7:45. I ARRIVE at Malison’s hotel an hour and fifteen minutes before his lecture is due to begin at the Pavilion of Thought. The desk clerk shoots me a look that suggests he might be interested in throwing his weight around. Rather than pass him, I take a seat in the lobby, pull out my journal, and light a cigarette. He gives me another look.
“My husband hates for me to smoke in the room,” I say.
He says, “What?”
I say, “My husband, he hates the smoke, so I’m just going to sit here for a moment before going up to our room.”
The clerk says, “Fine, whatever,” and turns his attention back to a little TV set, one of those Watchmans.
I can’t believe that Malison is staying here at The Chesterton. It’s so ironic, so unlike Malison. It’s perfect. I’d called every hotel in town asking if they had a Malison registered, but of course they didn’t. We’re not talking about Mr. Small Press Nobody here. Malison is MALISON, and he’s got to protect his privacy. I can understand that. I can respect that. I called around again asking if anyone had a guest by the name of Smithy Smithy, the name of all the characters in Malison’s second novel. All the hotel clerks said no. They said, “What the hell kind of name is that?” Really, I think Smithy Smithy would have been too obvious, so I tried again and again, thinking he might have registered under the name of one of the minor characters in Rotunda Surf. I finally found him here at The Chesterton registered under the name A. Davenport, the character who under-goes a needless colostomy inMagnetic Plugs. Malison is here in room 822.
How like Malison to use an assumed name, and especially here at The Chesterton, where he’ll be rubbing elbows with every shallow middle-class clichZ you’d never want to meet, the exact type of people he exposes in his novels. How like Malison, how perfectly ironic.
8:04. I had really hoped to catch Malison before he left for the reading, but since nobody answers his door I can only assume that the department heads have him hogtied at The Crow’s Nest or Andrea’s Butcher Block, one of the upscale slaughter-houses this town calls a restaurant. I can see it now: the dean and his spaniels are shoveling forkfuls of red meat while poor Malison just sits there, tuning out their petty conversation and gagging at the sight of the carnage on his plate. Even the vegetables in this town are cooked in blood. I think it’s pretty obvious that the English Department knows nothing about Malison. They just see him as another feather in their cap, a name they can use to attract new students. It makes me sick. They fly him in for a few days, race him around campus like a greyhound, and then bore him to death with their talk of funding cutbacks and Who’s Who on campus. I’ve been standing outside this door for the last twenty minutes, so I think it’s also very obvious that they’re herding Malison straight from the restaurant to the Pavilion of Thought.
At first I was excited about tonight’s reading, but now I say forget it if Malison has been rushed around by these university types all day, then I know he’ll be too exhausted to express himself. I had a feeling this might happen, so I arranged for a few people to tape tonight’s reading at the Pavilion. Bethany, if left to her own devices, can tend to get a little too artsy for her own good, so I got Daryll as a backup. Deep down in his middle-class heart Daryll would just love to be a cameraman for some big TV studio. He’d love to wear a jumpsuit and boss people around. While I really hate his politics, I trust his overall skill much more than I trust Bethany’s. She taped last month’s John Cage lecture and kept the camera aimed at his feet the entire time, and he wasn’t dancing or anything!
Another reason for boycotting tonight’s lecture is that I don’t think I can sit back and watch while Malison wastes his time reading to an audience of a thousand kids who can’t even begin to understand his work. The students began lining up outside the Pavilion hours ago. They’re holding Malison’s book in one hand and some bullshit economics text in the other, economics or political science or whatever it is they’re really interested in. Most of them had never even heard of Malison before Rotunda Surf, but they act as though they’ve been reading Malison forever. I want to confront them. I want to ask them where they were when Malison was physically attacked after the release of Magnetic Plugs. Where were they when Malison needed support after the media trashed Smithy Smithy? These kids all act like they understand Malison and it makes me sick to hear their lame opinions on his work. This afternoon I overheard a girl telling her boyfriend that Malison’s work mirrored the oppression inherent in Western capitalist society. She read that off the dust jacket. She doesn’t know shit about Malison. She was wearing clothes that Malison would really hate. Here at the university I am surrounded by jokes like her.
