Zuckerman Unbound (17 page)

“Go ahead,” he said, though he had made no effort to stop her.

“I don't want to go into it. I am only a neighbor. It's not my affair. Never mind.”

“What isn't your affair?”

“Well—what you write in your books. Nor would you, with all your renown, listen to someone like me … But that you could do what you have done to Laura…”

“What is that?”

“The things you wrote about her in that book.”

“About Laura? You don't mean Carnovsky's girlfriend, do you?”

“Don't hide behind that ‘Carnovsky' business. Please don't compound it with that.”

“I must say, Rosemary, I'm shocked to find that a woman who taught English in the New York school system for over thirty years cannot distinguish between the illusionist and the illusion. Maybe you're confusing the dictating ventriloquist with the demonic dummy.”

“Don't hide behind sarcasm, either. I am old, but I am still a person.”

“But do you really believe, you of all people, that the Laura we both know has anything in common with that woman portrayed in my book? Do you really believe that was what was going on next door between the two of us and the Xerox machine? That's exactly what
wasn't
going on.”

Her head began to tremble a little, but she would not be put off. “I have no idea what you may have led her into. You are seven years her senior and an experienced man who has been married three times. You are a man who does not lack for imagination.”

“Really, this is pretty foolish of you. Isn't it? It isn't as if you didn't know me too during these three years.”

“I don't think I did, not now. I knew the polite you, the suave you, that's who I knew, Nathan. The charmer.”

“The snake charmer.”

“As you wish. I have read your book, if you want to know. As much as I could until my stomach turned. I am sure with all the publicity and all the money you can now find plenty of women of the kind you like. But Laura is out from under your spell, and you have no right to try to lure her back.”

“You make me sound more like Svengali than Carnovsky.”

“You plead on the phone, ‘Laura, Laura, call me back,' and then she goes and reads the paper and finds this.”

“Finds what?”

She handed him two clippings. They were right there on the table beside her chair.

I know, I know, actually you only want to know who's doing what to whom. Well, NATHAN ZUCKERMAN and CAESARA O'SHEA are still Manhattan's most delectable twosome. They were very together at the little dinner that agent ANDRE SCHEVITZ and wife MARY gave where KAY GRAHAM talked to WILLIAM STYRON and TONY RANDALL talked to LEONARD BERNSTEIN and LAUREN BACALL talked to GORE VIDAL and Nathan and Caesara talked to one another.

The second was groovier, if further from the circumstances as he remembered them.

Dancin' to Duchin at the Maisonette: Naughty Novelist Zuckerman, Sexy Superstar O'Shea …

“Is that the whole dossier?” he asked her. “Who was thoughtful enough to clip these out for Laura? You, Rosemary? I don't remember Laura herself taking an inordinate interest in the swinish press.”

“With your education, with your lovely parents, with your wonderful talent for writing, with all that, to do what you have done to Laura—”

He got up to go. This was ridiculous. It was all ridiculous. Manhattan could as well have been another part of the forest, and his dignity handed over to Oberon and Puck. And handed to them by himself! To be taking to task this helpless old lady, to cast her as stand-in for everything driving him mad … surely, surely there was no need for him to go on.

“I assure you,” he went on, “I have done absolutely nothing to harm Laura.”

“Even you might speak differently if you still lived on this street and heard what I have to hear about that wonderful girl.”

“Is that it? The gossips? Who? The florist? The grocer? The nice ladies in the pastry shop? Ignore 'em,” he advised her, “just the way Laura does.” He was surer of Laura than of himself. “I can't believe that I was born, even to my lovely parents, to provide moral reassurance to the grocer. Laura would agree.”

“So that's how you do it,” she said angrily. “You actually tell yourself that a young woman as fine as Laura has no feelings!”

Their conversation grew louder and more shameful and went on for another ten minutes. His world was getting stupider by the hour, and so was he.

*   *   *

She came to the window to watch him disappear forever from Laura's life. He mounted the concrete stairs and hurried away toward Abingdon Square. Then, at the corner, he doubled back and let himself into Laura's apartment. Their apartment. Five months, and he was still carrying the keys.

“Home!” he cried and raced for the bedroom.

