Only Nick Jones may have looked on Eva bare, though some of us claimed the vision during those bull sessions in the Eisenhower era. “Shameful, all that talk,” Eunice says the other morning, lips pursed above her tea cup. Lately, we’ve switched to herbal teas, but dreams yet rummage my sleep. “Things,” she continues, underscoring the noun, “have been set just a bit right since that obnoxious time.” She looks me in the eye as if I were about to object to the advances women have made, their new opportunities and the rest of it. “I wonder if she still has that Italian grammar I loaned her,” Eunice adds and turns round to check the toast. If she were not a librarian, would she feel this way about this overdue book?
For this is not the first time Eunice has brought up that grammar which Eva borrowed almost 30 years ago. No, to be more precise, Eunice loaned the book and then only because of that chance encounter in the Village. What was the name of that place? Something like Da Stephano, and we had just moved into this apartment. One balmy fall Sunday, we walked over to the Village and passed the window of this small restaurant, set down a few steps under a brownstone. Red-checked tablecloths and bread sticks in a tumbler on each table; it had all the trite appeal of the time— determined naivete flung over the commonplace.
“Well, hello.” Eva stood above us. She held a pencil and note pad in a thoroughly professional manner, though something was amiss, as there always was with Eva; a shift sidewise of those remarkable violet eyes as if on the lookout for adults who might expose her charade. We hadn’t seen each other in a half dozen years, the whole bunch of us—with the exception of Eunice—all together at Cambridge. Eva’s liquid gaze had just dissolved that chunk of time. She leaned forward and carefully lit, after several failed matches, the candle stuck in the chianti bottle.
“She has money?” Eunice observed more than inquired as Eva disappeared behind the swinging kitchen door to get our antipastos. “She doesn’t need to work here.”
“Some, maybe,” I replied, As a matter of fact, the great variety of cashmere sweaters Eva always wore hinted money; soft turtlenecks in dark colors that lushly implied the sumptuous breasts within. On the other hand, most of us at Harvard then were there thanks to the GI Bill, so any apparel distinctive from the military castoffs we pulled on every morning was certain to seem luxurious.
“I want to go to Italy next year,” she told us, putting down the scaloppine. “I took this job to learn Italian.” Eunice looked at me hard, and I changed the subject.
“Heard from any of the others?” I asked. “I saw a poem of Jesse Warner’s in The Nation a while back. And I ran into Andy at Chumley’s. He’s up for a part at the Cherry Lane. An O’Neill play the Clancy brothers are doing. He’s changed his name to Cole. Have you seen Nick Jones?”
Eva pulled a strand of coal black hair across her face, and the purplish eyes had gone vague. A visor had come down. “He’s around I guess.”
This dialogue was making Eunice impatient; after all, it wasn’t her “old gang”, and she had turned on her veal with a deft precision. Yet, as always, her generous nature eventually rose to embrace the moment. “I have a very fine Italian grammar, I would be happy to lend you. It might offer a wider vocabulary than these menus can provide.”
I think Eunice may have been surprised when Eva accepted, but we exchanged phone numbers, and so this random event had happened. Lately, suspicions have risen as to the part chance plays in history; that it is equal to any other determination, and those who survive, who become important, are merely only luckier than those who do not. The success of a species, of an individual may have less to do with selection according to fitness than it has to do where one is standing in the savanna when the sky falls. The great rocks that squashed reptilian sovereignty could drop again to stamp out Shakespeare, Homer, Chartes, and Yankee Stadium. All pure chance.
“Bad dreams again, darling,” Eunice said the next morning. She looked pink and eager to get up to 42nd street. That’s how we met. I needed some dates for my dissertation and had gone into the reference room of the Public Library and this very pretty young woman helped me out. So very efficient, capable, and her assurance impressed me even more. She not only knew what she was doing, but seemed very confident that she should be doing it. She had found her place already with an almost feudal satisfaction and her self-confidence was not only appealing but curiously erotic. I invited her out for some Chinese that same evening.
