Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

Cerise

  

Booked on the Kevin Knightly TV show he’s watched for years, Faraday is amazed his novel Cerise has managed to creep into the lower reaches of the best-seller lists, garner a few positive reviews, and attract the host’s attention. Perhaps the mere spectacle of an 87-year-old debut author, who by all rights should be dead and buried, is sufficient currency for the Knightly buy-in. An octogenarian managing to pen one of the steamiest books of the decade has caused a stir among critics. One reviewer called Faraday “a freak show” and wrote that “at an age when most men can’t remember what sex was like or whether they enjoyed it all that much, Faraday’s book sizzles. Hot stuff from a card-carrying member of the assisted-living set.”

The TV host sits opposite Faraday. With its elongated face and nose, Knightley’s head is too large for his torso, mismatched it seems, as if each part were grown separately and randomly attached. Shoulders, arms, and hands relax while the head barks, “Jenna, where’s the damn book? Chop, chop, girl!”

Somewhere in the darkened forest of cameras, cables, monitors, and teleprompters, the director says, “Two minutes.” To settle his nerves, Faraday has peppered Knightly’s minions with questions—how topics and guests are chosen, segment length determined, sponsors solicited, tapes edited, and so on ad nauseam. Mostly the Kevin Knightly staff goes about their business and ignore him. Faraday’s youngest daughter, Ginny, cautioned him about his pesky old curmudgeon routine. “You know how you can be sometimes.” Of course he knows, but he’s merely curious, taking the back off this wristwatch and studying how the innards work. After all, this is his first, and likely his last, TV appearance.

While Faraday’s scrawny butt searches for a more comfortable spot on the chair, his eyes blink and squeeze tightly, avoiding the hot, haloed lights. For over two hours he’s been waiting nervously in the green room. Taping has been delayed by breaking news of a terrorist attack in San Bernardino. Tonight’s Kevin Knightly will include an update, live from California, on the massacre and the police shoot-out with the suspects. So Faraday’s twenty-minute taped interview may not make the cut. Or it may be aired another evening. He understands. He does.

In the past, Faraday has fantasized about appearing on Kevin Knightly, imagined himself sitting at the famous table, his intelligence, conviviality, and wit burning brightly amid the otherwise numbing triviality of late-night TV. He can’t explain why he’s been so obsessed with the show. Fame holds no allure. Faraday, so terrified at this moment that he likely won’t remember his name, has little use for celebrity. Future profits from whatever additional book sales his appearance generates will, in all actuarial likelihood, accrue to his estate to benefit his children and grandchildren. On the other hand, public acceptance of his art means a lot. Perhaps, though the very idea embarrasses him, earning the Kevin Knightly stamp of approval appeals. An appearance signifies that he’s a legit member of the popular culture, like the actors, movie directors and producers, politicians, scientists, rappers, dancers, athletes, TV entertainers, singers, comedians, and other writers who appear on the show night after night, year after year. If it’s the Knightly nod that turns him on, Faraday’s a little ashamed. A man of his vintage ought not require anyone’s imprimatur.

In late night TV’s grade school years, wit trumped celebrity. Kevin Knightly’s predecessors—Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, even Dick Cavett, were maestros of conversation. Fame might get you on the show, but you had to deliver the goods or you’d never be invited again. Paar was Faraday’s favorite—more urbane than Carson, more engaging than Cavett. Something about firsts, he supposes. Seconds, thirds, and fourths never measure up.

Across the table from Faraday, Kevin Knightly checks his notes. At home, watching Knightly perform, Faraday often wonders if the TV host reads the books written by the authors he interviews, or if that task is left to staff who prepare summaries for him and stock questions. Perhaps no one reads, other than scanning and clipping reviews from The Times, The New Yorker, and Kirkus. Inexplicably, Knightly fancies himself something of an expert on literary trends and tastes. He name-drops and gossips about the many famous writers (Norman, Arthur, and Stephen, to name a few) he’s debriefed on his program. Often he seems more interested in a guest’s history, process, and inspiration than in the actual work. The host claims his primary objective is to get to know the real person, and if the real person happens to have written a book that has won, say, the Pulitzer Prize, the interview may touch ever so lightly on that subject too.

