It’s possible that at a certain age you relish recalling things that only the year before you were content to have forgotten. I once read that it’s the short-term memory that crumbles first: where did I put the scotch bottle? is that infant my second or third grandchild? If long-term memories are more durable, maybe that’s why their stock shoots up late in life: less a case of nostalgia than of treasuring what’s left in the portfolio. The recollections don’t even have to be pleasant ones, the way you cherish an ugly lamp because it sat beside your bed when you were a kid. A sixtyish acquaintance told me about running into a fellow who’d been in his elementary school class. “I actually hugged him,” he said, still amazed. “I mean, I hated the guy back then. He was a bully; we even had a fight.” Oh, childhood, you’ll say; we all get sentimental about that, even about the bullies. Well perhaps so, but when? Not while we’re young, obviously, not in high school or in college, not unless there’s something the matter with us. By the way, why is it Peter Pan is always played by a woman? Real boys aren’t up to pretending to be perpetual boys? Shakespearean gender-bending, done cute? Or is it that no actual boy can be as persuasively boyish as a flexible alto? Wendy, Peter, Tinkerbell—a triangle, nearly a star-crossed ménage à trois. Apropos, this memoir is going to be, eventually, about a ménage à quatre.
Back in February—the longest month of the year in these parts—I received a letter, one in an envelope with a stamp and everything, a real letter. For a moment, I imagined the overstaffed Postal Service taking time out to spread the news and celebrate this throwback to a more sluggish yet nuanced epoch of personal communication. The truth, of course, is that I was the one who was surprised; the USPS would just move it along indifferently, with the catalogues and the AARP solicitations and the tax bills. I receive more than enough mail but hardly ever a letter. Excepting the President of the United States and embattled editors of moribund newspapers, does anyone?
I scrutinized the rarity. The envelope was business sized but everything on it was hand-printed. After a Sherlock-like inspection, I determined the writer had used a felt-tip pen with a fine point and was probably right-handed. The upper left-hand corner was inscribed with a last name—McMasters—and an address in Ann Arbor, zip code 48109. The absence of a first name suggested formality, brisk professionalism, perhaps a degree of self-concealment, even modesty. On the other hand, the printing was at once meticulous and, I couldn’t help but think, childish. Back in my day the progression from printing to cursive was a rite of passage, a little bar mitzvah. I deduced that only a young person, bred to computers, would print like this. Something about the way the letters looked made me infer that my correspondent was a female person. I can’t say exactly why I felt this; I’m told graphologists can tell the difference between male and female writing at a glance, so maybe I picked up on whatever it is that sexes handwriting. My conclusion was that I had received a missive from a female student at the University of Michigan. Unfortunately, there was no Watson around to astound.
I was spot on, too. Ms. McMasters’ first name was Cecilia and she was working toward a master’s degree in English and American Literature (I’ll forgo the cheap joke about a “McMasters’ degree”). She had to produce a long paper—a thesis—and her intention was to write it about me and my work. Well, Dr. Watson was never more stunned than I was when I read that.
In choice, old-fashioned prose, typed and printed out on plain paper, Ms. McMasters wondered if I “would be so enormously kind and generous as to permit” her to interview me. I almost expected her to add the phrase, “since you’re still alive.” “It would,” she wrote, “be such a help and a great privilege.”
What a blow to my low self-esteem! Sure, I had had reviews over the years, good, bad, middling; an article of modest length about one of my story collections had even appeared in Studies in Short Fiction. I’d once been asked by a female professor to whom I was introduced as a writer what it is that I write. After a moment’s thought I dutifully answered, “Contemporary American literature.” But a whole Master’s thesis? So, I had at least one devoted and highly educated reader. Perhaps because I had been in the dumps for days, my mind ran away with me. Hadn’t I always secretly longed for an audience of future graduate students? It felt like a promise of deferred understanding, nearly a token of immortality.
I wrote back at once to Ms. McMasters in Ann Arbor agreeing to try to answer her questions. I made no pretense that I was pestered by requests of a similar nature and tempered my enthusiasm with the empty but humble phrase “thank you for your interest.” But how were we to proceed? I gave her my email address, which such an enterprising researcher probably had already, and asked if she would like to do it that way. I mailed the letter on a Tuesday and on Friday night received this spectacularly succinct email:
I’m so pleased and grateful. I’m afraid I’ve got
a lot of questions. Are you on Facetime?