“Meeting Eva has made me think of Nick Jones,” I told her, but she wasn’t prepared to listen. The vast solitude of the Library was calling to her; her own enclave within that immense privacy. Actually I had not only been thinking of Eva but wondering how I might pass the Italian grammar on to her. Eunice had left the book on the sill of our kitchen window that looks down on Avenue C.
Running into Eva at Da Stephano had also called up Nick Jones, an unwelcome ghost at that modest meal as he was in those days when we resented him sitting down at our high table. Those of us who had only recently faced death or had done others to death resented his cocky manner, his off hand handling of that war which had interrupted and qualified our lives. Not that we held against him that he had spent the war writing speeches for generals in public relations; that was the luck of his draw. Chance again, but it was his jaunty manner that seemed to claim more, even the boots he wore in winter bothered us for they gave off the cavalier style of an ex-flyboy whereas it was the studious, shy Jesse Warner who had flown 30 missions over Germany. So, Nick, maybe without intending to do so—to give him some credit—seemed to present something he was not. He was attractive, a bit of a show-off, and, in our opinion, not very deep.
Eva’s voice on the phone sounded small and childlike, reminding me of how she and a couple of her girlfriends had this passion for “Winnie-the Pooh.” They talked to each other in Milnese, if you will, and this childish whimsy mixed with their mature sensuality made a perverse potion that ravished us ex-GI’s. Well, as a matter of fact, she told me on the phone, she was just going out, to the Metropolitan Museum. Why didn’t we meet there? She wanted to see an exhibit of Christopher Wren’s later sketches, because she had been auditing some lectures on architecture at the New School.
So we began to meet. I never told Eunice of these meetings. They went on for a year, but she would have got the wrong idea. Nothing happened, I mean. On the other hand, what was the right idea?
Retirement from the classroom has not come easy for me. Others may hurrah their syllabi into the air, but the classroom was my cosmos, a luminous sphere from within which I viewed the turns of the planet. Time for my real work now, Eunice says, but the proofs of my new book lie unexamined on my desk. My account of the Paris Commune has lost its urgency; those barricades seem puny obstacles to the events rushing down the avenues of CNN. At the same time, I’ve caught up on my reading, outside the discipline, which ironically has been partly supplied by this very same Nick Jones. His most recent novel is on the sideboard of our living room.
I must have all of his books as he has sent them to me over the years, and I have watched his picture on the covers go from crisp studio poses to the fuzzy, almost amateurish image that takes up the whole back cover of the new book. It would be difficult to miss his splendid trajectory. Generous reviews in The NY Times from the beginning and the latest making the front page of the Book Review with a copious second opinion in The New York Review of Books by Elizabeth Hardwick. Actually, his publisher sends me the books. Clearly, I’m on a list of some sort, and they arrive regularly like mail order catalogs, uninscribed and unasked for. “With the compliments of the author,” a card says, but I have to wonder about the compliment.
Because Nick Jones has certainly gone far beyond what any of us had expected of him. Our money was on people like Jesse Warner or Abe Rosen who has had, in fact, some little success with that English language newspaper he runs in Vienna whether with the help of the CIA or not. Or to put my own two cents into the pot, my work (inclusion in American Historians and all the rest) has not let the old gang down either. I’ve often said that if we had come along in the 60’s, some of us would be dead and the rest in prison, because if that little mimeograph broadsheet we put out didn’t come close to sedition, it certainly kept us under the concerned scrutiny of the dean’s office.
So, one day, this pup with his over ready smile and eager swagger, swung into our revolutionary cell by mistake. Did we know where the soccer club met? He had taken a wrong turn in the student union. Eva and her girl pals were kneeling on the floor, I remember, assembling and stapling the latest issue and right off he began to tease them, calling them “handmaidens” in such a way to get them laughing and blushing, especially Eva. As Abe Rosen liked to say, his intuition ran far ahead of his knowledge, and his prose was heavy with Hemingway.
