“My biggest mistake?”
“Yeah, the biggest one. The one you regret, the one that keeps you up at night, makes your throat dry,” said Duff.
Ted put his foot up on the rickety wooden railing skirting the weathered deck, scratched his chin, squeezed his eyes shut and said, “My Father’s House. Writing it, taking the time, doing the research. It was a terrible thing, a monster. I shouldn’t have done it.”
“It was the big one—”
“Biggest!” Ted confirmed. “I wrote it for the wrong reasons—sat up in the hole with one light burning, the window open, listening to those awful waves crash. I thought, ‘They’ll like this, read it…’ Why would I do that, care, think like that? It was like whipping a fetus in the womb.”
Ted sipped at his club-soda, held the chipped glass up to the Sun. It was beginning to sink below the roof-line of the house next door, an uninhabited yellow vinyl-sided terror with a backyard beaten brown by the former tenant’s children’s scrambling sneakers.
“But it sold,” Duff said, “There must have been something to it—”
“It sold, but there was nothing to it. They love that, loved it, still eat it and it is embarrassing. Anyone that buys it cradles a stillborn in their arms, puts a dead baby on their shelves. They take a wrinkled, caving, bloody mess to bed with them, put on their reading glasses to get a better look at the ugly nest of necrotic cells, sea-green veins…”
“I guess you feel pretty strongly about it. Crap sells, though. It bought this piece of shit four blocks from the wharf. You even have an almost-view, and your own plumbing, a bed in which to sleep, money for club-soda.”
Duff kicked off his shoes, stepped down from the deck into the tallish grass of the backyard. He wasn’t a man’s man. He wasn’t a woman’s man. He never fit in properly. If anything, he was a thinker’s thinker and that’s the worst kind of anything. Where does a thinker’s thinker fit in? Sometimes on a bad writer’s porch or a good writer that had gone bad, but desperately wanted to go good again, like Ted, but it meant he’d have to stop writing marketable books, lose the house, welcome back his anger, spur his critics. He admired Ted when Ted least admired himself. That was Ted’s flaw, Duff knew. He wouldn’t accept the simple idea that maybe he wasn’t a good person or at least not one of the pleasant people. He’d had too much reinforcement—old friends that would say, ‘No, no Ted, you are not a monster, look at what you do, what you are capable of.’
They didn’t get it—that it didn’t matter. They deluded themselves and Ted in turn deluded himself. He thought, ‘Yeah, I can do this, write for someone—for someone else.’ And of course, that’s when Ted began to die a little bit. Just a little bit at first. He wanted better plumbing, an identity, the positive reinforcement, an occasional accolade, and it slowly killed him, gnawed at his organs—his liver, his pancreas. Then moved on to his brainstem—dined on gray-matter.
Duff knew that the idea of salvation was a death-sentence for an author. It was like taking a low-dose of radiation every morning—piss and an x-ray. It would kill you, eventually—the daily dose.
“You’re on your way to Huggins’ place in Orchard Park. You lose your wallet on the bus, your backpack, your identity. You don’t have cab-fare and end up screaming at the house: ‘Russell!’’ Trainer comes out, still wearing his Tuesday league bowling shirt. He pays your fare. That was the best month of your life, remember? You had nothing—less than nothing. I remember how happy you were, scratching a stake together, writing alongside Huggins, doing what you do best.”
Ted listened to Duff, a creeping smile on his face. “Esteban built a ramp up the back stairs so he could work on his motorcycle in the kitchen. He’d talk and I’d write. Sometimes he’d put the wrenches down, write too—poetry—or talk about his dad Adolfo. How did he pay his rent?”
“He was in the favor-business,” said Duff.
“Favors, right. You couldn’t help but love him—more so when he was sick. You wanted to wrap him up, squeeze him. He was a kid, didn’t matter how old he got, and even older when he gave up.”
“You think he gave up?” asked Duff. “I don’t think he gave up. He worked right to the end, did that series with Nowell-Smith. Patrick wasn’t afraid of him, the protuberances of bone, the yellow skin—the death-mask. Patrick was affectionate with him. He wasn’t afraid.”
“I was afraid,” Ted said. When we were alone—sometimes in the kitchen, sometimes in Trainer’s study—you could hear Russell pacing upstairs, talking aloud to himself, maybe composing a letter to Irwin, maybe talking aloud for talking’s sake. Esteban would have his nose in a book—one of Trainer’s rotting Tort Reviews. He’d giggle through the passages, shake his head. I could count on my right hand the number of real, warm bodies in that house. But there were more! I could feel them. Right there with us, looking over our shoulders. Esteban would say not to worry; they were waiting for him. But Huggins said something else. He said: ‘We’re taking dictation, Ted. I came to Button House to take dictation. Stay awhile, you’ll see.’
“And I did see.”
“Yeah, you did your best work at Button House.”
“Yep,” Ted said, “I have boxes filled with unpublished manuscripts to prove it! No, check that: un-publishable manuscripts.”
“Huggins didn’t care—” Duff started.
“Huggins had a patron!”
“Three or four hundred bucks a week, maybe less, probably less, which he gave to Esteban—”
“Who gave it to Valeria!”
“Ha, yeah, her cheap stoles, her pink hair,” Duff said, sitting in the grass. Ted joined him, handing Duff a sweaty bottle of beer.
“You need,” began Duff, “To forgive yourself, Ted—to forgive your anger. There’s nothing wrong with it. Use it. Exploit it. There is no plot. Plot was your guillotine in My Father’s House. It castrated you. You were a castrated man, but you are whole again, right?”
Ted didn’t answer.
“Plot is not for you. You’re not selling lambs, fleece, whatever. You’re selling anger—pure, venom-varnished anger. You’ve got your little Squat-Temple, you’re proud of it, have decorated it with seashells. It’s a great royal fag’s house and now what!? You want to write a best-seller? Come on, Ted, you’re a madman’s madman. Your glory is in your supreme un-readability. Roll around in that shit for a second, see how it smells. That’s where you’re different. No one’s going to put your book on a coffee table.” Duff picked up his bottle, pointed with his pinky at Ted’s house, continued, “You could write a coffee table book in there, up in your little hole. One, maybe two, but think of the shame—all that shame will be on you, eating you alive.”
“You’d know,” Ted said.
“I would, too!” Duff agreed. “I’ve slain colleagues like animals, wrapped their stinking entrails around my neck. I’ve taken beatings and given beatings. People talk about sanctity. I don’t know what that is.”
Ted said, “I’ll stay, just a little while, see if anything comes of it, this house.”
“You’re asking for it, let me tell you—”
“Yeah, I know and all that, but a few months, a year, maybe a little more—there’s something here. I can use it. I have enough money to squeak through, oh, probably December. We’ll see—”