Small Town

Page 41



“You think I loved it?”

She dipped her fingers in the pool of ejaculate, held her hand in front of his face. “This didn’t come from me,” she said. He was silent, and she said, “I should make you eat it.” He made a face.

“But I’m too greedy,” she said, and sucked her fingers clean.

“There’s more, you know, in case you change your mind. You came enough to start your own sperm bank. I tied you up and fucked you in the ass and you loved it.”

“If I could have gotten loose—”

“But you couldn’t.”

“No.”

“So there was nothing to do but enjoy it.”

“That doesn’t mean I want to do it again.”

“Ever?”

Again, he considered the question. “I don’t know,” he said. “God knows I don’t want to do it again now. I hope you didn’t break anything up there.”

“You didn’t bleed.”

“Yeah, I seem to recall that you promised me I wouldn’t.”

“I used a lot of lubricant. And I used the smallest one.”

“That was the smallest one? Well, thank God for small favors. I don’t want to think what it would have been like with the big one.”

“But you will think about it,” she said. “Later, you won’t be able to keep from thinking about it. You’ll wonder.”

“Jesus, who are you? The devil?”

“Just a woman.”

“You really own an art gallery? You’re not—”

“Not what?”

“Someone who does this for a living?”

“Someone told me I would make a good dominatrix. But she was wrong. I couldn’t possibly do that.”

“What was that we were just doing?”

“But that was because I wanted you,” she said. “I took one look at you and I knew just what I wanted to do with you, and that you’d love it. And that I’d love it.”

“Whatever you are,” he said, “you’re something. Well, I guess I’d better—”

He started to get up, but she stopped him with a hand on his chest.

She said, “You’re released from your promise. You’re under no restraints, and of course you can go if you want to. But wouldn’t you like to stay awhile?”

“And do what?”

“Look at me,” she said. She cupped her breasts, opened her legs.

“You can probably think of something you’d like to do with me.”

“And if I was eighteen years old I could probably do it, but—”

“You don’t have to be hard, Franny. You don’t have to use your cock. You’ve got a beautiful mouth, you’ve got lovely hands, and I’ve got a whole closet full of toys for us to play with. Unless you don’t think that would be any fun.”

For answer he rolled over and took her breast in his mouth. He sucked her for a while, then stopped for a moment. “I was just thinking,” he said. “I was trying to think if I ever had sex with a woman without kissing her, and I don’t think I ever did.”

“Even whores?”

“I never went with one.”

“Not even once?”

“Never had the urge.”

“And you always kissed your wife?”

“Maybe waking up in the middle of the night, you know, and just going into it straight from sleep. But aside from that, no.”

“And you think we should kiss, Franny?”

“I don’t know. Maybe not. What do you think?”

“Maybe another time,” she said. “When we know each other better.”

seventeen

IT WAS, NOquestion, the best day of his life.

First the auction. It had been genuinely exciting, in a way a writer’s life never was.

Oh, there was pleasure in the work itself. That was where the real satisfaction lay. You imagined something and put words together, and you opened a door in the imagination and walked down an untrodden path, and it led to another door. And you opened that, and went off to see where it led, and day by day and page by page an entire alternate universe manifested itself before you.

Sometimes you struggled, and stared for hours at the empty page that reflected the barren imagination. Sometimes, like Flaubert, you spent the morning inserting a comma and the afternoon taking it out.

Sometimes you were able to write, but the words tasted like ashes in the mouth. You tapped at the keys like a field hand chop-ping cotton, like a factory worker on the assembly line. Somehow the words got on the page, and afterward they turned out as often as not to be as good as words that sang as you typed them, but they weren’t much fun to write.

And sometimes, sometimes, the book came utterly to life and wrote itself. The words came too quickly for the fingers to keep pace with them. Characters spoke their own perfect dialogue spontaneously, and you were the court stenographer, dutifully recording everything they said. Plots, hopelessly tangled, worked themselves out before your eyes, like the Gordian knot magically untying itself. It was you doing it of course, or otherwise you wouldn’t walk away from the keyboard exhausted, drained, empty.

But it was a part of your consciousness that consciousness knew nothing of, and it was sheer joy when it took over and ran the show for you.

But was it exciting?

Maybe, maybe it was. But not like this.

And it had been the best sort of excitement, because the exhila-ration of climbing higher and higher was not balanced by a fear of falling. Each bid brought another roll of the dice, but he wasn’t going double or nothing, he wasn’t risking anything. He was already a winner. The only question was the amount of his prize.

