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Authors: Armistead Maupin

The Night Listener : A Novel

BOOK: The Night Listener : A Novel
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ONE

JEWELLING THE ELEPHANT

I KNOW HOW IT SOUNDS when I call him my son. There’s something a little precious about it, a little too wishful to be taken seriously.

I’ve noticed the looks on people’s faces, those dim, indulgent smiles that vanish in a heartbeat. It’s easy enough to see how they’ve pegged me: an unfulfilled man on the shady side of fifty, making a last grasp at fatherhood with somebody else’s child.

That’s not the way it is. Frankly, I’ve never wanted a kid. Never once believed that nature’s whim had robbed me of my manly des-tiny. Pete and I were an accident, pure and simple, a collision of kindred spirits that had nothing to do with paternal urges, latent or otherwise. That much I can tell you for sure.

Son
isn’t the right word, of course.

Just the only one big enough to describe what happened.

I’m a fabulist by trade, so be forewarned: I’ve spent years looting my life for fiction. Like a magpie, I save the shiny stuff and discard the rest; it’s of no use to me if it doesn’t serve the geometry of the story. This makes me less than reliable when it comes to the facts.

Ask Jess Carmody, who lived with me for ten years and observed this affliction firsthand. He even had a name for it—The Jewelled Elephant Syndrome—after a story I once told him about an old friend from college.

My friend, whose name was Boyd, joined the Peace Corps in the late sixties. He was sent to a village in India where he fell in love with a local girl and eventually proposed to her. But Boyd’s blue-blooded parents back in South Carolina were so aghast at the prospect of dusky grandchildren that they refused to attend the wedding in New Delhi.

So Boyd sent them photographs. The bride turned out to be an aristocrat of the highest caste, better bred by far than any member of Boyd’s family. The couple had been wed in regal splendor, perched atop a pair of jewelled elephants. Boyd’s parents, imprisoned in their middle-class snobbery, had managed to miss the social event of a lifetime.

I had told that story so often that Jess knew it by heart. So when Boyd came to town on business and met Jess for the first time, Jess was sure he had the perfect opener. “Well,” he said brightly, “Gabriel tells me you got married on an elephant.” Boyd just blinked at him in confusion.

I could already feel myself reddening. “You weren’t?”

“No,” Boyd said with an uncomfortable laugh. “We were married in a Presbyterian church.”

Jess said nothing, but he gave me a heavy-lidded stare whose meaning I had long before learned to decipher:
You are never to be
trusted with the facts
.

In my defense, the essence of the story had been true. Boyd had indeed married an Indian girl he had met in the Peace Corps, and she had proved to be quite rich. And Boyd’s parents—who were, in fact, exceptionally stuffy—had always regretted that they’d missed the wedding.

I don’t know what to say about those elephants, except that I believed in them utterly. They certainly never felt like a lie. More like a kind of shorthand for a larger, less satisfying truth. Most stories have holes in them that cry out for jewelled elephants. And my instinct, alas, is to supply them.

I don’t want that to happen when I talk about Pete. I will try to lay out the facts exactly as I remember them, one after the other, as unbejewelled as possible. I owe that much to my son—to both of us, really—and to the unscripted intrigues of everyday life.

But, most of all, I want you to believe this.

And that will be hard enough as it is.

I wasn’t myself the afternoon that Pete appeared. Or maybe more severely myself than I had ever been. Jess had left me two weeks earlier, and I was raw with the realization of it. I have never known sorrow to be such a physical thing, an actual presence that weighed on my limbs like something wet and woolen. I couldn’t write—or wouldn’t, at any rate—unable to face the grueling self-scrutiny that fiction demands. I would feed the dog, walk him, check the mail, feed myself, do the dishes, lie on the sofa for hours watching television.

Everything seemed pertinent to my pain. The silliest coffee commercial could plunge me into profound Chekhovian gloom.

There was no way around the self-doubt or the panic or the anger.

My marriage had exploded in midair, strewing itself across the landscape, and all I could do was search the rubble for some sign of a probable cause, some telltale black box.

The things I knew for sure had become a litany I recited to friends on the telephone: Jess had taken an apartment on Buena Vista Park.

He wanted space, he said, a place to be alone. He had spent a decade expecting to die, and now he planned to think about living. (He could actually do that, he realized, without having to call it denial.) He would meditate and read, and focus on himself for once. He couldn’t say for sure when he’d be back, or if he’d ever be back, or if I’d even want him when it was over. I was not to take this personally, he said; it had nothing to do with me.

Then, after stuffing his saddlebags full of protease inhibitors, he pecked me solemnly on the lips and mounted the red motorcycle he had taught himself to ride six months earlier. I’d never trusted that machine. Now, as I watched it roar off down the hill, I realized why: It had always seemed made for this moment.

The solitude that followed sent me around the bend. Or at least into the Castro once a day, where I foraged for pork chops and porn tapes, just to be among the living. It was weird doing this after a decade of cocooning with Jess. All those bullet-headed boys with their goatees and tats. All those old guys like me shambling along in their dyed mustaches and gentlemen’s jeans, utterly amazed to still be there, still out shopping for love.

And the creeping genericism of it all, the Body Shops and Sunglass Huts of any American mall. The place had become a theme park for homos, where the names of icons were writ large upon the wall of the flashy new juice bar. I couldn’t help checking, of course, and there I was, GABRIEL NOONE—just to the left of the wheat-grass machine—between OSCAR WILDE and MARTINA NAVRATILOVA.

Even in my depression, I got a rush out of that, and the way my name would surface softly in my wake as I walked down the street.

Once I was stopped by the tour guide for an operation called

“Cruisin’ the Castro.” With genial decorum she offered me up like a resident artifact to a dozen visitors from Germany and Holland.

