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I UNDERSTAND, said Mistler.
Really, there was no need to rush the conversation. The waiting room was empty. Bill Hurley had become Mistler's family doctor fifteen years earlier, succeeding to the practice of an uncle, who died on the tennis court of a ruptured aneurism upon double-faulting in the fourth game of the fourth set of his club's senior doubles championship, when the score was forty--love. By now, he was also a friend. The secretary had specifically asked Mistler to stop by toward the end of the afternoon, when Dr. Hurley would be through with other patients. Just the same, as soon as Mistler arrived, she began to apologize, because the doctor was running late.
Don't worry, he told her. For once, I don't mind waiting.
That was the truth. An interval of empty time seemed vastly preferable to what would follow. In fact, if there was a reason to hurry, once Mistler had reluctantly abandoned a two-year-old issue of Glamour and found himself in Hurley's office, the place where Hurley interrogated and decreed, the reluctant flesh having been poked and kneaded into yielding its secrets in the adjoining cubicle that housed the examination table and a reliable scale, the only piece of Hurley's equipment Mistler was fond of, it had to be that the place was so ugly. With its stacks of manila envelopes containing, Mistler supposed, X rays and EKG tapes, apparently untouched since the time of Hurley's uncle (if indeed either the uncle or the nephew had ever examined their contents, which Mistler was not ready to take for granted), the fake antique desk, small enough to fit in a college dormitory room, cluttered with pharmaceutical company doodads, and, on the walls, prints of ducks alongside diplomas that traced Hurley's progress from his New Jersey prep school through the last board certification, this room spoke of indifference and small economies. One would not have tolerated such a thing in any other high-priced service business. Did it ever occur to doctors to have discussions that broke the patient's heart outside the office, over a cup of coffee, or a drink, if they were unwilling to spend money on furniture? One could, after all, with a minimum of skill, maneuver the patient into paying the check, or bury the disbursement in the statement as a stool test or the like. Most lawyers Mistler dealt with would have considered either a lead-pipe cinch.
Apparently, there was nothing further Bill Hurley intended to say without being prompted. It was up to Mistler.
All right. How much time do I have?
Before I die, of course. What else could I mean?
You could mean before we get to work. As Mel Klein told you, it may be possible to deal with this thing surgically. Right away. It's a primary cancer. That's the good news. Then, provided all goes well, you may also have treatment. That will be up to Mel. Ultimately, you would wait for a graft. They do become available.
But he also said that Dr. Steele thought the odds for this sort of operation weren't good. Have you or Dr. Klein or Dr. Steele changed your minds?
No. The growth is large and it may have spread. Dave Steele can't be sure until he opens you up.
And if it has spread?
He'll sew you up and we'll do our best to keep you comfortable.
In the hospital?
At first. And probably at the end as well. Hurley's face remained cheerful.
I think I'll pass. Can you make a guess about how long I have if I do nothing? I'd also like to know how bad it's going to be.
It all depends on what is really going on inside you. If the problem is still local, but you have no treatment, not even radiation to shrink the growth, perhaps half a year. Perhaps less. Of that time, the next couple of months should be only annoying. No worse than that. You'll become more tired and more anemic, and you'll lose weight. Later, you'll be in the war zone, especially if other organs are colonized. Every day, this will become a stronger possibility. But even without surgery, X rays and chemo could buy you time. You'd want to talk to Mel about that. Of course, if there is already general involvement, all bets are off. These things don't run on time, like Mussolini's trains. Heh! Heh! You know that.
But surely you will arrange matters so that I don't make it into the war zone as you put it. I count on that.
If you mean to suggest that I'll kill you, I can tell you right now I won't. I am here to treat patients. Of course, it's your right to refuse treatment. You will get all the medication you need for pain, but don't kid yourself. There comes a point at which medication can't do the job.
Is that any worse than what will happen if I have the operation and the treatment?
There is a chance that the growth hasn't spread and can be taken out. Then, with treatment and luck, you could lead a normal life--especially if you get a graft. Otherwise, you're right, the outcome will be much the same.
Except that I will have had the operation and the treatment and everything that comes with it. I think I'll leave matters as they are. If you could just prescribe whatever you think works best to give me a boost--vitamins, wild ginseng, tonics. I imagine that's possible.
Hurley scribbled busily. Here, he said, these may do some good and certainly won't do any harm. Then he gave Mistler the manly but affectionate look he normally reserved for telling him to cut down on red wine and shellfish, if he didn't want another gout attack, and, of course, on cigars, and continued: You shouldn't take that sort of decision before you talk it through with Clara and Sam. If you make the effort to fight, and bring them into it, they will find it easier to accept the outcome. It's extremely hard to watch a husband and father pass away--especially when it might be much sooner than necessary--because he has decided to die without letting his doctors treat him.
But it's not me making the decision to die this way and at this time--in fact quite a bit sooner than I expected. His Majesty Mistler's body made that choice. I am only deciding how I will spend the next few months. If I can help it, it won't be on hospital gurneys attached to machines that make noises like something out of a science fiction film. I don't believe Clara or Sam would like that either.
