Like many writers, I feel centered when I write, or it might be better to say, when I don’t write, when I can’t write for whatever reason, I feel, frankly, de-stabilized. It’s dangerous for me not to write.
I am an early riser. Daylight and a sense of all that I have left undone pull me from sleep, and once I have parted the dark curtain there is no going back. Sometimes I patrol the house, in some vague way protecting my loved ones. Sometimes I watch the children sleep. But more often, perhaps, than I should, I roll next to my wife, Olivia, and court her sleeping body.
This morning, I had awakened from dreams of sex, and with full prior knowledge I would not be winning any popularity contests with this gesture, I nevertheless turned toward Olivia and pulled her close. She wore a cotton nightgown, ankle length; she took care to keep herself warm, even wore socks to bed. That used to drive me crazy, but now I sort of liked it; there was some thing a little wonderful about making love to a woman who was wearing kelly-green mid-calf socks.
Olivia’s nightgown had responded to the static electricity of our flannel sheets and hiked itself up during the night. Her loins presented themselves to me, scalding. I kissed her forehead, stroked her hair. Tenderness was in a sense a disguise for lust, but I felt it, too; it was a lie I meant.
“Olivia?” I whispered.
“What time is it?”
“I dreamed about you, all night.” She opened one porcelain-blue, bloodshot eye. Her hair was in her face; a few strands of it had gotten stuck into the moisture at the corner of her wide, pale mouth. She had dark brown hair, thick, Jewish, like my mother’s, though that was the only physical similarity between the two women. Olivia was tall, ivory, barely breasted, while my mother had been short, full, gnarled—put a black dress on her and she would have looked like one of those Sicilian widows on Mulberry Street.
“I want to sleep,” Olivia said, her voice an untuned cello.
A few months ago, Olivia had calculated that in our 16 years of marriage, I had deprived her of an average of two hours of sleep a night, totaling 12,410 hours since the first night of our honeymoon in Mexico, which came to 1,550 full nights of sleep. “You’ve deprived me of about four years of sleep,” she’d said, “and that doesn’t even count when we were dating.”
“Dating? We never dated. I hate that word.”
Because Olivia and I wanted a bit of erotic privacy (or at least I did), our son, Michael, who had always been a little sexually curious about us, now slept as far from our bedroom as our old Colonial house would accommodate. A warm breeze rattled the thick, glazed windows and I walked down the second-floor corridor, going from east to west, past our daughter’s room, who slept deeply, innocently, and who could not be kept too far from us because, even at nine, she still sometimes awoke in the middle of the night and came looking for us. Then I went down a half-set of stairs that led to a dead-end landing, once a maid’s room and now our son’s.
The early light touched the glass of the wall sconces; the glass rims of the shades shone red. My lamps, my sunlight, mine, mine, I thought. After a lifetime of renting, I was amazed to own anything.
The walls recently had been decorated with family photographs (it had been Olivia’s response to Michael’s withdrawing from us): snapshots from birthday parties, mementos of family vacations, all standard nuclear-family memorabilia, though several mornings ago I had noticed something askew in several of them—my gaze was on Olivia, and Michael’s was too, while Olivia herself and little Amanda looked at whoever was taking the picture.
I opened Michael’s bedroom door slowly, trying to keep the old hinges silent. His room’s one window faced west, where only a neighbor’s silty pond reflected the sunrise, and so Michael was still swathed in darkness. I stood there, barely breathing, letting my eyes adjust to the darkness. His room had been sliding into disorder for weeks, perhaps months. Clothes were strewn over the floor, where they commingled with candy wrappers, cellophane ripped from CD packages, and pennies, bottle caps, broken pencils, and those nihilistic, somehow arty comic books which he collected and never allowed me to criticize. “You do your kind of book and they do theirs,” he’d say, but he clearly believed that the creators of X-Men and Lobo were operating with some greater integrity than his father. (He also believed these comic books were, or would be, worth a fortune, while my own work, clearly, couldn’t even keep us in New York City, where Michael still longed to live.)
He was not terribly interested in what I wrote, read, or listened to on the stereo. That was fine with me—he could find his own culture. And he had never seemed like a child who took after me in very many ways: my feelings ran toward the sentimental, whereas Michael was empirical; I tried to get along with people, but he was a frustrated leader, a leader without followers, who had quit more games than he had won. When he was very young, we used to be able to share the first light together. On holiday by the ocean, we lay on the black cool sand and watched the stars gradually fade from the sky. At home in New York, we walked to a nearby bakery and ate the freshly baked croissants, the insides still warm, like pudding in our mouths. But when he got to be about ten, he began sleeping late. On school days we had to rouse him out of bed, and on weekends he was a corpse.
