Monday, April 13, 2009

Setting the Metronome: Pondering Pace with Eco and Calvino

Blind Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges prided himself on never writing anything as long, cumbersome (and tiring) as a novel. Instead, he imagined the novels and then wrote amusing summaries. He was happier creating l9ibraies and labyrinths. Still, if he had ever taken the trouble to construct such an ornate edifice, it would probably have resembled The Name of the Rose. You can’t help feeling that Umberto Eco – who delights in the drudgery and and fine detail work of narrative brick-laying – wants it that way. Any author whose book features a library that is a labyrinth, presided over by a sightless gnome named Jorge, clearly knows the sources of his inspiration – and enjoys tipping a nicely blocked fedora to them.

In writing about this immense novel one could discuss Borges, or semiotics, or the Catharist versus the Dolcian heresies (In short: shame the rich by example, or just slaughter them); one could discuss labyrinths and libraries as metaphors and symbols. One could talk about reason versus superstition and faith versus logic, since most of the monks in the murder-riddled monastery think the recent deaths are due to the immanent apocalypse, and the Grand Inquisitor from Avignon assumes that various agents of Satan are he culprits. Only William Baskerville – named with a wink after the infamous hound and its famous hunter – applies intelligent common sense to the welter of contradictory clues that baffle the clerics. You could write a speculative treatise on what (or who) the titular ‘rose’ actually represents; you could draft an entire essay on the parallels between Eco’s 14th Century and our own.

But I’m going to limit myself to a tiny sliver of Eco’s narrative technique, his approach to a single problem. Like a tiny sliver of wood, this quandary has gotten under my skin and lodged there, ignored but infecting, since I first started writing. Eco talks about the problem himself in his own Six Walks in the Fictional Woods. He calls it “lingering”.

I call it pace.

Whatever you call it, the problem remains central to a writer’s relationship with his readers. In the third of these Charles Elliot Norton lectures (delivered at Harvard more than a decade ago), Eco describes a famous Italian novel I Promessi Sposi (translated as The Betrothed), by Alessandro Manzoni. At one point in the book, a cowardly 17th Century curate named Don Abbondio is attacked by ‘bravoes’ – mercenaries in the pay of the Spanish aristocracy.

Another writer might wish to placate our impatience as readers and tell us straight away what happens. Not so Manzoni. He does something that the reader might find quite incredible. He takes a few pages, rich in historical detail, to explain who the bravoes were. Having done this, he goes back to Don Abbondio, but he doesn’t have him meet the bravoes at once.

According to Eco, Manzoni goes on to lay out the nature of the Don’s plight – nowhere to run, no one coming to help – and concludes this grim inventory with a question: “What was he to do?”

What is to be done? Notice that the question is directly addressed not only to Don Abbondio, but also to the reader. Manzoni is a master at mixing his narration with sudden, sly appeals to the reader, and this is one of the less sneaky. What would you have done in Don Abbondio’s place? This is a typical example of how a model author, or the text, can invite the reader to take an inferential walk. The delaying tactics serve to stimulate the walk.

Looking back further into the history of the novel, you can find far more extreme examples of this lingering tactic, as when Victor Hugo took a lengthy holiday from the most compelling action sequence he ever wrote, the chase through the Paris sewers in Les Miserables, to inform his readers about the value of human effluent as fertilizer. There are other antique examples – Tolstoy gassing on about his Great Man theory, Proust spending page after page describing the vegetables on the dinner table at Combray, Laurence Sterne composing a novel (Tristram Shandy) that was in essence nothing but a series of digressions. Before movies and television and computers, before the X-box and YouTube and Attention Deficit Disorder, writers could pretty much do as they pleased. It was the golden age of the ramble and the pet peeve.

Manzoni, and Eco himself in The Name of The Rose, use the tactic of narrative delay more pointedly. Eco is particularly concerned with the distinction between what he calls “story time” and “discourse time”. Story time is the chronology of the text. Seven Days in May unfolds in the course of a week, but the discourse time, the linguistic reality of our actual reading (and writing) is very different. It takes James Joyce hundreds of pages to present a single day in Ulysses. It can take weeks for a diligent reader to absorb the text. Alternately:

If the text says “A thousand years pass”, the story time is a thousand years. But at the level of linguistic expression, which is at the level of fictional discourse, the time to write (and read) the utterance is very short. This is why a rapid “discourse time”may express a very long “story time”.

When story and and discourse time move together – in dialogue, for instance – you get a phenomenon that French Structuralist Gerard Genette calls “isochrony”. Dauntingly technical as it may sound, I would call this my safety zone as a writer. When the reading time and the action described move at roughly the same pace, like a hunting dog beside a cantering horse, my fictional world remains balanced and the momentum of events stays steady. Any infraction of the isochrony statutes involves serious consequences for me. So I study, with baffled awe, the meandering style of The Name of the Rose. Remember, this book spent months on the New York Times Bestseller List and was made into a hit movie with Sean Connery.

Whatever Eco did, it worked – artistically and commercially.

So how did he do it? Well, for one thing, he set the metronome of his story early. He could have begun with something punchy – a provocative, pulpy sentence like, “The monks started dying two days before the Grand Inquisitor arrived.” But he doesn’t. He starts like this:

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. This was begi9nning with God and the duty of every faithful monk would be to repeat every day with chanting humility the one never-changing event whose incontrovertible truth can be asserted. But we see now through a glass darkly, and the truth, before it is revealed to all, face to face, we see in fragments (alas, how illegible) in the error of the world, so we must spell out its faithful signals even when they seem obscure to us and as if amalgamated with a will wholly bent on evil.

Okay – he’s in no rush. Though he does finally get to the word evil, right at the end.

Eco is creating what he calls his “model reader”, training you as you read, to a leisurely investigation of his story. When events actually do transpire, when Baskerville deduces the whereabouts (and even the name) of the Abbot’s runaway horse, when he and the faithful Adso get lost in the monastery’s library, when Adso loses his virginity to a girl from the village, when that girl is burned at the stake … we feel a giddy rush of narrative energy. Prepared for liturgical debate, we sense the muscles of the plot flexing under the didactic skin, and the excitement is almost erotic.

Whereas … in my own writing, I find myself trapped in something very much like a cattle chute, galloping and stumbling mindlessly forward toward the slaughterhouse climax, afraid to stop and be trampled. The ‘model reader’ I’ve created is ravenous and impatient, chanting “what happens NEXT, what happens NEXT” as he charges along, eyes straight ahead, noticing nothing around him, drugged with events and consequences, thirsty for blood. Eco has staked out a broad space for his story; he can wander all he wants in those woods, because we know there are dead bodies and codes and tyrannical inquisitors in the underbrush. My attempts to stall the cattle run just seem self-indulgent. Look at this passage from my Hollywood novel Just Like in the Movies. Michael Gersh has just screwed things up for his two friends, and they are trudging through Central Park, working on damage control.

They were walking uphill along the asphalt path cut between green slopes and jagged rock formations. Mike had climbed these rocks endlessly as a child, imagining himself ascending Half Dome, or dodging through Dead Man’s Canyon just ahead of an angry posse or a gang of Mexican bandits. The memory made him feel old this morning. He looked away. The trees fronting Fifth Avenue, elms and oaks and birches, were burning with color in the cold autumn air. It wasn’t just a conceit; in fact they were oxidizing

Okay, so far so good. But I have to burrow in, try to slow things down even more:

This was a conflagration in slow motion, a million leaves turning into carved sunlight and speckled flame, smokeless and calm as the wind moved through them. Mike wished he could slow things down that way, impede the messy torching of his friends’ lives and aspirations, reduce it to an incremental beauty that would give him time to think.

And the reader is thinking – shut up and get on with it!

So is it just a matter of cutting, like the sculptor who trims away everything that doesn’t look like the Madonna? Or might it more plausibly turn out like the child who keeps whittling until he has nothing left but a pile of shavings? It may just be that each story sets its own pace, creates its own model reader. Once Eco decided on a 14th Century time frame, and a murder investigation set against religious theories of a looming apocalypse, the battles between the Pope and the Emperor, the struggle over the nature of Church doctrine, once he found himself with clues hidden in literal and figurative mazes, in books that have never been read, and languages that no one understands now, he had no choice but to move his readers elliptically through the material.

I have bomb threats and land swindles. What did I expect?

Most of the people working in the field of crime fiction don’t bother with such matters, and no one seems to care. I recently read the new Robert B. Parker book (There’s always a new Robert B. Parker book); I won’t go into much detail (he certainly doesn’t), but suffice it to say, the book might as well be a transcribed film script – just talk and action, mostly talk: snappy one-liners, tough-guy ping-pong, boy-girl badminton. People are described by the clothes they’re wearing. Forget being herded up a cattle chute – this is being shot out of a cannon. As to setting, weather, thought, memory, emotion, theme … you might as well ask the bullet about the gun barrel. The answer would be: “It was smooth, and it pointed me at the target.”

If you set the bar this low, you trip over it.

I want to make something more of my own work. Reading Italo Calvino’s Elliot Norton lectures, Six Memos for the New Millennium, provided inspiration as well as comfort. His lecture on “Quickness” explores the difference between the two gods of prose – Vulcan and Mercury. Vulcan hammers and sculpts and forges perfect artifacts in the volcanic dark of his earth-bound cave. Mercury is always in flight, effortless and dexterous. By this formulation, Robert B. Parker is all Mercury, pirouetting forward, never touching the ground … though without lightness of touch and unique sensibility that makes Calvino himself such a delight. When I think of Vulcan, Proust comes to mind, meticulously, relentlessly working every angle and facet of every observation, no matter how seemingly trivial. Somehow, Eco finds his way between these worlds, strolling in his fictional woods.

For the rest of us, wandering in that forest, it’s all too easy to get lost.

A New Meme: What Are Your Thirteen?

13 Simple Actions I love

Filling a pot of water, getting ready to start cooking so many different meals.

Turning the key in the ignition, hearing the engine start on a cold day

Unbuttoning a woman’s shirt

Paddling out into the surf through a lull

Clicking on ‘inbox’ when there’s a cluster of new e-mails waiting

Tying my shoelaces

Twisting a cork-screw into a bottle of wine

Picking a new paint brush from the rack.

Rolling over onto my sleeping side

Pulling warm clothes out of dryer

Slicing a tomato with a sharp knife

Slipping my pug’s collar on, before a walk

Turning the page of a book.

The Wrong Axelrod, Again

Nepotism always lets me down.

