The New York Times Book Review
Allan Steinby Matthew Stadler
Comic, erotic, and richly imagined, Allan Stein follows the journey of a compromised young teacher to Paris to uncover the sad history of Gertrude Stein's troubled nephew Allan. Having been fired from his job because of a sex scandal involving a student, the teacher travels to Paris under an assumed name -- that of his best friend, Herbert. In Paris, "Herbert"
Comic, erotic, and richly imagined, Allan Stein follows the journey of a compromised young teacher to Paris to uncover the sad history of Gertrude Stein's troubled nephew Allan. Having been fired from his job because of a sex scandal involving a student, the teacher travels to Paris under an assumed name -- that of his best friend, Herbert. In Paris, "Herbert" becomes enchanted by Stephane, a fifteen-year-old boy. As he unravels the gilded but sad childhood of Allan Stein, "Herbert" is haunted by memories of his own boyhood, particularly his odd, flamboyant mother. Moving from the late twentieth century back to the 1900s, effortlessly blending fact and fiction, Allan Stein is a charged exploration of eroticism, obsession, and identity.
The New York Times Book Review
- Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
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Read an Excerpt
My story began properly in the perpetual darkness of last winter (almost spring, it was March) in the city where I used to live. Typically I woke up in the dark, 6 A.M. on most days, delivered from sleep by the icy stream of air spilling in my open window. The lighted clock of the railroad tower said six exactly. This round clock of black iron and creamy glass was the first thing I saw in the mornings. No one was ever on the way to work yet, nor had the lumbering buses and trucks started with their tentative, practice engine roars. (Later, in clouds suffused with the bright yellow and opium-poppy-orange of the risen sun, they would billow in every district of the city like grim flowers and release their belched gray emissions, which gave a pleasant taste to the winter air.) I am a teacher, or had been, which explains the early hour.
Opening the window from bed, only my head and one arm untucked, was my first habit of the morning. It was independent of me, like shifting the buried, cool pillows to the top in the deep middle of the night, neither conscious nor strictly unconscious--something between a dream and the address of a friend, which I had scribbled while dragging the phone as near to the table as it would go before absently tossing the newspaper on which I had written it into the garbage, along with the bones of a fish, so that it was lost both there and in my mind until, when the brisk air of morning rushed in the open window, the whole address, neatly printed, leapt to view, bright and clear as the pinpoint stars, noisy as a child, and my mind's eye, conscious, grasped it again, though only for a moment. Minutes later, in the chaos of morning, it was gone, but so was any memory of having lost it.
All my thoughts were thin and brittle when I woke. My expansive dreams, ideas that multiplied like the crystalline spread of urine released into space (which I have heard is a beautiful sight, witnessed only by astronauts, the discharge turning golden and immense in the black void), became whole great cities of geometrical fantasy, complex and beautiful as hoarfrost, before shattering suddenly into unreadable shards at the slightest touch of fact or feeling (a crease in the pillow bothering my cheek, for example, or the sour taste scraped from my teeth by a dull, swollen tongue). The scrim of night outside was fragile. Its thin black mask could not hide the sheer abundance of the day ahead, nor the fact that it was morning already elsewhere, evening again elsewhere still, and a bright summer afternoon somewhere so distant one passed through two accelerated days in the metal shell of a jet airplane just to get there. My mother, Louise, once asked me what separates one place from another. I was only a child, and of course I had no idea. Other places, I guessed, which begged the question.
The oatmeal I ate before bed and left too close to the coiled heater was covered by a film of dry skin, which burst under the slightest pressure, my thumb for example, if it strayed too deeply gripping the bowl. I always licked this thumb, after its plunge, and the cold sweet paste it unearthed from beneath the film was enjoyable. I could hear my friend Herbert, in the adjacent apartment, bellowing fragments of popular songs, which he only ever partly remembered. Herbert and I were always awake early, even while the rest of the city slept. He is the curator at the city's art museum, and they let him keep whatever hours he likes. I had no reason to be awake. The school where I taught resolved some misgivings that arose over Christmas by granting me a paid leave of absence.
