Chapters 5 & 6 from
The Solitary Twin
Forthcoming from New Directions in March
Berenice had been sincere in saying she “had to go to bed,” but it was not, as one might expect, because of fatigue. When Andreas eventually followed her upstairs, he found her wide awake and eager to chat.
“You aren’t Bellamy’s son, by some prank of fate? His given name was Lewis, I believe.” “So was mine. I decided to change half my identity—my half. I had nothing against my family, after all. Does it matter?” “Only that we came so close.” “You mean all that time wasted? Years of love foregone? My darling, but who knows what disasters such ‘convenient’ intimacy might have brought down on us? What could be better than this? I’ll take contingency any day over a family connection.” Berenice agreed. She also wondered if, by her rough calculation, close to three thousand lost nights of erotic plenitude didn’t justify at least a whisper of regret.
Ever since they had realized they were in this town for the same reason, Berenice and Andreas had agreed they must arrange meetings together with each of the twins, much longer and better targeted ones than their single encounters. Paul should come first, since he was the one that Andreas hoped would write the twins’ joint biography. Since visiting Paul’s factory, Andreas had kept minimally in touch with him, through emails and sometimes a note left at his boarding house. It was through such a note that Paul was invited to have dinner with Andreas and Berenice; Paul was asked to choose the date and restaurant.
On an evening in early October the three of them met at the bistro Paul had picked—Barr’s Grill, “the best meat in town,” Paul announced. “At the moment I’m recovering from an overdose of surf and surf.” “And they surely carry McEwan’s Export,” Andreas added. Paul smiled pleasantly.
Pleasant smile or not, Andreas knew that he must stick to the approach that he and Berenice had agreed on: Andreas would make no reference to his plan of enrolling Paul as an author until the three of them had shared a meal and enough time together to establish at least a decor of familiarity. Berenice made sure that Paul’s plate was kept full; Andreas monitored the refills of his favorite Scottish ale. Both of them were professionally experienced in spinning agreeable conversation with strangers whose cooperation they needed—Andreas having to soothe an author’s impatience with publication delays, Beatrice connecting to a child with Down syndrome.
They kept the focus of the conversation on Paul. Since he had already talked shop with him, Andreas took the lead in inquiring about his work; but Beatrice had her moment, too. She asked Paul for news of “Mehmed and Ahmet, or is it Mehmet and Ahmed, I know I’m hopeless with Arab names.” Paul: “You had it right the first time. They’re both fine—they like our ways. They don’t even mind that there’s no mosque.” He was happy to talk about his business. He volunteered an account of his education, too, since it was so important in preparing him for his career.
“I was lucky. From the age of six to seventeen I boarded (there were family problems) at a school called Newell Academy, a really good place. It was there I completed my primary and secondary classes. They taught a broadly traditional curriculum in mathematics, literature, and world history (including cultural history)—it wasn’t quite classical—I had small Latin and no Greek—but it was mind-expanding all the same. Better than that: since many of the school’s pupils came from poor families, it made sure that if any subject had practical extensions, they too would be taught. The history of architecture was complemented by courses in carpentry, masonry, basic engineering. Our study of the industrial revolution included mechanics and the first principles of running a business.
“The idea was that any graduate of the school would be able to find himself a decent job without too much sweat. In big cities, where good plumbers and carpenters were rare, a diploma as a pipe fitter or a cabinet maker ensured a startingwage. Smart prison inmates knew this; so did the directors of Newell Academy. Manual workers also relished being freed at least from the tyranny of respectable clothing (jacket, shirt, and tie)—a man in overalls with a hammer looped to his hip could enter a gentleman’s club without raising an eyebrow. “I’d guess a good third of my class could write computer code by the time they left. Not me—I went for construction and business savvy. I had additional luck in catching the attention of a teacher called Ned Linnen, an architect by trade. He thought I had promise. He made sure I was on top of all my subjects (meaning any hint of slacking brought him down on me hard) and he helped me along whenever he could. He told me one day, ‘You’ll probably have to earn your living by selling something, and to succeed at that you have to master a few basic constants with invariable rules, whether you’re selling encyclopedias or sardines: inventory, logistics, marketing, things like that—when you can manage these, you’ve got a chance.’
“I was accepted by three good universities when I graduated, but I wasn’t interested. I wanted to test myself in the commercial world. After twelve years and a bit, I can say I’ve done OK. I started off as a bricklayer. It’s a tough trade, and I was very good at it, working mainly on big municipal projects, learning all I could about how buildings actually get built.
“Ned Linnen sent me to see a well-known architect who took me under his wing, and I went on learning. It was with him that I got interested in textiles, which he used in clever new ways. So when I’d saved enough money to start my own business, which was essentially the same one that I set up here, it was manufacturing and selling textiles for architectural use. Most of my big jobs are commissioned abroad. Two months ago I was able to buy up a couple of hundred bales of Thai silk on the cheap, lots of different colors. I cut them up and reassembled them in abstract designs of my own and sold them to a retail bank in Ljubljana to line the walls of their reception areas. I do all right locally, too—I’ve woven curtains and carpets in a soothing shade of mauve for the waiting room of our clinic. And I’ve made a killing with my first venture into fashion.”
