At 3:30 p.m. on Monday, Syd Renoir was about to get on the speaker phone with Mimi O. O’Rourke, his latest discovery. An extra large man, Syd’s office at first glance, was full of large things — a two-foot paper clip, a seven- foot pencil, a wrist watch the size of a sleeping bag, and a golf club that nearly spanned the length of his office. No longer real novelty items, they still made Syd (who was imposing at six-foot-five and 230) feel good philosophically about the nature of size.
Upon closer inspection of his office, one would see a desk cluttered with just the opposite — a tiny typewriter, a kitchen in its entirety, several model cars approximately four inches long, some itsy-bitsy Chinese to-go boxes, and plenty of other fascinating objets in diminished proportions. Obviously, this was a man who took micro and macro, mini and maxi to heart.
Today, Sad Renoir wore faded jeans and a rather nice white Oxford shirt, pressed, the top two buttons left undone. His shoes were top of the line Nikes in black and day-glo orange, size 13. A pair of wire-framed glasses lay on his desk. Lazily, he twisted a gold signet ring around and around on the middle finger of his right hand.
Given a name like his, Syd Renoir, it would be hard to imagine what he looked like. A gangster? A French Israelite? A male dancer? In some odd way, his name fit him to perfection. Because everyone who met him could net help eyeing him from head to toe, unable to believe that so many features had come together in one fellow. It was tempting just to walk up to him and say, “Were your grandparents Dutch or Senegalese or Swedish?”
With mocha-colored skin and neatly trimmed natty hair, Syd was obviously a man of color. His lips were full, but his nose was aquiline and his eyes ice blue. Prominent cheekbones suggested the northern part of the world, but dimples contradicted this somehow. Add a dress code and a personal taste to this picture and what you got was an intellectual-looking ex-basketball player with prep school taste. Whatever the answers to the questions of origin and background (which were, as a matter of fact, interesting to the point of incredulity), one thing was certain: Syd was breathtakingly handsome and youthful, even in his mid-forties. He wore the expression of a thinking man, but not of one who had to prove anything to anyone anymore. In a nutshell, you wanted to get to know him.
Michael Norris Hanratty knew Syd Renoir from their student days at NYU. While Hanratty had diligently focused on gulping down Milton and Shakespeare and Swift, Greek and Latin and Old English, Renoir went the alternate route with American history and popular culture, Italian, Japanese and comparative religion. They had met fencing, and their friendship had grown behind masks. But then, don’t all friendships?
Renoir, taller by six inches than Hanratty, could have won every match; but he would get lazy, and Hanratty never got lazy where beating someone was involved. Hanratty’s cover was good for his nearly ruthless competitive spirit. Had he become a lawyer or a financier, it would have been harder to have been such a gentleman This is perhaps why he chose to remain within the walls of the university where he could humble himself in an ivory tower to the prose of the dead masters, and where students could humble themselves to him.
When Renoir had joined Hanratty in the English department of UCLA — where he would only remain for two or three years — their friendship had resumed. Bicycling together in the frightening but quiet neighborhoods of Bel Air and Beverly Hills, they talked of things large and small and in-between, in conversations usually initiated by Renoir. In truth, Syd Renoir was fascinated by Michael Norris Hanratty, an exceptionally private man, whose privacy sanctified and guided his very being. Renoir had asked him once how he had known when the right woman came along. He’d answered that he thought it was just dumb luck she’d stayed with him, that he didn’t really know her at all. Did anyone really know anyone else?
Renoir had considered the question. “Yes,” he’d replied, “but only to the degree that that person knows himself. In other words, two people with no self-knowledge can never really know each other; but two people who have attempted self-examination have a better chance. That is not to say that the latter will necessarily be happier than the former.”
These were the sorts of discussions they had. Hanratty grudgingly argued with his cycling companion, while secretly grateful for the opportunity. Renoir thrilled at bringing the man out of himself and into the open; and of course he enjoyed the cycling.
