BUBBY DOZED in his lucky green trench coat, chin at his chest. I watched the world in patches below us, spread between strips of clouds that looked like dirty sheets. In the distance, the fiery orange eyeball sun shimmered like a hallucination. Turbulence rocked our airplane, and Bubby woke, his jawline marked with an angry red streak from his early-morning, shaky-handed shave.
“What the fuck,” he said. Tears leaked from his rheumy eyes. He wiped with the back of his fist.
“You okay?” I asked.
He wheezed and said, “For fuck’s sake, no, I’m not.” A soft, slightly apologetic smile, and he continued, “East coast literati can suck my dick.”
We were on our way to New York from Los Angeles. Our colleague in the MPW program (Masters of Professional Writing), Harris Les, a relapsed heroin addict, had rolled himself off the roof of his apartment building. But not before mailing what he believed to be his magnum opus, The Smoking Gun, to his former agent, Richard Links, in New York. No back ups, as far as anyone knew. Harris, paranoid with drug abuse, had deleted all his files and trashed his laptop.
Harris believed that art transcended everything, including extramarital affairs: He’d destroyed Links’ second marriage, yet entrusted him with his final beloved book. Links’ now ex-wife—a trust fund blond—had moved to SoCal and financed Harris’s relapse. Rumor had it that she was pregnant, and not with Links’ or Harris’s child.
Art, for Links, however, could not transcend resentment. He would burn Harris’s manuscript, he said, if Bubby didn’t reclaim it within the next twenty-four hours. There was history between Bubby and Links beyond Harris that I didn’t understand, an East Coast/West Coast type of thing. Bubby had talked me into going with him.
“It’s like Biggie versus Tupac,” I said, “but with writers and agents.”
Bubby adjusted his earplugs. “Fuckers,” he added, talking a bit too loud. “New York motherfuckers. Pretentious. We don’t matter. Bunch of hippies to them.”
Thankfully, the acne-faced teenaged passenger to Bubby’s right wasn’t listening, mesmerized by a music video on the screen implanted in the seat before him.
“They’ve got power and connections and keep us out,” Bubby continued. Nothing fired him up quite as much as his animosity toward the publishing center. “Just ask Wallace Stegner. He fought the good fight. Oh, that’s right, you can’t ask him”—he faced me, his eyes gleaming—“because he’s dead, and I’ll be joining him soon.”
Bubby, switching the dial on his armrest, found a movie. Something apropos to our conversation with guns and flames and car crashes and people screaming.
My headphones were packed in my carry-on suitcase above me, and I refused to pay for the airplane headset that the stewardess offered. I closed my blind and watched the violent display on Bubby’s screen without the noise, thinking about Harris. I hadn’t liked or disliked him. Why had he rolled himself off a roof? How could he have been that desperate? The man who lived below him had watched it happen, saying that Harris had walked right past him on the stairwell, scratches and blood on his neck and arms and with a dead-end void of a stare.
Harris’s first novel, based on his heroin-street days, was supposed to be a big deal; after mixed reviews, it died a premature death. A small press published his two subsequent novels to little attention.
At Harris’s memorial, a fedora-wearing former child actor and less-than-mediocre novelist had said, “People gave him money on the street, thinking he was homeless,” to appreciative laughter, but I’d cringed. With his flyaway wispy side-hair and hobo-like demeanor, he looked the part of a beggar, but he wasn’t without vanity. As a fellow balding and homely writer, I identified.
Bubby’s movie had climaxed: the main characters rescued. Tears and kisses and ambulances and siren-lights and parents and children reuniting, and then the credits rolled, naming the creators of another cinematic waste product.
I pushed my plastic blind up, letting in light.
“He saved his daughter,” Bubby said, squinting and waving with his hand for me to close the blind.
“Hmm,” I said, complying.
“A retired CIA agent,” Bubby said, “using his former job skills. A visually stimulating extravaganza.” He closed his eyes, heaved a sigh, and then added, “Are we there yet?”
Many hours later, Bubby and I sat across from Links in his office on the 34th floor of a gleaming high-rise on Fifth Avenue. Bookshelves lined the walls, filled with the agency’s books, and alongside them, cheerful studio-portraits of its bestselling and most photogenic authors. Links, mid-sixties, wore a dark suit. He had a slight overbite and a cool, intelligent, bemused demeanor, but his nostrils gave him away, flaring stallion-like with emotion. We sat staring at each other for a long time, and then Links said, “You know, Bubby, I’ve always admired your work, and I’ll never understand you.” He spoke in a low, quiet voice, as if expecting Bubby to snort at him, but there was a smarmy confidence to the sharpness of his consonants. “We could’ve been friends,” he concluded.