“Fashion?” Berenice asked. “I wish I’d known. There were a few fiendishly hot summer days when I dreamt of gauze djellabahs.” “No, nothing that elaborate. But you see the couple sitting at the bar? See what they’re wearing on their heads?” “Kepi Kaps!” Andreas exclaimed. “They’re all over the place. You make them?” “When you came out to the island, you saw Mehmed and Ahmet starting the process—conditioning the felt. A soft kepi! Who could have guessed?” Berenice: “The faded orange and black are delicious. And the forward tilt makes pretty women prettier.” Paul: “Andreas, what did you mean, way back—you thought we might work together?”
“Of course. I’ll explain.
“Like you, I went out on my own early, although I did put in three years at university — I’d have done better at Newell Academy. All that my studies did for me was get me hooked on literature — not as a writer but as a reader, and there was no ‘practical counterpart’ for that! I decided to start a publishing house so that I could commission books that I wanted to read but didn’t yet exist. I didn’t know the first thing about business—selling was something I had to learn on the job. I did have the sense to spend a year as an apprentice with an established distributor, where I got to know something of the nuts and bolts of the book trade. After that I managed to wangle a couple of grants, one from a state agency, another from a private foundation, and brandishing these, I approached my bank—a perfectly respectable bank!—and actually secured a loan from them. I helped all this happen by displaying my college record and behaving as though I were a well-connected gent; my family was distinguished all right, but I kept them completely out of it. I was happy to have raised some capital by myself, although it depressed me to think that society’s finances were in the hands of such susceptible incompetents and that in my own small way I was aggravating a situation of general economic decay.
“No matter—I was on my own, and I survived. I rented office space. I engaged a secretary, a good-natured young woman of considerable intelligence who had no idea what she was in for. My year at the distributor had acquainted me with the names of many contemporary writers and what might be expected of them. My university acquaintances, efficiently climbing the hierarchies of the liberal professions, provided a network that made it relatively easy for me to contact the writers who interested me. You see, I was not looking to publish literature as it’s commonly thought of—no novels, certainly no poetry or plays. Imagination, yes—but imagination demonstrated in the way unusual people chose or were forced to live their lives, and those lives duly recorded by others if necessary but best by themselves.”
Paul, at this point, was no longer smiling. He had assumed a markedly sullen aspect, that as he listened to Andreas grew only glummer.
Andreas: “This was my one strength: I knew what I wanted, and I quickly learned how to get it. There were objective factors to exploit. At the time I started publishing, most writers were being paid pitifully little. I offered contracts that were generous in the long term: small advances but royalties at almost twice the going rate. I could afford this because thanks to the computer, production costs were low, I had only one employee to pay, and I could use direct advertising to promote my books. The arrangement also encouraged writers to produce something saleable.
“And it worked. Luck no doubt played a part—I’m all for that! We brought out a number of interesting works. An indepth account of Raymond Norwood Bell, the North Carolina PFC who unwittingly shot and killed Anton Webern a few weeks after the end of World War II. The journal of Robert Walser’s sister, Fanny, who took him to the sanitarium where he supposedly committed himself voluntarily — she knew that he would admit to ‘hearing voices’ and thus inevitably be confined whether he wanted to or not. A confession by Hildegard Panzer, the author of the hoax whereby thousands of dupes in Germany and Argentina (and many neo- Nazis elsewhere) were convinced that Eva Braun and Evita Peron were one and the same person. A well-researched life of Elmer Brick, a celebrity architect, a friend of Gropius and Mies van der Rohe, who at the age of sixty won the Pritzker Prize having never built even one of his vaunted ‘humanizations of space.’ The tale of Alastair Ross, a longtime chairman of Lehman Brothers, member of the exclusive Knickerbocker and University Clubs of Manhattan, fabulous philanthropist and patron of the arts, father of four children by Ursula Manning, the offspring of one of the city’s oldest families, named debutante of the year at her coming out; and at the same time, a man with a parallel career as the anonymous and heretofore unidentified author of The Boom-Boom Saga, an irreverent and libelously scabrous depiction of the social world in which Alastair Ross was revered, now revealed in his own words to be an unscrupulous gambler drawn to high-stakes poker and faro, a devotee of opium and a major investor in its traffic, lastly a closet queer who participated regularly in New York’s well-organized network of orgies, where he went by the name of Sara Lee (Lee being the surname he used in his irregular life — he sometimes referred to himself as ‘Nates’ Lee, and he relished the company jingle, ‘Nobody does it like Sara Lee’).
“So that’s a sampling of my books, just to give you an idea of what I’ve done professionally. Which brings me to the possible collaboration between us that I mentioned when we first met. I can tell from the way you and your brother lead your lives that generating publicity is the last thing you want. All the same, your behavior, the rapport between you, is a unique phenomenon that I think deserves serious examination—your superficial similarity, which given your genetic identity is no surprise, and your utter independence from one another, which is a colossal surprise. Clearly this paradox is the consequence of thoughtful choice on your part. How did it come about? How does it work? Why are you both living in this small, out-of-the-way place? I haven’t a clue how to answer these questions. I wouldn’t dream of speculating about them, and I’m decidedly not interested in the opinions of self-appointed experts. But what I long to see, what I hope and pray I may someday see, is what you and John have to tell us—my dearest hope of all is that you, Paul, will write an account of what has happened. You could do that in any way you choose—you could even use aliases if you had to, anything at all provided there is an autobiography of the two of you—”
At this point Paul, in his agitation, spilled a quantity of ale onto his chinos. Andreas later told Berenice, “He gave me a look so ugly it broke out the sweat on me as though I’d been running. I stared at him and felt I was looking into an abandoned mine shaft.”
