from PART ONE
Chapter Twelve: Bob’s Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway, John O’Hara, all the rowdy literati of the 1920s influences our young writer’s work close to parody. They’re “men’s men,” with their compliant “real women,” and adjunct dames, usually golden-hearted — and not only is all the cursed subject matter there, but their influence seeps into the writing style: the staccato, quick sentences, the punchy emotional jumps, the lack of sentimental resolution, the strange idealistic yet cynical edge. In Fitzgerald, never quite as robust, too there is that gloried evocation of wealth, money and its privileges, breathlessly lauded; or at least the observation that men do look hungrily to money as the ultimate confirmation of their powers.
But what is not much reflected upon, not yet, is what NOT having that money will do to a man’s ego. Because when Bob was first at work, writing the novel, he wasn’t yet on the low-down. Only later, in the Lorton Penitentiary library, where he was typing up his hopeful final draft… perhaps he mulled over the degradations of materialism.
As Bob’s alter ego, Breck develops, we meet certain new friends whom he calls specimens of ‘fine breeding…’ And what that distinction means to the aspiring, lesser bred — all the slammed doors, and dashed hopes, the irrevocable longing. The downfall of Fitzgerald worship may have been financial suicide, but Hemingway worship scarred a generation of men right between the legs.
On July 2, 1961 he placed the end of a shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. I was eight years old, and Bob had been two years out of Lorton. It devastated both him, and his friends… He told me the story, why it happened… that the doctors had erased his memory, and Hem couldn’t live without his good, clear mind — so he committed suicide.
But their Ideal Man — ‘the perfect synthesis of brain and brawn,’ an athlete, adventurer, man of action and excellent writer — a SUICIDE? It was a thing no-one could get their heads around. It did not yet matter that his machismo was a pose, a projection turned into parody, turned tragic. They had lost their hero.
The fault for the suicide had to be laid at his doctor’s door. Electro-convulsive shock therapy for depression is (we now know) useless, and destructive; it was that treatment that wiped out his memory.
What Bob might not have known, what was not bruited for public delectation, was that Hemingway probably never possessed what one would call a clear mind. He was a walking, talking, writing bagful of over-compensations; and of course brilliant. Bob was worshipping a manic-depressive, narcissistic-borderline personality, a man with self-inflicted brain damage and a serious alcohol addiction. And if indeed you have to have a bad one, to be a genius writer, the childhood couldn’t be beat: the mother dressed him up as a girl, and his father over-disciplined him with a razor-strop.
They say the deterioration began in earnest in 1928, when Hem was thirty. That cruel father, Clarence, shot himself in the head with a Civil War revolver. It has been recorded that thereafter Hemingway became strangely accident-prone, usually involving injuries to his head. His rushing into the field of war in 1944, during the American invasion, seems to have been a death-wish — not so much bravery as a kind of crazy self-dramatization of devil-may-care invulnerability. So the brilliance dimmed: the year before his death he descended into paranoid dementia.
Bob impressed upon me the fact that a writer must have a fully-functioning memory — not only to remember your own past, but to remember what you’d read, all the fine detailing of the English language, the myriad nuances, its millions of connective tissues, veins, corpuscles, tiny firing neurons that magically could make possible a work of literary genius. You had to aspire to be an encyclopedia, which takes more than a lifetime; not to mention plenty of care and feeding of what I, as an adult writer, would come to call The Instrument. If your memory storehouse got erased, what were you? A collection of dead cells that could only create crap. If you had any sense of honor left, you too would commit suicide.
I am certain this emphasis of Bob’s helped to create my obsession with the elements of memory. That, and an incident with my mother: I became hysterical when, after asking my mother about her childhood, she told me she didn’t remember, and that “When you grow up you don’t think about those things anymore.” To tell a child, asking you about a childhood, that you’d stop thinkng about the childhood… well it effectively erased my presence as I stood there. I swore to her then, and to myself, that “I’LL never forget MY childhood!”