I was accused of having sex with a tenth-grader in late December. This student, Dogan, was Turkish, lithe and very beautiful. I have a picture of him here on my wall. I tutored him on Saturdays at his apartment after his soccer practice, but I had never imagined molesting him until the principal suggested it by notifying me of the charges. Amidst the dust and gadgetry of the principal's meticulous office, his chair overburdened by the abundance he had squeezed onto its cupped seat, "had sex with the boy" floating in the well-lit air between us, my mind produced the following scenario (new to me):
On Saturday I arrive early. Dogan has showered after soccer, and water dapples the bare skin of his shoulders and chest. He's wearing shorts, drinking a soda when I get there, drying his wet hair with a towel. His lips and nipples enchant me. They have similar skin, rosy and supple, thinner and more tender than the olive skin around them. "Let's get started," I tell him. He takes the book and I stand behind his chair as he settles. "Read the first poem out loud." It is Garcia Lorca. I put my hands on his shoulders as he reads.
"`No one understood the perfume of your belly's dark magnolia.'"
"Do you know that word, `magnolia'?" Both my hands slip over his rounded shoulders, so that my fingers reach his nipples. He keeps still.
"Magnolia is like a tree or a bush, right?"
"Yes, and a flower. Keep going."
"`No one knew you tormenting love's hummingbird between your teeth. A thousand Persian ponies fell asleep in the moonlit plaza of your forehead.'" Here he stops and I'm worried he will get up, but he stays still. "Hmm, forehead." It's the imagery, not my seduction, that has him bothered. "'As four nights through I hugged your waist, snow's enemy.'" He slouches further into the chair as he reads, almost lying there, and I see his shorts tent and then relax. I move both hands over his ribs, then back up, pinching his nipples when he gets to the line about his waist. He is so slim I can feel his heart moving in the skin beneath my hand. If he didn't want it I wouldn't do it, I think I'm thinking.
"Those words should all be quite clear," I say. "Just continue."
"`Between plaster and jasmines your glance was a pale seed branch.'" He holds the book in one hand and pulls the waistband of his shorts down along his hip with the other. His thigh is pale where he has exposed it. I slide my hand over his belly and into his shorts, and he drops the book. His penis is very shapely, curving up onto his belly, and it's big enough to fill my hands. The glans of his penis has the same pink skin as his nipples and lips. I kneel between his legs and put it into my mouth. I pull it out and stroke the shaft and the head, pushing it around to inspect it. Dogan is tipped back in the chair with his hands entwined behind his head. His underarms are pale and damp.
I tell him, "Lorca's poem might appear to be unreal, but its dreamlike consistency can supplant waking reality by the force of a new coherence and logic, so that one becomes lost in it, like in fantasy or sleep, and the logical yardsticks of waking life that make its measure false are completely lost from view."
"Finish," he says, pouting. He bumps his thighs against my face, and I finish the blow job.
So you can imagine the difficulty I had denying the principal's charges. Why hadn't I molested the boy? For no good reason I could find, except maybe a failure of imagination. The fact I had done nothing seemed to be a mere accident of timing.
"I've never had sex with him," I said, in my defense.
"I believe you," our fidgety principal replied (and I believed he did believe). "I know you haven't done anything; the difficulty is proving it."
"What did the boy say happened?"
"Oh, he didn't say anything. His parents have accused you. They think he's covering it up because he likes it." He likes it? I was buoyed by this news, relieved to hear that my advances were welcome (never mind that there had been no advances, and no response and no victim, whose approval would still have been mere parental rumor).
"That's a relief."
"Nothing." Only minutes after hearing the accusation I was already planning a seduction. I cannot exaggerate how subtle and profound these chameleon confusions were. Placed at the scene of a multicar accident, I might become Florence Nightingale or a competent policeman directing worried traffic past the pools of blood and metal. At a boxing match, I have no doubt, I would've thirsted for the most horrifying results.
