Zuckerman Unbound (13 page)

“Oh, am I supposed to be in the bin now too?”

“Nathan, you are the decade's latest celebrity—people are going to say everything. The question I am asking is why you won't at least see old friends.”

Simple. Because he couldn't sit complaining to them about becoming the decade's latest celebrity. Because being a poor misunderstood millionaire is not really a topic that intelligent people can discuss for very long. Not even friends. Least of all friends, and especially when they're writers. He didn't want them talking about him talking about his morning with the investment counselor and his night with Caesara O'Shea and how she jilted him for the Revolution. And that was all he could talk about, at least to himself. He was not fit company for anyone he considered a friend. He would get started on all the places where he no longer could show his face without causing a sensation, and soon enough he would make them into enemies. He would get started on the Rollmops King and the gossip columns and the dozen crazy letters a day, and who
could
listen? He would start talking to them about those suits. Six suits. Three thousand dollars' worth of suits to sit at home and write in. When he could write naked, if need be; when he could sit there as he always had, in work shirt and chinos, perfectly content. With three thousand dollars he could have bought one hundred pairs of chinos and four hundred work shirts (he'd worked it out). He could buy sixty pairs of Brooks Brothers suede walking shoes of the kind he'd been wearing since he went off to Chicago. He could buy twelve hundred pairs of Interwoven socks (four hundred blue, four hundred brown, four hundred gray). With three thousand dollars he could have clothed himself for life. But instead there were now fittings with Mr. White twice a week, discussions with Mr. White about padding the shoulders and nipping the waist, and who could possibly listen to Zuckerman carrying on about such stuff? He could hardly listen—but, alas, alone with himself, he couldn't shut up. Better they should think he was in Payne Whitney. Maybe he ought to be. Because there was also the television—couldn't stop watching. Downtown on Bank Street, all they saw regularly was the news. At seven and again at eleven he and Laura used to sit together in the living room to watch the fires in Vietnam: villages on fire, jungles on fire, Vietnamese on fire. Then they went back to their work on the night shift, she to her draft dodgers, he to his Great Books. During his weeks alone, however, Zuckerman had probably spent more hours by the TV set than in all the years since they had begun to broadcast test patterns back when he was finishing high school. There was little else he could concentrate on, and then there was the strangeness of sitting in your bathrobe on your Oriental rug eating a takeout barbecued chicken and hearing someone suddenly talking about
you.
He couldn't get over it. One night a pretty rock singer whom he'd never seen before told Johnny Carson about her one and “Thank God” only date with Nathan Zuckerman. She brought the house down describing the “gear” Zuckerman advised her to wear to dinner if she wanted “to turn him on.” And just the previous Sunday he had watched three therapists sitting in lounge chairs on Channel 5 analyzing his castration complex with the program host. They all agreed that Zuckerman had a lulu. The following morning André's lawyer had gently to tell him that he couldn't sue for slander. “Your nuts, Nathan, are now in the public domain.”

They were right in their way—he
was
in the bin.

“The threats, the threats, the
threats.
André,” cried Zuckerman, “what about those threats? That is the subject here.”

“Delivered as you described them the threats don't seem to me very serious, frankly. But then I am not you, with this sense you have that everything suddenly is beyond your control. If you are feeling the way you sound, then telephone the police and see what they say.”

“But you think it's all a joke.”

“I wouldn't be surprised.”

“And if it isn't? If my mother winds up in the trunk of a car in the Everglades?”

“If this and if that. Do as I say. You want advice, I'm advising you. Phone the police.”

“And what can they do? That's the next question.”

“I have no idea what they can do when nothing actually has happened to anyone. My concern is defusing the persecution mania, Nathan. That is the job of a literary agent. I should like to restore in you some peace of mind.”

“Which calling the police isn't likely to do. Call the police and it's as good as calling the city desk. Call the police and it'll be in Leonard Lyons by tomorrow, if not headlined on page one. PUG THREATENS PORN MOM. The kidnapping of Mrs. Carnovsky—that would really top off the sixties for them. Susskind will have to have three specialists in to think it through with him. ‘Who in Our Sick Society Is Responsible?' Sevareid will tell us what it means to the Future of the Free World. Reston will write a column on the Breakdown of Values. If this thing happens, the torment to my mother will be nothing next to what the rest of the country is going to have to put up with.”