Even in poky little Leyden, population four thousand, he slept with a pillow over his head—a nocturnal behavior learned in Manhattan, where he had to sleep through a constant cacophony. This morning the pillow had shifted and tottered and I could see his face pressed into the weave of his white bed linens. His mouth and nose were pushed to one side, as if his face were putty. He slept with one knee raised and the fingers of his hand wrapped around the slats of his pine headboard like the grip of a prisoner around the bars of his cell. He slept in his clothes, and often would not change them for days: he kept his aroma close to him to lessen anxiety, to create a wall behind which he remained private, like a ghetto kid walking through a hostile middle-class neighborhood with a boom box howling on his shoulder.
Michael’s grievances against me, though painful to me, who longed to be liked, had generally been predictable, manageable—he faulted my temper, my unfairness, strictness, quack quack quack. But since our move to Leyden, he had come to romanticize his life back in New York, misremembering it in ways that accused me of plucking him from Paradise. Michael’s rendition of life in the city included only the highlights, stitched together in a way that made it appear that the Pearl Jam concert, Eddie Rosenberg’s birthday party at the Hard Rock Cafe, Carol Tang’s appearing at our door one evening because her parents weren’t home and she’d lost her keys, and a steam pipe exploding beneath Perry Street, which reduced us to candlelight for three days, had all occurred in one blissful burst, one event after the other, with no longueurs between.
I crept closer to him. He was still small enough for my hand to fit over the top of his head like a yarmulke. “Want to make a slop omelette?” I asked, not altogether softly. But he slumbered on, great oceanic waves of unconsciousness rolling over him.
Those slop omelettes came from better times than these. When Michael was six and Amanda was still in her crib, we cooked together on the weekends, preparing breakfast in bed for the love of our lives, Olivia. Michael would stand on his Woody Woodpecker stool next to the stove in our cramped and sunless Perry Street kitchen. A slop omelette might contain cheese or salami, olives or green peppers; it might, when Michael called the shots, even have a gumdrop or two.
As he grew older, his techniques became more sophisticated, if not his taste. He learned how to pour a stripe of Hershey’s syrup down the spine of the finished omelette and then stick the whole thing beneath the broiler for a moment or two, and he also developed the theory that if you put any citrus fruit into the eggs it would cut down on the cholesterol by 50 percent.
And then, one day when he was about 13, we presented Olivia with her Saturday breakfast in bed and we sat perched on either side of her while she ate. Michael talked to her about something he had seen on TV—he liked the old shows, the dumb comedies 30 years old, which seemed interesting and ironic to him, relics of the past—and then he happened to notice that my hand rested in the no-man’s-land of burgundy blanket between the spread of his mother’s legs. His face colored; his eyes turned to ice. He felt the casualness and the constancy of my access to Olivia as a door slamming in his face. It was not the last time we made breakfast together, but soon after that the ritual began to falter and fade, which was somehow a more painful demise—I kept thinking those slop omelettes might kick in again.
I left him there, asleep. Looking back on it now, I cannot help but wonder what might have changed if I’d simply torn the covers off of him, lifted him in my arms with the strength I still had, and—and? And what? I was filled with the mere preludes to solutions. I had a dozen ways of saying “Now listen here,” but I had nothing after that.
I walked down the corridor, past the faintly unreal family photos, and down the steps. Like most old houses, this one whispered to me whenever I was alone: “You could spend 50,000 dollars fixing me up and no one would ever know.”
I went to the kitchen. It still smelled of last night’s fish-and-broccoli dinner—having such a large kitchen had made us a bit lax about cleaning up, just as having an extra room had decreased our will to patch up little marital disputes. I took the teakettle off of the electric stove and shook it to see if any water was left in it. Having my own house, heating it myself, assuming responsibility for its repair and upkeep, drawing water out of my own well, had revealed in me unexpected compulsions toward frugality (which I could more or less disguise as ecological awareness). The kettle was empty, and I held it beneath the tap and listened as the water thundered in. I turned up the thermostat to a bearable 62 and then sat at the table and stared out the window.
