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.
Will received his mail at a PO box for a yearly fee of eleven bucks, and now and then an essay of his, from an era so distant it seemed the effort of an angst-pinched Frenchman, was anthologized—the same one—and his agent, who kept him on through lean years and the last decade (for the same reason, Will figured, he rescued Pulp from a shelter), dutifully sent on a check, with her commission and postage deducted, leaving a total of about a hundred. On those occasions Will ate out and Pulp got leftovers or a bone from a dumpster outside the kitchen door.
Restaurant meals and masturbatory excursions into partners now dead (not necrophilia; he viewed all in their prime) were Will’s last pleasures. At different phases he had lived with one partner or another and to the only one who hoped to solidify their relationship, he said, “I’m too dedicated to what I do to complicate that with a wife or child,” and she said, “Uh huh.”
On culinary nights he wore his suit jacket of gray tweed, his brown or green trousers, one of two shirts, and from a secondhand shop a pair of high-end Italian shoes that looked good at the odd writer’s conference. Daily he made do with rubber flip-flops. He owned a pocket watch he said was his grandfather’s, a safety razor, a pair of bicycle clips, though he had to hock his ten-speed a year ago; magnifying glasses to enlarge print he hoped to read, a sleeping bag, the heating element, and a portable Underwood typewriter, nestled in a hard-sided case, that did duty for forty years and still served to pound out letters to his agent or compose a page or two on a novel he hoped would coalesce into a vision of America waking to itself anew. Typewriter ribbons were difficult to find.
He bathed and shaved in the bay, retaining his mustache, a badge of the profession, he judged, now pure white. The only other pleasure apart from Pulp was his monthly haircut. He set Pulp in the shack and clipped its padlock, sprinted away from his yelps, and a few blocks into town patrolled the Latino barbershop he preferred, to assure himself the wait would be an hour, so he could settle on a padded couch, slip on his magnifiers, and skim magazines shrouded in a scent of talc and pomade. He sat with cerebral sensory reception under the buzzing travel of heated clippers over his skull, a sexual pleasure nearly as fine as the barber’s fingers scissoring and gathering hair in a tug for a real scissor snip, and was so grateful for the effect that he tipped like the author of a bestseller leagues better than the trash touted in the Times Book Review.
For abandoning Pulp, if only for a haircut, he brought home a pound of hamburger, half for Pulp, raw, half for him—fried and shredded so he didn’t have to chew. It ran a lot less than a night with a woman and garnered a load of grinning, lapping gratitude.
Into their existence came an invitation, forwarded by his agent, for a reading and visit to classes at a college in Maine. Will had enough pocket change to dial New York, from the only working public phone he could find, and recited the nearly obliterated number to his agent’s assistant, asking him to have her call him back.
“It’s urgent,” Will said, and hung up.
When the phone rang he was surprised to hear his agent ask how the novel was going, and then, irritated at her formality, said, “What’s this about a gig in Maine?”
“I sent on the invitation, and have a copy right here. Let’s see—fifteen hundred for two days, three classes and a reading.”
“New York, New York,” Will said, savoring her accent, and felt a pang for his Houston Street address of a decade, after his bestseller.
“No, dear,” she said. “Maine.”
“No, memories. I used to get five grand for a fifty-minute reading.”
“It’s the upstarts now.”
“How do I get to Maine?”
“They’ll pay travel and expenses as part of the package.”
“Well, yes, but how the—I forgo the f-word—am I supposed to buy a plane ticket from Marin to Maine with zero funds?”
“Don’t you have plastic?”
“Only a leaky net buoy.” She wasn’t familiar with the object or didn’t find his irony amusing. “What bank is stupid enough to give me plastic?”
“Plenty, nowadays, trust me. Will, I’ll tell you what, I’ll have my assistant arrange for plane tickets as an advance, we’ll document that to the college, and when the check comes from the cheap-asses I’ll deduct the fare from your total. What do you think?”
“In a man barely capable of remembering his birthday, any thinking comes and goes.”
In the silence he realized she was moving toward membership in the crowd that saw him as over the edge. “I’m joking,” he said. “It’s kind of you to offer.”
“It suits then? I should say okay?”
“Deal,” he said, and “Bye” in chorus with her, their timing in tune with the ease of the sixties, and hung up with the thought that if this went through he would have a lower plate installed at a dental school that catered to the homeless. And look into a laptop.
