—What do you know about Byron?
Dr Ornaforu was unusually excited.
I punched the two syllables into my mainframe. It was still too early. Lord Byron flashed back on my memory’s crt. Then, Keats, Byron, Shelley.
—Not too much, I answered.
I had always preferred Keats.
Dr Ornaforu continued with his tale, his elbow propped, the syringe poised for entry. His way of distracting my attention, I thought, delaying the moment of strike. He inventoried the details like a private detective. A complete edition, circa 1900. A missing frontispiece. Instead, a letter in faded brown ink signed N. Byron and disclaiming authorship of a certain work.
The white-faced nurse returned with the carbocaine.
I rolled back my tongue, the needle pierced the nerve. My lower jaw was paralysed and I entered a catatonic trance.
—You wouldn’t believe how hard it is … I heard him say.
With the left side of my face, I attempted to form a few syllables of assent, to sympathise with his predicament. He left my side to attend to another patient.
—Come back in 15 minutes, the nurse said.
A HUNDRED VOW TO FAST! the newsstand headlines proclaimed. MARGARET STANDS FIRM. Pasted to the sliding window above the newsstand were two notices, a white one from the police, seeking information on a hit and run vehicle, male-adult-killed, the words were circled, on the street out in front. The other was pink and in fake telegram format announced the criminality of stealing papers, even one, from the stacks beneath the window.
I stood there in the sunshine, my jaw turned to concrete, the 96-point bold italics sang out from the other tabloids. IRELAND MOURNS, IRELAND SHRIEKS IN ANGUISH. A white Sanitation Department truck cruised down the block, its rear end agape like a huge maw. The driver leaned across the front seat, swung the right door open, his mate jumped onto the running board from the street and pulled himself in, hey there, cordially. The door slammed, the truck picked up speed and the May breeze blew away the odor quickly.
I walked 50 yards to the pay-phone on the corner. A wide-hipped, tweedjacketed social worker was making a complicated report back to her office. I positioned myself within her line of sight. Resolutely, she kept her back to me and slipped more nickels into the slot. Finally she turned around, covering the mouthpiece.
—I’m afraid I’ll be some time. This is very important.
Well, maybe. I walked back to the pay-phone on the other corner. In Amsterdam or Rome I might have trudged half-a-mile. In North Africa I would have waited on line with 20 other people at the PTT or driven to the next dot on the map to place my call. Here in Manhattan, I balanced my address book on the small triangular shelf inside the phone booth.
-MusEum of Modern Art, a voice entoned laconically. The switchboard clicked me through to my extension. On vacation in Europe. I dialed again.
—Ulleson Jay and Lever, came the morose response. Half my vocal apparatus functioning, I tried to sound urgent. The male receptionist did not yield.
—She’s in court this morning.
—She’s in court. She’s in conference. She’s not at her desk. She’s on another line. The efficiency of the Bell system seemed reduced. No voice-to-voice exchange today. Disillusioned, I returned to the dental chair for the excavation of my right molar. The heavy-duty drill shuddered deep into the ivory but I felt nothing, no twinges of dreaded pain. Instead, I watched the tiny beads of water fly from the point of impact, catch the light, trace dancing arcs before my eyes.
—Rinse out, please!
I took a gulp. Dr Ornaforu padded the precipice that had once been tooth with white cement and I was home free.
—What does the N stand for? I asked on my return visit.
Byron’s middle name was Noel, but as it turned out the N had been a figment of his imagination. The letter was simply signed Byron. Under the magnifying glass it had proved to be authentic.
This time I got three quarters of the carbocaine dosage, not half. I didn’t attempt any business calls. Instead, I phoned my friend. What are the signs of teething, I asked her.
I sat down on the curved wooden slats of the green bench at the stone chess table in front of the handball court. Behind me the vertical green white and red stripes of modem Italy entirely covered the wall that returned the thudding balls. Opposite me an old man stared nowhere, making clicking noises at regular intervals.
—How are yer.
I watched the teenagers stroll by in ones twos and threes, gesturing with their cigarettes. The old man left his seat and made for the lamp-post across the street, his arm stretched out ahead like a sensing device. It was a particularly active corner. A roller skater in black suede boots sailed past the lunchtime workers with their paper bags. A schoolboy balanced a textbook on his head.
A huge blue bottle with protruding maroon eyes landed on the chequered surface in front of me. I have two eyes and ten fingers, I thought to myself.
When I was once more safely ensconced in the dental chair, Dr Ornaforu was ready with more revelations. He described minutely how the letter had been folded. The title of the disclaimed work was “The Vampire.” His insistence surprised me. How valuable could this edition be, I vaguely wondered.
Dr Ornaforu called for the nurse with the amalgam.
—It’s hard to combine fiction with dentistry, he said.
—Fiction? … I repeated numbly.
All of a sudden I understood his dilemma.