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The Unreliable Memoirist

by

Keith Lord

 

 
     
   

 

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IN THE STORM AND SOUND-PROOFED STUDY OF TODD POLISH, WORDS WOULD NOT COME. Children’s words, simple and declarative, would not come. When Doves Cry, his memoir, had been translated into thirteen languages. It had been adapted for stage and screen. But a children’s book, the most obvious commercial spin-off (and word-for-word the most lucrative), he’d put off until now. Racked before him, the illustrator’s draft: two nested birds, wrapped around each other like ying and yang; a child’s face, hovering in wonderment.  A hundred words for a million dollars? It felt like fair exchange.
            On the computer, the screen-saver was up: a slow zoom on Trim –the photo from the dust-jacket – taken on the beach at Juno, a year before he died. His son looked triumphant, ringed by sand-castles, plastic pail raised like a trophy. The pride of achievement ­– if Todd could summon a fraction of it now. The photo had been the family Christmas card, in that final year, so it made sense it should grace the book’s cover. Still Todd remembered feeling a pang of regret, even disloyalty, giving it up to the publisher. Now it was a trademark, a human logo. The more Todd saw it, the less he saw his son.
            The phone rang, and he jolted at the novelty. He’d gone unlisted after the sixth printing; even he’d forgotten his number. Choi Talent took care of business. The phone was new – Nina had programmed the ring-tone. What clarion had his wife chosen? Cooing doves!
            “Hello?” He rose to stand at the window. Below, the ravenous Atlantic, the porcelain sand.
            “Todd Polish?” The caller, a man, sounded surprised to have gotten through.
            “It’s Polish,” Todd chided. An ongoing irritation, this use of the short ‘o’ that made him sound like a brand of cleaner. “Like the people.”
            “Polish. Like the people,” the caller echoed, as if vouchsafing the words to memory. This one was haywire, for sure. Todd checked the caller ID. Palm Beach. Local.
            “Who are you?”
            “I’m John. Your neighbor.”
Todd jerked from the window, as if the assassin’s red dot had brushed his chest. Ridiculous: no one could see him, landscaping saw to that. And his unseen neighbors weren’t making crank calls. The rich had no time for games.
            “What do you want, John?”
            “To talk to you.” The voice took on a plaintive urgency. “About your book. As a fellow diarist, I’m sure you understand. For the integrity of the record, I need to – ”
            Todd hung up. He’d stopped listening at ‘fellow diarist.’ He’d been a success long enough to know that when a writer wanted to talk about your book, what they really wanted was to talk about their book.
            He gave the guy credit for gusto. A call was the exception. Mostly, they wrote. The slush pile, with its connotations of freeze and dirt. Todd would pluck from it, now and again, as a chastener; a spur to action when he was dawdling on a draft. The letters reeked of self-sabotage, like the drunken message left on a lover’s machine:
            ‘You successful author. Me working on my first navel. Can you help?’
            ‘You did it with Doves, how about chipmunks? They’re all over my yard. I’ve been following them around, taking notes –  ‘
            ‘I worked for 26 years on Aurora Borealis, my unpublished novel – ’
            That always touched a nerve. Unpublished novel – a coupling of ineffable sadness, like still-born child.
            He forwarded them to Choi Talent, who replied with cardstock notes, studiously anodyne, postscripts that read: keep writing! Why? Why not stop writing? What literature needed, Todd felt, was a culture of discouragement. (There ought to be a tax on pens. A tax on words.) Years ago, his own novel had moldered in publisher’s offices, submerged beneath the dyslexic deluge. Now he’d joined the author’s club, more members only diluted its exclusivity. If there was a double-standard here, Todd Polish waved it off. The way he saw it, the world owed you a lot, when it took away your kid.
            He thought about getting back to work, but the call had stolen his peace. So he made another call ­– for retribution.
            “Choi Talent?”
            “It’s Todd, Sophie. Is Grace there?”
            Hawking his novel, he’d had an agent. Operating out of a West Village walk-up, Delores Graybill had done her geriatric best with The Pursuit of Small Spaces, which everyone agreed had promise, though not apparently of the promise to pay kind. Todd had been poised for rewrite, but then Trim came along, oopsing everything. This was after 9/11, and Nina wasn’t raising her baby in a war zone, so she took the fund-raising job at FAU and they swapped the rent-stabilized two-bedroom on Broadway for a south Florida bungalow. Todd wrote copy for The Breakers hotel. They needed two incomes, if he wasn’t going to take care of the kid himself.
            Doveswas no mere book. Doves was an industry. Todd didn’t have an agent, he had management.
            “How’s the picture book?” Grace Choi asked, spurning – as was her custom – small talk. Born of Queens’ grocers, she’d traded bonds on Wall Street before switching coasts and commodities to set up Talent. Grace by name, not by nature. Not that she was graceless – that would have required artifact, modulation. Grace Choi was uniform, relentlessly expedient: soothing or scolding, she always sounded the same. Todd found her curiously comforting.
            “Slowly,” he sighed. “It’s hard – writing for kids.”
            “Don’t over-think it.” Was that his problem: over-thinking? He didn’t think so. “If you’re stuck, the ghost writer – ”
            “No.”
            “Madonna loved her.”
            “I’ll get it done.”
            “Whatever you say. Did you see the Times today?”
            “Not yet, why?”
            “You made Arts and Leisure.”
            “You’re kidding. They never touched the book.”
            “But now there’s a movie. You’re popular culture.”
            “That’s a kind of culture, I guess.” He paused. “I just got a call. A crank. A writer. John somebody.”
            “Like you need that. Give me the number.” Todd read it off the Caller ID. “I’ll get Crown on it.” Stephen Crown was Choi’s gumshoe. “John somebody fucks with you, we fuck with him.”
            Todd felt a vague urge to pacify. “It’s distracting, is all.”
            “Why these assholes can’t leave you alone,” Grace Choi added, quite as if the weather was on her lips. “Don’t they know you lost a kid?”

