Authors: Philip Roth
But for what?
Would Mary Mapes Dodge wait like this for an ice-cream cone?
Would Frank Sinatra?
Would a ten-year-old child with any brains?
As though passing the time on a pleasant evening, he practiced ambling toward the corner. Then he ran. Down the side street, unpursued.
2 “You're Nathan Zuckerman”
Though his new number was unlisted, Zuckerman paid a service thirty dollars a month to answer for him and find out who was calling. “How's our gorgeous writer?” asked Rochelle, when later that evening he phoned for the day's messages. She was the manager of the service and treated customers she'd never laid eyes on like old friends. “When are you going to drop around and give the girls a thrill?” Zuckerman replied that he gave them enough thrills when they listened in on his line. Good-natured banter, yet he also believed it was true. But better their eavesdropping than him having to fend off the unlikely people who seemed to have no trouble getting his unlisted number. There was supposed to be an outfit supplying the unlisted numbers of celebrities for twenty-five bucks a great name. Could even be in cahoots with his answering service. Could even be his answering service.
“The Rollmops King called. He's gone on you, hon. You're the Jewish Charles Dickens. Those were his words. You've hurt his feelings, Mr. Zuckerman, by not calling back.” The Rollmops King thought Zuckerman should endorse appetizer snacks on a television commercialâan actress could play Mrs. Zuckerman if his own mother was unavailable for the job. “I can't help him out. Next message.” “But you like herringâit's in the book.” “Everybody likes herring, Rochelle.” “Why not do it then?” “Next message.” “The Italian. Twice in the morning, twice in the afternoon.” If Zuckerman did not grant him an interview, the Italian, a Rome journalist, was going to be out of a job. “Do you think that's true, doll?” “I hope so.” “He says he doesn't understand why you should treat him like this. He got very emotional when I told him I was only the service. You know what I'm afraid of? That he is going to make it up, a personal interview with Nathan Zuckerman, and they'll pass it off in Rome as the real thing.” “Is that something he suggested as a possibility?” “He suggested a lot of possibilities. You know when an Italian gets going.” “Anyone else ring?” “He left a question, Mr. Zuckerman. One question.” “I've answered my last question. Who else?”
Laura's was the name he was waiting for.
“Melanie. Three times.” “No last name?” “No. Just tell him Melanie collect from Rhode Island. He'll know.” “It's a big stateâI don't.” “You would if you accepted the charges. You'd know everything then,” said Rochelle, turning throaty, “for only a dollar. After, you could deduct it.” “I'd rather bank it.” She liked that. “I don't blame you. You know how to accumulate it, Mr. Zuckerman. I'll bet the I.R.S. doesn't take it from you like they do from me.” “They take what they can get.” “But what about tax shelters? Are you by any chance on to macadamia nuts?” “No.” “How about cattle?” “Rochelle, I can't help the Rollmops King or the Italian or Melanie, and much as I'd like to, I can't help you. I don't know anything about these shelters.” “No shelters? In your bracket? You must be paying seventy cents back on your top dollar. What do you do, take 'em to the cleaners on entertainment?” “My entertaining is a grave disappointment to my accountant.” “What
you do then? No shelters, no entertainment, and on top of your ordinary tax, Johnson's surcharge. Pardon my saying it, but if this is really so, Mr. Zuckerman, Uncle Sam should get down on his knees and kiss your ass.”
More or less what the investment specialist had told him earlier that day. He was a trim, tall, cultivated gentleman not much older than Zuckerman, who had a painting by Picasso hanging on his office wall. Mary Schevitz, sparring partner and wife to Zuckerman's agent, AndrÃ©, and would-be mother to AndrÃ©'s clientele, had been hoping that Bill Wallace would influence Nathan by talking to him about money in his Brahmin accent. Wallace too had written a best-selling book, a witty attack on the securities establishment by a card-carrying Racquet Club member. According to Mary, a copy of Wallace's exposÃ©,
Profits Without Honor,
could do wonders for the conscience pangs of all those well-heeled Jewish investors who liked to consider themselves skeptical of the system.
