collage by David Hickman
Different Kinds of Music
(A Few things About Timothy Westmont)
“Sixth Story” is the conclusion of a book called Different Kinds of Music: A few things about Timothy Westmont. It pulls together any number of themes from the first five stories in the book, all of which are about the title character, and the sequence of interchapters, which are about the “different kinds of music” that Westmont listens to at different times in his life. The earlier stories and interchapters are all written in the third person. “Sixth Story” is different in this regard and in others. There is a memoiristic aspect to this one; living people are mixed up with fictional characters. James Walton’s posthumous novel, The Progress of Romance (unpublished) makes “Ernest Weber” his protagonist; consistent with a distinction between two Richard El(l)man(n)s in an earlier story, my Ernest Webber is a double-b.
My real name is not Timothy Westmont, it’s Talbot Eastmore. I have no English wife, but because I rather wish I did, I’ve married Westmont to an English woman in two of the foregoing fictions. (Westmont’s wife did, poor guy, leave him in actual fact and return to the UK.) This time, while writing a sixth story, I want to stick more to the truth of things. But I also want to write about a close friend who has read some of the Westmont stories – the five published here but also some others that no one will ever see – and who wouldn’t want his actual name to appear in something like fiction (although this isn’t fiction. I’m not sure about “like”). Anyway, I’ll call him Ernest Webber, which is what he called himself now and then in certain situations and what James Walton called him in the unpublished novel now in my care. I write as if we’re all still in the present, though in fact poor Webber recently died. Because it’s hard for me to imagine him no longer alive, I’ll probably sometimes forget to do that – write about him, that is, as someone who is no longer alive. I’ll get messed up with chronology and write as if I could still drive out to his house and visit him, probably using the wrong tense sequences too.
What a business, trying to get these things straight! In part I want to write about a friendship here, one of the great subjects of literature. Nothing like love, you’ll say, but I’ll say you’re wrong. A great friend is as rare as a great love. As it happens, most of my close friends – rare thing, a close friend, especially after a certain age – have been more or less completely nuts except for Webber, who was completely sane. Being entirely ordinary myself, I’ve always looked for extraordinary friends. It’s like an ugly man looking for beautiful women. “Oh, you’re gay,” I can hear you saying. Not a bit of it. That’s the most tedious thing about readers of a literature of friendship at the present time. Everybody thinks the friends are gay – Huck and Jim, Ishmael and Queequeg. Like all the other bookish types of my generation, I read Leslie Fiedler in the 1960s, one of the people who started this craze and upset innocents like Ernest Hemingway about good friends probably being queer. I even knew Fiedler’s son, by the way, who was going out with Susan Clodd at Stanford. (Think which Susan comes to mind who’s not any longer called Clodd but who’s a famous poet and you’ll know who I mean.) But all close friends, I tell you, are not necessarily gay.
After high school, I didn’t have any friends at all for a while. This is because my first great love arrived at just that point – the summer after graduation – and sucked up all the oxygen in the universe that might have sustained a friendship with someone during my undergraduate years at Ohio State. I’ve had three great friends and two great, but disastrous, loves. That doesn’t sound like a lot of either, but it’s plenty. Especially as some of the friendships and some of the loves occurred in a way that overlapped. I remember the second of my great loves asking me early in our relationship, “how many women have you slept with?” When I said “just one,” she cracked up giggling. In her case there had been – I forget the actual number – lots of men. I was at first afraid that my love-making must have suggested that my own experience was on the meager side. But, believe me, one woman was enough for those four years if it was someone like Cora. She was insatiable. She was also such a neurotic responsibility that I barely had time for my classes, let alone a serious friendship. At a huge university like OSU, one got lost in the crowd and was lucky to have anyone at all to confide in. I’d walk from class to class, building to building, always worried about Cora, and wishing I had a friend to whom I could tell my joys and woes.
A complicated part of this was that Cora opposed what I had always thought of as “the probable course of my life.” I wanted to be a librarian, or at any rate to live among books. She was hoping for a calling rather more romantic. An NFL quarterback, perhaps. When we first met, I was in my Jewish phase. My one close high school friend was a Jew, and his very impressive parents were academic. At home, I was increasingly at odds with my own family about politics, culture, education, and everything else. The first time I had dinner at Joel’s house I experienced a revelation. I had never in my life been part of an intellectual conversation at table. All his parents’ friends – five or six around the table with their wives (who hardly spoke) – were clearly men of genius. And of course Jews. Smart people were Jews. It had occurred to me before, but only in the abstract. My own family’s friends never talked like this. They were Republicans, Presbyterians, WASPs. As it happened, I was auditing a course at OSU taught by the smartest professor in the entire world, Harvey Goldberg. We studied the Dreyfus Affair and Zola’s heroic intervention. My own parents had never heard of Dreyfus or Zola. When I first met Cora, she asked me what I wanted to be, and I said “a Jew.” She said, “That’s the funniest thing I’ve ever heard.”
You have to remember that this was the great moment in Jewish fiction and culture generally. Bernard Malamud had prepared the way for Bellow and Roth and even Cleveland’s own Herbert Gold. Everyone would soon be going to Woody Allen movies. Historians were beginning to realize that most of the “original thought” in America wasn’t properly “American” at all, but the contribution of Jews who had fled from Europe before or during the Second World War and ended up on one coast or another to do their work. Three of the men around that dinner table at Joel’s house fell into this category. Two of them were artists, like Joel’s father, and the third, who had come from Vienna and had actually known Schoenberg and Wittgenstein, was a historian who was a colleague of Harvey Goldberg’s. I had never heard of Schoenberg or Wittgenstein, but I sat at Goldberg’s feet three times a week and thought he was the smartest person I’d ever known. Given the amazing electronic developments that have occurred in recent years, you can actually hear snippets from his eloquent lectures of nearly a half-century back by “visiting” a web site: HG Center, Madison: http://history.wisc.edu/goldberg/goldberg.htm. Give it a try before reading on. You’ll be enlightened and impressed.
Cora, like her parents, was an Episcopalian. When she first let me put my hand on her breasts, she said – “This Jewish thing, you’re kidding, right? These are Episcopalian tits.” When I lied and said I was kidding, she also let me put my hand in her pants, but the long-term problem that we had eventually to resolve turned out to be that I really did want to become a Jew. It was even worse, from Cora’s point of view, that I also wanted to be an archivist. She’d say, gazing at me in wonder or contempt (it was hard to tell): “A Jewish librarian. What you want out of life is to be a Jewish librarian.” She claimed that both Jews and librarians were afraid of sex. I asked her how she knew. She said this was something that was “generally understood.” “By Episcopalians?” I asked. “By everyone,” she said. The weirdest thing about our relationship was that she was still in high school. One year younger than I was, she attended Upper Arlington High. I had recently moved to the Upper Arlington part of Columbus myself, but always attended the University School, a John Deweyite progressive education proudly part of my dossier and something that all my Jewish friends understood and approved of. The school was run by the OSU education department as a “laboratory” for educational experiments. One of the experiments was to allow seniors to take classes at OSU, which is how I had met Harvey Goldberg.
Harvey had written a biography of the great French Socialist and orator Jean Jaurès. Reviewers said that it read like a Balzac novel. Since Balzac, even before Zola, was one of my early heroes, I thought if a biography read like his kind of novel I’d probably like it. I read it soon after it was published and was converted to Socialism in a flash. Cora said, “So now you’re a Jewish Socialist Librarian. I’m really a lucky girl.” What she didn’t know was that Harvey was acquainted with the OSU archivist, an actual, living Jewish Socialist Librarian. I had explained about Cora’s lack of enthusiasm for my calling during a long lunch with Harvey. He said, “Have you ever been up to The Cage?” I said I wasn’t sure what he meant. “Banned book collection,” said Harvey. “Banned images as well. I’ll write you a note to Joshua Solomon giving you access to the restricted collection on the grounds that you’re a serious student interested in contemporary fiction. I’ll say you need to read Henry Miller’s The Tropic of Cancer, which they’ve got up there along with his other books. Miller’s really very good. Take your girl friend along. She may get something of a shock, but she’ll probably like what she sees. And she’ll have a new idea about what archives are all about, and maybe a little respect for the people who run them.” So a few days later I picked up Cora outside Upper Arlington High in my Studebaker Lark. “Let’s go get some pizza and a beer,” she said. I said with determination, “In fact we’re going we’re going to the OSU library.” “Oh, no!” she said. “Oh yes,” I replied. “We’re going to check out Henry Miller in the collection of banned books.”
You have to understand that this was 1959. You could buy Ulysses even as a Modern Library book, though it was still considered prudent to preface that edition with Judge John M. Woolsey’s opinion of December 6, 1933, which lifted the ban. Miller was still beyond the pale. So was Lady Chatterley. Something like The Story of O was still unthinkable. It amazes me that kids these days flip on their laptops and watch every kind of screwing ever dreamed of on their screens while “multi-tasking” at their homework and text messaging their friends at the same time.
“I hope this is good,” said Cora, as we took the elevator up to the seventh floor.
“It’s part of our education,” I said seriously. “And it’s a glimpse of how I intend to lead my life.” (Not living like Henry Miller, of course, but like the dusty, stooped man who unlocked the door to a windowless room containing not only all of the works of Mr. Miller, but, A to Z, floor to ceiling, the pornography of the ages.) Mr. Solomon asked if I had a note from my professor. I showed him Harvey’s letter, and he laughed. “You know Harvey Goldberg, then?” I told him I was auditing his French history class. “Lucky you,” said Mr. Solomon, “Harvey’s one of the best. You understand, don’t you, that I’ll have to lock you in. This is a restricted area. When you’re ready to leave, just push this button that looks like a doorbell. It rings right at my desk.”
Cora, looking around, was getting interested. “Oh,” she said, “You’ve got dirty pictures as well as dirty books.”
“The whole tradition,” said Mr. Solomon. “Even some old blue movies.”
“Blue movies?” She asked.
“Yes,” he said.
“What’s this?” she asked, picking up what looked like a large black and white drawing.
“A Beardsley print,” Solomon, said. “I’ve got a
scholar up from the Kinsey Institute working on
quality erotic images.’
“At I.U. in Bloomington. This is an Aubrey Beardsley print,” he said. “It’s an extremely fine example of a printing limited to fifty signed copies. Look at the signature at the bottom. That’s in Beardsley’s hand; it’s not part of the print.”
“ It looks to me like a girl being fucked by a duck,” she said.
“A swan,” he replied. “It’s Leda and the Swan.”
I tried to end the discussion by holding the door for Mr. Solomon, but Cora had picked up another picture. “Wow,” she said. “Look at this!”
“Etching made of a Courbet painting,” Solomon said. “A good one.”
“But,” Cora said gasping, “it’s nothing but a cunt.”
“Courbet called it L’Origine du Monde,” he said. “He was a French realist.” Cora gave him a skeptical look. “The Origin of the World,” he said, with a determined finality. With that he shut the door and locked us in.
In writing this down, I realize that exactly here, were he still alive, I would likely have given Ernest Webber a phone call. I’d have wanted to know what he could tell me about Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde. Webber never failed to have answers to my questions. Still, I rather hated to ask because I knew I’d be taking up his time and that one thing would lead to another. He’d give me a short answer, think for a while, phone me back and give me a longer answer. Then he’d do a little research and phone me a third time. For example, I’d have wanted to ask him about the model. Webber was a connoisseur of erotica, so he’d probably know. “Ernest,” I’d ask, “Who posed for Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde?” He’d be smoking his pipe in his garage study where he worked, even in the winter, because his wife wouldn’t allow smoking in the house. “Just a minute,” he’d say. “I’ve got to tool my pipe.” I’d wait. After a few minutes, Webber would get back on the phone. “Well, Talbot, it was Joanna Hifferman, though you’d never know it from the painting since Courbet stops just above the breasts. Remember that non-PC phrase from our teenage days, ‘I could fuck her if I put a bag over her head’? That’s the general idea. No head, no expression, no personality, no will. Anyway, she was Whistler’s mistress, and the fact that she’d pose like that for another artist led to a terrible break between Whistler and Courbet. Can you imagine someone borrowing your girl friend in order for her to model just her cunt? There’s also a picture of her looking in a mirror – something out of that old vanitas tradition – called La belle Irlandaise. She’s also the girl in Whistler’s Symphony in White. I can’t tell you a whole lot more. I’ve never seen the painting, just a couple of prints. There’s one in The Cage up at the college. Ever seen it?” I’d have told him that it was because of that print – actually someone’s etching – that I was phoning. He’d have said. “Hang on for a few minutes and I’ll phone you back.”
When he calls back, Webber has the giggles. “Just found out the painting was commissioned for an Ottoman diplomat introduced to Courbet when he moved to Paris from Saint Petersburg. By Saint-Beuve, no less. The guy’s name is Khalil Bey, and he’s already got some work by Ingres, which is fairly sexy. But Kalil Bey is ruined by his gambling habit, and he’s forced to sell off his collection. At which point our Cunt is shifted from collection to collection, all over the world. It’s eventually looted by Soviet troops towards the end of the Second World War, then sold to Baron Fernc Hatvany, and taken back to Paris where it’s sold for 1.5 million francs. Would you believe that it ended up in the collection of Jacques Lacan? When Lacan died, the French government allowed his family to pay his inheritance tax with Joanna Hifferman’s cunt. Like a lot of famous paintings, the story of this one is quite remarkable. After that . . .”
