Read Zuckerman Unbound Online

Authors: Philip Roth

Zuckerman Unbound (16 page)


“Anything I can do for you, sir?”

“No, no, thank you. Just paying my respects.”

He nodded. Whether he bought it was another matter. Zuckerman unshaven didn't look that respectful.

“If you prefer, sir, when you're ready to leave, you can depart through the rear.”

“No, no. Only collecting myself. I'll be fine.”

Eyeing the door, Zuckerman waited it out with the mobsters and the ex-cons and the other celebrities. You would think he actually
being stalked by an Oswald. That he
a Kennedy, or a Martin Luther King. But wasn't he just that to Pepler? And what was Oswald, before he pulled the trigger and made it big in the papers? And not on the book page, either. Any less affronted, or benighted, or aggrieved? Any less batty or more impressive? Motivated any more “meaningfully”? No! Bang bang, you're dead. There was all the meaning the act was ever meant to have. You're you, I'm me, and for that and that alone you die. Even the professional killers with whom he now was rubbing elbows were less to be feared. Not that it was necessarily in his interest to hang around them much longer, either. Unshaven, in a worn corduroy suit and a turtleneck sweater and battered suede shoes, he could easily be taken for a nosy newsman rather than someone still studying for his final exam. Especially as he was busily taking notes on the back of a Frank E. Campbell brochure, while waiting for the coast to clear. Another writer with his urgent “thoughts.”

Remembrance of Hits Past. My pickle his madeleine. Why isn't P. Proust of the Pops instead of a file cabinet? The uneventfulness of writing, he couldn't put up with it. Who can? Maniacal memory without maniacal desire for comprehension. Drowning without detachment. Memory coheres around nothing (except Dostoevskian despair over fame). With him no things past. All now. P. memory of what hasn't happened to him, Proust of all that has. Knowledge of people out of “People” page in
Another contending personality for ringside at Elaine's. But: the bullying ego, the personal audacity, the natural coarseness, the taste for exhausting encounters—what gifts! Mix with talent the unstoppable energy, the flypaper brain … but he knows that too. It's the talentlessness that's driving him nuts. The brute strength, the crazy tenacity, the desperate hunger—producers figured right he'd scare the country to death. The Jew You Can't Permit in the Parlor. How Johnny Carson America now thinks of me. This Peplerian barrage is what? Zeitgeist overspill? Newark poltergeist? Tribal retribution? Secret sharer? P. as my pop self? Not far from how P. sees it. He who's made fantasy of others now fantasy of others. Book :
The Vrai's Revenge
—the forms their fascination takes, the counter-spell cast over me.

When he spotted the young funeral director, he signaled by raising one hand. Not too high, however.

He would take the rear exit, no matter how dark or dank the subterranean corridors he had to escape through.

But it was only a bright carpeted hallway into which he was led, with cubicle doors on both sides. No ghoul emerged to take his measurements. It could have been an office of the I.R.S.

His young guide pointed to the cubicle that was his. “Could you wait, sir, just one second? Something from my desk.” He returned carrying a copy of
“If you would … ‘For John P. Driscoll'… Oh, that's awfully kind.”