Being George Axelrod’s son never did much for me as a professional writer – I got a bad agent I eventually fired and some dead-end meetings with his aging colleagues. There were always other Axelrods of course, starting with that infamous beagle, "Axelrod the Texaco Worry Dog". He might have worried about the rest of Texaco’s customers, but he never did a thing for me. Of course I couldn’t drive then, I was just a kid. Maybe that explains it. But I mean – nothing. Not even a discount on kibble.

Then there’s the Axelrod yogurt people. My name meant squat to them. I never even got a free sample. Just some odd looks from grocery store clerks -- and believe me, I get enough of those anyway. And let's not forget the actual Steven Axelrods – like the one in New York whose girlfriend used to call me up at three AM sobbing to apologize for whatever she said at dinner. And the literary critic (No, I never corresponded with Anne Sexton!) . Not to mention the literary agent. I bonded with him over our childhood torments (That Worry Dog made his sixth grade year a misery, too), but he passed on my book, anyway.

All that was nothing compared to my new frustration. You know who I’m talking about. The Axelrod in the White House. But I have plans for this guy. Oh, yeah.

The phone call goes something like this: “Hey Dave! How ya doin’ there, Cous? What? You don’t remember your second cousin Steve? What about that party in Jersey when I had to take you to the hospital for alcohol toxemia? Crazy days, huh? What? You don’t remember? Of course you don’t! You had a blackout, cous. You don’t even remember the cop you punched out before the party broke up. Hey – they say if you can remember the sixties you weren’t really there. So what the hell. Anyway, Dave baby, how about a job? You owe me. I could write some speeches – I got the gift of gab. Or just do janitorial work. Whatever you can work out. Just get me there.”

I was about to make the call when I realized that every deadbeat loser and con-artist with the magic name has probably been clogging the White House phone lines for the last two weeks. I’m sure David Axelrod never knew he had so many long-lost cousins, brothers and switched-at-birth fraternal twins.

So I bagged the idea.

Axelrod:what a useless name. Maybe I’ll change it to Smith.

Or Obama. That might work.

“Hey Barry -- ”

The Litle Engine That Could

Almost eighty years ago, Edna St Vincent Millay wrote these lines:

All night there isn't a train goes by/Though the night is still for sleep and dreaming/ But I see its cinders red on the sky/And hear its engine steaming.

Times have changed.

Though Joe Biden rides Amtrak and even admits it, no plitician has come out in this desperate political season to say the obvious: we have a pre-built transporation infrastructure in this country and we're letting it crumble away to nothing. It's touching and sad to page through Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged these days, with its naieve view of train travel as the bold thread connecting our pioneering past with the glittering future. What was her hero's greatest accomplishment, after all? Designing a light, strong railroad bridge with his new metal. I guess that stuff mattered, back in 1958. Today we let our railroad bridges rust into irrelevance while we build more highways to connect more subdivisions full of houses no one will ever buy, in a delusional fugue state of automobile euphoria. Even Henry Ford had second thoughts about the combustion engine. He's quoted somewhere as fearing it might mean the end of the world. Not that he let those vaagrant doubts stop him from inventing his production line and making his fortune. The end of the world meant big money then, and it always has.

But he very well might be right.

We struggle for solutions to the pr0blems of pollution and greenhouse gases, the depletion of our oil reserves and the power those dwindling reserves give to all the people who hate us. We talk about better gas mileage and electric cars, cafe standards and hybrids. But all that talk misses the point. We have a great part of the solution to this problem in our possession right now. We need to fix the rairoad track beds and open up new lines and make train travel enjoyable again. As a means of moving frieght, a commitment to the railroads could easily take more than half the trucks off the road in less than a decade.

Anyone who has driven from Cape Cod to New York or Boston would be glad to take a train instead ... if such a train existed. Anyone living in Los Angeles, driving downtown on the Santa Monica freeway in the morning rush hour (that would be -- three hours where no one moves at all) would be ecstatic to have those little red trolleys back, the southland rail service that car companies and oil companies crushed so many years ago.

But the tracks are still there. We don't need an army of immigrant workers to die laying those rails. It's been done. All we have to do now is realize the gift that sleeps in the weeds beside our highways, like a giant snake in the August sun of half a century's neglect, the weathered wood ties splitting, the the old rails proving that even metal gets fatigued.

My son rode the train -- The Vermonter -- from Amherst Mass. to Montpelier, Vermont for my MFA graduation last month. The cabin was dirty, the upholstery ripped, the windows, smudged. The food they offered was grim and borderline inedible. The station in Montpelier was difficult to find, lonely and out of the way. It had an abandoned look. It seemed like a good place to get mugged.

But then the rails started singing and we saw the big light and the majestic engine rolled into the outskirts of this little northern town, blowing its whistle and announcing itself to the slumbering world and I felt a quickening thrill of expectation and adventure. It was so huge, and in the swirl of metal wheel on metal track, so quiet. It had a throwback pride,an antique dignity that no car or bus could match. The urge to jump and ride on into the night leapt up in me like a dog in the high grass.

So it turns out that Ayn Rand actually was right about something, after all. This beautiful beast truly was an avatar of our past, and with a little vision, some heartfelt appreciation expressed through the pocket book, with some National pride and political will, it could also be the key to a sustainable future.

Let Edna St. Vincent Millay have the last word:

My heart is warm with the friends I make/And better friends I'll not be knowing/ Yet there isn't a train I wouldn't take, / No matter where it's going.

Morning Joe and Revolution

I listen to the ‘debate’ on the stimulus bill and I hear democrats and the media parroting the same old bankrupt --literally, bankrupt – Republican ideas – more tax cuts for rich people! – and I start to think that change, the kind of gradual reasoned, ‘bi-partisan’ change that Obama is talking about, is just impossible – one more delusion. There’s a kind of lethal inertia to these ideas, their bulging mass and deceptive speed making them impossible to turn or divert. The ship hits the iceberg, over and over again and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. Maybe the whole country has to crash, the stock market go to zero, every business fail, the currency be abandoned as they are doing in Zimbabwe now. Maybe there have to be riots in the streets, with rich neighborhoods trashed as well as poor ones. Maybe the White House itself and the Capitol have to be burned to the ground, and the whole Senate and House of Representatives hanged from the lamp-posts before anything van really change.

Maybe we need a revolution.

Maybe this is why revolutions happen in the first place. Because nothing but violence and complete social breakdown can budge the inert compacted corruption of the status quo.

Maybe civilization has to be razed like a street of rotten tenements before anything new can be built.

Maybe we can only act after it’s too late.

And maybe if that’s true, we need it to be too late as soon as possible.

We need it to be too late now.

Sour Grapes, Notes From the Hollywood Underground

The Los Angeles Times interviews star screenwriters. They discuss the trials and tribulations of success, fame, money and unlimited artistic freedom. Studios are demanding; critics are unfair. The need to 'top yourself' makes writing difficult. And writing itself is no longer enough. They want to direct and no one will let them. The glamorous party life distracts them from serious work. Mercedes dealers charge a small fortune for a small repair...

I know, I know -- as an unsuccessful screenwriter there is a limit to how much of this you can read before it starts to give you the dry heaves. After all, it was just this sort of article that got you out to Los Angeles in the first place. You had gritted your teeth -- you were ready for the six-figure salaries, the saturnalian parties and the larcenous Mercedes dealers. You expected a cosy bungalow on the studio lot with ceiling fans, and studio guards who would be proud when you remembered their first names. You imagined yourself hovering around closed movie sets, advising suitably humble movie stars on correct line readings; you wanted to travel across country and see your name in The Hollywood Reporter's L.A. to N.Y. column.

No one told you the truth.

No one said, "You will be rejected. You will be treated with jovial contempt by hundreds of clearly brain-damaged persons. You will meet with studio executives who will doze while you tell your stories. The few who like your stories will be overruled by their superiors. You will be put on hold. You will write scripts on speculation for TV shows and the shows will be cancelled. Any high-ranking executive who likes your work will 'ankle' his job soon afterward. You will do non-guild work for slimy guys at coolie wages. You will pitch ideas at networks, be rejected and be certain you see them on the fall schedule six months later. You will start to get paranoid. And you'll continue to read interviews with star screenwriters and absorbing in great detail the hardships of life at the top. The articles say 'It's lonely at the top'. But I dispute this. In fact, it's lonely at the bottom. At the top there are lots of interesting, beautiful and talented people. Whereas, at the bottom you get mostly guys in dirty raincoats drinking sterno from paper bags.

So you wait for a fluke, because success in Hollywood is random. That's the dark secret that the young screenwriter learns. It all has to do with what I call the Fluke Zone. If you are not in the Fluke Zone, no matter how good you may be as a writer, you will never work. Clearly then, the trick is finding your way into the Fluke Zone. Having film directors as close friends is one way in. Marrying a movie star is even better. Best of all is to be the son or daughter of a successful Hollywood family. But don't despair--chance encounters can work also, on rare occasions. Save a movie star's Pomeranian, or refuse to sue the producer who totaled your Corolla with his BMW, and you may just get lucky.

One thing is certain, once you're in the fluke Zone, it's almost impossible to get out. There are writers who have been making flop films for more than twenty years because once in the Fluke Zone, no matter how bad you may be or how senile you become, you will work continuously. People didn't read your work before and they won't start just because you're in the Fluke Zone--but the movies will get made. Look at all the other crap that gets made every year. Why? How? Because some jerk with an awful script just sort of stumbled into the Fluke Zone and got a three picture deal. It happens all the time. You can dial a wrong number trying to get a pizza, wind up talking with the head of a movie company and selling the rights to a book you haven't written yet for half a million dollars. Not that it has to be you. An unassuming, undocumented Mexican could make the same deal, completely by mistake.

The next morning, Variety would be trumpeting Illegal Alien as a major motion picture in pre-production. He'd have an agent and a business manager before he knew what hit him and he'd be investing in cinnamon futures with the money he expected to earn on the foreign distribution rights of the film to be based on the book which he couldn't even write in the first place.

All he wanted was a pizza.

The central fact you have to face is that, as a writer you have no power at all and the only way to get power is to become a director. When that becomes your goal you become like everyone else in Hollywood--trying desperately to be somebody else. Actors, for instance, want to write, writers and producers want to direct. Producers think they can write, and agents think they can be producers. Business managers think they can be agents. But it gets even more complicated than that. Actors think they have to write but they really want to produce. Writers know they have to produce but secretly want to act. Ex-agents like to produce films their ex-actors have written and business managers want to be the agents who package the films by ex-actors who are producing an ex-agent's script for an ex-producer to direct.