Nothing could have been more different than their styles of teaching, either. Hanratty, forever civilized, conducted a polite class but graded viciously and without the benefit of any curve whatsoever. One got the impression he had learned to teach on the continent, in classrooms of polished oak, behind a podium and holding a long stick. Favoring the classic education, he was of the opinion that students were getting more stupid as time went by, but knew not what to do. Students depressed him because they could not be proper intellectuals, scholars, or even tired copies of the real thing. “How can we possibly set standards for the faculty when it is clear we have none for the students?” he asked his friend. Some students tried. The women, especially, the women, just to please him. Hanratty had beauty in addition to his brains.
Renoir, on the other hand, was not by any stretch standard in his methods. With him, it was always high drama and methodical madness. Standing on tables, he would make noise and demand the question Hanratty had give up on: “Why are you so dense?” he would scream, face upturned to the heavens, the vaulted or not vaulted ceilings of academia, arms outstretched. Then he would point at some poor student, ask him or her to stand, and require them to answer an absurdly difficult question. Telling stories, he would come up with morals about the nature of education, the nature of life. He would ask rhetorical questions, and he would roll his eyes. Fed up with students who could not be intellectuals, scholars, or even imaginative emblems of some new thing, he would walk out on a class and leave them stunned and reeling in their own idiocy.
Disappointed in the students in much the same way Hanratty was, he nevertheless had faith that they could learn to think, even at this late stage in life, at this late stage in American history. It was not the reading of a book, he would tell them, it was the taking it on, personally, the digesting of it. What does it say to you? What will you do with this information? He forced students to become responsible for their own educations, befriended them, and treated them like curiosities. For many, he was the best teacher they ever had. They changed and grew up because of him; and they made their way in the world bravely, and some even with a certain amount of true style.
But it wore him down.
The last year Syd Renoir taught modern American literature, he and Hanratty started fencing again. In this go-round, however, they were more evenly matched. Hanratty, more natural than he had been all those years earlier and less underlyingly competitive, won a good half of the time. Renoir, exhausted from giving so much to students, to his friends, to the world at large, became more competitive in his need to win for himself. It appeared they come full circle.
When the job offer as an editor came up, Syd Renoir grabbed it like a glass of lemonade after a long hot ride. Liberated at last from the university, he became himself again — eager, imaginative, and productive. Hanratty took a job at a smaller college south of Los Angeles where the students were just as intellectually impoverished, but the air quality — he figured — would be better. Both of them continued to see each other once a week, lunching as a reward for their grueling bike rides into the foothills of the San Bernardino mountains where neither of them would admit to being the lesser man.
Now here sat Syd, ten years an editor, feeling once again as though a change were imminent. Some things still got him going –like his letter-writer in Telluride, intriguingly a part of Hanratty’s life all these years — but the routine of life had ground his interest in it into a fine powder that slipped through his fingers like sawdust. In ten years, Renoir could claim a good number of success stories. The pet-rabbit training book with Barbara Sue Harry. Morgan Morgan, the one-time prostitute, now one of the most coveted novelists on the west coast. And who would forget “Daily Meditations for Golfers,” the silly little book of real quotes from antiquity that weirdly applied to the inner game, which had sold over a million copies.
Respected for his quirky sense, and well-liked, he could have stayed on forever, seeking out new trends and new talent, and redecorating his office once eery four months to stave off the doldrums. Before the micro/macro theme it had been optical illusions. Trompe l’oeil everywhere, on the desk, painted on the floor, the ceiling. Someone had even tried to open a window that had been painted on the wall right next to the other two. This had charmed him. Before that it had been India. Cottons and gauzes, mosaics and a five-foot poster of the goddess Shiva, the destroyer, whom he’d renamed Shivonne.
Now, as he twisted his ring and waited for someone to answer at the home of Mimi O. O’Rourke, he sighed deeply.
