Well, when the pipeline gets broken and I’m
lost on the river bridge
I’m all cracked up on the highway and in the
Here she comes down the thruway ready to
sew me up with thread...
My new best friend had flown to Germany. Once again, the lure of the cash-stuffed envelope had proved irresistible. To honor a drunken pledge to Willi, his German agent (“He’s a good guy, Willi. A mensch.”), Pearse Corcoran had torn himself away from “the newborn babe” (his new manuscript; the thing was experiencing a sudden growth spurt). He was scheduled to do three readings; one in Berlin, one in Hamburg and one in a giant fish tank, at “a really cool neo-FLUXUS happening” in Frankfurt. He sent me an annoying text from Hamburg Airport: RECEVNG AWARD TONITE. SHOULD I MENTION KISSNG BLARNEY STONE? (My reply, unsent: SIT + SPIN AMERICAN JACKASS)
I honestly didn’t give a monkey’s what he did over there. What did interest me—very much—was how his trip affected Janine. While he flirted at wine and cheese receptions with leggy blonde dilettantes, his beautiful, raven-haired wife would be sitting at home, alone. (Why hadn’t she gone with him? How could he bear to be parted from his bride of seven months? Had it been my choice, nothing could have made me leave her side—Wild horses / wild wild horses—but it wasn’t my choice; it was his. The knowledge stung.)
Pearse had left New York on Wednesday night. He would be gone for a whole ten days. This triggered a fresh flurry of erotic daydreams. In each unrated scene, I got to know Janine a lot better—Reader, move your hips with mine: A lot lot better. In reality, I had no excuse to call her, no pretext for insinuating myself into that lovely presence. My so-called friendship with The Pearse Corcorans was in its very early stages: it wouldn’t do to overstep the bounds—not yet, not yet. At the same time, I had a powerful craving just to SEE the woman. To sit alone with her for half an hour in that feng-shui-compliant living room would be a kind of bliss. But how to score an invite to the apartment up on 89th and Lex? Of course: The Borrowed Book Ruse.
“Janine, hello. I’m calling because I lent Pearse a book (a picture book about Ireland!) and now, suddenly, I need it back. Can I drop by this afternoon to get it?” A weak lie but functional. I called the Corcoran residence (throat dry, constricted) and got the answering machine. I didn’t leave a message—Cold feet. Called again an hour later. Again the machine:“You’ve reached Pearse and Janine. Please leave—” (Where was she? Out partying. With whom?) I tried a third time, as dusk was falling. No one picked up. Where the hell was she?
Painful, strange: To have her spinning round in my brain at all hours of the day and night and to be so physically cut off. With Pearse away, it was starting to look like I might not be able to get to her; the gate to the magic garden was locked. Why not trust to luck, just turn up unannounced? “I happened to be passing..” No, it wouldn’t fly: She’d take a very poor view of a surprise visit. It lacked propriety, decorum. One thing I knew about Janine Corcoran: She was really into decorum.
Her mother had been a famous Dutch beauty. The father, born in Nagasaki, was the film star–handsome scion of a family of samurai-diplomats. They met and fell in love while working at the UN in the mid-70s. They were married aboard a paddle steamer crossing the Mekong Delta... Their best man was Marguerite Duras… You get the picture. (My Yellow Fever Notebooks—as yet unpublished—contain several references to Mrs. Corcoran as “a shining gem of miscegenation.” You may cringe at the phrase’s 19th-century ring but it describes her well.)
Thanks to Pearse’s Stroke-My-Already-Huge-Ego book tour, the gem was out of sight, out of reach. She haunted my CD collection (Billie, of course:“You go to my head…”; Miles and Gil’s “Summertime,” “Tanya”), my hours at work, my trips to the deli, the diner, the bar; she haunted my reading. I happened to be in the middle of Saikaku’s Life of an Amorous Woman, the Morris translation; she was all over it. Small wonder, too, that she turned up late one night in Baudelaire; a sadly arousing glimpse, courtesy of the enemy of families:
It was not a temple set in bosky shades,
Where the young priestess, in love with the flowers,
Went forth, her body burning with secret heats,
Half-opening her robe to the passing breezes…
I’d first clapped eyes on Janine in early September. I’ve thought a lot about our initial meeting, which occurred at one o’clock on a Friday morning. I’d been drinking with the great man and two of his goateed clown-sycophants in a bar in Soho. “Come back,” Pearse said to me as we were leaving. “Come back and have a nightcap. I want you to meet the missus.” I begged an early start but he insisted. We got a cab. Just the two of us. Ten minutes later, we walked in, she stood up. That face, that voice, that body—I was not prepared. Picture three arrows coming out of the dark—thunk—thunk—thunk—“He’s hit!”—Head, heart, groin. The poison was swift-acting, certain, but it still took me more than a week to fully grasp what had happened; that I was head over heels in love with the wife of a man I detested.