And directors are the bane of every writer's existence. Along those lines, it occurred to me the other day that you could account for all the apparent mistakes in the natural order of things with a Hollywood theory--A Guild Arbitration theory of the universe. Some guy wrote a terrific world, some demi-god with talent. There was no war, no prejudice, no gum disease. Six seasons instead of four; fresh water oceans you could drink from, No menstrual cramps or waxed vegetables in the stores. It was a promising effort and that great Studio in the Sky bought it outright for a good price. They put into pre-production and hired some writers to work on it. After six drafts they hired God to direct it. He made more changes and it came out so badly that the original writer took his name off the project. So, everyone thinks God created the world. But he didn't. He was just the guy with Adidas and a view-finder who fucked it up..

Of course, if I ever get a movie made, I'll be too busy with the grueling party scene and finding the best places to service my Mercedes to worry about this stuff. I'm looking forward to being corrupted by success and ruined by money. I'll retract this whole post instantly, as soon as the first check clears.

It's just sour grapes after all.

What Really Happened, and Why It Doesn't Matter

At a college party three decades ago, the woman I would eventually marry (and divorce) participated with me in a parlor game: one of the tasks was to write down your least favorite word your most favorite word. As it turned out, my favorite and her least favorite were the same word – that should have been a red flag, but I guess we assumed we’d change each other (for the better, of course). Besides we had hormones (and pheremones) on our side.

The word was ‘ambiguity’.

I had an idea for a book back then, a real monument to the whole notion of ambiguity, that I never managed to actually write. I knew I wasn’t good enough to pull it off. Ambiguity is hard. The book was called Decoys, and I’m finally taking a crack at it, thirty years later.

I got the idea for the book more to show I was as hip and post-modern as a friend of mine who was working on a science fiction novel, set on a distant planet, which featured a musically gifted but essentially autistic alien race – and their oral history narrated by a character with no sense of time or causality. I know it sounds impossible, but he actually wrote his book (Soldiers of Paradise, by Paul Park -- check it out). The result was a kind of surreal epic poem whose fractured pieces still somehow resonate together.

I knew Decoys would never be quite that cool, but I got some points as an experimental poseur: the plan was to write seven connected short stories, by seven different fictional authors. These imaginary writers are the principal characters in the book and all find themselves writing about the same set of events, which transpired among them a decade before. The discrepancies between what happens in the stories and the facts of the writers’ ‘real’ lives, as sketched by the collection’s editor in a gossipy Afterword, are not merely the product of memory and point of view. These ‘writers’ are actively re-shaping the events they describe, making them into fiction that answers the needs of their egos and imaginations.

Each of the writers is a character in all the other stories, though precisely which character is left for the reader to decipher. The central figure, whose mysterious death (or murder – or suicide) haunts all the writers and their stories, will appear as a Mediaeval princess in one tale. In another, she’s a captive African leopard; in a third I’m thinking of representing her by an endangered grove of elm trees on a Chekhovian foreclosed estate.

Though some version of the essential plot emerges from all the writers, their perspectives and grudges (not to mention the styles, points of view, periods and locations of the stories themselves) should make it nearly impossible to arrive at an objective reading of the actual events that inspired everyone.

It sounds migraine inducing – a 49 point grid, more like three dimensional chess than any ordinary writing project. For years I thought it would be impossible. I’d alight on it, like a bird on a statue, sniff around a little, give up and fly away. But attending Diane Lefer’s lecture in Noble Reading Room at last summer’s MFA residency, it struck me with the force of an epiphany: if I didn’t write Decoys here and now, then where and when would I ever have the nerve and the support to try it?

I’m running out of decades for procrastination.

To make the best use of the school, I decided to work with Doug Glover and his advice was read works like the one I was attempting, and try to figure out how the authors actually did the work. The idea was it might help me do mine. And so far it has. Good thing, because I need all the help I can get.

The two works I want to touch on briefly here are Rynusuke Akutagawa’s story In a Grove and Vladimir Nabokov’s novel, Pale Fire.

Through the course of In a Grove, seven characters in Feudal Japan give their versions of a rape and murder in the woods outside Kyoto, in what appear to be straightforward transcriptions of legal testimony. First, a woodcutter describes finding the body of a samurai, along with a comb and a rope, tied to the base of a nearby cedar tree, with no horse nearby. Next a Buddhist Priest describes seeing a samurai, armed with a sword a bow and a full quiver of arrows, riding a sorrel horse with his wife on the Sekiyama road, around noon on the day before. The policeman speaks next: he arrested a bandit named Tajomaru that night; he had evidently been thrown by a fine sorrel mare, who was grazing nearby, and had in his possession a bow and quiver of arrows. The next speaker is the samurai’s mother in law, who speaks well of the samurai pleads with the police to find her daughter, who remains missing. With the scene set and the evidence on hand, we hear the testimony of the principals.

The bandit Tajumaru says he lured the samurai and his wife into the grove with promises of buried treasure, then surprised the man and raped the woman; but then she insisted that Tajomaru fight a duel to the death with her husband, as she could not live with two men knowing her shame. She agreed to stay with the winner. Infatuated with the woman, Tajomaru agreed, she but ran off while the two well-mateched warriors struggled. By the time the samurai was dead, Tajomaru was alone.

It happened quite differently according to the wife. After the rape she agreed with her husband to kill him and then commit ritual suicide herself: neither one of them could live with the shame of what happened. But she was unable to carry out her side of the pact. “I hadn’t the strength to die,” she says. “I am still living in dishonor.”

The samurai’s version is told by his ghost – through a medium.

According to him, the bandit actually proposed marriage, and the samaurai’s wife agreed. But it was even worse than that: “…she pointed at me, tied to the root of the cedar and said ‘Kill him! I cannot marry you s long as he lives.’” But this was too much, even for the bandit. Tajomaru refused, and in fact offered to kill the woman instead. But the samurai hesitated and his wife fled into the forest. The bandit chased her and, left alone, the samurai committed seppuku with his own short sword.

Any of these characters might in fact be lying -- even the ghost; perhaps all of them are lying. It’s impossible to know for sure. As a reader you want some closure. We see detective thriller at the movies, we watch Law& Order, we read Agatha Christie and novels …a t least some of us do. OK – I do. And some basic need I have is being ignored, refused … flouted. I come to the end of this cryptic little story asking a fairly simple question – what happened? – and Akutagawa won’t answer it. The clear implication is – there is no answer. The story stays with us, stays alive, gets made into a world-famous film whose title – Rashoman -- has come to define the contradictions eye-witness testimony in another language, because of that mystery.

The concept has filtered all the way down to the bedrock of popular culture, as we can see in this exchange from The Simpsons:

Marge: Come on, Homer. Japan will be fun. You liked Rashomon.

Homer: That’s not how I remember it!

Somehow I had never read Pale Fire. But I might not have appreciated it before my time at VCFA, so it’s just as well. There’s a lot to appreciate in Nabokov’s 314 page novel. The form is unique: a 999-line poem by a poet named John Shade, surrounded by a foreword, commentary and index by one Charles Kinbote. A pompous narcissistic gasbag, Kinbote is a hilariously insane parody of everything awful in academic and literary criticism. Kinbote claims to admire Shade’s work, and he does, but only as a mirror of his own preoccupations and even his life story, which he has breathlessly recounted to the old poet, assuming that it would become the central subject of Shade’s magnum opus.

Of course the poem has nothing to do with Kinbote, or with his wild tales of life as an exiled king from the ‘remote northern country’ of Zembla. His escape and flight from a cabal of regicidal assassins makes for an outlandish romance, which might remind you of The Prisoner of Zenda, which also featured an imperiled king, mistaken identities and lots of hokey high adventure.

Nabokov is obviously enjoying himself with this material and you can’t help but be swept along as he correlates the writing of the poem Pale Fire, canto by canto, with the relentless approach of the Zemblan assassin Gradus – from Zembla through Europe, to America and finally to the Appalachian college campus where Kinbote and Shade both serve on the faculty. Kinbote writes the commentary after Shade’s death, and according to Kinbote, Gradus was aiming for the exiled King when he accidentally shot the poet.

This wild tale of buried crown jewels and expatriate princesses, of mad assassins and reckless escapes by tunnel and boat forms a bizarre counterpoint to Shade’s poem which is a quiet, autobiographical attempt to deal with his daughter Hazel’s suicide. When Shade mentions a mountain, Kinbote goes off on a self-indulgent tangent about a long walk he took with Shade. Kinbote asks what Shade has been writing about, Shade responds, “mountains.’ It’s a bittersweet moment in the poem -- Shade discovers that the “white fountain” of the afterlife glimpsed by a resuscitated woman interviewed in a magazine, which resonated so perfectly with his own vision of the afterlife, was in fact a misprint. She actually said ‘mountain’, not fountain:

Life everlasting – based on a misprint

I mused as I drove homeward: take the hint.

And stop investigating my abyss?

This metaphysical question is of no interest to Kinbote. All that matters to him is Zembla … in this case, the mountains of Zembla:

The Bera Range, an erection of veined stone and shaggy firs, rose before me in all its power and pride. The splendid news made my heart pound, and I felt that I could now, in my turn afford to be generous. I begged my friend not to impart to me anything more if he did not wish it . He said, yes, he did not, and began bewailing the difficulties of his self-imposed task … Would I mind very much if we started to go home – though it was only around nine – so that he could plunge back into his chaos and drag out of it, with all its wet stars, his cosmos?

How could I say no? That mountain air had gone to my head: he was reassembling my Zembla!

Somehow Kinbote manages to put himself front and center at every occasion, even blaming Shade’s wife Sybil for destroying parts of Pale Fire that dealt more explicitly with exploits of Zembla’s King Charles Xavier.

The assassin Gradus may in fact be a much more ordinary man named Grey, an escaped lunatic who killed John Shade, mistaking him for the judge who sentenced him to the asylum. This is a far more sensible explanation, and nothing in Kinbote’s version, or his increasingly unhinged digressions, leads us to accept his bizarre version of events.

Here’s another typical Kinbote annotation: of the word “Often” that appears in Line 62, Kinbote writes “Often, almost nightly throughout the Spring on 1959, I had feared for my life,” and rambles on about this obsessive paranoid delusion for another four pages.

Clearly this is not a normal commentary and Kinbote is not a normal academic. He seems more and more crazy as the book goes on, and you finally start to wonder about some of the basic premises of the story. Is he really an exiled King? Does this ‘northern land’ of Zembla really exist? Does Shade really exist? Did Kinbote make him up? Or perhaps is Kinbote just one more invention of the Shade the poet, designed to bolster the poem with historic and romantic allusions? Or perhaps “Kinbote” has been designed as a mirror image of Shade, a swashbuckling character trapped in a remote college town, or as a metaphor for Shade’s trapped, frustrated daughter.

