Read Zuckerman Unbound Online

Authors: Philip Roth

Zuckerman Unbound (3 page)

Zuckerman, sucker though he was for seriousness, was still not going to be drawn into a discussion about agents and editors. If ever there was a reason for an American writer to seek asylum in Red China, it would be to put ten thousand miles between himself and those discussions.

“There's still the musical,” Zuckerman reminded him.

“A serious book is one thing, and a Broadway musical is something else.”

Another discussion Zuckerman would as soon avoid. Sounded like the premise for a course at the New School.

“If,” said Pepler weakly, “it even gets made.”

Optimistic Zuckerman: “Well, if you've got a producer…”

“Yes, but so far it's only a gentlemen's agreement. No money has changed hands, nobody's signed anything. The work is supposed to start when he gets back. That's when we make the real deal.”

“Well,
that's
something.”

“It's why I'm in New York. I'm living over at his place, talking into a tape machine. That's all I'm supposed to do. He doesn't want to read what I wrote any more than the moguls on Publishers' Row. Just talk into the machine till he gets back. And leave out the thoughts. Just the stories. Well, beggars can't be choosers.”

As good a note as any to leave on.

“But,” said Pepler, when he saw Zuckerman get to his feet, “but you've eaten only half a sandwich!”

“Can't.” He indicated the hour on his watch. “Someone waiting. Meeting.”

“Oh, forgive me, Mr. Zuckerman, I'm sorry.”

“Good luck with the musical.” He reached down and shook Pepler's hand. “Good luck all around.” Pepler was unable to hide the disappointment. Pepler was unable to hide
anything.
Or was that hiding everything? Impossible to tell, and another reason to go.

“Thanks a million.” Then, with resignation, “Look, to switch from the sublime…”

What now?

“You don't mind, do you, if I eat your pickle?”

Was this a joke? Was this satire?

“I can't stay away from this stuff,” he explained. “Childhood hang-up.”

“Please,” said Zuckerman, “go right ahead.”

“Sure you don't—?”

“No, no.”

He was also eyeing the uneaten half of Zuckerman's sandwich. And it was no joke. Too driven for that. “While I'm at it—” he said, with a self-deprecating smile.

“Sure, why not.”

“See, there's no food in their refrigerator. I talk into that tape machine with all those stories and I get starved. I wake up in the night with something I forgot for the machine, and there's nothing to eat.” He began wrapping the half sandwich in a napkin from the dispenser on the table. “Everything is send-out.”

But Zuckerman was well on his way. At the register he put down a five and kept going.

Pepler popped up two blocks to the west, while Zuckerman waited for a light on Lexington. “One last thing—”

“Look—”

“Don't worry,” said Pepler, “I'm not going to ask you to read my book. Nuts I am”—the admission registered in Zuckerman's chest with a light thud—”but not that nuts. You don't ask Einstein to check your bank statements.”

The novelist's apprehension was hardly mitigated by the flattery. “Mr. Pepler, what do you want from me?”

“I just wonder if you think this project is right for a producer like Marty Paté. Because that's who's after it. I didn't want to bandy names around, but, okay, that's who it is. My worry isn't even the money. I don't intend to get screwed—not again—but the hell with the money for now. What I'm wondering to myself is if I can trust him to do justice to my life, to what I have been put through in this country
all my life.

Scorn, betrayal, humiliation—the eyes disclosed for Zuckerman everything Pepler had been put through, and without “thoughts.”

Zuckerman looked for a taxi. “Couldn't say.”

“But you know Paté.”

“Never heard of him.”

“Marty Paté. The Broadway producer.”

“Nope.”

“But—” He looked like some large animal just batted on the head at the abattoir, badly stunned but not quite out. He looked in agony. “But—he knows
you.
He met you—through Miss O'Shea. When you were all in Ireland. For her birthday.”

According to the columnists, the movie star Caesara O'Shea and the novelist Nathan Zuckerman were an “item.” Actually, off the screen, Zuckerman had met with her but once in his life, as her dinner partner at the Schevitzes' some ten days before.

“Hey, how is Miss O'Shea, by the way? I wish,” said Pepler, now suddenly wistful, “I could tell her—I wish you could tell her
for
me—what a great lady she is. To the public. To my mind she is the only real lady left in the movies today. Nothing they say could besmirch Miss O'Shea. I mean that.”

