting to be “The Alternative Newsweekly.”

The threat to Time, Newsweek, and U. S News and World Report went unnoticed, if circulation figures were the judge. At the peak, almost 120,000 copies were being shipped out to over 40,000 subscribers and about 2000 independent news dealers and bookshops, most of which seemed to be forgetful about paying for copies sold. Given salaries and rent, and leases, and whatever else was involved, it was reported during the later bankruptcy that The Gist was losing about a dollar on every issue shipped. Given a cover price of $1.50 for 36 to 48 pages of white offset stock, saddle-stitched into a three-color glossy cover, there was no possibility of the magazine ever returning a profit even if all copies were sold. But that was not the objective, I suppose.

What about advertising, you might wonder? I did too, that first week.           Unfortunately, regular forms of advertising were eschewed. Disdained. Spat upon as capitalist infestation. The only ads to be found in The Gist were of the reciprocal trade variety with other like-minded publications, which were probably losing only slightly less than The Gist, but for much the same reasons. The intention appeared to be that they could lose a little on every sale, but make it up in volume. No kidding. That idea was expressed aloud to me more than once, in several ways, when I questioned what was being done.

I soon stopped questioning and kept my head down. I was ecstatically happy to be there. It felt like the center of the universe. I was ostensibly a typist working away at one of the two IBM Compositors, but it was soon discovered that if an article came in a bit short for the allotted space, or the assigned scribe (usually a university student or reporter for another publication working under an assumed name) in Amsterdam or London had indulged himself a bit too much in ‘the spirit of place’ and missed his deadline, I could fill the difference.

I felt that I was finally doing what God had certainly ordained for me. And this too actually happened in an odd way. In retrospect, it seems inevitable, but at the time it felt like a stroke of lightning had found my shoulders.

To avoid going home to my fifth floor penthouse on Avenue A and playing rubber band tag with the cockroaches, as the budget would allow two or three times a week I had been dallying on my way home and going to the older movie houses and converted theaters on Forty-Second Street. ‘Double-features’ were offered there of second-run films for seventy-five cents in the evenings. Gaudy, fabulous, wonderful Technicolor movies that might have only lasted mere days at the box office on their first go-round. Movies like Naked Prey, starring Cornell Wilde, and Rage, featuring Glenn Ford and Stella Stevens, or Rage to Live, with Ben Gazzara and Suzanne Pleshette. I would have gone to a theatre at twice the price to see Stella Stevens or Suzanne Pleshette enraged.

My unique stroke of genius was to write reviews of these films, for which there was no longer advertising revenue available (and thus no possibility of remuneration for such critiques). Though useless for any immediate income needs, it was done for fun and I had some idea in the back of my head of compiling a sort of anthology of such overwrought films, comparing them along the way to the latest underwrought and unintelligible effort of Ingmar Bergman or Louis Malle or Frederico Fellini. For that supposedly more sophisticated fare, I had to pay twice the price on First Avenue, further uptown.

When, one Wednesday afternoon, at deadline, our editor Paul Winger, asked me, “Can you draw?”

I did not simply say ‘no,’ which would have been an admission of fact in an environment of ‘What if?’ I said “Why? What for?”

He said, “We have half a column empty on page eight. I thought maybe we could do a cartoon. Like maybe Johnson taking a piss in a soldier’s helmet. One that has a bullet hole in it with a little leak out one side that looks like blood.”

I said, “I can’t draw, but I have a movie review in my pocket that compares the films of Walter Grauman and Eric Rohmer that I was going to send to a paper in Boston. How about that?”

He said, “Let me see it!”

I carefully unfolded a couple sheets of pilfered Gist stationary. Paul was a speed-reader. It took him about two minutes and then he started laughing. He laughed until his face turned red and then he started gasping for air. That was his asthma.

When he finally caught a breath he said, “This is good! This is rich. I never read a movie review that was so satirical before.”

I had written it in dead earnest, but that was how I became both a movie reviewer and a satirist in one stroke.

The picture of President Johnson peeing into the soldier’s helmet with the bullet hole and the leaking was drawn quite professionally by another staff member and appeared on the cover of the next issue, in three colors. Two of them were black and red.

 

 

 

 

  1. Touch and go typing

 

 

The most important subject I studied at South Boston High School, alas, was not Miss Lawrence’s English class, but without doubt (and with nothing else coming close for comparison) Mr. Jenson’s touch-typing course in my senior year. This great boon has served me throughout my life. Forty-five words a minute with no mistakes—mostly. I’ve never gotten faster, but then, I think I reached my own maximum level of digital dexterity and quickness of thought, as well as incompetence, early on and there was no way to improve on it.

Mr. Jenson was also the shop teacher. He is responsible for having taught me empirically that I would never qualify as a carpenter, leather worker, or electrician. He thought plumbing might do. The parts and tools are larger, he said, and less likely to be harmed by a clumsy move, but he could not be certain because that particular course of study was not offered at South Boston High in those years. These are very good things to know at a young age before you misdirect yourself into a mediocre career making other people’s lives miserable with your shoddy work. For that knowledge alone, I owe Mr. Jenson a great deal, in retrospect.

My first month in college I purchased an Underwood Olivetti portable, based upon a recommendation in a copy of Consumer’s Reports I found at the school library. For this I am also eternally grateful. Both to the library and the publication. I still own that machine, though I use a computer and keyboard now. The ‘Lettera 32’ was slim and small, never jammed, and fit into a neat blue zippered plastic case which fit very well inside my duffle when I moved to New York. By my calculations I wrote over two millions words on it. The ‘F’ and the ‘J’ keys are worn blank.

Later, when my apartment was robbed and I lost almost everything else of any value that could be easily carried away, the thieves inexplicable left the typewriter behind. It was the most valuable object in that cockroach blighted flat.

The elemental importance to me at the time was that I could easily churn out pages of copy while sitting in my underwear at the small table I had set up in the windowless room by the kitchen where one of the few electric plugs allowed me to keep the light on late into the night without being watched through my curtainless windows, or conversely, being disturbed by Trudy’s professional activities. At least not so much. (She told me once that she could see me wandering back and forth in the rooms in my underwear and wondered if I was crazy or just wanted to peek at what was going across the airshaft. I told her it was just my habit when I was thinking. I think we both knew that I peeked as well.)

The Gist is a footnote in many accounts of the 1960’s, but a prided entry high on the resumes of those who worked there. The magazine had as its major fault the fact that it was against almost everything. Had it been more often for one thing or another, I think it would have survived at least the wind-down of the Vietnam War. However, that critical negative spirit came from its founder, Edgar Nelson, a grandson of the DuPont family who felt a deep-set guilt about his wealth and the family interests in the profits of war. Ancestral sin, like the original, was a common enough idea to anyone raised around Catholics, but this was a specific application of the phenomenon I had not met with before. No one I had ever known had been wealthy enough to worry about such things. Most of the at The Gist, however, had gone to Ivy League schools and reveled in or at least enjoyed that peculiar mixed sense of privilege and guilt.

Yet the primary asset of the publication was not Edgar or his money. That priceless jewel was Paul Winger, the editor, a twenty-three-year old genius out of Harvard, and the originator of the essential idea for The Gist, who had convinced his then roommate, Edgar, that they could change the world together. Paul was already dying when I first knew him. If he knew his fate himself, it might have accounted for the bright burn of his mind and his tireless effort to accomplish as much as he could in the shortest period of time. But he never let on.

Black-haired and white-skinned, at a time when long hair was a requirement of the generation, Paul had the sort of trim haircut that just left enough at the fore to hang down toward his eyes and required a regular sweep of his hand. He was no more than five foot six but always appeared taller. He did not smoke (even tobacco). He did not drink. But he used swear words as adjectives, even though his general vocabulary was superior to that of almost anyone in the office. That facility with language was bolstered by the Latin he had majored in at Harvard along with a modicum Greek. His minor had been journalism, and he had worked for three years at the school newspaper, The Crimson.

Paul could carry on three conversations at once, sometimes in two languages if he were on a phone to Paris or Rome, while writing a diatribe against multinational corporations mining in Katanga. He was especially interested in the ongoing genocide of the Ibo in Biafra. He had never been to Africa. Nor had anyone on the staff ever been to Vietnam. But this posed no empiric handicap. They had each determined, in their own way, and based upon the most sincere engagement of their intellects with like-minded instructors at Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, Brown, U Penn, Princeton, or Columbia, that something must be done. Most importantly of all, the war in Vietnam must end. But the entire motivation for all of them was a bottomless caring for the world at large, and a concomitant hatred for the United States and what ‘Amerika’ was doing to the earth and everyone on it. And Paul, quick minded and large hearted, was their leader, their guide, and their soul in this effort.

The kernel of Paul’s idea, the gist of The Gist, if you will, was the establishment of an ‘alternative news’ network: Gist News Net. GNN would draw selected material from alternative newspapers, from Amsterdam to San Francisco, each week to present the information that AP, UPI, CBS, NBC, and ABC were ignoring, or worse, suppressing.

Other like-minded source publications of similar intent were mostly thin, badly designed, unbound and poorly typeset tabloids by comparison. Those flooded into the office every week from all corners, Minneapolis and Chicago, New Orleans and Kansas City, Boston and Seattle, Houston and L.A., as well as India, England and the various capital cities in Western Europe. Paul read some part of them all, daily, and picked out the best articles, translated those that were not in English, had others edit the ones containing English that was suspect, reducing them thus to the essential first paragraphs of what was then known as ‘Times speak’ (the de facto standard), and re-published the cream. In addition, because he had established a shortlist of writers at many of those journals who had a reasonable command of their language and a need for additional income, he would often assign to them a specific topic, and that would be the featured cover article that filled anywhere from six to twelve pages depending on the available photographs. It was a really marvelous idea, in theory.

For my part, I often felt like a spy in their midst, even though I was reporting only to myself. I don’t believe I was ever actually asked if I had even gone to college while with The Gist. It was probably assumed. And if I was asked, I might have said I had gone to the University of Massachusetts, which was true as far as it went, and no more. I certainly never said I had grown up in ‘South’ Boston, though I might probably have admitted simply to Boston. But they needed a typist, in any event. And once in the door I had no interest in leaving. More so because I had soon developed a strong extracurricular interest in my fellow typist, Daneen.

Daneen Hughes was then of that tall variety of girl who looks perpetually awkward. The parts of her body did not match a Da Vinci diagram. Arms and legs too long. Akimbo was a nice old word for it. In addition, she had thick black hair she let free-fall to her rear-end (the swish of which always caught your eye as she walked away). Having gone to GW in D.C., she was one of the few non-Ivy Leaguers there, along with myself. Her mother was the daughter of a high Kuomintang official with the Chinese Republic in Taiwan and her father had been an American diplomat to China during the regime of old Chiang Kai-shek. She spoke three or four languages and would later work in the State Department. And most importantly, she too could type, which placed her squarely and directly opposite to me.

My first interest had been, perhaps obviously those first days, in Constance Abbott. six-foot creature of Dionysus had been born to be a model for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issues, but had been re-directed by her parents to Radcliff and lesser pursuits. She had fallen in love with Paul Winger along the way, and she was, after him, the driving force in the office.

Before I forget, I should note that a couple of years after The Gist folded, Constance and Paul did in fact finally marry. It was only months before he died, and probably a matter of making final commitments final. I was invited to the wedding, but couldn’t make it.

But in that office, the two of them were all business. You would never assume they were a couple, especially in that Paul was six inches shorter. That is yet another prejudice of certain guys, such as myself. That and a sufficiency of head hair. There is never enough red hair.

So, after having my initial queries to Constance rebuffed with one and two word answers, I settled in behind the Compositor. Daneen’s eyes were visible without moving my own head. And it was Daneen who was my immediate teacher as to how the metal beast worked. It was hard not to pay attention.

 

It is salient to the theme of this effort that my understanding of women at that point in time had been severely limited by the nature of the brief encounters at college that I’d had managed to date, as well as the singular character of my one and only ‘girlfriend’ during high school.

I had been living in New York about three months when Mary Ellen showed up at my apartment. Right at my apartment door. (Someone had busted the lock on the big doors downstairs several nights previously and the building thus was open to unannounced guests.) She was carrying her small leather-trimmed suitcase.

Our relationship had continued over the year I had been away at college. Not without some small difficulties surfacing.

Specifically she wanted to know more precisely when we would be making arrangements at St. Peter’s in South Boston for the ceremony. I had postponed the question as best I could. I had remanded it. I had adjourned it. Reassessed it. Deferred it. Stalled it, and staved it off.

I had to finish college, of course. I had to be able to support her, didn’t I?

I said, “I’d have to be able to earn a living for the both of us.”

She added, “And the children,”

“And the children,” I agreed.

My escape to New York following the end of my freshman year of college had been as quick as I could manage. I was in South Boston for less than a day. I walked over to Athens Street from 6th to stay away from the main thoroughfares and made my way to South Station with a constant fear that Mr. Radziute might be driving home at that very moment and see me.

Mary Ellen’s arrival on Avenue A was about as great a surprise as I had had in my short life up to that date. She might have called in advance, if I had phone, or sent a letter. But, then again, there might have been some purpose in her tactic.

Beauty is ephemeral, so the philosophers think. To age and ashes it tends, they say. I disagree. It is beauty that endures over time. In poetry. In art. In memory it is the beauty that we readily see in those we have loved, not their flaws. We more readily see them as they were.

I suppose, at my best, I might have been for some brief moment, ‘cute.’ I certainly remember being told frequently enough by others, ‘Don’t be cute,’ so it must have come naturally to me for a time. For a homely fellow such as myself, it’s the best we can hope for. The closest I ever came to being handsome was in my mother’s eyes on the day of the prom. I wore a suit for practically the first time and had on one of Tim’s best haircuts. Polished shoes instead a sneakers. I’d shaved the few hairs that dared reveal themselves on my chin. Somewhere I still have the photograph of it. Because the picture was taken with Mary Ellen that day, I put it away soon afterward, here in the house, and it was never lost. She was already starting to look better than pretty. I know for certain, however, that on that night she arrived at my apartment on Avenue A, I was very much afraid. All the future I had dreamed of for myself was now at risk from what dreams she was having.

She is still that beautiful today. Women often do that. Start out pretty and get better with age.

When I was seventeen, beautiful was Ursula Andress and Yvette Mimieux. I hope those two women look nearly as fine right now, but I pass such visions by without the second glance these days. Oddly, I am now more often enchanted by young mothers, especially with their children. That is a perverse augur of my fate.

When I opened the door on Mary Ellen that day in August 1966, she was stunning. This was partly because she was angry. Her anger hardened the lines of her face and hid what remained of the baby fat. She was no longer the girl I had known, but fully a woman. While I still felt like a child.

She didn’t say a word. Her jaw was clenched against the words she wanted to speak.

I said, “Hello.” I suppose my face said more.

There was no need for me to guess how Mary Ellen had found me. It was my mother’s doing. I had sent a letter home with my new address.

For my part, I tried to explain why I was there. I told Mary Ellen, likely in the most prosaic terms and for perhaps the thousandth variation on the theme, that I wanted to be a writer and that I had to strike out on my own and experience life before I could settle down. She said she understood. I told her I had to be able to earn a living before I could even think of having a family. She said she understood. I believe she did. She had heard it all so often, especially every time she began to talk about having children, that most of the excuse was a given. She sat there at my little table and fingered the paper protruding from the typewriter and patiently waited while I tried to excuse myself extemporaneously from having been a lout and a cad.

When I had at last summoned all of what I could possibly prevaricate on my own behalf, she said, “When are you coming home?”

The determination was relentless.

This was a young woman who had left the safe precincts she was familiar with, to chase down her own dream. And at least part of that delusion appeared to be me. To my knowledge, she had never before voyaged beyond Cape Cod or Cape Ann in her life. Her and doggedness might have seemed inescapable.

But I don’t think that inevitability occurred to me at first. What did come to mind was that I had no ‘rubbers.’ I was truly that callous a fellow.

That evening, I took Mary Ellen out to an Italian restaurant on Second Avenue that I had previously espied from a menu in the window as being affordable. She loves Italian food. On the way back I managed to slip into a drug store for some ‘toothpaste.’

The talking was endless. She wanted to know all about my new job. All about what I had done when I first arrived. Or I supposed she did. At that, I managed to cover most of those subjects. Her tales were less wordy. She was working upstairs at Filene’s now. That accounted at least in small part for her new appearance. She had started two new night courses at UMass. At this point she had already surpassed me in college credits and as it happened I would never catch up on that score. She was studying English literature, along with bookkeeping. The English literature was clearly to gain some grasp of the fellow she seemed to be stuck on. The bookkeeping would make it possible for her to support herself if that fellow turned out to be the jerk he was.

Then, out of the blue, as if it would naturally occur in our conversation, she asked me what I thought of James Joyce. She did not understand the man and wanted my thoughts on his work.

I told her, of course, in too many words.

Then she asked my opinion of T. S. Eliot.

I actually kept that short. I was not a fan.

We talked over wine. We talked over dessert. We talked over coffee. We talked almost all the way home again, except for when I made my detour at the drugstore.

 

In the small suitcase she had carried with her, Mary Ellen had very few clothes, but among those was a negligee. I had never seen her in one before. Besides the ‘heavy-petting’ done in movie theatres and once in the second balcony at the Boston Pops Christmas show, our lovemaking had always been accomplished under difficult circumstances—the uncompromising spaces of a hot or cold automobile, depending on the season, in the basement TV room at house, or once in the shower at home when my parents were away at a funeral. (I did not know the deceased.)

The last time we had made love was when she had come to visit me again at college and I had forced my roommate Janik out into the winter cold of a New England spring and we had played his records all night long.

Some time shortly before midnight, after managing to get a hold again on one of her hands across the little table I had set up for writing, and getting a kiss for the effort, she stood up and told me to turn out the light. I did not object.

Something pale wafted in the semi-dark as I shed my own clothes. Then, unexpectedly, Mary Ellen pulled back the sheet over the window and looked out. What I observed in the ambient light was a vision of loveliness I had never seen before. An angel of desire. An emerald green negligee barely hid what curved beneath, but more, magnified it beyond mere female nakedness.

She said, “Does she do that all the time?”

I was halted in my own reverie. I said “Who?”

“Your neighbor.”

I understood with no more explanation. A little humor seemed called for. I said, “Trudy is very active in community services.”

Mary Ellen turned away and looked through the dark at me. Her eyes were dark above the gossamer of her negligee.

“Have you met her?”

“Yes. But not for her community services, you understand. It was only because someone was trying to kill her. I went over to try and stop it.”

This brought a jump in her voice, “You did? What happened?”

With this she turned on the light. Everything I had imagined in the near darkness was true, but was now suffused with the flushed colors of the flesh beneath. I was breathless, but I managed to answer.

I told her all about my adventure. I probably embellished slightly.

Meanwhile, I was sitting naked in all my glory at the side of the bed.

I suppose this is something women get used to. Naked guys are seldom much to look at. Not like other animals. The male lion is a truly handsome beast. In the avian world, the Mr. Bird is usually the more splendid in appearance. I have often speculated that, if our species were truly capable of being rational, it would have died out long ago or else developed some religious rites whereby the male remains completely clothed during intercourse. Except of course for a few strategic openings.

As it was, Mary Ellen stood there in the light from my writing table and easily prodded from me a complete history of the singularly heroic moment in my life. After which she rewarded me for a bravery I have often wished was truly mine.

 

 

 

 

  1. The samurai and the tiger

 

 

Some lines, remembered at the oddest times, make me smile in spite of myself.

“There is no greater solitude than that of the samurai unless it is that of the tiger in the jungle . . .”

When I first read those words captioned on the screen in a small theatre in Montreal in 1968, I started to laugh. More a guffaw, I suppose. The woman I was with actually slapped me for my sudden rudeness. I think it was the first time I had ever been slapped by a woman and it put dark thoughts into my head, which have lingered ever since. You cannot attack political heroes with abandon. Or religious figures. Or movie stars for that matter, if there is a difference.

I remained in my seat that evening and watched the second feature, Louis Bunuel’s Belle de Jour, while my companion went back to the hotel. Watching the movements of Catherine Deneuve was as close as I was going to come to getting any sex that night.

I was told forty years ago that I was a ‘libertarian.’ I did not then know the meaning of the word, but assumed it had some relationship with my sex life. I think I answered the comment with a ‘Thank you.’

As it turned out, the meaning was far less specific. It covered every kind of philosophical licentiousness known to mankind, or womankind for that matter. But I happily adopted the label as a perfect cover, for all of its vagueness. At the time there were anarchists who called themselves libertarian. There were even socialists who found a way to twist the dialectic sufficiently to grab ahold of the word. There were fusionists and mutualists, agorists and consequentialists, autarchists and Objectivists. That last one is capitalized because it is the personal philosophy of Ayn Rand. Her ‘property,’ so to speak. If you call yourself an Objectivist, she owns you, or her estate does.

My care was only that the word offered a seeming rational for my doing what I wanted to do. Nothing more. When asked for my political faith, I would answer, ‘libertarian,’ and the questioner, if they were bright, invariably turned away to the safety of another subject.

The key for me was that under that rubric I was able to speak my mind. Right or wrong, I could freely express my opinion. It was then the season for that. But sadly, and especially over recent years, that unique liberty has slowly diminished. From the days of overt ‘fascists’ like Richard Nixon and Lyndon Baines Johnson, we have fallen on the petard of popular rule, otherwise known as the dictatorship of the lowest common denominator (they use the euphemism ‘proletariat’). It is, in fact, the primary cause of my being in a small third-floor room in South Boston on this day. Except for my extravagant purchase of a lifetime membership to the Boston Athenaeum years ago, done in a moment of ungirdled enthusiasm over finding a copy there of Head Hunters of the South Seas while first visiting with a friend, I might as well be in a prison cell. The lawyers have taken everything and the liens on my meager estate would have even appropriated this place, my father’s house; that is, if the probate court had found the time to resolve the differences between myself and my brother, Eddy.

As a lawyer once explained to me, the laws of libel were originally meant to replace dueling. That’s why the consequences are so harsh. When I accuse an editor of my work in print of being fascist—one who may not be adequately described as a public figure—I am liable for this calumny, but if someone else accuses me of the same thing as part of a criticism of my writing, I am fair game.

The fact that Mikael Blomkvist is thrown into prison for libel early on in the Stieg Larsson novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was what kept me reading that dark meander. Certainly not the sex, which was served cold. I wanted to see how the fellow resolved his problem. Of course, the resolution does not get him back the several months of his life he must serve in jail. Nor is the recent legal case against me waged in any part by a conspiracy. I said what I said, and wrote it for print to be sure. But the judgment was that of a court of law in a state and country where law is not meant to protect liberty but to insulate the powers that be. Nor would any legal victory get back the larger career that is now well behind me. Those times are past. The zeitgeist has changed. Safety and ‘diversity’ (by which they mean conformity and accord), have replaced the arts of living, and lying with abandon for the sake of entertainment is verboten. The Skin is Not the Flesh, a political novella I wrote a few years ago about the whole mess, found no takers. I threw it up on the internet for free and I don’t think it has been seen or heard from since.

However, the passim references to my politics throughout this narrative are not intended to incite, but to explain. I am not seeking support, searching out followers, or begging for defenders. Most readers will not agree with me on any or all of that. I thought it important only to establish my own ground. If the work does not explain itself, there is no point to it. I am not a ‘modern’ artist open to interpretation, nor ‘post modern’ denying even the possibility of absolute truth. If you don’t understand what I am saying, the fault is not necessarily yours. It might only be the finer matter that I was not speaking to you to begin with. Let that be. Either you are entertained by what I say, agreed or not, or not.

What disturbs me deeply is the use of politics to determine what truth is. I enjoy the political interpolation of facts. That’s fair play. But to assess what is fact and what is not, according to a particular political faith, is outrageous.

If the government wants to silence a writer, libel is the sure-fire means. The government can wage its case with your own tax money while you struggle to pay a lawyer who specializes in billing at the rate of five hundred dollars an hour so his research assistant can do a database search and come up with excuses for why you shouldn’t be put in prison rather than for any actual case history that might support freedom of speech. (After all, that is right there in the Constitution and would require no billable time at all to find.) Most publications would prefer to avoid the annoyance and the cost. Newspapers and magazines understand that today their readers could give a damn. They want to be entertained and unless you have excellent gallows humor, dimples beneath the stubble, or large breasts, your dire metaphysical situation will only serve as a prompt to click along to another story.

Seriously, for the moment, one solution to the morass of libel law would be simple enough, and thus will certainly not be used. Let the loser pay. If the cost of frivolous legal actions are weighed on the shoulders of the loser in the case, fewer will be filed. I might then have some hope at the end of this lingering trial. But that’s not the way it works in our time. I would afterward have to file a lawsuit for damages. More lawyer fees. And then file a complaint for non-payment. The lawyers will be paid and the devil will get his due.

Surely, I have used the internet. I use it now. It’s unavoidable. But there is no actual freedom in it. It is a virtual struggle for virtual truth, in a virtual life, and virtual defense. I must admit, perhaps, that I am more fond of the taste of my beer than of its appearance.

While the internet has resulted in a free-for-all gabfest of opinion and diatribe, the apparent freedom is a chimera, an illusion created by mere numbers and the sheer quantity of interests. The obfuscating quantity of offerings alone insures that only those with the best publicity or most visually viral oddity are seen. Like an Italian election with a dozen candidates for a minor position. Most people, by which I mean far more than ninety percent of those who use the internet, seldom leave a few pre-selected channels except when pursuing pornographic pictures of small children. And the primary web providers, from Google and YouTube to Facebook, Amazon, and e-Bay work very hard to manage and control content. This is what prompts their rabid support of ‘net neutrality.’ That ‘Good Housekeeping seal’ offers a veneer of virtual safety which the public embraces and allows the wolves to watch over the sheep while paying huge sums into the coffers of politicians to keep them in control. But most of what is offered by those larger providers is garbage, just as most of what was published forty years ago with ink on paper was crap. Only then, anyone could print whatever else they wanted.

I know about this too, of course. I produced more than a little of that myself, I think. But it is no accident that my troubles now so neatly reflect my stumbles then. It is obvious that I have learned precious little.

A lawyer for Mr. Nelson came to my desk at The Gist one morning to first explain the rules to me. To my mind, I was only using language that was common parlance in that open office at the time when real fascists like Johnson and Nixon were in power and William F. Buckley was called a crypto-Nazi by a man who advocated the slaughter of his political enemies and ‘nigger,’ ‘wop,’ ‘spic,’ ‘kike,’ and ‘mick’ were acceptable epithets in impolite company. Only, I seldom wrote about national politics. My ‘department’ was film and theatre. Hadn’t I given Bunuel very high marks for making good use of Deneuve’s attributes as an actress? Perhaps, but I had made the mistake of using more problematic adjectives to describe the other French movie I had seen that night at that special screening in Montreal—the Melville film, Le Samourai.

Naturally I thought I was being cute, making reference to something French that was not even available in the US at the time. (No other publication in New York would get the jump on reviewing that film for another few years, as it turned out.) I thought it relevant to make the comparison to Bonnie and Clyde, and a glorification of the killer mentality which I found disturbing. I spent more time actually comparing Alain Delon, the star, to Clint Eastwood in The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly.

My mistake was in casting darker allusions on a French director and its producers. The plot had been so silly I would have found it unbearable if I had not been in company with Daneen in the first place. The whole pretext of the trip to Montreal was, for me, to have my expenses covered while she and I had a good time. But she loved the film. She loved all French films if I remember correctly, no matter how nonsensical the plots. And it was probably for this reason that she eventually married a dentist in New Jersey.

 

At that time, I was only imagining old age. I am still not sure what exactly it is. Am I old yet? Certainly it is a ridiculous figure I cut now. The gangly boy has gone to paunch. The parts do not work as they once did. I am reminded once again of the Hogarth portrait of the lame and dissolute in that wondrous series of panels for the Rake’s Progress, where the fresh young country innocent, gone off to make his fame and fortune in the city, is seduced by flesh and feasting. I am more akin now to the fellow in the later panels, though I don’t believe I got my share of the flesh and feasting, and I don’t think I’ve yet qualified for the Bedlam that was his fate in the end. I will stave off total dissolution as best I can.

Of a morning now I dress in my armor for my battles. First the back-brace, actually just a common gut container to avoid hernias and used by all the employees at Home Depot—plastic stays in a casing of black elastic fabric with Velcro swatches to fasten it around my waist and suspenders to keeping it above my hips (which are narrower now, I think, than what is above). A sort of knight’s girdle, if you will. But it lets me sit before the altar of my computer monitor for several hours without significant back pain. Then the neck-brace, merely a shapely foam collar, which inhibits the slump of my upper vertebrae and lessens the severity of my headaches, but would obviously not effectively deflect an opponent’s sword or lance (I was always given to slumping and my father warned me of the inevitable result). Lastly the wrist support to offset the carpal tunnel burn and sting that began half a dozen years ago and comes upon me now as the organic byproduct and consequence of a human body part constantly pestering a machine, in this case a computer keyboard. (This began not long after I stopped using a typewriter because of arthritis in my knuckles.) At least my glasses are no thicker than they were, but they are now bifocals.

This is not to notice the nifty pillow that helps keep me sitting up straight, or the chair itself which my friend Paul calls ergonomic but is truly no more or less comfortable than the old four-wheeled Steelcase swiveler I had at The Gist, forty years ago. My butt once barely occupied half of that near mythic marvel of ample green cushions and grey metal that so often absorbed the sudden jolts of intemperate youth in my rising and falling with careless abandon, allowing me to lean all the way back to put my feet up on the desk to snooze for five minutes at a spell, with a fabric that magically repelled spilled coffee, and never protested as much as this handmade piece of the carpenter’s art I sit on now.

But once upon a time or two, Daneen did finally succumb to my charms. As is often the case of relationships between men and women, it was more her choice than my resolution that accomplished the fact.

Nixon was President by then and had failed to do anything to relieve the suffering of the Ibo in Nigeria. There was oil money involved in those politics which involved various European nations more than the United States, but Paul was determined that it was some hidden quid pro quo on the part of the administration which allowed America to place its newest missiles in Germany in exchange for not disturbing the cash flow from whatever faction it was that felt endangered by Ibo independence. Without skipping a beat, the cover caricatures of Lyndon Baines Johnson were replaced by Richard Milhous Nixon. The American casualties in Vietnam, which had temporarily dropped after the debacle of the Tet Offensive due to the devastating losses incurred by the Viet Cong (though the very opposite had been reported in the American press), had begun to rise again. The use of land mines had increased on heavily trafficked public roads there. Civilians were being killed and maimed by the thousand every month. All that is fresh enough in my mind even now to once again write some nasty essay about the loss of children and their childhood and those childlike beliefs we all once held. But middle age makes a chimera of us all who survive to see it, like a grotesque worthy of Victor Hugo. And Daneen, alikened in mind now to Esmeralda, is forever young. And it even seems to be a long time ago now that I began to count up the losses that have I incurred since.

 

Very few people today would remember the reviews I wrote those few years at The Gist if some of them hadn’t been included in the Viking anthology of ’60s literature a few years back. But they played their role in what was to come.

I was expected to critique movies where death and destruction were offered as entertainment. But this was beyond the meager talents of a raw youth attempting to deal with the conflicted interests of a newly inflated conscience, an enlarged ego, and a suddenly swollen id. I remember well comparing Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch starring Ernest Borgnine, William Holden and Robert Ryan, against Henry Hathaway’s True Grit starring John Wayne, Glenn Campbell and Kim Darby. Hathaway was and is a much under-appreciated master of art form (his hokey Trail of the Lonesome Pine and Shepherd of the Hills, filmed thirty years before, were both on my list of the better movies I had seen) and though this new one had its flaws, it had absorbed me far more at that time than the more recent remake by the Coen Brothers could. But in both cases, the lost nuances of the Charles Portis novel were my greatest beef. Good novels seldom make good films.

I noted then, “It took a ham-fisted director to get the full flavor from a porcine actor like Ernest Borgnine, but Peckinpah’s ‘McHale the Bandito’ was not convincing as a sociopath . . . I sincerely hope that William Holden’s apparent headache cleared up soon after he left the set, but there is little hope for Robert Ryan’s perpetual scowl and sour stomach. Perhaps he should have done a few bedroom comedies when he was still young enough to pretend a better humor.”

We received more than several letters from twits who had read the Kael review at The New York Times and decided that Peckinpah was a genius dealing in allegory and metaphor and not just “attempting to make a spaghetti western to prop up a sagging career.” I was obviously an idiot.

            John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy starring Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight, disturbed me in ways no other film, excepting The Pawnbroker, had up until that time. Because I was still living in the Lower East Side, I was then a daily witness to much of what was very well recreated in that film, and the acting of Hoffman and Voight had caught me as if they were characters on the fringes of my own life. Along with a few others of the type, I knew the likes of Ratso Rizzo and Joe Buck. I saw them everyday on the street. I started my review, “I passed the salt and pepper on along the counter while eating my eggs and toast at Mom’s on the corner of Avenue A and St. Mark’s Place this morning. Ratso was there. He uses ketchup on his eggs. I turned away from his cough.” These were people I thought I knew.

By comparison to Midnight Cowboy, Peter Fonda’s Easy Rider struck me as shallow and riddled with stereotype and caricature. The office, however, appeared to love it and several posters for the film adorned the walls for months afterward. True, the incoherent story was partly saved by the acting of someone I had never noticed before, Jack Nicholson. But I was especially and wholly unconvinced by the performance of Peter Fonda. Later that year I saw this phenomenon again with his sibling, at a screening of Sydney Pollack’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? “The empty social commentary was not improved by removing Miss Fonda from her see-through plastic Barbarella suit, because she has still managed to skip her acting lessons in the mistaken idea that such talent is genetic.”

            On a different plane, Joshua Logan (who had reached the pinnacle of his career ten years before with Bus Stop and Picnic, “had reason to indulge in a therapeutic brain rinse to check insipient dementia” after making Paint Your Wagon, which starred Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood. Showing my full powers of prognostication, I predicted that “Clint Eastwood’s career is for all intents and purposes over and he would best go back to the plains of Spain and pray that Sergio Leone will make it rain again.”

            True, Arthur Penn’s Alice’s Restaurant with Arlo Guthrie, was not the embarrassment Joshua Logan so recently committed. Penn had managed to make something out of nothing, a true precursor of Seinfeld, and for that magic he deserved great praise. But “another Bonnie and Clyde was what was wanted, not a fruit salad.” (Instead, a couple of years later, he gave up trying to see the world through his own eyes and gave us the Hollywood tripe and cliché of Little Big Man, which only managed to suddenly put that wunderkind Dustin Hoffman back in mortal shoes “after flying high for years on the plastic fumes of The Graduate.”)

By that autumn, feeling the full frustration from the limitations of my position at the magazine as typist, movie maven and pot-hole filler, I wrote a lengthy piece on the effects of the politics of war on blue collar America as I understood it from the families of the dead and injured boys I’d grown up with in South Boston, rather than the much expected review of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid which had been my assignment.

More than raindrops fell on my head from that. Paul threatened to fire me for the first time. Out loud.

He seldom raised his voice. It was unnecessary. No one wanted to dispute his authority, and we seldom disagreed with his decisions. Usually the yelling we heard was at vendors who were late with the delivery of supplies or distributors who had dropped the magazine because of poor sales. Now he stood over me where I sat at my desk and told me I was ‘fuckin’ nuts.’ His words.

“Everybody and his fuckin’ mother wants to write feature articles. We already have a backlog four fuckin’ months long!”

His face had gone pink before he turned away and walked back to his office.

I was suddenly thankful again that he needed an accurate typesetter.

It was just about then that I found out that the feature articles on Vietnam, or the failures of integration in Detroit, or the plight of farm workers in California, were producing a dozen to two dozen letters a week. My filler movie review on The Wild Bunch had brought in over two hundred.

Ostensibly I was being paid about five cents a word for my reviews. I did receive an additional check each week from Mr. Ritts, who served as both bookkeeper and accountant. But I was also working overtime to get late copy typeset and ready by Tuesday. I had even learned to do paste-up to help with the meeting of deadlines when other hands were not available. But though I always made note of the additional time on the sheet posted at Mr. Ritts’ door I never saw those hours reflected in a paycheck.

And then, out of the blue and just before Christmas, my piece on ‘The War in America,’ showed up as the cover story for the next week’s issue. Paul walked the bookkeeper’s check over to my desk himself. Daneen had set the entire article on her Compositor and kept the secret. I was flabbergasted.

He actually shook my hand. It was an odd gesture at the time, I thought. Not usually done. Feels odder still, now, so many years later.

Within the hour I had invited Daneen out for dinner and a movie to celebrate. It was she who insisted I come up to her apartment afterward for a drink. Being invited up to a woman’s apartment for a drink was the most mature adventure I had ever embarked upon to that moment. I see this now as an occasion of sea-change rather than sin, yet in fact, I remember almost nothing of it. Or better understood, I recall as much of the next few hours of my life as I now do of the day I was born.

But that handshake with Paul cannot be forgotten. It felt as if I were making a bargain for my soul. It instilled an immediate intent in me to write something more important. For the first time in my life I felt a new possession of my own self. As if the ownership of a property had been passed. A contract made which could not be broken.

 

At this moment in 1967, I was twenty years old, a mere child, in fact, in the fashion of that misbegotten century, while society postponed the more necessary bar mitzvah for youth, and ignored the inevitable consequences of hormones, dispensing moral condoms on the street corners instead. Much of my brain in that moment was still occupied by the beliefs and misunderstandings that I had grown up with in the 1950s, a specific historical period that extended from some unrecorded moment in 1949 until the Zaprudered end of 1963.

I have several times written of my belief that the still-frames of the cheap Kodak film shot on a second rate Bell & Howell by an amateur that day in Dallas, and which so closely documented the precise end of the 1950s, were given more immediate power by the in-common experience of a television age which had already recast our brains during the years immediately before. Black frame by black frame. It was a mere show. Another entertainment. A twentieth century Viewmaster stereoscope version of an assassination. Brains bursting in air, giving proof that our flag was not there.

“And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
            That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion,
            A home and a country, should leave us no more?
            Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
            No refuge could save the hireling and slave
            From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:”

 

We knew very well then that the Disney delusion of our childhoods was over but also, and just as surely, that we were wholly unprepared to deal with what would come next. Certainly the final refrain of the stanza was false:

“And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave,
            O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

 

And in the fourth stanza of that quarter-known anthem (had we understood even the half of it, we might have had a chance) is the motto, ‘In God is our trust.’ This is not at all the same sentiment which was assumed by the ‘In God we trust’ that emblazons our monies now. That later permutation simply begs for the Jean Shepherd addendum, “All others pay cash.”

‘E pluribus unum’ had been our accepted national motto before, ‘out of many, one,’ but in my childhood this tradition was changed by edict to the more fanciful slogan, ‘In God we trust,’ precisely because this was not the case by that time and everyone knew it. That was the joke, wasn’t it? What better debasement of a sentiment could there be than in holding these words on the coins in our hands as a token of the carnage they’d wrought?

But for myself, the context of the moment was more immediate. I was given the vicarious experience of a friend’s reality to warp my own delusions.

God, it appeared, had no mercy.

 

 

 

 

  1. The future of the past, or Dr. Kronkheit’s puttin’ on the Ritts

 

 

Someone once said, there are no cheap seats at a memoir. The view is the same for all, good or bad . . . Actually, that may have been me. One of my characters might have said it. Anyway, it does sound like me.

In any case, it was some years later that this was proved to me again at a time when the front counter of my bookshop was raised by about 10 inches so I could keep an eye on things. This perspective also often gave me the sense of being on a stage, while looking out on an audience distracted by other things. As if the stage was reversed and the audience was the play.

Two men stopped in front of the bookshop window and studied the display of art books I had there. The window glass is like the head of a drum and both men had leaned in close to see better against the glare, and their conversation, though not loud, was broadcast throughout the store and difficult to ignore.

“Look at the shvantz on that one.”

“It’s alright, but I wouldn’t brag.”

“Because you can’t.”

“At least I can see mine when I look down to do my business. You haven’t seen yours in thirty years.”

“The only reason you can see yours is because you’re pulling at it all the time to make it longer. At least I do more pushing. It may not be long but it’s got the girth to do what needs to be done.”

There was a short silence.

“You remember you got the splinter in your ass from the wall at the bathhouse at Coney Island when you were trying to put your swim trunks on?”

“I do. I do . . . What?”

“The nurse told you the next time you should just stay on top.”

The man looked delighted with the recollection. “Ah! Yes! And I was thinking she must know something about that subject . . . Wait. How did you know about that?”

“She told me.”

The incident reminded me then of something that started well before your time, or mine. There was once a comedy team in vaudeville by the name of Smith and Dale. Their most famous routine, which you and I have never actually seen because it was a stage performance in a venue long since past by our own time, though often imitated, was known as “Dr. Kronkheit and His Only Living Patient.”

The skit went like this: Dale, as Dr. Kronkheit, comes into the hospital room and finds his patient, Smith, in bed.

SMITH: Are you a doctor?

            DALE: I’m a doctor.

            SMITH: I’m dubious.

DALE: I’m glad to know you, Mr. Dubious.

What followed was a series of questions and answers as Dr. Kronkheit attempted to determine the exact cause of the patient’s illness, with appropriate pregnant pauses to allow the audience to react. Like:

SMITH: It’s terrible. I walk around all night.

            DALE: Ah! You’re a somnambulist!

            SMITH: No, I’m a night watchman.

But the key moment, the key lines and the words that the audience had heard many times and repeated to one another a hundred times more, and now waited for again as if they had never heard them before was:

SMITH: Doctor it hurts when I do this.

            DALE: Don’t do that.

As you can see, much of vaudeville humor was in the timing and the sight gag. It reads less well than it might. Much the same can be said for the Marx Brothers or W.C. Fields, but those fellows have benefited from the immortality of their film careers. Smith and Dale were strictly vaudeville. Fortunately I had customers in Brooklyn who were old enough to remember the act and had it related to me in detail. More than once.

In the 1960s the nation was living through a very long Smith and Dale routine which had taken a dark twist, with the national conscience ostensibly in the hands of the 6 pm CBS News with Walter Cronkite, then affectionately known as ‘Uncle Walter’ for reasons I never understood, but known to my own readers as Wally. He had a trim mustache and a comfortably jowly look, coupled with the requisite deep and authoritative voice which was de rigueur at the time (much the way the shallow tenor of our current age is the new template for earnestness), and I assumed this appearance was the reason for the popularity of his television persona and the subconscious belief that he purveyed the truth. In fact he was a partisan his whole career, no more even-handed than anyone writing at The Gist. I’ve read that he had been a fine and brave correspondent in World War Two, often serving at the front with men in battle, but he had that Midwestern small mindedness (so different than East Coast small mindedness) within him that fixes on a thing and doesn’t let it go. As is so often the case with small minds without restraints, when his power as a news anchor and national voice grew, his malicious nature came through.

While reporting from Kansas City during the Roosevelt depression of the 1930s, and caught in the algae bloom of socialism of that time, he had become fond of the idea that government can solve all problems. He was a man of such enthusiasms. Like sailing his yacht on Long Island Sound or lending verbal support to a coal miner’s strike. And so it was when later Wally fell in love with the American space program.

When mankind first landed on the moon, Wally was there, on the television screen, reporting every breathless moment (just as he had done for the Kennedy assassination—but that’s another story). His visible and audible devotion for the great national project was infectious and his popularity was enormous.

As it happened, our own editor-in-chief, Paul Winger, was unsure how to handle the event. To support the ‘space race’ would mean supporting the efforts of the same government he opposed on nearly every other issue of the day. Circulation for The Gist had dropped since the Tet Offensive, and Paul was being confronted each week by Mr. Ritts, and the unfortunate figures on the bottom line.

And as it happened, I was much against the space program, for other reasons, and had often expressed the opinion, most strongly after the deaths of Ed White, Roger Chaffee and Gus Grissom, which had occurred just after I had begun work at the magazine. In early July of 1969, preparing for the great event of mankind’s landing on the moon, and knowing my opinion, Paul asked me if I might have anything else to say.

I plunked a 10,000 word manuscript on his desk the next morning.

Not all of it written in haste. I had been working on something in the hope that he might like it and publish it, perhaps in a series. The idea had started, not from my dislike of the incredible waste and boondoggle at NASA, which was alone sufficient to aid me in carrying it out, but more directly from a conversation I had overheard between Mr. Ritts and Paul concerning the Gist budget, with our own Chancellor of the Exchequer informing him that there was no more money “to buy anything from anyone,” and that he would have to make do with the backlog of manuscripts already accepted until further notice.

I was on salary. I required no additional compensation. In fact, I loved what I was doing so much, I felt overpaid. The advance publicity in other media for the landing on the moon was already non-stop, with Wally touting the tightening and turning of every $100 screw each night on the six o’clock news like a pimp on a doorstep.

I have never carried a camera with me. My opinion is that it interferes with my own immediate appreciation of an event, which I rather want to put into words, not pictures, though I have always enjoyed the visual imagery of a Life magazine for its own sake and greatly miss that weekly display of the still-captured raw moment now, most of all in our new age of constant re-creation and recreation through CGI. But still, I would love to have a picture of Paul’s face from that precise instant for my wall, when I dropped that manuscript on his desk. I am most proud of the memory.

His jaw did not drop. His face was frozen in the angst of the instant ongoing just before that one as he complained about the decreasing length of so many pieces: the average twelve to eighteen hundred word feature article had become a mere six to eight hundred as our writers produced less and less while their pay checks were delayed further and further. His eyes went briefly to my face through the splay of his forelock, without a movement of his head. There was no sweep of the hand to brush the hair back. The hand instead went forward and turned back the front page, and the next, and the next. I stood without moving for about 1200 words or so and then turned to go.

He said, “Thanks.” He did not look back up.

My argument was simply that the United States Government had established NASA for military purposes to counter the Soviet space program, but then, with the help of Wally and a willing press, turned it into a matter of national manifest destiny and national glory. In fact, the cost was outrageous. Budget overruns were a way of life at Houston and Cape Kennedy (in hindsight a mere speck of blood compared with the open artery we suffer from today). Texas grew rich from taxes while the Bronx festered in poverty. The cost of a single booster rocket would build and fund a large new urban grammar school for years to come. I supposed that, if the NASA budget to put a man on the moon had been used instead to rebuild that entire borough of New York as a showcase model of modern ideals and current technology, even with the overpaying of corrupt contractors for decent housing and well-lit streets, parks, playgrounds and better schools, it could have been a new ‘garden city,’ all for about the cost of that ‘great leap’ to the moon, and the children in the Bronx would not be dying of tuberculosis and eating rat feces and lead paint chips in their oatmeal. And, too, that those three brave astronauts would still be alive, no matter their own desires to be the first on the moon.

Understand, this was not because I was against going to the moon. Just the opposite. I was begrudging the idea that it should be paid for as a national boondoggle instead of opening the thing to bid and the competition of all those companies that were happily inflating the cost of every screw.

Paul ran the piece in parts over the next three issues with photos supplied by NASA itself. By the third installment, circulation of the Gist had doubled from a low of 60,000 copies to the all time high of 120,000. More importantly, his editorial budget had been salvaged.

I would like to think I was the cause of this salvation. But the actual reason of the rise in circulation likely had little to do with any brilliance, grace, or edge to my writing. It was all because of a dig I had made on Uncle Wally. The first installment, appearing two weeks before the moon landing in July, had named Walter Cronkite himself as the prime villain in the media frenzy over the moon race. The cover, a naughty piece of British style cartooning featuring a moon-faced prostitute beneath a streetlamp telling a very Wally-like looking customer what her price was, in billions, and him answering “Sure, if that’s the way it is,” and with that imagery set against a darkly silhouetted cityscape of slum with a rat peering out at the corner of a broken fence.

Who knew Uncle Wally even read The Gist? Perhaps it was a leftover habit from his pre-yacht proletarian protest days. But to counter the affront, in a fit of pique, and in full dudgeon, Cronkite used all of two minutes of his broadcast time that week on the ‘Evening News’ to attack The Gist as a scurrilous piece of communist agitprop. Suddenly tens of millions of people actually knew we existed.

As Dr. Kronkheit might say, “It was a gift.”

The Saturday night following the third installment of my attack on the profligacy and corruption of the space program, with a deluge of interest keeping the phones in the office ringing non-stop, our accountant-cum-bookkeeper, Mr. Ritts, invited us all down to his Greenwich Village apartment for a party.

An openly gay man and secret Bohemian (the latter I suppose because it might have cast some doubt on his more hard headed accounting practices), George Ritts lived with his partner, Harold Norman, in a second floor loft above a garage near Greenwich Street, at the far western frontier of the Village. George had originally been a bookkeeper with another DuPont family interest somewhere in Delaware, but had come to The Gist along with Edgar Nelson to keep an eye on things and, likely, make sure that not too much of the family money was squandered.

At work, Mr. Ritts wore French cuffs, silver stick pinned ties, mahogany wingtips with the gleam of frequent polish, and what I was to learn were called ‘bespoke’ suits made especially for him by Strawbridge’s. His speech was of the high Yankee sort you generally only hear in the suburbs of Philadelphia. His face was small and his brain large, with the skull around it balding. The brain pressed at his eyes, making them bulge. His cheeks were sallow, and with the loss of hair, made him appear unhealthy. His concave chest gave his shoulders a slight slump, and when he was unhappy and his tongue worried his teeth, as it often did when he was at a loss for words, the shoulders would slump further, giving him an awful appearance, which could not be camouflaged by his excellent hand-tailored clothes.

He also had a wicked sense of humor and enjoyed standing by his office door at the edge of the room and commenting in sotto voce on our shenanigans. He had quickly become something of a soul mate for me in that place because I, in turn, could express my own thoughts off-the-cuff on the living theatre of what boiled before us and know that he would appreciate them. His laugher was a bit high pitched and often brought other eyes around in our direction to see what was so funny while the world was falling to pieces.

My desk happened to be only steps from the door to his office. I think, in retrospect, that he must have read some of my pieces and had an affinity for my way of thinking more than for the general opinion of the magazine staff. But we never spoke of politics, or at least he never did. He believed that ideology and bookkeeping did not mix, any more than it did with the life-style he happily followed after hours.

An anecdote here may make my appreciation of the situation clear. I had seen the office at the The Gist on several occasions prior to the first day I was officially employed. I had seen the way the staff dressed—guys in jeans and t-shirts, girls in jeans or flair pants and colorful frilled blouses. My contrariness was immediate. I could not give up my jeans too easily—I had two pair and only one clean at a time. But my stock of flannel shirts was not as impressive and inadequate to the summer months. The day I was hired I went to Korvettes and bought myself a package of two white shirts and wore one on that first day. Most of my first hour on the job was spent at the same desk I would occupy for the next three years, filling out various forms for Mr. Ritts. When I thought the blank spaces had been adequately filled, I turned and brought them to his door.

He motioned me in, looked the forms over, squinted back at me several times as I waited, and at last said, “Did you remember to take the cardboard out of that shirt before you put it on?”

The immediate resonance to every shirt my mother had ever bought me and I had worn directly from the package made me feel quite at home.

To me, then, the party at Mr. Ritts’ loft was a revelation. This single second floor room was at the top of a dark and narrow stairway so that the emergence into the light was doubly magnified. The first impression was as if an entire 3rd floor above had been removed leaving twenty-foot ceilings throughout. Fans turned slowly like set decoration from Casablanca. The space stretched from back to front, side to side, windows to windows, unimpeded except by various pieces of furniture chosen for the fact that none was anything like another. Heavy curtains were suspended above our heads (Harold was a stage manager for a theatre on 49th Street) or on runners in-between, and were used to break off areas when and where necessary. He said the lack of physical walls was to comply with a fire code, but it appeared to be another stroke of design genius, totally overcoming the usual cramped space of a New York apartment. Artwork was everywhere, most of it suspended mid-air, from the ceiling, and again in no particular style but representing anything George or Harold had taken a fancy to, from medieval iconography to Warhol. Music, mostly Latin jazz (and that being primarily Brazilians like guitarist Joao Gilberto and singer pianist Antonio Carlos Jobim and much of the voice of Elizete Cardoso) filled the air along with the smell of tobacco and grass and substances I had no prior knowledge of, mingled with perfumes I had never whiffed before. I had seen the film Black Orpheus only recently there in New York and the music alone was still incredibly new to me.

I am not sure that, until that evening, I even knew George’s first name. He was always Mr. Ritts to me. But it was on the buzzer, along with that of his partner. He answered the door wearing a nearly iridescent Hawaiian shirt that hurt the eyes. He was suddenly a different man. The tie and suit were gone. And he had a smile that revealed no hint of the pain he so often suffered with witticism at the office.

It was that very night I actually first learned about mixed drinks. I was twenty-one.

 

 

 

 

  1. Hits and Misandries

 

 

Some of my writing over the years has been in the form of the essay, and most of those were directed at matters of seemingly urgent interest at the time—skirmishes in that larger cultural war that was being so thoroughly and completely lost—but of little consequence now. I have since joined the ranks of those who see the deluge coming on and have started taking swimming lessons.

In effect, I have found new sympathy with those critics of humanity, like Mencken, Bierce and Twain, who began as commentators and became curmudgeons worried with the thought that the human race itself was the problem. Misanthropy seems justified given the slaughter and mayhem, never mind the daily ordinary meanness. But then I became anxious over the lower ranks of those I had joined. And more particularly the male of the species.

The misandry one finds in many intellectuals is the same sort of self-hate one can often see in children. They fail to meet some expectation, some standard set by adults, and, without fully understanding that the fair excuse for this inadequacy is their simple childhood lack of experience and education, they blame themselves for some innate flaw or larger crime. If they are observant of others around them, they may then get the idea that they are not less capable than others, and that people in general are to be feared. The hubris of believing that we can shape everything within our reach is not far off that of blaming ourselves for every failure. I have certainly been guilty of this fault in the past and perhaps still carry some of that load of mischief now.

Another thesis of mine that caused some negative attention to be paid to The Gist was that the United States was a failed experiment: that the nation which was ours was as pitiable and stupid as a Frankenstein’s monster throwing the child into the water along with her flowers. We intended to do right, but more often did wrong. All men were created equal and endowed by ‘their creator’ with certain unalienable rights . . . that is, most all—at least, of those men who were white. Not the negroes. Not the Indians. Not women. In other words, they might have more honestly stated their position from the start that we were establishing a republic where ‘some men are created equal,’ just as the Greeks had done before them. But the language they used certainly sounded splendid. Wasn’t the language enough? Isn’t that all any politician can offer?

The flaw in that line of thinking was clearly to ignore the presence of those words ‘their creator’ and of the word ‘God’ in that founding document. The overt statement as well as the implication throughout was that the ‘Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God’ were of higher importance than the laws of man. There was no intention by those dead white men that what they did would result in a man-made utopia, only that it would beg our attention to the ideal as we dealt with the mundane.

Yet, I was ready to admit, the Declaration of Independence left a great obligation that no other people had so publicly incurred before, and the Constitution which followed, at least in ‘three-fifths’ part and ‘excluding Indians not taxed,’ had doubled down on that original aspiration. I gave them credit where it was due, I thought. At the historical moment in time there was no other nation on earth with as great a degree of liberty even for free white males. The foundation had at the least been set for improvement and the fallibility of human artifice was allowed for. We had then proceeded to do so, at enormous cost to ‘our Lives, our Fortunes and sacred Honor.’

Jacob Pierce had been the first teacher who had broken this code for me.

He was a small man in height, but burly and gave the visual impression, wearing a tie but seldom a jacket, with his hair cut to near military length, his back always straight, and his shirt crisply ironed, of being a former Marine drill sergeant. Though he had been a Marine, he had not in fact been long in that service. His own passion, other than hiking, and our beloved Miss Lawrence, was ‘history.’ Specifically American history. He had already written a book about Bunker Hill and had chosen to teach at our high school with the intention of recounting the Boston bookseller Henry Knox’s winter march with sixty tons of artillery cannon from Fort Ticonderoga in New York, over 300 winter miles, to those very heights where we sat at our uncomfortable desks. I was fortunate to have him as a teacher that same year he had completed the journey from Lake Champlain to Boston on foot between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. (It was the following spring that he married Miss Lawrence.)

The book did not appear until several years after I graduated, but nonetheless, he was already something of a hero to the boys in the class simply for that initial effort. And his spirited discussion of American history in class did not suffer from it. (The substitute teacher who had filled his shoes for the four weeks between the usual school vacation breaks had often been reduced to sputtering rages in his absence. A justice retribution.)

The strange fact which was very clear to us all then was that this powerful fellow had climbed Mt. Mitchell and Mt. Washington and a few dozen lesser peaks, had paddled the length of both the Hudson and Connecticut Rivers by canoe, and hiked the entire portion of Appalachian Trail that was then complete, but was completely unable to deal with women. He could barely look them in the eye. His voice grew weak in response to a question from the dumbest female in our class. It was inexplicable to the boys. But the stranger fact still was that, unlike the poor unfortunate substitute teacher we had manhandled at every opportunity because he could be so easily intimidated, the girls in the class did not abuse their power over Mr. Pierce. They loved his shyness. They adored him.

What this demonstrated to me (wrongly, I will now readily admit) was that women lacked some genetic predisposition to take advantage of the weak. And it was this proposition that I worked into my essay in The Gist about those dead white males who had written the Declaration of Independence. I supposed that the country would have been remarkably different in nature if women had been given the right to vote from the very first.

However, without Uncle Wally to promote my brilliance, this particular article produced only a few hundred pieces of hate mail. Most, given our audience, took issue not with my idea concerning the need of suffrage for women at the time of the Founding but with my giving any credit at all to those dead white bigots for their acceptance of those better obligations they aspired to. And to one letter writer it appeared that I was a traitor. America was at war with the communists in Vietnam, and such ‘fifth-column’ activity was deserving of a firing squad. (I figured this response to be from the unhappy parent of one of our staff members, as they were the only likely readers who were getting something in the mail they had not subscribed to on their own.)

I often wondered just who the parents were of our motley crew of rich kids in jeans. How had they failed so miserably to instill in their children some sense of the values that made their comfortable lives possible? (But for a few, I never knew). Wisely, I think, I avoided arguing with our primary subscribers and chose to respond to that one odd letter, if only to make the important point that America was nearly always at war, hot or cold, and that dissent and freedom of speech were supposedly what we were fighting for.

I did even better with the next opportunity. I attacked yet another icon. This time it was one of my own personal favorites, Mr. Lincoln.

The idealism and the 1950s Civil Rights movement had degenerated into race riots in most major cities and a renewal of de facto segregation as white flight left many inner cities abandoned in the wake, with blacks refusing the company of whites, even in the college cafeterias of liberal universities.

I blamed this on Abraham Lincoln.

(This point was a stretch, so hold on and don’t lose your balance as you read along.) My thesis was this: with Lincoln’s assumption of federal power in waging war against the South, he had irreparably subverted the core balance of the Constitution by joining with his predecessor Jackson in raising the power of the presidency above the other co-equal branches. The states had every right to secede, as stipulated in the original document, and that it was this unique reservation of the right to secede which was the only ultimate governor on Federal usurpation. That, had the Southern states been allowed their pound of foolishness, they would have paid for their actions dearly enough, and sooner, but not with the enormous loss of life and destruction of property that occurred during the Civil War, the heightened animosities and lingering scars, nor the corruption and dissolution of the Reconstruction years and all of the generational aftermath of one-party rule which institutionalized so much of the corruption to preserve its own power. And more or most importantly without the grudging acceptance of defeat that spawned an insular culture in the South, producing such aberrations as the KKK, Jim Crow, and the rest.

I argued that Lincoln’s role in all this, given his previous statements and beliefs, should have been more in common with the ‘copperheads.’ By using diplomacy and trade to work with British interests, for instance, the Southern economy would have been ruined and slavery made too costly. If he had indeed enforced the ideals founded ‘four score and seven years’ before, he would have achieved a far stronger union and greater victory without slaughtering the better and braver youth of the nation—those who always rose to the need in crisis while the lesser ones stayed at home to procreate and play politics. It was my hindsight that the individual states of the Confederacy, one by one, would sooner have rejoined the North, and that the negro, immediately treated then as a human being of equal rights under the law, would have more quickly achieved a fuller share of the national provenance.

Moreover, that Lincoln had fatally acquiesced to political expedience and accepted Johnson of Tennessee as his vice presidential running mate instead of sticking by the far better Hannibal Hamlin of Maine, who might have seen the ideals of the great emancipator through to their proper ends.

But an attack on the saintly Mr. Lincoln was simply not acceptable, even to our progressive readership. The letters—at least those without questions concerning my manhood or the animal species of my mother—could be summed up by, ‘Say what you want about Richard Nixon, but keep your stupid opinions about the our saintly Captain to yourself.’

I rejoined my attack in a follow-up by pointing out that a similar perversion of Federal authority had resulted from Andrew Jackson’s abrogation of the rights of the Cherokee Nation and a willful disregard of the Supreme Court, an action which actually reduced that branch to the peonage of interests that later produced the Dred Scott decision, and made possible Polk’s imperial pursuit of the Mexican American war (I was not against that war so much as the way it was waged). Jackson is pretty much relegated now to the heroic visage on the twenty dollar bill, but our California and Southwestern subscribers did not appreciate my stance on Polk, nor was our editor, Paul, happy with me and he suggested that I might want to lay off those issues which too easily incurred the wrath of regional bias. Our subscriber base was small enough as it was. And I had not fully reckoned with Cesar Chavez and the interests of the United Farm Workers, then at the forefront of some newly minted Hispanic contentions which I had failed to address.

So I turned back then to writing about subjects a little closer to my personal experience: the ever growing drug wars and the rise of the police state empowered to enforce restrictions on our private lives, take our property, and imprison us for smoking a common roadside weed even while encouraging tobacco interests to flourish. (I had nothing against tobacco, mind you, only the disparity.) The debacle of Prohibition, I argued, had worked no better for ending the consumption of alcohol than drug laws ever would. There was simply too much money to be made from the illegal admixture of a nearly infinite variety of legal compounds and too many politicians happy to take donations for favors and permits. And now, with the combat in Vietnam dragging on overseas, there was President Johnson’s war on poverty at home, a battle being further lost all around us because of the government’s involvement in what should be a matter of individual charity and private financial interest (there was money being made either way, but in one case it serviced private citizens and the other the politicians), and with this shift of values came the loss of a social sense of responsibility for our neighbors and pervasive acceptance of the thought, ‘the government will do it.’

I was fortunate Paul Winger was so in need of copy.

All the while, rejection of my first two attempts becoming the fuel for inner fires, I had also started the third of the novels I wrote while working at The Gist, and was there recollecting what personal knowledge I had about drugs and how these were ravaging my generation of ‘baby boomers.’ One of those essay pieces for Paul had been the first time I had related the story of Surcease Sullivan, using false names, of course. And this then was an easy segue each night when I went home to Avenue A to write, especially in the warmer months when my open windows offered the appropriate soundtrack.

 

            When I think of the twists and turns of my own life, I know that those angles are relatively few because I kept so close to my narrowed pursuit of writing for the most part. How might I have fared in some other climate? What if I had chosen another direction in life? Could I have been a writer-adventurer, like Roy Chapman Andrews or Patrick Leigh Fermor for instance? But I always ended up with a mental image of myself wiping the mud splatters from my glasses and then giving up on the idea.

I would have fared no better than my fears, I think. Likely worse. My glasses have always been the best metaphor for my larger blindness. I suspect I would have quickly been consumed by the lions and tigers and bears, had I not stayed on my own path.

I often imagined the same excuse that some myopic ancestor of mine might have offered when the keen-eyed went off to count coup and he stayed home to improve the architecture of the huts, or dig a better irrigation ditch, or make a better barbeque sauce. Or wrote epic poetry instead, like Mr. Homer.

 

 

 

 

  1. Mr. Billington’s ends and beginnings

 

 

If allowed the time, I would like to write a play about one brief historical moment. The thought surrounding the story is not new, but I have yet to find the clue to what extra matter might make it work. What was the crucial element of the chemistry of the crucial instant? What love or hate or fear. This same sort of thing happened to me with Mr. Billington, before that came together. I’m sure if I can keep at it, the day will come.

In 1867, Sam Clemens, only recently returned from a trip East as a newfound celebrity (imagine that fantastical train ride across the prairie), was about to leave again on a voyage abroad, ostensibly on a self-styled assignment for the San Francisco Morning Call. I would like to have been present when he convinced his editor, George Barnes, of the necessity of that bit of work. Clemens had only just become famous for writing the account of a leaping frog and I suppose in those days, one such gold strike was enough to build a life upon. As it were. Or was.

And as it happened, the newspaper’s office was on the third floor of a building that also contained the San Francisco branch of the U.S. Mint. That singular fact must work its way into my caper, but I haven’t quite cracked that case either. (It demands a grand theft, an escape, a chase, and a determined predator from the police department who lacks any appreciation of literature). Most important to the tale, the secretary to the superintendent of the United States Mint was none other that Bret Harte. Mr. Harte was already stirring up what literary trouble he could make with a couple of his own belletristic efforts, including The Overland Monthly and The Californian, where he had published several of his friend Sam’s ‘burlesques’ under the assumed name of Mark Twain and in addition gave needed work to such other future literary lights of that city as Charles Henry Webb, Joaquin Miller, Ina Coolbrith, and, most notably, Ambrose Bierce.

Bierce was then working for a competing rag, The San Francisco News-letter, as managing editor and there authoring a column called ‘The Town Crier.’ He was thus in want of news. My play, when it is written, will concern one day in the lives of Harte, and Twain, and Bierce, each young and in pursuit of their own futures, jostling for position among themselves, bragging on what they might do, and doing much drinking in a nearby saloon. There must be an opportunity to rob a U.S. Mint in all that.

If some publisher were to buy a book (or two) of mine today, I might afford a ticket on the train to San Francisco. I have an old friend there who would give me use of his couch I think. All the places that Clemens and Bierce and Harte once prowled were burnt and collapsed in the calamity of 1906, but just as you can in London, or Paris, or New York, when you can feel the presence of Boswell and Johnson on Fleet Street, or Joyce and Hemingway on the Rue de l’Odeon, or imagine the past parade of talent on Fifth Avenue in front of the old Scribner’s building, I could stand where my three characters stood and argued their lies out to some satisfaction with the facts. There is even now a remnant of the original building that housed the Mint on Commercial Street, and the public library there has much of the original material I would need for the corroboration of my deception.

Though, I admit, it is not just one story that intrigues me. I still haven’t written the Arthurian romance I promised to Sarah. Someday I must go to Carlisle and stand on Hadrian’s Wall and smell that air too.

But it is only the writing that I can look forward to now. And it is most often true, I think, that I look into the past, not the present or future for the happiness I want out of that. I must try, alas, be happy with the work in and of itself.

As I think of it now, the fact is that I was no more pleased and happy at the accomplishment of The Stolon in 1969 than I was about one of my later published novels, What Mr. Billington Said, in 2003. The experience was new to me in the first case, of course, but the thrill and elation of having my book published was largely dampened by my inner Catholic doubts of its worth. Interestingly, it is the doubts which have since faded. Not the thrill. I still feel that, along with the memory of it. However, I care less now what others might think. Or perhaps that is not true either, in sum. But I still do often think about Mr. Billington, ten years after the fact of his last public appearance, and seldom consider that younger hero of The Stolon.

If you missed it, the first appearance of those stories about the Boston bookseller, Mr. Billington, written shortly after the death of George Ritts, was a murder mystery set at the time of the Revolution. I readily admit to liking the story too much. It was doomed, thus, from the start and never got beyond the first printing. Deemed pretentious by some and contentious by others, Mr. Billington, my erstwhile alter ego in that case, was not only a bookseller, but a scribbler and scribe, an aphorist and humorist, who disdained both religion and hard labor at a time when each is valued at a premium. He is the seventh son of a seventh son, of the seventh generation of Billingtons in America, the earliest of whom was the first Englishman to be hung in the colonies. For murder, I remind you.

A lover of good books and good beer, my Mr. Billington eschews the company of women, lives in the black quarter of Beacon Hill because rooms are cheaper there, and knows more than he should about things in general for the fact that his services as a scrivner are used by all—all who cannot read or write for themselves . . . and thus he is a friend to all it seems, except the intolerant. He is a drinking buddy of Samuel Adams and regular acquaintance of Doctor Warren and Paul Revere. And by choice and on Dr. Warren’s cunning advice, he is not a member of the Sons of Liberty, and thus not a suspect to be fingered by the traitorous spy Dr. Benjamin Church. But he aids the rebels nonetheless.

His dual purposes in life are, first, to prove his ancestors’ innocence of that mortal sin (his father’s great mission, and his grandfather’s before him, and that of every prior generation of the family, all the way back to the original John Billington who was hung by Governor Bradford in Plymouth for the murder of John Newcombe in 1620), and, second, to enjoy life while he can, for any man’s days are short.

Billington himself has been a murder suspect before and was defended then by none other than John Adams, but that incident is only alluded to and meant to be used late in the fourth of those novels—and therefore never written. In 1775, when a British captain is murdered in his bed during Washington’s siege of Boston, it is Billington who is immediately thrown in jail as the last man seen drinking with the soldier, though without sufficient evidence. Billington’s attempt to extract information from the man had been foiled by a superior who wanted the man’s silence. And after the evacuation of the British, the bookseller is believed by some to be a secret loyalist because he had stayed behind in the ‘olde towne’ during the occupation, as much for the belief that he is of a tainted family ‘known to be rough and dishonest.’ He seems to be too often to be in the midst of murder. His only real ally and alibi was Doctor Warren, by then killed at Bunker Hill.

Needing a model for the character, I had immediately chosen Mr. Ritts. George’s sexuality was not the matter. It was the man. A mixture of the refined and the unorthodox. As unpretty as he was witty. With John Billington, I was able to play ventriloquist—and to put words in his mouth I might have been reluctant to express otherwise. But it appears that the pot never boiled for many, and the plot didn’t play. Tom Paine was my source for Billington’s politics, and Ben Franklin for his wit, but that was not enough. Heroes are required to be handsome too. The one printing was remaindered and I bought several boxes of unsold and returned copies from the publisher, which I now have in a closet downstairs and send out to the friends who never saw the novel on the bookstore shelf, or to save for some future event that I cannot yet imagine. Still, it was fun to write. I could hardly wait to use him one more time.