“Ah, and this is a little more like your old amused self.”

“Is it? My old amused self? Wouldn't recognize him. Who is Sleepy Lagoon, while we're at it? What is this in
Variety
about a million dollars for the sequel?”

“Bob Lagoon. I would wait before spending his million.”

“But he exists.”

“Off and on.”

“And Marty Paté? Who is he?”

“Don't know.”

“Never heard of a producer on East Sixty-second Street named Marty Paté?”

“As in
‘de foie gras'?
Not yet. Why do you ask?”

No, best not to go into that. “What about Gayle Gibraltar?”

André laughed. “Sounds like you're writing a sequel right now. Sounds like some figment of Carnovsky's imagination.”

“No, not Carnovsky's. What I ought to do is get a bodyguard. For my mother. Don't you think?”

“Well, if that's what's necessary for your sense of security—”

“Only it's not going to give her much of one, is it? I hate to think of her sitting across from him when he takes off his coat to eat his lunch and she sees the shoulder holster.”

“Then why not restrain yourself, Nathan? Why not wait to see if this character phones again? If there is, in fact, no call to make arrangements about extortion money, so much for that. It was somebody's idea of a good time. If there is such a call—”

“Then I notify the police, the F.B.I., and whatever the papers print—”

“Exactly.”

“If and when it turns out to be nothing, she'll have been protected just the same.”

“And you'll feel that you did the right thing by her.”

“Only there it'll be in the papers. Then the bright idea will dawn on some maniac to take a crack at it himself.”

“You worry too much about maniacs.”

“But they live. The maniacs live better than we do. They flourish. It's their world, André. You should read my mail.”

“Nathan, you take everything too seriously, starting with your mail and ending with yourself. Maybe it's starting with yourself and ending with the mail. Maybe that's all the kidnapper is trying to tell you.”

“Doing it for my education, is he? You make it sound as though it might even be you.”

“I'd like to say that it was. I wish I were clever enough to have thought of it.”

“I wish you were too. I wish somebody were, other than whoever it is.”

“Or isn't.”

As soon as he hung up, Zuckerman began searching for the card presented him by Caesara O'Shea's chauffeur. He should call to ask them to recommend an armed guard in Miami. He should fly to Miami himself. He should telephone the Miami field office of the F.B.I. He should stop eating in delicatessens. He should furnish his apartment. He should unpack his books. He should take his money out of his shoe and give it to Wallace to invest. He should forget about Caesara and get a new girl. There were hundreds of not-so-crazy Julias out there just waiting to take him to Switzerland and show him the chocolate factories. He should stop buying chickens from takeout counters. He should meet U Thant. He should stop taking seriously all the talk-show de Tocquevilles. He should stop taking seriously the cranks on the phone. He should stop taking his mail seriously. He should stop taking himself seriously. He should stop taking buses. And he should call André back and tell him for God's sake not to tell Mary anything about the kidnapper—otherwise it would end up in “Suzy Says”!

But instead he sat back down at his desk and for another hour recorded in his composition book everything the kidnapper had said. In spite of his worries, he was smiling to himself as he saw on paper what he'd heard the night before on the phone. He was reminded of a story about Flaubert coming out of his study one day and seeing a cousin of his, a young married woman, tending to her children, and Flaubert saying, ruefully,
“Ils sons dans le vrai.”
A working title, Zuckerman thought, and recorded in the white window of the composition book cover the words
Dans le Vrai.
These composition books Zuckerman used for his notes were bound in the stiff covers of marbled black-and-white design that generations of Americans envision still in bad dreams about lessons unlearned. On the inside of the front cover, facing the blue ruled lines of the first page, was the chart where the student is to enter his class program, period by period, for the school week. Here Zuckerman composed his subtitle, printing in block letters across the rows of rectangles provided for the subject, room, and instructor: “Or, How I Made a Fiasco of Fame and Fortune in My Spare Time.”

*   *   *

“‘Tzena, Tzena,' 1950.”

Zuckerman was waiting for the light to change on the corner across from Campbell's. The title had been announced from just behind him. Unknown to himself, he had been whistling, and not only out on the street but through much of the morning. That same little song, again and again.

“Adapted from an Israeli popular tune, English lyrics by Mitchell Parish, Decca record by Gordon Jenkins and the Weavers.”