But I interrupt at this point and say, “Ernest,” that’s really more than I need to know. I just wanted to know who the model was.”
“Oh, right,” says Webber. “Have you read James Walton’s latest novel? I think it’s his best yet. I think it’s so good that I’ll buy you a copy and drop it off in your mailbox. Did you ever follow my suggestion and get in touch with Jay about the archive? It would be a treasure, Talbot, a treasure.” Then he puts down the phone.
Alas, this conversation never happened. Instead, I went to Wikipedia and looked up the information that I’ve attributed to Webber. I also Googled L’Origine du Monde, and up popped Joanna Hifferman’s cunt. It’s an amazing world, this electronic window on the world. As I was on line, I also Googled “Naked Women” to see what happened. Astonishing! There were literally hundreds of links. So this is what the kids do instead of going to restricted sections in the archives like the one at OSU I visited with Cora in 1959. I wonder if Cora looks at these things on the Internet. I wonder if Cora is still alive. (Ernest Webber, of course, is no longer alive; nor are many other people I have known.) Internet sites like the one I’ve just visited may in time make archives and archivists like me obsolete; but not, I hope, Socialists and Jews. It was shortly after Cora and I visited the OSU archive that I made an appointment with Robert Weingarten, a Rabbi I’d known for a long time, at the Upper Arlington Reform Synagogue.
The Rabbi played golf with my father and Paul McNamara, a smart lawyer but in fact an anti-Semite. He was a smart enough lawyer to keep his bigotry to himself, but the Rabbi saw through him anyway. He didn’t care. The Rabbi liked a good game of golf and somehow managed to enjoy McNamara’s company who in turn somehow seemed to enjoy the Rabbi’s company. Weingarten was a very worldly man. As far as my father was concerned, it was enough that the Rabbi was of the “Reform” persuasion, not super “Orthodox,” and dressed like everyone else, whether on the golf course or elsewhere, without wearing a Yarmulke. And he liked the Rabbi’s sense of humor, which often consisted of jokes about Jews. As I’ve said, it was 1959. My father and McNamara played with the Rabbi at the Municipal course because Upper Arlington Country Club didn’t admit Jews. I would rage and storm about this at home. My father only said, “Weingarten prefers the Municipal course.”
When I went to see the Rabbi at the Synagogue he was well aware of my enthusiasms and intentions. After some preliminary pleasantries, he introduced the object of my visit himself. “Talbot,” he said. “This wanting to become Jewish! It’s the funniest thing I’ve ever heard.”
“That’s exactly what Cora said,” I replied.
“She’s right,” said the Rabbi. “Look, I know your father. I even knew your grandfather. Your mother is one of my favorite ladies in town. You’re an only child. Don’t rock the boat – understand? You’ve got a good situation. You’ve got connections and you’re smart. And what’s this I’ve heard about wanting to be an archivist? That’s even funnier than wanting to be a Jew.”
“That’s also exactly what Cora said.”
“What was your high school sport?”
“I didn’t have a high school sport. I liked books.”
“You know,” he said. “That worried your father as far back as when you were a sophomore or junior. He thought you could at least try to play something – hell, even soccer or volleyball. One of those sissy sports. But you were always up in your room reading books. He even thought you might be queer.”
“Oh no,” I said. “Let’s not get started on that. Anyway, there are no Jewish queers, right?”
“Wrong, Talbot. There are plenty of Jewish queers, but that’s not the point. I don’t want you to become a Jewish anything. It’s just not you. You’re a thirty-third degree Goy, the same way your dad’s a thirty-third degree Mason. Right at the top. That’s not something you want to give up because you think Jews are smart. You’re a smart Goy, so be a smart Goy. But don’t come around here telling me you want to be Jewish or I’ll send you off to some awful Kibbutz in Israel where they’ll work your ass so hard you’ll be sorry you aren’t a Nazi. Also, you’ve got a beautiful girl friend who somehow sticks it out with you in spite of your crazy obsession. I’ll bet she’s even fucking you, right? You’re a lucky kid. Don’t be a stupid Yid. We’ve got enough of those. I have to deal with them day-in, day-out. I’m a serious man, Talbot, in spite of my jocular manner – a professional, and proud of it. If I’m still alive in ten years time and you come back in here still telling me you want to be Jewish, I’ll help you out. But I don’t think that’s going to happen. About the archivist thing, there’s nothing I can do. That part’s not my responsibility. Oh, and Philip Roth’s not your man. You should be reading Updike instead. And Henry Miller’s not as good as you think. And Talbot, one last thing – go out to the Arlington Club and learn to play golf. Now get out of my office and give my love to your mom and dad.”
I went on reading Philip Roth and Henry Miller. Roth’s Goodbye Columbus, after all, addressed my situation so directly I almost had the sense that the author had dropped through my chimney like Santa Claus to take up residence in my house. Published in 1959, my first year with Cora and my first year at OSU, it mocked the brother of Brenda Patimkin who had attended Ohio State and who in the title story of Roth’s now-famous debut collection repeatedly plays a nostalgic phonograph record from OSU ending “Goodbye, Columbus! Goodbye, Ohio State!” The brother is an assimilated rube. Brenda is Neil Klugman’s upper class girl friend, and Neil is a working class Jew from Newark. Much of the plot turns on whether or not Brenda is going to have a diaphragm fitted, a question I kept raising with Cora at the very time I discovered the book. The more my studies faltered because of the sheer exhaustion of having sex with Cora every night, the more I began to fear that she wanted to get pregnant. (Neither of us liked condoms, and sometimes I wouldn’t wear one.) Part of my exhaustion had to do with the lack of a proper venue for our lovemaking. We both lived at home. This left us with the back seat of my Studebaker Lark and the occasional apartment of an acquaintance. As Cora became more and more demanding of my time, I began to get scared – but it took literally four years to get as scared as I should have been from the start. By that time people assumed we were getting married, and soon.
Laymen didn’t know in those days how to recognize bi-polar disorders, or how to help people who had them. I just thought Cora was moody. But in fact she’d get so high – no drugs, no alcohol – that she’d do things like run screaming through the library shouting my name and variations on it like “Talbot Eastmate! Whoever knew anyone called Talbot. Talbot Bookmark, Talbot Mountbank, Talbot Yuckmoist. What a ridiculous name! Where’s my Talbot, baby?” She spent some time at a private mental clinic. She tried to kill herself twice, once with some of her mother’s tranquilizers and once, when we went to a Lake Michigan beach together, by swimming as far out into the lake as she could in order to drown herself from exhaustion. I am myself a bad swimmer, but I managed to get out to her with a child’s air mattress in hand which I finally persuaded her to catch hold of as we had a discussion of metaphysics and existentialism while treading water for half an hour before finally kicking into shore clutching the toy. The angry kid from whom I had taken it stood knee-deep in the lake, glaring at us as we huffed and puffed and tried to catch our breath.
When I phoned Ernest Webber asking for help on some of my stories about Timothy Westmont, he tried, at first, to be polite. I had no one else to show them to, so Webber was stuck being my only reader.
“That’s a funny moment,” he said, “when your character Westmont gets his hand stuck in the teapot. But you ought to be carful making sport with the woman who has a withered arm. You’ve got to be as good as Flannery O’Connor for that sort of thing. If you published this, everybody at the college would recognize Georgia Steiner. That wouldn’t be cool. You’d even be taking a chance on a lawsuit. And then there’s the tone. It’s kind of adolescent, don’t you think? For a man of seventy, I’d say it lacks a certain dignity. Sorry, Talbot, but you asked. And what’s our friend Diana Adams going to think about the wife? What’s the point of embarrassing her?”
“Ernest,” I said, “it’s fiction.”
There was a pause while Webber re-lit his pipe at the other end of the phone and took a couple of puffs. He was never in a hurry. Pipe smoking is a lost art among intellectuals. It made for such a wonderful rhythm in a long conversation. Back in 1959, even I smoked a pipe after I noticed that Joel Barkan’s father did. Harvey Goldberg smoked a pipe. And Rabbi Weingarten. But in the end, smoking killed two of them. Now and then I’ll catch the scent of someone’s pipe at a bar or coffee house where smoking is still permitted. It smells somehow both of sex and death. I breathe it in with pleasure and a sense of the forbidden.
“Fiction,” Webber said. “Of course, my friend. Look, your thing is old and dusty papers. The older the better. Put this Westmont stuff in the archive and let somebody find it in fifty years. Then it might be really interesting, at least as history.”
Webber could be tough. He was an even sterner critic of my reading than he was of my writing. He read Defoe, Dickens, the Brontes, George Eliot, Henry James, Thomas Mann (in German), Flaubert (in French), Joyce, Nabokov, and James Walton. His characteristic self-deprecation led him to joke that he was totally out of it, never even knew where to begin with contemporaries (and his use of “contemporary” was comically intended to refer to my own anachronistic sense of it). He’d say things like, “Is Salinger any good, do you think? What about Norman Mailer?” But I knew he thought that nothing I read with enthusiasm would last. And he was amused (but also really sorry) that I maintained my youthful excitement about the writers I’d grown up with. Because we were good friends, I could say things like “I’d love to actually meet Philip Roth some day.” He’d chew his pipe, wait a minute or two, and reply: “Talbot, you wouldn’t.” He’d pause on the phone, reach for his favorite Walton, and cite: “Margaret’s Book, page 72.” After our conversation I’d of course check the reference. Have a look in your own copy where Byron, the hero, says to Margaret about “people like us” and “those we fancy to be great.” I’ll probably have to quote it later on. Now and then I’d remind Webber that James Walton was not only a “contemporary,” but that he lived in our own small college town. “Walton,” he’d say, “is an exception to every rule.” Then he’d hang up, leaving me to figure out what he meant.
In the absence of friends at Ohio State, I continued to talk now and then to Rabbi Weingarten about my problems with Cora. He was willing to listen, just so I agreed to avoid the subject of wanting to be Jewish. He was torn, eventually, by his admiration of Cora’s astonishing beauty and his growing acknowledgment that she was clearly crazy, suicidal, and therefore probably not the girl for me to marry. He deeply regretted having come round to this conclusion. He’d say, “Talbot, I’m not a shrink. I’m also an old guy like your father and all his lawyer pals. You need a friend your own age. Now that Cora’s been in college herself for a couple of years, isn’t there someone who knows you both and can give you the kind of help you need?” I told him there wasn’t, really. He was amazed that someone could go through an entire undergraduate career without a single close friend. Three years had passed since our famous conversation about becoming a Jew shortly after the relationship with Cora had begun. He’d said that if I still wanted his help about the temporarily forbidden subject in ten years time, I could then re-introduce it. I had a sense on these visits that he was nervously consulting his calendar. It was now already 1962.
I was also increasingly having to deal with Cora’s parents. I couldn’t tell whether they hoped I’d soon take a difficult problem off their hands, or just hoped I’d go away to graduate school and not be forever hanging around their house. I was there more than I was at home, and of course any conversation with them was increasingly difficult since I mainly wanted them out of the house so Cora and I could have sex in their bed, which was bigger and better than hers. When the crisis finally came that precipitated my break with Cora, it was initiated by her mother. I received a phone call one late afternoon from her mom asking me to come over. The houses were only a few blocks away, so over I trotted, thinking this was going to be about some arrangement for a dinner or event on the town as we sometimes did things all together as a kind of family. But I was wrong. Cora’s mother met me at the door with a stern expression, and reached out with something, saying “Is this yours?” It looked like the foil from a stick of chewing gum until I suddenly saw it was a condom wrapper.
“I imagine it is,” I said.
“Talbot,” she said. “I found this in OUR bed! I’ve taken you for a serious and responsible man. So has my husband. What are we supposed to make of this?”
“It’s a sign that I’m a serious and responsible man,” I said.
“Talbot!” she exclaimed.
When I told the Rabbi this story, he burst out laughing. “That’s telling the old Goy, he laughed. Will this be the end of the affair?” I’d never thought of it as an “affair”; Cora was just my girl friend. What did in fact end it, whatever it was, occurred only a few weeks later. I’d by that time received notification that I had been admitted to the library science program at Stanford. Shortly after I’d told Cora, she was walking through campus with a copy of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn under her arm. Some passing man noticed this, chatted her up, took her for coffee, discussed Henry Miller for an hour, and then took her back to his apartment and fucked her. The Rabbi thought this was really funny, too. “And all this entirely your own fault, Talbot,” he said. “Who would have thought your introduction to the joys of library science would have led her to this. It’s what they call ‘poetic justice,’ my friend. I’m really sorry for you, but perhaps it’s all for the best. Get yourself out to Stanford and have a good life.”
When I started to leave, he got out of his chair and gave me a big crushing bear hug. I think he had tears in his eyes.
