I watched him from what I hoped would be a safe distance, as he said goodnight to the doorman, all smiles and bonhomie from behind his tidy beard and moustache. Who would’ve thought that he could look so amiable? He had a stack of papers under one arm, most likely manuscripts, to which he would probably only devote a couple of distracted minutes before bedtime. His other arm had not yet properly found its place in his jacket, which was only half on, making him tilt to one side, like a glider in trouble, jabbing his empty sleeve towards the pavement. Then, at last, Gerald P. Cossack was ready to walk. But even when he did break into his stride, he remained terribly stilted somehow. He put his head down and made his way, as I’d hoped, towards Union Square.
Now listen up if you can hear me! Trees can cackle like old women, Mr. Cossack, if the wind is right and the leaves are brittle enough. Yes, they can. Do you hear me? And ‘that’ instead of ‘which’? Really? In this day and age, when they have become so interchangeable? Oh, you are such an old stick in the mud. Just look at you! I would be laughing if you hadn’t made me cry so raw. And so what if I had the one-way traffic in that bloody London street hurtling away from the river and not towards it. Who cares? Who really cares? Should we stub somebody out because of it? I may have carried out a little bit of literary vandalism with all of those unnecessary adverbs. Granted. But this is what I’d like to say, firmly, passionately and convincingly: nobody died because of it.
I followed him for a couple of blocks, careful to stop and stare into a shop window whenever I thought there might be a risk of him turning around and looking my way. I had actually expected someone taller, with more of a manly frame, going on the photo I’d seen in The New York Times. I noticed his bizarre gait: one of his feet turned inwards as it landed on the pavement. A child might walk like that, until his parents pulled him up on it. One would hope that any decent mother or father would force their child to straighten up the feet and always keep an eye on them. But poor old Cossack might not have had such caring parents. Actually, maybe he didn’t even have parents.
Looking increasingly clumsy and vacant, he almost crossed a busy junction where the little man (or is it a woman?) had not yet turned green. A taxi driver yelled out. A cyclist swerved and swore. A drunk laughed. It was hard to believe this was actually the same Cossack who commanded so much power, who could ruin someone’s life with the tiniest squirt of ink from his pen. Getting closer behind him, I saw long white stains across his denim jeans and jacket, the kinds of marks left behind from sloppy washing. Was there no one at home to look after him? Had no one ever told him that a man of his age should no longer attempt to wear denim? How terribly sad.
As I’d hoped, he turned into the dim, narrow bar where I’d first observed him the week before. I stood at the door and watched his lazy progress, taking the opportunity to pull the fringe of my blonde wig further down over my eyes, just in case he was good at faces, profiles, familiar roman noses. He took the same seat, over beside a display of Marilyn Munroe memorabilia. He shook hands and patted backs, and I heard his voice for the first time as he greeted a couple of people. He had a southern accent, with a deep, rumbling quality. Here he was obviously liked and he felt at ease. I heard him order the same “blanche” he’d ordered the week before, which I discovered was a very transparent-looking beer from Belgium. No simple Bud for this man. No, Sir. He made no attempt to wipe the foam off his moustache after the first sip. He closed his eyes and let his body sink down into a deep sigh. How clichéd he looked. Bereft of striking characteristics of his own, to make us want to get to know him. What bloody work this man would be to flesh out.
I took a seat a few tables away, keeping my chin close to my chest, trying not to draw attention to myself. I ordered a glass of Italian red when the barman finally came over. He briefly looked down at my stomach, and I thought for a moment that maybe he’d noticed what I’d so carefully hidden. I almost stood up in a panic. But then he walked back over to the bar, seemingly unconcerned, wiping a few tables on the way. I kept my eyes fixed on the clock on the far wall and touched my middle, making sure everything was still safely in place, and then pinched at my blouse near the bottom to make it puff up. The silkiness felt wet. Was I sweating?
I took a gulp of the wine, which was way too warm, and let it flood the bottom of my mouth. I froze the muscles in my face and let the wine slowly leak down the back of my throat. I took out the last letter he’d sent me, the one that had brought our exciting 12-month exchange to a savage halt. What I will maintain, if I am ever called upon to explain things, is that Cossack had teased me unnecessarily – cruelly, in fact. He had cajoled me into a hypnotic dance, and I’d been stupid to believe that it was safe enough to reveal my nakedness, my vulnerability. It was difficult to read the words again, but I had to be reminded of how they had cut me down. The word dearest, in subsequent re-readings, had made me violently ill.
