“Fame is a form of incomprehension, perhaps the worst”
—Jorge Luis Borges—
“Sounds complicated. What’s it called again?” Wendt asked feigning interest and casting a glazed eye at the array of bottles reflected in the back bar mirror. The bartender stood in front of the display not unlike Manet’s Folies-Bergère. Wendt demurred on another whiskey. He had taken a liking to the lager. It had enough pep to maintain that edge of lucid high he particularly enjoyed.
“Uh,” Salas paused, taken out of the narrative flow of his summation and having to flip back to the title page. “The Road To Sunset. I was going to call it Don’t Look Back, but Dylan had already used it for his documentary.”
Wendt nodded. He had misheard. Road, not Ode. Salas was insisting on giving him a synopsis of his second novel, a sci-fi thriller based loosely on Blade Runner, soon to be published, possibly with a Hollywood option. The protagonist was a private eye psychic in the mode of Castaneda’s brujo, Don Juan, who like many shamans, retrieved the dead from the netherworld. The whole idea, he explained, was a peripatetic chase that led through different worlds and states of consciousness that the Don Juan character accessed through various mind altering substances, chants, rites, and rituals.
“The final ordeal the shaman shamus, a Chinese detective named Fu Queue, has to endure to bring the young woman, Marilyn, back to the land of the living is finding his way through a portal that opens up very briefly at sunset, a kind of green door that you pass through to a timeless domain.”
“Ah yes, the green door to Marilyn’s chamber. Kinda like Orpheus going after Eurydice.”
“Exactly!” Salas grinned and gave Wendt a congratulatory slap on the back.
The after-dinner crowd was starting to occupy the length of the bar and he was nudged by a powerful perfume and the young woman wearing it who was extremely easy on the eyes. He gave his patented ‘how you doing’ smile but to no avail.
Salas had kept his hand on Wendt’s shoulder in a comradely manner. “How come you haven’t written a novel or a tell-all memoir, Carl? I’m sure you’ve got some stories.” The question came with naively raised interrogatory eyebrows.
Wendt looked down at his foam edged beer glass. Disheveled and tattered, it still had body, a good brew. “Yeah, I started writing a memoir once. I got as far as the part where the three wise men come looking for me. One of the wise men said, ‘your life will never be interesting’ and I had to agree with him.”
“Oh no, that can’t be true. . .” Salas started to protest and then it hit him. His guffaw was more of a snort as some of his drink had gone up his nose. He slapped the bar with the palm of his hand. “Ha! I get it! Three wise men!” Frowns of concern were sent their way and the bartender had turned to adjudge the commotion. Salas made a face. “Be right back. Call of the wild.”
Chris came back looking like someone with something on his mind. His step was a little uncertain and he steadied himself with a hand on the top of his barstool not bothering to seat himself just yet. He had something urgent he had to tell Wendt. “You know what really pisses me off is the guy who totally misinterprets what you’ve written and then gets his feelings hurt when you tell him he’s wrong.” There was swagger to his stagger now that he’d come to the bitch part of his drunk.
“You know what I really hate are people who read what you’ve written and then tell you how they would have done it. Then, you know, there’s the guy who buddies up to you only to ask you if you can help him get published. Or introduce him to your agent. I tell ‘em, do what I did, let your fingers do the walking.” Smugly, with a self-righteous nod of the chin, he mimed his fingers walking.
“Or someone you know thinks that you represented their life or their circumstances in your writing. Ever hear of coincidence? Or you’re not the only one who’s been in that situation? Or something that’s the most implausible in your fiction has to be autobiographical. They don’t think that someone, especially someone they know or think they know, could make up something like that! They obviously have no concept of the imagination. They filter everyone’s motives through some misunderstood pop-Freudian convention and don’t get that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar!”
Wendt nodded. “Yeah, like Eric of the Animals said, ‘Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.’”
“Right! Finally someone who gets it! As a writer what you’re doing is creating masks that, because of theory of mind, elicit the desired psychological responses. You draw on your specific past experience to give the right tone to a generalized situation. It’s hardly autobiographical. An actor does the same thing, draws from a remembered emotion to enhance the psychology of the character he’s portraying!”