By some strange coincidence or synchronicity, I’ve just returned from Columbus, Ohio. I received a phone call from the Director of Education at the Ohio State House telling me that the Supreme Court Chambers would be moved into a new building soon and that the portraits of my father and grandfather would go into storage, perhaps never to emerge into the light of day again. Did I want to see them before this happened? I said I did. Some time before receiving the call, I had also received a letter – the old fashioned kind, in an envelope with a stamp – from Peter Robinson, a childhood friend whose name I borrowed for the story “Westmont and Tar Hollow Camp,” telling me that Glen Echo Park, the Columbus ravine where he and I had played as kids and which figures importantly in my stories about Timothy Westmont, was going to be re-dedicated by the Franklin County Park Department. He was going to go. Did I want to meet him “down the glen?” I pulled out the letter to check the date, which was May 14th, Bastille Day. I took that as a good omen, emailed Pete, emailed the lady at the State House, and went.
It has been fifty years since I’ve seen the portraits of my two judicial forbears. My grandfather served on the Ohio Supreme Court longer than anyone ever had before him, and his record still stands. When he died at the age of 83, falling from the third story window where he was trying to show exterminators where squirrels got into his house, he was still on the bench and still writing groundbreaking opinions. In the newspapers of his era, he was always called “The Dean of Ohio Judges.” To me he was remote and intimidating, but he indulged me about one thing – books. He had an enormous private library with Ex Libris plates in every volume, many dating from the days when he lived in Van Wert, Ohio in the first decades of the 20th century and people with libraries loaned out their books to each other. He always made it clear to me that I could borrow as many books as I liked, just so I made sure to tell him what I thought after I had read them. My “book reports” constituted rare moments with the Great Man. On these occasions, and these occasions only, he would listen with great patience as I told him what I thought of Robert Louis Stevenson or Sir Walter Scott or James Fennimore Cooper. When I was finished, he’d pat me on the head, smile, and say “Keep reading, Talbot; keep reading, my boy. ” And I did.
My father was a poor shadow of “The Dean of Ohio Judges.” When his father died, he ran for the unexpired term and won the election against three other candidates. Most people who voted for him thought they were voting for his father. He understood this, of course, and he managed to win three further terms in office for the same reason. He was unhappy on the Supreme Court, and should have stayed at the Municipal level hearing traffic cases. His portrait is bland and photographic. My grandfather’s, at least, looks like a painting. It’s typical, given his ego, that he rejected the first two paintings that were done. I have no idea who paid for three separate artists to attempt the “likeness” as he referred to it, but the other paintings still exist and are now in my cousin’s basement. They seem to me just as good as the one that’s hanging in the chambers and about to go into storage. “Vanity, saith the preacher,” and all that. But given my line of work I’m sure I’ll end up with one or another of the portraits, doubtless paid for by the college archive’s budget. In fact I’ll probably figure a way to get all three of them.
When I got back home, I wanted to tell Ernest Webber about my trip, especially the unexpected evening I’d spent at Johnny’s 402 Club. Johnny’s was the jazz club where Joel Barkan and I spent much of our senior year in high school. I’d often told Webber about our times there in 1959, and he, an encyclopedic authority on jazz of every kind, was sometimes even a little impressed. In spite of my bookish disposition, I listened to lots of jazz in the late 50s and early 60s, just before the Beatles and Dylan arrived on the scene and the jazz clubs all folded. Within weeks of each other, I heard the Miles Davis Quintet when John Coltrane was with it, the Jazz Messengers, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Charles Mingus, Dave Brubeck, Ahmad Jamal, and many others of that generation. Joel and I were under age, so we carried false IDs, wore bop shades, and smoked pipes in order to look anonymous. We were also usually the only two white faces in an all black club. More than that, my father had sent Johnny, the owner, into prison more than once for numbers racketeering. I’d tell my parents that I was going to the library, a very plausible lie given my official enthusiasms. Then I’d hit the 402 with Joel.
I was just telling Webber the whole story on the phone. I reminded him about my high school nights on the town and told him that after Pete Robinson and I met at the Glen Echo Park re-dedication I checked the phone book to see if the 402 still existed. After a very hot afternoon in the ravine, I persuaded Pete to join me for a night at the club. Pete’s not a great jazz fan, but he’s usually up for a good time, so he agreed to come along after a quick dinner we had together near The Glen. As I’ve just told Webber, I was amazed that Johnny’s still existed and that I happened to be in town the very week when Jimmy Heath was playing there. As Webber well knew, Jimmy Heath is one of the survivors of the bebop generation. He goes as far back as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. He’s 85, and tough as my grandfather was before he fell out that window. His younger brother, Albert Tootie, still plays the drums with his quartet, but Percy, who played with his group after he left the Modern Jazz Quartet, has recently died. This was news to Webber.
“Who’s playing bass?” he asked.
“David Wong,” I said. “Straight from Julliard.”
“It figures,” he said. “They’re all conservatory trained these days. What about the piano.”
“Jeb Patton,” I said. “Studied with Sir Roland Hanna at Queens.”
“You know,” said Webber, “I probably saw The Jazz Messengers twenty or thirty times, always with new sidemen. That used to be the jazz university. I’m not keen on these academic kids, even Wynton, whose Lincoln Center thing is a kind of jazz museum. The real evolution of jazz has basically ended. Like that of the novel.”
I didn’t want to get into Webber’s theories about the end of jazz, the end of the novel, the end of art. He was always pessimistic. So I told him a little about Glen Echo Park. He had met Pete once or twice, and was amused by the fact that as a very young dentist at a D.C. military hospital he had worked on both Eisenhower and General Omar Bradley. He mentioned this.
“Yes,” I said. “And on General Westmorland as well.”
“I hope he pulled out all of Westmorland’s teeth,” he said. “You won’t remember Westmorland, but he was the commanding general in Viet Nam.” Webber and I had been anti-war in those days.
“Speaking of chops,” he said. “What about Jimmy Heath?”
“Dentures,” I laughed. “They literally slipped out during a solo. Cool as can be, he nodded to Patton, who took a solo as he slipped them back in place. Then he said to the audience, “False teeth, man. If you’re not there yet I’m happy for you.” Pete Robinson started laughing so hard that we had to leave the club. It’s still all black, by the way, except that night for me and Pete and two of the guys in the band.”
“What did they play?” asked Webber. I reeled them off: “Changes, Wall to Wall, You or Me, Autumn in New York, The Rio Dawn, and From a Lonely Bass – an elegy for Percy.”
“I always liked Percy Heath,” he said.
“So did I.”
As you know, I couldn’t really have had this conversation with my old friend because he’s dead. And yet somehow I just did. I also went on at length about my nostalgia for the old ravine. I told him how it amazed me in retrospect how free we all were to roam where we would from dawn until dusk. Pete Robinson’s memories are even better than my own. Pete and I shook our heads over how unlikely it would be to have this freedom today. Down the ravine we’d go, and who knew what we were going to do or when we’d come back. Kids today always seem to have closely managed and monitored activities. We had nothing but freedom – which was everything – freedom of a kind I haven’t experienced since. No one thought we’d be abducted or murdered. If we got hurt, and we often did, we’d get patched up or sent back out to play. If there were tough kids down the ravine, we’d steer clear of them. In the winter we’d come back sopping wet and freezing cold from sledding in what often became watery slush. We’d take a bath – not a shower – and warm up with a cup of hot chocolate. Even during “Polio season” no one seemed to worry (though I knew people who had caught and survived this awful illness). When we went to the Hudson movie theatre on a Saturday morning, we’d stay all day, eating nothing but popcorn and candy bars. Having seen the double feature once, we’d get some more popcorn, another candy bar, and see the double feature again. And I told Webber about the old house –a simple frame dwelling (now covered in siding) with a kitchen, dining room and living room on the first floor and three bedrooms on the second. The door that we used was on the Arcadia side, except in the spring when birds would inevitably nest in the lilac bushes that spilled over one part of the small porch. Then we used the door on the Glen Echo side until the fledglings had flown. I can even remember the old rotary telephone number (Jefferson 3332). In the back, opening out from the living room, was a large screened porch that stretched the entire width of the house. We spent as much time on the porch as possible, especially in the hot summers before air conditioning. Sometimes we even slept on the porch, trying to keep cool. The back yard was fairly large and ended just behind two wonderful oak trees that grew to a great height only a few feet from each other.
Delivery men of all kinds came to the Arcadia door: milk man, bread man, grocery boy from the small grocery store on Summit, paper boy, strawberry man with a wonderful street cry that took one back to the middle ages, even an ice man – we had an ice box at first, and not a proper refrigerator – and various odd job men looking for work. My father in those days was a Municipal Court judge, and he would sometimes hire people he had sentenced to jail to work in the yard once they’d been released. I found these “criminals” all very exciting and spent a lot of time talking to them. They were predictably enough embarrassed when I’d ask them enthusiastically to describe their crimes with my father standing near by. I got to know some of them pretty well. I hated it when we moved to Arlington in 1958.
I asked Webber if he’d read my Westmont story about Glen Echo, the one in which my character is deprived of his paradise and sent off to a summer camp.
“I don’t think you’ve shown me that one, Talbot,” he said.
“Well, I said, young Timothy spends idyllic summers during the late 1940s and early 50s playing with his visiting cousins from Washington D.C. in the Glen Echo Park. They improvise stories of knights or pirates and deck themselves in costumes and paraphernalia from Westmont’s hoard of hats, capes, plumes, boots, jackets, and a collection of family heirlooms including his grandfather’s Spanish American War swords and his uncle’s uniforms from the First World War. I’ve got a photograph somewhere in the archive where you see Timothy on the left with his three-cornered hat, cape, sword, and wide belt, along with his cousin Robert, similarly attired. I think this was all for the Captain Horatio Hornblower game. Are you there, Webber?”
“It turns out to be a sad summer for Westmont when the cousins sign up for an organized camp near their home and cease their annual summer visits to Columbus. Hold on, I think I’ve got the page right here. Are you there? He could see for himself what was coming. Although he held out for a year, he finally agreed that he would follow Robert and Richard into what was represented to him as a way to meet new friends and learn new skills at an organized camp of his own. But he knew it was mainly an unwanted initiation into proper adolescence. He had loved being a child.
“Ernest, are you there? Webber?”
When I got to Stanford in 1963, the first person I met was Koba Steinberg. You’ll think Koba is an African name, but it’s Russian; in fact it was the most used of Joseph Stalin’s noms de guerre in the early days of the revolution. Koba’s parents were unregenerate Stalinists from the 1930s. Koba wasn’t himself a Stalinist, or even an active socialist. He was a romantic, self-mythologizing biker out of the early poems of Thom Gunn. He was also a brilliant student, having been an undergraduate at Princeton. Like Cora, he found it hilarious that I had come to Stanford to study library science and wanted to be an archivist. He took me to my first ever rock and roll show at the San Francisco Cow Palace. He almost got me to try LSD. That first day we met, he let me know at once, amazing me, that he had taken creative writing courses with Philip Roth. And he loved it that I was from Columbus, Ohio. “Oh me oh my oh, Why did I ever leave Ohio,” he’d intone. And then he’d say, quoting Ron Patimkin’s OSU graduation yearbook LP: “Goodbye, Columbus . . . Goodbye, Ohio State . . .” I was able to toss back at him a quote from the eventually revolted Neil Klugman when he finally realizes that he can’t possibly marry Ron’s sister Brenda, in part because of her ghastly family: “Ron Patimkin! Thee, brother-in-law!” The funny thing is that Koba Steinberg almost became my own – brother-in-law, that is.
Koba was not an ordinary graduate student, but a member of the Wallace Stegner Writing Program, an opportunity for already published writers to live in the Stanford community, audit some courses if they liked, meet together once a week, and work for two years on their current project without having people bother them about exams, degrees, or anything else. I envied him enormously as I signed up for “Bibliography 401.” Koba had published a few short stories in respectable journals, but didn’t seem to be especially pleased about that. What pleased him was that the Stegner program stipend paid him enough to afford the Harley he’d just bought, and that while at Princeton he had written some songs that were now being performed by some of the leading rock groups. The names of the groups meant nothing to me at all: he’d mention “The Dead,” “The Spoonful,” “The Airplane,” “Hendrix,” and so on. None of it made any sense to me. I only knew about Elvis. When he took me to the Cow Palace, I spent most of my time being frightened of the enormous crowd. It was like a British football crowd about to get out of control and trample people under their feet. The music, if indeed it was music at all, was very loud. A lot of the groups were really old men, the first generation of rockers. Now I only remember someone called “Little Richard.” Or was it “Little Robert.” Anyway, I hated it. Koba didn’t care. “Talbot,” he’d say, “we’re going to rock you through your whole degree.”