They applauded politely, standing there in the midst of the busy sidewalk, and one of them asked how Jess was doing. I said he was fine, that the new cocktail was working wonders, that his energy levels had never been higher, that he had a real chance to live, thank God. And they were all so happy to hear that.

I left before anyone could see what a fraud I was. Or notice that the video under my arm was called
Dr. Jerkoff and Mr. Hard
.

Then one afternoon my bookkeeper, Anna, came by the house to drop off checks for my signature. I had explained things to her on the phone, since Jess had always handled our finances. She took it in stride, but I detected a trace of motherly concern. This felt odd coming from a twenty-one-year-old, but I accepted it gratefully.

It was Anna who made the Pete thing possible. Without her inter-vention that morning, he would never have found his way into my rapidly shrinking orbit. She and I were holed up in the office—Jess’s office—sorting receipts and combing the mail for bills. I could have managed this on my own, but Anna, I think, had noticed my red-rimmed eyes and was trying to keep me company. Her own eyes, glossy black in a heart-shaped face, would study me solemnly when she thought I wasn’t looking. I remember noticing a faint resemblance to Olivia Hussey in
Lost Horizon
, a reference so hopelessly antediluvian I didn’t even bother to express it.

“That looks interesting,” she said, pushing a parcel my way. It was a padded envelope, about eight by ten.

“Don’t bet on it,” I said. “It’s just galleys.”

“Photos?”

“No. Galleys for a book. Some editor wants something blurbed.”

“You can tell that from the package?”

“In the dark,” I said, “and blindfolded.” I pointed to the colophon on the envelope. “It’s from Argus Press, see?” I might have also told her how the cover letter would read. How it would acknowledge the many demands on my time and the number of manuscripts that must come my way each week. How it would go on to point out that just a few kind words from a writer of my stature would help this searing memoir, this tender coming-out novel, this fabulous celebrity AIDS cookbook, find its way to “the audience it so richly deserves.” Meaning, of course, fags.

But I kept quiet. I didn’t want Anna to see how poisonous a broken heart could be. I wanted her on my side. I wanted everyone on my side. So I gave her a crooked smile and lobbed the package into the wastebasket.

“Hey,” she said, looking mildly affronted. “Aren’t you even curious?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Because I can’t handle someone else being brilliant right now.” She mulled that over. “Maybe it’ll be shitty.”

“Then why read it?”

“I dunno. To cheer yourself up?”

“It doesn’t work that way. I identify with the shitty stuff.”

“You do?” She looked utterly perplexed.

“It’s hard to explain,” I said. “It’s a writer thing.”

“I guess so,” she murmured, giving me up for lost as she turned back to her labors.

I was tempted to blame this nonsense on the crisis at hand, but the truth is I’ve always been unsure about my literary powers. My work, after all, was originally intended for radio: grabby little armchair yarns that I would read for half an hour every week on a National Public Radio show called
Noone at Night
. My characters were a motley but lovable bunch, people caught in the supreme joke of modern life who were forced to survive by making families of their friends. The show eventually became a cult hit; listeners would cluster en masse around their radios in a way that hadn’t happened since the serials of the forties. While this fulfilled me hugely as a storyteller, it left me feeling illegitimate as a writer, as if I’d broken into the Temple of Literature through some unlocked basement window.

Never mind that the books compiled from those shows have never stopped selling. Or that Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com now use my name in their promotions. In my heart I remain a clever impostor, a sidewalk magician performing tricks for the crowd outside the opera house. A real writer makes star turns at conferences and summers at Yaddo and shows up in the
New York Times Book Review
as someone to Bear in Mind. A real writer would never have stopped writing when his life collapsed around him. He would have caught every last detail. He would have pinned his heart to the page, just to give his readers a closer look.

But the fight went out of me when my marriage began to unravel.

I lost a vital engine I never even knew I had. Those gracefully con-voluted plotlines my listeners cherished had been driven by a bed-rock optimism that vanished overnight. And once that was gone my authorial voice deserted me in the most literal way possible—in the midst of a recording session.

We were taping that day, as usual, at the local public-radio station, which fed the show, via satellite, to the rest of the system. (As a space-struck teenager I’d kept a scrapbook on
Sputnik
, so I’d always loved knowing that one of its grandchildren was beaming my stories to the nation.) I hadn’t been able to write for several weeks, but I still had a backlog of five or six episodes that would buy me some time until I could get my head together.

But ten minutes into the session, when the engineer played back a troublesome passage, I made an unnerving discovery.

“What’s the matter?” he asked, reading my confusion.

“It doesn’t sound like me,” I told him.

He shrugged. “The levels are all the same.”

“No, I mean…
I
don’t sound like me.” This time he widened his eyes and deedled out the theme from
The Twilight Zone
.

“I’m serious, Kevin.”

“Do you wanna take a break?”

“No. Let’s just start from the top of the page.” So I began again, but my voice felt even more phony and disembodied. I found myself tripping over the simplest words as I attempted a lighthearted domestic scene. (The couple that most resembled me and Jess were fighting over the sovereignty of their remote control.) After half a dozen takes I’d run so far beyond my allotted time that the panelists for the next show—a trio of Silicon Valley pun-dits—began to mill about in the control room with obvious irritation.

Wary of witnesses to my self-annihilation, I apologized to the engineer, took off my headphones, and left the room, never to return.

The following week, without explanation, NPR began to treat its listeners to
The Best of Noone at Night
.

So there I sat, useless, while Anna worked and a flock of winged toasters flapped across the face of Jess’s Mac. That had always been his favorite screen saver, so there was no reason to believe he had left it there as a parting comment. Still, the irony was inescapable.

BOOK: The Night Listener : A Novel
10.39Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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