Please don’t waste time and energy imagining me stuck in my little apartment, sunk in gloom, staring at the phone on the kitchen table. Sure, I did a bit of that, and I smoked and I drank while I stared, but there was limited time for brooding. After all, I was an ambitious author too, and intent on promoting MY new book. I had also been invited to read—the next day, in fact, at a public library in rural Pennsylvania. All right, it wasn’t Berlin, it wasn’t Tokyo, it wasn’t the Frankfurt Book Fair. You go where the gigs are. This one had been organized by Karl Barker, My Number One Fan In All The World. Generous as ever, Karl was paying for my bus ticket as well as giving me a small honorarium. As Rockburgh, PA’s, self-appointed culture-bringer, Karl had undertaken to “get the word out” locally. There would be a meet and greet with light refreshments back at his place afterwards. He anticipated a good turnout.
My main reason for accepting Karl’s invitation to read in far-flung Rockburgh was that Graham Dent would be there. Dent was a friend and neighbor of Karl’s and a fellow Gorky’s Skullcap author. Illustrious stablemate! Noble soul! When I thought about Pearse in relation to Dent, I wanted to laugh. Pearse Corcoran: a pompous, pretentious, tirelessly self-promoting, untalented hack. Graham Dent: a fine craftsman, a gentleman-scholar, quite possibly a genius. Back in 2003, GD had published an outstanding novel.
I’d read Plautius’s Wife twice. It was a remarkable achievement; a small masterpiece. To add to Dent’s prestige, he was the much-respected senior editor at Cracked Skylight, one of the coolest small presses in North America. For more than three years I’d wanted to shake his pale patrician paw. I know what you’re thinking, I know what you’re thinking—and you’re not wrong. Look, face it: the book biz is a stinking cesspit. To get ahead in this racket, you MUST have friends in high places. If the day proved auspicious and the reading went well, I meant to have a nice clean copy of The Organ Grinder’s Breakfast, a work-in-progress, on hand. The time was ripe to surrender my manuscript, with a shy smile, to Graham, my future editor, mentor and friend.
The night before the reading, I made a light supper—some gin, a steak and kidney pie—and retired to bed early. No trawling the Web into the wee hours searching for Janine stand-ins cavorting in the raw: Tomorrow, I told myself, you’ll need to have your wits about you.
Around ten p.m., I started to feel slightly ‘off’—a scratchy throat, a vague malaise. Shrugged it off and hit the sack. Thanks to the soporific effects of the gin and Dr. Morris’s footnotes, I soon dozed off. At some point during the night, Janine appeared: she was the new courtesan everyone was talking about, “the New Komachi.”
I dreamt I was on my way to the Yoshiwara for our long-delayed assignation. It was the spring of 1660-something and I was disguised as an itinerant Zen monk. As I was about to enter the pleasure quarter, I was jumped by bandits. They beat the shit out of me and stole my money pouch, my upside down waste paper basket hat or tengai, my black monk’s robes, my bamboo flute… The scene shifted: Pearse, wearing a carnival mask—some Egyptian god—subjected me to a lecture on French New Wave cinema (Him lecturing me!). I awoke around dawn, sick as a dog. I had the shivers, my nose was all stuffed up, my throat was raw. I dragged myself to the bathroom, coughing as I went. Back in bed, in the grips of hot and cold sweats, I drifted miserably in and out of sleep. At around eight thirty, I dragged myself out of bed again and crawled to the shower. Sitting in the kitchen afterwards, panting and sneezing with a wet towel on my head, I asked myself, Can I really do this? It was a cold grey Saturday in mid October. I had less than forty minutes to make the Rockburgh bus. (Only two buses a day service that part of Pennsylvania—Barker’s country seat was far out in the sticks). I stared at the phone. I was seriously thinking of calling Karl to cry off. I actually reached for the receiver—what stopped me was the thought of Graham Dent. Who knew when I’d get another chance to kick off our beautiful friendship?
