Celebrated (part seventeen)
“Well, Brill’s pal, partner…did you ever meet Ian Charles Guiness?”
“Was he…?” Tom gestured, slicking a palm above his head.
The hairstyle, yes…the blow-dried loft. Also, there had been long carpety sideburns. But she completed for him, “A son of a bitch?”
“Now, I’m trying to think. He always had his door open. Always on the phone, a loud talker. Step out into the hall, for some reason come into Brill’s office in the middle of call, make faces…” He pantomimed this, the reeling of the cord, the heft of the base, the neck-cradling of the handset…which, funny to realize…
Had been the signature of cool busyness. No more. Tom mouthed an imaginary sentence, gave an eye roll of the type that invites commiseration.
“Oh, so true. The cigarillos.”
A laugh. “But he never handled my stuff.”
“No, that wasn’t the kind of stuff he handled.”
The import, by some wicked serendipity, was spot on, while she hadn’t meant so much. Only that Ian groomed Brill’s prospects. No…
Only that Brill personally handled the manuscripts he admired, Ian the novices he thought needed… She had embarrassed Tom. Breaking off like this, she had embarrassed them both. He was looking around the restaurant for some distraction to suggest itself.
“I don’t blame Brill at all. I don’t remember him that way. I mean he didn’t lech on women…and you know, I don’t think being from his generation, he would understand a man like Ian in that light. He thought Ian was a young hotshot, back when that would have been a good thing to say.”
“Something,” Tom said, “that happened with Guiness…is the reason you never finished your book? I’m presuming. Did you?”
“No. I gave it up completely. He made me hate it. But I try to be fair.”
Without comment, Tom picked up his wallet, tipped his coffee cup…that looked wholly empty…into his mouth, and scooted from the booth. “Let me go pay and we’ll hit the road.”
“Look, I didn’t describe it very well. Try again. Hector, you see, has to keep adapting…he’s recovering from hypothermia, they put him in a cabin…”
“On the Carpathia.”
“Yes, right. With three first class passengers. And he sees the luck of it, being placed this way. Harold Maiden Carter, the man he’s impersonating, was second class…these three would never meet him. Hector fakes being sicker than he is, lies and listens to his bunkmates’ talk. He makes little changes to his appearance while he has the excuse…starting a moustache, parting his hair in the middle, begging a pair of specs he can’t really see through. Harold had been thirty-nine, Hector is twenty-four. He weighs these fifteen years. It seems not so hard to pass for older…could he pass for younger? Be Harold’s illegitimate son…? Get money from the family, promise them he’ll disappear?
“Everyone gets checked in, of course, in New York, Harold’s name put on the survivor list, the relatives contacted. Might he get something from the White Star line, Carter’s fare back to Europe? Will the bastards confound him, comp it instead of paying cash? So, early on, a little comical…at the same time, we see Hector training his mind, thinking like the grifter he’s about to become. Carter has a father, who telegraphs: Have you lost all your money? Are you going away again? And, you know, while he’d been angling for a tip, chatting, Hector had learned a handful of facts. Carter lived in Italy; he made his living selling paintings. He had no wife.
“Naturally Hector would love to send back: yes, father, I need money. But where to? He combs the letters from the pocket. One is to a Dorrie Maiden. I have no plans, Carter tells her, it will be fine to see all of you. Please never think I mean to impose. And will you say to Ephra, before I arrive, if I do, that I have not forgiven myself? If that will make any difference. The second letter is a reference, from a businessman named Smith, who says his dealings with Carter have always been satisfactory. The letter is folded inside a note written by Harold, saying, I am forwarding this to you, per your request. Both letters are tucked into an unaddressed envelope, but Dorrie’s has hers above the date.
“For a week or two yet, Hector can get by…he’s been given money out of a victims’ subscription fund. He writes Dorrie. I have met a nice young man on the rescue ship—you know enough of that, I shan’t say more. I am well, all things taken in account, but hope you will not press me for details. It is still painful for me to hold a pen, so you will forgive the clerk’s hand in which this missive is dictated. The favour” (she spelled it for Tom) “I wish to ask is this. My friend is in the picture line, as myself. I mean to set him up, if I can. Then, if it could be convenient to you, I might send him on, and I will arrive shortly. For a few days, I cannot leave the city.”
“I’m getting it,” Tom said. “Hector has to go clue by clue…let me see… Harold was estranged from his father, he offended someone named Ephra, in some pretty serious way, his cousin Dorrie…cousin by marriage maybe…is on his side, but not close enough he’s sure he’ll be welcome as a long-term guest.. Her husband is the problem? Also, I take it, Hector doesn’t know how to sound like a middle-class American.”
“But, think…what an astonishing thing, to have a cousin who survived the Titanic! You’d hardly presume anything crazier, more out of the ordinary, on top of that. Dorrie writes Harold at his hotel, Hector practicing, in the meantime, at Harold’s handwriting, and prying out what information he can about these particular Carters and Maidens. Dorrie says, you worry more about your father than he worries about you. But is this friend of yours very important? Is he the one from Italy? If it’s that way, you don’t have to pretend. Just know that Tam won’t have it. Pish, I am going to send you a check. By which I mean, of course, that if you can, you must take care of your friend and don’t bring him.”
(2019, Stephanie Foster)