Now that we lived in the country and the sky (rather than that dome of smoke and light that capped Manhattan) seemed a part of our life, I often looked up at it—for signs of weather, to try and remember the names of the different kinds of clouds, to watch the migrations of the birds, and to see if alien spacecraft might be in the area. This last, admittedly foolish, preoccupation was a product of (yet another) book I had recently published, under a pseudonym. The book was called Visitors from Above, and it was a basic, standard primer on UFO-ology, with one added feature, encouraged by my publisher: near the end, the book stoops to prophecy, boldly predicting that by the end of the millennium the earth will be visited by dozens and perhaps even hundreds of beings from Deep Space. I wrote the book because I couldn’t make a living writing what I would like to and I didn’t have the financial cushion to even dare. The meager advance they gave me for Visitors from Above was the bird in the hand, and the novel I would have liked to attempt and which, if it succeeded, might bring me a decent wage and a little respect, was mere faint twittering in a very thorny bush. And though writing Visitors did not convert me to the UFO religion, it did leave me with a fantasy of escape. Wouldn’t it be something if a silver obelisk descended through the trees beyond my kitchen window, the rays of its landing lights pouring down like organ music through the early-morning fog? I had a wife and two children sleeping upstairs—and now, suddenly, the teakettle began to scream—but there were times when my life felt so hollow, so insubstantial that being abducted and whisked to the edge of the galaxy seemed every bit as good an idea as going through a second 40 years as the man I was.
I lifted the kettle off the stove and its whistle faded within it, like the sound of a siren getting further and further away.
* * *
No spacemen took me away. The morning passed and by noon Amanda was at dance class, Olivia was out scouting attics and barns in her new capacity as a buyer for a New York antiques dealer, and I had driven Michael the five miles into town for his weekly appointment with his therapist, Bruce Pennyman. Pennyman did not inspire confidence, at least not mine; but the town’s senior shrink, an old snob called Bronson Cavanaugh, who wore tweeds and had the demeanor of one of those drawingroom psychologists in an Agatha Christie mystery, was reputed to be pill happy. Half his young patients ended up on antidepressants, and quite a few ended up in the formerly grand river houses that were now private psychiatric hospitals. Pennyman might not be state-of-the-art when it came to psychotherapy, but his not being a medical doctor meant he could not give Michael drugs, and he was also unlikely to refer Michael to a hospital. All I wanted was for Michael to grow up, get to college.
I parked the car in the lot behind the bank and walked with Michael toward Pennyman’s office. We had been wordless in the car—he had his mother’s dexterity for silences, could texture them, make them spin like tops.
“I’m going to run a few errands while you talk to Pennyman,” I said to Michael. The sun seemed to tilt forward like a face over a crib.
“Talking to Pennyman,” he said, shaking his head. “Some conversation.”
“It’s not supposed to be like an everyday conversation.”
“What do you know about it? Have you ever seen a psychiatrist?”
“No. Not yet.”
“Well, you should.” He looked at me for the first time all day. I was surprised by the lack of anger in his expression. He seemed to be scrutinizing me.
We were walking through Leyden’s complex of ball fields—baseball diamonds with their generous backstops, football fields with H’s in the end zone, soccer fields with their goals shaped like immense oxygen masks, all of it orbited by a cinder jogging track like one of the rings of grit around Saturn.
Today, the baseball diamond was full of activity. It was the Father ’N Son Baseball Tournament, sponsored by the Leyden Farmers and Merchants Bank, which also supplied donuts and little cartons of milk for the town’s teens, who the board of directors must have imagined were still connected to the simple things of life. I knew these were kids with condoms and Camaros, boys with mousse in their hair and hormonal treachery in their hearts. Still, here they were, Saturday morning, suited up in jeans and T-shirts, challenging on the manly battlefield of sports the accountants, cops, contractors, plumbers, and IBM technicians who were their fathers. How had they all remembered that today was the day of the game? In our house, PTA meetings, dentist appointments, school concerts all tended to disappear behind the fog of our collective forgetfulness, an amnesia that included only the practical matters of life, and nothing emotional: grudges, for example, were written in stone; slights were matters of legend.
“We should be in this game,” I said, gesturing toward the field.
“What about therapy?”
“What better therapy in the world is there than a clutch hit with men on base?”
“I mean it,” I said, as if this were a tenet of personal belief that went deep in me, though it had just struck me a moment ago.
“I don’t get clutch hits with men on base,” said Michael. “I strike out.”
“If I’m even chosen.”
“There weren’t that many games in the city,” I said.
“There’s not that many games here, either, Dad.” He had long before turned the word “Dad” into a piece of verbal irony, the punch line in some sad running joke.