Important as it was to make the Dent connection, the goad that drove me out the door that morning was the thought of Pearse on his European tour. In my mind’s eye, I saw him standing at a lectern in a hushed, cream-walled gallery space under sexy track lighting. He was in his navy blue corduroy jacket, smirking, confident, completely at ease. I saw his lips move as he began to read from that sugar-dipped abomination, Finbar’s Secret. I saw his audience; a roomful of tall, black-booted daughters of the Rhine, all gazing adoringly at his designer stubble. That vision propelled me, coughing and spitting, towards Penn Station. The clown prince of New York Times bestsellers was out there, doing his shtick. I could and would—indeed I must—do mine. Be they ever so humble, the people of Rockburgh deserved to hear some good prose for a change.
How was the bus ride, Locklin?”
“I don’t know.”
Karl Barker, seated at the wheel of his olive green Subaru Forester, gave me a quick, anxious glance. I wasn’t being coy—I really didn’t know. I assume the bus ride happened: I was too sick to pay much attention. I spent the trip either staring out the window at the same telephone pole whipping by or else lying curled up with my eyes shut, trying to sleep. Fortunately, the bus was almost empty; no one ventured to sit beside me. The journey was not entirely without incident. At some point, fever spiking, I realized I was on the wrong bus. Sweet Jesus, we weren’t going to Pennsylvania. Due to some hideous error, we were pointed instead towards malodorous, demon-shadowed Innsmouth. This unpleasant fantasy stemmed from the driver’s unusually repellent appearance; with his narrow head, squashed-flat nose and unblinking fishlike eyes, he bore a striking resemblance to Joe Sargent, the bus driver in Lovecraft’s famous tale. Had I an inkling of the real-life horrors that awaited me later that day at Karl Barker’s farmhouse, I would have ordered him, at knifepoint, to alter course—away, away from Rockburgh. (“Blasphemous fish-frog! Take me you your hell-home by the sea!”)
But foreknowledge was in short supply that day: one o’clock found me sitting in the passenger seat of Karl Barker’s car, being chauffeured through the Rockburgh hinterland. The good man had been waiting for me when my bus pulled up in front of the decrepit Dairy Queen. Karl Barker: Late 50s, pleasantly plump, with a full shock of snow-white hair. Soulful brown eyes blinking under bushy black brows (Think Milo O’Shea as Durand Durand in Barbarella). I didn’t know much about my host; this was only the third time we’d met. From our two previous encounters, both in the city, and half a dozen e-mails, I knew he loved books, wine, classic music and Barack Obama. He was happily married to a retired hedge fund manager named Susan, now a serious ceramicist. They had no children but they did have cats and dogs. In the early 00s, the couple had bought and fixed up an old farmhouse in the state’s northeast corner. Shallow Brook wasn’t a working farm but the Barkers did keep a pair of goats and some chickens.
My host could see and hear that the traveler from New York City was unwell. Nevertheless, he tried to engage me in cheerful conversation as we drove along:
“I’m looking forward to hearing you read, Locklin. What will you give us? Something from Señor Anticristo, or something new?”
“Well..” I paused to blow my nose. “I just wrote a poem about fucking the wife of a hated acquaintance.. I might read that.”
Sensing I was in no mood to chitchat, Karl put a classical CD in the car’s player: Songs of Unremitting Gloom by Pablo Casals and The Wrist Slasher Four. Not a moment too soon, we turned in at the gate of Shallow Brook Farm. We were met at the front door by a petite middle-aged redhead—Karl’s wife, Susan. She was all smiles, a picture of rustic creativity in her powder blue potter’s smock and clay-spattered Levis. We shook hands. She apologized that she hadn’t had time to change: she’d been out the back, “breaking in the new kiln.” Host and hostess led me into a large high-ceilinged room. Long wooden beams. Persian rugs. A big wooden dining table with tall wooden chairs. Center stage, a big fireplace. A newly-built fire, struggling gamely. In front of the fireplace, a gigantic yellow couch. Very inviting. Karl led me over and we sat down—Rather, he sat, I collapsed.
