It's Friday, I'm back in New York, still on tour but working from home as they say. I want to thank the folks at Powell's for hosting me this week and all of you who've come to the readings, shared your stories and lives with me — nothing better than a little human contact.
I thought I'd close out by inviting you to stay in touch, I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org much thanks for all your support and until we meet again, here's a little story for you.
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THE NEDDY SILVER STORY
He walked in off the street. He'd noticed the store before, interesting, the kind of place he would have liked to shop if he were younger, if he had money to burn.
"Is there something I can do for you?"
"I'm thinking I should work here?"
The man looked Ned up and down. Ned hadn't thought he was going out looking for a job — he hadn't thought about what he was wearing, wasn't trying to make any kind of impression. If he had, he never would have got the job. People didn't dress any more, at best they assembled. Still, he looked good. When he was a kid, his mother had made it perfectly clear: "You of all people Neddy are not going to be able to rely on your looks. You've got to dress like you're somebody even if you're not." Ned looked down, checking himself.
"Where did you get the shirt?" the man asked.
Ned stopped for a second. "Hardy Amies — that name mean anything to you?" The man nods. And then Ned pulled at his pants. "And these were part of a Tommy Nutter suit. The jacket is packed in a suitcase lost by British Airways in the days before luggage was routinely lost — they were damned polite about it.
'We're terribly sorry sir, but your satchel has gone missing.'"
The man nods. "So how come you want to work in a clothing store — you seem like someone who could do lots of things?"
"I'm gathering material," Ned says, "no pun intended."
The man doesn't respond. Puns are lost on him. "Are you gay?"
"Do I seem gay?" Ned is more grumpy than gay.
"Your interest in clothing is kind of gayish," the man says.
"Before they had metrosexuals they had men who liked looking good, it was before your time, before it occurred to anyone to wear a sweat suit anywhere other than at a gym."
"Do you have retail experience?"
"No retail experience. OK, I lied. I worked in a candy store when I was a kid. It was my uncle's candy store — we all begged to work there, who wouldn't want to work in a candy store? And he paid us in candy. For every hour we worked — we got six pieces of candy. He said if we ate candy more than one every ten minutes we'd be hospitalized with sugar poisoning. Here's the deal, I like your store, I like well-ironed shirts, no starch — that breaks the shirt. I stay up late ironing. Even when I was married — both times — I ironed. I found it comforting. I would iron for my wives, too. Here's the story I like your place — I like the placket on that shirt and the collar on that one."
"So what kind of experience do you have?"
"Life," Ned says.
"Let me put it bluntly — how did you support yourself before you came in here?"
"I'm a writer."
"You worked for a magazine?"
"More like novels, short stories, the kind of thing you'd read in the New Yorker or Playboy. And the cover of Esquire twice. Nine novels, two books of stories, some essays — my time on the road with the Rolling Stones during the famous 1972 extravaganza with Robert Frank, Truman Capote. And then three weeks at training camp with Mohammed Ali, dinner with Lyndon Johnson in his underwear at the ranch."
"So why don't I know who you are?"
There is a pause. Ned could simply tell the guy that if he knew how to read he'd know who the great Neddy Silver was. If he so much as picked up a magazine or newspaper any time during a certain ten-year period that unfortunately ended about ten years ago, he would know who Neddy Silver was.
"I wouldn't know how to begin to answer that," Ned says carefully.
"Do you know how to work a cash register?"
"Give me a break, you hire people who don't even know how to speak English. I can learn the register."
"Fine. When do you want to start?"
"Now is good — five minutes ago would have been even better. I've got nothing in my plate today. What do you pay?"
"And what's that, like fifteen bucks an hour?"
"Ur, more like seven and a quarter."
The man just glared at him. "My name is Joseph. You can call me Joseph."
And so it went. Ned loved the store. He hadn't had a regular job in 30 years. He loved getting up in the morning, getting dressed and leaving the house. And he reveled in the idea that he'd just walked in off the street, asked for a job and got it. He was good at it — every week he rang up double the sales of the other guys. But as much as he loved it, he told no one he'd taken a job.
At night his daughter called. "Dad, I've been trying to call you. Remember how we used to talk in the mornings — you would tell me what you were working on, I would tell you what I doing."