I pursued him. In the end I succeeded in committing the crime I had been falsely accused of. The parents never found out (no one did). As it turned out, sex was exactly what the boy wanted, and he became very much the happy, satisfied child they hoped he would be, where before, during the months that I was blind to him, he had been miserable and distracted (precisely the condition, noticed by his parents, that led to their accusation). In light of the boy's satisfaction, and the handsome salary I was then receiving for a great expanse of free time in which it became that much easier to meet him, clandestinely, for sex, I must admit that I sometimes looked on the whole horrifying affair as comical and ironic. After a while he grew bored or ashamed and stopped seeing me.
Herbert was the only friend I discussed this with. Others, especially my colleagues from school, were so moved by the weight of the "tragic accusations" that I could feel myself becoming tragic simply with the approach of their cloying, caring glances. Their eyes had the gleam and submerged instability of glaciers, vast sheets of luminous ice beneath which chasms creaked and yawned. One of them would appear uninvited before my table at a cafe, fat Mr. Stack the math teacher, for example, and shuffle toward me as if compelled by this hollowness behind his eyes, as slow and devouring as the ice that once crawled down the face of the continent. (My mother described a boyfriend of hers this way, one evening while she and I sat in a diner eating turkey sandwiches with gravy, a special treat she gave me far more often than I deserved. I was eleven years old. It wasn't five minutes before this very boyfriend appeared at the window with his face pressed to the glass, miming hello and making a fool of himself. She winked at me, then looked right past him, blowing smoke from her cigarette, saying nothing. Finally he went away.) I have none of my mother's cool reserve, so I avoided my colleagues when I could or, if forced by good manners to accept a repeated invitation to lunch, tried to speak cheerfully about my "new career" at Herbert's museum, a fiction I had devised, which, like most lies, eventually became true. I learned a great deal about art from Herbert during the few weeks that he helped me perpetrate this lie.
It first occurred to me one cold March afternoon while we sat at a cafe drinking. Herbert likes to drink and so do I. We are compatible in many ways, and being neighbors a great deal of our lives became shared; watering plants, checking the mail, and chitchat soon became socializing, shared travel, and a natural intimacy that has made me more comfortable with him than with anyone. This particular cafe (that cold March afternoon) was called Shackles, under which name it masqueraded as a pre-Victorian public house. Nothing in our city is pre-Victorian, except perhaps the famous lakes and the view out.
Dark wood, patterned velvet, newsprint advertisements for nineteenth-century ales (enlarged, scarred, and varnished for display), wall sconces fashioned from gas fixtures, and poor lighting made up Shackles's costume. Windows, curtained on brass rods at eye level, let us watch the street while easily hiding ourselves, if need be, by a simple crouch or slouch nearer the table. The unfortunate waiters were disguised as croupiers from Gold Rush-era Nevada (preposterous puffy sleeves, frilly red armbands frayed to the elastic, tidy vests with fake watch pockets and chains, plus anomalous cummerbunds), none of which kept the young students who took these jobs from supplementing the costume with beautiful earrings of silver or brass, chrome-pierced nostrils, ersatz-Maori cheek tattoos, braids and bangles twined about their elegant thin wrists or tied in colorful cloth cascading from their heads--the result being much more like science fiction than the vague nostalgia the owners must have been aiming for. One of the waiters was a lanky blond angel named Tristan, and Herbert adored him. Tristan was also a student at the university, and Herbert kept offering him an "internship" at the museum, to which the boy always replied, "It sounds completely fascinating," before shuffling off with our drink orders, and then nothing would come of it. We drank there whenever Tristan was working. When he wasn't working, Shackles became, to Herbert, "that hideous dive" and we went to a much nicer cafe near to our apartment house.
Our city is a virtual monument to indiscriminate nostalgia, sometimes (particularly when I look out my window at the nighttime buildings smartly lit by floods and spots) appearing like a grand, jumbled stage set for all the dramas of Western history. Muscular towers of concrete and glass, paid for by young stock wizards and software geniuses, offer a heady compote of modern forms and ornaments, collapsing three hundred years of the Enlightenment--vaulting skylights, vast glass cathedrals, forests of tall columns appended by apses (in which vendors sell coffee, magazines, and snacks), death-defying elevated wings of stone, granite monstrances balanced on steel pins, and sprawling webs of metal and tinted glass suffused with natural light (for the enjoyment of employees taking their sack lunch in the firm's "winter garden")--into singular monuments, so that one can review an entire history without straying out-of-doors. Lighted in the manner of Rome's Campidoglio, these generous knickknacks dominate the city at night.