Paul snapped, “It’s out of the question.” “OK. I understand. I do, truly, understand. Please, though, try to think of what I said in a simpler form. Think of it as something, just conceivably, not impossible. No more than that, for now—just: not impossible.”
“It’s impossible.” Paul stood up as if to leave. Berenice: “We’ll talk about something else. Have some more ale at least, to make up for the spillage.”
“No. No, thank you. And thank you for the feast. I’m afraid you’ve cast your bread before swine.”
As prologue to their next evening, Geoffrey and Margot had a surprise for their friends. Captain Kipper, the chief of the town’s police force, and Sergeant Kerr, whom Geoffrey described as the Captain’s right-hand man, had been invited for cocktails so they could meet Berenice and Andreas. With them they observed a notable caution in their conversation, probably a professional reflex. The Captain did his best to play the cut-and-dried officer of no particular age and color (he was a hale forty-five and of a florid complexion), with a vaguely Scottish accent and, in his adopted role, about as emotional as a bagpipe. Berenice quickly detected a softness behind this assumed impersonality. The Sergeant rarely spoke and then usually to support an opinion of his superior’s.
These roles were much in evidence when Margot mentioned the “notorious Wicheria,” who she’d heard was a friend of the unlikely twins that so fascinated their neighbors. Captain Kipper intervened at once: “The Twins are a fascinating subject, but I have to say that Wicheria does not deserve the epithet ‘notorious.’ She strikes a lively figure in our apparently settled community, but she is a very decent person. I’m sure she’d be happy to tell you what she knows about John and Paul—may I suggest to her that you’d like to meet her? You do agree with me, Sergeant Kerr, that there would be no harm in that?” “Absolutely none, sir,” the Sergeant quietly replied. The Captain: “Well then, it’s as good as done.” Margot and Geoffrey had invited the two policeman for this very purpose; it had been accomplished a little too quickly to bring the meeting to an end. Margot poured another round of whisky, and Andreas obligingly asked Captain Kipper about crime, and his pursuit of crime, in what seemed such a peaceable town. The Captain: “You’re right about that, sir—,” “Andreas, please.” “Very well, Andreas. You’re right about that. Isn’t he, Sergeant?” “Right on, sir .”
“There are scuffles outside the watering holes on Saturday nights. There is one hopelessly clumsy pickpocket on the loose—we can’t lock him up because, first of all, he can’t hold his liquor, which is what triggers his thieving urge; so that, second, we always know who’s responsible when a bungled pickpocketing is reported; and lastly, his reputable family would go into mourning if they learned of his arrest. So we detain him until he’s sober, then send him home. We’ve never had a murder or a rape (forgive me, ma’am) or even a bank robbery, which is ridiculous—there are three banks in town, all of them sitting ducks. We’ve lately had new kinds of crime, though: money-laundering and such (our bankers are dullards)—I’ve had to hire an accountant and a former hacker (homegrown, I’m proud to say) to help me with these. It’s a pleasantly quiet assignment, Andreas, I have to admit; somehow I don’t think it will lead to significant advancement. What do you think, Sergeant?” “I think, sir, that sooner or later you will be tapped for the position you deserve.”
Andreas asked a few more questions; the Captain gave him Wicheria’s phone number and email address; the policemen finished their drinks, thanked their host and hostess, and departed. The four friends sat down to dinner, after which Geoffrey proposed to tell his story.
“Like Berenice’s, my story concerns a man, one very unlike hers. I met him on a long flight from Sydney to Zurich. The airline was Pan Am, still surviving in the early eighties, after its first rough spell. It had kept its upper deck reserved entirely for business-class passengers, at least those smart enough to request it. It felt like a kind of club. It was there I found myself seated between the spacious aisle and Malachi—Malachi is the name of the ‘messenger’ who closed the prophetical Canon of the Old Testament. We struck up a conversation that, as often happens between strangers who meet outside their usual circuits, quickly became intimate; and so Malachi told me about his singular life.
“His parents had brought him to Belgium when they left Poland in the early months of 1939, as soon as the Nazis began growling about Danzig—they knew all too well what might happen to them. They made the mistake of settling in Antwerp, where the large Jewish community helped them get started in the diamond trade. Most of its members, together with Malachi’s parents, were arrested by the Gestapo and its Belgian auxiliaries during the summer and fall of 1942; they were sent to Dossin, a detention and transportation camp; the majority of its inmates were shipped off to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
“Malachi had been out shopping for fresh herring at the time of his parents’ arrest. He had the sense to take refuge with a Christian family whose sons were friends at public school. Their father helped him obtain identity papers under a new name. To avoid attracting attention by dropping out of school in mid term, he waited until Christmas vacation to leave. The school board certified a medical explanation for his departure.
“He was thirteen years old when he voluntarily began his life as an orphan on the streets. This experience, he told me, taught him all he needed to know about business. He peddled whatever he could find, working the pathetic appeal of his age for all it was worth. His first breakthrough came when he forced his way into a warehouse stocked with jerry cans full of gasoline. He was able to spend six days lugging all he could into a storeroom he’d rented. (He’d wheedled a shopkeeper down to a ridiculously low price: two jerry cans sold paid a month’s rent.)