I wrote Billington Again, the third of those stories, in an obstinate frame of mind. If they didn’t like the first, I would foist a second on them in punishment. Perhaps. Actually, it was nearly written before the first was published. But I did finish it with a grudge. For the umpteenth time I had been confirmed in the knowledge that what entertained me was not necessarily what charmed others. The publisher passed on it, have little hope and no budget for another failure.

With the adverse philosophy that three books about a Boston bookseller that don’t sell are better than two, I finished Mr. Billington Says during that period after September 11th when I was most desperate for escape from the present. Still, a certain hopelessness pervades the work. And the third of these historical mysteries was the more difficult because my hero had grown older and was taking his last cracks at authority. Yet barely a day goes by when I don’t come up with another worthless little ditty to add to the collection of sayings I have attributed to Mr. Billington in his time.

Such as this: ‘The best sort of cautionary tale is told about something else entirely than the problem at hand.’ ‘Be careful not to get blood in the potatoes when you cut them. They are the last.’ ‘Indirection, always unexpected, is the shortest way to the heart of a matter and a woman.’ Or, “Things don’t always not work out. Some things have been, just as they should be. Some things have never been, just as they should not.’

And my favorite: “The present may be the end of the story for some, and the beginning for others, but for most of us it is the muddle.”

As I think of it, maybe I will write another.

 

I see that I have gotten ahead of myself once again, but one more comment about by oddish hero. This concerns the way that Mr. Billington came to be. It’s a simple story.

Back in those days at The Gist, when George Ritts used to stand by the open door to his office and make his comments about the ongoing antics played before us both, I used to call him ‘Mr. Billington.’ It was a natural convolution, given that he was responsible for paying all the bills. He in turn called me ‘Mr. Watch,’ as in the one who watches. This little matter confused the others in the office who overheard it, all of whom had gotten their own little nicknames over time, but also because I did not wear a watch, and then they took it for some minor irony for that reason.

“Mr. Watch. There is a flurry of female activity at Alice’s desk over some important revelation. I think she might be pregnant.”

“I hope her parents are that excited when she brings home the news.”

Except for the fact that he signed my paycheck each week, I would have thought Mr. Ritts had forgotten my real name by the time the doors finally closed on The Gist for the last time.

His manner of delivery when making comments on the others was equally as arch. It would not do to simply say, ‘Rob is pushing Paul to his limits.’ He would say, “Yale is suffering beneath the yoke of Harvard,” alluding to their respective schools. Or “Sarah Lawrence may not be represented in the office softball tournament this year,” when later making note of Alice Peters’ obvious pregnancy. (Which reminds me that it was never actually discovered who the father was, but then, Alice had her way with several of the staff.) And often, Mr. Ritts would expand on an observation, such as: “Shakespeare had a company of players he knew and understood the limits of, and he wrote the parts they played and twisted his histories accordingly, whereas Paul cannot shape the world’s news just to meet the talents or inabilities of his staff.”

Years later, when I went to visit George in the hospital, he would usually greet me with some personal anecdote that related to those years before. But on one occasion I arrived just after his bath, and he was full of other thoughts.

“Hello, Mr. Watch. I was thinking about you. I was wondering if you were ever going to get yourself a kid . . . Now that I’m getting used to the nurses handling my body, I’m thinking I might have done well to have had a kid myself after all. It wouldn’t have been so bad. Harold always wanted a kid. We could have found a surrogate.”

The dark eyes glistened with the inspiration of it.

I agreed. I told him, “You should have had a kid just so you’d have had someone to pass all your accumulated wisdom on to.”

I called it ‘wisdom’ just to irritate him. He flinched at that. The fat was gone from his face and a mere flinch looked agonizing. His tongue moved against his teeth as if preparing the words he wanted.

“People who most frequently give advice are often those who do not listen to others . . . I guess that would be me.”

I said, “No. I never saw it that way. I always thought they were insightful observations. Usually good ones.”

He dismissed that with a turn of his head. “Humph . . . So what about it? You and Sarah going to have any kids?”

“Sarah can’t now. I would be okay with it. Adopting maybe. But she’s already raised a couple of her own. Alone. She’s been a mother ever since she was a teenager. I think she could use some time now to herself.”

He stuck his lower jaw out at that, perhaps with a little touch of defiance. “Life molds us, you know. You have to let it do its work. Like yeast . . . But you never made bread, did you? Still don’t cook, I’ll bet? Does Sarah?”

“No. She’s as bad as I am for that.”

“Well. Anyway, don’t try to shape things by your own misconceptions.”

I just smiled at that, to let him realize that he had done it again.

He said, “Humph,” again.

It was exactly at that moment that I first envisaged Mr. Billington. The ‘Humph,’ was the key. Billington was of course a rascal and opposite George Ritts in a hundred obvious ways, but it was the other stuff of the man that had always caught my attention.

I had long been a big fan of Benjamin Franklin and his Poor Richard, and had only recently discovered the story of the original Mr. Billington, who had been hung for murder in 1630 and wanted to use this basic line for a murder mystery, though I had not at that moment re-conceived the possibilities for a later member of the family. But the radix was there.

 

And one more thing, now.

Mark Twain had once written descriptively and uncharacteristically of his first meeting with Robert Louis Stevenson, where he had found the Scot sitting upon a bench in Washington Square.

“He was most scantily furnished with flesh. His clothes seemed to fall into the hollows as if there might be nothing inside the frame for a sculptor’s statue. His long face and lank hair and dark complexion and musing and melancholy expression. . . seemed especially planned to gather the rays of your observation . . . upon Stevenson’s special distinction and commanding feature, his splendid eyes. They burned with a smoldering rich fire under the penthouse of his brows and they made him beautiful.”

That was another distinction of Mr. Ritts and one that remained to the very end.

 

Ah, and here is another scene, but this one never found its way to print.

What was I thinking? It was set in 1787. It says that much right at the top.

Was I planning to make a play of it then? I’ve forgotten. But it fits none of the other Billington stories, and I can see it was typed on my old Hermes, which was sometime after I put the Underwood in the closet, so that makes it fairly early. I suspect it was one of the original plans for my ne’er do well bookseller, and obviously done after I opened my own shop.

 

Young Samson leaned in across a stack of Bibles. [Oh, I like that touch! A nice bit of whimsy there.]

What then do you advocate for, Mr. Billington? What sort of nation would you have?”

Billington looked up from his order ledger and met the earnest face.

The answer to that is a simple one, for a man such as myself. My wants are quaint perhaps, to more sophisticated minds. They may debate their fears in Philadelphia more than they do their dreams, but I have no such compunctions. My want is nothing less than a republic of books.”

Samson gestured at the shelves that surrounded them.

Ha! You jest. I was serious, you see.”

I do not! I’ll reserve my humor for lesser matters. My only hope is that you might see. I pray that you will understand one day and know that I am sincere. Liberty will only flourish in a republic of books, where mankind is free to imagine and to write out its dreams, and to publish what they envision, and to sell their work to any who might desire it, for freedom to imagine is the liberty to think what you will, and the freedom to write is the liberty to do what you want, and the freedom to publish is the liberty to make what you wish come true, and the freedom to sell your ideas is the liberty to live by your own work, and a nation where books may be bought by free choice, and kept free openly is the country for me.”

 

My idealism there was on my sleeve. I suppose I might have once been embarrassed a little by such a display, and put the piece away. But no more.

 

 

 

 

  1. Samhain and Halloween

 

 

1963 is the year Michael’s Meat Market burned down on Halloween.

This torch of chicken fat and 100-year-old timbers burned brightly yellow and orange through an effervescent autumn fog with the fire engines from the nearby station clogging South Boston’s Broadway through the night. As a pearly mist continued to roll in off the harbor, the flames infused the air with a half-light I have only seen once since then during an eclipse of the sun.

When it started we were all out and about begging our treats in various makeshift costumes, mostly involving charcoal and old clothes torn un-artfully to achieve some unintelligible if ghastly effect but which successfully resonated nonetheless the insanity that possessed us as we danced and pranced on sidewalks, scooting in between parked cars and out into the streets, so intent on our candy spoils we had ignored the sirens and did not take notice until the catastrophic event was well along. From the time that we did finally come to our senses, and on into the small hours of the morning, a ring of children stood just ahead of a blockade of adults, forming a secondary rampart beyond the engines and flashing lights, each of us shoving chocolates and candy corn into our open mouths as we watched every move and then reporting it to each other as if one of us was not as close and might not have seen. The moist warm air smelled of beef and hams and of a shipment of fresh turkeys, all roasted at once.

In keeping with the religious significance of that eve, one adult noted wittily that he could smell the roasting souls of those who had sinned. The hunger this comment induced caused many of us to consume the better part of our sugared booty on the spot, lest we die before this greater pleasure was had.

The almost equally important event that resulted from this was to be an epic trek into the wilds of New Hampshire in search of Jason’s Turkey Farm.

It had been our family tradition, and that of many hundreds of others in our neighborhood, to buy a fresh turkey each Thanksgiving at Michael’s Meat Market (the sign actually read ‘O’Doul’s’ but in my memory, that name was never said). A week before the event, Dad would pick the pale plucked body out from the selection of cadavers displayed in the glass case and Michael Kelly would tag it with our name and put it in the ‘cold room.’ The more promptly the pick was made, the more selection there was, so this tagging usually took place sooner than later. But that year, in 1963, there would already be no Michael’s, and thus no pale cadavers to choose from.

Somehow, my father had formerly learned that Michael procured his excellent birds, properly stiffened, deceased, and stone dead, after they had previously pined upon the fields of New Hampshire, having spent their short plump lives at Jason’s Turkey Farm somewhere near Concord. However, Michael Kelly was nowhere to be found after the fire and so, with the immortal but pre-internet words, “We’ll look it up in the phonebook when we get there,” my father and I set out early one Saturday morning to find our Thanksgiving turkey.

We should have left well before the crack of dawn, instead of just after. Roads of the time did not ‘by-pass’ anything. Construction of the Interstate thruway system in New England was still mired in the muck of politics and the choice of which particular unions would receive what remunerations and for how long. But for reasons I have never known, despite frequent recollections of this adventure, it is always important to stress early in the telling that my father was very sure the turkey farm was near Concord, New Hampshire. This meant cutting directly through Boston proper at that early hour, not so bad, and then catching the first leg of Route 3, up Massachusetts Avenue, on from there by the Mystic Lakes (offering no hint of their apparent mystery to the morning sun) and through beautiful downtown Billerica, and then to Lowell from which paradise we would follow the Merrimack River north into the Granite State. Given traffic lights, the clusters of cars surrounding that morning’s high school football games, Saturday shoppers (the worst, according to my father because they included the elderly and the ‘student’ drivers), a wedding with bride and groom on the steps of the church looking very severe rather than happy (and my father’s comment ‘I’ll bet the bread is in the oven’), a yard-sale display spread with what appeared to be the entire neatly ordered contents of a house including baby crib, bassinet, stacks of children’s clothes, several bed frames, dressers, and other assorted furnishings as well as a tall dark-framed mirror which was being used by several neighbor children to make faces, and an full array of kitchen utensils laid out in the grass, followed shortly thereafter by a funeral procession of gaily colored two-tone Chevys and Fords led by a motorcycle cop in dark glasses, and then other assorted lollygaggers going God only knows where but not to church, and we crossed the Massachusetts border shortly before noon. This without running over a single child on a bicycle or realigning the chrome on any other automobile, but at the total expense of my father’s temper.

Except during close encounters with other human beings, when my father became surly, he became silent. The questions concerning how I was doing at school, or why the Principal, Mr. Frazier, had wanted to see me on Friday afternoon, ceased. I sat well over on the opposite end of the front bench seat in our Plymouth, close enough to the window to plant my chin on my fist and my fist on the sill of metal, and kept my eyes on the passing scene.

In New Hampshire, the last leaves of crimson and gold clung to grey arches. Milk cows shouldered each other at troughs. Hawks soared against the blue.

My mother had long since stopped going with my father on any excursion involving the automobile. If she had to, she would have walked to New Hampshire rather than deal with the inevitable train of verbal abuse uttered in frequent angry sputterings as if this particular idiot driving a green Ford just ahead was any different in kind than the ‘maroon’ (a term of art already well popularized by Bugs Bunny and not a color) in the Pontiac that had cut us off at the last stoplight before we could get through on the brief passage of the yellow. By the sound of my father’s cussing, it was just one small catastrophic event after the other.

After getting beyond Lowell, the longer stretches of open highway were ample reason to see if our then new car might handle well at higher speeds, and I think this was the very first time I had ever seen the needle of that speedometer move over the cream enamel of number 65. The faux warmth of the wind battered at the open windows. Naturally, the road was well posted for 50 miles per hour. The motorcycle cop who stopped us appeared to be happy to be out on such a beautiful autumn day as well. He smiled during the entire process of writing us the ticket.

My father said, “Thank you.”

“The cop said, “You’re welcome.”

The decibel level of my father’s voice rose seconds later as we pulled off the gravel again and onto the macadam. I craned my neck over the seatback to see the trooper standing there, feet spread, scowling at us, and I was certain he had heard the additional words my father had uttered as we left.

We reached the vicinity of Concord, New Hampshire about two o’clock, after stopping at The Blue Loon Diner for a hamburger. I had gotten an ice cream cone for dessert. My father had gotten the peach cobbler that beckoned to him from the glass warming case near the register. With whipped cream.

Less that a mile further on, just beside an old brick factory building which was closed, my father suddenly jerked the car over almost to the point of scraping the blue paint from our fender on an adjacent railing and vomited the entire lunch and likely all of the remains of his breakfast as far down as his large intestines, retching it far out onto the road where it was immediately spread in a lovely pastel graffiti by the passing traffic.

After this assault by his GI tract, my father walked quietly away up the road to recover, the limp in his gait more pronounced by his sudden exhaustion, and disappeared around the bend ahead. I closed the windows against the smell and pulled what book it was I was reading from my pocket and waited. After about half an hour he returned, hair still wet and matted down from the use of someone’s garden hose, a paler but wiser man.

“I am informed by a very nice old gentleman who operates the spa just ahead that Jason’s Turkey Farm is indeed in Concord—Concord, Massachusetts.”

He said this in the flat voice of someone becalmed by overwhelming circumstance.

We returned much of the way we had come. A little faster perhaps, but no State Trooper detained us. We reached the outskirts of Concord, Massachusetts about 5 pm, and found Jason himself just outside of his white-painted barn at the very crepuscular moment of our arrival. His name was written in human-sized red letters across the broad side, and the place was hard to miss. The shadowed slope of the hill behind him was visibly sectioned by wire fences into smaller narrower areas and each of these divisions was populated by an attentive audience of equally white turkeys. In fact, he had a dozen of these fat feathered fowls just then turned upside down in a series of evenly spaced galvanized steel funnels with their heads dropped through the narrowed openings below and I watched enrapt as he walked along the row and passed a knife at their throats and the dark blood spouted forth, falling into the metal trough beneath.

The audience of other birds behind the fences, heads held high to see over one another, exposed their own necks in sympathy, and they sighed at the sight of the slaughter with a throaty “Oh, Oh, Oh,” of such consistency it sounded like monks at evening prayer. Or as I imagined that.

Dad chose our Thanksgiving turkey from a small cluster at one nearer fence. These were waiting to be fed their last meal I suppose, and Jason took the bird with a single scooping motion of a gloved hand, looped a thick rubber band around its jerking feet, turned the creature into one of the funnels, and before I could say Jack Robinson, he had done the work once more with his knife. I have never known just who Jack Robinson was, but he must have been very quick.

To save us the bother, Jason also scalded the bird for a few seconds in what looked like a pot of whipped steam and then put it in a sort of washing machine device that removed the feathers almost as quickly. The naked body of the former fowl was then hefted onto a raised board, trussed and tied with string, wrapped in butcher paper and carried to the back seat of our car, all of this accomplished in about twenty minutes. An hour later than that, we were home.

I was happy enough to be eating pot roast that night.

And this is just the sort of memory I found refuge in when I was forced to confront the ruin of my own finances. Forty years after that Halloween, perhaps I did not burn my establishment down to the ground for the insurance, but I was certainly busy with burning my bridges.

Samhain (sah-win) marks the end of the warm weather in the Celtic year, and the beginning of the cold months. In my novel, The Long Arm of Spithridates, it is the name for the ancient Celtic celebration which has since been melded into the American Indian appreciation of good harvest. A sort of alternate universe Thanksgiving.

Of all the small inventions I had made to make that imagined 19th century parallel to our own, with the fiercely independent Celtic city states of Northern Europe in near constant conflict with the amalgam of larger empires most often represented by Slavic Russia, and the more Byzantine-like League of Carthaginian States still dominating the Mediterranean, the one of which I was most proud was the Celtic confederacy with the tribes of North America who were themselves, in turn, fending against the encroaching empires of China and Japan on their western shores. The setting of an alternate history had allowed me to play fairly fast and loose with every human device and invention of good or evil fashioned by our own genius through the middle of the 20th century, from Zeppelins and steam automobiles to proto-computers and radio-telephones. Perhaps I was having a bit too much fun for my age.

The editor assigned to my book, a woman of low heels and high ideals, didn’t like the idea that I had contrived to preserve the great American feast in this other-universe and asked me if I would be willing to alter things “just a bit” so that there would be less of a connection made to the actual holiday. I said no.

Actually, I said a great deal more than that, but that is the sum of what I said.

She was not happy and for a time I thought the publisher might want to close the contract according to one clause or another, and ask for their advance to be returned. Not yet having spent it, I was fine with the idea. I was tired by then of editors poking fingers into the flesh of my stories. In any case, I wasn’t tickled.

There was a meeting scheduled. An after-lunch meeting. Those are often the worst. If the news is good, they usually pay for a lunch.

To start, we ordered drinks. The editor, Miss Benecki, and the assistant publisher, a Mr. Forbes, in some effort to put me at ease I suppose, made small comments about this or that other matter. ‘What did I think of the new mayor?’ ‘ Wasn’t his business-like approach just what New York needed after 9-11?’ That sort of thing. Mostly the effort irritated me. I would have preferred to be back at the bookshop arguing with some fool who wanted to buy a half-priced copy of a recent bestseller for a dollar less.

Mr. Forbes, a thin and tallish and dark-haired fellow who was shaved but already displayed a heavy afternoon shadow on his cheeks said, “I love your book. It’s a lovely conceit. Makes you really think about why things are the way they are. You know?”

He nodded at me as if to mark the importance of that thought. I think I nodded back, to be polite. I don’t think I smiled.

Miss Benecki, who was dressed in a dark gray pants suit and light gray blouse, black hair cut short, was a foot shorter than her companion and perhaps half again as wide, in the anorexic tradition of New York editors who speak too fast, and smoked almost continuously. The gray did not suit her. She would have needed rosy cheeks for that and I didn’t imagine that she had ever had a rosy cheek, top or bottom, at any phase of her entire life.

She said, “I think we should get right down to it. We both love your book. That’s a given. (I should note here, that was a lie. It was my previous editor, since unhappily retired with emphysema, who had promised to take the book before it was written based on a verbal exposition one afternoon over pastrami at the Carnegie Deli.) That’s why we took it in the first place. But every novel can use some trimming or filling. It’s the nature of the beast. Authors become immersed in the detail and lose sight of the whole. And we’re faced then with trying to sell that work, as a whole, to a larger audience. It’s what we do. It’s as much how we make a living as it is for you to write it in the first place.”

Her sophistry had me convinced I was right about the meeting but I nodded to make my basic agreement with that premise clear. I don’t think I said a word.

Mr. Forbes said, “The problem is that you have written a very current work. An historical novel that is very up-to-date. You are touching on a hundred different aspects of our daily lives by means of comparison. You are drawing the contrasts between what we do and what we should be doing. Beautifully. And then you suddenly fall back on a rather hackneyed use of a celebration which is completely artificial—a piece of Norman Rockwell—a holiday that didn’t even exist until the Civil War. There was no separate Native American ceremony of this type that we can find a reference to. Several somewhat similar for the summer months, perhaps. Yes? One in the spring, I think. And we all know that the Puritan ceremony of Thanksgiving was a purely religious statement and presumed greatly upon the generosity of their hosts.”

Miss Benecki said, “It’s just a small thing. Not important to the plot at all. There is no need for it. But it will turn off a lot of modern readers who find Thanksgiving obnoxious. And besides, as I’ve said before, it adds at least twenty pages to the text. It’s a tangent. The book is already over six hundred pages if we issue it in the larger nine-and-a-half-inch dimension. And you’ve already insisted on us using a Garamond typeface that takes up at least five percent more line space, but you told me you don’t want us to reduce the type size from 12 pt. and that you would even prefer the whole book to be shorter than the nine-inch format, though I don’t know why. You understand, that one section is going to run us so far over our budgeted page count, it’ll just push the cover price out of the market bracket!”

Mr. Forbes had kept his eyes on me. “Angus, you are being rather quiet. I think the first time I met you, we never stopped talking. I’m sure you have your own thoughts on this. I’d like to hear them.”

Miss Benecki had been ready to say something more then but beneath the table I am sure Mr. Forbes brushed her leg with his own.

I started my defense with little enthusiasm. “There are several reasons for the scene, not the least of which is the obviousness of the connection of the celebration in that alternate history to our own. It’s a sentimental connection, granted, but as I have said already to Miss Benecki—”

“Angus, my name is Margaret. I’ve suggested you call me Margaret on a dozen occasions. Why do you persist in calling me Miss Benecki, as if we are strangers?”

I think the table moved due to the renewed activity of Mr. Forbes’ leg. Water sloshed in the glasses.

I said, “Because you are a stranger. We’ve talked forty or fifty times on the phone as well, but I have never thought once that you were speaking to me. Always at me. I would actually feel uncomfortable calling you by your first name. It would sound patronizing to me. And I have in fact spoken with you about this specific vignette at least half a dozen times now, along with other editing matters. I have explained myself each time. You have ignored me, each time. So why don’t you just let me make myself clear now to Mr. Forbes.”

She was glaring at me.

The table shook once more. I turned more physically then to the grim-faced assistant publisher.

“In historical fact there was a feast held by most North American Indian tribes before wintering. The tribe would then break up into smaller groups in cold weather so that they could survive the lack of sufficient game in a more restricted area during those months. Whatever research assistant reported to you did not get much beyond Wikipedia, I think. The Puritan ceremony of ‘Thanksgiving’ was held for many reasons, all rather well detailed in the diaries of the participants, especially Mr. Bradford’s. Religion was a large part of that, yes. Pretending some sort of secularism at that stage of history would be silly.” I tried to keep any sarcasm out of my voice and likely only accomplished some level of pedantry. “Turkey, like venison, was a primary source of protein for all the tribes, from Canada to Mexico. In any alternate timeframe, it would have to be considered a bounty of nature. To this, add the fact that Samhain was the autumn ceremony of the Celts. Giving thanks to the gods before the harshness of winter was considered a proper appeasement.” I shook my head at myself for trying too hard in a lost cause. “But this issue between us is not about any of that. Is it? It’s really just another small symptom of the current political correctness that’s suffocating literature in our own particular moment in time. From religion, all the way down to the eating of meat—”

Miss Benecki interrupted, “Don’t make this a political issue! This is an editorial matter!”

Mr. Forbes said, “Angus. For me it’s about the Benjamins. Because of its length, the book is going to cost more to produce. We need to make cuts and you’ve been resistant. And if some minor issue like this gets picked up by one reviewer or another, it can be used to kill sales. Maybe that’s political. For me it’s bottom line. I want the book to make money. That’s my job. I think it’s a good premise and well written and it will sell. I just want to give it a chance.”

I took an envelope out of my pocket and set it out on the table.

“The odd thing is, there are a dozen issues in the book that you could have picked up on, or at least thought twice about, any of which break far more sensitive bounds to current sensibilities. There is only one major black character, for instance. I never did find a way to place Africa in this particular world order. And there is no Moslem religion, because there never was a Mohammed–though I thought I neatly side-stepped that just a bit with the resurgence of Zoroastrianism. It just seems so odd to me that my little play on Thanksgiving is the one you’ve become obsessed with . . . That’s a check for the advance you gave me. You knew how long the book was the day you sent that to me. It was just over 200,000 words then and it’s a barely 180,000 now. I think I’ve carved enough off this turkey.”

Mr. Forbes said, “Is it really important enough to sacrifice the whole book?”

I had long since grown tired of the process. I just said, “Yes.”

I saw a hint of smile cross Miss Benecki’s face.

 

 

 

 

  1. At the roots of heaven, the grub is well fed

 

 

Agents are an odd lot too, but I had no agent for The Long Arm of Spithridates. As with my very first, the book had been taken on directly by the publisher. The agent I had previous to that dropped me because of one thing or another, and the agent I had after that was soon happy to be rid of me for the same reasons. The naiveté of my beginnings is quaint in retrospect.

After the bankruptcy of The Gist in December of 1969, I was hoping to live off of the earnings from my novels or the occasional article and story. Naturally, I was wrong about this as well.

After several years of foundering, it was the bookshop that preserved me in my bad habits for the longest time. Thus blessed, I wrote what I wished. But when that grace was finally lost in 2009, a full forty years after my career as an author had begun, I was forced at last to reconsider my options. I could no longer make the claim of being even a ‘midlist’ author. Should I continue to write, or should I apply for a job at Walmart? I had written over forty books by then, with most of them published, but I didn’t have a dime. And it was in such circumstance that I wrote a piece for Harper’s that winter about the death of the book and the loss of the bookshop which reflected more bitterness than I actually feel today. Though it certainly contributed to my unpopularity in publishing circles (at least those who disagreed, or would always put a more benign mask on the truth), I think it summed the situation close enough:

My first published novel, The Stolon, was issued by Gerard Strauss in September of 1969 after being plucked from the slush pile by Mr. Strauss himself. He wrote me a letter only three weeks after I had sent the manuscript out in the dark despair of a February ice storm. Though unlikely even then, such a thing could never happen today.

            Today, you would have to find an agent first. Having reduced costs of overhead to a neater bottom line, publishers no longer employ editors in-house as they once did to read those hopes and dreams that have overflown the transom. The agent has become the first line of defense for them. (No need of health insurance, extra office space or or 401K’s that way.) And this search process by the author is in itself is numbing. You must first send out a query, but only after having done your research to discover who might be reading at the moment and also have a fatal predisposition to liking your particular habits with words. Twenty or fifty queries will likely be necessary, if you are deliberate, patient, and persistent, and one of these ‘literary agents’ might then deign to answer and ask to see some part of the manuscript.

However, ‘agency’ is not what these good people are usually about. An agent’s interests are not your own, any more than a real estate broker’s purpose might be. The sale is the matter. Some are clearly better than others. The best agents are those editors previously shed by the publishers looking to cut costs and who now have a more personal investment in the process that lingers within their breasts, left over perhaps from the idealism of youth. Most literary agents are now mere middlemen and facilitators and the worst of them are only pimps. They change their dispositions with their clothes to suit the climate. Look at what fills the shelves at Barnes and Noble to get the drift of that. Sadly, most of the best agents are long retired now, their publishing mentors long dead, and their ‘houses’ having since been traded off as nameplates for corporate avarice. Few of the old guard remain. Now the best I’ve encountered are all ‘business.’ They are oriented toward immediate results and not longer-term accomplishment—their rejections are not personal (they insist this is so while using the personal vocabulary of child psychologists to avoid confrontation), though I like to imagine there may still be one out there who holds true to some ideal rather than just mouthing the words like a punk postmodernist. I have simply never been fortunate enough to find them.

 

The best agent I have known was lost by me out of an unfortunate curiosity. Once again I had asked, “What makes you want to keep doing it, given all the changes in the industry?”

Excepting prevarications, that question went unanswered until one evening when the fortunate sale of my latest book had raised high hopes and opened a fresh bottle of 12 year-old scotch. The agent and I had known each other for some years by then. I was widowed. She was divorced.

I will call her Myrtle because I have always liked that name and it has been unfairly reduced to the currency of a Gertrude or Hortense. The bottle was half gone when I asked her my fatal question.

Myrtle answered my verbal query with, “All the same feelings I had the very first day I started. Every single one.”

I said, “Aren’t you jaded? At least a little? Benumbed by all the bullshit?”

She said, “More than a little. But not as much as the thrill. Not as much as the fun. Where else could I earn a living doing those things I like most, and those I do best?”

I persisted, “And you are not cynical about having to deal with the other stuff? The egos and the negotiations? The money doesn’t matter?”

I said that knowing that she was indeed outwardly cynical. Very. But like my hero, Mencken, it was only the thin shell that protected a softer center. And I was being argumentative. Six ounces of good scotch can be very conducive.

Myrtle was not amused. “You have no right to ask that. You’ve made your cause clear enough. Too loudly. Too often. And I’ve made you the advances in spite of yourself.”

Earnestly drunk I said, “I just wanted to understand. You know so much about writing. The good writing and the bad. Why don’t you write yourself?”

This caused her first hesitation. She is very glib and ready for most things. I imagined she had been asked before and would likely have a ready answer. But the whiskey had the moment.

“I do. It keeps me sane. But not to publish. I write poetry. Just for myself. In the mornings. Most mornings.”

“And you don’t want anyone else to see it?”

Myrtle clinched her jaw at the idea. “No. I’d only be judged for it. Just like any other wannabe. But it’s not written for that. It’s personal. And some twit would make use of it for their own purposes. ‘If she has the bad taste to write verse like that, how can she be the judge of others?’ Everything is so pigeonholed now. Like they do to you . . . Don’t you wish you could just write without worrying about getting it published? Without worrying about what anyone might say?”

That answer I knew very well. “No. Mostly because I do write just what I want. But I like the idea of the conversation too. I don’t mind the comments. Sometimes they actually get it right and I’ve found a friend, even if I’ll never meet them.”

“You are odd.”

“Thank you. With that in mind, can I read one of your poems? Two?”

“No.”

“Is it fair that I put everything I have out there to see and you won’t?”

She shook her head at my hopelessness. “I’m not a little boy. This is not a game of ‘I will show you mine if you show me yours.’”

I said, illogically, “But in a better world it should be.”

Myrtle wearied at my pursuit, “My poetry is too naked. Completely”

“I don’t mind. I won’t touch. I just want to look.”

Another moment of indecision occurred, but not a word. With that she got up and went to her bedroom. When she came out again she was as nude as the verse she held up to me in several notebooks. And it was too difficult for me not to touch.

I thought her poetry was excellent, as I had anticipated it would be. But she sent me a very nice rejection letter the next day.

 

As more and more agents are graduated from university programs, the process has become that much more academic, as well. In each query you have offered yourself like a submissive dog on its back in a confrontation with an alpha male. You must read each agent’s particulars in advance and only send exactly what they want in the fashion they want it. Many of them offer strict instructions, telling you not only what typeface and spacing to use, but directing you precisely on what they would like said in the letter. This is not the manuscript, you understand. This is just the begging for their indulgence to read some small portion of your life’s work if they have time and inclination. May the smile of Procrustes be upon you.

That query letter should contain a little about yourself and a précis of your novel, boiling down all the emotional effort and the possible genius of a thousand moments scattered on several hundred pages into a couple of paragraphs. Think of it as Keats writing haiku, but without the poetry. Keep it simple, but be interesting. Tell them what is important, but be brief. (If we can’t do that in a single page, the fault, dear Brutus, is not in the stars, but in yourself.) And whatever you do, don’t be a wise guy.

In other words, after five centuries of publishing evolution, the printed word in modern literature is a mere byproduct of the convenience and chair comfort of literary agents, just as film has long been for Hollywood producers. Not the authors. Not even the publishers. Agents.

And all this is now done by email. Mostly. No need for the additional cost of 24 lb. rag paper to give your letter the right feel. If you have attempted something original, they will probably reject it in any case, and then you must pick up the process from the start once again. That part does save some expenses at least.

Theoretically this more instant electronic process would save time as well, avoiding the sorting and sordid mishandling of the United States Post Office, the price of postage and the passage of days for delivery, but in fact, responses are slower than ever—averaging about two months, if answered at all. But be patient, your rejection will come at last. You can send out multiple queries, but an agent who has taken their own precious time to read the damned solicitation and is then told that your work is already in other hands will likely never read anything with your name on it again.

Nevertheless, I take that risk, though cautiously. Waiting through the rejection cycle of a single manuscript, in three-month increments, can take years. A seeming lifetime during which food must be purchased and rent paid. I usually have a dozen queries out for any one work at the same moment. (Actually so few, because I cannot keep track of any quantity of things that exceeds the number 12—the math again). I don’t look at my email until the evening of each day so as not to spoil my temporal mood by the rejections.

Contradicting some assumptions, previously published authors are left at the bottom of any such ‘slush’ pile of submissions. If they were successful, the thought goes, they would already have an agent. The fact that they do not means that their work did not sell, or worse, hat they do not work well with others. That’s only logical (a sort of ‘Catch-18’ even before the editorial revisions that will come). Authors are not intended to develop and grow into the subjects they have chosen to address their lives to. They are meant to grab for the largest audience possible at the first opportunity.

This is again akin to the Hollywood system which gives us, each season, movies made on the model of films which succeeded during the last. This is the reason we have an endless string of cop shows now and lawyer shows ten years ago, and cowboy shows forty years ago and an unending train of mysteries today that reflect a population so murderous it is difficult to imagine they have time to read unless they are looking for ideas on how to commit their next crime.

Contemporary publishers are another matter, equivalently and compatibly cretinous of course. There were always too few publishers like Alfred A. Knopf or Gerard S. Strauss out there willing to ‘coddle’ two or three books in order to give an author a chance to find their own voice and their own audience. Especially not a following of their very own like a Don Marquis, Henry Miller, Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison or J.P. Donleavy. They must always aim at a broader market. There are now only five or six conglomerates that produce more than 90% of the fiction you will see at Walmart, Barnes & Noble, or your local ‘Super Store.’ The major publishers are corporations, not ‘houses.’ There is no ‘family’ living there.

The few exceptions to that are the smaller outfits whose efforts are guaranteed obscurity by an uninterested media. Their ideals are true, but they can’t pay the cost of the heating oil you spent while writing through a good winter. Independent publishers must feed from the wake of the larger like seagulls (sustaining but not flourishing) and beg for space at the diminishing number of independent bookshops who struggle against the discounters and the rising costs per square foot.

In ‘the old days,’ (back when we used to walk uphill to school, both ways) a good publishing house had a vested interest in the larger body of an author’s work for their ‘backlist,’ and to secure the established integrity and good name of the firm as well as the self-image of editors who had to face their contemporaries over a dry martini, after hours. There was a continuously developed relationship with the new authors they thought might have promise. Certainly they pushed the sure bet of a Pearl Buck or a John Galsworthy to pay the printer’s bill, but they also made an investment in the young Hemingway and Faulkner as well. No longer the personal home of an individual conscience, publishing houses are now corporations with stockholders, accountants, and bottom lines. The individual designation of a person as ‘publisher’ is now only a clip-on badge. They want returns and they want them before the next catalog, this year and not next, for they may be elsewhere by then.

What possessed John Chipman Farrar to publish Austin Tappan Wright, an already dead author with no body of work except for that one great and wonderful carcass of utopian balderdash, Islandia? What earthly reason could excuse David Nutt in London for first publishing North of Boston by Robert Frost, nor Henry Holt for doing the same for that odd man’s poetry here in America? What madness made Thomas Seltzer issue the idiosyncratic verse of Tulips and Chimneys by e. e. cummings, or prompted Boni and Liveright to print that author’s first book The Enormous Room (which was yet another war memoir among the hundred about an event everyone else wanted to forget)? It wasn’t the money.

But such foresight, much less the better purpose and aesthetic judgment entailed, is unimportant, even counterproductive, to the average modern literary agent, or to the corporate publishers they must court.

It is only humorous if you have had sufficient beer.

Thus, in an age of ever higher taxes, and the constant escalation of costs due to inflated currency, profits must also be ever greater, year upon year as well, and there is little desire to worry about health insurance for an overweight proofreader who now must work at home (and a little too close to the kitchen) in Levittown and beyond public scrutiny or companionship of their compatriots. Publishers don’t have the paid editorial staff these days to even return rejected manuscripts, much less read them—no matter if you’ve included a self-addressed and stamped envelope. The walk to the Post Office with the SASEs is too great a burden. And the few editors still engaged full-time, and not yet forced into self-employed ‘consulting’ status or who have become agents just so that they can be close to the work that they had set out to do in their idealistic youth, drift from one firm to the next, just as the authors do. Publishers use free lancers whenever they can to reduce overhead. The agents do all of the food tasting, while the publishers only read the stuff that the food taster has taste-tested for toxins.

Crucially, there is no midlist for the authors who might sell only 5000 copies or less. That’s not enough of a run to feed the Walmarts, and that would be me, of course. Or was.

And ‘loyalty’ is a word that brings a wry smile. Willa Cather was with Knopf for nearly her entire career. (Houghton Mifflin had previously been at a loss as to what to do with her.) She argued with Mr. Knopf over everything from jacket copy and cover design to book titles, printing quantities and distribution—and they remained friends. This also wouldn’t happen today. But then again, if Ted Williams were playing baseball today he probably would not have spent over twenty years working for a Yahoo like Tom Yawkey. He would more likely have been seduced by some enormous sum of cash to play for the Yankees at the first opportunity. (Remember, Harry Frazee, the former owner of the Red Sox, sold the Babe—it was not Babe Ruth who sold his soul to the Yankees for a No, No Nanette.)

In Britain and America too, now the great race that ‘literary’ authors must enter in order to survive is winning ‘the prize’ (Or at least be shortlisted). The Pulitzer. The Costa. The National Book Award. The Mann Booker. Hollywood publishing now rules. The Academy Awards has come to the bookshelves in a dozen permutations.

Meanwhile, and as it has always been, the reviewers all review the same authors and the same titles—depending on available ad revenues to the media that pays the critic’s salary—or at least for the assignment. A blatant pimping again. ‘Journalism’ thus remains the same. They will tell you it’s a matter of quantity (too many titles to cover) and the needs for an immediate market response, (i.e., telling their readers about the authors they already want to read). But the reviewers are no more honest than the pimp in the alley door. They plead they were assigned the specific book, so don’t blame them (but, of course, the amount of ad space purchased had nothing to do with it). They often knock books so as to secure a fragile grip on their integrity, but they will always review the latest novel by the author most likely to succeed and gladly cash the publishers check.

Naturally, because it can be justified based on past performance, most agents are looking for what sold well last year. (Though even that puzzles me. Did they actually read that crap and like it? If so, that is a whole nuther scary prospect to consider.) But then each agent makes their fifteen percent on the sale to the publisher. Consider that as well. The writer spends a thousand hours on a book. Does the agent put in 150 hours more? None that I’ve ever met. Yet they have no time for anything that does not fit the template of the moment. Flannery O’Connor could forget about getting published today unless she were willing to revise the first paragraph, page, and chapter to ‘grab’ the attention of the agent, or the agent’s underpaid reader, all in the space of a query, no less.

‘Why don’t you swing for the fence’ one agent advised me when I said I wanted to write a book simply about walking in New York. (E .B. White had done it nicely fifty years before me with Here Is New York—time for an update, I thought.)

Instead, fully exercising his own frustrated desire to write, he said, “Why don’t you expand the idea a little? People are used to you writing fiction. How about this—your walker could have amnesia? Right? Might even be lost. You can get your descriptions of the City out that way. But maybe his lady friend is searching for him . . . and he has a secret code implanted in his neck and he doesn’t know it and the Russian mafia are looking for him too? No? . . . You like more sentiment, I know . . . So, maybe he’s found a little kid, a girl, in an alley living in a dumpster and surviving on garbage. He’s down and out too, of course. What if the kid’s family was murdered by a rogue cop and she’s afraid of the police . . . They buddy up! You could make it another road story, but all on the streets of New York. You did a successful road story before, didn’t you? Hollywood would love it!”

I explained to him that it was just an idea for a little book, an appreciation of the City the way I found it when I first came and what I had discovered since as I went walking in the mornings before writing. It wouldn’t cost much to publish and surely had a ready market. He told me it wasn’t something he could handle.

But all this was not yet the case in 1969.

 

Gerard had a secretary, Miss Evers, who spent mornings opening up the day’s incoming mail and stacking the manuscripts on a small table by the window of the office as high as she could, without it falling over. I saw this mini-architectural wonder myself.

At about 10:30 Gerard would arrive, having avoided much of the rush hour traffic on the Long Island Freeway. Standing there, overlooking Broadway and Twenty-Second Street, he would light up his first cigar of the day (that too would not be allowed in these times—at least not indoors) and begin to finger the pile from the top, reading a sentence here and a sentence there. Never the first page. He hated first pages. Most authors had terrible first pages, he said, and discarded both of mine that he published. He didn’t think much of titles either.

First thing he said to me after we shook hands and I sat down in the fat green leather chairs he used instead of ‘office’ furniture, was, “Stolon? What’s a ‘stolon’?”

He knew what it was, of course. He wanted to set a marker for the start of negotiations. He just wanted to hear my defense for an abrupt title.

Having seen as much as he wanted, he’d drop the rejects from the pile on the floor at his feet. That pile would then grow in mere minutes with less architectural precision until it was nearly as high there as it had been on the table, but for those few manuscripts that Gerard would take into his inner office with him. (He had a surprisingly small desk. And a fat green leather chair of his own. A brass floor lamp beside the chair with a rectangular shade that looked like parchment. And surounding him, the best I could figure, about three thousand books tightly packed on floor-to-ceiling shelves in no order I could readily discern.)

He could go through the entire stack of manuscripts in the outer office, the hopes and dreams of dozens of authors, in about half an hour. Maybe sixty to seventy-five of them at a time. He usually came away with two or three. Those might be rejected later in the day as well, but he would have read much more of them.

Miss Evers was Gerard’s right hand man. It was her contention that though it was a man’s world, she was going to have a piece of it. A lean and bony woman, husky voiced in the manner of the Greek actress, Melina Mercouri, with a severe grin that bore intentions more than humor, she smoked too much and spoke in short sentences, clipped of most conjunctions, articles, and adverbs.

“Smoke? . . .Why? . . . Do! . . . Let’s!”

I got her to talk about her childhood once, and she used more words than I had ever heard her speak previously at any one time.

She said, “I was alone much of my childhood. Mother worked. It’s cold in Chicago. Body warmth is important.”

She was raised by a single mother, had gone to Northwestern through the generosity of an ‘uncle,’ and had worked for Gerard since she was my age. I believe she was just then forty. Her hair was cut short in line with her chin and was black enough to be unnatural. She had a preference for rayon and bright colors, large hats, and very high heels. I never saw her wear the same dress twice, and I suspect the heels changed as well, but I wasn’t observant of the fact.

Her job, other than stacking up incoming manuscripts, answering the phone, and typing out necessary correspondence (Gerard preferred the phone and would call at almost any hour), was to sort through the discard pile on the floor, pick out anything Gerard might have missed, and then reject the rest. It was generally known that she had in fact spotted several of the firm’s best selling authors. I actually heard this bit of information from Gerard himself, so I assume it to be true.

My first time through the door she gave me the once over like I was a chorus girl. I was twenty-one and had never encountered a woman with such direct tastes. She liked martinis before dinner, wine during, and rye after. She did not like her meat or her vegetables over-cooked. She liked French sauces, and fish. She had me out to dinner that first evening and into bed that first night.

I was not with Gerard Strauss & Company long enough to know if Patricia Evers offered these same after-hours services to all of Gerard’s authors, male or female. The two novels of mine that he published over the following three years thankfully involved relatively few visits to his office. I had already moved across the East River by then, and though I had started publishing The Fore-edge further downtown, I was finding as few reasons as possible to linger in Manhattan.

But this is getting ahead of myself again. At least by hours.

That first day at the offices of Gerard Strauss, before evening martinis and white sauce on fish with a pale wine and then the rye, Gerard himself had taken me to lunch at The Four Seasons.

I had caught his attention, he told me, with just one line that stopped the roving of his eye. ‘His father saw him as an extension of himself, while Fergus saw his father as an appendage.’ He read the entire 340 manuscript pages at home that week and contacted me after sleeping on it and considering what he might do with it.

Firstly, he wanted to change the title.

I refused.

Next, he wanted to start the entire story with chapter two. I agreed to that. The first chapter had been re-written at least forty times and I was never happy with it. We compromised on the title, and that was how that subtitle came to be ‘between earth and light.’ He had found it in a line of dialog in the first chapter, which was all he wished to save from that.

It is likely that Gerard reminded no one else of their father, except me. I believe he had five or six publicly recognized offspring, but had personally cared for none. He married four times (according to the current biographical entry on Wikipedia), and five according to the obituary in the Times. He probably did not know the actual number himself. His affection for women was simply not limited to wives. Someone should write a thorough biography of the man now that he is gone and set the record straight.

That day, he wanted to know more about me. I told him what lies were verifiable. And then, something unexpected.

There had been a helicopter crash that week in Vietnam, and twelve Marines had died. I’d seen that at the top of a folded newspaper on his desk at the office. The words had lodged in the fore of my brain and came back at me while we were eating. It had struck me somehow that I could have been one of those Marines instead of being at the Four Seasons, celebrating, and relishing the glory of having my first book published.

I said, “A lot of the guys I grew up with have been over there. Good guys. I’m sorry I never took my share of that. But I’m glad to be alive. Even happier now. Glad they rejected me . . . I don’t think I would have been a good soldier anyway. But the thought is there.”

He said, “Soldiers are not good. They are necessary.”

He addressed the guilt I felt over my own fortunes without saying so directly. The story he then told me at lunch that day ought to be in his biography.

As an 18-year-old buck private, right out of boot camp at Ft. Edwards, “With the sour smells of the docks in Brooklyn still in my nose,” he had just been brought up as part of replacement to fill in a ‘quiet zone’ where he might ‘find his legs’ with the 424th infantry fighting then near St. Vith in December of 1944. And he had not yet fired his gun at another human being. That was a day before the Battle of the Bulge began.

“When the Germans overran our position, I was isolated from my platoon in the dark and moved away from the flash and crack at the line of fire. I was petrified. I was cold, miserable, scared, and wanted nothing more than to live. I was lost then and I took refuge from the cut of the wind amidst some rubble of what turned out to be a ruined monastery.”

Like my grandmother, Gerard had the disconcerting habit of looking you directly in the eye as he spoke, as if fixed on your own reaction to his words, and he was thus always ready to break a story off if you showed the least disinterest.

He said, “I hunkered down. I could hear the approach of voices speaking German. All I could do was slip a little further into a crevice there, pulling my gear behind me to keep it hidden. Suddenly my leg broke through a makeshift obstruction and I slid down into a debris filled cellar. I was in darkness there, but not alone. I knew that instantly, though I was afraid to speak at first for fear of who else was near, and then of being overhead from above.”

He huddled in the cold there for maybe an hour until he could distinguish the sounds of breathing close by.

“It must have taken me several minutes just to raise the courage to whisper. A hoarse throated muttering came back. In was some sort of French. My own French was rudimentary, but I made the other voice understand. I repeated a couple of words over and again. ‘S’il vous plaît. Aidez-moi. Je ne vous blesserai pas. J’ai eu besoin de refuge.’ Something of the sort. I just needed a place to hide . . . ”

A waiter came then, I remember, and we were interrupted by ordering our lunch. But I was already ‘on the lip,’ as he liked to say (an expression he would use to describe what was lacking when discussing the weakness of a scene in a book). I wanted to know what happened next and as unlikely as it might seem, in anticipation, I did not say a thing. He started the story again.

“There were two women hiding there. They had survived for the previous week on the melt of snow from above and on a considerable quantity of brandy which was stored further along in the ruin beneath them. Given the dark and the grime, I could not even tell their ages in the light of a match. But they were both thoroughly drunk and suddenly began to weep at their fate, which I suppose they thought was now in my hands.”

The Germans held the position above for almost two weeks more, during which time Gerard shared the remains of his K rations with the women, learned something of the Walloon dialect, killed several rats for food, burned one-hundred-year-old brandy in a makeshift lamp, and acquired a lifelong love for both fine brandy and courageous women. And as he said that afternoon, raising a glass over our empty plates, “I have insisted on living well ever since.”

For years after that, I had assumed the story to be as factual as most of what I told him about myself. Then I noted in his obituary that one of Gerard’s acknowledged children does in fact live in Belgium to this day, proudly bears his name, and was a primary beneficiary in his will.

Such fortune can favor the stupid as well as any, I suppose, but it was the making of Gerard Strauss, and thereby, through the extended decades, of my own career.

After we returned from lunch that day, I was sent downstairs in the offices to see Emily.

I was told, “She’s our mechanic. She can fix anything.”

Emily Black was Gerard’s editorial assistant. In fact, she was the one who led me through the process of making my shabby mess of a manuscript into a publishable work. A portable Olivetti may not produce pretty pages of copy to begin with, but when they have been corrected and reworked as often as I had done, they become a hopeless succession of rewrites inter-paginated with the original ‘finished’ manuscript. My respect for grammar has often been called into question, but at that time it was even more purely instinctive. My spelling was then, as it is today, creative (often even intentionally) which made the proof readers sick with headaches. Partial sentences were commonly my way of pacing the ones which were run-on for half a page. Several characters came and went without announcement after a few of the cuts I had made previously myself. Emily guided me through all that. A delicate process nearly unknown today.

I suggested to her once that we might be cousins, and that I had a Scottish grandmother whose maiden name was Black. Emily thought I was joking. She seemed to suspect half of what I said to her as jest. And she was probably correct in doing so. Much of what I told her was in some way an excuse for my creative grammar. I never ran out of excuses.

Gerard was right, of course, about the title. The urge of the eye to read the word as ‘stolen’ instead of ‘stolon’ was too great. Any intended subtlety was lost to ambiguity.

 

 

 

 

  1. The ambiguities of disambiguation

 

 

One of the worst pieces of writing I have ever read, not including my own when I’m not hitting the marks, is this paragraph:

“Nick slipped off his pack and lay down in the shade. He lay on his back and looked up into the pine trees. His neck and the small of his back rested as he stretched. The earth felt good against his back. He looked up at the sky, through the branches, and then shut his eyes. He opened them and looked up again. There was a wind high up in the branches. He shut his eyes again and went to sleep.”

This paragraph is much beloved by the arbiters of modern literature, and I will not examine the reasons for my opinion here. My subjective judgment is not the cause for mentioning it. But those who have had to read the entire short story in which that bit of exposition appears, a common school assignment in the decades that followed that writer’s meteoric ascent, will know who the author is without my mentioning him again, or that from such innocent observations he became a proto-parody of every supposedly ‘tough guy’ author for two generations and the template for Hammett’s best prose: “When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it,” and Chandler’s “I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room,” as well as everything from Cain’s hard-boiled nihilism, and Steinbeck’s socio-sophism, to James Jones’s lost causes and Mailer’s macho. Fact is, some of these guys were actually tough. Pity is, they had to tell us about it over and again in short hard sentences to prove it to themselves. They might have done more with their talent and energy if they had devoted the time to asking themselves why their characters actually do what they do, a question left in cowardly ambiguity, instead of dwelling in the equivocations of their own self doubts. So I say.

But the author of that story loudly and famously attested to the importance of writing what was true. Writing is a dialog with one’s self, he said. A conversation pursued with schizophrenic enterprise at best. At worst, a monologue. I have wondered many times what was in the head of a writer when he wrote a particular passage. How did he manage that? How could he have done it? What was the conversation like?

Succumbing to the numbing buzz of nihilism that surrounds us today may be attractive to zombies, and private dicks, but the rest of humanity has to go about their daily lives and take their pleasures where they find them. The heroism of getting up in the morning and going to work may be problematic, but it is truer than any impulsive moment or knee jerk reaction. Sex is made. Babies born. Tides rise and fall. Seasons turn. It is always time for the rest of us to get on with it. The encouraged solipsism of filtering everything through a tight sieve of personal experience might be the gift of twentieth century art, or the curse, but somehow supposing that the values we used to judge that experience were not just as prejudiced and bigoted as those of our fathers, or as weighted by our own self-serving discriminations, is all to the worse.

But then the twentieth century was tough on any psyche. We were on the doorstep of Utopia. Heaven on earth was finally possible without the equilibrium of a counterweight Hell. Suddenly science was permitting many more people to live beyond childhood and enjoy the comforts of technological improvements, even while that society was still engaged in the barbarism of aging empires that were commonly built on lives that were still brutish and short. It’s hard to cope with the illumination of the light bulb brought by ‘rural electrification’ while living in a shanty. Harder to ignore the filth when illuminated. It is difficult to accept the displays of privilege glaring off the magazine covers on any newsstand when you are standing in a breadline.

Politics was the new religion of the twentieth century, and Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, and a hundred lesser despots, did not get the word out just by standing on a street corner and shouting “Hey, you! Listen!” They enlisted the writers of novels and the journalists in newspapers and magazines to do their barking for them through the use of manufactured sentiment and faux compassion. Reason and logic and fact were all set aside for the supposed need to end human suffering. Wasn’t it obvious something had to be done? Wasn’t it clear what the causes were? Some must die so that others might live.

Truly, communication alone, the medium rather than the message, was not alone in fostering the terrors of pillage, rape and murder that were the result of imposing the new order on those unwilling to give up the old ways. Nor can we easily blame the ahistorical and circular reasoning of a ne’er-do-well nineteenth century German philosopher who never held a full-time job or made himself get up and go to work to pay the bills much less to accept for his responsibilities while he spent a lifetime sponging off of others, even as he saw fit to redesign the human condition according to his own myopic visions. Nor too can we accuse his born-wealthy interlocutor Mr. Engels. The two of them, in fact, reminded me very much of my friends at The Gist. True, newspapers, magazines, books and television were not the cause of anything. They simply played their part. Belatedly, as a member of a third generation lost following the fall of empires in the First World War, I played mine.

I am made now, by this reconsideration of a life spent and misspent, to wonder what might be thought by someone reading these words sixty or a hundred years hence. (Allowing for my own hubris in even permitting of the possibility of any interest.) Against the larger tapestry of punctuated misery and intermittent humane happiness, will they even care about the language we played with to delude ourselves, rather than admit to our own complicities? And what of terms like ‘internet,’ or ‘cell phone,’ or ‘Google,’ or ‘Wikipedia?’ Will they, in those future hours, have any immediate comprehension of what these things were or how they changed the world that I knew? Or even care to?

I think not. Any more than my generation understood gaslight or travel by stagecoach apart from the movie props we frequently saw, or the generation which is now displacing mine at the head of the tables of power might understand the true nature of fascism or liberty, having long enjoyed their freedoms without cost, or any better than that rich fellow did who went home to the manor each evening, after his slumming, to write of the plight of the working class.

I look up a single name on Wikipedia and note several others which are similar, and see that odd term ‘disambiguation.’ To my generation, ambiguity was a literary device, but long before that, it was the stumble and fall of Pierre: or The Ambiguities, that most misunderstood work, which Melville wrote following Moby Dick.

Having delved into the deepest mysteries of the human heart and soul by his recounting of the legend of Mocha Dick, the ‘white whale of the Pacific,’ and wringing the juice he could from the rind of his own experience, and having this rejected as too weighty, Melville wished to write something in lighter vein. Something shorter. A farce, perhaps. Why not a tale of infidelity and possible incest, of motherly abandonment and fortunes lost, friendship betrayed, mysticism, a ménage a trois and unrequited love, artistic failure, destitution, murder, imprisonment, poisoning and triple suicide. An opera Tosca! It could even have been a musical if written a century later! Not as great perhaps as Springtime for Hitler, but at least in that mordant vein. It might only have to be improved by avoiding such weighty handles as Ahab or Ishmael, and giving the characters such brighter names as Pierre Glendinning, Delly Ulver, and Poltinus Plinlimmon. Sadly, it never made it to Broadway.

Nor did I, for that matter. The gods of the Wiki got something wrong there as well. I wrote three plays, not just the two they cite, though none made it beyond a barn in Tarrytown. But that was all of a time later still.

 

There is a quote on the dust jacket of The Stories of Frank O’Connor which almost put me off of him, as I have often avoided books promoted by publishers with some opportunistic comparison to a previous and more successful title or author. I never intentionally read a book boasted of as the latest Catcher in the Rye, for instance. It really only means that it’s a coming of age novel. The latest Huck Finn, but without the insight, humor or natural causes.

I once used the example in a review, “Not since Moby Dick has there been such a whale of a story,” as a bit of sarcasm before a reader sent me a clipping from his local newspaper which had used the very same line to promote a new novel about killer orcas.

It was from that observation that I came to the entitling of this effort of my own doing and stumbled there upon the subtitle, ‘A Menckenesque’. . . You don’t say.

Menckenesque—n. a curmudgeonly social critique; an exposition of such, as in an essay or story.

Well, clearly Mr. Mencken would have had nothing to do with me. He had a harder nose, a sharper tooth, a fiercer tongue, and a larger grasp for things (not to mention his legendary cast-iron stomach), than I have ever managed. And please note that he was dead by 1956, when I was only nine years old. But still, it was in fact his own range of interest and purpose that finally inspired me with the thought to do this particular thing.

As I was saying of Frank O’Connor and hyperbolic jacket blurbs, his publisher insisted upon using a quote from that even better man, William Butler Yeats, “O’Connor is doing for Ireland what Chekhov did for Russia.” And that is a fine example of just how the great can be wrong and still be right. I almost put the book back in the used bin at the thrift store, before noticing that it was published the year I was born. I have a habit of investigating things published that year by way of looking for some additional magic for my own mortal epiphany.

O’Connor, wordsmith that he was, cannot be excused for his meanness toward his fellow Irishmen in calling to attention their faults any more than we can ignore the sardonic burlesques of the American booboisie by Mencken or the greater heart of Yeats for his apposite kindness to the Irish. And certainly Russia can no longer be defined by the poignancy of those shades of which Chekov was the master.

Yet the greater similarity might be that these men suffered the lack of a larger audience for not writing novels or for spending the fortune of their talents on writing short stories which engage the train of our intellects for the moment but never carry us far beyond the station where we began. It’s well worth knowing that we are lost, but it is valued all the more to find a way to home.

(Sure, you will tell me that Mr. Connor wrote two novels. But no, I will answer. They were novellas and not more than short stories at greater length. And Chekov had his plays—but those are properly dependent for their whole strength, as all plays are, on the talents of actors and directors and that combined effort, which is not the point of the Yeats quote at all.)

And another plea on my part: Mencken was an amazingly deliberate fellow who, more often than not, chose his battles too carefully. A novel or three might have been the thing that preserved him when the politics of the times had changed. (Look at the success of Tom Wolfe for an example of that!) But though he lost his brief against American entry into World War One, opposed to his beloved Germany, he won his battle for the First Amendment and the right to be wrong out loud and in print. I have simply attempted to make use of a privilege he left for me.

And at least Mencken mostly engaged in combat worthy of himself. Many a fine author has been lost to us because they spent their blood on bar fights. What of Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Kyd (about either of whom we actually know more than their famous contemporary, Mr. Shakespeare)? Think of poor Ambrose Bierce. As fine an imagination as any man or woman alive in his time, and a master of the wordcraft. He probably fought one too many battles for a single lifetime, and then chose one fight more. I think perhaps he had that singular instinct for lost causes in common with Mark Twain and George Orwell.

In fact both Bierce and Mencken, veteran newspapermen, had a great sensitivity to the language. They both wrote about proper usage. But tellingly, while Mencken’s voluminous efforts are still worthy reference, Bierce’s shorter advice, Write it Right, a catalog essay of improper usage and ‘A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults,’ is totally lost on any but the most fastidious modern authors. (Certainly it was lost on me when I first encountered it.)

The very first entry in that short book is an entreaty to properly use ‘A for An’ which pleads, “Before an unaccented aspirant use ‘an’—the contrary usage in this country comes of too strongly stressing our aspirates.” (I suppose some of my ‘hache’ing Irish ancestors would be guilty on this count.) And, of course, aspirations have always been an American failing as well as the soul of whatever success we have managed.

Bierce meant well, but he was ever the newspaperman looking for the clear, crisp, declarative over the sort of thing I am prone to, and at which he would blanch, no doubt, as he would at many of my other habits. He to did not write novels, but might at least have been better off writing some more of his short confabulations instead of loitering in Mexico, which was the end of him. But, as I have noted, I did not make it into the newspaper world and was thus never forced into getting the essentials into a few hundred words. That world of print, like Bierce’s own, had begun to fade before I was ready.

Bierce advises, “Action for act . . . a blow is a reprehensible action. A blow is not an action, but an act. An action may consist of many acts.” “Admission for admitting.” “Admit for confess.” “Advisedly for advertently.” The first page of his small tome is one lost battle after another in contemporary usage. And the next. And all the pages that follow. This little book is an entire lost war, not even recalled today, so much further into our decay. It is long behind us. We have fought too many other deadly battles in the meantime as well—all lost.

The unintentional classic English as She is Spoke by Pedro Carolino, of which Mark Twain said, “Nobody can add to the absurdity of this book, nobody can imitate it successfully, nobody can hope to produce its fellow; it is perfect,” is properly related to a nice little diatribe by Twain himself called English as She is Taught, which addresses much of the absurdity common to the teaching of the language in the schools of his time, but was still relevant to the classrooms of the 1950s and 1960s when I was coming through. Care for the language must be taken.

The desire of the better journalist to get it right is one of the most admirable and heroic professions of purpose I know. My appreciation stems not only from my own inability to contain myself when I write, but from a Catholic guilt that I should do better, even though I would get less pleasure from it. The Hemingwayesque sentence does not occur to me except by force or accident.

Then why eschew such brevity, you might ask, if I admire it? Because journalism is a sort of writing best suited for the exact parameters of what has been empirically observed. And that is not my own purpose or cause—any more than the way I admire the physical attributes of an athlete, of which I have none. I cannot, and should not, thus give up all physical activity because I am a klutz. It’s not healthy. Any more than I should give up the pleasure of walking simply because I am not the best hiker in the wood. I enjoy a good walk. And I may not be the best of lovers, but I do enjoy a good——-. Well, the point is made and I have some stories to tell and I must tell them in my own way for them to be the stories I know.

But back again to my abuse of Mr. Mencken by taking his name in vain with the term ‘Menckenesque.’ In the final analysis, the reason for my use of the word is simply because I liked the sound of it.

 

 

 

 

  1. Yours Trudy, truly

 

 

In another moment of total abandon, I once stole the family car. I had actually taken it on several previous occasions without permission and therefore been forbidden to drive it again. But because my father insisted upon walking to work, there it sat in front of the house all day long throughout my childhood, and in 1964 it was a brilliant blue 1959 Plymouth Fury with fins like wings at the back, a white cap of a roof and a white flare at the side, and it was ripe exotic fruit to my eyes. Dad only drove it on weekends and it still smelled new inside. I only just had my learner’s permit at the time, but I’d completed the Driver’s Ed course at the high school and thought myself to be a regular Richard Petty. My father had had enough of it. He reported a previous unauthorized borrowing to the police, informing them of the situation. He said he would press charges next time, and did.

I was finally caught one balmy summer evening at Duxbury Beach with Mary Ellen. I had in fact run out of gas, and had no way to get us back before my father returned home from work. The Duxbury police were very obliging.

It was this case against me which was noted the next year by the Marines as a good existential excuse to avoid taking on another pain-in-the-ass. My father’s attempt to sober my judgment had backfired. And thus I went to college instead.

 

I suppose that most first novels are a sort of clearing of the passageways, as the literary baby, just expelled from that Eden of perfection in the womb of the mind, takes the initial breath of cold air. There might excusably be some initial anger at having lost a paradise that will never be found again in life, and a cry out at the evident imperfections. Perhaps some questioning of identity. Certainly there is a pursuit of someone to blame for the outrageous circumstance of arrival into a state of affairs over which you have no real control and no hope of return, or eventually, of survival. And thus you may seek to identify yourself apart from those who made you, and set a course that is your own.

All of that supposed without the inconvenience of ever having to bear a real baby or care for them afterward. But I have been thankful ever since the issuance of that first effort, that I will never write a ‘first published novel’ again.

I may have done better had I found an Archy among the critters who scampered at all corners of my rooms and just let him type out his undercapitalized thoughts on my Olivetti. But, of course, troubled enough by my own rants, I am not the sort of Mehitabal who would have tolerated such opinionation from a bug, much less the usufruct of my property or usurpation of my authority. More simply put, I always enjoyed more the process of writing than the final progeny.

My habit was to write at night until I was too tired to keep my eyes open. Failing this, and feeling trapped by the critters who stared at me from corners, and the sounds from the airshaft (particularly during warmer weather when the windows were fully open and Trudy was especially busy) as well as the annoying fact that I had not yet actually done anything worth writing about, I would lie on my bed and imagine (lying doubly, then) some absurd reason for running away and working on a farm, or becoming a forest ranger, or joining the French Foreign Legion (because I was reliably informed by Percival Christopher Wren that they had lower standards than the Marines).

Luckily, if Trudy saw my light on, and business was slow on her end of the hallway as well, she would come tapping at the door.

She would sit in the only other chair I had, beneath the light shed through from the kitchen ceiling, and read what I was writing. She became my first audience. It was her input into the process that made it at all possible then. Otherwise discouraged with the progress, I actually began to write for her eyes rather than simply to please myself. I began to anticipate her reactions to the words. If it was not clear, she would buckle up her nose at it like a bad smell. If she did not grasp something, she would say so, straight forwardly.

“How big is a yacht?” she asked one evening with her bare foot propped precariously at the edge of the small table just beyond the typewriter, from where she sat at the other side from my own chair.

I said, “They can be as big as a tugboat, but these are smaller. We called them yachts I guess because they were out of the Boston Yacht Club and the others. They didn’t really qualify. They were private boats. ‘Pleasure craft,’ they call them. Mostly sailboats. In the summertime we could swim out to the moorings in the harbor at night when I was a kid, especially when the tide was low and you could practically walk on the muck. The boats were right there off-shore from the yacht clubs and they often had liquor on board. I drank my very first nip of whiskey on one of those. The first time I ever smoked pot it was from one of those boats too. And in the wintertime we used to sneak around the wall at night and into the boat yard where the ‘yachts’ were all up on blocks and go in under the tarps and smoke cigarettes.”

She shook her head to mock me.

“Oh, you were achin’ to be a bad boy, weren’t you?”

“I was.”

“Yeah!” She laughed at me “What happened? You’re not a bad boy now.”

I made excuses for my failing, “I didn’t try hard enough, I guess. My father whipped the daylights out of me for it when I was caught. I suppose that was the deal.”

She shrugged at the idea. “So your daddy made you. Like my momma made me.”

That seemed right enough. “I guess so. I think my mother had a role in it, though. She never would let him spank me more than was enough, I think.”

“That’s what this is about then. This is about those spankin’s, isn’t it?”

“I suppose.”

“You are damned right it is. So say it. Give credit where credit is due.”

She was not versed in any sort of literary criticism. Her sensibility was simply straight and true. Either she understood what the hell I was saying, or she didn’t. She never understood the title. But she grasped the rest without a hitch and often had me up on my feet and walking the rooms from end to end looking for a way to make what I said a little better.

Gerard Strauss said to me once, “How did you learn to write like this? It’s not normal.”

He knew by then that I had only managed one year at college.

I had no idea of course. Nor any understanding, in truth, of what he actually meant.

Somewhat flippantly I answered, “Maybe I write it as if someone were there reading the pages as I finish them. She’s very impatient with me.”

He said, “I thought you lived alone.”

I said, “I do.”

Gerard frowned but did not pry. I never explained to him about Trudy. I wish I had, when he asked about the name I had requested on dedication page.

“Someone I know,” was my feeble response.

Trudy was not her real name. I never knew that. I knew only that she was from Philadelphia. She had evidently been used and abused there by a pimp after getting addicted to heroin. Following a rehab, not her first, another woman in the clinic had told her that her one chance to survive was to leave. Right then. At that moment. “Don’t look back. Go on until your shoes have holes,” she said. She would just have to break her replacement addiction on the methadone, the thing that was actually keeping her there, all on her own.

She told me one night that she “begged the price of a ticket at the 30th Street Station and got myself all the way to New York City. As far as I could go. My shoes already had the holes.”

I suppose working as a prostitute for herself rather than a pimp was a considerable improvement. That, and the fact that she was not then on hard drugs, though she enjoyed her pot enormously.

I was never able to get her to tell me all of her story, but she had offered up parts. This happened in short bits and pieces after she had read something or another I had written.

Once, after considering a description of one character she said, “It’s like my sister. She’s cruel. She’ll take anything that’s not nailed. She came back home once and stole my mamma’s clothes. I said to her, ‘Pamela, that’s okay. You look right in those. They fit you. That’s who you are. But if you take those, that’s all you’ll ever be.’ What I meant was that we was just the same as our momma and daddy—only we never knew our daddy, so Momma was the one. Pamela says back at me ‘At least I’m no whore.’ But she was. Then. And no better.”

I had written those pages of The Stolon that Trudy held in her hands about my brother, and how he was like my father, and I was not, and how that fact had made our lives. I had put it all in what seemed to me at the time to be fiction, but it was far closer to fact than anything I’ve since imagined.

One small incident from my childhood had served as an illustration. Once I had tried to wear some of my father’s old clothes. These were in a trunk at my grandmother’s house. They were the clothes of an eight-year-old boy of forty years before. A sort of sailor’s outfit, with knickers. I was ten, but the two years made little difference at the time. The wool fabric sagged away from the wide belt that held it in place at my waist. The shoulders were far wider than my own and the sleeves dropped beyond my fingers. And this was the way I had been discovered there in the attic by Eddy. His laugh brought a crowd. He wouldn’t let me close the door until my grandmother pulled him away. Such a small incident and yet I still feel the embarrassment.

I imagined that nothing else in the book had even a remote resemblance to Trudy’s own life. Yet she found things.

“My mama would wear her hair up sometimes. Way up high. In summertime. Get it up off from her neck.” She made a twirl with her fingers in the air. “Just like that.”

In my book I had written that my mother, when she cooked, had used what looked to me to be the defensive armament of a hundred bobby pins to get her longer hair out of the way.