“Hello?” he heard a voice scream into the receiver as if panic-stricken.
“I’m trying to reach Mimi O. O’Rourke,” he said as calmly as he could, hoping to transmit this feeling to the person on the other end.
“It’s me,” said Mimi, unable to comprehend how the phone had known she was napping. “This is Mimi.” While still stuffed up in the head, at least her nose was no longer running. She was, however, as dog tired as she could be, what without the sleep of the night before.
“Oh,” said Renoir, “My name is Syd Renoir. I guess Mike Hanratty told you I might be calling.”
“Mike” Hanratty? thought Mimi who had never heard anyone call him that before. “I’m very interested in getting your permission to publish your letters, you probably know, from the last five years or so. I need to know how you feel about that. And are you okay over there?” The urgency of her hello concerned him.
“Yes, oh yes,” replied Mimi. “Um, I have a cold and was napping. The phone scared me half to death. It seems to know when I’m napping. I’m fine now though.” Had she been fully rested, Mimi might have been a little more nervous talking to this man, this editor from LA who wanted to publish a book with her name on it. Exhausted as she was, she could act normal. “The professor, I mean Hanratty, did call. I can’t really express to you how surprised I was.”
She paused for breath. “I know you must deal with people like me all the time, but I mean, Wow. Now I’m wondering if I really did write those letters, or if this isn’t some cruel joke set up by some cruel person. I’d love for you to publish the letters, even if my former self did write them.” Again, she paused, reflecting on her own idiocy with some dismay. “But can I ask you one question, Mr. Renoir?” Not waiting for him to answer she continued on, dauntless now. “Who do you think is going to want to read all that stuff? I’ve been thinking about it: I mean, who will buy this book? Not college students probably, not housewives, not military personnel, and certainly not the literati. Who?”
Renoir was getting a sense of the person whose letters he’d read. “People in their thirties,” he took his time answering. “People who drink cappuccino, and read the latest book advertised. People who appreciate a new voice and a little wise-ass humor. People like you.”
Mimi liked the way he said this so patly, even though she did not like being considered so close to a cappuccino. “People like me,” she repeated, feeling herself out, “Don’t read people like me.”
Tickled, Renoir parried with her. “But people a little like you do.”
“That may be true,” said Mimi, “But are there enough of them out there to create a market?”
“The wonders of publicity, Mimi O. O’Rourke — hey, O-O,” he had just heard the sound of her name. “The wonders of publicity. So many people will think they want to read your book that there won’t be any stopping them from laying down the cash. Now, they may find out later that they didn’t want to read it; but they will have wanted to badly enough to belong to the group targeted — meaning kind of intellectual, hip, thirty-isa, coffee achiever — that they’ll buy it anyhow. Isn’t that something?”
Renoir was struck once again by the raw power of brainwashing. “Not that they shouldn’t want to read it,” he reassured her. “You can’t start out with garbage and call it sublime. But besides all that, I really like your letters; and it’s been a long time since honest-to-god letters have made it big. Your time has come.” Now he took the signet ring off his finger completely and placed it out o of his own reach. His own habit was making him nervous.
What do you look like, Mimi?” he asked this last question cautiously, as it was curiosity and to professional virtuosity that prompted him to ask it.
“What do I look like?” she repeated, surprised that someone would ask. “Why do you want to know”
“Well,” he answered slowly, “I’ve read all these wonderful letters to an old friend of mine, letters written with care and humor and a certain passion. And then I hear a voice very similar to the one in the letters on the phone. Like a main character come to life. Isn’t it natural to wonder who the writer is on the outside”
“Fair enough,” was her response. “I’ve never really described myself to anyone over the phone…. It feels kind of odd, like I’m about to go out on a date with you just as soon as we’ve seen each other’s videos. Let’s see. I’m pretty small with very long kind of wild black hair. My eyes are on the oriental side, but I’m not. I have a few freckles and bangs, and my teeth are straight.” She stopped there, feeling respectable with her description but not altogether whole. “This isn’t easy Mr. Renoir. What do you look like?” How charming to have called someone “Mr. Renoir” in her life, she thought, just as it would have been to call someone “Miss de Beauvoir” or “Mr. Tintoretto.”
