Zuckerman Unbound (11 page)

“Well, that's terrific, isn't it?”

“But you going away without calling—I told Bea it just couldn't be. Nathan wouldn't dream of going that far without telling me, in case God forbid I had to get hold of him about his father.”

“That's true.”

“But why did Virginia Graham say you did? And on TV?”

“Someone must have told her an untruth, Ma.”

“They did? But why?”

Dear Mr. Zuckerman:

For a number of years I have been planning to film a series of half-hour television shows (in color) to be called “A Day in the Life of…” The format, which is no more than a carbon of the ancient Greek Tragedy, is a recitation of the hour-by-hour activities of a well-known person, and offers an intimate personal look at someone who, in the normal course of events, the audience would not see or meet. My company, Renowned Productions, is fully financed and ready to embark upon its opening show. Briefly, it involves filming one complete day, from breakfast to bedtime, of a celebrity who will excite the interest of millions of onlookers. To achieve one day without dull spots, we will average four days of filming candid unrehearsed material.

I selected you as our first celebrity because I think your day will be as interesting as any I can envision. Also, there is broad public interest in you and your “offstage” life. Everyone, I think, would profit by watching a candid portrayal of you at work and you at play. My guess is that such a production will enhance your career—and mine too.

Please let me know your feelings, and if we agree, I will send a couple of reporters to start the initial research.

Sincerely,

Gary Wyman

President

Dear Mr. Wyman:

I think you underestimate how many days, weeks, and years of filming it would take to achieve “A Day in the Life of…” of me that would be without dull spots. A candid portrayal of my offstage life would probably put millions of viewers to sleep and, far from enhancing your career, destroy it forever. Better start with somebody else. Sorry.

Sincerely,

Nathan Zuckerman

Dear Mr. Zuckerman:

I have written a short novel of approximately 50,000 words. It is a romance with college characters and explicit sex but has humor and other interest as well, and an original plot. As in your latest book, the sexual activity is an integral part of the plot, so is essential.

I intended to send it to Playboy Press but have backed down because there could be repercussions. My wife and I are retired, living very happily in a retirement village in Tampa. If the book turned out to be successful and the people here found out that I wrote it, we would lose our friends at once and would probably have to sell our home and leave.

I hate to do nothing about the book because I believe it would be entertaining for readers who like explicit sex and also those who don't mind it as long as there is something worthwhile accompanying it. You are an established author and can publish such a book, as you already have, without worrying about adverse opinion.

Please let me know if I may send you the manuscript, and also the address I should use. Then if you like it, you may wish to buy it outright from me as an investment and publish it under another name than your own.

Sincerely,

Harry Nicholson

The phone.

“All right then,” cried Zuckerman, “who is this? You, Nicholson?”

“Right now we are asking for only fifty thousand. That's because we haven't had to do the job. Kidnapping is an expensive operation. It takes planning, it takes thought, it takes highly trained personnel. If we have to go ahead and get to work, fifty thousand won't begin to cover costs. If I am going to keep my head above water, you won't get out of a kidnapping like this for under three hundred thousand. In a kidnapping like this, with nationwide coverage, we run a tremendous risk and everybody involved has to be compensated accordingly. Not to mention equipment. Not to mention time. But if you want us to go ahead, we will. Hang up on me again and you'll see how fast. My people are poised.”

“Poised where, palooka?” For it was still with something like the caricatured voice of a punch-drunk pug that the caller was endeavoring to disguise his own—and threatening to kidnap Zuckerman's mother. “Look,” said Zuckerman, “this isn't funny.”

“I want fifty thousand bucks in cash. Otherwise we proceed with the full-scale operation and then you will be out three hundred thousand at least. Not to mention the wear and tear on your old lady. Have a heart, Zuck. Haven't you given her enough misery with that book? Don't make it any worse than it already is. Don't make it so that she regrets the day you were born, sonny.”

