Saturday, December 10, 2005

Chapter VII: Inspiration and After

After another disciplined drink, he picked up the two sheets from Don Wassermann, which Dora had opened and not even bothered to place back in the original envelope. He was prepared for the worst, maybe even the kiss-off, the righteous dismissal, from his long-indulgent editor.

March 21, 1957

My Dear Bill,

It’s been a long while since you called or wrote to me, and I am eager to go ahead with “Wry Beach.” I was very surprised to read the poem that you put in the forward. When did you start writing poetry? I’ve no great expertise as a poetry critic, but the piece does seem to have merit to me; certainly in the context of the stories, which however loosely connected are so evocative and bittersweet. The verses do set up the first two stories particularly well. The sense of nostalgia and regret is palpable. The evocation of the seasons and landscapes of New England is superb. The elegiac tone might owe something to Cowper and Wordsworth, but your perceptions of character and the spirit of place are all your own. I have long suspected that you love the place far more than you do the people who inhabit it.

These longish stories strike a new note for you; I am eager to see more of them. The form is a bit problematic--are they stories or novellas? Are they a novel, or “proto-novel,” in their connectedness? I wonder, too, what conflicts are being avoided, since many of the characters are so repressed and “submerged” in their own (solipsistic?) worlds. There is--forgive me for purloining this phrase from a writer you so disdain--a “beast in the jungle” waiting to be set free.

Please don’t regard these as carping criticisms. You know that I believe in you and your talent. I feel that you are on the verge of some great breakthrough, and everyone here at Eboracum Press is keen on this work. Even Mr. Greenleaf, who is such a curmudgeon with most of his “terrible infants.”

But, dear Bill, you must pick up the pace. And you must communicate with me before too much more time elapses. Writing has a shelf life like anything else--like bread, ideas can go moldy with astonishing speed, I find--so we must forge ahead now that you have established the foundation of a fine volume. There is much work to be done--new work that, I hope, you have written in the recent months, as well as the usual tedious editing for which I am paid. I believe you call it “nitpicking,” but I do hope that I’m a a little more visionary than that!

To that end, I expect that we will meet when I am visiting at my wife’s parents’ in Brookline over the Easter holidays. I can drive up to see you at Angleport, or you can come to Boston. We can meet at the Somerset Hotel, perhaps. How does Easter Monday the 22nd at 10 A.M. sound? I will look forward to seeing you there.

My best to your lovely mother. And to Gwynne and my cousin, who has risen so far from his humble beginnings at CCNY.

Yours as always,

Don Wassermann

No mention of a check. Don always stated, in the body of the letter, whether or not a check was enclosed. He knew Dora wasn’t above taking it out and depositing in her own account. So: they were keen on the work, but not that keen. Or that old piker, Mr. Greenleaf, wasn’t.

And, obviously, his “friend” Don despised him. Why else the cheap dig about Gwynne and the successful Harold Blumberg? Appropriating his cousin’s success for himself, too, which beat all for gall.

Bill stewed. He had a wild idea that Dora had called Don up and orchestrated this double-barreled attack. Actually, it wasn’t such a wild idea. He sat on the couch and comforted himself with the image of him throwing a chair through the window and its landing on both their diminutive heads as they lounged below, talking of Michelangelo or some other pretentious rubbish. He ranted inwardly. In ten minutes got himself under control.

As he sat watching the fire die away to a heap of red embers, he felt a peculiar calmness, a blankness that may have been no more than a cessation of internal hostilities. Inner truce, he thought with an inner smile. The phrase “use your pain” returned to him; and, not for the first time, he sensed redemption in a huge blank sheet of paper, which he would fill and fill, on which he would inscribe his discoveries in a new territory. Connections would be made, explanations delivered, and all would become clear and honest and suffused with a kind of grace that might last beyond the ten-minute afterglow of a good fuck, say, or a good cry that emptied the sinus cavities.

In his mind’s eye he ascended into some sort of spiritual firmament. All impediments, all the petty tyrannies of habit and imposed duties fell away. He was filled with the certitude that, this time, he’d succeed in expressing everything he knew and felt and desired and aspired to. Everything. All. All of everything, all in one beautiful place, a world that he would create--had already created, although more in his notebooks (so far) than on the published page. And that would change.