            In the kitchen – marbleized, analgesic white – the Times lay folded and pristine. Nina read the Palm Beach Post, to keep up with rival benefactors. The Arts and Leisure piece was meta: buzz about buzz about the movie. Todd didn’t recognize the bye-line. Probably a kid, nurturing a book of his own. The tone was subterranean sniffy, a hint of why didn’t I think of that?

‘The collective noun for doves, Todd Polish tells us, is piteousness. But Todd Polish doesn’t want our pity; not for him, not for the doves. Less memoir than ambush of the heart, When Doves Cry opens with Polish’s three-year old son Tristram (a bird lover from the crib; first words: ‘tweet-tweet’) overjoyed to discover two mating doves have taken up residence in their south Florida backyard. Diagnosed with leukemia, he follows the birds – now with four nestlings ­– exulting in new life even as his own death draws near. In a searing passage, Polish describes  hitting rock-bottom weeks after his son’s death, finding the nest has been ravaged by a neighborhood tabby, the doves and their offspring nowhere to be found. Miraculously, the doves return, months later, nesting in the exact same spot, and hatching a new brood. Life goes on, for the doves and for the Polish family.
In the movie, slated for release next month, Owen – ’

            “What you always wanted, right?” A crimson nail pressed the page. Todd looked up to find Nina in a sleeveless black number, page-boy haircut. His wife had made an effortless transition from fund-raiser to benefactress. The dresses were better tailored, the pearls were real, the arms were thinner. “A write-up in the Times.”
             His finger joined hers, resting on a photograph. “That’s Owen, you know, not me.” Watching Nina’s eyes shuttle between movie star and husband, he wondered how he came out. He had the blonde hair at least, but his eyes weren’t as bright and his nose was too flat and his tan was too faint. Owen was better at being him than he was.
            “Gotta run,” Nina breezed. “Foundation meeting.”
            “The cranes?”
            “The cranes.”
            Trim’s foundation was sponsoring an evacuation of whopping cranes from the Midwest to a reserve in south Florida. His parent’s original philanthropic intent had been to battle the disease that claimed their son, but leukemia, like the other big cancers, boasted a full dance-card. The Polish fortune paled beside those of bereaved buy-out magnates and software kings. With birds, they could really make a difference. Nina was sure her son would have approved. Besides, she’d add brightly, “We owe the birds so much!”
            Todd kissed her cheek, to save her gloss. Watching her trainer-toned rump recede made him lusty for New York, when she’d come home in her lunch-hour just to fuck. These days, though on the pill, Nina insisted he wear a rubber. She didn’t want another oops. Todd knew she wasn’t hoarding anything about Trim. She cried freely: during interviews; in his arms; alone in their bedroom, as he tip-toed by. Crying was like exercise for her – she’d emerge rejuvenated, lightened. If she wasn’t ready for another child, it wasn’t because she hadn’t let go of the last one. It was because she was too busy.
            Todd straightened up. He had an appointment too –  a talk at the Kravis Center on the biographer’s art. His audience would be snow-haired, superannuated – when they nodded off he didn’t take it personally. He stepped outside, from frigid to humid, and as usual it floored him. Late February, and already it was broiling. He couldn’t fathom the long-time transplants, sporting sweaters in Spring, flapping their arms and complaining loudly about the cold. It struck him as a kind of compensatory sarcasm. You’d look pretty foolish, after all, coming to Palm Beach and complaining about the heat.
Crossing the driveway, a remote in each hand like a pair of stubby pistols, he raised the garage doors and awakened the BMW, which responded with a wink of its tail-lights. Their run-around in New York had been a battered three-series, so this regal seven felt like a tenuous connection, the moneyed modern branch of an old family tree. Being behind the wheel soothed him, and as he approached the automatic gates (another remote) he found he was quite looking forward to mounting the causeway bridge and joining the downtown tumult in West Palm. He turned onto the narrow strip that cleaved his property from the public beach. There was no parking here, so it was jarring to see a car, a modest sedan, idled near the gates. A tall thin man leant against the hood. He was writing something in a notebook. Todd figured the car must have broken down, but he didn’t stop. He was running late, and the cops would be along soon. A twinge of guilt had him glancing in the rear-view mirror. The man was upright now, watching Todd leave. He was holding something up. A book. Todd knew that photo from a hundred paces. He hit the gas, and sped away from his son.