I said to Trudy, “Did your mother like to cook?”

She answered, “Not unless she could help it. There were thirty-two kinds of pizza over at Selby’s. We tried every one at some time or other.”

 

I knocked on Trudy’s door one night in October 1969. I had not seen her in the weeks since I had moved across the river to Brooklyn, and I had a present for her. If I had not been drinking for most of the three hours before, I probably would have chosen a better time, but in my hand was one of the first hardbound copies of The Stolon, just in from the binder, and I had inscribed it for her beneath the dedication and wrapped it up in the comics section from the Sunday paper with the color panel from Peanuts face out on one side to insure at least some positive response. She was a big Snoopy fan and had always begged me to save that section of the newspaper for her.

When she didn’t answer, for some reason I got to thinking the worst. She might have been busy with a client but the silence from beyond the door made me think otherwise. All of a sudden, it occurred to me that she might be there, inside, dead—stabbed to death.

I immediately went down to see Vlad.

The outer basement door on St. Mark’s was locked and I had to pound on that for several minutes to get his attention. Thankfully the furnace was not on. He opened the door in his ubiquitous wife-beater undershirt and a pair of red and yellow flowered boxer shorts. His eyes were swollen with sleep. I told him I was worried. He pretended not to understand me and tried to close the door again. Then he frowned, sighed heavily, and went back to find some pants.

He took every step up to the fourth floor at a trudge, muttering in French and not Rumanian, probably so that I might pick up on the essence of what he was saying. After pounding on the door himself and trouble finding the key on his enormous ring, he eventually opened Trudy’s lock with an international bark of announcement.

“Ahlo? Ahlo?”

Her rooms were empty and echoed the words back at us. She had left; moved away someplace, but to where I never learned.

That same inscribed copy is barely an arm’s length from where I sit, as I write this now.

 

 

 

Part Two

 

  1. Titbits: Bet Flint and I contrive to write a play

 

 

I had read Boswell’s Life of Johnson and his London Journals as well as the Tour of the Hebrides and I was unsure if I loved Samuel Johnson or only Boswell’s Johnson and wanted to read something about the Doctor that was not in Boswell’s voice to give the man a little more color. A customer at The Book Ends shop on 46th Street heard me asking the fellow there behind the desk (I mistook him for the owner) if he was aware of anything else written about Johnson by another author who knew the great man personally and that fellow did not have a clue.

I thought that was something any reputable bookseller ought to know. I was that raw. And I think I managed to say as much and embarrass the poor guy before the other customer, standing in a near aisle, came to the rescue.

“Why don’t you try Fanny Burney? There is something in The Diary and Letters of Madame d’Arblay, I believe.”

“Sure.” I said. I’d heard of Frances Burney. She’s mentioned in the Boswell books. So I asked, “But what does Fanny Burney have to do with Madam d’Arblay’s Diary? Did she edit it?”

The fellow smiled. Pleasantly. I had betrayed my own ignorance in front of them both. The clerk pretended to look at some papers on his desk. I thought better of him for that, and worse of myself.

They even had an edited version of the Diary there in the shop that the clerk snatched from the shelf an instant after I had made a fool of myself, and though it was well beyond my budget, I bought it in penance for having been rude.

Burney tells her own story well enough, but the importance of the event for me was in first meeting Bet Flint.

I quote Burney as Madam d’Arblay from the Diary:

And now let me try to recollect an account [Dr. Johnson] gave of certain celebrated ladies of his acquaintance: an account in which, had you heard it from himself, would have made you die with laughing, his manner is so peculiar, and enforces his humour so originally. It was begun by Mrs. Thrale’s apologising to him for troubling him with some question she thought trifling—O, I remember! We had been talking of colours, and of the fantastic names given to them, and why the palest lilac should be called a soupir etouffe; and when Dr. Johnson came in, she applied to him.

“Why, madam,” said he, with wonderful readiness, “it is called a stifled sigh because it is checked in its progress, and only half a colour.”

I could not help expressing my amazement at his universal readiness upon all subjects, and Mrs. Thrale said to him, “Sir, Miss Burney wonders at your patience with such stuff, but I tell her you are used to me, for I believe I torment you with more foolish questions than anybody else dares do.”

“No, madam,” said he; “you don’t torment me;—you teaze me, indeed, sometimes.”

“Ay, so I do, Dr. Johnson, and I wonder you bear with my nonsense.”

“No, madam, you never talk nonsense; you have as much sense and more wit, than any woman I know.”

“Oh,” cried Mrs. Thrale, blushing, “it is my turn to go under the table this morning, Miss Burney!”

“And yet,” continued the doctor with the most comical look, “I have known all the wits, from Mrs. Montagu down to Bet Flint.”

“Bet Flint!” cried Mrs. Thrale—“Pray, who is she?”

“Such a fine character, madam! She was habitually a slut and a drunkard, and occasionally a thief and a harlot.”

“And, for heaven’s sake, how came you to know her?”

“Why, madam, she figured in the literary world, too! Bet Flint wrote her own life, and called herself Cassandra, and it was in verse;—it began:

‘When Nature first ordained my birth, A diminutive I was born on earth: And then I came from a dark abode, Into a gay and gaudy world.’

So Bet brought me her verses to correct; but I gave her half-a-crown, and she liked it as well. Bet had a fine spirit;—she advertised for a husband, but she had no success, for she told me no man aspired to her! Then she hired very handsome lodgings and a footboy; and she got a harpsichord, but Bet could not play; however, she put herself in fine attitudes, and drummed.”

Then he gave an account of another of these geniuses, who called herself by some fine name, I have forgotten what.

“She had not quite the same stock of virtue,” continued he, “nor the same stock of honesty as Bet Flint; but I suppose she envied her accomplishments, for she was so little moved by the power of harmony, that while Bet Flint thought she was drumming very divinely, the other jade had her indicted for a nuisance!”

“And pray, what became of her, sir?

“Why, madam, she stole a quilt from the man of the house, and he had her taken up: but Bet Flint had a spirit not to be subdued; so when she found herself obliged to go to jail, she ordered a sedan chair, and bid her footboy walk before her. However, the boy proved refractory, for he was ashamed, though his mistress was not.”

“And did she ever get out of jail again, sir?”

“Yes, madam; when she came to her trial the judge acquitted her. ‘So now,’ she said to me, ‘the quilt is MY own, and now I’ll make a petticoat of it.’ Oh, I loved Bet Flint!” Oh, how we all laughed!

 

I was about to write a play in my head before I finished the portion above. I used it word for word in the first act. I had my story before I was home that day. With Johnson as a sort of Mr. Chips. The good doctor under the influence of the profligate Mr. Boswell, has become enchanted with the harlot of his dreams. Bet Flint is in love with him and he must choose between love and passion. But as we know, his true passion was for the words.

 

Even growing up as a reader on that sleeve of land dipped in the soup of Boston Harbor and so far from the heart, I knew somehow (how I have no idea now) that the greatest library in the world was not that beaux arts behemoth known as the BPL. That grand palace was just a load of marble and vaulted ceilings, with paintings that were dark and mysteriously large yet unreachable to a younger hand. The books were secondary there and not even presented in the grand entrance. No. The greatest library in the world was the smaller Athenaeum up at the top of Beacon Hill. There the books lined nearly every wall, the floors were glass and the blur of volumes below or above beckoned, the paintings of John Adams and Daniel Webster stared you right back in the eye, and ceilings were high but only to make balconies for more books. And they had the greatest of books, the folio of Audubon’s Birds and the duodecimo of the Bay Psalm Book, and the least of books, like the cynical mysteries of Edgar Box and the silly adventures of Topper and his friendly ghosts. They also had a book by a murderer that was covered by his own request, not in leather, but with his own human skin.

It was a private library and my first visits were with adult friends (yet another story I have to find time to tell). But my ambition was to join the ranks of the members as soon as I could, and I did at last, the year The Stolon was published, and as a reward, shortly after, I got to see my own book there on the shelves. But this project preceded that, when the cost of membership was still beyond my grasp.

On my next visit home, under the false guise of being a reporter for The Gist, I found that they had a full set of Madam d’Arblay there as well as works by Johnson’s friends Addison and Steele, Richard Savage, Burke, Goldsmith, and nearly all the others I wanted.

The idea was that I would construct my play from the actual words of Johnson, and Boswell, and their associates and friends as well, as amply reported in a hundred such volumes. The plot was centered on Johnson’s mysterious love life, for as we know forthrightly about Boswell’s visits to the prostitutes of the time, Johnson was more circumspect. His marriage to Tetty Porter was so lacking in heat that he left her to live alone and then went to stay with his friend Henry Thrale. And it was there in the company of Mrs. Thrale (his beloved Hester) and her salon, that he found his later voice and became the whole man that Boswell knew.

I made at least half a dozen trips to the Athenaeum. I stopped in every time I was in town to see my mother and father for a year. Those folks, both parents and librarians, rightly wondered what kind of report I was doing that took so long. So I fabricated an alternative plot concerning the failure of American libraries and the differences between that private beacon of knowledge on the Hill and the BPL. I will mention this subject again later, I hope, but it is worth noting that I actually wrote such an article and Paul rejected it as ‘boring.’ I am sure it was. But I have no surviving copy of that manuscript to judge.

But Bet Flint was very much written then and in the thrall, if you will, of knowing Trudy, and it was her character that spoke the eighteenth century words. And interestingly now, reading it again, I see that it was Mary Ellen who gave voice to the constant mothering of Hester Thrale.

I loved my conceit of using the words of the actual players, turned to my own purposes, but the play was rejected by everyone who read it. The contest of wills between good Bet and the better Hester over the aging body of Dr. Johnson (a true comedy I thought) while both of them were in love with his mind (for who but an undertaker could love his lumpish body?) stirred little interest. It would be unappealing to young and old alike. ‘Pretentious’ was a common critique. And they were right, of course. I was that. Then and likely now. But I still like my play.

 

For anyone who might be interested here in seeing the sort of thing I was writing at length for The Gist, I offer this. I have come across it in a box of notes from 1968, along with my long lost play about Bet Flint and it is presented here as it was given to Paul Winger, in that year, raw and unedited. It was never titled by me but I see a marginal annotation in my hand that quotes a bit of comic verse by a Harvard man named Brossidy and was something I had grown up with:

And this is good old Boston / The home of the bean and the cod, / Where the Lowells talk only to Cabots, / And the Cabots talk only to God.

Perhaps it might have been my thought to entitle the piece something like, ‘Said God to the Cabots.’ Such a sentiment would have been ample reason for a thumbs down.

I was concerned with the civil unrest that was then ripping the inner cities across the nation. Paul summarily rejected it then, so there is no chance you’ve ever encountered the piece before. But over those three years at The Gist, Paul accepted more than he refused.

(The faint of heart may skip on to the next chapter without losing any line of the narrative or bit of sleep.)

 

Christianity begins to devour itself with the imposition of the Nicene Creed.

Not unlike the great achievements of Rome following the fall of the Republic, it is of note that Christianity had great success after the usurpation of faith by doctrine at Nicaea in the year 325. Any nation conquered by Rome after Julius Caesar could become part of the Empire, so long as it offered homage to Roman authority along with its sons to fight in the Roman legions and its daughters as chattel to Roman lust. It made for a specific dynamic never seen before.

And the imposition of the Nicene Creed on Christianity brought a central authority that made the teachings of Christ, at least as interpolated by authority of that Council, a driving force that would conquer one quarter of the world over the next millennium, before failing. It was an based on the example which had been set by Rome itself. Unfortunately for Roman citizens, they had lost their Republican liberties with the bargain for Empire, and with them those Greek ideals that made their ethic unique. Sadly too, by the dogma of Nicaea, the poor Christian was no longer allowed to speak directly with his God, but now required an interpreter—a priest—not for the Latin, mind you, but for the meaning. They might each and every one be a child of God, but Heaven help them if they were to speak to their father. And any who disagreed were condemned, as surely as any Celt who would not heel to Rome.

One cannot argumentatively ask, as Dr. Johnson did of Boswell, “Why, Sir, does not God every day see things going on without preventing them?” There is no real debate in the Roman Catholic Church of that kind. It is settled dogma. We are saved if we don’t and damned if we do. Or is it the other way around? In any case, given the frailties of being human, why would I want another one of me to stand between myself and my God, or any committee of them (or Yorkshire ‘us’) to dictate how I would pray? Isn’t it enough that I have been forced to give up my mundane liberties so that one committee or another can tell me how to live my mortal life?

The great rabbi Maimonides had something to say to all of this, as he did to most things of any importance. But that’s another case, and not the box I’m opening here. Suffice to say, that Sephardic philosopher had resolved this riddle in God’s favor and moved on to other matters. Having given us the gift of mind so that we might think, it was up to us to save ourselves.

But at least, insofar as human government goes, I can ask Dr. Johnson’s question this way, “Why, Sir, does not the Government every day see things going on without preventing them?” Clearly enough, because most of the things it sees are done by and for itself. There is no business monopoly that is not licensed by the authorities, nor any poverty that is not made permanent by Government edict. The disintegration of black American society began in earnest with forced integration and the assumption of power by government as the sole arbiter of how we must treat our fellow man. Witness the increasing rate of illegitimacy among black Americans, the failing interest in marriage, the rise in crime and drug use, etc.

The Golden Rule was apparently insufficient. House Rule 7152 was required.

The oxymoronic Civil Rights Act, which takes away our right to act, for reasons good or bad, tells us we should no longer discriminate, by law. Of course we would, and will, as we always have, but now the government can prosecute us for exercising the natural right of choosing with whom we would associate. And does. Now we must discriminate, but surreptitiously. Under cover of fabrication.

There wasn’t one in a hundred Americans who understood what basic freedom they had lost in 1964. Nor do they now. All for the good cause. Justification and rationalization have followed unendingly since, always with the application of some new federal imperative and the loss of one more aspect of the liberty which had once been declared ours by natural right (however flawed it was in practice, it was the very practice that might have better perfected it—had that been allowed to continue).

The theory was, and is now, that because some men are murderers, all men must be held in contempt. That because some men were bigots, judging others by their skin or their religion, or their sex, that all men are bigots and must be forced to accept the values of all . . . but wait. If that is the case, then there is no particular value to attain, no right or wrong, not better or worse. We are all the same. We are ants, then. No! Worse. Because we have no queen!

How is this different from Roman rule?

Would you not rebel if told that you must live you life according to the dictate of others?

But we will see no end to that, now. Power, once given to government, will not be relinquished peacefully. The momentum of our ideals may carry us for a time, like Roman roads carried the legions long after the time of their building, and Christianity was preached long after the heretics were burned. But just as the personal act of Christian charity has been given over to the Government dole, and the acts of our Founding Fathers reduced to mock celebration of the Fourth of July, the great machine we have made here will fail in time. Sooner than later at modern speeds.

As a good Celt from two fine lineages, I object. I don’t say I am better than any other man. I say that I am different. And I glory in my difference. Vive la difference!

 

Reading those words over again after forty years, I can readily see how I might have improved it. Especially in the transitions. But it strikes me now, all these years later, as written by the same fellow that I am, and a fair representation of how I addressed the moment.

 

 

 

 

  1. Antidisestablishmentarianism

 

 

“There is a sort of simple slavery among us. A prostitution of sorts. It beggars us all. It sells the true for the false. It pretends the better for the worse. It makes a man accept what is unearned and to marry a woman for what graces she can apply.”

What Mr. Billington said.

 

It was widely accepted, when I was a kid, that the longest word in the English language was ‘Antidisestablishmentarianism.’ Perhaps it was true at the time. But the point of fact had been made known through the pervasive ‘Wikipedia’ of that moment, network television (with only the three channels—CBS, NBC, and ABC—available), and thus it should have been rightly questioned. What of floccinaucinihilipilification? Or was that word of no importance? Instead, the popular quiz show that put that other unusable alphamoronic portmanteau of a term in our minds infected us all with the idea that being able to spell such a monstrosity was a worthy accomplishment long after the issue of state support for the Church of England had been properly resolved.

Someone has proposed that the most beautiful word in the English language is diarrhea. This may be (and no more relevant than the spelling of god-awful longer words). But onomatopoeia is a matter of vowels, not bowels. I am more taken by the spirits of an elixir than the dactyls of the hexameter, or by a vixen than a Xanthippe. A hoyden is better for the romp and a gamine for the game. I like the idler or dawdler better than the flaneur; the trifle better than the bauble; the labyrinthine, or Byzantine, can be more onerous than convoluted or intricate; true, and the susurrus murmur of the wind may soothe sooner than the rustle or the howl or the blow. Blue is cerulean when it suits me, but I’d never wear such a suit to go out in public (though perhaps an indigo). I like the sesquipedalian word when it has consonants enough for my tongue to get betwixt the vowels on my lips. At a loss for words, I will use an elision to hide my behind, but whose ellipsis are these that I kiss? The pride of autumn color comes before the fall. The periwinkle need not apologize, but for the bustle and the pannier there is no excuse. Antimacassar is a far more slippery subject than antimatter. Nooks are better than crannies. Hearty better than hale. I’d rather be sound than safe. The ruin appeals more to me than the rack. I’ll choose dribs before drabs and take my chances on the mystery in the parcel before I would settle for a part of it, even when part and parcel are the same.

These are the matters that matter.

 

We live in this time when everything that we might do is assumed to be some sort of self-promotion. An agenda.

It is our just reward, of course, for letting ourselves be the pawns of promotion and advertising. We wear their emblazoned tee shirts without being paid for the personal space we have sacrificed. It’s the old sow and reap thing, yet again. I am told that it is not enough that I play with the words, I must sell them.

How will anyone know that I have written the damned book if I don’t go out there and promote it? That is not the fair question, though. The better question is, how should I promote it? I’m willing enough to bark for my attention. I’ll dance to a tune if need be. But twittering a display of my nether parts, no? (Alike the Xerox of a female’s bottom that circulated once in the office at The Gist, when speculations were rampant.) This is, of course, why younger writers receive so much more attention these days. Their nethers are nicer to look at.

It is assumed that any politician is a skank—unless he pretends he is not—and then he is merely a phony skank. But a writer? An author? A wordsmith? A scribe? Must I be a skank too? Can’t I be a baker of words? A word chef? A stevedore of words? A farmer of words? A gardener, at least?

Without launching into some great rant about all the ills of our society, can I please address those of you who care, with the simple thought that our priorities are dewercsed up! And, that it is up to each of us to be the baker, or the farmer, or the candlestick maker. Not for us to meet the standard of the agent, but for them, if they choose to amongst my fellow scribblers fairly and justly, to fly our standard.

That is my agenda, then. Revealed! (Not revealed at last! because it was never hidden and has been addressed often by me before, this.) I want to ‘change priorities ahead’ as the sign shouted to us when Sarah and I were driving once into Plymouth, England, shortly after we were married.

I even stopped and took a picture of the sign that day. It was too brilliant!

That was it. I wanted to change priorities ahead. I did not want to fall into that cycle of writing and promotion that seemed to stifle almost every other author I knew. I simply wanted to write. That was what I wanted and that was what made me happy. If a publisher got a kick out of advertising what I did and could made a profit out of finding a way to ballyhoo my work, then let them have at it, so long as they did not pretend that I was something else than I am—a liar first and foremost—or in any way associated with or otherwise beholden to the work of another author except by way of admiration or homage, or to any other product of that publisher, and that the “work (excluding appendices and ancillary material) was fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or be used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locations or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.”

Well, not entirely.

 

What’s all this, then? Why have I written it? Because it pleases me. What will I get out of it? A living, I had hoped at first, and a life. But I would have done it anyway, as I have done, and found other income to keep the bread on my table and the rent paid. At least for most of my years.

Why does the baker bake bread? What does he get out of it? If his bread is good, he makes a living. If not, he might have to eat more bread than he otherwise would. That appears true and straight enough. For me and for you. But as I said, I will dance for my supper and bark for breakfast if need be.

 

Someone at Gerard Strauss set up a few readings for me to promote the book. One was in New York at the Barnes & Noble. And at least one other was in Boston. I think actually there were two there, but I cancelled the second after experiencing the first. Gerard paid for ads in both papers. The Globe review of The Stolon was short and, though not exactly negative, it managed to use most of the space to take issue with my grammar and especially my syntax. I remember wondering out loud to someone, perhaps Emily, how they might have reviewed an ‘e. e. cummings’ in his time. The Herald Traveler gave it less space and said nothing bad, but nothing much more than that I was a local boy and the book was set partially in South Boston.

More importantly, at least to my dignity at the time, was that only about twenty people showed up at the bookshop where the reading was held. Neither of my parents came (it turned out that in my worry I had forgotten to tell them and my father refused to go after being informed of the event by a neighbor who had read the notice in the newspaper), nor did Mary Ellen (I had left phone messages which she had not returned. She had moved from home by that time and her younger sister would not give me the new phone number). Two old friends from high school managed to be there, Pete Fallon and Tom Murphy, which at least gave me those sympathetic faces to focus on when I looked up from the podium, and they both laughed at my humor but then they had heard enough of that previously to know when I was trying to tell a joke. Apparently no one else did. My reading skills were primitive. My voice was poorly modulated, dropping and rising according to the degree of my distraction from the words. I thought I knew my own work, but standing in front of those faces I found myself having to read the words directly from the page. A reading is not supposed to be only an articulation, but there were few questions afterward. None of the local media took advantage of my being there to schedule an interview.

 

I do not play golf. A friend once tried to teach me. I am not possessed of the patience to make the punishment of a small, hard, and already pockmarked sphere a priority. Let it live unmolested in the rough. But I did once own a golf cart, the kind with two large wheels aft and one smaller one to the fore. I acquired that by accident in Brooklyn one morning on my way to work. Garbage had been set out on the curb along the street and there it was at the edge, waiting to be swallowed by the truck that was grinding along only half a block away. I took it as if my whole plan were instantly realized. But in fact, I had no idea. I just knew I needed it. I brought it back to the apartment and by that evening I had concocted the entire scenario.

What happened was this.

I dropped by the office of Gerard Strauss the next day to find out how my book was doing. I hadn’t heard a peep and I knew this was a bad sign. Gerard was there and immediately looked sheepish when he spotted me in the outer office talking to Miss Evers. He admitted that The Stolon was not doing well.

It had been a strong season, he said, “but The Godfather has taken all the air out of the room. There’re eight or nine books out right now and any one of them could be in the top slot. Yours is buried . . .You saw, the Times barely gave it a mention. I called everyone. All promises. All excuses. They covered two of our other titles, so I can’t really complain about being ignored. It’s the subject matter. I guess it’s not the right time for Irish family angst. I don’t think they understand your humor.”

I had not heard my effort summed up so succinctly. I probably winced.

“Are you going to need any of the advance back?”

He was puzzled at that.

“What? No. No. That’s yours.”

“Good. I had an idea and I thought I could use it.”

He sat back on the edge of his desk.

“What are you going to do? Europe? Gonna take the tour?”

“No . . . ” I was frankly afraid to tell him about the actual plan. The Fore-edge was still in the dreamy stage. A son does not tell a father about his own madness (any more than the father would tell the son). So I made up another idea on the spot. Practically.

“Maybe I could sell my own book.”

“How? Open a bookstore?”

“On the street.”

“You’re kidding.”

“No . . .” He was waiting for me to tell him the rest of the joke. I asked, “Do you have any copies that’ve been returned yet?”

“Yes. At the warehouse in New Jersey.”

“Could I have them for a good price?”

“You can have them.”

“How do I get them?”

“Come by Friday and they’re yours. Do you have a truck?”

He still thought I was joking. He was not.

This was along about Wednesday, December 10th. I was at the hardware store on 4th Street in Brooklyn that evening before they closed at six. I bought one 4 x 8 sheet of Masonite peg board (which they cut in half for me), and eight bucks’ worth of the metal brackets that fit into the holes, a piece of metal flashing to hold the ends together and several metal rods and washers to serve as spacers, some stainless steel nuts and bolts, a role of duct tape and four dollars’ worth of enamel paint—yellow and red. I wanted it to stand out.

All of this I hoisted on my shoulders using some rough twine and brought back to my apartment, where I constructed my pushcart—essentially just the pegboard tented over the golf cart. It was raining the next day, so it took some extra time for the paint to dry, but I called Gerard Strauss that day, made sure the books were coming in on Friday (I had requested only four boxes: 100 copies) and asked him if he had any sway with the landlord there for storing my three-wheel deal downstairs in his building on Broadway. He said he did. But he insisted I use a couple of the small billboard ads they’d made up for the book instead of my hand lettering. On Saturday morning I walked my pushcart from Carroll Street, across the Brooklyn Bridge, and up Broadway to 22nd. I was there by ten o’clock. I was loaded and back out on the sidewalk by eleven. I sold my first book by 11:15. I sold out the entire supply of 100 copies, all four boxes by nightfall—about 4 o’clock.

The Gist offices were just down the street and I passed them several times in my transit around Union Square and back again. But, unlike Saturdays in previous years, only Paul was there. He actually saw me from the window, which I suppose must have meant he just happened to be looking out from there and away from the quiet of the room behind him, and he came down and bought a copy, though I had already given him one.

Both Gerald and Miss Evers came by several times to witness the act. Neither of them were supposed to even be in town that day. My editor Emily was there and took pictures of me with her pocket camera.

The key break happened when a Post photographer came by and asked me a few questions. My picture made the Sunday paper on page eight.

Then the New York Times ran the story about what I was doing on a following weekday.

Gerald sold out the entire first printing of The Stolon by Christmas, but it was already too late by that time to order up another press run.

 

Besides all of that, I’d already begun another novel in August of that year, Head Island. This particular story attempt was for the fifth or sixth time and followed at least one misfiring. And by the week when that next effort was completed, another year had passed. It was half again longer than The Stolon, and twice as complicated to write. If my humor was ‘enigmatic’ the first time around, they would find it downright esoteric on the second go. Most of the first readers labeled the ending ambiguous, which was infuriating for the fact that this was purposely so, but they meant it critically. In that the entire story was about the ambiguities we all face in life and must deal with to get along, this might have pleased me, but not Gerard. Sales were disappointing despite a larger advertising budget and the book tour I did with Roger Terrill.

Actually, the novel I wrote immediately after completing The Stolon was God’s Only Son Left. This was another sort of a lesson for me. I’m sure. I just don’t know yet what that lesson is or was.

From the first, my method has always been not to announce my intention in what I wrote. I would only know if I had achieved the result I wanted in the mind of a reader if they responded afterward to those matters that concerned me when I wrote it. And it was this attitude, in fact, that made it so difficult for me to review other books. I had my own idea of what an author was up to, for sure, but why should I announce this to the world? Not only because I might be wrong, but because it might be giving away what the author had wanted the reader to earn the right to. This metaphysical ‘usufruct’ was important to me and if corrupted by sacrificing the author’s intentions on the alter of showing how smart I was in discovering it, the result could be injury by abuse. There was no need for that.

In the vein of a seventeenth century morality tale, a sort of Pilgrims Progress if you will, I had at first named each of the supporting characters in God’s Only Son Left out of words which dealt with the very concept of ambiguity. The heroine was named Polly Semy, her rival for the affections of the hero was Ana Grahm, the villain was Ter Givers. This began as an exercise as arch as the concept—a toy to help me get beyond the stalemate I was in over the various matters I was fighting with and losing ground over on my personal Iwo Jima, Head Island. I had already given up on that several times. And then, suddenly, the essential conceit of God’s Only Son Left broke through.

The Hogarth prints from the Rake’s Progress became animate in my mind, and I was the Rake himself. Not exactly a young man from the provinces, I was at least the despoiled youth. In the end, of course, I had to change all the names to something more likely, lest the whole thing be taken as a joke from the start (which it was in any case, and in the worse way). We no longer live in an age sufficiently sophisticated and sure enough of itself to deal with such archetypes.

Gerald told me that it would not sell and promptly turned it down

I had not finished with those characters, however. They wandered in my head, responding to things I saw or said. I wanted to be done with them, however, and my second published novel, Head Island, became the actual device for that. I simply took those archetypes and placed them upon the more mundane terrain of South Boston.

 

I believe that the cowardice instilled by our reduced expectations is now our curse. The bravest, most controversial, and prescient essay Henry Louis Mencken ever wrote was in the third volume of his Prejudices series. It is called, On Being An American. I can think of no American writer capable of such a work today. In it, the 42-year-old iconoclast took on the establishment of his time, at all sides. In 1922, already among the brightest of the literati of his moment, Mencken risked his career, his reputation, and his future, by questioning the motives, effort, and outcome of the much ballyhooed American participation in Word War One. He dared question his nation’s patriotism, morals, and intelligence.

For my own part, having no such position in the firmament, or at best being the froth on the head on a pint of small beer by comparison, I have little to lose here by re-calling attention to that standard of words. Certainly not my life, my fortune, or my sacred honor.

In that essay Mencken put forward his firm belief “that the government of the United States, in both its legislative arm and its executive arm, is ignorant, incompetent, corrupt, and disgusting.” Speaking plainly and without thought of political correctness (something for the first time possible in his day), he addressed all quarters, all beliefs, all nationalities, all religions, and all races, saying “The typical American of today has lost all the love of liberty that his forefathers had, and all their distrust of emotion, and pride in self-reliance. He is no longer led by Davy Crocketts; he is led by cheerleaders, press agents, word-mongers, uplifters,” and has become a tool of “the corsair of democracy—that is the professional mob-master, the merchant of delusions, the pumper-up of popular fears and rages.”

With ‘word-mongers,’ he took no prisoners.

Before the facts of history would be obvious to other, he argued that ‘The Great War’ would be the ruin of Europe and be the fertilizer for every false god of socialism, bolshevism, and the yet unnamed but well described fascism and Nazism. He correctly identified his fellow Americans as the “pliant slaves of capitalism, and ever ready to help it put down fellow-slaves who venture to revolt. But this very weakness, this very credulity and poverty of spirit, on some easily conceivable to-morrow, may convert him [the American citizen] into a rebel of a peculiarly insane kind, and so beset the Republic from within with difficulties quite as formidable as those which threaten to afflict from without.”

But Mencken was wrong (as he so dearly hoped, he was wrong on a grander scale) when he said of his fellow citizen, “He is fit for lynching-bees and heretic-hunts, but he is not fit for tight corners and desperate odds.”

Soon enough we were to survive a depression of our own making, and another war fashioned out of the stuff from the last one, because there was still some true ‘fitness’ left.

 

A common refrain from the true believer goes, “He who does not believe in God will believe in anything.” G. K. Chesterton is often accused of the quote, but I suspect it is too glib for that wonderfully wordy man. Nevertheless, the idea is there. It is a conceit held by most religions, not just Christians. A Pakistani Moslem friend repeated an almost identical phrase to me during an argument years ago. But it does not stop there. This is the same faith which underlies any Marxist as he pulls the trigger on the gun and blows the brains out of the socialist who did not toe the party line. It is also the virus which most fascists fear. The fascist will compromise almost anything to get his way. Confronted with the true-believer, the practical fascist knows instinctively that this person must be eliminated, sooner than later.

Adversely, agnostics such as myself have commonly been drawn and quartered, burned or beheaded, and without further adieu, in that we had no following that would care about our loss and could be left to rot aside the road without fear of retaliation . . . There is that to be considered. The safety of numbers is often cause for membership in one particular club or another.

In my experience, the most common and garden-variety absolutists are atheists. Often they are self-ascribed ‘intellectuals’ who set themselves well above the hoi polloi. Their faith, that there is no God, transcends not only reason but also their own welfare. They are often shot by other true believers with abandon. For sport. Without fear of heavenly retribution. Mere practice for the more difficult numbers to be eliminated from whatever better organized religion must be dealt with next.

I gave a character, John Parker, this particular role ten years later, in The Right of Chance. Ostensibly he is the hero. And he is that. But the villain too. He cannot deal with the faith of others, or trust in their preconceptions. He is compelled by his humanity to do good for the right reason, but stymied by the simple fact that there is not enough time for any one human being to assess the right and the wrong of all the most important matters of the day, much less the trivial pursuits of a mundane life. He is starving physically for lack of food because he has lost every job open to him, but also emotionally for lack of love, because, as a true atheist, he is unable to trust in that most elemental blind faith.

John Parker was inspired by Buster Keaton. I realize that no one of the few who read the book ever realized that inspiration, but it was in fact the source of the whole thing. I envisioned The Right of Chance like a silent movie. In each crisis, as John Parker hesitates to reconsider the moral consequence of his action and someone dies or is maimed as a consequence of his indecision, I imagined it like Keaton looking about on the busy street for the mother as the baby carriage rolls away, or standing on the railroad track and facing the wrong direction, with the train approaching.

I thought I had made him enough like myself to give him sufficient flesh and blood to be believed, but I suppose I failed in that. The book did not do well. My editor, then at Macmillan, thought it might be due to my fairly blatant attack on religion, but I suspect that I lost the chance for success by not using one of the most fundamental tried and true tricks of the trade—by failing to give John a dog. The counterpoint of all blind faith. A good mutt would have made all the difference. I said this to the editor. Had John had a scrappy hound who stuck by him throughout his ordeals, he would have been accepted for all of his other brittle parts and sharp edges. Dogs are not only a key factor in the establishment of human civilization, but elemental in the quick foundation of any character. I don’t know how I could have forgotten that.

Probably, I suppose, because I don’t own a dog.

 

 

 

 

  1. Gallimaufry, hodgepodge and calumet

 

 

Writing is a sexual enterprise.

I look back both fondly and with disappointment at the many unfinished works—more of those by far than the ones I’ve in fact completed. And this does not account for finished work that I could find no takers for. The unfinished are interrupted love affairs. Not ‘like’ love affairs, but actual seductions and submissions, many of them consummated, but then abandoned for reasons I cannot tell or have forgotten now. An argument dimly remembered. The anger dissipated.

I find at least one in nearly every box I open.

But the metaphor is not nearly complete. Sending a manuscript out to a publisher is not all that unlike a sort of pimping. She is yours and you are selling her for your own purposes. For money. For glory.

Don’t believe any author who refers to his stories as his children. (I have thought that way myself, you see. I now recant. A man cannot sell his children.) And only a pervert would think making love to his children. And writing is an act of love. (Admittedly this does not include the sort of thing churned out by book packagers and marketers. That is the common trade of the larger brothels, and love has nothing to do with it. Metaphors do have their limits.)

And yet we are all capable of selling our loves. Betraying our loves. Sacrificing our loves. We writers are all pimps.

If the idea offends some, let it be. It was just a thought.

 

A small press called me some years ago. A chatty fellow somewhere in New Jersey. Deferential. Respectful. Knowledgeable about my work. I have gotten dozens of such calls through the years. Often from one or another of the university presses, but more usually from some small imprint started by a former lit major with a family trust fund who could not bear the idea of nine-to-five labor or of the drudgery of a real job.

Their idea is usually that you have some manuscript which has not found the right publisher and is sitting in a drawer. That it may be a masterpiece, and there it is, lying in that dark compartment, unloved! Or in a box, in the closet. Beneath the bed. (Better, I think, beneath the bed, where they are closer at hand for the fondling). Would you consider, they say, letting them publish it rather than having it languish? Of course they have no money to offer in advance. Would you be willing to let them publish it for free?! They get the use of your name in the catalog, and you get nothing! A few author’s copies, of course.

I ask you, would you give up one of your mistresses to someone like that? A veritable Wimpy of Casanova’s, suggesting they will gladly pay you Wednesday for a tryst today? Or worse! They may never pay at all.

Yes? Because you are a true pimp at heart! Let them have her and maybe it will be good for business and inspire interest in the rest of your harem. Better that someone read it and perchance appreciate its charms than for that beautiful idyll to grow old without attention.

But this is not Fantine. She will not be made to cut her hair or be abused by swine. This is not tragic Tosca. You are not giving her up to the evil Baron Scarpia.

Nevertheless, I generally say no. But it is a matter of how they approach the subject. I don’t like cocky little publishers who think they are a gift of God (not just for their mommies’ money), because they will always screw around with the manuscript behind your back. Always. They know better, you see. And I don’t like the meek ones who are afraid of offending. They are seldom up to the task of satisfying the needs of the work. However, I can be persuaded by the honest and forthright approach.

“I’ve read some of your work and loved it . . . I have a little publishing company in New Jersey. We have sixteen good titles at present but I would like to deepen our list (a little flattery never hurts) . . . I want to know if you would consider letting me publish something of yours that didn’t get picked up by one of the bigger imprints . . . I worked at Random House as an assistant editor for twelve years, but I was downsized during the mergers . . . No. My father was a scrap metal dealer for most of his life. He hated it, but it paid the bills. Paid for my college education. He died of cancer a few years ago, just a couple of months before I was fired. He used to tell me he was very proud to have a son who was doing something he loved. When I was suddenly out of work and had the time to think about it, I realized what he had done for me. And then I didn’t want to throw it all away. I cleaned out his old warehouse in Trenton and I started my own company right on the floor there, right where they used to dump the broken motor parts. Still smells of oil. Like the ghosts of machines past. When I come to work in the morning, I can only smile like Scrooge on Christmas morning. And think of my Dad . . . the Post Office Box is over in Princeton just for effect.”

Can’t say no to that. Not me. You can’t mind a fellow like that sleeping with your mistress. She’s in good hands.

And stretching metaphors too far is still a specialty of mine.

 

I sent that ambitious young publisher in New Jersey the manuscript for God’s Only Son Left.

I heard nothing back from him for a month. And then a polite letter.

He did not understand it. He was totally confused by the references and did not even know where to begin. He was very sorry but he couldn’t publish it. He would be happy, however, to look at anything else.

I did send him something else, which he took. I told him that if the great Gerard Strauss had not figured it out either, he should not be ashamed. It was just me.

 

Meanwhile, I was using up the wick at the other end of the candle even faster. Progress at The Fore-edge was slow but promising. I was not required to do every little task, but I felt determined to understand them all so that if any member of our volunteer staff were to suddenly abandon their ideals for the mundane needs of a paycheck somewhere else, we could roll with it.

Attacks on The Fore-edge were predictable given my own weakness for taking the easy shot. The New York Times referred to us more than once in critical articles as ‘The Fore-skin.’ This was picked up by others, and soon enough we were often being referred to by the slur rather than our actual name.

I remember being at the large newsstand in the Pan Am building above the concourse at Grand Central Station, talking to the great manager there, Mr. Green, hoping to glean a little something more about how to get a wider distribution for our magazine when a young woman came up to him and delicately asked, “I’m looking for a . . . do you have a . . . it’s called the fore-something.”

“Fore-what?” he said, winking at me.

She saw the wink and steeled herself, with a clinch of her jaw.

“The Fore-skin!”

But she said it a bit too loudly. Heads turned.

Mr. Green never broke a smile. He said, “I’m Jewish, so I’m not the one to ask.” He hiked his thumb toward me.

I bent down to the stack behind us and grabbed a copy and put it right in her hands. “I think you mean The Fore-edge.”

 

During the final year of The Gist, I had gradually taken on a larger role, not simply for being able to bullshit my way through 800 words to fill a space when the London correspondent failed to deliver copy after the fifth week of missing his own paycheck, or turning up some new outrage from the Nixon administration (Some fact of the day that I had only just learned about by reading that morning’s Wall Street Journal. I was the only one there who did.), but for what was called by others on the staff, my ‘sense of humor.’ There seemed to be a need for it, and I obliged. And one of those bits that temporarily survived the final demise of our small demesne as the only alternative newsweekly was the ‘animadvert.’

I had argued with Paul repeatedly over the need for advertising revenue. An argument I always lost, and then felt bad about it each time, as if I were a picador stabbing at the bull’s shoulders just to see blood, knowing that the torero, Mr. Ritts, would be sticking the banderillas into the neck later, and the estocada was, in the end, inevitable. In frustration one day (it was just about the time that the Nixon administration started bombing Cambodia in March 1969), I inadvertently invented the ‘AnimAdvert.’ It was meant as a joke. A whimsy. I had no idea that it would go beyond Paul’s desk. In fact, I left the first one there on top of the piles of morning effluvia as a response to a previous day’s argument, and as sort of an apology—with a note: “If not that, then how about this?”

The note was clipped to a faux ad I had concocted from scraps, supposedly by the Chase Manhattan Bank which suggested that, in this time of national emergency, it would be in the best interests of the Nation that Chase take care of all Federal funds and be given responsibility for making government payments, and that to accomplish this, it should be put in charge of the gold supply by Federal Reserve so that Chase would have complete authority to carry out these measures. I was inspired by that genius of old, Jay Gould, who had once attempted to corner the gold supply early in the Grant administration almost exactly one hundred years before.

I do not have a copy of the ad presently. Much of that issue’s circulation was removed from the newsstands by court order because of the lawsuit Chase Manhattan filed against us for libel. As happened before, I was the last to know that Paul had actually used the joke as the back cover of the next issue. The lawsuit was dropped when Edgar Nelson pointed out to the bank’s lawyers that Chase would be suing itself, in that the DuPont family funds were in fact what kept The Gist afloat, and were held by that bank, as well as many of the deposits for other family interests which just happened to own a large stake in the bank itself.

This was the beginning of the ‘AnimAdvert’ for which I became responsible for each of the remaining weeks. It was not enough to save our sinking magazine, but it was the band that played on, to the last as our ship sank. ‘Drink Coca-Cola, when the water is undrinkable,’ with a picture of a child in a slum in Tegucigalpa; ‘Mercedes Benz, the absolute choice, when you have absolute power,’ with a news photo Fidel Castro behind the wheel . . . No. Now that I recall, the picture of Fidel in fatigues was replaced by one of Francisco Franco stepping into a Mercedes limousine in full dress uniform. That was Paul’s choice, of course. And then, with The Gist no more, and in a sort of resurrection of a more literary bent, the AnimAdvert became the regular back cover to The Fore-edge.

            Naturally, I stopped making fun of political matters when we began The Fore-edge, and turned my sights directly on authors. Faux advertisements for current bestsellers were an easier target: The Day of the Seagull by Frederick Bach offered a somewhat doctored photo of a seagull soaring with Nazi symbols beneath its wings and the caption “spine tingling banalities”; Beggar Man, Thief, by John Le Cary was “The cold war novel to warm your heart”; Rabbit Raunch by John Upyurs “was an unhappy and mindless romp you can only try to forget,” and, amazingly, in several cases the faux ads were met by the actual publishers with appreciation—all publicity being to the good, I suppose, if what is being promoted is worthless to begin with.

The sub-head for The Fore-edge was “Uncovered, Unbound.” I like it now, but that bit was not mine. I had wanted something more critical like, “All the stories that don’t fit,” or some such. But ‘The Fore-edge : Uncovered, Unbound,’ was the right touch.

The idea for that subhead was from my assistant editor—the one person who read all that we received, which was considerable, and understood the most about what was needed, Helen Morris. And Charlie Ferraro, our poetry editor, could not muscle her on his best day.

I can hear her in the ‘conference room’ now, saying, “What does it mean?”

Charlie protesting, “It doesn’t have to mean anything. It’s an image.”

“For images you go to a gallery. This is a poem. You are using words to communicate an idea. If not, use pictures, or lines. Words have meanings.”

Helen was, by far, our best editor overall. If I had been able to dump any of the business matters on her shoulders, I would have, just because she was that capable. But she wouldn’t let that happen. She wasn’t there for that. She was there for the words. And she worked uptown at an ad agency for more than forty hours a week as it was. She didn’t have time for nuts and bolts. She hardly had any time for me.

Instead I managed to put some of the load off on Miles Anders. He was working at The Village Voice then. This was well before his Pulitzer at The Wall Street Journal, and he had the time. In fact, he made time long after his circumstances had changed. He deserves that credit too.

During the spring of 1970, when we first met at Dante’s Pizza, Miles was not yet married, though he was already living with his future wife, and six months later I was his best man. That’s how fast our friendship grew. But that first day, he stood in line with the rest of them and took his turn handing in his resume. I asked him what he did for a living before seeing the line on the sheet.

“I’m a reporter. For the Voice.”

“What do you cover?”

“Mostly film and theatre.”

I looked up at him again.

“You wrote the piece about Midnight Cowboy?”

“Yes.”

I had forgotten the name. He had used my piece in The Gist as a platform, ripping me for a purely emotional review of a great film. He was right, of course.

I said, “You’re hired.”

“You sure? I was pretty hard on you.”

“Thanks. What do they say: ‘Keep your enemies closer?’ Right? I think I’ll be needing you right next to me.”

It was a good beginning, at least.

Before the year was out he was double checking the printer’s orders, helping with paste-up, photo-copies, composition, proofreading, and finally, under duress, took a slot on the reading committee so that we could keep up with the slush pile. In fact, he took the manuscripts home and I’m fairly certain his wife, Betsy, did more of the reading. But she enjoyed that. She simply did not want to come down from Mount Vernon to attend the weekly staff sessions. And she doesn’t like pizza. Tomato sauce disagrees with her. She was a legal secretary and didn’t even want her name on the masthead, though, importantly, that little bit of ink was the sole desire of at least half of all those who volunteered at The Fore-edge over the years.

 

We never set out to publish reviews. The idea was not even mentioned at our first editorial meeting. But one of us, Mimi Toliver, had her own ideas. She loved a book she had just read, 84 Charing Cross Road, and wrote an extensive review of it, which was, given the subject matter and her own enthusiasm, irresistible. Foolishly or not, I accepted it. In my own turn, I had read the new Jack Finney book, Time and Again. I still had not overcome the lasting effects of his Body Snatchers and allowed him to spirit me away once again. This put a crack in the dyke which could not be repaired. My own admonitions against playing at being arbiters of what was good and bad instead and doing our best to present what we could to the public in our own right fell to pieces under the argument that we should lead by both demonstration and example. I wrote another review shortly after of Larry Niven’s Ringworld, a wonderful book that I had temporarily overlooked months before. Miles wrote one for the Royal Flash by George MacDonald Fraser. I wrote a very critical review of Islands in the Stream with apologies to the late Mr. Hemingway for the avarice of his family in turning over his waste basket to make more money than was already pouring in for the countless reprints of everything he had published when he was alive.

By that time, the review copies from the publishers were flooding in the door every day, unsolicited. As a matter of record, not one of the books we reviewed up to that time had come in over the transom. Each one had been purchased individually by the reviewer with their own hard-earned cash. Suddenly, the pickings were too easy. The colors practically whistled at you when you passed them on the office shelves. Hard not to take one of those shiny things home with you now and again and take it to bed for a good read. Some were even worth commenting on the next morning.

And by the time my own second book appeared in the fall of ’71, that template had been set. My only choice was to see that the advance copy of Head Island went to someone who would not play favorites. And that would be Miles.

But he liked the book. He had read it in draft. And he refused to write the review for fear that it would compromise some aspect of his integrity. (This was an eerie auger of what would one day come.) Thus, it was passed on to Barbara Singer.

All of this was long ago, and should not matter a whit. The fact that Barbara slammed the book in my own publication should not, at this point in my life, matter. How could such a bruise remain? But it has. I wince even now. It is one of those things, like stealing my father’s car and a few dozen others that quickly flood the mind, blocking the light from every other window of rational thought. I cannot forget. These things are part of my anatomy, physiognomy, as well as my psychology.

This too had a back-story. And if for no other reason than to rattle the skeleton for some fun, if I cannot rid myself of it, I will tell this tale now.

It is true, as was alleged by someone who does not now need the publicity, that the review by Barbara read like the scourge and scolding of a scorned woman. For good reason! But no. Enough of that. I can yet see the head of a libel action peeking at my window sill.

 

 

 

 

  1. A war of roses

 

 

From the summer of 1969 to the summer of 1975 I rented a basement apartment on Carroll Street in Brooklyn. This is still the best place I have ever lived and is very fondly remembered. The building, a red brick and brownstone townhouse, was owned by Mr. and Mrs. Rabinowitz—Peter and Phyllis—who lived on the first of the floor. Both heavy readers, they were relatively quiet, as well as being away to their condo in Miami, Florida, for six months of the year. Living directly below them, I rarely heard a sound other than from Skippy, the terrier terrorist. Peter Rabinowitz had been a psychiatrist and his wife, Phyllis, had been a nurse. Specifically, Peter had been George Ritts’ psychiatrist, and it was through George that I heard about a space opening up and, tired of the more picaresque aspects of the East Village, I went over to Brooklyn to check it out. This transit from Manhattan to Brooklyn was new to me at the time, and daring equivalent to travelling to a foreign country. Immediately, I discovered that there were in fact many trees still growing there. The ambient noise level on Carroll Street was half of that on Avenue A. The faces I passed regularly in the street quickly became familiar to me, and I to them, and most of them were friendly as well.

The apartment I saw that day had once been a maid’s quarters in a single family building with four upper floors, built at a time when Brooklyn had been a city unto itself. The moldings were deeply varnished wood. The ceilings in the basement were nine feet high and unmarked by water stains, though tracked by pipes, neat and fatted with their painted asbestos coverings. The walls were hard with horse-hair plaster and showed few of the sort of scars and aged sagging that I had mapped endlessly while lying in my bed on Avenue A for the previous two years.

My new apartment had a single, small, dark bedroom, lighted weakly by high-set horizontal windows that opened to the alley side, and a larger and bright sitting room with full windows facing the back, as well as a kitchen large enough to eat in. To one side there was a door out to the back and that aspect was best of all. The four windows of the kitchen and the sitting room faced a rear ‘garden’ of brick and begonias that took the sun in the late mornings. This garden space was larger than my entire apartment and thus effectively doubled it in size, at least in good weather. It was guarded by an eight-foot-high brick wall, trimmed in brownstone matching the house, but that trim was only visible in the winter because the remainder of the year it was fully cloaked by an escarpment of climbing white roses, the endless thorny stems entwined as if in hand-to-hand combat on an ancient field, the heads colliding and small leafy hands reaching in a mortal struggle for the top. The roses were functional as well as beautiful, of course. Their large thorns made the thought of a human being climbing the wall nearly impossible. Nearly.

Mr. and Mrs. Rabinowitz could enter the garden via a cast-iron stairway from the first floor which continued upward into the fire escape, but they rarely did—preferring instead to sit on the black iron of the ‘balcony’ at the first floor level which offered a view over the garden, and the wall, and got the sun for nearly half the day.

The oil furnace for the building was at the front end of the basement, close to an original coal chute, which, I discovered sometime later, was still a convenient way to get in if I had forgotten my keys. The smell of that furnace was dusky and sweet and never bothered me, nor the noise of it, because it was well baffled by a laundry room in-between. But I became somewhat attached to the flowery and sour smells of laundry as well as the roses.

As any sane New Yorker would, I wanted the place the second I laid eyes on it. And just as surely, I knew I could not afford it. I asked. And my fear was confirmed. The rent was $350. I was then theoretically taking home $448 a month, but I would have to wait for my tax return each year to make a fact of even that much. Desperation took command of my brain. Right there, beside the laundry room, I had seen several very full plastic barrels for trash. I asked if it was possible that I could do chores and reduce the rent.

Peter Rabinowitz had great and bushy eyebrows, which I am sure he had used effectively as he counseled his patients. He often looked more bemused as a consequence, in contrast to the dubious tone in his voice. Phyllis Rabinowitz had the sort of cheeks that knotted high on her face and she wore colorful scarves bought during some excursion from the Indians in Peru and this gave her the appearance of a Russian babushka. She spoke in shorter sentences than her husband and her higher voice gave her words a breathless excitement in contrast to the steady tones of her husband. Neither of them was tall. Phyllis was a bit overweight and Peter a bit thin.

They looked at each other at that moment, wordlessly, with the long study of eyes perfected in thirty years of marriage. My fate hung in the balance.

Peter looked back. “We couldn’t pay you anything, but if you vacuumed the halls, took care of the garbage and that sort of thing, I think we could arrange something.”

‘That sort of thing’ soon amounted to walking Skippy every morning before I went to work and especially to avoid his use of the garden as his toilet.

I had now joined the ranks of Vlad. In time my other responsibilities came to be the collecting of rent checks during the cold months from the six tenants on the three upper floors and sending those to Mr. and Mrs. Rabinowitz in Florida; fixing windows which had jammed (using a bar of soap—something I had learned from my father at an early age), minor repairs on leaky toilets using parts of wire coat hangers, or else calling the plumber, replacing light bulbs or calling the electrician, and nagging the furnace man when it was something I couldn’t handle by flipping the switch and hitting the reset button a few times (contrary to the instructions affixed there). All of it never amounted to more than five or six hours or so a week, even during the dog-walking months. I was soon, in effect, earning more as a ‘building superintendent’ than I was as a member of the staff of The Gist.

At Carroll St., my relationship with Mr. and Mrs. Rabinowitz became rather intimate over time. Because they were both retired, they had the freedom to pay attention to the small things going on about them. For her part, Phyllis exercised much of the devotion of a mother toward her tenants, and perhaps more especially, me. She was concerned about what I ate (too much pizza), how I dressed (even the Romans had irons to deal with the wrinkles in their clothes), how much sleep I got (never enough), and who I was sleeping with (more on that elsewhere). Peter’s concerns were more specific.

“The stubborn and ardent clinging to one’s opinion is the best proof of stupidity.”

It took me a while before I came to realize that his sharpest vocal criticism of my behavior were not always his alone, but often a combined assault reinforced by the wisdom of Montaigne.

This attention, always carefully administered, only became worse after the third year of my residence there. I had written an essay, published in Harper’s, which had focused on the voodoo and charlatanism of Freudian psychiatry. The piece stemmed most directly and ostensibly from a recent biography of the original fraud himself, but was a project actually taken on because of a published criticism of The Stolon in which my own motives were questioned on Freudian grounds. I was not about to directly answer the critic herself, but I could certainly tug at the rug on which she was standing.

Peter Rabinowitz appeared at my door one evening, holding the issue of Harper’s in question, and asked if he could speak with me. His eyebrows were lowered. His face was grim.

One immutable law of the universe, akin to the fact that when at sea level, water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit, or that books burn at 451 (also variable to the dispositions of density, altitude, age, chemical additives, and the mood of the moment), is that one should never criticize the religion of your boss or your landlord.

He said, “What’s this all about?” Holding up the offending issue as evidence.

I was young enough then and still sufficiently cocky in my self-righteous ways that I said, “I thought you’d like it.”

Peter was a better man than me. He knew hubris when he saw it. The eyebrows tilted off at either side with his sufferance.

“I did. I found it quite amusing. I just thought I should point out to you a few things you might have overlooked. Do you have a moment?”

‘A moment’ extended into the late hours of that night. Peter was a thin man with a pronounced stoop by the time I knew him. His back had been arrow straight when he had been photographed as a young doctor in his Captain’s uniform during World War Two, holding hands with his pretty bride in her nurse whites.

Bits and pieces of that conversation found their way into The Unfortunate Happiness of Peter Brim, and can be read there, but let a few examples suffice.

He said, “Why do you sound so bitter?”

I said, “If I do, then I totally failed. I was trying to be humorous.”

“What is so humorous to you about human suffering?”

“Why would you think it is the suffering I am poking fun at, and not the causes?”

“Perhaps you were not sufficiently clear.”

“Apparently so. I know I still have a lot to learn about writing well.”

“Yes . . . Well, what was the point you thought you were making?”

“Just that there are, at any instant, an unquantifiable number of stimuli to a human brain—to a dog’s brain for that matter—and to judge a priori that one is more important than another, or that this one is key and all the others are not, is a task science is not up to yet, much less accounting for the natural changes of those catalysts from moment to moment. It is like mistaking climate for weather.”

At that moment there were many dire predictions of the Earth freezing over. I already knew he subscribed to some of that.

He shook the added issue away, “In your example, you placed food above sex. Can’t they be manifestations of the same drive?”

I said, “Not in my experience, though I am often very hungry after sex. I was simply making the case that a particular guy might have had his mind on a pepperoni pizza, but if it’s a hot day and his girlfriend takes her clothes off before sitting down to dinner, he might find himself in a quandary. Most guys I know will eat the pizza and then make love. It’s like a twofer. Dinner and dessert.”

I had thought this exchange to be hilarious. Peter could not reduce a lifetime’s devotion to the practice of psychiatry to mere metaphor and simile.

“You are missing the point. Sex is the overriding drive. It can be delayed or postponed, but it will dominate.”

I nodded agreement. “I hope so. I have never actually had a pizza that good.”

This brought a heavy sigh and a shake of the head.

“I read your book. Your novel. And the review. I think the critic you are aiming at had a point. You sublimate your hatred for your father in rebellion . . . Did your father ever hit your mother?”

Now, this was tantamount to free psychiatric ministration for which Peter was usually paid a very large hourly fee. I leapt at the chance for the freebie.

“Not to my knowledge. Not really. But I saw him give her a slap on the butt once. She yelped at that, I can tell you.”

“Did he mistreat her in any other ways?”

“Definitely. He refused to stop playing cards down at the L Street Bathhouse on Saturday afternoons. She wanted him to go shopping with her. He hated shopping.”

“No! You know what I mean!”

I had to be more careful with my flippancy. Peter would tire of such answers.

“He yelled when he was angry. Which was often. He was not a happy man.”

“Why do you think was he unhappy?”

“I don’t know.”

“Was it frustration?”

“Certainly sounded like it to me. He never really liked the work he did. He should have been a carpenter.”

Peter rolled his eyes up toward the jungle of his eyebrows.

“Look. You know me. Do you think I am a stupid man?”

That was an easy parry. “If I thought you were, I wouldn’t tell you. I love living here too much. But in truth, I don’t. Not at all.”

“Then why do you think I would have spent forty years of my life practicing a profession which is so false as the one you describe?”

Such a question was at the heart of what I had been trying to say, and clearly failed to accomplish in my article.

“I suppose, for the same reason my father calls himself a Catholic, despite the Inquisition and the stone churches and the gold chalices and all the sordid inequities and contradictions. He was born human, and without the core belief that there was some deeper rhyme or reason otherwise, he would feel helpless in a world so mad as this.”

I give myself the last word in my account of this conversation, because I don’t remember what Peter said to that, nor did I write it down afterward—perhaps that was in my own self-interest.

 

No. As I think of it now, the last word would have been had by Montaigne.

Peter loved the essays of Michel de la Montaigne. I had never read them until that first year and then I read them all and most of them again.

Naturally, Peter read them in the original French. I settled for the two-volume Oxford translation. He was unfond of that edition, thinking it lacked a sense of the poetry in the original words and always corrected my attempts at quotation, usually from memory. Lacking the linguistic acumen, I persisted with the Oxford, if for no other reason than just to hear Peter’s corrections and emendations.

But per our disagreements concerning Freud, Peter thought Montaigne was most prescient concerning the subject of sex, and often quoted the Frenchman for support. Concerning my own view of my parents’ marriage, I will guess he might have offered this: “A good marriage is between a deaf husband and a blind wife.”

Then again, he would not have said that unless Phyllis were present. He always liked to provoke her in that way with a more metaphorical slap on the rear.

 

I have been challenged by relatives and others concerning my agnosticism. Atheists are peeved with me for not simply concluding that there is no God. I find their faith in this matter to be more religious than most of the people I know who call themselves Christians or Jews. How they presume to prove a negative is beyond any form of reason I am familiar with. On the other hand, those who practice one faith or another have often seen me, the uncommitted voter, so to speak, as a juicy target for their ministrations. In that guise, I have had a question put to me on several occasions, which I find more interesting than simply writing off my conversion to some or another form of intellectual blindness. That is, if there is no God, how did life, or that pattern of things we see around us come to be? . . . I think about this a lot. But I have no answer. Mankind has a short history in the midst of all of this splendor of fact and it is likely we haven’t a good clue yet how anything really works. Exactly what is gravity after all? Yet nothing we know of in our lives can exist without it.

Another interesting question is this, put to me by a child (my niece) and a better question by far than anything I’ve encountered from anyone else: “If you could imagine your own religion, what would it be?”

I first had to decide why there was a need for religion in the first place. I needed a cause in order to judge an appropriate effect. I said, “Why do you think we need religion?”

My niece, Antsy, said (with obvious overtones of her Christian underpinnings), “So that you will be saved.”

Actually, not a bad answer when you think about it. Salvation is indeed a worthy cause for religion. The thought that our own spark is no more than the momentary ephemera of a grind of metal against the stone does not inspire me to better efforts. So after that and for several days I went around town and about my business and tried to imagine my salvation. What would it in fact be like?

And this forced me back again to the original query.

My niece was not patient with my taking the time. She wanted an answer. Immediately if not sooner. She will one day be a good wife and responsible for keeping some lout or another in line. She will get her answers, or there will be hell to pay. She made me promise to call her when I had my report.

I wondered first just how a God might be. How might this God be both omniscient and omnipotent as any good God ought to be? After awhile I settled on this: that we are all a little bit of the whole. That God is omniscient because he sees through the eyes, hears through the ears, and feels through the skin of each of us. (My later proposition in fiction that our individual pain, misery, and death was the origin of the metaphor of crucifixion had not yet occurred to me.) God is omnipotent because things are exactly as he has made them to be, and perhaps the gravity we have so much trouble identifying properly, even though it holds everything together, may simply be his will.

It took some explaining to do, but my niece, who shows every sign of being a genius for even bothering to test me with these questions, listened to all of it with little debate. Then she said, “How about whiskers?”

I told her, “I cut them myself.”

She said, “No. My dog. Is he a part of this God?”

This aspect had not really occurred to me either. I suddenly felt embarrassed, like I had tried to get by on the cheap. But I thought about it quickly. I said, “He has to be. Otherwise God would not be omniscient. Whiskers could bury the soup bone at night and God would not have a clue.”

We had been on the phone for nearly an hour then and her mother made her get off. My brother’s wife Nancy is patient with me but that is probably due to the fact that she doesn’t know me except as her husband’s poor and ne’er-do-well brother. Christian charity demanded patience, even with a heathen.

Antsy called me back a week later.

Immediately, she asked, “Why does your God kill babies?”

She said this with a hard edge. Clearly something had happened to her and she was not pleased. But that answer was fairly easy. I told her, “People killed babies. Viruses killed babies. Gravity killed babies. All part of the same mix. If we are all a part of this God, he feels the pain too. But why did you ask that?”

But she was only ready to deal with my answer, “So why do it? Why bother? What difference does it make if we all die and this God just makes a new batch of us then like a bunch of cookies?”

I wanted to kiss her for her integrity of thought, but I could only say, “That would be boring. Wouldn’t it? I mean, this God knows everything that is or has been, but not what has not happened.”

She objected, “Father Murphy says that God knows everything, including what will happen next.”

“Who is Father Murphy?”

“Cataclysm class. I’m going to be confirmed in June.”

I imagined her in the sort of Catechism class I had been made to endure preparing for my own Confirmation. We used to call it ‘cataclysm’ class as well.

I said, “This is my religion I am imagining. Not the Pope’s. I cannot be held responsible for what Father Murphy says. What I say is, that this God I’ve conjured up to meet your original inquiry to me is still learning new stuff every instant, every hour of every day. Omniscience does not require knowledge of what hasn’t happened. That’s ridiculous. And omnipotence offers the chance to manipulate the heavens, but if he does that, he will necessarily be interfering with the life he has made to be his eyes, and ears, and skin, so he had better do it very selectively, like on special occasions. Maybe at a crucifixion. Something big like that.”

About a week later I got a call from her father.

Eddy asked, “What the hell are you doing?”

“I’m drinking a beer and listening to Sibelius.”

“You are talking to Antsy about God. I just finished talking to Father Murphy. Her head is filled with all kinds of garbage. He does not even think he should rightfully allow her to go to the Confirmation ceremony if her head is screwed up like this. What did you tell her?”

I started to tell him. He interrupted me after about two sentences, pretty much like he always did.

“I don’t give a crap about all that. Stop talking to Antsy.”

“Do you mean that?”

This made him pause. He knew what he was saying and at least he had the second thought about it.

“What I mean is, stop talking about religion with her.”

“And if she asks another question?”

“Tell her I told you to keep it to yourself.”

“I can do that.”

 

The orthodox religionists on the political right are misunderstanding something, or else they do not want to understand something, but they are simply wrong in either case. Darwin’s theory of evolution was put forward as just that, a theory, but one based on long and carefully considered study. In the century and a half since Mr. Darwin put it forward, there have been many attempts to discredit the theory, yet the accumulation of evidence has continued in the confirmative direction. The religionists on the right have persisted, nonetheless, usually to the negative proposition, ‘Sure, all of that evidence is well and good, but how do you explain the complexity of the eye?’ or some such new ‘challenge’ as if what we don’t know should trump anything we might have discovered—the essential position being, I suppose, that because we are ignorant, we should remain so. This is the mainstay of all religions, from Mecca to the Ganges, and Rome to Jerusalem. (The disputations of my Jewish friends aside.) Have faith. Accept the true way. Don’t ask questions—that will only confuse you.

However, the orthodox religionists on the left do no better. The tenets of their religion, disproved as often in practice (at the cost of hundreds of millions of lives in the last century alone) at least as often as Mr. Darwin’s theory has been upheld, is that the state is the one god, and ‘Thou shalt have no other gods before me.’ But which state?

In those better days of the 1970s, when the economy was yet again collapsing beneath the weight of regulation and taxation, and mediocrity had risen like fat, as it always will, to the seats of power (oh yes, not so different than the present), I had been unaware of the greater dangers that threatened my very existence because of the simple comforting pleasure of being able to sit out on the brick behind my basement apartment and debate Peter Rabinowitz on the matters of life and death until the wee hours of the morning. Such an open study of philosophy focuses the mind away from the petty and the mundane. It easily deflects the blunt edge of banality.

I was unable to deal with any of that for some years. The Unfortunate Happiness of Peter Brim had used up what strength I felt on the matter. And then, suddenly, I awoke one morning in the narrowed space of the loft at the bookshop and an entire story had filled the air so heavily I could not breathe but had to get down the ladder to my office beneath at the back there, and, sitting in my underwear, I wrote the basic outline and first scene of Ehrlichman in New York, and suddenly felt I understood something of that ‘evil of banality.’

You must appreciate the importance of Hannah Arendt in the sixties and seventies. She was a comet that circled the intellectual planet of New York. Wrong or right. The intellectual left despised her for not following the rules. The intellectual right feared her because she had opened a particular box of individual conscience and responsibility that they would have preferred to leave closed, and the tendency of the weak-minded was to attack the woman herself—the ad hominem attack, then as now, being the accepted tactic for savaging any opponent who was your superior. I suppose she was human enough to have more than her fair share of faults. But her thesis concerning the ‘banality of evil’ was not to be denied.

All in all, I would wager that Arendt’s name came up more than half the times that Peter and I sat out on the bricks at the back; with the roses rising on the walls around into the perpetual dusk of city night and me with my beer or scotch and Peter with his wine in hand, and Phyllis above us on the first level of the fire escape reading her novels by the light of the window to their living room and chipping in a word in now and again, like you see a golfer do with a little white ball from the sand trap.

But banality is a difficult thesis to portray in fiction, with all the ‘matters of importance’ so present in our lives, and the evil of conformity and mass culture was even more so. Sinclair Lewis had tried it. But I find I can’t read him now. How do you dramatize such a gargoyle of inverted ugliness without imitating the dark jewel of a Victor Hugo character, or dealing in bathos as Dickens so often did? I have always had a dislike of outrageous comedy that resorted to fat ladies and bad singing for humor. I wanted something better. And then the inspiration came to me right out of my glove.

I had come in the night before and unconsciously taken that glove off and tossed it with the other one up to my sleeping loft. The next morning, awaking to some sound or another in the building, my weak eyes were staring at the damned thing within six inches of my face there on the mattress. What was it? An animal skin? And the seams turned inside-out were certainly clear enough to me. In my stupor I lay there staring at it as the oddity it was until I suddenly knew that this was the means of my story. I must turn the story inside out so that the seams were quite visible. There should not be any subtlety to what was going on. No hidden agenda. The truth of what was happening must be clear from the start and the story must be in the effort of the hero to survive the expected onslaught.

Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem required an argument of proof that there was not so much a condensed evil that lurked among us, as merely the tendency to do what was expected, to obey orders, and to avoid asking questions. To move with the crowd. My own young hero, John Ehrlichman, is a New York lawyer, a graduate of Stanford, class of ’69, on his way to a promising career when he is suddenly beset by the mistaken identity caused by his very name and the calamity created by confusing him with the paunchy middle-aged political gangster who had been part of the banal exercise of government that was the Nixon administration.

The Mr. Ehrlichman of the Nixon administration had long been an object of fascination to me. He was a legitimate war hero who had earned the Distinguished Flying Cross. He had gone to college on the G. I. Bill and worked his way up as a respected lawyer in Seattle. He had even been an Eagle Scout. What had inspired such a man to create the ‘plumbers’ and caused him to believe that those ends justified the means?

The plot of my story was obvious to me within five minutes of the first realization. Of course, my character was the innocent. It was the public who jumped to conclusions and hounded him out of a job, and a home, his marriage and his friendships. All the while he clings to the belief that the truth will triumph and the good will out. Right there in the broad daylight of New York, New York. It is the public who has condemned him for nothing more than his name. A mere coincidence. To what purpose? Only to exorcise some demon which they themselves had been responsible for creating? It displayed both the fear and anger of the lynch mob and the assumption of a ‘free press,’ uneducated to the matters they presumed to report upon, who always jumped to conclusions and seldom admitted mistakes.

In my story, it is years later, when he is out of prison for assaulting a police officer in his own defense, and is sitting in Bryant Park behind the New York Public Library, where he has finally been reading the records of the man he was confused with, when a elderly fellow who looks like Richard Nixon sits down on a bench a few feet away and begins feeding the pigeons. They talk about the habits of pigeons, and of evil, and of Hannah Arendt. They actually have a conversation much like those I had with Peter Rabinowitz years before.

Out on a walk, I had asked my friend, “Why do they cluster?”

Peter had said, “The safety of numbers.”

“But there’s no safety there. The ones at the back will starve. There’s no chance they will ever get to the food. Why not look elsewhere?”

“An ancient reflex of the brain, perhaps.”

“You’d think it would’ve resulted in a dead end for them long ago and the ones who set out on their own would have long since passed on some genetic imperative to be independent.”

“You’re rationalizing. You see the result and assume the correct means. All those pigeons understand is that there is the possibility of food in one direction or the other. Or danger, for that matter. Just like a school of fish. Reacting in common has proven successful over time. The imperative is really quite simple. And the ones who survive do the breeding.”