"I was out."
"Every morning — is there something you're not telling me? Are all right? Do you have a new girlfriend?"
"No, no. I'm good, everything is good — but my feet are hurting."
"Stop dancing so much," his daughter said, forcing herself to laugh.
"How are the kids, your husband, your job, your mother — my ex-wife?"
"We're all good."
"Perfect," he says. "Give them all my best."
His agent, who recently had a stroke, leaves him a message, sounding as though he's under anesthesia. "I had an idea," the agent says. And it sounds like he's saying, "I had an enema." He goes on to say something that sounds like he's "trying to get the tiles back to the prison." It takes Ned two days to realize he said, "Get the titles back into print."
As much as anyone can make friends with the people they work with, Ned makes friends with the other guys who work in the store — Jimmy, a needy boy who literally hops up and down, hoping a sugar daddy will come through the door and whisk him away, a boy/girl called Angel(a) who lives at home with his mother and makes seriously beautiful dresses (for himself), Joseph, the manager, and Guy, an aspiring actor, who Ned runs lines with when the store is quiet, "For a second you see — and seeing the secret, are the secret. For a second there is meaning."
They are all waiting for their lives to happen — whereas Ned is the guy who already happened, who's been there and back. Could Neddy have had more — could he have made it bigger and better if life hadn't interrupted? If his wife hadn't left him when she did? If his kid hadn't broken both legs just as Ned was trying to finish the book that was all set to be his breakthrough? "I have a buddy who drives around talking about the houses he could have bought and what they went for 20 years ago and what they go for now," Ned tells people.
"As my mother used to say, you didn't have the fifty thousand dollars then and you don't have the ten million now, so what are you doing that to yourself for? I don't begrudge my life the fact that it happened."
At the store, Ned makes selling into a game, a competitive sport. When a customer comes in, Ned decides how he's going to play him, how much, above what the guy was planning to buy, Ned is going to sell him, and then as icing on the cake, Ned adds one more thing at the end — a really expensive accessory, a watch, a belt, a lighter. When the customer — the mark — enters Ned hangs back, he watches the man, gets a feel for what he likes. Then he catches the fellow's eye. "Nice, isn't it?" he says about whatever the guy is looking at and then, "Did you see the shirts we've got over there — probably a little more upscale than you're looking for — but they look great on."
If the guy goes and looks at the shirts, he's hooked. Ned slides in, asks what size shirt and starts pulling thing off the racks. "Just try this with it — so you'll see how it looks with a jacket, or a suit."
As they step out of the dressing room Ned gives them a long look. In the beginning he used to say, "Nice, like a regular Beau Brummell," and the customers had no idea what he was talking about. He quickly learned to say that the shirt made the customer look like Brad Pitt or Denzel Washington, and then realized that better yet was not to put a name on it — the shoppers were so profoundly narcissistic, they didn't want to be compared to anyone other than themselves — you look like you could be a movie star, you look like someone I want to know, you look like ten million bucks. "Do you have a suit?" Ned would ask. "Shoes?" The men, not used to being waited on, would suddenly cave; they would need things they didn't know they needed.
"It costs as much as the pants."
"True, but you'll have it forever, you can wear it with jeans and it'll get you laid."
"Fine," the man says. "I'll wear it now." It was rare that any sale was under $500.
"I should get a commission," Ned told Joseph.
"You should," Joseph said. "But they don't do it that way. How about a raise — bring you to ten bucks an hour?"
"Speaking of bucks — I used to love my white bucks."
"In my world," Guy says, "It was my white leather Adidas, I loved my Adidas. My mother was a nurse and every night I would use her white shoe polish and re-paint them to keep them fresh. She thought I was crazy."
"All mothers think their sons are crazy," Ned says, remembering his mother six months ago — the week before she died — still managed to stick it to him: "I just don't understand why you never made it — like those other boys, like your friend Phil."
"The writer, Phil Roth. When you were young you all used to spend time together. Somehow you never won any of the big awards. I told you if you write about the Jews you're never going to win. It's the minority — the minority never wins."
"But I am Jewish."
"Maybe better pretend you're not."