“Facetime?” I wrote back, then had to wait. I confess I let my eyes run over the little phalanx of my books on the top shelf of the bookcase nearest my desk. I recalled putting this object together when I moved into my little house. Only walnut veneer but sturdy, handsome, and just the right height. I had needed to add a couple more, for the journals, but the discount store was out of the ones with walnut veneer. Had Ms. McMasters read all my books, and, if she managed that, how much of the stuff in periodicals, plenty of which were pre-digital and long defunct? Oh, I tell you vanity’s a virus you catch from yourself.
Facetime’s an app. Only $.99 and we can see
each other and talk. If you’re willing, here’s how
you download it and how it works.
Facetime is kind of a nasty word. I’d have preferred emailing, even desultory epistles. Either way I could be deliberate in my responses, mull them over. I said so. But Ms. McMasters, even though she’d kicked things off via snail mail, was at heart modern and impatient. “And it would help so much to see you. You know?” Also, she was anxious about this deadline she had to meet in April. It seemed her advisor, Professor Strohmer, had a conference in England, a most prestigious conference, and he wanted her paper finished before he left. Professor Strohmer was to be the keynote speaker at the conference. There would be a roundtable on his new book about Saul Bellow. She went on about her professor at such length I was surprised she didn’t work in his c.v., flight number, and shoe size. Of course, the way I saw it, her focus ought to have been a bit more on me and a bit less on her thesis advisor. Later though, I reflected that while I merely gave her material, Strohmer gave grades. Besides, he wrote books about books. He had a Ph.D. and tenure too while I had neither.
Cecilia McMasters has a nice round face without any lines on it, not even around her watery blue eyes. She wears her blonde (naturally, I’m pretty sure) hair short and is nothing if not thorough. I suppose I was anticipating something more like a conversation, free-form, flowing and loose. What she conducted was less a chat or even an interview than an interrogation. She gave more face time to her notes than to me. Never once did she indicate by word or tone that she actually liked anything I had written. Liking, I came to understand, was not the point, not even beside it. The point was to get brief answers to short questions then write a long paper. Some of her queries, especially the ones about my familiarity with narrative theory, the ideas of French postmodernist critics and their Anglo-American epigones, I was able to answer with a single syllable. If she was disappointed, her blandly circular face didn’t show it.
I had more a bit more to say in reply other questions.
“What would you say were your three main themes in Holy Thursday?”
“Faith, Hope, and Charity.”
“Is the narrator of Holiday at the Crematorium an autobiographical character?”
“Most narrators turn out that way, even when you don’t want them to be.”
“Quentin is an involved narrator. Were you thinking of Conrad’s Marlow or Fitzgerald’s Nick Carraway?”
“I was thinking about Quentin mostly, but I’ll admit I’ve got a soft spot for those two guys you mentioned, their incomplete detachment and especially their moral compasses.”
She wrote down notes, read from more notes already written down.
“The story ‘Moolah’ has been interpreted as a critique of capitalism’s commodification of human beings. One critic says you were influenced by Herbert Marcuse and another is sure you’re a fan of the Frankfurt School. Could you confirm either or both of them?”
“No? Well then, I guess what I really need to know about ‘Moolah’ is whether you accept that it’s in any sense a Marxist story?”
“Maybe in the same way ‘The Diamond as Big as the Ritz’ is,” I allowed, then had to explain that this was an early story of Scott Fitzgerald’s. She nodded and made a note, probably a reminder to fill in this tiny blank in her liberal education.
“The Applecart Upset is your first non-linear narrative. What prompted you to write it that way?”
“I suppose I’d arrived at that point where life no longer seems linear,” I answered then, in an avuncular tone, added, “I think that usually happens about five years after you get out of school.”
Occasionally, Cecilia put a semi-personal question. For these she didn’t consult her notes, I noted.
“Do you write in a special place—a study—or can you do it just anywhere?”
“One special place at a time.”
“How do you picture your reader?” I smiled at the singular noun. “I mean do you have anybody in particular in mind when you write?”
I told her that from now on I was going to think of her but wasn’t rewarded with the blush I’d been shooting for.
One of Cecilia’s questions led me back into the past. I spent most of the next couple of weeks there. In fact, that’s why I’m writing all this.
“I know you attended Cornell and majored in, um, History. I know that after your first book was published you settled in, uh, Somerville, Massachusetts, and you’ve taught in a number of places.” Another pause to squint down at her notes. “Simmons and Wheelock and Northeastern.”