From now on, he thought, this will be my life. Writing and nothing else.

A thrill shook his body, welling up from his heart. He felt sober, energetic, invincible.

He descended in his firmament of helium just enough to account for immediate practicalities. April 22 was only three weeks away--no, less. These tedious yokels would have to wait to get his undivided attention again. Too bad. He had a reputation to make, power to wield with the written word!

He got up feeling alive, purposeful, eager to live up to someone’s expectations for a change. He washed his face. He even brushed his teeth and gargled several times with Listerine. He carried his dinner tray downstairs and amazed Claire with his appearance in the kitchen.

“Not a word, Claire. I know I’ve been a self-indulgent—“

“Hein?”

“A pain in the ass.”

She nodded, looking somewhat dubious as she washed the dishes. “Et maintenant que veux-tu?”

Bill forgave her insolence in using the familiar form with him. “A big strong pot of coffee. And a plate of cookies or doughnuts or something to get me through the night. Got any fresh fruit? Some candy bars would be good, too. I have to work! All night, all night! Till the chill gray dawn!”

Douglas came in as he was declaiming. “Problem, Mr. Blake?” Bill avoided his searching gaze.

“On the contrary. Things are ducky! I got a letter from my editor. It’s do-or-die time. They love my newest stuff. I have to get cracking--get back on track, I mean, with my writing. Vite vite! Ideas get stale, you know. Like bread.”

“Oh.” Douglas looked at Claire, who shrugged her ignorance.

“It will be late to start typing, though…” Douglas said.

“Don’t worry. I always write in long hand. Several drafts. Then I find a typist. Maybe you’ll help me with that when the time comes, Douglas.” Bill grabbed hold of Douglas’s arm and looked up at his wary face with sudden confidingness. “But I’ll be quiet as a literary mouse tonight and for the foreseeable future!”

He ran back up to his room. He opened his notebook for the first time in months. He sat at the desk, stared, mused and scribbled. He didn’t notice when Douglas knocked on the door, then entered and set the tray on the dresser. He barely looked up when Douglas poured him a cup of coffee from a silver pot and set a pile of goodies on the desk.

Douglas smiled to himself and stole out of the room. Bill caught the smile out of the corner of his eye and scowled. Buzz off, you big faggot. I’m the fucking person of consequence around here and I sure as hell don’t need your condescension.

As the night went on, Bill was transported to another place. It was a realm of his own creation. He inhabited a zone where only gods and great creative minds dwelled, for however brief a time. Patterns asserted themselves, secret connections were made, characters and motives came together united in a symphony of literal and metaphorical meanings, actions and images meshed with destiny. Wit, humor, understanding, compassion, fatefulness. A key word, a secret code to the entire work kept coming through, kept appearing on the paper as if by some angelic hand: Home. “Home”? What did this mean? He didn’t understand his own code. In time it came to him, and he rejoiced. It meant he was approaching some kind of Truth for once. Not literary truth and stylistic devices but something more, maybe even something enduring. Enduring themes and emotions--things that connected, and in this junction of the real and the possible he detected his own rise. Out of the ashes, he thought. Little me, a fucking phoenix.

He understood that his life, finally, was beginning. At forty years old!

It’s all here. This is the breakthrough! I’m on my way at last. The apprenticeship is over!

He was free. He was heir to a kingdom that transcended time and human suffering. No, he was the king himself, and his realm transcended politics and morality, and it made human folly seem like a diversion from some divine purpose, a trajectory of meaning that made sense of the world and redeemed the silliest and meanest of people.

He wrote furiously all night. He’d never known such exaltation, such power, such grace. Such happiness.

The dawn light exposed his haggard appearance and the calamitous squalor of the Sarah Orne Jewett room. He read what he’d written over the past twelve frenzied hours. The cold April morning turned his divinely-channeled words into nonsense. Pretentious, high-falutin nonsense. Vacuous burbling. Almost as bad as automatic writing, and he didn’t even have the excuse of being high. He’d been sober all night, sober and focused, in command of his exalted realm. And, besides his swollen right hand, he had this to show for it? Fifty pages of uninspired horseshit? Vapid dialogue between paperdoll characters who stepped out of some Platonic definition of tediousness? Florid descriptions that sounded as generic as any best-seller twaddle?

