Saturday, August 26, 2006

CATCH OF THE DAY, CHAPTERS 15 - 16

After a week or more of long, passionate nights together, Douglas considered the commonplace once more. He wondered at the peculiar fact that one got used to happiness almost immediately, and that happiness wasn’t an emotion but an enveloping condition, an environment. And that even he, unused as he was to it, could already spot the Happy and the Unhappy in every crowd, which engendered a pitying disdain in his heart for the ones who were too--what? too stupid or too proud?--for happiness. Or maybe they were too realistic, knowing as they did the capacity for deceit in their lover, waiting for that expected revelation of cheating and lying and generally sickening cruelty.

Tonight seemed the right time to bring up the subject again, Douglas thought. Especially after the love-making (Bill would say the raw animal sex) that had just rattled their teeth and shaken half the house. And more especially because Bill had been on top, painfully hard and grappling and groaning like a gladiator who was going to fight his last battle in the morning. Douglas’s hind parts were raw; pain and pleasure of the intensest kind warred for dominance. As the minutes passed, pleasure seemed to be winning.

“Maybe,” Bill was saying, “the unhappy ones are untalented. Like not being good at ballroom dancing or drawing the human hand. If you haven’t got the talent, you haven’t got the talent,” Bill said. He was lying beside him in bed. They watched Bill’s cock soften and slide slimily down his belly like some Amazonian slug.

Douglas stroked the slug and felt its twitch between his fingers. It was surprisingly cold, considering where it had been and what it had done. “Think I have a talent for being happy, then?”

“No. Well, who knows.” Bill gave him a curious glance and closed his eyes, stretching mightily. This had the effect of making his pecker thrust outward, bigger than before. He gyrated on the sheets moaning dramatically.

“Are you happy?”

Bill raised himself on one elbow and looked up at him. “What? You can’t tell if I’m a Happy or an Unhappy? So much for your big epiphany.”

Douglas looked at the sarcastic face and knitted brows. The bitterness in the way he held his mouth. “I feel foolish. Sorry.”

Douglas, we’re card-carrying New Englanders. Descendants of Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards. No, of course I’m speaking figuratively,” he said with some annoyance. “I’m not supposed to be happy. I’m supposed to be righteous and right. Since I have no talent for that either, I have to take some comfort in the fact that I can be miserably unhappy wherever I am and whatever I’m doing. Championship gloom and doom.”

“Misery loves company,” Douglas smiled. “I’m the same as you. We’re one.”

Bill gave him one of his hooded looks. “Not necessarily.”

“What do you see in me, then? What do you like about me? Why don’t I make you happy?”

Bill sighed and turned over on his stomach. “Jesus. It’s almost one thirty. Why do you want to start a colloquium on love and happiness at this hour? Do you want to make me really fucking unhappy?”

Douglas brooded. “I was asking what you saw in me.”

The light was on and shone directly at Bill’s forehead. His face took on a shy quality, which seemed to mitigate his irritation.

“First switch off the light, then I’ll tell you,” Bill said.

Douglas turned out the lamp and waited. Bill pulled himself up and licked and bit Douglas under the ear, making him whimper weakly in his pleasure. Bill pulled his hair, what there was of it, and slammed his head into the pillow. He worked Douglas’s dick between his knees and got it hard, then he slid down until it was knocking against Bill’s balls.

Douglas grabbed him and held him tight, then laid him on his back, smothering his face with wet kisses. He bit and slavered over his face. He pushed up Bill’s taut little legs and spread his ass. He felt his heart racing, and visions of wild nature--scudding clouds, frothing surf--filled his head as his body explored and tasted and pushed into the perfect man for him without Vaseline, the love of his life, yes, that and more. Adieu, Jack, and good riddance.

They both came again in a reasonable amount of time for two men in their fifth decade.

“See?” Bill whispered, out of breath and soaked with sweat when they were finished some time after two. The alarm would be ringing in no time. “There’s your answer.”