“When the steady increase in the price of gasoline started flattening, Malachi sold his remaining stock and bought a supply of hard-to-find foodstuffs on the black market; and long before truffles, oranges, and corned beef lost their exotic attraction, he had shifted into real estate, renovating abandoned apartments that he sold or rented through the first house-poor postwar years; and thus, success following success, he climbed the hierarchy of profitable commodities. He finally transformed a business in consignment clothing into a brilliant ersatz of high fashion, cornering the trade of a new class of aspiring women, and this earned him enough money to pay his way to Canada, a useful step toward gaining entry to the United States, the mecca of ‘hardened entrepreneurs’ like himself. His plan worked. Two years later he had reached Boston, which he soon left for the temperate climate of Miami.
“While still in Antwerp, he had introduced himself to the reconstituted Jewish community; and he had made many friends there and, even better, admirers: they heralded his arrival in Toronto with effective recommendations; similar ones eased his advent in Boston; when he appeared in Miami, he was wreathed with the honor of having survived the Shoah and with the prestige of a businessman who had demonstrated how Jewish courage, intelligence, and chutzpah could overcome dismaying obstacles. The Jewish financial community in Miami welcomed him with a sympathy that Malachi’s wit and youth (he had then just turned twenty-three) transformed into an informal consensus of support. He was provided with an accurate survey of business possibilities where he might exercise his talents; more remarkably, he was assured of a guarantee of bank loans that would give him a satisfactory measure of independence in choosing and managing his ventures. Malachi demonstrated his gratitude by remitting whatever capital he had saved to the members of the unofficial consortium that was promoting his career; and when the vouched-for loans came through, he willingly signed promissory notes that bound him to their early repayment.
“However, he did not listen to his benefactors when deciding on his next enterprise. They foresaw him entering new fields that held a prospect of imaginative development, like transistors, or ceramic materials for machinery. Instead, Malachi opted for a very conventional business: a Ford concession selling cars and trucks, in the relatively drab community at the edge of Coral Gables, more precisely on the corner of Red Road and 41st Street. The automobile industry’s future, already none too promising, was further jeopardized in 1973 by the first oil shock and the mini-recession that followed. Malachi turned this crisis to his advantage, buying the business for less than its lowest estimate. He also justified his decision to his backers with his past record: ‘Believe me, I know how to sell. I made a pile hustling so-called pâté de foie gras to Belgians who’d naturally never even heard of it.’
“He showed what he meant with a novel promotional stratagem he invented. He used a second loan to buy a controlling interest in a local TV channel that was about to go out of business. Its programming consisted of regional news, weather forecasts, and extensive reports on neighborhood sports teams; the channel made its small profits from advertisers in Miami-Dade County.
“Malachi programmed an ad for his Ford concession at 9 p.m. on Sunday evenings. It began conventionally enough, with Malachi himself conducting a quick tour of his sales rooms and repair shop, which he’d had minimally spruced up, concluding with a list of his advantageously priced models. At exactly two minutes and thirty seconds into this routine commercial, viewers were without warning or explanation confronted with the opening episode of a serial that they would learn (if they listened carefully) was called The Medical Wars of Metro-Dade County. Many viewers surely assumed there had been a technical glitch and would have probably turned off their sets if what they were watching hadn’t been so baffling; and those who continued were treated to a second surprise when, after exactly four minutes and fifteen seconds, the episode was abruptly broken off to reveal the malicious face of Malachi smiling out from his array of glistening Fords. He reassured his audience that the story it had been watching would be resumed on the second Sunday of the following month. The first episode would be repeated on the intervening Sundays for viewers hoping to spot clues to the mystery that they’d missed at the first showing. Any spectator too impatient to wait for the next episode would be welcome to pay a visit to the Ford offices at the corner of Red Road and 41st Street during working hours; there Malachi himself would be happy to answer all and any questions.
“Some viewers were puzzled enough to take up Malachi’s offer—not many, not right away; but after a few weeks their number passed the hundred mark.
“Malachi had intuitively identified a basic, hard-wired impulse: the desire to resolve the irresolute, to conclude the incomplete, to have the crooked made straight; and (surprise, surprise!) he had located in syntax a nexus of this desire as strong as that in melodrama. Malachi knew that where love is not yet fulfilled or disaster looms, a situation can be left dangling at the end of an episode as yet undecided. Logically the worst must happen; but there rises in the viewer an insidious hope that the story will challenge improbability and outwit it. Near the end of the episode that was shown, when a man leans forward into the shadows, a narrative voice-over asks, ‘Will he place his lips on Mary Ann’s expectant mouth? or will he place his foot on the next step of the stairway?’ where we have seen that a gunman awaits him and where his curiosity is irresistibly drawing him. The voice continues: ‘Dr. Sean now places—’ but the film breaks off here. It cuts back to the Ford commercial, where of course there is no hint as to how the sentence will be completed.
