It was Barb who found Grossman, Barb who called Nick in the middle of the night, so stirred up by the turn events had taken that she forgot about the time difference between London and New York.
The middle of an English summer. The 3 a.m. dark of a West London basement. Everything changing because of a phone call. Later on, Nick saw it as the moment in which his life came apart.
"Does she even realize
?" said Linda when Nick was back under the covers.
"She was drunk. You know how she gets."
Linda turned away from him with a disgusted grunt--yeah, she knew. Barbara Segal was one of two "rich old birds" she would have liked to rip out of his Rolodex, women he had gotten to know intimately in the six years he had been writing the biography of Francis Spira. Not that Barb was that rich, certainly not by New York standards. Her Upper West Side apartment was worth $800,000 tops, but forty years in the art world (she had started out writing for Artforum
back in the sixties) and her closeness to the New York School's celebrity psychos, freaks and visionaries had left her holding a half-dozen blotched and spattered rectangles that were now worth serious money. And then there were the Spiras: six of them in all, all portraits of her from the late sixties, two of them gifts from the artist himself.
"So what the hell did she want?" said Linda.
Nick stared up at the darkness, getting little aftershocks of cognition, Barbara's news blooming in his head.
"She said she saw Jacob Grossman," he whispered. "In the street."
After Georges Pompidou had awarded Spira the Légion d'Honneur in 1971, the artist had gone out and found an Algerian trucker in Pigalle, taken him back to his room at the Crillon. He had shown up at the opening of the Grand Palais retrospective with a split lip that was only partly concealed by cosmetics. This was Spira's love life: roiling, libidinous, percussive, abandoned. But for all the wildness, he'd had only two significant others: Tony Reardon, the East End criminal who died the month Frank got his French medal, and Jacob Nathaniel Grossman.
Nick got out of the bed and stood there for a moment looking down at his feet. He was willowy but square-shouldered, and had the knotty hands and feet of his English mother.
"She said she saw him in the street."
Linda's head was an area of deeper darkness in the surrounding gloom. With the punky short haircut he'd given her, she looked like a boy.
"So she's hallucinating," she said. "It's not surprising with all the booze she puts away."
Nick pushed a hand back through his own butchered hair. For the past few months they had been hacking at each other as part of an ongoing economy drive, and her latest effort was particularly brutal.
"She saw him in the street, just a chance thing, and she followed him."
"But how could she even be sure who it was? I mean, after all this time it must be--"
"She said . . ."
Barb's voice came to him, flattened with the booze, slightly mushy on the consonants. I followed him, Nick. This old bum. It's crazy, I know. But I couldn't just walk away. We must have walked around for hours.
"She just knew," said Nick, trembling now, knowing that this was tremendous news, disastrous news. "She knew who it was."
He said it then, said that maybe he should go over to Manhattan.
Linda bumped the bedside lamp, grabbing for the light switch.
The room jumped into low-rent detail: a Dralon-covered armchair spotted with cigarette burns, a lethal disconnected storage heater. Papers and books stacked like dirty dishes around the walls. Linda reached for her cigarettes, then remembered that she didn't smoke anymore.
"Nick, we don't have the money."
Nick closed his eyes. This wasn't simply the truth. It was Linda invoking one of the darkest of their household gods. They were both hopeless with money, feared it, tried to live their lives as though it didn't exist. They'd go on in this way for long periods, and then a bill would come through the door, and they'd get into a panic, come up with some scheme that meant eating lentils for a month or, if they were really being strict, cutting back on the wine.
Beyond that, she was reminding him of Her Sacrifice. Five years ago she had agreed to his going freelance--he copyedited reports at a financial magazine in the City--had accepted the fact that he could not write this book and continue full-time. He'd tried it with his first book, and it hadn't worked out. Five years ago she'd agreed that for two years she would support him, would do this for him because it would make him happy. But deadline after deadline had passed, two years had become five, and for a long time now, they had been really struggling: renting videos rather than going out, eating cheap, making the minimum payments on the credit cards.