“Good night,” Douglas said softly. “Bill.”

“What?” He was already half-asleep.

“I’m happy. Right this minute.”

“That was my point.”

“I see. This is paradise enow.”

“You bet. Good night.” But he reached over and squeezed Douglas’s thigh with his hand.

Another blessed night. Night after night of utter delight.

Douglas smiled at the sudden doggerel, lying curled up on his side, eyes closed, sated, still warm with the afterglow. He liked the declarative simplicity of it. All ten nights of it.

Nothing like this, nothing since Catullus perhaps. Was Clodia really a woman?

He slept fitfully, prodded awake by chaotic dreams of alarming sensuality, with many partners, notably Russell Cobb. Douglas wasn’t shocked by this, because he’d read Freud and Jung. He entertained himself idly while he woke up by degrees, listening to the end of the small rain that had begun pattering down some time during the night.

He felt a little embarrassed by his attempt to extort an admission of happiness from Bill--that’s what it was, he believed. Why question or worry about it when you’ve had another night of godly bliss, a night of passion that was a thousand times greater than lust--an expression of love that could only flower at night, when the world closed its eyes and worried about itself for a change?

Bill stirred and farted little pop-pop-pop-pops in his sleep. Douglas covered his bare bum with a sheet and got up, partly to escape the smell and partly to start his Sunday with a less arousing image in his head. He clapped his hand over the alarm button seconds before it was due to go off. He just had time to put on some coffee and get cleaned up before the early service, which Russell held--aha! That was why he’d inserted Russell into his dream, always a rational explanation for the irrational--at 7 AM during the summer, really in deference to the long working days of his townie flock.

Douglas made a small pot of coffee on the hot plate in his study, then showered and dressed quickly. He shook Bill and whispered, “Do you want coffee?” Bill grunted and burrowed under a pillow. But his hand reached for Douglas’s crotch.

“Not before church.”

Bill raised himself up and grogged: “How long ‘not before church’?”

Douglas drank up his coffee and blew him a kiss. He left the room as Bill fell back into the profound sleep of the well fucked.

The guests were all still in their rooms, although he could hear a few of the older ones thumping about, peeing and hawking. Mr. Morton was in especially fine throat this morning.

He stopped in at the kitchen and there was Claire, bless her, taking the muffins out of the oven and frying bacon for the chafing dishes. She had started three pots of coffee on the Bunn burners, not forgetting the decaf for the overexcited New Yorkers who had such a fear of caffeine, as if it meant shooting up heroin. They gobbled up more fat-laden bacon and eggs than anyone, though. She would begin the eggs any minute.

“Off to church,” he whispered. “All right?”

“Allez-y, M’sieu, tout va bien ici.” She waved him away, hardly looking at him.

“Where’s Carol? Is she here yet?”

Claire glanced at him with pain in her eyes. “She did not leave last night.”

“Oh.” He’d really have to talk to her about that. Without appearing to be a complete hypocrite, of course. “Claire.”

“Oui?”

“Do you want to go to mass?”

She shrugged elaborately. “You ask now?”

He left as she was turning way, muttering.

I hope she won’t turn in her notice. Be discreet, be discreet.

Douglas decided to go to church anyway. Carol could take care of everything till he’d returned from church in a mere hour. He needed church and the peace and the something ineffable that it offered. All in an hour.

Douglas went down the hill as the clouds began to part and the sun poked lazily through. The pavement still was wet, and the birds seemed to have an extra bit of energy to sing the day. He made sure to step around the worms that had crawled out from between the cracks in the asphalt, but he noticed where some others--pedestrians or cars, it was hard to tell--had crushed them and made them bleed like people. The roadside air smelled of Queen Anne’s lace.