“This generated instant, intense frustration. Malachi had discovered that the need to have the sentence completed, no matter how, was as strong as the resolution of psychological suspense. He proved this later, when the serial was in full production: his interruptions then concerned not only questions of love and death but ones like: which ingredient made a gumbo great? or had there been collusion in the choice of hymns and canticles in the services celebrated in Greater Miami that very Sunday? or, the following March, on a special broadcast twenty minutes before the start of the race, who would win the Widener Handicap at Hialeah? ‘Why,’ a sultry black lady confided after a three-minute-and-six-second tour of Malachi’s Ford Plaza, ‘Good Counsel, from Darby Dan Farm, Angel Cordero up.’ (It helped that the prediction turned out to be right — the winner’s odds were significantly shortened, but the canny forecast brought a large contingent of newcomers to Malachi’s doors.)
“For the opening episode Malachi had had to work with material and technical help that was readily available: one of the low-grade serials that had come into his possession along with the TV channel, and a sound engineer who added a minimal voice-over track to the sound mix that coordinated the images on the screen with Malachi’s needs. Malachi himself supplied the voice: his still-prominent North European accent lent a suitably foreboding tint to his speech.
“Malachi paid careful attention to the diverse elements of his neighborhood, and as his success increased, extended it further and further afield. He was partial to the young—he remembered what it was like to be one of them. He grew his blond hair shoulder-length, until at a judicious moment, he switched to a shaved skull. He sported jeans (tailor-made), Nehru shirts (ditto), and solid black cowboy boots. He liked giving tips on good buys to people his age and if necessary helping them find out ways to meet the price of the cars. He didn’t neglect the elderly, who unfailingly reminded him of his dead parents. He knew that many of them were early risers, so he convinced a crazy Hong-Kong-born Chinese- American called Adelaide Lin to lead a tai chi class on the beach twice a week. They loved him for that. He arranged a special rate at Las Delicias de España, the good eatery next door, and sent many of his Cuban visitors there. (In exchange, he requested the use of the restaurant’s space for filming occasional scenes of his serial.) He helped finance a Black-Hispanic semipro football team.
“And so it went, with more and more people of all ages and colors crowding into Malachi’s concession. Some came for its conviviality. ‘Coral Gables Ford’ had become ‘Malachi’s Ford Plaza’ after he had purchased an adjoining parking lot. But behind Malachi’s secondary ploys lay the essential hook of the fractured serial; and to make that work, to have his clever insight become the irresistible lure that would pull in live bodies, Malachi needed efficient interpreters. (In Antwerp he had hired the best seamstresses in the city to ensure his success in the rag trade.) And here, as he was the first to admit, Malachi was abetted by rare luck.
“One evening during the week that followed the screening of The Medical Wars of Metro-Dade County, episode 1, some business friends took him to see a show that many of the local glitterati were touting. You must remember that in the early seventies South Beach showed no inkling of its present glamour. There were perhaps two small hotels, surrounded by boarding houses and modest dwellings to which refugees (mostly Jewish) had been guided by their American brethren. There was the beach, however, easily accessible from all parts of the city; and that pleasant setting had been chosen by a company of improvisational performance artists to put on an ‘entertainment’ every evening at sunset hour. They called themselves The Beach Buoys — a facile name, I suppose, but nothing else about them could be called facile. They were true pros, about twelve regulars—five women and seven men, of which three were gay, three bi, four straight, two undecided; sometimes there would be one or two performers more or less if friends were passing through or regulars went off on temporary gigs. Three of them were veterans of The Second City, most had worked in legitimate theater, in film or on TV, most of them could sing if asked or at least pretend to, one played a creditable tenor sax for dramatic punctuation, another an emphatically sentimental harmonica for mooning and kisses; some were brilliant mimics (but they considered doing celebrity mannerisms a last resort for getting laughs), and every last one was a formidable improviser — they’d sometimes ask for subjects or words from their audience, andoff they’d go, not knowing what the others might stick them with but relishing the challenges, ready to give better than they got. They were moderately obscene in performance; off stage, not so moderate.
“Malachi attended the Beach Buoys’ show with no more than a polite pretence of curiosity. Ten minutes after its start he knew he’d found fit executants for his project. Their first skit was a reenactment of the original moon walk, accompanied by a deconstructed ‘Penny Lane,’ with saxophonic riffs on its charming tune and fragments of its lyrics (as Neil Armstrong sets foot on lunar soil, he sings, ‘And the fireman rushes in’). Any remaining reservation on Malachi’s part vanished when the two astronauts walked into the barber shop as if still moving in a weightless world, a sight both funny and beautiful. At the end of the performance he quickly joined the disbanding troupe: he told them he was so elated by their work that he was inviting them then and there to dinner at a modest but excellent Cuban restaurant in Coral Gables — ‘superb roast suckling pig, beer, wine, and booze on demand’ — where not only would their talents be celebrated but where he planned to make them a proposal they couldn’t refuse. He gave them the address of the restaurant, which he called from a nearby phone booth with a request for the imminent arrival of a party of twenty, and be sure to put enough lechonas for that number in your capacious ovens.