The next week an offer for plastic at zero percent interest for a year arrived in his PO Box, and he wondered if his agent hadn’t finagled that. He took the bank up on its offer.
And when the pretty young woman he greeted every noon as she walked a brace of dogs down the dock—in a top that disclosed a tat of Pluto (the dog) on her midriff, as if balancing a ball, her navel, on the tip of his nose—when she appeared, he screwed up his courage, as a non-Freudian amateur might say, and asked, “Would you consider kenneling Pup for a few days if I take a trip this fall?”
“I’d love to,” she said, and put a hand on Will’s shoulder as if to square off for a dance or an event more fruitful. “I love that old dog.”
After enduring a transcontinental flight without a beer—Will was down to two dollars, and plastic didn’t cut it with the male-male couple working the aisle with an aluminum tugboat—the college looked unbuttoned, with windows open on brick buildings and clothes and blankets hanging from sills, as if students captive inside were announcing to the world, We are cold! More blankets! The white-haired fellow who met Will at the airport and introduced himself as Ralph Milo confessed he was “the responsible party” for the invitation, and after driving Will to a motel to drop off his knapsack, took him on a walking tour of the campus.
“Don’t you adore our old elms?” he asked, as if uneasy at Will’s jet-lagged silence. “Somehow that awful blight seems to have missed us.”
Because it’s too damn cold? came to Will’s altitude-addled mind, so indrawn it was a strain to regulate his vision, as if he was peering from inside a glass jar. Chattering clusters of youngsters rushed past, looking lost, and Will said, “Is this the day high schools check you out?”
“Oh, my dear!” Milo said, with a fancy up-down assessment. “How long since you’ve been on a college campus? These are our students!”
“Crikey!” Will said—all he could come up with. And then, “That was a joke”—with a sense he was saying this too often. “Dry humor.”
“It must be your rascal Nebraska Joe coming out in the author-creator-mimic, no?”
Joe was a serio-comic patsy in one of Will’s out-of-print, pulped novels.
“Is there a joint on campus where we can get a drink?” Will asked.
“Sorry, friend, we’re dry here. We might wet our whistles, however, at the Main Street Pub. We could sit us down and have us a little shop talk.”
Did Milo imagine his down-home locution echoed one of Will’s characters? And then Will wondered if it did. His books lagged so far behind the present he could only nod when people mentioned a passage he couldn’t recall. “Is the representation in prose of everyday life a critic’s task?” he asked, trying to open congenial patter with his host.
“We could talk that. Criticism is certainly on the ascendance, sir.”
The fellow had probed so many possible relationships in his names Will figured Gramps would be next. He walked on in the stunned silence of a survivor of a wreck.
The first class was so unresponsive Will knew none of them had read a page in any book he wrote. White-haired Milo, who shepherded him here and whose face was meaty red this morning, began to ask questions, and then the instructor got the cue, and in a following pall of silence that set students squirming, Will asked questions of himself and answered them with authority.
“I fear our students are too passive,” Dr. Milo, as Will understood he should address the fellow, said on their trot to the next class. “Don’t let it daunt you. I adored your colloquy!”
The next class was the same, with red-faced Milo asking questions. Finally a young man at the back of the room raised his hand.
“Yes?” Will asked, with as toothy a smile as wobbly lowers allow.
“What kind of laptop do you use?”
“I don’t have a laptop.”
“How do you write?”
“By hand.” He was tempted to employ the pumping motion he was sure the students would enjoy, but restrained himself. “On a typewriter.”
“Oh, yeah, my grandpa had one in his old office.”
That was the gist of his “interaction with students in a classroom setting” on the first day.
Will decided to switch to his brown trousers when a knock came at his motel-room door. He sighed at the prospect of yet another day with Milo and got the brown pair pulled on before he undid the safety chain and—
Beside Milo was a tall and spindly young man with a shaved head, its dark stubble marking premature bald lines. “I’d like you to meet Randy Mosely,” Milo said. “He’s our tenure-track professor in modern lit. His is the third class you’ll visit, but I wanted you to meet him. He’s working on a novel—just bought one of those voice-activated Macs, like that intellectual writer down in Urbana, what’s his name, uses, brand spanking new!”
Will was sure he saw Randy’s eyes jitter at “spanking,” and held out a hand. “Always good to meet a writer, Randy,” he said. And when no hand rose for him to shake he realized he was looking into eyes that his friend Bellow (once an officemate) would have described as “murderous blue”—a glitter of silver slivers mixed with aqua.