Douglas walked through the town he’d known all his life, and he felt as if he’d never seen it before or, at least, not truly. Instead of a massive set of givens, now he saw it as a place where everything was up for grabs. It seemed to be a modestly pretty little place that depended too much on carelessly well-off people to survive. He walked by this or that store front, this or that house, and he realized that the prosperity--even the survival--of this or that family was wholly dependent on the whorish pleasing of uncomprehending outsiders. The locals who were striking it rich this season--were sharply distinguished from those who couldn’t or wouldn’t kowtow to “them.” The scarcely tolerated summer people were never more clearly in the ascendant over them; Douglas detested them more than ever. He realized that their control of the town would only become more powerful and seductive over the years. Their wealth and their deluded conceptions of New England life would deform Selene Harbor and a thousand villages like it for decades to come.

The dark sanctuary smelled of damp prayer books and pew cushions that hadn’t had an airing since Teddy Roosevelt’s time. On automatic pilot, he sat in his usual spot--second row from the front, under the pulpit on the left side--and it took him a few moments to realize that Evelyn was sitting on his left and Allie Cobb had sidled in on his right. The women kneeled and said whatever conventional prayers they had been taught to whisper inside their discreet heads. They sat up and waited for the arrival of the minister as if they were waiting for a train.

It was only 6:52 or so--plenty of time for them to pester, probe and inquire until Russell began the service at 7 on the button, as he always did. The Cobb line was always on time.

“Good morning, Allie,” he murmured. Mrs. Cobb merely inclined her head, gazing almost in a trance at the pulpit.

“Evvie.”

His sister gave him a sharp look and said nothing. She closed her eyes as if she were meditating, hands folded. They sat there suspended in a timeless sort of vacuum, punctuated by dust motes floating in the sunlight, and he was grateful for the sense of solitude even as he felt a separation, a growing separation, from the people he had been closest to.

A stout young man, the acolyte, came in and lit the altar candles. Russell followed him and bowed before the cross, handsome in his priestly raiment. He turned to the congregation, which now numbered about a dozen, and raised his hands in a blessing.

Douglas thought his heart would burst. In terror he thought, I shouldn’t be here.

Russell turned back toward the altar. Douglas got up and brushed past his sister, who seemed not to notice, so intent was she on the progress of the service. Allie Cobb gave him a sharp glance, and a sharper, more skeptical one at Evelyn.

The other parishioners, the townies, also glanced curiously at him, but the few vacationers ignored him and continued chatting in whispers.

At the front of the church, Douglas heard a break in Russell’s voice. He didn’t look back. He escaped into the warm, clean air of the July morning, grateful to be outside and not imprisoned in the musty church where he had spent so many mornings praying for an end to his weakness and his loneliness. Incompatible wishes, he realized. One out of two isn’t bad.

He frowned as he walked past the package store and up the hill to his house. God give me strength.

He paused and looked down at the shriveled weeds straggling from the cracks in the sidewalk. If God has anything to do with what I’ve done.

In his fear, he decided to toss God out of the equation.


“You know,” Don Wassermann said during a work break, “I always think of Gwynne as Nell Gwynne.” He sipped Earl Grey tea from a costly china cup. He was staying at Selene’s poshest inn. That sagging femme fatale and consort of gangsters, Alla Trotter, was on the floor above. Walter Baird, the male lead who gave Cary Grant a run for his money in the suavity department, roomed next door with his hatchet-faced wife. They had the sea view.

Meretrix meretrixiarum,” Bill said. He was drinking strong coffee to drown a hangover.

Don rested his head on the desk and laughed himself silly. “You’re like Yeats!”

“What! How?”

“Your Latin is hilariously atrocious.”

“Excuse me. My Stygian ignorance must be a trial to you.” Bill was a little touchy. Five hours logged in today. Sixty over the past week. All that was missing was the factory whistle. Don had entered Selene Harbor with his usual brio, and they had embarked right away on what Bill called the Bataan Death March. Not so much as a celebratory drink or a visit to Bill’s part of town. The disassembling of Wry Beach began. “Anyway, I thought this was supposed to be your vacation.”

Don composed himself and sighed. “OK, Bill. Down, boy. You don’t have to get all worked up. You’re still one of my favorite charges even if you have little Latin and less Greek.”

