Nobody died that year. Nobody prospered. There were no births or marriages. Seventeen reverent satires were written—disrupting a cliché and, presumably, creating a genre. That was a dream, of course, but many of the most important things, I find, are the ones learned in your sleep. Speech, tennis, music, skiing, manners, love—you try them waking and perhaps balk at the jump, and then you're over. You've caught the rhythm of them once and for all, in your sleep at night. The city, of course, can wreck it. So much insomnia. So many rhythms collide. The salesgirl, the landlord, the guests, the bystanders, sixteen varieties of social circumstance in a day. Everyone has the power to call your whole
life into question here. Too many people have access to your state of mind. Some people are indifferent to dislike, even relish it. Hardly anyone I know.
"It is only stupid to put up the sails when the wind is against," the wife of the Italian mineral-water tycoon said, on the deck of their beautiful schooner, which had remained
all the summer in port. "Because then you lose them."
A large rat crossed my path last night on Fifty-seventh Street. It came out from under a wooden fence at a vacant lot near Bendel's, paused for traffic, and then streaked across to the uptown sidewalk, sat awhile in the dark, and vanished. It was my second rat this week. The first was in a Greek restaurant where there are lap-height sills under all the windows. The rat ran along the sills, straight toward, then past me.
"See that?" Will said, sipping from his beer glass.
"Large mouse," I said. "Even nice hotels have small mice now, in the bars and lobbies." I had last seen Will in Oakland; before that, in Louisiana. He does law. Then something, perhaps a startled sense of my own peripheral vision, registered on my left, coming toward my face fast. My fork clattered.
"You were all right, there," Will said, grinning, "until you lost your cool."
The second rat, of course, may have been the first rat farther uptown, in which case I am either being followed or the rat keeps the same rounds and hours I do. I think sanity, however, is the most profound moral option of our time. Two rats, then. Cabdrivers can't even hear directions through those new partitions, which don't seem to me really bulletproof, although, of course, I've never checked it. Soundproof. One's fingers jam, certainly, in the new receptacles for money. Well, somebody sold the partitions. Someone bought them. Crooked, clearly. There doesn't seem to be a spirit of the times. When I started to get out of bed at an unlikely early morning hour, Will, who pitches into sleep as violently as his waking life is gentle, said, "Just stay here. Angst
is common." I did find a cab home, in the rain, outside an armory.
"To the Dow-Jones averages," the father said, raising his glass. It was his sixty-eighth birthday. His hair and mustache were silvery.
"Each in his own way," the son said with a little smile. He was not a radical. He had been selling short. They laughed. The entire family—even the grandchildren, at their separate table—drank. The moment passed.
Alone in the sports car, speeding through the countryside, I sang along with the radio station, tuned way up. Not the happiest of songs, Janis Joplin, not in any terms; but one ofthe nicest lines. "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose." In a way, I guess.
"There are no tears here," the young construction worker said at the funeral, when the ancient union leader, with two strokes, three heart attacks, and a lung condition, died at
"True," the priest said, surveying the mourners in the cathedral. "No tears. Either the wake went on too long or he was a hard, hard man."
"The rest are never going to die," a young black politician said with great bitterness. "You see them staggering out of their limousines. All Irish, all senile, all strokes. The union
men. Even their wives have cardiac conditions. But I know it now. They are never going to die."
"They'll die, all right," the priest said, judiciously. "There's not one of them under seventy-six. You'll see. Your time will come."
"To the future, then," the black politician said.
"Shall we go to your place or to Elaine's?" the young man asked. It was 3 A.M. He was recently divorced. The same question must have been being put just then in cabs throughout New York. "To Elaine's," I said. That was where we went. To Elaine's, to the Dow-Jones averages, to the future, then, to preserve the domestic tranquility. Freedom means nothing left; cab change receptacles are hearing aids in which one's fingers jam—when the clips are coming in quite fast, it's like waking up and trying to orient the bed. Which side can the wall be on, which side is uptown, downtown, which town is it, anyway? In some of the best motels, near airports, along highways, they have Magic Fingers, a device which, for one quarter put into a metal box, shakes the bed for sixty seconds and sends you quietly to sleep. There are no fingers about it. It is more like sleeping on a train when the tracks are good. A sticker on the metal box says that you can have Magic Fingers in your own home. I don't know anyone who has.