To Milo he said, “I thought the contract said three classes, not three a day.”
“It must have been a typo,” Milo said, and Randy’s eyes narrowed as if at a witticism. “And before your reading tonight, a girl from the student paper wants an interview. You decide which time is best.”
Will was so steamed the two must have sensed it because none of them spoke during the drive to the campus.
This day followed yesterday’s pattern, except for Randy’s class when, near the end, in the absence of questions, Randy said, “The one book of yours I was able to get through when we received notice of your visit isn’t your most popular, Fire Island, about a colony of semi-retards from SoCal, admittedly a comic mess with many touches of humor, but don’t you think the title is misleading, when most readers surely imagine the book is about the popular island in the East?”
“I meant the island undergoes fire, is purged of dross, of its silly ideas.”
Randy pursed his lips and dodged them right and left as if tasting precision. “That might serve as a general dismissive response but I find it helpful to rest on Kermode’s dictum of ‘the interpretive inadequacy of our predecessors’—not that I take you for one, but I wonder if the author is an adequate interpreter of even a title, say, when the suggestion it bears is—”
“I spent a summer on Fire Island, if that’s where you’re headed.”
“Not quite. Perhaps one has to ‘remember how to forget,’ as I believe another critic has it, to be competent to see past time in a new light. I do wish you or one of your editors would have gone through the process of thought before settling on that title—not that I question your intent.”
Will saw Milo grin at the rear of the room and suffered a heated rush of dislocation, as if prey in a trap. He shambled his way out of it by saying, “Yeah, I guess New York editors and I ain’t too smart, a hoo hoo.”
The students laughed so hard at Will’s goony cooing he realized they hated Randy, whose shaved head assumed a rose blush, and then he intoned as if from a literary text, “It appears the clock on the wall has dictated the end to this.”
That night Will read the opening of his novel, about a Kiowa runner heading for Arizona to warn the Southwest nations of the decimation they could expect from the US cavalry if they didn’t form a united front—attentive to customs and detail in the manner of a departed friend, Frederick Manfred. The crowd sat in a silence afterward that pressed into Will’s hearing a rustling sound as loud as sea wash from the typed pages he was stuffing back into his knapsack. Then Milo leaped to his feet and the rest of the audience rose in a clamor of applause that washed over Will like a Latino haircut.
Milo arrived in a rush at the podium, and said, “My God, man, where did you get that?”
“From the corncrib of gold bounty, my friend, my head.”
“It was terrific! I’m astonished!”
“Shall we shop-talk at the Main Street Pub?”
It turned out to be a student pizza joint, but a few faculty members Will recognized from classes formed a nervous conclave at the bar, including Randy and perhaps his partner, along with jacketed bikers, and then rose-faced Milo walked in and Will, high as a kite from the audience outburst, said, “Serve all these older folk. Run a tab.” He tossed the bartender, a blonde with a puzzled frown, his new plastic.
“Older folk?” she asked.
“The professors and older ones here at the bar.”
Randy swiveled on his stool, his eyelids reddened from too much already, so Will assumed, not tears, and said, “You’re calling us older folk?” He smiled, but his pink-clouded eyes had the drilling hate Will had seen too often, not to say received from the prose of reviewers who wanted him dead.
“I meant I don’t want to get into trouble buying students drinks.”
“Right,” Randy said, and swiveled back to whisper to his neighbor.
Will was on a roll, and after two drafts felt elevated to the altitudinous, aural-dimming jet he rode in on, a blinking gap in cognition, and had to stab with a foot for balance, realizing the last time he drank was when his boat-beached benefactor gave him a warm can of beer—“Can’t even hold two drafts” came to him in Randy’s voice—and in another jolting gap he was talking nonstop to Milo, who asked about New York, and Will was mentioning Bellow and Jimmy Baldwin and Dan Wakefield and Mailer and Capote—writers he knew from the fifties—when Randy, who maybe swiveled again, said what Will heard as “an old loudmouth.”
Will set his mug on the bar and discovered Randy on his feet, an arm’s length off. “Pardon?” Will asked.
“I said you’re just a fucking old loudmouth—a pathetic has-been.”
“I don’t know where you’re from, but in most of America, when people talk like that, Randy, they’re in trouble.”
