The Hunt for the Next Great American Novelist

It was a steamy Washington summer exactly four decades ago. I was working for the federal government at a scandal-plagued agency alongside a veteran bureaucrat named Fred. Fred wasn’t going any higher on the org chart, but on the other hand–because of Civil Service regulations–he was never going to be fired, no matter how assiduously he avoided work and decision-making at all costs. He had a nice life, and he knew it. As Thomas Jefferson once said of federal jobs, “Vacancies by death are few, by resignation none.”


“Z-z-z-z-z-z-z . . .”

 

I learned many valuable lessons from Fred. You could take a nap in the carrels in the back of the library. S-t-r-e-t-c-h every project so that you never ran out of work; if you did, they might give you some more. The Three Questions That Must be Asked Before You Ever Respond to Somebody Else’s Question: Who wants to know? What do they want to know for? When do they want an answer? Mission-critical stuff that keeps this country moving!

Most importantly, take every minute–every second–of your allotted breaks. You’re not getting paid as much as the private sector, so don’t give your time away. If we finished lunch in the basement cafeteria in a half hour, we sure as hell weren’t going back to our desks for another half hour.

It was on these occasions that Fred taught me a valuable tool of literary criticism that I use to this day. “C’mon,” he said as we headed out into the Washington humidity, “Let’s go look for the Next Great American Novelist.”

An unlikely quest, you might say, and that was exactly my thought. Washington doesn’t produce novelists the way Russia cranks out chess champs and ballerinas, because the young and the creative don’t go to D.C. to fulfill their artistic dreams; they go to New York, or Hollywood, or Nashville–anyplace but D.C. Novels about national politics tend to have brief butterfly-length life spans; they may be the bright entertainment of the season–Advice and Consent, Primary Colors, etc.–but they don’t endure, proof of the maxim that love and other elemental human interests are more important than politics.

 


“You think it could be him? Nah.”

 

“Where are you going to find the Next Great American Novelist?” I asked Fred.

“You know, that’s the amazing thing,” he replied. “It could be anywhere–a bookstore, a coffee shop. Speaking of which, let’s try this place,” he said as he stopped outside a non-chain precursor to the espresso craze that would sweep the nation in the years to come.

We approached the counter and Fred turned to say “Watch closely.”

The barista looked up and acknowledged us, although not with enthusiasm. “That’s a good sign,” Fred said sotto voce.

“Hi,” Fred said in his friendliest manner. “What’s the coffee of the day?”

“It’s a dark-roast Sumatra blend with spicy overtones,” the woman said, and not unpleasantly.

“I guess I’ll have one of those, with room for milk, thanks,” Fred said, then turned to me and asked “You want anything?”

“A large iced coffee.”

“Very good,” the woman said, and turned to her task.

“So what do you think?” Fred asked me.

“I dunno. What does making coffee have to do with writing a novel?”

“Everything–and nothing. If you don’t consider serving a fellow human being in a commercial setting to be beneath you, you probably don’t have what it takes to be the Next Great American Novelist.”

“Ah,” I said, beginning to see the light as the Duke Ellington/Johnny Hodges song goes. “So you’re looking for somebody who’s condescending . . .”

“Almost haughty.”

“Indifferent . . .”

“I think ‘hostile’ is le mot juste . . .”

“. . . who basically sends the message that he or she has something better to do than wait on you.”

“Precisely–they should be writing the Next Great American Novel, but instead they’re stuck in some lousy minimum-wage retail job.”

We drank our coffee as we roamed the sweltering streets and, as we finished, found ourselves outside Hecht’s, then the top-shelf department store in D.C. “This place is a veritable breeding ground for Great American Novelists!” Fred said with enthusiasm.

We wandered the aisles for a while, exchanging nods with the floorwalker, passing through a haze of perfume sprayed by the spritzer girls in the cosmetics department, and then Fred stopped short, throwing an arm across my chest with such force he almost knocked me over.


“We’re not Great American Novelists!”

 

“It’s him,” he said breathlessly. “If that isn’t the Next Great American Novelist standing there right in front of us, as plain as a pig on a sofa as Flannery O’Connor might say, I don’t know my scribblers.”

I looked up and saw the tie counter, and behind it a young man, well-groomed, apparently bored to tears, with barely-suppressed rage boiling up within.


O’Connor on sofa, sans pig

 

“You think so?” I asked, although the testimony of my senses answered my own question for me.  The fellow hissed as sighs of disgust escaped from him. It was hard to fight off seasickness induced by the rolling of his eyes as he stood there, folding and arranging ties on hanging displays and under the glass counter.