You couldn't put anything over on Mary; not even on upper Park Avenue was she out of touch with the lower depths. Her mother had been an Irish washerwoman in the Bronxâ
Irish washerwoman, to hear her tell itâand she had Zuckerman pegged as someone whose secret desire was to make it big with the genteel WASPs. That Laura's family were genteel WASPs, by washerwoman standards, was only the beginning. “You think,” Mary told him, “that if you pretend not to care about money, nobody will mistake you for a Newark Yid.” “I'm afraid there are other distinguishing features.” “Don't cloud the issue with Jewish jokes. You know what I mean. A kike.”
The Brahmin investment counselor couldn't have been more charming, Zuckerman couldn't have been more Brahmin, and the Blue Period Picasso couldn't have cared less: Hear no money, see no money, think no money. The painting's theme of tragic suffering absolutely purified the air. Mary had a point. You couldn't imagine they were talking about what people begged for, lied for, murdered for, or even just worked for, nine to five. It was as though they were talking about nothing.
“AndrÃ© says you're more conservative in financial affairs than in your fiction.”
Though Zuckerman was not so well-dressed as the investment counselor, he was, for the occasion, no less soft-spoken. “In the books I've got nothing to lose.”
“No, no. You're just a sensible man, behaving as any sensible man would. You know nothing about money, you know you know nothing about money, and understandably you're reluctant to act.”
For the next hour, as though it were opening day at the Harvard Business School, Wallace told Zuckerman about the fundamentals of capital investment and what happens to money when it is left too long in a shoe.
When Zuckerman got up to go, Wallace said mildly, “If you should ever want any helpâ¦” An afterthought.
“I will indeedâ¦”
They shook hands, to signify that they understood not only each other but how to bend the world their way. It wasn't like this in Zuckerman's study.
“It may not seem so to look at me, but I'm familiar by now with the sort of goals artists set for themselves. I've tried to help out several of you people over the years.”
Self-effacement. You people were three of the biggest names in American painting.
Wallace smiled. “None of them knew anything about stocks and bonds, but today they're all financially secure. So will their heirs be tomorrow. And not just from selling pictures. They no more want to worry about peddling than you do. Why should you? You should get on with your work, totally indifferent to the marketplace, and for as long as the work requires. âWhen I think that I have gathered my fruit I shall not refuse to sell it, nor shall I forfeit hand-clapping if it is good. In the meantime I do not wish to fleece the public. That's all there is to it.' Flaubert.”
Not bad. Especially if the Schevitzes hadn't tipped Wallace off beforehand to the millionaire's soft spot.
“If we begin swapping great quotations disavowing everything but the integrity of my singularly pure vocation,” said Zuckerman, “we'll be here till midnight tomorrow. Let me go home and talk it over with the shoe.”
Of course the one he wanted to talk it over with was Laura. There was everything to talk over with Laura, but her good sense he had lost, just when his was being challenged as never before. If he had consulted first with levelheaded Laura about leaving her, he might never have left. If they had sat down in his study, each with a yellow pad and a pencil, they could have laid out together in their usual orderly and practical way the utterly predictable consequences of starting life anew on the eve of the publication of
But he had left for the new life because, among other things, he could not bear to sit down anymore with a pad and a pencil to lay things out with her in their usual way.
It was more than two months since the movers had carried away from the downtown Bank Street floor-through his typewriter, his worktable, his orthopedic typing chair, and four file cabinets crammed with abandoned manuscripts, forgotten journals, reading notes, news clippings, and with hefty folders of correspondence dating back to college. They also carried away, by their estimate, nearly half a ton of books. While fair-minded Laura insisted that Nathan take with him half of everything they had accumulated togetherâdown to towels, silverware, and blanketsâhe insisted on taking nothing but the furnishings from his study. They were both in tears and holding hands while the issue was debated.
Carrying his books from one life into the next was nothing new to Zuckerman. He had left his family for Chicago in 1949 carrying in his suitcase the annotated works of Thomas Wolfe and
Four years later, age twenty, he left Chicago with five cartons of the classics, bought secondhand out of his spending money, to be stored in his parents' attic while he served two years in the Army. In 1960, when he was divorced from Betsy, there were thirty cartons to be packed from shelves no longer his; in 1965, when he was divorced from Virginia, there were just under sixty to cart away; in 1969, he left Bank Street with eighty-one boxes of books. To house them, new shelves twelve feet high had been built to his specifications along three walls of his new study; but though two months had passed, and though books were generally the first possession to find their proper place in his home, they remained this time in their boxes. Half a million pages untouched, unturned. The only book that seemed to exist was his own. And whenever he tried to forget it, someone reminded him.