Trying to live on my meager scholarship in far-off Mountain View, I needed some kind of transportation. The distance between the apartment I found and the Stanford campus was too far for a bicycle. Koba inspired me to buy a Rabbit. A Rabbit was an inexpensive motor scooter like a budget version of the Italian Vespa. If a Vespa could buzz and sting, the Rabbit merely loped. But I could afford it. Taking off with Koba on our various trips was pretty funny: Koba on his Harley, me on my Rabbit. Big brother and little brother; that’s how it was. Since Koba didn’t really have to attend class, he’d persuade me to come along on his adventures – out to see Ken Kesey, for example, someone he inexplicably seemed to know, in the Los Altos Hills. This frightened me more than the rock concert crowd at the Cow Palace, since all of Kesey’s friends seemed to be Hell’s Angles at that stage, slowly being converted by the suddenly famous former Stegner Fellow (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was just about to be followed by Sometimes a Great Notion) to the anti-war movement. During a protest march to the Redwood City napalm plant, the Hell’s Angels had attacked us all, nearly killing the best Eighteenth Century bibliographer on the west coast. After Kesey had his meeting with Koba and the Angel leaders, we had, instead of their opposition, the best group of bodyguards one could possibly imagine. Koba sometimes rode with the Angels himself. I couldn’t figure out, in fact, why he bothered spending time with me. “I like you, Talbot,” he’d say. “I get that, Koba,” I’d reply. “Who,” he’d say, “can explain friendship or love?”
Love came along a second time in my life in 1963. Koba’s sister arrived in San Francisco to live in the Haight-Ashbury, and we were introduced. More than that, we were introduced in a gas-lit apartment where a Stegner Fellow lived who had parties every other weekend. This one was shortly after Thanksgiving, and everybody was keen on a new LP by a rock group called “The Beatles.” This time, as I admitted to Koba, I liked the sound. It wasn’t jazz, and it wasn’t Mozart, but I could understand – I could hear – that it was different from run-of-the-mill popular music, which I loathed. Somehow Koba’s sister emerged directly out of the big hit from the band’s first LP, “I Saw Her Standing There.” I heard it and immediately saw her, shimmering and available. Koba didn’t even have to introduce us. Someone else did. “Hey, Talbot,” someone said, “Meet Koba’s sister. She’s an amazing bird.” Bird. I didn’t know the person who introduced us, but he must have been a Brit. The only “bird” I was ever introduced to again was Diana, the woman I married three years later. Koba’s sister was Jenny, and when the stranger introduced us, she kissed me as if I were her long-term lover, tongue in my mouth, her hand on my crotch. As I write this, and I’ve mentioned it before, I’m 70 years old. It turns me on, I can tell you, dredging up these memories. Where is Jenny? Should I “Google” her? (But how many times has she changed her name? After what eventually happened, I’d better not even try.) Once I realized that Jenny had other suitors, I’d beg Koba for help. “Your biker friends,” I told him, “are all chasing your sister. What the hell am I supposed to do?”
I attended my classes, worrying. You’ll understand that there wasn’t a single computer involved in library science in those days at the very place where in a few decades Apple would be founded by a couple of Stanford types and then Google a little later. Where my student slum digs were located in Mountain View you now find the very control center of Silicon Valley, with all of its eyes and ears. In 1963 I did have one technological distraction to consider – the Stanford linear accelerator that was pointed directly at my apartment and stopped only a mile or so away. You could see it plainly on your way to the beach, under a very long earthwork that looked like Ohio’s Serpent Mound straightened out and extended. I’d sit studying the history of the Dewey Decimal System wondering what kind of particle they were firing at me on that particular day all the way from where the accelerator began on the coast. I’d sit there listening to the Mahler 9th Symphony on the old Bruno Walter recording, a gift, amazingly enough, from Koba. He didn’t just like rock and roll, it turned out, but he was very secretive about some of his personal tastes. As a jazz fan, I was new to Mahler, Shostakovich, Bartok, and other modern composers Koba shared with me. Jenny was strictly a rocker, and so when she started coming to my apartment I put away not only my jazz records, but also her own brother’s classics.
Jenny was never exactly a student. She’d take the odd course at San Francisco State or one of the local junior colleges, then drop it half way through the semester, and go back to smoking pot or snorting cocaine in the room where she lived in the Height-Ashbery. Soon enough, she started “renting” a room at Koba’s place. As far as I can remember she never had a job. Like Koba himself, she was a creature of the Sixties, and for long periods of time she just hung out here and there, often in my bed. She’d arrive in the afternoon and use the key I eventually had made for her. When I returned from my courses, there she’d be, listening to her own LPs on my stereo, smoking her dope. I’d make something for our dinner on the old gas stove and, as often as not, Koba would come by just as we were about to eat. He had a great appetite – for food, as for everything else – so Jenny and I would end up pushing half our own servings full of fried rice and frozen peas onto his plate. Koba would bring the wine, or sometimes a six-pack of beer. We’d drink, eat, and listen to his stories. Unlike me, he was very much a social being and immediately made lots of friends. Among them were the young writers, mostly poets in the regular PhD program, soon to make a considerable stir on the literary scene – Robert Hass, Robert Pinsky, James McMichael, John Peck, and John Matthias. As a prose writer, he seemed to envy poets, and he made it a point to audit the courses then being taught by the irascible Yvor Winters. Winters may have been forgotten by now – I really have no way of knowing – but in those days he was still regarded by the poetry establishment as a ferocious threat to most of what they stood for. He was also dying – from cancer of the tongue – which made all of his late pronouncements sound like something spoken by an oracle. Koba especially liked Hass’s early poems, which he said showed every sign of becoming major work. He was indifferent to the work of Pinsky, McMichael and Peck, although he liked the poets themselves well enough, but positively disliked Matthias, whose grad student poems he thought were merely academic. He’d go on about this group and maybe a recent trip to Big Sur. He claimed to know Henry Miller and, through him, Anais Nin. In fact he claimed he’d “fucked Miss Nin with pleasure, even though she’s an old lady.” At this, Jenny would say: “ Koba, please keep these things in the family.” I laughed at this, thinking she meant the stories.
Koba claimed to have written Everly Brothers songs when he was only sixteen. I barely remembered the Everly Brothers, and so my response wasn’t what he’d expected. (I’ve just Googled these brothers: “Bye Bye Love,” “Wake Up Little Suzie”: Those were the songs he was proud to have written.) But when he said he knew Christopher Isherwood and a lot of his friends in L.A., I perked up. The Stanford archive, in fact, included some Isherwood papers, and I had great respect for those parts of the journals I’d seen, though I had less interest in the novels. The journals were a kind of three-dimensional x-ray of four decades of intellectual life in the UK and US, an archivist’s dream. The main thing, as I saw it, was that Isherwood should be persuaded not to publish them. If he did, those thousands of pages would lose all value to someone like me. You have to understand that Isherwood’s “friends” were not all gay, as I think has been generally assumed. Even at the playwright Jerome Lawrence’s Malibu house a few months later I met an amazingly seductive group of young girls, all of whom said they were “actresses,” and that they had come along with “Chris.” Koba – I was tagging along, as usual – kept telling me that not a single one of them was a match for “our Jenny.”
Koba commented very early on in our relationship that he could understand me best as someone who really preferred books to people. (I’ve attributed this characteristic, of course, to Westmont in my stories. It’s the real key to his troubles.) Koba didn’t say this with any kind of annoyance at all, but just as if he were commenting on the weather. It’s the way things were. He was sorry, but he liked me anyway. He asked me once if I’d ever like to have students and I told him frankly that I wouldn’t. What I liked was working with the papers and, when you got right down to it, I wasn’t all that keen to share them with anyone else. Koba wasn’t much interested in my enthusiasm for the Isherwood journals, Isherwood being in his view just a Hollywood hireling. What really hooked him into my own activities was the news that I’d been asked to do some donkeywork with Alexander Kerensky in the Hoover Institute. Yes, that Alexander Kerensky.
Since nobody studies history any longer, I suppose I need to explain that Alexander Feodorovich Kerensky was briefly, at the young age of 36, head of the Russian provisional government after the March revolution of 1917. To everyone’s amazement, the last Romanov Tsar, Alexander II, suddenly abdicated as a result of his own incompetence and a few massive street demonstrations. But Kerensky’s moment on the world stage was very brief indeed. Lenin, for whom Kerensky’s own father had once written a letter of recommendation – he was principal of the provincial high school attended both by his son and the future communist leader – arrived in the famous sealed train and chased Stanford’s 1963 scholar in residence out of the Petersburg winter palace dressed as a nun or a Moslem woman wearing a burqa – or something like that; the stories vary. Anyway, without anyone paying much attention, he had lived out an exile’s life in France and the US, to end up in the Hoover Institute archive shuffling his papers and sending me on endless errands to look up this and that, usually manuscripts and books written in a language I couldn’t read. Koba thought Kerensky had been dead for forty years. At last I was able to tell some stories that he and Jenny listened to. Their father, the Stalinist, was still living in a New York federal lockup. They knew their Russian history.
So does Ernest Webber, who knows just about everything. I told him once about a phone call I received at around that time – or, rather, two phone calls in a row, and he enjoyed the story. It went a little like this: Jenny is spending the night in my flat when, out of the blue, Cora phones from Columbus. I’ve not heard from her for months, but, since Jenny answers the phone, I don’t realize for a while that Cora is on the line. It’s late; we’re both jerked into full consciousness by the ringing. The conversation, from my side of the bed sounds something like this (blanks, of course, indicating what I can’t hear): “Hello?” _________. “Jenny.”________. “I suppose you could say that.”________.“Why is that any of your business?”________. “OK, OK, sure I’m the new girl friend.” ________.“You want to talk to him, he’s right here.”________. “No, we’re not.”_________.“Yes we have been, but we’re all done with that now. I’m smoking some dope and he’s reading a book.”_________. __________. __________. To me: “She wants to know what book you’re reading.” Me, to Jenny: “Sir Hilary Jenkinson’s Manual of the Archive of the Deputy Keeper of the British Public Records Office, 1922.” Jenny, to me: “You’re kidding.” Me, To Jenny: “It’s really very good.” “He’s reading Sir Hilary Jenkinson’s Mannual of the Archive of the Deputy Keeper of the British Public Records Office, 1922. __________. “That’s what he says.”__________. _________. _________.“Yeah, I’ll tell him.” To me: “She says she really misses you.” Me, to Jenny: “Say I miss her too. At least now and then.”__________. __________. To me: “She says that last bit really pisses her off.” Me, to Jenny: “Say I’m deeply sorry to hear that.” Jenny: “I think she just hung up.”
You must imagine my gestures occupying the blank spaces above during my re-enactment of the conversation for Webber’s amusement. Shrugged shoulders, hands in the air, little fists. Then I tell him about the next phone call. By then Jenny and I have both just fallen asleep. Jenny, for whom sleeping was always a difficulty, answers the phone with some irritation. “If this is Cora,” she said, “just fuck off. We’re both asleep.”_________. __________. ___________. “He says it’s your boss.” Me, to Jenny: “My boss?” Jenny into the phone: “He doesn’t seem to get it. Who’s speaking?” _________! Jenny, to me: “Alexander Feodorovich Kerensky.”
Webber thinks this all pretty funny because he knows about Kerensky’s career at Stanford. At the time, Jenny was just appalled. For her, this was a family matter. Her parents were Marxist-Leninists, and her father would gladly have assassinated Kerensky had he been in Petersburg in 1917. She and Koba had grown up on stories about my boss’s escape dressed in his burqa or nun’s veil. She couldn’t believe I was working for the guy. But I was learning a lot, and besides it paid me some extra pocket money to top up my stipend. Webber is also keen to hear my stories about Jenny and Koba, but I tell him I’ll save those for some boring wedding or funeral down the line. Ernest, I’m afraid you wouldn’t have liked either of them. I see you chewing on your pipe, then rubbing your temples. You say something like, “Sounds to me as if they were a couple of phonies.” But we never did get round to this conversation, did we, though we seem to have attended plenty of weddings and, more and more, far too many funerals. That’s why I have to tell you about them here.
In the end I preferred Kerensky to Jenny, just as in the end I preferred Rabbi Weingarten and Harvey Goldberg to Cora. You’ll understand this. It turned out that the former president of the provisional government lived in the same modest rooming house as John Matthias and a fiction writer in the Stegner program with Koba, Richard Elman. Not Richard Ellmann, the Joyce biographer. This Richard Elman was a fairly successful novelist and for a while did a regular show on National Public Radio. He was a great raconteur, and described to us (Jenny, Koba, Matthias, and myself) the way Kerensky behaved at his – Elman’s – wedding reception in the boarding house garden:
“You know, the A.K. who shared a bathroom with Matthias and me in the home of Herbert Hoover’s niece was known as a sore looser. You’d be one too if you were chased out of the Winter Palace like he was. But worse than that, he was a dreadful snob. Also, of course, a charmer, a hand kisser, a well-oiled mechanical doll with a set of fine steel Swiss watch springs in his elbows and knees. He would do his morning constitutional heel and toe fashion, as if taking part in the Coney Island marathon. Not once but twice I caught him peering down a sun-freckled bosom as he bent from hand to hand in my landlady’s back garden at the reception. Having known the splendors of Petersburg society, Nicolai’s court, the great world of the moneyed exiles, it was absolutely splendid of A.K. to be trying so hard not to condescend to my wedding reception. He flitted from barbecue pit to beer case as if at an Imperial levée.” Eventually, Elman wrote up his A.K. anecdotes in a book called Namedropping. I’ve seen a copy in the college library.