Faraday wants a cigarette. He quit smoking forty years ago, but desperately desires one now. He needs a smoke to keeps his nervous hands busy. Elbows on the table, he presses them together and wills them to stop shaking. If only Bess—his wife, who resented every moment he spent at his writing desk—were alive to see him now. Bess, who considered his writing a hobby at best, like golf or tennis or bowling or fishing—a hobby run amok. She believed his writing time was wasted time, hours when they could have been doing things together—taking walks in the neighborhood, going out for coffee, even grocery shopping. Nevertheless, she demanded to read his completed chapters and could be counted on for a withering critique.

The host looks up from his papers. “Sit up straight or you’ll look like an old man.”

The hell? It’s been decades since anyone criticized Faraday’s posture. Still, not wanting to get off on the wrong foot, he squares his shoulders as best he’s able, hoping his bad back will hold out.

“Ignore the cameras. Engage with me.” Knightly points forked fingers at his own eyes and then at Faraday’s. “We’re going to have a regular conversation.”

“Got it,” Faraday says as offhandedly as he can manage. “Had one once—a conversation, that is. I’ll try to remember how it’s done. A little like Ping-Pong, if I recall correctly.”

Knightly’s flint-blue eyes ice over.

Imagining his daughter’s withering look, Faraday backtracks. “What I meant to say was—sure, I’ll engage with you.”

“Excellent.” Knightly seems relieved his guest won’t go rogue.

Concentrating for the full twenty minutes will be a challenge. Every morning at his desk, Faraday finds that focusing on the page is more difficult than the previous day. He’s begun a new novel, but seldom knocks out more than a paragraph or two in the allotted four hours. Soon after he sits down, he’s returning e-mails and paying bills online, switching on the TV to check the market, or fixing a mid-morning snack. His routine has always been a thousand words per day minimum, more if he’s rewriting. Now he’s damn lucky to turn out 250. He’s always pooh-poohed the idea that writers peak in their thirties or forties; that a man in his sixties or seventies is well past the age when he’s able to write anything of significance. Now he wonders. Perhaps for a time he’s beaten the odds, but the odds may be evening the score.

“Ready?” Knightly’s dressed in a navy suit, white shirt, and a light blue silk tie with a matching foulard stuffed into his coat’s breast pocket. From watching the show’s credits, Faraday knows that Ralph Lauren provides the star’s wardrobe. Faraday’s maroon bow tie and gray wool suit (the last suit he purchased before retiring from Lehman Brothers a quarter century earlier) seem shabby, but in a satisfying, postmodern I don’t give a damn way. Leaving the green room, he noticed the lining had come loose from his suit coat and was hanging down several inches. He tucked the loosened silk cloth into his belt.

“One minute.”

The set, bustling with last-second activity, reminds Faraday of a tethered space station. The makeup woman touches up Knightly’s face. Another staffer drops off papers to the host. Cameras are positioned and repositioned. Ignoring them, as Knightly urged him to do, is like trying to ignore the urologist’s finger up your ass. And those incessant camera shots of the host taken from behind the guest worry Faraday. Everyone will see the lumps and bumps (adhesions his dermatologist freezes every six months that never go away), moles, and red spots on his bald head. High-definition TV is a pestilence. Oh, for the days of blurry black and white.

Faraday looks down and sees that his jacket lining has sprung loose again. He leans sideways and goes to work.

Knightly thumps a pen on his notes and stares at Faraday. “What the hell are you doing?”

“Fixing my coat,” Faraday says. “All done.”

Knightly shakes his head. The contrast between the host’s syrupy TV demeanor and his churlish off-camera behavior is startling. Goes with the territory, Faraday supposes. He’s heard about plenty of famous people who seem friendly and engaging on camera, but are pricks in real life.

“We’ll discuss your career,” Knightly says, “before we get to the book. Follow my lead.”

“Which career might that be?”

These days Faraday scarcely thinks about the work he did at Lehman Brothers for nearly forty years. Since the crash of 2007–2008, when Lehman went belly-up in the most dubious of circumstances, he’s been ashamed to admit he once worked for the investment company. He has no stomach for discussing his former employer or its troubles, nor does he wish to reprise his past life as a greedy (to many) Wall Street banker. He’s turned the page.