Their grand theatricality is sadly compromised, for me, by the awkward, insistent fact that I grew up here. My childhood lurks behind these bright scrims and screens, unruly and constant, threatening to overturn the whole facade and reveal the actual place to me. Once, for example, about a year ago, on a date with a young friend named Herman, keeper of the computers at our school, the trashy glamour of the Downtown Fun House with its strung lights and carnival noise (a fabulous room of tilting pinball machines delivering their trilled ringing scores and piles of loose change which Herman, drunk, said was like Tivoli Gardens, which he described to me in German or Danish, making elegant gestures with his beer and singing God knows what song, so that for a moment I was far away in Denmark or Germany with my beer and this grandly sophisticated friend singing on the verge of some world war or depression) all dissolved when I spun (some would say reeled), and saw a dull canvas mural of two leering clowns painted in a hideous all too familiar greenish-pink. It had hung beside the Skee-Ball lanes covering a hole for the last thirty years, in a sad, dirty corner of this house of marvels, an eddy of quiet amidst the swirling noise. I had only ever seen it once before, when I was ten, and I had pissed there because my mother insisted it was all right to do so. You had better just do it, she said, and I unzipped my pants and did. A policeman came over, put his hand on my shoulder, and told me to stop. I could only stare at the clowns, which I've never really forgotten, and comply. Mama was kind enough to pretend it hadn't happened. "Look what some boy has done," she whispered, taking my hand and pulling me away from the corner.
Typically, the memory had ambushed me, replacing Denmark and the World War with my own messy life, and recasting my glamorous European date, Herman, as a loud, tasteless drunk. I knew all along it was there, waiting, but it sneaked up on me, rather like the smell of lavender, suppressed by the evening cold, that kept creeping out of the broad canyon of the Verdon River and stirring Stephane from his sleep, rousing the boy enough to make me panic that he might get up and leave, might return to the world and abandon me in the shell of our last ruin, that he would walk out of his scripted fever into life, into a world we had shut out, at least for a few days. Isn't it strange how distant the boy is, was, and those last days near the edge of the sea in France where we left pages ago, ages ago, to meet Herbert, who's still waiting, too sober and impatient at Shackles, for our conversation to resume? And all the time the boy was here, hidden by a thought, behind a thin distraction, the noise of a conversation, in that gap between words when silence extends one beat too long.
I enjoy the noise of a good conversation, particularly with Herbert, who has opinions and a stylish way of talking, so that even when he is silent my mind is occupied by him, his nervous hands smoothing the table's edge, his fish-dart glances, and the way his face rearranges itself around the twin-ridged frenum of his upper lip when he wants something. Adrift in my chameleon instabilities--I could become as easily a society matron as a loud sports guy in the next second, should the right acquaintance walk through the door--I never knew from which blurry edge the next bright color would bleed; Herbert was a swath of singular hue (the dusty pink of Travertine marble in the languid heat of Rome, late summer, late afternoon, for example, so antiquated and pleasing was his effect on me), a familiar resting place that imbued me with a clear, if slightly dated, identity.
"What exactly will Tristan be doing as your intern?" I asked.
Herbert stared at the retreating boy."I think he's so talented, don't you?"
I turned and we watched him together. Tristan's rambling journey led first to a cluster of tables, where his drunk friends shared a cigarette and told him a joke, which Tristan didn't get, so there was a long period of explanation, including a great deal of scribbling on a napkin, arrows and words, until finally the boy burst out laughing while his friends sat calmly, passing their one cigarette like a last round of munitions. Tristan moved then to the bar, where he chatted with the newest "croupier" and told him the joke, pulling out the scribbled napkin, which he'd kept, all the while clutching our drink order and gesturing with it, even as the bartender cleaned the spindle of the slips that had been placed there.