“What’s your reason for wanting to know?” he asked her.
“Your voice,” answered Mimi, particularly drawn to it. “Your voice is different somehow. Kind of bored — and not all professional.”
Impressed, he picked up the actual receive of the phone. “Interesting that you could pick that up,” he told her. “Is it that obvious?”
“It is for me. But then I’ve had that same tone in my voice near the end of various office jobs. Same bored quality, same interest in the people on the other end rather than the business at hand. Aren’t you like an ex-professorial type? I thought they stayed in the university forever, and got buried in an academic cemetery right there on campus. You escaped.” Her tone was accusatory. “Hanratty said you were an interesting fellow. He doesn’t say that about many people. So what to you look like?”
“He doesn’t know many people,” answered Renoir laughing, by now thoroughly entertained by the person on the other end trying, in her own peculiar way, to interview him. “And he’s fascinated by a so-called academic who called it quits so early in the game. He may not be buried there, but he’ll no doubt be enshrined there. As for me, I’m tall and dark-skinned, I dress like a basketball player going out to dinner, and I got my granny’s blue eyes.” Picking up one of his model cars – a DeSoto — he fiddled with it and spun its wheels. “And you,” he added, “how did you come to know Mikey well enough to correspond with him for ten years?”
Mimi had never really discussed her correspondence with anyone before; it had been a secret, on her end at least, and she hated to divulge ten years of secrecy in the blink of an eye. On the other hand, he had already read the letters. He already knew about all about life in New York, the men in her life in New York, the former women of the men in her life in New York, and everything else that had occurred in her adult years, whatever that was. Not that Hanratty had been her therapist or shared her most intricate secrets. The letters had entertained her, and in that sense, she had never divulged too much.
“Did Hanratty even bat an eyelash when you asked him to show you the letters?” Sensing for the first time betrayal on the part of Michael Norris Hanratty, she pursued this line of questioning. “I mean, what, did he just had over the box when you expressed some interest in the style of writing? How did this all come up, just out of curiosity?” Mim had stretched the extra long cord across the living room to the kitchen and she was juicing oranges, one by one, becoming more intense with her twisting as she asked these last questions. Lately, oranges had become her miracle healers, and every day she juiced five or six, drinking the nectar as if she alone knew their power, she alone drank their juice.
“What are you doing over there?” asked Renoir, aware now that Mimi was doing something besides talking on the phone.
“I’m squeezing oranges for juice,” she answered, “Is it bothering you?” She sensed herself becoming pleasantly belligerent.
“No,” he answered, “No, no.” An image of this woman grinding away at half oranges while crook-necked and on the phone made him grin from ear to ear. “We were talking about former students and their whereabouts while bicycle riding, which we do every week. You came up. I was surprised as hell that he’d never mentioned you before; then I realized it was just like him to keep this sort of thing to himself. Naturally I got to even more curious.”
“Who else came up?” Mimi wanted to know.
“We never got past you.”
“Because there was another woman, same class as mine . She went on to become something respectable. A lawyer, I think. Susannah Poe was her name. Has he ever mentioned a Susannah Poe?” She’d had her eye on Hanratty. Smart as a whip, she always had the right answers. Ambitious.” This last word spoken silently and carried with it all the venom of the work “Bitch.”
Silence hung on the line. Oh-oh, thought Mimi: she’s dead. “Did something happen to her?” she asked Renoir, dreading the answer and sorry she’d brought her up.
“Not that I know of. She lives in Chicago, is in fact a trial lawyer, and is married to an advertising man. One child. Ambitious.” The voice of Syd Renoir had slid perceptibly to cool formality. He had known Susannah?