“Your writing career, of course,” Knightly reassures. “How you became a writer. Your influences, that sort of thing. Other writers you admire. You’ve watched the show, right? You know the drill.”

Faraday nods. “You bet. Hardly ever miss your show when I’m home.” After retiring from Lehman, he needed something to do that would prove his life was still relevant. He’d taken a couple undergraduate creative writing courses at Brown, so why not pursue the novelist’s life? It was quite a stretch from buying and selling bonds, but that was part of the attraction.

But calling his writing experience, a vocation that has produced precisely one novel, a career is a bit dubious. As to his influences…well, Faraday has always been self-conscious about the inadequacies of his reading. His tastes run to procedural crime novels and science fiction. He hasn’t read much of the canon, and what he’s read, he’s mostly forgotten. He’s fixing the problem, but the going is slow. Three months to plow through Anna Karenina. Now War and Peace sits on a dusty bookcase shelf, daring him to try again. All that French, all those footnotes. So far he hasn’t gotten past the first page.

“Ten seconds!” The countdown begins.

Faraday has to pee. He’s been afraid of this, so he drank but one cup of coffee this morning. He sipped no water and went to the bathroom right before walking onto the set. But the hot lights made him thirsty. He couldn’t help himself. Sitting here waiting for the starter’s pistol, he’s drained two cups. Most days, even without the extra stimulation abject fear causes, his bladder has a mind of its own. When the interview begins and he’s distracted, the pressure will go away. At least he hopes so.

The director steps out beside the number one camera and drops his arm.

“I’m pleased to welcome writer Stanley J. Faraday to this program,” Knightly intones. “For the past ten weeks his novel, Cerise, has been on The New York Times Best Sellers list. Critics have praised Cerise, calling it ‘a tour de force, storytelling at its very best, and a throwback to a time when plot actually mattered.’ According to the Washington Post, ‘Faraday is a novelist in the playful tradition of Vladimir Nabokov.’ Cerise has been nominated for several prestigious literary awards.” Knightly pauses, smiles, and holds the book in his left hand, but not in a way that allows the cameras to capture the cover. “Welcome.”

“Great to be here, Kevin.”

Silently Faraday thanks the host for omitting the words of the Washington Post review that read, “Unfortunately, the author lacks Nabokov’s erudition, imagination, and facility with language. His prose is as barren as California scrubland after five years of drought.”

“So where have you been all these years?”

Faraday realizes Knightly intends his question as a benign, even somewhat kindly joke about his age, his lack of previous success, and the unlikeliness of his present literary triumph, such as it is. Yet the remark has an edge that pisses him off. He thinks of a softball answer to please the host: Watching your show most nights at home. I’ve been a fan for years. Suck up to Knightly like other guests, he tells himself. But, nah, he isn’t going there. No way. So he gives the host his best Dick Cheney smile—part sneer, lip up on one side, down on the other. What comes out is: “At my desk writing, Kevin. Where the hell have you been?”

Faraday feels a sharp blow and pain in his right calf—his daughter’s vicious toe has issued forth from a thousand miles away in the hinterlands. Dad, you promised.

As if sizing up Faraday in a new way, Knightly tilts his head and closes one eye. He lets the book slip from his fingers onto the table, likely exiling the novel from the cameras for the duration. “Funny, Stan. Marvelous. Our producers told me that you have a dry sense of humor, a wit that doesn’t translate very well in your writing. Allow me to put the question differently: Why a debut novel at eighty-seven?”

“It took me ten years to write the book and twenty to get an agent. That’s the thing about being an overnight sensation, Kevin. It takes a long time.”

Knightly grabs the opportunity to sail into calmer waters, a discussion of the challenges writers face, given the status of the contemporary publishing industry. E-books, for example. Amazon and the ballyhooed demise of the independent bookstore, for another. Would Faraday have had a chance of getting published were it not for all this disruption in the publishing industry, Knightly wonders. Why didn’t Faraday just give up and self-publish? What kept him pushing onward?

