Celebrated (part twenty)
She’d dispatched Hector to coastal New Jersey, a tent auction he spots advertised. Emboldened, in the way being someone other than yourself allows, Hector works the room.
And with a vague idea he’s heard of Harold Carter, one of the dealers hires him.
He begins to feel the study of art superfluous to his work. The chief thing seems sussing out what the customer is willing to spend. That, plus a sort of divination, in which you peer, as they peer, seeking clues. Is it seascapes they fancy, is it still-lifes…?
Simple math, then.
“I’ve got something…” Catch the eye. “Yes…I believe I’ll take the chance.” Smile. “It may be just a bit outside your range…”
Now and then, tastes might run even to the modern stuff. Most wrinkled their noses. Some only scorned the possibility of this shop, of all shops, acquiring anything good.
Hector had learned a little spiel, for such.
“It’s the rising star you want to catch on the way up, right? Let me tell you how it goes with the magazines…every editor likes to credit himself with making a discovery. He’s on the lookout for the next, what do they call it…? Enfant terrible. Anything gets hot when it’s talked about. Then it’s too late, you’ll overpay. Look at Picasso.”
This phrase, look at Picasso, being often enough. People who knew anything about Picasso (Hector did not) had opinions; opinions a man who could nod his head need only let them air.
“Now, let me pay you a compliment. I like what you’re exploring, this idea that Hector, by assuming the background of a person from, let’s say, a higher class…can just mesh into this milieu. Once they take him for one of them, the things he actually says don’t matter.”
“But remember, Tom, the whole project is kind of dead. What I’m exploring…well…” She fingered the manuscript’s yellowed edges. He was answering her smile, in innocence, and they both sat grinning at each other for a moment…for no reason.
She felt sure of him, suddenly.
“Did you hear yourself? You’re paying me a compliment by telling me you like my idea.”
A tick. “Okay, but don’t take my word for it. Or, look…am I the most famous person ever to read The Lost Man?”
“Ah, ha! Honored, sir.”
“But I think of Motion, and I feel like I had no ideas at all, starting out. You were way ahead of me.”
His face looked embarrassed at this.
So it struck Petra, a thing out of context. She was only pleased he’d got her, and hadn’t been offended. Well, she was not a pushy broad. But she would push a little. “You were the young prodigy. Haverton Wilmot, no less.”
“Yeah. On the pie chart of my life, though, the time I’ve spent regretting that, versus the time it seemed cool…”
He sketched it for her, defacing her work. But funny.
“Say hello to Artis. Anyway, it was the Nixon era. A girl couldn’t do what you did. You know, if Brill had published me, the firm’s publicity arm would have wanted me interviewing as the liberated chick, all up to date on sex, playing the game. Showing leg. Bantering and giggling. No, when Ian took me to parties… Which, by the way, he’d tell me, dress up, Motley, it can’t hurt. And when he said Oxenham was developing my book, what did I get asked, pretty much every time? Ian was married, so even though he looked like my boyfriend, and he was—”
She had hated Ian calling her by her last name. Some cuteness lifted from the movies, but really, a sign of not believing in her. It had felt almost like he called her Mutt.
She acted the party guest’s voice for Tom. “Writing a book, what does your husband think! Oh, you don’t have one?”
“But Guiness, he had a wife already?”
“Yes and no. His line was, he was getting divorced. But he never did. His friends were all…knowing people. I felt like they had a sly little joke in the background, about me, dumb little wannabe. But when I say he was my boyfriend…”
Tom’s mouth twitched.
“Be serious, now. He vas! But I was not his girlfriend, you see. He didn’t have one. The same line he used to criticize my book, he used to dump me. I’ll get to it. First I want you to know how it ends, Hector and his father. They write, and old Mr. Carter, finding his son has stopped being stubborn, seems not mad at him anymore, takes an interest, even, in his little stories, begins telling Hector about his life, how he lost two businesses, how he was away…hundreds of miles…on a sales job, when his wife died, and he couldn’t afford the telegrams to set his mind at ease about his sons. A secret about Harold’s older brother, who is also dead…and to Hector, of course, this is not shattering. He’s gentle, encouraging with Carter. Carter is his friend, his sounding-board, his father. He finally comes to feel that he loves this man. Except that…they will have to meet.
“And I’ll tell you, I really entertained leaving the end to hang. Literary license aside…is it heartbreaking for both of them? Should Hector quit his job and grab a train anywhere, make the old man suffer the lesser evil? Loss, but not humiliation? Then there’s the Tichborne solution, that I confess I really preferred. You don’t know what I mean.”
“Sounds like a spy novel.”
“In the Victorian era a man vanished, heir to a baronetcy…shipwrecked, it was thought. A Cockney butcher from Australia arrives in England, twelve years later, claiming he’s Roger Tichborne. Lady Tichborne simply accepts him. Because it’s a little comical, but you know, good laughter… Or did my mother ever…?”
“Empathizing, not mocking?”
“At the same time it’s very much human nature, and I could see them solved that way, Carter never doubting this young man who doesn’t look like Harold, doesn’t talk like Harold, is Harold regardless…”
He was fluttering her manuscript’s back pages. “You did leave it hang, though.”
“That, Tom, is what you call unfinished. You asked me if Hector met Dorrie. I came into my contract stuck exactly there. I thought Ian would be a magic mentor, ask me riddles… And when I’d guessed them, all dilemmas would untangle themselves before my eyes. Dorrie felt non-negotiable, but darned if I could explain to Ian why. I agreed with him the scene didn’t click. He liked them being lovers. I said…arguing from a weak position, maybe…why would a respectable Bangor housewife in the year 1912, start an affair with a man impersonating her cousin? Theodore Dreiser, he said. But I don’t know why you want to write Dreiser. Then you throw in character humor, like you were writing Dickens…that makes your problem worse. You should do the whole thing from Dorrie’s point of view. I saw Ian breaking my project down into some dismal woman’s novel. Upper class heroine sports for a weekend with lower class man…
“And without any logic to it. It’s a book world conceit, that you don’t do business with people and carry on. You have to have love affairs. Dorrie learning to value her marriage, la di dah… He said, don’t you think you’re taking a lot on? Don’t you think the trouble you’re having writing Hector is just lack of experience? I wasn’t having trouble writing Hector! I felt, I still feel, I knew Hector very well…I said no, no, no, and Ian said come on, he should not have a wife at home and kids. Not unless you plan to resolve it. But! In real life, that’s precisely the sort of thing people don’t resolve. Ian’s Hector would end up one of those loveable scamps, not even Pickwickian now, just airport fodder. It matters that finding his father, in effect, is what opens his mind to how little he’s cared about other people.”
(2019, Stephanie Foster)