I work for a tabloid, the Standard Evening Sun
. Since I got this job, I have gone out with four sons of famous fathers, two businessmen with unfinished novels, three writers with a habit of saying "May I use that" when I said something that seemed to them in character, and a revolutionary editor who patted my hair and said "You're very sweet" whenever I asked him anything. I have sat, shivering on cold steps, with a band of fifteen radicals of whom ten were in analysis and six wore contact lenses. Things have changed very much, several times, since I grew up, and, like everyone in New York except the intellectuals, I have led several lives and I still lead some of them.
For a while, I thought I had no real interests—no theater, concerts, museums, stamp collections. Only ambitions and ties to people, of a certain intensity. Different sorts of people. I was becoming a ward heeler of the emotional life. Now the ambitions have drifted after the interests. I have lost my sense of the whole. I wait for events to take a form. I remember somebody saying, "You've got to steep
yourself in things." So I steeped
myself, in thrillers, commercials, news magazines. The same person used to write "tepid" and "arguable" all over the margins of what our obituary writers wrote. I now think "tepid" and "arguable" several times a day.
In the country, where I grew up, there were never so many events. Things never went quite so flat. The house was nearly always asleep and we spoke very low. When Father got up at six for his ride or his swim before breakfast, the children, having gone to bed well after midnight, were sleeping. When he came back from his office at noon, the children, pale and silent, joined him for his lunch and their breakfast. After lunch, Father had his nap, and at three Mother, having seen him off again to the office, went upstairs to rest for an hour. The family was awake and together only at supper, after which Father went to his room and Mother stayed downstairs a few minutes to talk to the children. Twenty hours out of twenty-four, in short, the hush of sleep layover the house. Nobody thought of waking anybody. Sometimes a stupid child would tie a firecracker to a crayfish or a frog just once, and light the fuse. Or give a piece of sugar to a raccoon, which in its odd fastidiousness would wash that sugar in a brook till there was nothing left.
But here. I used to wonder why the victims of some small sensational tragedy—the parents of a little girl who had just been thrown from the roof of her tenement by a deranged older boy, or the family of a model son who had just gone clear out of his mind and murdered a friend—never shut the door in my face when I came for an interview. They never do. They open the door; they bring out the family album and the baby anecdotes. I used to think it was out of a loyalty to memory, or a will to have the papers get it right. I still think it's partly that, and partly being stunned by publicity and grief. But now I know it's mostly an agony of trying to please, a cast of mind so deep and amiable that it is as stark in consciousness as death.
In the matter of Doberman pinschers, I like dogs that are large and hairy and friendly and sleep a lot, with sad eyes behind the hair. When I was young, there was a lady on our road who had a Doberman pinscher, bred sharp, vicious, and streamlined, as they all are, like a honed wolf. It meant that whenever a neighborhood child was riding along the tar road on his bicycle, if the Doberman was out, there had to be an immediate leap from the bicycle, and a crouching on bruised knees behind a high stone wall, before the owner called her
dog back. The dog was devoted to the lady, who, as it happened, did have cancer. For years, I thought of the devotion of Dobermans to their owners, and their savagery to others, as something almost in their favor. Almost. Then I read a newspaper story about a Doberman that had turned, after many years, upon its mistress, an old lady. When they found her the next morning, it turned out that the lady must have run from room to room, trying to shut the door before the dog got to her, just too feeble or perhaps unbelieving to escape it. A love story gone off the tracks, one could say in a disillusioned moment. Far off.
From time to time, I work with Will at the foundation, rewriting requests for grants. No such job technically exists, but that's what I do. I try to recycle the film-is-the-medium
and the cable-television-for-the-ghetto people, and help the Blake fanatics and the street reformers who work very hard. Sometimes I miss, or lose, the point. Late-sleeping utopians,
especially, persist like mercury. I am a fanatic myself, although not a woman of temperament. I get nervous at scenes. I stole a washcloth once from a motel in Angkor Wat. The bellboy was incensed. I had to give it back. To promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity—I believe all that. I go to parties almost whenever I am asked. I think a high tone of moral indignation, used too often, is an ugly thing. I get up at eight. Quite often now I have a drink before eleven. In some ways, I have overshot my mark in life in spades.
I was lying on a Mediterranean boat deck, on a windless day. It was odd that I should be there, but no more odd than my work, or the slums, or the places where people do find
themselves as their luck shifts. A girl of eighteen was taking the sun with great seriousness. The rest of our party were swimming, or playing cards below, or drinking hard. The girl
was blond, shy, and laconic. After two hours of silence, in that sun, she spoke. "When you have a tan," she said, "what have you got?"