It had rained that night, and the ground as we crossed the park was still mucky; the mud slurped at our heels. Facing the park was Broadway, a two-lane blacktop with a bright center line, with the playing fields on one side and a row of Federal-style brick buildings on the other. The historical correctness of Leyden wasn’t the result of preservationist instinct but of economic doldrums. No business in town could afford new construction, and so they made do with these pleasing antiques.
Michael could not bear to look at this street, which had as much relation to his Broadway, the real Broadway, as Athens, Georgia, has to the home of the Parthenon. I hadn’t anticipated how much Michael would contrive to miss New York.
“Look at this place,” he said to me. “What are we doing here?” Michael had his hands dug into the pockets of his overly large Army fatigue jacket, which he had bought at a surplus store last year on the real Broadway. He said it had once belonged to a soldier killed in Vietnam. I’d never stopped to decide if that was true or something he said to tweak the remains of my student radicalism.
“What would you be doing if we were still in New York?”
“Being in New York.”
“I don’t know. Hanging with my friends.”
I let it stand, though in fact the only friend he had at the time of our move was Oliver Green, a fat boy in skintight pants and a coconut-oiled pompadour, with whom Michael haunted used comic book stores and watched TV. Michael might remember it otherwise, but the truth was he had been bored silly with and by Oliver. There were times when they were so idle they made cakes and cookies together; I had even found them one Saturday afternoon napping in our living room, with Oliver sacked out on the sofa and Michael snoring lightly in our armchair, with his hands folded in his lap.
“You’ve always hated my friends,” Michael said.
“That’s not true.”
“It’s not like your friends are so great. You think they’re so special because they write for some magazine or work in an art gallery. Well, I don’t think they’re so great.”
“Any friend of yours is a friend of mine, Michael,” I managed to say.
“Remember that woman Nadia?” he said to me, as we stopped and waited for a break in the traffic on Broadway.
A truck was passing, hauling a prefabricated house wrapped in clear plastic. The noise was such that I couldn’t discern if he was mentioning Nadia with any particular emphasis. His eyes avoided mine.
“What about her?”
“I remember when she came to our house. She was trying so hard to be friendly. It was embarrassing.”
“I thought you liked her.”
“Well, I didn’t.”
“Well, there you have it. I don’t think she’ll be visiting again.”
“Yeah,” said Michael, looking at me, smiling. “Probably not.”
I felt a shimmer of danger, but then it passed–no: what passed was my consciousness of it. I looked up through the overhang of maple branches to see if Pennyman’s second-floor window was visible from where we stood. I didn’t want him looking at us.
“Did you see where they’re doing Macbeth over at the college?” I said. “Maybe we should check it out? You always liked Shakespeare. Even as a little kid—you never had any trouble with the language. You understood it better than most adults, actually.”
Michael looked at me, an expression that was not quite his own on his handsome, sallow face. It had been printed over his features by the television set, burned into his pliant young flesh like a laser tattoo. The expression on Michael’s face was that sitcom look that meant “Are you nuts or something, Dad?”
But why did that sour, trumped-up, secondhand grimace, with its failed irony, its lack of respect, its third-rate derisiveness, make me want to gather my son in my arms? I longed for Michael’s touch; it was almost like yearning for the embrace of a lover. In fact, I did not know how to love without touching; I was a failure at all the world’s principal religions for precisely this reason. My version of fatherhood was tactile. I was a head patter, a hair ruffler, a lap puller-onto, a good-night kisser. Amanda still put up with me, but Michael had been dodging my touch for years, and now I was emotionally inarticulate, dumbstruck. I was caught between the language of being father to a boy and father to a man. I was like poor Kerensky, who came to America after the Bolsheviks booted him out of Moscow and who never learned to speak decent English and who eventually forgot his Russian and died unable to speak to anyone.
“How come you bring me here and Mom doesn’t?” he asked, as we stood before the door to Pennyman’s building. I looked through the window; the steep staircase rose before us like an object in a dream.
“No particular reason. You know she works on Saturdays.”
“Why does she have to?”
“She hates what she does.”
“I think she finds it quite interesting. Anyhow, we all have to make compromises to pay the bills. That’s civilization and its discontents.”
“If she was my wife, I wouldn’t want her to do something she didn’t want to.”
“You are free to discuss that with Pennyman,” I said, smiling—though why I thought Michael would find that amusing is now unclear to me.
“I know things about you,” he said.
“Really?” I opened the door for him, made an after you gesture, a deep bow, a sweep of the arm. When there’s nothing else to serve, there’s always a little leftover ham.