So this morning, Eunice tells me this literary lion is to be celebrated at a special ceremony at the library to which, as curator of the Devlin Collection, she’s been invited. Spouses are also welcome. “It will be a spiffy do,” she tells me. “I’d think you’d be happy to witness your old chum being raised into the pantheon. Do you think he’ll remember you?”
“Remember me?” I have to laugh. “He sends me all his books.”
“Well, I’m off. I’m meeting Susan for lunch and we’re taking Master Matthew to Lord and Taylor for a new cap.” She gives me a quick peck and is out the door. Like her way with everything, Eunice has accepted her role as a grandmother as if it were something that came with her particular guild. Historical forces, objective or not, have never been a part of her philosophy.
Which brings me back to chance, the random sampling that puts one on the ladder above or below another. Nick Jones walking into our magazine’s office that day, supposedly looking for the soccer team, but finding our project more interesting. “Well, Eva, old sport,” he told me once. “Who wouldn’t want to join up with an organization with a girl like that in its membership?” I’m pretty certain he had never read any Fitzgerald at that point, so his Gatsby lingo was just one more natural mannerism that annoyed us. He had not read anything in fact—not even Hemingway.
However, different volumes began to show up alongside the usual texts wedged under his left arm. Camus’s The Stranger. Rilke’s Letters. A slim collection of Primo Levi stories. “I don’t get this guy Henry Green,” I remember him telling us one afternoon. We were having coffee at the union. The next week, Sons and Lovers poked out of his raincoat. And so forth.
One evening, he rounded up and pushed some of us down to a storefront theatre in Somerville for a production of Sartre’s The Flies in which Eva played one of the Furies. The place had been a small grocery and still smelled of root vegetables and cold cuts. The play’s cast, in costume, served lemonade and raisin bran cookies at intermission. Eva looked not so much vengeful as a little dissolute, a Fury a bit hung over from the on-going bash on Mt. Olympus. Her hands trembled as she handed up paper cups of lemonade, and I caught Jesse taking her in as she poured the stuff. The black leotard of her costume left little to the imagination. Then, Jesse looked at me and pulled my eyes over to where Nick gaily chatted up the other two Furies, Eva’s girlfriends. A quick illumination shot between Warner and me: Eva had become Jones’s cicerone through the inner circles of literature.
“How’s your soccer game?” I remember Corky Roberts asked him one afternoon. We had settled into our usual large booth at the co-op, feeling a little high for we had just published another issue of our thunderous gazette, and we were gleefully awaiting the sounds of outrage and dismay it was sure to cause. In fact, I think Nick had a short piece in that issue, a harmless sort of memoir about his grandfather in Oklahoma which a couple of us had to go over to bring up to snuff.
“Well, old sport,” he replied to Roberts, “you fellows have given me a valuable insight—athletes may come and go, but a writer will always get a girl.”
Just at the moment, as if summoned and looking a little dazed by the process, Eva appeared. “Ah,” said Nick. “Ecco proof.” Eva blushed and looked sideways.
“Hello, good-bye.” she waggled some fingers and smiled. “I have to go. The magazine’s been distributed. I have class.”
These abrupt appearances and disappearances were part of Eva’s fascination. In the same way, her concentration played a kind of hop-scotch with a topic or an activity; and this was her manner when we met that first time in the Metropolitan. She started talking to me halfway across the huge foyer where I had been waiting for her. “Oh, hello, here you are. Should we see the Egyptian first? The Wren is on the mezzanine. That new Bruegel is supposed to be worth a look. How nice, thank you.” She took the Italian grammar. “Very kind of Eunice.” She had slipped the book into her shoulder bag, and I was pretty sure that Eunice would never see it again.
We saw the Wren and then the Bruegel; generally toured the Egyptian wing; not talking too much, not always viewing an exhibit together, but meeting often enough before a single painting so that people who saw us might have thought us a couple. We were to meet like that through the next four seasons; all innocent occasions and, actually, something Eunice had started by loaning her the grammar.
