Seeing Me Naked
By Liza Palmer
5 SPOT Copyright © 2008 Liza Palmer
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-0-446-69837-5
The crowd simmers down as the bookstore owner approaches the podium.
"I'm very excited to have such an amazing crowd here tonight for one of L.A.'s prodigal sons. I'm extremely pleased to welcome you to a very special night of literature-a night we hope will be a beacon in these, the darkest of days in publishing. This debut novel is a far cry from the paint-by-numbers, just-add-water types of books that are overtaking our bookshelves and best-seller lists. At just thirty-two years of age, this writer commands the publishing industry to sit up and take notice. Real literature is back with the publication of The Ballad of Rick Danko, by Rascal Page!" I visualize a dazzling shower of pyrotechnics from behind the man as he builds to a climax. A girl in the middle of the bookstore lets out a tiny yelp. Rascal sighs.
I try to push away the insistent drone of my workweek. It keeps bumping up against my consciousness, like a seemingly bottomless hamper of dirty clothes. The perfection of the restaurant is never that far away. Never finished. I can never just sit. But tonight I take a deep breath and try to relax into my brother's big night with happiness and a splash, a hint, really, of my usual knotted stomach.
I give Rascal a sympathetic smile as the obsequious, cloying introduction drones on. We're both waiting for the mention of him. Dad. I peek out into the crowd. Mom is beaming. Her long legs are crossed at the ankles and slanted to one side-nothing out of place. The only untidy thing about her is the overwhelming pride she's feeling right now for her firstborn. Rascal smiles at her. She snaps a picture of him.
"So, without further ado, let me present the heir apparent! Scion of one of the giants of twentieth-century American literature! The successor to the throne!" Rascal and I flinch in unison at each sentence. The man continues with a flourish, "Raskolnikov Page!" The crowd goes wild. Mom winces every time someone calls Rascal Raskolnikov. She lost a bet to Dad for the right to name their first son, and believe it or not, Rascal turned out to be the lesser of two evils. Rascal walks up to the podium and looks out into the crowd. I see his eyes fix on someone. I crane my neck to look past the stacks of books.
A wave of recognition rolls through the audience. He leans casually against one of the bookcases at the back of the store. Mom looks over her shoulder, gives him a small wave, and quickly turns her attention back to Rascal. I watch the people as they slowly realize whom they're standing next to.
Ben Page. My dad.
The kind of cultural icon that doesn't exist anymore. I remember for my best friend, Laurie's, eleventh birthday, her parents took us to Disneyland. Later that year, when my eleventh birthday rolled around, Laurie asked what I was doing to celebrate. I said I was going to New York to watch my father receive his second Pulitzer Prize.
Rascal clears his throat and takes a long drink from the bottle of water set out for him on the podium.
"Thank you for coming out tonight. I'm going to start by reading a passage from the novel, and then I'll take some questions before we call it a night," Rascal says as people in the audience shift and contort in their chairs. Who will they look at? It's an embarrassment of riches. Rascal's pale skin contrasts with his mop of dark brown curls. His features are delicate: pinkish lips, gentle blue eyes. His build is slight, with thin, long fingers, and his shoulders look as if a wire hanger is poking through his threadbare sweater. People always tell us we could be twins, much to Dad's chagrin. We both got Mom's patrician genes. We were built for an aristocratic existence. Neither one of us inherited Dad's workhorse build, that olive skin, the coarse hair, or his almost black eyes-which, as he grows older, are beginning to turn to sunlit amber and, in the innermost circles, the lightest of blues.
Rascal begins reading.
My body relaxes as my brother's voice fills the room. The audience is drawn in and can barely keep up. His prose is hot and fast, like a come-on to a one-night stand. He reads only the opening chapter, and even live, it won't be enough for them. The crowd applauds as Rascal closes the book and looks up.
"Okay. Any questions?" Rascal takes a drink of his water. Several anxious hands shoot into the air. He points to a twentysomething young man in the third row who has more product in his hair than I do, and I believe he's wearing a velvet blazer.