My head is still spinning from the reading Malison gave in my master’s writing seminar this afternoon. I’d looked forward to some one-on-one contact, but the room was packed with people who aren’t even enrolled in the seminar. These kids weren’t writers, they were fakes. But did the teacher ask them to leave? Did Professor Nobody tell them that this was a class for serious writers? Of course not. He masks his cowardice with this “we’re all here to learn” cheeriness that really makes me sick. It was perfect then when Malison walked into the classroom. He saw all the copies of O’Flannery on our desks and he picked up my copy and said, “Who’s making you read this shit?” It was so perfect. Professor Nobody just stood there pretending he hadn’t heard Malison’s remark. He just stood there and tucked in his shirt. He couldn’t even own up to it! I think Malison hates O’Flannery for the same reasons I do, because she’s a fascist, a typical bourgeois racist, a judgmental Christian right-wing parrot, and a timid writer who relies on grammar to carry her through the page. I hate O’Flannery, I really do.
Malison’s reading was wonderfully assertive. He read a few sections from Rotunda Surf, parts that I had practically memorized even though the book only came out last month. He never numbers his pages, but I was with him for a good quarter-inch at the beginning of the second part. I just mouthed the words while he read. I wasn’t doing it for attention; it’s just a reflex action because I know his work, all of it, so well. After the reading, Professor Nobody opened the floor for questions, which was a mistake because it’s always the stupidest people who ask the most questions. For example, one guy who’s not even in the writing seminar raised his hand and said, “I tried reading your third novel but gave up when I realized that all of the characters were going by the name
Oh right, he had a problem with it.
Malison was great. He just looked at this guy and said, “Well, if it’s giving you trouble, then I guess I’ll just have to rewrite it in simpler terms. I thought I might continue work on my new project, but if
The questions continued and were all incredibly stupid until I asked Malison if the tall blond character inRotunda Surf was based on his former girlfriend Cassandra Lane, the fashion model. I just wanted Malison to realize that there are some of us who understand his life and work. My New York friend Russell Marks had gone to the Foxmore Academy with Cassandra Lane, and he used to fill me in on a lot of details, like what a bitch she really is and how she uses people. Cassandra Lane really put Malison through the wringer over that phony abuse scandal. She’ll do anything for media attention. She’s not even that pretty.
I asked the question, and Malison looked at me with a lot of pain, a great deal of pain and anguish in his eyes, and said thatRotunda Surf was a work of fiction and that his inspirations were none of anyone’s business. A group of people laughed when he said that. I laughed too because I know that, on the surface, my question sounded nosy, but I didn’t mean it that way. I realize it would have been impossible for him to open up and really talk about his work in that atmosphere, surrounded by so many people who don’t know him the way I do. I can understand Malison’s creative process and his life, and that’s why I really need to sit down and talk with him. I saw that pain in his eyes. I need to sit him down and let him know that I’m behind him one hundred percent.
After a few more questions, Professor Nobody asked Malison where he saw this postmodern metafictional movement headed, and Malison just picked up his books and papers and said, “Anywhere but here,” and walked out of the room. He meant anywhere but the small world of academia, but it went right over everyone’s head. After he walked out, I picked up my shit and walked out too, but Malison had already left the building. I haven’t been able to find him anywhere.
9:19. I’m sitting in the cocktail lounge of The Chesterton, a grotesque, brassy place ironically named Reflections, which erroneously suggests that I will see myself mirrored in this bar or any of its customers. I sit at a table, pull out my journal, and, when the waitress arrives, I order a boilermaker. The waitress acts shocked that a woman might order a beer and a shot rather than some frozen daiquiri product, and I shoot her a look that sends her off toward a group of people she thinks might find her cute.
Malison’s reading is starting right at this moment, I can sense it. I think it’s very appropriate, very revealing that right now he is standing before an audience of people who don’t understand him, and at the same time I’m sitting in this bar full of people who, I am certain, have no hope of ever knowing or understanding me. It’s a lonely feeling, but I’d rather be alone than stoop to a lower level of understanding. The waitress brings me my shot and my beer and gives me a look while I empty the shot glass into the beer. She acts as though I’m spoiling all her fun. Whatever fun she might have working in a place like this, leading her dull, unexamined life, she is more than welcome to. She can have it. The customers are all looking at me the same way. They can’t deal with anyone who isn’t into their Mr. and Mrs. Jovial scene, with someone who takes a hard look at the crumbling building blocks that are the foundation for their wasted suburban lives. With someone like me.
