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Oracle Nightby Paul Auster
I had been sick for a long time. When the day came for me to leave the hospital, I barely knew how to walk anymore, could barely remember who I was supposed to be. Make an effort, the doctor said, and in three or four months you'll be back in the swing of things. I didn't believe him, but I followed his advice anyway. They had given me up for dead, and now that I had confounded their predictions and mysteriously failed to die, what choice did I have but to live as though a future life were waiting for me?
I began with small outings, no more than a block or two from my apartment and then home again. I was only thirty-four, but for all intents and purposes the illness had turned me into an old man--one of those palsied, shuffling geezers who can't put one foot in front of the other without first looking down to see which foot is which. Even at the slow pace I could manage then, walking produced an odd, airy lightness in my head, a free-for-all of mixed-up signals and crossed mental wires. The world would bounce and swim before my eyes, undulating like reflections in a wavy mirror, and whenever I tried to look at just one thing, to isolate a single object from the onrush of whirling colors--a blue scarf wrapped around a woman's head, say, or the red taillight of a passing delivery truck--it would immediately begin to break apart and dissolve, disappearing like a drop of dye in a glass of water. Everything shimmied and wobbled, kept darting off in different directions, and for the first several weeks I had trouble telling where my body stopped and the rest of the world began. I bumped into walls and trash bins, got tangled up in dog leashes and scraps of floating paper, stumbled on the smoothest sidewalks. I had lived in New York all my life, but I didn't understand the streets and crowds anymore, and every time I went out on one of my little excursions, I felt like a man who had lost his way in a foreign city.
Summer came early that year. By the end of the first week of June, the weather had turned stagnant, oppressive, rank: day after day of torpid, greenish skies; the air clogged with garbage fumes and exhaust; heat rising from every brick and concrete slab. Still, I pushed on, forcing myself down the stairs and out into the streets every morning, and as the jumble in my head began to clear and my strength slowly returned, I was able to extend my walks into some of the more far-flung crevices of the neighborhood. Ten minutes became twenty minutes; an hour became two hours; two hours became three. Lungs gasping for air, my skin perpetually awash in sweat, I drifted along like a spectator in someone else's dream, watching the world as it chugged through its paces and marveling at how I had once been like the people around me: always rushing, always on the way from here to there, always late, always scrambling to pack in nine more things before the sun went down. I wasn't equipped to play that game anymore. I was damaged goods now, a mass of malfunctioning parts and neurological conundrums, and all that frantic getting and spending left me cold. For comic relief, I took up smoking again and whiled away the afternoons in air conditioned coffee shops, ordering lemonades and grilled cheese sandwiches as I listened in on conversations and worked my way through every article in three different newspapers. Time passed.
On the morning in question--September 18, 1982--I left the apartment somewhere between nine-thirty and ten o'clock. My wife and I lived in the Cobble Hill section of Brooklyn, midway between Brooklyn Heights and Carroll Gardens. I usually went north on my walks, but that morning I headed south, turning right when I came to Court Street and continuing on for six or seven blocks. The sky was the color of cement: gray clouds, gray air, gray drizzle borne along by gray gusts of wind. I have always had a weakness for that kind of weather, and I felt content in the gloom, not the least bit sorry that the dog days were behind us. About ten minutes after starting out, in the middle of the block between Carroll and President, I spotted a stationery store on the other side of the street. It was wedged in between a shoe-repair shop and a twenty-four-hour bodega, the only bright façade in a row of shabby, undistinguished buildings. I gathered that it hadn't been there long, but in spite of its newness, and in spite of the clever display in the window (towers of ballpoints, pencils, and rulers arranged to suggest the New York skyline), the Paper Palace looked too small to contain much of interest. If I decided to cross the street and go in, it must have been because I secretly wanted to start working again---without knowing it, without being aware of the urge that had been gathering inside me. I hadn't written anything since coming home from the hospital in May---not a sentence, not a word---and hadn't felt the slightest inclination to do so. Now, after four months of apathy and silence, I suddenly got it into my head to stock up on a fresh set of supplies: new pens and pencils, new notebook, new ink cartridges and erasers, new pads and folders, new everything.
A Chinese man was sitting behind the cash register in front. He appeared to be a bit younger than I was, and when I glanced through the window as I entered the store, I saw that he was hunched over a pad of paper, writing down columns of figures with a black mechanical pencil. In spite of the chill in the air that day, he was dressed in a short-sleeved shirt--one of those flimsy, loose-fitting summer things with an open collar--which accentuated the thinness of his coppery arms. The door made a tinkling sound when I pulled it open, and the man lifted his head for a moment to give me a polite nod of greeting. I nodded back, but before I could say anything to him, he lowered his head again and returned to his calculations.