I am not one hundred percent sure about this, but Bob, despite his many disappointments, possessed too ebullient a nature to ever have considered suicide. Despite all the failures, despite the Unpublished Novel… I don’t ever recollect a depression in him. His drinking may have been medicating it…
As with many emulators, Bob overdoes it. Hemingway’s famous ‘fine,’ already overused, Bob resounds ‘fine, fine, FINE!” And in the meantime, Breck will drive Vee’s swanky red sports-car ‘as if he were born to it.’
from PART ONE
Chapter 13: The Novel: Whereby Vivian McCandless Is Not Lily White
[Page 96 of the novel]
Breck was always successful with women, but this was different. As Scott Fitzgerald once said, he always got the ‘top girl.’ Not that he was swooningly handsome, had any money to spend, and everin his life would own an automobile. But a little cerebral capacity has more appeal for the discerning female than a barrel chest. Style is important to a girl who’s been around a bit.
He had the smug, satisfying male pleasure of knowing that wherever they went, whatever room they entered, she was inevitably the most gorgeous doll present. Yet she was completely unaffected, did not seem to care that everyone, male or female, was admiring her.
The vacillating playboy he had been for the last couple of years was now, he promised himself,
poised for a settled relationship. A playboy’s too busy handling the plaudits of his friends than anticipating the real business. ‘Scores’ are what women had been, and scores of them there’d been. But constancy was to be his virtue now.
At least that was his plan. By the evening of May 21st he’d known Vee McCandless exactly six days.
There was a tensile strength about her, a well-bred reserve that kept him at fingertip distance. Yet she invited every confidence, and had gotten the entire story of his life out of him. She was already assuming that proprietary manner of a woman completely sure of her man, and he was happy, even relieved to give in to her; on his mettle to consolidate the entrapment.
They agreed they were having A Small Romance.
That they would sleep together was a fact both assumed, and they were drawing out the moment, building up their pleasure.
He was driving her blood-red Austin as if he were born to it, sliding fluidly between traffic, running a stop sign… She didn’t correct him. She was relaxed, slouched down in the cozy seat adjusted to lean far back, smoking and drifting, enjoying the speed and power of her car in the hands of another.
God she was tempting! Breck ran his eyes along the startlingly beautiful legs. She’d have to
be gorgeous coming out of the shower.
(This is an excerpt of Chapter 13. Vee later tells Breck she is pregnant with the child of her deceased husband.)
from PART ONE
Chapter Sixteen: Bob Writes Up His Daughters
Despite the admittedly unfulfilled life, my father was an optimist — always ready for a laugh, fun-loving, the first to start a party… while I was a morbid ‘Gothic’ teenager, a demi-suicide, the child in black.
One afternoon at Nathan’s we were having lunch, and Daddy was showing me off as usual to all and sundry. At one point I was pestered by some lady friend of his gushing over me, smiling all syrupy and trying to draw me out. When she finally went away, I sarcastically remarked — “She is disgustingly NICE.”
“Good nature is one of the most underrated of qualities,” Bob rebuked me, “Never make fun of someone for being cheerful.”
So a smile ‘all the way from her shoelaces’ would be the kind of joy my father would perceive and appreciate.
What child would not love reading about herself… especially when she’s shown to be a wondrous child? I consider these descriptions from a prison cell, my father writing, to invoke his lost daughters, one of the great gifts from Bob.
When Bob was sent away, my sister, Susan Louise, aka ‘Lou’ was three years old. ‘Chris,’ aka Terry Christine, had reached the age of five. Two beautiful little girls, whom Bob gave on loan to his alter-ego, Breck; their ownership remains with the man in prison, a character described but never seen, Chick Varnum.
[Starting from page 134 of the novel]
Breck had taken Chris and Lou out last Saturday, and the day had assumed spiritual proportions. The admiring looks which had accrued to his little band had been elevating — the dignified carriage of little Chris a conscious delight, the beguiling smile of the incredible Lou a passage of sheer poetry.
Now in company of Vee, his wife-to-be… on this Saturday following, the Varnum apartment door opened onto a cozy, sun-filled room, and Vicki greeted the couple with a smile that seemed to come all the way from her shoelaces.