“And Bentley and Wheaton and, for one glorious semester, Wellesley.”
“Part-time work, right?”
“Yep,” I said. “I’m a card-carrying member of the proletariat of the spirit.”
This elicited a pause but not a smile. On she went.
“There’s, well, a gap in my information. Where did you live right after you graduated—I mean before you moved to Somerville. Was that where you wrote Going It Alone?”
“For a year I lived in a suburb of Boston,” I said firmly and uninformatively.
When she finally ran out of questions—at least ones I would consent to answer—I asked Cecilia McMasters if I might ask her one. It wasn’t just the vanity of my vanity that prompted this; I was genuinely curious.
“Sure,” she said with the bright anticipation of the 4.0 student. “Fire away.”
“Why are you writing your thesis about me?”
She barely lost a beat. “To be perfectly honest, it was Professor Strohmer’s idea.”
“He said he wanted me to do something really original—you know, something nobody else has already done. He suggested that I study an author of some seriousness about whom hardly anything at all had been written—you know, beyond the usual reviews. He came up with you.”
With the tactless honesty of the young, she pressed right on. “He thought you’d make a good M.A. subject, though not a Ph.D. topic, of course.”
“Not enough critical material to wade through.”
Then she beamed at me. Facetime ended.
My suburban year was not solitary, like almost all the subsequent ones.
How did we become a clique, a commune, a coterie? I suppose it started, as so many associations do, with Eros—seconded in this case by the Muses. First then, came Talia Wollenken and Sidney Nemerovski, fine arts majors and innamorati. Talia was earnest about her work; she called herself a “neo-classicist action painter.” Her particular combination of passion and ambition, which can be a risky combo, was thrilling to be around. Her insecurities she hid by denying them. To be fair, we all did that but not with Talia’s thoroughness.
My friend Sid had a lot of irons stuck in the creative fire. He painted in a more restrained fashion than Talia and on smaller canvases; but he also made clever sculptures of the experimental sort (not the “experimental” that so often means “derivative”) and, in addition, he was a gifted photographer.
It may go without saying that I was the writer. I took the writing fairly seriously but took myself a lot less so than Talia and Sid took themselves. “Art” is what they called anything they made, Sid with sporadic irony, Talia with none whatsoever. As I was more open about my self-doubt, I valued their support, was heartened by their example. My misgivings haven’t diminished, incidentally, though- the buckers-up have.
As for Gilbert Giraudel, of the Pound Ridge Giraudels, I suppose the best word for him, vocation-wise, would be aesthete. Unlike us public-school kids, he had attended an elite boarding school where he seemed to have read more than a little bit of everything, accumulating all sorts of cultural lore. There he refined his taste, overcame a stutter, and began his collection of lithographs. Gilbert had been to Europe more times than I’d been to the sort of posh restaurant to which, from time to time, it amused him to treat us. He appeared to enjoy showering us with trust-fund largesse and easy-going affection. I knew Gilbert had a thing for Talia but, in his rather bored way, he never mentioned it; in fact, he seemed to love us all. Only now have I realized how much he treated us like children—not his children, just children. I suppose he saw us making Art as he might kids playing with finger paints and making up “stories.” His calling was to appreciate, collect, and write about worthier artists. His plan started with a monograph on Fernand Leger. So Gilbert wanted in, to belong but also to nurture. We opened our arms. We enjoyed him and his Continental eccentricities, such as wearing a muffler indoors. I suppose we all liked that he liked us.
This was the era when hair loomed large, semiotically speaking, and even got its own Broadway hit. Our hair—it’s as good a way of characterizing us as any. Talia’s was long and straight, so long it went all the way down her back. There was usually some paint in Talia’s hair, though when she worked she made it into a pony tail and pulled on a ball cap. It might seem romantic to call its color “chestnut” but really c’est le mot juste, honest.
Sidney had tight, wiry hair that wouldn’t stir in a gale. Curly in dry weather, frizzy when it got humid, in the right light Sid’s hair looked as if it were metallic and this made you think of him as hard-headed. Gilbert, on the other hand, had that soft smooth blond hair you see a lot on professional golfers. He wore it long but like a violin virtuoso rather than a hippie. his locks always seemed to me to go with his money. I didn’t covet Gilbert’s wealth—on the contrary, actually. Even by then I’d discovered that the extremely rich and exceedingly poor always think about money. My desire was not to have to think much about money and that’s why I’m fond of the middle class and grateful to be in even the lower end of it. However, Gilbert’s hair I did envy. I hoped that, if I were reincarnated, I’d come back with just that kind of mane. I didn’t yet know that this silky variety of hair was the sort that tumbles down by the age of thirty. My own head was crowned disappointingly if durably—dry, dull brown stuff which I parted neatly on the left, exactly as my mother had insisted Mr. MacFarland do after he cut it. I let it grow just long enough so there’d be a bit of a curl over my right temple. Gilbert could toss his hair and did so, once or twice every five minutes.