And the only reason Linda was still putting up with the situation was because of the Light at the End of the Tunnel, which had come into view when he'd delivered the manuscript to the Curlew Press four weeks ago. The £7,000 payable on delivery (the remaining third was due on publication) had also had its soothing effect. The idea that there might now be a further delay, more expense for her to shoulder, that they might be stuck in the tunnel for some time to come, was more than she could bear.
"Grossman's dead," she said, almost pleading. "And the Life
, it's finished
, Nick. You have a nine-hundred-page proof sitting on the table in the living room. You're supposed to be correcting, you're supposed to be handing it back at the beginning of next week."
He couldn't go back to sleep.
At 5 a.m. he was in the kitchen, brooding, scribbling notes, when Linda walked into the doorway.
"It's not as if there were actual evidence of his death," he said. "A burial certificate or an autopsy report. It's not like with Reardon. I mean, maybe Grossman's been wandering around all these years. And . . ."
He looked up, saw that Linda was holding a photograph in her hand. Two photographs.
"I mean, imagine it, Linda. Nobody knows anything, why he--what made him walk out of the clinic or--or where he's been all this time. Plus there's Tangier, the--the whole syphilis question."
"Nick, you covered all that. I mean, Tangier, that whole sordid episode. Oscar Nagel was down there, Laverne Taubmann, and you have reams
of stuff from them. And then there's--there's Paul Mann, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg. There's Cecil bloody Beaton."
"But this is Grossman," said Nick, standing up.
He went to the refrigerator and took out the milk, and when he turned, Linda was standing directly in front of him, holding out one of the photographs. It was a copy of a Cecil Beaton, and it showed Spira and Grossman sitting in the shade of a date palm in Tangier in the fall of 1960. It was during this time that Spira had famously asked Grossman what he was going to do now that he had lost his looks, and from the expression on Grossman's face the question might just have been asked. Harsh sunlight struck a bar of shadow down from his nose, dividing the no longer beautiful mouth while Spira stared out from some dark place inside his head.
Franky. Destroyer and creator. The Anti-Midas.
Linda had a tendency to stare when she was angry. A little sliver of white showed above the veiled blue of the iris.
"So what?" said Nick.
"Where was it taken?"
He tried to push it away, but she kept it in front of him.
"Tangier," he said finally. "October twelfth, 1960."
"Tangier--what, like at the beach?"
"Come on, Lind."
"No, really. I'd like to know."
"On the esplanade above the port. They had lunch at the Minzah and went out there with the Box Brownie."
She nodded, almost smiling. "Very good. How about this?"
Another print came up, a flimsy Kodacolor print. A holiday snapshot that trembled faintly in her bitten fingernails. They were standing in front of an old stone wall, each with a bicycle, their faces red with exertion. Linda had the kind of face that was transformed by a smile, an honest square face with pouchy eyes like the actress Diane Wiest. The eyes were a family thing, but the first time Nick had seen them, he'd thought they were a product of dissolute European ways.
He himself was frowning in the harsh sunlight. The slight thickening in the bridge of his nose made him look more easygoing than he really was. It could have been France. It could have been Italy, but then again . . .
He looked up, realized that this was the point.
"It's from the Life," said Linda, with a thin smile. "Ours."2
Two days after Barb's call, Nick was back in Manhattan, looking out the window of her twentieth-floor apartment between the slats of a very dusty venetian blind, feeling like one of those cartoon characters that run right off the edge of a cliff but are fine as long as they don't look down--"down" in this case being the balance on the Visa card, "down" being the look on Linda's face when he'd told her he was going to have to come to New York one more time--her "Of course you do" somehow far worse than any reproach.
He hadn't been able to get a flight until Sunday evening, hadn't been able to communicate that fact to Barb until his arrival at the hotel on Sunday night (Barb was always forgetting to turn on her answering machine and carried a cellphone with a dead battery as though it were a lucky charm), by which time her meeting with Jacob Nathaniel Grossman had come and gone. Now it was Monday and she didn't want to talk about it.