“Oh, so you knew her then?” Mimi swilled the orange juice like tonic and felt it jab at her gums while she contemplated his choice of words. Ambitious. There is was again.
“Hm-mm. I was her first husband. Mike Hanratty introduced us, we fell in love, married and then divorced shortly thereafter. She wanted to marry Mike, I think, but settled for a good friend of his. I haven’t seen her since we divorced five years ago.”
Mimi, surprised enough to cough up a little acid from the orange juice, was feeling claustrophobic from these inverted relationships. Was Renoir a relative of Hanratty’s wife , as well? Or was Hanratty having an affair with Renoir’s sister? Had they all shared the same therapist, Syd, Mike and Susannah?
“You’re shocked,” said Renoir flatly.
“Shocked? Um, no,” answered Mimi, deciding to be honest. “It’s all sounding a little incestuous, though. I don’t think I want to know any more about my place in your conversations. Whatever happened, happened. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to write to the guy again though. Mr. Manipulator my ex-mentor.”
Renoir was quick to respond. “Don’t go souring on old Mike, now. You knew what he was like when you were his student; you probably idolized him just like all the women do. It was your choice to write to him all those years, and he’s done you a big favor — well, most people would see it that way — by making those letters available to me. Because I can make you famous, and possibly a little richer.”
Mimi retracted her claws and thought about money. “A little riche,” she echoed. “What is a little?”
“If we can get the illustrator I have in mind, ” Renoir slipped comfortable into his all-business voice, “I’d say somewhere close to $20,000 as an advance — against royalties.”
“I see,” said Mimi, whose heart had started to beat out of her chest. “My dreams could come true with that much money,” she spoke softly and as earnestly as Syd Renoir had ever heard anyone speak. “My dreams could come true.” She plunked herself down on the couch. “What’s the chance of getting this illustrator then?” Her mind’s eye caressed the cafe at La Sal Junction, and she saw herself in it, serving beans to happy folks throughout the land. Yes, serving beans to truck drivers who happily did without the meat they believed they needed for so long.
“Good, as far as I can see” answered Renoir, wondering what dream could change a persons voice to touch an extent. “I’ll try to call her tomorrow or the next day in Vancouver where she lives. I needed to talk to you first to feel you out. I’m feeling that you’re interested, even though you may resent me and Mike for exploiting your privacy Understandable, Mimi. But it sounds like you could use the money for something that’s important to you.” What was Mimi’s dream?
“Yes, I could,” she replied,” I really really could.” Oh, to go into Eddie Masket’s office and have him contact the realtor in Utah. Oh, for that piece of land in her name. For this she could sacrifice her petty grudges and go on with life. “And I’m not averse to being an author, either,” she added, for this was the truth.
“Good then. I’ll get moving on this. Is there any chance we could fly you out to go over things, say within the next two months? I’d like to meet you in person, since I am, technically, your editor.”
“Sure,” said Mimi, thinking of L.A. — of the sun, the smell of smog, the palms, the freeways, and yes, the Pacific. “Is your company going to put me up or should I contact a friend? I still have friends in the vicinity. Besides Hanratty.” She really wanted him to pu there up so that she could bring Anna Kidd along. Together, they could have some fun.
“We’ll fly you out; we’ll put you up.”
Mimi wondered if this was against the rules but decided total a stab at it. “I don’t suppose you could get me a room with two twin beds so my best Friend, Anna Ortiz Kidd, could join me. She would buy her own airplane ticket, of course.”
While he puzzled over the name of Mimi O. O’Rourke’s best friend, Mimi added, “You’d really like Anna. In fact,” she latched onto the thought, “You’d REALLY like Anna.” Anna was perfect for this guy. And he sounded hundreds of times better for her than the current suitor, Mr. Marlboro slash Lomborghini.
“Anna Ortiz Kidd,” he repeated, thinking this was the Anna of the letters. “With a name like that I feel certain we could get along. Bring Ms. Kidd along.”