You'd be astonished. The whole world loves a fighter, your family included.
I've done my share of fighting, Bill. Believe me. Maybe that's why I am so sure that now is the time to surrender. Unconditionally!
You did promise you would bring Clara in.
Mistler took note of Hurley's increasing annoyance.
And so I will. Just give me a little time. Let her have a couple of carefree weeks. There is nothing to participate in, after all, not right away.
After that, he managed a nice smile and shook Hurley's hand.
Six o'clock already? His driver, who was waiting on Seventy-first Street, saw him, got out of the car, and stood by the door.
Thanks, Vince. I'm not returning to the office, and I'll walk home. Please call Miss Tuck and tell her not to wait for me. And would you pick me up at the apartment at eight. I'll be going out to dinner.
Spring had snuck up on Mistler, the days suddenly so long that he looked at his watch again in disbelief. Heading west toward the park, he strolled past the shops specializing in wares for the bedridden and the lame, and bars that would fill up later with hospital nurses going off duty, medical students, and interns. It was astonishing how clean the city looked. In the side street, dogs had been respecting the borders of impatiens and pansies encircling gingko trees. Tall yellow tulips sparkled spotlessly on the island that divides Park Avenue. When he reached Central Park, he gasped at the cherry and plum tree blossoms. It was a pity to have missed such a long series of weekends in the country. One lost touch with everything in nature, even the phases of the moon. The season was slower there, but he supposed that the tulips and forsythia at Crow Hill were at their best. Next year, he would get Clara to manage their social engagements in the city better and slow down his own pace. It wasn't really necessary to agree to meetings on Saturdays or Sundays, or, if they couldn't be moved, to go to them himself. Other people could attend in his place. Then he remembered the program Bill Hurley had announced. It was clear that finding time for Crow Hill was not to be a long-lasting concern. Preposterously, unmistakably, he began to rejoice. The horizon would no longer recede. The space and time left to him were defined; he had been set free.
Free from what? The question, which he immediately put to himself, had implications that were puzzling, since Mistler considered himself a happy man, as the world goes. In interviews, and in statements he had prepared for the big college reunions, he had gone on record with the belief that he had managed his life well. He considered himself entitled to that point of view, although it rested on a premise he kept secret to avoid being teased: that he was actually a self-made man, and his successes largely independent of the circumstance, in itself quite pleasant, of having been born some sixty years earlier, in the hospital adjacent to Bill Hurley's office, with a silver spoon stuck firmly in his mouth. No, there was nothing from which he should wish to escape. His marriage had long ago become tranquil. He loved his only son. Unlike Peter Berry, the cousin and former best friend whom he had forced out from Mistler, Berry & Lovett--an ugly piece of business he was close to regretting even if, in truth, it was overdue, and unlikely in the end to matter much to Peter, who would probably be just as happy raising his Morgan horses full-time--he enjoyed his work as much as ever. Peter and he had founded Mistler, Berry when they were barely thirty, giving up jobs they had gotten directly after military service in what was then New York's largest advertising agency, really huge according to the standards of that time, and prosperous and influential enough for men not quite so fastidious in such matters as Mistler's father to find working there perfectly respectable. That gentleman, himself the reigning senior partner of a Wall Street investment bank with roots in eighteenth-century Philadelphia, held all advertising and public relations to be a racy activity, fit for vulgarians and wastrel sons of his less desirable acquaintances. In fact, the senior Mr. Mistler bore some responsibility for his own otherwise quite irreproachable son's having chosen such a line of work. It paid him back for needling his son about remittance men with writer's block marooned in Paris or on a Greek island. As he had put it, it was a matter of principle, not money: Mistler family trusts, over which he exercised discretionary powers, had not been established to support dilettantes or would-be litterateurs waiting for inspiration. If his son Thomas wanted to scribble at night, that was his business, but, until he had established himself, he might as well have some recognizable occupation and discipline during the day. He liked to point out that Wallace Stevens, whom the elder Mr. Mistler counted among his friends, had never resigned from his position at the insurance company. All this was discussed calmly, and neither the father nor the son found it useful to advert to the fact that enough money flowed to Thomas from his mother's side of the family to finance just the sort of existence the senior Mr. Mistler deprecated. Thomas had enough doubts and suspicions of his own to make him fear the caprices of the Muse. A job on Wall Street seemed out of the question, downright silly unless he was to occupy the position in his father's bank which was his birthright. Its availability had been made clear. But he didn't want to work for his father. The prospect of correcting other people's manuscripts in a publishing house was even more unattractive. A man called Barney Fine, Mistler's classmate but several years older because he had been in the war, whom Mistler had known on the Harvard Advocate, was a copywriter in an advertising agency. Barney claimed it was the best deal in town: he was paid good money for making up jingles about soap during the day. The jingles didn't clutter up his mind or interfere with writing poetry at night. Besides, if one was good, it wasn't hard to get leaves of absence. Why couldn't Mistler do the same? He would be glad to recommend him. It was a fine plan: it seemed to Mistler he should be able to turn out copy on the virtues of hand cream and laxatives at least as well as the next part-time aesthete. He would scribble in the evenings, spend weekends holed up in the cottage abutting the lawn at Crow Hill, where a good many Mistlers and Abthorps were buried, which his father had given him as a graduation present, and enjoy his holidays or, by God, those fabulous leaves of absence in a whitewashed house on some rock in the Aegean. Peter Berry really needed to make a living. He asked Barney whether Peter might be squeezed in too.