Christ. There’s a worm in this rose, too. I might have known.

It occurred to him that the worm might be his own unphoenixlike self.

The fire was out. Otherwise he would have tossed his notebook into the flames. He did throw it on the floor. He had failed again. His work was horrible, he was an imposter and an idiot. His fate--his miserable end--was as clear as the new day that dawned, cheerless in its cold, mocking in its phoney promise of warm spring sunshine.

He poured a large Scotch and brooded. What had set him on this course? How and why and when, exactly, did he decide to devote his life to something so impossible and out of his range? What kind of vanity and sheer stupidity had pushed him along all these years, years he could actually have been building a life and being a regular guy with a normal life? Oh, sweet humdrum normality!

I am like an imbecile in a room full of geniuses, a dwarf in a land of basketball players.

He lay down on the bed in a heap, wrapped in his wool robe.

I am but a coat upon a stick.

He inched toward asleep, exhausted and still sober, wishing for a miracle. A shot in the temple would qualify. He imagined some minor personage pulling the trigger. Claire--yes, she’d do it quickly and without a lot of posturing and sermonizing. In his emerging dream he saw her take up a pistol…smoking a Gauloise, wearing a beret…fresh from an Apache dance in a striped jersey and tight skirt…shrugging in that Frenchy manner, aiming, shooting, playing the ironic observer as his meager brains oozed from his splintered cranium…and she was muttering, in good Parisian for a change, “Alors, quel ivrogne pathetique. Mieux qu’il ne vive plus.”

Just get it the fuck over with. I want to die. I was deluding myself. I am shit. The world is shit. My work is shit. The universe is shit.

His was a turbulent asleep in a familiar realm of distorted mirrors and bad lighting.

* * * *

Lunchtime came and went. It had been hours since his star boarder had made a sound. Mrs. Morton asked, in a whisper, if he thought Mr. Blake was quite all right.

“I’m sure he is,” Douglas smiled. “He was up all night working on his new book.”

“Artists,” she said. A tolerant little smile.

“Yes.” He gave her a courteous little bow and went upstairs. He knocked softly on the door. He waited a couple of minutes, then opened it with his house key.

He surveyed the room and stifled a groan. It was hard to believe that he had cleaned it thoroughly the day before. It looked like the Russian Army had swept through. Clothes, papers, crumbs, silverware, tissues, books, bottles--all that and more littered the floor and every other flat surface.

He started when he saw Bill. He looked like a dirty laundry bag tossed on the bed.

Bill snuffled, turned over, and began to snore lightly.

Douglas went around picking up the papers and the notebook. He peeked at the bed, then tried to sit down in the armchair by the window, which was loaded with clothes and books. He gave up and sat at the desk, careful to switch on the light as quietly as possible. He skimmed through the papers, including the letters. He opened the notebook.

He read until the hall clock bonged three.

He looked over at the bed.

Bill was lying on his side, watching him read.

Douglas started. He shut the notebook. He was about to say something but stopped.

“It’s horrible.” Bill sounded like he was talking through cobwebs. “I was in heaven all night. A realm of divine light. In flat daylight it’s drivel.”

“No, don’t say that.”

“It’s true. Let me sleep.” He rolled over. He spoke into the pillow.

“What?”

“Did you think it was pure shit?”

“No. Much of it is beautiful. I never would have thought…”

“What do you know?”

“More than you think.”

Bill sat up. “Really.”

Douglas blushed. “About writing. About writers. Some of my dearest friends—“

Bill laughed bitterly. “’Some of my best friends.’”

“Come with me.” Douglas stood up and held out his hand. “I want to show you something.”

“No.” Bill looked at him dubiously.

Douglas dropped his hand. “Well. Better clean up in here.”

“No. Wait. Give me the notebook.” Douglas handed it to him. “It really isn’t so bad?”

“No. Read it when you’ve had a meal and coffee. You’ll see then.”

Bill leaned against the headboard and leafed through the pages he’d just written. He read for a minute and put it down with a dejected shake of the head. “No, Douglas, it’s hopeless. Not good stuff.”