“Did you hear what I said?” Michael said, stepping over the threshold, the wood brown and fat from a century of repaintings.
“Yes. You know things about me.” What sort of things?
Yet I was putting it together. The claim that he would be a better husband to Olivia than I was, the mention of Nadia …
We walked up the narrow staircase. It was so steep I held the banister, but then I let go, scolding myself. Gestures like that speed the aging process, like getting a suitcase with those little wheels.
“Ah, there you are,” said Bruce Pennyman, emerging from the water closet at the top of the stairs. He closed the door behind him and rubbed his hands together. We heard the roar of the toilet, penned like a porcelain beast inside the small bathroom.
It struck me every time how large Pennyman was. He’d been an athlete in college, but somewhere along the way had gone sensitive. He had a large anarcho-syndicalist mustache, a bit of a paunch; his eyes glittered with intellectual insecurity.
“We’re not late, are we?” I asked.
“No, no, not at all,” said Pennyman. He barely glanced at me; it was part of the method. He wanted to make certain no kid ever felt the shrink and the parents were in cahoots. “Come on in, Mike.”
He gestured Michael into the inner office. Maybe, I thought, as Pennyman closed the door, maybe Michael had not been born to be happy. Maybe the melancholia, the silences, maybe that’s just who he is, and it cannot be any more easily repaired than having small bones, large eyes.
I stood in the waiting room and remembered the tone in Michael’s voice when he said, “I know things about you.” It was a mix of sorrow and satisfaction, with a certain smugness, too: power. I was not a man without secrets, by any means, secrets I was very committed to keeping. But then my attention drifted toward the window and the playing field beyond. The fathers were up in the Father ’N Son game. A stocky dad took a vicious cut at the ball, hit nothing, spun, and fell down.
I looked at the fish tank in the waiting room, blue and yellow tropical fish, almost lacking in dimension. They didn’t disturb the torpid waters of the aquarium as they flitted beneath the pinkish fluorescent light; first they were here, then there, as if they were just pictures offish randomly projected onto the water.
I left Pennyman’s office. It was April, the first good weather since this Saturday ritual began, and it occurred to me I might take a nice stroll—”perhaps” fall by the local bookstore to see if anyone had bought my latest.
When I opened the door, it was raining dandelion fuzz. The wind raked through every dandelion in town. The dandelion seed was everywhere and it was all at once. The dandelions seemed to explode in every yard, every driveway, vacant lot, garden, and sidewalk fissure in Leyden. If it had been cold, it would have seemed like a snowstorm.
I walked down Broadway, through the curtain of seed. The great diffuse orgasm gave me a sense of solace, just as I took comfort in my own persistent desire, the feeling it gave me of being an animal, alive.
Little Christmas lights were still braided through the crowns on the maple trees; soon the leaves would cover the wires. I passed the crafts shop where the town’s aging sewing-machine jockeys still shopped, the hardware store where they were closing out on red-enamel Swedish wood-burning stoves, and I waved through the glass to whatever shopkeeper made eye contact with me. I liked strolling through my dinky adopted home. I liked its manageability, and I really liked being recognized. Olivia said I had developed a Blanche DuBois complex, but taken down a few notches: rather than depending on the kindness of strangers, I was merely looking forward to the acknowledgment of passersby.
I was 40-years-old and had no idea what I was doing with my life, except fulfilling responsibilities—and the prospect of a life of obligation cultivated in me a bloom of boredom that not only leached its nutrients from the deepest layers of self but also shared a root system with rage.
Yet it was not rage I felt as I walked through Leyden that afternoon. I was suddenly drunk with sadness, a sadness that had me practically stumbling as I passed young mothers pushing their amazed babies around in strollers, and the ten-year-olds on their garish bikes, and most especially the teenagers who hadn’t gotten themselves roped into the Father ’N Son softball game, maladjusted and randy, bound together in tight precoital packs, the town’s poor kids, living in shacks, trailers, dressed in hip-hop clothes, with studs in their ears, hoops in their noses, styling gel in their tiaras of hair.
How I loved them, how I momentarily loved them. I wanted to hold them, like a dying man who feels the world like silk running through his fingers. Spring engendered in me a feeling of bliss followed by a dark twist of dread; my heart was a seesaw with an angel on one end and a clown on the other.