It was in our junior year that the four of us became more than classmates. We spent a lot of time together and shared opinions, enthusiasms, dreams. If somebody’s parents showed up, we went out to dinner en-masse, relying on Gilbert’s charm to smooth any rough edges. Our folks treated him like a prince, which he sort of was. Gilbert’s own parents, who sent him away when he was eight and had a stutter, never visited; but from time to time he’d take off to meet them in some exotic location, to join them on a cruise, or lounge around one of their four houses and two apartments. It didn’t seem to trouble his parents, his professors, or Gilbert that he missed armfuls of classes.
Our conversations might go anywhere, high or low, in or out. Music was one perennial topic, not just the great pop music of the time but serious stuff as well. I remember Sid once saying he couldn’t figure out why he wasn’t able to warm up to Bruckner while Mahler just turned him inside and out. “Late nineteenth-century, elephantine orchestras, colossal symphonies, you’d think I’d go for neither or both.”
“Some joker called Bruckner’s symphonies a case of coitus interruptus. Also, you shouldn’t discount that you’re Jewish,” said Gilbert.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Talia snapped. The coitus crack didn’t bother her, but she was always sensitive about her boyfriend’s ethnicity—not defensive, just touchy. She was given to apothegms like “It’s stupid that people fixate on their tiny differences and ignore the huge similarities.” Talia was a good liberal when liberalism felt like common sense.
Anyway, on the Bruckner/Mahler occasion I hastened to cut any rancor off at the pass. “It’s because, deep down, somewhere near his pancreas, Sid’s got a little factory that churns out anxiety,” I opined congenially. “Bruckner’s not anxious the way Mahler is.”
“Or Jewish the way Mahler was—until he wasn’t,” Gilbert couldn’t help saying. He didn’t always have to have the last word, but there were times he insisted on it.
“Mahler. It’s like one endless farewell,” said Talia.
Sid seemed saddened by Talia’s remark, as if it were disloyal. He lowered his head and mumbled, “Endlos Abschied.”
I remember an evening in the cafeteria when we drank coffee and picked over the permutations of guilt and responsibility. This must have been around the time of the My Lai massacre, but it could just as easily have been prompted by Gilbert’s report on the latest developments in his Kant seminar.
“There’s responsibility without guilt. Then there’s guilt without responsibility. Finally, responsibility and guilt, both,” he said. “I know it sounds dialectical, but actually it isn’t.”
“What do you mean guilt without responsibility?” Talia wondered, as if it were a new concept to her.
“Ask Sid,” said Gilbert with one of his insouciant smiles.
Sid turned to Talia. “He means that after six thousand years the Jews have developed a gene for guilt. He means we feel guilty even when we haven’t done anything wrong. He means that when things go bad and the Babylonians or the Assyrians or the Romans have destroyed Jerusalem we blamed ourselves.”
“I just love that you’re Jewish, Sid,” mused Gilbert. “It’s exotic. It gives you allure. It’s part of your charm.”
“Jews may have a gene for guilt,” I quipped, “but Catholics acquire it in the first month of life. After that I suppose there isn’t any difference.”
Talia laughed, a sight and sound we all relished. I regarded making Talia laugh as one of my duties. True, Sid could be plenty hilarious; but Talia was his girlfriend and he couldn’t risk really teasing her, so the task fell to me. Gilbert was witty but his efforts to amuse her usually failed because they had too sharp an edge. This was due to that unmentionable thing he had for Talia.
“Responsibility without guilt is the way of the sociopath,” said Sid.
“And guilt with responsibility is the way of the penitent,” Talia harmonized.
“Guilt’s subjective, a feeling,” Gilbert pontificated, “while responsibility’s objective, a matter of the facts and the law. There’s no reason why they should coincide and I think most of the time, and for most people, they don’t.”
“You know, Gilbert,” Sid teased, “I’m beginning to think you’re cynical the way I’m Jewish. I mean it’s part of your charm.”
