Small Town

Page 50



“And would we consequently drop you like a hot rock? John, you don’t need to go on trial for your life in order to become a star.

You’re a star already.”

“That’s very nice, but my sales figures—”

“A, never amounted to much, and B, are meaningless at this point. You’re a man who’s been the focus of considerable attention, and on the strength of that plus your unquestioned talent and ability and, I must say, an agent with more savvy than most, you’ve become a writer able to command a three-million-dollar advance. Which I was thrilled to pay, and not because I had hopes that you’d say something poignant on Court TV, or have a second career as an astronaut and be the first man to set foot on Mars. As far as promotion and publicity are concerned, you’re already as hot a ticket as you have to be.”

“I wasn’t sure.”

“Well, be sure. John, I didn’t just make a deal for one book. I bought your whole backlist, which we’ll bring out in paper a month before we do Darker Than Water in hardcover, and I like that title more and more, I hope you go on liking it yourself.

Where was I?”

“The backlist.”

“The backlist, which we’ll sell the hell out of, trust me, but let me remind you that we also bought Darker Than Water plus the book that comes after it. You’re not even thinking about that second book, and there’s no reason why you should be, but I’m thinking about it, and I’m thinking of the books you’ll write after that, which we haven’t contracted for but will when the time comes. I want you at Crown until the end of time, John, or until I retire, whichever comes first, and that’s not because I think I can milk a few sales out of a few newspaper headlines. So all I want is for you to live and be well and write some terrific books, and if that lunatic walked into a police station tomorrow and confessed to everything from the Lindbergh kidnapping on, and said that oh, by the way, there was a woman he strangled on Charles Street, John, I’d be the second happiest person on the planet.”

“The second happiest? Oh, because I’d be the happiest.”

“Wouldn’t you? And I’ll tell you something else, just from a purely promotional standpoint, and that’s to have a best-selling author who it turns out was falsely accused of a crime committed by the notorious Carpenter—John, if you were a publicist, do you think you’d have much trouble getting a little media coverage for somebody like that?” She sighed. “But first they have to catch the son of a bitch, and the sooner the better. How he must hate us!”

“Us?”

“New Yorkers. For living when his children died. And his wife, or do you think he killed her himself?”

There’d been speculation to that effect; the physician, long the Harbinger family doctor, admitted under questioning that he’d signed the death certificate without looking too closely. It had looked like a suicide to him, and out of sympathy to the widower he’d written cardiac arrest in the space for cause of death. Which was true enough, in that the woman’s heart had indeed ceased to beat.

The cremation, and the subsequent disappearance of the ashes, made it forever impossible to determine whether Carole Harbinger’s death had or had not been at her husband’s hands.

Whether it was part of his problem, in other words, or part of his solution.

He said, “I don’t know if he hates us. I don’t know what it is that drives him. The Curry Hill murders, the bloodbath that got him his name, that looked like a thrill killing, but that’s not what drives this guy. I don’t see him as having any fun.”

“God, I should hope not!”

“I can sort of imagine what somebody like that might be going through. Feeling so much pain, so much loss, and having to do something about it. I’m not presuming to guess how it is with this particular guy, but I can imagine how it might be.” Esther Blinkoff sat back, folded her hands. “There’s your next book,” she said.

H E F E LT A L I T T L E silly buying the cornmeal.

He picked it up at the Gristedes on Hudson Street, and had to decide between the white and the yellow. Both were stone ground and both cost the same, and he actually found himself checking the nutritional information box on the packaging, as if a higher vitamin C level in one might make all the difference. He decided yellow was a more traditional color of cornmeal, and that seemed reason enough to go with it.

The smallest package was eight ounces, and he figured that would last awhile.

He’d been walking home from another coffee shop interview, this one at Reggio on Macdougal Street with a reporter from People magazine. She’d brought a photographer, a very tall dark-skinned young man who never made a sound, but who somehow communicated a desire to photograph Creighton in Washington Square Park. He’d changed film and cameras several times, taking endless shots until Creighton told him that was going to have to be enough.

On the way home, a shop window caught his eye. Someone had arranged a desert diorama, with sand and cacti and, incongru-ously, quartz crystals and other mineral specimens. But what got his attention was a group of stone carvings of animals, fetishes similar to the turquoise rabbit. There were no rabbits, but there were several bears (unlikely in a desert, you would think) along with some dogs and other creatures he couldn’t identify.

He entered the shop, and found a glass case with a great many more fetishes, some an inch long that could have been stamped out with a cookie cutter, others very elaborately and realistically crafted, including an eagle whose every feather was defined and a snarling bobcat or lynx that looked positively fierce.