Though from my point of view Elman doesn’t describe Kerensky at all, that’s not really the point. The point is that all the time Jenny was mocking my archival ambitions, Kerensky was supportive and enthusiastic. He had himself long since disappeared from the world of international politics to the stacks, carels and special collections of the British Museum (sitting, perhaps, just where Marx himself had read and studied), the Paris Bibliotèque Nationale, the New York Public Library, and now the Hoover Institute. He had become, in Melville’s terms, a library cormorant, and he recognized and rewarded the like-minded. Before long I was being invited to his apartment in the rooming house for Russian vodka and glasses of good French wine. We’d talk about the Viet Nam war and the civil rights movement. To a certain extent he lived in the past, but he also kept up on the current world scene. And he expected you to know who he was. Poor Matthias, for example, confused his name with that of a Russian symphony conductor, and was on the outs with Kerensky from that moment on. Elman was smarter, but was also a smart-ass and aggressive Sixties lefty. He wanted to goad the old man into anti-Soviet tirades, which was easy to do so. I tried to listen rather than talk, and to do the basic tasks he asked me to perform as efficiently as possible. The more time we spent together the more Jenny and Koba taunted me. Jenny especially liked to recite some lines from ‘The Hunting of the Snark’:
hand-in-hand, and the Bellman, unmanned
Such friends, as the Beaver and Butcher became,
“You’re calling Kerensky a butcher?” I asked. “Pretty strange given the monster your family supported in the 1930s.”
“No, I’m just calling you a beaver,” Jenny said. “You can make up any kind of butcher you like. You’re aware of his scholarly habits.” And she recited another stanza of “the Snark”:
The Beaver brought paper, portfolio, pens,
And Koba reminded me again about the strangest creepy creature in Roth’s “Goodbye Columbus” – the one I most wanted to forget – John McKee, a student of library science at Newark State Teachers College who worked part time at a branch library with priapic Benjamin, and who “was only twenty-one, but wore elastic bands around his sleeves [and would] march starchily down the stairs to work assiduously at stamping books in and out.” No one remembers this specter from the story, but he was known to our hero as “John McRubberbands.” The most famous one-liner in Goodbye Columbus occurs when someone asks Brenda what she’s been doing during the summer and she says, “Growing a penis.” If John McRubberbands had been asked the same question, he’d have certainly said that he had been sucking his own penis into his crotch in order to grow a vagina. But never mind all that.
Kerensky and Koba met only once, and I had tried very hard to prevent that meeting from happening. It was all Matthias’s fault. Not understanding the extent to which the confusion between the hero of the March revolution and an émigré symphony conductor had annoyed my boss, he arranged a party at the boarding house to which, along with many other inappropriate guests, Koba, Jenny, and I had been invited. After everybody had consumed a good amount of vodka, wine, and (in Jenny’s case) the best Acapulco Gold (is that right? Wasn’t that the marijuana of choice?), Matthias, idiot that he was, brought Koba and Karensky together.
“Professor Kerensky,” he said. (Kerensky was not a professor.) “This is my friend Koba Steinburg.”
“Koba? Koba?” said Kerensky, blenching. “Surely nobody here is called Koba.”
“Absolutely,” Koba said. “I was named for Comrade Stalin.”
“For God’s sake,” said Kerensky. “Why would anybody name you for him?”
“To help destroy,” said Koba, “the capitalist system and bring Marxism-Leninism to the whole fucking USA!”
“Get this madman out of here,” said Kerensky – looking around for someone who might have the authority to do that. His eyes eventually fell on me. “Talbot,” he said, “please remove this idiot from my apartment building.”
I realized that Koba was now pretty drunk. “Come on,” I said. “Let’s you and me and Jenny go out for a pizza.” Once out in the street by our bikes, I asked Koba why he should bother making the old man angry and confused. “It’s bad enough,” I said, “that he’s got to live with Elman and Matthias.”
Jenny said, “Let’s go to Talbot’s place. We’ll smoke some dope and read the new poems Koba’s got by Robert Hass and Pensky.”
“That’s Pinsky,” I said.
Jenny got on the back of Koba’s Harley and I followed along on my Rabbit.
By the end of that night I knew where I stood. All of us ended up in the same bed, and I was the odd man out. When I woke up in the morning I was absolutely certain that Koba had had sex with his sister while I was in some kind of alcoholic coma lying right next to them. There they were when I blinked into consciousness, arms wound around each other like newlyweds.
Ernest, you say I just had some bad luck. Bad luck, indeed: One crazy girl friend and another who liked to fuck her brother. Jenny also had an ambiguous relationship of some kind with her father. This was back when he had been accused of “un-American activities,” tried as an accomplice to a Soviet spy, and was about to go off to a Federal penitentiary for twenty years. He was one of those who wouldn’t “name names,” but he wasn’t famous like Arthur Miller. So the McCarthy Committee had no trouble damaging his reputation and cooking up a show trial without kindling any expressions of outrage from well known people. Jenny knew he was about to be put away and wanted, she said, “to make him happy.” She would have been about sixteen. I was slowly learning not to be amazed by revelations like this. But what the hell. I was just McRubberband Talbot. I was getting used to the idea that the best possible place for me was going to be deep, deep, deep underground. In an archive. And yet Koba was a real friend and, in spite of everything, in spite of the wild extent of our differences, he continued to drag me along on his vision-quest. And I still thought I was in love with his sister. Things continued to be pretty much the same among the three of us all through 1963 and 1964. But there was no talk of marriage with Jenny. Marriage was something from the 1950s. In the Sixties people “lived together” instead. Can you imagine what that hip generation of literary types would have thought had they been told that even gay and lesbian couples would be clamoring to get married in the next century?
(In passing, Ernest, I ought to note here that it was at about this time I first came across the name of your favorite soon to emerge great American fictionist, James Walton, whose work I too now revere. There had been a funny mix-up involving the two Richard El(l)man(n)s. Someone sent Richard Ellmann, the Joyce scholar, an annoyed letter saying that he ought to go back to writing literary criticism and biography because his fiction was no good at all. The great academic had no idea that Richard Elman existed, mainly because he had only published a few short stories in fairly obscure little magazines. But he was interested. He asked his graduate assistant at Northwestern to go out and do a little digging, the kind of thing I did for Kerensky, to see if some namesake existed. Walton turned up Kerensky’s fellow lodger and Matthias’s friend Richard Elman, sent him a letter tactfully explaining the confusion. Elman then began a correspondence with Walton lasting until Elman’s death in the 1990s. He showed me the first letter. It was clear, even from the epistolary style, that Walton could write brilliant prose. As yet, however, he was just plodding along on a Conrad dissertation directed by “double l / double n,” as Richard the fictionist and his friends called the Northwestern professor.)
My state of mind, locked into a status quo with regard to Jenny and Koba, had begun to lead me not only to value more and more the solitary state of the archivist-at-work, but to lonely and peripatetic thought in various bucolic Stanford fields, meadows, and glens. They didn’t call the place “the farm” for nothing, and there were still plenty of quiet places where the livestock had been withdrawn, the crops replaced by grass and winding footpaths, or where early attempts to communicate with the stars had begun literally and with high hopes. Ernest, you’d have enjoyed the early morning or late evening walks I used to take along the five miles of trails around the famous radio reflector antenna still called “The Dish.” I said earlier that the only high-tech equipment that influenced my life in the early 1960s was the Stanford linear accelerator, which shot its small particles directly at my apartment. But I had forgotten the dish. Unlike the accelerator, its presence was altogether benign. Along with the Hoover Tower, it was the most obvious Stanford landmark. They told us in those days that the dish was built to monitor nuclear tests, if there were any, way out in the Pacific. But people who worked there made it clear that the real work of Silicon Valley’s predecessors was the search for extraterrestrial life. Certain hikers on the paths reported personal encounters with Little Green Men, Chinese sages transported from some early dynasty, or the ancient and anonymous authors of world-famous Noh plays. There were also other rare forms of life, especially the California Tiger Salamander, an amphibian on the endangered species list, for which little creatures Stanford had hired unemployed librarians and English PhDs to build a system of complicated tunnels under streets and highways solely for the purpose of amphibian migration. As for mammals, there were no tigers among the tiger salamanders, but sometimes I would see a mountain lion at some distance and, alas, now and then a mauled sheep or cow. It was the best place to walk that I could find, and a couple of hours up there alone usually served to clear the mind. I could manage to enter a kind of psychological zone where I didn’t think about any of the things that were bothering me. It’s easier for you to find such a zone, as you’ve told me many times. A good pipe of new tobacco, a trip out to your garage, and your childhood baseball cards arranged in some kind of invented baseball-solitaire that no one has ever been invited to share. Or sometimes a syntactical analysis of Walton’s best and longest sentences.
One night in the early Autumn I returned from a solitary walk to find no one at home. I never knew, returning to my apartment now, who might be there: Jenny, Koba, both of them, or one of their friends from somewhere or other who had been given my key and told to make themselves at home. I lay down in my bed and dropped off into a light sleep. Suddenly the phone was ringing. It was my mother.
“How are you, Talbot,” she said. “How’s it going?”
“Just the same, Mom. I’m working hard.”
“Oh, that’s good, that’s good.”
“Mom, did you call for any particular reason?”
“Well, your father thought I should tell you something, though I don’t really think it’s all that important.”
“Therefore it must be important. What’s wrong?”
“Oh, nothing to do with us. We’re both just fine, Talbot.”
“So? What is it then?”
“Your father thought I should tell you that something’s happened to that Rabbi he sometimes plays golf with.”
I took a deep breath. “Weingarten? What’s happened to Rabbi Weingarten?”
“I guess he died,” my mother said.
“You guess he died?”
“Well, yes. He did die.”
“Mother, I really liked Rabbi Weingarten. He was my friend.”
“Well, we knew you enjoyed his company now and then, and that’s why we thought we should call.”
“I don’t know what to say. How did he die?”
“Golf ball,” said my mother.
“What the hell do you mean golf ball.”
“He was hit by one. On the golf course. In the forehead.”
“What are you trying to tell me?”
I had a sudden image of Weingarten, hit by some duffer’s sharply curving slice from a parallel fairway, taking a few steps, and stumbling into a sand trap. “How did it happen?” I asked.
“Well, there was a player in the foursome headed down a parallel fairway who sliced his shot in such a way that the Rabbi was hit in the forehead. He took a couple of steps, and then stumbled into a sand trap. There happened to be a doctor playing in that very foursome who tried to help, but the Rabbi died at once. They took him back to the clubhouse on the back of a golf cart. Your father thought you should know.”
“I’m going to hang up the phone, Mother. I can’t go on talking to you about this.”
“Why is that, Talbot?”
“Mother,” I said, “you’d never understand.”
“Talbot,” she said eagerly. “Shall I get in touch with Cora?”
“Please, Mother. Don’t even think about it.”
“But she knew him too, didn’t she? Your” – she paused – “Friend?”
“Maybe you should get in touch with Harvey Goldberg.”
“He’s gone,” she said.
“What do you mean he’s gone?”
“So he’s gone to Madison?”
“Is that where the university is? Should I make some enquiries?”
“Mother, I’m putting down the phone.” And I did.
I just read on the Google news feed that Philip Roth has stopped writing. This appeared in an interview with the editor of an obscure French “print” journal, so it took a while for it to “go viral.” You’ll forgive the quotes. My friend Igor Webb told me a while back that Roth was only “shuffling papers” these days. He actually knows Roth, visits him now and then at his isolated home somewhere on Long Island. To me, it seems the equivalent of knowing and visiting Henry James or Edith Wharton. Way beyond my wildest ambitions. But I’ve been “shuffling papers” too – your own. Here on my desk is the massive manuscript you’ve left me of Walton’s last and unpublished novel, along with an electronic copy I’ve had scanned into which I’ve transcribed most of your marginalia. But in absence of any specific instructions from you, save for the mysterious note saying “Please keep this, and keep it in confidence,” I’m not at all sure what my responsibilities are. If you hadn’t added “and keep it in confidence,” I’d just phone Walton – who after all is alive and still lives nearby – and ask him what he’d like me to do with it. We know that he decided against publication. And we know he invented “Ernest Webber” out of things he’d learned from you, which gives you some rights in the matter. Maybe if I just keep talking to you here it will all come clear to me in a while.
So, Ernest, as I come to the point in the story when we actually met, I have to confess that six months after the conversation with my mother I was back – having said goodbye a little too early – in Columbus, living with my parents in the family home. You can imagine how defeated and humiliated I felt. I had simply failed the Stanford final exams, which gave me an experience I’d never had before. It was of course all the fault of Jenny and Koba. Or at any rate Jenny and Koba seemed worthy of blame. They had finally managed to distract me enough that I was inhabiting their world so fully that I forgot to study. Living again in my parents’ house meant that I was also not far from Cora, who lived more or less in the same neighborhood. I took care not to be seen around town. I just stayed in the house reading all the books I should have read at Stanford and working on applications for the OSU department of library studies. My parents annoyed me, of course, but I also realized that it wasn’t their fault that I’d botched things so badly I’d had to come home with my tail between my legs. I played Klezmer music on my old stereo and discovered a clarinetist I thought was better than Benny Goodman. When my father complained about “all that Jewish music you like so much,” I got mad and put on Schoenberg. I had acquired a particular fondness for Pierrot Lunaire and the obscure Belgian poet Albert Firaud, out of whose poems, translated into German by the even more obscure Otto Hartleben, Schoenberg concocted his harlequinade through a decadent dérèglement des sens achieved by atonality and Sprechstimme that suited the spiritual angst I was feeling perfectly. It didn’t, however, suit my father’s nerves. After a few months of this, he said it was getting to be time “I took my music and moved out.”