Except Vicki wasn’t wearing shoelaces. Her tiny feet were encased in a pair of those new pointed-toe pumps that made her look altogether feminine. They ironically set off her mannish directness, the best part of her not inconsiderable charm.
Two blonde whirlwinds tore across the room and rushed upon Breck with delighted squeals.
Lou had just celebrated her third birthday. Her platinum hair was cut in a short bowl over brown saucer eyes… She had a winsome, roguish smile that shattered hearts like a hand grenade in a greenhouse. She was a total tomboy and tease. She was going through a phase which consisted of parroting every one of Chris’ words, along with dogging her every footstep.
Chris was all of five, beautiful, a perfect lady. Completely feminine, she was a miniature debutante.
[I would only be a miniature debutante; by the time I was old enough to be a real one, there was no ‘society’ for me to enter, represented as I was by a dissolute father. Instead I was introduced to what the Georgetown streets had to offer.]
Chris was consciously charming. Her fluty voice magnified the charm of an erect posture, hands properly at sides, head bobbing in appeal:
“Breck would you like to see my new pictures?”
“Bweck would oo like to thee my new pichures?”
“Yes dears!” This prompted an excited dash to her bedroom, Lou ecstatically on her sister’s heels…
“Get the pichures! Get the pichures!”
Vee was stunned as were all newcomers by the vital splendour of the Varnum children: “Vicki, they’re adorable!”
Though she’d heard it countless times, Vicki’s warm ‘Thank you’ was genuinely grateful.
[Bob’s friends were expected to dote on us just as ecstatically as did he.]
Vickie considered Vee a fine looking woman. She studied her with intense interest, but in friendly fashion. Girltalk was off and running within five minutes. Breck marvelled at the adaptability of women. Two females, unknown to one another but by hearsay, were already engaged in rapt conversation more appropriate to ancient buddies… He overheard them discussing Chanel suits, Irish coffee, trains, tanning, planes, bathing suits, and other subjects of portent.
The little blondes were now glued to his sides, and Breck began a highly theatrical appreciation of the specimens of art. Chris discussed each piece with him in adult fashion, holding up the ‘abstrack’ splashes of color, trying to determine which were the best. The foyer walls were covered with these vibrant squares of hers, and Vicki called it ‘The Gallery’ without the least sarcasm.
Lou stayed curled up against his left side, attracting his gaze from the art-show. The look on her face would reflect credit on a coquette of nineteen. She had a bantering quality, a flirtatious element that was surpassingly precious.
Breck met her gaze and mocked her grin, and she shyly buried her face in his clean white shirt front. The effect was devastating.
[Bob, we have to admit this is really, very, sexy.]
The Varnum home revolved around the children, basked in them, and despite the absence of the nominal head, presented a picture to the outside that bespoke warmth, civilized company, and good cheer.
Vicki placed a silver bucketful of ice cubes in the midst of the bottles on the circular cocktail table, which had long been denuded of its varnish by the varied ministrations of four little hands.
[How my father missed us! Too bad I was never able to feel it, that Bob never created this home, a warm and charming place that revolved around us. Unless of course ‘civilized company’ encompassed the cocktail hour…
[Well — of course it did.
[No, really — our ‘company’ was civilized, and thus in one manner – through the mute presence of his thousands of books, and no television. And how we loved that cocktail table! We played on it every day, and sometimes even got to eat dinner at it. Indeed its varnish was soon gone, but not before my father got home from prison.]
Breck helped himself generously to the Scotch; Vickie was at hand, providing a little square of pressed linen for a napkin. The girls were dragging at his hands, “Don’t spill my drinkie, honeys!”
[No honeys, by no means disturb the flow of alcohol.]
He set upon intriguing his youthful audience with a package of colored pipe-cleaners and a certain dexterity. Expertly (he imagined) he guided their interest until the manipulations were imitated by the girls. This entertainment then segued to feeding Uncle Breck cocktail olives, tossing them in his open mouth across the round table.
As he tried to inflict himself on the adult conversation, Chris interrupted the women with a seriously adult question, “Are you going to be Breck’s new Mommy?”
