An interview is not like an interrogation. It is possible to undergo interrogation in such a way as to provide answers which will put an end to the interrogation. But it is not enough to provide an answer in a single interview, the answer must be provided many many times, as many times as there are interviews to be undergone. The body is put on a plane and taken here and there so that words may come out of the mouth.
At one point, the body was flown to Amsterdam. Words did come out of the mouth.
There were gaps in the day.
Laura stood in a room with paintings on the walls. These pieces of board and canvas and paint had been in a small room with a crazy man.
Van Gogh owned every Van Gogh that ever existed.
With the passage of time, the body was returned to New York.
In the days of thoughtless glamour, people took the Staten Island Ferry back and forth without disembarking, lovers, the lovelorn, wastrels, depressives. The project was punctuated now by messy intervals of shuffling off and on, sprints to catch the next boat back, or luckless half hours of heel-kicking.
In the very early hours of the morning, 2 or 3 a.m., they bring out the small boats. There are only a handful of people. You don’t fight the crowds. It’s not so bad. But they’re dreary little boats, you can only get outside in front or back. The John F. Kennedy is lovely, but they don’t send it out at 2 a.m.
What’s very nice, though, is if you get up in the middle of the night, taking the dreary little Alice Austen across and the dreary little John A. Noble back, and keep going, until they do at last bring out the JFK.
She sat on the cold rain-whipped bench. The boat juddered beneath her.
At the far end of the bench sat a man in a dark-blue raincoat.
It’s pleasant, sharing the solitude.
Presently the raincoat rises, approaches the rail, stands above the churning foam. He turns and walks slowly, hands in pockets, along the slippery deck. As he passes her he barely glances, looks away, then looks again.
She, too, wore a raincoat, faded, black.
Laura! he said.
Ralph, she said presently.
He said, Can I buy you a coffee?
She did not know how to say she did not have enough sentences to talk. He looked crushed and diffident.
She said, Sure.
They sat on a bench in the noisier inside, each with a coffee.
How are you? she said.
I’m okay, he said. I’m okay. One day at a time.
He talked a while about the bad time.
It was restful not having to talk.
He said, How are you? Are you working on something new? Are they looking after you?
She said, It’s pretty quiet these days.
She said, People wanted some extra sentences to go with the sentences. So I went to all those countries to give them the extra sentences. I guess, I don’t know, I mean, I know I was supposed to get some money, but when things went wrong for you I guess the publishers were just holding on to it or something. So I went to talk to some other people.
His luminous eyes were fixed on her sympathetically.
She said, But see, it’s more complicated than I realized. Van Gogh never made any money, but Van Gogh owned every Van Gogh that ever existed. Picasso owned every Picasso that ever existed. When he wanted to see what Picasso would do next, he just made a new Picasso. He did not use time that could be spent making new Picassos to sell one old Picasso.
He was laughing and smiling sympathetically.
She said, So I went to talk to all these agents, and I said, Picasso owned every Picasso that ever existed. But it wasn’t really worth their while to go after the money I was supposed to get unless they were going to sell a new book for a lot of money, and I couldn’t go through that again. So I just dropped it. I never needed a lot of money.
She did not know how to talk about it without making him feel bad.
He said. He could not dare to allow himself to believe. He said, So people just, they just sent it all directly to you?
She said, No. I don’t know what happened.
The words were bursting from his mouth. Laura, he said, I’m so so sorry. I’m so terribly sorry. I’ll take care of it for you, it’s the least I can do, I’m so terribly terribly sorry.
It’s all right, Ralph, she said.
She did not want to talk about it anymore. The years were gone. He could not get them back for her.
No, he said, it’s not all right. I’m so terribly terribly sorry, Laura. But I’ll get cracking, I’ll chase them down.
It’s okay, she said.
No, he said, no, it’s not okay.
The ferry docked in St. George.
They walked out to the ramp and so into the terminal and in fact were able to catch the tail end of the crowd embarking, and so were borne across the bay to the city still held in night’s embrace. It was winter, and the days were very short.
If she had been alone she would have gone back on deck to a rain-whipped bench, but he headed for the bright dry warmth below, and so she followed him.
He bought two new cups of coffee. They sat on plastic seats, facing each other across scratched Formica. She lightened the watery black stuff with the nasty creamer; it was something to do.
She didn’t say anything because what was there to say?
He asked if there was a new book.