"Ma, I write about trying to grow up with you — my very Jewish mother always comparing me to Phil Roth."
"Don't blame me for your failings," she said and then hung up on him — two days later she was dead.
"She went very peaceful, in her sleep, like a baby," the woman from the nursing home said.
Ned wanted to correct the woman, tell her it wasn't peaceful, but peacefully and that comparing an old woman's death to a baby's wasn't a good idea. Instead he said, "Thank you. I'll make the arrangements and call you back."
"Spilled what?" Ned asks.
"Put a little hydrogen peroxide on it, it'll lift right off. The drug store is across the street," Ned says.
"Really" — the man is amazed. "How do you know that?"
"How old am I?" Ned asks him. "I'm so old that we didn't used to buy new shirts when we spilled."
"How old are you?" Guy asks.
"I'm so old that I remember World War II because I was in it — I was a Jew in the army." Ned calls out to the mole man leaving, "Buddy, you don't need a new shirt — you need pants! Dockers are a sign that the end of the world is coming soon; they're the faux capitalist uniform, an indicator that others are dominating you, that you're not self-directed. They look like toddler pants. And for the love of god — take off your socks, never wear socks with sandals."
"That was a bit over the top," the manager says.
"I'm cranky, I got a call that an old friend is in the hospital. We're all rotting. We used to go to weddings, now we go to funerals."
A customer comes out of the dressing room, "Do these make my package big?"
"My package," he repeats pointing to his crotch.
"Wait, let me get my reading glasses," Ned says.
"He's alfresco," Guy whispers.
"Louder," Ned says. "I know you said something but I've no idea what."
"Freeballing," Guy says.
"In English please," Ned says.
"No underwear. The man is not wearing underwear. And he wants you to look at his crotch."
Ned pauses. And then walks right up to the guy. "Mahatma Gandhi, ten inches, Castro — they call him the Milton Berle of the Caribbean. Ronald Reagan, on the other hand..."
The man goes back into the dressing room. "Either you buy the pants — or you give me twenty bucks to dry clean them," Ned yells through the door.
The man throws the pants over the top and slides his credit card through a crack in the door.
"I'll take them."
Again Ned's agent calls, he says he's retiring. It sounds like he's saying he's retarded. Ned tells him to take good care and not to worry and then makes an excuse to get off the phone. "I gotta get some sleep — our end of season sale starts tomorrow, I'll be at it all day."
"I Googled you," Guy says.
"I dunno, I thought you were making most of the stuff up. I thought you were just living in like a kind of lala land. It said on Wikipedia that you were a ladies' man, that you dated everyone from Janis Joplin to Gloria Steinem and Barbra Streisand."
"Very briefly." Ned says. "I always went for women with balls."
The store is crowded; a man comes out of the dressing room unable to button a jacket. "Can this be altered?"
"It's the wrong size," Ned says.
"But can it be fixed?"
"Only if you lose 15 pounds."
A man comes into the store, "I know that guy, it's what's-his-name. He was on Seinfeld and that other show — Don't Be So Enthusiastic or something."
"I have no idea what you're talking about."
"He's staring at you," Guy says.
"Neddy Silver?" the man says.
"I can't believe it's you. I can't believe its Neddy Silver. You wrote the book that changed my life."
"And look at me now," Ned says.
"It changed my life," the man repeats. "You're the guy."
"At one point I was."
"This is the most amazing day." He reaches out and touches Ned. "Can I touch you, can I squeeze you?" He hugs him. " I never do that. You have to know I never hug. I never touch. I never pretend to kiss. I don't like human contact but I love you — you're Neddy Silver. Are you still writing?"
"Yes, why wouldn't I be?"
"God, you used to be funny."
"And what — now I'm dead?"
"Can I take you to lunch?"
"Not right now, I'm busy, we've got customers."
"Your books and baseball — the only two things I truly loved."
"Thank you for that," Ned says. "And who are you, by the way?"
"Larry," he says, as though Ned would know. "Larry David from television."
Ned shrugs. "My set still has rabbit ears, I get the news and the ball game if I'm lucky." Ned hands Larry one of the cards from the store. "Call me, this is where I am most of the time. I don't like it when the phone rings at home — makes me nervous."