“Look, this is call number three and has by now become a disgusting sadistic psychopathic little joke—”

“Oh, don't you tell me about disgusting jokes! Don't you call me names, you highbrow fuck! You fake! Not after what you do to your family, you heartless bastard—and in the name of Great Art! In my daily life I am a better man than you are a hundred times over, shitface. Everybody who knows me personally knows that. I detest violence. I detest suffering. What goes on in this country today makes me sick. We had a great leader in Robert Kennedy, and that crazy Arab bastard shot him. Robert Kennedy, who could have turned this country around! But what people know me to be as a human being is none of your business. God knows I don't have to prove myself to a faker like you. Right now we are talking strictly money, and it is no more disgusting than when you talk on the phone to the accountant. You have got fifty thousand dollars, I want it. It's as simple as that. I don't know a son in your financial position who would think twice about laying out fifty thousand to spare his mother some terrible tragic experience. Suppose it was cancer, would you think that was a disgusting joke too, would you make her go through that too, rather than dig into the margin account? Christ, you have just got close to another million on the sequel. How much more do you need in one year? The way the world gets the story, you're so pure you hold your nose when you have to handle change from the taxicab. You fraud, you hypocrite! Your talent I can't take away from you, but as a human being exploiting other human beings you haven't got the greatest record, you know, so don't get high and mighty with me. Because if it was my mother, let me tell you, there wouldn't be that much to debate about. I'd act, and fast. But then I would never have gotten her into this to begin with. I wouldn't have the talent for it. I wouldn't have the talent to exploit my family and make them a laughingstock the way you have. I'm not gifted enough to do that.”

“So you do this,” said Zuckerman, wondering meanwhile what
he
should do. What would Joseph Conrad do? Leo Tolstoy? Anton Chekhov? When first starting out as a young writer in college he was always putting things to himself that way. But that didn't seem much help now. Probably better to ask what Al Capone would do.

“Correct,” he was told, “so I do this. But I don't do it with violence and I don't do it where the traffic can't bear the freight. I do research. And given operating expenses, I am by no means exorbitant in my demands. I am not interested in causing suffering. I hate suffering. I have seen enough suffering in my personal life to last forever. All I care about is making a reasonable profit on my investment and the man-hours involved. And to do what I do with responsibility. I assure you, not everybody goes about it the responsible way that I do. Not everybody thinks these things through. They kidnap like madmen, they kidnap like school kids, and that is when the shit hits the fan. My pride won't permit that. My compunctions won't permit that. I try like hell to avoid just that. And I do, when I am met on the other side by a person with compunctions like my own. I've been in this business many years now, and nobody has been hurt yet who wasn't asking for it by being greedy.”

“Where did you hear that I just made a million on ‘the sequel'?” If only he had a tape recorder. But the little Sony was down on Bank Street in Laura's office. Everything was that he needed.

“I didn't ‘hear' it. I don't operate that way. I've got it right in front of me in your file. I'm reading it right now.
Variety,
out Wednesday. ‘Independent Bob “Sleepy” Lagoon paid close to a million—'”

“But that is a lie. That is Independent Lagoon puffing himself up without paying a dime. There is no sequel.”

Wasn't this the right approach, the one they recommended in the papers? To level with the kidnapper, to take him seriously, to make him your friend and equal?

“That isn't what Mr. Lagoon tells my staff, however. Funny, but I tend to trust my staff on this more than I trust you.”

“My good man, Lagoon is promoting himself, period.” It's Pepler, he thought. It's Alvin Pepler, the Jewish Marine!

“Haw, haw, haw. Very funny. No less than I expected from the savage satirist of American letters.”

“Look, who is this?”

“I want fifty thousand in United States currency. I want it in hundred-dollar bills. Unmarked, please.”

“And how would I get you the fifty thousand unmarked dollars?”