“Let’s roll,” Fred said, and he approached the counter with all the modest self-restraint of a used car salesman.

“Hello there, young fellow!” he boomed out, his face a picture of amiability. “How are you today?”

“Fine,” the young man said as his eyelids just barely rose high enough to reveal his pupils. I noted he didn’t offer to help us.

“I’m looking for something in a stripe to go with a checked suit,” Fred said, scanning the haberdasher’s wares.

You could see the sales guy trembling inwardly. It shook him to his core to hear someone suggest that he would actually consider wearing a striped tie with a plaid suit, but he didn’t want to offer a suggestion to the contrary since that would have required . . . human interaction.

“We have some stripes over here,” the fellow said, as if he were offering us day-old mashed potatoes.

Fred surveyed the selection, then shook his head with distaste as if he were rejecting some long-held belief that had led him astray in life–virgin birth, warm water freezes faster than cold, always take the points on the road. “No, what I think I need,” he said thougtfully, “is a foulard. Have you got any foulards?”

The young man sighed loudly enough to be heard at the gloves and scarves counter. “The foulards are over here,” he said with annoyance.

Again, Fred trained his gimlet eye on the selection. “Could I see . . . this one,” he said, pointing to a vibrant pink number.

“This one?”

“No . . . that one,” Fred said.

“Why don’t I bring out both since I can’t see your fingers from behind the counter.”

“Very well,” Fred said.

When the selected ties were laid out on the counter, Fred put his finger to his chin and gave them the gimlet eye. “You know what,” he said after a few moments, “I’ve always been a big fan of Winston Churchill’s–do you have any of those little pin dot numbers he used to wear?”

I thought I heard the young man groan, but I couldn’t be sure. It wasn’t as loud as Old Faithful before it erupts, but on the other hand it was . . . audible . . . and growing in volume . . . like a freight train approaching a station from a long way off.

“Do you think you will be making a purchase in the next thirty seconds?” the clerk finally snapped.

“I don’t know,” Fred said, not even looking up. “Twenty-four ninety-five for a tie is a big investment.”

With that the young man turned on his heels and spun out the little gate to the department store floor, saying “Well that’s too bad, because it’s my break time!”

Another young man appeared wordlessly behind the counter, but Fred was too engrossed in the sight of the young man who’d been waiting on him as he strode purposefully away, like an ocean liner under full steam.

“I expect great things out of that fellow some day,” he said with admiration.

“Like what?” I asked.

“Maybe not Moby Dick,” Fred said, “but The Sound and the Fury is not out of the question.”

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Scooter & Skipper and the Delayed Gratification Club

Summer’s mid-point is fast approaching, and signs of boredom are visible in the demeanor of our two boys, Scooter and Skipper.  Instead of riding their bikes to the corner store to buy baseball cards with money they cadge off their dad, they’ve taken to staying indoors in the air conditioning in a state of blissed-out electronically-induced torpor.  Time for a little parental discipline, even if the parent in question–me–is incapable of much discipline himself.


“Is this light beer?  Because I’m on a diet.”

“It’s too early in the summer for you two to be lying around like slugs in a hubcap of beer,” I say, harkening back to a favorite quasi-educational activity of my youth.  “You shouldn’t be bored out of your minds for another two weeks.”

“It’s too hot,” Scooter, the older of the two at twelve says.  I check the temperature on my phone and see that it’s 90 degrees.  If that were Celsius I could understand, but it’s only Fahrenheit.

“You kids must have inherited your mother’s upstate New York blood,” I say, referring to the woman I love, who carries a battery-powered pocket fan with her where’er she goes.  “Ninety degrees isn’t hot hot.”

“We could get cancer from the sun,” Skipper, our ten-year-old whines.

“I don’t seem to recall getting cancer when I was your age, but if you’re going to stay inside you need an activity.”


Not available in “guy” colors.

 

“Do we have to?” Scooter groans.

“I think you’re going to like what I have in mind,” I say, whetting their appetites.  By family tradition they’re entitled to a blood sugar-raising treat in the middle of the afternoon, so they don’t start beating each other up.

“What is it?” Skipper asks.

“Marshmallows!” I reply, and they both shout “Yay!” just like I used to do when I was a boy and earned a neato-keeno prize for . . . actually, I never did earn any prizes.

“We’ll turn it into a club,” I say.

“What kind of club?” Scooter asks.  Whatever kind it is, he’ll want to be President.


“Today we’re going to have fun by not having fun.”

 

“A delayed gratification club.”

“What’s ‘delayed grati-fi-ca-tion’?” Skipper asks, mincing the word out in hesitant syllables.

“Delayed gratification is when you put off something good in the present, so you can have more of it in the future,” I say.