The traffic out on Court Street must have hit a lull just then, or else the plate glass window was exceedingly thick, but as I started down the first aisle to investigate the store, I suddenly realized how quiet it was in there. I was the first customer of the day, and the stillness was so pronounced that I could hear the scratching of the man's pencil behind me. Whenever I think about that morning now, the sound of that pencil is always the first thing that comes back to me. To the degree that the story I am about to tell makes any sense, I believe this was where it began--in the space of those few seconds, when the sound of that pencil was the only sound left in the world.
I made my way down the aisle, pausing after every second or third step to examine the material on the shelves. Most of it turned out to be standard office- and school-supply stuff, but the selection was remarkably thorough for such a cramped place, and I was impressed by the care that had gone into stocking and arranging such a plethora of goods, which seemed to include everything from six different lengths of brass fasteners to twelve different models of paper clip. As I rounded the corner and began moving down the other aisle toward the front, I noticed that one shelf had been given over to a number of high-quality imported items: leather-bound pads from Italy, address books from France, delicate rice-paper folders from Japan. There was also a stack of notebooks from Germany and another one from Portugal. The Portuguese notebooks were especially attractive to me, and with their hard covers, quadrille lines, and stitched-in signatures of sturdy, unblottable paper, I knew I was going to buy one the moment I picked it up and held it in my hands. There was nothing fancy or ostentatious about it. It was a practical piece of equipment--stolid, homely, serviceable, not at all the kind of blank book you'd think of offering someone as a gift. But I liked the fact that it was cloth-bound, and I also liked the shape: nine and a quarter by seven and a quarter inches, which made it slightly shorter and wider than most notebooks. I can't explain why it should have been so, but I found those dimensions deeply satisfying, and when I held the notebook in my hands for the first time, I felt something akin to physical pleasure, a rush of sudden, incomprehensible well-being. There were just four notebooks left on the pile, and each one came in a different color: black, red, brown, and blue. I chose the blue, which happened to be the one lying on top.
It took about five more minutes to track down the rest of the things I'd come for, and then I carried them to the front of the shop and placed them on the counter. The man gave me another one of his polite smiles and started punching the keys on his cash register, ringing up the amounts of the various items. When he came to the blue notebook, however, he paused for a moment, held it up in the air, and ran his fingertips lightly over the cover. It was a gesture of appreciation, almost a caress.
"Lovely book," he said, in heavily accented English. "But no more. No more Portugal. Very sad story."
I couldn't follow what he was saying, but rather than put him on the spot and ask him to repeat it, I mumbled something about the charm and simplicity of the notebook and then changed the subject.
"Have you been in business long?" I asked. "It looks so new and clean in here."
"One month," he said. "Grand opening on August ten."
As he announced this fact, he seemed to stand up a little straighter, throwing out his chest with boyish, military pride, but when I asked him how business was going, he gently placed the blue notebook on the counter and shook his head. "Very slow. Many disappointments." As I looked into his eyes, I understood that he was several years older than I'd thought at first---at least thirty-five, perhaps even forty. I made some lame remark about hanging in there and giving things a chance to develop, but he merely shook his head again and smiled.
"Always my dream to own store," he said. "Store like this with pens and paper, my big American dream. Business for all people, right?"
"Right," I said, still not exactly sure what he was talking about.
"Everybody make words," he continued. "Everybody write things down. Children in school do lessons in my books. Teachers put grades in my books. Love letters sent in envelopes I sell. Ledgers for accountants, pads for shopping lists, agendas for planning week. Everything in here important to life, and that make me happy, give honor to my life."
The man delivered his little speech with such solemnity, such a grave sense of purpose and commitment, I confess that I felt moved. What kind of stationery store owner was this, I wondered, who expounded to his customers on the metaphysics of paper, who saw himself as serving an essential role in the myriad affairs of humanity? There was something comical about it, I suppose, but as I listened to him talk, it didn't once occur to me to laugh.
"Well put," I said. "I couldn't agree with you more."
The compliment seemed to lift his spirits somewhat. With a small smile and a nod of the head, the man resumed punching the keys of the cash register. "Many writers here in Brooklyn," he said. "Whole neighborhood full of them. Good for business maybe."
"Maybe," I said. "The problem with writers is that most of them don't have much money to spend."
"Ah," he said, looking up from the cash register and breaking into a big smile that exposed a mouthful of crooked teeth. "You must be writer yourself."
"Don't tell anyone," I answered, trying to keep the tone playful. "It's supposed to be a secret."
It wasn't a very funny remark, but the man seemed to think it was hilarious, and for the next little while it was all he could do not to collapse in a fit of laughter. There was a strange, staccato rhythm to his laugh---which seemed to fall somewhere between talking and singing---and it rushed out of his throat in a series of short mechanical trills: Ha ha ha. Ha ha ha. Ha ha ha. "No tell nobody," he said, once the outburst had subsided. "Top secret. Just between you and me. Sew up my lips. Ha ha ha."
He went back to his work at the cash register, and by the time he'd finished packing my things into a large white shopping bag, his face had turned serious again. "If one day you write story in blue Portugal book," he said, "make me very glad. My heart fill with joy."