The questions, so banal and predictable, try Faraday’s patience, but he’s here at his agent’s behest to sell books, so he responds. He mourns the demise of many local booksellers, but doesn’t see a future bucking Amazon. “A suicide mission,” Faraday says, “especially for small fry like me. You might as well tell the IRS to take a hike.” As to why he’s persevered, Faraday says he just couldn’t give up on his novel. He’d worked hard. Rewritten the thing twenty times. Maybe more. If he publishes only this one book, so be it. If the clock runs out before he can finish another, so be it. Everyone has an opinion on self-publishing, but for him it would’ve been an admission of failure, a final acknowledgment that no one gives a hoot about his book but him. He’s never failed at anything important in his life, so he just kept at it. And writing has given back, extended his life. Shuffling words on the page is intrinsically pleasurable, whether rewarded with publication or not. “Years ago on this show you interviewed Chuck Close, the portrait painter. I remember him talking about the artists who were in school with him at Yale. Some had never sold a single painting, but they kept working in their studios every day. The art was what mattered to them. That’s me, I guess.”

Knightly seems satisfied, perhaps ready to proceed to the matter at hand. “So I need to ask this,” he says. “Cerise is a sexually precocious thirteen-year-old girl. How do you write about a character so foreign from your own experience?”

Smart-ass answers flood Faraday’s mind, but he’s finished with the sarcasm, so he simply states the obvious: “One needn’t have walked in a character’s shoes to write about him or her. Female writers have invented great male characters and vice versa. It’s all about unleashing the unconscious mind.”

“I think you’re holding out on us, Stan.”

“I think not.”

“Rumor has it that you and the novelist Pamela Higginbotham were an item after the war, before she published her first novel and became famous. I’ve heard you and she had an affair at a time when she was trying to work out her sexual identity. Perhaps she taught you a thing or two. Or maybe you learned some things together.”

Shit. Pamela. How can Knightly possibly know? Strange, Faraday has been thinking about her lately. Wondering what might have been. He remembers her coppery limbs entwined with his, striations of rust and alabaster. And the loamy scent of her perfume, like freshly turned earth. Taking a sip of water, Faraday tries to hide his surprise. He refuses to ask the host how he found out. Grudgingly, he has to give Knightly (his staff, more probably) credit for dredging this up. So much for Cerise.

“I was seventeen, about to turn eighteen at the time. I’d just finished high school. Pamela had recently moved to New York from Oklahoma, where she grew up. She’d published some stories in The New Yorker, but not being a New Yorker reader myself, I had no idea who she was. She walked into the Manhattan bookstore where I was working to earn a little money before entering Brown in the fall. She asked if we had a rare Contact Press edition of Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans. I was unfamiliar with Gertrude Stein then, so Pamela patiently explained who Stein was and why she wanted the book. Pamela was so damn smart, so attractive, aloof and warm at one and the same time. I was smitten. We didn’t have the book, but the store manager said we’d search around town on her behalf. Pamela left her contact information.”

“Did you find the book for her?”

“We didn’t. The manager told me to call Pamela and tell her we’d been unsuccessful. She remembered who I was and invited me to her apartment for dinner.”

“You became lovers?”

“She took an interest in me. My ignorance of literature appalled her. How could I have made it through high school, been about to enter Brown in the fall, knowing so little? Pamela said that a person who worked in a bookstore ought to be acquainted with significant writers and their fiction. I told her my position was just a part-time job till college classes began. I intended to study economics, so the gap in my education wasn’t such a big deal. ‘Well, here’s a book about economics,’ she said. Pamela sent me home with a copy of The Great Gatsby.” Faraday chuckled at the memory. “‘Jay Gatsby was an entrepreneur,’ Pamela said. Next she gave me A Farewell to Arms. ‘World war happens when giant industrial conglomerates like Krupp and DuPont peddle their weapons worldwide. You won’t learn that in your economics classes.’ We often took walks in Central Park and discussed the novels she gave me to read.”

“So she sparked your interest in writers and writing?”

Faraday shook his head. “Not then. I acted more interested than I was because I was in love with her, or thought so.” Silently he recalls their last evening together, how Pamela told him it was wonderful to have been his lover, but insisted he must move on, find a girl his own age. He remembers how he argued that their age difference wasn’t a problem, how he almost broke down when she wouldn’t relent.

“What was she like?”