“Cut the bullshit,” said Bubby, “where’s The Smoking Gun.”
“A regrettable title,” said Links, seeming to admire his cufflinks. “Doesn’t sound literary. More like a James Bond film.” He looked up. His nostrils widened. “I don’t have it,” he said. “I’m sorry, but she came and took it, demanded it, really. I had no choice.”
Bubby, quivering with anger, was about to speak. But something thumped against the window behind Links. I saw a flash of gray.
“What,” I asked, with bowels clenched, “was that?”
“Sometimes,” Links said, “birds crash into my window and die.” He sighed. “I wanted to be a dream-maker, a life-changer, but most of the time, I kill dreams.” A visible sadness cloaked him.
“She said,” he said, “to give you this.” He handed Bubby an envelope.
Instead of opening the letter, Bubby jerked his chair back. I helped him up and we left the office.
A quick glance over my shoulder provided one last portrait of a somber Links, eyes downcast and hands folded at his desk.
Our plane didn’t leave until early the next morning. We stayed in a shabby hotel near the airport. Bubby hadn’t opened his letter.
“Katie Belle,” he said, when I asked whom it was from. He knew without looking.
“Who is she?” I asked.
“She’s Katie Belle,” he answered.
He drank whiskey that night and ate french fries. I had mineral water and a grilled cheese sandwich. I waited for him to get drunk enough to tell me more. But he didn’t and we fell asleep in our twin beds.
I awoke in the middle of the night, jerked from a dream by gas pains. Bubby snored in the bed next to mine.
I relieved myself in the bathroom and it took a good half hour. The people in the room next to ours began to fight. A woman’s voice shouted, “I hate you! You’re a liar!” A man’s voice rumbled apologies.
Bubby continued to sleep. I toyed with opening Katie Belle’s letter. It slanted against the lamp on the bedside table between our twin beds. But how would I reseal it without Bubby knowing? I fingered it, looking at the slanted handwriting with Bubby’s name.
Who was Katie Belle?
The woman and man continued their fight. I heard the tread of footsteps. The woman sputtered a few more half-hearted insults.
Then I heard the springs of a bed, and the rhythmic accompanying tapping of a headboard vibrated against our wall.
Katie Belle, it turns out, is Katherine Belmontaine, founder of the exclusive and infamous Belmontaine Workshops in the late 70s, early 80s. Poet and experimental writer and guru at one time to burgeoning writers. Katie Belle to her closest friends and those in the know, including Harris Les, who was her star apprentice for three years.
The following morning in the hotel restaurant, picking at the yolk of his fried egg with a fork, Bubby explained, “Writers worshipped at the Katie Belle shrine. Groupies, really. She picked who could come. Who knows what they did? But it was like a cult. She found Harris in the rooms of Narcotics Anonymous, when he was still detoxing from his heroin problem. Nursed him into a writer. Let him sleep in her garage. Harris, Debora Lineman, Susan Shultz, they were in a group together. Harris was Katie Belle’s favorite. The center of that group. Wrote some real dark deep shit. Everyone thought he’d be the one to strike. You know what happened. Nothing. Susan Shultz got that Oprah thing for her book later on, and she’s about the dullest writer I know. Debora married a Republican politician and writes for some conservative rag in Orange County now. She writes about going hunting and to fundraisers and how great it is to be married and have different beliefs. And Harris, well, you know what happened to him.”
“Can I read the letter?” I asked.
“Katie Belle,” Bubby said, ignoring me, “had that one story anthologized, you know the one I’m talking about, that one—I can’t remember the title—about the man that stalks that woman and then cuts off her pinkie toe. Oh, yeah, that’s right, it’s called ‘Toenail,’ because she has a foot fetish for her own feet and eats her own toenails. That’s right. A good story, a fine story.” He grimaced. “But,” he said, setting his fork on his plate, “with writers like Katie Belle, that level of self-centeredness, that kind of narcissism, that entrancement with her own self-destructiveness, it caves in on itself when she reaches a certain age. Young and attractive, sure, it’s great to read about a woman’s lust for cock or pussy. Dark stuff, Katie Belle wrote. But get some grays in her hair and it’s over. Self-centered edginess gets old as she gets old. Makes her a fool.” He laughed gravely. “But it can go opposite with a male writer, solidify his reputation, right up until he kicks the bucket.” He shook his head.
“I’ll tell you one thing,” he concluded, sliding Katie Belle’s envelope across the table—veering around the salt and peppershakers—to me, “we’re not leaving New York until we talk to Katie Belle.”