No one was more surprised than Mistler when he discovered, right away, that he liked advertising. Three years later, he came to the conclusion that he would have even more fun if he worked for himself. It was just as well, since by then he had other reasons for showing that he could excel at running a business. He talked Peter Berry and Harry Lovett--the latter badly needed for his maturity and experience to reassure potential clients--into joining him. Harry was the big agency's vice-chairman, but had realized, as most vice-chairmen do sooner or later, that he would never become chairman, and was sore about it. Like Mistler, he had money; better yet, his money wasn't locked up in trusts. Peter came along for the ride. It seemed only natural. A New England gypsy--that's how Mistler described a character he had made up with Peter in his mind in the novel he had published the previous year; a young man less drearily circumspect than the protagonist, ready to do everything or absolutely nothing. Mistler and Harry planned to keep the agency afloat, living themselves on bread and water if necessary, for five years. As it turned out, the firm had more than forty employees and an office in London when the fifth year was up, but Harry Lovett had already died of a heart attack in his box at the Metropolitan Opera, during the second act of Die Walkure.
The family link between Peter Berry and Mistler wasn't much, Peter being only the son of a cousin of Mistler's mother. They had become friends at college, competing as freshmen for the Advocate. The following year, they began to room together. Each of them intended to write the next great American novel. It is possible, the views of the senior Mr. Mistler notwithstanding, that the cause of literature would have been better served by a life down and out in Paris or Athens. Peter had started a collection of short stories in college and worked on them in the navy. They remained in their tin biscuit box. Mistler did finish his novel, just as he had intended, but received perfunctory reviews, of the "here is another story of disorder and early sorrow in a New England prep school" variety. In truth, Mistler couldn't disagree. His novel lacked both ambition and vigor. He had hoped, though, for some sign of encouragement--even sympathy--from the one or two college friends whose first novels had also appeared recently and had been better received. Instead, it was colleagues at the agency and lackluster acquaintances who asked for inscribed copies and assured him they would read his "great work" during the next holiday. Never mind: fate had not condemned him to eat his heart out writing.
When Harry Lovett died, Mistler and Peter Berry decided to keep the firm's name intact; they would function as a duumvirate. Quickly, the impossibility of staying on the same rung of the ladder as Mistler became evident, but Peter didn't challenge him and didn't leave. And thus, before he was thirty-five, Mistler became the agency's autocrat, and he continued as such not because of his large number of shares in the company but because, beyond cavil, he was, by a long shot, better and tougher than anyone else there. Including, alas, Peter Berry. It wasn't simply Mistler's gift for the winning word, image, or campaign. He knew how to mesmerize or browbeat the most obdurate clients, and he picked the right time to expand the firm overseas and in the U.S., without allowing the character of its work to change. The press began to refer to the ineffable Mistler element, a style of advertising he had invented. From Madison Avenue's wonder child, he turned into an international star.
Then why such elation about being consigned to the rectangular hole that would in a matter of months be dug in the succulent soil of Crow Hill immediately to the right of his mother and father? Perhaps there was no explanation. If one had to be found, it appealed to Mistler to think that his unconscious, racing ahead, or through a premonitory sifting process that began when Dr. Klein, the oncologist, told him he didn't like the activity revealed by the scan of his liver, may have taken stock of the situation, and concluded that, if Klein's hunch turned out to be right, most of the problems to which he had devoted so much attention and effort would no longer matter--not to him. The result was more than a release of tension; it resembled the indifference, quickly turning into gaiety, he experienced at the beginning of very long airplane trips, for instance to Japan, when he was traveling alone. He would settle down in his space--the travel agent had instructions to put him in the first row of the first-class cabin, with only the bulkhead before him, and the adjoining seat, if possible, blocked and empty. For the next fourteen hours there would be nothing. No intrusions, other than the muffled, whirring noise of the aircraft and meaningless announcements by the crew, no possibility of taking action. Outside, a sky that refused to turn dark. Already during takeoff, he would fall asleep so hard that the steward wouldn't even try to serve him lunch. Later, when he awakened, his feeling of elation bore a whiff of sentimentality, gratitude for everything that had gone well during the past week, and thoughts about Sam, his son. But with his present contentment came no admixture of nostalgia, nothing that was even remotely sentimental. How long could he remain in this state of grace? The tabloids tell you that violent death lurks behind each bush you pass in the Ramble of Central Park, down the street you take circling back to Park Avenue, in the eyes of the kid who wants your money. Death that will take you only after a desperate struggle. For a change, death was face-to-face with a willing victim. Why make the rampage of his disordered cells continue? Why not harvest him now, quietly? Never mind the cancer. That was just a particularly unpleasant detail, a confirmation of what he saw each day as he looked about him and took note of what the once-golden lads and lassies, his contemporaries, were turning into. A shitty decade lay before him, whatever happened. Except for a grandchild, if Sam ever got around to procreating, there was nothing he could anticipate that would be as good as what lay behind.