*   *   *

On Fifth he found a taxi. “Bank Street. Step on it.” The driver, an elderly black man, was amused by the gangster locution and, for the fun of it seemingly, drove him to the Village in record time. Time enough, however, for Zuckerman to gauge what he'd be up against with Laura.
I don't want to be beaten over the head with how boring I was for three years.
You weren't boring for three years.
I don't please you anymore, Nathan. It's as simple as that.
Are we talking about sex? Let's then.
There's nothing to say about it. I can do it and you can do it. I'm sure there are people both of us could call in to verify that. The rest I refuse to hear. Your present state has made you forget just how much I bored you. My affectless manner, as it is called, bored you. The way I tell a story bored you. My conversation and my ideas bored you. My work bored you. My friends bored you. My taste in clothes bored you. The way I make love bored you. Not making love to me bored you more.
The way you make love did not bore me. Far from it.
But then it did. Something did, Nathan. You have a way of making things like that very clear. When you're dissatisfied, your manner is by no means affectless, to use the word.
It was the wrong word. I'm sorry about that word.
Don't be. It's what you meant. Nathan, stop pretending. You were bored to tears and you need a new life.
I was wrong. I need you. I thrived on you. I love you.
Oh, please don't try to break me down by saying reckless things. I've had a rough time too. I'd like to think that the hardest part is over. It has to be. I couldn't take those first few weeks again.
Well, I couldn't take those, I can't take these, and the ones looming ahead I don't intend to take.
You'll have to. I beg of you, don't try to kiss me, don't try to hold me, don't ever again tell me you love me. If you try to break me down that way I'll have to cut you out of my life completely.
But that's the answer, isn't it? Maybe what you call “broken down,” Laura—
Once is enough, thank you. Once is enough to be told you won't do. You may finally be suffering from the fallout of leaving, but I haven't changed. I am still the same person who won't do. I am relentlessly reasonable and emotionally unflappable, if not seriously repressed. I still have my executive mind and my deadpan delivery and my do-good Christianity, all of which won't do. I am still in the “virtue racket.”
That was the wrong word too. I was cursing myself more than you.
It amounts to the same thing, doesn't it? It amounts to why I became so “boring.”
And that was the wrong word. Laura, I have made a terrible mistake. The words were brutally wrong.
No, they were brutally right, and you know it. After the clinging, quivering wives, I was just perfect. No tears, no fits, no euphoria, no crises in restaurants or at parties. You could get your work done with me. You could concentrate and live within yourself all you wanted. I didn't even care about having children. I had work of my own to accomplish. I never needed to be entertained, and I didn't have to entertain you, beyond a few minutes in the morning, playing wake-up games in bed. Which I loved. I loved being Lorelei, Nathan. I loved it all, and even longer than you did. But that's behind us. Now you need another dramatic personality.
I need no such thing. I need you.
Let me finish. You bawl me out for being an affectless goody-good Pollyanna WASP, and never saying all that's on my mind. Let me, and then it'll never have to be said again. You want to be renewed, it's what your work requires now. Whatever is finished for you there has finished it for you with someone like me. You don't want our life anymore. You think you do today because nothing has come along to take its place, except all this flap about your book. But when something does, you'll see that I'm right to refuse to let you come back. That you were perfectly right to go: having written a book like that, you had to go. That's what writing it was all about.

And how was he going to argue with that? Everything she would say sounded so honest and persuasive, and everything he would say sounded so disingenuous and feeble. He could only hope that she wouldn't be able to make the case against him as well as he himself could. But knowing her, there wasn't much chance of that. Oh, his brave, lucid, serious, good-hearted Lorelei! But he had thrown her away. By writing a book ostensibly about someone else attempting to break free from his accustomed constraints.

At Bank Street he tipped the cabbie five dollars for valor on the West Side Highway. He could as easily have given him a hundred. He was home.

But Laura wasn't. He rang and rang, then ran next door and down the concrete stairwell to the basement apartment. He rapped loudly on the door. Rosemary, the retired schoolteacher, looked a long time through the peephole before she began unspringing locks.

Laura was in Pennsylvania at Allenwood, seeing Douglas Muller about his parole. She told him this with one chain still on. Then, reluctantly, she undid that.

Allenwood was the minimum-security prison where the federal government interned nonviolent criminals. Douglas, one of Laura's clients, was a young Jesuit who had left the priesthood to oppose the draft without the shield of clerical status. The year before, when Zuckerman went down with Laura to visit him at the prison, Douglas confided to Nathan another reason for leaving: at Harvard, where the order had sent him to study Middle Eastern languages, he had lost his virginity. “That can happen,” he said, “when you walk around Cambridge without your collar.” Douglas wore the collar only when he was demonstrating for Cesar Chavez or against the war; otherwise he dressed in work shirts and jeans. He was a shy, thoughtful Midwesterner in his mid-twenties, the magnitude of whose devotion to the large self-denying cause was all in the ice-like clarity of his pale blue eyes.