I have zoomed around a lot in the brief times between months of idling. I have a tendency to get stuck in places. In spring, 1967, I was stuck in Luxor, Egypt. I had been
sent to Cairo by the paper. There were loudspeakers and angry rallies in the streets: I went to the pyramids and rode a camel. Then, I went to a briefing at the embassy. The foreign minister spoke of Israeli options and attrition. I wrote it down. I took a plane, an Ilyushin, to Luxor and looked at the tombs there. I arrived for my flight back to Cairo three hours early. So did others. We were told that our flight had been taken over by an American Bible-tour group called "Nine Days in the Holy Land," whose own flight had been cancelled. The scheduled people with reservations were all planeless. I was frantic. I began to cry at the desk of an airport official. He wrote it down. One of the Bible tour's two leaders said that if a
single person from his group was left off the plane the tour would never again come to Egypt. I wondered where else they were going to take their "Nine Days in the Holy Land" to. Anaheim, Azusa, Cucamonga. I was desperate. The Egyptian pilot looked at me a second. Just before takeoff, he led me to the cockpit, where I sat, with one of the group's two guides, beside him. The threatening tour guide had been left behind. We flew with a certain exhilaration. A few days after that, there was the war.
I know someone who is trying to get rid of a myna bird—I mean, find a loving owner. For a year now, he has spent half an hour each day underneath a dark cloth with the bird and a timer. He says hello, hello, hello for the entire session. The bird says nothing. It sometimes squawks at sunrise. Then there is the question of apartments. Lucas, who has the
desk beside mine at the paper, moved into a place where the last tenant somehow left a lonely cat. Lucas is one of the nicest people I know; he has an allergy to cat hairs. He called
everyone he knew. Finally, he heard of someone who already had four cats. He called her. "Well, you see, I already have four cats," the girl said. "I know," Lucas answered. He just
thought maybe a fifth . . . "No, no," the girl said. "I mean four extra
cats. Somebody gave me." There was a pause. "Oh, what the hell," she said. Lucas brought the ninth cat over. Next door, there is a twelve-year-old who wants to give her rabbit to somebody with a happy home out in the country. She is obsessed with the idea that the wrong kind of person might take the rabbit in bad faith and eat it. She thinks somebody ate her gerbil. No one eats gerbils. It is strange to think that most of the children under six whom one knows and loves, gives presents to, whatever, are not going to remember most emotional events of those first years, on the couch, or in jail, or in a bank, wherever they may find themselves when they are twenty-five.
I have been lucky, in my work, at getting visas to closed places. My family have all kept fresh, renewed passports ever since my parents left Europe before the war. Paul-Ernst was my father's name when he was German. It became Pablo when he bought a Costa Rican passport. He was Paulo when we all became Italians in Lugano. Now he's Paul on nights
when he, improbably, plays poker. My own mind is a tenement. Some elevators work. There are orange peels and muggings in the halls. Squatters and double locks on some floors, a few flowered window boxes, half-dressed bachelors cooling on the outside fire steps; plaster falls. Sometimes it seems that this may be a nervous breakdown—sleeping all day, tears,
insomnia at midnight, and again at four A.M. Then it occurs to me that a lot of people have it. Or, of course, worse. There was the time I had blue triangles on the edges of my feet.
Triangles, darker every day, isosceles. I thought, leukemia. I waited a few days and watched. It turned out that whenever I, walking barefoot, put out the garbage on the landing, I held the apartment door open, bending over from the rear. The door would cross a bit over the tops of my bare feet. That was all—triangle bruises. I took a little celebrational nap.
"I yield to myself," the congressman said, at the start of the speech with which he was about to enter history, "as much time as I will consume."
He was on the phone. I will ask her to dinner, he thought. I will accept her invitation to a party. I will laugh at whatever seems to constitute a joke in her mind, if she will only permit
me, with the pact of affection still securely in our voices, to hang up. She continued to talk through her end of the phone, though. When he sounded unamused, her voice seemed to
reproach him. When he tried an animated tone, she seemed encouraged to continue. She kept patting every sentence along the line with a little crazy laugh.