All in my head, and my disloyalty especially evident after a fumbling gesture on that first afternoon. We were about to leave the museum when Eva turned suddenly about. “I want another look at that burial chamber. How it’s put together. Amazing workmanship, don’t you think?” She ran back to the Egyptian wing and slipped through the narrow opening in the facade of the reconstructed tomb. I found her inside, her face close to the interior wall, studying the stone mortise. In the dim light of that stone chamber, the royal blue of her sleeveless blouse became purplish black to set off a translucent quality in her bare arms and throat. She turned to me, her eyes wide with excitement. “Wonderful.”
What had I been thinking? Heavy lipped and dark eyed, her expression within the cowl of her black hair was ancient and knowing. Her mouth fell into a smile and she took a deep breath that seemed to draw me to her. “Oh, Billy.” she laughed and gently held me off. “Not now.”
Not now? Did she mean not then, but later? Did she mean not there, in this old tomb, but some place more comfortable? Or not now while she was pursuing her architectural studies; that these different interests should be kept separate? I never resolved the ambiguity of those two words, and I became stuck in them as if in amber.
For the next year I would follow Eva through those marble halls, an odd courtier, neither rejected nor favored, but happy to accompany her survey of that enormous collection, satisfied to take my place a step behind her as she idled before a Boucher. “Those little shepherdesses are a little naughty, don’t you think?”
If I had the time, we would sometimes have lunch around the Roman pool, and she would report her changing interests between bits of green salad. She was studying film at NYU. She had signed up for modern dance at Barnard. Her various enrollments and studies done in quick time but no less intensely. Once or twice, by the water lilies, her eyes would flick over my shoulder, and I got the impression that someone we both knew had passed behind me. I almost turned around. Once, she excused herself just as we sat down, but took so long at the ladies’ room that her portage haricot was cold by the time she returned.
“Sorry, that damn line was so long.” The soup’s temperature made no difference to her. “Usually, I go to Frank’s before I meet you.”
“Frank Campbell’s. You know, the funeral parlor on Madison.” She broke the crusty roll over the soup bowl, dusting her fingers prettily. She had begun to wear very dark red nail polish. “They have a spiffy loo. There’s almost always a lay-out so I just sign the visitor’s register and use the John. No dessert?”
In those days, my hours were determined by the department chairman, and I usually had to hurry back to a large lecture class on Modern European history. So, no time for dessert especially after Eva had spent an inordinate amount of time studying some Durer engravings, line by line. Often, she would rush into the museum just as I would have to leave, but the apologies gasped were so winningly regretful, near disasters barely escaped just to meet me, that I always forgave her. “You won’t believe what happened,” these prologues usually began, her purplish eyes lifted to the gallery as if to search out another audience.
“Oh, pooh,” she said this afternoon. “I’ll just have to have the creme caramel all by myself.”
But did she? Had another gallant shadowed our footsteps through that treasure house? Another courtier waiting to take his turn at her elbow, or even elsewhere? Perhaps, I had only been the foreplay, the sponsor of an excitement that another would fully enjoy? Not now, I heard her in my head. In retrospect, I wondered if that moment in the tomb had kindled her desire, but the protocol of that proper era, rather than she, had pushed me away. If I had pressed on through my own timidity, what might have happened? Right then and there? My imagination screened numerous scenarios. Not now, she had said, and I had meekly obeyed perhaps to leave her prey to any stranger who might have come upon her as she took in Rembrandt’s “Jolly Burgher.” Not a stranger. She wasn’t so careless. It would have been someone she knew and could trust.
Lurching back to Hunter on the crosstown bus, all these thoughts tumbled in my head, and I almost got off to double back to see who might be taking my place at her side, sharing the creme caramel. But by the time the bus had reached Madison, Eunice’s voice from that morning restored my equilibrium. “Any socks for the wash, William?”
In any event, that spring saw the end of it. “I’m sorry to break our date.” Her voice curved inside my ear. “I’m leaving for Rome tomorrow and I have some things to do.”