I didn't know how to answer that, but before I could think of anything to say, he extracted a business card from his shirt pocket and handed it to me across the counter. The words PAPER PALACE were printed in bold letters at the top. The address and telephone number followed, and then, in the lower right-hand corner, there was a last piece of information that read: M. R. Chang, Proprietor.
"Thank you, Mr. Chang," I said, still looking down at the card. Then I slipped it into my own pocket and pulled out my wallet to pay the bill.
"Not mister," Chang said, smiling his big smile again. "M. R. Sound more important like that. More American."
Once again, I didn't know what to say. A few ideas about what the initials stood for flashed through my mind, but I kept them to myself. Mental Resources. Multiple Readings. Mysterious Revelations. Some comments are best left unsaid, and I didn't bother to inflict my dismal wisecracks on the poor man. After a brief, awkward silence, he handed me the white shopping bag and then bowed by way of thanks.
"Good luck with your store," I said.
"Very small palace," he said. "Not much stuff. But you tell me what you want, I order for you. Anything you want, I get."
"Okay," I said, "it's a deal."
I turned to leave, but Chang scuttled out from behind the counter and cut me off at the door. He seemed to be under the impression that we had just concluded a matter of highly important business, and he wanted to shake my hand. "Deal," he said. "Good for you, good for me. Okay?"
"Okay," I repeated, letting him shake my hand. I found it absurd to be making so much of so little, but it didn't cost me anything to play along. Besides, I was eager to get going, and the less I said, the sooner I would be on my way.
"You ask, I find. Whatever it is, I find for you. M. R. Chang deliver the goods."
He pumped my arm two or three more times after that, and then he opened the door for me, nodding and smiling as I slid past him into the raw September day.
I had been planning to stop in for breakfast at one of the local diners, but the twenty-dollar bill I had put in my wallet before starting out had been reduced to three singles and a smattering of coins--not even enough for the $2.99 special when you figured in the tax and tip. If not for the shopping bag, I might have gone on with my walk anyway, but there seemed to be no point in lugging that thing around the neighborhood with me, and since the weather was in a fairly nasty state by then (the once-fine drizzle had turned into a steady downpour), I opened my umbrella and decided to go home.
It was a Saturday, and my wife had still been in bed when I'd left the apartment. Grace had a regular nine-to-five job, and the weekends were her only chance to sleep in, to indulge in the luxury of waking up without an alarm clock. Not wanting to disturb her, I had crept out as quietly as I could, leaving a note for her on the kitchen table. Now I saw that a few sentences had been added to the note. Sidney: Hope you had fun on your walk. I'm going out to do some errands. Shouldn't be long. See you back at the ranch. Love, G.
I went into my workroom at the end of the hall and unpacked my new supplies. It was hardly bigger than a closet in there--just enough space for a desk, a chair, and a miniature bookcase with four narrow shelves--but I found it sufficient for my needs, which had never been more elaborate than to sit in the chair and put words on pieces of paper. I had gone into the room several times since my discharge from the hospital, but until that Saturday morning in September--what I prefer to call the morning in question--I don't think I had sat down once in the chair. Now, as I lowered my sorry, debilitated ass onto the hard wooden seat, I felt like someone who had come home from a long and difficult journey, an unfortunate traveler who had returned to claim his rightful place in the world. It felt good to be there again, good to want to be there again, and in the wake of the happiness that washed over me as I settled in at my old desk, I decided to mark the occasion by writing something in the blue notebook.
I put a fresh ink cartridge in my fountain pen, opened the notebook to the first page, and looked at the top line. I had no idea how to begin. The purpose of the exercise was not to write anything specific so much as to prove to myself that I still had it in me to write--which meant that it didn't matter what I wrote, just so long as I wrote something. Anything would have served, any sentence would have been as valid as any other, but still, I didn't want to break in that notebook with something stupid, so I bided my time by looking at the little squares on the page, the rows of faint blue lines that crisscrossed the whiteness and turned it into a field of tiny identical boxes, and as I let my thoughts wander in and out of those lightly traced enclosures, I found myself remembering a conversation I'd had with my friend John Trause a couple of weeks earlier. The two of us rarely talked about books when we were together, but that day John had mentioned that he was rereading some of the novelists he had admired when he was young---curious to know if their work held up or not, curious to know if the judgments he'd made at twenty were the same ones he would make today, more than thirty years down the road. He ran through ten writers, through twenty writers, touching on everyone from Faulkner and Fitzgerald to Dostoyevsky and Flaubert, but the comment that stuck most vividly in my mind--and which came back to me now as I sat at my desk with the blue notebook open in front of me--was a small digression he'd made concerning an anecdote in one of Dashiell Hammett's books. "There's a novel in this somewhere," John had said. "I'm too old to want to think about it myself, but a young punk like you could really fly with it, turn it into something good. It's a terrific premise. All you need is a story to go with it."