I turned off Broadway and headed toward Oak, pelted by the feathery hail of dandelion spore. Molly’s Books, my destination, was on one of the side streets that sloped toward the railroad tracks. Molly Taylor had once fondly hoped that people would buy a book or two from her before taking the two-hour train ride to New York, but the little magazine kiosk in the station more than satisfied the commuters’ cultural yearnings, and Molly was always on the brink of Chapter 11.
Molly’s Books was in a clapboard house built around 1920. It had a nice circular porch, which Molly used as her secondhand-book section. Inside, the light was bright but soft—Molly was seeing Len Ackerman, an electrician, and he’d fixed her up with pinkish track lighting.
Molly was at her post near the cash register, sitting on a three-legged stool, her knees drawn up beneath her long Liberty print skirt, the tops of her green leather boots balanced on the stool’s wooden rung. She was reading something called The Goddess Handbook and looked up when my entrance rang the little bells above her door.
“Author, author,” she said, smiling. Her red hair was in ringlets, and she had a cold, which put ringlets of red around each nostril.
When I first moved to Leyden, Molly had briefly considered me a sexual prospect, and my response was to pretend to a certain stupidity. This feigned lack of perception had somehow embedded itself in me, and I usually felt a little dense around Molly.
“Look around you!” Molly said. “Saturday afternoon and where is everybody? What a town.” She shook her head; her hair swung back and forth. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever actually touched her. Maybe her flirtatiousness was a mere hallucination on my part; maybe my libido was a lonely child conjuring imaginary friends.
“Did you see what’s going on out there?” I said. “It’s raining dandelion fuzz.”
“And that’s what makes this such a special place.”
“Now you sound like Michael. He’s so depressed. You know, I think life is essentially bipolar—you’re manic when you’re young, then you’re depressed. Now he’ll have to be manic when he’s older and risk having a heart attack.”
“He’ll get used to it. Your wife’s happy here, yes?”
“I suppose. She likes the birds, that kind of thing. The gallery she was running closed. It was time to leave. She likes her job with the antiques people. She has that bright red Subaru and a wad of twenties in her purse, like a gangster.”
“I often wonder how it works—marriage.”
“It doesn’t,” I said. “Turning love into marriage is like having the Unicorn Tapestry and using it as a tablecloth.”
“But that sounds wonderful. That sounds exactly how a unicorn tapestry ought to be used.”
“Maybe. So, how’s Visitors from Above doing?”
“I hope Olivia gives you stern scoldings about wasting your talent on these crazy books of yours.”
“Not really. We have to live, you know.” I felt the color rising in my face. A spinner of Famous Author postcards was on the counter near the cash register. I looked at the faces of Mailer, Updike, Hemingway, Frost. All of my idols had become thorns in my side. “Anyhow, I haven’t written a novel in years. Now, I’m just a hired gun, a hired cap gun, a pop gun—”
“A flop gun.”
“Sam, stop. Please.” She fished a Marlboro Light from her purse. She lit up, exhaled a long lilac plume of smoke. “Are you familiar with the Protocols of the Elders of Zion? she asked.
“Why? Is it selling?”
“Then you are.”
“I may have told you my father was anti-Semitic, but not to that extent. We didn’t read The Protocols, nor did we have Mein Kampf in the house.”
“Let me tell you something about The Protocols, Sam. Millions of copies have been sold. And they still sell. Have you ever read them?”
“Why would I?”
“Henry Ford used to give them out with the weekly paychecks, during the old days at Ford.”
“A copy of The Protocols was found with the tsarina’s body, in her country house, where she and her family were killed by the Red Army. Someone had sent her the book; it was probably unread—she barely read, you know. But being found with her body fueled the fires of Jew hatred and increased the book’s reputation.”
“What is it? It’s a bunch of bearded, humpbacked rabbis dressed in black, huddled together in some cemetery, discussing how to dominate Europe—right?”
“Something like that. But the point is—where did this so-called document come from?”
“I’m serious, Sam. It came from a novel, written by a postal worker, who churned out books and was more or less paid by the word—he just wrote whatever popped into his head and wrote it quick because he always needed money.”
“Is that what you think I do?”
“Listen to me. People believed it. It was written down. It became a fact.”
“That certainly didn’t happen to me with Traveling with Your Pet.”
“People are buying this one, though. I sold three on Tuesday, two on Wednesday, five on Thursday—”
“Are you serious, Molly?” I actually felt a bit faint.
“—and nine on Friday.”