“Actors seldom refuse a free meal. Malachi had made a favorable impression on most of them, even if some assumed he was some kind of nut. The obviously reputable friends who’d brought Malachi to South Beach (and whom he’d also invited to dinner) vouched for his honesty, his shrewdness, and his bank accounts. When everyone had arrived at Las Delicias de España and had had time for a drink or two, Malachi stood up and asked for their attention. He presented his promotional plans succinctly and confidently: a routine TV ad for Ford cars and Malachi’s Ford Plaza would be interrupted by an unannounced serial, and the serial itself fragmented according to strict application of time slots. With unconcealed pleasure, he expounded his theory of syntactic fracture as a new way of getting viewers involved in a plot, or not even a plot, in a scene, a situation, a character. The Buoys loved these ideas and immediately started thinking up ways to use them. But one of them spotted a problem: ‘If it’s a serial you’re planning, there has to be a story. We’re not good at telling stories, we’re better at sending them up.’ Malachi replied, ‘I wouldn’t think of giving you a story to tell. You make up your ownstory, or your non-story, or whatever you feel like doing.’ He’d define a subject for them, no more than that. Its tentative title was Medical Warfare in Metro-Dade County. He’d also supply material to work with, that is, three characters. A white doctor, Sean ‘Speedster’ Cotton. A black doctor, Johnson ‘Hands On’ Johnson. A Cuban nurse, Coralina ‘Cora! Lina!’ Abreu, who was in fact a prestigious nurse practitioner, a sexy, savvy freelancer who worked with many doctors, including Speedster and Hands On. (Both of them were after her, but so far neither had made out.) Speedster had his office on Anastasia Avenue in Coral Gables, a block or two from the legendary Biltmore hotel; Hands On worked out of a public clinic in Little Haiti. Speedster drove a stick-shift Mustang, Hands On a F150 Ford pickup (these are the only references in the serial to Malachi’s business). Coralina owned a Camry, but only as backup—she had a waiting list of admirers who’d drive wherever she wanted at any time of day or night. Malachi concluded, ‘Those are your parameters. What you do with them is up to you.’
“One performer brought up ‘a sordid detail: money.’ Malachi promptly offered $1,000 a week (worth something like $5,000 these days). That made the Buoys happy: so far they’d been trying out chic variations of passing the hat; it was a comforting windfall to have a regular stipend for doing what they liked for exactly six minutes and fifteen seconds. They all agreed to Malachi’s terms; he said he’d have contracts for them by noon the next day. When could they start? ‘Yesterday!’ So they were in from the beginning, which was two days later, on Sunday evening.
“They did their stuff with gusto; they started innovating immediately. They invented a third possibility for the tantalizing, undecided ending of an episode or incident. Remember the example I gave you a while back? ‘Dr. Sean now gambles on sex (good) or death (bad). The Buoys would propose ‘places his left pinkie in his right nostril’ or ‘places ten dollars on Piffle in the third at Hialeah’ — that is, neither good nor bad, just undramatic and off the wall.
“So Malachi’s clever insight and his choice of interpreters got the job done. After three weeks, the hook had plainly set. A steady stream—a steadily increasing stream—of curious fans invaded Malachi’s Ford Plaza. His lead actors became objects of street recognition; even the Beach Buoys’ beach performances drew bigger audiences once the word had gotten out about their second venue. Malachi managed to always have one or two of them wandering around his showrooms. But Malachi himself soon became the star attraction: as its episodes accumulated, so did the questions about the serial, and he was the only one who could answer them; and if his answers were ‘wrong,’ that made for even more questions. He was swamped with attention.
“What did Malachi do with all these people? Why, he sold them cars. If customers had any money at all, he would invent credit schedules tailored to their needs and show them how painless it was to become a car owner. He made the brilliant decision to make Mustangs his loss leaders. Ford had stopped producing them in 1970, so Malachi recruited a network of dealers to supply him with second-hand Mustangs. This woke up the entire distribution system. The head office in Dearborn started to take notice of him. He astutely persuaded Carroll Shelby to come to Miami for a weekend, which brought on even more visitors. (Shelby’s 1-2-3 win at Le Mans in 1966 had led to the creation of Ford’s ‘Shelby Mustangs.’ ) It was about this time that Malachi bought the adjacent parking lot and created Malachi’s Ford Plaza. Given the guaranteed crowds of potential customers, he was able to sell concessions there at downtown rates. Two years after his first broadcast, he was making enough money to pay off his bank loans and buy himself a house at 3810 Alhambra in the elegant green gloom of Coral Gables—as well as his own customized Mustang.
“His business sponsors were proud of him. One way they expressed their affection and approval was to introduce him to the nicest, prettiest, and richest Jewish princesses. To their consternation, Malachi was never interested. He had affairs with women who were original, demanding, and usually married or closely involved with another man. These affairs were not necessarily brief, but they seemed almost planned not to be lasting; they left his friends bemused and the women often embittered. It was the one dark zone in Malachi’s Miami life. But he never revealed its source, and few guessed it.
“Malachi didn’t give a damn about his success — it was simply a necessary step on the way to satisfying his undeclared, obsessive passion. A passion that he’d kindled and rekindled ever since he’d found himself alone on the streets of Antwerp in December 1942, knowing that his father and mother would never return. He dreamed endlessly of revenging their deaths on what was left of their murderers. And he had imagined a way of doing it.
“Malachi felt nothing but scorn for the legal means of retribution. A former Nazi official was revealed to have served in the administration of a death camp; he was arrested, brought to trial, sentenced to life imprisonment; and soon afterward, given his or her advanced age, transferred to a prison hospital to die a more or less natural death. That was no punishment. He wanted these criminals to suffer as he had suffered after they killed his parents. Of course they had no parents; but many had children, and grandchildren, whom they especially loved to dote on publicly. Killing these children and grandchildren, perhaps torturing them first, might sufficiently devastate the surviving murderers in their last years.