            “Everything all right, sir?”
            Todd looked up at the waitress, who was staring with proprietary concern at the half-full dessert plate he’d pushed forward. “Delicious, thanks,” he placated, palming his stomach. “I just can’t eat that much.”
            The waitress, a dishwater blonde, winked as if to say: your secret’s safe with me. She hoisted the wine bottle. Todd put a hand over his glass. “Sir?” she asked, swiveling. Marv Grebe, MD, Todd’s dinner companion, nodded lustily. His dish, Todd noted, was clean.
            It had been two months since the call, which Stephen Crown had traced to a Palm Beach pay-phone. The sedan – gone by the time Todd came back from West Palm – never returned. Grace Choi offered to send security, but Todd waved her off, accepting instead a coin-sized emergency locator that rattled around in his coat pocket like loose change. The movie was wrapping up general release. A modest commercial success, it had broken even on its big screen run, and would now begin turning a profit on DVD and foreign sales. Todd had recovered from his shock at the changed ending. Recovered, not reconciled. It was over, done with.
            The children’s book still languished.
            He looked around The Breakers’ cavernous restaurant, a Beaux Arts paean to a Florentine palace. A room he’d written effusive copy about when he worked here. For once, his words had been sincere. The restaurant was Todd’s favorite part of the hotel, perhaps because it was so un-Florida – dark and deep and windowless.
            The waitress dropped off the check and both men lunged. Todd got there first.
            “Call it payment,” he joked. “For your golf lesson.”
            “You just need to relax,” Marv scoffed, supping from his wine. He seemed to chew on it, like a second dessert. “Stop worrying about etiquette. You looked like you were having tea with the Queen of England out there. You’re in Florida. At a golf club. Your golf club. How wrong can you go?”
Dinner was to toast Todd’s links baptism. Nina had bought him a set of clubs last Christmas; the woods like carved anthracite, big as boxing gloves. He’d taken lessons, he’d dug up the driving range, but he hadn’t used the set in anger until Marv, a neighbor, shamed him into it at a cocktail party, right in front of Nina.
            So today, his maiden eighteen. (Why not six? That seemed about the right length.) They’d gone out after lunch, avoiding the humorless nonagenarians who teed off in the morning. The course – flat, green, tended – put Todd in mind of graveyards. And the heat! He’d been melting out there, and even after a cool shower he still felt moist under his coat and tie, as if his body couldn’t stop weeping.
Marv, bone dry, had simply swapped golf shirt for golf shirt,  leisure for leisure. Sixty-four, he’d sold his Greenwich cardiology practice a decade ago. Now he boasted a mahogany tan and a six handicap. Though the two men had little in common, Todd was drawn to this healer of hearts, content to fritter away his professional prime on chip-shots and fine wines. He craved some of that blithe spirit.
            “Sometimes I feel like I never left New York,” he quipped, tapping his temple. “Up here.”
            “You get those. Transplant rejects. All this – ” Marv made a sweeping motion with his hands “ – is a burden to them. They want the struggle. You see them teeing off a few of times, but their heart’s not in it. You don’t see them again. Masochists. They’d sooner be skidding on the ice.”
            “What happens to them?”
            “They go back. Or they die. Nothing saps the will to live like having nothing to do.”
            The waitress had returned with Todd’s card. She was hovering, with a hesitant, shifty look.
            “Mr. Polish ­– ” she reduced him to a cleaner brand again “ – I wanted to say I loved your movie.”
            “Thank you. But it wasn’t really my – ”
            “Cyrus, my sister’s boy, has Hodgkin’s. Thank you, from all of us, for being such an inspiration. We all cried a lot.”
            “Thank you.” Todd gave a half-wave, but still she wouldn’t leave. She was twisting the check like a rosary.