The shop attendant, a black girl with her hair fixed in blond cornrows and rings on six of her fingers, explained what the fetishes were. The bear was a powerful figure in the Native American cosmology, he learned, and thus was the most common subject for carvers, even in areas where actual bears could not be found. And what he’d taken for dogs were in fact coyotes, and the coyote was the great trickster of Indian folk myths.

“Wile E. Coyote,” he said.

“Except he’s the one who gets tricked all the time. This one’s probably a badger, and of course you get owls and birds. Here’s a rabbit, an owl, a frog. A buffalo, you see plenty of them.” And would he like to take one of them home and feed it? He said he didn’t think so, that a friend had given him a fetish and he just wanted to get some sense of what it was and what to do with it. Did you pray to them?

“I don’t think so,” she said. “I think you sort of honor their spir-

its, you know? And absorb their energy. And of course you have to feed them.” And she’d explained about the cornmeal, and showed him a selection of small shallow dishes suitable for the purpose.

The nicest one was a piece of lustrous black pottery, and he was astonished to learn they wanted forty-five dollars for it.

“It’s Santa Clara,” she said, “or San Ildefonso, I can’t always tell the difference. See, this bowl here is Santa Clara, and this one’s San Ildefonso, but on a small piece like this one, it’s harder to tell.

Oh, wait, it’s signed, Maria Sojo. Well, she’s a well-known potter, and she’s Santa Clara, so now we know it’s a Santa Clara piece, and that’s why it costs that much. Some of these others don’t cost half that much and”—she grinned—“I don’t think the little animals can tell the difference.”

But he liked the black one, and said he’d take it. While she was wrapping it he said he bet there was a lot she could tell him about the fetishes and pottery, and that he’d really like to take her to dinner and learn more.

She smiled, her whole face lighting up, and touched one of the rings on her left hand. “Now this gets sort of lost in the shuffle here,” she said, “but it’s a wedding band.” He started to apologize, but she told him not to, that she was flattered. “You ever see me without the ring,” she said, “ask me again, okay?” A F E W D A Y S A G O he’d moved some books to create a niche for the rabbit. Now he spooned cornmeal into the black dish and placed it in front of the little animal.

He checked his messages, returned a call from Roz. She was holding off on foreign sales until she had Darker Than Water in hand, but reported that his French publishers wanted to renew contracts on his earlier titles, and to acquire one book they’d passed on first time around.

Nothing succeeded like success.

There were two other messages, but not ones he wanted to respond to. He erased them and sat down at the keyboard, and the book drew him in almost instantly, and the next thing he knew it was dark outside and he was hungry. He saved his work, ran spell-check, and printed out the day’s pages. While they were printing he picked up the phone and ordered Chinese food.

He could have gone out, but he hardly ever did, except for interviews. The phone rang more frequently these days, with old friends who’d avoided him after the arrest now eager to pick up where they’d left off. He was cordial enough, but found himself turning down dates, pleading the pressures of work. He gave the same excuse to a couple of new friends, if that’s what they were—

people he’d met that magical night at Stelli’s, who hadn’t dropped him earlier because they hadn’t even known him then. He didn’t bear resentments toward the old friends—at least he didn’t think he did—and he didn’t want to reject the overtures of the new friends. But he really didn’t feel very social.

He wondered how much the rabbit had to do with this.

Not its mystical energy, nothing like that. Just the enormous fact of its presence, because until he’d come upon it in his sock drawer he’d been looking forward to an expansion of his social activities, to nights at the Kettle and the Corner Bistro, to field trips uptown to Stelli’s. Dinners at fine restaurants, and night games at Shea, and the company of women.

He looked at the rabbit, serene enough in front of its dish of cornmeal. He heard Bogart’s voice in his head, speaking in haiku: Of all the sock drawers

In all the towns in the world

You hopped into mine . . .

Hitting on the girl who’d sold him the little black dish had been spontaneous, and more of a surprise to him than to her. It was probably just as well she’d had a husband, or invented one. Jesus, she was half his age, and what would they talk about when they ran out of Zuni fetishes and Pueblo pottery?

And suppose she’d come back to his apartment, and wanted to see his fetish? Suppose she recognized it, suppose she’d sold it to Marilyn Fairchild? That wasn’t as far-fetched as it sounded; Tenth Street was just a block from Charles Street, and the woman could very easily have shopped there.

He went over and took another look at the rabbit. Was he supposed to name it? That was something he could have asked the girl. He wasn’t inclined to think of a name for it. He had to name characters, every little walk-on in Harry Brubaker’s life needed a name and a history, and that made him think of the biblical folk tale of Adam in the garden, required to assign names to all the animals. It felt presumptuous, like playing God, when he arbitrarily assigned names and back stories to characters, but maybe it was more a matter of playing Adam.