“So . . . are we going to do this right now, or later?” Scooter asks.

“A little of both,” I say as I take a bag of marshmallows out of a hermetically-sealed metal canister my wife uses to keep them fresh.  I’m careful not to disturb the hermit at the bottom, he’ll be coming out mid-to-late August for his annual haircut.


“A little off the top, short back and sides.”

 

“Now, the way this works,” I begin, “is I put one in front of you, like this,” I say, placing one (1) plump standard-size marshmallow down on the table before them both.  “It’s up to you whether you want to eat it now or . . . hey, stop!” I’m forced to interject as Skipper has his candy in his mouth before I’ve laid out the rules of the game.

“But you said we were gonna get a marshmallow,” he says, on the verge of tears now that it’s clear I’ve gulled him.

“I didn’t say you weren’t going to get one,” I say, pouring oil on the troubled waters of his sense of injustice.  “I’m going to give you a choice.  You can have one marshmallow now, or if you wait fifteen minutes, you can have two.”

“That’s stupid,” Scooter says.

“No it’s not,” I say.  “If you can delay your gratification for that long, it shows you’ll be successful in later life according to a famous experiment.”

 

The little wheels in their brains start to turn.  Their faces take on the look of card sharks at the World Series of Poker; eyes narrowed to grim little slits, lips pursed.  “Well, I’m going to leave you two to your will power.  See you in . . . fifteen minutes,” I say as I leave the room.


“I’ve got a pair of marshmallows . . .”

It’s one of the many times I wish I had a two-way mirror so I could watch the boys undetected, but all I can do is wait.  You have no idea how slowly time can move when you’re trying to replicate a dubious psychology experiment on your sons.  Not as slow as it goes when you’re watching a Little League game go into extra innings, or when you’re waiting for your girlfriend to get her period in high school, but still–very slowly.

I check Twitter, email, Facebook, YouTube, MySpace, Netscape, AltaVista, aol.com, Yahoo, Pets.com and Internet Explorer to kill time.  When I’ve run out of failed internet companies, I check my watch and with thirty seconds to go, return to the laboratory.

I knock softly before entering, then push the door open to find–to my great disappointment–that there are two boys, but no marshmallows.  I mean, I’m not disappointed there are two boys, just that they ate their marshmallows.

“This isn’t good, guys,” I say, shaking my head.

“Yes they were!” Skipper exclaims.

“No, I mean it doesn’t bode well for your future.  According to the non-replicable results of the experiment, your inability to delay gratification for fifteen measly minutes means you’ll probably end up unemployed members of the underclass, abusing opioids, failing to complete twelfth grade, sleeping on heating grates, suffering from heartbreak of psoriasis and otherwise disappointing me and mom.”

“Maybe you, but not mom,” Skipper snaps.

“Why do you say that?”

“Because your experiment is dumb,” Scooter says.

“No it’s not.  Some very smart people at Leland Stanford Junior University devised it.”

“Well, then they were dumb,” Skipper says, “because mom always lets us have three marshmallows anyway, so why should we hold out for just two?”

Dawn breaks on Marblehead, as we say here in Massachusetts.

“Sorry guys,” I say, shaking my head, unable to keep from laughing at myself.  “I forgot about grade inflation.”

 

Guilt-Infused Cuisine Provides New Thrills for Jaded Palates

NEEDHAM, Massachusetts.  Josh and Ginnie Nostrum are self-confessed “foodies,” traveling twenty miles or more every Saturday night seeking the latest in culinary excitement.  “We like to be able to tell our friends we tasted a new fad before they did,” Ginnie says with a guilty laugh at the couple’s one-upsman-and-woman-ship.  “You should have seen the look on Lydia Sperkle’s face when I asked if she’d ever had deep-fried yak.”


“Try the sushi–it’s easier to hide.”

 

But with the continual search for thrills through expensive dinners comes, eventually, exhaustion.  “We were just about burned out about this time last summer,” says Josh as he pulls into a parking space outside L’Endive in this western suburb of Boston.  “Then we discovered Sister Joe, and we’re excited about eating again.”


Walking tall.

 

The woman with the unusual name isn’t a celebrity chef, of which this region has plenty, but rather a more humble restaurateur.  Sister Joseph Arimathea is a member of the Little Sisters of the Frozen Quiche, a religious order whose mission is to ensure that no food is ever wasted, and she stands guard over every morsel that goes uneaten in her establishment, just as she did for forty years in the cafeteria at Sacred Heart Grade School.


“Jesus died on the cross for you–and you can’t finish your fingerling potatoes for him?”