She did not know what to say.
He said, So there is a new book.
She did not know what to say.
He said teasingly, Lauraaaaaa?
She said she did not really want to show it to anybody.
He said teasingly, Lauraaaaaa.
When they got off the boat he said, So you’ll send me the book.
She dug her fists into the pockets of her raincoat.
He said, Lauraaaaaa.
A light mist softened the air of Battery Park. Each lamp had its halo. His heart sprang up. The foreign rights must have sold for $500,000 or so. He would begin to make amends by chasing this money for her. The commissions would have been $50,000, after sub-agents’ cuts, that would give him a place to start. His sponsor had told him not to try to do everything at once. One day at a time.
Laura had a mattress in a loft in Dumbo.
She walked through the mist in the other direction. She could not face the mess of changing trains, but a walk in the misty street, that was all right.
One misty moisty morning
When cloudy was the weather
I chanced to see an old man
Clad all in leather
He began to compliment
And I began to grin
How do you do, and how do you do
And how do you do again??
After a block or two she turned back to the ferry.
His gym opened at 6. It was getting on for 7. He had new rituals to replace the old rituals. He swam 20 laps in the silky water. He sat in the fierce soft heat of the sauna. He took a cold shower, then sat in a clean fluffy robe drinking freshly squeezed orange juice.
His therapist had asked him to analyze what he got out of heroin. He said it was the feeling that nothing could touch you.
Well, said Jill, you need to find a place where nothing can touch you, and you need to go there as much as you need to go there. And you need to leave that goddamn iPhone outside. You need to check the fucker in with me.
Jill was absolutely terrific. He said after a while that it was something about, there was this sense of community with all the other junkies, the outsiders, people with secret lives.
She said, Can you get that with AA?
He said, Maybe. (There was more social pressure to drink, so they had agreed he was better off with AA.)
She said, Can you get enough of that? We’re operating on the assumption that the drug gave you exactly what you wanted. We’re looking for acceptable approximations. Each approximation must be the best of its kind. Don’t economize on your gym, pick the one that’s best for what you need. Don’t settle for just any old AA, pick the one that gives you what you need. And remember, there may be no approximation that will let you do what you used to do. Maybe there’s an approximation that will give you an hour on your iPhone. Maybe there’s a better approximation that will give you three hours. Maybe there’s an even better approximation that will let you pay me my going rate, which is the outcome I’ve given myself an incentive to achieve.
So he spent the money that should rightfully have gone to Jill on the most expensive gym in town, and they were both okay with that, because it showed she had faith in him, and she knew he needed to know that.
She had bought a yellow paperback of the letters, Vincent van Gogh: Een leven in brieven, in the gift shop at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
There was a letter to Theo dated September 29, 1888. She did not know Dutch, but she saw the word Sterrennacht on a page. That would be Starry Night, she thought. She liked the fact that she could only pick out words for color.
In a notebook you can write down a big chunk of Dutch, like a great big splodge of streaky yellow and orange and blue, but if you are not going to be just a crazy guy in a room, if there is a chance it may obtrude upon the public, you maybe put it in a footnote1.
When she got back to her hotel (they had put her in a very grand hotel), she wrote on the Notes page at the back of her Week-at-a-Glance:
She did not write blue-green, royal blue, red-gold, bronze green next to the words, because, because, because these color words all mashed up against each other instead of neatly separated by white space, and also the diphthongs, the lovely sloppy diphthongs, these were exactly right for the crazy colors of Van Gogh, and to put a translation beside them would be like translating Van Gogh into Crayola.
She brought out the book in an interview, and the interviewer pointed out that it was a different Starry Night. She could see she looked foolish.
Ralph had spent 6 months going over the book before sending it out. Laura had been sleeping on a different mattress. So that gone-over thing was the thing that had had to be sold by sending the body to Amsterdam.
If she did not show anything to anyone it would not have to be gone over, it would be like a piece of canvas with a picture of sunflowers in a room with a crazy guy.
The JFK chugged doggedly dawnward.
She sat outside, watching the wind blow the water white and black.
Ralph got his iPhone from Jill’s receptionist at 10. He called Maggie, his old foreign rights manager, who had moved on. She said she had done as instructed, she had set up an account in euros in Frankfurt.
He had been having blackouts toward the end. He had no memory of this instruction.
He did not want to get Laura’s hopes up.