Then Gilbert broke up which was nice but not nearly so delightful as when Talia did it.
In January, at the start of our final semester, we were glad to be back together after the holidays. We all agreed that they’d been too long. To celebrate our reunion, Gilbert treated us to an expensive dinner. The restaurant, Crustaceans, was on the lake shore, the sort of place that flew their oysters, cod, and lobsters in fresh from New Orleans, Boston, and Portland. Long gone now. We all ordered lobsters and donned those babyish bibs.
“What’s next?” Gilbert asked from the head of the table which, on these occasions, was wherever he happened to be sitting. He looked at us inquisitively and tossed his hair.
“Next,” we all repeated glumly. “Oh, that.” We’d heard the same question more than enough over the prior three weeks.
“Graduate school?” sneered Gilbert.
“What do you do in September if you don’t go back to school?” said Talia with a note of mock-panic. “We’ve never done anything else.”
“How about you, Alex?” Gilbert asked me. “You going to get a doctorate in history and move to the other side of the desk, give up writing stories, and grade papers instead?”
I had, of course, contemplated exactly this. “Maybe,” I said guardedly. “And how about you? Family firm? Hiring and firing? Corner office in Midtown or the Rive Droit?”
“God forbid. You, Sid?”
Sid shrugged and pointed to Talia. “Wither she goeth I shall go.” He took Talia’s hand, gave it a little squeeze. “Even if she gets in and I don’t.”
“We’re thinking of an M.F.A,” Talia explained.
Gilbert placed his elbows carefully on the table, interlocked his fingers, and said, “I’ve got a proposition for you.” I imagined his grandfather the tycoon doing it just that way.
The proposition was that Gilbert would buy a house and we’d all live together, “do our own things seriously,” as he said. “You contribute what you can for food and incidentals and I make up the rest. Look, it would be an investment for me. Real estate values always rise, if you pick the right location. What do you say? We try it for a year, live and work together, and if it doesn’t pan out, I sell up and we all split. Nothing to lose, right? Agreed?”
Gilbert had the place picked out long before commencement.
The house was in a town called Wakefield, one of the modest suburbs north of Boston. The railroad hadn’t reached it until after the Second World War and so it was filled with Capes and Colonials tossed up in the 50s boom. There were hardly any of the hulking Victorians to be found in Melrose, one town further in where the railroad had stopped at the turn of the last century. Summer places for Boston’s plutocrats. I’d have liked living in one of those four-story piles with high ceilings and turrets.
“Why there?” I’d asked Gilbert when he first announced where we’d be relocating.
“I thought you’d be especially pleased, Alex. I picked it for the literary associations—you know, Hawthorne’s story? Goldsmith’s novel? And the price was reasonable. Plenty of capital left over for groceries. Besides, there’s a train to South Station. Ithaca’s great but we’ve been here long enough. It’s too small, too--how shall I put it?—too upstate. From Wakefield we can pop into Boston any time we like. You’ll like Boston. It’s the Goldilocks of cities. . . not too large, not too small.”
“Not too violent, not too dull,” Sid added teasingly.
Then Talia, “Not too arrogant, not too obsequious.”
I laughed and stuck in my oar. “Not too paranoid, not too complacent.”
Gilbert ignored our fooling and said he’d already seen to the movers. “So what kind of car would you like to rent for the road trip?”
“Oh, a convertible!” squealed Talia as if it were high school we were leaving and not Big Red, far above Cayuga’s waters.
Wakefield was a family town, lots of kids. On the north side, just beyond the big churches and the town green, the war monument and gazebo, lies a fair-sized lake around which Wakefielders perambulated at all hours. Joggers. Baby strollers. Power walkers.
When he drove us by Lake Quannapowitt that first day, Gilbert pointed out Temple Israel Cemetery which fills the space between North Street and the water. He pulled over then turned around and addressed himself to Sid who was in the back seat with Talia. “The Temple Israel folks must have snapped up the land when it was really cheap. Anyway, there are a lot more dead Jews in this town than live ones. They need you, Sid.”
“Everybody’s so normal and so white,” mused Talia. “And so many pizzerias.”
“White Italians, I guess.”
“Normal and white Italians,” scoffed Sid.
I was riding shotgun. “We’re white,” I observed. “Not so sure about normal, though.”
“Nobody looks like us,” said Talia. “Wakefield’s got to be the only town in this state without a college in it.”