There to inform him was Alvin Pepler. The day was fresh and bright, but Pepler was still in black raincoat and hat. Dark glasses, however, to top things off this morning. Had somebody poked him in the eye since last night, some shorter-fused celebrity than Zuckerman? Or were the dark glasses to make him look like a celebrity to himself? Or was the new pitch that he was, also, unfortunately, blind? SIGHTLESS QUIZ CONTESTANT. PLEASE GIVE.

“Good morning,” said Zuckerman, backing away.

“Up early for the great event?”

One-liner, delivered with comic grin. Zuckerman chose not to reply.

“Imagine, you go out for a coffee break and run smack into Prince Seratelli lying in state.”

You go for a coffee break on Sixty-second Street and run into Seratelli on Eighty-first?

“That's why I envy you New Yorkers,” said Pepler. “You get into an elevator—this actually happened to me, my first day over here—and there, sharp as a tack, Victor Borge! You run out for the late paper, and who jumps from a taxi right at your feet? At midnight? Twiggy! You walk out of the bathroom in a little delicatessen, and sitting there eating is you! Victor Borge, Twiggy, and you—just in my first forty-eight hours. The cop on the horse told me rumor has it that Sonny Liston is supposed to show.” He pointed to the police and the onlookers gathered at the main entrance to the funeral home. Also on hand was a TV camera and crew. “But so far,” said Pepler, “you haven't missed a thing.”

Not a word about Zuckerman's disappearance outside Baskin-Robbins the previous evening. Or about the phone calls.

Zuckerman assumed Pepler had followed him. Dark glasses for dark intrigue. The possibility had crossed his mind before he'd even left the house: Pepler in a doorway along the street, hiding and ready to pounce. But he couldn't sit there waiting for the phone to ring just because the kidnapper had told him to. That
was
nuts. Especially if the kidnapper was this crackpot.

“What else do you know from 1950?”

“Pardon?”

“What other songs,” Pepler asked him, “from 1950? Can you name me the Top Fifteen?”

Followed or not, Zuckerman had to smile. “You got me there. From 1950 I couldn't name the Top Ten.”

“Want to hear which they were? All fifteen?”

“I have to be going.”

“To begin with, that's the year there are three with ‘cake' in the title. ‘Candy and Cake.' ‘If I Knew You Were Comin' I'd ‘Ave Baked a Cake.' And ‘Sunshine Cake.' Then, alphabetically”—for this he planted both feet firmly on the pavement—“‘Autumn Leaves,' A Bushel and a Peck,' ‘C'est Si Bon,' ‘It's a Lovely Day Today,' ‘Music, Music, Music,' ‘My Heart Cries for You,' ‘Rag Mop,' ‘Sam's Song,' ‘The Thing,' ‘Tzena, Tzena'—which I began with—‘Wilhelmina,' and ‘You, Wonderful You.' Fifteen. And Hewlett Lincoln couldn't have named you five. Without the answers in his pocket, he couldn't have named
one.
No, with the All-Time American Hit Parade, it was Alvin Pepler who was Mr. Unstoppable. Until they stopped me to get the goy on.”

“I'd forgotten ‘Rag Mop,'” said Zuckerman.

Pepler laughed his hearty appreciative laugh. God, he certainly seemed harmless enough. Dark glasses? A tourist indulgence. Going native. “Whistle something else,” Pepler said. “Anything. As far back in time as you want.”

“I really have to be off.”

“Please, Nathan. Just to test me out. To prove to you I'm on the level. That I am Pepler in the flesh!”

Well, the war was on, the sirens had sounded, and his father, the street's chief air-raid warden, was out of the house in the prescribed sixty seconds. Henry, Nathan, and their mother sat at the rickety bridge table in the basement, playing casino by candlelight. Only a drill, not the real thing, never the real thing in America, but of course, if you were a ten-year-old American you never knew. They could miss Newark Airport and hit the Zuckerman house. But soon the All Clear sounded and Dr. Zuckerman came whistling down the cellar stairs in his warden hat, playfully shining his flashlight into the boys' eyes. No plane had been sighted, no bombs had been dropped, the decrepit Sonnenfelds down the street had pulled their blackout shades on their own, and neither of his sons had as yet written a book or touched a girl, let alone divorced one. So why shouldn't he be whistling? He turned on the lights and kissed them each in turn. “Deal me in,” he said.

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