 

“I don’t care if she didn’t like it,” the grey-habited nun says as she looks at a half-eaten serving of noisettes du porc that she intercepted just as it was about to be scraped into the garbage.  “She’s going to finish it or burn in Purgatory until the end of time.”  With a peremptory air Sister Joe snatches the plate from the busboy and heads over to a table of four, where Mimi Desaulniers has foregone the last few bites of her entrée to “save room for dessert,” a crème brûlée that she views as her well-deserved reward after chauffeuring three children around to summer camps all week.

“Excuse me, missy,” Sister Joe says with a sarcastic tone she has honed over the years.

“Yes?” Desaulniers asks innocently, as this is her first time sampling “guilt-infused” cuisine.

“Did you honestly think you could hide this behind a parsley garnish?”

“Well,” Desaulniers begins, but the nun cuts her off.  “Bartimaeus is the blind guy in the Bible, not Joseph of Arimathea, so you’re not sneaking this past me.”  With that the nun drops the plate on the table with a bang, sending a frisson up the spines of jaded palates around the room more used to sending unsatisfactory dishes back to the kitchen than being bossed around like a rented mule by a woman who took vows of poverty and chastity.


Joseph of Arimathea:  “It’s so confusing–the soup de jour changes every day.”

“Foods infused with vodka and other liquors were very fashionable for awhile,” says Emil Nostrand, editor of Gourmand magazine.  “Sister Joe and her cordon of nefarious henchwomen are the first to infuse their dishes with Catholic guilt, which is a hot spice that is very popular in Latin countries.”

Restaurant consultants are skeptical that the business model of L’Endive can be replicated apart from the celebrity nun who devised it, but Sister Joe thinks otherwise.  “Who gives a rat’s patootie what a bunch of ‘experts’ thinks,” she says as she makes finger-quotes of scorn in the air.  “A little self-flagellation never hurt anybody.”

 

 

Oliver Cromwell, Sunday Night Spoilsport

In his 1650 address to the Irish, with which he opened war on them,
Oliver Cromwell asserted that it was the English who taught the Irish to work.

Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

Great, just great. Thanks for reminding me,
Cromwell—you jerk—
that it was the English
who taught the Irish to work.

Just as I was getting all mellified,
or in popular parlance, slightly fried,
with a beer, then wine, then a gin and tonic
you thwart my addiction to stuff other than phonics.

I had almost completely forgotten about my job,
then you go and spoil it, you insufferable snob.
Easy for you to say, you with your warts
while I’m trying to chill in flip-flops and shorts.

I gather you were a Roundhead, and not a Cavalier.
Those of us who’d like to kick back with just one more beer
side with your opponents in this weighty question
we’ve eaten our shrimp, it aids the digestion.

But no, I’ve got to set my alarm for five
while you rest easily, no longer alive.
I curse you, you spoilsport, scurvy knave;
I hope if you hear this you spin in your grave.

I Beat a Gypsy Curse, And So Can You

If my conduct in the case in question exceeded the normal bounds of professionalism, the circumstances provided an excuse.

A client of mine had lent a significant–to him–sum of money to a little Greek woman, working capital for the shop where she sold used phonograph records.  The loan was made during the dark ages when first cassettes, then CDs, had replaced the platters that teens had spun on their turntables at swinging parties, and the present, when vinyl is suddenly “cool” again, thanks to the added expense and inconvenience.  In other words, hard times for records.


Such a sweet, little old deadbeat.

 

The day for payment in full came and went–nothing.  Calls were made to the gnarled old crone, which went unreturned.  Dunning letters were written, sent first by regular mail, then by CERTIFIED MAIL, RETURN RECEIPT REQUESTED.  Still nothing.

“Any word?” my client asked me.

“No,” I said, a bit chagrined since I’d gotten him into the deal in the first place.

“Maybe you’d better drop by and make sure she hasn’t flown the coop,” he said, with the flat, menacing tone of a man who’s been screwed before, and fully intends to screw back–hard–if somebody tries to screw him again.

So I went to the woman’s store, several times.  She was a one-woman operation, and when she was out would leave a sign on the door that said “Back in 15 minutes.”  I can’t tell you how many hours I spent waiting for those fifteen minutes to pass, over and over again.  I would give up after forty-five minutes, chalk the experience up to my gullibility, and resolve to come back again, another day.


Old gypsy woman, or Rolling Stones’ guitarist Keith Richards?  YOU make the call!

 

Then one day I got lucky.  I arrived to see the door wide open, and the owner talking to a customer.  As the cash started its journey from buyer to seller, I intervened in my best officious intermeddler manner.