Because the book is so funny and the characters so touching and infuriating, or perhaps because the puzzle itself, the chess problem that Nabokov has crafted, is so intricate and baffling, dense forests of critical commentary have grown up around the novel, which must have pleased and amused Nabokov no end. Not everyone gushed like Mary McCarthy with her blurb-ready “Pretending to be a curio it cannot disguise the fact that it is one of the great works of art of this century.” Edmund Wilson, for instance, famously demurred, calling the novel “A puzzle that can possess no higher interest than a full rigged ship in a bottle.”

But among the ardent army of fans, the battle rages on. The Shadeians think that Shade invented Kinbote; the Kinbotians think the reverse and their scholarly disputes are supported by a wealth of detail in the text. One theory claims that Shade’s shade, his ghost, dictated the Gradus passages from beyond the grave. The book features other séance moments, including one in a haunted barn. Nabokov has used the device before -- Transparent Things is narrated by a ghost and the last line in his famous story The Vane Sisters is actually dictated to the protagonist by his dead siblings. In any case, according to this theory, Kinbote isn’t writer enough to have produced his own fabulist narrative, much less the intimate poem it annotates. It all makes sense, at least as long as you’re reading the essay. The text supports that explanation.

But the text supports every explanation. The text is diabolical. It is only through Kinbote’s off-handed references and footnotes that we can even begin to theorize the truth behind his self-indulgent ranting. But if the author is a Devil, he’s the kind of Devil you’d love to share a dinner with (Of course you’d pick up the check). The closest we can get to that experience are The opening lecture “Good Readers and Good Writers”, from the classes he taught at Cornell, preserved in his Lectures on Literature, gives some hints about how Nabokov wants us to read Pale Fire.

In reading, he says “one should notice and fondle the details.” Reading is re-reading.

Literature was born not the day when a boy crying wolf came running out of the Neanderthal valley with a big gray wolf at his heels: literature was born on the day when a boy came crying wolf and there was no wolf behind him. Between the wolf in the tall grass and the wolf in the tall story there is a shimmering go between. The go-between, that prism, is the art of literature. Literature is invention. Fiction is fiction. To call a story a true story is an insult to both art and truth. Every great writer is a great deceiver.

Pale Fire is a puzzle and a deception; the reader has to assemble it from its various parts. It’s a book about reading – or at least the kind of reading that Nabokov cherishes: an active, playful, wholly engaged level of attention. If you submit to Nabokov, and Kinbote, you have to jump around in the text, following the trail of references that refer to other references, notes on other notes. It takes patience – even the kindness that Nabokov recommends in his lectures. But it pays off. You gradually pick up clues to Kinbote’s real identity – a half-mad Russian professor named Botkin (almost an anagram): a reference to a book on surnames here, a telling remark about anagrams there; a snide reference to Botkin in the index. The puzzle pieces are scattered through the text; if we can ignore, suffer or even enjoy Kinbote’s endless maniacal pontifications and melodrama, we can piece them together. Wilson is wrong, perhaps: it’s a real ship. Or else, we’ve just climbed into the bottle with Nabokov and his doppelgangers.

In the end, it doesn’t matter. Nabokov gives nothing away: no hint beyond the text except a stray comment somewhere that the book is “A poem with commentary by a madman” and the rueful remark that “As always, the commentator gets the last word.”

Neither he nor Akutagawa offer any solutions to the mysteries they pose. These are works of compilation, of accrued confusion and my old friend, ambiguity. The purpose is not to render the world as it is but to prove that such objective clarity is spurious, even delusional. Not to mention, kind of a bore.

Which brings me back to the novel I’m trying to write, Decoys. It was conceived as a frivolous gesture of post-modern one-up-manship. And even when I started working on it in earnest this semester – decades later -- I hadn’t fully grasped the point of the book. My original idea, after all, was to write the ‘true story’, a separate narrative which revealed what really happened among these the fictional characters, and make puzzle out of it, a cute publishing gimmick: the reader who correctly deduced the ‘facts’, who most accurately pieced together the objective reality from the embedded clues, would receive some sort of prize. -- like the winner in a scavenger hunt, or the sharpest-eyed kid with a Where’s Waldo book. The actual anecdote would be printed in the paperback edition. You see, I was already gloating over the paperback. In general terms, it’s usually best to write the book first.

Anyway, I realized the whole concept was a mistake, a violation of my own intentions, not to mention the work of the writers I discuss in this lecture. There is no ‘actual anecdote’ in Decoys. There can’t be. That’s the Law & Order fan popping again. This isn’t Where’s Waldo. Waldo has left the building.

.The objective truth I was looking for doesn’t exist. That’s the reality these other works are trying to convey. That’s the reality I have to embrace to write my own. Finally we cannot possess any conclusive account of what occurs between us and the people around us. I could have learned that from a day in divorce court. Instead I chose to study with Akutagawa, and Navobov; and Glover, of course.

So it began to be clear. I started to understand what I have to do with this book, what anyone who chooses to write this way has to do: set version after version over the central events and characters, points-of-view over points-of-view. It’s kind of like the acetate overlays in the old encyclopedias, designed to show time lapse or to gradually complete an image of a human brain or a rain forest. Unlike the old reference book illustrations, the ultimate image here is not one of completion and clarity, but of something close to abstraction.

Certainly it aims to invoke confusion: a jumble, but a jumble with high intention, seriousness of purpose and a message: the life around us, our friends and lovers, the truth of our own personal history -- is essentially unknowable; and the sooner we recognize it, the sooner we fully absorb that bitter but liberating relativity of perception, the better.

Nantucket Counter-Point: Take Marbles, Go Home

If Steven Axelrod lived on Bali, he'd complain about falling coconuts. If he was married to the most beautiful woman in the world, he'd find a pimple somewhere, you can be sure. And he'd fret about it.

He complains that Nantucket isn't paradise? Well, of mcourse it isn't. It never claimed to be paradise and shouldn't have to endure his abuse because of his inflated expectations. Nevertheless, it isn't "just another small town" either, despite what Mr. Axelrod seems to think. Few towns this small support a thriving theatre group, two movie theatres (one in the midst of an exciting renovation), three bookstores, a pair of extraordinary museums and half a dozen world-class restaurants ... not tom mention a state-of-the-art public school and a variety of first-class private aschools, as well. Few towns this small have the sophistication and cosmopolitan feeling -- or the tax base --that this one does. And it's all because of the rich people mr. Axelrod claims to despise. He consciously diminishes his opinions, charmingly attributing them to mere jealousy; but admitting the facts doesn't change them, and using the appearance of cando this way -- to disarm criticism -- is a disingenuous and transparent ploy.

Axelrod derides the changes of the last twenty years. Perhaps he doesn't remember what the wharf looked like before Walter Bienecke's money "rolled over" it. The place was a smelly, squalid eyesore in those days. These days it's the gem of the island, a textbook renovation, the first face that Nantucket shows to the boatloads of visitors from around the world who keep our economy healthy.

Mr. Axelrod also fails to realize that it's the rich people who are preserve the island's beauty and ecological balance. They supported the Land Bank legislation tht keeps more of the island wild with every real estate transaction. They donate huge tracts of land for conservation, they help the schools and the hospital and the short-funded harbor study. Wendy Schmidt is single-handedly bring Main Street back to life for no other reason than her heartfelt love of the place.

And perhaps these benefactors wonder, scrolling through Open Salon, what Mr. Axelrod has done for Nantucket lately. Is he down at the dump, helping with the recycling project? Is he raising funds for the legal battle to open the ponds? No, he prefers to sit home and gripe in print. But the last thing Nantucket needs now is another glib, pessimistic slug who won't lift a finger to fix the things he complains about.

He should follow his friend Richard, if he envies him so much. In fact, all the people like Mr. Axelrod, who find life so unpleasant here, should shut up and get out.

They're not prisoners here. There are six boats a day in the summer

Note: in order to hold two such diametrically opposed opinions, one would have to be either a clinically diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, or a Nantucket resident. Mr. Axelrod has lived on Nantucket since 1983.

A Nantucket Elegy

My friend Richard came to Nantucket in 1990, intending to stay for the weekend. He’s been here ever since. He’s leaving now, though. He can’t afford to stay, but he’s no longer even sure that he wants to.

He’s been complaining for years, summer complaints mostly. The old familiar litany: the mopeds, the crowds, the fleas, the ticks and the parking tickets. The traffic, the prices, the noise. But in the last few years a new gripe has started to overshadow all the others, the sum of all his other complaints.

The rich people.

They’ve been driving him crazy. “Leather pants!” he’ll say out of nowhere one day. “Why are they wearing leather pants in July?”

“They just wander around … eating ice cream,” he told me last summer, so comically aghast that I had to laugh.

But I know how he felt. They drive me crazy, too -- seeing them in their blue blazers, their wives in absurd high heels teetering next to them, heading for The Pearl or Straight Wharf on summer nights, belligerently out of place on the casual, cobblestone streets. They sicken me, browbeating clerks in the fancy stores; they make me laugh, screaming at airline counter people because of their delayed flights, demanding that they fix the fog. “This is outrageous,” I heard one of them muttering as he stalked the terminal floor. “I have meetings in New York!”

But most of all I hate what they’re doing to the island. The rich people can’t get into Sankaty Golf club so they build their own, devouring most of the open land at the east end of the island; they can’t get into the Yacht club, so now they’re taking over the last public access boat yard and turning it into their private playground. They’re pickled in their privileges, gobbling everything in sight, smearing their stink on everything clean.

Maybe I’m just jealous. OK, I am jealous. I’m no Marxist. I want their stuff, their Mercedes and their house and most of all their leisure, their free time – their freedom. They flaunt the things I want and may never have, so I’d be nuts not to resent them.

But there’s more to it than that. The rich people decided they liked Nantucket. They made it into their new toy. They've added it to their collections (It has pride of place now on their ominous bumper sticker: "Fiji, St. Martin, Capri, Nantucket") The force of their money rolled across the island very much the way it does on their own properties when bulldozers and backhoes and fifty trucks of dirt and dozens of landscapers sweep into the beech plum and scrub oak and obliterate it, burying it under five acres of perfect lawn, hot house trees and flower beds, a state-of-the-art sprinkler system and a couple of tons of raked crushed shell driveway. The lawns are beautiful, but the plant food and weed killers are contaminating our harbor and our aquifer.

