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Perhaps the bicycle taxi driver spoke no English. Or perhaps he was the trickster Loki in disguise. Or perhaps he was simply tired of pedaling around a passenger with a 250-pound trunk full of first-edition nineteenth-century novels. But after a fifteen-minute ride Slater Brown's luggage was deposited on the curb in front of TK's BAR in the Mission District and he was presented with a bill for eighty-seven dollars.
As the bicycle taxi jingled off into traffic Slater Brown smoothed his suit and stepped inside. Upon first review TK's wasn't exactly the literary place he'd hoped for. In fact, the only book any of the residents were reading was the Bay Meadows racing form.
Nevertheless, it was at TK's Bar & Simmer (it wasn't licensed as a grill, but they kept a hot plate next to the cash register), beneath a faded photograph of Joe DiMaggio holding a stringer of tiny silver fish, that Slater Brown first sat down and made the round wooden table talk.
The talking table—christened the "noisy fecker" years ago by the sour-faced Irish barman known as Whilton—had first exhibited its propensity to thump during an after-hours dice game of "Ship, Cap'n, Crew." The game, a not-to-be-missed ritual at TK's, had been played every Thursday night since the Nixon administration. During one particular game, Sideways Sal had pounded on the table so hard as he was losing that one of the spindly table legs had inexplicably become shorter than the others.
"I wish't I'd me a furnace," said Whilton at the time.
But he didn't, and tilting the table sideways through the door and out into the open street was too much hassle for an aging man with a bum back, so he simply slid the round wooden table to the farthest corner, where the extra glasses were stacked below the pay phone, and forgot about it.
Tonight the talking table, having finally found its muse, was impossible to ignore. It vibrated madly, sending up little explosions of dust and pencil shavings from the linoleum floor like hot grease, as Slater Brown filled his yellow notebook with observations.
It was the kind of thumping conversation that held no interest to the tired faces gathered alongside the bar. If they had lifted their heads to listen to the frantic sound coming from the corner, they would never have understood the language. Transcribed, the talking table told a secret, unknown to anyone else, for Slater would never share it:
Twenty-nine, twenty-nine, twenty-nine . . .
The very idea of it beat down on him with the weight of a thousand steel hammers. There was a kind of numerological destiny to twenty-nine.
If you haven't anted up the chips of imagination by twenty-nine, then what are you? Just a professional mourner, looking back, pulling away on the wrong train, your voice caught in your throat, unable to attract the attention of the impatient conductor.
By the age of twenty-nine James Baldwin and Saul Bellow and T.S. Eliot and Fitzgerald and Rilke and—
The pencil point crumbled. He'd been pressing too hard against the page.
As Slater Brown paused to resharpen with his pocketknife, blowing the cedar shavings onto the floor, he couldn't help but look over his shoulder to see if anyone was watching.
By the age of twenty-nine Hemingway and Chekhov and O. Henry had pulled themselves together for the world to see, walked to center stage, forgotten the lisp or canker sore, the bunched-up underwear, their mother's stink-eye, and killed—killed!—the audience.
Yet here he was at twenty-five, rising each morning, trying to pull forth some kind of original writing that would stand without support. There had been the one poem, published in The Bartleby Review. But that had been in the special issue devoted to dyslexic writers. And he'd even faked that!
For him, the worst part was the loathing.
No, actually the worst part is the panic. Turning each breath into a battle . . .
Actually, the worst part was that he didn't even have the courage to admit to the world that what he wanted, more than anything, was to be a writer people would remember.
He'd read the masters. He'd reread the masters. James Joyce had been quite explicit in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: "Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul . . ." But despite repeated attempts, Slater Brown found the smithy of the soul a lot harder to locate than Mr. Joyce had ever let on.
The idea that you simply read everything–from the Bard to Balzac, from Cervantes to Conrad—picking up clues on how to write your own masterpiece is just bullshit. Because it leads you to believe that by following their footprints you can learn the route in advance. But it doesn't work that way!
Behind Slater Brown a jubilant cheer went up at the bar as the residents watched a televised home run float out of the baseball park—a lonely, predestined comet on its way to illuminate the inky darkness of the Bay.