Don’t be too sure about that one. He felt a tingle where Douglas had been yet again the night before. Part of his edginess was because he was utterly wrapped up in Douglas and their world-changing nights together. And he couldn’t tell anyone about it.

“And I am on my vacation. A paid vacation. A busman’s holiday. It’s wonderful! I get to stay in Maine for a few weeks, and I get to work with one of my most interesting writers--really!” Don smiled and pointed at the manuscript.

“You don’t miss Elaine? I do. I wish she had come with you. We always have a terrific time. Don’t you remember when we—”

Don saw through this, or must have believed he did. “OK, old chap. Ever onward.” Sudden change in voice, all business. “Chapter 8 is very problematic. There is a sudden and dramatic change in voice--what is the reason for this, to what end? Come on, Bill, faites attention. You want more than a couple of $200 advances, don’t you?”

Don went on and on, trying to coax him out of his resistance to self-critical analysis and the acceptance of Change.

He should only know, Bill thought with a trace of smugness.

Don was in the sunniest of his moods. “Now, my friend, this is some of the finest work you’ve ever done--I am so terribly confident that Wry Beach will far excel Choate’s Castle--so much more original yet grounded in a beautifully detailed historical and social setting--that by 1960 I foresee another book of at least equal prowess.”

Bill eyed him with mock joy and then realized that he meant every ill-considered word he spoke.

That was Don, though. He spoke the language of optimism, he avowed his faith in Progress. Bill thought this was idiotic but admirable, like a monastic vow of celibacy. Still this faith was probably the source of Don’s ability to apply himself without letup to ghastly, thankless tasks. Such as dealing with W. E. Blake, a voice crying in the wilderness of the back list. Such as making some sense of the mélange of beginnings and endings and stylistic detours that Wry Beach had turned into.

What is this, Leopold Bloom Goes to a Clambake?” Don had cried in one of his few displays of exasperation.

“Well, goddamn it, you’ve been telling me for years that I gloss over my characters’ reactions and that I needed to put more on the page!”

“Not to this extent. All these italicized thought balloons--enough already!”

Bill thought, At least in Bataan some had the good fortune to die. End their pain. This will never end.

He was in pain as he confronted, repeatedly, the limitations of his genius. And he was confused. He didn’t remember writing half the stuff. It seemed odd--off--not quite what he’d had in mind. But maybe he was imagining it. Hadn’t he written most of this draft in a state of frothing ecstasy a few months ago? It felt like ages. Or like it never happened.

Bill shifted his attention to Don. He watched him with a resigned expression. Sometimes Don made him believe in the future--his future--and somehow managed to link it to the Greater Good. Don was the only person he had ever known who was consistently capable of separating his own selfish impulses from the Right Thing. And occasionally acting on it.

So despite himself, he trusted Don like no one else. Don’s zeal for righteousness had nothing to do with religion and the sobbing majesty of cantors; it had everything to do with his Code. And he did call it “the Code, capital C.” The Code appeared to be a synthesis of the less preposterous Levitical do’s-and-don’ts and the Renaissance ideals of, say, Castiglione. Don was nothing if not an ambitious Hegelian.

Bill had known Don since they labored over Choate’s Castle eight or nine years earlier. Through the disappointments of the second book and the wet and wasted years since Gwynne stormed out, Don had been one of his champions. His only one, actually. Bill trusted his taste, his opinions, his guidance.

Don Wassermann was a few years younger than he was, which both impressed and irritated Bill. Don was a rising star in his company and profession. He had come from more comfortable circumstances than his cousin Harold--Riverdale vs. Midwood--and was able to assume an urbane superiority more easily than Harold because he’d gone to Columbia vs. CCNY. Bill had gotten the clear message that Midwood wasn’t anything to brag about, and that Riverdale was.

“It’s like the difference between Everett and Brookline,” Don once explained.