“I read the Hawthorne story,” said Sid. “Nothing to do with the town; it’s about this guy who leaves his family as a kind of experiment in liberation. Wakefield’s his name.”
“Well, don’t go leaving us,” said Talia affectionately.
“Oh, not to worry,” said Gilbert. “Hawthorne has Wakefield coming back after—what?—only twenty years. Isn’t that right, Sid?”
Our house had shingles painted light gray with dark green shutters and white trim, a New Englandy color scheme, suggesting weather-beaten homes on Nantucket. There were four bedrooms, two baths, a full basement, dining and living rooms, and a kitchen big enough for the round oak table and four chairs Gilbert bought. We spent a whole afternoon in a discount store. Talia picked out the curtains, Sid the rugs. I was assigned dishes and flatware. Gilbert chose two basketfuls of amenities.
The largest bedroom had good light so we turned it into a studio for Talia; the basement served as my study (“Underground—it’ll be good practice,” I joked), and Gilbert appropriated the dining room for his books, lithographs, and roll top desk. Sid needed more space so we assigned him the garage. Gilbert had a little wood stove installed for him. The thing looked like a cast-iron toy; we were all delighted with it.
Brewster Road was a quiet street, with big maples, cement sidewalks, and neighbors who regarded us with curiosity, suspicion, and dread. Of course they did. What with our childlessness, our foursomeness, our youth, faded jeans, and unshorn hair they probably worried about soft drugs, hard rock, foul language, and collapsing property values.
In a Dutch colonial on one side of us were the Millers—Nevin and Carol and their two kids, Phyllis and Johnny. We made fast friends with the kids and, through them, little by little, with their parents. On the other side lived the Antonellis, an older couple, both notably short of stature, who seemed determined to pretend we weren’t there. That changed when one July night their hot water heater began to gush and Mrs. Antonelli rushed outside, as if the house were on fire. Sid fixed the leak for them. He was good at that sort of thing. While he and Mr. Antonelli were down in the basement, Mrs. Antonelli offered the rest of us lemonade and told us that her son, Tony, would be coming home the next week, home from Vietnam, where he’d spent two years. Mrs. Antonelli was so excited she couldn’t help telling us.
“And what about you?” she asked, pouring Gilbert a second glass.
It was an open-ended question. She might have meant anything from why aren’t you in Vietnam to what we did to make a living.
“We’re artists,” Gilbert reported suavely.
“Oh,” said Mrs. Antonelli and there the conversation ended.
Tony Antonelli, as he’d be the first to tell you, never saw combat.
I sat with him on our little deck.
“Office job in Saigon, the whole two tours. Turns out the best class I took in high school was typing. I signed up to meet girls and took a lot of ribbing, but I liked it. I mean I was really good.” He glanced wistfully in the direction of Wakefield High. “Who knew?”
He meant who knew touch-typing would save his life. He meant who could know how crazy the world was.
“Colonel Ferguson himself begged me to re-up. Promised he’d keep me right where I was, couldn’t spare me. Never even mentioned the domino theory.” Tony could be wry.
He had a reedy voice that Gilbert said sounded like a clogged oboe d’amore. His hair was still cut Army-short but was growing out. His face was sometimes open, sometimes shut tight.
“Colonel just begged. Didn’t have to guilt-trip me. Already had plenty of guilt.”
A civilized man. Guilt without responsibility. A landsman.
Being our age and between things, it wasn’t surprising Tony dropped by so often. And out of hospitality, humanity, our own guilt, we welcomed him.
Conversation with Tony wasn’t easy. Politics were off the menu, and, of course, the war; still, from time to time, he’d tell us a little unexpected something.
“Saigon reeks of fish. It’s not the fish smell you know, I mean not the American stink. It’s more fermented. First time it hits you, with the heat and all, it practically knocks you over. You get used to it, though.”
Another time, out of the blue: “I sort of adopted this one kid while I was there. About nine or ten. I called him Snoopy because he loved that cartoon dog. He’d run errands and bring me Cokes and I’d give him PX cigarettes and food for his family. . . . But, you know, I don’t think he actually had a family.”
Of course it was Talia he couldn’t keep away from, take his eyes off. I imagine she was what he’d been dreaming of for two years. Tony came home weary, disgusted, guilt-ridden, lonesome, and, miracle of miracles, here she was, the girl next door.
Even by October our little collective began to fissure.