I really had no one to talk to in Columbus. The Rabbi was dead, Cora was out of the question, Goldberg was in Wisconsin. I did go to see Solomon, the archivist, about my application to OSU. He was willing to write me a recommendation and also suggested that I might like to meet his son, Malachi. After Cora and Jenny, I had sworn off girls for good, so I wasn’t even considering a social life. Solomon told me that his son was “not my type,” but that I might “learn something from him.” In fact, Malachi became my roommate for a while.
It was actually his room, or apartment, and his father clearly understood that he needed to share the rent with someone. Malachi was broke, wasn’t a student, and didn’t have a job. I was willing enough to pay half of the modest rent as my father had promised me more than twice what it amounted to if I would leave the house. That left me a good deal. I typed up a form letter, telling people that I’d moved to 2642 Echo Drive, Columbus; telephone, Jefferson 3332. (These were the very last days of such exchanges.) I photocopied the letter and sent it around. A few days after I moved in, the first phone call was from Kerensky.
He’d been out biking with Koba and Elman. Seriously. I have no idea how the whole escapade had come about, but the conversation was like something out of Gogol. He had wanted, he said, to visit “estates” and someone put him in touch with an organization specializing in tours of California wineries and vineyards. But he got the idea that he might better “penetrate” these “estates” on two wheels rather than four, and evidently tried to get in touch with me because he knew about the Rabbit, but discovered that I had left Palo Alto and found himself talking to the dreaded Koba. He and Jenny were still living in my old flat. By that time Elman also had a cycle, and Koba told Kerensky they’d be glad to take him around and could get him a “rental.” I had no idea where the “rental” might have come from, but I suspected the Hell’s Angels. Before he got around to the purpose of his call, he told me about heading west on route 1 until they got to the first and oldest winery in the state, “Testal Ruska,” as he called it. Testarossa had been a Jesuit seminary, full that day of what turned out to be “deaf poles.” I was certain he had said “dead souls.” Kerensky wasn’t keen on Poles. He also told me, as if I’d care, that he’d lost his “overcoat and nose.” The overcoat bit I’d heard correctly, but the other thing he’d lost was the “notes” that were in the overcoat pocket.
“I’b dot a bad ibfuenza, Dalbot, all fum widing on that modocycle wid yur fwiends widout my obercoat,” he said.
“I’m sorry about that, Alexander Fyodorovich. Did you visit other wineries?
“Yebsir, dwee more ob dem. All da way down to Camel and da Montaway Pensula. I discover, Dalbod, dat I like de motorbiking and Big Sur.”
“You went to Big Sur.”
“Sure. I like it there. Big Sure, I call it; all da girls abailable.”
I’m having real difficulty imaging Kerensky on a Harley clinging to the edge of the continent on Route 1 with Koba and Dick Elman leading the way.
“You really did this, Alexander? You’re not putting me on.”
“Yebsir. Und your fwind Koba is good guy.”
“You actually made peace with Koba?”
It seemed now about time to get down to business, so I asked him why he’d phoned. He said he wanted his money back.
“I don’t understand, Alexander. What money’s that?”
He said it was the part of my salary I hadn’t earned, which had all been paid out of his discretionary fund as a visiting scholar. I’d been paid my spring quarter stipend, but then flunked my winter quarter exams and absconded with his money. He’d had cases of expensive wine shipped up from Monterey and then found he lacked the funds to pay an exorbitant rental on his Harley. It was still parked in front of the boarding house he shared with Elman. My first guess had been right, and Koba had obtained a bike from the Angels. Kerensky was scared.
“You know aboud dese Angels, Dalbod, Da?
“Da,” I said.
“You send a check. About three-fifty maybe, Da?
“I’ll send a check. Jenny didn’t come along with all of you on the trip?”
“She’s looking for you, Dalbot. A dutiful girl.”
“I think you mean beautiful.”
“Yebsir.” He put down the phone.
Malachi was listening to all this and trying to figure out what it was all about. I explained. I also admitted to him that I was giving up women. He said he could understand that, but I doubted that he’d spent any time seriously attached to anyone of the opposite sex. It wasn’t that he was gay, he was just gross. To begin with, he chewed gum – lots of it, a great wad in his mouth. His jaw muscles were exaggerated from all the chewing, and he had biceps where his cheeks should have been. It was bubble gum he fancied, the kind you could still get in a flat rectangle with a baseball card. He threw away the baseball cards, but stuffed the entire rectangle of gum in his mouth. It drove me absolutely nuts when I had to prepare for my entrance exams in the library science program. And he blew bubbles. At that point I felt I had a right to object. I’d say, “Look, this gum chewing really bothers me, and I haven’t said anything. But blowing bubbles like a six-year-old kid is absolutely beyond my endurance.” He said he couldn’t help it; it was a habit.
“Is that the same as an addiction?”
“Almost,” he said. “I can’t not do it.”
“Why didn’t you warn me about this.”
“I didn’t think it was a problem”
He also snored. We had arranged the two-room flat into a double study and a double bedroom. That was a big mistake. During the night, I was kept awake by Malachi’s snoring; in the day I had to try and concentrate with the snapping and the bubbling. Now and then we’d have a conversation. It’s strange how I began to crave total quiet more than anything. There was a barking dog in the neighborhood that was left out at nights and, after a few weeks, the people living next door began getting a new roof put on. Of course the roofers had a portable radio on which they’d play the loudest rock station in Columbus. And a guy in the alley worked on his car – rum, rum, rummm, glug glug, glug, sputt sputt. I shouted up at one of the roofers about the radio, asking him to turn it down. He gave me the finger and turned it up. A day after I complained to the neighbors about their employee’s loud radio, I came back to the flat and found the radio, or what had been the radio, broken to pieces on the front porch. It looked like it had been hit with a sledgehammer or a cement block; its entrails were spread all over, along with the bits of its plastic casing. This I took as a death threat.
After several weeks of these minor torments, I headed for the archive and Malachi’s dad. I knew it would be quiet there. Solomon was sympathetic. He said he knew his son was “a little rough around the edges,” and he perfectly understood about the dog, the roofers, the car mechanic, and the radio. So he offered me a job. He, like Kerensky, seemed to have some kind of discretionary fund. He really didn’t care if I worked or not; I’d have a place to study, think, write, or just be quiet. There was even a small cot-like bed I could use after hours if I wanted to. It was in the women’s bathroom. “You know,” he said, “for the girls when they have their periods and have to lie down.” But the whole archive was shut up at night, so no one would find me in the women’s loo. “Just make sure you’re out of there by 8:00 a.m. if you spend the night.” Thus began what I think of as my Bartelby period.
It’s not that I never went back to the apartment or ceased to spend any time with Malachi. I found, in fact, that I could tolerate him much more easily once I understood the bolt hole was available to me at any time of the day or night. (His father had given me a key.) At first I only used the archive cot when the outside noises were at their worst. Malachi got used to me saying, “Hey, I’ll see you in the morning. I think I’m going to go and put in an all-nighter at the library.” Refreshed, I’d be quite happy being chummy when I returned in the morning. It seemed that at first he thought I was seeing a girl, so there were some weird winks and nods. But I explained I really enjoyed the odd night of complete silence. It restored me. It cheered me up.
“And you like my old man, right?
This I acknowledged, saying, “I’m back here to get the credentials that will let me live a life just like his. I got distracted out on the west coast, but now I’m back in control of my life.”
“Well,” said Malachi, “he’s not very much in control of his.”
“What do you mean?”
Malachi blew a big bubble with his Stan-the-Man Musial baseball card bubble gum, let it burst, and collected the residue from around his lips and nose with his forefinger.
“Talbot,” he said. “The old man is a thief.”
That took me aback. He went on to maintain in general terms that any obsessive collector eventually was tempted to theft. Obsessive collecting was an addiction, like lots of other things – like bubble gum, for example. When you couldn’t manage to buy something you badly wanted, you found a way to take it. I told him that I found his father an absolutely upright man, in a fact a paragon of probity. Malachi shook his head.
“You didn’t have him as a father.”
Webber, you’ll be thinking already that I must have taken a little of Kenneth Cobin’s character from this discussion. That’s true. The Faulkner scholar in “Westmont and the Bear” doesn’t resemble Solomon in his character or personality, but he does resemble him in his “addiction,” as Malachi had it. I just hadn’t yet had occasion to observe this in Solomon. In fact, I was wholly skeptical at this point and insisted that Malachi give me an example. He said he could give me dozens.
“How about one.”
The story he told me involved the one time that Malachi himself participated in what he called his father’s “repeated thefts.” He only did it because he was angry himself, for his own reasons, at the people who were to be relieved of something valuable. They happened to be the “brothers” at the OSU Beta Theta Pi fraternity. It was a classy group to be associated with in those days, especially if you wanted girls. Malachi happened to have a high school friend who had become a “Beta” and persuaded his brothers to include Malachi in the fall “rush.” At one of the parties at the OSU chapter house, he had been shown a remarkable collection of George Bellows paintings and drawings. Bellows had been a member of the local chapter in his college days. Malachi immediately thought how valuable these works must be, all framed and hung in prominent places around the enormous house. It appeared that Bellows had simply left them behind. Malachi understood at once that his father would be interested in this, as one of his specialties was collecting work that had some association or other with Columbus or Ohio State University. He had accumulated (stolen?) the nation’s best collection of James Thurber papers, an achievement that made his early national reputation among his colleagues. Malachi asked the high school friend if there were even more Bellows works that hadn’t been framed and hung in the chapter house. There were. At the end of the “rush party” the high school friend showed Malachi drawers full of sketchbooks and notes. After an evening of bubble-gum blowing, Malachi was quickly dropped as a possible Beta “pledge,” and he decided he was angry about it. (“You wouldn’t believe the girls these guys get.”) He was also, he said, a Jewish bubble-gum blower, and he supposed that was part of the problem. At any rate, he told his father about the Beta treasure trove.
“What happened then?”
“I managed to get invited one more time, not to a rush party, but just as a dinner guest. I made friends with the ‘house mother.’ Do you know what they are? House mothers? They’re senile and needy old widows who are paid a salary and given a room in the chapter house. They’re a tradition more than a necessity, but all the fraternity houses have one. It gives these places the reputation of discretion while in fact full-scale orgies are going on. The housemothers know perfectly well about all the fucking upstairs; they just shut their apartment doors and turn up the TV. Then they lie on some kind of annual administrative report that gets turned in to university authorities once a year. Anyway, this housemother was a nice old crone and we talked a little about Bellows’ work, which she liked. She actually asked me if I’d like to spend some time with what I had seen before in the drawers. After dinner, she took me into the library and left me alone. I filled up my enormous nerdy briefcase with as much as I could fit into it, thanked my hosts for a pleasant time, and took it all to the archive for the old man. I’m sure nobody ever missed what I took. Do you want some more examples?”
I got the picture. Eventually, I admitted to Solomon that his son had filled me in on the cloak and dagger side of archiving, and he told me even better stories himself. He was a good guy, and I liked him. Besides, most of the things he had purloined were better off in the long run there in the archive than in the private hands of greedy family heirs and uninformed nitwits. And Solomon hadn’t taken the stuff for himself. These were “Robin Hood thefts,” he said, intended eventually for the public good. Or, as Malachi insisted privately to his dad, a symbolic tithing to the annoyed God of his own book of the Tanakh. “That’s part of your Goy Old Testament,” Solomon explained, “with all the books in the wrong order, prophets to the rear and Job in the middle. Ever read the Hebrew Bible the right way round?” Solomon told me that his son took his name all too seriously: “He likes it that he’s named for the last prophet,” he said. “He can’t even listen to Handel’s Messiah except autobiographically: Who shall abide the day of his coming? And who shall stand when he appeareth, and all that. Now and then he’s crazy enough to think it’s all about him. Or sometimes he thinks it’s all about sex, which he knows about from nothing, Talbot, as you probably know. Watch out what you call your kids. For a while, he got obsessive about people offering ‘His Father’ – me, that is, in the archive – cheap goods. That’s when he agreed to go after the Bellows stuff in that fraternity. It was useful. But look out when he does, actually, start up with his parodic prophesying jive. He’s done that now and then, and it really freaks people out. Talks of himself as boss of the Saving Remnant, even with the fucking gum.” It was after these revelations that Solomon asked me if I were interested in joining the two of them in some “adventures,” but I declined. It turned out to be adventure enough sleeping nights in the women’s bathroom.