Since the fall, he had worked even harder than usual. Everywhere, clients wanted to spend less money. Like the agency where he had started, which had seemed so improbably vast in its reach, Mistler, Berry & Lovett too had acquired an airline client, as well as a foreign-car manufacturer. When accounts were put up for review, Mistler was given advance private assurances. Take this as a gesture needed to satisfy the board of directors that every belt-tightening measure has been considered, there is no dissatisfaction with the firm's services. But how could he be sure? He led the presentations to the clients' review committees himself; the accounts stayed with the agency; and ties to the clients seemed as secure as ever. Only the financial ramifications of Peter's forced departure, especially the consequences of the buyback of his shares, had yet to be dealt with, and this Mistler had planned to do as speedily as possible, to prevent fissures developing in the firm, and to trivialize the event. Then, in January, at lunch with Jock Burns, the chairman of Omnium, the only advertising agency other than his own he truly admired, but almost four times larger, Mistler received a veiled, and yet to him clear enough, offer to buy Mistler, Berry. In reply, he put forward a preposterously high multiple of revenues from which, he told Jock, one might derive the price of an agency like his. He heard Jock murmur assent. Trying hard to preserve the sobriety of his mien, he mentioned the vexing problem of client conflicts: other deals had foundered on them. Jock had done his homework. In his opinion, all the difficulties could be managed, and he explained his plan; anyway, he was principally buying the "Mistler element." During the months that followed, with the help of the agency's lawyer, Mike Voorhis, Mistler negotiated the detailed terms of the deal in such secrecy that no one at the agency, except two members of the executive committee, knew of its existence until the weekend before Easter, when he took the entire board of directors to Bermuda, on the pretext of a worldwide strategy review. He had supposed there was a chance that they might disavow him. Nothing of the sort. It had been pleasant, pleasant beyond his expectations, to hear them gasp incredulously, at the opening of the Saturday morning meeting, when he said he was recommending a sale of the firm, and to hear them gasp again, in greater disbelief, when he named the price.
Naturally, the price had to be outrageous, he told them. Why else would I even think of selling?
The next day, at the lunch that concluded their business, they rose to drink his health and sang "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow" twice before he could cut the performance short, with a reminder that the way business conditions were changing it was simply prudent to sell and salt away their money.
Back in New York that evening, after dinner with Clara at their usual neighborhood Italian restaurant, he told her he would like to go to bed right away.
Thank God! She had taken her bath before they went out, and waited in bed, reading, while he soaked in the tub. There was no question in his mind that this was an evening for sex, conducted with a spontaneity that had become infrequent. But when he reached for her she turned away, and moved his hand to her breast. Not willing to lose the opportunity, he continued to caress her until she pushed him away altogether and said it would be better to go to sleep.
He didn't reply, supposing she had realized how quickly his impulse had passed. But, after a moment, she spoke.
Did you see yourself in the bathroom mirror? You don't just look tired. You look sick. I really mean it. Please don't turn this into one of your jokes. I want you to make an appointment tomorrow morning to see Bill Hurley.
That was the opening gun. After the visit, of necessity, he told her that Hurley had ordered tests but he brushed off her questions about their nature. She had learned long ago that when he was unwilling to speak there was no use insisting. It made him sulk. When the CAT scan and everything else that photography and electronic probes could reveal had finally been read, and both Klein and Hurley said a biopsy was necessary, he looked at his pocket diary and told Hurley it could be on the last Monday in April, because Clara would be away all that week. Otherwise, he wanted it done out of town, for instance in Boston.
I don't wear pajamas when I go to bed with my wife! If she is away she won't be running her hand over bandages and stitches and asking me what happened.
You can't keep this sort of thing from her, said Hurley. It's a serious mistake.
I don't intend to--once I know what this thing is, and what will be done about it, of course I will tell her. I'll also get her to speak to you, and Dr. Steele, and Dr. Klein.
You realize that the wound won't heal within that one week.
Yes, but the bandage will be smaller, and, if I have to, I will tell her a white lie: that I have finally gotten rid of the wart you've been nagging me about. Incidentally, let's ask Dr. Steele to cut that thing off while he's working in the area. Most likely, you will have results of the biopsy by the time she returns.