Dziedzicznym, a zarazem wiecznym władcą był Metameryk—
Laura had bought a copy of Stanisław Lem’s Bajki robotów, Robot Tales, in Kraków. She did not know a syllable of Polish but maybe it’s better that way.
She imagined Polish robots moving under a sky of koningsblauw.
Oh, it was hard to know what to do.
If you have always been poor you can’t really imagine the lives of people who, people for whom, people who have a reasonable expectation of being rich. Well, if not necessarily rich, people who can reasonably expect to buy an apartment in Manhattan.
You get an invitation to one of these Manhattan apartments, and you’re very poor, so you agonize about what wine to bring, and you’ve never had enough money to know about wine so you just buy something that costs $25 in the hope that this will not be insulting.
Then you walk in, and there are all these people who also have Manhattan apartments, people with whom the person you know can mingle on an equal footing if the right amount of money is coming in. So suddenly. If you have a book on your hard drive that could be sold for a million dollars, maybe there are people who would publish it the way Theo sold, or tried to, the work of Vincent, but didn’t she read somewhere that Theo sold only one painting during Vincent’s lifetime? So suddenly, just by being the kind of person who would want that, you are standing between $150,000 and someone with the chance of a Manhattan apartment.
And, but, so, but say there is someone who used to make a lot of money and doesn’t have a lot of money. If you give him the thing on your hard drive he can make a comeback, people will see him as the kind of person who brings in a book worth a million dollars.
He ran into Kitty Fairweather in Murray’s Cheese. He glanced up and glanced tactfully away, but she swooped down and crushed him in a hug, kissing him soundly on both cheeks. Ralph, darling! she exclaimed. What a treat! Before he knew it she had swept him off to the Harvard Club for tea. They sat in a quiet deserted corner, he with his bags at his feet. He said laughing that he was under strict instructions from his therapist to displace, these days he was into scoring cheese, chocolate, coffee. Unpasteurized runny Camembert, very ripe Stilton, chalky Wensleydale with mango and ginger. Bitter dark-chocolate pralines. He was under strict instructions to have an espresso machine in the home but wasn’t sure he could afford it.
He talked presently about his first brush with opiates. He had been backpacking in England, he must have just turned 19, traveling around on a Rail Pass. He struck up a friendship with an English boy who invited him home, a jewel of a Queen Anne house on the Sussex Downs. They had gone out for a long walk across the Downs and at some point he got a splitting headache, he had never known such pain. It was caffeine withdrawal, he worked out later; he’d had tea with breakfast because it seemed so English, and then they had walked for hours, it must have been years since he had gone so long without coffee. When they returned Adrian asked his mother if she had anything; she was a doctor, so she had things you could only get on prescription, and she gave him something laced with 10 mg of codeine. Which is nothing, but he’d never had it before; he was out like a light. It was the sweetness of the sleep, he said. When he woke Adrian was sitting beside him, feeding him very cold sections of tangerine. He had never tasted anything so delicious.
He saw suddenly that he was being a bore and said laughing, But enough of that, I have a captive audience in AA!
We were worried about you, said Kitty.
He believed her. In this city of air kisses her mouth had positively made physical contact with his cheeks.
He mentioned that he had run into Laura B.
Oh, said Kitty, I loved that book.
He said there was a new one but he hadn’t seen it. She didn’t want to show it to anyone. He hadn’t talked to anyone because it seemed premature.
Oh, said Kitty, it’s just a matter of shoring up her confidence. I don’t think it would do any harm just to have a little word with one or two people, nothing formal at this stage.
But first, said Kitty, we’ve got to get you an espresso machine!
He called some of the people on his list, mending fences.
He mentioned that he had talked to Laura B., who had a new book.
There was a sudden soft warmth in the air, like the first day of spring.
There were 436,529 euros in the account.
He sent an email to her old address but he got no answer.
She had deactivated her Facebook account.
He decided to respect her wishes. When she wanted to come to him she would come to him.
The boy on whose mattress she had been sleeping came back from Berlin for three weeks.
She had a small red wheeled suitcase full of papers. She took it trundling behind her out into the world.
She went mooching into Manhattan, as one does. She found herself on 11th Street. A small gallery had work on paper for sale. She mooched on in. They let her leave the suitcase at reception. On one wall were five studies by Bridget Riley in gouache and pencil on graph paper; there were no prices because it was not that sort of gallery. Riley had used assistants for years for the execution of the paintings, but the studies came from the hand of the artist, which is naturally moving.