He was referring to the Flitcraft episode in the seventh chapter of The Maltese Falcon, the curious parable that Sam Spade tells Brigid O'Shaughnessy about the man who walks away from his life and disappears. Flitcraft is a thoroughly conventional fellow--a husband, a father, a successful businessman, a person without a thing to complain about. One afternoon as he's walking to lunch, a beam falls from a construction site on the tenth floor of a building and nearly lands on his head. Another inch or two, and Flitcraft would have been crushed, but the beam misses him, and except for a little chip of sidewalk that flies up and hits him in the face, he walks away unhurt. Still, the close call rattles him, and he can't push the incident from his mind. As Hammett puts it: "He felt like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works." Flitcraft realizes that the world isn't the sane and orderly place he thought it was, that he's had it all wrong from the beginning and never understood the first thing about it. The world is governed by chance. Randomness stalks us every day of our lives, and those lives can be taken from us at any moment--for no reason at all. By the time Flitcraft finishes his lunch, he concludes that he has no choice but to submit to this destructive power, to smash his life through some meaningless, wholly arbitrary act of self-negation. He will fight fire with fire, as it were, and without bothering to return home or say good-bye to his family, without even bothering to withdraw any money from the bank, he stands up from the table, goes to another city, and starts his life all over again.
In the two weeks since John and I had discussed that passage, it hadn't once crossed my mind that I might want to take up the challenge of fleshing out the story. I agreed that it was a good premise--good because we have all imagined letting go of our lives, good because at one moment or another we have all wanted to be someone else--but that didn't mean I had any interest in pursuing it. That morning, however, as I sat at my desk for the first time in almost nine months, staring at my newly acquired notebook and struggling to come up with an opening sentence that wouldn't embarrass me or rob me of my courage, I decided to give the old Flitcraft episode a shot. It was no more than an excuse, a search for a possible way in. If I could jot down a couple of reasonably interesting ideas, then at least I could call it a beginning, even if I broke off after twenty minutes and never did another thing with it. So I removed the cap from my pen, pressed the point against the top line of the first page in the blue notebook, and started to write.
The words came quickly, smoothly, without seeming to demand much effort. I found that surprising, but as long as I kept my hand moving from left to right, the next word always seemed to be there, waiting to come out of the pen. I saw my Flitcraft as a man named Nick Bowen. He's in his mid-thirties, works as an editor at a large New York publishing house, and is married to a woman named Eva. Following the example of Hammett's prototype, he is necessarily good at his job, admired by his colleagues, financially secure, happy in his marriage, and so on. Or so it would appear to a casual observer, but as my version of the story begins, trouble has been stirring in Bowen for some time. He had grown bored with his work (although he is unwilling to admit it), and after five years of relative stability and contentment with Eva, his marriage has come to a standstill (another fact he hasn't had the courage to face). Rather than dwell on his burgeoning dissatisfaction, Nick spends his spare time at a garage on Desbrosses Street in Tribeca, engaged in the long-term project of rebuilding the engine of a broken-down Jaguar he bought in the third year of his marriage. He is a top young editor at a prestigious New York company, but the truth is that he prefers working with his hands.
As the story opens, the manuscript of a novel has arrived on Bowen's desk. A short work bearing the suggestive title of Oracle Night, it was supposedly written by Sylvia Maxwell, a popular novelist from the twenties and thirties who died nearly two decades ago. According to the agent who sent it in, this lost book was composed in 1927, the year Maxwell ran off to France with an Englishman named Jeremy Scott, a minor artist of the period who later worked as a set designer for British and American films. The affair lasted eighteen months, and when it was over Sylvia Maxwell returned to New York, leaving the novel behind with Scott. He held on to it for the rest of his life, and when he died at the age of eighty-seven, a few months before my story begins, a clause was found in his will that bequeathed the manuscript to Maxwell's granddaughter, a young American woman named Rosa Leightman. It was through her that the book was given to the agent--with explicit instructions that it be sent to Nick Bowen first, before anyone else had a chance to read it.
The package arrives at Nick's office on a Friday afternoon, just minutes after he has left for the weekend. When he returns on Monday morning, the book is sitting on his desk. Nick is an admirer of Sylvia Maxwell's other novels, and therefore he is eager to get started on this one. A moment after he turns to the first page, however, the telephone rings. His assistant informs him that Rosa Leightman is in the reception area, asking if she can see him for a few minutes. Send her in, Nick says, and before he is able to finish reading the opening sentences of the book (The war was nearly over, but we didn't know that. We were too small to know anything, and because the war was everywhere, we didn't...), Sylvia Maxwell's granddaughter enters his office. She is dressed in the simplest clothes, has almost no makeup on, wears her hair in a short, unfashionable cut, and yet her face is so lovely, Nick finds, so achingly young and unguarded, so much (he suddenly thinks) an emblem of hope and uncoiled human energy, that he momentarily stops breathing. That is precisely what happened to me the first time I saw Grace--the blow to the brain that left me paralyzed, unable to draw my next breath--so it wasn't difficult for me to transpose those feelings onto Nick Bowen and imagine them in the context of that other story. To make matters even simpler, I decided to give Grace's body to Rosa Leightman--even down to her smallest, most idiosyncratic features, including the childhood scar on her kneecap, her slightly crooked left incisor, and the beauty mark on the right side of her jaw.