This place reminds me of the bar that Malison depicted inMagnetic Plugs, except the people are fully dressed and they’re not drinking out of gas cans. The waitress returns and I order another boilermaker.
10:20. I’m sitting in the fancy lounge area of the women’s rest room here at The Chesterton. I shouldn’t have had that champagne on top of those boilermakers, but if I sit very quietly I’m sure I can pull myself together. Actually, I’m not even embarrassed about throwing up in the bar. I was having problems putting my feelings into words, so vomiting was actually a very ironic, very appropriate gesture. I’m not going to let it get me down, but still I curse that crippled man for distracting me the way he did. Malison’s lecture is probably over by now, and he’ll be heading back to his room. Thank God I brought that change of clothes. It’s not my favorite outfit but, seeing as my first choice is spattered with vomit, I guess I’ll have to go with the second choice.
That old guy is probably still sitting in the bar, using his nap-kin to mop up the vomit and trying to convince the waitress that the world is good at heart. He’d come over to my table and asked to join me, and I looked up from my writing and said, “Go ahead, sit down,” not because I wanted company, but be-cause he obviously needed to sit someplace and all the other chairs were taken. This man walked with two canes and his legs were twisted. Each foot pointed off in a different direction as though they had been attached sideways. He sat down and asked the waitress to bring us her finest bottle of champagne. The waitress asked, “What are you celebrating?” and the man just spread out his arms and looked back and forth across the room. I said, “You’re celebrating this bar?” and he said, “No, I’m celebrating life!” I should have gotten up and left; but instead I saw this man as someone I can use for a piece I’m working on. He’s someone whom Malison would describe as a self-hypnotic, one of those people who convinces himself that his life is meaningful only because the truth would destroy him. It’s as if someone has hypnotized him by waving a turd back and forth in front of his face and saying, “You’re getting sleepy. . sleepy.”
When the champagne arrived at the table, the crippled man grinned from ear to ear. And I mean that literally. He had the widest mouth I have ever seen on a human. I think he could have fit a saucer in there with no problem. He had this wide mouth and sandy blond hair growing in tufts along the sides of his head. The top of his head was bald and covered with spots and freckles. He made a big production of popping the cork off the champagne bottle, and the people at the other tables all looked our way and cheered him on. Everyone acted as if this were important and memorable. The man poured two glasses and then noticed my journal and said, “So, I see you’re a writer.” This would be like me noticing his two canes leaning against the table and saying, “So, I see you’re a cripple,” but I bit my tongue and just said, “Yes, I’m a writer.” The man said he’d never written much besides letters but that reading was his greatest pleasure. Then he rattled off a list of the writers he admired fussy, middle-of-the-road contemporaries and I said, “Aren’t all those people dead?” and he grabbed at his heart and said, “I hope not!” It went right over his head. He asked who I like reading, and when I answered, “Malison,” he winced. You’d think I’d spat in his drink. It pissed me off. I don’t need this man’s approval to readanything. I’m not here to live up to his expectations. I’d rather die than live up to his expectations. His attitude was getting on my nerves, and I should have just packed up my shit and left. I asked if he’d actually read any of Malison’s work, and he said as a matter of fact, yes, he had. He said he’d recently found himself on a Greyhound bus to St. Louis and had discovered too late that the attache case containing all his books had been stored below along with his luggage. He said he’d spent eight hours reading a copy ofRotunda Surf he’d found abandoned on the seat beside him. He used that word,abandoned, to suggest that someone had deliberately walked away from a hardcover Malison.