Something had happened. Something unpleasant enough to make her want to talk about anything other than the matter at hand.
"So Linda, she's angry
with you?" she said.
Nick turned and took in the room.
"For coming out here?" Barb insisted.
He shook his head. "She thinks I should be finished by now."
He crossed the room and sat in one of the low armchairs.
"Barb. I don't want to be a pain in the ass, but you were the one who called me."
Barb turned her head in a long, shuddering exhale and was for a moment lost in contemplation of a bloody rectangle on the other side of the room. Nick didn't have to look round to know what it was. It had been painted in July 1968: 34" x 22", oil on unprimed linen--Barb aged thirty.
At first glance it looked like a mistake, something that had been attempted in a violent flurry and then abandoned. It was only when you gave it a moment, gave your eye a moment to assemble the gouged and smeary marks that you really saw. Interconnecting bladelike planes looked like they were about to fly apart. The split and sutured face was impossible but somehow real, realer than real. This was Spira's trick. He tore things apart, turned them inside out, gave them back to the viewer quiveringly alive.
Three weeks ago a similar painting--same period, same subject, but nothing like the same quality--had sold for just over £2 million at Christie's in London.
"Poor Jacob," said Barb softly.
She shot Nick a look, mixing genuine distress with just a tiny bit of something else, something self-consciously alluring. It was very Barb. In this light and with the Cleopatra makeup she favored, she could have passed for fifty-something, but in the street looked older than her sixty years.
She was, by most people's standards, more than comfortable. She was witty, intelligent, had already lived through several lifetimes' worth of excitement, but it wasn't enough. She still wanted to exercise the pull she always had. Nick had realized early on that part of how they got along depended on how he dealt with her need to flirt. What was harder to take was her hostility towards Linda, which was somehow tied up with all the rest, as though Linda (whom she'd met only once) was in some oblique way a sexual rival.
Barb brought the cigarette to her mouth with a clack of amber bangles, her lips pinching hard on the filter.
"Barb, if you made a mistake, I'll understand. After all these years it would be perfectly understandable. You said yourself the light was fading."
"There was no mistake."
Her face darkened and she stood up. He had provoked her into saying something and she was annoyed. She wavered for a moment, the cigarette held in front of her mouth, then walked over to the liquor cabinet. Nick watched her break the seal on a bottle of vodka and pour herself a good two inches. She stayed at the cabinet, took a couple of sips. Then she was crying.
"It's okay." She snatched a Kleenex. "It's just seeing him after all these years, seeing what the years did to him. I'm telling you, it was . . ." She came back to her place on the couch, shaking her head. "It brought home to me how much we've all--aged."
Nick nodded, waited for more. Nothing came.
"But Barb, Friday night--I mean, Saturday morning you were all for it. 'Come on over,' you said."
"That's right," she said ruefully. "I just had to open my big mouth. And now everybody wants to know about poor . . ." Her chin puckered, and Nick thought she was going to cry again.
She flipped a hand at him. "Don't worry. I'm not talking to anyone."
"But why? What changed, Barb?"
"I saw him is what changed. More to the point, he saw me."
Saying it, reliving it, she shuddered, swallowed another mouthful of vodka.
Again Nick waited, but she'd said all she was going to say. It was driving him crazy.
"What--he was hostile, unfriendly?"
She groaned, let her head roll back on the couch, eyes closed.
"Nick, Nick, Nick
. You're like--you're like a dripping fucking faucet. You know that? All these years. I mean, you know I think it's great, you wanting to chase everything down, wanting to get the story straight, but every now and then--can't you just let up
Nick looked down at his notebook. He had written GROSSMAN in block capitals, then drawn a box around it. Black lines radiated outwards.
"Did you ask him why he walked out of the clinic?" he said.
Barb brought the cigarette to her mouth and sucked down smoke.
Excerpted from Spiral by Joseph Geary. Copyright © 2003 by Joseph Geary. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.