As for Bowen, however, I expressly made him someone I was not, an inversion of myself. I am tall, and so I made him short. I have reddish hair, and so I gave him dark brown hair. I wear size eleven shoes, and so I put him in size eight and a half. I didn't model him on anyone I knew (not consciously, at any rate), but once I had finished putting him together in my mind, he became astonishingly vivid to me--almost as if I could see him, almost as if he had entered the room and were standing next to me, looking down at the desk with his hand on my shoulder and reading the words I was writing...watching me bring him to life with my pen.
At last, Nick gestures for Rosa to sit down, and she settles into a chair on the opposite side of the desk. A long hesitation follows. Nick has begun breathing again, but he can't think of anything to say. Rosa breaks the ice by asking if he found time to finish the book over the weekend. No, he answers, it came in too late. I didn't get it until this morning.
Rosa looks relieved. That's good, she says. There's been talk that the novel is a hoax, that it wasn't written by my grandmother. I couldn't be sure myself, so I hired a handwriting expert to examine the original manuscript. His report came in on Saturday, and he says it's genuine. Just so you know. Oracle Night was written by Sylvia Maxwell.
It sounds as if you liked the book, Nick says, and Rosa says yes, she was very moved by it. If it was written in 1927, he continues, then it came after The Burning House and Redemption but before Landscape with Trees--which would have made it her third novel. She was still under thirty then, wasn't she?
Twenty-eight, Rosa says. The same age I am now.
The conversation goes on for another fifteen or twenty minutes. Nick has a hundred things to do that morning, but he can't bring himself to ask her to leave. There is something so forthright about this girl, so lucid, so lacking in self-deception, that he wants to go on looking at her for a little while and absorb the full impact of her presence--which is beautiful, he decides, precisely because she is unaware of it, because of her absolute disregard of the effect she has on others. Nothing of consequence is said. He learns that Rosa is the daughter of Sylvia Maxwell's oldest son (who was a product of Maxwell's second marriage, to theater director Stuart Leightman) and that she was born and raised in Chicago. When Nick asks her why she was so keen on having the book sent to him first, she says she knows nothing about the publishing business, but Alice Lazarre is her favorite living novelist, and when she found out that Nick was her editor, she decided he was the man for her grandmother's book. Nick smiles. Alice will be pleased, he says, and a few minutes later, when Rosa finally stands up to make her exit, he pulls some books off a shelf in his office and gives her a stack of Alice Lazarre first editions. I hope you're not disappointed in Oracle Night, Rosa says. Why should I be disappointed? Nick asks. Sylvia Maxwell was a first-rate novelist. Well, Rosa says, this book is different from the others. In what way? Nick asks. I don't know, Rosa says, in every way. You'll find out for yourself when you read it.
There were other decisions to be made, of course, a host of significant details that still had to be conjured up and worked into the scene--for purposes of fullness and authenticity, for narrative ballast. How long has Rosa been living in New York? for example. What does she do there? Does she have a job and, if so, is the job important to her or simply a means of generating enough money to cover the rent? What about the status of her love life? Is she single or married, attached or unattached, on the prowl or patiently waiting for the right person to come along? My first impulse was to make her a photographer, or perhaps an assistant film editor--work that was connected to images, not words, just as Grace's job was. Definitely unmarried, definitely never married, but perhaps involved with someone, or, even better, perhaps recently broken up after a long, tortured affair. I didn't want to dwell on any of those questions for the time being, nor on similar questions relating to Nick's wife--profession, family background, taste in music, books, and so on. I wasn't writing the story yet, I was merely sketching out the action in rough strokes, and I couldn't afford to bog myself down in the minutiae of secondary concerns. That would have forced me to stop and think, and for the moment I was only interested in forging ahead, in seeing where the pictures in my mind were going to take me. It wasn't about control; it wasn't even about making choices. My job that morning was simply to follow what was happening inside me, and in order to do that I had to keep the pen moving as fast as I could.
Nick is not a rogue or a seducer of women. He has not made a habit of cheating on his wife during the course of their marriage, and he is not aware of having any designs on Sylvia Maxwell's granddaughter now. But there is no question that he feels attracted to her, that he has been pulled in by the iridescence and simplicity of her manner, and the moment she stands up and leaves the office, it flashes through his mind--an unbidden thought, the figurative thunderclap of lust--that he would probably do anything to go to bed with this woman, even to the point of sacrificing his marriage. Men produce such thoughts twenty times a day, and just because a person experiences a momentary flicker of arousal doesn't mean he has any intention of acting on the impulse, but still, no sooner does Nick play out the thought in his head than he feels disgusted with himself, stung by a sensation of guilt. To appease his conscience, he calls his wife at her office (law firm, brokerage house, hospital--to be determined later) and announces that he is going to book a reservation at their favorite downtown restaurant and take her to dinner that night.