“So, do you see your patients that way? Food first. Then sex?”

“I suspect that the genetic code of a pigeon is not far off from that of a human being. A few tweaks, maybe. Fingers instead of wings.”

“So why all the fuss over the arts and law and mathematics? Shouldn’t we just eat and breed?”

“It’s all really an accident, I think. The other stuff is just window dressing. Maybe a flourish to attract a sex partner. All we were ever meant to do is eat and breed, but some one fellow came along who had a little bigger brain and he was able to figure out where the food and the girls would be before the others. We are an accident of nature. The crude result of the joke that is at the heart of Darwinism.”

“And you are satisfied with that explanation?”

“No. I’m not. But then I’m just rationalizing the situation as well. Does it matter that I’m happy with it? I just have to get along with it the way it is.”

“And if you are right, what’s the harm then in going your own way? You have the brain to rationalize the effort. Why not make it?”

“You wouldn’t breed. You won’t eat.”

“Maybe. Maybe not. But the living may be better.”

One additional note on all that, which I, at least, find amusing—like a joke overheard on the steps to the gallows. My publisher for Ehrlichman in New York was soon after out of business, absorbed by another, and the undistributed portion of the print runs either pulped or remaindered. I don’t think they made back their advance. Thankfully they didn’t ask for it back. I’d spent it. But of the twelve or thirteen publishers who have handled my work through the years, that was the briefest association of all. Before the title had even appeared, the editor who had taken the project over from the one who had been fired in the takeover said to me point blank in his office, “Who the hell okayed this? Nobody knows who the hell John Fuckin’ Ehrlichman is. That’s history. We don’t fuckin’ publish history.” As it happened, that editor was a former lawyer himself and a graduate of Stanford Law School, where I assume they don’t teach the finer arts of the spoken language.

 

 

 

 

  1. Solipsism and the banality of good housekeeping

 

 

Just one other crime I committed more than once in those moments of misspent youth was my failed attempt to reach some level of nirvana by the use of smoke and mirrors. Marijuana was far more common at college than it had been in South Boston, and pretty much a ubiquitous requirement at any party I attended in New York later on. But the fact that I never actually used any hard drugs was not for lack of wanting. It was a matter of budget.

A ‘nickel bag’ of grass was the equivalent of two good dinners, given my gourmand tastes. That was costly enough. And the once when I had managed to be in the vicinity of a quantity of cocaine which had been put out for all present to use, I had spoiled the event by saying something stupid to Daneen, who promptly wanted to leave and I had to trail after her to see that she got home safely.

Now, considering this at a safe distance, I can say that it is more likely that Daneen did not want to play with that fire and chose one of my not infrequent graceless remarks as a means of escape. She was already more mature than I, and a better judge of circumstances. For my part, I was anxious for a new experience that might be a useful touch of color to one story or another.

Nevertheless, I wrote several pieces in The Gist, over the three years I was there, which were more advocacy than news. And while on this subject I should note, though I have publicly supported a few politicians who do support drug laws primarily because they in turn support or oppose other measures of even greater importance to me, I have never advocated laws against drugs, even the most harmful of them. This is not hypocrisy, as has been charged against me, if that word still has a worthy meaning. There is no need for a law against a thousand other household chemicals, because they will kill you (bleach? ammonia? alcohol?) as hard drugs will do. Or destroy your brain and ruin what’s left of you. Just as jumping from high places can. More people drown in water, but there is no urgency to ban it. And certainly alcohol was and is the death and ruin of more of the citizenry than all the other liquid, powdered, or inhalant drugs combined. And the prohibition of that beverage was a fiasco worthy of a thousand operas, of the ‘soap’ variety and otherwise.

It was already my belief at the time, as it is now that, the primary purpose of drug laws is not to protect the youth in any case, but to establish a scarcity, which magnifies value for the commodity, so that it will produce greater revenue to the criminal, limit competition, and open a source of political funding in one stroke. An A-K 47 is not a cheap device. Like hemp, cocaine grows freely over large portions of the earth. If it costs about the same as the clippings in your compost pile, there would be little profit or incentive in selling it. Simple economics. Even Marx understood scarcity. Much of government only serves the purpose of creating a need for more government, not protecting its citizens.

I wrote about this in an article for The Gist in 1968. It was well received by the readership, and got picked up elsewhere. Now, of course, after so many years of drug prohibition ripping nations apart (Mexico, Afghanistan, Colombia) killing millions (people, not numbers), destroying lives in inner cities as well as suburbs, I am being told that my position is outdated.

One small personal irony I should mention here is that my brother Eddy, the health nut, got himself arrested about that time for smoking pot on Carson Beach one night while celebrating his release from the Service. At least the magistrate had been lenient, giving him a five hundred dollar fine, probation, and the record cleared if he stayed out of trouble for five years. I was not present for my father’s wrath, but Eddy paid up, and then left for Texas and a job promised to him there by a Navy buddy. It was probably the best move of his life.

 

Soon after I began at The Gist, I went through a period of wanting to be a real journalist. This was thankfully brief. This delusion had been part of the genesis of the first piece I wrote on the ‘War in America,’ as well as my essays on what was then known as the ‘War on Poverty,’ and ‘The War on Drugs,’ but the effort had been greatly fostered by reading a paperback copy of Alistair Cooke’s Vintage Mencken and the early essays by Tom Wolfe in Esquire and Rolling Stone. Mencken had already become a hero of mine, and the Wolfe pieces, like Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, gave me the false sense that there was more room for this sort of thing. But the problem I faced was simple logistics. No one actually wanted someone else to kick them in the butt for their stupidity. They wanted someone to kick the other guy. And ultimately, there weren’t any other guys. All the wars, and all the death and misery had been made into mere politics. With Vietnam and then Watergate, American journalism had become a one-note samba, and there was no ‘news’ in that as far as I was concerned. Follow the money. If you want to know why the largest and most powerful military on the face of the earth might go to war against a desert country the size of one of our a smaller western states, follow the oil pipeline.

It says enough, I think, that the Mencken Chair at the Columbia School of Journalism was never funded, but I will say more here now, if only for a bit of home therapy.

I have met many politicians through the years, some good (in the sense that they were at least not bad), but most of them bad, and never one of them that I wanted to have reign over my life, or had a better idea of how I should be spending my income, or trust with a pizza order, much less to tell me what to write. The math of assuming that a gathering of such human beings could better determine right from wrong than any single one of them, troubled me. It assumes the mob should rule. But this was the very basis of democracy, was it not? And if we accept the idea that such a gathering should be invested with the power to determine the course of our lives, should we then object when they choose to kill us to achieve some national goal? Socrates was willing to accept this fate, but I was not—and am not so disposed, even now. Should we have protested if our politicians agree to use our taxes to build battleships to send to the Tonkin Gulf and blow holes in the lives of a people we did not know and who did not know us? Should we condemn them for simply doing what they have been elected to do if the national mind was on some abhorrent manifest destiny?

But the newspapers have never been better than their readers. The newspapers loudly supported Jefferson’s taking of the Louisiana Purchase, divided on the War of 1812, but supported Jackson’s removal of the Cherokee Nation from their home in the Carolinas. Journalists rallied to the war with Mexico, and for the most part thought slavery was an acceptable social flaw before the Civil War, but then lost heart in the middle of that conflict (as they always do), and later ballyhooed the genocide and internment of the Native Americans in the way of the Progress they envisioned. They even thought it was a great idea to take possession of the sovereign Kingdom of Hawaii rather than protect it as those people had hoped, and to make the Philippines, half a world away, a position. Then they took sides in World War One without compunction as to what was right or wrong and made up excuses for our not cleaning up the mess that was made afterward. Most newspapers pretended that there was no problem with the usurpation of federal power during the 1930’s, and rallied blatantly behind their new leader, even to putting the symbol of National Recovery Administration (the original NRA) on their covers. But they turned on a dime and opposed the oppression and slaughter of Hitler as if it had sprung from some new impulse and not the very same inspirations of authority they had supported before.

Most of the ‘journalism’ in our past has appeared, as it does today, to be concerned primarily with politics, as if politics was a virtuous pursuit, even while history continues to be piled upon itself, body upon body, as seen in the films of every death camp, and deliberately ignores consequences lest it teach us something else. When I realized that being a journalist would require me to eat and sleep with such common criminals, plagiarists, and hypocrites (as guilty as the getaway driver to a bank robbery), or to report on their words as if they were worth repeating, or on their actions as if they deserved anything more than immediate arrest for larceny and fraud and complicity to murder, I dropped the idea.

I did not stop writing my essays. Those were often a laboratory for the stories I wanted to tell. But I did stop pretending these articles were ‘journalism’ and looked further back to the essays of the Spectator and the work of Addison and Steele for self confirmation. Worse, I became something of a fan boy for Edmund Burke and I see quotes from him in several of the things I wrote at the time.

But there was a limit to this that I quickly met with. I could write all I wanted about the stupidity of invading a country half a world away, as Edmund Burke had about sending British troops to the Colonies, even if in this case to keep them from becoming communist outposts. (And even though the original predicate was that communism didn’t work anyway, thus begging the question, so why bother?) The Vietnamese would soon enough find out the pleasures of the absolute socialist state on their own, I proposed, without killing off or maiming every brave American lad who tried to do his duty for his own country, but to criticize the ‘War on Poverty,’ which was then already creating a permanent and festering underclass dependent on welfare, even as the integrity of black families was undermined by a globulous federal tit, and the while giving the government more power over the lives of every citizen in the process, was not acceptable to the same recalcitrant editorial minds. Nor was my unhappiness with the dependency of certain black ‘leaders’ upon drug money and drug culture. Worse still, when I wrote an indictment of what ‘whores and pimps’ some Civil Rights leaders had become (with apologies to the hookers but not the hustlers) following the death of Martin Luther King, and noting that their subsequent scramble was not to affirm the ideals of that man but to replace him so they might become the key dispensers of government largess and thereby institutionalize their willfully ghettoed constituencies, I was immediately accused of racism by another member of our own staff and Paul withdrew the piece before it appeared. (I sent that article elsewhere.)

I note now that the very last issue of The Gist was only twenty-four pages long—not because of the financial matters that already doomed us, but because of yet another feature I had written which had been pulled at the last minute.

That essay, on the increased government power inherent in laws passed ostensibly for the public welfare but which instead fueled a burgeoning and bloated bureaucracy that used up far more money in feeding itself than it did on the poor it was meant to help, was entitled ‘Screwing Ourselves to Death.’ It picked up directly from themes set out by Daniel Patrick Moynihan in his book on The Negro Family, which I had just finished reading in some awkward attempt to understand my frequent evening visitor, Trudy. (Awkward because almost nothing in her life seemed to mesh with the sociology of the black families that Mr. Moynihan was describing. I did not yet comprehend just how fast that world was changing).

In an attempt to help Paul, that piece was written over one weekend after discovering that The Gist had lost two previously scheduled features. My essay later appeared in the Times Sunday Magazine. Having been created almost entirely out of facts offered in the New York Times World Almanac, I sent it to them shortly after Paul had rejected it, with the footnoting attached, and I suppose this might have been their reason for accepting it. However, they haven’t published another article by me since, despite dozens of submissions.

Another result of all that was tied to the fact that soon after the appearance of ‘Screwing Ourselves to Death’, a self-described ‘journalist’ at the Times took it upon himself to attack my thesis, and they ran that as follow-up. Up to that moment I had always written such pieces out of a commonsense outrage when confronted with the abject stupidity of one specific government maneuver or another. Now I was being called to task for my premise, for it appeared I was criticizing the very ‘foundations of democracy,’ that we were our brother’s keepers, and thus, in their eyes, the good intentions of people better than myself.

In response I decided to do some self-education at the New York Public Library. This then produced the article ‘Between the Lions,’ which ran in The City Journal. There, to a much smaller audience, I noted there Joseph Pulitzer’s lost keystone to modern journalism: “It is the idea of work for the community, not commerce, not for one’s self, but primarily for the public, that needs to be taught. The School of Journalism is to be, in my conception, not only not commercial, but anticommercial.” I parsed that statement easily enough, every part of it being equivocal and ladened with ulterior motive. What community? Was not journalism engaged inextricably in commerce? If a matter was not of self-interest, what would be the cause to write about it? How was the interest of some other party determined? What ‘public’ is served? Who does the teaching and for what purpose? And most critically, ‘anticommercial’? Does not your newspaper accept advertising? Are your journalists not paid via that same revenue to serve the interests of your publication?

The indictment was ignored. It certainly changed nothing. More importantly, for someone who had only recently become addicted to seeing his words in ink, I saw that the source of intoxication (ink having become my own drug of choice) was suddenly endangered as rejections increased.

 

I always had a hankering for breaking the law. Means, motive and opportunity are the keys. I only had two of the three. To be a bad boy, as Trudy had surmised. I often did so, but alas, only in the fiction that I wrote. Somehow I always seemed to miss out on actual opportunities. In keeping with the themes of rejection, my favorite of those inventions of mayhem did not occur until years later, in the second of the Billington stories, Billington Again. This novel has only been read by a dozen agents and three publishers, but it is my favorite of the three. In it, I commit murder. In print, I often engaged in illegal and illicit activities, broke the law willfully, and sought justice on my own terms. But that novel was the only occasion of murder that was not in self-defense, but an ideological execution, and left unpunished.

The mystery at the center of the story concerned both treason and murder, but I played that out in parallel subplots as I have often enjoyed doing, each reflecting the other. When John Billington dispatches the slave owner Macauber using the man’s own weapon, it was not a subtle restatement of the immortal words written by David Mamet for Sean Connery in the film The Untouchables, “They pull a knife, you pull a gun.” I had done my best to make Henry Macauber a sort of bad Thomas Jefferson, a very bright opportunist who will compromise any ideal to gain advantage. And the idea of killing such an evil twin was delightful.

As much fun as that conceit was, however, the true philosophy of the book is in a simpler exchange between John and the key character of the slave girl when they first meet.

Are you the girl who calls herself Etta?

Yes.

Etta is not all of a name. What is the rest?”

That all there be now.”

Why?”

Despite her age and size, there was no fear. Where had she lost her natural fear?

I’s call Henrietta aft’ my father.”

Henrietta is a very pretty name.”

It be his name. I don’t wan his name. I be Etta.”

A nine-year-old was simply rejecting the premise that she must automatically be part of the system.

Later, after dark, her mother appears. She wants her daughter to learn to read and write. John has often served as a scrivener and reader of documents for others in the neighborhood where he lives on the backside of Beacon Hill. John agrees to the project. But only if the mother, Abby, will come and learn as well. John is already smitten with Abby and can find no way to tell her without first teaching her his own language.

Etta’s father was Henry Macauber, a scoundrel John knows too well for not paying his bills for books purchased at the shop. It is known that Macauber had previously escaped legal procedures for bankruptcy in Virginia. Through much of the story this villain is gone, having fled to England with the British evacuation of Boston in 1775. Etta and Abby, have been left behind.

Abby, fearful then that Macauber may have sold her from afar, is living in the underworld of a Boston already broken by the abuse of British occupation and with a civil government in tatters. Abby had been a folk-nurse and midwife in Virginia, but more recently reduced to house slave and mistress. Now she earns her living any way she can. John, his own life in ruins from the occupation, cannot help her to survive, but begins teaching them both to read and write as a better occupation than self-pity. He gets her books on the subject of medicine and midwifery so she can study, giving her another purpose in learning to read. In return she begins the task of bringing order back to John’s own life, which has been previously shattered by the loss of his true love and his best friend, and now by the ongoing accusations of treason which have greatly reduced his business. It is Etta who comes to the bookshop each day to help him with the ‘keeping’ in return for her lessons, and becomes his surrogate daughter.

Etta’s father had given her a letter of manumission when he left. This was done at the pleading of her mother, for the very reason that Etta was his blood child. Abby had been ‘good’ to Macauber, and given the manumission in return, but the letter was not witnessed. This omission was intentional on Macauber’s part; purposely done so that it would not be legal and binding. John understands this immediately when he sees the document. He knows that the war will one day be over and this omission will be taken advantage of by the unscrupulous Macauber. John signs the letter himself as if he had witnessed it in the first place, and then forges a duplicate for the mother so that they will be free in the meantime.

After the Treaty of Paris, as John continues to seek the individual who had spread the lies of treason which have caused him so much grief, Henry Macauber returns to claim his property. John protects the mother and daughter, and goes to court in their defense. John’s own legal status being in question, the fight is doubled. Fortunately, the anti-British sentiment that lingers allows John to win the case. For his trouble, Macauber vows to kill John. John tells him to go back to England. After Macauber shows up again one night to fulfill his threat, and John disarms him, the fact is clear that the hounding will continue and that there is no alternative. John kills Macauber to end the matter in instead.

Fiction can be so much more satisfactory than fact.

 

 

 

 

  1. My Desperado Love and the FBI

 

 

And one more thing. Or two. Before I move on.

The resident FBI agent at The Gist was Donald Wakes. He is undoubtedly retired today and living on his pension in Florida, probably within shouting distance of some number of those same people he once spied upon and betrayed so willingly and happily to his government. Well pensioned now for a job well done (by such standards). He probably drives a Jeep Grand Cherokee. That is the car of choice among those who pretend they drive a Jeep, isn’t it? He probably owns a dog. A small dog. A terrier, perhaps. And has a backyard pool big enough to cool off in but insufficient to swim laps. (Thus he has a paunch and a small problem with ‘type 2’ diabetes.) He must wear Hawaiian shirts and baggy shorts and open-toed leather sandals when he goes to the Safeway to buy his groceries. He has a large flat-screen TV and the full cable package. He needs the full package because he is living alone again for the second time. Maybe the third. But he is definitely divorced again and needs the vicarious entertainment of the adult channels.

As I remember from my encounters with her forty years ago at the office parties, his wife of the time was as willing at betrayal as he was. By the end, everyone in the office knew he was a spy. But at first, his true occupation in our midst was guessed only to me. And that was an accident.

I wrote three novels while working at The Gist. The last was The Stolon, which was the first work published. I have told you about that. The second was Desperado Lover. I should explain that debacle as well, but I see that I have never spoken of the first attempt while I was there: Triad. I was given to liking such short names for my efforts at the beginning. I suppose it was the fashion in the 1960’s. Either that, or the title was something so wordy it had to be clumsily reduced to a single word or two when asked for at the bookshop counter.

Triad was my one attempt to write an outright thriller. I had yet to come to terms with my inadequacies as an author and thought the formula seemed to be easy enough. After reading all of the Ian Fleming books, consuming a dozen Donald Hamilton novellas over lunch, and greatly enjoying Le Carre, there didn’t seem to be much to it. And the demand at that moment appeared to be fierce. All that was needed was a Soviet spy and a lady in distress, or undress, or both.

As you could expect, given my contradictory and lapsed-Catholic belief in ‘write about what you know,’ I set my own tale in the offices of a ‘weekly news magazine.’ A very smart choice, if I do say so myself. The plot was this: a big story was about to be broken at the magazine which involved government corruption and the murder of a reporter as well as the bumbling efforts of a newbie FBI agent on his first lone undercover assignment. The agent, Mack Hughes, has infiltrated the ranks of the magazine staff to find the killer. There is ample sex, more than sufficient blood, and a foot chase through and across several Manhattan skyscrapers.

Because at the time I couldn’t even load a gun much less fire it accurately, having previously done most of my shooting at state and county fairs, I suspected that, like E. B. White, “I would feel mighty awkward discharging a gun that was not fastened to a counter by a small chain,” so I took lessons at the West Side Rifle and Pistol Range on 20th Street.

And like any proud and enthusiastic young author, I could not resist talking about my project. Mostly these were asides, made at awkward moments at the coffee machine, which went by without apparent interest.

“How ya doin’?”

“Great. Wrote a whole chapter last night.”

“Great. You see The Graduate yet? Hoffman’s a laugh, heh?”

“No. I’ve been busy writing a novel”

“Great. Looks like it’s going to rain. Should have brought an umbrella.”

Everyone at The Gist was, after all, a writer in their own mind. Don Wakes was the exception.

When I mention the initials ‘F.B.I.’ over my coffee and donut one morning, Donald immediately came to attention and wanted to know more. Before long, I had managed to relate almost every word I had written, even to revealing who the villain was.

The joke in this is that Donald Wakes was, before his outing as an FBI agent, the office fool. Not intentionally, of course. Just by dint of his constant attempts at rabble rousing over every new government stupidity, or overreach by ‘The Pigs.’ He often called for rebellion and revolution against one edict, transgression or another (“I don’t think we should be paying income tax if it’s going to fund the war”) and made regular use of slogans that sounded even worse than they looked on some placard at a rally (“Make babies not bodies”).

He was a Harvard graduate, slightly older that most of the staff, and a maven for correct usage. Where he had learned his Strunk & White, I am not sure, but this made him very useful as a copyeditor for minimalist text. He was a speed-reader as well, another proud graduate of an Evelyn Wood course, and only bettered in this regard by Paul Winger himself. Don could pull out enough material from a morning’s worth of news releases to easily patch together a news story on demand—if told what subject to look for. That was the key, of course. He could not actually think for himself, but he took direction wonderfully.

He was always jacketless, but dressed in a clean white shirt and tie that was perpetually pulled loose at his open collar from morning till night. I assume this was to strike the appearance of being hard at work. In 1967, at the age of 28, he was balding. His scalp shone through the thinning hair in painful gleams that caught the eye from any part of that large and cluttered room, making him easy to find.

For a time it was assumed he was gay because of the interest he took in Mr. Ritts and other male members of the staff. But then he began the deliberate seduction of Joyce Moore, one of the ‘gossip crew,’ responsible for the human-interest stories we used as a way of breaking the monotonous drumbeat of war and dissent which would otherwise fill the pages week after week. After a month or two, given her own penchant for being ‘open’ about the ‘natural human desires’ and a predilection for talking about her personal life, Joyce was happy to relate to anyone interested that, though he was awkward and rather old fashioned, his passions were rather heterosexual.

However, it was Joyce, a rather progressive minded young woman from Greenwich, Connecticut, who first reported several of Donald’s real oddities. He apparently had no particular background before his days at Harvard . . . And he carried a gun. She had seen this when he took his clothes off in a hurry one evening.

In that I had just learned a little about guns, and thus thought myself an instant authority on the subject, I noted this new interest in a conversation with Donald. Donald was more curious about my extrapolations concerning an FBI agent who worked for a weekly news magazine. My imaginings might have sounded like sheer paranoid fantasy, but the collisions in our objectives were inevitable.

So I stayed late one night to talk with Paul.

“What’s up?”

This was Paul’s usual way of saying, ‘Get to the point quickly, I’m busy.’

I said, “I think we have a spy in our midst.”

Paul said, “What kind of spy?”

“FBI.”

His head dropped in a swoon of exasperation. “Angus, for Christ sake, I know you’re writing something like that, but don’t go off the deep end. Don’t get neurotic. Why in the hell would any spy be interested in what we do here? It’s all public information.”

“I don’t know. I don’t know why.”

“Who is it?”

“Donald Wakes.”

“Donald! Donald can’t tie his shoes without hitting his head on the edge of a desk. If Donald is an FBI agent, this country really is in deep shit.”

“Well, as I think you’ve already noticed, we are in really deep shit.”

“Christ!”

Paul asked me to keep my mouth shut while he started keeping an eye on Donald for himself and not two weeks later he confirmed my suspicions. Evidently, someone had been in Mr. Ritts’ office in the middle of the night looking at the books and put them back incorrectly. Mr. Ritts noticed that right away. He was very precise. (Oddly, it was Donald’s constant complaint at the coffeemaker that we were all a bunch of slobs and didn’t put back anything where we had found it—but he was referring then to staplers and pens.) In addition several pieces of correspondence with regular French, German and Soviet contacts had been taken out of their files in Paul office.

It was Paul’s idea that we keep quiet about our discovery. If we knew who the traitor in our midst was, we could better control the situation. In retrospect, I think this was another wise move on Paul’s part. However, I made the bad suggestion (having read far too many cloak and dagger mysteries) that we could feed this traitor false information which might ruin his standing with his superiors. Bless his heart, Paul liked the idea instantly and put the effort into my hands.

I wrote half a dozen letters on various machines in other offices, on a selection of blank sheets collected from our own old files, and ostensibly by foreign contacts, which detailed various nasty deeds. I kept no copies of any of these so I cannot now recall many of the details, but one, supposedly by a West German who simply called himself ‘Achim’, and who spoke of information received concerning the number of American combat-ready troops at German bases. The info was taken directly from recent Congressional testimony, but I backdated the letter. Donald was either not very good at his pilfering in the files, or he was simply not enticed by my other McGuffins, but he did find the missive from ‘Achim.’

Within a week Donald was requesting an assignment from Paul to use his knowledge of German and wanting to know if we had any contacts there that he might be able to use or develop for fresh stories. I immediately started working on a more elaborate deception. But it came to naught. Timing being everything.

Unfortunately we were all quite surprised one day when we learned that Donald was married. This was rather sudden. She simply showed up at the elevator door and asked for ‘Mr. Wakes.’

Donna Timms, a copy editor, asked her who was inquiring.

Jean Wakes said, “His wife.”

It appeared as if she had tracked him down.

I could only guess at the arrangement of this marriage. The guess on the part of Joyce Moore was a bit more explicit. She had been bold enough to ask outright. They had a house in Scarsdale. They had two kids. And Jean Wakes was bored.

This being shortly before Christmas, Jean suddenly started showing up at every gathering, at the office or elsewhere, and I was certain she would quickly learn about her husband’s infidelity with Joyce. She would have had to be deaf not to be aware of it.

And within a couple of weeks, I believe after discovering these peccadillos, Jean proceeded to show more than one male member of the staff, just how such assignations should be conducted.

I did not partake of this largesse. I felt bad for the kids. And I was pursuing other interests. But I must say this now, with perhaps some little regret. She was a very good looking woman.

What was quite clear to me even then was that the F.B.I., the C.I.A., the K.G.B, the N.S.A. and S.M.I.R.S.H. were all of a kind. Undoubtedly some earnest people did their jobs in those organizations for the most idealistic reasons, but as a whole they were incompetent at the tasks they were assigned, capable of being thwarted by a single Scottish actor in a toupee, unaware of the moral underpinnings to their endeavors, and unable to function in a free society without doing very bad things to preserve themselves.

Donald quit his job just after New Year’s and we never saw him, or Jean, again. And it was only afterward, when a year-end tax statement was mailed to his Scarsdale address and then returned, stamped ‘addressee unknown,” that the thought occurred to Mr. Ritts that Jean had been a spy as well, and that their ‘marriage’ was mere additional subterfuge and a means of more quickly discerning any real value to the assignment. Obviously there was not.

Naturally I then further regretted my abstinence per Jean. Though I have read many of the Ian Fleming books while in bed, to my knowledge, I have never slept with a spy.

 

In 1968, overcome by one of those inspirations that have so often taken me by storm, I started the novel Desperado Lover. The hubris of the effort astonishes me even now.

At the time, western fiction had not fallen into such disfavor among the intelligentsia and my overarching plan was to write something in every genre simply to see if I could do it. Perhaps my outrage at a piece of highly touted violence porn like The Wild Bunch had set me off. I don’t know. The specific idea had been spawned by reading The Life of John Wesley Hardin As Written by Himself, a copy of which I had found at the Strand Bookstore in 1967 while I was there looking for a book so that I could write a better review of the movie Bonnie and Clyde for a similar reasoning. As good as the film-making was in the later case, the supposed relationship between Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow seemed to me perverse and antithetical to the nature of love (again, I remind you that I was young then and had no idea). Capote had already stormed our collective consciousness with In Cold Blood, and I suppose there was some remnant motivation caused by that as well. Murder was such a surreal act, I thought it could only be aberrant if not done out of some idealism, wrongheaded or not.

Reading the words of a cold-blooded killer like the gunfighter John Wesley Hardin struck me as a possible means of understanding the thing. Instead, I became more fascinated by Hardin himself. A murderer at the age of fifteen, he reserved little sentiment for his acts, even to admittedly shooting a sleeping man for snoring too loudly and causing the death of a Mexican man by shooting at him for sport, killing several others apparently for being black, as well as cowboys, circus roughnecks, and some unfortunate passersby for merely crossing his path, not to mention the many soldiers or lawmen attempting his capture. Over forty dead in all. And in addition he was a confessed horse-thief, cattle rustler, highwayman, sore gambler, womanizer, liar and apparent alcoholic.

But a few other facts struck me as well. For many, Hardin had been a good enough friend that associates were willing to risk their lives to harbor him. I wondered, was this man’s history just another case of reportage done by his enemies?

While in the prison at Huntsville for a twenty-five year sentence levied on just one of his crimes, he had studied law (later passing the Texas bar exam), had written a very readable account of his life. And one more item. While in that prison, as it turned out, for only seventeen years before being pardoned for ill health partly a result of his many wounds, Hardin had continuously written love letters to his wife, Jane Bowen, and she in turn had promised to wait for him.

But shortly before his release, she had died.

It seemed to me that there was more in the way of real human contradiction in the tale of John and Jane than in what was known about Clyde and Bonnie, or in those cold blooded killers Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, but I had a few problems to overcome with my story. A significant one was that I had never been to Texas.

That year, during my two-week vacation in August, and in the face of a heat wave which finally made real to me the often encountered phrase ‘oven-like,’ I took a bus to Fort Worth.

This journey was for the most part futile. I had not written the letters in advance of the trip which might have opened a few necessary doors to me. I supposed, I think, that I could simply march in on any public office and ask to see the records. I don’t know. I didn’t bother to make note of any such madness. But the courthouse records in several of the counties where Hardin had operated were closed for the month while the clerks were on their own vacations. The ‘Press’ card I carried from The Gist had apparently shut tight several other doors in that more conservative climate, instead of opening them. My attempt to interview that fine author, historian and newspaperman Elmer Kelton, whom I thought might offer a few tips following a generous response to a letter I had sent to him at the last moment, was frustrated by his own schedule. The Hertz rent-a-car company would not ‘put me in the driver’s seat,’ because I did not yet have a credit card. There were few buses between smaller towns like Childress, Clovis, Crockett, or Cisco and the larger cities where Hardin operated.

Deflated, I remember the bus ride home as a prolonged lesson to me. I had not done my homework. I had not prepared well enough. I had chosen a topic that was beyond my abilities and knowledge. I should have first turned my effort to something closer to home.

But then, somewhere between Louisville Kentucky and the Port Authority building in New York City, the first words of The Stolon had materialized in my brain.

It was several years later that the band, The Eagles, had released an album with a song on it that disinterred all of my original enthusiasm. Desperado struck every right note in my head. In addition, I had by then the experience of those several days with Roger Terrill in Austin, Texas, in 1973, and the brawl there and being in jail for two days, and my own witnessing of Roger’s relationship with Patricia Evers, which, though it was not perverse, offered more contrast than I had ever been forced into understanding concerning matters of the heart prior to that. It took me less than six weeks to rewrite the manuscript of Desperado Love: a pistol airy, from start to finish, in the way I wanted it. The fact that the narrative was told in the form of letters made this easier, I think. Once I had Hardin’s voice in my head, the occasions of incidental love that might happen between a man and a woman occurred to me almost effortlessly. And this was helped further perhaps by my own state of mind at the time. Helen Morris was driving me nuts. Jane Bowen’s shorter letters to the outlaw Hardin in return were all heard in my brain then, as if spoken in the tones of a girl from Mississippi, as Helen was.

 

 

 

 

  1. The case of the missing fore-skin

 

 

So what would any liver-blooded youth do who was all but broke and had no connections to speak of, but wanted to continue making his mark? (Please note: this fantasy easily overcame whatever better judgment I might have then possessed and became manifest in my notes even before I had actually received the advance from Gerard Strauss for The Stolon.)

I decided to start a magazine of my own.

 

Technically, The Fore-edge was not all mine, but that was the way I felt about it. No one from The Gist wanted to join me in my folly so I placed a classified ad in the Village Voice. ‘Wanted: writers who have the time to help others get published. A new literary magazine devoted to the story as narrative needs a staff.’

“Very wordy,” I was told by a young woman named Stevy at the counter in the Village Voice classifieds office. But over a hundred people, mostly of my own age, showed up at Dante’s Pizza at the appointed hour the following Friday. Stevy among them. I took their resumes while sitting at a corner table as Charles Ferraro took orders for pizza on the phone as well as orders from the hungry applicants. Dante’s was a smaller place then, maybe twelve feet wide and obstructed at either side by small tables and chairs and about twenty feet deep before you ran into the high counter. By 8 pm, the line was out the door.

Charlie was someone else who owned a piece of The Fore-edge from day one. He was a poet. He was that, but also a good hand with the thick-crusted ‘Sicilian’ pie that was his specialty. We always ate well during the dozen years we survived on Mulberry Street. And it was he who wisely first insisted that I include poetry in the mix of the magazine. I did not write poetry then and hadn’t thought of it.

But I’d began eating there on a regular basis after the doors at The Gist had been chained, only because I had taken a temporary job unloading trucks into a warehouse nearby in an effort to keep my rent paid (with my advance on the novel held aside for my project) and an easy fall-back to my roots. Most of Charlie’s business was take-out, with the orders phoned in, and foot traffic was slow by mid-afternoon when the trucks were emptied. I used to combine my lunch with dinner by ordering a whole pie and later heading home with half of it.

On one of those days Charlie leaned out over the counter and wanted to know what it was I was writing in my notebooks all time. He could spot another scrivener. We chatted. I bragged that I had a novel coming out. And soon enough, I’d told him all about my idea for a literary magazine. He literally climbed over the counter to look at my notes. Two minutes later he was showing me pages of his poems.

He was thinner then. Not thin. He liked his own product too much. But before the place was a real success and he could afford the extra help, he worked a twelve hour day from 10 am to 10 pm., and burned most of it off.

I relented to the idea of including poetry only when he promised not to submit his own work—not because I didn’t like his poems. They were fine. But because I saw the incestuousness of self-publishing as the key flaw in almost every other literary magazine I read. Still, this was a promise (as our man Hamlet made) “More honour’d in the breach than the observance.” Charlie would put another name on a new batch of verse and send them in almost monthly. He was one of the poetry editors, along with Helen Morris for most of those years, but at least he passed the work we used beneath the noses of several others on the crew and got one or two ‘yes’ votes before accepting them.

And I got to play editor-in-chief. Though I was also in charge of typesetting, paste-up and writing any copy that was needed to fill in. We had five official editors, in fact (all chiefs and no ‘injuns’ was the appropriate expression), all of whom had other jobs that left them less than twenty hours a week for the effort.

The money, and our only money at the start, was my five-thousand-dollar advance from Gerard Strauss for The Stolon. Even allowing for inflation, things were a whole lot cheaper in those days.

Eventually, over the next twelve years, some two hundred different hands were responsible for the magazine’s production. The first twenty of those individuals were winnowed from the early applicants, that one night in June 1970. Every single person that applied, if they already had a fulltime job, I accepted. The rest I passed on. Even the good looking ones. My rule was, if they already had a job and were willing to take on more, they had the kind of attitude I wanted. That was one of my better ideas, but I can’t lay claim to it entirely. I think I found the advice in a book someplace.

A key factor at The Fore-edge, just as it had been with The Gist, was the IBM Compositor. I had grown friendly and familiar with the repairmen and representatives from IBM who frequented The Gist office. The machines were balky. There were too many moving parts not to have something breaking down almost daily. I called up one of these fellows, Derek Mann, the most affable of the lot (and a true aficionado of corned beef and pastrami) almost as soon as I got this new brainstorm. I told him that all I could really afford was the service contract. What I wanted was for IBM to donate the machine itself to ‘the service of the arts,’ another phrase I had encountered elsewhere. (Already I knew that older machines were commonly scavenged for parts because new models were being introduced regularly.) He laughed for a minute or two. But eventually, a machine was returned which was ugly but repairable and he had it delivered to us as a ‘demo.’ That demo lasted the first two years, until a better model had become outdated and was ‘donated’ to replace it.

Just as great ideas, like the electric light bulb, are not unexpectedly discovered, but created out of an ether of need and vision as much as the odor of Mr. Edison’s oft mentioned sweat, and thus exhaled by more than one inventor at the same time, there were several others with sufficient hubris and insufficient animal caution or intelligence, attempting to conquer the literary darkness at that once. In brief, The Fore-edge was not the only new literary magazine of that moment. As I say, and it’s typically the way, the idea was in the air. A primary difference in our case (as I believed to be important then as well as now) was my insistence that we would not be funded by tax money confiscated by some State Council of the Arts from citizens who could not give a damn if we even existed. We would produce something worthy of notice, and gain a circulation and subscriber list by offering work above the ordinary, or fail on the merits.

Whether this goal was achieved in any part is really for others to judge (as some critics did at the time, both in our initial success and eventual failure), but in my own opinion we always fell far short of the marks I had hoped for.

I should say that it was not my initial genius to publish in a tabloid format. That came from George Bent. A Chemical Science major at NYU, he always had the brain for figures. While I was dreaming of four-color covers and slick stock for the interiors, he added up the numbers and told me what we could actually afford. An initial fantasy on my part of finding some remainder of rag stock that we could procure for the right price was knocked down by the simple fact that such paper would not be suitable for the sort of newsprint web press we needed use. A tabloid sheet on reasonably good and fairly white 35-pound stock would have to do. We must settle for two-color covers and center fold, or else we would run through my meager five-thousand dollars in one issue. What we really needed was to get at least five issues out in order to know if the sales would sustain a sixth.

At the time, George was not yet writing science fiction. His dream then was to be a ‘serious author.’ Though I have not spoken with him for years, I believe he takes his science fiction very seriously today. It appears now, in fact, he might be the only one from the old crew who continues making a regular living out of the pen. And given the consistent quality of his work, that makes sense to me.

Ragtag was not a game we played, but an apt descriptive of our crew. Whereas the staff of The Gist had been primarily the offspring of families who had been insured of their well-being with trust funds, the staff of The Fore-edge lived, for the most part, hand-to-mouth. Had that not been the case, we could not have afforded them. As it was, we seldom issued any kind of paycheck. There was no money for such niceties as workman’s comp or a bookkeeper handy to calculate withholding. Instead, we paid ourselves, if at all, as writers, each for the work we produced, on a per word basis—just as if what we were writing came in over the transom along with the rest of the three and four and eventually as many as eight hundred submissions received each month. And even those meager payments were then divided only out of the actual sales receipts. Another conceit. Our per word rate depended wholly on our sales. Oddly, this idea, often mislabeled ‘profit-sharing,’ was one of the things most often cited in the news stories about the success of our efforts. Though we never did manage to make a profit.

The manuscripts had begun to mysteriously arrive at the office on Mulberry Street within weeks of signing the lease for the second floor space across from Dante’s Pizza and only a few months after our first gathering. My suspicion was that other members of the staff had submitted some of their own material under pen names—just as I had. But once it was learned that we were a market for such material, the trickle quickly turned into a flood. Anything postmarked within fifty miles of the city continued to be held in high suspicion, but we had plenty to choose from. I had my own first offering mailed by my mother from Boston under the name of Fergus MacAleer—a favorite nom de plume of mine at the time when submitting more than one work to a single publication. (I only stopped that subterfuge after my second novel.) But it didn’t do any good. The first story I submitted to The Fore-edge was rejected, with the only reader giving it high marks being yours truly.

From the start, anyone who wanted to read submissions could do it. The single requirement was to be able to write a short paragraph of criticism, which was then folded over and traveled with the manuscript through a minimum of two more readings. At a ceremony on Fridays, the week’s submissions were sorted. Anything which had received a positive review was passed on to a fourth reader, to be taken home over that weekend and returned on Monday. A fifth reader was then found on Monday if the fourth reader’s response was positive.

All of this procedure was not an easy matter. It required ‘free’ time, and people other than myself and the few anti-social types who did not have larger lives. Within two months, most of the staff had dropped out of the reader’s pool, in any case, if not the whole process. After the first issue appeared, there were essentially just five of us. Necessarily, we quickly learned the need to discriminate based on first pages, just the way most publishers do. I attempted to spread the wisdom of Gerard Strauss by requiring readers to dip into later pages, but I could not make them do this in the case of the average manuscript, which was, in the immortal words of Perry Mason’s legal dogsbody, Hamilton Burger, “Incompetent, irrelevant, and immaterial!”

We pretty much kept that same number of readers for the next dozen years, with newcomers added more or less as others drifted away. Some of the older hands, such as myself, dropped out for short periods to take on other tasks (like the promotion of a new novel), and others left altogether as their lives changed, usually for the better. Reading the slush pile was a labor and not the fun any of us had first anticipated.

Three years had passed before I found out, during one late night paste-up party, that my original story had been rejected because everyone knew it was mine to begin with. Most of them had bothered to acquaint themselves with my previously published efforts when they applied to work. Who was this Irish guy who thought he had the chutzpah to publish a literary magazine? They had gotten a good laugh out of it, though—maugring my subterfuge of having it mailed from Boston. That had been a dead giveaway. I was the only one on the crew originally from Boston. They spotted my idiosyncrasies from the get go, not the least of which was my overuse of obscure words like maugre.

The decision not to publish our own stuff, outside of specific writing assignments, was a good one, though—perhaps a key to what small success we enjoyed during our run.

Distribution was another matter entirely. For one thing, this involved postal permits, which required me to spend hours sitting on benches at the main post office to get questions answered which I already knew would not be completely accurate. For this reason I assigned others to the task of double-checking every stipulation. The Gist had fallen afoul of postal regulations on several occasions, resulting in the near total loss of subscriber copies on at least one occasion. But subscribers were not our first concern. Shipping was.

I had borrowed (essentially stolen) the dealer list for The Gist only days before the last issue. But this was with some help.

One evening in December, I was already home on Carroll Street in Brooklyn when the pencil in my hand reached the line of calculations for how many copies of my new brainchild we would need to be circulated to be viable. I believe there was an electric shock from the wooden shaft of the pencil and it flew out of my hands. I had simply been using a figure based on the number of newsstands and bookshops that were then carrying The Gist. A priori. My obsession with the editorial needs had completely dominated my thinking—as if we could produce a magazine of such sterling quality from the get-go that the dealers would be beating at our doors from day one. I had not bothered to actually obtain the ‘Gist List’ as it was then known in the office, and I had never been involved with that aspect of that magazine’s production, so I had no idea how it was physically done, nor where exactly that list might be.

The obsessive mind is a dangerous thing. Unchecked, it can lead to mass murder.

There was sleet falling from a gray sky, pelting me for my stupidity. The urgency of the moment that I felt was stirred by a rumor which had gone round during the day about the possibility The Gist would be filing for bankruptcy at any time. I had a visceral knowledge of this based on the recent business failure of a bookshop in Brooklyn, which had been owned by a friend. I had helped him to haul away personal belongings in cardboard liquor boxes balanced in our arms even as the sheriff was fixing the chain on the front door.

I was back on the BMT before midnight, headed to the office at Union Square. Crossing from the subway exit I could actually see a light in the office above on the third floor and I suddenly worried that my theft would be thwarted.

I walked up the stairwell to the echoing bark of my own footsteps in an otherwise silent building and opened the door I had entered for the first time just three years before. Naturally, the door creaked, as I’d never heard it cry out previously, and echoed into the stairwell behind me as well as out and across that half-dark and silent room. Over the empty desks I could see the pool of light in Paul’s office and there two faces turned up at my entrance. One was Paul’s and the other was Mr. Ritts.

I waved. I said, “I forgot something. Sorry to be disturbing anything.”

Paul closed the book on the desk in front of him and just said, “We’re done, anyway.”

I was not sure what he was referring to and was reluctant to ask. I went right to my own desk and started playing with the papers in a drawer as if there might be something I wanted in the mess. Mr. Ritts came by, carrying the book they had been looking at to his own office.

He spoke to me from behind as he gathered things into his briefcase. “What are you writing now?”

I was always writing something, so I just started in on the latest thing.

“I took a couple chapters out of The Stolon that really didn’t matter to that and I’m using them for another novel. I thought I left them here.”

“How are the sales?”

“Okay, I think.”

“I saw you on the street the other day with your pushcart. That was good.”

“That was fun.”

“What do you think you’ll do after we close-up?”

I had not heard the verdict. “Is it that certain?”

“Yes.”

I really didn’t know for sure. “I don’t know what I’ll do yet.”

“I heard you talking with a couple of the others about starting a literary magazine.”

“It’s one idea. The best thing I’ve come up with.”

His eyes went up to me in a deadpan face. “I’m sure the world needs another literary magazine . . . How are you going to distribute that?”

“I don’t know”

“You better figure that out first, I’d say. It took us a while to get the dealers we have . . . You know, you ought to take our list. I have it here,” he looked up at Paul who was still sitting at his desk and appearing to be very tired.

Paul had heard us and waved. “Go ahead. No need for that to go to waste.”

Mr. Ritts went back in his office and pulled out a thick folder.

“I can’t sort this for you right now. Some of these folks have never paid. You’ll want to avoid them. But why don’t you just take it home with you and copy it all. You’re going to need it.”

And I did.

Thus began a process which was more than simply the doodles of a maniac, wannabe thief, and potential serial killer. Taking myself seriously was quite difficult. Until that time, every project was a lark. Why don’t I do this? Why don’t I do that? Suddenly I was beginning something that would necessarily involve the lives of others and I would be responsible for it. The image of Paul sitting at his desk that night stayed with me . . . At least I could try to be responsible.

From that moment, my first real break from the daily routine of getting a monthly magazine out, a grind which was less the lark I had imagined and more something Paul had known on a weekly basis, came during the book tour with Roger Terrill, which was the best single adventure of my life, sui generis, and deserves several chapters to itself. Our two novels, my second and his first, were both published by Gerard Strauss officially at the end of October 1971. We were on the road by the middle of that month and did not return to our individual habitats, even for a change of clothes, until a couple of weeks before Christmas.

 

 

 

 

  1. The endeavor of Jim

 

I’ve often felt as if I’ve dodged the bullet. As if I am living on some sort of borrowed time, or by dint of an unaccountable accident of good fortune. Perhaps this is a kind of extrasensory awareness of what might have befallen me had I ended up in Vietnam while living an alternate life, or in one of those parallel time zones that are so popular in cheesy science fiction—not 42.3333 latitude and -71.0362 longitude but 92.3333 degrees north and -191 degrees west. That sense of an ‘Old Mortality’ is my only actual acquaintance with a battlefield, and that unquiet feeling that I have managed to avoid some greater harm is a sudden chilling that can come upon me at night, or in broad daylight as easily as in between, and often serves as a caution to find a safer foxhole than before.

Roger Terrill had actually lived through the reality of that experience, and dodged the bullet more than once by the time I met him. Once for each of us, he liked to say. In Vietnam, he had been stationed at Da Nang during the Tet Offensive, and was later transferred to Plaiku. It was there at this second posting in the highlands around that city of corrugated metal and scrap wood that he had dealt directly with the Montagnards. His novel, The Journey of Nay, was prescient for clearly predicting the inevitable tragedy that would befall the Muong people after American withdrawal from the country, but was primarily concerned then with the personal betrayal of a single woman. The story is told in the voice of the grandmother, Nay Sui, and speaks first of the discrimination experienced by the Montagnards from the lighter-skinned lowland Vietnamese, something she had endured for her entire life. This was followed by a recapitulation of this prejudice in the life of a granddaughter, Yiedt Sui, who has fallen in love with Darrin, a young Afro-American soldier, when she came to America, along with the grandmother as her chaperone and mentor, only to face a similar treatment here.

Besides the good writing—something Roger had worked on at the University of Iowa for two years following his return from Vietnam, just to be able to tell the story as he envisioned it—the unique and driving force of the narrative is not the voice of the old woman, or her granddaughter, nor the young and earnest but scarred man she came to the United States to be with, but the ghosts. From the start, the missing males of the Montagnard family are mixed thoroughly in the narrative, in conversations, in minor incident, even to the giving of the marriage bracelet, and their voices are always in the dreams and aspirations of Nay Siu, and Yiedt Siu, and finally even in the troubled nightmares of Darrin. These are the men who are not there, the casualties of war who had first fought the French, then the Japanese, and then the French again, as well as the Viet Minh, and finally the Viet Cong. But it is only Darrin who cannot see or hear them on a daily basis—except in his dreams at night.

The primary setting of that novel was Roger’s hometowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul, so that was to be our second major whistle stop on a tour that took us to several dozen smaller towns along the way. But the whistling was mostly Roger’s.

Just as there could not be two novels more different in temper or the telling – one possessed of a magical realism akin to Borges, Roger’s favorite author, and the other a solipsistic stew of detail, polemic, and hearsay, there could not be two different authors in nature or appearance than Roger and myself. He was only an inch taller, but he always appeared to tower over me, possibly because he had the military bearing and I was becoming round-shouldered for the hours spent at the IBM as well as my little Olivetti.

He was fair, and I was swarthy. He spoke in short and direct sentences, the words already shaped by his thoughts. I tended to think out loud, abandoning the structure of sentences before they were complete. I had a tendency toward theatre in my presentations (i.e., I used my hands too much). Roger used his eyes, and the deeper voice, and stood fairly still through an entire reading. The voice, a baritone to my tenor, would often hesitate over a word as if he thought he might choose another better one, and each time the audience would lean forward a little in expectation.

The gatherings we met at the bookshops and libraries from New York to Santa Monica almost always came to see Roger, the blond, blue-eyed and handsome wunderkind who was getting the key reviews in all the book sections of every major newspaper. But because of a natural reticence (he was terribly shy and always had difficulty speaking before audiences from first to last), often displaying an anxiousness that would make him visibly shake just moments before his turn came, it was me they more often got to hear at length.

In fact, it was Gerard who wisely paired us for the very reason of our differences and sent us out together with me playing the part of Nay Sui to Roger’s Yiedt. We both sold our books, naturally, but Roger sold far more. By at least double. However, I made up part of the difference with a paperback edition of The Stolon, which had been re-issued just in time for the publication date of Head Island.

My story was the simpler of the two novels. I had chosen to straddle the tale I had previously begun in The Stolon by picking up a tragic thread from my protagonists’ childhood and then working out the effects of this on him as an adult.

Roger’s natural bashfulness alone was evidently devastating to women and men alike, but it was more than magnified and even contradicted by the visual flamboyance of his outfit as he roared into town on his ruby and white motorcycle wearing his father’s beaten leather World War Two flight jacket and flagging a tattered yellow scarf. Such contradictions seem to drive women nuts, and the great majority of book page columnists who interviewed us were women.

At Roger’s suggestion—nay, insistence—we set out from New York by truck.

I would love to have been present for the argument with Gerard over that! Roger owned both a 1969 Ford 100 with a low camper top straddling an eight-foot bed, and an trailered rig for his Harley Davidson Electra Glide. He had purchased them a couple of years before, the same week he had gotten out of the military (on a promise he had made himself while pretending to be dead one night that he’d spent alone in a rice paddy surrounded by Viet Cong) and each of these were two-tone white and ruby red and looked like the kind of matched pair you might see in a magazine advertisement (which they were, I was later told by his father, actually ripped from a page of Playboy magazine) and still gleamed with the brand new glow of regular pampering and multiple coats of wax. This was all fine with me because he preferred to drive the motorcycle and I got to drive the truck alone in all but foul weather, which gave us more than sufficient time to be apart, day after day, so that we seldom got on each other’s nerves. Better yet, he could fix either of them with a small wrench and a screwdriver.

For his part, Gerard was happy in the end to save the extra expense of air travel and used the difference to book more dates in more cities along the way. Miss Evers took care of the phone work, actually making the hotel reservations and the reading dates as well as looking after the shipping of copies to each location.

Three nights out of four we slept on air mattresses in the truck bed with our sleeping bags beneath the camper top. Shaving and other needs were performed in foul gas station toilets and public library restrooms. We much preferred the libraries, where young boys would stand close at the door and stare back at us curiously as we used the sinks. It was cool weather but not cold until we reached Colorado. The bookings for readings started and ended in New York City, with both of us lodged separately there the first night at the Old Biltmore near Grand Central Station with its near antique grandeur, and we did the last minute planning with Pat Evers and Gerard over a late dinner. We then went to Boston for a couple of days, which was a story in itself, and from there to Springfield, Troy, Syracuse, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Ann Arbor, Chicago, Madison, and on to Minneapolis. At that point, the trip was about one-quarter done and I was exhausted. Roger, however, was, by his own testimony, as happy as he had ever been in his life. Of course, he had the added impetus of being in love. When we reached our hotel in Minneapolis, as she had previously done in Chicago, Pat Evers was there waiting.

I read the same two portions of my own book at each event—one an argument between my subtly disguised protagonist, Fergus MacAleer and his father, and the other a love scene between himself and his childhood sweetheart, slyly and simply named ‘Ellen.’ Roger usually read one longer scene from his book which involved a family dinner at the home of Darrin’s parents in St. Paul.

Both of us quickly reached the point where we had memorized our lines and would have been able to deliver the words without fumbling, I think, but I had begun a foolish attempt to imitate Roger’s natural hesitations for some added dramatic emphasis. They worked so well for him. However, instead of silence and rapt attention, I receive a shifting of seats and polite coughs. We took turns going first, but even when I was reading, I could see that the faces of the women in the audience, already sitting uncomfortably in the folded chairs set out in whatever open space had been provided, all had their eyes on Roger.

 

Driving through this country, rather than flying over, makes you aware of its size in both practical and spiritual ways. The thing I learned to appreciate first is the quaint beauty of the small town. This is not estimable. There were many places where I thought I would just park and pull my bags out and stay for the rest of my life. It’s the depth of field, I think, as well as the Technicolor. Places that transfix the eye not in monotony but in synecdoche with those thousand different individual and vernacular parts, any one of which might faithfully represent the whole for somehow appearing so true and in their proper place. Analogy and analogue.

But I will admit here again, as I did in one of the essays I wrote at the time, that I have never trusted farmers. They have an occupation which is hard work and requires long hours for low pay. In addition, it is dangerous, often lonely, and only permits vacation time during the winter. Ice fishing never appealed to me either, for reasons which should not need explaining. The point is, the farmer says he loves to do what he does. And this is obviously a lie.

My urban prejudice was easily acquired, given my essentially contrary nature. The farmer, like the teacher and the fireman, had long been an icon of American culture. Criticism of these occupations was considered blasphemy. And it was for that reason alone that I had taken up that very subject at The Gist. All the fireman I had ever known then, all of them Irish, except a very few, were overweight and frequently out sick on the better summer days. Alike, I could count the number of teachers I loved on one hand.

It was the farmer’s love of his life, I supposed in print, that might explain why so many had sold their land to large agribusiness firms rather than get along on their own from year to year. I followed this up on various occasions with articles on farm subsidies for tobacco even while the government had started an anti-smoking campaign, and about their love of being paid not to grow crops (it was there I had first proposed that authors be paid not to write books in order to save trees), apparent cruelty to farm animals and poor husbandry (my boyhood excursion to the turkey farm had come to mind), and the near slave labor of migrant farm workers all to get a cheaper product to the consumer table, not a better one.

In that light, I supposed, there must be some secret motivation which the farmers have kept from the rest of us through the centuries, like a Mason and his oaths. But the worst of it was, in our time, the farmer wanted to be paid for their love whether they did well or not. As if I should receive royalties for the copies of my novels that never sold, just because it took a year or more of my life to write them.

The fact that the American farmer grew the best quality food on the planet, in the greatest quantity, on the fewest number of acres per capita, at the lowest prices, only made my job as critic a little harder. It did not dissuade me from my object as a wannabe iconoclast.

Again now, following our excursion, I wished (while allowing for the wisdom of Caesar paying the Gauls to stay at home) I could have found a piece of such a business back when I was working three jobs to get along. I would have had the time to write a few more novels that no one would read. And I wrote an essay to that effect as well.

I now congratulated farmers for figuring out that they could kill two and half or three birds with one stone by not growing tobacco on a given acreage, and thus getting a government check which they could then use to buy more acreage and not grow tobacco on that as well. If they combined that income with the subsidy they got for actually growing corn, for instance (not to be used as food for hogs or humans, but to make ethanol), they could then contribute to the profits of the oil companies by purchasing stock, which in turn subsidized those corporations for NOT drilling for oil. This compact works out very nicely for all concerned when the oil company turns around and uses some of this extra cash after dividends to make cheap fertilizers to help the farmers grow their corn. The fact that the fertilizers pollute the rivers and make it necessary to build well chlorinated swimming pools for their kids so as to keep the youngsters from just going down to the river and using the old rope swing, is an added side benefit to the swimming pool and to the chlorine industries which is only magnified by the need to build better water purification plants for the towns affected by the pollution of their rivers from chemically befouled runoff, employing contractors, builders, surveyors, consultants, plumbers, masons, electricians, etc., but also while benefiting more than several large political lobbies interested in saving the environment which in turn demanded that the pollution be controlled, thence resulting in even larger projects by the Army Corps of Engineers, and others, to wit, tens of thousands of people are employed just to get the farmer not to grow tobacco. The older solution of simply letting the farmer lose his shirt for growing too much of one thing or another and not keeping his eyes open on the market prices, or putting away a sufficient amount in the local savings and loan during good years to weather the lean ones, was outdated, or far too radical.

I began to take notes on the first obvious manifestations of chicanery by the time we reached Chicago, as well as the novel that I hoped would come out of it. The first essay, concerning the need to pay authors not to write their novels in the same manner as farmers were paid not to grow crops, appeared in The Atlantic and was well received at the time. It was called ‘Swiftian,’ by some critics, but then I had begged for that comparison by entitling the essay ‘An Immodest Proposal.’

 

Understand, I had not been around for Roger’s initial arrival at the Gerard Strauss offices and I did not pursue gossip there in any case, nor would he have said anything to me, being the true gentlemen he was, so I was unaware of his own first encounter with Miss Evers until, in a Hotel in Pittsburgh where we were sharing a room, he got a call and I answered the phone. To me she said, “Hello, Angus. Can I speak to Roger?” That was it. She and Roger were on the line together for an hour, with him stretching the cord into the bathroom for privacy. I went downstairs to explore the lobby.

Whatever his talents were as a writer, and I think they were considerable and greater than my own, or his good looks, he must have had other attributes I did not possess. Patricia Evers and Roger Terrill were married the following June. It was something of a true love match by all accounts. He was 28, she was 42. He was a shy mid-westerner with a streak of Lutheran that translated everything into principles of behavior. She was a Melina Mercouri of unbound appetites with a husky voice and striking features veiled beneath a perpetual wisp of gray rising off of her cigarettes. Perhaps it was a mutual understanding of the extreme mid-western temperatures that was their communion. And wit. They both certainly had the wit to entertain each other.

His death the following year in a motorcycle accident on a stretch of Interstate 94 after a visit with his family seemed impossible to me at the time. Some people have the aura about them that makes you believe they will live forever. I wrote Pat a short letter of condolence, but I never had the opportunity to speak with her about it. The blow up in the office at Gerard Strauss that had ended my welcome there had already taken place during the spring following the book tour and I did not return there for some time.

 

Despite the statement on the book jacket flap, I began writing The Endeavor of Jim while the wheels were still rolling on our great adventure to California and back again, not while at MacDowell the following summer, though, in fact, I did finish the book there. It is still my favorite of all the books I have written, and every detail of the experience that made it so is etched by reconsideration and polished by handling in my mind. However, in truth, and given the fact that Roger’s death took the wind out of me for most of the year following, I don’t think I would have even begun the novel, much less finished it, had I not already written a substantial portion prior to the end of 1972. It was the quiet of New Hampshire, away from the bustle at The Fore-edge, that allowed me the concentration and necessary calm.

 

 

 

 

  1. Mything Roger

 

 

I generally refrain from re-commenting on the comments of critics, most of whom are a cretinous and sniveling lot who can smell little beyond their own snot, and so I said nothing at the time, but because their insinuations and distortions have a wider currency than my own, and my own fabrications have seldom been intended to harm others, it is worth the trouble to set some of that record to rights now, when it matters to no one but myself. Just for the good of my meager soul.

Obviously I had taken as my template Mark Twain’s the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It is one of my favorite books, has always been so through half a dozen readings, and the chance to work from that mythology I took just as seriously as I believe Virgil must have done in building the Aeneid upon the stones trodden by Homer in his re-account of the Iliad. Very grand indeed! But I was young enough then and not embarrassed at such undertakings. That journey ‘on the road’ east to west on rivers of macadam instead of down the Mississippi was intended as echo, as often as I could manage it, in what was essentially an perpendicular narrative to Mr. Twain, and not in any way to counter Mr. Kerouac’s very different book (even allowing for my avowed distaste for that work).

Nor was I then unaware of the Leslie Fiedler thesis on a homoerotic vein to American literature so nicely captured in the phrase “Come back to the raft ag’in, Huck honey!” Certainly that played some part in the shenanigans of Mr. Kerouac, even if it was a silly conjecture about Mr. Twain. Such pre-post-modern has always simply escaped me (or I it).

The choice of re-making Twain’s Jim into a blond and blue-eyed Adonis was not done ‘casually’ as one twit said, but for the very purpose of the contrast it offered. Where Jim’s friendship was only accepted as a convenience and then a responsibility and weight on Huck’s conscience, my Jim was not only the indefatigable beast of burden who carried the venture, but the outright hero in the face of a hundred easy opportunities to be a lesser man. It seemed to me that to rise above your oppressors and keep your integrity is noble enough, but to reject opportunity that is unearned, to turn from praise and flattery and keep your head about you and to physically quiet applause, as I had seen Roger do many times, in order to make the point that there were people still dying on an inglorious battlefield at that very moment in Vietnam, is at least equally worthy.

The transfiguration was not a miracle is some eyes. It was more transmogrification to many.

It was already common at that time to raise up black individuals who had done some good, far above the real worth of their accomplishments, as if this might salve the gaping wounds and neglect of past oppression and not denigrate and devalue those who had genuinely earned their merit. To me, that process was clearly demeaning and would inevitably undermine the real progress then still necessary for African Americans a hundred years after the Civil War that was meant to set them free of pandering. Such a worry could not yet have bothered Mr. Twain. He worked beautifully with the circumstance of his time. But that was past. There was a fortune of new hazards to face, to turn another phrase.

And too, it is important to realize that the mind of the author is always challenging the resistance within himself. If not, the game is over. My own prejudices, having been raised in a town where a black face was seldom seen much beyond a delivery truck, were the weight on the grit and resulting friction that I needed to smooth that process for myself.

From the first stop on our journey, my own Boston, I was terribly jealous of Roger’s warm acceptance at every turn. Nothing I said or did could cast a shadow on him. Yet never once in two months of travel together did he ever act toward me in any way to reflect that he knew he was the better of us. Nor did he try to make up the difference with any false or pandering support for my own work. We were simply friends from the beginning and neither more nor less.

I would talk for half an hour, working hard enough to raise a sweat on a cool October day, and get polite applause. Roger would speak for twenty minutes in his halting and uncertain style and get a standing ovation. And remember too, this was at a time when the returning soldiers were being spat upon in airports.

I remember one moment when the reporter for the Pittsburgh Press stood by me, woefully, saying he had not yet eaten his dinner and the young women who encircled Roger would not let the journalist in close enough to ask his questions. I told the fellow to just wait a moment. Roger would get out of his ambush as soon as he had signed the books clutched in their hands and we could go have a quiet dinner together at whatever restaurant he thought best. It was actually a canny move on my part. We had no idea where the best place was to eat. We had a terrific meal in a German neighborhood we would never have found otherwise.

We stopped an extra night in Chicago because of the number of bookshops there, and the need to speak to several more journalists. Miss Evers had anticipated this. She was there ahead of us and had set up the interviews and the readings in an order that was a positively scientific application of intent upon time and space. And she had also taken a second room again, so I was able to get into a quiet bed fairly early. I needed the rest.

I had no idea then that the later success of The Endeavor of Jim, both in sales and critical appreciation, would be the highpoint of my own career. Not that it would have made a difference. I always had my projects lined up ahead of me like yellow ducks on the bath tub edge, or as I imagine that would be, if I had ever done it. And the success of the book at that time was so greatly diminished for me from the first by the cloud of my having left Gerard Strauss and then the great blow of Roger’s death, that I could never feel as good about it as it should have.

 

The stop in Boston to promote Head Island became something of a prelude as well as a dénouement. As happened before, following the publication of The Stolon, neither my parents nor Mary Ellen came to the readings. I had sent them notes, and made the point of how little time there would be for visiting. My call to Mary Ellen’s house had been brief. Her sister told me again that she no longer lived there. Goodbye. In fact, I hadn’t spoken to Mary Ellen in almost two years at that point. Perhaps I should say, more importantly, she had not spoken or written to me. And I had thought to dedicate the book to her as my first muse, but then realized a small portion of my far greater neglect, and offered it up to my parents.

None of that mattered, I suppose. Not in the end. The fictional working over my father had received in Head Island was, I thought then, fair enough. I had tried not to make him the villain, at least as much as he might have been seen to be in the first book. But the material was still raw to that time and place. I simply assumed he did not want to be associated with it—especially after it was reviewed as a roman a clef, in the same way that The Stolon had been seen as a bildungsroman. I supposed he had not read any review, or even the book itself, but perhaps taken the sense of it from some friends who had. He never once spoke to me specifically about either of the books at the time. But then, I really did not expect more.

We had interviews to do at the Sheraton Hotel that morning, and for lunch I took Roger over to South Boston to see ‘the old stopping grounds,’ as he wanted to call them. The building where the Head House Spa had been, home of the ‘toasted bun’ and the all beef hot dog, and the scene of many a rendezvous and much of the loitering and malingering which had been the core of my youth, was unexpectedly closed. Without the constant activity inside and out, the place had the look of a husk in the same way a human being might who died with their eyes open, windows empty, kitchen equipment removed, linoleum floor darkened by the blood of grease. Before heading around to eat at Sully’s instead, we stood there at the seawall near the Head Island causeway. It was just above a small portion of foul and rotting seaweed and sand which had been adequate for our smaller and younger bodies to huddle away from the wind in cold weather and where we had smoked our stolen cigarettes and plotted our schemes. I had written about that in the book.

“It’s a small place, I know, but then it seemed even smaller. No more, at the time, than another room in our lives. The rocks there on the breakwater were as familiar to me as the furniture in our house.”

He said, “It was no different in St. Paul. Benick’s was one of our places. The Mississippi River was just behind, and there was a floodwall where we could hunker down away from the wind out of Canada. The sun on the dark rock would melt away the snow in that spot right off and there was no witness to our foolishness except the river itself.”

I wondered, “What did you say you’d do when you schemed your future? What was your plan?”

He looked bemused by the question—like it was something he had thought of again just recently. “First, I was going to go down the river all the way to New Orleans. That was the plan. We had heard it was the wickedest place on Earth and we couldn’t wait to get there. Achim Baur was our pastor, a large man who liked to visit every one of his parishioners in their homes at least once a year and always ate whatever little cake was offered. Not a bad fellow, really. Coached basketball . . . His face would go pink and he used to sweat his gray jersey through to black in minutes. But he could hit a three pointer from the foul line nine times out of ten. I think he cared a bit too much about the wrong things, though. He would use the metaphor of New Orleans for hell on Earth in his sermons, and detail every evil of the place. I don’t think there was any boy among us who did not want get there at the first chance.”

“Did you make it?”

“Oh, yes.”

“Well, I think you’re going again. It’s on our schedule.”

“Good. Maybe we’ll meet Pastor Baur there this time. Happy at last. He was finally caught diddling one of the widows, and the church made him leave, and afterward when we kids asked what had happened to him, they’d say, ‘He’s gone to New Orleans,’ and get a smirk. I looked all over for him the first time I got down there, but I didn’t see him.”

 

Roger liked to get off on the blue highways of the map, away from the sound of the trucks, but more than once, nightfall came too soon. I remember particularly one time when the singing tires of the big rigs that were passing just a hundred yards away from our RV camp, the trucks trailing in a steady procession of lights down a strip of Interstate 80 onto the bluffs and plains below Cheyenne, Wyoming, and the sound of the rubber ululating with the smaller rises and falls in the asphalt sounding like wild beasts in harsh harmonic counterpoint to the diesel growl becoming screams in the dark and echoing in the open atmosphere, against what, I don’t know.

I said, “Too bad we aren’t out there away from the road where we could enjoy the peace of quiet and catch that view a little better.”

This comment seemed to irritate him. “You ask for too much” he said. “What we have is already more than we can handle. I think I’ll take what I got. Who knows if we will ever get to Africa. But here we have our very own Serengeti.”

This exact exchange with different words occurred half a dozen times on the trip. Where I found fault, he found virtues.

It was raining again in San Francisco. I objected to the damp and the cold. He observed how the sounds were smothered as well and the smell of the bay was tangy and had made him hungry. We stayed there in an old hotel on Broadway, evidently the only one with rooms available that was near the City Lights Bookshop, which was our objective the next day. The hotel turned out to be busy with hookers through the night and I did not sleep well.

My complaint was met at breakfast with Rogers’ observation, “But did you listen to them? Did you hear that language? Did you hear the stuff they were saying?”

I told him that I’d lived across a narrow airshaft from a hooker for a couple of years. I had heard enough of that.

He waved my sour answer away, “You haven’t heard anything until you try to sleep in a hotel in Saigon. Walls one board thick and the doors are curtains. The girls make sounds purposely, not only to please the guys into thinking they are doing well, to compete with one another. It’s what I imagine an eternal insane asylum might be like. At least the girls here moan in English. Mostly. You should’ve listened. They were funny.”

We had a nearly similar occasion of near sin later on in New Orleans, but rather than continuing to suffer the wafting of groans and moans, I got up in the middle of the night and went out for a walk. It was as hot there as San Francisco had been cold. The streets were busy. It was raining as well, but the overhangs gave room to walk for several blocks without getting too wet. Nude dancers could be seen bumping and grinding and prancing atop bar-high walkways in various establishments through wide open double doors. Hawkers, big fellows in bright Hawaiian shirts or matched tuxedo jackets and shorts, stood guard at each entrance and tried to make eye contact to draw you in. The beat of the music from one place battered at the pulsing of the next unless it was overcome by the ever present splatter of rain from the roofs onto the cobblestone and brick. Hookers gathered at the doorways to the buildings between, looking damp, and making whistles and clicks and trying to make eye-contact more aggressively than the hucksters. Even so, it all appeared rather darkly festive. To my untempered nature, a sort of Grand Guignol without end. The cacophony was not unpleasant to the ear, even though the discordance was perhaps a bit too much like some modern music at times. I had heard far better jazz on record. The girls on the street were entertaining and if you looked more than a second longer, they would start a pitch, “I won’t hurry you,” and “I bet you I know some stuff you never even thought about in your whole life before.”