“I'll tell her.” The easiest way. Short of running for it.

“I stayed up Tuesday to watch her—she was on the Late Show.
Divine Mission.
Another incredible coincidence. Watching that and then meeting you. I watched with Paté's father. You remember Marty's old man? From Ireland? Mr. Perlmutter?”

“Vaguely.” Why not, if it brought this fellow's fever down?

By now the light had changed several times. When Zuckerman crossed, Pepler did too.

“He lives with Paté. In the town house. You ought to get a load of the layout over there,” Pepler said. “Offices downstairs on the main floor. Autographed photos all along the hallway coming in. You should see of who. Victor Hugo, Sarah Bernhardt, Enrico Caruso. Marty has a dealer who gets them for him. Names like that, and by the yard. There's a fourteen-carat chandelier, there's an oil painting of Napoleon, there's velvet drapes right to the floor. And this is only the office. There's a harp in the hallway, just sitting there. Mr. Perlmutter says Marty directed all the decoration himself. From pictures of Versailles. He has a valuable collection from the Napoleonic era. The drinking glasses even have gold rims, like Napoleon had. Then upstairs, where Marty actually lives, resides, completely done up in modern design. Red leather, recessed lights, pitch-black walls. Plants like in an oasis. You should see the bathroom. Cut flowers
in the bathroom.
The floral bill is a thousand a month. Toilets like dolphins and the handles on everything gold-plate. And the food is all send-out, down to salt and pepper. Nobody prepares anything. Nobody washes a dish. He's got a million-dollar kitchen in there and I don't think anybody's ever used it except to get water for an aspirin. A line on the phone direct to the restaurant next door. The old man calls down and the next thing, shish kebab. In flames. You know who else is living there right now? Of course she comes and she goes, but she was the one who let me in with my suitcase when I got here Monday. She showed me to my room. She found me my towels. Gayle Gibraltar.”

The name meant nothing to Zuckerman. All he could think was that if he kept walking, he was going to have Pepler with him all the way home, and if he hailed a cab, Pepler would hop in.

“I wouldn't want to take you out of your way,” Zuckerman said.

“No problem. Paté's on Sixty-second and Madison. We're almost neighbors.”

How did he know that?

“You're a very approachable guy, really, aren't you? I was terrified even to come up to you. My heart was pounding. I didn't think I had the nerve. I read in the
Star-Ledger
where fans bugged you so much you went around in a limousine with drawn shutters and two gorillas for bodyguards.” The
Star-Ledger
was Newark's morning paper.

“That's Sinatra.”

Pepler enjoyed that one. “Well, it's like the critics say, nobody can top you with the one-liner. Of course, Sinatra's from Jersey too. Hoboken's own. He still comes back to see his mother. People don't realize how many of us there are.”

“Us?”

“Boys from Jersey who became household words. You wouldn't be offended, would you, if I eat the sandwich now? It can get pretty greasy carrying around.”

“Suit yourself.”

“I don't want to embarrass you. The hick from home. This is your town, and you being you—”

“Mr. Pepler, it means nothing to me either way.”

Gently undoing the paper napkin like a surgical dressing, leaning forward so as not to soil himself, Pepler prepared for the first bite. “I shouldn't eat this stuff,” he told Zuckerman. “Not anymore. In the service I was the guy who could eat anything. I was a joke. Pepler the human garbage can. I was famous for it. Under fire in Korea I survived on stuff you wouldn't feed a dog. Washed down with snow. You wouldn't believe what I had to eat. But then those bastards made me lose to Lincoln on only my third week—a three-part question on Americana I could have answered in my sleep—and my stomach trouble dates from that night.
All
my trouble dates from that night. That's a fact. That was the night that did me in. I can document it with doctors' reports. It's all in the book.” That said, he bit into the sandwich. A quick second bite. A third. Gone. No sense prolonging the agony.

Zuckerman offered his handkerchief.

“Thanks,” said Pepler. “My God, look at me, wiping my mouth with Nathan Zuckerman's hankie.”