Gilbert went into the city more and more, even on weekends. He claimed he was doing research at Harvard’s Fine Arts Library and the Boston Public Library, but I don’t think he was working at all. He frequently came home on the last train—around midnight—and three times not until late in the morning. When he was around he was snippy and sardonic.
Over dinner one evening, Talia whined about how hard it is for young, avant-garde artists to get a show, find a gallery, to make it. Routine stuff. But then, almost viciously, Gilbert, at home for a change, said, “Why don’t you do some nice aquarelles. Always a market for nice aquarelles.”
Sid’s mood also darkened. He confided the cause to me—at least the one he was willing to confide. I had taken a break for coffee and brought a cup out to the garage for him. We sat down on a couple of crates.
“I just don’t feel like I’m earning all the air and water I’m using up,” he said. “I’ve got everything: time, space, Talia, you and Gilbert, all the supplies I could ask for, even this little wood stove—and I just can’t seem to make anything that’s any good.”
When his painting went nowhere Sid had tried making some of those clever assemblies. Now he said of them, “The damned things just sit there looking like the piles of crap they are.”
There was no use denying it. I tried to sound hopeful. “Photography?” I suggested.
He got up. “Look for yourself.”
A banged up dresser had been left at the back of the garage and he used it as a sort of filing cabinet. He pulled two contact sheets out of the top drawer.
Those Wakefield photos weren’t what you could call interesting. Townsfolk walking around the lake, juxtapositions of the fat and the trim, old men and nubile girls—that sort of cliché. The second sheet was a series of shots of Temple Israel Cemetery which I recall as being “artistic” in the worse sense.
“See?” he said spitefully.
Talia’s parents took to phoning every other night at seven p.m., just after dinner and the evening news, I suppose. They wanted her to come home to Noblesville, the suburb of Indianapolis where she had grown up and the home of Indiana Christian University. Talia had no intention of going home but she found it impossible to say it straight out to her parents. Good people who loved her. So Talia too was out of sorts. She spent a lot of afternoons sitting on our little deck with Tony, even on cold days. For all I knew she was giving him lectures on Art History, but she could have been flirting with him. The Antonellis didn’t seem exactly pleased about their son being over at our place so much. There were looks.
One afternoon when I’d gone up to the kitchen for coffee I caught a snatch of their conversation.
“They want me to go back to school,” Tony was saying reedily, his head tilted back as he looked skywards. “But what for?”
I couldn’t make out Talia’s reply, but it sounded like a sympathetic tune.
My own work went swimmingly. I really took to that basement; its cool, dark isolation suited me, and the pages multiplied like mushrooms. I bought a used IBM Selectric and also a bike. On fine mornings I rode out to the lake, circled around it, then pedaled up to North Reading and home through Lynnfield. Biking is the ideal solitary sport and good for having plot ideas too. The stories that would become Going It Alone grew by three pages per diem, often five, sometimes as many as ten. One tale, “The Aramarash Expedition,” the best of the lot for my money, gushed out all at once, in a single day and night of ecstatic opening up. “Like an easy birth,” said Gilbert with surprising authority when I tried to describe the experience to him. He didn’t ask to read the story.
It was early on a warm Saturday afternoon in early April. Sid and Talia had gone for groceries and Gilbert, dressed to the nines, had headed into the city to meet with some friends of the family for brunch at the Ritz-Plaza. Tony dropped over, rather charmingly tried to conceal his disappointment at finding only me, but agreed to sit for a while and accepted a cup of coffee. When we were settled on the deck, he told me he’d pretty much made up his mind what he was going to do.
“I want to move to California,” he declared as earnestly as if he’d just put a down payment on a Conestoga wagon.
“It’s a big state,” I said.
“I’m thinking of Frisco. Got a glimpse of it on the way home and it looked good to me.”
“Fine, but don’t call it Frisco. Locals don’t care for it.”
“The way we don’t care for Bean Town? Okay. Got it. Thanks.” He grinned at me. “How about San Fran? That just as bad?”
His plan was to find work in what he called “the hospitality sector” and work his way up.
“Lots of tourists go to San Francisco.”
A couple days later I woke to find Sid sleeping on the living room couch.
I kept my mouth shut. I had the basement and my bike and what might someday become a book.
But there was no way I could ignore a public blow-up, not when I was the public. It came after the three of us had eaten Saturday dinner together. We had polished off a solid meal—pork loin, roast potatoes and salad, if memory serves. Talia had made the food and was clearing the table.