"What talent? The way he deflects your interest without killing it?"
"His manner, and that cool reserve." If Herbert smoked he would have flicked ash at this point, but he didn't smoke. "I need someone with exactly his skills."
"I wonder what interests he has?" Herbert might not have heard me, or he didn't really care about the boy's interests. "What makes you think he knows anything about working at a museum?"
"What's there to know?"
"Well, social skills, at the very least."
"Exactly." Herbert brightened at the thought. "I can just see him, charming rich old homosexuals by the tableful." Herbert said "homosexuals" as if it were a Linnaen tag for some insect-devouring plant, with a lot of sibilance and spit. "No one would be safe. Entire prewar collections of sodomite erotica would flood the museum."
"I suppose he could worm his way into the confidence of some old widower."
"Or the family of a rich industrialist."
"Mmm, fawning over the crayon scrawls of the twelve-year-old Scotch-tape heiress."
"Or her brother."
I said nothing, just stared at Herbert; maybe I lifted my eyebrow slightly.
Herbert took this silence as some kind of arch comment, an insight so enormous I could not deign to constrain it inside a few miserable words, so that while I was thinking nothing he believed I was thinking everything. He stared and bristled, then grinned at me and stammered, "No." Herbert often uttered this single word when he had stumbled across something he dearly hoped was true.
"Yes," was my obligatory reply. If I'd had my drink I would have sipped from it, but the drinks were still unmade.
"No." We searched the room for Tristan, but he was nowhere in sight.
"Probably." Someone kept tapping at the window with an umbrella, an older woman in Gore-Tex balaclava and rain parka, beckoning to her mukluked companion (parked at a table behind me) who responded in mime, Come in come in. Why should no one in the bar be allowed to hear the halfhearted invitation she was so obviously mouthing? Her friend shuffled to the doorway and brought half the afternoon's storm in with her, rain and leaves and lightning and such adhering to her billowing yards of weatherproof fabric. Herbert and I ducked down beneath curtain level and continued with our speculations. "Yes. He prefers boys, you can tell."
"No, I can't tell, which is what is so agonizing. He hasn't given me a clue one way or another."
"That is exactly what I mean. It's an obvious sign."
"You mean his failure to put me off?"
"No. He's put you off repeatedly. He puts you off every time we come in here."
"Yes. He just never does it by mentioning girlfriends or all that. If he was--you know--`normal,' he would have said so ages ago. He obviously likes boys."
"But he finds me repulsive?"
"An old, leering drunk."
"But he's always so chatty, serving the drinks and taking the tip and all."
"He's the waiter."
"Well, sometimes when I come in alone, I mean without you, in midafternoon when it's not very busy and poor Tristan isn't bombarded with all this work, he has gotten very, very flirty with me."
"Mmm." Suddenly he was at our table.
We looked up as this blessed angel lifted our drinks from his tray. (A small twinge here tells me it is demeaning and wrong to have condemned anyone, even one so incidental as our waiter, Tristan--though let me point out that he later, in fact, became Herbert's intern, excelled at courting collectors of all persuasions, was hired away by a famous art center in Minneapolis and then a museum in New York, where he has now become the golden boy of contemporary art curating, exactly as Herbert predicted and despite being just as stupid and poorly educated as I had suspected he was, a fitting poster child for America's fantastically undiscriminating upward mobility, where anyone with minimal beauty, a pleasing ignorance, and intitiative can rise to any height--to condemn him, that is to say, to the tired idealizations of romantics and colonialists [angels, sylphs, savages, and the like], such as have been routinely inflicted on women and other exotics, like children. Too bad. Herbert and I gave Tristan a gift when we elevated him to such heights, especially considering that the alternative was a life of dull, respectful sobriety and caution so boring we all might as well have been dead.)
"Scotch neat," our servile Eros mumbled as he set Herbert's drink in front of him.
"The usual," Herbert answered brightly, smiling at the boy.