The book was, at its most responsible, a rehash of half-truths about extraterrestrials lifted from popular science magazines, weekly tabloids, and the “controversial” testimony of a few embattled professors from third-tier colleges. Yet even with these typical instant-book materials (just add exclamation points and mix) I still needed to make things up, at first to add a little drama and then for padding, since the deal with my publisher was for eighty thousand words and my first draft had hobbled in with a little over sixty thousand.
Just then, the sleigh bells over the door jangled and a woman in her sixties walked in with the aid of a stout black cane. She was large and vague; she looked as if she spent a great deal of time in bed, though unable to sleep.
“Hello, Pamela,” Molly fairly sang. “I was worried that maybe you’d forgotten us.”
“Well, to tell you the truth, Molly,” Pamela said, as if to gently but frankly share some extremely upsetting news, “my foot’s been acting up.”
“Oh, Pamela, I am so sorry to hear that.”
I’d had no idea that Molly needed to pander to her customers like that; it made me feel very close to her, and I forgave her for her little lecture about The Protocols.
“We’ve gotten in a new shipment of mysteries,” Molly said.
“Well, dear, what I came in for is that Mysteries from Beyond.” She opened a greenish piece of paper torn from a stenographer’s pad. “By John Retcliffe.”
“Oh, you mean Visitors from Above!” said Molly. “Well, that’s a popular item, I must say.”
With a brief wink in my direction, she lifted the drawbridge contraption at the corner of the counter and beckoned Pamela to follow her down the store’s center aisle, past the novels, past the gift books, and on to the section hopefully designated Hardcover Non-Fiction, though the bindings themselves were just pasteboard and the texts often as not a mere tissue of lies.
I walked toward Pennyman’s office. Every so often, a spit of dandelion fuzz landed on my chest, my eyelashes, stuck to the corner of my mouth. Though the air was cold, there was a sense of summer—freedom, desire, boundless dreams.
But was it the air, or thoughts of my book and its little surge of sales? How I longed to stop worrying about money, to wheel a cart down the aisle of a supermarket without a calculator tapping in the middle of my skull. I wanted the fun of money, the comfort, and I wanted to never again have to write a book because the mortgage needed me to. I wanted to find out if what I once called my “voice” could ever be summoned again in the service of serious writing. And with money, I could move my family back to New York. Michael would like that.
Near Pennyman’s, I noticed a boy called Greg Pitcher strolling down Market Street with a couple of other teenagers who’d been playing in the Father ’N Son game. Greg, fatherless, with a sad, hot-tempered mother whose own life was irregular, had been Michael’s first friend in Leyden, and Michael had felt encouraged, even blessed by Greg’s attentions. Greg had actually lived with us for a week. He was large, muscular, golden, and Michael fell in love with him the way teenagers often do, which meant he wanted to be Greg: he wore, for a while, Gregish clothes (blazers, loafers, pale yellow shirts), he started shaking hands with the people he met and addressing his elders as “sir.” For a while, Greg’s friendship gave Michael a kind of social pedigree, but unfortunately he wasn’t able to parlay it into a wider social success.
“Hello, Mr. Holland,” Greg said, making a long, graceful stride away from his friends and extending his powerful hand in my direction.
“Hello, Greg,” I said—I felt shy, a little low on the pecking order around Greg. Michael’s lack of status among the local teens was forcing me to relive my own.
“We missed you at the game, you and Mike,” Greg said.
“The Mike-man,” one of Greg’s friends mumbled, giving me the sinking feeling that my kid might be the butt of some running joke.
“Yeah, well, so much to do, so little time,” I said, hoping to convey that Michael had better things to do than to whack a softball around in a blizzard of dandelion fuzz.
“Yeah, well, maybe next time,” said Greg.
“You ought to give Michael a call,” I found myself saying. “I’m sure he’d like to see you.”
“I just saw him,” Greg said, a slight quiver of defensiveness in his voice. “In school, yesterday.”
“Right.” I nodded, giving myself a chance to switch over into a better mode of behavior. Michael surely did not want his father matchmaking for him; I was only devaluing him in the eyes of these kids.
“Say hey for me anyhow,” Greg said, smiling, reassured I would not press my kid’s case any farther.
“I will.” I squeezed my hand into a fist because I was not comfortable, not proud of what I was about to do. “And I’ll tell him you’ll give him a call.” There. Done.
I climbed the steps to Pennyman’s office. Michael was just coming out of the inner office, moving unsteadily, blinking like someone emerging from a theater, bouncing into the bright belly of the day.