Bellying up to the urinal Wendt considered his girth, an old man’s bulge punctuated by what was no doubt an enlarged liver, and belly fat so typical of middle aged white guys. A mere outcropping however, compared to the shelf the guy in front of him had in line at the sandwich shop earlier in the day. That was a veritable workbench! The guy musn’t of seen his cock without looking in the mirror. In decades. No matter how hung he thunk he was. Now there was the beginning of a standup routine, and not so coincidentally since he was standing with his cock in his hand, channeling the ghost of the recently departed Granahan, but not seeing the future apparently as the stream came to an end with a few tentative dribbles splashing on his pant leg. Wendt paused awaiting a message from the pump room to indicate that he had indeed offloaded the requisite amount to allow his bladder to breathe a sigh of relief. Continuing with the routine, as he zipped up and headed for the lavabo, now something happens to a guy’s cock, that’s funny. A chick’s cunt? Not so funny. That’s the baby tunnel, don’t wanna be messing with that. The faucet had a motion detector offering ablution at the pass of a hand. Was there a lesson to be learned? Every man’s penis and every woman’s vagina have the same and singular purpose and that they are the source of pleasure reflects the importance of that purpose. Over the roaring whine of the hand drier it occurred to him, there are restaurants that are all cleavage and clams based on the premise that the sight of a woman’s breasts or camel toe will make their mostly male patrons horny and who will then overcompensate by overeating and overdrinking. So that’s funny in a sad commentary kind of way. And the coy embarrassment of a breast exposed wardrobe malfunction, that can be laughed off. Or earlier, having his pre-dinner drinks at the Red Hen, repeats of Seinfeld had been on the box and it was the one where Elaine says “I don’t know how you guys can live with those things” and George is screaming about shrinkage. Funny. But it’s not the same kind of funny as a guy taking a shot in the balls, and it’s a universal, every man with a pair can feel it. For some reason that always gets a yuk.
Standup comic. Now there was a path not taken. And then heading back to the bar, maybe Salas did have a point. He considered the possibility that perhaps he had been one of those people who had reacted negatively to the success of others, Val’s, and to Sheila’s before that. He had to face it, he didn’t care to be the off center of attention. And what was it that old Buddha had said? Heaven above, earth below, it’s all about me.
“My wife, my wife, my wife,” Salas intoned and stared into his glass of high octane bubble water as if he were calling up her image to appear in the frosty cylinder. Or maybe expecting a hologram of his wife dressed as a princess saying “Help me obese Juan Canopy.”
“My wife told me she was glad that she worked under her family name rather than our married one because she didn’t want to end up defending my book, especially one she didn’t get or approve of. And my boys? Couldn’t be bothered. The one’s just started college and gives the idea that I’ve published a novel lip service because he knows who’s paying his bills. And the high schooler? Well, it’s not a video game or a smart phone. Even my sister Ruby who for all intents and purposes is ultra hip and runs a truck stop in Lawrence, Kansas, even she gave me a noncommittal ‘that’s nice’ and ‘I’m not in it, am I?’”
“Yeah, real name Rebecca, but she had it legally changed to Ruby Slippers when she moved out to Kansas, right about the time she got her first tattoo. Pretty successful actually, until recently.”
“Oh, economic downturn?”
“Not exactly. Gonorrhea.”
“Am I missing something?”
“She caught it from. . .you might know the guy, a writer, teaches at UK, Lionel something.”
“Lynel Pauk?” Wendt went on to imagine Lynel informing Dottie that he had the drip. She would have ripped his head off. Probably more like he waited until she came down with a pussy pussy and blamed it on her. “Yeah, I know him.”
“That’s the punk. The way I heard it he goes down to Nogales on a dope run and comes back with a couple kilos and the clap. Pretty soon some of his students are complaining of fiery piss. And my sister, too. She’s always been a sucker for the literary types.”
“I don’t get how that affected her business.”
“That particular strain of genital applause is now traveling the Interstate along with some really crap weed. People put two and two together. It’s one thing to be louche but this, well. . . .”
“So Rebecca Salas became Ruby Slippers. Well, at least she didn’t have to change the monograms on her towels.”
Salas nodded emphatically as if he were acknowledging a greater truth. “I know, man, you can’t make that kind of shit up!”
“All of a sudden I’ve got a load of new friends. But I guess it’s up to strangers to discover you.”
Is there such a thing as new friends, Wendt wondered. Salas’ whining about the drawbacks of his good fortune was starting to wear. Maybe the only friends you have are the old ones. And by the paring down of their ranks through disaffection, distance, and death, there are fewer and fewer each year. New friends just can’t hold a candle to a history of camaraderie even if they do spring for drinks. In the literary world the margins are almost too narrow for friendship.