A man came in armored in a beautiful charcoal gray suit. He came briefly up to the drawings, stood with his hands clasped lightly behind his back, then walked briskly to reception. There was a little quiet talk; the clicks of his businessman’s shoes retreated to an inner office.
A fair while passed, for Laura had nowhere to go and no one to see. A woman came in from the street; she wore an ankle-length Kaffe Fassett knitted coat in a colorway of dark grays and blues with tiny squares of red, boots in supple gunmetal-blue leather that came up over the knee with a wide fold-down cuff. Louis XIV heels. (Or possibly Louis XV. Or XVI.) She came to stand by the drawings. The girl at reception came to the wall and affixed a red adhesive dot to the wall by each drawing. The man came from the inner sanctum with another man. The woman said, Steve. You didn’t. I couldn’t help myself, he said laughing.
Laura had once read an interview of Alain Delon, an avid collector of drawings. He said the thing he loved about drawings was, it was the place where an idea came into the world. He had bought drawings when he had no money for that love of the place where an idea came into the world. If only Ralph could sell the place where an idea came into the world! If she could give him the pieces of paper in her little suitcase!
Once upon a time (oh, she should stop obsessing, it was stupid and bad) she had read a book on photography by Michael Fried. He showed a picture of a light box by Jeff Wall, A View from an Apartment. A girl walked across the floor toward the viewer holding a cloth napkin; in the background, the paraphernalia of ironing napkins. There was a garment bag over a chair. Wall had tried to think of something a girl would do naturally and had come up with ironing napkins, and then he had the girl walk across the room many times so that she would do it naturally, and naturally she did look like a Stepford Wife. And Michael Fried had seen nothing weird about the whole napkin idea. What she wanted to do was write an email, Dear Mr. Fried, my mother is decayed Southern gentility, but if you get out the wrong napkins she makes you put them back in the drawer, because they will have to be ironed. Because who irons napkins? Everyone hates ironing napkins.
She was in this state of impotent outrage because her book had been one thing, and then she’d had to spend all those months ironing napkins, and then she’d had to talk to people about the beautifully ironed and folded napkins. It was stupid to drag Michael Fried into it, but Oh! she couldn’t go through that again, she just couldn’t. But if Ralph could sell the place where an idea came into the world, sell pieces of paper for the kind of money where they affix a red dot to the wall, this aversion to ironing napkins would not stand between Ralph and $150,000.
The thing that was nice about the pieces by Bridget Riley was that a pattern would be penciled in on graph paper and colored inside the penciled lines, just enough to show what the pattern was like, and the colored-in pattern was surrounded by the grid of the graph. There were notes articulating the formula for producing the pattern. That love of precision, this was what you could see, see more because of the visible grid.
She should not be such a coward.
Ralph got an email. She said there was something she wanted to show him. She said she needed to bring it to his apartment. He suggested they meet up for lunch. (He suggested Hudson Bar and Books because a panatela was now his one guilty pleasure.)
She brought the small suitcase. It stood at her side like a hopeful dog.
She said timidly that perhaps it would be better to have a show and sell the pieces. (She cited the example of Steve, who it seemed had paid a six-figure sum for five drawings.) She talked about Robert Walser’s Microscripts. She said timidly that perhaps it was not necessary to publish, one could have a show, an installation, a display.
He said, Lauraaaaaa.
He said it was an interesting idea but it was not where her strengths lay.
He spent hours shoring up her confidence.
She thought that maybe.
Oh, if only Ralph could just take the money from the last book.
She said timidly that she did not want to publish another book. If he needed the money, maybe he could, if there was some money somewhere from the last book maybe he could use it?
He said, Oh Laura.
Ralph had a confab with Kitty Fairweather. He said he thought Laura was uncomfortable with the business side of things, some writers were like that. He had to give her her space.
She had a sudden yen for pecan pie with real vanilla ice cream and Drambuie.