This man proceeded to question what he called Malison’s “defensiveness” and said he doubted the wisdom ofRotunda Surf’s prologue. It is supremely ironic that this man, this joker with the canes and the wide mouth, would question Malison. Who does he think he is? That prologue is one of my favorite parts of the whole book. In it Malison writes: “If you, reader, can yank your head out of your own asshole long enough to finish the first chapter, don’t make the mistake of congratulating yourself. You possess nothing but fleeting, momentary courage. The shit on your face is still wet. It is your mask.” It is so true, but I could see that this crippled guy couldn’t digest it at all because Malison was directing the prologue at people just like him people who wear masks. While I respected this widemouthed man for taking the chance to break out of his mindless existence, I could see that he hadn’t taken a hard enough look at Malison’s world. He poured us some more champagne, and I said that I didn’t think it was Malison’s job to create a comfortable world for escapists, some flowery paradise where Mr. and Mrs. America could walk hand-in-hand and think of themselves as wonderful people. Malison’s whole point is that hardly anyone is a wonderful person. There was a reason all the characters in Rotunda Surf had transparent bodies: most people are transparent. Malison can see right through middle-class people, and so can I. Some of us just have that ability. Malison and I are the type of writers who will always be on the outside looking in. Looking in but not banging to be let in. We don’t want in if it means we’ll have to pay the price by becoming as shallow and transparent as everyone else.
The crippled man couldn’t handle this at all. He said, “No one on this earth is transparent. Not even us.” I thought he was talking about himself and the other people in the bar, and I felt sorry for him. Then it hit me he was referring to himself and me. He put us in the same boat when we’re not even in the same fucking ocean. He said that we’re lucky to live in a world populated with unique, complex people. That was when I lost it and threw up on the table. It was perfect timing. All those people who had watched him pop the cork looked our way again but with a different sort of expression on their faces. I just grabbed my shit and ran out, ran into the rest room in the lobby.
Luckily I’ve brought a change of clothes. The fresh outfit was in my duffel bag along with a hairbrush, flat shoes, my tooth-brush, all of Malison’s books, a Walkman, tapes of several of Malison’s readings, the last three term papers I wrote on his last three novels (scarred with the ludicrous comments of my teachers), copies of all the supportive letters I’ve written Malison over the years, some dope, two Valiums, my diaphragm, all the short stories I’ve written since I was fifteen, my novel in progress (which I really need his opinion on), some Scotch tape, and the solution for my contact lenses. I’m not taking any chances tonight!
11:22. I’ve been standing in the hallway outside Malison’s hotel room for the last half-hour rereading my favorite passages ofMagnetic Plugs andSmithy Smithy. His lecture must have ended by now, and I fear they are holding him hostage with another mindless question-and-answer session. My God, how much do they expect him to take?!
He’d looked so tired when I saw him this afternoon before my master’s class. I’d left my desk and was on my way to the bathroom when I passed him in the hail. It was incredible. The air was charged. Malison was wearing a pair of camouflage fatigues and a sports coat made of something rough, something like burlap. I thought he had silver hair, but up close I could see it was kind of a flat gray color, a color I like a lot more than silver. His eyelids were dark and puffy because the department heads had tired him out, but the eyes themselves were a rare in-tense shade of brown, like two clean pennies shining. Malison was walking toward the classroom with Brouner, the department head, who was running off at the mouth about his favorite subject himself. Brouner was saying, “You might have heard of me. I had an essay on art and analysis in last month’sForefront,” and Malison said, “If you’ve been published inForefront, then no, I haven’t heard of you.” Malison is so blunt, so matter-of-fact, so uninterested in playing games. He wouldn’t be caught dead readingForefront.
I tried to catch his eye in the hallway. I wanted to let him know that everyone knows what an asshole Brouner is, but then Professor Nobody came up and started yapping at me about my overdue essay, and Malison was herded into an office. I can’t imagine what’s keeping him now. If I know Malison, he’s fed up with the English Department; he’s not going to jump through any more of their hoops. Where could he be? I’ll wait here for a few more minutes, and if he doesn’t show, then I’ll head over to the Pavilion of Thought. The suspense is killing me.
12:09. I’m standing in a sheltered bus stop on west campus wait-ing for this fucking rain to let up so I can return to the hotel. The Pavilion of Thought was empty when I arrived. The show was over. I was on my way back to the hotel when I ran into Bethany in front of the Rathskeller, where she was taking pot-shots at people with her video camera (as if that hasn’t been done thousands of times before). Bethany started in about the Malison reading. She said, “Where were you? My God, you missed it. I don’t believe you.” Sometimes Bethany takes a very cocky, very inside attitude that infuriates me. She lies a lot, too. Sometimes I don’t even think she realizes she’s lying. She took this superior attitude and told me that just before tonight’s reading Malison approached her, bummed a cigarette, and passed some time with her.