The next day his home phone does ring; it's his editor — or his former editor — Ned always wonders how you can tell when it's over. The last time the guy took him to lunch was five years ago. He's calling to say that Ned is a finalist for something.
"Does it mean anything?" Ned asks. "Does it mean people are going to start reading again, that wars will end, will it change the world? Because when I was young that's what we were aiming at, we thought we could write books that would change the world. Does it mean anything?"
"I'm calling you, aren't I," the editor says. "The ceremony is next week, there's a good chance you're the winner. They want to be sure that you are there. You can bring someone."
"Fine, bring whoever you want. Will you accept the prize if you win — that's what they want to know?"
"If it's worth accepting, I'll accept it." Ned says.
"What's gotten into you — you used to be so optimistic."
"It's five years since we last spoke," Ned says. "I'm working every day, I'm exhausted."
That night he goes to the hospital to visit his old friend who's just had a breast removed. "I'm not your friend," she says, "I was your mistress."
"Don't use that word, it's demeaning, you were my friend."
"Remember when your mother had the crush on Harold," she says.
"Brodkey! You got into an argument with her because she wouldn't believe that he was gay."
"Bisexual. At a party for my book, he touched my mother's breast and it was like that was the greatest thing that had happened to her, and she was sure he had it for her — and that meant there was no way he was bisexual.
"She talked about it constantly. Somehow I keep thinking about that — your mother's breast and Harold and that wonderful bit that Harold wrote about breasts — about wanting to take his butt off and put it up on his chest — like breasts."
Ned shakes his head. "Are you in pain?"
"No," She says. "You know I always hated my breasts. If I loved my breasts maybe I wouldn't have lost them. I hated them but that didn't mean that I didn't want them any more. I wanted them right here in front of me where I could always hate them."
"You'll be OK," Ned says. "You have nothing to fear. It was never about your breasts. There were other things, special things."
She smiles. They both smile; they know what he's talking about and it remains between them.
His editor calls again. "In light of this award..."
"I didn't win yet, did I?"
"In light of this nomination, we're reprinting your books — it's not a lot of money."
"It never was," says Ned.
"We'll see you tomorrow — I have six seats saved for you. And your agent will be there — he's retarded, you know."
And in the end, they are all there, his editor, the editor's wife, who used to be the editor's assistant, the agent, who is escorted by his son, and whose face due to the stroke looks expressionless like someone who's been crying too long, like a fleshy puddle of humanity. And the guys from the store are all there, Guy, Jimmy, Angel(a) and Joseph. And when Ned wins, he makes a long slow, walk to the podium and the crowd stands to applaud.
"Thank you," Ned says. "Thank you for finding me. There was a time when this would have meant the world to me and while I am grateful for it, don't get me wrong, it's nice, it's very nice, what's been even nicer is a new life I am having, not as a writer, but a retailer, getting to people I would have never known — young people, people from different backgrounds, people that I don't even like. I want to thank them for everything — Jimmy for telling me to wear this tie, Guy who polished my shoes, Joseph who gave me a place to go, and my old friend Ginger who is still in the hospital, and to the writers who came before — and, knock wood, all those who will come after me. Along those lines — and bear with me here — in an effort to be grateful for what I have now and not begrudge what I never got, I am saying I forgive you to a writer — who I will not name — he knows who he is and it's not who you think it is. To that writer I am saying, I know you voted against me for the book award everyone thought I should win. And I know that you whispered that it was because I was a Jew — and you would never let a Jew into the 'club.' And I know that you know that long ago I slept with your wife — not when you were married to her but years before. I am forgiving you for your pettiness, for your jealousy and anti-Semitism, for your desire to, in effect, kill me, for your fear that there was not room enough in the world for the two of us. And to my mother who is no longer with us, Mama, I am hoping that this microphone is powerful enough to reach you; look at me, Mama — don't I look good. I've got nice suit on, a beautiful shirt and I won a prize. I love you and good night."
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A. M. Homes is the author of several books of fiction. She has been awarded a Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, and is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. Visit her website at www.amhomesbooks.com.
Books mentioned in this post
A. M. Homes is the author of The Mistress's Daughter