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I. ORCAS ISLAND
We were running flat out. The opening was dazzling. The
middle was dazzling. The ending was dazzling. It was like a steeplechase
composed entirely of hurdles.
But that would not be a steeplechase at all. It would be more
like a steep, steep climb.
They were shouting, Tell it, big momma, tell it. I mean, the
child is only six years old.
Do I need to stylize it, then, or can I tell it as it was?
He knew that she had left him when she began to smoke again.
Look here, you know, I loved you.
I wonder whether he will ever ask himself, say to himself, Well,
she wasn't asking all the earth, why did I let her go?
My back went up, Viola Teagarden used to say, with a little
thrill of self-importance, pride and pleasure, head raised, nostrils
Haring, back straightening slightly, as though she had received a
small electric charge right through her chair. My back went up.
She also spoke with a kind of awe of what she called "my anger," as
though it were a living, prized possession, a thoroughbred bull, for
instance, to be used at stud, or as a man who has married a beautiful,
unpredictably unpleasant woman, far richer and younger than
himself, might say "my wife." Leander Dworkin, too, though he
hardly knew Viola and in fact despised her, had what he called "my
rage." It resembled, sometimes a hothouse of imaginary grievances
under lavish cultivation, sometimes a pulse which he measured
constantly to see whether, with whom, and to what degree he must
be angry, sometimes a source of astonishment and pleasure, sometimes
just a horse to be taken for a canter or a gallop on the moors.
In times of rage, he wanted nothing to distract or mollify him. Even
flattery, for which his appetite was otherwise undiscriminating and
enormous, would infuriate him on his way to an apotheosis. A few
people humored him in this. They were his friends. Inevitably,
it was with one or more of these few friends that he was angry—a
source, at first, always of distress, since he broke off with words as
harsh as they were capricious, and then, for the long quiet interval
that followed, of relief.
To begin with, I almost went, alone, to Graham Island.
He thought of himself, even spoke of himself, as extraordinarily
handsome. His hair, which grew to collar length, was reddish. His
hairline was receding; his eyes, which blinked constantly over his
contact lenses, were the palest blue. Though he was by no means a
strikingly ugly man, the source of his belief in his physical beauty
seemed to lie in this: that he was tall. Leander Dworkin was the
amplifying poet. ·Willie Stokes was the poet of compression. Both
taught poetry, and wrote novels, when we were in graduate school.
We met in two improbable seminars, taught by great men. Notions
of Paradise, and Sound in Literature. The first was literary utopias,
essentially; the second, onomatopoeia. Both were so crowded at the
start that students had to be selected on the basis of some claim of
special knowledge. In Paradise, that year, we had one grandson of
Oneida, one nun, one believer in the Skinner box, some students
of Rousseau, the Constitution, Faust and Plato, and one participant
in experiments with a new drug, psylocybin, under the guidance
of Leary and Alpert, two young instructors in psychology. In Sound,
I remember just one specialist, a pale, dark-haired Latin scholar,
who rocked continuously in his chair whenever he read us onomatopoetic
phrases he had found among the classics. The murmuring of
innumerable bees in immemorial elms; l'insecte nette gratte la
secheresse. Fairly late in the semester, when we were asked what
our papers were going to be about, this young man said he wanted
to write about the sound of corpses floating through literature. Oh,
the professor said, with some enthusiasm, after just a moment's hesitation,
you mean Ophelia. No, the young man replied, I want the
sound of the sea.
To begin with, I almost went, instead, to Graham Island.
For a woman, it is always, don't you see, Scheherazade.
In nineteen sixty-four, the dean announced to the trustees that,
for all intents and purposes-meetings, sleep, meals, electricity, demands
upon her time and one another's—the students had abolished
"Brahms," he said, in explaining to a colleague why he did not
attend that autumn's campus concert series. "All of it was Brahms.
All, every. Eight. Things. Of Brahms."
Though he was my friend, I did not see Leander Dworkin often.
We found that our friendship was safer on the telephone. Sometimes
we spoke daily. Sometimes we did not speak for a year or
more. But the bond between us, I think, was less stormy, and in
some ways more intense, than Leander's relations with people he
actually saw. Once every few years, we would have dinner together,
or a drink, or just a visit. Sometimes alone, more rarely with someone
with whom he was living and whom he wanted me to meet.