They meet there at eight o'clock. Things go pleasantly enough through drinks and the appetizer course, but then they begin to discuss some minor household matter (a broken chair, the imminent arrival of one of Eva's cousins in New York, a thing of no importance), and soon they have fallen into an argument. Not a vehement one, perhaps, but enough irritation enters their voices to destroy the mood. Nick apologizes and Eva accepts; Eva apologizes and Nick accepts; but the conversation has gone flat, and there is no recapturing the harmony of just a few minutes ago. By the time the main course is delivered to the table, they are both sitting there in silence. The restaurant is packed, humming with animation, and as Nick absently casts his eyes around the room, he catches sight of Rosa Leightman, sitting at a corner table with five or six other people. Eva notices him looking off in that direction and asks if he's seen someone he knows. That girl, Nick says. She was in my office this morning. He goes on to tell her something about Rosa, mentions the novel written by her grandmother, Sylvia Maxwell, and then tries to change the subject, but Eva has turned her head by then and is looking across the room at Rosa's table. She's very beautiful, Nick says, don't you think? Not bad, Eva answers. But strange hair, Nicky, and really terrible clothes. It doesn't matter, Nick says. She's alive--more alive than anyone I've met in months. She's the kind of woman who could turn a man inside out.
It's an awful thing for a man to say to his wife, especially to a wife who feels her husband has begun to drift away from her. Well, Eva says defensively, too bad you're stuck with me. Would you like me to go over there and ask her to join us? I've never seen a man turned inside out before. Maybe I'll learn something.
Realizing the thoughtless cruelty of what he's just said, Nick tries to undo the damage. I wasn't talking about myself, he replies. I just meant a man--any man. Man in the abstract.
After dinner, Nick and Eva return to their place in the West Village. It's a tidy, well-appointed duplex on Barrow Street--John Trause's apartment, in fact, which I appropriated for my Flitcraftian tale as a silent bow to the man who'd suggested the idea to me. Nick has a letter to write, some bills to pay, and as Eva prepares herself for bed, he sits down at the dining room table to attend to these small tasks. It takes him three quarters of an hour, but even though it's getting late now, he feels restless, not yet ready for sleep. He pokes his head into the bedroom, sees that Eva is still awake, and tells her he's going out to mail the letters. Just down to the box at the corner, he says. I'll be back in five minutes.
That's when it happens. Bowen picks up his briefcase (which still contains the manuscript of Oracle Night), tosses in the letters, and goes out on his errand. It is early spring, and a stiff wind is blowing through the city, rattling the street signs, and stirring up bits of paper and debris. Still brooding about his disturbing encounter with Rosa that morning, still trying to make sense of the doubly disturbing accident of having seen her again that night, Nick walks to the corner in a fog, scarcely paying attention to where he is. He removes the letters from his briefcase and slips them into the mailbox. Something inside him has been broken, he tells himself, and for the first time since his troubles with Eva began, he's willing to admit the truth of his situation: that his marriage has failed, that his life has come to a dead end. Rather than turn around and immediately head home, he decides to go on walking for a few more minutes. He continues down the street, turns at the corner, walks down another street, and then turns again at the next corner. Eleven stories above him, the head of a small limestone gargoyle attached to the façade of an apartment building is slowly breaking loose from the rest of its body as the wind continues to attack the street. Nick takes another step, and then another step, and at the moment the gargoyle head is finally dislodged, he walks straight into the trajectory of the falling object. Thus, in slightly modified form, the Flitcraft saga begins. Hurtling down within inches of Nick's head, the gargoyle grazes his right arm, knocks the briefcase out of his hand, and then shatters into a thousand pieces on the sidewalk.
The impact throws Nick to the ground. He is stunned, disoriented, afraid. At first, he has no idea what has happened to him. A split second of alarm as the stone touched his sleeve, an instant of shock as the briefcase flew out of his hand, and then the noise of the gargoyle head exploding against the pavement. Several moments go by before he can reconstruct the sequence of events, and when he does, he picks himself up from the sidewalk understanding that he should be dead. The stone was meant to kill him. He left his apartment tonight for no other reason than to run into that stone, and if he's managed to escape with his life, it can only mean that a new life has been given to him---that his old life is finished, that every moment of his past now belongs to someone else.