Nantucket used to be a sleepy old money resort where east coast aristocrats came to fish and drink gin and tonics on the porch. Now it's becoming a place where new-minted millionaires come to spend their money and show off. It's a middle-class place now, and all the upwardly mobile middle-class housewives with unlimited amounts of money to spend have to preen and strut. Every old house has to be gutted and remade in the image of the Restoration Hardware catalogue and last month’s Architectural Digest layout. You can’t compete with your friends by leaving things the same. If they spend sixty thousand dollars on new kitchen, you have to spend a hundred.I asked a yacht owner once what the point of those opulent floating mansions was. “Same as everything else,” the man had said with a shrug. “Mine’s bigger than yours.”

So the houses get bigger and the cars get bigger, and the wives’ hair gets bigger and so do their bust lines. The property values get bigger and the sub-divisions get bigger and the real estate offices get bigger and you wind up living in the world’s biggest gated community. No, not quite: it's a moated community, actually, with thirty miles of Nantucket sound between you and the ordinary people who can’t afford two hundred dollar dinners two thousand dollar Wolff ranges and five dollar ice cream cones.

They still come of course, the day-trippers who pecked around the edges and bought t-shirts, but they don’t matter. They're an unavoidable irritant, like the sea-gulls, diving for garbage on the beach.

The old people, who remember a different Nantucket, a quiet, run-down leisurely place, are slowly dying out. Their kids are cashing in, turning pristine moorlands into “estate assets” whose “returns” have to be “maximized.” Soon only the new people will be left. My father told me once that it takes about twenty years of concentrated development to ruin a place.

Nantucket’s twenty years are just about up.

I hope they finish with the island soon, these reeling hedge fund geniuses, these fast food franchise moguls, and leave it to its new depression, its bottomed-out real estate market, the mansions rotting in the uncut grass, the ruined aftermath of their toxic fleeting infatuation with an untouched place.

The worst part of it all is having to admit that Nantucket is not paradise. That hurts. It seemed like paradise for so long, that’s why so many of us moved here, the way immigrants first came to America itself, looking for a better life. So it’s particularly bitter to realize that Nantucket is just one more small town with all the usual squabbles and pettiness, one more piece of land to be developed, one more patch of green to be poisoned with human waste.

And yet … it’s so beautiful. Even after decades of intense exploitation, even if the beauty has an ironic edge, even if it’s temporary and at risk. It’s just so beautiful.

Perhaps Richard is lucky in a way. He’s moving back to the land of highways and fast food and shopping malls. There will be no dissonance between what he sees around him and the way he lives, no constant sense of loss and disillusion.

It may be easier, after all, living in a place that never had a chance to be paradise, a place that will never be paradise lost.

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Survivor's Tale, Part Three

Sophie stood up. “Let’s go home,” she said. “I’m cold.”

We were back on Bartlett Road before she spoke again. “Claudia has an odd sense of humor. She said to me once. ‘That which doesn’t kill you – makes you wish you were dead.’ It’s her explanation for all the drugs and booze. All the advantages of being dead, without missing any TV.”

It was getting close to dawn. There wasn’t a house light on anywhere. The whole island was sleeping, the whole world was sleeping, except us.

“Are you still glad I came to see you?” she asked.

“More than ever.”

“You’re coping with all this new information all right? You don’t think I’m strange or creepy?”

“Strange, maybe. But that’s okay. I like strange. Some of my favorite people are srange. I’ve been called strange myself.”

“Funny … I don’t usually think of myself that way. I feel lie I’m pretty ordinary, actually. One more boring fucked up person waiting to go on Oprah.”

I had to laugh. “That is by far the strangest thing you’ve ever said to me. If you really believe hat, you’re a thousand times stranger than I ever thought. You really are crazy if you believe that.”

“But it would be nice, wouldn’t it? Doing what’s expected. Not expecting much. Not brooding and worrying and – and picking at scabs all the time.”

“I don’t know. Maybe there aren’t really any ordinary people. Maybe everybody’s strange.”

“I told this stuff to one other man. It was a mistake. I really liked him. But people judge you, no matter what they say. It’s like in India. When a women is raped there, her family shuns her, as if it was her fault.”

“But it wasn’t your fault.”

“That’s what the other man said. But he started to fade after that. He was friendly when I called but he never called me.. So, sort of as a test? I stopped calling him. I never hard from him again.”

“I guess he flunked. What a turd. He didn’t deserve you.”

“I could see it right away. He looked at me differently after I told him. I’ve thought about it a lot. Maybe he was right. Maybe those Indians are on to something.”

“Hey -- ”

“Not at first. But later on, when I knew I could get what I wanted by coming out of the shower and letting the towel slip a little, or rubbing against him …”

“But that was just … circumstances. You were doing what you had to do to survive.”

“So you think I survived?”

“I know it.”

“I told you I had you fooled.”

I felt a sudden sluice of fatigue. It was way past my bed-time.

“Why do you say stuff like that? To hurt me?”

“To warn you.”

“Then you’re hurting me for no reason, because it’s not going to work.”

She took my hand then, squeezed it hard to get my full attention. I did the same thing with my kids sometimes: the pressure said “Focus on this. This is important.”

‘I don’t get it,” she said. “What do you think is happening here. Who do you think I am? What are you seeing when you look at me?”

I spoke slowly, picking the words: “Damaged goods. Wounds. Anger. Fear. Confusion. And a huge spirit that can hold all that grief and trouble and tell her story without flinching and kiss me like she was sixteen years old, and still take chances and come here to see me because of the way a two-hour phone call out of nowhere made her feel -- ”

“Steven -- ”

“I have an idea. Marry me tomorrow. First thing in the morning. I’ll give you a ring, I must have a ring kicking around somewhere, we can get one out of a Cracker Jack box, like in my Dad’s movie.”

She smiled in spite of herself. “Cracker Jack prizes are bad now.”

“Doesn’t matter. We’ll work something out. We can get blood tests. The Town Clerk could do it on her lunch hour and then -- ”

“Steven, please. Don’t do this. I can’t.”

We turned off Appleton Road onto Helen’s Drive. We were almost home.

“Sorry,” I said. “I guess I got going a little fast back there.”

“Don’t apologize. You apologize too much.” She slipped her arm around my waist. “Just be with me.”

So we walked back to my little house in silence and undressed in silence. She climbed into my son’s bed, and I pulled the Spiderman quilt up to her chin and she seemed every bit as young and fragile as the little boy who usually slept there. I smoothed her hair and she settled herself on the pillow, wiggling into a more comfortable position.

I bent to kiss her forehead, but she was already asleep.

The Survivor's Tale, Part Two

“I want you to understand something,” Sophie said. “This now, it has nothing to do with the past. You’ve built the past all up into something so … I don’t know. Such a romance. But those times were horrible. I hated those times. I hate the person I was then.”

“Well, I loved her.”

“She was good at making people love her. That was her specialty.”

“Well, I still love her. I love you.”

“You don’t even know me.”

“But I want to. That has to count for something.”

“I guess. But you don’t really want to know me. I don’t think you’d like what you found. You’re much better off with your image of me. I prefer it myself.”

I repeated mulishly: “I want to know you.”

“Well you can’t. I’m different than I was and you didn’t even know me then.”

“You make it sound so hopeless.”

“Not hopeless – pointless.”

“Why don’t you let me decide that?”

“I’m fifteen years older, Steven.”

“You seem younger.”

“I have wrinkles.”

“You’re beautiful.”

“I was never beautiful.”

I reached across my chest to touch her cheek. “My favorite face.”

She flinched, released my hand, started walking faster.

I jogged a little to catch up.“Sophie?”

“My Dad used to say that. I never told you about my Dad.”

“Tell me now.”

“No thanks.”

“He has good taste in faces, anyway.”

“It’s so eerie, you saying that exact thing. It’s like he’s stalking me – long-distance stalking. He’s so good at it, he doesn’t even have to be there. I’m almost forty years old. Why can’t I just be finished with this shit. Most people manage that. Don’t they?”

“The lucky ones.”

“I didn’t have much shit to deal with. My parents didn’t hurt me. I had it easy.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I know your Dad hurt you somehow. You and Claudia. I eavesdropped outside the door when they came to Hampshire. I heard everything you said.”

“I’m sure you remember it much better than I do.”

“You told them where Claudia was. Later you called her, but they had gotten to her first. She went home with them. She was pregnant. Did she have the baby?”

“She gave it up for adoption. About five years ago that started to bother her, so she went looking for him. It was a boy.”

“Did she ever find him?”

Sophie crossed her arms, watched her feet on the pavement. “He didn’t want anything to do with her. Given our family history, he might have the right idea.”

“And he might change his mind.”

“He might.”

“The other night I was doing the dishes, and I was singing When You Wish Upon a Star and Caroline jumped in with her own lyric. I sang, ‘When you wish upon a star’ and she finished it, ‘Nothing happens – at least so far.”

She laughed. “That’s perfect. It’s so much better than the original.”

“I know. It’s realistic, but still innocent, somehow.”

We walked along.

“I remember now,” she said. “You helped me make that call. And the money.”

“I was a trust fund kid. Back then.”

“Claudia could never understand why you did all that for her. I wondered about it, myself. I guess love made us suspicious.”

“Some things don’t change.”

She took my hand again. “So, did I yell at them? Did I recite all their crimes? Did you get to hear all the juicy details?”

“No. You didn’t say anything specific. I just remember how freaked out and angry you were.”

“I’m still angry.”

“What happened?”

“You do want the juicy details.”

“That’s not fair.”

“You’re right. So let’s drop it.”

“Then I’ll never know you.”

“Jesus, you never quit.”

“So tell me.”

“It hurts, Steven. It’s ugly and dirty and sick and talking about it just makes it worse. That’s what I’ve learned in twenty years of therapy -- talking doesn’t help.”

“Maybe I could help.” I felt foolish even as I said it.

“Right – the kiss that awakens the sleeping princess. Well, let me give you a newsflash, Prince Charming. This Princess is a comatose slut with herpes. Forget about her.”

“I tried that already. It didn’t work.”

“Can we please change the subject?”

“Not for long.”

She didn’t answer. We both adjusted to this new stalemate in silence. We walked down Bartlett Road, across Surfside Road and beside the High School to the football field. The last time I had been there, the Whalers had won a game in sudden death overtime against the hated Martha’s Vineyard team. It had seemed like the whole town was there, under the glaring lights, the autumn night alive with shouts and cheers and the smoke from the barbecue fires. Tonight it was deserted, the scoreboard blank, the grass brown, the skeletal stands rising above the lumpy piles of unmelted snow.

We climbed up and sat on the hard benches. She sat up straight for a few minutes, holding her hair off her face against the wind. Then she seemed to slump a little, as if she was giving up. But there was an edge of challenge in her voice when she finally spoke again.