“Yes, Rome, Italy,” she specified as if I might have thought Rome, New York. I pictured a dazed look in her eyes, the quizzical smile. “I’m really going. I think I have some kind of a job with a movie company there.”
She was as vague about the job as her adieu was off-hand. For nearly a year, we had shared these moments at the Metropolitan and she sounded as if she were breaking a dentist appointment. The tooth ache had disappeared, had been taken care of, and suddenly angry, I almost asked her if Nick Jones was going along. Or she with him? He didn’t, of course, and we know now that a destiny awaited Eva on the via Veneto far more glittering than what the halls of the Metropolitan could offer.
“Isn’t this your Eva?” Eunice asked one morning a couple of years ago. We were plowing through the Sunday Times, and she held out the open magazine to me. The article was on Ettore Rienzo and a couple of pictures showed him working on “La Tabacchina,” what was to be his last film. One whole page was given to a semi-formal portrait of him, sitting somewhat stiffly in an armchair and looking straight into the camera. His lined, Roman countenance was illuminated by the fiery genius in his eyes, and he seemed ageless, neither young nor old, like a bust of Dante or one of the Medici. And standing close behind him, also looking directly into the camera was Eva; her arms draped lovingly around his shoulders. . .his American wife and muse since she produced his early triumph, “La Borsetta”, which overnight placed him into a trinity with Fellini and Antonioni.
The picture was a portrait of serenity and gave off a happy intimacy firmly grounded in success. The two of them reminded me of those clay couples comfortably at ease on the tops of Etruscan tombs. Eva looked remarkably unchanged, her dark hair fell straight to her shoulders, cut in the familiar bangs along her forehead, but her eyes were different. No hazy restlessness stopped by the camera’s shutter, but an expression focused on its own self-confidence. Nor can I remember her wearing so much jewelry. Several oversized bracelets lolled on the slender wrists crossed over the maestro’s chest, and a heavy necklace, almost certainly of solid gold, fell into the deep line between her breasts which the cut of her dress exposed. I almost laughed aloud at the memory of the little pair of earrings I had given her that Christmas of our year together, gold rinsed reproductions of Baset, the Egyptian goddess of pleasure, that I had bought at the museum’s gift shop. “Oh gee,” I remember her saying, when she finally arrived. “Little pussy cats.”
“Undoubtedly, she’s fluent in Italian by now,” Eunice had observed and poured us more tea, “But I told you she came from money—producing his movies.”
“It says only the first one,” I corrected her.
“Are you all right, William?” She had been studying me. “You look funny.”
I was fine, I told her, even better than she could know. I had been thinking that I had shared this fascinating woman with one of the giants of cinema and this somehow rinsed away the sour suspicions I may have had about Nick Jones. So now, no doubt a punishment for my hubris, I will be forced to share Jones’s lionization by the literary establishment at the library. Eunice insists that I accompany her to this ceremony at the Tilden-Astor Library. Trim as ever, her elegant legs still sprung by a youthful grace, she is a lovely antithesis to the stereotypical librarian that she sometimes presents with a charming self-mockery. My presence at the ceremony would completely and once and for all, dispel that image, she says. Moreover, she reminds me, the library holds a couple of my own works in its permanent collection; a biography of Louis Napoleon and my monograph on the Internationale, a rare publication sought out by collectors today, so I’ve been told. I have as much right to be part of the scene as Nick Jones, Eunice tells me.
My classmate Corky Roberts—he’s just retired from Sports Illustrated—has amused me over the years with his irreverent stories about old baseball players; about his encounters with a Duke Snyder or a Willie Mays at some function sponsored by the magazine. He used to say that these flashbacks into an athlete’s past heroics also called up his own youthful enthusiasms and energies at the time when he saw these men play, revisiting that guileless hunger to make a mark when the blackboard seemed wonderfully blank and accessible. So, a similar feeling comes over me as I stand in the marbled, Renaissance lobby of the Tilden-Astor, because scattered around that huge expanse, nibbling pate and sipping chardonay or soda water, are authors who had inspired and challenged me, who had once nurtured my dreams. Most look a little tired, perhaps weary of such events that require their presence; a little sodden around the edges. A portly Norman Mailer stands within a circle of admirers like the elder Cato, snapping at the immoral fat of our century. A gray, distant Styron leans into a conversation between two women editors as if the subject of that conversation was impaired rather than his hearing. The Long March was, I think, my generation’s Red Badge of Courage. In the center of the hall, Kurt Vonnegut moves morosely toward the buffet, perhaps anticipating that he may have to step forward to admit the authorship of this very entertainment.