Her mom had once found a recipe for pecan pie with Jack Daniel’s on the Jack Daniel’s website (quelle surprise), and they had instantly agreed that you could improve pecan pie even more, and her mom had had to make a pecan pie on the spot just to confirm the brilliance of pouring Drambuie over the familiar complement of vanilla ice cream. A true Southerner approaches pecan pie with evil glee—that is, their instantaneous evil glee at the Drambuie aperçu made them feel that they were united, mother and daughter, in being true daughters of the South. You can find recipes online that chide the purveyors of other recipes, urging moderation in the use of corn syrup in the pie, because there is a danger that a pecan pie may be too sweet. (!!!) Well, you acknowledge the moral rectitude of the North, you would be the first to admit that slavery was wrong, but this is like getting advice on the concoction of a pecan pie from Robert Frost. A pecan pie cannot be too sweet.
So, if you have seen someone enhance a pecan pie with that Drambuie kick in the tail, obviously you accept the possibility that a text is capable of improvement. Maybe you thought spiking a pie with Black Jack was as far as you could go, never dreaming of the depths of depravity to which it is possible to descend. But what you get is the kind of suggestion that amounts to cutting back on the corn syrup and a pie you would neither serve to guests nor even personally consume.
So, if you have been chastised for excess, a pecan pie could be a source of comfort. But she could not think of a place in New York where she could get an acceptable pie to serve even as a starting point. She was couch-surfing in the vicinity of 8th Avenue and 14th Street, which meant it was tactful to be out much of the day, and when the notion of a pecan pie came to mind she was in fact drifting down 8th Avenue as an exercise in tact.
If Petite Abeille had Wi-Fi she could go for a Belgian beer and frites, which had been a highlight of her touchdown in Brussels. Petite Abeille was decorated with Tintin paraphernalia and memorabilia, which seemed as though it could also be a comfort. But she had not bought an iPhone when she could afford one, and now she couldn’t afford one, so there was no immediate way to check. So she drifted on down, imagining that a Starbucks would inevitably materialize, where she could avail herself of Wi-Fi on her trusty laptop and so determine whether there was Wi-Fi at Petite Abeille. In any other café she would feel compelled to buy a coffee she did not want, so she kept walking, but after eight blocks she did at last go into a plucky independent because you do want to support the underdog. There was room on the tiny tables for an aficionado’s espresso or a laptop but not both, so she turned around and walked out of the café without buying the coffee she did not want.
She went back up 8th Avenue to the apartment, whose occupant was not there, and she did presently ascertain, courtesy of Yelp, that a) Petite Abeille did not have Wi-Fi and b) the Tribeca branch, the nice one, had closed.
She had already lowered expectations from pecan pie with vanilla ice cream and Drambuie to frites and a Tintin-themed milieu.
If she couldn’t even have that she wanted a booth.
She did not know how to run a search for places with Wi-Fi and booths. She did not want to go back to drifting down 8th Avenue (or 7th, or 6th). She lay on the couch and turned her face to the dusty red velour and sprouting foam of its ill-used back.
Kitty Fairweather decided to take things in hand. She would throw a party.
In the time it took Laura to stare listlessly at the back of the couch, gathering strength to tactfully foray anew (at a guess, two hours), Kitty had called four close friends who could be counted on to understand and initiated deployment.
I adore Ralph, she insisted, but of course there are things you simply can’t say. This is New York. People live in terror of being buttonholed. They don’t want to be roped in for a heartfelt apology that could drag on for hours, let alone tedious reparations that could drag on for years. It may very well be that having a bash is not in the spirit of a twelve-step program, I don’t know and ignorance is bliss, but the thing is, if you have a do you can right wrongs in one fell swoop.
The unutterable horror of being buttonholed won unanimous and fervent assent.
Maybe not a full-scale everyone-who-is-anyone extravaganza, I was thinking something more intimate, maybe two hundred people. But the kind of do where everyone is someone. It would show that Ralph is still someone. And then, you see, people immediately have the chance to connect with people who can be useful now, and once Ralph is properly back on his feet he can be useful then. And he can be more useful, then, to people who might not be a good fit for the guest list. I expect it would be completely delinquent for a sponsor to say so, but the sort of person who runs a mile from a heartfelt apology is precisely the sort of person one wants to be on speaking terms with first.
This line of reasoning also won unanimous and fervent assent.
