One Will Ross novel was a bestseller in the sixties, another earned six figures after its advance and brought in a few hundred each year, but hardly anybody read his twenty-some books anymore, and when he was invited to the odd conference in South Dakota or South Carolina, attendees were surprised he was alive and treated him as they would a dog who’s been a family favorite for years but can’t get up on his own, on all fours, anymore.
Will’s present companion was a dog, an aging fox terrier with a black patch overlapping his left eye and ear. Will called him Pulp—close enough to Pup for anybody who heard, besides acknowledging the fate of his last few books. The two lived in Sausalito, on the bay, in a dockside shack Will persuaded a commercial fisherman to let him occupy rent-free in exchange for keeping watch on his boat. Its engine gave out in the spring and the fellow worked as a hand on another vessel, saving for repairs, meanwhile sliding further into alcoholic sorrow. As the boat grew barnacles and its varnish feathered away in the California heat, Will understood that nobody would feel its transom tremble with an engine again.
He swept up drifted scales and scraped olive-black blood and intestinal ephemera from the floor of the shack and scrubbed it with water bucketed from the bay, so it didn’t smell too bad. His Social Security couldn’t quite keep him in food, besides Pulp, so he fished from the dock and now and then pulled in a sea bass or a misdirected, off-course yellowtail, food tasty as any. He slept on an inflatable mattress from a Saint Vincent de Paul’s he patched with his bicycle inner-tube kit.
At first he used the boat’s primus stove, but that meant fuel, so he borrowed an extension cord from under one of its bunks, waited for the lights on poles down the dock to go out, spliced the extension cord into a light wire, and ran it down the bay-side of a pole and under the dock to his shack. A shelter he visited gave him a hotplate the size of a hatbox, with coiled-wire elements in porcelain grooves, and he used that to fry meals, as long as the dock lights were lit.
He sat at the edge of the dock beside his benefactor’s boat, feet dangling a fathom above water, clad in a pair of surfer’s shorts he found on the dock, and put a hand on Pulp’s head. The dog was wise enough to know Will wanted a companion, not an intruder, so he never licked fingers or toes or imagined he could leap into Will’s lap, but huddled at his side. From the dock Will could see Treasure Island, with the Oakland Bay Bridge beyond its bulge and, across the water, stranded Angel Island and, near the pincushion of city buildings, the tail end of the Golden Gate. He enjoyed watching the tremulous antics of light over wave-juggled water, and the silver ambience of a mist-shrouded sun turning gold when the mists parted, plus a shimmering orange iridescence that hovered over the bay in the early evening, especially lovely but with an unsettling edge he couldn’t define. The sun at that hour spread over the bay like spilled yolk, and as its last glow grew weak, wraithlike worms, deep gold, dove and wound below the water, seeming to saturate their lengths with light as long as light remained.
“I like it here,” Will whispered to Pulp, and scratched his black ear. “I like the weather and the view. I like our perspective on the bay, even the reminder of something weird happening between water and sun, don’t you? I like our easy way of life. And I like you.” He let his hand fall and said, “Shit, I’m starting to sound like Hemingway.”
Reviewers compared his bestselling novel to Hemingway, which Will hated, because his settings and plot revolved around the rural populace of his native state, Nebraska, wrapped in prose reviewers perceived as convoluted—nothing like Hemingway. The injustice of it kept him from appreciating Hemingway, and Will read him only in the manner of extending a hand over the hotplate, as he did on cold mornings, and then drawing it swiftly away, a sidelong peek.
At a prosperous point in his career, meaning a time when he was able to rent an apartment and add to his grocery cart without running a sum, he had his remaining upper teeth pulled and a plate installed. Now his lowers were wobbly, predictable in a person pushing eighty whose solace was sweets—too dear to indulge in now, however, especially his favorite, candy with nuts.
In the midst of a meal one day a lower tooth popped out, and he plucked it from his food and tossed it on the floor in disgust. Pulp dove and had it down in a gulp, and sat with ears alert, expecting another. In that attitude, cocking his head to one side, he was twin to the dog on RCA Victor hard-composition platters, or like a quizzical interrogator who hoped to hear Will’s life story, not to use against him but to slaver him with further affection—uncritical, nonverbal ghost.