I didn’t need convincing. I knew she did.

At last I went into one establishment and ordered a double shot of bourbon on Bourbon Street, just to say I had, and paid the price, which I wrote down as seven dollars, watched the entertainment a while and felt better about the investment. I thought some of Roger’s positive mental attitude was rubbing off on me. I was proud of myself, and when I got back and saw him sitting in the lobby, I started telling him about the party that was going on out outside in the rain.

He listened silently and solemnly for a moment, and then announced, “We’ve got bed bugs as big as they have in Saigon. They’re changing the room for us.”

I felt like I couldn’t win, but he was laughing over breakfast the next day.

 

Roger didn’t ride his bike too fast. It was a quiet machine and he liked to ‘lay his eyes’ on what was passing. Speed seemed unimportant. Often he was behind me a hundred yards or more but his horn had a good high pitch, and if he wanted to turn off and stop somewhere, he would give me a beep. This mostly worked. But once I missed it and didn’t realize he was not there for some miles. We had that worked out in advance too. I was to stay put and he would find me. But that time, on an empty stretch of road right between Alabama and Georgia on the way to Atlanta, along toward the end of November, I turned around and went back to find him. There was only the one road up out of Eufaula that I could see on the map. I was pretty sure he had stopped at a filling station I’d noticed, to get something to drink I supposed, and I was thirsty too.

From a distance then I could see a large fellow close by the pumps who appeared to be accosting Roger in a bear hug. I sped up and hit the gravel a little fast, causing a loud growl. There were actually half a dozen other guys inside and they all came out at the sound of my arrival. They had their bikes lined up in military order and gleaming in the sun, and now took up positions in front of these prized possessions, faces turned at me in expectation. But the biggest of the lot, the bear hugger, barked at me as the dust cleared.

“Fuckin’ a!”

I had nowhere to go but forward. Thankfully I didn’t.

The bear was Derek Hayes. He had served in Vietnam with Roger for three years. I spent the next couple of hours drinking Pepsi and eating Hunnybuns and listening to war stories at a picnic table in the scraggly shade of a pecan tree at one side of the place. The stories involved nearly everything but fighting. And because Roger did not often speak about that experience, I kept quiet, listened, and tried to remember what I could. The book I wanted to write had been taking shape in the truck as I had driven along alone, and this encounter seemed to be serendipitous. Instead, it was no coincidence at all. Derek Hayes had read about Roger’s appearance at the bookshop in Atlanta and had dragged his buddies out to hear us. I collected half a notebook out of it.

 

 

 

 

  1. The fist of heaven

 

 

I was happy enough to usually avoid altercations. All the fistfights I had ever known in my childhood were brief. A few quick blows. A defeat. A quick retreat. Perhaps a few weeks necessarily wearing black gaffer’s tape on my glasses to keep them together. But my very last and greatest encounter was at a bar in San Antonio, Texas. We had given a joint reading at the university library that afternoon and for relief that evening, after driving a few back roads in the vicinity to get the feel of the place while purposely avoiding that small nut of a building they call the Alamo, we had stopped at the ‘Double-Horn Cafe,’ the name loudly presented on a sign that shouted garishly in a clashing palate of red, blue and white neon over the scrubby trees to the highway.

In the truck, I looked over at Roger and he was already smiling at the prospect. All the food there, chicken, catfish, crawfish, and sweet potatoes (excepting only the barbeque and the beer), was deep-fried. They had two kinds of beer, large and small. All of that was for the better. But apparently this was a ‘locals only’ place that disdained any contact with the population of professors and students at the university.

We were soon sitting at the bar eating and watching the early news on a television that was suspended over one end. A story came on there concerning a young woman who had a map of the state of Texas tattooed on her rump. They briefly showed only the most northerly reaches of that swath of colorful cartography as the young woman explained that her fiancée had recently discovered this fact and broken off their relationship, he being from Colorado. Roger was much entertained by the piece.

“I knew a girl in college with a map of Texas on her ass. She was going with a buddy of mine. I called him up once to see if he wanted to go for a beer. He said he couldn’t because he was in the middle of working his way from the Panhandle to the Rio Grande.”

I probably laughed a little too loudly at that. The plate of ribs I was working on had most of my attention. In any case, I was unaware of any argument then until it had become full blown. Some fellow with the requisite massive tattoos on both forearms said something to Roger in response to the anecdote. Roger ignored him and concentrated on his catfish. The fellow pulled at Roger’s shoulder and told him to pay attention. Roger simply planted his fist in the fellow’s face hard enough to break his nose and send him stumbling backwards to his own table. The several gentlemen with this guy arose then en masse and came at us. And, apparently, they also had other friends there. I was suddenly busy fending off a fellow a foot shorter than myself and a foot wider as well, and trying to avoid getting my glasses broken, while Roger put two men from another table onto their backs in the midst of a large rib-platter. The ribs arced through the air right back at us catapult fashion. In fact, though the short fellow had me down on my butt pretty quickly and was attempting to step on my head when I finally got a grip on his boot and turned him over, Roger had quickly made an unfair fight of it. Three or four fellows with more than barbeque sauce on their faces slunk around at the periphery yelling epithets which lost any meaning in their well oiled drawls. Then the police came.

As if they had been waiting in a car for just this occasion, which I imagine they were, on that Saturday night. They came in the door and at us before more than a few minutes had passed. And then we were in jail, barbeque sauce and all, for that night and the next. They did not let us out until after a hearing on the Monday morning.

But in the holding cell, immediately after we were brought in, Roger said, “That was embarrassing.”

I asked, “Why?” I was actually fairly pleased at the experience. My glasses were intact and I was a little bored with the trip just then after travelling the heart of Kansas and Oklahoma.

He said, “None of those fellows knew a thing about fighting. I guess I can imagine why some of them use guns. ‘Gunfighters’ we used to call them all in Nam. Try to make up for their deficiencies with a pistol. Lead for brains.”

This conversation was overheard by a cop close by. He asked Roger where he had served and in which unit. They got to talking. Evidently that much earned us a hot meal which we needed because ours at the Double-Horn had mostly been lost, and we were both still hungry.

However, the incident had some even better good to it. I’ll get to that later, if I can.

 

It was barely spring then when Gerard called and asked me to come uptown one day for lunch. He had read the first portion of the new novel. He had asked to see it after somehow hearing about the subject (I am positive Roger had said nothing about it). But Gerard’s voice made it clear to me he was not pleased with the idea.

Gerard first took on the ‘fatherly’ demeanor he was so excellent at. But I was already a little raw from overwork and as well as feeling edgy because of the tone I had detected on the phone.

He said, “You’re doing too much.”

I said only, “I’m doing what I can.”

“I think you should put this novel aside for a time and reconsider it down the road.”

“I can’t afford that. I need the income.”

“Aren’t you drawing a salary from the magazine yet?”

“More the opposite.”

“I think perhaps then you have to decide whether you want to be a novelist or a publisher.”

“Dickens published Household Words. Trollope published St. James.”

“This isn’t the nineteenth century, and you are not Dickens or Trollope.”

“I suppose I am only pretending to be Angus McGuire.”

His tone of voice lowered then, as if revealing a confidence.

“Listen. This book is about people we both know.”

“It’s fiction.”

“Did Roger see it?”

“The first part. I read it aloud to him in the truck. He thought it was a laugh.”

“Perhaps it’s not so funny now.”

“No.”

“I can’t publish this.”

“Alright.”

My tone probably made it clear that my agreement had nothing to do with holding back on the novel.

“I wish you would not publish this. There are people who will be hurt unnecessarily.”

“If they are hurt, it is only because they read their own misunderstandings into it.”

“I take exception to it myself.”

“Publishers do have a tendency toward self-importance.”

“That’s insulting.”

“That is not an insult. It is an observation of fact. Your life doesn’t hang on your words. You don’t make the choices, sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph, chapter to chapter. You don’t have to live with yourself that way, day to day. You only judge the results of those who do. Good or bad . . . So you don’t like it. I accept that. I wouldn’t dream of telling you what to publish. But don’t tell me what to write. That’s insulting.”

As we had travelled from reading to reading, Roger had laughed loudly more than once over the editorial process he had endured to get his book into print. The political correctness of that moment was more about race than any other matter. Reworking sentences so that the context of ‘white,’ and ‘black,’ and the plainly spoken Montagnard would not be misunderstood had caused him considerable angst. He had told me about several arguments with his editor at the company (Not Emily. She would have done better.), which had required the intercession of Gerard Strauss himself.

Gerard was angry enough that last day we met at his office to forget to offer his hand as we parted.

 

In advance of the reviews for The Endeavor of Jim, and as if anticipating that those would be good enough to support the effort, the good people at Simon and Schuster had set up readings for me at half a dozen bookshops around the city. But the first of these was at the old Barnes & Noble on Fifth Avenue where I had read once before, just a couple of blocks from the Gerard Strauss office. Whether this choice was in fact a coincidence or not, I will never know. The editorial director in charge of my book insisted it was the first space available. However, I suspected that there was some inter-publisher animosity behind the scenes, and that having the reading there was a sort of hit in kind. I wanted to cancel out of it. When the ads ran in the papers, I got to feeling quite ill. I hardly ever get sick, so this was, I am positive, a purely psychosomatic reaction on my part. I missed at least a day of work at The Fore-edge.

And the worst part of that was, I was essentially alone. The assistant editor who accompanied me to all of the New York venues, Debbie, was an eager and pleasant young woman only two years out of college. As a matter of fact I was then only a couple of years older than she, yet I had the sense that there was already a generation between us. Though she was very attentive as well as attractive, I don’t remember now that we ever had a conversation that lasted more than a few minutes.

Countless times, during that season of readings—and there were more than thirty of them as I traveled by train this time from New York to San Francisco—I turned around at the podium, unconsciously, to look for Roger’s face. Each time, the same small shock of recognition occurred—this time I was alone—and I was thankful when Christmas approached and I could quit.

There was no genesis for another novel in that particular journey. I wrote a few essays to fill time, nothing more.

But the first reading of The Endeavor of Jim, there at the Barnes & Noble in New York, was the worst. I was weak-kneed. I was nauseous. I had a headache. I had not eaten the entire day. Debbie, the publisher’s rep, met me at the subway exit on 6th and walked with me to the bookshop. I think she even offered to hold my arm once during that transit. I must have looked as good as I felt. To avoid appearing like an invalid, I told her I had the flu and that she should stay back. She got a sympathetic grimace on her face then and treated me like a sick child for the remainder of the evening.

The crowd was unexpectedly large. The reading was in a basement area and tables of books had been moved, but there really wasn’t room. All the chairs were filled and people stood at the edges. Despite the advance publicity, I was dismayed. I had not expected such a response and I looked behind me then for the first time to see a friendly face and saw only a store manager there instead.

The air conditioning was not working. One of the long fluorescent lights above, fluttered in its fixture, strobing in a manner that would have made me feel ill in any case. I stood on a slightly raised platform and the ceiling felt terribly near above my head. By publisher’s request, I was wearing my one and only suit—a brown corduroy that had not been on a hanger for months (maybe a year). I could feel the sweat gathering in my armpits. I had entered the store almost blindly, walking behind Debbie and avoiding eye contact, but shaking whatever hands were offered, and then looked down at my notes to evade the eyes of the audience and discovered only then that I had forgotten to shine my shoes. I must have been an impressive sight.

When I managed a few full breaths, I looked up finally and saw that Gerard Strauss had a seat at the rear, next to Patricia Evers. Emily Black stood right behind them.

Debbie took it on herself to find someone to replace the light in the fixture, and this delayed the affair for perhaps ten minutes and brought some applause when it was accomplished. I expected that to be the highpoint of the evening.

At this moment I was feeling incredibly ashamed for having left Gerard Strauss. Our argument was understandable enough, but I felt I should have made the effort to put the pieces together and I had not. The fact that he had come to my first reading for The Endeavor of Jim, as I was afraid he would, confirmed every self-doubt that plagued both my mind and stomach.

The store manager made an introductory speech and then disappeared.

In memory I can see myself standing there for hours before I managed my first words. It might have been less. And then I could not focus my eyes on the pages I had marked on the copy of the book in front of me. So I just started to talk.

I told them about the time I had given a reading in Boston, with Roger behind me. He had said, ‘The worst part is you look even worse than you think you do and people don’t understand half of what you say, so coherence isn’t the matter. Just don’t mumble, look like you mean it, and they’ll believe you.’ This was a rendition of something a fellow officer had told him in Nam when he had to speak to an assembly of soldiers. The audience at that first reading thought my anecdote was funny. I was serious, of course.

I tried to give some specific evidence to the original impetus for the book. I told them about Roger’s Lutheran minister and then, at some point my eyes cleared enough to read a few pages about my character, Jim, fending off ladies of the evening in New Orleans after being caught on the street wearing only the bottom half of his pajamas. At the time, he had been waiting for the hotel to find another bed, minus the bed bugs, and when a terrific flash bang of a thunderstorm had come up, had stepped out the back fire door for a smoke to watch it. The door had locked behind him with a gust and, in the racket, his knocking went unnoticed, forcing a barefooted trek around the ‘block’ in the pouring rain. Unfortunately, that portion of New Orleans was not laid out in a simple grid. One alley led to another. Lacking his wallet or any identification, he eventually met a cop who thought badly of the situation before Jim was rescued by a bevy of ladies who had nothing else to do until the storm let up. I had fashioned it into a scene after Dante’s Purgatorio. The crowd there seemed to enjoy that too.

I could not find my next marker in the book, so I simply told them about once being lost near Colby, Kansas, on a Sunday night, after getting off the interstate to find some gas. Roger had been driving, so I was feeling a little less guilty about the empty tank. But everything in the vicinity was closed. Even the cinderblock motel.

With the raised course of the interstate close by, we assumed a false accessibility to civilization and, with the needle already perched, we headed further down the two-lane road that paralleled the stream of traffic on our right. Beneath a nearly full moon, the horizon appeared to be set with a necklace of singular lights, but all of them, we had already determined from our passage on the interstate, were only marking some lonely barn or distant silo. No house appeared to be awake. We had already driven too far then, before the motor died, forcing us to push the truck over at a road marker beside an endless darkened field of desiccated sunflowers, heads nodding at our arrival.

Most of those sunflowers had fallen over in a previous wind but some stood menacingly, ‘like tall, skinny, broad-faced, short-armed space aliens wandering a devastated earth beneath the bright moon.’ I didn’t remember which of us came up with that first image but we both embellished it.

‘Their leaf-like fingers wrap around the flesh of human limbs to squeeze blood to the surface.’

“They drop their seeds in any moist crevice of a victims body. After a thousand of years of travel through an airless solar system without water, these instantly burst and take root.”

The distant growl of the trucks on the interstate added the usual ambience. Roger started right in to making up a scary story to match the scene before us as we pulled enough dried stalks and refuse from the edge of the field to build a fire against the dropping cold of the evening.

“Tendrils sprout from every orifice,” he said from the dark.

“The whimpering hosts do not die quickly,” I added.

Then suddenly we saw the glowing of two xanthic eyes, suspended in the dark, watching. It froze us both in place as our own eyes tried to sort the vague shadow into something conceivable. The creature stepped forward into half shadow. A small black dog had found us there and stood in the moonlight on the road, observing. Without hesitation, Roger called him with a short whistle and just like that the animal went spang into his arms as if he was an old friend. The dog was lean and long-tailed and his wag gave his hindquarters a wobble with every sweep. The animal stayed by the fire with us then, following our tale as if he understood each word, his head turning back and forth; and he ate all of a can of spam which we had opened to eat ourselves before realizing we had no appetite for it.

We slept then in the back of the truck as we often did, but the dog had remained outside at first, and after a while of seeing him sit alone by the road, watching over us like a sentry beneath the stars, Roger had called him in and he had slept there between us until morning.

Shortly after dawn, we heard a motor and the dog was up and out at the sound it. A farmer in a battered pickup stopped in the rising fog on the road and stared at us with a face so blank I would have guessed he was asleep if he had closed his eyes. Before we had managed to scramble ourselves from our sleeping bags, the fellow had whistled and the black dog went right up through the open window into the seat of the other truck. But the man continued to study us silently, as his own motor puttered in the quiet. Half dressed, barefooted and dancing on the cinders beside the road, we started in trying to explain our predicament and coax the fellow into telling us where we could find a filling station. He remained oddly silent. The thought even came on us both after a minute that the man might be deaf, and I started to make rudimentary hand signals. A sort of New York sign language with a Boston accent. But at last the farmer simply got out, still without saying a word, pulled a red can from behind his seat in the truck and poured at least a gallon of gas in our own tank, before pointing up the road ahead with three fingers spread which we took to mean miles, waved away my offer of several dollar bills, and as he climbed back into his own truck, he turned and pointed at Roger’s ruby and white Electra Glide sitting in its perch on the trailer and said at last, “Sweet!”

There was no dramatic ending to the story. It was just an incidental happening. But it was of the kind you recall more clearly than all the monuments you have stopped to gape at, and I don’t know why I chose to tell it other than that it occurred to me at the time. But this too went over well with the crowd.

It had a dog in it, after all.

I took some questions then about Roger, and a few about myself, and I made the best distinctions between the character Jim and the man Roger that I could.

In the end I got a decent amount of applause. I looked around then for Gerard but he and Pat Evers were both gone. Emily Black stayed awhile—long enough for me to wave and smile but never close enough to speak. The store had set up a table with copies of the book and I signed all that were there.

To be honest now, I believe the Jim of my tale was more Dante than runaway slave, remaining true to his Beatrice. I was certainly no Huckleberry Finn. Hell was his Vietnam. America his purgatory. And with due respect to Thornton Wilder, heaven was his destination.

I was upset over the announcement that Pat was editing Roger’s unfinished second novel. Perhaps as much as she had been at my using Roger as a character in my own work Her project was surely none of my business, but I had become psychologically involved with the character of the man, or at least the character I had re-created of him in writing The Endeavor of Jim. I don’t know which. Still don’t. I see him yet as the fellow I knew and though that man is not a still-life in amber, he does have, in my mind, the black and white quality of a good clean print of a 1930’s film about him which makes me suspect the accuracy of my own remembrance and judgment.

But at the time, I had determined that his work was being badly altered to suit the sensibilities of the living. Though billed as a work of fiction, Palimpsest Moon was truly just Roger’s unfinished story of a love affair between an older woman and a younger man, both of whom I thought knew well. It did not seem to me that Pat Evers was the right one for the task of editing.

The last line of that book, “an ancient script seen upon the face of a vellum moon,” was first spoken aloud in another iteration by Roger that one night in Wyoming as we sat like a couple of self-satisfied cowboys at a little RV park just off the Lincoln Highway outside of Cheyenne, eating hotdogs and beans, with our feet poking at an open fire and me still learning to be happy with what I had when that was the deal. The moon rose up out of the plains behind us, so big it seemed unreal at first; as if a great yellow light had been turned on. The mowed fields went ashen and silver as it climbed, finally turning bone white. This was the light caught on the bright metal of the North Platte River that crooked below that looked to me like an old broken scar against the fields.

Somewhat less originally, I spoke of it out loud then, “That moon looks like an enormous coin. A Roman coin, perhaps.”

Roger had answered, “More an ancient vellum than a metal, I think. Reused by countless lovers to write the languages of the heart. It’s a palimpsest of human skin, tattooed, that never wears thin but renews itself each night.”

There was no denying the fellow was in love. And I surely pitied him for it, but I did not kid him about it then, out of fear he might hear my jealousies, or might inquire of my own feelings about Pat. I had already begun to idolize the man in some fashion and could not bear the thought that I might hurt him. But he never asked.

 

Because life is so often inexplicable to most of us, a skid on the ice where turning is nearly useless, it seemed to me that one worthy purpose of the novel besides the mere entertainment of watching the smash up was to offer a coherent picture of living; to capture in the still frame of words on a page those aspects of a narrative of living and being that might even reveal the reasons and the why of things. Better than a photograph. I believe The Endeavor of Jim was the closest I have managed to come in that pursuit.

Yet when I first told Gerard at a Christmas party in 1971 that I was writing The Endeavor of Jim he was immediately worried. And I didn’t know what that was about.

The argument later that April seemed tied to the same concern, but the immediate cause of complaint, on my part, was a feeling of neglect, and for Gerard, perhaps the correct belief that I had spread myself too thin. He predicted a crash. I was writing too much and too quickly. He did not know the half of that. I had given him several chapters and I thought he was at first expressing a lack of interest in the new book more than any particular prejudice.

A year after the book was published by Simon and Schuster, in 1974, I met Gerard by accident at another event and when he turned to leave, I stopped him. I stood directly in front of him in the lobby of the hotel. He was still a sturdy enough fellow to run right over me if he wanted to, but he stopped.

At that point he had not answered half a dozen calls and several written letters. He glared at me eye to eye to make a point of his unhappiness at my being there.

I asked him, “What the hell is this all about? What did I do?”

And then I stood my ground.

After a moment hesitation he told me, “You did exactly what I knew you would. Wrote all of that down. No mercy. No quarter. What do you think Pat feels about all that? How do you think I should feel? We have our own lives to live.”

“It was a novel. It’s fiction. It was a story.”

“You used him. Everyone knows that book was about him. You don’t seem to care if strangers see you in your underwear—hell, even when your sorry ass is naked—but it’s no one else’s business.”

I said, “Gerard, I only have what I’ve got. I tried to make a story out of it.”

After a hesitation, he nodded a moment at that. He said, “You know, I feel sorry for your dad now. When I read your first book, I felt a little sorry for you. Now I realize he was the one getting the shaft.”

That pretty much shut me up for the moment. He left me there to think about it.

We spoke again several times in the years afterward. Friendlier occasions. The anger wore thin and fell apart.

 

 

 

 

  1. Cowboys and Indigents: breathing lessons

 

 

The manuscript for The Endeavor of Jim was well begun by late spring of 1972. But I was doing far too much just then to concentrate sufficiently and still handle the all the material well. The Fore-edge had suffered a bit for the two months I had disappeared on my book tour. When Roger and I returned from the tour, the magazine was already running behind the printer’s schedule and incurred several extra late-charges as a result. There had been a general idea that I was the boss, even though I had attempted to farm out every responsibility I could. The result was not just the dissension in the office caused by disorganization, but also the cost of one of our key players at that time, Helen Morris, and in the end, that required more of me to correct than I frankly had to give.

As a result I dumped a good bit of work on Miles Anders. Thankfully, he took the load then without an apparent extra breath.

But the mess at The Fore-edge was not all of my making. Not directly so. Though I had, in fact, established the cause for it by ‘hiring’ the two principles. When people are not being paid, it is difficult to refer to them as employees, yet the status of almost everyone at the magazine was well beyond that of a volunteer for the fact of their investment in it.

Early on I had divided the spheres of responsibility between ‘editorial’ and ‘publishing.’ Almost everyone on the staff wanted to be part of editorial at first: selecting the material for a given issue, editing this into a presentable state, selecting the art work and graphics, and doing the proofreading. And only two out of the original twenty or so who had shown up at Dante’s Pizza and survived the early attrition took a greater interest in the mechanics of publishing—getting the editorial material into physical form, typesetting and paste-up, and from there on to the printer and then distribution to the dealers and subscribers. For that reason Miles and I designed a work-board to divide up the various jobs for each issue. Miles designed the actual board after a bit of phone conferencing between the two of us. This was a black 4 x 4 cork surface, grilled into squares by white lines to mark various necessary jobs according to priority, onto which small cards were pinned with the name of the staff member who was doing that particular task. The requirement was: if someone took on a job from the ‘editorial’ side, they had to pick another from ‘publishing.’ Each issue had its own board and as publication deadliness approached, it was easy to see the holes that had not been filled. These gaps usually became my responsibility by default.

Miles was perhaps the only member of the staff who had a natural sense of organization and could prioritize on his feet. Helen Morris had almost the same good sense about editorial balance and graphic design.

The problem was, though I had effectively off-loaded most of the really hard work on those four hands, I was the interface between them. This had pluses and minuses. And the minus became apparent when I was gone from the scene for two months on that fall book tour. Thus, part of that minus was in fact my fault, for being too willing to take advantage of what I had seen before only as a plus. Math again.

I was the primary typesetter. I was the primary person doing paste-up. When those tasks were allotted by default to Helen and Miles, they had to deal directly with each other.

And Helen couldn’t type.

This was, I think, originally a reaction on her part to avoid learning the sort of skill which had been traditionally placed on women. For his part, Miles could not draw a straight line. Whether it was because of his eyes, or his brain, when he did paste-up, the copy was always crooked. He had thus taken on the typesetting, but that then placed him directly in the line of acquiescing to the editing decisions made by Helen. Miles was a ‘Strunk & White man,’ even to the point of carrying a little paperback copy of that slim work on usage and grammar in his back pocket. Helen, born in Mississippi and a Suwannee University graduate, was given to the Faulkneresque. Her range of appreciation ran from Flannery O’Connor to Jane Austen. The tight measures of Mr. Strunk and Mr. White were not on her scale. Helen did paste-up, but imposed a graphic sense on the pages that used up space we could not afford. Miles knew the printing budget by heart.

I had fallen in love with Helen’s Southern drawl about as fast as it had taken me to grab my apartment in Brooklyn. Maybe faster. But in the end, I could not argue with the budget. We had 48-tabloid size pages to fill each month in 12 pt. Times Roman. No more. No less.

When I returned from the tour with Roger and tried to impose some discipline on the situation, it appeared that I was taking sides with Miles. I could not alter the numbers for Helen’s aesthetic sensibilities. And I am sure she was already sore at me for leaving her behind for two months to carry my load. I learned then that though you may be fortunate enough to have both at once, there is no actual likeness between love and friendship.

In retrospect, it may be unfair to match the two situations that followed, but they occurred so close to one another that it’s hard to separate them now in my mind.

I brought Helen with me to the Gerard Strauss Christmas party.

This was a somewhat gaudy affair. Not untypical of the time in publishing circles. They had taken over a function room that was essentially the entire top floor of the building, and hired a band. It was catered, and there was a uniformed service staff with trays arrayed and garnished with morsels. Too much booze. A buffet of décolletage. Authors roving at will. Assignations in the stairwell. A fistfight in the men’s room. The constant and loud interplay of publishing gossip, editorial innuendo, and authorial boast punctuated by too loud laughter. Roger actually managed to leave with Pat before I did. He was the boy of the hour and whatever decorum had been managed prior to his departure disappeared quickly. I took Helen home with me to Brooklyn shortly after.

But she didn’t wait to get across the bridge before grilling me. She stood face to face with me on the subway car. I was quite taken with her frown. Helen is one of those women who had a frown you had to love. A sort of comic pout of turned lips and eyebrows. At the party, she had somehow heard about my brief affair with Pat. It was just the sort of gossip that is meant to hurt rather than simply titillate. Helen wanted to know if the sort of thing—the drinking, stupid jokes, ugly behavior, and the assignations—that she had just witnessed at the Gerard Strauss office was common behavior. And I was not sober enough to be convincing her otherwise.

Helen officially broke up with me before that ever-long winter was over.

A while back, I reentered the offices of Gerard Strauss again for the first time in years, to see Emily, an old friend who still worked there in the editorial department. Miss Evers had long since retired and is living in Italy. Gerard himself had passed away some years before. But the German multinational that owns the firm now has maintained the old offices at 22nd and Broadway—at least for as long as the fifty-year lease Gerard smartly signed during the 1970s, when space was cheap, still holds.

Emily is a sweetheart. We had never been romantically inclined together, but always friends. She had sent me a note to say she was finally retiring herself and that there would be someone new in charge of my account. The two books that Gerard published were still officially ‘in print’ at the time. I thought it was a good chance to catch up on the news and say goodbye.

She is a small woman, not at all fragile, except with that first appearance. Her hair had gone mostly gray, but it was once the natural black that Miss Evers only aspired to and it always curled tightly to her head. I had called and invited her to lunch and she thankfully accepted. I hated going into the heart of the city from Brooklyn in those later days without a specific objective. Wandering about, as I once had, now made me feel like a tourist and not a participant.

I announced myself at the desk directly in front of the elevators. The fellow there did not recognize my name and ran his finger over the glass of the computer monitor, looking for it. He asked my name again. I said I was one of their authors. He frowned and gave me a second look, shaking his head just a little. Then he accessed a second database and found me.

“It says here that you’re deceased.”

I laughed. It seemed too perfect.

Having heard the exchange, a young woman who was also there and now looking very serious rather than seeing the humor of it leaned over toward us and looked at the code. “He’s inactive. 03. Deceased is 04,” and then up at me without embarrassment, “And who is it you wanted to see again?”

“Emily Black.”

“She’s in editorial.”

“I know. I’m here to see her.”

“Does she know you?”

“Yes.”

A phone call was made and then a perfunctory smile replaced the severity of expression.

“She’ll be right out.”

I pointed up the hall, “Can I just go back to see her in the office? I know where she is.”

The fellow shook his head again, “Only authorized personnel are allowed beyond the waiting room.”

I thought of the years when I had roamed the two floors as if they were a private preserve, trying to find the right idea to correct a scene which Emily had just made clear to me I had left undone. No one had ever questioned me then. Tolerant smiles had met my mumbling.

Emily appeared momentarily.

She had barely changed. She immediately appeared to me to be very happy.

In the elevator, I asked her how she had managed to hang on in such an environment.

She admitted the cause, readily. “The retirement plan. Two more months, and then I’m free. Free at last! It’s been like a prison sentence since Gerard died . . . But I’m one of the lucky ones. I’m the last of the old crew left. They’ve let everyone else go and I was kept on only because I’d been here the longest, I knew where the bodies were buried, and it gave them the convenience of pointing at me when they wanted to advertise the traditions of the company . . . That, and I told them I would sue their asses off for age discrimination if they fired me, because they’d just hired a couple numbskulls right out of Barnard to replace two of the other old hands.”

We had a long lunch at a seafood restaurant and she caught me up on recent history at the firm and I told her about my own failed exploits. She seemed to know a bit about those already. There had been a few notices in the press, and a couple of my own articles about ‘the death of the book.’ Then she recalled reading about an interest in making a movie of Idiot’s Idyll and I told her all about that. She had seen the play and regretted not writing me to tell me how much she had liked it.

The sight of a white sauce on someone else’s filet of sole reminded me of Miss Evers.

I had to ask, “Have you heard from Patricia?”

Emily shrugged. “Never. Never once. I sent her a few notes concerning a couple of the authors she’d found. I sent her a few Christmas cards early on. But I stopped years ago. She’s alive and well, I hear. She has a small house near Genoa, on the Italian Riviera. I’ve even looked at it on the Google maps. You can see the pool and the white stripe of foam on the beach just a few yards away. I’ve dreamed of living that way myself someday, of course. And finally it’s here. That’s what’s kept me going.”

“Is she married?”

“No. Just the once. Roger was it for her, I suppose . . . Why? Some old embers still burning?”

The raised eyebrow was not curious but critical.

“No. That was hot soup, but never a fire. I was just the toy of the moment, of course. Young and stupid. Now that I’m old and stupid, the best I can do is try to remember what kind of soup it was and how it tasted.”

She didn’t quite laugh. She shook her head. “You are incorrigible.” And then she bit her lip with a hesitation, just as she always used to. She cleared her throat before looking up, and out of the blue she said, “You could have had me, if you wanted.”

There was something of a slap to it. Unexpected. Hard. And I responded too quickly, hoping it was a joke.

“You’re kidding . . . Sweet Emily?”

She said, “Sweet Emily can only look back at broth now. I never even ordered the soup. Now I have nothing to remember at all.”

There was no joke to it. That much was clear in her eyes if not the line of her lips, pressed tight with the sudden recollection of hurt.

One moment came back to me just then, like a short piece of a film used in a movie trailer that you only manage to see after you’ve already watched the movie, and you say to yourself, ‘That was the right moment to keep.’ In that I see Emily standing there by the elevator in the office at The Gist with the proof copy of The Stolon in a manila envelope, clutched to her body, and her eyes looking over the room for mine. I had remembered that moment a hundred times. Why had I always thought of that clip of a moment as if it were just about me? It was her that I had always seen. The scene was about her and not me.

I said, “That’s my fault then. I’m sorry for that. My most grievous fault. And just another one of those, in a long history of blindness. I’m very sorry I missed that.” Actually, I think I was afraid. I suddenly felt the cold from the restaurant air conditioner, I saw down that crack in the cosmos filled with all the stuff I’ve never known before. But I immediately fled the other way. I added, “But now we are both alone in the world and trying to stay afloat by our own devices. At least you have the retirement plan.” I started a laugh, but it wasn’t funny. “Then again, I never did have one. I’ll probably end up going back to South Boston, tail between my legs. I can see it coming. Looming. Really, my just rewards. Made to live with myself to the last; with ‘all my sins remembered,’ to borrow a phrase from Joe Haldeman.”

She leaned in and looked at me full face. An open face.

She said, “I’m going to New Mexico. You know. I’ve talked to you about that before, I think. I have a little house there near Taos. Bought it a few years ago . . . Do you want to come?”

There was a spark in her eyes and that crack in the cosmos widened. Another life yawned at me beneath blue skies in hues of yellow and red.

I should have said yes. Right then.

I know that I came close. I believe, for a moment at least, the words were in my mouth. I certainly knew where I was headed as things stood. I know that much about myself, at least, and that even if I did not yet love Emily with the passion I wished for, it would have been better, at the very least, than just soup. Or nothing at all.

More impressive in that moment was how daring she was to be saying such a thing to me, the habitual reprobate, after so many years. The risk of putting herself in my hands was so far beyond understanding. Why are women so brave? Certainly it’s not fearlessness. Is it abandon? Just another way that the species avoids extinction . . . If women only knew the compulsions that pester a man’s mind. Or is it that they know that much, instinctively, and choose to abandon themselves to it as the only other possibility for themselves or mankind? Something analogous to the male black widow spider who gives himself up in sexual sacrifice?

Where do such thoughts even come from?

Instead of saying, ‘Yes,’ as I should have, I said, “You are a most impressive human being. Where do you get such courage? God only knows why you feel anything for me now, but to make such an offer . . . it takes my breath.”

She sighed. The spark turned to gloss. I think there was an immediate resignation then. What small hope she had suddenly garnered for such an impossible idea, bled away.

Looking at me then, right in the eye the way her boss used to do, she said, “I fell in love with you forty years ago. Did you ever even know that? During the editorial conferences we had over The Stolon . . . No! Not actually.” She held a finger in the air to pin down another thought, ever the editor looking for exactly the right meaning. “Actually, it was that one day down there on Union Square and you had the pushcart and you were selling your own book as if it was the best thing since Catcher in the Rye. Such a goof! Calling out at the top of your lungs. ‘Get your brand new Stolon. Get it right here. While they last!’ And the people coming over to ask, “What’s a Stolon?” She stopped and laughed a bit suddenly, at that, and then paused to look at her hands rather than what might have been on my face, thank God.

At least she said, “I’d called my friend John at The Post and told him one of our authors had gone mad and was hawking his book to the Christmas crowds like a maniac. That was when—” A serious tone came back to her voice. “But Pat Evers had you by the balls then, you silly schmuck.” She shook her head at my stupidity. “Yet . . . You know, you’d explained all of those things you’d written about in your book, to me! To me! And I’ll bet Pat never even asked . . . I have a picture of you out there in Union Square hanging on my wall at the office right now. I’ll show it to you. Don’t you remember? Or did you just think that every editor would spend so much time with you over such small details? Even back then. It was just an excuse to stay late and talk to you.”

I had been shown once again that I’d missed another road in life. One I had not even noticed, but certainly should not have overlooked. The compulsions which could have directed me to the safer harbor were usurped and commandeered by a pirate, Pat Evers. That thought, in fact, did leave me breathless. I was stunned and shamed to silence, and when I finally spoke I said the wrong thing once again.

“Me? I didn’t have a clue. But, certainly you’ve dealt with better men than me in your life. Why me?”

She shrugged, “Why anything? As you said before, God only knows.”

This was no bandage to my newly acquired wound.

 

 

 

 

  1. Troll Hunter

 

 

Allowing for the possibility that some comely Irish ancestor of mine might have been raped by rampaging Norwegians, I do not know of any Nordic blood in my veins. But you have to admit the very idea of a troll is appealingly horrible. One wants to see them in the semi-darkness beneath every bridge. They are a perfect foil for the calamities in our lives. Not our own greed, or stupidity, or lust. The troll did it.

The trolls of Norse mythology are like the Welsh ‘bucca,’ and the Irish ‘sidhe’ (the Banshee of death was one) but nothing like the Leanan Sidhe, who were always beautiful and irresistible in their wants and more like Yeats’ very repressed Irish schoolboy imagining of them. The point being there are many types of troll. And they are all around. Reports that they could sometimes be good was the sort of propaganda that could lead to being eaten alive, or roasted on a spit, or stewed.

I had wanted to assess much of my life as being that of ‘troll hunter’ extraordinaire. But you see by now that this is not the case. More often a hunter of the trivial in pursuit of trite, for lack of anything better. But it appeared to my weak eyes that all the truly horrible trolls had been dealt with well before my coming on the scene. Except for the petty whine of those silly pisks on the internet, I was left to cultivating my fields in relative peace.

Had I chosen to live a more eventful life, I certainly would have written less. (I take Patrick Leigh Fermor as an example of this.) Had my enemies been more fierce, and the kol of my moyl been fiercer (that is, if I remember the Yiddish of Phyllis Rabinowitz correctly), I might have been made to wage bloodier war. (Yet another blind leader, perhaps?) Or died in the doing, young. But the trolls in my own time, well before the virtual form on the internet, were mostly small and ugly plastic dolls so weak they could be safely made into toys for children. Indeed, this may be a worse fate for those creatures of the night than anything I might have been capable of with my mighty pen.

Nevertheless. This is what I did.

And whereas a novel may or may not receive some attention, a review here and a mention there, the work which has kept my name at least above the water line and afloat through more than one storm as has been in the form essay. Even when I could not find an agent to handle my fiction, and before the own demise of periodicals as the market for the printed word has altered, there was always some interest in the magazines for the non-fiction I wrote, that is of the sort I used to crank out for The Gist, and especially if I aimed it at some new and popular shibboleth or mania.

One more example here will suffice.

Though his authority in the matter is obviously questionable, given the fact that he was not only highly educated and stubbornly rational (which clearly makes him an elitist), but also because he is dead, white, and male, which makes him automatically evil, I have grown quite fond of a supposed quote (attributed to but not confirmed) from the work of Alexander Fraser Tytler, Lord Woodhouselee, a Scottish judge and professor of history and antiquities at the University of Edinburgh (and a good friend of the poet Robert Burns).

It is said that Mr. Tytler once said, “A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largess of the public treasury. From that time on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits . . . with the results that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always to be followed by a dictatorship . . .”

It is somewhat entertaining to me that a number of pseudo intellectuals have disputed whether the good Judge ever wrote such a thing. Evidently the exact words are not to be found in the canon of his work. I wouldn’t know. But they are an exact representation of much else that I have read by him, so it is a dickering of dick-heads to argue the wording and ignore the meaning. But that too is common to our age.

A proclaimed monarchist, Judge Tytler is most avowedly not a libertarian and so I have read his arguments as an excellent model of rational contest to my own beliefs. He is invigorating. And he has much else to offer on the subject of democracy by way of example and verification that brings smelling salts to the faint of mind who pander to the pottage of egalitarianism in our time, but all of that is irrelevant to most readers in that they have not subscribed to this memoir with the intention of receiving a lecture from a dead guy via one only nearly living, especially about politics. Nor is the dispute as to whether he said those words, or not, of any importance here. I am not so interested in the source as I am in the meaning of the words. If they were contained only in a novel, it would be sufficient. But they were the catalyst to my own thinking and immediately important to why I did what I did in 1975.

I had spent countless but joyful hours of my pre-internet life during that year going from bookshop to bookshop in Brooklyn, Manhattan and Boston, looking for a copy of Tytler’s biographical memoir of his friend and mentor Henry Home, Lord Kames, a key figure of the Scottish Enlightenment and a father of modern libertarian thought. What might have been the dinner table arguments between these two great men, one the elder statesman and the other a young lawyer, fast friends though diametrically opposed to one another by philosophy. What a two-person play it might be if staged well!

Understanding my madness then, without this appreciation is impossible. I began my search with the greater interest in Kames, and ended it struck dumb by the truth that I had learned something more from his friend and philosophical opponent.

We act, all of us, and react to the times in which we live. I had built great hopes on the social revolution that had overtaken the public marketplace of ideas and challenged the established institutions in my youth. And I agreed wholly by dint of my reading of history with another supposed statement by the Judge: “The average age of the world’s greatest civilizations has been two hundred years. These nations have progressed through this sequence: from bondage to spiritual faith; from spiritual faith to great courage; from great courage to liberty; from liberty to abundance; from abundance to selfishness; from selfishness to complacency; from complacency to apathy; from apathy to dependence; from dependency back again to bondage.”

But why was locating his book so difficult? Why was finding any good book so difficult? Most copies were not expensive, having been frequently used by good teachers in those olden times when the rigor of philosophy was part of the curriculum and thus of little interest to the price conscious antiquarians of the rare. Shouldn’t the good ones be the easiest to come upon? Sure, you could stumble on Joyce’s Ulysses and Fitzgerald’s Gatsby around any corner. But they were idolized by the academy. Why not Roumeli, the account of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s travels in Northern Greece? It had only just been published in 1966 and was already out of print! And what about Tschiffelys Ride? Aime Felix Tschiffely had journeyed on horseback from Buenos Aires to Washington D.C. in 1925, across the Andes more than once, through jungle and desert. That book was a bestseller in 1933. It took me weeks to track down a copy only forty years later. Or Eric Newby’s account of capture, escape and romance, Love and War in the Apennines. That memoir had been published as recently as 1971 and wasn’t even available to me in the United States without special ordering the British edition. My want list for biography, memoir, and true life adventures was long. For history and fiction it was far longer. No wonder we were an ill-educated lot, I said. I said that aloud, I should say.

In 1975 I was staring at the coming two hundredth anniversary of my own nation squarely in the face. Most of my time during the previous six years had been spent writing fiction, mostly novels, and an occasional essay to prick some specific boil on my ass that made it difficult to sit still. What concerned me most was that, in conversation with my fellow baby boomers, an especially large and ill-educated tribe, I was continually confronted with a depth of ignorance that closed off any possibility of argument. By their lights, there was no future of consequences to be paid by them for the actions they took in the present. The inner allusions of Gatsby had eluded them.

As always, the history of the moment continued to cumulate and accrue. The unfortunate Vietnamese who had foolishly trusted the Americans to beat back those other Vietnamese who had alternative ideas about who should rule that small portion of the heart of darkness, found themselves abandoned. The procession of dictators in Soviet Russia and other godforsaken precincts continued. South America festered. Africa discovered the joys of genocide. The American space program, built on political expediencies and objectives, sputtered to an inevitably political end. And with Richard Nixon now eliminated from the focus of power, American politics floundered in the ebb tide, unsure of itself and in need of a new bogeyman to scare the populace into voting for someone else.

I am a one candle sort of fellow. Better to light that small wick than to curse the darkness. Already breathing as much 3M spray affixative while doing paste-up for the photo-ready copy of The Fore-edge as my physiology could handle, I could not imagine starting another publication to more particularly address political topics. Besides, my own libertarian philosophy was not one that might gather interest from any identifiable group. It was too often at odds with one thing or another. I could argue the case for a literary magazine devoted to the florid and ample lies of storytelling, as we had made with The Fore-edge, but I could not discover a political label for myself that would draw flies, much less intellects. Libertarians would as soon shoot each other as anyone else. I might, however, offer some refuge to the inquiring mind, be a resource for the few who dared question authority, and make some small portion of my needed living expenses from the effort, if I did something else entirely.

After the paperback sales for The Endeavor of Jim petered out, The Unfortunate Happiness of Peter Brim had not produced much more than the publisher’s too generous advance after three printings (and that had already been used to pay an overdue printer’s bill for The Fore-edge). Metaphysical inquiries into the joys and sorrows of living, at least those proffered as fiction, or not attached to some faddish presentation of the newly discovered splendors of sex, the horrible possibility of being eaten by a sea monster, or the dietary pleasures of eliminating carbohydrates from the diet, did not appear to have a natural following either. My new publisher dropped me. I was left then with a contemplation of why anyone would believe in a philosophy that prohibited spaghetti. (That quandary was picked up by the magazine Food and Wine.)

So I picked up the thread and wrote a little love story to that effect as well, mostly about a couple of fictional doppelgangers for Helen Morris and myself and the ways a guy can screw up a good thing, and called it No Food for the Gods. A vegetarian nightmare with steak sauce. My agent informed me there was a rumor that Viking wanted another love story for their fall list to counter some other publisher’s successful fore-play. They took mine. There was even talk of a movie when an option for the film rights was sold—a modest but important additional income of $5000 after deductions for various and sundry.

And naturally enough for me, this left only one possibility for future happiness: I opened a bookshop.

Willa Cather died the year I was born. What a coincidence. Isn’t it amazing? Not so much, you say. Just another fact without a context. I thus began looking for context. Some of the bestsellers in 1975 were: Angels, God’ Secret Agents by the Rev. Billy Graham, Winning through Intimidation by Robert Ringer, and The Bermuda Triangle by Charles Berlitz. These should have been warning enough. But the true depths of my profound stupidity were as yet unplumbed.

The plumb was the lead in my head, and the line of credit foolish friends were willing to extend. I should have been encouraged had I heard a call “by the mark twain.” Instead the lined reeled out as if the weight had been taken by a sea monster (or giant catfish) as bait. I took the silence that returned as promising instead of realizing I was simply out of my depth.

Selling The Stolon on the street that cold and sunny December day in 1969 had left its mark. I had enjoyed it enormously. Not the weather that already seemed so distant, but the interaction with people and the engagement over something so ephemeral as a mere book, and a novel at that, as opposed to the more mundane needs in life.

I had thought about starting up a bookshop many times, just for the ‘fun’ of it; having spent too many hours of my life each week in one or another of those places not to be aware of the concrete realities of wood pulp and rag. I pity the poor seeker of truth today who has nothing more that the glass of the computer screen before them, or in their hands. They cannot know that the scent of truth is to be found in the dust. The shadow of the finger of knowledge seeking the spine of the right book is a gnomon across latitudinous lines of shelving, and as true as the mark of a style, as that spike of shadow upon the surface of the sundial seeks the hour against the rotation of the planet. True north can be found in no other way.

I wanted a place of my own where the works of monarchists and libertarians, Marxists and Unitarians, might mingle.

I began actively to look at books on the shelves at other shops as if I were selecting them for my own. I started examining shelves and considering the pluses or minuses of this kind or that. For being more wieldy, a unit three feet wide seemed more appropriate to me than four. Pine would be easier to cut than oak, much cheaper, and could be more easily falsified by stain to look like anything I might want it to appear to be. This process had grown to something of an obsession by January 1975, when I found myself on one cold afternoon, staring up at the lights and fixtures in The Strand, a large shop on the Lower East Side and a frequent destination for me in those days. I didn’t like them. The fluorescence bleached the color from the book covers on display and filled the air with a vapor of homogenous glow that defied my need for shadows and gnomons. Nor were they bright enough in many places. By a trick of corners, some nooks were actually dark. A young fellow who was putting away books nearby noticed my interest and came over and stood beside me staring up at the fixture I was contemplating at that moment.

He said, “What do you see?”

I said, “I see the light.”

There was a moment of silence. Then he started laughing out loud and shaking his head as if I had caught him in a prank. As usual, I had not actually meant the joke. I was simply playing with the words. But I did see the light—just then—and possibly this was caused out of some immediate embarrassment at my own words. The cringe of self-consciousness cleared everything else from my mind, perhaps. But I knew then, standing in that spot in the aisle, that I should just go ahead and do it and stop thinking about it.

The Marlboro Smoke Shop on 7th Street in Brooklyn had closed at the end of December. The owner, Harold Stern, had died after fifty years of purveying the best cigars and the cheapest cigarettes in New York. I had been a regular customer for the latter. It was a good spot. Barely two blocks from my apartment. Not too large. Eighteen feet from side to side. Fifty-nine feet deep. Twelve-foot ceilings. (Those were embossed tin, like the cover of a Victorian book.) Big enough by my reckoning. But the owner wanted $1200 a month. That was over my budget. But he wasn’t interested then in coming down in price, so I looked elsewhere. And I kept my fingers crossed.

There were three or four other spaces vacant in the area. The general economy was bad, and New York’s was worse. All of the other locations were asking about as much—all of them over $12 per square foot per year. But I liked the Marlboro Smoke Shop space. It offered a little more room for the money because it had never been renovated. The building was a neat red brick with yellow brick trim that soot darkened to match the red. You could see that whoever had built the place a hundred years before had given some care to the details.

By May, the landlord had blinked. We dickered. I offered him eight hundred. He offered to come down to $1000. I offered eight-fifty. He told me the best he could do was $950. We settled on $900, with a maximum hike of $50 after the first year, and no more than $50 any year thereafter. I had most of the five-thousand-dollar movie option from my fifth novel in the bank and a little more left from the actual advance and that was burning a hole in my pocket vault. After the security deposit, a month’s rent and two months’ rent in advance, I had $1400 left to live on as well as to make a deposit with Con Edison, get insurance, buy books, shelves, lighting fixtures, a cash register and anything else that might present itself. I had to borrow some money.

I called Mr. Ritts.

His advice, reduced to its essence was, “Don’t do it.”

I said, “But I’m going to do it!”

He asked, “How much do you make out of The Fore-edge?”

“Make? You mean, like, a salary?”

“Whatever.”

“We don’t have salaries. We barely get enough in the door every month to pay the printer’s bill.” That was a lie. We rarely made the monthly nut. But I assumed he would assume as much.

The usually restrained tone of his voice rose in surprise.

“But I see it all over the place. I thought it was a big success.”

“It is. By the standards of other literary magazines, I suppose.”

“You are hopeless.”

Stating the obvious was not going to alter my course.

“So?”

He said, “I can probably put together a couple of thousand that I can afford to never see again.”

I said, “Thanks.”

This conversation, cadging mostly smaller sums, was duplicated several times during that one week. By the end of it I had a massed a small fortune of eight thousand additional dollars and I’d used up every line of credit I had among my few friends, and that included two other members of the staff at The Fore-edge.

 

The next matter was what I would call my enterprise, given the probable doom the venture faced. Naming it for some favorite author like Kipling or Boswell, or Shakespeare, seemed inappropriately like blaming those worthies for my foolishness, and besides, most of those names were already well used in one form or another. Puns had become popular as business names just then, like ‘All Booked Up,’ or ‘Bearly Read Books,’ but for my own purposes, my imagination failed me, and we were not in a basement, so the nearly ubiquitous ‘Bookcellar’ was out.

As the day approached and the first advertisements and other such things had to be placed. I panicked. Calling it the ‘Fore-edge,’ after our magazine seemed obvious enough, but that word clearly needed some additional annotation to make it clear just what sort of shop it was. I came up with ‘Fore-edges and Endpapers’ and almost went with that until one member of the magazine staff who shall remain nameless, in spite of the great and lasting benefit of their acute observation, said to me, “What’s an endpaper? Is that like toilet tissue? You aren’t going to name it that, are you?” I was immediately reminded of the woman at the Eastern Newsstand asking Mr. Green if he carried the ‘Fore-skin.’ The nuance overwhelmed the literary.

That night I worked away at the chaos in my unfinished shop until just after midnight, smoking my remaining half pack of cigarettes, drinking my last four warm beers, and had to unplug the toilet twice before the inspiration finally came to me as I exited the small room at the back and stared out over the piles I had made by category in order to get a visual sense of the shelving I still needed. The meager sun of a single remaining light bulb cast its brilliance. It was a landscape. Another country.

I settled on the name ‘A Republic of Books’ only two weeks before we opened the doors.

 

There is a house in Brooklyn, over in Bay Ridge, that is built out of fieldstones, framed in an ironwork fence, with an undulating roof that looks like thatch, and with windows broken into the multiple lights that you will only see on a hand-built and uniquely imagined home. It stands out on the street as if transplanted there by an alien culture amidst all the others which are nice enough but merely common versions of the same rectangular thing, repeated for the convenience of the builders, over and again, as if it was the people who live in them who must conform to the carpenters need to simply get the job done and go home to his own proscribed version of the same, rather than to meet the needs of the client. I kept that exemplar of whimsy from Bay Ridge in my head as I worked through the allotment of inches on my aisles at the store. I knew I would be living in the place as much or more than anywhere else each day and I wanted something that would keep my own interest.

About this time, searching for lower cost solutions to the problems that faced me, I had discovered, both to my horror and my benefit, that many of the old houses and apartments which had been built with the loving care of craftsmen several generations ago, back when the work of a life mattered as much as the pay, were now being gutted for modern conveniences, and once livable spaces were being ‘rehabbed’ and sub-divided into something better suited to lab rats. My benefit from that circumstance was simply that those people of olden times once read by the ambient light of their glass windows rather than to stare, glassy-eyed, at the screens of their televisions.

At a salvage yard in Queens I discovered stacks of oak and beech and ash and maple shelving, all of it torn from the built-in spaces of homes that had been ‘remodeled,’ and already shellacked and, excepting for a scratch or some wear, ready to polish again. I spent a week there, selecting sizes that I could wrestle with my own meager carpentry skills into new shelving units. In the end I spent far more on my shelves than I had budgeted, but they were at least worthy of the books I wanted to fill them with.

When it was finally obvious I would not have enough funds to buy all the books I needed, I appealed to the publisher’s themselves, or at least to their credit departments.

Random House then managed several imprints, including Knopf and Pantheon and, most crucially, Ballantine, which was the purveyor of much of the science fiction I wanted in paperback. Viking was associated with Penguin. I was able to get a fair assortment of the classics from them before I had reached my limit. The woman at the credit department for Gerard Strauss remembered my name and took the order without even the fuss of credit forms and banking information. They were still that small of a company then.

Various people came by to say hello during the several months while my expenses mounted and the opening date wanted to recede rather than get closer. I had the telephone company in on the very week when I had signed the lease. But the electrician and the plumber and the city inspector came in on their own good time. The first city inspector kindly told me everything I was doing was wrong and gave me the list of other inspectors whose approval would be necessary before opening. I assumed by his demeanor (impatience with my questions) many of these criticisms had no bearing on any code or requirement other than his own opinion. I told him I had too little money to do it his way. By the look of sawdust in my hair and grime on my clothes, I guess he supposed I was telling him the truth. But most of the time I was alone.

I had ‘temporarily’ given up my morning writing schedule and one of my usual afternoons at the Fore-edge office, and every one of the evenings I might have spent at a movie theater. I set up my little KLH stereo system and played records loudly to drown the monster doubts that pushed up through every crack in my plan. At night I obsessed over petty worries, like the need to eat, and used those as firebreaks in a forest to fend the others off.

And then, one day while I was deep inside the chaos of store space fitting a set of darkly stained oak boards together that had once been used to hold fine china in a dining room, I heard a tap at the window.

Gerard stood there in the sun outside, holding his hand at his cheek against the sooty glass so that he could see through.

As I let him in, he asked, “What fine madness is this?”

I said, “I have no excuse for it. It was a compulsion.”

He looked healthy then and tanned and smelled of the last cigar he had smoked. As he walked through and looked at the mess and noted this or that, I was so pleased he’d come that I don’t in fact remember all of what he said that day. Simply, to my needy ears, he sounded pleased with me, but full of fatherly cautions, and gave me more than enough faith to keep me going. And at the last, he spoke to my larger concerns.

“These shelves, they come out of houses that once had such needs because people used to read and keep the books they loved to read again, and to lend them to friends. That world is not this one, my boy. Reading is an ephemeral occupation nowadays. Paperbacks are disposable and replacements available, like condoms, at any drugstore. Barnes and Noble has expanded into a dozen locations and growing, just like the one down the street here. Because they’re only pushing the books that they take those big ads out for in the Times, they’re buying quantities at a discount you can’t get. They stack them up like cereal boxes at the supermarket. People are all buying what they heard about on the Carson or the Cavett show on the TV last night, or saw on the bestseller list in the New York Times on Sunday, because they don’t want to be out of the loop. I don’t know how you intend to compete with that, but anything I can do, let me know. The trolls will be waiting for you beneath every bridge. Be armed . . . And don’t forget to keep writing yourself. If you do this, but then forget to write, you’ve only taken one step forward for the two you’ve lost.”

You cannot see the white of their teeth when the troll smiles. That’s what makes them so dangerous.

 

 

 

 

  1. Found paradise, and lost again

 

 

            “I find . . . more order and restraint in my morals than in my opinions, and my lust less depraved than my reason. ”

            Of Cruelty: Essays, Book Two, by Michel de Montaigne

 

Dad’s idea of a family vacation was to place us into a circumstance which was as alien to our everyday lives as he could afford. Not a bad idea in theory. But this inspiration was then vitiated somewhat, and thankfully, by the fact that we went back to those same places we had liked best each year after, year after year.

Most years he had two weeks of paid vacation time and he broke this into two parts, one week in mid-July and the other week in mid-August. July was spent at Harley’s Motor Camp in Easton, in a stand of stunted pine on Cape Cod. This place was composed of thirty-six ‘Roadcraft’ trailers which had been purchased new at a bankruptcy auction in 1954 by Thomas Harley, a fisherman in Wellfleet who had grown tired of the ‘wet-work’ and used an insurance settlement after Hurricane Carol to buy the trailers as well as the four acres of land in a stand of pine on a low sandy ridge in Easton. Speaking of the sand may sound like a prolixity given that this was Cape Cod, but the sand at Harley’s Camp had special qualities. It traveled on its own. It seeped. It infused. It infiltrated any fabric, all foodstuffs, and every orifice. As a consequence, from the first crunch of egg in the morning to the last gritty bit of hot dog at night, we had a sort of day-long and living example of how the gizzard functions in the chicken.

It makes no sense to go on about the glory of running headlong on a wide-open beach against a stiff ocean wind, digging ephemeral bastions against the incoming waves or spending hours at play in the churn of the surf. All that is the plain paradise of it. It is assumed. What I have had the most fun writing about through the years since is the particular resonance of a grain of sand as it catches between your molars.

The other vacation spot Dad found us for a week in August was a 10 by 12 cabin on Sebago Lake in Maine. This rustic place was also an established paradise for the Culicidae family, who always came especially to holiday on that same week, and with whom we were forced to play. Or so it seems to me in memory.

Dad went fishing, often with Eddy if he would willingly get out of bed in the dark of night. By day, Mom stayed within the screened porch and read her ‘summer’ books. I mostly remained submersed by the lake waters like a log, or moved quickly, arms cartwheeling continuously in an effort to separate myself from the friendly visitations of our flying neighbors. For that week I stank of insect repellant and wandered aimlessly as a feral child amongst the ferns and the lichen. Except, of course, when Dad insisted on taking me fishing as well, which required getting up before dawn and stumbling across the pine roots in the dark. At noon we would use our daily allotted quarter to purchase the world’s thinnest hamburger, a coke in a small thick green bottle, and an ice cream sandwich that melted faster than it could be consumed. (A side note: to my mind, this meal still ranks as one of the finest achievements of civilization.)

The single commonality of these two experiences, excepting sunlight and water, was the pine trees. Forever since, no place can be a vacation spot unless there are pine trees. The rest is optional.

But it was from this meager evidence I took a certain sense of what Paradise was, or should be.

 

In 1976 I had an idea for a movie. Though the whole exercise was a botch from the beginning, I learned a little something from the effort worth telling.

I had just read a novel by Elizabeth Boyer about the historical castaway Marguerite de la Rocque, who had been abandoned by her cousin, Captain Jean-Francois de La Rocque, on an island in the Atlantic, somewhere off the coast of Newfoundland. The true story had been previously retold several times by other authors, some contemporary, as well as various historians and even a poet. But given the rising feminism of that moment, the substance seemed to me to be ripe for use as the subject of a film. It was to me as mythic as any Norse saga.

To this was added the inspiration of a one-hundred-dollar bottle of Bordeaux, given to me by my publisher upon completion the previous year of The Unfortunate Happiness of Peter Brim, and still sitting unopened on a shelf in my narrow loft. The aroma of fine Bordeaux is nearly irresistible, but I was generally not fond of wine for the after-effects within my skull. The philosophy of Michel de Montaigne, as well as the person of the great humanist thinker himself, had figured heavily in that previous work and he was, of course, from Bordeaux. And then one particular night I was out of beer. The headache that followed was well earned.

The Elizabeth Boyer story was good, but failed to capture the dramatic moment I wanted for my own purpose—the make or break of civilization—so I went back to earlier sources. At this time I had yet to finish any other film script, though I had started several, and for reasons as mysterious as any, this particular tale suddenly captured my sense of something that would be ideal for such a project. A recapitulation of Eden. A reconstruction of human society from the ground up. And as well, a fundamental statement of both the differences and equalities inherent with men and women. (True, I had recently broken up with Helen Morris, and felt the loss.) But it was at heart a wonderful adventure story. Paradise lost. Love and redemption.

Michel de la Montaigne and Marguerite de la Rocque were contemporaries, so I reasoned that they might even have been familiar to one another. Very familiar, perhaps? A good thought, as her family estates were in the Aquitaine and not so far from Bordeaux. Could it be enough that they read the same books and were influenced by innovative ideas? Maybe. But women were not commonly educated at the time and we know that Michel’s father had him reading Latin before French, and schooled him in the humanist theories that were transforming the Renaissance mind at a time when the various religions of Christ were bent on destroying one another in slaughter and burning. But then I would never have let a matter of mere geography stand in the way of a good idea. And just as Montaigne, the son, was schooled by his father, the rich merchant Pierre Eyquem, to be the best of minds, Marguerite’s father had raised his only child as if she were a son.

What was known of the original event which has lingered in history was scanty enough: during the year 1541, on an early exploratory voyage to the New World, Marguerite, a cousin to the Captain, had fallen in love with one of the sailors aboard ship. When the Captain learned of this, he put her and her belongings ashore, along with a servant Damienne, likely because, as the only females, they had become disruptive influences within the close confines of the ship, or as punishment, or perhaps only to get rid of her so that he might inherit her lands. (Captain La Rocque was famously profligate and habitually in debt.) Or perhaps he actually intended to pick them up again on his return, as he testified. That is not known.

But always, the most important of facts are unknown. The history is wonderfully uncertain. We do not have a clue why Marguerite, an unmarried women of property, was aboard the ship in the first place, rather than abiding more safely at home. And whatever the cause of her presence (even first cousins sometimes married in this age), the unnamed sailor (in some accounts a man of noble birth, or an officer, but most likely a ship’s carpenter, who would be of more value to the voyage than another aristocrat or a mere female) did not take Captain La Rocque’s will as his own command, and jumped ship himself, foolishly choosing to stay behind on the island with the object of his new found passion.

What is known, or thought to be known, of the two and a half years that followed is the basis for endless legend. Marguerite became pregnant. The servant died. The carpenter died. The child died. And this historical detail, “She had shot three bears ‘as white as an egg.’ ”

 

The actual Marguerite survived, we know, rescued by Basque fishermen, and lived on long afterward, becoming famous from the recounting of her exploits, and was later a school mistress living in a family Chateau at Nontron in the Aquitaine. Not all that far from Bordeaux.

So as to be free of any restraint, I chose all of my few facts selectively from the scant record of an early and original account, the Heptaméron by Queen Marguerite of Navarre, as well as the histories by François de Belleforest and André Thévet, but admittedly I was greatly influenced by the novel by Ms. Boyer.

The evil Captain Jean-Francois de la Rocque’s previously unprincipled life had been much aided by his friendship with King Francis I, who had granted him a Royal charter for his explorations as Lieutenant General of New France. For a time he had been a successful corsair and adventurer (pirate) against Spain and England but recently converted to Calvinism at the time of the incident I was focused upon, and was struggling to live within the strict moral code of his new philosophy. He apparently may have even been an early Huguenot martyr at the time of the St. Bartholomew Massacre of Protestants by Catholics. The undercurrents of the story were fine.

I imagined then that La Rocque himself had first seduced his young and rebellious cousin Marguerite and brought her on the voyage as his mistress. For her part, as an individual of personal independence in a time where no legal rights were possible to a woman without a husband, she had come along at the Captain’s convenience as well as to escape some measure of shame and family ire. Perhaps she was hoping for a marriage performed by the Franciscan priest aboard. Her falling in love with the ship’s carpenter, Pierre, on that long voyage had been unfortunate happenstance.

Pierre, I thought, should be a good man, and fair, but unschooled beyond the ways of wood. Not a thinker, but intrigued by the mysteries of thought from the lips of a beautiful woman he calls ‘Peggy.’ A handsome man with a sense of adventure and the physical prowess to do whatever he thought necessary, not destined to be a drudge in a small village. His shining youth would have been a great attraction over the older scarred and battered body of La Rocque. The simpler philosophies of wood must have been charming to her ears.

It might have been jealous rage, and least the counsel of the priest, which had made La Rocque caste Marguerite away on the island, along with the evidence of his own immorality. But at this, it was more like the devil casting Adam and Eve ‘into’ the garden of Eden.

Unfortunately, there is no paradise on earth.

Against contradictory historical conjectures in favor of various smaller islands nearer the mainland where survival alone for even a year would be problematic because of weather as well as the native tribes who hunted there, I chose Sable Island as the more probable place for this Paradise. A sandy crescent-shaped spit of land over twenty-five miles long and little more than a mile wide, this shoal which is almost two hundred miles from the mainland of Nova Scotia had fascinated me before and still does, like a Pacific atoll lost and adrift out of place. If in fact Captain La Rocque had hoped at all to return, he would have chosen such a location already known to him on his charts and a more likely spot to find again. But the great fogs caused by the Gulf Stream meeting the Labrador current at that ocean crest had hidden the island on his return months later. He might have even given misdirection afterward so that no others might find his cousin until her fate was sealed and obscured by tides and weather.

Warm enough due to those same ocean currents, Sable Island has fresh water, even today. A quantity enough to support wildlife. And trees enough in those days, though low in height. The place is barren now, having been ravaged through hundreds of years of abuse by fishermen in need of firewood and the predations of ‘wreckers’ who preyed on the ships that foundered in those shallows. I supposed it to be like a smaller Cape Cod, shell-girt within the shoal-frilled skirt of the sea, a place familiar enough to me, but without the tourists and the traffic. Importantly, it also gave me the use of fog. I have always loved fog as a background for both good and evil, mistakes and discoveries; melodramatic in its special effects, yet real and truly terrifying, as anyone ever lost in one alone can testify.

The conflict between the sexes as they struggle with the isolation of their circumstance becomes the deeper story. If they are to survive they must come to terms with this new place and themselves. Food and water must be found amidst the grassy dunes and scrub. Great auks, flightless, are caught and cooked and eaten. Shelter made.

Peggy, at once, is inspired by her circumstance and relishes her newfound independence. Without the oversight of convention, and to the consternation and pleasure of the ever willing Pierre, her unfettering is quickly complete. She runs naked on the beach as far as her breath can take her, just as she had dreamed of doing since childhood. The servant, Damienne, more used to her reduced role in life, preserves her modesty longer and thus represents the tendency of those who have less to hold tight to what little they have.

But there is a darker presence in paradise. And it is not the bear. But that darkness is exposed finally when the white bear is shot (only one of these, an enormous beast that had drifted too far south on sea ice flows and then swum to the island sometime before the castaways). After all, I had decided the other bears were counted by exaggeration in the retelling of the terrible confrontation. (One was sufficient.) I even played there with a recapitulation of Robinson Crusoe’s finding of Friday’s footprint, as Peggy first discovers the great bear’s pawmark in the sand. Its grunts in the night as it seeks their larder are likened to the devil by Damienne, who fears that what her mistress had done has brought forth the beast, even as Peggy and Pierre make love nearby.

Damienne learns to forage for greens and blueberries and the eggs of birds, traps seal pups on a cord and chases pell-mell after the flightless auks, tackling them in her arms and wringing their necks. Her natural quiet is broken by the telling of folk tales, often scary and horrific, as she manages ways to cook, using shells at the fire. Pierre, who had first built a hut only against the winds, transforms this at Peggy’s urging into a small home with driftwood from wrecks and by using the stunted pine and spruce and larch that grow there, playing the harder wood against the soft.

Marguerite is the only one familiar with the use of the arquebus, one of her father’s guns which she had packed for the voyage to a New World wilderness rather than additional clothes. She learned to shoot pheasant on her father’s estate in France, when she had been responsible for reloading the guns between firings. Now she shoots puffins and seals. In the critical moment, it is that finesse that allows her to kill the white beast of a bear with a second shot as it chases her in the fog.

Now afraid of using up the remaining powder, Peggy becomes overly careful after the confrontation with the bear, not knowing what else might be lurking there. Fear has come to paradise. When winter arrives, they are more often confined to the close quarters of their shelter by foul weather. Peggy and Damienne’s remaining clothes have tattered and they dress themselves for warmth now with the shredded remains of cloth woven with the skins and feathers of the animals they are able to kill for food. They look more like Indians.

I imagined then, in the howl of winter, that Damienne would seek Pierre for comfort against the cold. And the carpenter, always resourceful, and a randy fellow in his own right, had finally seduced the servant maid. Then the politics of survival between two women and a single man becomes more acute. An even more elemental contest.

Inevitably, with spring, just as Peggy’s cousin Jean-Francois had cast her away for succumbing to Pierre, she rejects Damienne in turn, banishing her from their compound at the point of a gun. Marguerite is now pregnant and worries for her own well-being and that of the child. Semi-heroic Pierre attempts to defend and provide for them both (and to have his cake and eat it too) by building a second shelter. But the effort fails its purpose. He is now in love with Damienne.