I thanked her, which did not turn out well.
Talia (exasperated): I’m the only woman here and I’m getting sick of being love object, cook, and mommy. It’s too much.
Sid (being exceedingly foolish): You find plenty of time for Tony, I notice.
Talia (defensively, over her shoulder): Tony’s sweet and he’s hurt.
Sid (in an un-Sid-like tone): He worships you. It’s so obvious.
Talia (feigning astonishment): You’re jealous?
Sid (unwisely asking a leading question): Should I be?
They glared at each other. It’s hard to be sure, but it’s possible they were both panting.
That was the moment when Gilbert, a bit drunk, shoved open the back door, and dropped his empty briefcase on the kitchen floor. He looked us over the way a bird of prey or a photographer does, swiveling his head from Talia to Sid to me.
Gilbert (with nasty airiness): Uh-oh. Trouble in paradise?
Talia (seizing the moment): Shit, Sid, you want to be jealous, be jealous of him.
Sid (farblunget): What?
Talia (relentless, out of control): What do you think this whole ménage is about? Why do think he’s paying for it?” Then she turned on Gilbert. “You don’t think I know, haven’t known all along?
Gilbert was—and it may have been the first time since he learned to babble—dumbstruck.
I just about leapt down the basement stairs.
The next morning, Sunday, the four of us were sitting around the table. I was neatly slicing bagels but couldn’t cut the tension.
It was in that sweet spring that our little La Bohème attained its finale.
“Tony’s visiting his cousins in the North End,” Talia informed us. Nobody had asked about Tony. Gilbert grinned. Sid frowned.
Gilbert filled the silence. “I feel bad about Tony having to go to the stupid war.”
“Jesus, Gilbert,” she hissed. “Do you have any idea how patronizing you sound?”
Then Sid piped up, just as foolishly as the night before. “Well, isn’t the war stupid, Tal, and isn’t it sad that Tony had to be in it? Or do you mean you approve of the war—the containment policy, the body counting, the search and destroy tactics—or is it just Tony you approve of?”
“Talmudically put,” said Gilbert, raising a finger.
“Oh, shit,” said Talia to Gilbert, and pretty loudly. “You and your eternal posing.”
“Posing, eh? And what is it I pose as?” The tone was detached but there was acid in the question.
“An ironic anti-Semite for starters.”
Gilbert held up his hands. “Qui? Moi?”
“You’re always so damned superior.” She took a bite of bagel. “About finished with that Leger thing, are you?”
Gilbert groaned theatrically to indicate that this was a low blow.
Talia didn’t even glance at Sid. “Look,” she continued, “this whole thing, this whole thing, it’s just, it’s just futile. Admit it.”
Sid struck the table with both palms and jumped to his feet. “That’s it,” he said.
And it really was.
Talia and Tony took off the following Wednesday. First thing.
Gilbert put the house on the market and repaired to one of the Giraudel domiciles.
The last time I saw Sid he was lounging on the bed in the room he no longer shared with Talia listening to Mahler. It think it was Liedes Eines Fahrenden Gesellen but it could have been the Kindertotenlieder, which Gilbert said sounded like the slogan of a German school bus company.
As for me, I moved to a three-room apartment in Somerville and applied for my first teaching job, just as Ms. McMasters said.
By the time their used Camaro hit the California line, Tony and Talia had had enough of each other. A year later she married somebody who wasn’t either Tony or Sid and settled in Thousand Oaks, where, in the fullness of time, she had a brace of daughters and a pair of divorces. Tony married too and went into insurance, successfully, according to the last Christmas card I had from Talia. Sidney changed directions and enrolled in the University of Chicago Law School. He became an assistant district attorney in a city that never left its prosecutors idle. Gilbert was given a cushy position in one of the family enterprises. He died at thirty-two in a crash on the corniche between Cannes and Nice.
It’s funny—funny to me, at least—that I’m the only one who stuck with it. What do I mean by that floating “it”? I suppose I mean our ambitions, our pretensions, our extended post-adolescent dreams. A superannuated Peter Pan. You might claim I’ve been successful, what with a few books on a shelf and Cecilia McMasters’ M.A. thesis, but you’d have to put some heavy quotes around the verdict. The truth is not a lot has changed for me except that now I own a computer, a hybrid bike, and this little house of my own. The house isn’t much different from the one in Wakefield, but I no longer write in a basement, not a physical one anyway.