“Hold it right there,” I said, getting all huffy and puffy about it.  “You owe my client $20,000, not including interest, penalties, postage, costs of collection, attorneys’ fees, and telefacsimile charges–fork it over!”

There was an awkward pause, with the guy who was buying the Ray Coniff Singers’ 1956 Christmas album or whatever, looking first at me, then at her.

“Give him the money,” the old woman said with resignation, and the man did so–the princely sum of $5, which made such a small dent in the imposing edifice of the outstanding balance that, in retrospect, it wasn’t worth the effort, the heartburn, the embarrassment all around.

The man walked out of the store, happy to extricate himself from an unpleasant encounter.  Good thing; once he was out the door, things became even more acrimonious.

“You . . . you,” the woman sputtered at me, to which I responded as only a cold-hearted collection professional can.  For a cinematic depiction of the species, I highly recommend Harry Dean Stanton’s performance in “Repo Man.”

“I’m only doing my job,” I said.  “Either you starting paying, or we back a truck up here next week and take all your crappy inventory.”

“You’re not taking anything of mine,” she said, fuming ineffectually, like a damp firecracker.  “I PUT GYPSY CURSE ON YOU!”

My air of equanimity vanished with those words.  This was a novel experience for me; I’ve been called a lot of names, threatened with judicial sanctions, thwarted by bankruptcy filings–but a gypsy curse?  Wait ’til I tell the boys at Brandy Pete’s, favorite Boston lunch spot for hard-bitten cynical commercial types, I thought to myself.  The place has a sign that reads “The customer is always wrong.”  It’s so badass it filed for bankruptcy itself, so you could watch your cash payments go straight from the waitress to a Chapter 11 trustee as you grabbed a toothpick on your way out.

“Ha,” I laughed, but it sounded empty, hollow, even to my own ears, as it surely did to my client’s debtor.  (Pro tip to general circulation media: The debtor is the one who owes the money, not the creditor.)  As much as I might pretend not to worry, I was dealing with a power with which I had no familiarity, one wielded by a tribe–the Roma–who can trace their roots back 1,500 years.  If they remember to bring tracing paper with them as they travel around the globe, constantly fleeing the forces of social order.  All I knew of the gypsies I learned from Django Reinhardt records; I figured that probably wasn’t enough.


Django Reinhardt

 

So for awhile I went about my business with an air of paranoia, constantly looking over my shoulder, wondering when the curse would be fulfilled and I’d be struck by an out-of-control gypsy wagon.  After awhile, I began to drop my guard–my life seemed to be more or less the same as before; dull, uneventful, no thefts of babies from my house or other assorted misdemeanors that the Roma have been accused of for centuries.

So I began to wonder–how, exactly, did I beat the gypsy curse?  What had I done that shielded me from death where others had been stricken with mysterious wasting diseases?  Maybe there was a best-selling self-help book in it for me.

As I looked back over my particular–some would say peculiar–tastes, habits and conduct that distinguish me from your run-of-the-mill late middle-aged schlub, I’ve come up with a few key indicators that separate me from the common herd, and apparently protect me from the baleful effects of the “evil eye” by which gypsies have destroyed their enemies for a millennium and a half.  I offer them to you–gratis–even though I acquired them at great cost; their use has made me an object of scorn over the three score and six years of my life:

Old Spice Classic Roll-On Deodorant:  The men with whom I share health club dressing rooms never pull the traditional red plastic tube from their gym bags when it’s time to apply anti-perspirant protection.  I, on the other hand, learned at my father’s knee that Old Spice was the real deal, capable of neutralizing body odor that other deodorants couldn’t touch.  Ban?  Right Guard?  Please–don’t make me laugh.  They didn’t even exist when I was first singing along to my brand’s commercial jingle, whose stirring words I can remember to this day: “Old Spice–said the Captain to the bo’sun.  Ask for the package with the ship that sails the ocean!”

Yogurt-covered raisins:  A culinary breakthrough in the decade when I came of age as a professional, this quasi-natural treat has been my snack of choice since they first appeared in stores in the 1980’s.  Don’t be led astray by spoilsports like “Amelia,” a self-proclaimed “nutritionist, chef and mom” blogger who says they’re as bad as candy.  If “Amelia” was any good as a nutritionist, wouldn’t she have enough clients to be able to afford a last name?  ‘Nuf said, as Red Sox fans used to say.


“Shh–people are looking at us!”

 

Ventriloquism:  I have been trying and failing to master “throwing my voice” since grade school, with mixed results.  Still, the point is–I try, where others have given up on their dreams.  Does ventriloquism make me different from the ordinary “knowledge worker” you may encounter?  Well, answer me this:  how many people do you see talking to their hands on the train every day?  Not many I’ll bet.