An uneasy truce is made. The baby is born, with Damienne there to aid in the delivery. But that done, the jealousy arises again, and now more fiercely as Peggy understands a need to defend her child.

One evening, Peggy comes home from hunting and discovers Damienne with Pierre once more, and her baby neglected in a cold crib. Damienne is made to leave once more. But by then the weather is already turning toward their second winter on the island.

The auks are now gone and the seals have left for better shelter. Food becomes scarce beneath the snows. In desperate hunger, one deep chilled and moon-bright night, Damienne returns, seeking food from the larder. Marguerite, suddenly awakened, shoots her, perhaps only by mistake, thinking it might be another bear. But then, as Pierre attempts to stop the murder, he too is killed. The last of the gunpowder has been used or spoiled. Marguerite is finally the only witness to her trial.

Unable to care for the baby and also hunt for food, the child is soon lost as well. When discovered by the Basque fisherman she is half-mad, naked and emaciated. Her found paradise had become her hell. The baby is buried in its crib with only the rocking handle which had lovingly been carved by Pierre, to be seen above the drift of sand. The rusted arquebus is broken into a cross above the one grave for both Pierre and Damienne.

 

Richard Herman was an independent filmmaker and director then living in New York. He had spent several years filming offBroadway plays for some theatre archive which was supported by the National Endowment and was tired of getting nowhere close to Hollywood. We had met at a party, and when I thought the original script was complete, I called him for some advice as to where to take it. He suggested immediately that I bring it to his office on lower Broadway. We ended up talking through an entire night and eating bagels and coffee for breakfast together while sitting on a park bench one April morning on the East River, over by Brooklyn Bridge. The sun comes up there with the Manhattan Bridge behind in such a way you’ll want to write a story that takes place right on that spot, just for that backdrop. Just like John Ford used Monument Valley.

Briefly, I think, we both thought we had found what we were looking for.

We managed to visit Sable Island twice that summer while staying at an old brick hotel in Halifax, and scouted out a smaller island closer to Nova Scotia with sufficient trees to use for necessary scenes. In the meantime Richard had already begun his queries.

At first there appeared to be some interest. But then there were immediate objections, once the script was submitted to the appropriate authorities at the Canadian Film Board. They didn’t like the idea of three actors running around half-naked on the grassy dunes of their National Trust. (I had even doctored those scenes which contained full nudity, already aware of the possibility of there being some problem with the naked human body as opposed to a sequence of some hoodlum blowing the brains out of a cop on the streets of Toronto as you might remember from one or another film they had okayed the same year). And then some bureaucrat for the Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau, suggested that the randy sailor’s name had been chosen for political reasons. The Canadian Film Board rejected the project. Finally, Richard got a last minute teaching position at NYU. He’s there yet today.

I had written the screenplay during a few weeks of 1976. There was no other interest to any of my own queries over the following year. I re-wrote it in 1977. And again in 1978. These were the years of Star Wars and Saturday Night Fever. At the time, Annie Hall better represented the ‘new’ woman, it seemed, than my resourceful Peggy. David Lynch’s Eraserhead better captured the zeitgeist than my petty Paradise Lost.

 

 

 

  1. Our Hatrack; or righting writes

 

 

Pornography, you might think, went away as an important matter for argument in civilized countries about the time H.L. Mencken got himself arrested on Boston Common in the Hatrack case in 1924. You’d be wrong. Limits upon speech and the press have increased greatly in our time. Libel laws have proliferated to protect the entrenched. Copyright laws have been expanded to enlarge the inheritance of royalties by third cousins twice-removed. It is easier to find a 19th century novel today by Wilkie Collins than a 20th century title by Henry Green. Even patent law has been drawn upon to inhibit the use of particular words, which are now ‘owned.’ And whole religions have been singled out as beyond the pale of criticism. And races too. I have learned that the hard way.

Inspired by the best parts of Henry Miller and Erskine Caldwell when I was still young, I did try my hand (so to speak) at writing a little of a softer variety or porn, but it was a waste of time. Just too little satisfaction, or gratification for that matter. I am at once too Catholic to enjoy the form and too agnostic to think is worth the effort.

I don’t doubt, if we had ever received anything at The Fore-edge as well written as Herbert Asbury’s fictional memoir about a small town Missouri prostitute, we would have grabbed it. But in Mencken’s time, even the innuendo of illicit sex could get your publication removed from the newsstands and libraries. This much, at least, is no longer the case, and thus our times offer fewer opportunities in that regard to the resourceful publisher looking for new ways to increase sales. Simply using words forbidden by the arbiters of the politically correct does not draw the animal interest in the same way as a bit of bodice busting.

Today, sexually explicit material is welcomed into the pages of what once were know as ‘family’ magazines, and the politically incorrect thought is banned instead. And this truth was in fact the influence to my own thinking at that time as I looked for ways to reach a larger audience and maybe get a few extra dollars out of our few advertisers at the The Fore-edge. Sales had leveled off at about forty-five thousand per issue on a print run of seventy-six. Big enough to sell the back page to a publisher and a scattering of single column advertising spaces but seldom much more. Only break-even most months.

Nevertheless, The Fore-edge did manage to get itself ‘Banned in Boston.’ At least temporarily.

Unlike the Mencken arrest, which was staged for the purpose of upholding the First Amendment, our kerfuffle never reached a full court address. And whereas you can still print the word ‘nigger’ in context, you cannot speak it. The First Amendment now has footnotes. And in Boston, whereas you may criticize the Kennedy family out loud so long as no more ears are present than can fill a typical tavern, you must be careful what you print.

In the October issue, 1974, we ran a novella ‘An Appearance of Jack’ in The Fore-edge which was purportedly by an estranged member of the Kennedy family, namely one Richard “Dick” Kennedy, the illegitimate son of Joseph P. Kennedy and a New York chorus girl. In our story, the aptly named ‘Dick’, a ne’er do well doppelganger who looked uncannily like his half-brother Jack, has finally been taken into the family fold, not as a lost son (as he himself believed at first) but as a stand in, a body double, impersonator, food taster and the one to take the bullet when the time came.

At the time, the controversy over the Kennedy assassination had grown to hundreds of books and thousands of theories. All of it appeared as farce to me. None of what we the public knew made much sense, but the truth, already more than ten years old, would likely never be known and every new ‘fact’ was suspect, given the time allowed for delicate fabrication. Worse, all sorts of more sordid details were surfacing from various former employees and ostensible ‘friends’ of the Kennedy clan. I thought the situation was ripe for satire and pastiche.

In the White House ‘safe rooms,’ our hero Dick must fulfill the wishes of an endless parade of interns and movie stars young and old, while his drugged and impotent half-brother ineffectually manages the affairs of state. When his Midwestern accent is questioned by one particular Hollywood actress, he is caught at cannily mimicking Jack by one of the presidential advisors and then is used repeatedly on ‘bad’ days, to actually deliver speeches for the President to the media as well. When the President is not up for the travel, Dick must go to the lesser locals in the President’s stead, and he is often kept at the ready to stand-in when the President’s back is bothering him.

By such happenstance, Dick is present in Dallas on the day of the assassination and is witness to possible co-conspirators. The climax of that moment in the story occurs in a local hotel room as he is in the midst of an assignation with the female Secret Service agent who is charged with the task of making sure their doppelganger goes unnoticed (he dresses casually, wears a false mustache and parts his hair on the opposite side). But the television is on and the news breaks with the first reports concerning the murder of his half-sibling Jack. Realizing the danger, Dick finishes his immediate task with the agent and then flees the premises through a bathroom window just in time to avoid being shot by his unsatisfied keeper, and while both of them are still in the nude.

Naked flight is the template and tenor of the entire piece.

Hiding out in the unused second projection room of the Texas Theatre, eating stale popcorn and drinking flat Pepsi while watching War is Hell through an opening to the theatre below, Dick is a spectator to the capture of Lee Harvey Oswald. Dick then successfully flees Dallas entirely while dressed as a Bozo the Clown, the only clothing in the theatre storage room, and in the correct belief that his own life is at mortal risk, not from a fellow Oswald conspirator but from the Secret Service.

He does not stop there. Instead, he adopts some of the characteristic attitudes and ploys of Richard Kimble in The Fugitive, his favorite television show. Frequent references are made to the show as a source of tips for hiding from the law. Most of these ploys are unsuccessful and in fact embarrassing, but our Dick never gives up on the idea that television is a font of knowledge.

After finding refuge at a brothel in San Francisco for several years, working there as a bouncer in a place where his other unique physical attributes are even more appreciated than his good looks, Dick is accidently re-discovered one day by his half-brother Robert, who happens to be there on an ‘inspection tour’ and from whom he must flee once more, again naked, but now through the streets of Haight Ashbury, where this overexposure passes unnoticed and unremarked. Stealing damp clothes from a washing line along the way which causes him a sneezing fit and allows him to narrowly avoid a germ conscious Secret Service agent, he then cadges a beer at a bar just in time to see his other half-brother, Bobby, on live TV killed by Sirhan-Sirhan.

Other equally unlikely coincidences occur, before, and at last tired of running, he comes East to try and speak with his last surviving half-brother Edward. This is the reason why he is working on a fishing boat out of Edgartown on the night of July 18, 1969, just offshore from Chappaquiddick.

Finally, hiding out in New York and employed as a building superintendent who fixes more than leaking faucets for lonely residents, and with the authorities still in pursuit after these many years, he writes his own story down, lest the truth never be told.

The idea was a mixture of Fanny Hill and The Big Sleep—the one for its natural humor and they other for its organic confusion. I thought it was funny when I wrote it, though the trouble it caused has since made the fun of it a bit sour. I presumed a negative reaction from the editor at Playboy based on yet another bit of hagiography they published on the sainted Jack at about this time, so I decided to simply send it in to my own publication rather than shove it in the drawer with the other rejects.

However, our prohibition against publishing the work of staff members who were not assigned a specific article was in full force. So, in honor of the old master of prurience himself, Herbert Asbury, I submitted the work to The Fore-edge with a return address at a P.O. box in Asbury Park, New York. The cover letter I typed out on a Royal typewriter in a secondhand shop on Second Avenue. In my letter I asked, in a voice as pitiful as I could make it, ‘Would you please consider this story as a work of fiction? It has been rejected as a memoir by several other publications. I have lost hope in that regard. But if you might consider it simply as a fabrication, perhaps it will at last be published if only as an entertainment.’

Though I attempted to conceal my usual style by the more deliberate use of shorter sentences and a heavy Anglo-Saxon bias in the word choice, while mostly avoiding any of the rhyme I play with by habit, and totally abstaining from the use of the pronoun ‘which,’ which has always bothered so many mavens of correct usage, I still thought I would be found out before the third reader had gotten halfway through the tale. To my surprise it went the rounds on the staff, not through three but six readers before it came up at the monthly editorial meeting in April. Evidently everyone loved it. A good laugh had been had by all. The humor and satire were much appreciated. The debate became another matter entirely. It appeared that the P.O. box the author had given was closed (I thought I had made it up entirely). What were we to do? Had the author fled yet again for his life?

Of course, after suggesting that the number of sex scenes might be excessive, I voted to publish it anyway and to put the author’s payment away pending his possible reappearance.

Even in that editorial meeting I was afraid someone of the others would look me in the face, see through to my inner self by some cast of eye or turn of mouth, and identify me as the perpetrator. But it didn’t happen. Everyone was getting too big a kick out of the burlesque of the story itself.

Everyone except a Kennedy family lawyer in Boston who, rashly, attempted to have the issue withdrawn. The local distributor did in fact hold back almost half the run in the metro Boston area.

There was a hearing. And after the distributor’s lawyer practically begged for the judge to file a court order in support of the complaint, believing correctly that such action would make the issue the hottest thing in town, the complaint was dropped. Worse, none of the local papers had even bothered to send over a reporter (the First Amendment only being important when their own ox was being gored), so that the one woman from Channel Five who had decided to cover the event did not even get her two minutes on the evening news. Officially then, we were never actually ‘Banned in Boston,’ but by the time the hearing was held, the on-sale date had grown stale and we got back the covers from the dealers for credit on three-quarters of the five thousand copies shipped to Boston anyway.

 

 

 

 

  1. My Alma Mahler

 

 

I often miss my late night arguments with Peter Rabinowitz. They were an education for me, and I have often fallen asleep recalling our back and forth. He was more than a friend. In spite of my disagreement with so many of the principles that he held to so dear, I can say that he was a good and honest and generous man and an exemplary human being. Honesty I count as the chief among those attributes. When faced with an agreed fact of history, such as the collusion between Stalin and Hitler in 1939, he could admit the wrong-headedness of this while arguing vociferously for the mistaken need, given the time and place.

He had himself seen the hard edge of the Holocaust as a G.I. doctor entering into the devastation of Germany in 1945. His opinions about the necessity to end the very causes for war were heartfelt. He would readily admit the failures of socialism, but always proscribe a specific remedy, which was in keeping with his philosophy. Often he would say, before the words were out of my mouth, “And don’t give me any of your Orwell. 1984 will never be. Not here. Orwell was always a man of the left! Always remember, in the end, he would agree with me!”

And I would have to repeat, “Yes. He was. But at least he saw the great flaw in his ideals. Even if he was a socialist.”

In warm months, sitting out in the garden of an evening with our drinks balanced on the cement pedestal of the birdbath, the arguing would often draw a crowd from the windows across the alley and occasionally an added comment here or there would rain down on us and Peter would look back up at the source, silhouetted against the light in a room, and answer without hesitation.

“The FBI had a file on me! I know this for a fact!” Or another time “You can’t compare Roosevelt to Stalin. Roosevelt was not a dictator!”

Peter loved Roosevelt, but he loved this sort of exchange more. He was a man who really needed an audience, even if it was just a single patient.

A common thread of our discussion ranged around the supposed differences between socialism and communism and fascism. Peter insisted that fascism was a right wing phenomenon.

I always countered with some simple statement to the effect of, “National Socialism had every principle in common with the socialist parties of England, France, Italy, and the United States, with the one difference being the use of nationalism as a catalyst. “

In most left wing circles, given their fawn prior to that calamity, fascism had apparently only gotten a bad name out of World War Two. This really wasn’t fair. Not so far as the typecasting goes. For a want of state management and authoritarian rule over the lives of the individual citizen, which fascism so well represented, the philosophy was a common ideal in Western intellectual circles for the first third of the twentieth century. Efficiency alone apparently dictated the need, and it was argued by intellects as widespread as John Dewey and Bertrand Russell. Individuals doing their own thing was obviously a very wasteful and messy process. ‘Scientific management,’ as it was often described, would be better for all.

Peter loved to quote Gandhi on much of this. Another of his heroes.

‘All land belongs to Gopal, where then is the boundary line? Man is the maker of that line and he can therefore unmake it.’

Perversely, I would often call upon the socialist spirits of Margaret Sanger and her Planned Parenthood devotees who had first dreamed up the dark reality behind Aldous Huxley’s nightmare Brave New World with the ideal of eliminating the weak-minded and ‘inferior races’ through birth control. Or of Woodrow Wilson, who waxed eloquently of a new world order and called upon enlightened scholarship—mostly his own—to redefine the inequities and inefficiencies of the Constitution.

Given the news at the time, I asserted that, “All liberals had a kind of Stockholm Syndrome based on their own adaption to captivity and could not imagine mankind’s survival without Big Brother.”

Peter would groan loudly then in sorrow at my unredeemability.

I remember, in my debates with Peter, recalling the ignominy of the New York Times and their reporter Walter Duranty who had gone to the Soviet Union in 1932 just as Stalin’s economic policies starved a nation into submission, and then come back, like Lincoln Steffens before him, to extol the wonder of a future that ‘worked.’

However, one particular argument with Peter Rabinowitz still rings loudly. I have set aside this most controversial issue of our times until now, knowing that it will be a last straw to many readers—a matter which, until the last decades of the twentieth century would have been beyond debate but which has since traveled from one end of the scale to the other in the balance of things—from anathema to even consider, to anathema to re-consider. Even if they quit on me now, at least those who have gotten this far will better know some of my past and might appreciate that much sufficiently to re-read a few of my works now in this age of the e-book. Maybe.

Abortion is, in truth, the zeitgeist of our age, and there is little I can say about the subject which will be listened to by those who do not permit themselves to examine the sadness of the fact. Because I have argued this case so often before, I am certain that few of those who believe in this modern sacrament as a key symbol of female competence will be interested in debate and those who are appalled by it do not need my few words to fester the wounds. But in the early 1970s such debate was still common.

And one of the key matters of contention then was that the philosophical predicate for abortion was the same as that for euthanasia and suicide.

My dear friends Mr. and Mrs. Rabinowitz are now long gone. In keeping with their philosophy, the timing of this exit was their own choice. I would not have physically stopped them, if I could. I might have begged them to reconsider, but undoubtedly Peter would have brushed away my objections with some titbit like ‘There are too many people in the world as it is.’ This was a favorite rejoinder of his. And I would answer, ‘But there are not enough people such as yourself and Phyllis.’

Peter and I had this argument more than once, but once particularly I remember, on a sultry evening in Brooklyn, beneath a pearly xanthic moon, while sitting in that back garden on Carroll Street. And I am reminded here of something Phyllis Rabinowitz told me about her first encounters with Peter.

“He came in once with a sprained ankle. Then a mashed finger. Then a bruised toe. And then an infected cut. He worked his shifts there and would then hang around the hospital tent as closely as one of the guards, just to walk me back through the camp every evening, staring down the wolf whistles. He wouldn’t leave me alone. If I said I was going somewhere, he would say ‘That’s a coincidence, I’m on the way to the commissary too.’ Or whatever it was.

“We were in England then. I was transferred twice during the war. Both times closer to the front, where nurses were most in need. He had a medical degree but he was a psychologist. He could have stayed back to care for the psychologically wounded. But he would turned up at the same place I was within a week. Both times. Pulled strings the army didn’t even know it had. And then he came around with a bullet wound himself. It was from a sniper, but still. I told him I would marry him if he would just stop injuring himself just so that he could see me. I figured once it was done he would get tired of me and then I would have some time to myself again. I was wrong.”

I remember the call from Peter’s lawyer telling me of their deaths. The fact of it was incomprehensible. Had they been struck by a truck somewhere on Interstate 95 in the Carolinas on their way home, I would not have been so shocked. Evidently, Phyllis had a deteriorating heart condition. The account of a friend they had notified, who found them in bed together after they had taken the pills, seemed not the “peaceful” end that the lawyer described, but to me a gruesome twist on the love they had for each other. I wondered, had they looked into each other’s eyes, as I had seen them do so many times, and known that they were accepting the death of the person they loved most in the world? Surely. Then how can that be? Why not fight to the last breath? Why not just make love instead?

 

I wrote a magazine article in January 1973, concerning the Roe v. Wade decision. I opposed it as clearly and reasonably as I could. I didn’t even attempt humorous asides given the topic. But because of the general hubbub of the moment, my small voice was pretty much unheard. I suppose I should have been more strident or at least ironic and sardonic, if not histrionic, drama being the key to calling attention, not reason.

Not long ago some genius discovered how to use his LexisNexis search engine and directed his wormy academic eyes on me. He promptly rediscovered my criticism of the Supremes (the judges, not the singers) in that ancient time and added that titbit to a larger tirade against my work, accusing me of being against “a woman’s right to choose.” In plainer words, an ‘anti-abortionist.’ This latter designation I would have accepted quietly. But the former is a misapplication of a falsehood—a sort of double negative.

Still, today, the question I argued then to Peter is begged: “How could a general prohibition common to all humanity, upheld by the customs of every known society for thousands of years and an acknowledged religious tenet for the entirety of our recorded history, be finally overturned in less than a decade, eliminated by a mere court (worse, only a part of that court) and then be accepted by the general public with relatively minor protest? How strong is the moral fiber of human society after all?”

He had countered, “We can commit murder at Mai Lai in the midst of a bloody war and still distinguish between a homicide and a battle death. As strong as that!”

I offered, “Our society is clearly not of sound mind, though I want to believe it has good intentions. In spite of the death of countless millions of unborn children, their murder was generally done in a true faith that it was for the good, and in the same way we accept the casualties of war.”

His voice rose up with his back straightened from the chair, “Is every soldier who kills a murderer? Is every woman who aborts her child a killer? The equation of war with abortion is too much!”

“But it is in fact the heart of the matter.”

Peter would squirm in his chair over this.

Phyllis would lay her book closed on her lap and comment if we gave her a pause.

“Can we forgive Jefferson for owning slaves? I think not. Can we see how that allowance was the very thing that led to the slaughter and horror of the Civil War?”

I wondered then whose side she was on. She never said.

I allowed for the drift of the conversation as some relief.

“But can we still agree that Jefferson’s intentions were better than his acts? That his intelligence was extraordinary? That his rationalization of the despicable act of slavery is still inexcusable, and I believe, beyond question. Though three-quarters of the world in his time allowed slavery to exist, we know from his own words that he knew the wrong of it. He wrote that. And not just as some intellectual exercise, but as a matter of the blood and sweat of his own life.”

The look on Peter’s face was often, ‘There is so much forgiving to do, and so little time.’

 

 

I came to appreciate the music of Mahler only lately. It may have been inevitable, given my progression from the dense but accessible work of Beethoven and the easier delights of Chopin. I had ranged through most of the major romantic repertoire. I could visit the classical measures of Mozart on a summer afternoon or Bach in the morning, but I was always ready to be with my favorites at night and finally, with the internet opening up, the chance to see them all as they are performed, I listened again. But still Mahler had eluded me. I had mentally placed him too close to the lengthy and more repetitive music of Bruckner, and along side the windy stentorian Wagner, whom I still can’t stand. Mahler simply required a commitment of time.

Suddenly I was out of work. The shop was closed. And the time was mine. It was then that the great conductor Mariss Jansons gave a present to me with his wonderful renditions of Mahler’s second and third symphonies. Watching Jansons’ face as he opens the package of each work is more than sufficient to call your attention to what you might have overlooked before. And building on that, I discovered the conducting of Claudio Abbado and his sublime renditions of the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh. Now the resulting addiction is my cocaine.

The discovery, or rediscovery by me, of that composer felt like a hurdle had finally been passed. I had somehow graduated from the insistent need to reach an end—a climax. All very sexual, I’m sure. I had never been given to forcing a story to its finale. I like to dawdle over the parts as much as the next man. But the restraint of Mahler was a true study in self-control. (But of course, he had Alma to dawdle over!)

I think now that my problem with Mahler, with the fact that he was in no rush to tell his story, my have been felt by me to have been a subtle critique of my own work. I may have taken some subliminal negative comment from it at first and turned way. Hadn’t Gerard Strauss warned me of this—told me I needed patience with my writing? Now that I am older, and slower myself in every way, I have caught up to the great composer and I hear Gerard’s voice in my ear.

I still remember Peter Rabinowitz listening to the Leonard Bernstein recordings of Mahler, with Peter getting up every half an hour or so to turn the record over or put on the next, and with the sound of his slippers sighing on the floor above my head during the silence between. On summer days the waft of the musical passages would drift from the open windows of his living room, one wonderous small melody after another, with the transitions swallowed in the city noise, so that you might think there was a street band passing somewhere near.

Most interestingly, it was Mahler who was the cause of the only full-scale argument I ever heard between Peter and Phyllis. And I listened to every bit of that, enchanted.

This was not the kind of expletive-laced fury I was familiar with from my childhood, or that you sometimes unexpectedly encounter in public. The subject was Mahler’s marriage. It was easy for me to interpret some ‘transference’—a word Peter loved to use—in the cause of their disagreement. Vehemence was only clear from the way words were tossed.

The squabble ended with, “He used her. He kept her from writing her own music!”

“If she had anything to say in music, she would have done it! Artistic expression is a force of nature! Look what Mahler went through to achieve what he did!”

“She was busy caring for the children—“

“She had nurses! They always had nurses. And housekeepers! One reason he had to work so hard. To pay the cook!”

“He forbade her! He made her come with him wherever he went. He was a tyrant. A sex maniac!”

My ears stood on ends that they do not have. I awaited Peter’s response.

Finally, “Well, if I had been married to Alma Mahler, I might have been a sex maniac myself.”

Quiet.

In my mind I could see the hint of a smile on Peter’s face. I saw Phyllis turn away from that, momentarily defeated.

This is something like watching Magdalena Kozena sing the solo part in Mahler’s 4th with Claudio Abbado’s great Luzern Orchestra. Her eyes wide. Her heart exposed in her voice. Even while the words themselves are silly, as opera can often be, the music is pure. And the words are only the vehicle for this. And I am reminded of this and of the fact that I could never let my temper rage with Sarah. She would defeat me with a look of hurt that was always heartrending. She would manage this when I least expected it, just as I was winding up my argument and readying to bellow. My feet always came out from beneath me instead. My words sounding foolish in my head.

 

 

 

 

  1. Like Stupid on a Stick

 

 

There is that blessed stupidity that gets you by, if you are fortunate, and allows you to survive with little more than skinned shins after letting your bike gain too much speed on the downhill at Broadway, nothing but black ice beneath your tires, and the intersection at L Street dead ahead. (Prematurely dead being more what you expected of yourself when you were ten.) It is the kind of stupidity you can wake up with one perfect morning forty years later when you think it is Sunday and you have no responsibility to any man or woman more than yourself, and your responsibility to God may be postponed yet again until your inevitable born again experience at a more appropriate age when death might be closer, or at least more nearly lurking, but not here in the sweet sun that spills right out on your bed like it used to when you were a kid and your mother opened the curtains to get you up and then she went away long enough for you to wallow in the blankets. But this time the buttery light is coming from the window you never closed last night (you were that drunk) and you stretch with the sheer pleasure of it and enjoy the warmth as if it’s summer and not fall with winter dead ahead, and not like Broadway was that once you were just dreaming about, and that jolt of memory jogs another, and then another, and then, suddenly, you know in a single chilled spasm, your eyes suddenly wide open, that it is not Sunday after all but Saturday and you are due—overdue—for the meeting that you yourself arranged with Dr. Ted because he doesn’t charge you for the checkup if you come in on Saturday mornings, and then you feel that slight discomfort between your legs again that you’ve felt several times before and tried to ignore until this week when you finally called and he said he’d meet you at his office at nine and now it’s already ten. Jesus!

The three novellas, written in the second person, which constituted Like Stupid on a Stick and were together entitled that after a phrase my friend Zeph often used as a term of art when we were caught doing something we should not have even been thinking about, were written years apart and gathered after the fact to complete the contract I had then with Random House. I liked that story form in short doses, a sort of belligerent one-way conversation with myself during which I could not answer, and I hoped that by combining several stories of a very different nature (though each of them intended to be humorous) that the more visceral experience of a second person narrative might hold up for the reader.

The boy, Gary, in the first story, may be considered innocent until proven guilty, and the young man, Dave, in the second, may earn the benefit of the doubt for trying to do the right thing in the wrong way, but I did not give the third character, Steve, the redeeming quality of good intentions. He was old enough to know better. His predicament between two women might have made him pitiful, but the serial catastrophe of his life must be considered his own doing or it would not have been funny.

The book appeared shortly after Christmas, with a publication date of January 15, 1987, and disappeared from shelves by the time the Spring List books were shipped in February. The lead story, an erstwhile comedy of errors, with my proto hero, Gary, on his bike delivering newspapers as I had done for a time in 1957 and 1958, and trying to get the attention of the daughter of one of his customers, was actually inspired just as much by an incident that occurred more than ten years later when I was driving in Brookline, Massachusetts early one winter morning, in my father’s car (I had borrowed it with his permission that particular time). Until that occurrence, the first had been safely sublimated.

On that later date it had snowed just a little during the night and I hit the ice beneath that skim frosting while coming down Summit Avenue and was out of control for at least a hundred yards. There were no other cars parked there, so the wagging of the rear end of that big Ford Crown Vic bearing against my attempts to steer was inhibited only by the curbstones. All the houses and apartments along the way are close-in to the street and make a trough of it with only a short segment of the street ahead then visible to me. One lone pedestrian on the sidewalk stopped in his tracks and stared as I slipped by. The traffic light below me on Beacon Street was red. I could even hear the trolley ringing the bell as it passed over the street crossing a block away. Traffic along there flows in waves as each light changes and I was certain to meet a phalanx of commuters in a hurry when I reached the bottom. I was not so worried about killing some stockbroker in a BMW as I was about hitting a mother in a minivan loaded with kids on the way to school. After having committed a mortal sin, more than once, during the night before, and feeling no remorse, I instantly determined to accept my punishment for those more worthy offenses first and figured it was better to hit a telephone pole than a trolley in any case and attempted to work myself in that direction, pulling against the heavy invisible hand of the power steering, toward the light post at the near corner, all the while with my grip on the steering wheel tight as I pressed repeatedly on the horn with my thumbs to warn anyone away who might not just stop in their tracks and stare, and with my stomach muscles already stiff in a pre-death rigor mortis . . . but I missed it. The car spun completely around, front to back, and came to a halt right on the tracks at the crossing. The trolley too had stopped short, right there next to me, with the driver looking down from his window in disgust. The phalanx of commuters abused their horns. I had hit nothing. Not even the old lady who was now standing next to the post I had missed and was scolding me loudly in the morning air for the fool I was.

This was the moment when I re-remembered the first instance of being out of control and expecting to die after an attempt to show my superior braking ability on my bike while delivering papers, and which fiasco had resulted in my sliding directly beneath the wheels of a car. The car belonged to the father of the girl I was trying to impress. He had stopped in time, however, and his daughter wanted nothing more to do with me, from thence forward, though my efforts did not cease until her affections had been won by Marty Gruber. Marty was junior varsity and ended up with a scholarship to Notre Dame.

I have relived both those moments many times since, most probably because they were such clear-cut instances of my stupidity while most the other causes of the calamities I have survived are obscure to me still. And these moments are always relived like a film shot using the viewpoint of a subjective camera.

The ‘subjective camera’ aspect of the second person viewpoint has become common again with video games, and that is as good and effective a use as any you will likely find. Seeing the action of a film through the eyes of a key player, thus making that actor themselves invisible except when reflected in a mirror or in a pool of water, has a way of bringing the viewer right into the action, much in the manner of the second person narrative, and just as exhausting when carried on at length. I have long admired the process and had always thought very highly of the Robert Montgomery attempt with Chandler’s Lady in the Lake since first seeing it on television as a kid (even though that production had not in fact been a success with the public and thus I should have been forewarned).

When a young fellow approached me in 1994 with the idea of doing a short film of Like Stupid on a Stick using the ‘subjective camera’ throughout so as to cut down on the expense of at least one cast member, I thought the idea had merit. I knocked out a screenplay accordingly. And the ‘second person’ viewpoint of the story was not only readymade for subjective camera, it was also a fine way to avoid having to find an adequate child actor. I detest most child actors.

I think I sold myself on the idea better than the filmmaker did.

You can usually blame your stupidity on someone else, though living alone makes that a little more difficult, if only by degree. Doing the same stupid thing twice is a special preference I have. I like to think it helps me to avoid the third time.

I had a very exciting meeting with the fellow who wanted to make the film (we will call him Ron), in a loft in Tribeca within expensive surroundings of exposed steel girders and glass where he had a rehearsal set just waiting for my okay and a short video presentation ready to show me the methods he intended to use. His girlfriend, always present, was going to play the foil in the piece, the character of a woman who is on the beach each day, scantily clad and unattended, and has drawn the attention of the boys as well as that of the unfaithful husband and father of the girl that my near-hero Gary is enchanted with and she had all the attributes of the sort of fantasy I had imagined (I had done away with the junior varsity quarterback as too much of a cliché and added the element of an older woman to better reflect the sexual awakening of the boys). Ron had estimated a shooting schedule and had gone so far as to make preliminary contacts with some of the various film festivals where the piece might be shown the following year to get traction for a limited theatrical release. It all looked like fun.

The contract I signed with the filmmaker called for an initial payment of $1000. Little enough. I understood in advance that it was a seat of the pants and shoestring sort of thing. It was kind of neat to be a part of something like that again. But weeks passed and the check never arrived and the phone number I had, which no one ever answered after that initial meeting, was soon disconnected. On closer inspection of the agreement I saw that there was no specific time stated for that initial payment to be made, only that it would be the first of several—the others amounting to one percent of any gross sales receipts. But the contract quite explicitly gave all film, stage or other visual presentation rights for the work to the filmmaker nonetheless. And my signature was at the bottom.

I went back over to Tribeca and discovered that the place I had visited was only a studio for hire, week-to-week, and often used by theatre companies. The building manager there had a forwarding address for the filmmaker (actually for the girlfriend, who, the manager thoughtfully informed me, was the source of the one and only rent check he had received). That address was for a post office box in Hollywood, California. I sent a letter there. And then, assuming the worst, I contacted my old friend from The Gist, Doug ‘aka’ Morris. Hollywood was his stomping grounds, after all. Aka said he’d have his secretary look into it, and then told me I should have contacted him first with the script. I reminded him he had rejected the last few I had sent him. He didn’t apologize.

The young filmmaker soon turned up peddling my script around tinsel town with his own name on it. According to the account I heard from Doug’s secretary, who had been present at the time, Doug had physically removed the script from Ron’s hands and told him he should keep his nose clean. (I had memories of Doug in The Gist offices having a conniption over some distribution screw-up or another when he had physically lifted his Steelcase desk and turned it on its side in the air to shake out some loose change that had fallen behind a drawer so he could buy himself a drink). ‘Aka’ had also demanded the contract from Ron that I had stupidly signed, which he got back as well. I believed this much of the tale because Doug often used phrases like ‘Keep your nose clean.’ I suppose that has a bit more resonance in Hollywood.

Perversely, Doug read my short script then himself and liked it. But he wanted me to expand it for a feature length.

Because the original story, drawn from those days when I used to tag along with Zeph Thomas and involving a bunch of near-teenage boys living out the last best summer of their lives on the beach in South Boston, was pretty slim material by itself, I did what he asked essentially by combining it with the other two novellas in the book, offering a glimpse of what happens to the same characters as they commit the same mistakes over and again as adults. The tobogganing of my father’s Crown Victoria down Summit Avenue follows Gary’s disastrously successful first sexual encounter which reflects the entire status of his life. To this I added the get-rich-quick debacle of the third story but reworked the ending so that Gary had a chance to start over and make the same mistakes again or pick up the pieces of his catastrophes and try to make them whole. I left that ending open for the audience to make their own judgment about whether he had learned enough from his defeats. However, this reworking was a tiresome project that took several months to complete because I was in the middle of something else at the time.

After that, Doug tried to get some interest in this new script over several years, presenting it to at least a dozen of “his closest friends,” before finally giving up on the idea that anyone would ever want to make a film about of a bunch of guys being so habitually stupid. And Doug never paid the $1000 either, but then again, we never had a written contract.

The truth of the matter, that it is human nature to commit every mistake at least twice before we successfully blame the results of our stupidity on something or someone else and then move on to the next thing, is just one more theme I have to work on again someday. I am well aware that we seldom pick up the pieces.

 

I do not believe I am as stupid now as I once was. Perhaps that is delusion. But over time, and learning as I went along, my philosophy has become a version of my father’s. Perhaps this was always the case, but with my own nose before me, I was unaware of it. I have thus evolved these rules:

I am no better than I am made to be by the things I love. I must make my business out of those things and kick the ass of anyone who wants to mind my business for me.

People are no better than they have to be. They are not inherently good any more than they are inherently smart enough to ride a bike with caution on a hill when their minds are on other matters.

By the use of numbers a person can build a bomb or rationalize any evil, from justifying the enslavement of other human beings to the self-righteous annihilation of Jews or Armenians, or Ibos or Hutus.

By the chanting of their dogma loud enough, a person may be deafened to the cries of the child they slaughter, and by the bright colors of the flag they wave, they may be blinded to the eyes of the dead.

If people choose to be governed by others, they will be no better than those who rule them, and if there is no one to govern the rulers, those people will inevitably be bad.

We learn to be what we are, good or bad or indifferent, and indifference is no better than evil.

My father would never have taken another man as a slave, and thus he is a better man by my philosophy than Thomas Jefferson, for all of that Virginian’s other genius.

Wanting to make the world better is a desire for tyranny. Wanting to make ourselves better is a worthy enough pursuit.

Because no other man, or government, or committee, can know what we love and how it is we love those things, we must be responsible for them ourselves.

If we pursue what we love, each to his own, governed only by the more golden rule that we should do unto others as we would have them do unto us, things will not be perfect, but they will be better, and in the case of most of us, more nearly the best. And the best is all we can do or hope for.

 

 

 

  1. The curious case of The Peterson Papers

 

 

The curious case of Ralph D. Peterson actually begun several months after moving into my apartment on Avenue A. The box of books which had been abandoned by that previous tenant were a fair stratum of the paperback revolution in the mid-1960’s, but they were mostly garbage, or had been turned to garbage by the work of the countless cockroaches which left their tobacco stain trails at every opening and nibbled at almost any edge. There were, however, four books which had been neatly swaddled in Saran wrap. The others in the box I brought downstairs one morning on my way to work and left in the vestibule with the intention of carrying them back around to Vlad when I got home, but they had quickly been stolen.

The four wrapped books remained unopened on a shelf for nearly a week. That was by way of a small entertainment. With their titles mostly obscured through the twisted layers of clear plastic, I began a game late in the evenings of guessing what they were from the few signs that were visible, as I lay on my mattress listening to maunderings of Jean Shepherd on the radio.

‘Ersk-‘ was easy enough. There is only one literary Erskine of any note. One of the books offered the image of a ship which I took to be Norse, but that turned out to be Greek. I had read Joyce’s Dubliners and knew the cover colors for that paperback well, so that one was no mystery to me. But one book had me completely flummoxed. When the game had grown tiresome, I opened them one at a time like presents. The Erskine Caldwell was a rather well thumbed copy of Tobacco Road with the glue of the spine cracked at each of the more savory parts. It didn’t last long in my own hands. Richard Lattimore’s Odyssey was already on my reading list, so I started in on that almost immediately. It fell apart some years later during a subsequent reading. The copy of Dubliners was in nicer shape and I have kept it. Still have it today—somewhere. But the fourth book I gave away long ago. To Trudy, in fact. That was a copy of Thornton Wilder’s Bridge of San Luis Rey in a large paperback edition. She made me explain the plot of the book, several times, until I began to regret the gift, but what was most remarkable in that volume, beside the story itself, were the three small cards that fell out in my hand when I first opened it. A ‘Selective Service System Registration Certificate.’ A ‘Notice of Classification’—better known as a ‘draft card.’ And a Social Security card. Those I kept as well. But, as I told someone not long ago, I don’t know where they are today. I don’t even know where my own cards are, for that matter.

The cards in the book were for a Ralph D. Peterson. He was born August 20, 1946, and thus about a year older than myself. He was registered in Mount Vernon, N.Y. Color eyes: brown. (As were mine.) Color Hair: brown. (Ditto.) Height: 6 ft. 1 in. (I had him beat on that count by an inch.) Weight: 160 lbs. (My regular in-take of spaghetti with Ragu tomato sauce had already raised my own weight to 165.) Other obvious physical characteristics: none. His draft status was 1-A.

Each of the four books had also contained Peterson’s full name, neatly written on the inside of the cover, as well an address in Mount Vernon, New York.

It was my understanding then that Ralph had abandoned his apartment when he got his draft notice and slipped off or wandered thence to Canada. I did not know that for sure. It was something Trudy told me. While in residence at Avenue A he used to visit her about once a week and he liked to talk while he conducted his business.

After asking if she knew who he was, the first time, I actually told her not to tell me anything more about the man. I suddenly realized it was better not knowing—better at the least than the facts that I was hearing. And by that time I had already begun to make up an elaborate tale about Mr. Peterson and the smaller details Trudy was happy to relate only served to spoil the story. There will be more on that matter later.

Of more interest to me then, however, was a comment Trudy made about Thornton Wilder’s book. One evening, after asking me to explain the story to her once again, she suddenly said, “I am the bridge!”

I said, “What do you mean?”

She had sudden come to a very clear realization. “All of the men who come to me have their different reasons and different excuses, but they all need to pass over my body on their way.”

The simile was shocking to me. Looking for some way to mitigate the actual tragedy in that idea was obvious even to a callous nineteen-year-old. I said something like, “But you will not collapse.”

And she said, “I have already fallen. Every day I wake up and I’m standing. But then I fall again.”

This twist on the words occupied my mind for months afterward.

 

 

I believe it was for that reason that Ralph D. Peterson entered into my life again, more importantly, in 1977.

I was at loose ends. Bored, I think. And rather weary of watching the slow motion collapse of the nation around me which was then being run into the ground by an anally fixated peanut farmer. For me, the big city actually seemed to be losing its charm for the first time. Graffiti was being touted as art. The better ocean air never quite reached Park Slope. Between strikes, the garbage wasn’t being picked up and too much of it was left behind after the trucks were gone. Things generally looked grimier. Every window looked dirty. And my apartment was robbed for the second or third time.

Importantly, I did not have a regular girlfriend and most of the females I met had two left hands. In New York, if you eliminated the Catholic and the Jewish girls who were actually Catholic or Jewish and not just posing in ethnic roles to give themselves some of the cultural color they had missed acquiring at Jones Beach, all you had left were liberals. The good thing about that I suppose was that the liberal girls seemed to like both sex and books better than the religious girls, so I saw a fair assortment of them in the shop, many of whom were quite taken with the artificial liberties bestowed upon their bodies by the temporary infertility induced via ‘The Pill.’

But the barrenness of their bodies extended into their minds in unsubtle ways. They spoke about themselves incessantly. They did almost nothing else. The books they read were about young women who did nothing but think about themselves. It was as if the French movies of the 1960’s had finally taken possession of the urban culture of America. They smoked. They drank. The ‘had’ sex. They did drugs to gain some glimpse of the euphoria they wished they could be having morning noon and night. Especially at night. (Wasn’t it unfair that the climax they experienced in sex could not be extended? A difficult topic for a fellow to follow while thus occupied.) But they took yoga classes in that singular pursuit.

If you didn’t sleep with someone on the first date, they wanted to know what was wrong. Had they done something? Were you tired? Were you sick? The greater truth contained in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall was that, whether you did or you didn’t, they all seemed to want to talk about it before, during, and after.

For a time, I actually started believing that sex was an appropriate subject of conversation in almost any circumstance. It was the one reliable topic to fill any idle moment. You could hear the most intimate details of someone’s bed-life while standing on the subway platform waiting for a train, or while seated in a movie theatre awaiting the lights to dim. Or during the film, if it was slow. Once at a Chock-Full-of-Nuts counter while trying to choose a breakfast, I was treated to an analysis of the practices preached by a canny Indian ascetic, then in Manhattan and lecturing to thousands.

At the bookshop one evening, while she fingered a copy of Autumn of the Patriarch by Garcia Marquez, a rather good looking brunette asked me, “Is there any sex in this? I just finished a Borges and there was no sex.”

I said, “No, not a lot. It’s about the corruption of power.”

She set it back on the shelf as if it had suddenly become hot.

“Do any of the South American authors like sex?”

I shrugged as innocently as I could, “I don’t know. Try Vargas Llosa. Aunt Julia and the Script Writer. There is a bit in that.”

Her voice took on the interrogatory. “Is it good sex? Or just sex?”

“I can’t say. I wasn’t really looking for it, so maybe I didn’t notice.”

Skeptical surprise filled her cheeks and eyes. “What! You don’t like sex?”

We are in the middle of the bookshop, remember.

“Sex is fine.” I answered. “I just don’t particularly look for it in books anymore.”

She grimaced critically, with one eyebrow raised now in disbelief. “Have you ever read Henry Miller?”

I admitted readily, “When I was fifteen.”

This quieted the contortions of her face and brought a stony stare in return. At this point I figured her for an actress practicing for a role. She appeared to have a Swiss Army knife of expressions ready to pull out for any response.

She poked back, quizzically, “What does that mean? Are you saying sex in a book is immature?

“No. Just that I don’t particularly go looking for it between hard covers. Besides, it might stain the pages.”

This additional detail was uncalled for but was meant to shock. Perhaps, I hoped, repulse.

Instead her scowl became investigative, with a hint of frown. “Are you married?”

“No.”

And all the while she had been pulling various of the latest arrivals from the display shelf and opening them without reading a word before putting them back. I could see her eyes staring blankly as her mind worked.

Suddenly she held up the ring on her left hand against my last response. “I’m not surprised.”

I did not know exactly what that meant. I was however ‘surprised,’ when she suggested we go for a coffee after the store was closed.

I am no Jorge Luis Borges wanting to have my cake and eat it too—wanting to be acclaimed and pampered as an ‘artist’ while pretending to be aloof of fame and credit. Here I am writing a book about myself when I could easily find a more interesting subject. As I often have. But I would welcome fame as an alternative to insignificance. A writer’s greatest fear is to be ignored. Mediocrity was not my aim in life. And though Mr. Borges might see himself as two creatures, one the author and the other himself, I have never wished for such a bifurcation, though I did accomplish it once.

I’ll tell you about that, because some aspect of all this was in my head when I decided to try writing under a pseudonym. Not as a subterfuge for writing ‘dirty’ books, but one for writing more plainly about topics I cared about but which might be frowned upon by the pseudo-intellectual readers on whom I was dependent for book sales. Not a worthy cause, I readily admit now. I was just looking for sales. Or attention. Or both.

One day I happened again upon the two cards from Ralph D. Peterson that I had found years before in the books abandoned in my apartment on Avenue A. And in another moment of unbidden magic, I immediately knew what I was going to do with them.

I went to the Post Office further over on Atlantic Avenue that day and rented a box in his name, using Mr. Peterson’s ID.

My first thoughts were simple enough. Publishers did not want me expressing my opinion outright on anything ‘political’ for fear of upsetting my already dwindling readership. The age for political discussion in novels was now past. The correct way of thinking was settled. I had been as much as forbidden, more than once, to speak of abortion in the years following Roe v. Wade, for instance, and I was cautioned to avoid certain other topics like religion, Marxism, the decay of typography by photo-typesetting, the corruption of science by government subsidy, the malignancy of writers’ groups, or the oncoming ‘death of the book.’ I’d already had two of my novels rejected for more than one of those reasons.

My idea was to create a persona apart from my own who might give vent to his thoughts without restraint. A mere subterfuge. I did not particularly like the name Ralph, however, so I redubbed this alter-ego R. D. Peterson. Innocuous. Innocuous enough, I thought.

I cannot pretend that I planned it all from the first. What I understood immediately was only that I would create an alternative persona. A true pseudonym. And that I had already imagined something of the man from his precise handwriting on the inside covers of those few books he read and left behind. All of this was a common enough exercise for me in any case. I was always prone to make up characters to match faces. It was something I might do on a subway car, while being forced by the pressure of other bodies to stare at someone a few feet away. It was often done subconsciously, in a matter of seconds, as a pedestrian passed the shop window. Many times over the years, in that particular circumstance, the face had returned by the window afterward and entered the shop door and I was nearly always wrong in my imaginings. Warning enough about judging books by their covers, I suppose. The voice I had conjured was not theirs. The facial ticks and textures took on other meanings at closer range. But often enough, the reality was better.

At first, I decided that R. D. Peterson was a failed poet. Disillusioned by a freshman love affair in college, he had become dispirited (people still become dispirited today but they now call it depression), had left school, and this had resulted in the change in his draft status and his necessitated flight (I assumed of course that he had hitchhiked) to Canada. I expanded upon my own short journeys to Montreal and Toronto while working for The Gist, and fabricated a series of life altering confrontations. (True, Canadians are not often confrontational, except when confronted with Americans.) Then, skipping forward in time and using the reliable technique of ‘incongruous parts,’ I chose several additional characteristics at random as the thoughts occurred. Ralph liked to grow roses. (Something I knew nothing about really, but I had in mind, of course, the roses on the back garden wall at the Rabinowitz house.) In Ralph’s instance, he had been raised on Long Island and his mother had grown roses when he was a boy while his father, a travelling salesman, was always away. He liked cats (I am allergic to them). He was especially fond of tea, having acquired the habit in Toronto (I’d rather have coffee, even in Toronto). He drank martinis (I can’t stand the taste of gin). I made him an aspiring vegetarian with a weakness for the meats he had grown up eating in the Swedish cooking of his mother. (I wasn’t sure if I had ever even had a Swedish meatball up to that moment.) He liked opera (I was yet to learn the true pleasures of that). And he lived alone, with an unrequited passion for someone at his office.

And I decided that Mr. R.D. Peterson was gay.

This last characteristic offered the greatest chance for exposition while also posing the greatest danger. Naturally, I started seeing him as a thinner version of my friend George Ritts. Less polished, and less generous, but he would have to be that in order to harbor the critical awareness I wanted in him. It is always easier to forgive if you have less to lose.

But the point of the exercise was to create a character different enough from my own to require some effort when testing him with challenges. I was already then well aware of my tendency toward autobiography.

Thus inspired, I began to submit articles and letters to various magazines under his name. And this was done with a certain maliciousness on my part, I’ll admit. I was taking advantage of the fact that many specialty periodicals struggled to fill their pages with publishable copy. But most importantly, I could fire away at the peccadilloes of my fellow human beings far easier if standing inside the circled wagons than from without.

For my first target, the subject was roses (with apologies to the playwright, Mr. Gilroy).

I had stumbled upon a copy of The American Rose Monthly and realized immediately the magazine needed some livelier and more colorful content. In every issue I could find, the topic of ‘potting soil’ appeared to be the leader. It was running only thirty-six pages per issue of which twenty-four were advertisements. I immediately decided upon an approach. Being safely and wholly ignorant of the subject (which placed me squarely in the ranks of most journalists pursuing any story), I’d started reading what I could on the subject and quickly realized that the ‘Whole Earth’ movement had not yet penetrated the pages of many horticultural magazines which were then mostly dedicated to the more arcane arts of cross-pollination and the finer pleasures of fertilizers.

I wrote a letter to the magazine objecting to the “senseless rose,” and the modern favoring of the ornamental over the olfactory, the visual over the fragrant, which had resulted in a hobby pursued mostly by the old and the sensually impotent rather than the young and fecund. Specifically I argued for the superiority of the Damask Rose

I used the word ‘fecund.’

The letter had run in the next available issue, and resulted in four pages of angry responses to my charge. It appeared that the readership, many of them retired, had even more time on their hands than I did.

I followed that first letter up with an attack on the ‘false advertising’ of the magazine’s own name. The roses discussed in its pages were seldom ‘American,’ even to minor selective cross breeding. Chinese roses, and English roses which had been derived from Persia and the near east via Portugal, were the common subject. Why weren’t native American roses given more attention? With the same degree of careful cultivation, American roses might achieve some of the ornamental distinctions of the foreign interlopers, and they smelled better as well. I waxed grandiloquent on the simple beauty of the American wild rose and ended, “A rose by any other name was not as sweet.”

This letter got a direct response from the editor of The American Rose, Herbert Wiley. He pointed out that they had run many articles through the years on that very topic, but the readership appeared to prefer to engage in an ongoing competition of the biggest and most gaudy.

I answered that I believed he was probably correct, but wasn’t this defect of human nature just a part of the challenge of good editorship. And I included with my comment a short attack on artificial fertilizers and in favor of the kitchen garden compost heap, the entire factual contents of which I had re-written from a copy of Mother Earth News.

Mr. Wiley responded by offering me a job.

What he wanted was a monthly column, for which he could pay me $75. Given even the modest amount of advertising revenue he was pulling in, I figured he could afford it, but I did not want to worry about another deadline demand, or additional reported income, nor the IRS versus the false identity of R. D. Peterson. Besides, I figured to be able to speak my mind a bit more freely about roses if I was not obligated by payment.

I abjured and included a sarcastic peon to the alien Japanese beetle which was only in this country following the flowers we Americans insisted on importing. I added an argument for the positive effects of a formula of pine soap and olive oil and another using baking soda which I had cribbed freely from a 1901 issue of the Scientific American as a replacement for some of the more noxious pesticides then in use.

This correspondence, in fact, went on for more than two years, until I could not stand the subject any longer and simply stopped. Half a dozen letters from Mr. Wiley followed my surcease, asking what was wrong, was I sick, could he be of any assistance, and the like. But by then, I had accomplished more than I had hoped for and there was no good in beating the matter to death. Besides, I actually knew something about roses by then, and there was no good in spoiling my ignorance any further.

While I had been writing my monthly letters to the American Rose, I had also interjected myself into a half dozen other publications. The Cat Companion was my favorite of these. Cat lovers are, at the very least, the most opinionated people on earth (leaving rose lovers in the humus) and if there is any possibility for extra-terrestrial life, they will probably be as vocal out there in the heliosphere in ages to come as well. Cat Companion had no need of more letters—a quarter of the contents appeared to be reader comment on subjects like declawing, neutering, hair-loss and correct diet—but I chose it as the vehicle for my subterfuge simply because it had such a particularly rabid readership. The mere suggestion on my part that the keeping of cats as pets was a sort of ‘enslavement’ (with no overt but nevertheless quite obvious allusions to the thralldom and dependency of public welfare), evidently incurred more letters of response, according to the editor Margaret Sayers, than anything they had ever published. All of them insisting that their cats were totally independent creatures who could not be forced to do anything they did not want. I followed this with a missive on the abuse of cats by owners who overfed them with foods not common to a cat’s natural culinary habits while depriving them of the exercise and nutrition naturally available in ‘the kill.’ I became an advocate of the natural mouser. I thus discovered that most cat lovers are pacifists, believed they were the most benevolent of owners, and refused to believe that the bestiality of mousing was necessary or even natural.

In response, I warned of the plague.

My letters to The High-Life, a magazine ostensibly dedicated to the fine arts of the mixed drink, not the acrid perfume of grass, were for the most part less adversarial. I did take some neat shots, so to speak, at any moron who thought he could properly drive a car after three highballs. But I mixed this sort of thing into recipes I borrowed directly from the pages of various British publications of the 1930’s, including Punch, The Spectator and London Illustrated News—all of which were accessible in bound volumes at the Brooklyn Public Library. I found that if I took a fairly urbane tone and stirred my entries with ample bitters of sarcasm, they were almost always published. Thus I could attack the sophisticated alcoholic with abandon by interjecting stories of debauchery, dissipation and depravity between the measurements for obscurely named tonics and bitters only available by ordering directly from Singapore or Bombay. I took the greatest pleasure in shaping the calibrations to such unsubtle estimates as “36 wet ounces of rum, 24 dry ounces of coconut shavings, 32 moist ounces of ripe mango, mix and let mingle for an hour or two before pouring. Serves six, clothing optional.” The double entendre possible to such staples as banana or melon liqueur and schnapps or triple sec were endless.

I was, in fact, surprised after several months, to get a letter from an assistant editor at High-Life suggesting I might want to frame my thoughts in long form as an article for them, for which they could pay me the princely sum of $750. Given the amount of female pulchritude which burst colorfully from their pages, frolicking amidst well tanned and tuxedoed men, both of which evidently giving them the sales and profits that made such an blanket offer possible, I had to reject that as well. They could afford a great deal more. Instead I offered to continue writing to them regularly with my thoughts on various topics which might to be of interest to their readership, and if they chose to publish them, I would be happy for that recognition alone. In the meantime would they consider an article about the low quality of American whiskies?

Recognition of the name R. D. Peterson was what I was after, after all.

There was then no popular publication available to me, or apparently to the Brooklyn Public Library, devoted to tea. Instead, I wrote short letters to various food magazines like Epicure and Gourmet with the too obvious intent of proselytizing the subject, but with the hidden objective of kind ridicule. Tea drinkers were easy targets, after all. “The British Empire had not suffered through the conquest of half the earth just to have the product of their blood, sweat and tears reduced to stale content of a small paper pouch on a string.” I found ample material in an argument for the product of the island of Ceylon versus the mainland—especially given the low cost of the near-slave labor available around the central city of Kandy to keep the prices down. This raised loud protest.

Vegetarian magazines were, as a group, almost humorless. There was no rhyme I could make with the word ‘tofu’ that they would accept. Insinuations concerning the after gastrointestinal effects of ‘meatless hamburgers’ made with beans and sprouts did not entertain them. It took four or five letters before I made my mark. The gauntlet I took up was the mass production of tasteless strawberries in the Central Valley of California, a subject I had dipped into on a previous occasion for a piece on farm workers at The Gist. I vociferously attacked the ‘seedless watermelon’ as a tasteless pepo and a product of modern engineering gone awry. I noted that the heavy production of hybrid corn to feed hogs and cattle had resulted in a product that had increased carbohydrates without the nutrition. (Note that this was years before the phonied production of ethanol for the government mandated mega-avarice of agribusiness which had reduced the best farmland in the nation to a chemical wasteland.) I objected to the artificially matured tomato (gasified) as not only tasteless and odorless, but even deficient in those properties that would make it a good device for expressing one’s deepest feelings and emotions toward those pirates who had falsely labeled them ‘vine-ripened.’ It was just possible that a protester wielding one of those hard and ‘bruise resistant’ objects might be charged for assault with a deadly weapon?

Opera was a tougher nut for me to crack, or at least to crack jokes about. It was then already in poor taste to make fun of fat people. It was uncouth to note that the price of admission at the Met was beyond the means of the average middle class and the true opera lover (of the very sort who packed the Italian Opera halls of the 19th century and had made Verdi, Puccini and Rossini national heroes). It was unsophisticated to mention that operas written after the First World War could not draw an audience because they were simply “unbeautiful, unlistenable, and unintelligible.” I did all of that, of course, by way of a more straightforward analysis of the cost of the then relatively new Metropolitan Opera facility in New York which filled many city blocks formerly occupied by actual human beings and businesses, and the fact that it was built with taxpayer funds via tax deductible gifts, and was to be enjoyed by a small minority of the very rich as a kultural kaffeeklatsch. But over two years of constant effort I managed to get only three of my letters published in Boffo and I finally gave that one up. But for another reason. With movies reduced to space-opera, I had started liking the real thing. Not ‘modern opera’ of course, but the original, where characters entrapped by grand plots expressed emotions with song and melody in ways that could actually make you cry. It is always harder to kick the dog you favor.

In the meantime, R. D. Peterson was busily writing to almost every other major American magazine concerning this topic or that. Or so it seemed. And the critical subtext was usually ignored. In Sunset magazine I attacked the inflation of the money supply that was impoverishing the elderly and making savings impossible through a simple tale of discovering ways to stretch a retirement dollar. Even late in the game I was able to address the mean spirited political hash that was the much touted opera Nixon in China and managed to point out once more the abandonment of those millions in South Vietnam who had made the mistake of allying themselves with the United States as well as recalling the unfinished business in Korea where China continued to prop up a horrific dictatorial regime as evil as any on earth.

The endgame was simply that I would write a ‘book’ about the collapse of American culture and all of those things that disturbed me which I could not effectively touch in my fiction, using the most unlikely angle of approach, and at the right moment, mention the title of this book in each of my letters to those magazines which had grown most fond of my opinionations. I would thus have all the advance advertising necessary to insure it sold sufficiently well.

Then the High-Life came back with another offer. They would pay me twelve hundred dollars a month to write a column on whatever topic caught my interest.

And this had come just at a moment of financial distress.

I was thus bought. As with any ‘working girl.’ It was only a matter of price.

But not exactly like the average whore, I thought. I was there after my own amusement, after all, not the pleasure of the publication. Though I had never reckoned on this accomplishment from the first as a degree of success, I was suddenly very willing to accept the consequence.

And the prospective target of wholesale hedonism which the High-Life offered was too much to refuse. I had actually met the editor and publisher there, Malcolm Frist. A small man in nearly every way but physical height, and he was as petty and nasty as his magazine. I had encountered him at various literary parties through the years. He would not have published one of Angus McGuire’s stories if paid to do so. Too many adjectives. Too many adverbs. He much favored the Hemingwayesque sentence. But as R.D. Peterson, I was a different animal. Importantly, I was, like Mr. Frist himself, homosexual. I had not made an issue of my nom de plume’s sexuality in my letters, but it was sufficiently implicit between the lines.

I did two things right, then. Both of them against strict editorial policy at the High-Life. I refused to have a picture of myself posted with my column. The other was that I retained all rights to the material excepting republication in the magazine itself.

The Peterson Papers was the title of the column as well as the later book. I had suggested this and Frist had agreed on it immediately, seeing the open range this approach offered. But he wanted desperately to meet me. I said that was not possible and that my anonymity was the most important thing I had in the world. Implying again the matter of my sexuality and the motive of staying in the closet. In the correspondence that followed, he guessed that I might be any one of a dozen authors from Dick Cavett to Gore Vidal. I told him I was much flattered by the comparisons (and happy for them to be so far wrong).

And do not ask me now how I presumed to get away with all of this. The only answer should perhaps be chiseled on my headstone. “He had no clue.” But then the entire lark came to an abrupt end. I met Sarah and had no time for it.

 

 

 

  1. A Republic of Books; somewhere south of Southie

 

 

We are what we do. More so than what we eat, I believe. Our ancestors ate just about anything that moved or remained in one place long enough to harvest. There was no menu, even if they might have been able to read it, just hunger. And need.

“Your work will shape you, as it does a carpenter’s hands.”

It was one of Mr. Billington’s espousals that we should each, “do as much of what we love as humanly possible, by reason, if we spend too much time at work on what we hate we will come to despise ourselves.”

 

My full enamor with the nineteenth century truly began by accident, or happenstance, or both. A month after opening the doors at A Republic of Books, in 1975, I saw a notice in the papers about an estate auction that was taking place not far away—to be conducted at the house of the original and now long deceased owner himself. That very day. This would be my first chance to enter into one of those as yet undivided Park Slope mansions of lore.

The store was empty on that summer morning, all the intelligent readers having already abandoned the asphalt and brick of Brooklyn for the wooden boardwalks and sand of Jones Beach and Fire Island. I wrote a note out on the back of a scrap envelope, taped it to the window of my store, and locked the door.

As I had sadly discovered in my previous good fortune when finding shelves for the shop, books had long since become dispensable in the modernization of old Brooklyn townhouses, there being less interest now in what had once occupied those linear feet. The auction was well along by the time I arrived and registered with the agent at the door. His desk fit easily into a black and white marble-floored portico, trimmed above in layers of hand-routed oak and stained glass. The auction was visible to me from there through open double doors and an empty foyer, staged in what I guessed to be a miniature ballroom.

The entire place was a fabulous brick and brownstone that appeared a little shabby only because it had been unoccupied for many years during a probate battle. But I saw no books. The shelves that lined the walls were already emptied. I sat in my jeans and short sleeves on a folding chair to the rear of an audience of bow ties, blue blazer jackets and what passed, at the time (it was the 1970s, remember) for fashion, but had the look from behind of an opened crayon box. I stared jealously from that vantage at crimson velvet sofas trimmed in dark walnut, and Tiffany lamps, gleaming table settings of fine silver, and sets of pink and blue Wedgwood china. Each lot was brought up separately to a small permanent stage with a faux proscenium that I could imagine had once been the perfect spot for a jazz band or a recital.

The full assortment of treasure was something to cry over. There was a pale marble sculpture by Saint-Gaudens, and another in brass by Remington. Chippendale chairs. An art deco bedroom set. And it went on and on like that. Each lot carried forth by two fellows in jackets, dressed much like the others, but looking a bit less groomed and from their blank expressions I guessed they would have much preferred to be at the beach as well.

At last, several first editions came up by Mark Twain and Henry James and others of that stature, plus four or five sets in leather, but all quickly rose in price beyond my reach. And then more china. A little dispirited by this, and feeling sad for the dissolution of someone else’s dreams. I was about to leave when the fellow in the vestibule stopped me.

“I thought you wanted the books?”

“Yes?”

“There’re comin’ up in a sec. Just wait.”

And I did.

An hour later it was announced that there were seven lots of books in total. All boxed and ready for quick removal. Approximately 1000 books per lot. To be sold, as is. The audience which had already suffered through missing a perfectly splendid day outside, immediately began to disperse. And without complaint, I got all seven. Sight unseen. I paid $770 dollars plus the auction fee, having outbid a standing absentee offer of $105 dollars per lot.

It was a heady experience and a bad example to me for the future. Few auctions I attended through the years were nearly as wonderful. But it was done.

For many weeks following that day, my shop was cluttered once again by large moving boxes filled with the finest of booty. Great books! Glorious books! Fabulous books! English and American editions of Dickens and Stevenson, Trollope and Austen. All the Brontes were there, and Gaskell and Eliot, Thackeray and Kipling, Hardy, and Scott, as well as translations of Hugo, Flaubert, Dumas, and Verne, and every Russian I ever knew from Chekov and Dostoyevsky to Tolstoy and Turgenev, but also that great Pole, Seinkienwicz. There were a dozen Germans I had no knowledge of before, like Spielhagan, Fontane, Morike, and Keller, along with the more common Goethe and Heine, and of course all the Americans I knew best from Twain and Melville, to Hawthorne and Poe, James and Irving, along with at least fifty I knew next to nothing of at all about, like Jewett, Chopin, Ina Coolbrith, and Alice Brown. All the poets that I had intended to read but had not yet, were there: the Brownings and Wordsworth and Tennyson, along with the Whitman and Shelley and the Keats and Kipling. Kipling was the most modern of that lot. And this told me something about when they had originally been read.

Most were in sturdy cloth bindings of dark green and maroon, blue and brown, with the gilt of their titles still bright, thought some edges were rubbed—perhaps by second reading or a hundred dustings through the years. All the deluxe editions in leather had apparently been removed and perhaps sold to an interior decorator before my arrival at the auction. Very few of the nearly 7000 were first editions and most of those were the authors who were more obscure. There were no histories or biographies, though certainly there was a lot of that reused as background to the fictions. None of Darwin, or the science of Huxley, or Hitchcock or Agassiz. There was no philosophical texts in the bunch though I suspect much of that to be hidden in the stories. Not even Emerson or Thoreau.

But I was drunk and in a delirium for all of what I had during the months and years after.

The most fabulous thing to me about them was that they were all read. Every one! I could not find a single page unturned or signature uncut. And because I had gotten the idea from a few of the books which had been given as a gifts ‘to Clara’ on her birthday or a Christmas, that the reader might have been just one person in that great household, though I could find no mention of a Clara having lived at that address, my brain sought an excuse. Yet how could a single person possibly have found time to read all of that?

I couldn’t help myself then. I made up her history in my head. That was, of course, the invalid Clara of Serendip, who disappears at last. Having been given over to the care of her Irish nurse, Miss Megan and being ignored by her dynamic family for the more material treasures that pleased them better, Clara can simply no longer exist among them and makes her final escape into a better world she knew of.

When Clara’s mother peeked in at the door on that Sunday morning, as she usually did in passing, she saw only the nurse standing at the window, with her jacket on her arm and her small velvet cap still pinned on her head from church.

You.”

Miss Megan turned, saying, Who, Ma’am?

You! But where is my daughter?”

I’m sure I don’t know, Ma’am. But I believe she said she was going for a walk.”

And it was just then that I also found yet another means to make my already narrow aisles even less passable.

We never had the space in the shop to stage full scale readings and such, but by another accident, early on, I was present one afternoon when an amorous student from Brooklyn College was romancing the object of his passions in the aisles and reading aloud the famous verse from How Do I Love Thee, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, as he pursued her from one section to another, with the old book (one from the auction, in fact) in one hand and the other gesticulating as wildly as only the most dramatic gesticulation can be.

I was inspired by the act, if not smitten by the object of his passion. (She looked so young—already a sign of my own early aging.) We had so few customers at the time that it seemed a perfect idea for making things appear to be active and interesting. I called up Josh Green, one of the staff then at The Fore-edge. He was an instructor at Brooklyn Academy of Music, and though I was not much interested in what they usually offered there, I thought he might have some idea. He did.

The idea was this: that students might come down to the shop whenever it pleased them and stage events, right in the aisles. The purpose for them, as he saw it, was to climb down from the stage and make their art more accessible. I begged him to do it if it was understood that the books were the matter. That the effort was not for them to shine alone but to illuminate the books as well.

The key to the thing, and the quick success of it, was that there was no schedule to it. It was as spontaneous as the impulses of most twenty-year-olds. If you did not happen to be at the shop when the event occurred, you missed it. Thus, many years before the first ‘flash mob,’ we had violinists wandering the shop playing music, some of which I actually liked. Theatre majors staged scenes from Shakespeare and Ionesco, as well their own works, bantering back and forth from aisle to aisle as customers stood back in shock and delight to let them pass.

And there were other sounds to hear for those who cared. Especially after the influx of older books stole more of the gloss from the new stock on the shelves and gave them all a little more luster instead.

 

I can say for certain that my shop was haunted. At night, as I attempted to sleep in my narrow loft above at the back, I listed to the complaints of Mr. Thoreau about the failures of his fellow man, and the cautions of Mr. Emerson to give them the opportunity to better themselves in their own way. It was there that I first heard Ambrose Bierce make his overtures to Miss Jewett. There were times that I slept to the sounds of children playing hide and seek about the aisles and only figured them at last to be Dickensian by their dress.

But alas, and alack, most of bookselling is a banausic pursuit; a routine of the most mundane tasks and the ordering of petty matters of consequence, from answering the phone to changing light bulbs and sweeping the floors, checking orders, placing orders, checking bills, paying some portion enough to keep them from being referred to a collection agency, ringing sales in on the register, taking the cash in hand, giving change, or imprinting credit cards with a little machine that ate the three-part flimsy of the forms as often as it did what it was designed to do, and all while answering the same questions repeatedly again and again on any given day.

“Is this the price?”

Yes, the numbers there on the flap of the book which you have wisely noticed have a dollar sign before them and a decimal mark in the middle, that is indeed the price.

But you say instead, “Yes Ma’am. It’s a new book. The review ran in the Times last Sunday.”

“Do you have a used copy?”

I believe you may want to go down to the Strand for that. They often have new books which are discounted as review copies. And I hear Barnes & Noble up the street has some titles at twenty percent off. But the publication date on the book in your hand is for this coming Friday, so you probably won’t find it used in too many places quite yet.

But you say, “Not yet. I’m sure they will come in over time.”

They answer, “This one looks a little used. Do you have a fresh copy?”

After you stood there and read it for twenty minutes and cracked the spine repeatedly so that it does look a little more used than it should? No. We only ordered two copies and the other one sold yesterday.

But you say, “Not at the moment. Maybe next week.”