Exactly as he'd left it! The anti-war posters, the post-impressionist posters, Laura's grandmother's patchwork quilt on the bed. That bed! All he had made of his indifference to her in that bed! As though he
were
Carnovsky with Carnovsky's obsession! As though, of all the readers infected by that book, the writer had had to go first. As though Rosemary were right and there'd been no illusion at all.

Next, the bathroom. There it was, the Xerox machine, third member in their ménage à trois. Taking a sheet of wastepaper from the trash basket beside the tub, he wrote on the clean side with his pen and ran off ten copies. “I LOVE YOU. PEACE NOW.” But when he went with his leaflets into what once had been his study, he found a sleeping bag neatly laid out on the floor and a knapsack beside it stenciled “W.K.” He had been expecting nothing, just the large barren room to which one day soon he would ship back his desk and his chair, and the four walls of empty shelves onto which he would realphabetize his books. But the shelves weren't entirely empty. Stacked on the shelf beside the sleeping bag were a dozen paperbacks. He picked through them, one by one: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Simone Weil, Danilo Dolci, Albert Camus … He opened the closet where he used to store his reams of typing paper and hang his clothes. Empty, but for an unpressed gray jacket and a white shirt. He didn't notice the Roman collar until he took the shirt out and held it up to the light, ostensibly to see the size of his successor's neck.

A priest had taken his place. Father W.K.

He went into Laura's office to look at her perfectly ordered desk and her perfectly shelved books, and to see if he was wrong about the priest and if by chance his own photograph was still framed beside the phone. No. He tore up the leaflets intended for her “in” box and stuffed the pieces into his pocket. He would never have to worry about being bored by her again. A fallen man like himself he could perhaps have challenged, but he was no match for some saintly priest, undoubtedly yet another boy struggling against the forces of evil like Douglas Muller. Nor did he want to be around when Laura returned with Father W.K. from visiting Douglas at Allenwood Prison. How could they take seriously someone with his troubles? How could he?

He used her phone to call his answering service. The two of them had always to assume Laura's phone was tapped, but he for one had no secrets anymore: read all about it in Leonard Lyons. He just wanted to see if the kidnapper had called about the money, or if this time round Pepler had dropped the disguise.

Only one message, from his cousin Essie.
Urgent. Call me in Miami Beach at once.

So it had happened, that morning, while he was out forgetting about it. While he was out pretending it was all some nutty prank of Alvin Pepler's! He couldn't stay in to wait for the kidnapper's phone call, he couldn't hang around, a man of his eminence, to be made a fool of yet again—and so instead it had happened. And to her. And because of him and his eminence and that character in that book!

And to
her.
Not to Carnovsky's mother, but to his own! And who was she, what was she, that such a thing should happen to
her?
Terrified of her tyrannical father, devoted to her lonely mother, the most loyal of wives to her demanding husband—oh, to her husband far more than that. Fidelity was nothing, fidelity she could give him with both hands tied behind her back. (He saw her hands bound with ropes, her mouth stuffed with a rag, her bare legs shackled to a stake in the ground.) How many nights had she sat through those stories of his impoverished childhood and never yawned, or groaned, or cried out, “Not you and Papa and the hat factory, not again.” No, she knitted sweaters, she polished silver, she turned collars, and uncomplainingly, she heard about her husband's narrow escape from the hat factory for the hundredth time. Once a year they quarreled. When the heavy winter rugs were taken up he tried to tell her how to roll them in the tar paper and the scene ended in shouting and tears. The husband shouting, the wife in tears. Otherwise, she never opposed him; however he did things was right.

That was the woman to whom this had happened.

Back when Henry was still in his carriage—this would be 1937—a truckdriver had whistled at her. It was summertime. She was sitting out front on the steps with the children. The truck slowed down, the driver whistled, and Zuckerman never forgot the milky smell of Henry's bottle wafting his way as he looked up from his tricycle to see her pulling her sundress over her knees and compressing her lips so as not to smile. At dinner that evening, when she told her husband the story, he leaned back in his chair and laughed. His wife a desirable woman? He was flattered. Men admiring her legs? Why not? They were legs to be proud of. Nathan, not quite five, was stunned; but not Dr. Zuckerman: any girl he'd married couldn't know the meaning of “to stray.”

And to her, of all people, this had happened.

