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Vol. 3, No. 3

Notes to My Biographer
by Adam Haslett

  • Re: Chevy Chase incident, look also into whether or not I might have invented auto-reverse tape decks and also therefore did Sony or GE own property adjacent to my Baltimore residence—noise, distraction tactics, phony road construction, etc.—and also Schwinn, Raleigh, etc., presence during Los Angeles visit.

"Could we talk about something else?" Graham asks.
      "Whatever you like," I say, and I inform the waiter our entrées were twenty-six minutes in transit. Turns out my fish is tougher than leather, and the waiter's barely left when I have to begin snapping my fingers for his return.
      "Stop that!" Graham says. I've reached the end of my tether with his passivity and freely ignore him. He's leaning over the table about to swat my arm down when the fellow returns.
      "Is there a problem?"
      "My halibut's dry as sand."
      The goateed young man eyes my dish suspiciously, as though I might have replaced the original plate with some duplicate entrée pulled from a bag beneath the table.
      "I'll need a new one."
      "No he won't," Graham says at once.
      The waiter pauses, considering on whose authority to proceed.
      "Do you have anything to do with bicycles?" I ask him.
      "What do you mean?" he asks.
      "Professionally."
      The young man looks across the room to the maître d', who offers a coded nod.
      "That's it. We're getting out of here," I say, grabbing bread rolls.
      "Sit down," Graham insists.
      But it's too late; I know the restaurant's lousy with mountain-bike executives. "You think I'm going to let a bunch of industry hustlers steal an idea that's going to change the way every American and one day every person on the globe conceives of a bicycle? Do you realize what bicycles mean to people? They're like ice cream or children's books, they're primal objects woven into the fabric of our earliest memories, not to mention our most intimate connection with the wheel itself, an invention that marks the commencement of the great ascent of human knowledge that brought us through printing presses, religious transformations, undreamt-of speed, the moon. When you ride a bicycle you participate in an unbroken chain of human endeavor stretching back to stone-carting Egyptian peasants, and I'm on the verge of revolutionizing that invention, making its almost mythical power a storable quantity. You have the chance to be there with me, 'like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes he stared at the Pacific—and all his men looked at each other with a wild surmise—silent, upon a peak in Darien.' The things we'll see!"
      Because I'm standing as I say this a quorum of the restaurant seems to think I'm addressing them as well, and though I've slipped in giving them a research lead I can see in their awed expressions that they know as I do, not everyone can scale the high white peaks of real invention. Some—such as these—must sojourn in the lowlands where the air is thick with half measures and dreams die of inertia. Yes! It is true.
      "You'll never catch up with me," I say to the gawking industrial spies.
      This seems to convince Graham we indeed need to leave. He throws some cash on the table and steers me by the arm out of the restaurant. We walk slowly along the boulevard. There's something sluggish about Graham, his rounded shoulders and bowed head.
      "Look, there's a Japanese place right over there, we can get maki rolls and teriyaki, maybe some blowfish, I can hear all about the brokerage, we might even think about whether your company wants to do the initial public offering on the bike venture, there could be an advantage—"
      He shakes his head and keeps walking up the street, one of whose features is a truly remarkable plenitude of shapely women, and I am reminded of the pleasures of being single, glances and smiles being enjoyed without guilt and for that matter why not consummation? Maybe it's unseemly for a seventy-three-year-old to talk about erections, but oh, do I get 'em! I'm thinking along these lines when we pass what appears to be the lobby of a luxury hotel convention-center kind of place, and of course I'm also thinking trade shows and how far ahead you have to book those things so I turn in and, after a small protest, Graham follows (I tell him I need to use the bathroom).
      "I'd like to talk to the special-events manager," I say to the girl behind the desk.
      "I'm afraid he's only here during the day, sir," she replies with a blistering customer-service smile, as though she were telling me exactly what I wanted to hear.
      "Well, isn't that just wonderful," I say, and she seems to agree that yes, it is wonderful, wonderful that the special-events manager of the Royal Sonesta keeps such regular hours, as though it were the confirmation of some beneficent natural order.
      "I guess I'll just have to take a suite anyway and see him in the morning. My son and I will have a little room-service dinner in privacy, where the sharks don't circle!"
      Concern clouds the girl's face as she taps her keyboard.
      "The Hoover Suite is available on nineteen. That's $680 a night. Will that be all right?"
      "Perfect."
      When I've secured the keys I cross to where Graham's sitting on the couch. "Dinner is served," I say with a bow.
      "What are you talking about?"
      "I got us a suite," I say, rattling the keys.
      Graham rolls his eyes and clenches his fists.
      "Dad!"
      There's something desperate in his voice.
      "What!"
      "Stop! Just stop! You're out of control," he says. He looks positively frantic. "Why do you think Linda and Ernie don't want to see you, Dad, why do you think that is? Is it so surprising to you? They can't handle this! Mom couldn't handle this! Can't you see that? It's selfish of you not to see a doctor!" he shouts, pounding his fists on his thighs. "It's selfish of you not to take the drugs! Selfish!"
      The lobby's glare has drained his face of color and about his unblinking eyes I can see the outlines of what will one day be the marks of age, and then all of a sudden the corpse of my son lies prostrate in front of me, the years since we last saw one another tunneling out before me for some infinite distance, and I hear the whisper of a killing loneliness travel along its passage as though the sum total of every minute of his pain in every spare hour of every year was drawn in a single breath and held in this expiring moment. Tears well in my eyes. I am overcome.
      Graham stands up from the couch, shaken by the force of his own words.
      I rattle the keys. "We're going to enjoy ourselves."
      "You have to give those back to the desk."
      By the shoulders I grab him, my greatest invention. "We can do so much better," I say. I take him by the wrist and lead him to the elevator, hearing his mother's voice behind us reminding me to keep him out of the rain. "I will," I mutter. "I will."
      Robert Wagner is on the elevator with Natalie Wood but they've aged badly and one doesn't take to them anymore. She chews gum and appears uncomfortable in tight clothing. His turtlenecks have become worn. But I figure they know things, they've been here a long time. So I say to him, "Excuse me, you wouldn't know where I might call for a girl or two, would you? Actually what we need is a girl and a young man, my son here's gay."
      "Dad!" Graham shouts. "I'm sorry," he says to the couple, now backed against the wall as though I were a gangster in one of their lousy B movies. "He's just had a lot to drink."