The uncomplaining sofa was so solid, so silent a reminder that if its owner returned it would be necessary to talk and be upbeat. If she found a place to go, though, a dark quiet uncrowded place with a booth, she could read maybe a sentence or two of a robot tale. In Berlin she had talked about her fondness for Pons dictionaries, with their bright blue-green covers—she simply could not bring herself to buy a Langenscheidt in dull yellow and periwinkle blue. (She was not so much talking as babbling, if a sentence came into the head it went out the mouth.) And someone had told her about the website, where you could look up words in 10 or 15 different languages. For popular languages, it turned out, you could get a translation in English, but for Polish and Hungarian and what have you the only translation was in German, so finding a word in Polish involved then getting a translation of the German translation. So every word had to travel a long way. Okay, she would find a place with Wi-Fi. With a booth. Okay.
Mooching at long last online in a dark secluded booth, Laura clicked away (as one does) from the serious business of deciphering Bajki robotów to a site with a link to a piece on the elegant art of Chinese bribery.
The briber, it seemed, had various options. He could give the corrupt official a fake painting, which would then be bought at an inflated price by a corrupt gallery. He could arrange for a genuine painting to be sold as a fake, at a low price, by the gallery, permitting the buyer to sell it at market value later down the line. He could give the corrupt official a real or fake painting and arrange for an apparently unrelated stranger to approach the official, offering to buy it, thus cutting out the gallery’s commission. It was utterly entrancing, or entrancing, anyway, to the kind of person who thinks pecan pie is improved out of all recognition by the addition of vanilla ice cream and Drambuie.
It’s easy to imagine an enterprising Chinese making gifts of the papers in the little suitcase to devotees of Laura B., with apologies for the modesty of the offering (I know you admire her work, so I took the liberty . . .) and subsequently sending envoys to purchase these apparently worthless scraps for princely sums. It’s easy to imagine an enterprising gallery lending itself to the scheme.
The feeling she got was that what she actually needed was not an agent but a scallywag. It was an Aha! moment in its way, but probably not the kind to make the grade on Oprah. It was dispiriting. Given Ralph’s wayward behavior, no one would hold it against her for talking to other people (as she had in fact done). But while a new agent would expect to make money, the assumption would be that this agent would be a good Boy Scout, someone who would make money in the manner approved as ethical by their peers. You could not say you were looking for someone who would be unethical in imaginative ways.
If she had been back at the apartment she would have been a bore on the subject (and she had probably already outstayed her welcome). But her credit cards were good for a while, she had enough to cover minimum payments, so she could stay in the booth and order another beer.
Kitty called Ralph for another confab at the Harvard Club. (The Harvard Club is a comforting reminder that boys have always been sowing wild oats.) She’d had a hideous thought.
Toot Bryant had been a riot. He would turn up at parties in a kilt, or a tux with a feather boa, or a turban (he had persuaded a Sikh to demonstrate how one does a turban, and the story had everyone in stitches). He did apparently start the day at 11 with a vodka martini because it was too early for breakfast, but the boy was a hoot. Then he’d holed up in a cabin in Vermont to get sober—he’d tried rehab, but the people were constantly saying the kinds of things you should not say to a man who doesn’t have a drink in his hand. And he’d come back, and he’d turned up at a party in a Brooks Brothers suit. Kitty’s father had sworn by Brooks, but Daddy came from a generation that could shop at Brooks and have a three-martini lunch. Now it looked so staid and puritanical, you knew without having to ask that the man’s drink was sparkling water with a twist of lemon. The drink in itself could have been anything, but the suit cast a damper—jokes withered on the vine.
Or Pinko Tate. Pinko had been a hotshot at Goldman, and then there was the subprime thing in 2007 and he wasn’t around. He resurfaced in 2011, 2012 after getting his act together, and in the interim some kind soul had apparently kept all his clothes in storage, and he went around wearing them. So in the first place they were a standing reminder to people of an era when a lot of people had lost their shirts, and in the second place he looked like a decent man on a Depression breadline.
On the other hand, there was Wop Laurence. Wop bet the wrong way before the Wall came down, and in coke-induced optimism kept betting the wrong way, and then was seen no more. Until he resurfaced in 2014. He was wearing an ’80s tie, and a suit that looked like a hand-me-down from the Pet Shop Boys, and it was adorable. People who were old enough to remember kept doing mental calculations, because he couldn’t have been more than 23 in 1990, which would make him 47 (!), but he didn’t look a day over 32. There are 32-year-olds who already have preemptively shaved heads, but he had all his hair. He ran marathons. People who weren’t old enough to remember just thought he was a 30-something with retro fashion sense.