“You want to know me? Fine. I’m an incest survivor. That’s the new term for it. My father started touching me when I was ten years old.” She let out a long breath, staring away at the shadowed goal-posts. “At first I really didn’t mind. He was usually so cold and demanding and sort of … absent. He’s critique my homework and call me stupid. He was a brilliant man, kind of a genius in his field. But very impatient, very intolerant. When he was touching me he was different. He was nice. He was warm. And it gave me power. I could get what I wanted. But I got older and it didn’t stop. It just got worse. I hardly ate for a year. I started flunking at school. I was scared of him. He warned me not to tell mom, but I finally did. And this wasn’t some hokey ‘recovered memory’ – this was stuff that happened yesterday.. But she didn’t get it, she didn’t believe me. She was furious. She didn’t talk to me for weeks. About a month later she caught us. I was wearing nothing but one of his t-shirts and he had his hand between my legs. She still didn’t believe it. She said we were ‘rough-housing’.

She rubbed her cheekbones, dug cold finger-tips under her eyes, breathing in and out. The vapor steamed away from her face. I didn’t speak. I didn’t touch her. I just waited. A cop car tore south along Surfside road, flashers on but no siren: just a glittering carnival light urgency, charging toward the crime scene. Then it was gone.

“The worst part,” she said at last, “was afterward. He’d be colder than ever, as if I was some stray his wife had adopted against his will. Any little thing I did that was particular to me, any thought I expressed, any enthusiasm I showed, any opinion …he’d go into a rage. So I had to sort of not be there. That was the trick – to disappear, to become this sort of – this generic person.”

“Strange. That’s exactly how I felt during most of my marriage. It was prison and I could to easy time or hard time. Easy time meant keeping everything hidden. I didn’t see ajny alternative. I thought I was a lifer.”

“So did I, Steven. The fact that I’d be grown up in about a million years wasn’t much comfort.”

“Why didn’t you run away from home?”

“I did. Why didn’t you?”

“Maybe for the same reason your mother didn’t.”

She turned to face me. “Go on.”

“Well, it isn’t any one thing. Love is part of it, but most of it is fear. Fear of being alone, fear of the unknown, fear of rejection. I can tell you, the actual freedom you might find feels very abstract compared to the real immediate crap you’re going to have to go through to get there. In her case there was probably physical fear, too. Did he hit her?”

Sophie nodded.

I pushed on.“She probably didn’t think she could make it on her own. She was angry and couldn’t express it. That’s tiring. She was busy pretending this stuff wasn’t happening. That has to be exhausting. A couple of years doing that and you can barely get up in the morning. Being a hero is out of the question.”

“So she’s the victim?”

“I don’t know. Maybe. One of the victims.”

There was a long pause, full of the things she wasn’t saying, or so it seemed to me. Finally she settled on this: “You understand weakness so well.”

I nodded. “I’ve had lots of opportunity to study it.”

“How about strength? Do you know anything about strength?”

I shrugged. “Not much.”

“Well, my mother wasn’t a victim. She was a criminal. There’s a legal term for it – accessory after the fact. It’s a felony. You go to jail for it. Your partner can commit the crimes. All you have to do is not try to stop him.”

“I’m sorry.”

“You have children. Would you let that happen to your children?”


“Then don’t apologize for her. She should have killed him.”

“Sophie -- ”

“I should have killed him but I ran away instead. I ran away a lot. The first time I went to a friend’s house. That didn’t work – they just called my Dad. He went nuts. He tried to beat me when we got home --”


“Mom stopped him. She tackled him and knocked him and down and he --” She caught the look on my face. “No, no. No way. Forget it. I know what you’re thinking. But this was way too little, way too late.”

“Still – it was something, sometime.”

Sophie didn’t answer directly. She just went back to her story. “The next time I ran away I took Claudia with me. She was twelve. I was sixteen. We went to our Uncle Arturo’s house. Claudia didn’t want to go there but I figured – you can trust your family. What an idiot. Claudia wouldn’t go withy me after that. A couple of weeks later, my mom caught me at the Greyhound bus station. I had a ticket for Chicago. We made a deal right there: they’d send me away to school, I’d never have to come home again and dad would go into counseling.”

“She got him to agree to that?”

“Yeah. And she believed it would make a difference.”

“So did you … I mean – you left. You went away to school. You must have thought Claudia would be okay.”

Her voice was stiff and remote. “That’s right. I thought Claudia would be okay.”

“They told you it would stop.”

“They were scared. I could have wrecked their lives. Just the accusation would have ruined him. So yeah, I believed them. I had to. I had to get out of there. You can understand that, can’t you? You’re so smart about weakness.”

“I understand.”

“They made it so easy.”

“You did the right thing, Sophie. There was no way you could have protected Claudia. You had to get away and you did it. You got away.”

“But I didn’t” she said quietly. “No one got away. That’s the point.”

The One Who Got Away: The Survivor's Tale, Part One

‘Where should I sleep?” Sophie asked me.

“In my bed?”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

I took a breath. “Look, we don’t have to do anything. I don’t want to pressure you. I just want to lie down next to you. I just want to hold you for a while. That’s all. Even New England Puritans allowed that. They called it ‘bundling’. Wear a nightgown – wear a flannel nightgown, it doesn’t matter. Just lie down with me for a while.”

She nodded, looking down.

I went to the bathroom and when I came out I saw her clothes, neatly laid out on a chair – pants, shirt and sweater, filmy underwear, plain white bra. The sight stopped my breathing for a second, but I didn’t enjoy the feeling: the last time I had kissed her in a restaurant, she had said “We aren’t going to make love tonight,” and she has said much the same thing a few minutes ago. History was repeating itself, every bit as dull and obnoxious as a drunk in a bar, telling the same old story one more time.

“How often are we going to do this?” I asked as I walked into the bedroom. Only her head was visible above the covers. “I mean … is this going to come around every fifteen years? Because I don’t know if I’ll be up for it at fifty-five.”

I could see the old mischief in her smile, hear it in her voice, when she answered. ‘Sure you will.”

And of course she was right. I’d always be up for this; hobbling around the old folks’ home, I’d be up for it. I’d invite her into my deathbed for a last quickie. I turned off the light, undressed and climbed into bed. She wasn’t wearing a flannel nightgown. It was something short and silky; I could feel the warm length of her legs against mine. She shivered. “You’re cold.”

“Not for long.”

I lay on my back. She tucked her self under my arm and we lay there for a long time, listening to the wind push against the house, the faint almost subliminal rumble of the surf against the south shore. The clock was ticking on the bedside table, but I didn’t want to think about time passing. Sophie Zambarano was in my bed and I wanted the moment to last. She was difficult, tentative, frustrating, but I couldn’t help smiling. Despite everything she was lying in the crook of my arm, her breath on my shoulder. It was fantastic. It gave me hope about everything, made me believe in all the wild possibilities, all the long shots. Maybe we could hold this together, make a life together. The fantasy flared up in vivid mundane details: our answering machine outgoing message, for instance. “Hi, this is Steve, If you have a message for Sophie or myself, leave a message at the beep.” If that was possible, nothing was out of the question. I could support myself with my writing, keep my car clean, learn to speak Italian. Who knew?

After what might have been an twenty minutes or two hours the urge to touch her grew overwhelming. I pitied the Puritans: bundling sucked. I propped myself up on one elbow and leaned down to kiss her lightly on the lips. She lifted her head to meet me then put her arms around my neck and pulled me down into the real thing, a deep wet hungry kiss that made me think, with the small part of my mind that was still rational, this is sex, actual intercourse would be an afterthought to this kind of intimacy. But at the same moment I knew it wasn’t enough. I had to be inside her. I ran my hand over the warm silk and down her thigh to the hem of the fabric. I slipped my hand under it, learning her thigh with my fingertips as if the secret of life were written there in Braille.

Then I felt it again: she was withdrawing, tensing up. She didn’t flinch, she didn’t ask me to stop, but I was losing her. I settled on my back again, stroked her shoulder.

“You don’t want this.”

“Yes I do.” She spoke to my pectoral muscle.

“Look me in the eye and say that again.”

She faced me, but said nothing. She seemed impossibly sad in the pale wash of moonlight from the window,

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“No, no, don’t be. But I should sleep in the kids’ room.”

“But --”

“If I stay in this bed I won’t be able to sleep. That’s one thing I know for sure.”


She extricated herself from my arm, and slipped out of the bed.

I watched her leave, a shadow moving in the dark.

I’m still not sure why I woke up that night. Normally only a problem with my children could rouse me in the middle of the night. But that was Darwinian lizard-brain stuff hardwired into the fact of parenthood. You never slept soundly again, once your kids were born. But this was different. Apart from anything else, there was no sound, apart from the steady rasp of the wind. I pushed the button on top of the clock to light up the face: twenty after three. I knew Sophie wasn’t in the house, but I checked the kids’ room anyway. Both beds were empty. I got dressed, thinking there was at least one advantage to living on an inconvenient island, thirty miles off the coast. Late night spur-of-the moment panic flight was pretty much impossible. That was something, because Sophie could bolt in a split second, like a deer into the trees. If I lived in Hyannis she would have been halfway back to Northampton by now, hurtling down the Mass Pike with the car radio on, predawn BBC broadcasts on Public Radio, talking about unrest in Africa.

She was sitting on the front step, wearing jeans, bulky sweater, and some kind of barn jacket. I stepped out into the cold and she moved a little to make room for me.

“You have so many stars here,” she said. “Lots more than in Northampton.”

“Too many lights in the big city.”

“And it’s so quiet.”

“But you couldn’t sleep.”

“I dozed a little.”

I had nothing to say. I was happy just sitting there.

“You’re looking at me,” she said.

“It’s been fifteen years. I’ve got some making-up to do.”

She reached over and covered my eyes. “Watch with me with your eyes closed.”

The rest of the couplet came instantly: “It scares you to be so exposed.”

She laughed. “That’s right. It’s a poem.”

“I’ll write the rest of it for you sometime.”

“I’d like that. But I meant it.”

She withdrew her hand but I kept my eyes closed. “This is easy,”: I said. “I’ve been doing it for years.”

“God! You say the most … flagrant things. And anyway you’re lying.”

“I am not. It happens all the time. I’ll be nodding off at a school play and suddenly there’s your face.”

She took my hand. The steady north-east wind pushed at us, carrying, the Atlantic with it, the relentless waves in the distance beyond the pine trees that bordered my little subdivision, crumbling the edges of the night.

Sophie took my hand. “What are we doing here? What are we supposed to -- ”

“We’re supposed to hold hands. Just like this We’re supposed to talk. Tomorrow we’re supposed to sleep late and make coffee and eat breakfast and read the New York Times –

“Steven -- ”


“This is impossible.”

“What is? What’s impossible?”