Karl looked at me with genuine concern:
“Locklin, are you all right?”
“I’m fine. Bit below par. Flu.”
“What about a nice cup of tea and a couple of aspirin?”
“Of course.” He called out to Susan, who was making noises off, in the kitchen: “Honey, can we open the Green Point, please?” Turning back to his guest: “I hope you’ll try an Australian Shiraz?”
“I’ll try anything once.”
“That’s the spirit. Now, let’s see if we can get this fire going..”
Listlessly, I watched him add a log, a few twigs, some newspaper. He poked around with the tongs. Staring at the flames, I heard the cheerful sound of a popping cork. Karl straightened up and glanced at his watch.
“Hon, did Graham call?”
“Yes, sorry, he did call. They’re running late. They’ll be here by a quarter to.”
“Excellent.” Karl smiled at me. “Graham’s bringing his daughter Emily to hear you read.”
“She’s a delightful little girl. We’re very fond of her.”
“Great.. Nice fire, Karl..”
I think I must have dozed off for a minute because the next thing I knew Susan was at my elbow, handed me a large glass of red.
“Here you are, Locklin. This will put some color back in your cheeks.”
Three glasses clinked—To our rustic salon! I took a big sip. Not bad, not bad..
I felt a sudden surge of energy. Things are looking up, I thought. The bus ride from hell is behind me. I’m here. I’ve scored some wine. I feel like refried shit but that’s all right. Dent will be here soon. With his little daughter, who wants to hear me read.
Another sip: “How old is the daughter?”
“She just turned eleven, didn’t she, Susan?”
“She’s ten. She’s extremely smart, Locklin, and a real sweetheart. She’s just started her own environmental organization.”
What the world needs now, I thought. Ten is a great age. I’ll show her a few simple card tricks. On the ride home: “Daddy, that nice Irishman was so nice and so much fun! Are you going to publish his book?”
I raised my glass:
“Thanks for having me, Karl and Susan.”
“You’re very welcome, Locklin. Here’s to a great reading.”
More convivial glass-clinking. Followed by one of those awkward conversational pauses. Karl took the reins:
“While we’re waiting for them, why don’t I give you the grand tour?”
Susan frowned: “Honey—”
“What am I saying? You’re sick. You should rest, conserve your strength—”
I took a big swallow and set my glass down.
I enjoyed my quick inspection of the Barker demesne. I was shown the new kiln and the tumbledown barn. I met the two pet goats, the newly hatched chicks and the one-eyed ginger tomcat. I took a turn petting Gilbert and George, two rather endearingly senile red setters. Ten minutes later, I was in the Barkers’ upstairs toilet, leaning over the sink, recovering from a strenuous bout of coughing. The window was slightly open: I heard the slow crackle of gravel under tires. Dent and daughter, in-coming. Before going down, I gave myself a quick once-over in the mirror. Face pale and blotchy. Red nose, red-rimmed eyes. Start of a herpes blister on my lower lip. You look like hell. At least I’d turned up. It showed character. Graham, with his well-documented admiration for stoically uncomplaining Roman soldiers, might be impressed. Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Tony Bennett.. This could be the start of something big… I came downstairs. My heart, while not quite a-flutter, was definitely beating faster than usual.
I walked into the living room. They were sitting by the fire. Karl on the couch, Dent beside him in a high-backed wicker chair. No sign of Susan or the little girl. Karl stood up when he saw me. Dent did the same.
“Ah, Locklin! There you are..”
“Here I am.”
“Locklin Plunkett, Graham Dent.”
Meeting at the Elbe. I stepped forward, hand outstretched:
“It’s a pleasure, an honor.”
I recognized him immediately from his photo (the Salon interview?). Pale blue eyes, a lean, aristocratic face, John Lennon glasses, a neatly trimmed dark brown beard. He was very tall. His handshake was firm. Conradian. His smile—Not cold, no, but not terribly warm either. Reserved.
“Good to meet you, Locklin.”
“Plautius’s Wife is a masterpiece.”
“Thank you. You’re very kind.”