      "The hell I have. You got a problem with my son being gay?" The elevator door opens and they scurry onto the carpet like bugs.
      For a man who watched thousands starve and did jack shit about it, the Hoover Suite is aptly named. There are baskets of fruit, a stocked refrigerator, a full bar, faux rococo paintings over the beds, overstuffed chairs, and rugs that demand bare feet for the sheer pleasure of the touch.
      "We can't stay here," Graham says, as I flip my shoes across the room.
      His voice is disconsolate; he seems to have lost his animation of a moment ago, something I don't think I can afford to do right now: the eviction notices in Baltimore, the collection agencies, the smell of the apartment . . . "We're just getting started," I say quickly.
      Graham's sitting in an armchair across the room, and when he bows his head, I imagine he's praying that when he raises it again, things will be different. As a child he used to bring me presents in my study on the days I left for trips and he'd ask me not to go; they were books he'd found on the shelf and wrapped in Christmas paper.
      I pick up the phone on the bedside table and get the front desk. "This is the Hoover Suite calling. I want the number of an agency that will provide us with a young man, someone intelligent and attractive—"
      Graham rips the phone from my hand.
      "What is it?" I say. His mother was always encouraging me to ask him questions. "What's it like to be gay, Graham? Why have you never told me?"
      He stares at me dumbfounded.
      "What? What?" I say.
      "How can you ask me that after all this time?"
      "I want to understand. Are you in love with this Ben fellow?"
      "I thought you were dead! Do you even begin to realize? I thought my own father was dead. You didn't call for four years. But I couldn't bear to find out, I couldn't bear to go and find you dead. It was like I was a child again. I just hoped there was an excuse. Four years, Dad. Now you just appear and you want to know what it's like to be gay?"
      I run to the refrigerator, where among other things there is a decent chardonnay, and with the help of a corkscrew I find by the sink I pour us two glasses. Graham doesn't seem to want his, but I set it down beside him anyway.
      "Oh, Graham. The phone company in Baltimore's awful."
      He starts to cry. He looks so young as he weeps, as he did in the driveway of the old house on the afternoon I taught him to ride a bicycle, the dust from the drive settling on his wetted cheek and damp eyelashes, later to be rinsed in the warm water of the bath as dusk settled over the field and we listened together to the sound of his mother in the kitchen running water, the murmur of the radio, and the stillness of evening in the country, how he seemed to understand it as well as I.
      "You know, Graham, they're constantly overcharging me and then once they take a line out it's like getting the Red Sea to part to have it reinstalled but in a couple of weeks when the bicycle patent comes through that'll be behind us, you and Linda and Ernie and I, we'll all go to London and stay at the Connaught and I'll show you Regent's Park where your mother and I rowed a boat on our honeymoon circling the little island there where the ducks all congregate and which was actually a little dirty, come to think of it, though you don't really think of ducks as dirty, they look so graceful on the water but in fact—" And all of a sudden I don't believe it myself and I can hear my own voice in the room, hear its dry pitch, and I've lost my train of thought and I can't stop picturing the yard where Graham used to play with his friends by the purple lilac and the apple tree whose knotted branches held the planks of the fort that I was so happy for him to enjoy never having had one myself. He knew me then even in my bravest moments when his mother and siblings were afraid of what they didn't understand, he would sit on the stool in the crumbling barn watching me cover the chalkboard propped on the fender of the broken Studebaker, diagramming a world of possible objects, the solar vehicles and collapsible homes, our era distilled into its necessary devices, and in the evenings sprawled on the floor of his room he'd trace with delicate hands what he remembered of my design.
      I see those same hands now spread on his thighs, nails bitten down, cuticles torn.
      I don't know how to say goodbye.
      In the village of St. Sever an old woman nursed my dying friend through the night. At dawn I kissed his cold forehead and kept marching.
      In the yard of the old house the apple tree still rustles in the evening breeze.
      "Graham."
      "You want to know what it's like?" he says. "I'll tell you. It's worrying all the time that one day he's going to leave me. And you want to know why that is? It's got nothing to do with being gay. It's because I know Mom left you. I tell you it's selfish not to take the pills because I know. Because I take them. You understand, Dad? It's in me too. I don't want Ben to find me in a parking lot in the middle of the night in my pajamas talking to a stranger like Mom found you. I don't want him to find me hanged. I used to cast fire from the tips of my fingers some weeks and burn everything in my path and it was all progress and it was all incredibly, incredibly beautiful. And some weeks I couldn't brush my hair. But I take the pills now, and I haven't bankrupted us yet, and I don't want to kill myself just now. I take them and I think of Ben. That's what it's like."
      "But the fire Graham? What about the fire?"
      In his eyes, there is sadness enough to kill us both.
      "Do you remember how you used to watch me do my sketches in the barn?"
      Tears run down his cheeks and he nods his head.
      "Let me show you something," I say. Across the room in the drawer of the desk I find a marker. It makes sense to me now, he can see what I see, he's always been able to. Maybe it doesn't have to end. I unhook a painting from the wall and set it on the floor. On the yellow wallpaper I draw the outline of a door, full-size, seven by three and a half.
      "You see, Graham, there'll be four knobs. The lines between them will form a cross. And each knob will be connected to a set of wheels inside the door itself, and there will be four sets of hinges, one along each side but fixed only to the door, not to the frame." I shade these in. Graham cries. "A person will use the knob that will allow them to open the door in the direction they want—left or right, at their feet or above their heads. When a knob is turned it'll push the screws from the door into the frame. People can open doors near windows without blocking morning or evening light, they'll carry furniture in and out with the door over their heads, never scraping its paint, and when they want to see the sky they can open it just a fraction at the top." On the wall I draw smaller diagrams of the door's different positions until the felt nib of the pen tatters. "It's a present to you, this door. I'm sorry it's not actual. You can imagine it, though, how people might enjoy deciding how to walk through it. Patterns would form, families would have their habits."
      "I wanted a father."
      "Don't say that, Graham." He's crying still and I can't bear it.
      "It's true."
      I turn back to the desk and, kneeling there, scrawl a note. The pen is nearly ruined and it's hard to shape the letters. The writing takes time.