The rumble in the bar slowed and sank in decibels as Will’s jet landed in a crash, and Randy said, “You’re a washed-up has-been that’s—”
“Are you purposely pimping me, you little popinjay—”
“Ooo!” Randy exclaimed, and placed both hands over his heart. “Listen to that alliteration! Pretty soon he’ll get literary on us!”
Half the crowd laughed and others looked sexually charged as Milo slipped into a buffering position between Will and Randy, but Will shoved at him and said, “Let me get at that mean little—”
“I’m not old and I’m not little,” Randy said, and Will realized his “little” meant Randy’s youth—physically he was a head taller. Will doubted Randy had read his nonfiction book Flat City, about his days with the Golden Gloves in Lincoln, and how he had moved from lightweight to welterweight before he was TKOed by a slugger who knocked out his front teeth; and with that thought he pictured Pulp in a kennel and shoved Milo aside and said to Randy, “I don’t want any more from you, okay?”
Randy’s hands rose, palms out, and he started to step back but struck the bar, causing a whiplike wave down his body, and said, “Are you going macho on me now, you homophobe?”
“Homophobe! I think you better read Camille Paglia on the exact meaning of that word. How would you like it if I said you’re a heterophobe—so prejudiced you can’t tolerate a stray old dog?” He meant to say “straight old sod” but it was the image of Pulp. “I know plenty of gays, creative greats, writers and editors and actors, I’ve worked with them, I like them, I’ve been with them, but you, I’m beginning to think you have the hate Paglia describes for the other side.”
“Okay, that’s it,” somebody said, and two heavyweights got hold of Will’s arms from behind, and another kept slapping his back—Randy, from his voice, aiding Will’s bum’s rush out the door, and then delivering a rabbit punch—so Will was only dimly aware of being wrestled into the back of a car, heavyweights on each side, banging into him on curves, inciting anger that shocked him half awake, so he was half himself when they ejected him in the motel parking lot.
When he woke he swung to sit on the side of the bed and had to take his head in his hands. A knock rattled the door. “Who’s that?” he asked.
“Dr. Milo”—a faint float through metal. “…miss your flight?”
Will saw he was dressed, down to his Italian shoes, so he stuffed the other trousers in the knapsack and went to the door, first squinting out its mini porthole, just in case: only white-haired Milo. He opened to him.
“Well, that was quite some performance,” Milo said, looking rubicund in morning light. “I of course don’t mean your fine reading.”
“Thanks,” Will said. “Shall we go?”
By the time the plane was in the air Will felt skinned raw, a scalded pink Nebraska pig, and couldn’t stop redoing last night in the pizza joint. He had the same two bucks and plastic, or hoped he did, and went for his wallet in a further sear to his conscience over the bar bill but was able to sigh at the sight of the card.
Back home, he took a complimentary bus to a city hotel, as a guest would, and walked across the bridge to Sausalito. He hurried to the house of the pretty girl with her Pluto tattoo and before she appeared he heard a bark of recognition, Pulp sensing or scenting him, and in a slide of shame he had to ask the girl if he could pay her when his check arrived, and then, intending it as a joke, “Unless you take plastic.”
“Hey, sure, whatever,” she said. “It’s what my customers want, so I’m all set up for it.”
The padlock on his shack was secure. He shed his travel clothes and donned the surfer’s shorts and sat with Pulp at their place on the dock, feet a fathom over water. “I like—” he began. “No, I love this place!”
He decided to pay off the card when the bill arrived, shred it, and buy a mini laptop, no bigger than a novel, of the kind he had tested in a computer shop, because on the flight back he pictured Pulp pairing up with the Kiowa on his trek, and with that image the book took on the weave of the sunset’s wraithlike worms diving and winding below the surface, saturating pages with light, dazzling Will in a blaze like fireworks, and he knew all he had to do was record what he saw, take dictation, as before, with his bestseller. He imagined the book achieving bestsellerdom and ending up with every prize, the kind of coup to inflate ambitious young writers into green hulks of envy, bang—a noisy enfilade of recompense as all egos snapped.
“I think we can,” Will said, and reached over to scratch Pulp’s black ear.
Pulp ducked and rolled his head free, cocking it at a quizzical angle.
“What do you think?”
Pulp, that old dog faithful and wise, issued a bark that echoed across the water and returned in doubled adulation to Will—rar-rarf tua nua stard, ar ar.