            “How is he?”
            “Who?”
            “Your son. Trim. Is he doing OK?”
            “He’s … he’s … ”
            From a distant table came the sound of tinkling glass and a kind of whooping gasp. The waitress left quickly. Todd followed her route. A diner sat slumped forward, his face in his plate. Overweight and old, an ominous combination. His companions huddled around as one might a stricken elephant, with no clear sense of what to do. Not so, the staff. The maitre’d was signaling, waiters were nodding. For them it was rote, quotidian, like cleaning up a wine spill or dousing a pan fire.
            Marv was similarly unfazed. “Another one bites the dust.”
            “Shouldn’t you?”
            Marv shook his head. “Are you kidding? They got General Hospital right here. Best I can do is get my ass sued.”
             “Maybe he had nothing to do,” Todd sighed, looking over again. The man was being hoisted from his chair. It took three waiters to lift him up.
            “Yeah,” Marv laughed. “Or too much.”

            As Todd stepped outside, the ambulance was pulling away. Slowly, with no siren. He waited for his car. He ought to walk – it wasn’t that far – but no one walked here. He might be picked up as a vagrant. The evening sky was heavy, clotted with hammerheads. The breeze was like being blown by a hair-dryer. Around the corner, a valet was sneaking a cigarette. Todd was envious – he could use one now. The dead diner had rattled him, but worse, much worse, had been the resurrected son, the dumb waitress and her multiplex miracle. Not her fault, the studio’s; spooked by early feedback – too gloomy! – harried into rewrite. The kid lives. Like Grace Choi said, he’d sold the rights, not the script. Still he’d cashed the check, let them heap their lies upon his, adulterate his adulterations. Interesting word, adulterate. You couldn’t have it without adult.
            Up rolled the black BMW. Pressing a twenty on the grateful valet, Todd doffed his coat, throwing it in a furious ball into the passenger footwell. He noticed a large woolen blanket had been draped over the back seat. Nina must have used the car to lug something, he thought, with a little stab of outrage.
Nearing the street, he heard a rustling from the back. He thought of a waking child. Or a pet. But they didn’t have a pet.
            “Go left.” He knew the voice at once, from the phone. The face in the mirror, the one that had held his son. Todd wanted to stop, he wanted to run, but a deeper, calming instinct had him tilting the mirror, looking down. The man kept one hand in his coat pocket. Todd went left.
            “How did you get in?” he asked, essaying a tone of professional interest.
            “I watched the valets,” his passenger replied, almost giddy. “They take the keys out but they don’t lock the cars. To save time.”
            They were nosing through downtown, past shuttered boutiques and trust offices. Diners lingered outside restaurants, oblivious. The car had tinted windows – designed to foil snoopers, now they entombed. Todd realized he’d stopped sweating. Cold with fear. He checked the mirror again. His abductor was pale and thin-faced, twitchy and hair-trigger. The clothes were outlet menswear, businesslike but threadbare: hog-hair coat, olive shirt. Todd had an idea he’d dressed up for this. The hair was a graying bowl, sinisterly childish. A notebook, like the one he’d been writing in outside Todd’s gates, was on his knee. He wrote in it with his free hand, using a half-pencil like the one Todd had used to keep his golf score. The other hand remained pocketed, full of threat.
            They neared the mansion. Nina was in Miami, at a dinner. Todd slowed, flipping the turn signal.
            “Keep driving.”
            Todd almost yelped. He’d taken solace from home ground. Surely he wouldn’t kill him there, where it was so obvious? Then there was the alarm, still in his coat pocket in the passenger footwell. He’d grab it as they got out. As they passed the gates, Todd felt a child’s need for comfort. “Where are we going?”
            “We’re going to have this out, Mr. Polish.” He used the long ‘o’ this time. “We’re going home.”