Well, there was nothing more to wait for; he had just received all the news he or anyone else needed. It was Tuesday. The meeting of the zoological society's board of directors would end on Thursday, so as not to interfere with the weekend. She could be back in New York on Friday, in time for them to go out to Crow Hill together. But he didn't feel ready. It would be better to call as soon as he came home from Anna Williams's dinner and urge Clara to spend the weekend instead with Sam. Why not take advantage of being all the way in San Diego to visit him at Stanford? They might go on one of those wine country drives in Napa. Practically anything had to be better than a weekend of getting acquainted with Mistler's cancer. And it would help when he finally told her if she had an image of an untroubled and recent good time before her--especially one without him in the foreground. This might even be an opportunity, while he was still at the edge of the no-man's-land, before departing on cancer patrol, to give himself a special treat. Something for him to savor in the months or weeks to come. He would need the lingering taste of sweet.
During his last visit to Rick Vernhagen at the hospital, a few days before he died, Vernhagen showed him a small conical object connected to the intravenous feeding tube. It was taped to the bedsheet. He had not noticed it before, because it was covered by Vernhagen's hand. Vernhagen seemed quite impossibly weak. The tube draining globs of dark brown liquid from his stomach, which had been inserted through his nostril and larynx, had frayed his vocal cords. Mistler moved his chair as close as possible to the pillows on which Vernhagen's head rested, and strained to understand him.
You see this, Vernhagen croaked excitedly, moving back and forth the object, which ended in a white plastic button, I love, I love it! You press, like for room service, and it brings nirvana. Yeah, and you don't have to talk with the floor waiter or give him a tip!
The private duty nurse, seeing that Mistler didn't understand, explained that this was a new way of managing pain. When the patient thought it was bad, he squeezed to release morphine. It mixed with the nutrient and immediately flowed into the vein.
You'd be surprised at these guys, she continued. I've never had one use it just to turn on.
Well, he would soon find out how memories of a happy life compared with morphine and Demerol. If Clara asked him to fly out to join her and Sam, he would say that Hurley had ordered him to rest. A long weekend with Clara and Sam wasn't his idea of the treat he needed. They would have time for some of those, perhaps even a vacation, as soon as the semester at Stanford ended, if Sam could manage not to dawdle over year-end examinations and papers and he, Mistler, could complete certain arrangements at the firm and make sure the deal with Omnium was solid. For now, let Pluto grant him, for his piety, a paltry ten days of serene emptiness. He would go to Venice. It was the one place on earth where nothing irritated him. Neither research nor planning was required. He knew where to stay, and which room to ask for, and how to avoid the tourists who feed pigeons at San Marco or follow, like an ugly ship in the wake of the pilot's tug, some garrulous, polyglot person with a funny-colored open umbrella. His conscience need not nag if he failed to look at this or that essential painting or monument. Vedi Napolie e mori! It wasn't as though you could capture a masterpiece on your retina and thereby turn it into a funerary object to accompany you, like a pharaoh, to the grave. He had been looking at Venice carefully from the time he was a college boy; whether to see or not to see a particular Titian or Bellini again would be like the choice between saying goodbye to his fellow guests and taking French leave. A nosy and censorious busybody--by definition almost any friend of a married couple--might think it was something of a dirty trick to make this trip without Clara. He knew better. Besides, if she gave signs of resentment, they could return with Sam. He took it for granted that a family vacation, however tiring and difficult, would be indispensable as a matter of ritual, and should take place before he reached the "war zone." Venice would still be there, waiting for mother, father, and son. And perhaps the son's betrothed as well, and her own child. No one should feel excluded.
It was easy to stage-manage his escape. He could leave on Sunday night, before Clara returned from the West Coast--assuming she took his advice and arranged to meet Sam. In fact, if she asked him to join Sam and her for the weekend, the trip to Italy should make his refusal uncontroversial. There was no shortage of pretexts: the Milanese fashion empire he had been courting so assiduously, which had already given the agency work, had asked him, with no notice at all, to a meeting. How could he refuse? As for taking her along, this sort of trip to Milan epitomized everything about his business life she quite rationally hated. Mistler at meetings all day, leaving her stuck with the wife of the client's chairman. Then, in the evening, both of them, like hired performers, having to go through their repertory of small talk about children, odious cultural stereotypes, and the wonders of funghi porcini or whatever indigenous equivalent happened to figure at the top of the menu of the pompous restaurant to which they were escorted. She played her part correctly during those occasions. As a general matter she disliked people less than he. But there was no doubt she would gratefully skip Milan if he told her she wasn't specifically expected. The detour to Venice--depending on how and when he mentioned it--why, she would take it either as one more example of his beastly behavior or a welcome obedience to Bill Hurley's orders to slow down.
Mistler was appalled at how efficiently, even as eternity burned his eyes like a desert, he planned the lies he would tell: it was proof that practice makes perfect. While he was at it, might he not also accelerate his liberation from plans and obligations, and call Anna to get out of her dinner? Half past seven. To check on the housekeeper's alertness, he rang instead of using his key. Madame Marie opened at once and reminded him that he was going out and should be getting ready. That was as it should be. How satisfying to have this paragon working for them, a good-looking woman and well trained--not by Clara, of course, who was too egalitarian in her dealings with the staff. They had inherited her from the Belgian consul general departing for an ambassador's post in Sweden. Mistler hoped that Clara would keep the woman and the apartment. In general, it would be easier to leave in the belief that everything else would remain unchanged. Continuity. A video of Mistler's happy life playing on, with Mistler absent. Just like their family photographs: there were hardly any in which he was to be found, for the very good reason that normally he took them. He had just about decided to dial Anna's number when he realized that the exemplary Madame Marie would be disappointed if he broke a long-standing engagement and forced nice Mrs. Williams to rearrange her table and her, Marie, to whip up an unscheduled meal for Monsieur. One mustn't confuse servants, whispered a voice in Mistler's ear, which he recognized as his mother's. Therefore, he thanked Madame Marie, and humming the "Ode to Joy" went upstairs to change.