The point is, sobriety does peculiar things to people, it’s completely unpredictable, and she thought she should give Ralph a little nudge. Open an account at Paul Smith or Ted Baker for her assistant, just in case he went quietly mad and bought a respectable suit at Brooks, or exhumed a wardrobe that would remind people of the very things one wanted them to forget.
These were the shark-infested waters into which she was willing to dip a toe, but she could not reach Ralph, because his iPhone was safely immured in a drawer in his therapist’s office.
When Ralph retrieved the iPhone he immediately answered the messages, and when he met Kitty at the Harvard Club she saw at once that he would not do anything silly. He was wearing a dark-blue Izod polo shirt and chinos and sockless Topsiders, so there was no need to explain, she said simply that she had opened accounts at Paul Smith and Ted Baker and Comme des Garçons (to add a little spice to the mix) because he would want to have something for the party. She said she had talked to the Gang of Four and they had decided to make themselves useful for a change and it would be fun. And he said, Kitty, without going into a big song and dance. And she knew it would be a blast. Instead of revisiting the comebacks of Toot, Pinko, and Wop (and/or others she could easily have mentioned) she said only, sternly, that he must be contactable. He must have his iPhone with him at all times. She did not bother to explain why because he knew perfectly well why.
His heart did not spring up. This was a bigger deal than mending fences with an author, but it was also harder to swing. But if the chance came now he had to face it now. He moved up his session with Jill. He told her about the party and said he must have his iPhone.
Jill said, Are you sure you’re ready for this?
He said the thing he’d learned in AA was that you’re never ready. You have this idea that there is a perfect mental state you can achieve in which you can deal with what comes along, and things happen before you’re in that perfect mental state, and because you’re not in the perfect mental state you fall back on drink and drugs to get through it. But things will always come along that you’re not ready to deal with; what you need is not the perfect mental state but the ability to deal with things in your state of imperfection.
If I insist on keeping it in the drawer you’ll just get another, won’t you? Jill said.
He said, after a pause, When people help you they want to see results. Quick results.
He said, If we schedule an early session for the morning after, people will still be nursing their hangovers.
Having found a bar with a booth and Wi-Fi Laura tactfully went there maybe 75% of the waking hours when her host was at home. You don’t want to treat someone’s place like a hotel, so of course you do hang out, but they don’t want you around all the time.
While Ralph laid claim to 24/7 iPhone she was back in her favorite booth.
She was not in the mood today for a robot tale. She had found you could type a word like dziedzicznym into Google Translate and click on the little loudspeaker and hear how it sounds, and while it was helpful it made her feel the language might become intelligible too fast. But perhaps she should develop habits of discipline, resolve, perhaps today was the day to attach English words to the Dutch words in the letter by Van Gogh.
She called up the letter on her laptop and copied weerkaatsingen into Pons.eu. Dutch, it turned out, was as unpopular as Polish, at least as far as Pons.eu was concerned, and the only definitions offered were in German. She did not seem to have the entrepreneurial spirit required for a Dutch-German-English work-around.
She typed letters Van Gogh into Google, though it seemed sacrilegious.
There was a website with all the letters in facsimile, original language, and translation, which—she was not necessarily sorry she hadn’t known this existed. She began clicking with the hateful sense of rejecting her predilections as whimsy: The Letters / by period / 14. Arles 21-02-1888–08-05-1889. 691. To Theo van Gogh, Arles, on or about Saturday, 29 September 1888. And here was the translation, but it seemed peculiar: a word she’d thought meant sketch seemed to be translated as croquis:
Included herewith little croquis of a square no. 30 canvas—the starry sky at last, actually painted at night, under a gas-lamp. The sky is green-blue, the water is royal blue, the areas of land are mauve. The town is blue and violet. The gaslight is yellow, and its reflections are red gold and go right down to green bronze. Against the green-blue field of the sky the Great Bear has a green and pink sparkle whose discreet paleness contrasts with the harsh gold of the gaslight.
She clicked across to the original letter and was presented with:
Ci inclus petit croquis d’une toile de 30 carrée—enfin le ciel étoilépeint la nuit même, sous un bec de gaz. Le ciel est bleu vert, l’eau est bleu de roi, les terrains sont mauves. La ville est bleue et violette. Le gaz est jaune et ses reflets sont or roux et descendent jusqu’au bronze vert. Sur le champ bleu vert du ciel la Grande Ourse a un scintillement vert et rose dont la paleur discrète contraste avec l’or brutal du gaz.