Slowly enough – it took several months – my Bartleby existence progressed to the extent that I spent less and less time “at home” with Malachi, and more and more time, both days and nights, in the archive. I passed my entrance exams and was once again, though on rather a diminished scale, officially a student of library science. At some point in the middle of the winter – it must have been the winter of 1968, a new year that would lead to the “summer of love” all over the world – that a very confident-seeming young man of about my own age presented himself at the archive and asked if we possibly had anything in the collection by an emerging fiction writer called James Walton. That was you, Ernest Webber.
It’s true that the archive actually listed a category called “emerging writers,” a rare interest in the rare books business. Solomon had the idea that if he gathered a lot of chapbooks, broadsides, poster-poems, mimeo magazines, and the like early on he might be making, more or less inadvertently, some good bets on the future. It turned out he was right. The sixties exploded with small press publications in the same way it did with music, and the archive ended up with valuable collections of a generation that included fiction writers who came after the generation of Roth, Bellow, and Updike: Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolf, T.C. Boyle, Joyce Carol Oates, Robert Coover, the brothers Barthelme, and so on. (Among the poets, Solomon was canny enough to have gotten hold of very early Hass, Peck, and Pinsky – those acquaintances of mine from only the year before – simply by subscribing to Sequoia, the Stanford literary magazine.) After looking in the catalogue of new acquisitions, however, I had to tell you that we seemed to have nothing by James Walton. You weren’t really surprised, but you were in one of what I later thought of as your “pedagogical moods,” so you told me all you knew – and at that point there was very little to know – about the distinguished fiction writer who now happens to live only a mile or so away from me. You recommended, in two Chicago-based little magazines, two of the early stories, “’Tis Enough” and “Loney’s Retirement,” which we now think of as parts of Walton’s first novel, Margaret’s Book, which to everyone’s surprise won the Pulitzer Prize in 1978.
I can’t remember what had brought you to OSU from the South Side of Chicago, especially since you had achieved such a distinguished undergraduate record at Northwestern, which was Walton’s own university. But it’s true, as you told me, that Ohio State had a good English department in those days. You said you didn’t want to attend a “high-pressure” grad school. There was someone in particular you wanted to work with, but I can’t now remember his name. Anyway, we more or less immediately became friends. I think you were the first entirely sane person I’d become friends with since Joel Barkan in high school. And it didn’t take you long to begin worrying about the kind of life I’d been leading. When Solomon came in from his lunch break, I introduced you as “my friend Ernest Webber,” and you immediately blushed. But that’s the kind of person you were. One could sense your gift of friendship almost at once. Solomon clearly liked you too, and he promised to see what he could find out about James Walton’s stories.
By the time we’d finished a wide-ranging free associative conversation in the archive, it was getting on towards happy hour on a Friday afternoon. I phoned Malachi and asked him if he’d like to join us at Larry’s, the student watering place directly across the street from my old high school. When Joel Barkan and I were high school seniors, we had been forced to drink what was called “3.2.” That meant 3.2 percent alcohol, hardly any alcohol at all, and it was specifically intended for people like us. It took several pitchers of the stuff in order to feel any buzz at all. Everything was different down at Johnny’s 402 Club, the jazz joint I’ve mentioned before. We two white kids were given whatever we wanted. In fact, it amused the black clientele to see us stumbling to our car at the end of a late night of jazz. The music at Larry’s was entirely different. My favorite memory, which I told you as we arrived, had to do with the annual “grape stomp” at that venue. An enormous wooden vat full of grapes was somehow assembled in the bar and the full tuba section of the OSU marching band was brought in for the occasion. While the tubas blazed away, patrons took turns dancing among the grapes, barefoot of course, but altogether bare as well. Women’s nubile undergraduate bodies were splashed purple in an event that was such a “tradition” that no authority, campus or municipal, sought to interfere with. Joel and I would sit there, 1958 and 1959, drinking Larry’s 3.2 and feasting on the breasts of girls just out of reach, women morphing into Sixties birds before our eyes.
Malachi was there already when you and I arrived. You won’t, I’m sure, have forgotten what happened next. I introduced the two of you, we ordered a pitcher of beer, and suddenly I froze. You both could see that something was wrong.
“Hey, Talbot – anything amiss?” asked Malachi.
You smiled sympathetically, pouring a glass of beer for yourself from the enormous common pitcher.
“Look!” I said, pointing to a booth on the opposite side of the room.
There sat Cora and Jenny, chatting casually as if they’d known each other since childhood. I hadn’t seen Cora at all since I first left Columbus for Palo Alto. And Jenny I hadn’t seen since I left Palo Alto for Columbus. What was going on? I remember that Kerensky had said something about how Jenny had been “looking for me.”
“I think I’ve got to get out of here,” I said.
You looked at me quizzically: “Why’s that?”
Malachi followed my gaze to the booth: “I think those girls have got designs on him,” he grinned, taking a long draught of beer.
“Designs?” you said.
“He’s not wrong to want out of here,” said Malachi. “Shall I tell you what I think? All of it’s bad news, all of it foreseen by me, Malachi. Abomination is committed in the town Ohio hallowed and her covenant’s betrayed. Did you know my Tanakh scroll gives God a fleeting aspect of the feminine? And Talbot’s not the tenderfoot he seems to be.”
“What’s he saying?” you asked politely.
“Sorry, Ernest,” I said. “Do you think you could finish this pitcher with Malachi? I really do have to leave. Come by the archive sometime soon and I’ll explain.”
I didn’t actually see you again for a couple of weeks. But in fear of whatever that conversation between Jenny and Cora might portend, I finally settled into the women’s bathroom adjacent to the archive as a permanent nighttime residence, bringing in various pills and soaps and toiletries from the apartment. If Malachi didn’t give me away, no one but you would know where I was as I tried to think through what I should do about Jenny and Cora.
Obviously, I could have taken the direct approach – phoned Cora at her home or Koba out in Palo Alto who was presumably still living in my old flat. But there seemed a certain amount of risk in that. I might even have phoned Kerensky. The fact that these two women had somehow managed to get together in Columbus boggled my mind. What could explain it? Jenny certainly wasn’t the kind of person to chase someone like me all across the country, and, although she was pretty crazy herself, she wasn’t as crazy as Cora and wouldn’t, I’d have thought, have enjoyed being around her at all. As far as I knew, they had only exchanged a few words, and those more than a year before during that telephone call the night when Cora phoned me and Jenny admitted that she was “the new girl friend.” Anyway, I decided just to lie low. I borrowed a fedora from Solomon and wore it pulled down over my eyes when I went to class. When not in class, I worked in the archive away from the front desk. Malachi had clued-in his old man, so Solomon understood. When the library closed for the night, I took my books and shaving kit into the women’s loo and settled in for the night. I spent a lot of time reading alone.
I was, in fact, able to read those two Walton stories you had been raving about when Solomon got them, quite quickly, from a dealer who was able to find magazines as obscure as The Canalport Intelligencer and The South Side Anarchist. These journals printed the stories that were interpolated eventually in Margaret’s Book. They were brilliantly written, but very depressing. The first was about a village idiot – “mentally challenged adult” – who was bullied by some tough kids who stole his baseball cards and meager evening’s supply of groceries as he walked home from a shop, then beat him up in an abandoned building and stabbed him with a long shard of broken glass. The other one, much longer, dealt with a retired community college teacher called Loney – Walton’s characters have that kind of name – whose isolation and self-absorption lead him to think that the unpleasant son of the old lady living on the first floor of his house is plotting his mother’s murder. When the stories finally appeared in the context of Margaret’s Book, they were read aloud to a kind of conjured ghost-auditor, Margaret, by the “author,” Preston Belcher. Again, those names! When Belcher visits one of the Canalport bars he’s greeted indifferently by two regulars as he takes a seat beside them: Hey, Belch; Hiya, Belch. But I don’t need to tell you about the stories since I was reading them because you yourself had recommended them and already knew them well.
You did in fact drop by the archive a week or so after the Cora and Jenny sighting at Larry’s. You were perfectly happy drinking cups of stale coffee with me in the back room and catching me up with what was going on in the outer world. But I could tell, too, that you intended to tempt me out of my Bartleby hiding place in all due course. Your approach to my eccentricity was to take my whole situation as a really terrific joke. That a “man of my age” was actually afraid of two beautiful women, both of whom seemed to be on his trail, you thought was “really a great shame.” Why hadn’t I just introduced him to the ladies, giving Malachi the ditch, and all four of us go out for the evening? I explained that things were all mixed up with people like the dead Rabbi, Harvey Goldberg, Koba, and Alexander Kerensky.
“Alexander Kerensky?” you said, laughing.
So I told you that part of my recent past. You loved it, especially the part about Kerensky’s phone call after the biking episode with Koba south on California’s costal Route 1. But the Koba and Jenny bit disturbed you. You have something of a traditional moralist in you, old boy, and you said in no uncertain terms: “Any kind of incest is always a terrible thing. I hope it stops.” You were/are also, I discovered, quite touchy on the question of ethics with regard to the use of people’s actual lives in what passes for fiction, and you were rather horrified that someone might even be tempted to retain the real names of those people in a story or novel (like I have here). If they were “public figures,” you thought, they were fair game because they had surrendered part of their privacy voluntarily. But it was quite terrible to raid a friend’s life without his permission and take from him something that was inalienably his own alone. My position on the question was complicated then, essentially being that it all depended on a) the nature of the relationship and b) the quality of the writing. Henry James, for example, was welcome to whatever he wanted. And so, when you got down to it, was Walton. Strange thing is, of course, that he eventually wanted a part of you.
Another good talk we had in the early days had to do with my chosen profession, which you thoroughly approved of. This was a relief, after years of dealing with people who saw it as a joke. You believed early on that something fundamental was going to happen to the printed word with the closing of the great and by you (somewhat prematurely) lamented Guttenberg era. You believed that “whatever comes next” would mean that books, especially things like novels, would slowly cease to exist and therefore needed to be collected and saved, just as manuscripts had been saved by the medieval monasteries. In fact, resisting the Bartleby nickname, you began quite early calling me Monk Talbot and, when you didn’t quite like the rhythm of that, changed it to Monkey Talbot, which I became. Monkey Talbot, for God’s sake! But what you predicted of course has come true. I can’t, for example, find a single one of your own books available in “hard copy” in any kind of generalized computer “search” as I flip back and forth from this page to the Internet and back. But when I go to our own internal pages, which have not yet gone public “on line,” I find every scrap, published and unpublished, that you’ve left behind electronically here in our little college collection. But even that’s nothing to what pops up when I type in “Ernest Webber/James Walton.” With that I get to see – and this was your intention – electronic pages of Walton’s last, greatest, but unpublished and maybe unpublishable work, The History of Romance, in which you appear as a character, along with the marginal notes I long ago transcribed myself. Your name appears in red, while all the rest of the text is black, and I’m only shown the pages on which it appears. There are strange gaps, therefore, in the narrative. But there you are, as Browning wrote of the murdered duchess in the painting, “As if alive.”
As if alive, we got to know each other pretty quickly back there in the archive’s depths. I told you of course about my initial adventures in the locked porno room when I was still an undergraduate and still fucking crazy Cora. And you told me about your early life in Canalport and Chicago’s South Side. And about how you heard something of Walton’s early reputation hanging out with White Sox fans among the losers who frequented bars with Cubs pennants hanging on the walls. They knew him only as an unimpeachable source of baseball statistics, but they’d heard he wrote stories. Years later, sitting in the same bars, you heard the baseball fans remarking that the gossip was he’d stopped. Walton, that is. Had stopped writing stories. But they claimed to have heard as well that there was one last unpublished book, and that “all of us are in it.” Well, they were right. There’s one last novel, but, aside from you, I’m the only person who has ever read it.
When I call up “annotated version” I find the notes that I carefully transcribed from your ballpoint marginalia to the elegant, clear blue rectangles that you see, just to the right of the text. And of course I can make them disappear again by mousing a click on “un-annotated version.” (What ingenious changes since old Solomon’s day.) Many of your notes have to do with parts of Margaret’s Book that are absorbed and revised in A History of Romance. And of course you’re particularly attentive to any appearance of “Ernest Webber” in the text. You come back again and again to a passage that Walton took from Preston Belcher in Margaret’s Book and gave to you – I mean to “Ernest Webber” – in the unpublished work. This, after all, was part of the sermon you preached to me, your argument that too much had already been written and that our only task was really preservation. But he also puts in Webber’s mouth what must have been the main reason he himself stopped writing. Authors as different as Chaucer and Rimbaud have renounced writing over the ages, but Ernest Webber’s reasons (and before that Preston Belcher’s and so clearly also Walton’s own), had a kind of attractive modesty.
And so Walton takes what Preston said to the spectral Margaret and gives the speech to Webber. It’s still the answer to Margaret’s question, “why won’t you go on? There’s so much you could accomplish.” But Webber says, like Preston: “People like us” – and I’m sure that includes people like me – “mustn’t try to accomplish and shine and impress. That was for the ‘great,’ who are always in some way also the mad, and who became the morbid and often sordid sum of their accomplishments. People like us think too much of what a whole life might add up to. We spend so much time among the great – the great minds, great imaginations, great wills – that we can’t think of our life as worth anything unless we get some of that greatness for ourselves. But Charlotte Brontë and Thackeray; Dickens and even George Eliot; Henry James and Joyce; these were not ‘good’ people. If we knew them personally we wouldn’t like them. Their personalities would leap out at us like tigers.” You’ve circled the passage in the manuscript and written in the margin: “This is not quite what I said, and W. has twisted it in order to make it work. Since he absorbs everything he hears, best to let him do the talking.” But I think this is pretty much the gist of what you said to me one night in the OSU archive. Along with your jocular and habitual goodbye when you left me: “Just you keep on collecting, Mr. Monkey.”