This business is conducted while in the presence of other customers and must be done as pleasantly as possible, especially the answering of questions, without the ring of sarcasm to your voice, no matter how stupid. If a customer is rude, you must be aware that your own response in kind is going to immediately cost you something. If you are churlish in response to their boorishness, you will not only further alienate the particular cretin in question but any other nitwit within hearing distance. The customer is wrong more often than right but you must find a way to let them discover this for themselves because the temerity to tell them they are mistaken will usually create an ‘unpleasant atmosphere.’

All of this is measly, and not at all part of the ‘romance of bookselling’ you had imagined.

So why do it?

Because there is more to it, of course. Just as making love is not all in the preparation.

 

From the first, I absolutely and adamantly refused to have the expected and predictable bookshop cat. I maintained this position steadfastly for about two months.

It was about a week or two after the auction when I noticed that a very pretty cloth edition of Emerson’s Essays, which I had placed on the shelf reluctantly with the thought that I would rather read it than sell it, had lost about an eighth of an inch of the fore-edge from the cover. Gnawed away.

Actually, Mrs. Wilson noticed it.

“Mice.” She said, holding the cover out to me as evidence, like you might hold up a poop to a dog’s nose as proof of their bad behavior. And with the same voice.

Mrs. Wilson, one of my few part-time employees, freshly hired, and a retired English teacher, had much experience with making her case to young minds that refused to listen. She had advised a cat immediately upon her arrival. I had refused based on the fact that I was allergic to them. I lost.

We got a very skinny orange and white tabby from the Brooklyn Animal Shelter that afternoon. I called her Marbles. Mostly because I was so clearly missing mine. The good thing was that Marbles gained weight very quickly. The bad thing was that my sneezing usually occupied the first half hour of my day. And the allergy was not helped by the fact that Marbles liked my bed in the loft as much as I did.

 

Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica changed everything on July 5, 1687, setting the foundation for modern science. On March 9, 1776, four months before the actual statement of politics that would make the practice of his theories possible, Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations reconceived not only the economics of men, but the entire social dynamic. Charles Darwin irrevocably altered our way of seeing ourselves again on November 24, 1859, with On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. And though the essence of each of these works might have been written eventually by someone else, it is hard to look back now in history and see just who that would have been, or when. Newton’s fellow craftsman in the higher maths of calculus, Leibniz, with his rationalism and a priori dependence on what was expected to be found and the need for order, does not appear to have had such a broad sense of the cosmos. The Scottish Enlightenment had produced a dozen geniuses but none as patient and deliberate and lucid as Adam Smith. Alfred Russel Wallace was as brilliant, but an arrogant and impatient man already enamored with the alchemy of transmutation, the ‘scientific’ solution of that time, and would not have overwhelmed religious objections to evolution if given another thousand years. A touch of the pox at any of those moments and we might all still be living in that world lit only by fire.

But all writing is not of the unique nature of a Newton, Smith or a Darwin. Most of it, as you can readily see, is of the caliber of the average twenty-first century bestseller, a product of marketing, which has been calculated using some lower form of single-digit math to find a baser and seemingly unquenchable need amongst the largest possible audience, and one that is better off decomposing in a Staten Island landfill. Why add your sum to that, I thought?

There are many who have read my essays, but never the novels. They don’t believe in reading fiction. They “don’t have time.” But this excuse is seldom close to the truth. They already waste precious moments of their lives on the useless, pointless, and fruitless speculations of the dyspeptic, disgruntled and the disenfranchised. They watch television. Proof enough of that. They even spend egregious sums of hard earned cash to go to the movies, most of which they can expect to be badly scripted, poorly directed, and inadequately acted, but they go anyway simply to be doing something. However, they will not read a novel.

As with most things, I have a theory for this.

That is that they are afraid of themselves. The particular conversation required in a novel, between the author and the reader, is not the matter in the non-fiction text where you are being told what to think. Most people would prefer to go to films where the pace of action does not allow for contemplation. (This too is tied to the death of conversation.)

The case for fiction is a more subtle cause, though it has changed our history again and again. Orwell had written hundreds of essays in more parochial support of his political beliefs before he cast his own doubts into the minds of thinking socialists with Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. More importantly, whereas the essays were read by thousands, those two short novels were read by millions. And the classical theories of Adam Smith were studied by a mere fraction of the number of readers, in over two hundred years, than those who read Ayn Rand in just one generation as she made sport of economics with Atlas Shrugged. H. G. Wells brought our minds to bear on both time and space in words that Newton never could and inspired the thoughts of the astronauts. Frederick Douglass made his case against slavery most eloquently, and personably, to tens of thousands and thousands more at gatherings alongside the best writers of his time, but most famously, Mrs. Stowe, a rather less elegant author in writing style though better in dress, made the case for the millions. Lincoln is said to have said to Mrs. Stowe, upon meeting the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, “Is this the little woman who made the great war?” The anecdote may not be true, but the sentiment certainly was.

 

Most of what passes for history is fabrication for a purpose—as illiberal a taking of fact and fashioning of fiction as any novel. That is not meant as criticism, unless done badly. It is a compliment, to my lights. To have used the facts that are known, to discover the shape of the unknown, is only art. That ‘history’ more strictly attempts to interpret what has actually happened is noble enough, but does not change its nature. The facts remain.

Fiction, on the other hand, need not obey the laws of gravity.

Take the Stowe reference noted above. As often as it is retold, it is called ‘apocryphal.’ Really? Apocryphal means false. Do these authorities know that it is false for a fact—as in their having any proof of falsehood—understanding that a negative cannot logically be proved? Do they have facts that contradict the very possibility of the words being spoken? No. Simply they do not have a documented source for the quote. That is all.

It may be true that an engineer’s text or an exposition of mathematics is factual—at least within the context of math and the known limits of matter—as far as that goes. But of what use is it without a purpose? And as soon as you venture out upon a sea of purpose, you are afloat. If not adrift, you are as much at odds with what will be as what has been. You have imagined your facts into a future circumstance, or caged them by the limits of the past you know. That, simply put, is fiction, with or without the science or the fantasy.

True, I think of myself aspiring to the lights of Herman Melville and not the more prolific James Patterson. Most writers know they are producing crap, and I suspect Mr. Patterson does as well. They are trying to fill a fiscal need, if not simply a gap in the terrain of a future landfill. Well enough. But their choice of wants is too often made for the sake of the highest financial return, and therefore, as they believe it, addressed to the lowest common denominator and that is more akin to the mistake of the great Leibniz, calculating human frailty based on past assumptions. Assuming the worst. In that way, their concern is for the moment. Financial reward. Acclaim. The affording of a better brand of whiskey.

But every time I have looked, the moment was past. And I have never been able to claim a hold on the present.

I make no case for the value of my work. The work itself must do that; but any more than Darwin might have impressed someone with his theory if he had not first voyaged in the Beagle and made his thousands of observations, I worry that my own exploration of the smaller regions of my own head will be insufficient. True, I have always had some objective in my work that was not a given. My own voyage may be a lesser one, my circumnavigation less risky, my Galapagos a mere Atlantis, perhaps, and the whole of it might rise in worth only to the uppermost stratum of the compost pile, or sink instead; or, then again, as I want it to be, kept upon a shelf in a home where it might be read by someone someday and appreciated as at least worth the time it took to read and think.

Even that last bit is also a partial lie. I have written to please an audience more than a few times. Not often successfully. But I have sought the laugh frequently enough. And I don’t condemn the James Pattersons among my clan for trying to entertain. I just wish that they would try harder to do the job with a better product. I like to read too, and tire of looking for the good book; spending more time in the search some weeks than in the actual enjoyment of another imagination. It is the reason why I have so often returned to old friends on the shelf for refuge and comfort.

 

Consider poor Melville. A mere deckhand on a whaling voyage to the South Seas. If those natives of Tai Pi Vai, in a seasonal need of more protein in their diets, had eaten Herman Melville instead of nursing him, we would never have had Moby Dick, and tens of thousands of literature majors during the 20th century would have been saved from that shipwreck of glorious overstatement and epistemological worry.

Our man, a Yankee sailor about a whaler, having deserted his miserable ship the Acushnet and escaped to the interior of the island, was already sick with an infected leg when he found refuge among the generous natives of Nuku Hiva, and though unable to communicate and likely in a delirium fever, his several weeks stay in the valley of Tai Pi Vai, enhanced a bit by a few accounts he found later in other books, became Typee and the start of a great if insolvent career. And never lacking the impulse of self-importance, I am always somewhere south of Southie. Brooklyn has been my Typee.

 

When A Republic of Books had opened in 1975, we started out to be a new bookshop with some used books mixed in to cover what titles we wanted that were out of print, and to give the place a little character. New books can be rather boringly uniform and shiny. In the end, we were a used bookstore with a few new books just to cover the recent stuff that was worth having. Frankly, I liked that much better.

There were several ways of acquiring the used titles. The most common source was the ‘walk-in,’ the person who wandered through the door with a bag of books hoping to sell them either out of a need for cash, or for credit against other books, or simply with an apartment already overwhelmed by those rectangular objects and desperate for space.

Importantly, we often ordered titles from other booksellers using the catalogues which once were issued as cheaply as possible by used book dealers (they liked to call themselves ‘antiquarians,’ but few were) and mailed our own to those other dealers who had affections for literature in common with our own. This aspect of the business is for the most part bygone now in the age of the computer and the online database. A few high-end booksellers still maintain the old manners but we were never really part of that carriage trade.

Weekly, usually on Tuesday afternoons, I would set out on foraging missions with a short list of needed items and scout the local Salvation Army depots or St. Joseph’s donations centers and the like as well as other book dealers along the way who might be looking to get rid of some stock at a reduced price.

Once a month or so I attended an auction. Auctions were often favored by interior decorators and individual collectors able to pay prices higher than we could budget for volumes that might linger on the shelves for years. But when whole collections of books were offered together, hundreds at a time, the potential to find a few profitable items to pay for the lot would often be there.

However, the greatest fun was to be had in the ‘house call’.

Going into other people’s homes to look at collections was akin to the visit to a foreign country. Or a sort of burglary. They had asked you there to buy their books. What you got was a candid glimpse of their lives. A color snapshot in 3-D. They would so often be concerned with your opinion of what they had been reading, they’d hide away what they thought was too revealing—especially the pornography or romances, which I have often thought of as one category.

They would push ahead of you into the cluttered space of the basement.

“No, not that box. That’s just the stuff I took to the beach to read. You wouldn’t want that. I only want to sell the books still on the shelves.”

The shelved books still showed the gaps where the ‘beach’ reading had been removed before my arrival.

Or the exact opposite. They did not want to sell their better books, just the crap that still had sand in the bindings.

But all the while, general literary tastes being what they have been, I would be most interested in what else was there: the old radio, the boxed games from an age when families pursued such trivialities together, the now unused typewriter, a box of postcards from motels with the lipstick colored decor and the sweep and feel of landed rocket ships, the photographs of better times, framed on the mantel, and the dark paintings set aside in the attic.

 

It was during the first years after opening the bookshop that I started the routine I have continued to this day. For four or five hours every morning, from seven or eight to noon, I wrote. Often, I started before that, if the idea was already on my brain when I awoke at six.

I’d built a loft just above the office at the back of the shop to save on having to pay the additional rent on an apartment, and in that narrow space lodged beneath the twelve-foot ceiling I had pretty much everything I needed for daily survival. I’d sawn the legs off of a chest of drawers so that it would fit in the little more than three feet of vertical living room I had up there, and put up a thick wooden rod from the side of that to the wall at one end so that I could hang what clothes needed to be hung. The mattress filled one end of the space, close to the window where I could get a little light, or open it for air in the summer. In the middle between the chest of drawers and the mattress, I pieced together squares of carpet samples so that I could avoid the splinters from the four by eight plywood sections I used as a floor. Where the cutaway opened for the ladder down, I had barricaded several boxes of books so that the whole thing looked like a make-do storage space from below.

Mr. Feeny, the landlord, came in a hundred times over the years after that and never caught on. But most importantly to me, I could get down to my typewriter in the office beneath pretty quickly, and from there I could still be out in the bookshop to relieve Lauren, my first assistant manager, within seconds if she needed help, or by the time the lunch crowd got heavy, as heavy as it got, which was not very much, especially in the first years.

Lauren went to pick up her kids at school by three, Monday through Friday. Mrs. Wilson, a retired teacher, worked most Saturdays. For a time I did Sunday alone until Sheila came on for that too. I had one high school kid named Darius who worked from four to eight, three nights a week and another, Sheila again, who did the other four. I remember them all very well. My first employees.

But because I could not afford much more than minimum wage, they came and went as their own needs changed. Now in a pinch, I might remember half the part-timers who followed after the first few. I remember more faces than names. But I’m sure I have forgotten some of them completely and I regret that too.

I wrote a novel called Memory Loss about that subject ten or twelve years ago. I’ll try and remember to get to that later.

A young woman who had written herself a novel that was then on the bestseller list came by the shop one day. She stood right in front of the counter and stared back at me as if waiting for a response. I looked again. I actually recognized her face from advertisements.

I said “Molly Jones?”

She said, “I thought you had forgotten me for a second.” Then she moved in for a hug which I did not oppose, though I’m sure I must have looked nonplussed.

Her eyes scanned the aisles and shelves and then back at me, “It all looks the same. At least you haven’t changed.”

And it was only then that I had realized that she had worked the evening shift once for almost two years. I had never even associated my Brooklyn College girl Molly, whom I vaguely remembered as being plump and disturbingly sexy, with the author who was now so austere and stylishly thin. But then again, she had married since, so the surname on the book jackets had changed as well.

Perhaps I should get on with it.

Memory Loss was perhaps too difficult a book to write. The thought of the distress it would cause never occurred to me at the time. It is my nature that such thoughts seldom do until after the fact. The book was begun and done in six or seven weeks. The idea was certainly simple enough: that what had been lost on September 11th were the lives unlived as much as the lives destroyed. This was a similar theme to the one I had approached differently given my outrage at abortion in The Prevalence of Zombies, which had come out 1997, and once before that in Wonderful Wuz in 1984. This time I could not manage any humor for the subject, nor sufficient horror. It was merely sad. Like a medieval choir, the tenor never let up, and the monotone made sitting through it difficult. I have found used copies of that book since then that clearly were never finished. The publisher mistakenly took it on the merit of timeliness, I think. They were all publishing books about that act of terrorism, and here was a bit of fiction—actually one of the first at the time. And though it relieved much of my own angst of the moment, I would take it back now and re-write it from beginning to end if I could.

Shortly afterward, Tim Bailey died and my perspective on memory altered once again.

 

 

 

  1. Sarah

 

 

My friendship with Holt Curry occurred in a most indirect manner. Bourbon was not the drink of choice in Manhattan in the 1970s. The closest anyone came to touching a bottle was just to flavor a highball. But Helen Morris had taught me to savor it, drink it neat, and avoid the cheaper brands, and this was the whisky I ordered whenever I was out and about, when beer was not a better option. And most publishing parties kept as poor an assortment of bottled beers as they did of American whiskey.

I did not like literary functions. But they were fairly constant, and an easy way to introduce yourself to one author or another, meet new editors, and catch up on literary gossip, though they were given more often to the purpose of finding a bed partner for later in the evening. I went to a few of these, and my habit was to ask for about two ounces of bourbon in a glass and nurse that through the hour or two I was there.

One evening I did just this at the open bar and was told that they did not have any bourbon on hand. I had noticed a liquor store on 72nd Street when I left the subway and so volunteered to go down and buy a bottle. But, before I reached the door, a hand came down on my shoulder and a voice said, “Do you need some help with that?”

Holt was a true devotee of the spirits who had sworn when he was in Vietnam that he would never drink a cheap bourbon again. He was afraid I would pick out the wrong thing and insisted on coming along with me, to supervise. He is also a big man, at least six foot six, and when he lays his hand on your shoulder, you know who is in charge.

In the liquor store, with Holt distracted by the telling of a small tale at the expense of the publisher whose party we were attending, I decided to show off my knowledge, (borrowed, of course, from Helen Morris), and went for the best bottle I saw on the shelf. He laid another hand on my shoulder then, grasped the bottle by the neck, gently lifted it from my fingers to set it back, and then picked a brand that cost half as much.

“Those people up there aren’t going to care what it is. They’ll put all kinds of crap in it anyway. This tastes about as good because it is and after the third sip or so you won’t know the difference.”

That then was the basis of our friendship. Drinking was pretty much what I expected to do whenever we were together from that time forward. But this was not all to the bad. I learned a great deal about a good many things on the cheap. Holt is an extraordinarily honest man as well as a raconteur. People who first meet him take him for a naif because of his Southern drawl and odd expressions. In fact, he is a sophisticate who outclasses most of the company he is in, and a Harvard graduate to boot. But his sharpest tool is his honesty. I suspect this is something born of his height. He has never needed to lie in order to get along. Born and raised around Charleston, South Carolina, and a graduate of The Citadel with ancestors in every war going back to the time of the French and Indians, he is the sort you imagine would have gone to West Point—but he didn’t. He was too tall.

We had more than one thing in common, despite our different lineages. A particular one of those was that Holt had also stolen a car when he was seventeen, on the night of his graduation. If he had not done this along with the daughter of a Senator from South Carolina, it might have gone unnoticed. Instead it ended in a statewide manhunt. And if he had not then confessed the truth of what they had done to her father, the tempest might have blown over even still. Charges of seduction were in fact dropped, but Holt had gone right into the Army in 1965. You can read all about this in his second book Isle of Palms, which is mostly about returning home. So, we were also the same age as well.

I suspect that I so quickly adapted to our friendship in part because of a lingering sense of loss about Roger Terrill. That, in spite of the more obvious similarities between the two men, was something I would not have admitted easily except that it soon came out on its own in part of a novel I was writing.

At the time of our meeting, Holt was a crime reporter at the New York Post, and loving every minute of it. His yarns about human depravity and mayhem were delivered in a soft baritone voice and steady cadence that left you completely open and defenseless to the gory climax, no matter how much you prepared yourself for it. He wrote all that down too, so you can hear it for yourself.

He invited me out to his ‘shack’ in East Hampton for the first time in July of 1978. Sort of a birthday present. I needed the vacation and accepted readily. Having heard all the stories about the ‘Hamptons’ and the luminaries who occupied the place during the summer, I was perhaps even over expectant. But Holt’s house was, in fact, a shack. It was a former servants’ quarters which had been moved back from the encroaching ocean when the main house had been partly swept away in a hurricane during the 1950’s. The remainder of that old mansion lay in heaps among the beach roses as you came in from the main road. The surviving structure was gray, not from paint, but weathering. Most of the paint had long been scourged away. There were two floors, but the upstairs was ‘condemned,’ and Holt’s plans for the rebuilding, displayed on large sheets of bluish vellum, were tacked decoratively throughout on the tongue and groove pine of the inner walls on the lower level. Holes in both the floor and ceiling were covered by old metal advertising signs that Holt had picked up for free at the junkyard, and nailed in place. On the floor these patches were then covered with cheap throw rugs and carpet remnants and when you walked you often got a metallic buckle of response to your step from the sign beneath. Lying in bed you found yourself staring up at the gaping of the pink cheeked, blonde headed, Sunshine bread girl who smiled happily back at your every move.

The plumbing worked, essentially. The toilet was enclosed somewhat, but the shower was not. Washing yourself at the side of the house was a public display of whatever God had given you.

Holt’s girlfriend at the time was an editor at Random House. Not his editor I should add. But a very pretty young lady who had gone home with him after one of those Manhattan literary parties, and with whom he had found a compatibility which he did not question, as was his way with the world in general. I suppose her physical assets overcame any other disappointments between them. We’ll call her Jane.

Jane’s great strength as an editor was the ability to speed read. I witnessed her doing this while she wore nothing more than a towel around her lower parts, drinking coffee and eating multiple bowls of cereal, every morning for two weeks. She would not eat again until Holt fired up the grill in the evening. In between, she lay sprawled on a towel down on the beach, most often, unless children were around, totally naked and reading more manuscripts—just there beyond the hillocks of sea grass and roses that played out in front of the ‘shack’ toward a constant heaving of the sea, and would occasionally frolic that way in the surf. I sympathized completely with Holt’s tastes in companionship, but this was difficult for my libido at the beginning, and I often thought Jane knew it and took advantage of the fact.

“Angus, would you be sweet and get me something to drink at the house ? . . Angus, could you get me another towel? This one is full of sand . . . Angus, I left my sunglasses in car . . .”

But I never objected, that I remember.

For his part, I was aware that Holt wanted to make life easier for me, and he persisted in inviting other female friends over, as well as some of his buddies in the neighborhood.

Most of those luminaries had ‘cottages’ more in keeping with the pictures at the back of the New York Times magazine section. Many were unqualified mansions. But the fact was that Holt had the best stretch of beach in the neighborhood. When the ocean had claimed the main house, it had left what might be described, especially at low tide, as a small lagoon. It was only about twenty yards wide, but when the tide was out and the sun blazing, the water warmed to a near bath. At high tide, the sea wall, which had been built decades before in an effort to save the main house, now worked to break the waves so that swimming there was the best. All of this made Holt even more popular with friends than the ‘nature girl’ habits of his Jane.

His immediate neighbor his own agent and oldest friend in the vicinity, who also shared some of this beachfront, was the literary agent Toni Kidd. She was then about sixty and not into exhibitionism, but seemed to enjoy the company Holt gathered, nonetheless. It was in fact, while staying at Kidd’s beach house (a small shingle-styled beauty from the turn of the century) that Holt Curry happened by mere chance to be witness to the estate auction when his own property came up for sale. That story has some amusement to it.

The place had been in probate for more than ten years after the death of the previous owner. Holt was on the beach that day, and noticed the commotion next door and went over to investigate wearing only his bathing suit. Realizing what was going on, he had run back, grabbed Toni—actually carrying her in his arms—and brought her over to the auction and made her sign for him so he could make an offer.

After engaging her in conversation over the first days, I could not resist asking Toni if she would like to consider me as a new client. She said no. Right off and with no hesitation. She was already then looking forward to retirement and clients like Holt made her life difficult enough as it was. But she said that she would check around and see if anyone else was interested.

This worked out when Melvin Hays called me a few weeks later, confirming once again the dull but oft’ proved saw, that it is all about who you know. But the better story is still there at the Hamptons.

Beginning on Thursday of the week, late, the first wave of weekend visitors arrived from New York City and infested the several ‘cottages’ nearby. On that night, Holt was known to build a fire on the beach which he billed as the ‘early birds’ party if the weather was right and the tide low enough. By this, he meant not a gathering of first arrivals but a celebration with those who would stay up with him until dawn and watch the sun rise out of the Atlantic in proclamation of their good fortunes as human beings to be alive in such a place.

That night, as was my good fortune, the tide was out.

Skinny dipping is a wonderful sport under most circumstances. In the moonlight, it is made wondrous. All the flaws and physical imperfections we are err to are obscured, mercifully, and what small assets we possess are magnified by shadow. And all of that was, in my case, further enhanced by extreme nearsightedness.

There was a wind that night. It was actually near being cold. But the water was warm, inviting, and in fact seductive against the chill. Most of those who arrived came wearing shorts and shirts and were more interested in the hamburgers and hotdogs Holt kept searing at the flames of a broad grill atop an oil barrel cut in halves, and had not even thought yet of swimming. The fire—built up out of broken timbers from the old main house which had been gathered and stacked in a heap off to one side—whipped like a celebratory flag and radiated a fine dry heat. Beach umbrellas were soon opened and one edge of their tops set into the sand against the breeze and within these shelters semi-naked and naked bodies gathered in the warm glow of the fire.

That was the night I met Sarah Unger. By the time dawn had arrived, we were even holding hands.

 

I suppose you are lucky if you really fall in love even once in your life. And after the fact, discounting the pain of love lost seems to be a natural defense of the psyche. Long after you have been through that defeat, you find yourself wanting again for the first years, months, weeks, days, and hours. As Peter Rabinowitz would readily tell you, he was a far happier man because he was still in love with the same woman after forty years. All of that is well and good, of course. He is an exemplar to the rest of us who have failed so miserably. But that is not the point.

And writing about the bungle of a love affair is banal. Unless one is a monster, there is no true extreme to make the loss unique, no matter how you re-imagine it. And this is made all the worse if you still care about the other. The chance that you might do something bizarre is unlikely just for the reason that you don’t want to hurt that person you had once loved so greatly, whatever the reason for the failure. Putting the details in print feels petty.

But falling in love is incomparable. Every moment of it, both pain and joy, is splendid and unlike any other you have ever experienced before.

And falling in love at a beach orgy is the least likely thing I can imagine.

I say ‘orgy’ as I have said it before in recalling that night. But in all truth it was not anything of the sort we had read about in books of the time or frequently heard gossip of. There was no wanton exchange of bodily fluids with multiple partners. It was not even a mildly libidinous bacchanalia. In truth it was a rather innocent affair, on the order of a couple of teenagers first discovering what their bodies might do, against any better judgment.

I believe that in the 1970’s, as stupid as it may sound, there was a great loss of love. An imagined innocence was lost which had made the realities less onerous. The 1960’s ‘generation of love’ suddenly had children to feed and dishes to wash.

Sarah Unger had been a hippie. She was still, in many ways, a hippie when I met her that night amidst the furious battling of a water fight in the lagoon at Holt Curry’s shack. Her hair went thickly to her waist. She was not given to shaving to meet the standards of the fashion magazines, and I remember being completely fascinated with the dark nest of hair at her armpits as much as anything, and later the feel of the small dark hairs on her legs. It’s the odd thing that stays in the mind.

Our trajectories were completely different. She was from a very middle-class home in Westchester, had gone to Middlebury College in Vermont, and was then still in the middle of a protracted divorce. She had two children, both at home that evening with her parents in Larchmont.

But the following morning she abandoned her assigned hosts at the cottage up the lane and spent the next week with me, there, thus obscuring the sounds that came from Holt’s bedroom in the night, or perhaps making those that we heard somewhat inspiring. What she found to desire in me I cannot tell you. What I found in Sarah was a depthless warmth, kindness, vulnerability, sweetness, enthusiasm, intelligence, resourcefulness, imagination, cleverness, humor and a true appreciation for good coffee—which she could always make better than I—as well as yet another connoisseur of the fine bourbon Holt served up.

Holt drove a ten-year-old red Cadillac convertible with white leather upholstery that just barely accommodated his lengthy body. The white convertible top did not work well and at night he spread a canvas across it like a boat. Once or twice a day, by whatever whim that came upon us, we four would pile into ‘the boat’ and fly over the long narrow roads to one place or another. The best was Montauk, and a beach there where Holt could surf, and the rest of us could watch. Just another thing he had learned to do in Vietnam and which he tried to teach to each of us—without luck in my case—but Sarah had a natural balance and grace which was worth any wait for the right wave, just to see.

Holt wore a straw hat with a red string poked through the brim and circled around his chin that made him look like an enormous little boy. He had fashioned this so that it would not blow away in the car, but he wore this hat even while surfing. He liked Hawaiian shirts that he had bought years before in Saigon, and wore cut-offs rather than actual shorts or a swim-suit. His laugh came up from his chest. He sang bawdy songs in French. Riding with him up the long road to Montauk, we felt like children in an endless playground.

In the evenings, we gathered at the grill, without the bonfire, but with the bourbon, and I got to meet most of the local literati who haunted the place and made the pilgrimage from station to station to make their presence known. Disappointingly, the lack of real ‘presence’ among these literary luminaries, when met face to face, was manifest and only exaggerated by the lack of clothing. I got to meet the small-bosomed and the hairy-chested there along with the tall and the short. For the most part, I was generally disillusioned. There were exceptions, of course, but many of them drank too much and talked too much and frequently exhibited a lack of judgment in what they had to say about one another, and I will not further any of that here.

But this pattern of behavior each summer did not change for us for several years. Every July, even after Jane had gone her own way and Lydia had taken her place, Sarah and I were invited out for a week or so.

In that one way, I was luckier that Holt. He was married four times over the succeeding years. I was married just the once. True, his eight children by three of his wives are all still quite fond of him, as well as the wives themselves it appears, as they happily continued to gather at Holt’s Lagoon each summer, frequently even coming on the same days, and did so long after there was little additional space for anyone but ‘immediate’ family, or at least until Hurricane Bob took away the old shack with the new second floor and all its improvements just a few years ago. Holt, of course, was no longer spending the summers there as he once did. He took to renting the place out for most of the ‘high season’ and used the money to buy a derelict antebellum Victorian that once belonged to a ship’s captain in Beaufort, near Charleston, South Carolina. There he has long since retreated and keeps a magnificent library of old history books. I suppose, in a way, his returning home is not completely unlike my refuge here in South Boston…I’ll think about that.

I was not so fortunate, however, to gain a new family in my marriage to Sarah. As it turned out, she was unable to have any more children due to a mistake on the part of a midwife at the commune in Gilford, Vermont, where she had spent several years in the sixties. Her two daughters, Molly and Danielle, were already teenagers, or nearly so, by the time I came into the picture, and their personalities were well along in being formed by Sarah’s father, Mort Unger, who was a dynamic personality if there ever was one. Mort owned what he referred to as a ‘haberdashery,’ in Manhattan, had made his fortune in ‘textiles’ after the war, and as that market moved overseas, he had finally reduced his business to a single retail operation on Seventh Avenue. Mort had been a member of the Communist Party in the 1930’s, was unrepentant, and did not let the fact be hidden for more than ten or twenty minutes of conversation. I took this as another manifestation of the liberal guilt I was already familiar with and kept my thoughts to myself—for the most part. But I always had the feeling that he and Gertrude never looked upon me as a son-in-law so much as a guest during our visits.

For the most part, I should add, Sarah’s parents were quite tolerant of me, but simply never attempted to understand my interests. Perhaps purposely on their own part, in order to avoid argument. But this even extended to making me bring my own bourbon when we came, to avoid having to drink Mort’s rye, a liquor I had never enjoyed even the smell of since my days with Pat Evers. They were as passionate about playing bridge as some people are about chess. Card games always bored me unless it involved articles of clothing, so I sat to the side and read a book during our visits and let Sarah’s oldest daughter, Molly, take the fourth spot.

The girls, Molly and Danielle, were more direct in their wants. They did not want to leave their friends in Larchmont, or the much bigger and more accommodating Unger home, with rooms for each of them, or to change schools, and though they often came to our smaller apartment in Brooklyn to visit, especially as they grew older and became interested in the jewels of the city, they found me boring. I was sympathetic to the last matter at least.

 

Holt’s first real literary ascendency had occurred before I met him. He had been a Lieutenant in Vietnam, just as Roger Terrill had once been, though at a different time. But his first novel, exploring the intimate drama of a single platoon during a forty-eight hour patrol, was not the commercial success Roger’s first effort had been. It involved too much of the war and people were tired of the subject in the early seventies, even as the conflict continued. His second book, which was about the difficulties his homecoming, did little better. His luck finally came with his crime stories, gathered in his work as a street reporter for the Post.

He didn’t call them mysteries. He explained them once to me and I wrote it down almost immediately. “The mystery is a confection. I know it’s fun, but somehow I’ve never managed to smile at the thought of a murder. And I’ve no interest in the sociopath either. Those folks are the sort of aberration that can happen anywhere, I suppose. Maybe that aversion comes out of what I’ve actually seen. I don’t know. But crime fascinates me for other reasons. There is a terrible suspension of disbelief on the part of any criminal. A schizophrenic fantasy that overcomes them. I’m essentially talking about the professional criminal. The ones who choose that as a way of life, rather than the nine-to-five the rest of humanity is in it for. The odds of the criminal getting away with what they are doing for very long are miniscule. Even if the police don’t catch them, their cohorts will. Their friends are all their true enemies. There is no honor among them. Not even the pretense. They trade in the little knowledge they have. They believe they are somehow freer than the rest of us, yet they live small lives, determined lives, at the fringe of that normal portion of happiness the rest of the world manages to actually survive on. In the end, they do not rest in peace. . . ”

Thankfully, he became bored with those smaller lives, even after the success of the ‘Timothy‘ series, and finally did returned to the parts of his own life which had changed everything for him.

Most of the better writing about Vietnam has been of the non-fiction account and memoir, like Michael Herr’s Dispatches or Philip Caputo’s Rumor of War. For all the numbers of those who served there, over that ten years or so, the conflict produced very few writers of note willing to tackle the subject matter in fiction. Roger Terrill, Joe Haldeman, Winston Groom, Tim O’Brien, Holt Curry, and more recently, Karl Marlantes are among the best of those who did. They are the self-chosen.

For a time, not having served, and probably ashamed of it in some way, I avoided the subject in my own work. But Holt made the point to me that I was fortunate that I could look at the whole debacle from the other end, without the face of death watching and whispering at me for attention. What had happened at home during those years was even more important, he thought, than an accounting of the mangled minds of those who were sacrificed to national hubris. More people by a wide margin had died in car accidents during those same years. More had died of drug overdoses. Yet still more lives had been ruined at home by a simple loss of faith.

Holt had seen this for himself on his return, and it had scared him, and he’d then taken his talent and run away with it to the grimy edge of human experience rather than continue to face what was at the heart of it. Now that he has returned to that deeper chord in his work, whether it sells to the thrill seekers, or those who crave the new more than the good, he is a happier man.

 

My own true confrontation with mortality—with that face which was already familiar to Holt—and with those whispers which interfered with all that was quiet in the world, happened with Sarah’s death. Unlike what I knew of dying before, which had always been sudden and unexpected and offstage to my own performance, her passing had taken its own time and was at the center of my life. Over little more than a year, she had fought it—a time that felt as brief afterward as a couple weeks. She waned like the moon, still bright to the last sliver of her spirit, and then gone in one night that was as dark as anything I had ever known. Without reason, she was taken by a malevolent shadow, overwhelmed as inexorably as the coming dark by the imperceptible turning of the earth. Cancer is a metaphor too easily used and I have assiduously avoided it until now, but its whisper has echoed in that empty chamber of my heart ever since. I wonder if my avoidance of the subject is at all like Holt’s deliberate evasion of Vietnam in his work for so long, or is it just another manifestation of my own cowardice; an avoidance of the primal directive to swim beyond the safety of the lagoon and surf with the demons.

 

Holt invited me down to Beaufort that spring after Sarah’s passing in 1992. I had not been to the house there yet and it was in such disarray from his efforts at restoration it reminded me much of the shack at East Hampton. He is as good a craftsman with his hands as he is with words. What he does he does well, but it takes him twice as long as it would for a professional, and then there is the time between each project where he talks it out, and argues with himself if there is no one else willing to listen. However, the one room that was completed to his satisfaction at the time of my first visit was the library. This was also the place where he wrote each day from dawn till noon.

The house is somewhat narrow in shape with a kitchen at the back. The library is thus elongated as well and the ceiling high, with shelves built-in from bottom to top and the appearance of this is impressive. His workspace, an antique kitchen table he had found at a yard sale for ten dollars, is not large and is open beneath for the air. This ‘desk’ is at the center of the room, near the window, with just enough space to either side for his chair to roll through. You can see the marks from his tennis shoes where he pushes off from the lower shelves to roll his way over to one book or another when he is too lazy to get up. He has a garden ladder in the corner he pulls out to reach the top items. And there was no computer then (that was well before the internet) as there is none now, the surface of the table is always obscured from edge to edge by layers of manuscript in some mysterious order. His typewriter is now a fairly new one, and large; something he bought in Switzerland in the 1980’s, and he will give you a demonstration at the drop of a hat to show you how quiet it is.

Outside the small kitchen is a screen porch which was thick that spring with the perfume of the flowers at the fringe of a yard that mimicked again the shape of the house in its length. The flowers there were not familiar to me and I was not sure which smell was which, except for the gardenias that clustered like snow on the street side and the honeysuckle that climbed the fence separating him from his neighbors. Lydia proudly told me all about each one of the plants and I promptly forgot.

There is not a front yard to speak of, just a low fence and shrubs that appear to be the home of countless lizards. Lydia’s dog, a female highland terrier who is more fond of Holt than of her mistress, guards the house from front to back and can be heard throughout the day in her constant inquiries as she scampers back and forth on the wood floors. Holt said this click of her claws on the wood reminded him of the ticking of a grandfather clock and hurried him in his work.

I was there a week, before I had to get back to my own responsibilities. Enough time for much soul searching and brotherly conversation. Time enough to stare at the moon from my bed, through the blinds, and feel the ribs of pale light against my chest and to finally get most of a full night’s sleep without the whispers.

I don’t truly remember the kind of moon there was the night that I met Sarah. Only that there was one. And I only know the weather because of what else we did together. She had been my moon that night. Near blind without my glasses, and stepping carefully in the murk of ‘Holt’s Lagoon,’ I had first found the blush of her reflection from the distant firelight there in the water, just before I looked up to see her face.

But in the novel I wrote for her, I was yet unable to confront the fact of it. I could only write about our falling in love. Chambers of the Heart was written before she had gone, in the long waiting for what was inevitable, but yet denied. It was published the way it was left then, when she had read the last paragraphs that I had too hastily written at the last.

 

 

 

 

  1. The mysteries

 

 

I wrote the first in a series of seven mysteries concerning Danann Dal Riata in 1980, while recovering from the closing of The Fore-edge. I cannot say that I was legitimately depressed, not in the way I’ve seen such darkness descend on others, but I was feeling rather low. Depleted. Tired. The appropriate term from my youth was ‘wasted.’ I had been defeated in the battle for one of my chief aims in life and I was certain that the right moment for what I had wanted to do with that literary magazine—to reestablish the importance of the story as a necessary element to the understanding of the events, or news, of our lives, was now past and could not be recaptured or that effort ever be redone. (In retrospect, this was probably wrong, but it is the way I felt about it then.)

Various associates of The Fore-edge suggested a need to rethink the project from the ground up, get some new financing, play with a more expensive format instead of the cheaper newsprint, use a couple of saddle stitches, four-color covers, and a broader newsstand distribution. All ideas which I had considered before and rejected for one reason or another—partly because once we had established ourselves in that newsprint format I had so wholly believed it was the right one and allowed us to set ourselves up beside the newspapers that ordained what was important from day to day, but predominately because control of the magazine and its fate would have passed from the writers and staff to the nameless bean counters who distributed periodicals to the newsstands nationwide and did not count returns by the physical copies unsold but by the covers stripped and sent back, making garbage of the rest. According to a friend at one newsstand, this was an invitation to fraud, as the covers were stripped and returned on newer and smaller publications to balance overdue billings on the bestsellers. I wanted no part of that.

Sarah did her best to raise my spirits. That September we went to Ireland and wandered about as much as we could do on bicycles. I left the bookstore in the hands of Mrs. Wilson, who seemed at first quite pleased with the idea that she would be boss. I was gone a month, and when I returned she had lost enough sleep to make herself sick.

It is worth mentioning here that most of that estimable woman’s difficulty centered on delegating—something which, given my own incompetence, I did quite readily. As a former teacher, the rest of the staff must have appeared in her eyes to be children. She mothered them. She worried over them. And she gave me an idea.

Mrs. Wilson was a bit heavyset. Not tall. She cut her hair in a style that reminded me of the Betty Crocker image on packaging in the 1950s. She spoke in a deliberate and restrained voice—that is until she lost her temper, when her words had the quality of being independent of any sentence structure as they were shot forth, each separate, from her lips.

“You . . . Can . . . Leave . . . NOW!”

The offending customer would usually scamper away through the door as the sound of her command reached back into a primordial unconscious as well as it did into the shop, bringing reinforcements from whomever was on duty with her at the time.

She had no problem calling the police if any difficulty appeared beyond her abilities to handle. Several of the local Brooklyn constabulary had been her students and referred to her in reverential tones. In any case, they always appeared promptly.

At the time, Margaret Thatcher was the new Prime Minister of Britain and she was shaking the old socialist state up a bit. Whether I agreed with any particular policy of that ‘Iron Lady,’ or not, was irrelevant. I liked her style. She did not suffer fools. She was not afraid to act on her convictions. She was consistently well informed and always appeared to have her eye on the bigger picture and her hand on the tiller. And she reminded me of three people in very different ways. One was them Mrs. Wilson and one was Miss Lawrence. The other was my mother.

 

I see that The Keeper of the Dead was actually written in early 1979 and published in 1980. So my memory of the sequence of events is not perfect, but it is still about right.

This was a simple enough tale to begin with, but as with almost everything I wrote, it complicated itself along the way. I had wanted to write something about Tim Bailey from the very first. Long before he died. But even his first heart attack didn’t inspire me. Quite the opposite. And following his wake in June of 1978, I felt unable to think of him in the way that I often dealt with other characters built on the people I had known. Following on the stunning blow of Roger Terrill’s death, for instance, I had the advantage of more than half a book already written while we were actually on the road together, and then immediately afterward, I had that raw material to return to and finish. With Tim I had nothing. Every note I had previously set down in an attempt to put him on paper had been tossed away out of irritation with myself over missing the mark.

And then, in that utterly magical trick that the mind works within itself, this reversed entirely. In an instant. One afternoon I was sitting in Prospect Park with Sarah and quite irritated that our romantically planned picnic lunch, in a spot we especially liked high up the rise at the edge of the trees, was being disturbed by the persistent efforts of a sweating and scrawny fellow atop a riding-mower as he attempted to cut the grass at the edges of a stone abutment.

For his part, I saw that he was really quite happy. He was obviously whistling up a storm as he went along, but we could not hear a note of it over the sound of the machine. On his head he was wearing a pair of winter earmuffs beneath a soiled New York Yankees baseball cap. Sweat darkened his green Park Service shirt in splotches that at first reminded me of Miss Lawrence, my old high school English teacher. Then that one note of visual imagery caught at another. The entire tale felt like it was written within the few seconds after.

I will tell you a bit more of that story here because the book has been out of print for nearly twenty years now, and did not sell well enough at the time, but is still a favorite of mine.

I reimagined my friend Tim as a Vietnam vet, like the scarred and one-eyed Korean vet that he was, but working as a groundskeeper at an old New England graveyard. All summer long he cut the grass between the gravestones. In the fall he cleared the leaves. In the winter he plowed the paths for the few visitors. In the spring he cleared the fallen branches and planted new shrubs and flowers. His name in the story was Daniel Pratt and he was the son of Alden Pratt and the grandson of Ashton Pratt, who was in turn the son of another Alden Pratt before him. The stone markers for the graves of his own family were all gathered close there, one plot amongst the hundreds of others, in the midst of the thousands of headstones that played out in rows across the uneven land, shadowed by the massive oaks and sycamores which had grown large on the nutrients in the soil.

Occasionally, on days that were particularly cold and gray, when close-by the brown stone marker where his brother had been buried after a car accident, Daniel would study a particular empty swath of lawn with his good eye and remind himself that was the place that would one day be his.

Tim Bailey was an odd fellow, actually a member of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, but in more ways than that one. I decided to work as much of this into my story about Daniel as I could because Daniel was a generous sort who had lost a sense of caring about himself as well as the feeling in the right side of his face, and spent all of the emotion he could manage without pain on others. He lived alone in a small house by the raised bed of an old rail line which was no longer used but afforded him a quick means of getting to work, because it also passed directly by his destination at the Mt. Calvary Cemetery. For this and other reasons he saw few people from day to day. And, with his face disfigured by shrapnel in the war, the one blue glass eye not quite matched in color and looking back at him from the mirror each morning with an unhappy cast within a bed of sallow skin, his reflection displeased him because of the disquiet his face caused in others. He kept his distance when he could.

Nevertheless, two others kept their eyes on him.

One was Julietta Noyes. She had gone through grade school with Daniel, and loved him ever since, but had been rebuffed after his return from the war in Vietnam and had kept her distance as a consequence, all the while hoping he might come to accept his scars if given time. My Julietta was, of course, none other than Hildred Lawrence in thin disguise. She also taught English as the high school of my mythical New England town that looked strangely like the Hingham, Massachusetts that I was somewhat familiar with. The construction of my story was based on a mystery which I had in fact encountered for myself at a graveyard one time when I was doing research for Head Island, more than ten years before. I had never found the time to follow up on the puzzle.

Near the entrance to the same graveyard in Quincy where my mother’s family are buried, there is a newer stone for a young fellow who had died in May of 1969. Further to the back of that place, and closer to the family plot of the MacAleers, there is another stone, also clearly new. This one, unlike the other, was often marked by a small pot of fresh flowers in season, and interestingly, the date of death is the identical May 19th, 1969. Both of the occupants of the two graves were born in 1953. To have died on the same day in the same town seemed to me to be a terrible coincidence.

My character Daniel is, as I have said, odd in more ways than one. The cemetery is large and takes more time to keep neat and trim than the 40 hours a week he is paid for. He works most days from dawn till dusk. And this situation is only made worse by his deliberate habits as he goes about his chores, always careful not to bump the stones with the hand-pushed gas mower he uses for the close work rather than the riding mower he applies to the ‘fairways’ as he called them. He carefully moves the potted flowers left by families, and then replacing them and fixes the flags of the veterans which have fallen in the wind. And this deliberate process is made slower still because he talks to the dead as he goes. He knows many of them well, and addresses them, according to his own intuitions, by first or last names.

“Good morning, Angela. I see your mother brought geraniums on Sunday. They are a really splendid pink! Not at all delicate. Even a tomboy like you shouldn’t be ashamed of wearing them . . . Hello, Henry! We can fix that veterans tag right up, but the brass needs a brushing. It’s just a little loose there on the post . . . Mrs. Stetson! What I have here is a genuine begonia. Right from Paley’s. Not big. Not showy. Discreet, I’d call it.”

He often spent as much as twenty dollars a week on flowers, even after the discount that Mrs. Paley gave him. Too many of the graves—in fact, most—were neglected by the families of the dead.

Daniel’s hobby for years had been to go to the public library or the Historical Society and look up the names for people he did not already know. Many of those could not be found there, but for the ones he could trace, he took notes and wrote short biographies, connecting them to any history of their own moment or the present that struck him as interesting, and these short essays he then sent in to the local newspaper. It was his belief that there was always a story to be found if he looked for it . . . Henry Cushing had survived on birds’ eggs for two months after crash landing on a small Pacific atoll in 1943. Ezekiel Dodge had died of apoplexy in 1799. What exactly was apoplexy? He explained that. Dorothy Loud had been a great beauty from 1810 to 1912, married four times, and lived to be 102 years old. She bore fourteen children by her first three husbands, each of whom died at war. What sense of life had allowed her to overcome such tragedy as that and persevere?

This column, ‘Reading the Stones’, had been a regular feature in the weekend edition of the Gazette since he started doing it, and was even more appreciated for the fact that Daniel never asked for payment from the newspaper even though it had proved to be the most popular item for older residents of the town, other than the sports pages.

Then, one day, Daniel looks twice at a particular grave.

“What’s this? Who are you, Russell Willett? January 15, 1941 to May 30, 1959. Just before my time, really. I didn’t care about anything in 1959 except for the Town Hockey and the Red Sox. I got to see Ted Williams play that year. Did you? I might have known you, if you’d stuck around for another ten years . . . But where’s your family? The Willett plot is over there beyond the sycamores. You must be a different Willett, I guess. And nobody is looking after you, I can see. I’ll cut this grass out of there and then you’ll be able to get a little better view all around. You were just a little too young to have been a veteran, weren’t you? But that date . . . That date sure looks familiar.”

Mowing the grass and whistling his way on through the graveyard, Daniel kept the date in his head for weeks until he found the match. Another grave, far from the first, had the same exact date. The person buried there, was seventeen, just like the Russell Willett. Her name was Deborah. A good strong name. One boy and one girl. The coincidence took him to the library and the micro-filmed pages of the Gazette for that month in 1959.

Deborah Anne Stetson had died swimming in the harbor. Late at night, after the school prom. Russell Willett had died in a car accident the same evening. However, the coincidence did not end there. The address given for each was only two blocks from the other. They were both just graduating from the high school. According to the paper, Russell had been a member of the football team. Deborah had been a cheerleader. They undoubtedly had known each other and Daniel now wondered how well and if there were more connections to the two accidental deaths on that same awful day. He thought it was actually more curious that even the Gazette did not make the connection at the time.

In his weekly newspaper article that week, Daniel ran the accounts of both and then the question: was there anyone still in town who knew them and could explain the coincidence any further?

The rest of the story involves the resolution of that mystery, and the justice brought to another character unhappy with Daniel’s persistent pursuit of an answers. But more importantly, it is about the emotional realization by Daniel that he has not died within and that he can in fact care for himself again, as Julietta Noyes already does, and he for her. Simple enough, I thought.

Not so.

Pat Norris had been a nurse at Boston City Hospital. She had met Tim Bailey for the first time after he came home from Korea when he had attended therapeutic sessions at the Hospital to relieve the pains that lingered from his several injuries. They became friends.

Pat was an exceptional nurse. She took her job as an avocation and not as work. But Tim had not been able to accept the idea that Pat might love him for something more than his damages. He had seen this before. He had even witnessed the emotional ties of other soldiers to their nurses. He understood compassion but could not fathom how it was that the nurses found these battered souls appealing. He did not want pity.

Pat knew her work, however. She waited. Twelve years, in all. Calling him on his birthday. Sending cards at Christmas. Writing him long letters about her own job and how she was doing.

I had learned of all of this at Timothy Bailey’s wake. And that story was right in front of my eyes and I didn’t see it until I saw that fellow cutting the grass at Prospect Park.

‘When there is no one else to care, I’ve made that task mine to share, to trim the trespass of grassy edges, recall the weathered names and dates and pledges, right the fallen stones when needed, and place my heart with flowers there.’

 

I have not forgotten about Mrs. Wilson, or Margaret Thatcher or indeed, my mother. The way stories come to mind is a complicated process and beyond any precise explanation, but at least I can relate the obvious.

My first mystery did not sell well. I won’t attempt to guess the why of that. But I was determined to work in that genre for the time being. I liked the structure of it. As is often the case, a ready structure offers a great deal of freedom in other aspects, like meter and rhyme can do for verse. With most other novels, the context of the story must be established from the ground up in order to relate the actions of the characters. This establishing process can take much of the energy out of a simple tale, so all sorts of devices are added, attached, hung, hooked, and tied on to give weight and motive power. And that is like taking the Rolls Royce on a trip to the grocery store. It is an extravagance of unrelated detail that’s just isn’t necessary. Not in my mind. In a mystery, someone is in danger. Someone has been killed. The momentum of the tale is life and death. You can hang a nice little story on that and not worry that it won’t carry the weight. Your purpose is not the puzzle but a viable portrait of the people involved. Readers just have to like the story enough to follow along. I suppose my relation of Daniel Pratt’s adventure in Keeper of the Dead did not catch the right note with some. Or many. But I liked it nonetheless.

My editor at Doubleday had liked it as well, but she thought I might need to repeat the recipe again if I wanted to build a following. I objected. Daniel was not a detective. He was not about to go investigating every murder in the graveyard. At least not to my mind. Not then.

 

Shortly after this I was visiting South Boston. Sarah was with me, for the first time, on my home ground. My mother seemed to be immediately taken with her and they spent much of the two days at the kitchen table drinking coffee and talking.

For my part, I was in the throes of deciding what to do about The Fore-edge. I hid in the parlor where I could be easily addressed with a shout, but was isolated enough to concentrate on my self-made problems. Above me on the false mantel that framed the disused coal grate hearth were each of my own books, apparently unread. I had watched them there as they accumulated through the years. Nearer the window to 6th Street was a small oak bookcase with several odds and ends and among them the old and battered copy of MacManus’s Story of the Irish Race that had come to our house after my grandfather had passed. Idly, I picked it up.

Just about at that moment, my father came down the stairs. He was officially retired then, his added weight fell heavily on his right leg at every step, and he was not apparently any happier than he had ever been. He saw me there in the parlor and came in and sat down.

“How’s the new book selling?”

“Don’t know. It didn’t get much attention.”

“It’s a good book. Don’t worry about it.”

I was surprise by the implication of his words. “Did you read it?”

His hand gestured up at the mantel.

“I read them all.”

Now, I was not aware of my father ever lying to me outright. Hedging at times, exaggerating when necessary. But never the outright untruth.

“You’ve never said anything to me about any of them before.”

“No. Well, that’s about you more than me. You always ran off and did the opposite thing to whatever I said. I figured you were doing well enough, without me poking into that business.”

This made me cry. An extraordinary thing. Right there in front of my father I had tears in my eyes that I had to push away to see clearly.

I said, “I’m sorry.”

He was nonplussed.

“Nothing to be sorry about. It’s the way it is. ” He hesitated a moment, “Has your mother ever said anything?”

“Once. Maybe twice. She was unhappy with the sex scene in one of them.”

“She had a right. That sort of thing is embarrassing to read. I know it’s the way now, but it’s pointless. No one is going to ever get that sort of thing right on paper.”

I was now stunned. In a matter of a few moments I had received my first critical comment from my father concerning my work, apparently positive, and then a jab.

I said, “Maybe I’ll get it right someday.”

He said, “Not likely. What a man and a woman do in bed is not the story of anything. The beginning, maybe. Or the end. Just the way of the world. It could have been the thing that happened before or after, but that’s off stage, as they say, isn’t it? I think they put it in nowadays for the pornographic value. It draws a certain type. Not your mother. Nor me.”

This was about the longest comment on anything I can remember my father ever making. And he seemed to have considered it well.

I said, “Yes, sir.”

He said, “What they don’t write about now—well, you do, I know, but the rest of what I see down at the library these days is pretty tawdry stuff—what I don’t see is stories about people trying to make a life of it and what they find along the way.”

I was then first aware that since his retirement, my father had started walking down to the South Boston Branch of the Boston Public Library on Broadway and sitting there to read for several hours at a time.

Attempting to sound objective about a subject I had ranted over a dozen times in print, I said, “I guess that’s not movie worthy material. There’s no Star Wars in that.”

“No. Just people. You want some lunch? I was going to go over to L Street for awhile, but I need a bite first. The blood sugar is down . . . What’s that in your lap?”

Story of the Irish Race.”

“Now that’s a story.” He nodded the confirmation of his words. “Men were men, then. And women were women. The sex is brief and the grudges long.”

I was surprised yet again, “Have you read this too?”

An eyebrow actually curled on that steady face, bent against the doubt in my voice.

“Some.”

I was now suddenly and once again reconsidering a lot of what I had thought about my father. This time as if another human being had come to occupy his body without getting rid of the first. Like the very opposite of a body snatcher. But I couldn’t just say that, so I said, “It was another planet then, I think. Could be something in a Star Wars.”

“No,” he nodded back his thought about it, before his words came. “It’s just men and women in that as well. But I always had trouble keeping the names apart, myself. I recall when you first had that book out years ago, at your granddad’s. You were quite taken with your own name just then. Your mother thought it was cute.”

Still being flabbergasted, I admitted, “I was.”

“You’ve done well by it. Do you want a beer with your sandwich?”

I nodded as he went back to the kitchen. I could hear my mother’s voice asking him a question to confirm a date for something. Her voice nearly had a lilt to it as she spoke to Sarah about me and one childhood incident or another and in the short bark of his baritone Dad offered single word confirmations to her remembrances.

And right there Danann Dalriata was born. Right out of the air.

Detective Dalriata, was middle aged, finally promoted after years of being overlooked because she was a woman and now being promoted because of her gender and the new quotas that the politics of the times demanded and as angry at that as she was for simply being overlooked before. Her previous superior has just retired. She had been his brains all along in any case, and he had kept her on his team because of it. I envisioned her as that inexact mix between Margret Thatcher, Mrs. Wilson, and my mother. She solves cases with intelligence rather than muscle.

Dalriata is a mother, and a wife. The normal aspects of her personal life are in constant contrast to the grim of her police work. That was the set piece of it: the normalcy of her daily home life set against the abnormal world of violence she tried to subdue. Unlike my Daniel Pratt story, it caught the fancy of a fair readership. All of the books sold well. The movie option was renewed several times before it was finally dropped. But then, Hollywood had never had a serious interest in female leads, especially in series.

The critics varied. Feminists seemed unable to get their ideological arms around the fact that Danny was happily married. Social reformers wanted her to take on ‘bigger causes’ instead of investigating the individual cause of a murder and the darker places of an individual human heart. My editor at St. Martins repeatedly put forward ideas for combining the two options. I give her credit for trying. But that kind of alchemy was not my interest. The gold I sought was in the more common places. And that series paid a lot of bills.

 

What has kept me writing so long after the sales of my books have fallen to the few thousand who had developed some medically undetected virus for my stuff (or was it an immunity to the virus instead?) I cannot say. Habits don’t change so easily, even when exposed to the antiseptic of common sense. And habits of the heart are even more resistant to a vaccination of reason.

I have had nine publishers through the years and I am grateful to them all. I was never actually treated badly. In return, I was not so fine myself, however, in so far as my not giving them what they wanted. Gerard Strauss would likely be publishing me today if I had not been so difficult. (Or at least his son would be.) I’ve never heard of the firm dropping an author cold, even after Gerard’s death, when they sold the company to the Germans.

That’s a funny thing, too.

Funny, if you think of the 18-year-old private Gerard shivering in the cold of that monastery cellar, keeping himself alive with a small portion of his K-rations supplemented by rat meat and copious quantities of hundred-year-old brandy while sharing what he had with his female cellar mates, all while the Germans waged war over his head; to consider then that firm which was his life’s work had been sold off to the children of his former enemy. Or would he have thought of it that way at all? Would he have forgiven, and seen the turn of events as kismet if not a sort of karma? I’m not sure.

However, something else my father said that day of my visit with Sarah long ago rang true. And the fact that he was then going regularly to the library to read in the afternoons brought other thoughts on the meaning of that. The story was the people, not the plot. The plot was merely the excuse to show the people for who they were. No more than the cemetery plot is any true reflection of the soul of the one interred.

 

 

 

 

  1. Wandering the Chesterfields; unwritten letters to my son (or daughter)

 

 

            I started smoking Chesterfield cigarettes when I was sixteen. I had the idea that it was the thing to do, probably taken from the four-color ads on the back covers of the magazines I’d found at Tim’s barbershop. Jack Webb smoked them. So did Willy Mays. In fact, even Rod Serling smoked them on Twilight Zone, so they had to be the better brand. I had no idea if they were or not, but I could never smoke anything else and enjoy it as much.

I quit smoking when I was 30. Sarah did not smoke, and when she tried to pick up the habit from me, probably as a way to offset my stink (like my eating more garlic because she liked it on nearly everything she ate except ice cream) I saw it might be better for the both of us if I simply quit instead.

I do know that shortly after Sarah’s death, I bought a small used edition of Lord Chesterfield’s Selected Letters along with an auction lot of other books and my interest, sparked by the name alone rather than the insistent reference to the work by other writers, caused me to pull it out to read for the first time myself. You hear about Lord Chesterfield’s letters to his son, and occasionally see some of that sage advice repeated, but I knew nothing about the man, or his son. Perhaps I had it in the back of my head that I was going to pick up on smoking again as well, now that it no longer mattered.

Philip Dormer Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield (September 22, 1694 to March 24, 1773) was not a philosopher, but an ambassador, a King’s Council, a statesman who opposed the majority, and a wit strong enough of mind to consort with philosophers. But he did not pose for himself some problem of thought and then seek the solution. He was a practical man and dealt with the realities he faced, just as they were. And did so better than most.

My own appreciation of Lord Chesterfield, aside from his cigarettes, begins with his justice toward the people of Ireland when he was Viceroy there. And then for his long support of Samuel Johnson, in spite of Johnson’s petty turn against him. For his appreciation of Montesquieu. And his independence of action and thought in the House of Lords, a circumstance where few others had the grit. I especially like his wry sense of humor, worthy of a P. G. Wodehouse, as in the name given to his own opposition faction when he joined with William Pitt, “The Broad Bottom party,” called that for the series of essays Stanhope wrote under the name “Jeffrey Broadbottom,’ in opposition to King George II. The list of accomplishments is long. That Charles Dickens didn’t like the man, given all there was to begrudge in eighteenth century England, bespeaks more of the human flaws of that great fabricator than of his object of ridicule, I think.

Most famously, Lord Chesterfield wrote that series of letters to his illegitimate but acknowledged son over a period of thirty years, only ending upon his beloved Philip’s premature death. For a few months after reading the selected letters I sketched out the beginnings of an historical novel in epistolary form, centering on the Lord’s love affair with Madelina Elizabeth du Bouchet, the mother of Philip, and ending with his son’s impoverished widow Eugenia selling those letters that her husband had received from his father and kept, in order to support herself. (To the everlasting benefit of us all, I should say.) It seemed a wonderfully tragic story and deserving of something good.

I had always been frustrated over the failure of my first and unpublished attempt at the epistolary novel, Desperado Lover, about that erstwhile Methodist and killer, John Wesley Hardin. Thankfully, after a short time and with thus less effort wasted, it was clear to me that I was not the man to write this tragedy either—not only because I would need to go to England and France to get out the details to make it full, but because I was constantly irritated with that eighteenth century patrician point of view (what put Dickens off of the Lord as well, I suppose) which was so common to the upper classes then, even to the best of minds. It is one thing to have the tones delivered on the sweet breath of Mr. Wodehouse’s prose, and another to receive it from the horse’s mouth, so to speak.

As often happened, what reading I did for the project led on to other things, however, and also to odd thoughts about my own lack of paternity—that is, about my role as father to the children I never had.

Much of this came out in Billington Again, set against the same period of time with Lord Chesterfield and the second of the books in that series, and still unpublished I am saddened to say. As much as it alludes to the two of those mysteries that were published, I can save the recapitulation here, but the facts of the story which relate best to my own spoiled hopes for fatherhood show that I had a great deal of trepidation and fear for myself in that regard. I could not then so much blame Sarah for what was, but myself for not doing something else about it.

I do remember some such thoughts in my head as I wrote the book, and in retrospect it is once again disappointing that I did not do more when I was able. At least to get the story published at the time. Perhaps by a university press. Or to adopt some kid or two who needed more than a foster home. Better that than nothing.

The key characters in Billington Again, Abby and her daughter Etta, were slaves owned by Henry Macauber. John Billington has effected their manumission through a subterfuge and then given them a physical home and refuge at his bookshop, even as his own fortunes are damaged by war and the British embargo. In the midst of defending himself against various suspicions that he had been a spy for the British during the occupation, John has also undertaken the project to teach both mother and daughter to read and write. Meanwhile, Abby has continued to do what she believes she must to survive in the havoc of Boston in 1776 and eventually secure her own independence as well as that of her daughter.

In the first of the Billington books, John’s life had previously been ‘spoiled,’ or so he thinks, by the loss of his ‘true love’ who had run off with his best friend to the west of Pennsylvania in order to escape the war. John is clearly unsure there whether it is the loss of her that makes him so unhappy, or the loss of his friend. (A common theme, you see.) Now, in Billington Again, never having been a soldier and not even used to the rigors of hunting, John must kill Macauber to realize the freedom of Abby and Etta. The bookseller must turn to murder.

So the situation is simple enough. We have a lovelorn bachelor bookseller and social outcast for his family heritage who is in near financial ruin and under suspicion of being a spy for the British, befriending a slave in hiding from the long legal arm of her owner. In an effort to protect her young daughter amidst a ravaged Boston, with war all around and traitors in their midst, the slave has been surviving by prostitution, folk nostrums and midwifery, even while some believe her to be a witch for her skills among the other poor blacks of the city. So far, so good. Is that so hard to believe?

Now add this: I wanted it to be a love story without sex.

Not so good, I was told. My agent at the time, after arguing for an extra chapter to be written and inserted in the appropriate place (so to speak), sent the story out reluctantly. This after my original publisher for the first of the Billington novels had rejected the book on grounds of the previous book’s poor sales. The publishers who willingly read it afterwards (there were some I attempted to strong-arm based on past associations) usually sent disrespectful notes in return. Typically, three or four lines amidst the typical boiler plate.

Condensed, the comments amounted to, “You expect readers to believe that a horny white guy would not take advantage of such a situation, especially if he loved her. There is no pay-off!” They all liked the relationship with the daughter, however. An editor at Athenaeum suggested that I turn that alone into a children’s book.

The agent sent the novel back and I put it in a box and sent it home to South Boston along with various of the other uncorrected, unfinished, or unsold manuscripts I have a habit of keeping.

But the matter that occurs to me here and now is that I think there is a desensitizing that has taken place. Violence and sex go hand in hand in the current zeitgeist. What I sought was a simpler violence done out of hate and lost love. Something more elemental if not elementary.

With the danger of the evil Macauber finally overcome, Abby and Etta apply with the Town Clerk in Boston to take John’s last name of Billington. Though John has never had any sexual relationship with Abby, mother and daughter both love him. His own feeling toward Etta has become that of a father. But the news of the application gets around. New scandal erupts. John offers to marry Abby, and she refuses, knowing that no priest will perform the ceremony because of her race. That evening while on her way home, Etta, now sixteen and known to be the daughter of a whore, is raped by two brothers who themselves are the illegitimate sons of a tavern maid that Abby had once helped save as a midwife when she was first brought to Boston by Macauber many years before.

Frustrated by life in general and his failed efforts to do what he thinks is right in particular, as well as knowing that no justice will come to Etta otherwise, John hunts the rapists down. Having killed once before, he has no compunction. He throws the first, who cannot swim, into the harbor to drown. The other runs away, leaving Boston. (I thought he might come back to haunt John another day, if the opportunity arose in a third book, which it did with Billington Says.)

I think that it was the ending of my subplot that may have sealed the fate of the story. “A downer” they called it. But I saw no hope of happiness for Abby or Etta in the situation. (Any more than I have ever believed that Trudy went on to find happiness.) I was insistent, however, on the importance of the other ideas that I had worked within the book. John exposes the true traitors in their midst, those who had accused him of treason and that same admixture of elitists and absolutists which infect our society to this day. In a final chapter I note that John remains a loyal friend, introducing Etta to the ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment while Abby teaches her daughter the craft of medicine, but that both mother and daughter die in a smallpox outbreak in Worcester 1787, just in the midst of Shay’s Rebellion, even as three-fifths of the Republic of their dreams is being born.

 

I was aware of my desire for children, especially during the first years of my marriage, but I knew from speaking about the subject too often that it bothered Sarah in ways that I supposed I could not comprehend. Time passed, as it will, and the wish had been buried long before. Perhaps more easily, given my selfish preoccupations.

Instead, as a venting of those frustrations, I wrote Star Traveller, a science fiction novel in letters written by a man who fears that he might be the last living member of his race. In that story Martin Fields is returning home from a mission to Alpha Centauri B, after some years of commanding an AI corps of assorted robots, and having no human associates. His greatest desire now is to be among other people. He has even harbored some hope when he set out that there could be a woman somewhere at the end of his final journey who might accept him. But having been awakened following some unknown collision in space, he discovers that he has lost control over the means to place himself back into ‘deep sleep’ for the remainder of the journey. He knows too, given his new speed, and the distance and the time necessary, that he will not live to reach his destination.

This crises is further darkened as he deciphers the last messages received, which indicate that there has been a war in the solar system that was his home. His accident may not have been random, in fact, and there has only been silence since. He does not know now that there are still survivors of the civilization that has meant so much to him.

His letters then, are written, and sent, one each day, to children he does not have, will likely never have, while his abiding hope for them is the only thing that keeps him alive.

At least Star Traveller was well received.

            Lord Chesterfield, or is daughter-in-law, had the right idea, after all. Cigarettes were a passing fad. The market for letters were a better bet. And his, at least, are still worth reading today.

 

 

 

 

  1. Del Sarto’s Lament (the Browning version),

and MacGahan’s regrets

 

 

How do you feel compassion for someone who knows so much and heeds so little? It seems to me that we all bear the grudges of our own work. The case against Andrea del Sarto is likely unfair. It was made by his pupil, an apprentice who achieved his fame among artists not by his own art but by writing about his betters. In any event, Del Sarto was likely an average fellow in every way but one. He was a genius! Known in his own lifetime as an artist senza errori (without error). His true failing was not his besotted love for his Lucrezia but to have been born at the same moment in time as da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael! How does one excel perfection?

I often hear that same jealousy manifest in the words of Browning’s dramatic monologue about the painter and his love, and wonder how the artist managed such an anxiety—or the poet. In Browning’s case, despite Tennyson of course, and Matthew Arnold, he had reached the heaven he could grasp in the hand of Elizabeth Barrett (“Your soft hand is a woman of itself”). Poor del Sarto could only envisage such perfection, and did, over and again, as if the wish were the command. But his Lucrezia had her own interests at heart.

Did he steal the coin of the French King as accused? Really? As likely as a King can buy heaven! Del Sarto’s biographer, the great Vasari, doomed to be a mere spectator, must have felt the greater jealousy for this common fellow, a tailor’s son, risen by magic to the ranks of the immortals. The maggot that spoiled the meat of the matter was Lucrezia, the demanding, the unfaithful, the scold . . . Or was she? Had she indeed turned down Vasari’s own advances while the master was away? Had “the serpentining beauty, rounds on rounds” refused the sorcerer’s apprentice and thus gained immortal damnation in print? This is what is written.

When I attempted to re-write the story from Lucrezia’s point of view, however, the Browning poem itself changed completely in nature to me. A young and beautiful widow who had little choice between whoring to pay the family bills or sitting as a model for an artist who adored the ‘perfect brow, and perfect eyes, and more than perfect mouth, and the low voice my soul hears, as a bird the fowler’s pipe, and follows to the snare,’ so much so, he would happily marry her. Perhaps she did not love him, but he did love her. Wasn’t that enough?

Del Sarto comes away the better man. Mortal and in awe.

“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” you say. When Browning first saw del Sarto’s Portrait of a Woman with a Volume of Petrarch, in Florence, with his own Elizabeth at his side, he must have known that answer.

I imagine Browning reading the brief life of the artist as written by the pupil Vasari and being at first disappointed. How do those words that depict the man who is described as ‘soft’ and ‘of little spirit,’ then reconcile with the painter who was so admired by his contemporaries—much less the genius in that portrait? I believe it must have been the very conflict of what the poet saw with his own eyes in that painting and what he had read about the painter in Giorgio Vasari’s The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, that made the poem possible. Conflict is the source of all art, they say.