So there you have it; an exhaustive, if not entirely scientific, survey of options if you’re ever cursed by a gypsy, and begin to suffer adverse side effects, like those that the drug pitchmen rattle off at the end of commercials, going about 80 words per minute.

Me?  I’ve lived a life of comfort, ease, and deep, refreshing, untroubled sleep since that fateful day.

Except for that time I fell off an 8 foot loading dock at our town dump.  Or when I slipped on the hobnailed platform strip at South Station and blew out my knee.  I should also probably mention the time I stepped into a hole where a brick had been removed from the sidewalk and I stumbled onto Atlantic Avenue in Boston in the face of high-speed oncoming traffic.  And the fact that we lost two cats, one to coyotes, one to . . .

 

 

 

This Brain’s For Rent

It was a sultry summer morning, the kind that takes Boston by surprise–like clockwork–every year.  The Fourth of July rolls around and all of a sudden it’s hot and humid, as if the Gods of Geography decided overnight to take a few degrees off our latitude and add them to our temperature.  Just for the hell of it.

I was sitting in my office by South Station, looking at approximately the same view I’ve had for nearly four decades.  Next to the train station, there was once a bus terminal and a package liquor store–a “packy,” in local parlance–visible out my window, which made one-stop shopping convenient for the winos who tend to panhandle in public spaces.  A few years ago some urban planning goobers decided to spruce up the neighborhood; the bus station was moved, the liquor store was sent–pun intended–packing, and plain old South Station was re-christened The Michael S. Dukakis Transportation Center at South Station, as if it were an upscale shopping mall, or a pricey private golf club.  Some things never change, though; as I look down I see two panhandlers who’ve been in business for as long as I have.  Apparently, they didn’t get the marketing brochure.

I remember my first clients, two Asian guys who walked up from Chinatown just a few blocks away, back in the last year of the self-absorbed 70’s.  One was on his way back to Hong Kong, and he wanted to leave some money with his buddy to start a restaurant.  After leading them through some cautionary foofaraw–I can’t represent you both unless you sign a waiver–we got down to business.

“We want note,” one said; a promissory note, an I.O.U.–what I would spend a good part of the next two score years drafting.  I inquired as to the nature of the relationship; did Man 1 want to be co-owner of Man 2’s restaurant?  Yes?  Then what you need, I said, is stock because your interest is more in the nature of equity than debt and . . .

“WE WANT NOTE!” they said together, with urgent emphasis, since time, tide and international flights wait for no man.  And so was launched, with a few deft strokes of pen on paper–nobody had a computer back then–my career of financial infamy.

From those humble beginnings I have come to a humble end.  There have been peaks, sure, but if you have more than one peak, you have to have a valley in between.  I won’t go into the gory details–suffice it to say that of the five firms I’ve worked at, three no longer exist.  I seem to have that effect on people.

And so, as I say, I find myself back where I started, going through old files, throwing out those that have turned into dead letters, trying to find a home for those that still have some life in them.  I’m not sure what I’d do at this point if a really big case walked in the door.  Twenty years ago, I didn’t turn down anything.  Dog-walking deals, fallen tree lawsuits–you name it, I took it.  Now?  Unless it piqued my rapidly-declining interest in the human misery of humans other than myself, I think I’d . . .

“Hello.”

I looked towards my standard-issue low-rent frosted glass door and saw a pair of legs that froze my gaze from rising any higher.  My guess was she was a dancer, from the looks of those gams; well-toned, slender ankles, a chiaroscuro effect where the Achilles’ tendon slithered down to her heels.

I tried to suppress a sharp inhalation, but if you’re reading this with your speakers on, you heard it.  You meet a lot of dames in my business–down-on-their-luck, on-their-uppers, a little something on the side.  I thought I had every female dimension covered, but I’d never seen any like this one.

“Can I help you?” I asked, letting my eyes linger just a little longer on her lithe legs.

“Probably not–I know you too well.  I’m your wife, dingbat.”

I looked up finally and found she was right.  She was indeed the woman I’d married thirty-two years before.  “An honest mistake,” I said as I swiveled to get a better view of her.

“And one you’ve made before,” she said, referring to the time I got in line behind her in a coffee shop and was admiring her legs without realizing they were attached to the body of my fiancé.

“I got a poem out of that little mix-up,” I said, referring to my deathless verse “On Mistaking One’s Wife’s Legs for Another’s”–and try saying that five times fast.

“And did you make any money out of it?” she asked.  Buffalo, New York produces cold women–must be all that snow.