He wore a sweatshirt bearing the name of his old high school back in New York. He looked frail, miserable, dispossessed. And my soul demanded of my intelligence that it come up with a plan, a word, a gesture that would break the spell under which Michael had fallen, and once again my intelligence came back with its tattered net empty.
“Perfect timing,” I said.
Michael glared at me; his moods were all he had.
Pennyman followed behind Michael, looming.
“Hello, Sam,” he said. “I wonder if I could have a word with you. I’ve already asked Michael and he said it’s okay. Right, Mike?”
Michael made a gesture of assent so minimal that it held within it the grounds for its own denial.
I followed Pennyman in, but before the door closed I turned to Michael and said, “I ran into Greg. He says he’s going to give you a call.” Michael looked back at me with utter dismay.
I sat in an old, rose-colored chair and Pennyman sat at his desk. The windows were halved by Venetian blinds; the bookshelves held scholarly books and examples of Eskimo art—scrimshaw polar bears, stone seals, Mongolian profiles hewn from jade. Pennyman slid a sheet of computer paper toward me. L’addition, s’il vous plaît. I glanced at it and noted with a deep unhappy jolt that we now owed him 600 dollars.
“How’s Michael making out?” I folded the bill in two, slipped it into my breast pocket.
“I’d like to start seeing him twice a week, Sam.”
“I would have suggested it before, but I didn’t have any after-school openings. However, my Tuesday at 4:30 has terminated.” He patted his black appointment book.
“I’ll have to talk it over with Olivia,” I said, but even as I said it I was thinking, No fucking way. Why did any of this have to be happening? Frustration bred fatigue. I felt some neuronal replica of myself curling up inside, closing its eyes.
“Of course,” said Pennyman. “I understand these things are stressful.”
“How does he seem to be getting along?” I asked. “To you?”
“How does he seem to be getting along to you?” Pennyman volleyed back, like an old tennis player bunting the ball back over the net.
I wanted to say: Look, pal, this shrink technique of turning the question around went out with the waterbed.
“I’m not sure,” I said. “He seems melancholic. He’s doing well in school, academically. But he keeps talking about how he misses New York, his friends, his life there. But the thing is, he wasn’t really happy there, either.” I sighed, as if I’d been holding my breath. “It’s so awful.”
“Yes.” I looked at Pennyman. The tone of voice he used to say “His unhappiness” surprised, disarmed me. He sounded tender, real. A sudden tide of emotion scalded my face. “I love him. Of course.”
“But I feel as if I’ve failed him, terribly.”
“Sam, Michael wants you to know something.” He let that sink in, and then continued. “He knows you are involved with another woman.”
For an instant, I actually believed in my own innocence.
“He found a letter to you, from a woman, a New York City woman, apparently a professional contact.”
I just sat there. I listened to the white-noise machine Pennyman kept on, a little black plastic blower shaped like a hair dryer.
“Oh, Christ,” I said. I pressed my forehead.
“He has wanted to show this letter to Olivia,” Pennyman said. “As you know, they have a special closeness. But I worry about the letter. In most households, a letter like this could have a devastating impact. Such an upheaval would have a very bad effect on Mike at this particular point of his treatment.”
“His treatment? What about his life?”
“And his life,” said Pennyman, not really conceding anything.
“What should I do?”
“I don’t know. I have no degrees in advice.”
“How very droll, Bruce.”
“I’m sorry, Sam. I feel what this must mean to you.”
“Is he going to blackmail me or something?” I was starting to unravel now, saying whatever occurred to me. That little border guard on the line between thought and speech had apparently passed out from the shock of Pennyman’s news. “I can’t let Michael become the dictator of my marriage. He can’t have all this power.”
“I suppose you could tell Olivia yourself, before Mike does.”
He looked at his watch and shrugged apologetically. Another patient would be on the way, and Pennyman was careful about his clients not crossing paths. It was a small town.
He walked me to the door. Coins and keys jingled faintly in his pockets.
Sudden sunlight exploded in the solitary window. A bit of dandelion fuzz rested on the outside of the air conditioner.
And then when Pennyman opened the door leading to the waiting room we were both silent. We looked, left and right. There were four empty green vinyl chairs, a copy of Newsweek dropped onto the mustard-colored carpet. Michael was gone.
Men in Black, which will be published in April by Knopf, is Scott Spencer’s sixth novel. His other works, including Endless Love and Waking the Dead, have been translated into over twenty languages.
Like many writers, I feel centered when I write, or it might be better to say, when I don’t write, when I can’t write for whatever reason, I feel, frankly, de-stabilized. It’s dangerous for me not to write.