“For a long time Malachi imagined carrying out this project literally. He assembled the family trees of every known or suspected Nazi killer, he located their residences, followed their travels at home and abroad. He researched methods of abduction and concealment, of inflicting pain and death, of recording pain and death, of inconspicuously crossing borders, of disposing of dead bodies. . . .
“As he told me this, Malachi started letting his words tumble out almost uncontrollably; then he paused a long moment as if deliberately returning to a quieter state. In time, he said, he understood that merely initiating his plans required a vast organization of detectives, informers, lawyers, and professional criminals that he could never fund, no matter how much money he made; that it was a scheme that not even the Mossad could have pulled off, although probably one that they themselves had considered. Furthermore Malachi sawthat his obsession had begun to contaminate the rest of his life: his loathing of Nazi crimes was slowly spreading so as to include all of Germany, and Germans past and present, and their heirs in every Western country. He knew this was another form of madness, and he had no desire to become a madman. I can’t vouch for his exact words, but what he said on the subject, halfway across the Indian Ocean on our flight to Europe, went something like this:
“‘So I came to realize that actually killing the children and/ or grandchildren was out of the question. So what, I asked myself, could be the next best step for creating a stink, a stink that served the dictates of my single-minded end? What that necessary end required was a step that would associate a notional killing of offspring with the name of the original bastard so that an indelible stink would be glued to him, such that any subsequent step that might cleanse him of it would be out of the question. In which case what was the next step I should take? Then I remembered what Kafka said about expressing love. A bouquet of roses can’t do it. There is only coitus and literature that can achieve this end. Well, if Kafka said so, then choosing literature was my obvious next step (since for “coitus,” read “killing,” which was not an option). Better than direct denunciation: even if newspapers can still engineer a stink in the right circumstances, nothing can approximate the truly colossal stink that expert writing is capable of, something on the level of Musil or Proust, writing that cuddles up to the so-called truth but never pretends to be it, and it was not out of the question that even real names be kept, it was only a lying fiction (that pleonasm!) that made the end, the obliteration of its target as deadly as actually killing it, that is, him or her: all that would be needed as a next step was a hint to e.g., Der Spiegel—a prominent member of the media was best equipped to propagate and inflate fictitious shame into a stink of nationwide magnitude: and the subject matter would be of course the killing of the undeserving offspring of each SOB—and if no offspring, the next of kin would do very nicely thank you. But, in the end, that the author of such fictions be an amateur, even an impassioned one, was inconceivable. So not me,’ Malachi said: ‘my role would simply be dictating the events, step by step, which didn’t mean imagination was out of the question, but each step had to be guided toward creating the unique and best effect. I would then not accept anything but the first rate. But in the end I would have the last word. In fact I dreamt of surpassing the initial stink by infusing it with something likea pornographic attraction, so that it would inspire the next potential step, and one or a few readers would kidnap one or a few offspring for an actual killing — now wouldn’t that be not only a delicious revenge but a work of genius?’ ”
Geoffrey stopped. Not another word. Just like that. He was implored to go on. His listeners were all itching with curiosity, he had involved them so slyly in his tale, but he slumped in his chair. At last, all he said was, “I have to wash my face.” Berenice and Andreas later confided that they had shared the same impression of watching a well-oiled machine breaking down. It’s true that naturally his face was a mess. He’d started crying while he spoke of Malachi’s vindictive obsession—it was an appalling project, but it was still shocking to see tears running down the face of this normally quiet-spoken man. After a moment he added, “I seem to have painted myself into a corner. I won’t be long.”
He kept his word and soon came back, very much his “old self”; Andreas later said, “The screws on that leaky sump of his were now bolted tight!” That wasn’t quite true. If Geoffrey had fallen silent before without a word of explanation, he now became as communicative as his companions could desire and, what’s more, gave them his best reason for being so. His usual urbane composure had surprisingly yielded to a softer, more relaxed liberality.
Geoffrey resumed his story. “To continue from the point I’d reached — that Malachi had decided that his revenge would be accomplished through a work of fiction—what I’d have had to say next is that Malachi wanted me to write it. And how could he possibly have thought of me for the job? As far as you know, I’d never written anything. What you don’t know is that between the ages of thirteen and twenty-three I led a totally different life. No one here knows this, not even Margot. Earlier in my conversation with Malachi, for some reason I had told him about it. For some reason! For the same reason we form intimate friendships and initiate rapturous love affairs on skiing vacations and ocean cruises, even on bus rides. Malachi was a likeable, intelligent man, and I knew I’d never lay eyes on him again. It was a golden opportunity to at last divulge my secret, to someone. Now it’s time to tell it to real friends like you. And most of all to my beloved Margot.”
Andreas: “My God, Geoffrey, what were you so ashamed about? Were you a Ponzi schemer? a sly pornographer?” “Oh, shame had nothing to do with it. I changed from one life to a very different other one. The first life became irrelevant. Nevertheless the fact is that for ten years I was a writer. I lived for writing and reading and nothing else. And not anysensible sort of writer, but a poet, no less. I breathed and ate poetry, I planned my present and future around it. I wrote dozens of poems every month, some promising enough to earn the interest of readers I respected. I even published a few in little magazines. Then I gave it up. The details hardly matter. I don’t want to dump the whole story on you.”