“No, but someday, when I’m dead and you’re not, the royalties from my Collected Poems will start rolling in.  Then you’ll be glad you married me.  You know what Clarence Darrow said.”

“Who’s Clarence Darrow?”

“Shortstop for the Cleveland Indians in the fifties.”

“What did he say?”

“Inside every lawyer is the wreck of a poet.”


Darrow: “Roses are red/Violets are blue/I’m not a poet/and neither are you.”

 

“So why can’t you keep your wreck of a poet inside you like everybody else?”

“I try, but he keeps slipping out at night.”

She sat down in my single office chair and gave me a hard-boiled look, one that I recognized from the eggs she buys by the bag at Whole Foods.

“That’s not all that’s slipping out,” she said.  She reached in her purse and took out a tube of lipstick, which she applied to–of all places–her lips.  “You know, there are software programs that are better at recognition than you are,” she said with a gimlet glance.

“That’s not fair,” I said.  “I have an uncanny ability to remember the names of people who aren’t members of my immediate family, which you have relied on at many a social occasion in the past.”

I had her there.  She’ll often turn her back on someone across the room at a party and ask me if remember the name that’s attached to the face.  I’ll start to turn around and she’ll say “Don’t turn around, you goombah!”–a form of mental torture psychologists refer to as the “double-bind dilemma.”

“You know what I mean,” she said.  “You can never remember the names of restaurants we go to.”

I offered no resistance on that point.  I was long ago diagnosed with Hip Restaurant Aphasia, the inability to retain the goofy names that celebrity chefs hang outside their fashionable little boites de nuitShe, unlike me, doesn’t need to take a box of matches from a non-smoking restaurant to remember if it’s called Truc or Troc or Tric or Grill 147 or Grill 86-93-72-Hike.  I have left instructions in my Health Care Proxy that if I am ever found unconscious and can’t recall where I had dinner last, I am not to be put to sleep.

“I have a lot on my mind,” I said, affecting an air of busyness that was belied by the relatively clean surface of my desk.  I was like the Sergeant of the Lawe in Chaucer, who made himself look busier than he really was.  “I’ve been at this for thirty-eight years, eleven months–not that I’m counting or anything.”

“Um-hmm.”

“My brain’s for rent from 4:30 in the morning until I fall asleep at night for all sorts of trivial uses–leases, deeds of trust, debenture indentures.  It’s no wonder if certain details that are important to you . . .”

“Like whether you’re supposed to bring our neighbor’s kid home from soccer practice . . .”

“Right.  Ticky-tacky, Mickey Mouse administrative things like that.  I’ve got multi-million-dollar mega deals on my mind.”

She clucked her tongue with subdued disapproval and gazed out the window, looking at the ocean.  If the question came up, I was prepared to respond, lightning-round style, “The Atlantic,” just like contestants on “Password” used to do.

“Don’t pull that ‘Billy Big-Deal’ stuff on me,” she said.

“I don’t need to,” I said.  “There are certain little things you can never remember that I never forget.”

“And vice versa,” she said.

“So if both of our minds are going–just in different places–it’s probably best if we stick together.  Sort of a patchwork quilt approach to cognition.”

She pursed her lips and nodded knowingly.  “So–two heads are better than one?”

“Right.”

“That would explain something.”

“What?”

“Why my mother looks at you like you have two heads when you’re trying to be funny.”

We’ll Be Happy When We’re Dead, Comrade

In Russia, the age at which the average person becomes happy is higher than the average life expectancy.

Review of The Happiness Curve by Jonathan Rauch, The Wall Street Journal

It’s Friday, which for me–Fedor Sergeyevich Mikhailov–means a day of taking it easy with Lev Vladimirovich Nikolaev, my co-worker here at the Ministry of Meddling in International Affairs, “North American Division.”  I put our division name in quotes of dubiety, because nobody gives a rat’s crapke about Canada and Mexico.  We’re told to spend all of our time fomenting strife between left and right in the good ole U.S.A.


“Do NOT try to leave early just because is Friday, Comrade.”

 

Lev looks surprisingly down-in-the-mouth for the start of the weekend and, rather than spend the day looking at his Gloomy Gyorgy face, I decide to lance the boil of his discontent and find out what’s bugging him.

“How they hangin’?” I ask as I sidle up behind him.  He’s in the middle of a Facebook food fight accusing Bernie Sanders supporters of being secretly hypnotized by Donald Trump’s spray-on tan, but he lets up on his mouse just as he’s about to criticize a Shaker Heights, Ohio, health food store worker for “liking” a post.

“Not so good, Fedor Sergeyevich Mikhailov,” he says with a disconsolate tone.  “I am weary.”