Zuckerman raised a hand to indicate that he should take it in stride. Pepler laughed uproariously.

“But,” he said, carefully cleaning his fingers, “getting back to Paté, what you're saying, Nathan—”

Nathan.

“—is that by and large I shouldn't have much worry with a producer of his caliber, and the kind of outfit he runs.”

“I didn't say anything of the sort.”

“But”—alarmed! again the abattoir!—”you know him, you met him in Ireland. You said so!”

“Briefly.”

“Ah, but that's how Marty meets everybody. He wouldn't get everything in otherwise. The phone rings and you hear the secretary over the intercom telling the old man to pick up, and you can't believe your ears.”

“Victor Hugo on the line.”

Pepler's laughter was uncontrollable. “Not far from it, Nathan.” He was having an awfully good time now. And, Zuckerman had to admit it, so was he. Once you relaxed with this guy, he wasn't unentertaining. You could pick up worse on the way home from the delicatessen.

Except how does he know we're almost neighbors? And how do you shake him off?

“It's a Who's Who of International Entertainment, the calls coming into that place. I tell you what gives me the greatest faith in this project getting off the ground, and that's where Marty happens to be right now. On business. Take a guess.”

“No idea.”

“Take a guess. You especially will be impressed.”

“I especially.”

“Absolutely.”

“You've got me, Alvin.” Alvin.

“Israel,” announced Pepler. “With Moshe Dayan.”

“Well, well.”

“He's got an option on the Six-Day War, for a musical. Yul Brynner is already as good as signed to star as Dayan. With Brynner it could be something for the Jews.”

“And for Paté, too, no?”

“Christ, how can he miss? He'll rake it in. They're all but sold out the first year on theater parties alone. This is without even a script. Mr. Perlmutter has sounded them out. They're ecstatic from just the idea. I tell you something else. Highly classified. When he gets back next week from Israel, I wouldn't be surprised if he approaches Nathan Zuckerman to do the adaptation of the war for the stage.”

“They're thinking of me.”

“You, Herman Wouk, and Harold Pinter. Those are the three names they're kicking around.”

“Mr. Pepler.”

“‘Alvin' is fine.”

“Alvin, who told you all this?”

“Gayle. Gibraltar.”

“How does she come by such classified information?”

“Oh, well, God. For one thing, she's a terrific business brain. People don't realize, because the beauty is all they see. But before she became a Playmate, she used to work as a guide at the United Nations. She speaks four languages. It was Playmate of the Month that launched her, of course.”

“Into?”

“You name it. She and Paté literally don't stop. Those two are the secret of perpetual motion. Marty found out before he left that it was Dayan's son's birthday and so Gayle went out and got him a present: a solid-chocolate chess set. And the boy loved it. Last night she went up to Massachusetts to jump from an airplane today for UNESCO. It was a benefit. And in the Sardinian film they just finished, she did her own stunts on the horse.”

“So she's an actress too. In Sardinian films.”

“Well, it was a Sardinian corporation. The film was international. Look”—suddenly shyness overcame him—“she's not Miss O'Shea, not by a long shot. Miss O'Shea has style. Miss O'Shea has class. Gayle is somebody … without hang-ups. That's what she projects, you see. When you're with her.”

Pepler turned a bright red speaking about what was projected by Gayle Gibraltar when you were with her.

“Which are her four languages?” asked Zuckerman.

“I'm not sure. English, of course, is one. I haven't had a chance to check out the others.”

“I would, in your shoes.”

“Well, okay, I will. Good idea. Latvian must be another. That's where she was born.”

“And Paté's father. Which four languages does he speak?”

Pepler saw he was being needled. But then, not by just anybody; he took it, after a moment, with another hearty, appreciative laugh. “Oh, don't worry. It's all straight from the shoulder with that guy. You couldn't meet a finer old-timer. Shakes your hand whenever you come in. Beautifully turned out, but in a sedate manner, always. Always with this nice, respectful, soft-spoken air. No, the one who gives me the confidence, frankly, is this lovely, dignified old gentleman. He keeps the books, he signs the checks, and when the decisions are made, I tell you, in his own quiet, respectful way, he makes them. He hasn't got Marty's go-go razzle-dazzle, but this is the rock, the foundation.”

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