So the letter had been written in French? The facsimile was in French. This presumably explained croquis, but—
She went on clicking around, and somewhere or other found that after the departure of Vincent to Arles he and Theo had corresponded in French. She had not known. She could see that her passion for the letter, with its lovely Dutch words for color, looked even more foolish than it had at her interview in Amsterdam.
She thought of his confrontation with the savage light of the south. Maybe he felt that this new landscape, demanding a new palette, in fact required its own language. Maybe he saw it as quintessentially (oh, what a plodding word!) French: les terrains sont mauves, was mauve then, not a new sophisticated dye, a color to become fashionable among painters? And the contrast between the paleur discrète of the scintillement vert et rose and l’or brutal du gaz—paleur discrète seemed so civilized (in what other language would one call paleness discreet?), perhaps the clash of civility and brutality was the essence of the piece. (The translation had harsh gold, with which she could not agree.) Or perhaps he had gotten in the habit of writing to Gauguin in French, and switching languages would have felt like painting over, switching paints, when in fact it was the intoxication of this shocking relentless single system of colors . . .
She knew she was being fanciful, so it was a good thing she was not giving an interview. At the same time she wanted to leap to her feet and buttonhole everyone in the vicinity. What a thing it would be, if stepping into a new landscape imposed a language for the landscape!
Kitty had expected the party to be a blast, but it was better than she’d expected.
She had somehow thought Ralph would wear a loose unlined jacket, and when he turned up in a lined jacket she had her doubts. But someone wanted to smoke, and then someone else wanted to smoke, and they did not have cigarettes because they were trying to quit, and the beauty of a lined jacket is that it has inside pockets. Ralph said he had some, but they were only Camels, he had found a renegade AA meeting that renounced Bloomberg and all his works, and it was a Camel crowd. He brought out a pack and said Here take mine and people said No no they couldn’t leave him high and dry and he said No it’s fine I have a spare, as the Boy Scouts say be prepared, and he said he’d get his fix later, he wanted to catch up with a couple of people. So he talked to all the people he should talk to, and was seen talking to all the people he should be seen talking to, and later he did go out on the balcony with the smokers—the brownstone had a smoking room from the days when mansions had smoking rooms, but nobody wanted to sit inside on a Chesterfield.
An aspiring gallerist’s assistant nursed a God-given Camel and said he was interested in writers’ artifacts and the idea of the cabinet. You don’t want to undermine the market for art art, but at the same time you want to bring new buyers in, maybe you have a small show and sell these artifacts, these unique traces of the place where an idea came into the world, for $100. Ralph said it was an interesting idea but it was not his area of expertise. People asked for his card and he knew by the end of the night that he would not have to coax a new book out of Laura B. He felt good because she needed her space.
Laura went to a party in Williamsburg and met an aspiring gallerist’s assistant who said he was interested in writers’ artifacts and the idea of the cabinet. They met the next day so she could show him the contents of the little suitcase, and he said it was just what he was looking for. He did not seem like much of a scallywag (though apparently he was of Chinese descent), but she agreed to let him put on a show. He found a little space between leases in the Village, and a single collector bought out the show the first night for $50,000. (The aspiring assistant kept the traditional 50%.)
Whether the pieces were later deployed in the persuasion of cultured officials she was never to know. A market did seem to spring up for no obvious reason: items occasionally turned up at auctions, a lot of five selling for $50,000. Anything’s possible.
Ralph heard of the little show. He was happy for Laura B. She had never cared about money and she had what she wanted. He had picked up the threads with a few former clients and discovered new writers he was really excited about. Sometimes a writer is so needy you can’t restore their faith in their talent; they have to find their own way. When she wanted to come to him she would come to him.
1Ingesloten een schetsje van een doek van 30, vierkant; eindelijk de Sterrennacht, in de nacht geschilderd onder een gaslantaren. De hemel is blauwgroen, het water is koningsblauw, de grond is mauve. De stad is blauw en violet, het gaslicht geel en de weerkaatsingen zijn roodgoud, afnemend tot bronsgroen. Op het blauwgroene veld van de hemel de Grote Beer, die groen en roze schittert, een schittering waarvan de bescheiden glans constrasteert met het krachtige goud van het gaslicht. Twee kleurige figuurtjes van geliefden op de voorgrond.