The talking table had gone quiet. The faces at the bar were quiet too, turned upward like geckos, basking in the muted glow of sporting highlights. When the ninth-inning home run was replayed on the eleven o'clock news, they cheered again, like drunken sailors who had forgotten they'd already seen land. By now Slater Brown was standing, hunched over the talking table in a kind of masturbatory clinch, unconsciously holding his breath as he tried to force himself down the tiny aperture of the pencil point and spread his thoughts across the page.
His mind reached for something to write. He could locate the right ideas, always in fact, but it was impossible to put them onto paper exactly the way he thought of them.
It's not my fault, he promised himself. It's the words' fault! The English language, in all of its elastic, indeterminate obstinacy, is to blame!
He had every confidence in his ability to communicate his deepest philosophical thoughts and feelings (and sense of humor!) if the words would just present themselves. In the correct order! That was important, because a lot of what Slater Brown had identified as bad writing was not bad thinking or bad observation or bad feeling but simply bad order. Case in point, he wrote in his yellow notebook: A dictionary. Every book ever written comes from words in a dictionary. But it isn't the words that make a book interesting. It is the ORDER of the words. Otherwise, people would go around reading dictionaries!
Pleased beyond reckoning with this digression, he touched pencil to paper and soon the wooden table leg began pounding along again, a manic telegraph sending out a midnight S.O.S.
He'd come to San Francisco expressly for the purpose of writing something that would last forever. Only he didn't feel he could share this personal ambition with just anyone. They would think what? That he was a fruitcake! That he had lost contact with reality? It was a tricky situation, having a plan you couldn't share. Nevertheless, for the first three days he exerted the plan flawlessly and with maximum concentration from his perch in the back of TK's. In the evenings he would reread what he'd written by the bar's dim light. Nobody paid him a scintilla of attention.
By day four he began to flounder. By day five he couldn't even look at himself in the cracked bathroom mirror. After flogging and thrashing through the catalogue of ideas in his mind, seeking a theme, or character, or even a single word that would last forever, Slater Brown began to change his mind. Irrespective of the fact that this self-assigned task was harder than anticipated, he was slowly but surely running out of money and for the first time it occurred to him that writing for eternity didn't pay very well. At the outset, this had seemed like a future problem. But on the morning of day six, given his diminishing cash reserves, it revealed itself to be a problem very much set in the present. So, with a pendulum's logic, Slater Brown decided to forget about forever and instead write something successful. You couldn't have it both ways.
For God's sake, as so many of the dead masters have shown, you can't shine and illuminate at the same time.
So there it was. Write something successful.
The morning of his twelfth day in the city Slater Brown lay in his bedroom in a state of paralysis while the pages of the San Francisco Sun covered his naked body like a funeral shroud.
Piles upon piles of books stood in four-foot-tall towers around the room making it look like a library bereft of shelves. Along the windowsill rested three decades of The Bartleby Review, salvaged from the dumpster of a decommissioned library. Propping up a three-legged mahogany wardrobe was a seventeen-pound untranslated, unexpurgated, and unread edition of Don Quixote.
The desk next to the window was covered by bound sets of Icelandic sagas and Russian short stories, while the major Irish poets, interspersed with a random selection of South American magic realists, occupied the only chair.
Simply moving around the room required tiptoeing down serpentine pathways and around the pulpy stalagmites, or risk sending the greatest names in literature crashing to the floor. Only the small sink and the tiny bed remained uncovered by the bibliomania.
That Slater Brown wanted to be a writer was obvious. But it was more than that. He wanted to be the very best writer in the entire world. To one day have his work included in the company of the classics that surrounded him. But even this secret had a false compartment: By his calculation, he already was the best writer in the world. In the history of the world! He knew things, saw things, heard things that would blow people's minds!
He just hadn't gone through the irksome task of writing it down yet.
In the correct order!
It is not easy to maintain the idea you're the greatest writer in the history of the world when you haven't actually published anything yet. Yet there are ways this can be accomplished, and Slater Brown found one of them without benefit of instruction. Remarkably enough, if one were to imagine oneself the greatest writer in the history of the world, then it logically followed that one did not, per se, have to suffer through the dross of lesser scribes. This dross turned out to include almost all of known literature.
This philosophy was reinforced because Slater Brown believed that he could tell, straightaway, if a book was any good or not by simply reading the first sentence. Hopped up on double espressos and small pieces of Turkish halva, he passionately wrote and rewrote the familiar sentences in his yellow notebook:
All good first sentences have a kind of sincerity. And all good first sentences have a kind of energy. But what kind?