It is a pantheon, as Eunice called it. And all to honor Nick Jones, I must remind myself—a gabby, gobbling anthology of the nation’s literary heart and muscle. A sort of feeding frenzy roils within this exalted pool; editors and agents swirl in and around the stolid leviathans, nipping and swiping here and there, piloted by what seems to be schools of startlingly beautiful young women. Later, in more than one chamber of this nautilus called Manhattan, lithe ambition will surely jockey flabby eminence.
Eunice is standing at the foot of the grand stair, speaking animatedly with a man sitting on a marbled tread who carefully swirls the wine in his glass as he hears her out. He resembles the historian David McCullough, and I turn away quickly as Eunice looks up and around in mid-sentence, obviously trying to locate me. I see Nick Jones just as he sees me, and he raises one hand and waves. He stands beneath a bust of some immortal, merrily engaged by two women.
A flash of déjà vu takes me back to that opening night of “The Flies” in Somerville, but in this instance, one of the “handmaidens,” to recall his term, is Elizabeth Hardwick and the other is Joyce Carol Oates, the latter hugged by him with such hardy fellowship that her cool tolerance seems dangerously crimped. He makes a courtly obeisance to these chatelaines of our national culture and strides across the great hall toward me with the smile of a victorious St. George.
It is a longish distance across the lobby, and he has it to himself, uninterrupted, save for the hesitant approach of a young woman whom he waves away without looking. The attention of that luminous throng has swung upon him, like the spotlight that follows an actor across a stage to where I stand in my baggy corduroys and mismatched tie and shirt—a second banana. “There you are, old sport.” His hand is straight out before him from several feet away. “I hoped you would turn up.”
The handshake was but the preface to a bone snapping bear hug, and he lightly accepts my congratulations, as he reaches out to take a plain soda from a passing tray. “Well, king for a day, eh? Here today and gunned down tomorrow. But the work is all as Uncle Henry said. That’s important—getting the work down. You’ve proved it yourself. I read that book of yours. Louis Napoleon and his kidney stones. Great stuff. Great.”
I turn aside his compliment. “To be sure, processing the raw material is important. But James also said we mustn’t be put off by puerile. . . .”
”. . . Puerile fantasies.” Amazingly, he’s picked up my reference. “You got it. I bet you’re the only one in this room, Billy-boy, to remember that quote. Aside from me, of course.” His wink is broad and charming. “Like the old days when I’d sit down at the co-op to listen to all you geniuses talk.” His exuberance for the “old days” continues as I review his recent work; how it has become overwhelmed by process. More than one opinion has noted that Jones’s affection for post-modern farragoes has disconnected him from the true ground of his Oklahoma boyhood.
It’s also my opinion that the truly important American novelists pack their imaginations into a wilderness of nostalgia, looking for that “fragment of lost worlds,” as Fitzgerald called it, that tells us what we are by what we were. Many lose their way, and this description of Gatsby comes to mind as I look at Nick. I cannot remember his being this big with solid shoulders and a wrestler’s neck. His hair is still thick, speckled with gray. Eunice has joined us.
“Great to see you, doll.” His hug lifts my wife on her toes. Normally, such an appellation would provoke a short, snappy lecture on objectification, but Eunice seems cheerful. “And I hear you’re a big honcho upstairs. Smart and sexy. A winner.”
“Really just a matter of attrition,” Eunice says modestly. She has turned crimson though her eyes send another message; that her position was not entirely due to a wearing down of antecedents.