“No, I mean it. That scene where Pomponia pleads for the life of the runaway slave is—It’s incredibly moving. There isn’t a false note. Not a false note in the whole thing. I mean, the writing from start to finish is absolutely superb—”
“Thank you.. Thank you..”
“Come and sit by the fire, Locklin.”
I sat down beside Karl. Dent returned to his high-backed chair. I was red in the face, trembling. Get a grip, Plunkett. Stop gushing.
Dent gave me a smile:
“Sorry to hear you’re not feeling well.”
“Ah, it’s nothing. A touch of ’flu.”
A slight frown: “Emily just got over a nasty cold.”
I held up a hand:
“Don’t worry. I’ll keep my distance.”
A thin smile: “No, I didn’t mean that. I can’t keep my daughter wrapped in cotton wool, much as I’d like to, sometimes.”
“I know, I know..” (Stop nodding your head)
“Ah!” said Karl. “Here are the girls.”
The front door opened and Susan walked in. A well bundled up smaller figure slipped in behind her. Young Miss Dent was wearing a navy blue parka. The hood was up, hiding her face. Susan took off her grey duffel coat. She smiled at us:
“We said hello to Pan and Hecuba and we visited the new chicks.”
The little girl unzipped her parka and pushed back the hood. I stared at her.
Her pale complexion, long jet black hair, the general shape of her eyes—Reader, I got quite a shock. Put yourself in my shoes: you’re unwell, you’re in unfamiliar surroundings; suddenly, you find yourself face to face with the woman you love disguised as a ten-year-old. (“Innsmouth, Rockburgh, Ramsdale… Bus now leaving from Gate 13.”)
Sitting beside me on the couch, Karl leaned forward:
“Emily, come over here, please. I want you to meet a wonderful man from Dublin.”
While Emily trotted over to us, I quickly rearranged my features in what I hoped was a friendly (but not too friendly) smile. She stopped in front of Dent’s chair, head slightly bowed.
Father, gently prompting:
“Emily, say ‘hello.’ ”
Slowly, the head came up:
She was a strikingly pretty little girl. I could see, though, that my initial impression—that I’d come face to face with some sort of Janine Junior simulacrum—had no basis in fact. I was a victim of sensory overload: the processing center couldn’t handle the data. Adding to my confusion had been an assumption—a rather small-minded and naïve assumption—that any daughter of Dent would have to be a WASP. Never assume.
We sat together in front of the fire—me, Karl, Susan and Emily on the big couch, Graham in his high-backed chair—and talked about the state of the world. I nodded along with the others as Emily solemnly recited the litany of our woes. The U.S. must ratify Kyoto. Ethanol not the solution. The daily destruction of the rainforests. Thousands of species becoming extinct every year. The icecaps, melting, melting. By 2025, two thirds of the world’s population would be without safe drinking water and basic sanitation services. I must say, she had an excellent command of her facts. I couldn’t deny that ours was a world in crisis but at the same time, secretly, I had to wonder, did any of it matter? When a woman like Janine can be enjoyed night after night by a fool like Pearse Corcoran, does anything matter?
“Try the celery dip, Locklin. It’s good.”
“Give me your glass, then.”
As the minutes went by and the shock of meeting Emily Dent began to wear off, a winey wistfulness took possession of my soul. Twenty-five years ago, Janine probably did look a lot like this little girl. I could easily imagine my beloved, circa 1982, running around on grandpa’s farm in Holland. I had a sudden vision of her in brilliant summer sunshine, surrounded by goats and horses, cows and chickens. Blame the ’flu: Those pictures seemed unbearably poignant. At the same time, cutting through my reverie, curiosity had begun to stir. Where was the little girl’s mother? Was there a mother? Was she adopted? What was her relationship, precisely, to the tall, thin man in the high-backed chair? I’ll ask Karl and Susan later, I thought. They’ll fill me in.
Karl Barker stood up, glass in hand:
“Ladies and gentlemen, it’s coming on to two-thirty. Time to pay a visit to a fine old civic building, the Rockburgh Public Library.” He smiled at me: “Show time, Locklin.”
I raised my glass:
“To the bloody death of late-phase capitalism!”
Dent’s eyebrows went up. His daughter nodded
Meredith Brosnan is a writer and musician. His novel Mr. Dynamite was published in 2004.