The West Side. Anna's apartment building faced the Museum of Natural History. Mistler told the driver to be back by ten-thirty. He would make this an early evening.
A huge moon, like a Seville orange cut in half, tender and perplexed, hung over the East Side. He paused to admire it. Vince had paused too, cap in hand, waiting to see Mistler make it safely into the lobby, where the task of protecting him would pass into the hands of whoever had jurisdiction there. A pleasant-looking young man in jeans and white shirt open at the collar stopped beside Mistler, pointed at the sky, and grinned.
Not halfway bad! He spoke with an accent that could be Australian.
Mistler agreed, and told Vince it was really all right to leave. The boy entered the lobby and then the elevator with him, and pressed the button for Anna's floor. Grinning again, he said, We're going to the same place. I'm from New Zealand. Checking out New York. I heard your name when you gave it to the bloke in the lobby. My name is Thomas.
That's my first name too.
The door of Anna's apartment was ajar. One could hear the braying of the guests. It was a large party after all, probably a buffet; she wouldn't have missed him. Mistler rang the bell and walked in, expecting the boy to follow. But he didn't. Making a circular gesture with his hand, on the fingers of which Mistler noticed several rings, he used a key to let himself into the other door on the landing, which led, presumably, to the bedrooms in the back. A minor mystery. Was this a friend's child ducking in to put on a suit before dinner? A houseboy who was not going to serve at table? Mistler had never met Mr. Williams; he thought he remembered Anna saying years ago that his business consisted of building swimming pools, in Hobe Sound. It had been one of those early and short-blooming marriages that happened to people in the year following their move to New York, like a car crash after college graduation. Without enjoying long tenure, various men had succeeded him as Anna's acknowledged companions. Could this beachcomber be a sex object who had arrived early, and would wait patiently, watching television without sound, until the last guest left, and Anna returned to the bedroom, stretched luxuriously, and kicked off her shoes? Mistler knew the gesture. He would have thought though that Anna was past that sort of after-dinner entertainment.
There was one new face in the living room, the young woman with straight brown hair and no makeup--everybody else was, as Mistler's father might have said, the same as usual only more so. Since Phoebe Gansevoort was nowhere to be seen, either she was Tony Gansevoort's date or Anna had invited her to balance the table. Was it possible that the Gansevoorts had split without his or Clara's having heard about it? He hadn't seen Tony for a long time. The transformation was unpleasant. His hair, once brown like the young woman's and now dirty gray, was long, possibly longer than hers, and, of all things, gathered in a little ponytail. Before Gansevoort rose to shake his hand, Mistler had a glimpse of his crossed legs and noted that he wore black suede Belgian shoes, the kind that the senior Mr. Mistler called whorehouse slippers, without socks. Doubtless, this was the casual rich chic that had, some years earlier, become prevalent among men of Mistler's age. The costume was completed by an ample, much-too-British blue blazer and tan trousers. What did that old fool mean by dressing on a Tuesday night in New York as though he were at the beach? Mistler couldn't imagine that Phoebe--who had principles about small things--would have let him out of the house got up like someone out of a Tom Wolfe novel. Either she had lost all authority over her husband or there had, in fact, been a revolution in their affairs.
My lady friend, Lina. Have you met? How have you been keeping? Gansevoort's long left arm reached for the woman with brown hair. He pulled her to his side.
I don't think I have.
Mistler wasn't interested in answering the second question. Gansevoort had a penchant for sincerity: saying one was "extremely well" was unlikely to satisfy him. He would want to find out how Mistler really was.
But I know Mr. Mistler. From those photographs of you ballooning in Burgundy. And from your campaign for Love cosmetics! So brilliant! Anna has put me next to you. I am thrilled!
Mistler would have preferred to have Anna, or for that matter Phoebe Gansevoort, as his dinner partner. He had known Phoebe forever. There was an I-make-trouble, ready-for-anything, bad-girl quality about her that he liked, the very same quality that had caused him to give her a wide berth, back in the days when she was of an age to attract him. Presumably, he was not placed next to Anna because he was such an old friend. Or was he placed between Anna and this impressionable Lina whose last name he hadn't been told?