I’ve just noticed that we have the alcove of this vast foyer to ourselves. No one comes near us as if some tacit understanding had run through the assembly that we were to have this audience with Jones by ourselves. Perhaps, some guessed that I was a long-lost brother, a quiet fellow who had just shown up from Hackensack, New Jersey. “William would know,” I hear Eunice say as she turns to me. “You’ve heard from Corky just lately, haven’t you?”
“He’s moved to Coral Gables,” I answer. “He just retired from Sports Illustrated,”
“Flown south, eh?” Jones nods agreeably. “But he did okay. Managing editor or something like that, wasn’t he?”
“Jesse Warner has a new book of poems out.” I join his game of catch-up, “From University of Arizona Press.”
“Jesse Warner.” He tries to put a face with the name and shrugs.
“A little shy,” I fill in Jesse’s blank a little. “He was our poetry editor and most of the poetry we printed was his.” We all laugh at that. “His new book is getting some good reviews. I just read one this morning,” I tell Eunice. “In The Kenyon Review.”
“Sorry, old sport. The mind is going.” He winks at Eunice.
“Then, there’s Ed Rosen. . .”
“Oh yeah, Rosen, that CIA flack!”
“I’m not so sure there’s any truth to those rumors.”
Eunice has almost stepped between us, one hand touching the necklace around her throat. Pearls I gave her. “And Eva? her husband just died, didn’t he? Rienzo?”
“Oh, dear Eva,” Jones says and sips his soda. “One fascinating lady. I’ve been trying to put her into a book for years.”
“You got to know her pretty well, I guess.” My remark has pulled a serious look over his face. People have leaned over the balustrade above, looking down on the scene.
“Oh, we just horsed around. Just pals, really. I could never get through that A.A. Milne perimeter she put up around herself. You remember how she was,” I shrug and look at Eunice. She looks pink with happiness, a fan’s coloring, “Funny thing,” Jones continues, “a few years after we graduated—I just got the Guggenheim, I think—I ran into her one afternoon at the Metropolitan.”
“The museum?” I hear myself ask.
“Yeah, that one,” Jones says and looks me over. Then he laughs. “Seems she hung out there, and I got the idea that she was meeting someone there. A ren-dez-vous as we Okies used to say. On the sly, if you get me.” His wink was even broader but still directed toward Eunice who giggled.
My voice seems trapped beneath my esophagus, fighting for expression and air in the clatter and din around us. “In fact,” I finally manage to get out. “I did meet her at the museum. Once.”
“Yes, William delivered a book I loaned her,” Eunice says. “An Italian grammar.”
“That one time. It was in the fall, as I remember.” That Eunice has made herself an accomplice to her own deception hits me hard.
“No, this was later in the year,” Jones said, “Late spring. Daffodils up and the rest. She and the guy had this thing going on for some time. That was my impression. But you know how she could be.” He’s paused to look me over again. “She kept the different parts of her life put away in little boxes. Like handkerchiefs.”
“A fascinating woman,” Eunice says. “William has talked about her endlessly.”
“Not endlessly,” I say good humoredly though I dare not look at Eunice. Mailer is leaving the party.
“And she’s never returned that Italian grammar which William delivered. The rest must be history.”
We laugh. Eunice’s light merriment sparkles in the air like miniature rocket bursts, and I suddenly have a picture of the two of us, climbing up out of the air-conditioned dive of Louis’s one early morning when we were young. It was mid-summer, hot and humid, but a shower had sprinkled the pavement around Sheridan Square as we had drunk beer and listened to Peggy Lee on the bar’s juke box. The brief shower had not moderated the heat, but had only stirred up an aroma that came off the steamy cement as if the gluttonous being of Manhattan had just turned over in satiated torpor. By chance, a Checker cab was at the curb, and I hustled Eunice into it and barked our address. By the time we crossed University Place, the deed was being done, and her eyes, in the passing street lights, had become wide and wildly appreciative of my impetuous ingenuity.
