Zuckerman Unbound (12 page)

He had been up all night, not only because of the lights burning at Campbell's. He was waiting to see if the kidnapper would call again or if the joke was over. At three a.m. he had nearly reached out from his bed and telephoned Laura. At four he nearly telephoned the police. At six he nearly called Miami Beach. At eight he got up and looked out the front window, and when he saw the cop on horseback outside the funeral home he thought of his father in the nursing home. He had been thinking of his father at three and four and six as well. He often did when he saw the lights burning all night at Campbell's. He was unable to get a song called “Tzena, Tzena” out of his head. They were a great family for whistling while they worked, and “Tzena, Tzena” his father had whistled for years, after putting in a decade with “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen.” “This song,” Dr. Zuckerman told his family, “is going to win more hearts to the Jewish cause than anything before in the history of the world.” The chiropodist even ran out to get it, maybe the fifth record he had bought in his life. Zuckerman was home for the Christmas vacation of his sophomore year, and “Tzena, Tzena” was played every night before dinner. “This is the song,” Dr. Zuckerman said, “that will put the State of Israel on the map.” Unfortunately, Nathan was beginning to learn about counterpoint in his humanities course, so when the father made the mistake at dinner of genially asking his older son's musical opinion, he was told that Israel's future would be determined by international power politics and not by feeding Gentiles “Jewish kitsch.” Causing Dr. Zuckerman to pound the table: “That is where you are wrong! There is exactly where you fail to understand the feelings of the ordinary man!” They had disagreed all that Christmas, not only about the value of “Tzena, Tzena.” But by the mid-sixties, when he played for Nathan the Barry Sisters singing the songs from
Fiddler on the Roof,
the struggle was about over. By then the father was in a wheelchair in Miami Beach, the older son a recognized writer long out of school, and after sitting down to listen to the show tunes straight through, Nathan told him they were terrific. “At the Temple,” said his mother, “after the services last week, the cantor sang the title song for us. You could have heard a pin drop.” Since Dr. Zuckerman's first stroke, he had begun attending Friday-night religious services with Zuckerman's mother. The first time in their lives. So that the rabbi who buried him wouldn't be a total stranger. Not that anybody had to say as much. “These Barry Sisters,” his father announced, “and this record are going to do more for the Jews than anything since ‘Tzena, Tzena.'” “You could be right,” said Nathan. And why not? He was no longer a student in Humanities 2, the damage that he had done the Jewish cause by writing his first book was no longer one of his father's unshakable obsessions, and
Carnovsky
was still three years off.

Instead of calling Laura, the police, or Florida, he used his head and at ten decided to phone André, who would know what to make of these threats. His gallant continental manner, his rippling silver hair, his Old World accent—all had earned him ages ago the mildly derisive
nom de guerre
“the Headwaiter”; but to those he did the business for, rather than those he gave it to, André Schevitz was more estimable than that. In addition to ministering to his international roster of novelists, André looked after the megalomania, alcoholism, satyriasis, and tax tragedies of fifteen world-famous film stars. He flew off at a moment's notice to hold their hands on location, and once every few months made it a point to call on little children around the country with mamas away making sagas in Spain or papas off in Liechtenstein tending to their dummy corporations. During the summer any child all but orphaned because of a domestic cataclysm headlined in the
National Enquirer
wound up spending school vacation with André and Mary in Southampton; on a hot August day it wasn't unusual to see two or three miniature replicas of the cinema's most photographed faces gobbling watermelon at the edge of the Schevitz pool. Zuckerman's first painful divorce, the one from Betsy nine years earlier, had been painlessly engineered for him at five-and-dime-store rates by André's (and Mrs. Rockefeller's) lawyer; two years back his life had been saved by André's society surgeon; and the scene of his convalescence from the burst appendix and peritonitis had been the Schevitz Southampton guest house: with a Schevitz maid and cook in attendance—and on weekends, his own Laura—he had snoozed on the sun deck, lolled in the pool, and regained the twenty pounds he'd lost during the month in the hospital. And had begun writing
Carnovsky.