“I don’t know. Everything.”

“Wrong. Sorry, but you’re over-reaching a little there. I can tell you with absolute certainty – some things are indeed possible. That’s a verifiable scientific fact.”

She smiled, shook her head a little, looking down. “Okay, okay. Let’s walk a little.”

We stood and started up the empty street, holding hands. A couple of dogs raised their heads as we passed by, but they were too sleepy to bark or follow us. The only sound on the little cul-de-sac was a flag rope, slapping against its pole in the wind. It was a lonely sound, a coded message no one would ever understand.

The One Who Got Awat, Part Four

How do we remember our lives?

We tell ourselves stories, we use our will and imagination to contrive linear narratives, but the result is a sham: the moments that mean most to us flicker separately, strung out along the hippocampus like the house- lights on a night-dark coast.

When I recall Sophie Zambarano’s visit, I see it in patches of remembered perception, brightly lit tableaux, cave paintings on the folds of the cortex:

My daughter Caroline coming into my newly cleaned house, glancing at the flowers on the table and saying. “I know what’s going on. She’s coming.” I loved the amused, conspiratorial look on her face, though it had made me nervous. You can’t slip much past a nine year old girl, and you’d be foolish to try

Then: driving to the airport to pick Sophie up, stricken with the thought that I wouldn’t recognize her. That was banished by the quick physical jolt of actually seeing her walking across the tarmac, like the moment when you crest a hill too fast and your stomach stays airborne a split second longer than your car. She was thinner than I remembered, and her hair was longer, a great brown mane, scattered by the wind. But the face was the same.

My favorite face. Was it really that simple? Maybe it was.

She smiled and waved and I waved back thinking about all the other beautiful women I’d seen in other airports, accidental stranger whom I did not happen to have gone to college with, in whose eyes I had seen no recognition or reunion; it has always seemed so arbitrary. I would think – why shouldn’t I have known that woman? Perhaps if I’d stayed at BU instead of transferring to Hampshire, I would have met her in Psych class. Nothing else would be different. And I could so easily have been thinking that same rueful thought as Sophie came through the terminal door, staring at this woman with whom I would have fallen in love at first sight at any time or place, under any circumstances. I grabbed her, pulling her into a hug before we had time to speak, safe from imaginary heartbreak, accidentally blessed.

Her hair had the same musky smell, spiked with the citrus of the same shampoo. It was twenty years ago. My life between had been a dream.

Her first words: “Are we crazy?”

I smiled into her hair. “Certifiable.”

She wanted to walk. I took her to the beach at Wauwinet: a narrow strip of sand running between the Atlantic and Nantucket harbor, with the spires of town minutely visible in the distance over the calm water on one side and the gale-tossed sea on the other. A scattering of gray-shingled houses, still boarded up against the winter, rising from the dunes under an impossible dome of cloudless blue sky. The silence has a grain to it out there, raised and rough like the driftwood on the beach, made up of the wind and the breaking waves, the buzz of distant airplanes, the bark of a dog. This was a natural beauty built to human scale – nothing was dwarfed or diminished, a companionable immensity of light and space, wild but welcoming.

And it was a painfully romantic spot. Its bare uncluttered beauty seemed to demand some answering nakedness of spirit. In this bright, wind-scoured place, the strongest feelings of your life were just another part of the landscape, like the wind in the dune grass or the sandpiper tracks in the sand.

I took her hand and we talked. I asked about her boyfriend.

“What does he look like?

“Looks don’t matter to me.”

“Let me put it another way – does he have any major deformities?”

She shoved me away a little, but kept hold of my hand. “He’s short and he’s losing his hair, but he has beautiful hands. He writes travel books. He wrote one about Nantucket, actually. It’s part of a series – how to have an inexpensive vacation in the great resort towns of America. Aspen, Carmel, Nantucket … a couple of others. I was going to bring it with me and read it while I was here …”


“I left it at home.”

Did we talk more about the boyfriend? I can’t remember, but at some point we left him behind, like a shell we had picked up and discarded.

The wind churned against us, steady out of the north east. It was kicking up the sand and the air was gritty. Finally it discouraged her. “I feel like it’s brushing my teeth,” she said. We walked back to the car and sat there in the warmth, letting the engine run while the wind rocked us.

I remember she said something funny about her “inner child”. Her shrink was always trying to put her in touch with that elusive individual. “I have no problem finding my inner child,” Sophie said. “In fact I can’t get rid of her. And I hate that little bitch. She’s a spoiled brat. I want to send her away to military school – let her get ostracized and rejected by the other inner children. That would shape her up! Before she turns into my inner adolescent and really makes my life miserable.”

I remember we sat talking for a long time, looking out the windows at the harbor and the big shuttered hotel. Then the talk ran out and the kiss that hadn’t happened yet loomed between us, turning the most brilliant insight or anecdote into a chicken-squawk of pointless evasion. Words were useless, suddenly: white noise, static to tune out. The only way to continue this conversation was mouth to mouth. We reached for each other at the same moment. It was rough; for a second I thought I was too frantic, too aggressive, but she returned the kiss just as hard. I was wild with it, all of it, the scent of her hair, the heat of her, the fragility of her head under my hand, and her power, pulsing on her tongue, pouring into me like some pure raw liquor of spirit and all I could do was drink and drink and drink,

She pulled away finally, panting unable to speak. I reached for her, but she shook her head violently and lurched back against the passenger side door. I touched her knee.

“Are you all right?”

“I’m sorry – I just … when we were kissing. It felt like – chasms opening up.”

“Are you afraid you’ll fall?”

“I’m afraid I’ll jump.”

“Then do it.”

He voice was small. “I can’t. I just can’t.”

She let me hug her; we huddled together for a while and let the reverberations of the kiss die out – a gunshot in a canyon, echoing into silence. We drove to my little apartment and I watched Sophie taking in the raw, wind-flattened landscape, the quick glimpses of the harbor between the big houses, and I felt irrationally proud of the place, as if I had conjured it out of the Atlantic fog, just for her. But with that pride came a disquieting sense of risk – as if my whole settled island existence was teetering on the edge of her smile. What the hell – it was a great smile and for the moment she was offering it to no one to me.

That was the whole problem, of course.

She clarified it when we got back. “It’s so bizarre being here,” she said.

“Good bizarre or bad bizarre?”

“Illicit. I shouldn’t be here at all. I’m in love with someone else. He thinks I’m alone. So I’m lying to him, just being here. I don’t like it.”

“Do you want to go?”

She shook her head. I was sitting on the couch. She stood over me – afraid to commit even to sitting down. She hadn’t even taken off her coat. I took her hand and pulled her down onto my lap, grabbed her around the waist.

She twisted around to face me.

“Why did you do that?”

“It felt right. Was it?”

She let herself fall against me. “What’s happening, Steven?”

“Something good.”

She settled herself more comfortably. When she sat up a little I knew I was going to kiss her again and she seemed to know it too and we both held back to feel the anticipation snaking through us, the delicious certainty, like those last few moments before orgasm, when you no longer have to concentrate – just submit.

We kissed in the long slanting decline of daylight, making up for the years apart, testing each other, proving each other, sharing the seizure of desire. That’s not a figure of speech: I was actually shaking.

But when I put my hand to her breast she moved it away.

“No,” she said.

“Oh God. High school rules?”

“For now.”

“Well, that makes sense. I feel like I’m back in high school.”

“Do you? I don’t remember it feeling this good.”

Then she kissed me again and that was all we did and it was enough. It was almost too much, which might explain why high school rules were invented in the first place.

We went out to dinner and talked until the restaurant closed and hey kicked us out. I remember one moment near the end of that meal.

“Things have been bad for me lately,” she was saying. “My mom is sick. They think it might be cancer. They’re doing tests. My sister’s in a drug rehab program that isn’t working. One of my best friends just tested positive for Hepatitus C. My job is dull, I can’t seem to finish a drawing any more. My love life is … well, here I am. That sort of says it all. Nothing works out, nothing leads anywhere. Nothing seems to make me happy, except sitting in your lap.”

I stood with the edge of the table biting into my thighs leaned across the table and kissed her, just I had done fifteen years before, with snow filling the dark windows of the little restaurant where I had taken my last stand with her – what had felt like my last stand. But Sophie kissed me back on this night, more than five thousand nights later.

But we didn’t sleep together that night, and she didn’t sleep at all. I finally drifted off around midnight, questions keening in my head like a tinnitus.

I woke up at three in the morning, and found her awake, bundled into her coat outside on the front steps and we finally talked and I got the answers, everything I wanted to know, and more than I wanted to know, more than I was ready to hear.

Sophie’s story was not for the faint of heart.

The One Who Got Away, Part Three

“Sophie,” I said. “It’s Steve Axelrod.”

“I knew you’d call back.”

“You also knew I’d be awake at one in the morning.”

“You always said – people don’t change.”

“I was a cocky little punk.”

“And now you’re wise old man.”

“Absolutely. A sage.”

“Okay. So, let’s hear it, Ancient One. Do people change?”

“Never. Not one little bit.”

She laughed. “How’d you get so wise, then?”

“Hey, a little deference to the sage! No follow-up questions.”

“No, tell me.”

“I don’t know – I guess … I mean, you learn things. Hopefully. I’ve been sued and I’ve been fired. I’ve been married and divorced. I know how to burp a baby and change a diaper. I can apologize for the English language to a seven year-old with the best of them. Ever see a little kid try to sound out the word 'laughter'? They're pissed off. They want to know what that 'gh' is doing there."

"What do you tell them?"

"That ‘gh’ is like a house guest that everyone tries to ignore, like their uncle Wally. That the English language makes no sense at all and breaks its own rules constantly, but it's lots of fun. I said that to my daughter. She lit up and said 'Just like you, Daddy!"

"She sounds great."

"She's scary. She could out-argue me at two. I told her no more candy one day — she'd had enough sugar. She turned on me and saidMary Poppins says a spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down.What was I supposed to say to that?"

"Well, you could have made her take some medicine with her candy, or told her she was using a logical fallacy — I think it’s called ‘argument from author­ity’. But you probably just hugged her and gave her another piece of candy and said ‘But that's absolutely the last one.’”

It was my turn to laugh. That was exactly what had happened. "You're right. That's my weakness as a parent. I reward cleverness. But I adore clever children."

There was a moment or two of companionable silence. I

I was shocked at how easy this was; and how much fun. "Tell me about you," I said. "Have you changed? Do you look different? Have you gone gay? Converted to Buddhism or Scientology?"

"No new religions. These days I think of myself as a sort of lapsed agnostic. I really liked having no opinion on the subject, but the Church just seems more idiotic to me all the time. My parents are Catholics. Did I ever tell you that? Good Catholics. That's the best argument against religion I've ever heard."