“Well, that grammar,” Jones is saying, “fills in part of the puzzle.” He looks across the hall, his mouth set curiously. We are quietly attentive.
“Oh dear,” Eunice says after a little. “Is that the whir of novel machinery, I hear?”
Jones laughs and hugs her again, doesn’t drop his arm. “No, it’s no use. I’ve been trying to do her for years, but the nub of the story is so circumstantial that my poor talents cannot make it believable. Every time she’d meet this guy, she would first check into a funeral home over on Madison Avenue to use their facilities. She said it embarrassed her to go to the toilet with him around. I mean even in the Metropolitan.” He spread his arms wide with exaggerated amazement. “Well, what was her favorite book again? “Winnie-the-Pooh?”“
“Frank Campbell’s,” I hear myself say. “That’s just over on Madison from the museum. Tommy Dorsey was buried from there,” I tell Eunice.
“Yeah, that’s the place. Frank Campbell’s,” Jones says slowly and nods. “She told me she’d go to this place, pay her respects to the deceased, use the john, sign the register on her way out. Put her name and address down to be legit. Then, one day she gets this letter from a Wall Street law firm. Seems that one of the funerals she had attended was that of a rich old geezer who had died with no heirs. No friends. Nobody. Not a dog or a cat. His will ordered that his estate was to be divided among those who came to his lay-out. Eva was the only one who had showed up—she and her kidneys.”
“How much was it?” Eunice’s voice flutters like tissue paper.
“She’d just got the letter from the lawyer when I met her, but she had called the firm. Wasn’t precise, but well over a million. You can see my problem—just too much chance for fiction.”
“And that’s how she became a film producer.” Eunice puts it all together triumphantly.
“Yeah,” Jones says. “She hooked up with that Via Veneto crowd and met this guy Rienzo. We wrote back and forth a little.”
“She wrote to you,” I say.
“Yeah, when Montezuma’s Revenge came out. So, back and forth a few times. She and the Italian had a kind of spirtual-artistic relationship, from what she said. Seems he swung both ways. But it suited her. Hey, that’s my old lady over there. She’s been looking for me, I bet. The gal in the purple pants. I’ve got a few years up on her, but so far keeping up.” His boyish face failed in its attempt at a leer. He was just too good-humored.
His wife is a statuesque, black haired woman of about 30, and she is talking with large gestured abandon to an entranced Robert Stone. “She’s lovely,” Eunice says, and I must agree.
“Hey!” Jones has suddenly remembered something. “A bunch of us are going over to Nan Talese’s Why don’t you come along?”
“I think not,” I say. “But thanks.” Eunice looks disappointed but quickly renews her cheerful look. Jones’s wife is making what seems to be Boy Scout semaphore signals in our direction.
“I have to go,” he says. “The worst part is that Eva turned up with lumps. Here.” His broad hand smoothed down the sweater he wore beneath his jacket.
“Oh, my.” Eunice put one hand to her lips.
“Yeah, bad news. Right after Rienzo’s first big hit. About the pocketbook.”
“La Borsetta,” I supply the name.
“That’s the one. Eva wrote me about the operation. Even whimsical about that. Falsies for every occasion, she said. Well, you remember how she was. Quite a gal.” His wife has been making more signals. People are leaving in large groups. The bar is closed. “It’s been great,” Jones is saying. “Let’s keep in touch.” He shakes my hand and kisses Eunice delicately near one ear; then, saunters across the hall to his wife who hugs one of his arms, wriggles with happiness for both of them.
“Well,” Eunice says after a moment. “I’m famished and not ashamed to admit it. I feel like something Italian. Let’s go to Julio’s—it’s on the way home. For some scaloppine. How about it?”
The caters have begun to clean up the remains of the party. Plastic cups clatter upon the marble floor, and somebody is whistling a happy melody. Just at the door, Eunice suddenly stops and turns to me. “Oh, William,” she says and kisses me on the mouth. When she pulls back, her eyes glisten; the low illumination of the place is reflected and somehow charged by her tears in which I have just seen my mean ambition and small desires.