One night, when we had gone, I think, off campus for hamburgers,
. I noticed, on Leander's wrist, several thin, brown, frayed and
separating strands, like a tattered cuff of rope. Leander said it was
an elephant-hair bracelet, and that Simon, his lover, had given it
to him. It was frayed because he always forgot to remove it, as he
ought to, before taking showers. Elephant hairs, it seems, are
talismanic. It was going to bring him luck. Elephant-hair bracelets
are expensive; they are paid for by the strand. In the following year,
Leander wrote many poems, and at last received his tenure. When
we met again, months later, the frayed strands were gone. In their
place was a thin, round, sturdy band of gold, which encased,
Leander said, a single elephant hair. When I asked what had happened
to the old bracelet, he said, "I lost it, I think. Or I threw it
out." For some time, Leander had spoken, on the phone, of a
woman, a painter, whom he had met, one afternoon, outside the
gym, and whom he was trying to introduce, along with Simon, into
his apartment and his life. The woman was in love with him, he
said. She was married to a real-estate tycoon. Her name was
Leonore. He was anxious for me to meet her. I knew that, in addition
to his appetite for quarrels, Leander likes triads, complications,
any variant of being paid for. But I looked at the bracelet, and I
thought of Simon, and I thought, Leonore plays rough.
It was as boring, you know, as droning, and repetitive as a waltz,
as a country-and-western lament in waltz time. It was as truly awful
as a vin rosé.
Well, what did you pull out ahead of me on the road for, from
a side street, when there were no other cars in sight behind me, if
you were going to drive more slowly than I did?
It was early evening, in the city. The TV was on. We watched
The Newlywed Game. The moderator had just asked the contestant,
a young wife from Virginia, What is your husband's least
favorite rodent? "His least favorite rodent," she replied, drawling
serenely and without hesitation. "Oh, I think that would have to
be the saxophone."
He knew that she had left him when she began to smoke again.
Is that where it begins?
I don't know. I don't know where it begins. It is where I am.
I know where you are. You are here. She had left him, then?
Years ago, he had smoked, but not when they met. So she
stopped, as people do when they are in love. Take up cigarettes, or
give them up, or change brands. As people do to be at one at least
in this. Long after that, she began to smoke again.
So he knew she had left him?
Not knew, not left. Not right away, or just at first.
Why don't you begin then with at first?
Look, you can begin with at first, or it seems, or once upon a
Or in the city of P.
Or in the city of P. In the rain. But I can't. It is not what I
know how to do.
Well, you must get these things straight, you know, resolve
them in your mind before you write them down.
From the moment she knew that she was going to leave him,
she started to look old. There was about her a sudden dimming, as
in a bereavement or an illness, which in a way it was. He. They.
Look, I would start short, if I could, with something shorter. The
story of the boy, for instance, who did not cry wolf. Except that, of
necessity, we can have no notion of that story, since the boy of
course is dead.
So is the one who did cry wolf.
True, but he lasted longer.
Probably. I suppose that's right. He knew that she was going
to leave him when she began to smoke again.
You can rely too much, my love, on the unspoken things. And
the wry smile. I have that smile myself, and I've learned the
silence, too, over the years. Along with your expressions, like No
notion and Of necessity. What happens, though, when it is all
unsaid, is that you wake up one morning, no, it's more like late one
afternoon, and it's not just unsaid, it's gone. That's all. Just gone.
I remember this word, that look, that small inflection, after all this
time. I used to hold them, trust them, read them like a rune. Like
a sign that there was a house, a billet, a civilization where we were.
I look back and I think I was just there all alone. Collecting wisps
and signs. Like a spinster who did know a young man once and
who imagines ever since that she lost a fiancé in the war. Or an old
fellow who, having spent months long ago in uniform at some
dreary outpost nowhere near any country where there was a front,
remembers buddies he never had, dying beside him in battles he
was never in.
All right. There was, of course, a public world as well.