I am so sorry to be the bearer of bad news. Although I was
optimistic after reading your tenth (!!!) rewrite, I am still
not satisfied with how the book has developed. The overall
theme is brilliant, and once again in this latest version you
had me hooked at the start, causing me to ask: 'Could
something like this really take place?'
Sadly, however, after all these months, I didn't really care.
I feel that where you have gone wrong is that you have not
drawn your character well enough, not made him sympathetic
enough. His head is not a pleasant place for us to be in and
we are caught in his dark thoughts for longer than one can
bear. (Do we also have to have so many descriptions of things
and all those quirky observations?).
When I finished your manuscript I found that I thoroughly
disliked your protagonist. I also didn’t care about him or
what he did. Also, your sunny ending was terribly contrived
and came out of nowhere. Actually, I feel that what you have
here is a terrific short story shackled inside a novel that is
far too long and arduous. Less shade, more colour?
I regret having to write this to you because you are such a
competent, proven writer. However, I believe that you need to
accept the fact that you had a wonderful premise but just
didn’t make the most of it. Of course, not all novels should
have nice characters, but here there is not even one!
I’m truly sorry that I didn’t see all of this before, when we
asked you to rewrite those difficult passages. It’s possible
that I did spot these problems, but I suppose I just hoped
deep down that you would find a way out of the mess. This is
just my own point of view, of course, and someone else may
arrive at a different opinion entirely. However, I hope you
understand my position when I say that I am passing on this
book. I would stress, though, that I still think the world of
you as a writer.
Shall I pop the MS in the post, or should I place it in the
recycling bin? Please don’t take this too personally. After
all, honesty is the best policy.
Gerald P. Cossack.
Well, even though everything else in my life had turned hazy, it was perfectly clear to me that Cossack had to pay. It was out of the question that I would let him write that, after all I’d been through, without him suffering like he knew that I would suffer. Even if he had a point or two, and I’m happy to acknowledge it, there was no excuse for that kind of devastating letter. I no longer cared about the consequences. At his expense, I would feel life fill me up again.
I’d never found the courage to show that letter to anyone. I kept it folded up inside my bag, taking it out to reread dozens of times, during my desperate drives into the countryside, when I sat in those cafés along the coast, not wanting to return home. I told the more persistent of my friends that the publishers had fallen on hard times, forced to cut back on the number of books they printed. Yeah, right.
But everyone kept on at me: when would my second book be coming out, the one that I’d been struggling with for two years, which had required me to go on expensive writing retreats and even “escapes” to Paris and then Montreal? I locked myself away to avoid the piercing inquiries. As though my whole existence depended on the publication of another damn book! No one asked how I was, or how anything else in my life was; it was just the bloody book! I referred to it as my difficult second birth. People stopped praising me on my first novel, which had sold a respectable number, but just kept badgering me about the absence of the follow-up. Do you know that I’ve taken up cooking? I asked in desperation. Italian cuisine. Traditional. I won a prize in this contest, but I suppose you don’t want to hear about that. Didn’t think so. I also play the clarinet quite well. Also, I’m learning how to arrange flowers.
‘Do you mind if I sit here,’ I said. He hadn’t noticed me cross the bar, even though my feet seemed to make horrendous thuds on the unvarnished wooden boards.
‘Go ahead. No one else is sitting there.’
I examined his face as he glanced up, to check for any hint of recognition. Nothing, though. His eyes, watery and slightly pocked, went back to a crossword. Those horrid, rheumy eyes of his. That was a line from the book.
‘It’s awfully hot in here,’ I said.
Nothing. He just gently tapped his fingers on the table, apparently waiting for a stubborn word to move forward from the back of his mind. The smell of fries, mustard and sausages filled the bar, and then I saw a plate being whisked off to someone near the back.
I had already figured that the chances of Cossack recognising me when I got up close were slim. When they published my first book they’d put a small photograph of me on the back cover, but it was a black and white, and my hair had been gelled back behind my ears. (My mother said that I’d come across as severe and unfriendly, and nobody would want to buy the book, no matter how good it was.) Also, I had only met Cossack briefly when the contract for the first novel had been signed. I’d been told that he only really gets to know his authors in person after their third or fourth babies.
I squeezed my thumb and said, ‘Are you drinking alone?’