  • Though some may accuse me of neglect, I have been consistent with the advice I always gave my children: never finish anything that bores you. Unfortunately, some of my children bored me. Graham never did. Please confirm this with him. He is the only one that meant anything to me.

    "Graham," I say, crossing the room to show him the piece of paper, to show him the truth.
      He's lying on the bed, and as I stand over him I see that he's asleep. His tears have exhausted him. The skin about his closed eyes is puffy and red and from the corner of his mouth comes a rivulet of drool. I wipe it away with my thumb. I cup his gentle face in my hands and kiss him on the forehead.
      From the other bed I take a blanket and cover him, pulling it up over his shoulders, tucking it beneath his chin. His breath is calm now, even. I leave the note folded by his hands. I pat down his hair and turn off the lamp. It's time for me to go.
      I take my glass and the wine out into the hall. I can feel the weight of every step, my body beginning to tire. I lean against the wall, waiting for the elevator to take me down. The doors slide open and I enter.
      From here in the descending glass cage I can see globes of orange light stretching along the boulevards of Santa Monica toward the beach where the shaded palms sway. I've always found the profusion of lights in American cities a cause for optimism, a sign of undiminished credulity, something to bear us along. In the distance the shimmering pier juts into the vast darkness of the ocean like a burning ship launched into the night.

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