"I just want to say that, first off, you are like a god, man," the guy oozes. The crowd titters. Rascal forces a smile. I can see him look toward the back of the room at Dad. Is my brother embarrassed? I glance quickly at Dad. He's rubbing his eyes like he has a headache. Ahhh-the unwashed masses and their inconvenient adoration of our family. I've always wondered why Dad was so bothered by people whose only sin was simply enjoying and connecting with his work. I've never made a big fuss to Dad about his writing, even though his brilliance awes me-humbles me. I was afraid it would open up an unwelcome dialogue about what exactly I was doing with my life and, more importantly, what am I doing to change the world? I've found the best and safest method in dealing with my father is to keep a safe distance and watch the fireworks from a remote mountaintop.
"I just want to know if, like-you know, coming from the family you did helped you get published. I mean, it probably didn't hurt having Page as your last name, right?" The guy looks eagerly around at the crowd for validation. Everyone in the room has silently asked this question in his or her mind. But now they all act horrified that this guy had the nerve to ask it, especially as the first question. Rascal is unimpressed. He's used to it-the constant comparisons to Dad in every area of his life.
"Let's see." Rascal draws it out like a pitcher's windup before hurling a hundred-mile-an-hour fastball. He continues, "My father is perhaps the greatest writer of his generation, and I roll up and say I've written this manuscript that I think is pretty good. Now, any other writer, on his best day, doesn't get constantly measured against my father. But in every single review of my book, I'm compared, head to head, with him. So, yeah, I probably moved right to the top of the slush pile in my agent's office. But after that, I'm kinda fucked, huh?" The crowd laughs nervously. Everyone checks to see if Dad is laughing. His face is expressionless and focused. The same look is mirrored in Rascal as he points to a woman in the front row who's raised her hand. I've spent so many years trying to free myself from these great shadows. The hitch is, I'm equal parts repulsed and enticed by them.
"Who are your influences, Raskolnikov? Who inspired you to-I mean, besides the obvious, of course-who inspired you to write?" The woman sneaks a coquettish look back at Dad.
"Ma'am, my own mother doesn't call me Raskolnikov," Rascal corrects with the slightest of edges to his voice. Mom tenses. In turn, Rascal flashes a conciliatory smile to the woman. The bookstore owner who introduced him shifts in his chair. Rascal continues speaking. "I went through the usual list of rebellious-guy literature-Burroughs, Thompson, Bukowski, Rollins, just like every other zit-faced kid with a constant hard-on. I found Milan Kundera because one of his covers had a naked lady on it. A lot of Richard Ford. I went through a whole Pynchon thing. Hope that answers your question, ma'am ..." Rascal trails off. Mom is wincing. She didn't bargain for "constant hard-on" talk. I'm unfazed by it. My brother and I are the truest blend of our two parents: We'll tell you to fuck off but then apologize profusely, call you "ma'am" or "sir," and follow that up with some kind of card and/or flower arrangement.
"And your father?" the woman blurts. The entire room gasps.
"I don't know ... Dad? Who are your influences?" Rascal casually takes a drink from his water bottle as the entire room shifts in their chairs to get an official look at the great Ben Page. The woman tries to correct the misunderstanding. She tries to spit out that what she meant to ask was whether Rascal was influenced by his father, not who inspired Ben to write. "It's a misunderstanding," she yells. Rascal slowly sips. Dad doesn't move from his languid, leaning position-his arms crossed across his wide chest, his black hair swooping effortlessly over his eyes. His lower lip is forever contorted into a relaxed curl that, when not cradling his beloved pipe, looks like an ominous snarl. How many times have I seen this look? I take a long breath. Finished batting the woman around like a trapped mouse, Rascal has offered the woman up for sacrifice. Dad goes in for the kill.
"Come to the party, Lady. I named my own kid Raskolnikov. You do the math." Dad's voice is smooth as he finishes with a benign smile. Rascal is nodding and laughing to himself. The crowd goes wild. Rascal looks up from the podium. There is the sweetest moment between them. Nothing like the evisceration of an overzealous fan to bring father and son together.
Our family: bonding through blood sport.
Excerpted from Seeing Me Naked by Liza Palmer Copyright © 2008 by Liza Palmer. Excerpted by permission.
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