Vee blushed but was convivial, “You bet I am!”
Chris radiated joy, and hastened to the attack, “Are you going to have babies soon?”
“Yes, and lots of them,” Vee flushed, but seemed equal to the probe, “And I hope they will be blonde and very smart, and can color and paint like some other little girls I just met!” Her transparency did not affect the enthusiasm she conveyed.
“I love you Vee. Will you paint my fingernails now?’” These apparently dissimilar statements were joined by a loving hug.
“Paint me fingernail toooooo!” giggled Lou. Through laughter at this predictable response, Vee was extricated from further queries.
Preparations got underway for the bedtime ritual. Vee insisted on helping Vickie, and seemed actually transported by the electrical energy of the girls. They emerged from the bath for Breck’s inspection and goodnight kisses, their faces scrubbed pink and glowing.
They were something to remember in their long pink nightgowns. The kisses were sweet, soap-smelling littlegirl kisses, which have never been surpassed in the realm of tenderness.
[Daddy in his grey prison cell, typing pink, pink, pink… oh never to forget those pinks, those kisses! Once he got out, they’d be older, less innocent perhaps, less pink and precious… Yeah, something to remember, guy.]
Vee had been selected to read the bedtime story, the usual honor accorded to an approved guest. No one had yet had the courage to refuse, and most performed it eagerly.
[Again that insistence that all worship the children! I remember well some drunken pal sloppily reading to us, boring us. No one had the perfect diction, nor the dramatic flair that Bob could bring to life in every story.]
The remainder of the evening passed smoothly. They had quite a few more drinks, and Breck could see the women were attracted to one another, and could very well become friends.
To his amusement they began to patronize him to his face. Even as they guzzled a few of their own, Breck’s drinking patterns became a subject for judicious head-wagging. His fastidiousness in dress was derided; Vee related how he’d rather pick up dry-cleaning than meet her for cocktails. He was denounced as a ham. His slender build gave rise to giggles… They were way past half-tight and perhaps too much enjoying themselves at his expense.
“Well you two are really having a ball, aren’t you?”
“..the best we can do… with no males around but a beat-up banker who chases waitresses.” This trashing from Vicki, hiccupping.
“You dismal undersexed refugee! If you yourself hadn’t stooped to marry a banker, you’d be dealing beers yourself, not to mention diddling truck drivers every Saturday night!”
Vickie whooped and kicked one leg provocatively into the air. Reclining on the sofa, heels on the battered table, the motion swept her skirt up to her lap, exposing bare flesh and high silk panties above snugly gartered hose. The effect hit Breck smartly and he flushed beneath his grin.
[In the margin, Daddy’s pencilled script reads ‘BAD.’ Wonder what he considered – the description, or the sleazy behaviour? Because the description is good…]
The evening dawdled to a close, and all were pretty tired around three. The ladies made lunch plans and exchanged numbers… Vee and Breck stepped out into the dark freshness of deserted Connecticut Avenue.
There were no cabs in sight, but the night felt luxurious; they began to walk over the Taft Bridge towards Georgetown. Vee had really, really liked Vicki and she rattled on about the girls. Then, as Vee clutched his arm tightly, Breck knew what was coming.
“Breck — I’ve decided… I want to have this baby.” She said it quickly, nothing furtive or even hesitant.
“I know you do.” “Really, you knew — how?”
“Well, all this time… and of course, Chris and Lou WILL do that to you!”
They stood for a long time on the bridge, kissing and holding each other.
“Breck, did you did that on purpose.” “What?”
“Took me to see the girls.” “What do you think?”
“I’m so glad… Breck, an abortion seems just so dirty. So low-down.”
“Don’t think that way,” he soothed her, modernly, “but this is better I think… I want you to have the baby too.”
A lone cab buzzed them at the end of the bridge, and they got in, settling down as comfortably in the backseat as if they were setting up housekeeping. Vee snuggled against him for a snooze, and Breck, tasting the sweet warm lipstick on his mouth wondered to himself –
It sure was one hell of a beautiful life.