Oh, but those threats, those threats were just more ridiculousness—and he didn't need his agent to remind him. Zuckerman found a fresh composition book and, instead of phoning André, began to record what he could still recall of the previous day's business. Because this
was
his business: not buying and selling, but seeing and believing. Oppressive perhaps from a personal point of view, but from the point of view of business? My God, from the point of view of business, yesterday was wonderful! He should do business like that every day.
Didn't we get your teeth cleaned? Sharp new suits? A dermatologist? Alvin, we are not hardened criminals—we are in show business. We're so worried about you, he tells me, we've decided to pay for a psychiatrist for you. We want you to see Dr. Eisenberg until you have gotten over your neurosis and are yourself again. Absolutely, Schachtman says, I see Dr. Eisenberg, why shouldn't Alvin see Dr. Eisenberg?

He wrote steadily for over an hour, every irate word of Pepler's deposition, and then, suddenly, broke into a sweat and telephoned André at his office to recount to him the details of the phone calls, right down to the haw, haw, haws.

“To resist all the temptations I strew in your path, this I understand. To fight the way your life is going,” said André, capitalizing, for the sake of the satire, on the Mitteleuropa inflections, “to be unable to accept what has happened to you, this I also understand. Even if it is you yourself who has kicked over your traces, what happens when you kick over your traces can take anybody by surprise. Especially a boy with your background. What with Papa telling you to be good, and Mama telling you to be nice, and the University of Chicago training you four years in Advanced Humanistic Decisions, well, what chance did you ever have to lead a decent life? To take you away to that place at sixteen! It's like stealing a wild little baby baboon from the branches of the trees, feeding him in the kitchen, letting him sleep in your bed and play with the light switch and wear little shirts and pants with pockets, and then, when he is big and hairy and full of himself, giving him his degree in Western Civilization and sending him back to the bush. I can just imagine what an enchanting little baboon you were at the University of Chicago. Pounding the seminar table, writing English on the blackboard, screaming at the class that they had it all wrong—you must have been all over the place. Rather like in this abrasive little book.”

“What's your point, André? Someone is threatening to kidnap my mother.”

“My point is that to turn a jungle baboon into a seminar baboon is a cruel, irreversible process. I understand why you won't ever be happy around the waterhole again. But paranoia is something else. And my point for you, my question to you, is how far are you going to let paranoia take you before it takes you where it goes?”

“The question is how far the abrasive little book is going to take
them.

“Nathan, who are ‘they'? Nathan, you must do me a favor and stop going nuts.”

“I had three phone calls last night from some madman threatening to kidnap my mother. Nuts it sounds,
but it happened.
What I am now trying to figure out is what to do in response that isn't nuts. I thought a worldly fellow with your admirable cynicism might have had some experience with this sort of thing.”

“I can only tell you that I haven't. Among my clients are the richest and best-known stars in the world, but as far as I know, nothing like this has ever ‘happened' to any of them.”

“Nothing like this ever happened to me, either. That may account for why I sound the way I do.”

“I understand that. But you have been sounding this way for some time. You have been sounding this way from the day it began. In all my years of experience with high-strung prima donnas, I have never seen anyone make such a fiasco of fame and fortune. I have seen all sorts of crazy indulgence, but never before indulgence in anything like this. To be chagrined by such good fortune. Why?”

“Because of the madmen who call me on the phone, for one.”

“Then don't answer the phone. Don't sit there waiting by the phone, and that takes care of the phone. To take care of the bus, don't ride the bus. And while you're at it, stop eating in those filthy delicatessens. You are a rich man.”

“Who says I eat in filthy delicatessens? The
News
or the
Post?

“I say so. And isn't it true? You buy greasy takeout chickens at these foul little barbecue holes and you eat them with your hands in that barren apartment. You hide out in Shloimie's Pastrami Haven, pretending to be harmless Mr. Nobody from Nowhere. And by now it is all beginning to lose its eccentric charm, Nathan, and is taking on a decidedly paranoiac aroma. What are you up to, anyway? Are you out to appease the gods? Are you trying to show them up in heaven and over at
Commentary
that you are only a humble, self-effacing yeshiva
bucher
and not the obstreperous author of such an indecent book? I know about all those index cards you carry around in your wallet: fortifying quotations from the great literary snobs about fame giving satisfaction only to mediocre vanities. Well, don't you believe it. There's a lot to be had out of life by a writer in your position, and not at Shloimie's, either. Those buses. To begin with, you should have a car with a driver, Nathan. Thomas Mann had a car with a driver.”