            They were sitting.
            “Cigarette?”
            Todd thought reflexively of his health balance, his life quotient. He gave a little shudder of rejection. But these might be his last minutes. “All right.”
            John Sherlock reached over from the sofa. He’d introduced himself as they entered the bungalow, moments after writing something in another note-book, this one laid open on an occasional table like a guest book at a wedding. Todd could have sworn he was signing himself in. They’d even shaken hands, there by the door, his abductor taking on a stilted solicitousness, as if a spell had been broken; as if all that ugliness in the car could now be put behind them. The left hand, formerly sheathed, was in the open. There was something bulky in the coat pocket. Gun or not, its mission was accomplished. Todd was here. The door was closed.
            ‘Here’ was a bedroom settlement, across the inland waterway from the southernmost tip of Palm Beach. Home to busboys and bellboys, it had been Todd and Nina’s neighborhood when they first moved south. Trim’s only home. Parking the BMW one door down from his old house, Todd had reached over to the footwell, pressing the emergency locator through the fabric of his coat. He couldn’t tell whether he’d raised the alarm.
            “Quitter.”
            “Excuse me?”
            “You were a quitter. I used to see you at the end of the yard.” John Sherlock spoke slowly now, punctiliously. Todd could summon no memory of his former neighbor, save for a figure in a doorway, slipping inside whenever he stepped out. Skittish. Bird-like. But watching. “You used to bow your head, furtive. I thought: either he’s been sent outside, on account of the baby, or he’s not supposed to be smoking at all.”
            Todd remembered: the tiny house; the fecal miasma; the needy din. After Trim was born, he vowed to quit smoking, but five minutes in the yard with a cigarette was like Hawaii. He couldn’t let it go. Crouched behind the gardenia bush, he’d drop the butts over the fence, into next door’s yard. John Sherlock’s yard.
            “I’m sorry about the ­– ”
            “Half a dozen a day, on average. More on weekends. It’s all memorialized.” He reported this without complaint. Solemnly, with dutiful pride.
            “That was thoughtless of me. I’m sorry.”
            His host didn’t acknowledge the apology. He scratched his cheek. Then the other cheek, in the exact same spot. His hands shook like he was over-medicated, or under-medicated, becoming still only when he wrote in his notebook, which he did often, the pencil like a sixth finger. He put out his cigarette and made a note. He lit another one and made a note. Todd looked around. The lay-out was the same as next door: the lounge abutting the front door like an old sitcom set, eat-in kitchen at the rear, two bedrooms and bath to the side. The furniture was gimcrack, self assemble. In the corner, an unlacquered pine bookcase, a fold-down flap for a desk. Ranked on the shelves, like the bellows of an old accordion, were scores of the notebooks.
            “I’m sorry too,” John Sherlock went on. “For coming to your house that day. I had an idea you’d remember me. I have ideas like that, from time to time.” He spoke as if it had all been long ago, not connected to today at all. Today was all lucid. “It’s the inconsistency. I can’t have it. Last night I lay awake, oppressed by the thought that years ago I’d failed to close a pair of parentheses.” He rose, taking a notebook from the shelf. “It took me most of the night, but I found it. July 23rd, 1998. 7:28 am. Breakfast: raisin bran, skim milk, grapefruit juice. Open parentheses: buy more juice … That’s it. No close! To think that everything I’ve written since that morning has been an aside, a stage whisper. I slept better, putting that right.”
            “I’m sure you did.”
            “I saw it as a sign. To resolve this other business.”
            From another shelf, John Sherlock retrieved a photo album, one of an encyclopedic set. He turned the pages with officious relish. The librarian on the trail of an unreturned book. The highway cop, dawdling over the speeding ticket. Todd felt a cornered, defiant rage. He on his feet now, looking at the pages. No family album, this. Pictures of things, not people: license plates; clock-faces; pyramids of morning mail. Todd’s cigarette butts, clustered in the grass like a fresh crime scene. Sometimes six. Sometimes more.