"Uh-huh, whatever. And a gin and tonic here for your, uh, partner in crime." This absentminded aside sent a jolt of electricity through both of us, lifting Herbert's eyebrows as he stared at me across the drinks, silent, until the boy wandered off with his enormous tip (40 or 50 percent, whatever change was left on the tray).
"Partner in crime, did you hear that?" Herbert asked rhetorically, because of course I'd heard it. It was all either of us had heard. "He is such a tease."
"He probably thinks we're boyfriends."
"Don't be idiotic."
Tristan shuffled out of view--my view, in any case. Herbert kept his marksman's stare fixed just to the right of my face, beyond which the boy, to judge by the sound of what I could not see, was adjudicating a dispute between the two lady customers (one still unwrapping) and a wonderfully tall Nigerian "croupier" who, in the lilting British tones of a public-school boy, had ridiculed the ladies' objections to "an awful lot of indoor smoking." Shackles routinely allowed what state law evidently forbade. Tristan offered them a table near to ours (no smoke here), still behind me, and they took it. I could feel the weather arriving with the coats. I slouched a little closer to my drink so Herbert could see better.
"I wasn't being idiotic. We certainly look as though we're married."
"Mmm, that's a thought, not a pretty one." Herbert sipped his drink and continued his surveillence.
"You're handsome. Everyone says so." This drew a brief glance and a smile.
"Well, it's not true. I look like a doll whose head has been chewed on by a rat." In fact the description was a good one. "Gnawed" Doll's Head,' like some sort of Swedish porn star. You look that way too.
"Yes. Hank says we're practically identical. We would have handsome children, all sculpted and chewed upon."
"Would you have sex with our son?" I asked. "I mean, if we had one?" Herbert grimaced, as though his drink were bad. Tristan appeared beside us, and the grimace became a leering, amplified smile.
"We were just discussing you," Herbert announced, ignoring my question. "I mean the work you'll be doing for the museum."
"Hmm." Tristan might have been amused. At the very least he was cheerful.
"It looks fairly certain I can get you credit for that Stein project."
"Oh, right, the Stein project." Tristan squatted by our table and smiled. (I know for a fact Herbert was making this up. Tristan had been carrying a copy of Gertrude Stein's Three, Lives one evening when we were drinking, and Herbert managed to turn this assigned text into Tristan's metier simply by prolonged badgering of the boy, plus Herbert's poor memory and fulsome imagination.)
"I mean in addition to the stipend. But you're going to have to start this--what is it you have here?--this term, or semester."
"Block." We both stared at the boy. "You know, seven blocks, five interims, plus the optional summer block?"
"Right. This block, which must be coming up soon, since there are so many of them. The work can go on however long you like, but we need to get started on it very soon." The boy's absent, cheerful face gave no clue what he was thinking. He might have been a genius or the victim of some experimental surgery. "You did tell me you were a big--what was it, fan--of Gertrude Stein, didn't you?"
"Oh, yeah." He perked up at her mention. "Big-time fan."
"Well, this is your chance to put that expertise to work--I mean, not much work, it's really very easy, but your enthusiasm for Stein will be an asset."
"I have a sheaf of family letters, amazing stuff, mostly from her nephew and sister-in-law, which are just a joy to read."
"It sounds completely fascinating."
"Was he gay?" I interrupted, hoping to steer us, at last, toward the shoals of the Tristan question.
"`He'? Who `he'?" Herbert's sour tone and grimace swatted at me, like hands chasing away some buzzing insect. "Gertrude Stein was gay, everyone knows that. You don't mean `she,' do you?"
"He." I strained. "The nephew."
"Oh, I don't know. He was certainly miserable enough." Herbert turned his very broad and cold shoulder toward me. "Anyway, Tristan won't be concerned with all that. He'll be too busy going after these missing drawings. We'll probably have to send someone off to Paris to get them."
"Cool." It was me, interrupting before the boy could get this word in edgewise. In fact Tristan never used the word, nor was he about to use any word, because duty had called him away. "Super cool."
"Thank you very much for frightening the boy."
"What, with the word `gay'?"
"With your rudeness. Why do you have to make a wreck of every conversation I have with anyone else?"
"I asked one question."
"You derailed the conversation."