Bill went, “Aha. Yah.” But he hardly knew one neighborhood from another in Manhattan, never mind the pecking order in the outer boroughs or how they correlated with Boston’s inner suburbs. The golden Harold sure as hell didn’t seem like any creature who’d crawl out of the sulfurous wasteland of Everett, Mass.

These days Don lived in a classic six on the extreme Upper West Side (“Kind of near your cathedral,” Don told him, but Bill saw Westminster Abbey in his mind’s eye), and there was enough money and cachet in his position and choice of wife for him to fall into the urban swoon. Don liked to convey the impression that his way of life was a fair approximation of old Vienna but with better plumbing, or Weimar Berlin in its dynamic Brillianz but without the icky sexual confusions.

Bill was interested in Don’s pretensions; he found them funny and touching. Their lives and priorities were so different that he called Don “the AntiBill,” which Don found funny and touching.

“I wouldn’t beat myself up if I were you,” Don would say with his typical largesse of spirit. “You’re a wonderful guy underneath that snotty exterior.” Then he’d poke Bill in the ribs, in a play of brotherly riffing, whenever he said anything that might be construed as a jab. At the same time, he liked Bill for being “the freeish spirit that I am not.” He sometimes intimated that he was always defending Bill in meetings with the owner of the firm, and with the other editors, who were bored with bad-boy novelists from the sticks.

Oddly, people often took them for brothers. Both were short, slender, dark-haired, and quite good-looking. Don’s features were rounder--he had something of a baby face and looked much younger than his age (“I don’t have that English skin, sorry”), even though his fine hair was subliming from his scalp.

Bill was happy to see less admirable similarities, too. Especially where Don’s cousin, now his own non-relative by marriage, was concerned.

Don was a full head shorter than his cousin Harold Blumberg, whose straight blond hair, blue eyes, and jut-jawed perfection outmatched the Aryan ideal. Don admired Harold in public and sang his praises, always in connection with that word of supreme power and might, “Harvard.” But he deplored him in private.

“A vainglorious mama’s boy, all appearance over substance. His early work on Defoe and Richardson was brilliant and innovatory”--pronounced innoVAYt’ry--“but, sadly, he has sold out to the ephemeral and fashionable. How can you build an academic career of gravitas on the works of Brendan Behan, for God’s sake?”

When he carried on in this way, his wife Elaine would say with exaggerated compassion, “You’re a success too, honey. You make a lot more money than Harold.” She was the daughter of Weimar émigrés: a Tufts philosophy professor who had defeated Wittgenstein in a student debate, or so he claimed, and a psychiatrist mother who had studied with and incessantly criticized Karen Horney. Elaine had a well-toned body that looked superb in tennis getups; her perky nose and ponytail by themselves painted a living portrait of Upward Mobility.

So Elaine she wasn’t easily impressed, and she maintained an ironic stance about everything to do with her husband’s pretensions. Bill sensed a kindred spirit--but she tended to keep her hostility under wraps, using her powers for good, mostly, unlike himself.

Don knew he was in the wrong with respect to Harold. Regardless of Elaine’s tender scorn, he couldn’t seem to help it, and he worried at the Question of Harold in connection with one he saw as intimately related, Who Is a Jew?

To Don the mere fact of Harold rankled; his cousin was a living slap in the face of Jewish continuity (“not to mention our endogamy!”), and he accused his cousin of adding to the suffering of his own people with his very blondness. “God knows who his relatives were sleeping with,” he muttered to Bill on more than one occasion. “He’s the archetype of the assimilated Jew--far worse, the painlessly assimilated Jew. People are amazed to discover that he is Jewish: ‘Why, I thought he was Swedish or something!’”

And, Don added, “I’ve noticed that Harold is never the one to reveal his true identity.”

“As what? Superman? Orson Welles? Donny, it gives me the creeps, how you harp on this purity of yours.”

“’You’? As in ‘you Jews’?”

“You as in you, shithead. Your racial integrity and all that. The purity of the Jewish Volk. Your logic’s pathetic. Ethnic purity was a plank in the eugenics platform, wasn’t it?”