Outside his window came the echo of a distant foghorn. It was as if the city were agreeing with him. He took this as synchronistic coincidence of the highest order and pressed on.
Thanks to the Sincerity-Energy principle, more than one of the books in Slater's room had been opened and inspected before being thrown unread into the corner. The ratio of unacceptable books to acceptable was a dozen to one.
Feeding this unique reading habit was a second streak of compulsive behavior. Before Slater Brown dismissed the offending book—with the confidence of a pharaoh handing down a death sentence—he would invariably flip to the back of the dust jacket and read the author's biography. In its own way this little slice of information was more important to him than the book itself.
He mined each of these miniature life stories until he'd done the mental mathematics necessary to figure out how old the authors were when they'd first written The Big One. This was how he'd come to the horrifying conclusion about the terrible importance of the number twenty-nine, and furthermore how he'd convinced himself that, at the age of twenty-five, he was being left behind in the great parade of literary history.
Reading the first sentences of the greatest books in the English language in order to feel superior, and then reading the author's biography (which invariably caused him to feel terrible and inferior and, finally, terribly inferior), was not a pastime that ever caused Slater to get much writing accomplished, and seemed to be responsible for his current state of stasis. It was like watching a bee sting itself over and over again.
Suddenly there was a knock on his bedroom door.
"Who is it?" he said, lurching to cover himself with the crumpled newspaper.
"Who do you think it is?" said the voice. "Just to let you know, your breakfast is getting cold."
"Than . . . thanks, Mrs. Cagliostra," he said, scrambling from bed.
Mrs. Cagliostra, a fifth-generation San Franciscan, had rented her guest cottage to him provided he sign a contract that stated he would keep an eye out for burglars, didn't play any musical instruments, was not in possession of a Himalayan longhair cat, and ("absolutely, positively!") allowed no sleepovers. Such was Mrs. Cagliostra's Catholic disposition that encounters with strangers latching her sidewalk gate at six in the morning had proven detrimental to her digestion. She'd also demanded a month's rent and a deposit, which Slater had been able to satisfy only by turning over a bejeweled silver snuffbox once belonging to his great-grandmother. "I'll just hold onto this until you find steady employment," she said, slipping the family heirloom into her apron pocket.
The renter's cottage sat in the rear garden of the big house, among the slugs and calla lilies, and looked like a miniature red-and-white shoe box, with a sloping slate roof and two wide windows that overlooked Powell Street. One entire side of the cottage was covered with tiny pink climbing roses, which Mrs. Cagliostra tended to every day and affectionately called "my girls."
He'd found Mrs. C. (as he came to call her) on his seventh day in San Francisco by perusing rental advertisements on a giant rain-spattered cork bulletin board in front of Generosa's pastry shop in North Beach. His first nights in the city were spent sleeping in a eucalyptus grove underneath the stars in the Presidio, which had seemed like a perfectly reasonable plan until the fog rolled in and made all his clothes, even his packed ones, smell like sour milk.
Besides, Mrs. Cagliostra's house had seized Slater's imagination the moment he read the street address: 135 Joyce Street. It might as well have been named "Finnegan's Way," or "Smithy of the Soul Drive." Regardless, it was clearly a synchronistic coincidence.
Mrs. C. stood five feet three inches tall and wore her hair in a huge neo-beehive hairdo that forced her sharp face to compete for attention. All of this made her already suspicious hazel eyes even more intimidating. She suffered no fools gladly, and her husband, Frank Cagliostra, being no fool himself, had sensibly passed away ten years earlier at the age of sixty-seven while recuperating from a mild stroke.
Yet for all of her fierceness, Mrs. Cagliostra possessed the rare ability to transcend the reflexive guffaw, as evident the day she opened the front door of her two-story Victorian and saw Slater Brown standing there, her address written on his hand in permanent marker. He wore a thrift-store linen suit, carried an ash walking stick, and had a white Panama hat tipped rakishly over one eye. If the linen suit hadn't been missing an outside pocket, or his walking stick hadn't been three inches too short for him, or it hadn't been clear that his shoes each belonged to the wing tip genus but not quite to the same species, he would have cut a very dashing figure indeed.
However, none of this mattered to Mrs. Cagliostra. She'd already read his face, like the opening lines of a promising story, and saw buried there both sincerity and energy.
From the Hardcover edition.