Sweating gently in the heated hotel restaurant, I lifted the envelope and extracted and unfolded a paper. This is what I read:
The world is horrible to its artists, but it doesn’t decide when the gift comes or when it goes.
I cannot allow the same world that shut its doors to my beloved Harris in judgment to now, in his death, grow fat and satisfied off his art.
I’m too tired and old to rage and lust. But I won’t allow it, I tell you, I can’t allow it.
I couldn’t protect him. I failed him.
He revered his muse, suffered for her, lived in misery—a pauper.
No more. Oh, I will not forsake my son!
Death is his new frontier. Post menopause wisdom. Question me not.
Yours as ever,
I finished reading and gave Bubby—across the table—a dark look, while he looked darkly back at me. A speaker behind a fern spit a static Phil Collins’s “Another Day in Paradise.” I turned from Bubby and caught the silvery ghost-like reflection of my encroaching baldness in a window.
“She’s going to destroy The Smoking Gun,” I said, looking back at him, “if we don’t hurry. She might already have.”
“A very direct woman,” Bubby said, not without admiration. “Straightforward, lives close to her madness, always has.”
“Were they lovers?” I asked. “Were you her lover?”
Bubby pondered. “Her sexuality,” he said, “was so intense, that it expressed itself in many forms.”
“Oh, come on,” I said.
“Otherworldly,” he said. “An exceptional sexuality, of a kind rarely witnessed.”
I remained silent.
He pushed his plate forward. “Check, please,” he called to our waitress, lifting his trembling hand.
Then, sleeving his left arm in his lucky green trench coat, he added wistfully, “We fucked a few times. Katie Belle, Katie Belle, Katie Belle.”
Bubby knew where to find her. After a winding taxicab ride through the labyrinth of New York in a lazy rain, we entered a dark hole of a nameless and windowless bar and waited.
Bubby ordered a whiskey. The bartender had thick eyebrows that swept upward dramatically at the edges. He demurred when I asked for a ginger ale, and muttered things unintelligible and angry while delivering my maroon-lipstick-smudged glass. I decided against complaining, wiping and clearing the smear with my fingertips before drinking.
Empty but for a few regulars in the late morning, the bar smelled of dust and urine. We met a very sad man named Harvey. He said that everyone called him Had Money, because he’d lost his fortune. But could we please just use his birth name.
A stooped man named Philip asked if we could buy him a drink. We did, and then one more, and one more after. He thanked us each time. Here his articulate nature ended. For what he said afterward, with wildly gesturing hands, though long and understandable and passionate to him, made little sense.
After my third or fourth ginger ale, I found the small lavatory near a defunct jukebox. Enigmatic numerical and alphabetic messages had been scrawled on the bathroom walls. I relieved my bladder in the urinal, aiming my stream at an ice-blue lozenge-shaped ineffective deodorizer; when it was over, I paused to send a subliminal message of encouragement and further completion to my penis, dispersing a few more drops.
Upon returning to the bar, I saw a woman beside Bubby. She wore a flowing dress made of a silky blue material. Her black hair, frozen in a coiffed arrangement, looked as if had been windblown and then stuck there. Its roots—inch-long—were a stark gray. Closer, I saw that her eyelids were gold-dusted and that her lips had been painted red.
She smiled when I reached her, sitting straighter, and her teeth, I noticed, had been whitened to a startling effect. Her face had been through numerous surgical procedures, stretched tight, and the tip of her nose appeared to be protesting Michael Jackson-like.
She reached, took my hand, and pulled me into a spicy-perfumed embrace. “Enchanted,” she said into my ear in a throaty voice.
Released and bewildered, I took a seat on the barstool beside her.
Instantly, her enthusiasm waned. She reached inside a special pocket somewhere within the layers of her silky dress, withdrawing a packet of Gauloises cigarettes.
Bubby’s shaky hand lifted a lighter from his trench coat pocket, and he waved it crescent-like before her.
She held Bubby’s hand steady with a double-handed-black-fingernail-painted-triangle-filed-talon-like grip and focused the tip of her cigarette in the lighter’s blue-centered flame, sucking in.
Her breasts appeared to be sans bra, unsupported and heavy, careening with her movements. Blowing smoke, she crossed one leg over the other, a slit in her dress revealing thigh-high suede leather boots.
Though she was too old for her clothing and mannerisms, Bubby appeared unmoored and stimulated. A flush had taken over his face and neck, and his hands shook more than usual.
Sweating and trembling, he released himself—with my aid—from the confines of his trench coat, and then he folded it over his lap, as if to bury and protect his privates.
And so Katie Belle drank scotch with beer chasers and smoked her cigarettes, relighting them anew with the butts of her finished ones.