A taxi rounds the corner and comes down the street in his direction. Nick raises his hand. The taxi stops, and Nick climbs in. Where to? the driver asks. Nick has no idea, and so he speaks the first word that enters his head. The airport, he says. Which one? the driver asks. Kennedy, La Guardia, or Newark? La Guardia, Nick says, and off they go to La Guardia. When they get there, Nick walks up to the ticket counter and asks when the next flight is leaving. Flight to where? the ticket salesman asks. Anywhere, Nick says. The salesman consults the schedule. Kansas City, he says. There's a flight that begins boarding in ten minutes. Fine, Nick says, handing the salesman his credit card, give me a ticket. One way or round-trip? the salesman asks. One way, Nick says, and half an hour later he's sitting on a plane, flying through the night toward Kansas City.
That was where I left him that morning--suspended in midair, winging madly toward an uncertain, implausible future. I wasn't sure how long I'd been at it, but I could feel myself beginning to run out of gas, so I put down my pen and stood up from the chair. All in all, I had covered eight pages in the blue notebook. That would suggest at least two or three hours' work, but the time had passed so quickly, I felt as if I'd been in there for only a few minutes. When I left the room, I headed down the hall and went into the kitchen. Unexpectedly, Grace was standing by the stove, preparing a pot of tea.
"I didn't know you were home," she said.
"I got back a while ago," I explained. "I've been sitting in my room."
Grace looked surprised. "Didn't you hear me knock?"
"No, I'm sorry. I must have been pretty wrapped up in what I was doing."
"When you didn't answer, I opened the door and peeked inside. But you weren't there."
"Of course I was. I was sitting at my desk."
"Well, I didn't see you. Maybe you were somewhere else. In the bathroom maybe."
"I don't remember going to the bathroom. As far as I know, I was sitting at my desk the whole time."
Grace shrugged. "If you say so, Sidney," she answered. She was clearly in no mood to pick a quarrel. Intelligent woman that she was, she gave me one of her glorious, enigmatic smiles and then turned back to the stove to finish preparing the tea.
Twenty years have elapsed since that morning, and a fair amount of what we said to each other has been lost. I search my memory for the missing dialogue, but I can come up with no more than a few isolated fragments, bits and pieces shorn from their original context. One thing I'm certain of, however, is that I told him my name. It must have happened just after he found out I was a writer, since I can hear him asking me who I was--on the off chance he ran across something I had published. "Orr" is what I said to him, giving my last name first, "Sidney Orr." Chang's English wasn't good enough for him to understand my response. He heard Orr as or, and when I shook my head and smiled, his face seemed to crumple up in embarrassed confusion. I was about to correct the error and spell out the word for him, but before I could say anything his eyes brightened again and he began making furious little rowing gestures with his hands, thinking that perhaps the word I'd said to him was oar. Again, I shook my head and smiled. Utterly defeated now, Chang emitted a loud sigh and said: "Terrible tongue, this English. Too tricky for my poor brain." The misunderstanding continued until I lifted the blue notebook from the counter and wrote out my name in block letters on the inside front cover. That seemed to produce the desired result. After so much effort, I didn't bother to tell him that the first Orrs in America had been Orlovskys. My grandfather had shortened the name to make it sound more American---just as Chang had done by adding the decorative but meaningless initials, M. R., to his.
John was fifty-six. Not young, perhaps, but not old enough to think of himself as old, especially since he was aging well and still looked like a man in his mid- to late forties. I had known him for three years by then, and our friendship was a direct result of my marriage to Grace. Her father had been at Princeton with John in the years immediately following the Second World War, and although the two of them worked in different fields (Grace's father was a Federal District Court judge in Charlottesville, Virginia), they had remained close ever since. I therefore met him as a family friend, not as the well-known novelist I had been reading since high school---and whom I still considered to be one of the best writers we had.
He had published six works of fiction between 1952 and 1975, but nothing now for more than seven years. John had never been fast, however, and just because the break between books had been somewhat longer than usual, that didn't mean he wasn't working. I had spent several afternoons with him since my release from the hospital, and sprinkled in among our conversations regarding my health (about which he was deeply concerned, unflagging in his solicitude), his twenty-year-old son, Jacob (who had caused him much anguish of late), and the struggles of the floundering Mets (an abiding mutual obsession), he had dropped enough hints about his current activities to suggest that he was thoroughly wrapped up in something, devoting the better part of his time to a project that was well under way---and perhaps now coming to an end.
I happened to meet Grace in a publisher's office as well, which might explain why I chose to give Bowen the job I did. It was January 1979, not long after I had finished my second novel. My first novel and an earlier book of stories had been brought out by a small publisher in San Francisco, but now I had moved on to a larger, more commercial house in New York, Holst & McDermott. About two weeks after I signed the contract, I went to the office to see my editor, and at some point during our conversation we started discussing ideas for the cover of the book. That was when Betty Stolowitz picked up the phone on her desk and said to me, "Why don't we get Grace in here and see what she thinks?" It turned out that Grace worked in the art department at Holst & McDermott and had been given the job of designing the dust jacket for Self-Portrait with Imaginary Brother---which was what my little book of whims, reveries, and nightmare sorrows was called.