The latter turned out to be Anna's plan, but it made no difference. Given the way she had arranged the table, how was he to open himself to an old friend, to speak to her about Clara and Sam, unless he waited for the last guest to leave, and it turned out that the other Thomas wasn't also waiting, for purposes that were Anna's? On her right was one of her authors, Raymond Weiss, a fixture on the Upper West Side, whose most recent work, just published by her, had been greeted by the New York Times's daily reviewer as a catastrophic demonstration of mental confusion and lack of talent, whereas in the Times Book Review, a fellow novelist of the same ethnicity and practically the same address, with a new book of her own due out in the fall, solved the problem by using most of the space reserved for her article to deal in general terms with the difficulty of maintaining, over a long career, the excitement of an ambitious, if perhaps excessively inward-turned, oeuvre. Never mind: the judgment of the reading public had just carried Weiss's book to second place on the best-seller list. The party being in fact in Weiss's honor, it was a miraculous piece of luck to see Anna vindicated in the nick of time. Who could blame her for concentrating her attention on the horse that had just run and won? She turned to Mistler occasionally, to include him in the conversation with Weiss. Mistler understood the signal. He was to say something about the new work, which he had not read, and its forerunners, equally unknown to him. Lack of knowledge was not a problem. Anna had taught him that the last thing an author wishes in such circumstances is to hear a Mr. Mistler express literary opinions in the nature of criticism, however respectful. To say that he admired the Master's ability to make characters come alive--in the new novel and in all the others--was quite enough. He applied Anna's rule and watched Weiss beam and nod agreement with infinite good nature and lack of modesty. Enough. Gansevoort was on the other side of the table, to the right, next to Weiss's agent, an old bag like Weiss except that she was a woman. Yet Gansevoort seemed to enjoy himself. Good for him.
So many familiar faces of the living, and there was also such a surprising crowd of dead people he knew. Father, Mother, Tante Elisabeth, and, of course, old Sam Abthorp. They made a family group, together with the grandparents, although they, having died when he was still at school, didn't seem to count. Harry Lovett. The confused ghosts of Father's and Mother's friends, who had mostly died in Florida, with the greatest discretion, absolving one from the duty of attending their memorial service. Sears, his best friend at school, killed driving his car into a tree on the way home after the usual drinks at the golf club. Sears's brother gave him the news on the telephone. He covered the receiver with his hand and turned to Clara saying, It's Dick Sears. He has just told me that George is dead. In a car crash. Naturally, she answered. Warren, a college classmate and neighbor, whose house he could see when he looked across Narragansett Bay from the front lawn at Crow Hill. His death from a heart attack was the most recent. He had been watching his toddler son, the product of a third marriage, play in the sandpile Warren had installed that very weekend, desecrating the one-hundred-and-fifty-year-old lawn. There had to be many more. Perhaps he should check last year's college and school reunion class books. The listing would be somewhere in the back, In Memoriam. Didn't Marquand have the late George Apley say he wasn't afraid of dying because he knew so many dead bishops he was sure to get into the best clubs in heaven? It wasn't worth looking up the quotation. To the best of his knowledge, the three prelates among his acquaintances were alive, but the concept had value. He wasn't going as a pioneer; the path was well trodden. He felt that his face had stiffened into a stone monument. He reorganized it into a nice smile.
Mr. Mistler, Mr. Mistler?
That was the friend unto Gansevoort.
You've been lost in a daydream. I hoped to talk to you.
Really? I am very sorry. I was listening to the general conversation. My doctor claims I can hear just fine, but I find it more and more difficult to be sure I follow what is said when more than one person is talking. That must make me look odd--distracted? Concentrating?
How did you come up with the idea, she asked, of ballooning over France to sell California wine? Wasn't that terribly dangerous, putting French wine in the mind of someone to whom you are trying to sell an American Cabernet?
Dangerous? You mean was I at risk of putting my foot in my mouth! The client thought so, just like you. But I believe that French wines are on the consumer's mind anyway, so running away from the problem is no use. The message of the campaign, as I thought of it, was this: Yes, they make excellent wine in France, and they have made it since the time of the Romans, but we have gone over there and learned their secrets. And we have something they don't have--the best and most modern equipment, a scientific approach to the process, and a reliable climate. Remember how each time we cut to the winery in California you see that gorgeous blue sky? Then you see me in my balloon gondola zooming in on a quaint old chai and ducking rainstorms. The rainstorms are very important. A message to be conveyed straight to the consumer's unconscious.
It was appalling to talk so much.
But why use yourself in the campaign? Because you are so wildly handsome?
Of course, and also wildly conceited.
Tony never said that about you.
That's proof of his loyalty and discretion.
Then he hasn't told you that I am a home wrecker?
Are you? Of course, I haven't been seeing Tony.
He and his wife have divorced. But it wasn't over me. I am a fairly recent acquisition. I only said I was a home wrecker to see what you would say.
What could I possibly say? Perhaps that Tony's acquisition committee must have stood up and applauded.
As a matter of fact, Mistler thought the old goat had done pretty well. There was a nice warmth about this girl, her skin was clear, and she was right not to cover it with goo. He was willing to bet that she smelled good just the way she was.
It's a busy committee. You know that he has had lots of girls.
I know nothing at all. Tony and I were in grade school together, and then in college, and I used to run into him and Phoebe at parties like this. That's about all.