Zuckerman had contracted for the carpentry, bought a color TV and an Oriental rug, all on the day he moved uptown. He was determined, despite the farewell tears, to be determined. But the Oriental rug constituted his first and his last stab at “decor.” Purchases since had fallen way off: a pot, a pan, a dish, a towel for the dish, a shower curtain, a canvas chair, a Parsons table, a garbage pailâone thing at a time, and only when it became a necessity. After weeks on the fold-up cot from his old study, after weeks of wondering if leaving Laura hadn't been a terrible mistake, he gathered his strength and bought a real bed. At Bloomingdale's, while he stretched out on his back to see which brand was the firmestâwhile word traveled round the floor that Carnovsky, in person, could be seen trying out mattresses for God only knew who else or how manyâZuckerman told himself, Never mind, nothing lost, this hasn't changed a thing: if the day ever comes for the movers to truck the books back downtown, they'll take the new double bed too. Laura and he could use it to replace the one on which they had been sleeping together, or not sleeping together, for nearly three years.
Oh, how Laura was loved and admired! Heartbroken mothers, thwarted fathers, desperate girlfriends, all regularly sent her presents out of gratitude for the support she was giving their dear ones hiding in Canada from the draft. The homemade preserves, she and Zuckerman ate at breakfast; the boxes of chocolate, she circulated among the neighborhood children; the touching items of knitted apparel, she took to the Quakers who ran the Peace and Reconciliation Thrift Shop on MacDougal Street. And the cards sent with the presents, the moving, anguished notes and letters, she kept as cherished memorabilia in her files. For safety's sake, against the possibility of an F.B.I. break-in, the files were stored with Rosemary Ditson, the elderly retired schoolteacher who lived alone in the basement apartment next door and who also loved her. Rosemary's health and general welfare Laura took as her responsibility only days after she and Zuckerman moved onto the block, when Laura observed the frail, disheveled woman trying to descend the steep cement stairwell without dropping her groceries or breaking a hip.
How could you
love generous, devoted, thoughtful, kindhearted Laura? How could
not? Yet during their last months together in the Bank Street floor-through, virtually all they had left in common was the rented Xerox machine at the foot of their tub in the big tiled bathroom.
Laura's law office was in the parlor at the front of the apartment, his study in the spare room on the quiet courtyard at the back. During an ordinary productive day he sometimes had to wait his turn at the bathroom door while Laura rushed to photocopy pages going out in the next mail. If Zuckerman had to copy something especially long, he would try to hold off until she took her late-night bath, so they could chat together while the pages dropped. One afternoon they even had intercourse on the bath mat beside the Xerox machine, but that was back when it was first installed. To be running into each other during the course of the day, manuscript pages in hand, was still something of a novelty then; many things were a novelty then. But by their last year they hardly even had intercourse in bed. Laura's face was as sweet as ever, her breasts were as full as ever, and who could question that her heart was in the right place? Who could question her virtue, her rectitude, her purpose? But by the third year he had come to wonder whether Laura's purpose wasn't the shield behind which he was still hiding his own, even from himself.
Though looking after her war resisters, deserters, and conscientious objectors kept her working days, nights, and weekends, she managed nonetheless to note in her calendar book the birthday of every child living on Bank Street, and would slip a little present into the family mailbox on the morning of the event: “From Laura and Nathan Z.” The same for their friends, whose anniversaries and birthdays she also recorded there along with the dates she was to fly to Toronto or appear at the courthouse in Foley Square. Any child that she encountered in the supermarket or on the bus was invariably taken aside and taught by Laura how to make an origami flying horse. Once Zuckerman watched her negotiate the length of a crowded subway car to point out to a straphanger that his billfold was protruding from his back pocketâprotruding, Zuckerman observed, because he was a drunk in rags and most likely had found it in somebody's leavings or lifted it off another drunk. Though Laura wore not a trace of makeup, though her only adornment was a tiny enamel dove pinned to her trench coat, the drunk seemed to take her for a sassy prostitute on the prowl, and clutching at his trousers, he told her to piss off. Zuckerman said afterward that maybe he'd had a point. Surely she could leave the drunks to the Salvation Army. They argued about her do-goodism. Zuckerman suggested there might be limits. “Why?” asked Laura flatly. This was in January, just three months before the publication of