Once his mother went to a party with a flower in her hair. He must have been six or seven. It had taken him weeks to get over it.

And what else had she done to deserve this victimization?

Her youngest sister, Celia, had died in their house. She had come to recover from an operation. His mother walked Aunt Celia around the living room—he could to this day still see Celia, a frightening scarecrow in bathrobe and slippers, leaning feebly on his mother's arm. Aunt Celia had just graduated from normal school and was to be a music teacher in the Newark system. That, at any rate, was everyone's dream; she was the gifted girl in the family. But after the operation she couldn't even feed herself, let alone find strength in her hands to play chords on the piano. She couldn't make it from the breakfront to the radio without stopping to lean on the sofa, then the love seat, then his father's easy chair. But if they didn't drag her around the living room, she'd get pneumonia and die of that. “One more time, Celia dear, and that's it. A little bit every day,” his mother told her, “and soon you'll be stronger. Soon you'll be yourself again.” After her walk Celia went listing back to the bed and his mother locked herself in the bathroom and cried. On weekends it was his father who walked her. “That's movin' along very nicely, Celia. That-a-girl.” Softly, jauntily, with his dying young sister-in-law on his arm, Dr. Zuckerman whistled “I Can't Give You Anything but Love, Baby.” He told everyone that at the funeral his wife “bore up like a soldier.”

What did this woman understand of the savagery in people? How could she possibly endure it? Slice. Beat. Chop. Grind. Nowhere but in the kitchen did she run across such ideas. What violence she practiced went into making dinner. Otherwise, peace.

Her parents' daughter, her sister's sister, her husband's wife, her children's mother. What else was there? She would be the first to say “nothing.” That was more than enough. Had taken all her
kayech,
her strength.

What strength would she have for this?

*   *   *

But she hadn't been kidnapped. It was his father: a coronary. “This is it,” Essie told him. “You better hurry.” When he got back to Eighty-first Street—to pack a bag before heading to Newark to meet his brother for the four o'clock Miami flight—a large manila envelope was dangling halfway out of his mailbox in the entryway. Weeks ago, after extracting an envelope, hand-delivered, addressed to “Kike, Apt. 2B,” he had removed his name-plate from the box. In its place he had substituted a name-plate with his initials. Lately he had considered removing his initials and leaving the space blank, but he didn't because—because he refused to.

Across the envelope someone had scrawled with a red felt-tip pen, “Prestige Paté International.” Inside was a damp matted handkerchief. It was the very one he'd given Pepler to dry his hands with the evening before, after Pepler had finished eating Zuckerman's sandwich. There was no note. Only, by way of a message, a stale acrid odor he had no difficulty identifying. Evidence, if evidence there need be, of the “hang-up” that Pepler shared with Gilbert Carnovsky, and that Zuckerman had stolen from him for that book.

4 Look Homeward, Angel

On the table beside the bed were five-cent Xerox copies of every page of every protest letter Dr. Zuckerman had mailed to Lyndon Johnson while he was President. In contrast to his collected letters to Hubert Humphrey, the Johnson folder, bound with a wide rubber band, was nearly as fat as
War and Peace.
The sparsity and brevity of the Humphrey letters—also their sarcasm, their abusive bitterness—showed how far he had sunk in Dr. Zuckerman's esteem since he'd been the darling of the A.D.A. Most days Humphrey had gotten no more than one line of contempt and three exclamation marks. And on a postcard, so that anybody who picked it up could learn what a coward the Vice-President had become. But with the President of the United States, arrogant pig-headed bastard though he was, Dr. Zuckerman had tried to be reasonable on letterhead stationery, invoking the name of F.D.R. at every opportunity, and elucidating his argument against the war with wisdom, not always assigned with the utmost scrupulosity, from either the Talmud or a long-deceased spinster named Helen Mac-Murphy. Miss MacMurphy, as all the family knew (as all the world knew, from the title story of
Higher Education,
Nathan Zuckerman, 1959), had been his eighth-grade teacher. In 1912 she had gone to Dr. Zuckerman's father, a sweatshop worker, to demand that bright little Victor be sent to high school instead of into the local hat factory, where an older brother was already crippling his fingers working as a blocker fourteen hours a day. And as all the world knew, she had prevailed.

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