Don goggled at him.

“Of Der Fuehrer!”

He loved to see Don do a slow burn. But he couldn’t keep a good man down.

“And now he’s got that fair colleen of a wife. And the athletic, nouveau-riche Catholic in-laws to rub in my face.”

“Thanks for reminding me of my failure, bub.”

“Well, I’m sorry, but that Harold seems to worm his way into everything.“ Don caught the double entendre a second too late and punctually blushed.

“Such as the favor of some powerful people at Harvard.”

“Exactly!” Don was grateful for the life preserver thrown at him.

“Ah the unkindest cut of all!” Bill laughed. “My, God, Donald, you have a bigger problem with him than I do. And, you will note, at least I have the good grace to admit I’m jealous of him. He’s depressingly competent. I hear he’s even good with his hands!”

Elaine barked at that little dig against Jewry. Bill nodded in ironic acknowledgment of her thanks.

“Although he can have that fair colleen. Ever notice she’s got an ass that drags on the ground?”

Don went, “No, she’s a beauty,” but he did giggle at the image.

Whenever direct attacks on Harold grew stale, there was always his cousin’s mother, Estelle. She headed up an entire branch of the family who said things like “Eat up--it’s an averah to leave food on your plate! You could wait till Shavuos for this one to make up her mind! I demand to speak to the manager! Eat it--they’ll say you ate it anyway! This hangnail--I’ve never known such pain! I’m doyingk!”

Aunt Estelle did pronounce the usual words deplorably: “doyingk” and “sing-gingk,” “Loo-ong-Guylandt” and so forth. She wore a red wig--not because she was so religious--and many bangle bracelets. She talked with her mouth full and sprayed gefilte fish on her audience.

Don was ashamed for her closeness to a certain stereotype. Once, when Bill was visiting him in New York, Don said, “I know plenty of Jews, New York Jews, who aren’t a bit like her! ‘Oy oy oy’ all over the place.”

“Is your own mother like that?” Bill asked.

“No!”

“Then who gives a shit? She’s your aunt. Tell her to amscray.”

“You,” as in you goyim, “don’t understand the pressure. She invites us to Passover seder every year! My mother makes us go there for break fast!”

“Your mother makes you? She still rules you at your age? Tell her no! For Chrissakes, Elaine, talk some sense into your husband.” Impatient with him, Bill polished off his wine and looked around for more as Don got up and fussed with the dishes on the dining-room table.

Elaine hated all this; it made Don sound like a parvenu. “Sweetie, it’s OK not be Deutsch. Romania isn’t so bad.”

“Wait.” Bill was pouring more wine and Don mouthed “seven” to Elaine. “Wassermann’s a German name, right?”

Elaine deadpanned. “Lots of Negroes have Irish names.”

“Elaine!”

Bill winked at Elaine and turned to Don. “No wonder you like Dora. She saw ‘Gentleman’s Agreement.’ She didn’t think it applied to her either.” Elaine cackled. Don trundled his load of dirty dishes into the kitchen, wearing a face of shame.

For there was more guilt, beyond the normal “self-hating Jew” stuff. Elaine once let it slip that it was thanks to Don that Harold and Gwynne had met.

Don had played Pander.

Back then he felt sorry for his struggling cousin. As he explained it to Bill, “Poor Harold is stuck in a dead-end lecturer’s position at Simmons, he hasn’t published, and his fiancée left him for a Portuguese dental student from Fall River. I hope you don’t mind, but I invited him to your family place in Angleport. He needs a change of scene. And your home town is close to John P. Marquand’s stomping grounds, isn’t it? Harold loves The Late George Apley.

Bill made a face.

“Our ‘family place’?” Bill envisioned broad lawns and balustrades and squads of crooning darkies, like in some embarrassing movie with Bette Davis and George Brent. Don was always seeing the Blakes through the glamorizing prism of films and literature. If the likes of J. P. Marquand was literature. “Sure, bring your loser cousin.”