“Where'd you hear that?”

“I didn't. I rode in it with him. You should have a girl to answer your mail and run your errands for you. You should have somebody to carry your dirty things down Madison Avenue in a pillowcase—somebody instead of yourself. At least treat yourself to a laundry that picks up sackcloth and delivers.”

“They lean on the bell when they pick up—it interrupts my concentration.”

“A housekeeper should answer the bell. You should have someone to cook your meals and to shop for your groceries and to deal with the tradesmen at the door. You don't have to push a cart around Gristede's ever again.”

“I do if I want to know what a pound of butter costs.”

“Why would you want to know that?”

“André, Gristede's is where we poor writers go to lead a real life—don't take Gristede's away from me too. It's how I keep my finger on the pulse of the nation.”

“You want to succeed at that, get to know what I know: the price of a pound of flesh. I am being serious. You should have a driver, a housekeeper, a cook, a secretary—”

“And where do I hide in that crowd? Where do I type?”

“Get a bigger place.”

“I just got a bigger place. André, that is
more
ridiculousness, not less. I just moved in here. It's quiet, it's plenty big for me, and on East Eighty-first at five hundred a month, it's no slum.”

“You should have a duplex at the United Nations Plaza.”

“I don't
want
one.”

“Nathan, you are no longer the egghead kid I plucked out of the pages of
Esquire.
You have achieved a success as only a handful of writers ever do—so stop acting like those who don't. First you lock yourself away in order to stir up your imagination, now you lock yourself away because you've stirred up theirs. Meanwhile, everybody in the world is dying to meet you. Trudeau was here and he wanted to meet you. Abba Eban was here and mentioned your name to me. Yves Saint Laurent is giving a big party and his office called for your number. But do I dare to give it? And would you even go?”

“Look, I already met Caesara. That should hold me for a while. By the way, tell Mary I received my Dear Juan letter from Havana. She can phone in the news to
Women's Wear Daily.
I'll send them a Xerox by messenger.”

“At least Caesara got you out of that cell for one night. I wish I had another lovely lure like her. My dear boy, you live in that apartment, as far as I can tell, thinking about nothing but yourself from one day to the next. And when you even dare to go out into the street, you're worse. Everybody looks at you, everybody sidles up to you, everybody wants either to tie you to a bed or to spit in your eye. Everybody has you pegged for Gilbert Carnovsky, when what anybody with an ounce of brains should know is that you are really you. But if you recall, Nathan dear, being really you was what was driving you crazy only a few short years ago. You told me so yourself. You felt stultified writing ‘proper, responsible' novels. You felt stultified living behind your ‘drearily virtuous face.' You felt stultified sitting in your chair every night making notes for your files on another Great Book. ‘How much more life can I spend preparing for my final exam? I'm too old to be writing term papers.' You felt stultified calling Florida every Sunday like the good son, you felt stultified signing stop-the-war petitions like the good citizen, you felt stultified most of all living with a do-gooder like your wife. The whole country was going haywire and you were still in your chair doing your homework. Well, you have successfully conducted your novelistic experiment and now you are famous all over the haywire country for being highly haywire yourself, and you're even more stultified than before. What is more, you are outraged that everybody doesn't know how proper, responsible, and drearily virtuous you really are, and what a great achievement it is for mankind that such a model of Mature Adult Behavior could have given the reading public a Gilbert Carnovsky. You set out to sabotage your own moralizing nature, you set out to humiliate all your dignified, high-minded gravity, and now that you've done it, and done it with the relish of a real saboteur, now you're humiliated, you idiot, because nobody aside from you seems to see it as a profoundly moral and high-minded act! ‘They' misunderstand you. And as for those who do understand you, people who've known you for five and ten and fifteen years, you'll have nothing to do with them, either. As far as I can tell, you don't see a single one of your friends. People call me to ask what's happened to you. Your closest friends think you're out of town. Somebody called me up the other day to ask if it was true that you were in Payne Whitney.”

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