He didn’t look up. ‘Alone is not really the word.’
He kept his eyes on his crossword. ‘The bar is full. Even if I were having this drink in my own company, it’s not alone.’
I needn’t have been surprised by his rudeness. Really. Anyone who knows even the slightest thing about him would’ve expected something like that.
I decided to get things moving. Conflict. Action. Resolution.
‘I just thought you looked like someone who could do with some company.’
He looked up at me then. His mouth opened some time before the word came out. ‘Company?’
He gave each syllable an unusual stress, with a deliberate, slow beat. Cum-pa-nee. The sound seemed to come up from deep in his stomach. It made me think of the beginning of Lolita.
‘Do I know you?’ he asked.
‘Just like we’re never really alone, we never really know anyone, do we?’
He smiled. ‘Well, if you’ve really got nowhere else to sit.’ He pushed the paper to the end of the table and looked down at my breasts, as I’d hoped he would. I pulled in my stomach and pushed both shoulders forward, slightly wiggling them; I didn’t want to make it too obvious, but just enough for him to notice.
I realised at that point that I could not go back. I had already passed the most risky moment, and I had told myself that sitting down at the table with him would be the confirmation that I would go ahead with my abominable act. I would risk everything, and it didn’t seem to matter anymore. I was now a character in my own crime novel. I knew that if I ever had to later confide in someone about what happened this would be the moment I would remember the most. Poor old Cossack was well and truly hooked, just as he’d seemed to be with my novel. No chance of getting away, the poor sod.
‘So what do you do?’ he said.
I leant forward slightly. ‘Do you mean when I’m working, or when I’m playing?’
He sat back and chuckled, shaking his head.
I pulled out the chair and sat down, careful to ensure that there was no risk of my surprise slipping into view.
He said, ‘Do you often just chat to men in late-night bars?’
‘All the time. I’m interested in people. In their stories. In how they survive this funny old life. How they see their place in the world. I like to create surprises in my life, like a twist, the unexpected.’
‘Oh.’ He looked down at my breasts again.
‘I’m really into people’s stories.’
‘You sound like a social worker.’
‘More of an artist, but I suppose it’s like being a social worker.’
‘An artist? Do you mean a painter?’
‘Kind of. I do like to portray people, work out what colours and shade and textures are needed to create them.’
He took another mouthful of beer and I could see him discreetly checking me out again. A deeper discussion about colour and light was not really what interested him, which is exactly how I wanted things to go. I tried to imagine what look would come over his face when he realised what he had coming to him.
‘So what do you do,’ I asked.
‘I ... I make people ... but I also ruin people.’
I had to force myself to stay still, to suppress the shriek that wanted to fly out of my chest. ‘Really?’
‘It’s a terrible job.’ He shook his head, but then stopped and looked me straight in the eyes. ‘But there’s also pleasure in it. A power thing, I suppose. Decisions about whether someone is somebody or nobody. Funny, isn’t it?’
I folded my arms, to stop myself from trembling with rage. I had to stay calm. Action. Dialogue. Resolution. Nobody is nobody. Everybody is somebody. I looked straight back at him and said, ‘There’s a little hotel, just across the street.’
His eyes opened wide and he tightened his grip on his glass. He looked down at the table.
‘The room’s a little bit basic, but it’s very clean,’ I said, far too enthusiastically.
‘What are you saying?’
‘Oh, I’m just trying to paint a new situation. Anything wrong with that? Am I being too direct?’
‘It’s just all very sudden. I mean ... I don’t even know you.’
‘And I don’t know you. Isn’t that exciting?’ I stood up and nodded towards the exit.
The confidence had all but disappeared from his face. He now looked like a nervous high school kid, scared of deciding things for himself. Oh, how quickly we can change. But then, how wonderful to be able to mould a sequence of new events like this, to pull someone towards a conclusion that is not of their own choosing.
He followed me, not straight away, but a few minutes later. I was about 30 metres ahead of him the whole time, and I only had to look back once to make sure he was still there. I waited inside the lift in the hotel, my finger resting firmly on the button that kept the doors open. I’d already told the receptionist that I had a guest arriving, who was just finding a park down the street.
Cossack smiled nervously as he eventually stepped into the lift. ‘I’m a married man.’
‘I don’t care.’
‘And I’m old enough to be your father.’
‘I still don’t care.’ I twisted a finger around a curl in my wig.