Betty and I went on talking for another three or four minutes, and then Grace Tebbetts walked into the room. She stayed for about a quarter of an hour, and by the time she walked out again and returned to her office, I was in love with her. It was that abrupt, that conclusive, that unexpected. I had read about such things in novels, but I had always assumed the authors were exaggerating the power of the first look---that endlessly talked-about moment when the man gazes into the eyes of his beloved for the first time. To a born pessimist like myself, it was an altogether shocking experience. I felt as if I had been thrust back into the world of the troubadours, reliving some passage from the opening chapter of La Vita Nova (...when first the glorious Lady of my thoughts was made manifest to my eyes), inhabiting the stale tropes of a thousand forgotten love sonnets. I burned. I longed. I pined. I was rendered mute. And all this happened to me in the dullest of precincts, under the harsh fluorescent glare of a late-twentieth-century American office---the last place on earth where one would think to stumble upon the passion of one's life.
There is no accounting for such an event, no objective reason to explain why we fall for one person and not another. Grace was a good-looking woman, but even in those first tumultuous seconds of our first encounter, as I shook her hand and watched her settle into a chair by Betty's desk, I could see that she was not inordinately beautiful, not one of those movie star goddesses who overpower you with the dazzle of their perfection. No doubt she was becoming, striking, pleasant to behold (however one chooses to define those terms), but fierce as my attraction was, I also knew that it was more than just a physical attraction, that the dream I was starting to dream was more than just a momentary surge of animal desire. Grace struck me as intelligent, but as the meeting wore on and I listened to her talk about her ideas for the cover, I understood that she wasn't a terribly articulate person (she hesitated frequently between thoughts, confined her vocabulary to small, functional words, seemed to have no gift for abstraction), and nothing she said that afternoon was particularly brilliant or memorable. Other than making a few friendly remarks about my book, she gave no sign to suggest that she was even remotely interested in me. And yet there I was in a state of maximum torment---burning and longing and pining, a man trapped in the snares of love.
She was five feet eight inches tall and weighed a hundred and twenty-five pounds. Slender neck, long arms and long fingers, pale skin, and short dirty-blond hair. That hair, I later realized, bore some resemblance to the hair shown in the drawings of the hero of The Little Prince---choppy juts of spikes and curls---and perhaps the association enhanced the somewhat androgynous aura that Grace projected. The mannish clothes she was wearing that afternoon must have played their part in creating the image as well: black jeans, white T-shirt, and a pale blue linen jacket. About five minutes into her visit, she removed the jacket and draped it over the back of her chair, and when I saw her arms, those long, smooth, infinitely feminine arms of hers, I knew there would be no rest for me until I was able to touch them, until I had earned the right to put my hands on her body and run them over her bare skin.
But I want to go deeper than Grace's body, deeper than the incidental facts of her physical self. Bodies count, of course--they count more than we're willing to admit--but we don't fall in love with bodies, we fall in love with each other, and if much of what we are is confined to flesh and bone, there is much that is not as well. We all know that, but the minute we go beyond a catalogue of surface qualities and appearances, words begin to fail us, to crumble apart in mystical confusions and cloudy, insubstantial metaphors. Some call it the flame of being. Others call it the internal spark or the inner light of selfhood. Still others refer to it as the fires of quiddity. The terms always draw on images of heat and illumination, and that force, that essence of life we sometimes refer to as soul, is always communicated to another person through the eyes. Surely the poets were correct to insist on this point. The mystery of desire begins by looking into the eyes of the beloved, for it is only there that one can catch a glimpse of who that person is.
Grace's eyes were blue. A dark blue flecked with traces of gray, perhaps some brown, perhaps some hints of hazelish contrast as well. They were complex eyes, eyes that changed color according to the intensity and timbre of the light that fell on them at a given moment, and the first time I saw her that day in Betty's office, it occurred to me that I had never met a woman who exuded such composure, such tranquillity of bearing, as if Grace, who was not yet twenty-seven at the time, had already moved on to some higher state of being than the rest of us. I don't mean to suggest that there was anything withheld about her, that she floated above her circumstances in some beatific haze of condescension or indifference. On the contrary, she was quite animated throughout the meeting, laughed readily, smiled, said all the appropriate things, and made all the appropriate gestures, but underneath a professional engagement in the ideas that Betty and I were proposing to her, I felt a startling absence of inner struggle, an equilibrium of mind that seemed to exempt her from the usual conflicts and aggressions of modern life: self-doubt, envy, sarcasm, the need to judge or belittle others, the scalding, unbearable ache of personal ambition. Grace was young, but she had an old and weathered soul, and as I sat with her that first day in the offices of Holst & McDermott, looking into her eyes and studying the contours of her lean, angular body, that was what I fell in love with: the sense of calm that enveloped her, the radiant silence burning within.
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