"I don't know. I've often wished I could believe in it. Eternal life, absolute right and wrong, all my sins forgiven on a weekly basis."

"But that's the silliest part of it. I could never believe in a God who forgave everyone so easily.

"Why shouldn't he, though? None of our sins affect him per­sonally. He has no stake in it. I lie and steal, what does he care? He knows the truth. It isn't his money.

"But take the Lord's name in vain and you're in big trouble."

"Even that doesn't bother him, I bet. You can see how he'd be hard to shock. The guy's omniscient. He's seen it all. Besides, it's all his fault, anyway. He made us this way. If he doesn't like us he should recall us like defective cars."

"It sounds even more nonsensical than usual when you put it that way. "

"Yeah — I get an image of Celestial production line with some middle aged unionized demi-God screwing the arms in and waiting for his coffee break."

She laughed. It was a beautiful sound: surprised, breathless, full-throated, light-hearted. It seemed to forgive the world in a way that God was never quite able to do.

"We got off the subject," I said when her laughter had sighed to silence. "How you look these days?"

"Am I fat? Is my hair green? Have I pierced my belly button?"

"Yeah, give me the dirt."

"There really isn't any. Nothing pierced. No tattoos. My hair is still brown. I'm thinner than I was. I run five miles a day. But I don't do it for exercise. It's like -- meditation. When I pound my body hard enough my mind finally shuts up. Around the third mile I start to get a little peace and quiet.”

"Are you still painting?"

"I have a gallery in SoHo that shows my work, but I haven't been doing much lately. I teach at Smith — art history and some studio courses. Technical stuff. We're doing dry point etching this semester. "

I was listening to her voice more than her words: the music, not the lyrics.

"It's really you," I said.

"I was just thinking the same thing."

"Do you remember the last time we saw each other?"

"Of course I do. I just dug out that poem."

"I can’t believe you kept it."

"Of course I kept it. Its beautiful."

"But not beautiful enough. I thought you'd be on my doorstep in a week."

I could feel her indulgent smile. "You expect too much from your poems."

"They're meant to be spells, actually."

"But I was in love with someone else a the time – remember?."

"How could I forget — 'madly in love. I felt like I was dying when you said that. Like you were a doctor giving me the biopsy report."

"But you lived."

I shrugged. "That's true."

"It's worth remembering, Steve. You did fine. You got married.”

"And divorced."

There was a pause. Things were shifting between us; high clouds on the move.

"How about you?, I asked softly.

"Tom and I lasted five years. We're still pretty good friends. He lives in Amherst now. There've been a lot of other people. But I never got married. No kids."

I let the silence gather between us; the fact of her on the other end of the line, waiting for me to speak.

"This is amazing,” I said, finally.Its like no time has passed."

"But it has. Twenty years is a long time."

"I used to think so. Now I wonder."

There was a long pause, this new silence ominous somehow, like a dropped call. Was she using a cell? For some reason I thought of her as more old-fashioned than that.

Finally she spoke "Im living with someone, Steven."


"I'd been alone for more than three years. I just met him a few months ago. It's all been very sudden."

I took a breath and pushed it out slowly, letting it rumble over my heartbeat, like driving over a cattle-crossing.

“I don’t get it. What’s going on? Why did you call me?”

“I’m – I don’t know. I’m confused. I’m sorry, I just -- ”

“Are you in love with him?”

“I don’t know. Yes. I guess I am.”

“But not madly in love.”

“He wants to get married.”

“Do you?”

“I don’t know what I want. He wants to have children. Right away. I’m thirty nine years old. I better start soon if I’m ever going to.”

I said nothing. I was thinking back to the time before she had met this man. I had been alone, also — I could have called her then, in the early autumn, if I had known, if I had thought of it, if I hadn’t so completely abandoned thought of her. The timing grated on me. But I thought of something my mother said so often: "You do what you have to do, when you can." She had said it most recently when I was berating myself for staying so long in a dead marriage. "You weren't ready to leave," she had told me, simply. And four months ago I hadn't been ready for a conversation like this — maybe I still wasn't ready.

Maybe I never would be.

If she was getting married it made no difference anyway.

“Bear with me,” I said. “I’m trying to figure this out. You’re feeling old. Forty is around the corner and it suddenly occurred to you that you’re actually going to die some day. You’ve been thinking about the past, Your shrink told you to get ‘closure’ – or whatever term they’re using now. So this is just a check-the-box moment, taking the old mid-life inventory.”

“No! That’s not it.”

“So, what then? Revenge? I dumped you all those years ago, it still stings and -- ”

“No, no -- ”

“Then what?”

Silence. I could feel her pulling herself together.

“I still love you.”

“What about -- ?”

“Eric. His name is Eric.”

“What about him?”

“I don’t know. He doesn’t seem real tonight.”

He couldn’t quite stop; not yet.

“Is he living with you?”

“He’s moving out.”

“Does he know about that?”

A pause. “Not yet. But he will.”

“You’re kicking him out?”

“I – yeah. I guess so. Yes.”

“Because of this call?:

“Because of a lot of things, Steve. I probably shouldn’t have let him stay here in the first place. Everything happened too fast. I didn’t really know him. He has a cold constantly and he leaves trails of tissues all over the house. He doesn’t read. We had a January thaw a few weeks ago, and I said something about the little balloon man whistling far and wee and he just stared at me. He’s never even heard of e.e. cummings How am I supposed to live with someone who’s never heard of e.e. cummings? And there’s more. He bought me a vacuum cleaner for my birthday. He hates Brazilian music. And he’s a hunter. He hunts deer with a bow and arrow, ‘nails them right through the thorax’, that’s what he told me. And he has a temper.”

“He must be great looking.”

“Tall, too.”

“Sophie -- ”

“I know what you’re thinking. You don’t have to say it.”


“I haven’t changed either. I have, though. I know when I’m making mistakes now. And I fix them. That’s why I’m ending this. That’s why I called. And you know it. That’s why we’re still talking.”

“All right. You’re right. It’s true.”

The silence breathed between us again, some frantic grip seemed to release us, as if the wind had dropped off, no longer flailing curtains and scattering papers through the open windows, thrashing the trees outside; leaving the world to the soft tug of gravity. Everything dangled in the vertical calm, unruffled, pressed toward the center.

A motorcycle roared past on Helen’s Drive, heading for Bartlett Road. The dog next door started barking wildly at the noise. Two more dogs joined in the chorus, protecting their houses, doing their jobs

I spoke into the faint rush of static.

“Let me tell you what I decided when I turned forty. I made a plan.”

What was it?"

"The basic idea is … to figure out which things and people in my life are worth the trouble -- and then take it."

"I like that."

"Good. Because somehow you just sneaked onto the top of the list.”

Had I said too much? Fuck it. Keeping my feelings to myself had killed my marriage. I didn't mind making mistakes but I wanted to make only new mistakes from now on.

I was tired of the old ones.

“I’m not as much trouble as I used to be,” she said.

"I want to see you."

"Steven —"

"Come here — just for the day. I'll pay your travel expenses. Drive down to Hyannis and get on the boat. You could take a weekend -- take next weekend. Get an early start on Saturday. You could be here by noon and leave on Sunday night. We could have two days together. What's the worst that can happen?"

“Don’t ask!. There are so many ways it could go wrong. I’m smitten and you feel nothing. You’re smitten and I feel nothing. Or we both feel nothing or I wind up loving you but not enough or vice versa. What if we’re both just … making this up? What if we have nothing to say to each other?”

I had to smile. “I don’t think that will be a problem.’

Another silence slipped by. She was deciding.

“I’ll come,” she said. “I have to check my class schedule. It might have to be two weeks. But I’ll be there. I’ll call and tell you as soon as I figure everything out. I’ll come for the weekend.”

I felt suddenly winded, as if I’d just run upstairs. “Great,” I managed.

“We’re really doing this. I get a chill just saying it. I hope that’s a good thing.”

“It’s a good thing. It may be the best thing.”

“I have to go. It was good to hear your voice, Steven. And it’s nice to say your name. I’ll do it again. Steven.”


“I like the sound of that. Bye, Steven. I’ll call you.”

And she hung up.

I hung up myself and stared down at the phone for a moment. My coffee was cold, but that was the last thing I needed right now. There was a jitter in my hands as I washed the mug. What I needed was a sedative.

I drove to my job site the long way, cruising out to ‘Sconset and back on the Milestone road. I knew I was going to be late and I didn’t care. My crew knew what they were doing. I had spring fever, senior syndrome, all the anarchistic maladies of late adolescence. I was happy in a way I hadn’t been for years. Part of me remained suspicious. I knew very little about Sophie now, after all. Perhaps I had never really known her.

But she was coming to Nantucket. I knew that much. She was coming to see me for no other reason than the thrill in her blood from a long-distance phone call. That one fact about her revealed so much. Her spirit was still intact; she still had the old buccaneering indifference to ordinary rules and expectations.. It answered something wild in me, it was a jolt from a long-lost part of my own past, when I had flung myself forward by just this sort of impulse, running on feeling and instinct, knowing my choices were right just because they felt that way.

Just hearing her voice after all this time … I suddenly had an idea for a poem. And I scribbled it down on the back of an envelope:

The phone rings four times,

Then I hear you

I gulp your voice

Across the telephone line --

You are mine for a moment

Cool and liquid

Against the hollow dry,

Speaking an ordinary sentence

From a distant town.

On a parched summer day

On an empty stomach

You can feel that first swallow of water

All the way


Not a great poem, but a poem, the first one since that initial burst of inspiration when the kids were born.

I wrote in my journal that night:

Sometimes falling in love is a sort of awe-struck passive thing, like watching a giant summer rainstorm boiling up, barometric pressure dropping, sky turning to tin, sunlight pale and glassy, thunderheads piling, ozone sizzling in the air, foretaste of the downpour riding the exhaling breeze, running along your bare arms, better than the real thing. It all swirls around you and there’s nothing you can do but pay attention. If you don’t get inside you’re going to be drenched, but you want to be drenched, you crave it. And if you allow yourself to get soaked, you can own the sidewalks of a big city for a while, as all the rich yuppies cower in the doorways and under the awnings, glancing at their watches, waiting for normal, running late. With your clothes dripping and your shoes squishing, you laugh at them and it’s fair, you should be laughing at them, because for that moment at least, you’re alive and they’re not. That’s how I feel tonight – sopping wet, blissful, superior. Like I was nineteen again. But smarter.”

I went to bed but I couldn’t sleep.

Something big was coming, and it was bringing the poetry with it.