“It’s Friday” I point out. “You’ll feel better when you wake up Saturday morning.”

“Perhaps, Fedor Sergey . . .”

I cut him off, hoping by dropping the high level of formality with which conversation is conducted here in Russia that we can communicate better.  “Lev–what do you say we take a break from the surnames and patronymics?” I ask.  “It’s exhausting talking like we’re characters in a Dostoevsky novel after a long week of work.”

“Okay,” he says, but he doesn’t seem too enthused about the prospect of a “Casual Friday.”

“Any plans for the weekend?”

“Get drunk, argue with wife, make-up sex, back at it on Monday.”

I look at him to see if he’s going to smile at his black humor-crack, but he doesn’t.  He stares off into the middle distance as if he’s serious.  He’s really bitter.

“C’mon, pal, things aren’t that bad, are they?”


“Can’t talk now–am sowing seeds of doubt in minds of Ladies Democratic Society of Cuyahoga County, Ohio.”

 

“You’re right,” he says, shaking off his air of gloom for a second.  “They’re MUCH worse.”

I can see he is approaching burned-out case status, so I sit down in the wheeled office chair at the computer station next to him and roll over to console him.

“You shouldn’t feel downcast,” I say.  “Think of all that lies ahead of you if you just toe the Communist Party line.”

“Like what?”


“I met my lipstick production quota!”

 

“Perhaps someday you’ll get a bigger apartment so you can raise a family.”

“Why bring a child into the world only to suffer, then die?”

“Your blood sugar’s low,” I say, then reach in my jacket pocket for a treat that I hope will perk him up.  “Here–try some of these.”

“What are they?”

“Yogurt-covered cardamom seeds.  They’re delicious!”

He tries one, then makes a “bleh” sounds and allows the uneaten delicacy to fall from his lips to one hand.  “If we lived in America, we would have our choice from many brands of yogurt-covered raisins!” he says, then remembering that the Russian people are under constant surveillance, he adds a patriotic footnote to his gripe: “And that is why their people are bloated, overweight mollycoddles!”

“We should step outside, get some fresh air,” I say.  I want him out beyond the prying ears of the Communist Party’s microphones, so he can unburden himself.

We check out with the receptionist, Svetlana Alexandrovna Bykov, who is filing her nails.  She’s in a pissy mood too; she got a lousy performance review last quarter because she filed them under “n” for “nails” instead of “f” for “finger.”

“So why are you so down?” I ask him after we make it past the cordon of smokers puffing away outside the Ministry’s entrance and take a seat on a brutalist concrete park bench.


“It isn’t pretty, but at least it’s uncomfortable.”

 

“I just wonder sometimes–when is the payoff?”

“What payoff?”

“When do we emerge from the long, dark tunnel of misery through which we travel and emerge into the sunlight of happiness?” he says, shaking his head.

“I don’t think there is any payoff,” I say with what I hope comes across as nonchalant resignation.

“There isn’t?”

“Whoever said there was?”

He swivels his head so he can look me straight in the eye.  “Worker’s paradise?  Dictatorship of the Proletariat?  These words mean nothing?”

“I didn’t say that.  It’s just that it’s going to take a long time in a static centralized economy.”

“Like–how long?”

“How old are you?” I say, guessing he’s maybe in his mid-thirties.

“Twenty-eight.”

“Geez, life has taken its toll on you.”

“Don’t rub it in.”

“I’ve got three words for you,” I say as I examine the crow’s feet around the corners of his eyes: “Moisturize, moisturize, moisturize.”

“Thanks a bunch.”

“Anyway,” I say, “I’ve got good news and bad news for you.  Which do you want first?”

“The good,” he says glumly.  “I can’t take any more of the bad right now.”

“Okay.  The average life expectancy in Russia today is 71 years, so you’ve got 43 years to go!”

“That’s the good news?  What’s the bad?”

“The average age at which a Russian achieves happiness is 91, so to get to those two decades of comparative bliss, you’re gonna have to suffer a bit first.”

He turns to look at me, and the horizontal line of his lips takes a downward turn at the corners.  He sniffs, and like the Sayano-Shushenskaya Dam on the Yenisei River, the floodgates open.

“Bwah!  So no happiness for me until I am dead many years?” he asks, bawling like a baby fed a spoonful of strained beets.

“Doesn’t look that way.  That’s why we’re in the Top 20 countries in the world by suicide rate, behind self-slaughter powerhouses such as Guyana and Kazakhstan.”

“AP or Coaches Poll?”

“That system has been replaced, it’s all computerized now.”

He stares straight ahead again and shrugs his shoulders.  “Well,” he says finally, “I guess I can take one for the team.”