            John Sherlock paused. “The day I called you, I’d been at the library. I’d just sat down with the Dewey when I saw someone had left open a copy of the New York Times. An article about a local writer, a memoirist. I avoid the news – I find it muddies the record – but the subject drew my interest. Imagine my surprise – a comrade-in-arms living next door, and I never knew. Plotting a best-seller! Not that I begrudge you your success. The work is its own reward for me. But when I read about the doves – ”
            Todd’s heart was thumping. “What about the doves?”
            “Their resurrection.” John Sherlock turned the page. There were two photographs, one for each bird. They were bloody, torn apart. “That cat really did them in,” he crowed. “It doesn’t seem likely they could have returned.”
            “I – ”
            “I bought your book.” He retrieved it from the desk drawer. The same edition he’d held up on the street; Trim on the beach with his pail and his pride. Inside, it was mauled with annotations. “Frustrating, the focus on your thoughts and feelings. I kept asking: where is he? what’s going on? No matter – I’ve compiled a list of inconsistencies.” He read from a fistful of notes. “Four eggs? Elementary research will tell you mourning doves hatch two eggs at a time.”
            “My editor. She thought four was more grabby.”
            “Your son. I hardly ever saw him in the yard. To read your book, you’d think he was out there all the time.”
            “We were from New York. My wife was frantic about the sun. He saw the doves once. He was wild about them. But he was three. He was wild about everything.” Todd was racing now. Was this how Nina felt, after a good cry?  “I’ll let you in another secret. His first words weren’t tweet-tweet.”
            “No?”
            “They were Da-Da. Can you believe it? What else do you want to know, Mr. Sherlock? How I hated leaving New York? How I prayed for a miscarriage? How I sulked around next door when he was born? How I only loved him when he was condemned, when it was too late?”
            John Sherlock looked non-plussed, like Todd had started speaking a foreign language. His hand brushed the coat pocket. Something in there, for sure. Todd charged, shoulder first. John Sherlock was lighter than he’d expected. He seemed to take off like paper, his temple colliding with a pine corner, soft meeting sharp in a wet crunch. He stiffened horribly and went down.
            A strange peace descended. Was he dead? Todd couldn’t tell. He’d only seen one dead body, his son’s, the sight no parent should see. Trim had died while Todd was outside – smoking, of course – though the world believed the father had held his son’s hand to the end, escorting him into the next world the way kindly couriers put unaccompanied minors onto planes. Blood dripped from John Sherlock’s temple, spattering the notebook, staining the record. Todd thought of Trim, coughing blood. He’d felt love yes, the parent’s urge to soothe and solve, but always a flicker of disgust. John Sherlock had recoiled at his memoir, the thoughts and feelings, but these feelings – the ones left out – shared something with his breakfast inventories and cigarette counts: nobody wanted to hear them.
            Todd could hear sirens now, the answer to his alarm. He reached into John Sherlock’s coat pocket. The object he pulled out was like its owner; flimsy and breakable; the opposite of lethal. A voice recorder, cogs spinning, motor whirring, doggedly trapping the moments. Todd turned it off, putting it in his own pocket. Blue lights flashed. Voices at the door. “Are you alright, Mr. Polish?”
            “Yes,” he called back, content for once to waive the short ‘o’. “I’m safe now.”

     

Keith Lord

Keith Lord was raised in Liverpool, England, though he lacks a good Beatles story. He now lives in Weston, Connecticut with his wife and two children. His short fiction has appeared in failbetter, Duck & Herring, and Dark Sky. He is currently completing a novel, Bank Street.  

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