“I’m making you eggs and coffee. You take a shower and I’ll come back with breakfast.”

“No. It’s—“

“Yes.”

“Fine. Have it your way.” Bill tottered into the bathroom and locked the door behind him.

Douglas picked up some of the mess. He called to Claire from the top of the stairs and ordered a large breakfast. Vite vite,” he said, imitating Bill. She squinted up at him in surprise; he never used French with her. Then she burst out laughing.

The Mortons peered out of the parlor, amazed by the levity. They shook their heads, whether in wonder or disapproval, Douglas couldn’t tell.

He went back into the Jewett room and ran around cleaning up. He made sure he left again when he heard Bill thump around after his shower.

He sat fidgeting at the desk in his suite. He heard Claire take the tray into the next room. He waited ten minutes and got up. His heart was pounding. His face shone. He knocked on the door and marched right into Bill’s room.

He ignored Douglas. He was munching toast, sipping at his coffee, reading the new pages. “So. You think…?”

“Yes.”

“Me too. Not bad.”

“Quite good. You have a talent that I—“

“Didn’t believe I had.”

“A kind of talent that I didn’t expect.” Douglas struggled to express himself. “There is a tense poetry in your prose. What I mean is, it’s lyrical even when it’s harsh. I can’t really explain it but….It’s like being a refugee who climbs up a mountain and finds a splendid new world on the other side. That’s--that’s not really what I mean, I’m sorry, but—“

“But now you believe.” Bill pretended to be moved to tears. “I’ve always wanted someone to be-leeeeeve in me.”

Douglas smiled as if he’d been slapped by a superior. “What?”

Bill looked at him coldly. “Such obvious motives.”

“That was uncalled for.” Douglas’s face got red.

“Was it.”

“If you don’t want my help, I will gladly—“

“What sort of help exactly?”

Douglas seemed to retreat to a place of memory. “I can read your work with discernment. Ask questions. Help you make choices: this word or that…this direction or that. Organize things somewhat. Help you stay on track. And remain true to your vision.”

“Vision!” Bill was amused. “I conclude that you have experience.”

“Yes. It’s the job of first reader.”

“Is that an accepted term?”

“I don’t know. It’s my term.”

Bill pondered. “Who with?”

“People you would despise.”

“In New York?”

“Yes.”

“Are they well-known?”

“Some of them.”

“Actually published?”

“Yes.”

“How do I pay you?”

Douglas was silent. He cleared his throat. Then he looked at Bill with a brave smile. “Don’t leave?”

Bill thought about it. Then he gathered up the loose sheets and the notebook. He got up and handed them to Douglas. “You’ll do me one favor, though. No deal otherwise.”

“What?”

“This is our secret.”

“Yes.”

“No one in this town—“

“No.”

Bill put on his coat. Douglas said, “Where are you going?”

“When can you have your comments back to me? Tomorrow afternoon?”

“Saturday.”

“Good.” Bill sat down at the desk and began to write. Take the hint, Douglas.
After a moment,
Douglas left, closing the door quietly behind him.

Bill completed the letter.

April 5

Dear Don,

I received your letter yesterday. I would love to meet with you in Boston, but I am in Maine and writing quite a lot, and I can’t leave because I am on a roll. The work is good. A reader of discernment has told me that it’s like finding a splendid new world.

I will mail you pages in another week, I promise. I have 60-70 new ones. You will be pleased. This may not be enough, realistically, for you to approve a reasonable advance, but if you could persuade Mr. G. to part with a few shekels, I would be forever in your debt.

He thought better of the word “shekels” and rewrote the letter with “bucks” in its place. He addressed the envelope and put it in his coat pocket. Reclaiming his kingdom would begin with the purchase of a three-cent stamp. And a wee bit of celebration.

He left the house without encountering anybody. He thought the “reader of discernment” bit was a stroke of genius; Don would think he’d been scribbling diligently for ages.

He could smell the advance and April snow in the air. And something less pleasant.