Well, that I did, and here I am, still at the little college where we both ended up being employed and then stayed on for years and years.
But I should cut to the chase, or maybe better the hide and seek. As I slowly became accustomed to living in the archive, I became a little careless. Instead of making certain that I was already there at closing time, I’d arrive late and have to use Solomon’s key. Now and again I’d see someone giving me a quizzical look as I went in the library just as everyone else was coming out. One time, arriving after midnight, I was afraid I’d gotten stuck in the elevator, or that its machinery had gone a little crazy. The archive was on the twelfth floor. On this particular night, I pushed 12 only to have the elevator jerk to a halt just after it had started up. When I was on the verge of pressing the “emergency” button, it started up again, but stopped on the second floor. The door opened and nobody was there. The same thing happened on the third floor, the fourth, the fifth, and all the way up to the twelfth, where I was finally able to get off. Was this a mechanical glitch of some kind, or was someone messing me around?
There were other things I couldn’t explain to my satisfaction. An entire box of James Thurber papers I’d been working on disappeared from my desk. I couldn’t admit to Solomon that I’d misplaced them, so I looked all over for a couple of days, finally finding them in the porn room. But who would have left them there. It was a part of the archive I no longer had any interest in visiting. Another time, I found a baseball card, the kind that came with Malachi’s rectangles of bubble gum, used as a bookmark in a rare edition of Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons. (Tarkington, of course, was the name that you, Ernest, suggested for the college where Westmont works in “Westmont and the Bear” when my original name seemed to you a little too close to that of our own Midwestern halls of ivy.) When I next saw Malachi, I asked him if he’d been hanging around the archive himself or had taken an interest in Midwestern fiction. He said he hadn’t and, when I told him about the baseball card, he suggested that I’d probably used it as a bookmark in a book “at home” and slipped it into the Ambersons without quite realizing it. This was plausible, since the baseball cards were everywhere “at home.”
At this date, there was of course no such thing as a telephone message machine. There were primitive reel-to-reel tape recorders, and there were dictaphones. Both of these contraptions seemed marvelous enough as technology. But any messages were taken down by the archive secretary and left in our pigeonholes. I got a few weird ones. Someone “who wouldn’t give a name” left a message saying, as if it were a newspaper headline, “Harassment rate increases locally.” A few days later there was another: “Memory is the mother of invention.” Then a third: “Phony names for real dames.” I of course asked the secretary if any of this made sense to her. She said, “I just work here, Mr. Eastmore.”
One dark and stormy night I got in really late, after two a.m. I’d been out with you, Ernest, listening to a concert by the Columbus Symphony which had taken over the RKO Palace movie theatre where I had seen “first run movies” when I was a kid. I think it was the first Shostakovich I’d ever heard, the 7th symphony, “about” the siege of Leningrad. It got a mixed response from the audience, none of the local Republicans who thought they must support “culture” because of their wives, were sure whether they should like the 7th because it was anti-Nazi or dislike it because it was pro-Soviet. Hello, Columbus! Anyway, after the concert we’d gone to an all-night coffee house and were talking politics. I told you about Harvey Goldberg’s leftist oratory in his classroom. You told me about your uncle, a Chicago mafia type who’d worked with one of Capone’s “associates.” I told you about the Fair Play for Cuba Committee in 1962. You told me what it was like getting a bill through Mayor Daly’s City Council. We were talking about different things. So was Shostakovich. When we realized it was getting really late, you drove me to the library, where we said goodbye. Since it was past closing time for the library as a whole, not just the archive, I had to use a second key that Solomon had given me to open the outer door and let myself in. Once inside, I took the elevator up to the 12th floor without any mechanical mishaps. When I used my second key to open the door of the archive, I had the distinct sense that I was smelling smoke, marijuana in fact, and smoking of any kind was of course strictly prohibited anywhere in the archive. Without even looking around for the source of the smoke, I used my third key to let myself into the Women’s bathroom. And there were Cora and Jenny, sitting together on the bed and looking up at me, smoking their reefers: “Hi there, Talbot, Cora said. I think you already know my friend.” I did.
But I don’t know what to do next. The problem is that having written this much I don’t know any longer what happens. Once I thought I did. The whole process of thinking and writing was suddenly disrupted by a single phone call, not in 1968, but in 2012. We had been out together in our little college town, “Tarkington village” I called it in the Westmont stories you’d read, and we’d had a good dinner in what one always told visitors was “the only decent restaurant in town,” just the place one would take a distinguished guest, whether Phillip Roth or Robert Hass. You told me you’d been to your doctor recently to check out your “smoker’s cough.” You’d worried about that before, so neither of us dwelt on what might be a bad report. We talked about a lot more that night than we usually did, more even than in that long conversation following the Shostakovich in Columbus. Our talk had something elegiac about it, but we were perfectly cheerful, even kind of carefree, in spirit. We laughed a lot, often at ourselves. We nattered on about the foolishness, in all of its manifestations, of the academic life. About the pleasures of a good meal, and a good wine to go with it; about beautiful women, how excellent they are; about Henry James, especially the late Henry James, The Ambassaders, Wings of the Dove, The Golden Bowl; about people who had inspired us, in my case Harvey Goldberg and Rabbi Weingarten, in your case Richard Ellmann at Northwestern; about batters and catchers and short stops, players you knew as well as your nearest relatives and about whom I had heard nothing at all; about children, which neither of us had, but nonetheless thought entirely beautiful; about politicians, how wicked they are and how we were sorry that nothing got better after the Viet Nam years; about how we hoped nonetheless that things might get better in the future; about great lines in great poems; about the work of the Anglo-Welsh poet David Jones from whom I’m taking these rhythms and about whom almost nobody knows any more; about how all the good causes are probably lost causes; about the new Mayor in our poor little town, Pete Buttigieg, and about how much we liked him; about Philip Roth’s Goodbye Columbus and my friend Koba and his sister Jenny; about how Roth really didn’t know anything at all about Columbus, Ohio; about my dead mother and father; about your own dead mother and father; about the stories I’d written about a character called “Westmont,” and about how bad they were; about the fact that you liked them anyway; about a certain walk by the river which we had both taken, but only alone by ourselves; about the “Council Oak” in the city cemetery, which had been the place where Potawatomies negotiated with La Salle; about the cemetery itself, where we both thought we’d eventually end up if someone bothered to bury our ashes; about old friends, especially those of each whom the other had never met; about what we’d called “the revolution” in the sixties; about how little anyone in the sixties understood about such terrifying upheavals; about Shostakovich, his music; about trying to save what’s worth being saved; about how difficult it is to know what is and what’s not worth being saved; about archives; about archivists; about me; about you . . .
The next afternoon you phoned. You’d had the results of the CT scan and, early in the morning, an MRI. You said: “I’m not authorizing any treatment.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s terminal, Talbot.”
I couldn’t say anything for a moment, and I admit I thought about this unfinished story. Unregenerate! Stupid, petty, and vain. But you brought it up yourself.
“That story you gave me,” you said. “You don’t know where to go next, do you my friend.”
I said that hardly mattered any more.
“Yes it does,” he said. “I’m only a character in James Walton’s novel myself. I mean from now on.”
“I know that,” I said.
“Well,” you said. “Why don’t you leave it just the way it is. You asked my advice, after all, and that’s my advice. I’ll be pretty dead pretty soon, and that gives me a kind of authority, don’t you think?”
“It does, Ernest, it does.”
“If you wanted really professional advice, you could always give Walton a call. He might not want to talk about it, though. He’s given this sort of thing up, as you know. But he’s kind and polite, so if you asked him he’d probably help.”
“I don’t think I’ll ask him, Ernest.”
“The main thing is not to ask him anything about The History of Romance. That’s between you and me and the archive now.”
“He was serious, you know, about what he said in Margaret’s Book.”
“I know he was.”
“You’ll be surprised that I wish you had married Cora or Jenny. They were both beautiful women.”
“Ernest,” I said. “They existed only in fiction.”
“What’s the difference,” you said. And then you laughed: “At my stage of life, anyway. So I’ll take back some of those gripes I aired to you about what Walton did with my life. I kind of like it now, I have to confess, since it exists just among the three of us. But I do wish you’d married. You’re lonely, like Loney in Margaret’s Book.
“I gave Westmont a wife in “Westmont and the Teapot.”
“Indeed you did. A funny story, Talbot.”
I couldn’t think of what else to say. “Ernest?” I said.
“What is it, Talbot?”
I thought, but didn’t say, that I would probably want to re-read all those pages about him in Walton’s book again and again in years to come. Slowly, as he seemed to know, those words and those words alone would constitute the real “Ernest Webber.”
“Ernest,” I said. “I can’t think of anything else to say.”
“Oh, that’s okay, Talbot,” you said. “That’s entirely okay with me.”
Westmont and the Different Kinds of Music: 6
Because he was so exclusively a jazz fan from an early age, Westmont missed Elvis Presley entirely. Stubbornly, he also missed Peter, Paul and Mary, early Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, later Bob Dylan, the Doors, the Grateful Dead, and so on. However, he did not miss Gustav Mahler. During his junior year in college, he was offered a free ticket to hear, in Columbus, Ohio, of all places, the Berlin Philharmonic playing Mahler’s 5th symphony, conducted by Herbert von Karajan. In Columbus von Karajan (a former Nazi) was received as a cultural icon representing Freedom, West Berlin, Capitalism, and any number of things other than music. Westmont didn’t care. When the tears poured down his cheeks during the adagio movement, he was embarrassed, but also in a state of aesthetic bliss. It wasn’t that he immediately gave up Dave Brubeck, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, or Gerry Mulligan. More that he began slowly to drift away from jazz. His collection of LPs was soon about fifty percent classical, as he moved both forward and back in time – a Handel oratorio one day, a piece by Stravinsky or Bartok the next. When he met the woman who would eventually become (for a little while) his wife, he was astonished to discover that she was born ten miles away from where Benjamin Britten had founded his music festival, in Aldeburgh, Suffolk. At that very moment Britten’s War Requiem had become his favorite piece of music. He had listened again and again to the first LP recording of the piece – the one with Peter Pears, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and Galina Vishnevskaya. It was conducted by Britten himself. His future wife’s mother knew people like Myfanwy Piper (librettist) and Lord Harewood (patron and friend of Britten and his partner, the tenor Peter Pears). Although he could not pronounce either Myfanway or Vishnevskaya, Westmont was delighted to find someone who liked the same kind of music that he himself was beginning to revere. She asked him early on what instrument he played. He was abashed that he had to say none. But she liked him anyway, and they were married in an Episcopal church where the organist was paid an extra fee to learn Britten’s Hymn to Saint Cecelia and train a children’s choir. After living with Westmont in a small college town where he became head archivist, his wife returned to England for a long stay and Westmont cautiously started listening again to Monk and Miles Davis, then tried some CD versions of old LPs by the Grateful Dead, the later Dylan, the early Dylan, and even read a book by a literary scholar comparing Jim Morrison of The Doors with the French poet maudit, Arthur Rimbaud.
Westmont and the Different Kinds of Music
When his wife suddenly returned from England, Timothy Westmont was half asleep listening to Schubert’s Quintet , D 956, played on an old CD by the Julliard String Quartet with Bernard Greenhouse as the second cello. In his extreme old age – 80 now, which was not, as his former interns liked to joke, “the new sixty” – Schubert’s quintet had become his favorite music of all, especially the stark and intimate adagio movement that sometimes moved him so deeply that he dared not listen all the way to the end but pushed the remote before it had finished to advance the contraption quickly on to the Scherzo. He had listened to the piece hundreds of times, though Schubert himself hadn’t lived to hear it performed even once. Westmont’s wife was suddenly there, in his house, in her house, in the music. She had given him no warning at all of her imminent arrival. She simply used her key, opened the door, and stood there smiling. Westmont awoke from his daze and stared at her, somehow not really surprised. His wife closed the door behind her, and even clicked the latch of the deadbolt, before turning again to face her husband. It had been more than a decade since they had seen each other. Westmont thought she looked younger than he would have expected, though quite frail and perhaps not well. The adagio movement started to play . . . welche aus dem Kunstlied geboren ist, das Ganze durchdringt . . . . Born of song, a strain of painful lyricism, love . . . . It was a Deutsche Grammophon recording, and he had inadvertently memorized the German jacket notes, modifying and expanding them in English as an archivist’s scholarly gloss. He was like that. He couldn’t help himself.
“Such sad music,” Westmont said, standing up and looking at his wife where she still stood just inside the door, somehow conjured there by Schubert.
“It’s beautiful,” she said. “It makes me happy.”