“Passionate about literature, her writing, politics, friendships. Sensitive. Considerate in a hundred different ways.” For no particular reason (neither he nor Pamela was married then) Faraday hasn’t told his children about her. They’ll be hearing all this for the first time, surprised perhaps that their father had an affair with such a famous person, one whose literary reputation is being resurrected, and that their mother wasn’t their father’s first love after all. His children knew him as a man who took the train from Mount Kisco to Manhattan every day, a man who sometimes had to stay in the city all week, a good provider who was seldom able to attend their baseball and football games, their plays and recitals, or help them with their homework. Imagine their surprise.

“Did you stay in touch after the affair ended?”

“We saw one another occasionally until she went off to Europe. Now and then Pamela checked up on me. We’d meet for coffee or lunch. She’d quiz me about what I was reading. Give me hell when I told her I didn’t have time for novels. She’d ask whether I had a girlfriend, what my plans were after graduation. She tried to get me to change my major to English literature.”

Faraday looks down. The ripped lining of his suit jacket droops down again. He wonders whether the cameras have spotted it, if he should try to conceal the silk again or let go. Let it go, he decides. Why should an 87-year-old man care about his appearance? Why should he bother to hide anything? Pretense is an indulgence for the young.

“Enough about Pamela, Kevin. Your viewers must be bored with an old man’s reminiscences. If you wish, I’ll read a few paragraphs from Cerise before you bid me farewell.”

Knightly doesn’t wish. He waves off Faraday. In this tug-of-war, where Faraday wants only to promote his book and Knightly cares only to discuss the affair, the host holds the advantage.

“With all of her well-known sexual predilections, was Pamela Higginbotham the inspiration for Cerise?”

“Jesus Christ, no!”

Knightly’s chin drops. He points a finger of incredulity.

“Then what do you think of Higginbotham’s novels, Stan? How did they influence your work?”

“Never read them.”

Knightly shakes his head.

Sensing trouble, his daughter whispers, Don’t, Dad. Please.

“Never cared much for the psychological thriller myself. How about you, Kevin? Have you read her work? Can you name the titles of her novels? Or are you merely intrigued by her lurid reputation? How about my book? Have you even glanced at the dust jacket? Read the liner notes? The blurbs on the back? Are you at all interested?” Faraday asks these questions on behalf of the many who preceded him here and those who will follow.

Knightly draws his lips together. The crease between his eyes deepens until his eyes seem to merge. His fingertips grip the table.

From the darkness beyond the cameras comes a rustling sound. Faraday turns and conjures an image of his daughter frantically waving her arms, then imagines that she stops abruptly, hunches her shoulders in despair, and drops her head. Dad!

Knightly’s face is the color of Pamela Higginbotham’s ashes.

“Kevin. Isn’t this where you thank me for coming? And where I say it was a pleasure?”

“No, this is where I tell you to get the hell off my set. And take your lousy book with you.” Knighty tosses the novel across the table. It takes one hop and hits Faraday’s chest.

Faraday cradles Cerise in the crook of his arm. He thinks the TV host is being a tad too dramatic, but since the program is being taped for airing later, he’s certain his interview will never be shown. That’s fine. He intends as much. He’s said what he wanted to say. And the world will remain blessedly ignorant of his summer romance with Pamela. A younger Faraday might have empathized with the host, recognized his need to generate human interest for his audience, and cut him some slack. The older edition hasn’t the time for an entertainer who trades in the secrets and vulnerabilities of his guests. With a wave, Faraday exits the set and heads for the restroom.

 

 

 

 

As an undergraduate, Dean Jollay studied history and went on to earn an MA from the University of Chicago. His law degree from Capital University propelled him into a career that has ranged from legislative aide and researcher to lobbyist and CFO of a manufacturing company. He continued to hone his writing skills by studying at Kent State University and attending writing conferences at the University of South Florida, Chautauqua, and Eckerd College. He recently received an MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University. While serving on various arts and education nonprofit boards, Jollay founded AHEAD, an organization serving at-risk students. His legal writings have appeared in numerous publications, and  creative writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Aethlon, Amarillo Bay, Helix, Limestone Journal, The New Plains Review, Notre Dame Review, and The Write Room.