Andreas laughed — a gentle laugh, without a hint of mockery: “No dumping necessary. We’re all ears.” Geoffrey shook his head. “At least tell us why Malachi really thought he needed a writer — when it came to stories, he was an expert after all.” “He said he lacked what I had, what poets had — an irrational passion for pure language, that was what was real for them, and it was essential for him—” Andreas: “But he was right! Geoff, would you consider reciting a poem from your unspeakable past?” To our surprise, he acquiesced.
“It’s not one of my best, there’s really nothing beautiful in it. But it’s relevant to the change in my life. It’s my last poem—no, next to last. It’s called ‘Cassation on a theme by Jacques Dupin.’ It was written two months before the May ’68 events in Paris—my one prophetic work. Almost every word in it reads like a gloss on what happened then, even the title—one of the first meanings of cassation was ‘street music,’ and the legal sense was ‘quashing,’ very appropriate! Jacques Dupin was a well-known poet and authority on Matisse, he was also an excellent boxer, and he used his boxing skills effectively late one afternoon in mid-May when he led an attack on La Bourse, the Paris stock market. I have no idea what you think you know about mai soixante-huit, but if you weren’t there, you don’t know anything. I’d been in Paris for a while, studying French poetry at one of the satellites of the Sorbonne. I saw what was happening. I was part of what was happening. Just to give one simplistic idea of that: the city I’d left a month earlier functioned according to the social principles of skepticism and discretion, one click away from cynicism and indifference. In the city I returned to, everyone was communicating spontaneously with everyone else, strangers with strangers, old with young, you name it. It was a new world happening over and over. It was a lot more fun than poetry. Let’s leave it at that.” Andreas: “Not for long I won’t!” “You’re on. But not now.” “What about your poem?” “It doesn’t matter. I quit my poetic studies, took a few courses at HEC, then went back to the States and landed a job as a customs official. That was my revelation. I learned that bureaucracies are designed to kill innovation in the name of predictability; and that the pleasure and purpose of customs offices are to implement rules that are meant to keep things from happening. That meant they were domains ripe for the kind of permanent revolution that I’d glimpsed in Paris during that wondrous month of May.
“One day I spotted in the classified pages of The Economist the announcement of a vacancy in the municipal offices of this very town: that of Mercantile Assessor for the Borough. I called the number supplied in the ad to find out what these words meant, and after a lot of prodding deduced it was to run a local board of trade. I sent in my application and to my amazement I was hired for the job. Perhaps I was the only candidate—why would even a moderately ambitious man or woman want to be confined in a place at the end of the world, with no major financial center nearby, no prospects of advancement, and with a job description that sounded like a career’s dead end?
“Well, I was full of beans, I had to start my active life somewhere, and so after two final interviews with a New Zealand banker (from Dunedin, of all places) and a municipal representative, who both probably took me for a harmless airhead, I made the journey to this charming town. I stormed into my job with undiplomatic fury, fired three of my staff of four before anyone noticed, and to replace them brought in competent friends from the civilized world with promises of fun and games. I’m told things have improved.” Andreas: “Geoff, I learned all about you. You took an office basking in routine and turned it into a dynamo. You ‘promoted trade’? You invented the global village! Look what you did for Paul, our recalcitrant twin. I don’t think even he realizes how you connected him with his markets overseas.” (Berenice thought, ‘Kepi Kaps in every pub in Glasgow!’) “Maybe. The main thing is, here’s where I met Margot.” By now she was sitting in his lap with her arms around his neck. Geoffrey: “I know, I know I should have—” “No, it’s OK like this. At last I know why you bring all those strange books to read in bed.” Andreas surmised: “Ceravolo, Violi, Charles North?” “Yes, also Pastior and Cavalli! You know these people?” “I’m mad about poetry, too. I just can’t afford to publish it. We can compare notes, I trust.” “You bet. And thanks for getting me out of my chain-mail pajamas. Well, that’s my story.”
Berenice: “But what about Malachi?” “I declined his proposal as courteously as I could. Naturally, I never saw him again.” “Don’t you even know his last name?” “It’s infuriating. I’ve forgotten it, and every time I try to remember it, the only thing that turns up is that the proportion of consonants to vowels in his name is 7 to 2—somewhat unusual, but not all that unusual, and no help at all in getting his name back.” “But you must have taken some interest in him.” “I emailed him once (at email@example.com — I remember that). His answer gave me hope he might be slipping out of the stranglehold of his past. He’d let a princess move in with him. But not a Jewish princess — a shiksa! How about that? Now, who goes next?”
By Harry Mathews, from THE SOLITARY TWIN, copyright © 2018 by the Estate of Harry Mathews. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.
HARRY MATHEWS (1913-2017) was born in New York. A founding editor of the literary journal Locus Solus, he wrote novels, poetry, short fiction, and essays, and he crafted many translations from the French, including Blue of Noon by Georges Bataille. His many books include Cigarettes, The Journalist, My Life in CIA, Singular Pleasures, The Way Home, and The Conversions. In addition, he was the first American member of the Oulipo. He passed away in 2017, and The Solitary Twin is his last novel.