At this time, Mimi was more taken with the possibility of uniting two like souls than of herself becoming a literary sensation for the coffee drinkers of America. She wanted to ask him for his photo but thought better of it. Instead, she thanked him for discovering her manuscript, thanked him for an educational if not delightful conversation, and asked him if he minded one last question. Of course, he didn’t.
“Do you eat meat?” she inquired politely.
“No, I don’t,” he answered matter-of-factly. “None at all. My family have all been vegetarians for three generations. It’s a long story. Why do you ask?”
“Just curious,” she answered gayly. “And relieved,” she added, now absolutely positive that fate was yanking on her sleeve and that nothing in the universe had anything to do with coincidence. Ringing off, Mimi wondered how many people had vegetarian editors.
Syd Renoir, in the stillness of his office, wondered about Mimi’s dream . Calling it an early day, he picked up his gym bag and headed for the bathroom to change. He would drive to Santa Monica where the beach would be empty and slightly cold with clouds, and he would run a good five miles. Then he would go home to his Westwood apartment and read those letters again, with Anna Ortiz Kidd in mind
He caught himself being overly interested and considered it a good sign, given his current mood about life in general. In the later afternoon light of Los Angeles in October, a greying but fluorescent orb bore down upon the horizon as if fatigued by its own weight. In millions of cars, millions of radio announcers raised the average conversational volume of the world with frantic and urgent messages. By five thirty, the heaving, sighting City of Angels would find relief in a setting sun, while on the beach somewhere, padding along at a decent page a lone runner would fee the same relief himself, and he would ask himself, “Where to next, Syd?”
“Dear Professor,” wrote Mimi with a pad propped up on her knees as she lay on the couch, drinking a rare Coca Cola and enjoying every sip,
“This letter is not for publication, so don’t go putting it in the pile marked “Syd Renoir.” After the initial euphoria of possibly becoming an instant author, I must say I’m a little peeved. What exactly made you think that you could just hand over all of my letters to some editor, who happens to be your friend — who, okay, happens to be a nice man? (A swell guy, in fact.) I mean at this point, I don’t even remember all the things I’ve said — my various therapists, my sundry male friends, my pop criticisms of our pop culture, my philosophy of living, and all the elements of my me-oriented life. All I have is a list of the clichés, 32 of them, and a vague recollection of what brought them on (I must say I surprise myself at having such a list). And even though I write the letters to amuse you, at least at the beginning (if the horrid truth be told), and even if they were kind of hand-on-the-hip type writing — more personality than person, say, well what if I had some reservations? Did you ever think about that? Or maybe you through I was all personality and no person. And what about poor, ambitious Susannah Poe who had it for you but married Syd instead. Aren’t you playing the puppeteer here, herr Professor? Aren’t you taking liberties with real lives?”
It’s not that I don’t want the letters published; I’m actually pretty amazed by that. But let’s reverse the situation. What if — and I realize this would never happen — you wrote letters to me and I did the same thing to you. What if your private ruminations were to be made available, off-handedly, to a friend of mine. Say, a woman editor who happened o be an old friend got her claws on them. Or what if I told you I had all your responses and I was going to offer Syd the chance at publishing them along with mine, or as a sequel. Well, the fact is, I am almost fanatical about keeping correspondence and the option remains open. Nope, I haven’t said anything to Syd yet because the thought just occurred to me just now in the throes of working myself up. How would you like to be a popular author, read in coffee houses by all the young urbanites you so desperately disdain?
Just a thought,
PS Can you understand my feelings AT ALL?”