At one point, she opened a book of verse and frowned crossly down at it, ignoring us.
Bubby, staring at her, seemed to have lost the ability to speak.
So I had no choice but to finally ask her: “Where’s The Smoking Gun?”
She ignored me, blue smoke spiraling from the chambers of her nostrils, so I asked again: “The Smoking Gun. Where is it?”
She turned to me with a blank stare and said, “Doesn’t it bother you?”
I waited for her to continue, but she was done. She ground her cigarette in the tin ashtray within the flowering butts-bouquet of her extinguished ones.
“Does what bother me?” I asked.
Steely-eyed, she looked at me and said, “Artists like Harris are expected to grovel and beg for a living, and the plagiarists and charlatans and mediocrities get their assholes licked clean.”
“Sure,” I said, and because her gaze demanded it, I added, “Of course it does.”
She looked frankly and sadly at my almost depleted glass of ginger ale, and then back to me.
“What is that?” she asked.
“I’m an alcoholic.”
No emotion crossed her face.
“He’s better off,” Bubby contributed, feeling strongly enough about the subject matter to break his silence, “without the booze.”
Her shoulders lifted and fell with a sigh.
“Thanks, Bubby,” I said. It wasn’t often that he acknowdged my improvement.
He smiled in response.
“Where is it?” I asked again. “We need Harris’s manuscript.”
“How many people,” she asked, “do you think would actually read The Smoking Gun?”
“What does that have to do with it?” I asked.
“Oh, honey, everything,” she said, “it has everything to do with everything.”
We ended up at Katie Belle’s place. It turned out to be a cheery little brownstone with a small backyard and a garden, just behind a red-bricked behemoth of a building. She had been divorced twice, she explained, in a short summation of her life, no children, and had acquired the property and sufficient savings through settlements. The muse (she called it “the muse” for lack of a better term) had left her after her second divorce; she’d attempted suicide, was rehabilitated through years of psychotherapy, and had been actively beseeching the muse’s return ever since. “But,” she concluded, hanging her head, “it might be gone for good.”
“You don’t know that,” Bubby insisted, taking her hand. “It’s a force beyond you or me; it comes from outside and moves inside, and you can’t know that.”
She tried for a smile to accommodate Bubby’s generosity.
“Harris couldn’t be dishonest,” she explained later, pouring coffees at her kitchen table to help mitigate hers and Bubby’s intoxication. “He couldn’t pretend. That’s partly why he didn’t make it. He lacked the capacity to be a faker.”
She lived with her mother, Bertha, who must’ve been in her late nineties. Bertha seemed to watch us with blurred milky-colored eyes, though Katie Belle said that she was blind. Bertha wore a long flannel nightgown and wandered around the brownstone ghostlike while we talked in the living room. She felt her way along the walls with bony hands. The top of her head had a giant cotton ball of frizzed hair.
“Mom,” Katie Belle called out, “go to bed. You’re scaring my guests.”
Bertha grimaced, and then continued her wall-creep.
“What about The Smoking Gun?” I asked, returning to our task.
“He doesn’t give up,” she said to Bubby.
But to my surprise, she left us and came back with a rubber-banded manuscript.
“Here,” she said, handing it to me, “I failed him before, and I won’t again.”
“Thanks,” I said.
“Now,” she said, taking Bubby by the arm and helping to lift him from his chair, “we have some business to take care of.”
She guided Bubby. He turned, giving me a quick look of alarm and anticipation, and then he resumed his straightaway path to her bedroom.
The door shut gently behind them.
Bertha joined me on the couch while I read to page fifty-six of The Smoking Gun, and then I skimmed the rest.
We didn’t speak, but she seemed appreciative of my company. At one point, she nodded at me—her milky eyes sharp and discerning (I don’t care if she’s blind, I know what I saw)—as if to say, that’s right, young man, even bad art has importance, even shitty art cries out into space, begs and pleads and shouts for help, so don’t judge anyone, don’t condemn, and don’t, whatever you do, let anyone read this tripe and make fun of a dead man.
Bubby returned solemn and with disheveled hair. I nodded toward his crotch-area and he thanked me, zipping his trousers. Katie Belle followed, in flowing silky robe and full makeup. She looked at Bertha and me on her couch, seeming to understand all that had transpired.
After putting Bertha to bed, Katie Belle returned and we discussed our next course of action. It didn’t take long for us to reach a consensus.
We followed Kate Belle to a barbeque pit in her back yard near a patch of daisies.
The Smoking Gun took awhile to burn, its pages shriveling, but it gave off decent heat. We warmed our hands and faces over it.