She said that Malison said he’d remembered her from the master’s class and that he’d like to read her work someday.
Then she told me that he read a chapter-like passage from a new work in progress, and I covered my ears because whatever it is, I don’t want to hear it from Bethany. She is an abysmal storyteller and I don’t want Malison’s work chewed by her translation. She said she had the lecture on videotape but that no tape could capture the intensity of the reading. She said I can watch the tape but I probably won’t be able to understand it, not having been there in person.
This attitude of hers really makes me sick.I might not be able to understand Malison?Me? This is very ironic, especially coming from Bethany, who had never even heard of Malison before I loaned her my copy ofSmithy Smithy last semester.I might not be able to understand it?
So I said, “Bethany, Malison ismy writer, and I think I could understand him if he were speaking Egyptian.” And she said, “I didn’t realize you owned any writers, Anastasia. Are there any others in your stable?” Stable is a familiar word to Bethany. Before I turned her on to Malison, she was wearing fucking jodhpurs to class, arranging her hair into a French braid, and drawing horse profiles in the margins of her notebook. Before I turned her on to Malison, Bethany’s writing consisted of florid little sentences beginning with “‘Tis” and “Ofttimes,” as if she’d been writing with a fucking quill that she dipped into an inkwell while sitting on an embroidered chair bathed in soft candlelight. Then, overnight she started writing like Malison and going out of her way to mention his name in class. Then in critique she trashed my story, saying that my writing is obviously based on Malison. I was writing like Malison before I even knew who Malison was. I’ve always written like Malison, so I said, “Maybe Malison is writing like me,” and she said (in front of the whole class), she said, “Andwhere exactly would Malison have read any ofyour work?” She’s so full of herself since she had that story published inPost-Plane. Who readsPost-Plane?
Bethany is so transparent. I’m sure if Malison did talk to her he only did it in order to get a feel for the stupidity of his audience. She told me she’d invited him out for a post-lecture drink, but he’d said he needed to get right back to New York because his wife was expecting a baby. This was just an excuse to get rid of Bethany. Malison was lying, giving her the shake. I know, because Russell Marks told me that he saw Malison’s wife, Teresa Compton, at a restaurant in New York City two months ago, and Mark told me that it looked like Teresa Compton had lost weight. Lost weight! How pregnant can she be? Mark also told me that Malison and Teresa are filing for a divorce and living in separate apartments, so I highly doubt she’s pregnant. Malison was just throwing up a smoke screen to protect himself from Bethany. I know this for a fact because directly after talking to Bethany I called The Chesterton and asked them if A. Davenport had checked out. I had them connect me to Room 822. When Malison answered, I hung up. I didn’t want to introduce myself over the phone, so I politely hung up, and if this rain doesn’t stop within the next sixty seconds I’m going to say to hell with it and run back to that hotel, rain or no rain.
12:54. I’m back at The Chesterton, in the lounge area of the women’s rest room, waiting for my hose to dry. I’ve got them stuffed into the chute of the hot-air hand dryer, and it’s very annoying because women keep coming in here and giving me a hard time about it. Let them dry their hands on their skirts, it won’t kill them. Who are they? My second outfit is soaking wet, so I’m back in my original choice. I rinsed most of it out earlier in the evening, and you can hardly notice any vomit except on my blouse. If I thought that one of these women had an ounce of compassion I would ask to borrow a shot of perfume that would solve the lingering odor problem, but understanding seems to be in short supply here at The Chesterton. I’ve redone my makeup and used the hot-air hand dryer on my hair before putting the hose in. It’s hard to style your hair when you’re lean-ing over like that. It came out looking very ’70s, a sort of Jerry Hall over-the-shoulder thing, but I guess I’ll have to live with it.
Later. I knock on Malison’s door, room 822. I can hear the tele-vision very ironically tuned to The Hour of Prayer, so I know he’s in there. I knock a little harder and am embarrassed when, after my fifth round and I’m really pounding away I hear the toilet flush. I hate it when that happens, I really do. I take a step back and compose myself and look down at the carpet, and someone answers the door but it’s not Malison. It’s that man from the bar, the man with the two canes, and he’s relying on them and grinning like a carved pumpkin. And the worst part, the most revolting part of it all, is that he doesn’t seem the least bit surprised to see me.