She addressed the letter to Michael Norris Hanratty and sealed the envelope before she had a chance to review her feelings. Later, she bundled herself up 00 over bundled, in fact, a typical fault of hers — in a thick poncho and gloves and headed outside for a walk in the dark. The moon would be nearly full tonight, but it was nowhere to be seen as of yet; and though the view of the heavens was somewhat obscured by the steepness of the mountains in the box canyon, the stars, billions of them, hung in the sky, both icy and hot. Clouds moved across the lower atmospheres like ghouls hurrying through the ethers; and with a warm wind that precedes a storm, trees swayed and whispered to the only persons on the unlit street. Nero was off in the bushes sniffing, but look unmistakably a part of the picture — a black dog, head low, on a lonely street. She breathed deeply, a requiem for herself, and thought about Syd and Anna, about the professor, and about Max.
When she got home, she dug out all the letters she had filed under various people names. “Mom,” “Dad,” (there was but one letter in this sad category), “Professor,” “Clark” (an old boyfriend), “Joe” (another), “Zane” (another, and “Misc” Picking up an old shoe box spray painted black, she gingerly lifted the lid. Once it had held a pair of fire-engine red leather boots which she had worn to the quick. Now it contained nothing but postcards. And willing to be sidetracked, she opened the box. Hundreds of cards lay like a Rolodex of the past, and she stared down at them nearly afraid to disturb them lest she disturb herself. “Pick a card, any card,” she said out loud and drew one out from the center.
It was from the Vatican, The Hall of Sixtus. Interiors gilded and domed bore stately crosses with silences seated in by the ancient tile floors of cream and black. “Some of the rooms where I work,” it read, “Hope all fine with you. Remember psychology. You’d be good at it and there’s a future in it.” It was signed “Professor Swann.”
With a giggle that turned into a full-fledged guffaw, Mimi let herself roll on the floor and stamp her feet. “There’s a future in it,” she squealed. “Compared to what? English literature? Art history??”
Nero began to play growl now with his hysterical mistress, not knowing what to make of the show she was putting on, alone in her home. Professor Swann had been a creative writing intstructor her sophomore year in college. They had read books on script writing, time management and how to get published; they had done breathing exercises, right brain work, brief two-minute “refresher” meditations. The only thing they hadn’t really done was write. But somehow, Reuben Swann had come up with this idea that Mimi was going to become a psychologist, and a damn good one. Tears streamed down her face, now, as she finished wheezing. She picked another card.
Death Valley. Which was a “real downer — truly one of the lowest points of my life” for Zane, another college boyfriend. He had signed it “Gonzo mondo madness and sweet love.” Mimi had dozens of letters from Zane whose prose was as sweet and charming as he was. What had happened to him, she wondered. What great things had he done in nearly ten years?
Here was a Mary Cassatt reproduction from Clark, the oddest of her college acquaintances, going on and on in the most hideous handwriting about the nature of their “relation.” Hardly legible and hardly more intelligible. “Salve” as how he’d signed off. Old Clark had been heavily into philosophy last time she’d seen him, about ready to write the doctoral dissertation. The same young man had gotten so drunk at her house their senior year, he’d crashed his bike in the bushes and remained there all night, knocked out under his bike. In the early morning, she’d come out to find him there, dead to the world but pinned down by his bicycle. She’d never seen him in anything other than jean jacket, jeans, and big black boots. He would never cease to call Thomas Hardy to mind. Even now.
Postcards from Italy seemed to outnumber every other kind, and for some reason they made Mimi long to be there. One from the Amalfi Coast from Anna, as a matter of fact, said, “What I like about Italy is the clean wash hanging out of the windows. It is raining now and we are drinking coffee in a bar. Most perfectly cozy.” It sounded perfectly wonderful.
For another hour, Mimi stared at cards from long ago, from Tunisia, Alaska, Highway 1, India, Vermont. Postcards of the Royals, or dogs, or Victorian houses, or giant rabbits. There was even one from her father and mother visiting friends who lived on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. Her father, a fanatical if unsuccessful salmon fisherman, had written, “Am feeding multitudes to the fishes.” She smiled, and felt a lump growing in her throat. Desmond O’Rourke, the father with whom she had been at war, had died several years ago. Not willing to go through this particular onslaught of feelings, Mimi quickly tucked all the cards back into their shoe box and reached for the pile of letters, her original mission.