“People I’ve known for years, they’ve already got me tucked away in a dusty little corner of their tiny minds. And they bring their familiarity with me as someone they think they know to the reading of my words which invariably skews their take so they can’t resist indulging in lame-ass parlor psychology. Strangers don’t have that problem. They either take me or leave me at my words, nothing more. Their willingness to suspend disbelief is not bogged down by all the baggage someone I know might bring to their reading. The irony of it all is that it’s the opinions of my friends and cohorts that I value most. But they’re never going to tell me what they’re really thinking. I might have their grudging regard but mostly it’s their sober reservations. You know, like it must be some kind of trick. . .sleight of hand. . .some kind of mistake. . . .I should have that. . .whatever it is. . .luck.”
Bald faced envy, professional jealousy. A lot of that, Wendt mused. Not very professional. Besides, he felt like telling him, you’ll never be appreciated by your contemporaries—you’re competing for the same attention.
“Because they think they know me they think they own me.” It was almost a growl. Salas was hardly as lethal as a jellyfish though his posture seemed to indicate that he was becoming about as boneless. He still had a few barbs left but they were hardly worth the sting. And his mumbling complaints were becoming slurred. “May’shme wonner if aven ban hannin out wissa rong peopble ‘alf mlife.”
Wendt was going to have to call him a cab.
“I’m a cab,” Salas repeated affably.
It was obvious to Wendt as he sucked in the cool evening air at curbside that Salas was already resenting what fame would do to him. But this was always what he’d wanted, yearned for in his little rural hideout on the edge of the big waters, the attention of strangers. Now he was going to regret it for the rest of his life, however long or short that might be. What did Freud say? “To the writer, immortality evidently means being loved by any number of anonymous people”? The familiar people, his friends, and his wife to an extent, insisted that success itself was valueless. That he had sold out. By addressing a wider world he had made more of himself than his personal community was ready to handle, put himself beyond their reach. He was viewed by kin and friends in a particular way that could never be generalized which is why distance gives advantage to an understanding that is rooted in the deeper knowledge that everything’s the same. But that’s the way it was. And it had nothing to do with the quality of his writing. As soon as he became successful he became the enemy, the target. The spoor of fame was attached to him and the hounds of hell were on it. He was dead meat. There was no escape because the sycophantic jealousy of his friends and contemporaries kept him from believing it was true. He would be lied to in order to maintain an illusion that there is no such thing as reward for just being who he was. But that was the reward, he got himself. No money changed hands. He hadn’t realized that yet, if he ever would.
Wendt leaned into the open window on the passenger’s side. Digger was behind the wheel. “He’s staying at the Rex. You can just pour him through the keyhole.”
Digger gave him a look. “Where you been, Rip Van Winkle? Nobody uses a key or a hole anymore. It’s all plastic and magnetic tape these days.”
They both turned at the sound of retching at the curb by the rear wheel of the cab.
“At least he won’t be doing it in the back seat,” Wendt opined.
“That better be the last of it.” Digger frowned and handed Wendt a half sheet flyer. “You might be interested in this. The big Penumbroi shindig coming up at the old Reed Hotel.”
“I thought they were tearing that place down as unsafe for human habitation.”
Digger shrugged and turned to watch as Salas crawled into the back seat. “Still standing last time I looked.”
Wendt glanced at the flyer, the design reminiscent of the old Avalon Ballroom handouts, a pillar arch of words at the top reading Cirque de Penumbroi and the motto “your walls, our shadows” under which was a double column list of names of participants in the full day of poetry and art happenings. He turned it over. It was blank. “Got any more of these? I can always use a little public stationary, or as Marx would say, the people’s stationary!”
The words to Poor Butterfly came to mind as the cab drove off. Whose version was it? Sarah Vaughn’s, Sinatra? Probably Vikki Carr’s. That was the one his mother used to sing around the house. He lit a cigarette. What’s a novel anyway? Lists of things and dialogue. And besides, nowadays novels were being turned out like housing tracts.
A car alarm lashed the orange tinged dark with faux desperation. From a distance, his exhaled cigarette smoke obscured his features in a momentary white cloud. A car horn sounded and he looked in that direction. His heart sank and gave a little moan that only he could hear as it did. It was Wendy.
Next Time: Wendt finds himself inexplicably drawn to the big Penumbroi poetry happening at the seedy Reed Hotel south of Market Street. To review what has transpired so far, reference the episodes listed in the sidebar, or click The Complete DAY & WEEK to read the pdf file.