Douglas knew something from Laura about the novel Zuckerman was finishing and had amused the novelist, during his visit, with anecdotes about the hapless struggle he had waged as a high-school student against the sin of self-abuse. Grinning and blushing, he recalled for Zuckerman the days in Milwaukee when, having confessed first thing in the morning to the excesses of the night before, he was back in an hour to confess again. There was nothing in this world or the other that could help him, either; not the contemplation of Christ's passion, or the promise of the Resurrection, or the sympathetic priest at the Jesuit school who had in the end to refuse to give him absolution more than once every twenty-four hours. Recycled and fused with Nathan's own recollections, some of Douglas's best stories made their way into the life of Carnovsky, a budding soul no less bedeviled by onanism in Jewish New Jersey than Douglas growing up in Catholic Wisconsin. The inscribed first-edition copy of the book that the author sent to Allenwood had been acknowledged by the prisoner with a brief, compassionate note: “Tell poor Carnovsky that I pray for his strength. Fr. Douglas Muller.”

“She'll be back tomorrow,” Rosemary said and waited by the door for Nathan to leave. She was acting as if he had bullied his way as far as the foyer and she intended him to trespass no farther.

In Rosemary's hall closet Laura kept her correspondence files. Guarding them from an F.B.I. break-in had given the lonely woman something to live for. So had Laura. For three years Laura had been mothering Rosemary like a daughter: accompanied her to the optometrist, took her to the hairdresser, weaned her from sleeping pills, baked the big cake for her seventieth birthday …

Zuckerman found he had to sit down, thinking of that endless list and the good woman who'd drawn it up.

Rosemary sat too, though she wasn't happy about it. Her chair was the Danish chair from his study, the old reading chair he had left behind. The battered Moroccan ottoman at her feet had also been his before the move uptown.

“How is your new apartment, Nathan?”

“Lonely. Very lonely.”

She nodded as though he'd said “Fine.” “And your work?”

“Work? Terrible. Nonexistent. Haven't worked in months.”

“And how is your lovely mother?”

“God only knows.”

Rosemary's hands had always trembled, and Zuckerman's answers weren't helping. She still looked like she could use a good meal. Sometimes Laura had come to sit with her when she had dinner, just to be sure she ate something.

“How's Laura, Rosemary?”

“Well, she's worried about young Douglas. She went again to Congressman Koch about his parole, but it doesn't look hopeful. His mood down there in the prison is not good.”

“I wouldn't think so.”

“This war is criminal. Unforgivable. I want to cry when I see what it is doing to the very best of our young men.”

Laura had radicalized Rosemary—no mean job, either. Under the influence of her late bachelor brother, an Air Force colonel, Rosemary used to receive in her mailbox the publications of the John Birch Society; now she harbored Laura's files and worried about the welfare of her war resisters. And thought of Zuckerman as … as what? Did that matter to him too, Rosemary Ditson's judgment?

“How's Laura,” he asked, “when she's not worrying about Douglas? How is she managing otherwise?”

Rumor had reached him that three Movement higher-ups were pursuing Laura with great determination: a handsome philanthropist with an enormous social conscience, only recently divorced; a bearded civil-rights lawyer who could walk unaccompanied anywhere in Harlem, also recently divorced; and a burly, outspoken pacifist just back with Dave Dellinger from Hanoi, not yet married.

“You do her harm by telephoning her.”

“Do I?”

She was holding the arms of her chair—his chair—to stop her hands from shaking. She wore two sweaters to keep herself warm and even in this mild May weather had a small electric heater burning by her side. Zuckerman remembered when Laura had gone out to buy it.

What she had to say wasn't easy for her, but she braced herself and got it out. “Why don't you realize that every time you leave your voice on her message machine it puts that poor girl back another two months!”

The uncharacteristic vehemence took him by surprise. “Does it? How?”

“You must not do this, Nathan. Please. You abandoned her, that was your business. But now you must stop tormenting her and let her get on with her life. You call, after what you have done—please, let me finish—”

Other books

Private Party by Graeme Aitken
An Invisible Thread by Laura Schroff and Alex Tresniowski
The Paris Architect: A Novel by Charles Belfoure
Cate Campbell by Benedict Hall
The Hunt for bin Laden by Tom Shroder
Indecision by Benjamin Kunkel Copyright 2016 - 2023