"The question was in earnest. I didn't even know she had a nephew."
"`Was he gay?' What on earth does it matter?"
"I was just curious. Do you know him?"
"Do I know him? How could I know him, he's been dead for forty years. More."
"Was he cute?"
"Oh, God." Herbert left the table, and I fiddled with my glass. Outside the day had become grand and chaotic. Enormous sweeps of sun dragged down the boulevard, chasing sheets of rain (bright/ dark/bright again) and transforming into glitter windblown accumulations of trash and prized trifles, after which schoolboys scattered in their slickers and boots. There was snow at a certain elevation (not high--it obscured the carnivorous pigeons in their third-story roosts), and large hail whomped down at one point as if released from some humiliating television game-show contraption, so that everyone looked up, and by the time they looked up it was sunny again.
Spring is always so marvelous here (our city sits smack dab at the northernmost reach of the American West Coast), and it stretches from February to July. The other season is fall, which begins at the end of spring and lasts through January. At some point, every year, shortly after spring has ended and before the first gray showers of fall have come, there appear, as suddenly as sleep, two weeks of honey-warm days stretching to near-Laplandian lengths, the noontime parkland trails burnished in gold, when our hilly metropolis is saturated with the big yellow sun--a fat baker's dozen of rich green days spent lolling on picnic blankets beside the child-strewn beach or drowsing with a book on one of the floating rafts. So sudden and delirious are these days, their memory is quickly buried under fall's gray return, alongside our more private night dreams, until the city is ambushed again the next year, when these days reemerge precisely where we had left them.
Regarding the weather of childhood, a harmless possum lived under the front porch of our fourth house--my favorite--which (belied by its trees, languor, and possum) was in a busy neighborhood near the city's downtown. It was our house for two years (ages ten to twelve), the house in which my mother and I were happiest. The trees, the languor, low-to-zero rent (the landlord died partway through our tenancy and no one noticed us for a year), plus my emergence into the age of reason and dinnertime conviviality, conspired to make of this place a brief heaven. The possum--I named him Larry--scratched at our door whenever it was going to rain. Louise called him our prognosticator. He wanted to come in, I think, because it got wet under the porch when it rained. We never let him (the only discord of these halcyon years) and I stopped arguing with Louise when she told me that possums love, more than anything, the spittle of sleep, and that Larry would find me at night and lick the saliva from my lips, from my tongue even, thrusting his ratty little mouth into mine, defenseless while I dreamt, to sip the sweet nectar of my boyhood mastications directly from its source, should we ever let him in the door. Later, when puberty began, this scenario became a fantasy of mine, the most horrible and forbidden of many imagined scenes and therefore (on a few intensely private occasions, of which I will spare you the details) the climactic one.
Why a fourth house? Why no father, siblings, or proper account of the scarring events of a troubled youth, etc., etc.? That is the part that bores me, all the psychiatrist's carefully hoarded trivia of "damage," gathered in his great pockets like loose change, grimy coins that he can then count out against the final bill, the great tabulation of failed dreams and dysfunctions he must balance against the purchases of a childhood. I can only tell what I remember, and what I remember is growing up. My father was gone, along with three half-siblings he enjoyed with another woman, and my mother didn't like him and neither did I. His absence was as meaningful to me as the fact that I lacked an elephant. There are times when a boy could benefit from the company of an elephant, and it's too bad if he doesn't have one. However, I was so involved with what I did have, the missing parts of the "normal" went unnoticed, until everyone started asking me about them--which was early, age six or seven, when a virtual forest of adult faces began pestering me with questions about Dad, etc. Had the world turned its immensely caring eyes toward me and asked, sotto voce, "But, little boy, where is your elephant?" I would have burst into tears more sincere than any I have shed about my father. There is so much in this world that does not love a child it never seemed terribly important to single him out.
Herbert returned. He settled in, casting a disappointed glance at the empty scotch glass. "Where is that boy?" We surveyed the room brusquely, but Tristan was nowhere in sight. "So, what happened while I was gone?"
"Nothing, really. Tell me more about this Stein nephew."
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