Sunday, August 18, 2013

Summer fiction week — "Planning My Breakdown"


     Well, if you can't find literary success, at least you can imagine what it would be like. Summer Fiction Week concludes with this youthful speculation of what might be in store.  It didn't work out that way and, frankly, I'm glad. Thanks for reading these —  we'll have seven new stories next August. Until then, back to the narrow realm of fact come Monday morning. 

     For many years already I had been sitting on the wide, breeze-blown porch of the Quogue Island house, watching the sea beyond my beach gently undulate with a steady, dull roar.
     Occasionally, I would break away from reverie long enough to lazily tap out a few keystrokes on my shiny black Remington Upright. Thwap, thwap each type bar would go, hitting against the heavy bonded paper. Thwap, thwap, thwap.
     After reading over the latest word or two, I would smile with casual recognition of genius, and return to contemplation of nature’s grandeur. The ocean, so very ... blue. Every morning exactly at 10 a.m., my new companion, Cassandra, dressed in simple white muslin, would open the screen door and bring out a cup of mint herb tea and a trio of fresh-baked cinnamon shortbread cookies. The screen door always slammed behind her with a loud wooden bang.
     It was that wooden bang, I believe, or perhaps the fact that the cookies were cinnamon shortbread, and there were three of them, which made me suspect my success, so carefully delineated and enjoyed for so many years, was now becoming a bit stale and threadbare. The pied a terre on 12th Street, just steps away from the Strand, the house on the seashore, the Big Sky ranch, had all served me over and over. My wife Millie had conveniently run off to a celibate ashram in Oregon to “find herself” just as the future as I had always imagined it finally unfolded in its fullest, delightful, award-draped complexity.
     Shortly after I found Millie’s heartfelt note, speckled with charming misspellings, Cassandra—who had waited patiently for an hour in the line at Barnes & Noble—thrust into my hands, not my latest masterwork, open to the title page, but a beautifully embroidered sampler pillow, the chief design element of which was her phone number.
      She was tremendously svelte, for a woman who liked, as much as I, to drink beer and gobble little hot dogs wrapped in dough.  Millie hates them, but Cassandra couldn’t get enough. We ate them morning, noon and night. Nor was she reluctant to make wild, boisterous love minutes before departing for the swank Upper East Side parties which began to dominate our lives more and more, the flush of our exertions on our cheeks as we made our entrance, heads swiveling in our direction, voices hushed, reverently.
     Everyone assumed that a young woman of such attractiveness could only be drawn to a man like me by my fame, not to mention my continually burgeoning wealth. But I knew better, even though the money did at times stun me. How often I simply stared at those publisher’s checks, cut for immense sums, with their official bluish green, lightly patterned backgrounds. I read once where the late Doug Kenney was always absentmindedly sticking huge checks into books as markers, and I did that too, if only for a moment, to gaze happily at the effect, feeling a tingle of vertigo before snatching them out and hurrying off to carefully deposit them safely in the bank.
     In the end, my success became stifling. Cassandra was replaced by others, singularly and in combination. The huge publisher’s checks were supplemented by movie wire transfers and envelopes stuffed with cash, sent my grateful readers. “Please take this,” they wrote, “as words of gratitude fall short...” How many times could the boys from the Lampoon greet me at Logan Airport with a horseless coach, taking up the traces themselves to pull me through the streets of Cambridge? How many rounds of “Hip, hip, hooray!” — an exultation lost to most collegians — could ring in my ears? How many times could I ascend the cab, clutch my lapel with my right hand, and make that speech of gratitude and celebration, the speech which schoolchildren, 50 years in the future, would still be reciting, tears in their eyes?
     It had to end. The expensive champagnes, mixed with ginger ale and sherbet and run through a blender the morning after parties. The women, wrapped in one of my Thai silk robes, quaffing big plastic cups of the frosty mixture, their eyes sparkling. The constant demands from the publisher. I once read how Hunter S. Thompson was locked in hotel rooms and forced to write. And I was too, the motorcycle couriers, in their black riding boots, fidgeting, clasping their gloved hands together and gunning their engines, staring up at a single lighted window, high in the hotel, where I would feverishly type away, machine-gun fast, each page reverently plucked from the thick carpeting as it falls out of the typewriter platen and immediately hurried to the printing plant.
     Finally, with a single slap of the screen door—the wood weathered, the screen slightly bowed out—I knew it was time to move on. Breakdown was near. Not a Frances Farmer, hair in my face, crescent-of-eye-white-under-fluttering-lids sort of breakdown, of course, with burly attendants lifting me off the floor and slamming me into a straightjacket. Not that. Something more refined. After several nights and days of my leading conga lines into swimming pools, upsetting tables of carefully-arranged hors d’oeuvres, and gunning the blue Mercedes across manicured lawns, my army of loved ones would conspire to send me away for a “rest.” Exhausted, I protest only feebly. A slight flourish of the hand as I’m packed, swooning, into the back of the sleek black limousine, which zips silently through the dark, empty Manhattan streets and into the progressively sunnier, ever-more-lovely countryside. When I awake, it is a new and unfamiliar, though not unpleasant, world.
    The lap rug is ... plaid, my hands pale and rather thin against it. Deidre, my nurse, hears me stir and looks up from her embroidery, smiling, her dear face framed by the crisply starched ends of her white nurse’s cap. “You’ve been asleep a long time,” she says, in her honeyed voice, like a wind chime on a summer’s night. She pours the tea. From far across the wide, wide green lawn of the sanitarium, the sea can be heard, a faint roar.

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1 comment:

  1. I can smell the ocean breeze. I wonder if they will put a nice purring cat on your lap rug -- very comforting.

    ReplyDelete

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