Of course, she answered inconsequentially, very nice little boys in those uniform blazers and gray flannel short pants.
Leaving that subject, she told him she was a freelance photographer about to go away, almost immediately, to Europe. A fashion assignment in Milan was a certainty, and her first stop. Later on, there was a story she had been asked to work on about an apartment a Brazilian couple had redecorated in Paris; she was doing that for Vogue. It would be nice to have something in between. Did he think his agency might use her? It would be nifty to break in. She grinned. The turn of phrase must have pleased her. He replied that he could ask--if she told him her family name and how he could reach her.
The place card gave only her first name in block letters. She wrote on it with a felt-tip pen she extracted from her pocketbook, "Verano," and underneath a telephone number.
It's in Brooklyn Heights, she told him before he could ask.
What a nice name to have in this season--any season!
I like it too, she replied. I only wish I could get to Italy more often.
Poor thing. Nonsense, there was no reason why she wouldn't. Gansevoort, or his successors, would see to it, if the right assignments didn't come along. His own prospects for frequent travel to Italy were quite a lot dimmer, even though she was probably saying to herself that it must be nice to have Mistler's money and freedom. This unpleasant thought led brusquely to another: the possibility that he had blundered in the Omnium transaction. Really, he had no time for Miss Verano or for thinking how to continue their conversation. He blurted out instead: I am going there too. I will be in Venice, my favorite city, next Monday.
His mistake was thinking that he would go on living like everybody else, and would have a chance to put his money into companies less overvalued than his own agency or Omnium. On that assumption he had insisted that Omnium pay an all-cash price for Mistler, Berry, and had gotten Jock Burns to agree. But this excellent result was all wrong, now that he knew more about himself. If the deal closed before he was dead--he believed it had to, even before his illness showed, since Jock, looking at the agency without Mistler at its head, might want to back out--he would pay tax on the gain on the shares he sold, almost one-third of the purchase price! If he could get Jock to return to his initial offer to pay with Omnium stock instead of cash, the outcome would be far better. Then there would be no tax on the sale, no estate tax, since he was leaving almost everything to Clara for life, Sam having been taken care of by his family trusts, and best of all, the Omnium shares going into Clara's trust would have a market-value tax basis. Provided they were sold quickly--which he thought they should be, as quickly as could be worked out--there would never be a capital gains tax on the transaction. One thing was clear. He had to speak with Voorhis and Voorhis's tax partner.
All the while Miss Verano talked: colleagues in New York and Europe, the Brooklyn Heights sublet that she might or might not be extending, a cat she could leave with a girlfriend who was pregnant and not accepting work that required travel. He held the respectful pose of an intent listener. A question broke the spell.
May I come to see you in Venice? If you have time. I would like so much to meet your wife too. I have seen pictures of her!
In order to put the conversation back on automatic pilot, he added, Tell me what other work you have been doing.
Instead, she observed: So you and Tony aren't close friends. I am sorry about that.
Then Anna stood up, and Mistler quickly moved to the living room. Gansevoort came up to him.
How do you like her? You were a fan of Phoebe's, weren't you?
You mean do I like Lina? Charming girl. I was glad to meet her and to see you. Look, I'm going to kiss Anna and sneak out. I've got to call some people before their bedtime.
On his way out, he said goodbye also to Lina.
Thank you, she whispered. Don't forget Venice.
1. Mistler considers himself "a happy man, as the world goes, " yet when he receives his fatal diagnosis, we are told "preposterously, unmistakably he began to rejoice . . . [feeling] he had been set free." How are we to account for this strange reaction? How does it take on meaning as the novel develops?
2. Once he learns about his illness, Mistler tries to change the terms of his firm's merger deal without informing Jock Burns of the reason. How unethical do you find his actions? How typical of your experience in business? Do you accept Mistler's implication that business ethics are different from personal ethics?
3. When Mistler exposes Peter Berry's betrayal of him, Peter is unrepentant, citing Mistler's mistreatment. Which man do you find more blameworthy in this broken friendship? Is either more sinned against than sinning?
4. Mistler confesses he has "ruined" Clara's life. What does he mean? Why has their marriage proved a disappointment to each? In what way does it typify the mistakes he believes he has made in life?
5. Mistler describes Mme Portes as "the only woman [he] ever loved, " a woman he "never had and never lost." How do you understand his feelings for his father's mistress? Why do you suppose he has never known another love despite his many romantic opportunities?
6. How is Mistler's relationship with his father different from Sam's relationship with Mistler? How do Mistler and Sam's respective character traits inform and limit their relationship? 7 What motivates Mistler to go see Bella a second time? Why does the encounter unfold as it does? 8. How do you interpret Mistler's decision to purchase the wherry? How might we see this asa coda for his story? 9. The book's epigraph's may be translated as "Too bad about what men will lose; they'll never notice it. Everything ends well because everything ends." Mme Portes echoes this statement. How might we understand the novel in relation to this maxim? 10. Some critics have found Mistler difficult to like. How do you feel about him? How do your feelings affect your response to the book?