* * * *

An applewood fire crackled. He smoothed out the crumpled loose sheets, read and annotated, compared with entries in the notebook, traced narrative lines, pieced together characters’ traits and scattered lines of dialogue. Under his eye and hand a coherent work began to take shape. The two longish stories were knitted together with the third, the current work in progress, to form a narrative arc of some subtlety and power.

The anger and poignancy tasted much like his own. Even the same kinds of unsaid words pulsed beneath the white surface of the paper. But he felt it wise to soften the harshness of the language and the cynicism of the characters’ attitudes. They could hate each other all they wanted; but Douglas saw that they might be wrapped in a kind of coolly ironic affection. The impression should be that the Deists’ God had stopped by to rewind the clocks and dawdled to look indulgently on the shenanigans below.

He made a guilty face when he thought of God. Early in the evening he had had a couple of conversations that must have surprised some people. To Russell Cobb he’d said, “I’m not going to services this weekend. Far too busy. Afraid you’ll have to do without me at Sunday dinner, too. I’m not up to it.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, Douglas,” Mr. Cobb said. “You do sound... Anything we can do for you?”

“No. I’m fine. Just terribly busy.”

“Are you sure all is well at your place?”

“Yes. Of course. Good night.” Douglas hung up the phone. It rang almost immediately, and he sighed. “Hello.”

Douglas, I heard from Allie Cobb. Are you well? Is there anything I can do?”

“Yes, Evvie, I’m fine.”

“But you never beg off ch—“

“Well, this time I did. And if you really want to do something for me, you can come in the morning and take over for me after breakfast.”

“Well, OK, but can’t Claire--?”

“She has her crippled niece’s birthday party in Rockland. She’s leaving for her sister’s before lunch.” The fluency of his own lie astonished him. I must remember to give Claire the day off.

Evelyn sounded put out. “You know, Douglas, you’re entirely too easy on her. She takes advan—“

“Evelyn, please. Will you help me or not?”

Evelyn seemed to be gasping. “All right. All right. What time?”

“Ten. Thank you.”

He hung up.

“For once,” he’d added as he put the phone on the hook.

Then he had holed himself up in his study, leaving Claire to handle the guests. Eight hours of escape from his own thoughts, from himself. From his responsibilities. He imagined writing a letter to be printed in the town newspaper, either among the legal notices or the obituaries:

Dear Selene Harbor,

From this day forth I refuse to be your plaster saint. LEAVE ME ALONE.

Your Private Neighbor,

Douglas Broadwood

Douglas got up and stretched. He yawned and rubbed his eyes. It was almost three in the morning. He would send the manuscript out for typing on Monday. He smiled as he imagined Bill’s reaction when he was presented with the tangible evidence of his work. Bill’s work.

The snow had begun about midnight, hard. Bill had come home at one, singing a doo-wop version of “White Christmas” so loud and so badly that he knew Mrs. Morton would mention it first thing at breakfast. “Artists!”

Bill had popped his head in for a moment. “How’s my first reader doin’ tonight? My old amanuensis! Love ya, babe.”

He grinned. Where did you go, Billy boy, Billy boy?”

“I bet you can guess!” A comical wink and then off to his own room, where he crashed around in his usual way before passing out.

A kind of odd little--what? Thrill? Gurgle? Some odd feeling welled up in his chest, and popped out of his throat. Could it be a “chortle” perhaps? As far as he knew, people in his part of the world never actually chortled.

Douglas undressed by the fire, banked the ashes, and slipped between the covers naked. He was quite tired. But so warm, and his very body felt happy.

As he drowsed he thought of Jack and another Bill and the owlish poet who once had been his friends, his idolized friends. Sometimes he’d been their “first reader.” But they’d always had a crew of hangers-on, sycophants of little discernment and usually poor education. Addled brains. First readers weren’t always prized for discernment and the ability to see clearly and assess judiciously. Often they were used for their doggy eagerness to dig up new superlatives and, of course, score whatever drug was in demand at the moment.

But Mr. Blake had nobody else. He’d make sure it stayed that way. He would be devoted to Bill’s art, even if Bill wavered. The coals of the fragrant fire grew dim. Douglas smiled as he fell asleep dreaming that he was needed. He sent a sleepy prayer up to God, the God he loved more than ever tonight. He was as hard as a rock.


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