I don't know how many people have ever seen or passed through Broadway Junction. It seems to me one of the world's true wonders: nine crisscrossing, overlapping elevated tracks, high in the air, with subway cars screeching, despite uncanny slowness, over thick rusted girders, to distant, sordid places. It might have been created by an architect with an Erector Set and recurrent amnesia, and city ordinances and graft, this senseless ruined monster of all subways, in the air. Not far away, there is that Brownsville section of crushed, hollowed houses, an immense metropolis in ruins with an occasional junkie, corpse, demented soul intent upon an errand where no errand can exist. There can't even be rats, unless they're feeding on each other. Then, Just on the edge of this deserted strangeness, there begins a little neighborhood of sorts, with tenants, funeral homes, groceries, one or two policemen. Once, along the border street, I saw an endless line of Cadillacs, with men in suits and hats, with chauffeurs and manicures and somber faces. An owner of a liquor store had passed on to the funeral home. The Italians who run that community were paying their respects. The actual street neighbors seemed divided between obligations to the dear departed and protocols toward the men in Cadillacs. Nothing for the foundation here. Nothing for the paper, either. No events.
"Any dreams?" the doctor asked his patient softly, tentatively, as we used to say in the child's card game, "Any aces? Any tens?"
In actual fact, the lady on the Boeing 707 from Zurich was talking to me about seaweed. I had just come from St. Moritz and she from Gstaad. Nearly all the other passengers were in casts from skiing. Her husband had invented a calorie-free spaghetti made from seaweed. He had invented other seaweed products, including a seaweed sauce for the spaghetti. He was the world's yet unacknowledged living authority on seaweed and its many uses. She was quite eloquent about it. I was interested for nearly seven hours. My capacity for having a good time exists. It surfaces, however, on odd occasions. Everybody's capacity for having a good time. It must have been fun before the casts, and there will always be another season. The man who hurls himself in order to be the last person through the closing doors of an already overcrowded subway pushes, after all, some timid souls in front
of him. Maybe the stresses of winding toward the millennium.
"Well, you know. His wife was chased by an elephant."
"Yes. It was too awful. They were watching the elephants, when she simply fell down. The elephant ran over and knelt on her. She was in the hospital for months."
"Quite different from anything she ever got from Roger, I expect."
Day after day, when I still worked at the Forty-second Street branch of the public library, I saw the same young man, bearded, intense, cleaning his fingernails on the corners
of the pages of a book. "What are you studying for?" I asked him once. The numbers were flashing over the counter as the books came up. "Research," he said. "I'm writing my autobiography." There are certainly odd people in that reading room—one who doodles the same bird endlessly on the back of a half of a single bank check, one who hums all the time,
and one who keeps asking the other two to stop. A little pantomime concerto. I quit that job soon. The trouble is, I sometimes understand that research project. Or I did understand it. Then.
"What a riot!" a girl of about twenty-five, not thin, exclaimed as the de Havilland Otter started down the runway of the Fishers Island airport. "Is this a toy or an airplane?" a young man with a sparse mustache asked nervously. "I paid for my ticket twice. They pulled the Fishers Island–New York section by mistake, in Groton. Now there's this."
"It's all right," I said. "I was in a plane like this when I was studying crisis conditions in Southeast Asia. They have outhouses behind their huts, over the rivers. Then they eat
the river carp. Ecology. Everyone trusted these planes. The worry was just bombs and mortars. They seemed most concerned about the local cockfights. Gamecocks. I had never
seen one till I went there. Ben. Tre. It no longer exists. For flights I have these pills."
"The Wright Brothers' special," the Fishers Island girl continued. A clattering began under the floor of the plane's midsection. All ten passengers started their own tones of laughter. The clattering was overlaid with creaking. "Can you believe it?" the girl said. "It's fantastic."
"The most fun is when you hit the clouds and have to pedal," a sailor said. He was stationed in Groton. The plane incessantly jarred, bounced, and tilted. I counted and found
I had enough painkilling pills for everyone. "I always pack too much whenever I travel," a lady said quite loudly as the windows fogged. "We're moving from New York. My son has been mugged six times. He's just eleven. We can't keep buying him new watches." She went on like that. The two-ticket man held on to my wrist so tightly that my own watch left marks for hours after, on the white ring watches leave inside a tan. We landed at LaGuardia. The young man let go.
Another weekend. Any dreams. P.O. Box 1492.
Excerpted from Speedboat by Renata Adler; Afterword by Guy Trebay. Copyright © 2013 by Renata Adler; Afterword by Guy Trebay. Excerpted by permission of NYRB Classics, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.