The professor’s were all there, in chronological order from the first summer after graduation until this last letter. She picked one at random from the center of the stack.
“Dear Mimi,” it was typed on cream-colored bond. “I feel I must actually write to you before I allow myself the pleasure of reading your letter, which sits there, unopened, on top of a pile of ungraded papers. Even though it may not make logical sense not to respond to your most recent — at least I will have one the right thing in not letting a letter be put away without answering it. I have begun many letters to you, in fact, and have become quite good at beginning them. Accumulating stories I think will be of interest to you, there is a portion of my mind reserved for stockpiling and filing details to be passed on to you. Somehow, finishing the actual missive seems an impossible task, though, and I carry the unfinished ones heavily, like guilt. Your life, with its complex turns, has its own enviable charm. I wonder what I might have been like had I wandered some more distant road, and ended up in some more distant place. You asked if I knew what had become of some of your intellectual compeers and I have to say I don’t know. I have my suspicions about Isabelle. Something political, I suspect, where her needs for both power and popularity could both be met. She had such a peculiar writing style, I’ll never forget it. Each point was made and substantiated as if her life depended upon it, as if to refute it would be to refute good sense and logic and intelligence itself. Her papers ended up sounding nasty, brutish and short! (Like a pit bull making an argument.) Needless to say, these were papers on such subjects as “Time in Shakespearean Romances,” not “The Necessary Components of Nutritive Dogfood.” I never gave her anything below a B but I always felt I should have. Maybe I worried she would come after me with a cleaver, exposing that side of her which made her drive her points home much as one would butcher meat. Susannah is much harder to speculate about, especially since I hear from her from time to time. Each time she has changed course dramatically. Is sent in a recommendation for law school for her not too long ago: I wonder whether she will get through that ordeal.
We will beg going to England this summer for a month-long stay in the usual place, and I am eagerly waiting our departure from this constant climate-that-is-no-climate of sun and smog (and to think I ever believed it would be clearer here). As usual, I have read much more than written in the past months, and the thought of rain beating down peaceably on a cottage roof does more good for my writing self than I can say. Enclosed on the small card is our address there, if you feel like writing. New York this time of year sounds familiar and good, even though your letters are full of the anguish I felt when I was there. Try to remember that to those who are no longer there, it is a lyrically urban place and that we are jealous of those still there, amidst the activity and culture. That Sundays in New York, quiet days of walking in the park and reading the Times are missed like the dearest of friends. Enjoy yourself, even though you are frustrated with it all. I’m sure you are capable of putting on a good show, even if lonely inside: you won’t regret it.”
It was signed “Yours,” and his initials “M.N.H.”
Written in the upper right-hand corner was the date: April 22, 1982. In that year, she had been 24.
Mimi stared at the typed pages for a long time, wondering if he would be ready for the world at large to read his epistolary prose. She knew she could handle it, she was no professor, no teacher of writing and of ideas. She doubted he could. What was he doing writing to a young student, anyway? Did he do with many of them, or few, or one or two Would he have corresponded to a male student and would it have been different? Did he need young women writing to him for advice like neophytes sadly separating themselves from their mentor? Was he her own father figure? Or were they just two human beings attached in some similar way to the art of letter-writing and the friendship made friendlier by it? Mimi felt that these statements were all somewhat true. A variety of needs were fulfilled, too complex to rank or analyze or dismiss.
The professor’s letters had changed over the course of the years, as she imagined hers had. His had become less intimate, for lack of a better word, and more newsy. Hers had become more “personality” and less person. She had slowly released the father figure; and he had no doubt found other neophytes for whom a mentor easily doubled as a father figure. Nevertheless, she appreciated her current rank, whatever it was; and she understood his.
Should she mail the angry letter though?
Yes, she thought. Yes, she should.