“Ah, now we are talking, now we are making some progress. You just go to your bank in Rockefeller Plaza and you get it out. We'll tell you when, at the time. Then you start walking. Easy as that. Doesn't even require a college degree. Put the money in your briefcase, go back out on the street, and just start walking. We take care of everything from there. No police, Nathan. If you smell of police, it'll get ugly. I detest violence. My kids can't watch TV because of the violence. Jack Ruby, Jack Idiot Ruby, has become the patron saint of America! I can hardly live in this country anymore because of the violence. You aren't the only one who is against this stinking war. It's a nightmare, it's a national disgrace. I will do everything in my power to avoid violence. But if I smell police, I am going to feel threatened and I am going to have to act like a threatened man. That means police stinking up Miami Beach and police stinking up New York.”

“Friend,” said Zuckerman, changing tactics, “too many grade-B movies. The lingo, the laugh, everything. Unoriginal. Unconvincing. Bad art.”

“Haw, haw, haw. Could be, Zuck. Haw, haw, haw. Also real life. We'll be in touch to set the hour.”

This time it wasn't the novelist who hung up.

3 Oswald, Ruby, et al.

Out of the front windows of his new apartment, Zuckerman could see down to the corner of his street to Frank E. Campbell, the Madison Avenue funeral parlor where they process for disposal the richest, most glamorous, and most celebrated of New York's deceased. On display in the chapel, the morning after Alvin Pepler and the threatening phone calls, lay a gangland figure, Nick “the Prince” Seratelli, who had died the day before from a cerebral hemorrhage—instead of in a spray of bullets—at a spaghetti house downtown. By nine in the morning a few bystanders had already collected around Campbell's doors to identify the entertainers, athletes, politicians, and criminals who would be arriving to get a last look at the Prince. Through the slats of his shutters, Zuckerman watched two mounted cops talking to three armed foot patrolmen guarding the funeral parlor's side door down the way from him on Eighty-first. There would be more out at the main entrance on Madison, and easily a dozen plainclothesmen moseying around the neighborhood. Here was the kind of police protection he had been thinking about all night for his mother.

This was only the third or fourth gala staged at Campbell's since Zuckerman had moved uptown. Ordinary, unnoteworthy funerals occurred every day, however, so that he had almost learned by now to ignore the cluster of mourners and the hearse by the side door across the street when he came out of the house in the morning. It wasn't easy, though, especially on mornings when the sun rolling over the East Side caught them full in the face like so many lucky vacationers on a Caribbean cruise ship; nor was it easy on mornings when the rain drummed down on their umbrellas as they waited for the funeral procession to begin, nor even on gray run-of-the-mill days, when it neither rains nor shines. No weather he'd come across yet made seeing somebody sealed up in a box something he could easily forget.

The caskets were trucked in during the day, unloaded with a forklift, then lowered in the freight elevator to the mortuary basement. Down, and down again, the first test-run. Flowers that had dropped off the wreaths going on to the cemetery or the crematorium were swept up by the uniformed black porter after the cortege bearing the body had moved out of sight. The dead petals the porter didn't get, the city sanitation machine caught among the curbside debris on the following Tuesday or Thursday. As for the dead bodies, they arrived on narrow stretchers, in dark sacks, generally after the streetlights came on. An ambulance, sometimes a station wagon, pulled into Campbell's reserved parking spot and the sack was whisked in through the side door. Over in seconds—yet during his first months uptown, it seemed to Zuckerman that he was always passing by in time to see it. Lights stayed on in the upper stories of the funeral home at all hours. No matter how late he went into the living room to turn off his own lamps, he saw theirs burning. And not because anyone was up reading or couldn't sleep. Lights that kept no one awake, except Zuckerman in his bed, remembering them.

At times, amid the crowd of mourners awaiting the pallbearers and the coffin, somebody would stare across at Zuckerman as he passed by. Because he was Zuckerman, or because he was staring at them? Couldn't tell, but as he preferred not to distract anyone at a time like that with either himself or his book, he learned within only weeks to master the shock of coming upon such a gathering virtually across from his front door the first thing each day, and, as though death left him cold, hurried on about the business of buying the morning paper and his onion roll.

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