‘I’ve never really done this before,’ he said, shaking his head and looking at the floor. ‘But I must say that I find it very compelling. I suppose I’ll have to pay. Is that it?’
‘No. Well, not with money.’
He looked at me blankly.
‘This is new for me, too,’ I said. ‘Sometimes we have no choice, though. Sometimes we just have to go along with things. It’s just how things develop.’
I placed my hand on the small of his back and guided him into the room. He took such small steps, as though he were blindfolded, expecting to crash into some obstacle. I told him to help himself to the choice of small bottles of alcohol in the fridge, which the receptionist had made a point of telling me about. I prepared some glasses and closed the curtains. The bed was massive, covered in a brown and cream duvet with matching cushions. Above the bed was a large painting of an elderly man on a bicycle. I dared not smile.
He poured us both a whisky and coke and added ice cubes. ‘I didn’t think this could happen to someone my age. How very lucky to have stopped off for a drink tonight.’
‘Yes, how very lucky. I just couldn’t help myself.’
‘What do you like,’ he asked, sitting down in an armchair. He now looked more at ease, starting to look cocky even.
‘Everything,’ I said. ‘Your pleasure is my pleasure.’ I took a sip of the drink.
‘I want you to devour me. I want to lose myself in your heat and sweat.’
He beamed a teenager’s grin and sat back with his legs wide apart. He gulped his drink in one go.
I sat down on the edge of the dresser. It was too soon for action, too soon to reveal my true intentions. I went over again what I had planned. I didn’t want anything to go wrong. I had no back-up plan.
‘You’re intriguing,’ he said.
‘Take off your clothes. I want to see you naked.’
‘Now? Just like that?’
‘Why not? Let’s get down to it. Let’s cut to the chase, as they say.’
‘You seem in a mighty hurry.’
‘I have no time to waste. I have a whole life ahead of me, a whole life to lead.’
‘A whole life to lead?’
‘Being stringed along is not good for anyone.’
He stood up and started to unbutton his shirt, from the bottom up, which I thought was kind of odd. I’d only ever seen men loosen their buttons from the top down. The little things we notice. We can’t help ourselves, can we? Always on the look out for the dinky little details we can sprinkle throughout our cruel observations. Even at times of great stress.
‘I thought you might want to rip my clothes off me,’ he said.
My hands started shaking when I saw myself in the mirror opposite. I was actually doing it. There I was. No mistake. A dream it definitely wasn’t. The adverbs were there in front of me; there was no point in trying to stop them in their flow. He moved awkwardly. She pouted sexily, or at least she attempted to. The bed rose eerily into the air. Figuratively, of course.
He was naked. His skin was tanned, though sagging. Grey hair. His private parts crumpled up. No one could be more vulnerable. All power and pretence had left him. The eyes were less willing to engage.
I reached inside my blouse and took out the packet that I’d so carefully wrapped. I placed it on the table.
‘It’s a weapon.’
I laughed. Loudly. I pointed. I put such effort into my laughing that it hurt across my chest. ‘Goodness. You think I might find a body like that attractive? Are you serious?’ I made it so tears mixed in with my roars of laughter.
‘What is this?’ He put his hand on the back of a chair.
‘It’s you. You are just so disappointing. Just look at the state of you. Do you really believe anyone would want you?’
‘What’s in the package? I don’t understand.’ He took a step back, his eyes scouring the room. Checking for possible escape routes?
‘Can I just say that I was optimistic after seeing you there in that bar, but I’m just not satisfied with how things have developed. You seemed so brilliant, so stunning, so sexy. You had me hooked. But just look at you! I’m sorry I didn’t see all of this before, but I hope you understand my position when I say that I’m going to have to say ... no thanks. Please don’t take it too personally. After all, honesty is the best policy.’
His blinking got faster. He went to speak, but nothing came out.
When I walked out of the hotel I still had a clear image of his bulging eyes, his trembling hands. I pictured him carefully opening the packet, still naked, and then the boom. The explosion inside his head when he realised what he had in his hands. No doubt, in the weeks that followed, he would’ve been absolutely sick watching that oh-so-familiar book rise to number one, in all its original glory, all of the culling reversed. Heavy on adverbs. The cackling trees replanted. Did he sit down and read the shiny reviews? One thing is sure: he won’t ever tell anyone the exact details of how he received his signed advance copy.
© Copyright, 2010. S. Kearney. Less Shade, More Colour.