I was there, in Montgomery, Alabama, on a summer's day in
the late seventies, when the Attorney General of the United States,
a Southerner himself, spoke at the ceremony in which a local judge,
who had worked for more than twenty years, with courage and
humanity and in virtual isolation, on the federal district court, was
promoted to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. That court, like
the district court under the local judge, had been a great court,
decent, honorable, articulate and brave. The Attorney General himself
had, for some years, been a member of it—quite often, as it
happened, in dissent. Here he was, though, in the late seventies,
the Attorney General, Old Mushmouth, as the wife of one of the
court's more distinguished judges had always, somewhat injudiciously
and in his absence, called him, here he was, the Attorney
General of the United States, speaking at the inauguration of a
great federal district judge into a great federal appellate court. He
mentioned the Ku Klux Klan. He alluded to it several times, the
Klan. And each time, he referred to its membership, the members
of the Klan, he called them. Clamsmen. No question about it, that's
how he pronounced it. Clamsmen. It was no reflection on the
Attorney ·General. True, the judge's wife had never thought much
of his diction. True, in the court's most important decisions, he had
been so often in dissent. But years had passed. He had come to
speak well and to do honor. And this business of the Clamsmen,
well, it may have had to do with molluscs, bivalves. Even crustaceans.
I remember a young radical, in the sixties, denouncing her
roommates as prawns of imperialism.
Alone. What an odd gloss we have here on Alone at last. Since
alone at last, for every hero in a gothic, every villain in a melodrama,
traditionally assumes a cast of two.
You know I hate wisecracks.
So do I.
One morning, in the early nineteen-eighties, Viola Teagarden
filed a suit in a New York State court against Claudia Denneny
for libel. Also named as defendants were a public television station
and a talk-show host. Viola Teagarden's lawyer, Ezra Paris, had
been, all his life, a civil libertarian; in every prior suit, he had been
on the side of the right to speak, to print, to publish. He was em-
barrassed by Teagarden v. Denneny et al., which, as he knew, had
no legal merit. He justified it to himself on grounds, of which Viola
had persuaded him, that she was sad, hurt, pitiable, distraught. He
also thought, in friendship, that he owed her something. Her current
book was dedicated to him. But his province had always been
the First Amendment, and he preferred not to think about who was
paying his rather considerable legal fees, Martin Pix, a young, immensely
rich, vaguely leftish media executive, who had recently
come, yacht and fortune, into Viola's special circle. That circle, as
I gradually came to understand, was one of the most important
cultural manifestations of its time.
Look here, you know, look here. All the things she had too
much class to mention were the things he never knew.
Well, but that's the point. I mean, it hardly takes much class
not to mention things if he already knows them anyway.
It was as though he had been born in the presence of the doubt,
the censor, the laugher at serious things, the unlaughing member
in the audience of a comedian, the voluble warner against places
where there is no danger, the reticent giver of directions toward a
place through which no one has safely passed. The check was forever
less than half a step behind the impulse. Clamped to the hoof
of the Arabian horse of thought, report, or feeling, there were
always the teeth of the question: is this altogether true? The least
of the harm in it was the waste of energy and attention, in having
always to be doubly sure, in letting pass the moments of high possibility,
in seldom taking action, in having always just a bit to understate
Wait, wait, wait, wait. Can you not avoid, on the one hand,
the Rorid, overly elaborate, on the other hand, the arid exploration
of that after all limitless desert rock of desolation called Square One?
What are you, some sort of anti-claque?
Sometimes he loved her, sometimes he was just amused and
touched by the degree to which she loved him. Sometimes he was
bored by her love and felt it as a burden. Sometimes his sense of
himself was enhanced, sometimes diminished by it. But he had
come to take the extent of her love as given, and, as such, he lost
interest in it. She may have given him this certainty too early, and
not just out of genuine attachment. One falls out of gradations of
love and despair, after all, every few days, or months, or minutes.
With courtesy, then, and also for the sake, for the sake of the long
rhythms, she kept the facade in place and steady, unaffected by
every nuance of caring and not caring. He distrusted her sometimes,
but on the wrong grounds. He thought of her as light with the
truth, and lawless. And she, who was not in other ways dishonest,
who was in fact honorable in his ways and in others, was perhaps
dishonest in this: that not to risk losing him, or for whatever other
reason, she concealed, no, she did not insist that he see, certain
important facets of her nature. She pretended, though with her
particular form of nervous energy she was not always able to pretend
this, that she was more content than she was, that her love for
him was more constant than, within the limits that he set, it