Don spent a weekend engaged in a war of wills with Bill over the disastrous second book, the collection of short stories that violated every one of the rules codifying the form. (“Where’s the conflict, Bill--this is no story, it’s a pile of ruminations! Where’s the denouement in this one, Bill?”--“Don’t confine me! I am not a slave to those dead conventions!”) Don didn’t pay much attention to his cousin or the rather bratty wife of his writer. He dismissed her on Dora’s recommendation, actually--he doted on the grande dame, to him a peppery old-style Yankee straight out of some regional novel. Even better, he thought she had the same sense of style as the Duchess of Windsor.

“She’s a girl of no account, Donald. She’d be washing our clothes if she hadn’t got herself knocked up by your author.” Dora dragged on her cigarette. She used a long holder, a touch that Don loved. And she always lit up with a big wooden kitchen match, swinging the thing around like a signalman on the railroad, another “colorful” touch. “I take that back. I would have fired her for incompetence and insolence. She’d have stolen, too.”

At that moment Fanny Bresnahan (“the family retainer,” in Don’s account) came bustling in with the tea tray. Ever eager to punish an overreaching member of her own tribe, she directed Dora’s eyes to the window. The scene was outside Don’s field of vision.

Dora saw Gwynne and Harold sitting on a bench in the garden under a tangled bower of vines and morning glories. There were goldfinches flitting around them. They were handsy. Coy, giggling. Gwynne gazed at him with stars in her violet eyes. Harold leaned close, on the verge of kissing her upturned lips.

Dora exchanged a bright glance with Fanny, who exited with an air of satisfaction. Dora was overjoyed to see betrayal take form. This misbegotten marriage had been effectively over for some years. This handsome Jew would give it the kibosh. “She’s got a pretty face. I’ll give her that. But she’s a drinker, so the bloom’ll be off that rose before too long. I pity the next fellow who lands that one.”

Dora had related all this to Bill in the aftermath. They had laughed over Don’s being clueless and predicted misery for Mr. Blumberg. “I feel for the poor bastard,” Bill had said. “Really, I do.”

Dora had grinned and clinked her glass with his.

So Bill smiled at his friend and tolerated his requests for minor rewriting, if not for the arduous work of re-casting, even re-imagining. He sipped coffee and went along with this or that suggested change. “Yah, you’re right. Christ, what was I thinking? OK, delete this set-piece, it’s a pimple on the ass of progress. No, she wouldn’t say that, would she? I’ll revise it tomorrow. Yes, TO-morrow. No, I did not rifle the OED for obscure sexual verbs!” And so on.

After a few more hours of this, though, even Don’s patience ran out. He threw down his pencil and rubbed his eyes, groaning. “Bill. This isn’t going well. There is something fundamentally altered in your writing.”

“Or in me?”

“I’m not sure about you. But the writing, yes.” Bill didn’t say anything. “It lacks the old--well, let’s call it the wild, cynical energy that is you, my friend.”

“There’s been a lot of turmoil for me here. A lot of changes. It’s been hard.”

Don waited for more. He looked at him with equal parts curiosity and compassion. He tried to speak in a lighter tone. “Well. What I mean, Bill my lad, is that it seems prettied up. Somehow tranquilized. With uplift.” He made a gagging motion but failed to get a rise out of him. So unlike you. Bill, I don’t hear your accustomed voice anywhere in the last two-thirds of this book. It’s as if you’re trying to turn it into a best-seller--or--I don’t know--another editor’s--“

“I don’t know what you’re telling me.”

“Someone’s been tinkering with your work, Bill. That’s what I think. There is another consciousness at work here. I don’t believe you’ve changed all that much in a few months. My question is: Who? And why?” Don gave him a searching look. It was tinged with suspicion, a readiness to believe the worst.

But Bill had stopped listening. He looked outside rented living room with all its chintz and fake antiques. He could see the first thundercloud in weeks. It was massing over the mountain in back of town.


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