I set my story in several acts, like a play. No! More like an opera. I had a recording of Puccini’s Tosca with Maria Callas just then that I played while I wrote, played until the groove hissed in complaint, the Italian not interfering at all, but the music doing good work on me. Life with Sarah then was too peaceful to manage such a drama as I reimagined it, without some additional turmoil for inspiration. I think I might have even wished it were a play I was writing instead, but I had had so little luck with getting any of that work produced, I finally kept it as a short novel.

The first scene of act one is set in the rooms of the young Andrea del Sarto where he is living with his buddies and fellow painters Francia Bigio (Franciabigio ) and Jacopo Sansovino. They are full of themselves and the future. They swear their fealty to art and to each other—forever! Their rivalry and their friendship is established. I should add here that I was imagining Francia as the virile young fellow as seen in his own Portrait of a Young Man Writing, and Andrea as his equal in that artist’s self-posed Portrait of a Sculptor. Look at those faces if you get the chance. (No need for a pilgrimage to Florence these days. The internet will transport you in seconds.) You will see the men they were!

The second scene is then set just after the premature unveiling of Francia Bigio’s fresco, Marriage of the Virgin, on the cloister wall of the Convent of the Servites. He realizes the unfinished creation will be judged in comparison to del Sarto’s just completed work, Birth of the Virgin, which is nearby and the embarrassment so enrages him that he tries to destroy his own effort with a mason’s hammer, only to be restrained in the act by the friars.

The next act is played in front of the ruin of Franciabigio’s fresco, which has been left as it was, a stain on the artist’s career, while del Sarto has risen further in fame. And it is there that del Sarto sees the widowed Lucrezia, whom he has already met as a model in the studio where she has been sitting for Bigio. He thus knows of her beauty but not that his friend is in love with her though tongue tied and overcome by his own passions. Nor that she has refused Bigio’s previous advances made without testament of love.

Andrea del Sarto sees Lucrezia’s face as she stares up at his friend’s damaged work, shedding tears (she has posed for the face of the Virgin that Bigio hammered away and she thinks the disfigurement was really done because he hated her). In her, del Sarto sees the Madonna weeping for her lost son. The vision enchants him. Then and there Andrea falls in love with her himself.

Wanting time with her to make his own case, he asks her to sit for him as well. The next scene is again in the studio. Andrea is asking Lucrezia to marry him, and she accepts. The debts of her family are weighing on her and she has lost hope that Bigio will ever forgive her for not letting him sleep with her. All the while, Bigio watches from the wings. The idea there was that the reader should assume that Bigio will break out into a rage once more at any moment. But instead, in shame, he does not and only slinks away.

In the next act, with del Sarto having succumbed to his own fame, that rage is finally realized when Bigio comes to the small apartment that is home for del Sarto and his wife, Lucrezia, and finds that Andrea is away—as he often has been—this time on his infamous assignment to the King of France. Her loneliness is clear. Jealousy and pent-up lust combine. She submits, but is immediately distraught and humiliated by what she has done. She understands now that Bigio, unable to confess his love, has let it turn to spite. And just then, having begged for months over and again, for del Sarto to return, he at last comes home, and sees what has happened. The two men fight to the point of killing one another. Bigio, the stronger, overcomes del Sarto, but then, suddenly aware what has become of himself, he leaves, shamed once again.

In a coda to that climax, Del Sarto, wandering the rooms in shock, looks at the hundreds of portraits he had done of Lucrezia that are all about them and understands what his pursuit of fame has done to his life.

“Why do I need you?” he says “What wife had Rafael or Michelangelo? . . . God and the glory! never care for gain. The present by the future, what is that? Live side by side with Michelangelo! Rafael is waiting up to God for all three of us! ” He turns to his disheveled wife, who has followed him while trying to find the words to excuse herself.

He says, much as Browning had it, “I might have done it for you. So it seems. Perhaps not. All is as God over rules.”

He chooses to stay in Florence then, in spite of promises to the King to return to Paris. He builds Lucrezia a better home with the money the King had advanced him. At last his love of the woman is greater than his love of immortality.

In the final scene, weak with the plague that is ravaging the city, del Sarto reviews his life in a delirium which encompasses much more of the Browning poem. Lucrezia, afeared of the sickness, has abandoned him. All that he has of her now are the paintings.

Who was the woman, after all?—the one he had tried to capture in paint (and did so splendidly) or the one who had abandoned him at last. Do we know? I think so.

 

That book did not sell well. It was poorly reviewed, the most common complaint being that I had so liberally used the lines from the Browning poem (I don’t think any of them had ever read it before or they would have understood that the poet had in turn borrowed liberally from Vasari). It was called a ‘soap opera,’ by a few, as a pejorative. I took the single word from that as a compliment and moved on.

Sarah was always very much enamored of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. So much so that she made me save for a trip to Italy so that we could go to Florence and see the place where the two great poets lived when they were there. I was already working in the shadow of Robert Browning’s dramatic monologues and trying to do something of the kind in prose. I was easy to convince. But it was not quite the Browning version that I rendered out of the experience.

We went off-season, in the fall—October 1987—just before the Christmas rush at the store. This had already become our favorite time of the year to travel. A quiet time. Much in the spirit of Sarah herself, who would rather listen to the mutter of the wind at the sills than to the sound of her own voice. How, in turn, had she taken to such a fellow as me, who can never shut up!

 

I’m thinking I’d like to write a book about a reporter. One from back in those times when a journalist might think the facts were more important than the politics. One who would put his life up against getting it right. And one who could really write.

Januarius Aloysius MacGahan died at the age of thirty-three (almost thirty-four). As some few men do, he had done more by that age than half a dozen who live the full four score. Alexander is said to have died as young. And Jesus Christ. I would put MacGahan closer to Christ.

He was born in New Lexington, Ohio in June of 1844. Of Irish stock. (Hard to figure where the January came into the matter, unless he was born quite premature.) He died in Istanbul, Turkey in June of 1878. Typhoid is a very hard way to die, from what I’ve read. But it is the in-between that counts, isn’t it? What he did, instead. Unsure of what he might accomplish with his life, he studied a little law and a lot of languages (he spoke fluently in seven by the end, I believe) and wrote in several. Good enough. Well enough to be famous at the age of twenty-seven. But you’ve never heard of Januarius Aloysius MacGahan, have you? Fame is fleeting. Go ask a Bulgarian.

In the right place, Germany, at the right time, 1870, where he was . . . What? Studying German, I think, and in need of funds. MacGahan wrangled a bit of work through an acquaintance, General Phil Sheridan (this was a young man who made friends easily, no matter their rank), who happened to be advising the Germans during their brief war with France. He became a special (as in you are already here and we don’t have anyone else available) correspondent with The New York Herald. As it turned out, the right man for the job, his dispatches describing the rout of the French went viral at a time when the word meant something, being picked up by all the papers. He stayed on in the aftermath of that to cover the revolt of the Paris Commune, and was nearly shot for his trouble and only saved at the last moment (with the parting cigarette already placed between his lips). Soon enough, at the request of France (wanting to be rid of someone who could not be relied upon to lie for his own gain), he was reassigned to St. Petersburg in 1871. This was the Russian summer of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, Chekov and Turgenev. But MacGahan did not stay put. While recovering from a riding accident near Yalta, he met his Barbara, Varvara Nikolaevna Elagina. She also was a writer, and journalist. I’m thinking their letters through winter and summer of 1872 were hot. When things got hotter again in 1873, they married. I can’t find a picture of her, but I’ll bet she was his match. I know they had a son named Paul, but before he was born, MacGahan was off again to cover the Russian invasion of Khiva, a dry place I never knew there was. (It’s now in Uzbekistan, a place with one foot in Afghanistan.) The reporter’s account of this desert journey, Campaigning on the Oxus and the Fall of Khiva, was a bestseller in 1874.

From there he was soon off to Spain, to cover the Third Carlist War (or was it the second?) of 1874. In either case the peasants were getting screwed and were thus revolting, as peasants often are, and for good reasons. The pretender, Carlos, didn’t make it to the top, in either event. But MacGahan covered that.

In 1875, MacGahan went for a cruise on the steam yacht, HMS Pandora, in search of the fabled Northwest Passage, a mania of the time. They didn’t find their way but he got another book out of his time spent Under the Northern Lights.

1876 was a larger year. The Turks were again busy killing tens of thousands of Bulgarians who didn’t want to convert. MacGahan covered that for the London Daily News (by then he’d told William Gordon Bennett of the Herald to go jump in the Seine). His description of the massacres riveted the world. In response, Russia came to the rescue of that country in 1877, and MacGahan’s articles kept Britain from entering the war on Turkey’s behalf. Bulgaria won its freedom.

All in all, a good life’s work. For a reporter.

But which story should I tell? The steam yacht in danger of crushing ice and a frozen death? My hands hurt just thinking about it. Or his crossing alone of the desert of Kyzyl–Kum to see for himself what the Russians were doing there? No, perhaps a bit too much of Colonel T. E. Lawrence to that. Had he learned to speak Basque as he followed the rebels on the banks of the Ebro out of the Cantabrian Mountains? Hemingway had done some of that in For Whom the Bell Tolls, had he not? Could I bear to deal with the slaughter at the church in Batak during the Bulgarian revolt, as he had? Even if I used his words? No, I’m not so brave within sight of blood. How about his days ferreting through the barricades of the Commune in Paris, and his moments before a firing squad just prior to a timely release, or his talk with an ailing Victor Hugo that then convinced him this uprising was not in the spirit of ’32 or the June Rebellion that the great author had imagined in Les Miserables, but yet a new sort of beast among men instead.

But Paris! In the peace that followed the insurrections. They would always have had Paris, surely. Rick has promised us all of that (if only a few wars after). Following his exploits in Spain, MacGahan took his Barbara there before he left her once again. (Like Hemingway had later taken Hadley with their son.) Imagine what his regrets might have been as he said goodbye one more time to his Russian beauty?

Maybe I’ll write a book about that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. The Long Arm of Spithridates

 

 

I was expelled from the public school for one year when I was thirteen. That is a longer story, which I will save for another moment. However, I am reminded of this exile having come across a mimeographed sheet of paper in a box of effluvia in the basement. It is a notice issued on October 10th, 1960, and signed ‘Reverend Stuart Elliott, Principal,’ in the same uniform pale blue ink as the text. That was the single year I attended St. Aaron’s, the small Catholic middle school that then struggled for its existence only a few blocks from here on East Broadway.

And this yellowed notice, the blue nearly faded away, recalls a fine moment. A triumph!

It begins with this: “History is written by the vicar.”

At least that is what I heard from Mr. Henderson’s tooth-filled mouth.

The vicar was, I assumed, Father Elliott, known to his charges more familiarly as ‘The Vicar’ because of the better possibilities in rhyme, and at the time the principal and commandant of our school, part-time instructor in Latin and Greek, and full-time head of the history department which consisted of the always right Reverend Elliott as well as Miss Reynolds, a lay teacher, so to speak. It was assumed by every one of the boys and a majority of the girls in Miss Reynolds’ American History class that everything she said was true. And the ninth grade was difficult enough without having disputes over the facts of history.

However, a controversy had erupted when Miss Reynolds, who could not hide her many virtues beneath the drab and high-necked dresses she wore, anymore than the bright blue of her eyes, had contradicted a statement previously made by Father Elliott concerning an upcoming holiday dedicated to the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus. Miss Reynolds belonged to a radical faction that favored Erik the Red. That very surname ‘the Red’ had produced an immediate response and proclamation from Father Elliott stating among other matters that, “Discovery entails recognition of a new fact. Mr. Red was more interested in cod, and his meandering may or may not have taken him to the shores of America, but with no more understanding of what he had found than a dog that finds a turtle.”

Mr. Henderson, also, and most improbably, a lay teacher as well, smiled involuntarily throughout the day because his lips had difficulty enclosing both incisors and cuspids. He taught math and civics. Or attempted to. Geometry made some sense to me. Basic algebra was barely plausible. The mention of advanced algebra and calculus posed a mathematical impossibility which was beyond my comprehension. However, ‘civics’ struck me, even then, as a sort of ‘rules for gang warfare.’ The majority dominating the minority in order to get its way.

I prudently sat at the back and avoided his attention. Mr. Henderson’s eyes took on a strained squint when he spoke, likely the result of his facial muscles flexing around his abundant molars. In any case, the combination of his smile and the strained squint in his eyes made me certain he might have a trophy knife from his days as an Allied agent (a fact confirmed by repeated rumors) when he had participated in the guerilla campaigns against the Nazis in Yugoslavia during ‘The War,’ and which tool he could at any minute pull from his desk and use to slice all our throats. Specifically my throat. More specifically me because I never knew the correct answers to his questions.

One day he smiled as he repeated himself, “History is written by the vicar,” scanned the room and allowed his eyes to come to rest in my approximate direction. “What do you have to say about that, Mr. McGuire?”

In that I had thought myself successfully obscured by the bulk profile of Deborah Collins who sat directly in front of me, the sound of my name was a jolt, and it must have audibly taken the breath out of my lungs.

I leaned out from behind her hair (hair that fell in vast quantities which seemed to me to be impossible from such a small head) adjusted my glasses, and stared back with my best representation of innocence.

“I did not know that Father Elliott had written anything. Except for the school bulletins.”

Mr. Henderson’s lips miraculously enveloped both his incisors and cuspids and came together in a sort of kiss of consternation.

Silence enveloped the room for half a minute before he answered.

“What?”

The word splattered against the back wall. His eyes squinted now in agony. His smile was enormous.

Deborah Collins looked down at the worksheet on her desk and whispered.

“He means ‘victor.’ Not ‘vicar.’ ”

I was suddenly sitting in midair, like a character in a Tex Avery cartoon. There was that beat of time before I would inevitably fall to my doom.

Then genius blossomed like the balloon of a parachute above my head.

“Father Elliott says, ‘To the victor go the spoils,’ but he says it in Latin and I can’t repeat it exactly in that way, and I guess that means that whoever wins can write the history of the battle.”

Mr. Henderson’s face transformed. From agony, it metamorphosed into bliss. His eyes shone. I thought I saw tears.

During that very same October, Miss Reynolds informed us of the great ruler of Austrasia, Charles Martel, ‘Mayor of the Palace,’ and his defeat of Abd al-Rahman emir of Cordoba at the battle of Tours. The story she related in thrilling detail was from a book by the English author Edward Shepherd Creasy. I see the cover now, held up toward us in her hands. The importance of this manual act I have always considered instrumental.

St. Aaron’s was a poor school. The textbooks we used were often the older discards eschewed by the larger schools in the diocese. They arrived well thumbed, and marked, edges chewed, and with colors added to illustrations that were not appropriate. It was the brilliance of Father Elliott to supplement these with his own texts; books he had acquired over a lifetime. These, and not the industrial Catholic texts that so easily stultified any inquiring mind, were read aloud by the teacher, and often by the students themselves. Tests were frequent.

It was in this context, envisioning the genius of Martel to have established the first standing professional army in Europe at a time when the usual seasonal conscripts went home to plant or harvest, and the medieval leader’s deliberate use of tactics to overcome the superior numbers of his opposition, that I first understood the idea of turning points in history. If Martel had not succeeded in defending his realm, the Moslem invaders who had marched (‘swept’ was the more common adjective) from the Arabian peninsula following the death of Mohamed in 632, through Northern Africa, over the straits of Gibraltar into Iberia, and thence to the heart of France and their readied to overwhelm to the only unified Kingdom in Christian Europe, all in a mere hundred years, everything thereafter would have changed.

Such thoughts linger on. The bountiful Miss Reynolds could not have known.

Imagine if Greek mythology and ancient history had been written in Aramaic by the Persians. That was the initial thought that prompted my writing Cyrus. But my figment of a character was not wholly an Irish lad bestride the streets of an alternative history 19th century New York, armed only with pen and uninhibited libido, as presented in that story. He had roots in deeper soil. Had the satraps of the Achaemenid empire defeated Alexander as they so nearly did at Granicus in May, 334 BC, then reconquered Macedonia, and rejoined their efforts to conquer the whole of Greece (if only in self-defense against those troublesome city-states) while their ruler, Darius III, staved off for a longer time, the internal corruption that inevitably destroys most such overwrought dominions (even as our own collapses about our heads as I write this), then by extension, Ireland would certainly not be the place we know of today. Or New York.

I am usually bored by alternative history. ‘For want of a nail’ has endless variation, nearly all of it missing or avoiding the reality we must live. My objective was not simply to reimagine history, which I do already before it is spoiled by the scholar, but to consider a specific impact of conquest as a human puzzle. Alexander’s victory, following his near death beneath the battle ax of the Persian General Spithridates, and his rescue by Cleitus the Black, is one of the great historical moments, and made tragic in the Shakespearean sense when Alexander later murders Cleitus in a quarrel. I had always thought this was perfect material for a theatrical presentation. (Like the novel I wrote instead, I had called the play “The Arm of Spithridates,” as that was the appendage Cleitus whacked off of the Persian General before it could finish its work on the great Alexander’s head, but the longer reach of which would bring down the Macedonian in the end, nonetheless . . . Maybe one day I will get back to it). However, instead of drifting away from my original inspiration, I managed to cling to the initial premise through the usual storm of ‘what if’ for the entirety of a novel. That book too is, sadly, yet unpublished. A personal favorite and representative of what I have been about.

The idea was this: we know of ancient Greece because of Homer, and a few of the others whose work survived the fire and pillage of later conquests. (I have even given thought to the important question: did Homer’s wife turn a blind eye?) However, because of Alexander, we know far far less of the various Darius, I, II, or III, or have any serious knowledge of the original Cyrus. And this is just another iteration of the age-old truth, history is written by the victor.

Thus, if you compare the exploits of my Irish namesake Aengus with those of, say, the Greek Theseus, you will see many similarities. But there is far less, in the facts, of old Aengus because his story was related by Catholic monks who had no use for a heathen hero, and his land was then conquered again by the English and ruled for five hundred years. Yet, had the Catholic conquest of the British Isles failed, or never even happened, what is the broader myth and legend that we might have had today? We might never have benefited from the aging Yeats when he spoke of the ‘The silver apples of the moon / The golden apples of the sun.” Nor would we have had a ‘Shakespeare’ to inspire thoughts of Greek tragedy out of the actions of brave Cleitus.

But would Jesus Christ have had such success with the children of Hannibal? At least the language they each spoke, a derivative of Aramaic, was closer than either Greek or Latin. Might we have gained by hearing Our Saviour’s words directly from his mouth instead?

We know little or nothing of the religions of those earlier peoples of Persia, the Parsua and Medes, and the Assyrians, who had previously occupied the homeland of the Achaemenid, and what we do know of them at all is told to us by Greeks like the brave and wily Xenophon and that very father of written history, Herodotus. And we know the Greeks so well because the Romans held them in high esteem, an aesthetic judgment for which I cannot help but give great thanks. And the Romans we appreciate because they defeated Carthage, or else we would all be speaking some modern variation of Phoenician (a Greek word itself), a language derived from a people who were themselves a Canaanite clan of the sort we so often encounter at odds with the Jews in the Old Testament, and they in turn were clients to the mighty Achaemenid.

Those Phoenicians, remember, were not only good with numbers, a necessity for a trading folk, but master shipbuilders and it was they who founded Carthage, but also built the fleet for the Achaemenid King of Kings, Xerxes, an armada which the Greeks then had to destroy at Salamis in order to keep their independence, and that was well before Alexander nearly lost his head.

Imagine if all that we knew now had come from that other source instead. What would have been, had the gods of Canaan ruled?

Instead, we have Herodotus, Xenophon and Homer . . . and of course, Edward Shepherd Creasy.

My young hero Cyrus has run away to Nue Bretyn (New York) from his home in Eire. This then is the center of the universe, in year of 1872, dated by the Jerusalem calendar from the birth of the Christ. The twelve Celtic Nations are in tumult, at odds over possible war with the Rus and the Slavic league who are now attempting to restrict their traffic by taxation and permit, or by force. The a’Thulit (Native Americans) have refused sides in the conflict, and Nue Bretyn is a free state unwilling to limit trade to any partner. The world now awaits the decision of the seven Chanani Republics (the Carthaginian nations that might have been). With the Chin and the Indie already at war, conflict threatens to consume the Earth.

Because there was no Alexandrian conquest, the world is a different place. But I had hoped to avoid a pure fantasy. I wanted to see how things might logically be if Spithridates had been a more famous name than Ptolemy. Acclaimed by Darius for his bravery at Granicus and the loping off of the Macedonian’s head, he is appointed to the Kingship of Egypt, just as in actual fact, Ptolemy and been appointed by Alexander. It is Spithridates who then successfully conquers the Greek City States, not a failed Darius IV. As Persia falls finally into dissolution beneath the weight of its overreach, it is the Greek infused culture of the Phoenicians that unites the Mediterranean as a single mighty seafaring power. There is no Rome and never will be. With the western world united by seafaring merchants out to make a buck and not interested in killing their customers (a millennium and a half before Britain would have risen to that role). The tribes of Atlanta (North and South America) are trading actively with Europe and Asia by the year 1000. Without isolation, and with the exchange of language, culture, and invention, a different map has been drawn of the ‘civilized’ world at an earlier age.

Without a Roman Empire to fall, there were no Vandals or Goths or Visigoths or Ostrogoths, or Alans. A history where a Celtic Europe had absorbed its natural German cousins, the Franks, the Angles and the Saxons, and successfully resisted the onslaughts of the Xiongnu and the Huns (“a land of a thousand bees” the invaders had called it) because there was no central authority like Rome to sack or destroy.

Jesus, the Aramaic speaking visionary of Canaan, has little need of translation for his words—he is speaking the language of the empire into which he was born—and his good words of philosophy spread without the intercession of a Roman papacy. And the anger of Mohamed is thus later contained in the tribal Arabic of his homeland.

My point was not to rewrite an entire history of this ‘other world,’ but to light a match to the obeisance of thought that still sees all things in terms of a central ‘Roman’ state (and thus the need for such centralized power). With the removal of Alexander, the Greek ‘golden age’ of Hellenism did not come to an abrupt end but was instead adopted by the sons of Spithridates. The ideals of thought found in Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle infiltrated a merchant culture that took the necessity of private property as a key to a free society of individuals and was thereby reshaped.

I did not imagine that all the evils of a state-centered political philosophy were suddenly at an end. Most of the world’s cultures had already been formed around a central authority of chieftains, kings, and potentates, and founded their governments on the ruthless use of such power. In my imaginings, it was the Greek wisdom adopted by the Celts that fit so well with their council culture and the integrity of each person. Just as every community had a say in their allegiances to the greater nation, each citizen retained a voice in their community, importantly, including women. As the freer society of the Celtic tribes progressed more quickly through the discovery and innovation possible without authoritarian dictate, they brought their neighbors in the Carthaginian world and those merchant sensibilities along with them, and the rest of the world followed along in their wake and in its own ways.

However, my own unique conceit was not that the Irish tribe would be at the fore of this possibly better world, but that many of the native tribes of what we know of as the Americas would be quick to see the advantages of such decentralized cooperation. In their trading with the post-Carthaginians nations, they might assume much of Greek idealism as well. My Nue Bretyn is the center of this new world order, the hub of trade from East to West, a teeming city of airships and sailships, and earth going wagons of every size and shape powered by internal combustion, steam, and ‘gravity wind.’

Still, all of this conjecture was not meant as anything more than context and backstory. My Cyrus cares for little of it. His personal ambitions trump all political concern. He longs for adventure and for wealth, but finds only love. Poor lad.

 

 

 

 

  1. Writing wrongs on the Raft of Medusa

 

 

It may have been ungrateful of me to criticize those who appreciated my young hero in I Am A Time Machine! But I don’t think my motives in that story were all that obscure. And when I expressed myself on the matter at the Hugo Awards ceremony, it was not my intention to be rude, even though it was, in fact. Sarah said she was mortified. But I was disturbed by the idea that I should be nominated for a prize for doing something I had not done. I failed to realize, not for the first time in my life, that much of what I had accomplished in my stories had nothing to do with my own motives, any more perhaps than did the more frequent flop. Writing and reading may be lonely pursuits, but as I have said, they are still the two parts of a conversation.

Poor Russell, the college student in that story, has come to believe that he himself is a time machine and that he can travel backward and forward at will to observe past and future. He’s nuts, of course! A casualty of current dogmas. But I did not say he was nuts. That was supposed to be assumed. Silly me. The idea that his true love, Polly, comes to believe him, was intended only as a statement about love and our willing suspension of disbelief while so intoxicated.

Levus, the professor who tries to save Russell, is fashioned as an obvious portrayal of F. R. Leavis, the British scholar; not a villain but a man attempting to see the truth through literature. He is the hero, after all. And he is the designated ‘me’ in the story (someone in the audience laughed a little too loudly at that contention), not Russell, which is the reason why Levus is so well married to Duchess. Theirs is the better example offered and rejected by Russell and Polly. The idea that Russell would be seen as a rebel against authority never occurred to me. That’s a fact. My entire focus was on the power of imagination to overcome reality and the importance of that to human beings faced with terrible circumstance. This is revealed more than once as Russell comes to trust Polly and tells her of his terrible childhood. The disappearance of Russell and Polly at the end of the story was not to indicate their escape into another time where they might be happy together. That would never be. It was the very opposite.

How could this be misunderstood? But, as usual, the fault is not in our stars.

 

On our honeymoon in 1979, Sarah and I had stopped at Brighton to attend the World Science Fiction Convention, in England that year, at the request of my publisher. It didn’t seem to be that much of an imposition. They were paying for the rooms and meals, and as it turned out, it was a good diversion.

I was there ostensibly to represent them for my award nomination. At least I Am A Time Machine! had drawn some attention. But I’d advised them against this, already being unhappy with the positive reviews I was receiving for the wrong reasons, but as usual my thoughts about promotion were ignored. Beside, my story was not the usual SF material and I thought it unsuited for the sort of Star Wars, Star Trek and Alien atmosphere that was then overwhelming that genre.

I was correct about this. No one was really interested in my disagreeable tale.

Walking out for a breath of fresh air into a stiff Channel breeze on the boardwalk that late summer evening, with a moon that was small and bright and as artificial as a street light suspended high up in the bed of stars above the sea, we found ourselves standing close to a curly headed fellow named ‘Tom,’ who looked only vaguely familiar. His match had blown out. I had an extra pack. We all got to smoking then, bent against the wind and supported by the rail. He liked American cigarettes better than the British. He commented on one thing, and we on another, and pretty soon we had a good conversation going on about the need to bring back dirigibles and other such lighter-than-air craft. I was already at work on The Flight of the Z, by then and he was a fan of the author and engineer Nevil Shute, and recommended that writer’s autobiography Slide Rule, which I later read and found to be wonderful. Shute had worked on the building of the first British dirigible, R-100, back in 1920s. It fact, it was that very conversation that inspired us days later to visit one of the last surviving aerodromes which was just north of there.

The next day we again saw our new curly headed friend at breakfast in the convention hotel. He was quite the center of attention, being the star of a television series I had yet to see called Doctor Who. I made a point of catching a few episodes during the remainder of our trip that year. But in fact, I couldn’t stand the show. A matter of taste, I suppose. Wry British humor glazed upon slapstick. To my mind it appeared to be just one missed story opportunity after another. The scripts had only a marginal rationale. The acting was intentionally arch. The element of the absurd, British pluck set against the intolerable, which played so well to me in the Monty Python sketches, was here artless and flat for lack of what to me was comic timing. I was informed that they were not intended to be funny. But whatever my poor opinion, the show was a hit and all criticism was pointless.

Instead I wrote a juvenile novella as my response, which I described to my agent over the phone as being ‘off the cuff.’ This was not intended at first to be any sort of a pun. My hero was actually ‘Dan Wright,’ which name, when spoken quickly, could sound like you were saying something else. (I had to be careful not to offend the sensibilities of librarians, but I knew the kids would take to it.) My Dan was captain of a small spaceship called The Ethos, which was automated for the most part, leaving him plenty of time to get in trouble. The mission he had accepted (as is so often the case) was nothing less than the usual, single-handedly saving mankind. Mostly from itself.

But soon enough (in obeisance to another editorial suggestion which I guessed was made as a diversion from my own ulterior motive in naming him Dan Wright), he was calling himself ‘Captain Cuff’ as a disguise when meeting new friends or adversaries (the cover illustrations were all too cute in depicting his shirt cuffs as always too long). The series had a definitive end in my mind. I only wanted to make a point of what could be done with similar resources as those used in the Doctor Who television show. Instead it took off with a small life of its own and for a time it was a modestly successful paperback series.

(And I should note here, in my own defense, that I worked diligently to avoid a heavy-handed reliance on the story gimmick. That device was spawned when I read about a successful mystery author who said he wrote his stories in reverse, from the last line to the first. I assumed it could be done, of course, like learning to walk backwards. You will eventually get someplace. But I didn’t see the advantage if the journey itself was the point and not the trick.)

The device I had used and plotted was that Captain Cuff would become younger and younger with each adventure as a result of the ‘reverse time’ travel necessary for him to go hither and yon (and thus the very cause of his problem with shirt cuffs), so that at some point he would be too young a child to command and unable to continue, in that his advice was being totally ignored. A sort of ‘from the mouth of babes’ resolution. I thought it might be funny. But before that happened, the publisher dropped the mass market format from their mix, leaving the plan incomplete, and I refused to sell the stories in the more expensive package they offered because the price would be prohibitive for the intended audience. It was for kids, after all. Whether I was right on that point or not, I can’t say in retrospect. Besides, I thought I had made my point. (I obviously had not.) My agent went bananas. I changed agents and that was that.

Captain Cuff’s deal was not to force his will on anyone (even if he might have, given his increasingly diminutive size) but to impart information so persuasively, and at just the right moment, that he would be listened to. The reader was to see the intelligence of it, even if the other characters in the story did not. Though the plots were short at around 40,000 words, and always involved some life or death struggle and a little romance (at least during his early years), they required more than a little work to accomplish.

Each of them took about six weeks to complete with corrections. I followed my regular writing regimen each morning, but found myself constantly sneaking looks at reference books later in the day while at the counter in the bookshop. Feeling a little lost in that future heliosphere, I was on the phone with my friend Paul at least once a week as well. He said he enjoyed it as a diversion from his regular work at DEC or Wang or wherever he was at the time. I hope he did. But whenever a new one of the series appeared, and I sent him a copy, he would read it in an evening and shoot it back to me with red marks all through for the scientific issues I had not dealt with correctly or the philosophical ones he could not abide. Most often it was my numbers that were circled and another written in the margin, with an exclamation mark attached (so often you would think that the exclamation mark was one of the original gifts of the Phoenicians). But the thick red strokes always appeared to me to be angry. I think it was perhaps because he had probably explained those things to me before and I was supposed to remember them.

Or perhaps, where Paul might have been more perturbed, was with Captain Cuff’s politics. Cuff was an absolute, though unspoken, libertarian. The villain in each episode was not so much a particular human being as what human beings did to one another through force in trying to do good via faulty government. But the idea that a single person (or child!) would or should assume authority against the will of ‘the people’ was beyond Paul’s understanding of things. Ideas of right and wrong were subjective in his way of thinking. The actual calculus involved with assuming any group of human beings to be more correct than any single person, given the dynamics of group politics, did not dissuade or persuade him. The fact that Captain Cuff never imposed his will on anyone, even when he could, while his enemies were always trying to impose their will on him (in the last two installments he is being chased by a truant officer for not being in school) was not an argument to Paul. It was merely a fantasy.

I was happy enough when the series was finally over, though now I wish I had done better with the chance and perhaps taken more time with each episode. The idea was good but my execution was faulty. I had done nothing better than the original catalyst to the series. In fact, less. Dr. Who is still with us today. I had written my own stories to be something which, in the end, they were not and that fact was on my head alone. Not the publisher’s. I should have tried harder, and taken more time with them. The voice of Gerard Strauss can be heard above the din in my head.

 

Sarah and I went to Paris in 1979, following the awards ceremony, and again in 1984. On both occasions we spent several days at the Louvre and there, footsore, I sat, at first by chance, but then for several hours more on an uncomfortable marble bench before that great painting by Gericault, The Raft of Medusa. I knew at my first sight of this depiction of the last survivors of a shipwreck that I had a book to write with that painting at its core. I can only guess at the number of writers who have also been inspired that way. Certainly my previous experience with Watson and the Shark played a similar role to this. But there was something more in the idea of Gericault. It was the matter of the importance of despair to renewal.

A side note to this, and about the same time, is that we were invited to a dinner at George and Harold’s loft. It was a big affair with over twenty people in attendance. At the start of the meal, George tapped his glass with that fat gold ring on his hand and said a prayer. This astounded me. I had no idea yet that he was in the least religious. But his conversion to Catholicism had taken place on a trip to Italy with Harold the year before and he had never made any fuss over it. Harold told me it had occurred rather suddenly as they stood before Caravaggio’s The Calling of St. Matthew at the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome. Harold was still a skeptic but found himself being persuaded. Such a miracle is the power of a painting.

My own inspiration was to set the desperate moment of my story far from the rage of the Atlantic, on the arctic deserts of Mars, where the survivors of the space ship Medusa, an isolated part of an attempted colonization, are faced with the choice of cannibalism and death or hope and renewal.

It was on that first visit at the Louvre that Sarah had said, “I would rather die than have eaten the flesh of another human being.”

I was glib, “Would you feed that flesh to your child if it meant their survival?”

She was not cowed, “Yes. And I would kill that other person to feed them, if that was the choice. But if the choice was for my life alone, I would rather die.”

She had written the key to the story for me. Right there.

Obviously, it was the choices of parents that made societies. It was they who might purposely look beyond themselves to the future.

By the time of our second visit to Paris, I had written two drafts of the thing and neither were good enough. Sarah had read them both, of course. But she hadn’t said a word before. She was often silent when I had not gotten the thing pinned down.

She stood up close that second time, upright to the rope as children do, and stared at the painting for half an hour or more, as if she were wanting to count the painter’s strokes. I sat back and looked at her as much as the work. Her legs and hips were always disturbing. Finally she came and sat next to me again.

“You are too damned happy, I think. You have never lost everything, as these people have. Despair does not come naturally to you. You are too much the optimist.

If you want to recreate this—if you want to show people at their worst and being better than they have to be, you have to give them a reason. Not some ideal of philosophy, but something they can see and touch and taste.”

“I suppose first I need to think what the worst would be.”

We both stared up at the Gericault again.

She had offered then, “What if you were blind and could not read or write?”

I said, “I would think of the stories anyway. No matter. They’re still mine.”

She looked at me with her usual squint of concern. “What would be the worst for you then?”

I said it as soon as her question was spoken. “Losing you.”

She would not be put off by some false intention, even if the fact of it was true.

“Then lose me. Imagine if I died. Imagine that!”

And I tried.

But the sense of despair I had wanted to achieve at the beginning of that story was greatly diminished at the insistence of Miss Janson, my editor, who could not be convinced that anyone would read it if I went on in that vein for the first sixty pages. Bad enough that I had recapitulated the horrors of the Donner Party. Some relief was necessary. Some hope. I was unsure of my ground on the matter. I had tried too hard to imagine the worst, I guessed. So the horror of it was cut in half. And given that the book then sold better than anything I had written since The Endeavor of Jim, I supposed she was correct. Or perhaps this was only a furthering of that mistaken interpretation I had encountered with I Am A Time Machine! And after the fact, my own criticism of The Mars of Medusa rested on those missing pages. What is the value of life to someone without hope? Why would they then strive for the better?

Children.

I wrote most of those early pages in rough while sitting on that stone bench, with the other tourists passing before me; while looking between them, over shoulders and through crooked arms, the writhing of their bodies becoming extensions of the work in my mind at times like dark shadows at the fore. I didn’t think the final salvation of the characters in my book could be felt as I meant it to be, without more of that. I pressed the publisher about it again and again over the following years. The paperback sales eventually diminished. I wrote several other books in-between time which did not do near as well. At last I was able to make it a provision in my revised contract for their getting the next book I wrote, that I could put back the darkest pages in a revised edition. In 1994 they reissued The Mars of Medusa at the original length along with their fall catalog.

Unfortunately, most of those copies printed could be purchased afterward for a dollar, found on any remainder table the following spring. And the publisher declined to even look at my next book. But I wasn’t up to caring at that point.

By then I had lost her.

 

 

 

Part Three

 

 

  1. At swim from the ‘Cea’ of catastrophe

 

 

“Pliny tells us of a certain Hyperborean nation where, by reason of the mild atmosphere, lives of the inhabitants are commonly ended only by their own will; who, when they had reached an advanced old age and were weary of and satiated with living, had the custom after having made good cheer, to leap into the sea from the top of a certain rock, appointed for that service. Intolerable pain and the fear of a worse death appear to me the most excusable of inducements.”

A Custom of the Isle of Cea

Michel de Montaigne

 

A genuine contempt for death is yet another characteristic attributable to my father that did not make it through the gene pool to my shores. I had to learn this by observation. He was not a man who pretended any particular bravery. Nor did he speak of himself more than was absolutely necessary. I took this to be secretiveness and quite wrongly as some possible shame for a past deed. Instead, my father’s complaints always seemed to me about petty things.

“Put the tools away.”

“I’m going to use them again tomorrow. I’ll just have to take them out again.”

“So put them away now.”

(I was wrong on this count too, of course. I’m quick to curse if I’ve failed to put away any tool of my own and then later can’t find the bloody thing where it should be.)

He was especially unfond of idling engines. One time I saw the Edison truck stopped at the relay box on the corner, vibrating with a stuttering purr loud enough to hear half a block away. The driver had left his motor running. My father was walking home from work at the time, approaching the house in that deliberate trudge that he affected to hide his limp. As he passed, he simply reached in and turned the key.

The workman was there in a flash.

“Why did you do that?”

Dad stood there and waited for the fellow to get up close.

“You forgot to turn it off.”

“I didn’t forget. I left it running on purpose. What if it won’t start again?”

“Then it shouldn’t be on the road in the first place. Have it towed to the shop.”

“That’s none of your damned business.”

“The sound is my business. And the exhaust. And the bill I pay every month.”

“Don’t touch my truck again.”

“Don’t leave it running.”

At this point the fellow was nose to nose with Dad and another guy working on the job was there too. A few more seconds passed.

The fellow said something like, “I’ll have you arrested if you touch my truck again.”

My father turned his back to him and walked on home.

 

Which needs another side note on a more recent distant past.

In the 1970s, whenever I went home to see my mother, I would always be sure to get my hair cut. My father was as partial to long hair as he was to idling engines. In those later years, Tim had two other barbers working with him but I would wait it out so as to get his hands on the matter.

And during one of these visits, while biding time for Tim to get free, Donald, one of the other fellows, asked me how I was doing.

I said “Fine. Pretty good. Well enough.”

“You writing any more books?”

Now Tim would never ask me in that way. He might get me to tell him, but he would go on about my mother for five minutes first, or about a mutual friend, or a recent development down at the L Street Bath House, with everyone within earshot agreeing that it was not the same as it used to be. Something like that.

I said “Yeah. When I can. I’m working as an editor right now too.”

Donald said, “What is it you’re editing? Another of those radical news magazines?”

I thought that no one present had ever read The Gist, but already knew well that they all had an opinion about it. (In fact, I was yet unaware that Tim had subscribed to The Gist for a short while to have it in the shop, laying it out with all the others, before cancelling in dismay following one nasty cover illustration or another.) But the word had circulated that it was a radical left-wing rag and opinion about me had shifted in that direction. I didn’t mind that at the time, anymore than I did ten years later having some uninformed twit thinking I was a conservative. The problem was, our new venture was far less definable than a ‘news’ magazine.

After stumbling a moment over a longer explanation, I simply told them, “It’s a literary magazine.”

Donald asked, “Like, with stories and poems, you mean?”

“Yes. And some reviews. A little criticism. That kind of thing.”

“And you’re the editor?”

“Yes. But there are a couple others with me.”

“But you’re the boss editor?”

“Yes. I suppose. Yes.”

“You get to pick and choose.”

“Yes. Best I can.”

Donald turned away from his customer in the chair, with comb in one hand and trimmer buzzing in the other.

“My sister writes poetry. You want her to send you some of her poetry?”

I was unprepared for this, despite it being a fairly common inquiry.

“If she’d like to, sure. She’d want to address it to Helen Morris, though. She’s the poetry editor.”

This was a half-truth. We had no ‘poetry editor’ per se. Helen simply did all the necessary work in that department.

There was a beat of time. Donald turned back and took a swath of hair from the head of Jimmy Connors and then asked, “This Helen, is she pretty?”

No good in hesitating there. “For a poetry editor I’d say so.”

This was a readymade set up, of course. You should always have some version of an answer ready for this type of question.

But Donald fell quiet. He’s a smart one.

Someone else asked (I think it was the customer in Donald’s chair), “How do poetry editors normally look?”

I said, “A bit long in the face.”

Donald turned to me, on cue. “Really? Why is that?”

“Because they have to read so much bad poetry, I think.”

Donald could hear the shtick in my voice. He smiled. “Yeah. My sister’s poetry does that to me, too.”

Someone else asked what the name of the magazine was. I told them.

“Is it on the newsstand?”

“Yeah. I just saw it, right down there at the newsstand in South Station when I came in yesterday.”

Tim, long silent, now turned to me and spoke. ‘Does your father know about this?”

I heard the reservation in his tone of voice.

“What? The magazine? I don’t know. I suppose.”

Tim nodded. But it was not for a ‘yes.’ “What do you mean, you ‘don’t know’? You’ve told him all about it already, right?”

“Not yet.”

“How long have you been working on this magazine?”

“Most of the last year. A little more.”

“And that’s the first issue down there at South Station?”

“The second.”

“And you never told your father about it?”

“He doesn’t care about all that stuff, Tim. He doesn’t read that kind of thing.”

“Is it like the stuff in your books?”

“Some of it.”

“He liked those.”

Tim was onto something that mattered to him. That was on his face, accented in the fold of the scar just below his glass eye.

I asked, “How do you know he liked those?”

“Because he said so.”

“When?”

“When you wrote them. When they were published.”

I felt a little like I had set myself up for this.

“He never said anything to me about them, one way or the other.”

Tim attended to the last details with his customer as he spoke. The talc fumed in the air between us from his brush.

“Funny thing. Did you ever ask him what he thought? He came in here with a stack of copies under his arm and gave one to everybody he saw that day. Like they were cigars and he was a new grandpa.”

I was a bit stunned. I think I said, “Funny, I guess. ”

I was flabbergasted. No. I had never asked my father what he thought.

Tim flipped the hair off of his apron and waved me into his chair, “You better tell him about your new magazine pretty quick.”

“I suppose.”

“Well, I don’t suppose I want him to know I knew about all that before he did. He’ll go as dark as a day in February. You tell him today and I won’t say a word about it until he mentions it to me. And then I’ll act as surprised as I can do about it.”

‘Yes, sir.”

 

A good deal of what I know about my Dad—the good parts—I learned from Maeve Brennan. At some point I figured out that they had once had a relationship, but she did not tell me that. That was just my own brilliance in piecing together parts of the puzzle. And part of that cleverness was an assumption that their affair had occurred after he married my mother. I often projected my own guilty conscience back at him.

Her son Charlie was a buddy of mine. Charlie had health issues that turned him toward other forms of recreation, like books, and thus our friendship had been established upon an accumulation of make believe and the supposing of ‘what if.’

Often enough we would sit at the little red Formica table in their kitchen and eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and swallow down quarts of chocolate milk together. Occasionally Maeve would ask about my parents as she fixed our sandwiches, and how they were. From one thing or another I intuited a greater interest in my father and discovered that she knew things about him that I did not. For instance, he had worked at the A&P as a boy, doing the same sort of things I had done, but long ago, when she had been a cashier there.

Maeve was not a small woman. Not fat as much as wide beamed. Wide-hipped. Large breasted. Broad-faced. Hair a bit too bottle red, not like the chestnut of my mother’s—at least by the time I took notice of such things. She worked at an insurance office on Broadway near K, with her desk right at the window and often she waved at me and smiled more than just politely when I passed on my rounds. I would look then for the smile. It was a happy thing to see on a cold day.

She said once, “How is your father’s new job?”

I shrugged, “He didn’t say. But not so good, I think.”

He was working in the shipping department at Gillette then. He didn’t like the bunch he worked with.

She said, “He’d rather be outdoors. He should probably think about driving a truck again.”

I’d heard a remark about the job he’s made to my mother, and I said, “I think he’s hoping they’ll move him into that.”

Politely, and clearly as afterthought, she said, “How’s your mom?”

“Fine.”

Nothing much more than that. For all the years.

But when Dad died in 1999, she was at the wake and then at the funeral.

I first learned some of the fact of their relationship at that wake. It was a smallish gathering. A couple dozen, at most, strung out in the function rooms over at Greene’s Services. The facts were mostly caught in-between the lines of things people said. But then Harvey Peltz, a chum Dad had often sailed with out of the Boston Yacht Club when they were boys, had been sparked by a story about Dad running a boat up on the rocks at Thompson Island. Harvey’s restraint was already weakened by his fifth or sixth beer. He started talking about how Dad would take Maeve out in a skiff, supposed to go clamming down by Wollaston Beach, and disappear until after dark, coming back with his buckets empty, but a smile on his face. Just the sort of thing you hear at a wake.

Tim Bailey shushed him quiet and shot a look over at me, but he saw that I had heard. Maeve was standing in the other room, right next to my mother, and she turned just at that instant and looked through the opening at me.

I got more out of Harvey when I walked him home after. He could hardly stand by then and was remorseful for having talked too much. But could he help himself now that the spigot of memory was open?

Another time Dad and Maeve had gone all the way to World’s End and the tide turned against them and they got ‘caught’ there. It was Maeve’s father who had driven around through Hingham to get them. As big a man as Dad was, Maeve’s father was bigger then. He beat the daylights out of Dad and then took them both home.

There was no good in asking Tim for more on that. He wouldn’t have said a thing.

So, with Harvey safely home, I walked over to Maeve’s. This was after midnight but she was awake in their kitchen at the back, drinking tea, and I could see her through the glass. I knocked there, and she waved me in.

She said, “I thought you’d come.”

She knew me that well and better.

We were alone in the house. She had been divorced again for several years and her son Charlie was off in California working for a computer company by that time. I poured water for my own tea and sat down and just right out asked her about Dad, and what had happened between them.

From the perfectly composed face of a tough, sixty-eight-year-old woman, her features collapsed and she had suddenly started to cry—to fold in on herself and wail like I have never heard a woman cry before. She just let it rip. All the pain of a lifetime at one go. I have often wished I could do the same. I stood next to her chair and held onto her shoulders for maybe five minutes or so. And when the sobbing was over she stuck her head beneath the kitchen faucet, like a person might with a garden hose, washing her face clean of all the smear of make-up and then wrapped a dish towel around her hair and sat down at the table again, drinking her tea, and told me everything I would know until the day I finally read my own mother’s letters.

The L-Street Bath House was not exactly a club in any proper English sense. It was better. It was a place where my father could retreat away from female expectations, sit in the steam room until he was ‘pinked up’ and then take a cold shower, after which, in warmer weather, he would often sit in the sun with an assortment of other ugly fellows and play cards wearing nothing more than a small towel.

There was a steam bath on Eighth Street when I lived in the East Village, which I passed regularly but it was the habitué of fellows who had even less interest in female company than the old guys at the L Street, and though I was not inclined to join in those ceremonies, even though I thought of my dad every time I passed that place. I think of him whenever I see a small boat out across the water leaning from the wind. I think of him now late at night as I read a book and the cooling of the house makes the wood crack like someone has started upward on the stair. I think of him when I leave the water running too long.

I am only half Irish and thus only half as good a liar as I might have been if my father had married Maeve Brennan instead of Bonnie Ann MacAleer. You’ll have to forgive me this then, for it is not my fault. I believe I have done the best that half an Irishman can do. I never really imagined more about my father’s love life than what I knew.

But I knew Maeve all of my own life and a considerable part of hers. I knew all of her husbands. I played and fought with all of her kids, including the girls. And so did my brother. I know my brother Eddy once had a romance with Maeve’s daughter Gwen, for instance, but nothing more about that either.

Having an older brother who is close in age is a difficult proposition. Most of what I did as a child was more than likely a reaction to what my brother was doing. He liked sports. I avoided them. He swam out beyond the Head Island Causeway and I wandered the beach by myself and collected flotsam.

My brother was a bastard, for sure. Still is, perhaps. And certainly others have called me that, but the truth I was yet to know was that my father only married my mother because she was pregnant. And that was well after he had already let his unofficial engagement to Maeve Brennan be known when he’d left for the service in the winter of 1942. The wedding was all but scheduled. And then they had argued the first day after he was home on medical discharge in autumn of 1944. She had been stubborn on some matter on which he would not give in. She did not say what, and I did not expect her to say.

“Just nonsense,” Maeve was what she had whispered to me that night. He had stormed away. But she had thought he would get over it sooner.

She stared at her tea. “Instead he found your mother at a VFW dance the following spring,” (I did not tell her then that I already knew it was a little more complicated than that.) “She was serving punch and cookies. And then he was caught in his own jamb.”

That sums the situation. But it doesn’t do it justice. Whatever faults he had, I could not believe that my father had been a cad.

I have been back in the house here on 6th Street for a little more than a year. Two Christmases. This past September my brother returned. He had been in town last during mother’s funeral, then only briefly and alone because of the untimely expense, and he appeared again at the door those months later without his old key. I answered the bell and it was rather a shock to see him standing there on the stoop. He looks that much like Dad. More now. Just as I have somehow always been told I look more like mom.

He nodded at me, but did not offer his hand.

I have seen him perhaps four times in the last thirty years—all were family gatherings centered around a death.

I said, “Who died?”

He didn’t smile.

I asked him a few of the expected questions: how he was, what he was doing.

He was fine and doing the same thing he had been doing for twenty of those years, driving a truck out of Houston, Texas. He has a house near there. He has a good wife, Nancy, and three children there. But I had never even seen pictures of any of them other than the ones my mother kept framed on the mantel in the parlor, though I had spoken to his daughter, Antsy, several times. She’s the curious one and when she was twelve she’d just called me out of the blue on her own one day. But that’s another story.

Eddy didn’t waste time. He started talking about business as he stepped into the parlor. His eyes scanned the piles of books I had there, and the boxes of manuscript I had dragged up from the basement, and he was already scowling.

“You want the house?”

“More like I need the house, Eddy. I’m broke. They’ve taken everything I have. And with the bookshop closed, I’m not selling enough used books now on the internet to even pay off the old bills. I lost my last part-time job at that internet magazine I was working for, the Palimpsest, when they closed down. But they didn’t want any part of the lawsuit in the first place. I was the one who made them take it on. So I’m reduced to writing the odd article now, and trying to get another book done. The last couple-three are still unpublished.”

My laundry list of complaint was listened to patiently. Eddy finally took off the jacket he was wearing then and sat down. He sat in my father’s leather chair at first for just a minute and when I was finished with my rundown he slapped his palms down against the armrests as if to say, ‘well that’s that,’ and then got up and went to the kitchen to make some coffee. I followed him.

He said, “I could use the money from selling the house. I need a new truck. The kids have college expenses coming in. But if you want to stay here, fine. Let’s take a mortgage out. The place is paid for free and clear. I told my lawyer that. You can finish paying off the new mortgage and when you’re done, the place is yours.”

His lawyer had been in contact with me weeks before. I had told him the idea was good, but I wasn’t even sure I could keep up with mortgage payments. All my books are out of print. I had no specific royalties due, and besides, I had liens on my bank account, which was currently empty. Any property in my name would be up for grabs with the creditors.

I wasn’t sure then why he had come. I couldn’t tell him more than I’d said to his lawyer.

He shook his head at me as if saying something he didn’t like putting into words.

“I’ll take the mortgage back if I have to. It’ll be on me. If you miss a payment to the bank, I’ll cover it. We’ll get it done.”

Given my aforementioned and well documented stupidity, at that moment, this was like a total stranger walking in the door and saying, ‘How would you like a couple hundred thousand dollars?’ I was flummoxed. Again.

Like I’ve said, Eddy is a big man. Full faced. More muscle than fat. Maybe an inch taller than myself. And sitting in a truck for years has given him a permanent sun-scowl and the same rounded shoulders my father had.

I said, “Well, then you’ll have to start with the first payment. Because I haven’t got a dime right now. I’m eating a lot of oatmeal these days.”

“How about your Social Security?”

“That’s it. That’s about all I have, other than the occasional used book I sell on the internet”

“You’re selling books again?”

“Yeah. That’s what you see piled all over the house. I haven’t managed to scrounge up any shelves for them yet. But it brings in a few dollars more. Pocket money.”

“Okay then. We’ll do it anyway. I can’t have my stupid brother out on the street or sleeping on the air vents down by the public library.”

I took a couple of breaths on the thought of that reality while he looked around the kitchen with an appreciative eye for the details we both knew intimately.

I was thinking about gift horses, and big mouths. I finally said, “Thanks.” And then, “I’ll pay you what I can in rent. As often as I can. And maybe we can rent out the first floor here again, like it was when dad was out of work that time. And the house will still be yours. If the lawsuit drags on, it will be better that way. They can’t attach it.”

He nodded and looked around the walls again to avoid my eyes.

“Sorry things have come around to this.”

I told him, “My fault. My doing.” But then I had to look at the teeth of gift horse anyway. “Tell me, why did you come back now? All the way from Texas?”

He knew the situation between us as well as I did.

“Just wanted to see it one more time, I think. There’re a couple of things in the basement I wanted to carry back home. I could give them to the kids . . . And I wanted to see you.”

I shook my head, “Why? We haven’t said twenty words to each other in thirty years.”

“Can’t tell you why. I don’t know. But you’re as ugly as you ever were.”

“Thanks.”

He was around the next day as well. Looking into corners. Sitting a while on the stoop like he used to and bouncing a black rubber ball he found in the basement, tricking it off the cement and then back again off the side of his truck. I never knew how he got it to come back to him every time. Still don’t.

At dinnertime the first day I ordered pizza and we sat in the kitchen across from each other with some beers between us. It was like sitting and drinking beers with my father. Something I never actually did.

I said, “New truck? You’re not going to retire?”

“What, ‘retire’? I won’t be finished with the college bills for at least ten years more. I’ve got a mortgage on the house in Sugarland that still has twelve years on it from the last truck I bought.”

“Tell me about the kids.”

“Good kids. You’d like them. As critical of everything as you are. At least they are with me. Frank has a baseball scholarship. He isn’t costing much. But Marylou and Antsy are loaded with loans. And Marylou wants to teach, like her mother. That’s fine with me, even if she won’t be making enough to keep up with her debt. But Bonnie Anne is the artsy type. You know. That’s why we call her ‘Antsy.’ Artsy Antsy. ”

His daughter, Bonnie Anne, always known as ‘Antsy,’ had written me several letters through the years, always fascinated with the idea that I was a writer and wanting to know more about that sort of life. I had told her the worst of it, and it only made her more interested. She had called me a number of times as well, but I’ll have to get back to that.

I told Eddy, “I’ve been cleaning up as much as I can. I know it doesn’t look like it. I’ve given a lot to the Salvation Army . . . But I found a few things you might want to read.”

“Like what?”

“Some letters.”

“Mom?”

“Yeah.”

“Sure. I’d like to read those. Besides the Christmas cards and such, she wrote me a few good letters after the girls were born. She had a way with words. Like you, I guess. But I’d like to read those.” He paused and nodded at another thought, obviously unsure he even wanted to tell me. “You’d get a kick out of one of the things she said, not long ago. A couple of months before she died . . . When she knew she was on her way, but she hadn’t told anyone yet . . . She told me to keep an eye on you.”

 

 

 

 

  1. . . . and some other details left beneath a drawer

 

 

My mother’s first love was a man named Fergus Dean. His letters to her, at least one per week from mid-February 1942, up to the week of October 16th, 1944—one hundred and thirty two in all—were in several cigar boxes on the floorboards beneath the built-in drawers of the closet in her bedroom—my parents’ bedroom for all those years.

I pulled the bottom drawer out to empty it of an accumulation of odd clothes she had never thrown away. Just another small step in cleaning up after her death. The gold foil on the boxes gleamed at me from beneath, exposed suddenly to the light against the gray boards, and I had one of those moments when you know you have found something special. I swear too, in that instant of first catching sight of them, I knew what they were—or at least what they were going to be. I knew she had hidden them there, and that they would have some answers to questions I had asked myself through the years.

Letters are just one more of the things we have lost with the internet and the telephone. Don’t tell me that email is the same. If you think so, compare any email with a letter from the same person written before the age of Yahoo, as I have. And worse, letters written today are generally shorter. The impatience inherent to text messaging, and to twittering, makes the comparatively slow process of writing too great a burden on current sensibilities. Whereas my mother’s letters—and most personal letters—were once hand-written, the average college graduate today cannot even write in a cursive script. They have enough trouble printing, mixing their capitals with their lower cases. Handwriting, the miracle of the ages, is being lost. There are a hundred other differences, not the least of those being word choice and spelling, all of which you will find if you look (no wonder the authorities of high-lit adored the terse Mr. Hemingway over his verbose contemporary Mr. Wolf), but most profound is the loss of consideration, a respect for the subject, and musing, rumination, and the human philosophies born out of the simple mix of daily living to be found in the deliberateness of a letter to someone you know.

In those same cigar boxes there were only twelve letters from my mother, all written between October 1944 and the following January; all them unopened but tied together by yellowed cotton string. Those twelve had been returned by the Post Office in June of 1945, after a determination of casualties from the sinking of the Princeton. I read all of the letters, both his and hers, at one go during a sunny afternoon this past April, almost immediately after I found them.

Fergus Dean’s letters were short. He would not have been able to give her crucial details of his life—nothing at least that might be revealing to the enemy were they captured. As a pilot, he certainly knew more. He mentioned the weather quite a lot and how he was feeling, the antics of some of his friends, and some incidentals of daily living, like the size of the bugs on Saipan, which he bragged were as big as his hand. He mentioned the smell of the spaghetti they ate on Sunday nights at the base that reminded him of home, even if the taste did not. And he said that he missed her. Each one ended with a number. The same number: 1- 4 – 3.

I knew what that was. The simplest of ciphers. The flashing symbol of Minot’s Light on the shoals off Scituate, seen through a November fog. I suddenly knew more than I had ever wanted or imagined.

Of those letters from her to him, the first atop the smaller bundle of the ones returned unopened had the flavor of all she wrote. I removed the letter with a ceremony, cutting through the flap very slowly with my pocket knife, like a filet, thinking about the fact that it had last been sealed almost sixty years before, and unfolded the two crisp sheets filled with her distinctive and well formed script. The nuns would have been proud of her had she ever gone to a Catholic school.

 

January 16th, 1945

Dear Dear Fergus,

            The Navy is hiding your letters. None have arrived this week again. But I have re-read some of the others and noticed things I had missed before, so they felt new.

            Time passes so slowly here. Days run together. The waiting is all the problem. I think you know, even though you say ‘you love your floating bucket.’

            The Fore River stinks of low tide this week. Cold and dank. And it settles into the hulls of the boats and makes you feel your bones. But then I think of you and it is suddenly warmer weather again and even the stink went away. At least for a little. I can’t lie.

            The 7:15 bus at Dorchester Avenue is never on time unless you get there late, in which case it is early, so you have the wait, and to think about things. I look into the sky very often and think of you there. This morning the clear heavens were as blue and white as the acetylene we use at the shipyard, and with the yellow behind me from the sun coming up with the wind and catching at the edges, the cold of the air burned my skin as if it were hot. A plane came across going to the airfield in East Boston and it made me wonder how you stay warm up there. For the first time. I had never thought of that before. I feel so stupid!

I will knit socks for you. My mother will teach me. If I can learn to weld I can learn to knit as well. I should be a multi-purpose woman for you when you return.

1 4 3

Your Bonny Anne

 

My mother married my father in November of 1945.

Of course, I realize, I would not have been the person I am had Fergus Allan Dean lived and my mother married him after the war. I might have been a Fergus instead of an Angus, but I don’t believe that’s the spark of my curiosity. What intrigues me is the story there. As the story always does. And if that story is clear to me, I see that my mother would not have lived her life out here in South Boston, nor in Quincy near her parents. Fergus was from Weymouth. He had joined the Navy to become a pilot. If his last letters are an indication of the dreams he was fashioning while lying a bunk deep within the U. S. S. carrier, Princeton, he would likely have become a commercial pilot after the fighting was over. And I wondered for the first time then why my mother had become involved with my father so soon after she had lost Fergus in the war. Or whether I would ever know that, or have a right to such knowledge.

 

One other survivor of old Southie I still knew in 1975, Jimmy Green, was back there at the Boston Globe about the time Peter and Phyllis Rabinowitz died and I knew I would soon be losing my apartment in Brooklyn, so I even went so far as to return home to Boston to check the possibilities out there. In early 1975, the bookshop was not really off the ground yet. I must have been worried about my prospects, and there was still time to back away from that folly.

Fresh off the train at South Station, Jimmy took me out to lunch one summer afternoon. We leaned against his car, out on the asphalt but just inside the brim of shade from a building and out of a hot sun, just across the road from Speed’s hot dog wagon, eating or chili dogs and breathing the fumes off of Speed’s gas grill and laughing, about all of it. The world was coming to another end. What could we do? There he was, wishing he could write novels the way I did, and there I was looking for some regular employment at a local rag. There were no jobs open for writers like me anywhere in town that he knew of. Not ones that paid a weekly salary. I shouldn’t bother even applying. Everyone he knew was already trying to get in at one or another of the television stations. He warned, if I thought most newspaper reporting was no better than whoring, I should get a whiff of those pancake fumes under the studio lights some time.

But at least he wrote a nice piece in the Globe about my latest novel.

Jimmy’s head is probably on the block today, given his own age, but he summed up the state of things fairly and succinctly at that hour.

He said, “Journalism is a racket. You know about rackets, right?”

In an effort at one-upmanship, which was just part of the way between us in the old neighborhood, I said, “Dancing.”

He was appropriately perplexed. “What dancing?”

I smartly explained, “The New York Irish street gangs held big dances each year to get attention and new members and the like. The more brazen the better, showing how they might operate to frustrate the cops. Each event tried to be wilder than the other, and people called those affairs ‘the rackets,’ for all the noise they made, and that’s how the various forms of fraud and extortion they practiced in whatever neighborhood they controlled came to be known.”

He glared at me in the way he used to when we were in high school together and I was being a smart ass. “I should know better than to ask you a question like that.”

I shrugged with feigned innocence, “My great grandfather came over right into the middle of it. It’s just family history.”

He ignored my explanation. “I’m just talking about the newspaper racket here. It’s still just basic extortion. Pay to play. You write a nice piece on Hack A, and Hack A’s campaign throws some of his ad money your way. You give a nice report on the Playground Committee and when you need some inside angle on the Sewer Commission, you get first peek. Now most of that is political, but it’s all the same deal with the car dealerships and the movie chains or whatever. We run good stories on the ones we like and bad stories on the ones we don’t. We get the ad revenue from the ones in power.”

I remember him saying this as if I might not already be aware. “It’s like, you never show up the incompetence of the cops or you won’t get in the door to see the reports at the police station when you need to. The only reason to read the papers now is for the sports scores and the comics, unless maybe you’re looking for an apartment or to cut the coupons . . . And maybe for the dating services.”

Jimmy was married, so I wondered what he might need with the dating services.

I said, “Why do you do it then?”

Jimmy was holding his hotdog away from himself so the chili wouldn’t drop on his pants. My question caught him off guard. ‘Wasn’t it obvious,’ was the reaction, I thought. From the look on his face, he took it rather seriously, and he held that big heap on his bun right out there in midair and studied it for half a minute while he considered his answer.

“I don’t know. I shouldn’t . . . I agree with the politics, okay. They’re all crooks anyway. I know. But my crooks at least want to do well by doing good. That much is all right with me. You know that. That never changes, right? You might as well be for something as against it. You and I have argued enough on that score. But the fraud of pretending that what we’re putting out is the real news, that bothers me. It does. I go to church on Sunday, but I only hit the confession booth about once a year. I’m not a bad Catholic, exactly. I don’t think so. I don’t cheat on my wife. I don’t beat the kids, not like my dad used to knock me around. But there’s a lot of stuff I have to ignore, and that gets to me.”

I will tell you this: it was the look on his face right then that made me finally give up the thought of ever trying to write for the newspapers, once and for all. For those seconds I believe Jimmy was looking into that particular crack in the cosmos where you can see what the hell it is that’s in front of you.

 

One of my great grandfathers, Francis Delaney, came to America on a sailing ship. Not an unusual occurrence. But it was 1901 and well into the age of steam. He was an Irish sailor then on a Norwegian whaler. Maybe one of the last of its kind, as far as I can tell.

After a tough couple of months in a stormy season, the ship had put in at New York harbor for some repair or another and he had jumped over the rail right into Brooklyn. Actually into the water first, and then cut his arm on the broken shell of a mussel while climbing the pier. “I had blood in the water then, and I had to stay.” That was his story in the years after, repeated many times. Yet another expression I need to find a place for in something I write, someday. Maybe that was why I had such a fondness for the place myself. Brooklyn was in my genetic memory. Could be Lysenko was right after all.

But to get work back then, Frank Delaney had to give himself up to the gang that controlled the neighborhood. Same as today. And being Irish, he was used to having an English overlord, but the illiterate Irish louts and thugs who ran the rackets in New York were contemptible beyond anything he could stomach. So, in 1905, he ran away again, set out on foot with two dollars in his pocket and went to see about a cousin of his who had gone to Boston years before. So, a couple of generations on, that’s where I came along.

 

For my own part, that day in 1975 with half a pound of beef parts and peppers and onion in my stomach, I decided to double down. I went back to Brooklyn, went through with opening my own bookshop, and instead of writing for someone else, I would write a whodunit. Just for myself, if that was the way it was going to be. The bow-tied thugs who ran the publishing business were not going to keep me back. My previous book, The Unfortunate Happiness of Peter Brim, had done well enough in sales, but they wished it had sold better. My editor at Simon and Schuster had liked the way I played with contradictions and suggested the idea of writing an outright mystery. And I figured at least I could try to do one a little better than the usual. No need for ‘speckled bands,’ ‘red-headed leagues’ or ‘dancing men,’ or the more modern dancing on the nitty-gritty in the mean streets for that matter. The vicarious entertainment that the safely suburbed middle-class appeared to get from reading about the urban ghetto was sad to my mind. Not a ‘there but for the grace of God’ sort of fascination, but a guilty fixation. However, it seemed to me there were enough mysteries in everyday life to keep me occupied for at least one more book . . . such as, why do men take money for their souls when they still have feet to walk away?

 

 

 

 

  1. What to expect at the deluge, or

when pigs fly and sacred cows come home to roost

 

 

Genocide was not invented by Hitler, nor does the absence of stark black and white photographs make the Catholic murder of Huguenots in sixteenth century France any less heinous. The pretense that one’s own evil is somehow better or worse than that of previous generations is a conceit befitting only the myopic. Or the suicidal.

This then was not the object of my writing Ned Brown. The slaughter of the Irish during Cromwell’s dictatorship in England was pitiful for many reasons, not the least because the victims were primarily unarmed civilians. The soldiers of the Catholic Confederation and the remaining Royalists of Charles the Second quickly lost at Rathmines and Drogheda. They mostly avoided confrontation but they were traitorously murdered while later surrendering at Wexford. Cromwell’s New Model Army set a modern standard there for the slaughter of civilians at every turn, praising their own God all the while for the gifts of victory.

The quarter million killed, civilians and soldiers both, were quickly bones, and their stories lost, everyone, while the penal laws passed against the Irish Catholics went on for centuries. And in addition, more than 50,000 Irish were shipped off to the various corners of the nascent British Empire as slaves—a status then called indentured servitude for the specific warrant of their service, but leaving them fewer rights than that of a slave, in fact. Without the value of being property, they were always the most expendable. Ned Brown was one of those. But as it happened, Ned was one of the last of the old shanachie. The son and grandson of a shanachie. And he knew his stories well.

My thought was: what if a man of that trade had come to American then.

Ned was sent to the Plymouth Colony, when Puritans were once again having their own way with the natives there. His escape from his indenture and subsequently finding refuge even beyond the outer limits of the swamp Yankees, and his friendship with Metacom (or Metacomet as the ‘journalists’ more dramatically called him then) before that sachem became the leader of his tribe, is the tale of the book. And it was the stories Ned told of his home country to that rising leader of men, about the treachery of the English, which had been a spark to the tender of inevitable troubles to come. The tragedy of that chief who was also called ‘King Philip’ by the colonists in an effort to give their cruel war some greater dignity, and for all the native Americans to come, was thus foretold in Ned’s accountings of his own personal history in Ireland. His warnings to Metacom of the brutality of the English made the sachem wage an even fiercer war. I played with the thought: could Cromwell’s action in Ireland have altered the thinking of the Indians who undoubtedly had heard of those atrocities?

I was not unaware of the violent tactics employed by one Indian tribe against another. And certainly the Wampanoag were brutal in their own right, but the preemptive nature to Metacom’s leadership of those allied tribes that he had then gathered and took to war might have been further prompted by a recognition of that recent and bloody example across the sea and, in Ned Brown’s eyes, a just punishment for the Puritan atrocities that he had witnessed before. And most tragically, Metacom’s defeat, there at the very beginning of the American story, was the loss of all native Americans to come, as it determined the English attitudes and later those of the new Americans who built their republic on Indian lands.

It was just a thought.

Most of my historically based fiction has been tied to some particular incident that intrigued me well before I ever had a story to place in the midst of it.

I have no sympathy for one murder, and half as much for two. I do not count murder by the thousand in round numbers or make statistical calculations concerning individual lives lost. Such math is evil in my mind.

Like many others, I had been offended by Christopher Hill’s book, God’s Englishman. That apologia sought to make excuses where none could be found. Cromwell was not just a brave or bad man. He was an opportunist, very lucky, and despite his knowledge, very stupid. His suppression of Ireland could easily have brought France and Spain both against him and cost Britain everything. Those Catholic nations were as bloodthirsty as were his Puritans. It was the treasure lost to the spoilage of that war that impoverished Britain for more than a generation afterward. But the remedy for murder cannot be murder. Punishment, yes. Retribution and example, maybe. But the mind of a murderer does not