And wasn’t it remarkable how each increase raised the threshold of his own greed? Weeks ago, before any of this had happened, before he had ever heard Marilyn Fairchild’s name, he’d really wanted only two things—to finish his book, and to find someone willing to publish it. He’d want a five-figure advance, certainly, because he had to eat, he had to pay the rent, but he wouldn’t expect much, and it wouldn’t have taken much to make him content.

Once they started bidding, once the numbers started to climb, he kept wanting more. Two million? Someone actually wanted to pay him two million dollars? That’s amazing, that’s wonderful, that’s miraculous—now how about two point five? How about three?

When it was over, when Crown had topped St. Martin’s, when even that price turned out to be higher than he thought it would be, all the delight he felt could not entirely silence one small voice.

A voice of disappointment, wishing it didn’t have to be over, wishing somehow it could have been more.

An eternal truth, he thought. The more you get, the more you want.

For the first time he felt that he understood how a man could have a billion dollars and want more, how an executive could take his hundred-million severance package and use it to bankroll a new company. The more they had, the more they wanted—not because of what they could do with it, but for the sheer joy of getting it.

H E T O O K O F F H I S jacket, hung it in the closet. He turned on his computer, thinking he’d check his e-mail, then changed his mind and shut it down again.

He’d keep this apartment. He wasn’t sure how much three million dollars was, but Roz’s commission would come out of that, and taxes, federal, state, and local. He’d probably net somewhere between one and two million dollars, and that would come in over a period of a couple of years, with most of it deferred until he delivered the two books, and some payable on publication. It was still a lot of money, no matter how they paid it and how much the government skimmed off the top, but it didn’t mean he could go out and buy himself a penthouse on Central Park South.

Even if he could, he’d still stay here. He liked it, it suited him. It was only one room, but it was room enough for him and his things.

Maybe he’d travel more. See a little of the world, or at least the parts of it that you could still go to. Take a house in Sag Harbor for a season, spend a winter in the Caribbean.

Take more cabs, he thought. Eat in nicer restaurants. Buy top-shelf booze. Speaking of which . . .

He put a couple of ice cubes in a glass, poured some whiskey over them. They’d had that bottle of champagne at Stelli’s, and afterward she had an Amaretto and he had an Armagnac, and liked it well enough to have a second. And then, when he’d finally gone outside with Roz and put her in a cab, a writer who’d come over to the table earlier followed him out to the street and insisted he come back for a quick one. The quick one had turned out to be three or four slow ones, taken at Stelli’s long bar with eight or ten of New York’s brightest people, and nobody talked about his deal or anybody else’s deal. They talked instead about the Yankees and the Mets and the mayor and the governor and the affair a talk show hostess was having with the husband of a CNN anchor and the shake-up in the Catholic church and the shake-up in the FBI and the shake-up at the Daily News and, well, just about everything.

And nobody made a fuss over him, thank God, but nobody ignored him, either, and they listened to what he had to say and laughed at his better lines and treated him, all in all, as if he belonged there. And that was as it should be, because, now, he did.

What an incredible evening.

H E H A D N ’ T R E A L LY W A N T E D to go. He wasn’t exactly surprised when Roz had suggested—no, better make that insisted on—a cel-ebratory dinner. And there’d been no way to refuse, not after the job she’d done for him. But he’d figured it would be at best anticlimactic and at worst uncomfortable. He’d been feeling self-conscious going down to the corner for a pack of cigarettes, so how was he going to like being out in public? And at Stelli’s, yet.

What he’d discovered was another eternal truth, the day’s second, right up there with The more you get, the more you want.

And it was a beauty: Nothing succeeds like success.

Like everyone else on the planet, he’d heard the line a million times, and it had always struck him as a tautology. What the hell was it supposed to mean? Nothing succeeds like something that is successful. Well, sure. Who could argue with that?

But that wasn’t what it meant at all. It was success itself, the fact of success, that gave rise to further success. The first cause of the initial success—the accomplishment, the lucky break, whatever it was—didn’t have anything much to do with it. If you were a success, the world threw laurels at your feet, your reward for . . .

for what? For being a success, dimwit. What else?

Roger Delacroix, the Roger Delacroix, had made a point of coming to his table to shake his hand and congratulate him. He couldn’t really say he read Delacroix, but by God he respected the man’s work. (And there were other writers he didn’t respect, didn’t think much of at all, whose books he bought and read as soon as they came out.) Delacroix’s act tonight had been generous and selfless, but it was his seven-figure deal that had brought the man to his table. His success had drawn Delacroix and the others, and had fattened on their attention.