Table of Contents
ALSO BY LORE SEGAL
Her First American
Other People’s Houses
BOOKS FOR CHILDREN
More Mole Stories and Little Gopher Too
Why Mole Shouted and Other Stories
Morris the Artist
The Story of Mrs. Lovewright and Purrless Her Cat
The Story of Old Mrs. Brubeck and How
She Looked For Trouble and Where She Found Him
All the Way Home
Tell Me A Trudy
Tell Me A Mitzi
In memory of my mother
and my Uncle Paul
salt of the earth
he stories in this book take place in a particular situation; they may have a chronology. There is a protagonist, some main characters and a chorus of minor ones, whom you don’t always need to tell apart. There is a theme: I was thinking about our need not only for family and sexual love and friendship but for a “set” to belong to: the circle made of friends, acquaintances, and the people one knows.
The immigrant’s loss of a circle of blood cousinships is only one example of a modern experience. I once did a poll of the American-born Americans of my acquaintance to see how many of them lived where they grew up. It seemed that only the natives of the northern suburbs of Chicago stayed or returned home. I had moved my own family there for the first two of the fourteen years I taught at the University of Illinois’ Circle Campus. My
mother, walking between the trim front lawns under a flowering of trees said, “How happy people must be who are happy here.” We moved back to Riverside Drive in Manhattan where anyone—transplanted Chicagoan, European, African American, Asian—might become a cousin, and I commuted to Chicago.
I want to translate Göthe’s
as “elective cousins,” the cousins we choose. I was thinking about the sometime-comedy of providing oneself with such a new set. How do we meet people we don’t know? How do acquaintances become intimates? And I was thinking of the sadness when we divorce friends and they turn back into acquaintances who are less than strangers because they can never become future intimates.
Novelists think by writing stories. I had a theme in search of a plot—another modern dilemma. I once allowed myself to be persuaded to turn my novel
Her First American
into a film script. The would-be producer plied me with scriptwriting lessons. They were very interesting. They said that in a good plot nothing happens that is not the result of what happened before or the cause of what happens next. I like reading stories like that, but I don’t write them because that’s not how life happens to me or to the people I know. The mental hunt for happenings and causes produces ever more stories: What if you had a dog who thought ill of you? Imagine a place and time when crime comes out of the dark into broad noon. What if we were forced to hear the sound of torture we know to be happening twenty-four hours a day out of our earshot? Odds and ends: I watched a salesman walk away from the man who had bought his first computer and was asking, What do I do now? And the old chestnuts: What if you love the person who loves you? What if you have ruined a friend? Each story created its own choreography, became fixed in its shape and would not always attach to what happened before and what was going to happen next.
I have known the state of grace in which everything I thought and heard and saw and read and remembered dovetailed into a novel. Here everything dovetailed into these stories.
I’m indebted to Jonathan Baumbach for the book’s title and to my Bennington student who explained the ways in which Jimmy could screw up on the computer.
New York City
MONEY, FAME, AND BEAUTIFUL WOMEN
omeone must have been saying something nice about Nathan Cohn, for when he walked in the door of the Concordance Institute that fine morning Celie, the receptionist, said, “Listen! Congratulations! Everybody is just tickled pink!”
Nathan said, “Well, thank you, thank you!” missing the moment when it would have been possible to ask, “Why? What did I do?” for here came Barbara, the institute’s archivist, down the stairs saying, “Here he is! The man of the hour!” She hugged Nathan and said, “It’s a real coup for the institute! Joe says to come up to his office and be congratulated.”
“Let me go and get my coffee,” said Nathan. “I can’t take congratulations on an empty stomach.”
Celie said, “Why don’t I bring you up a cup? Milk? Sugar?”
“Absolutely not!” said Nathan. “I’ll get my own.” The institute’s
style was democratic. It went without saying that the director, the members of the board, founders, fellows present and past—including the Nobel laureate, Winterneet—and the junior people—associates, student interns, administrative and secretarial staff—were on a first-name basis, except that everyone spoke of and to the black cleaning woman as Mrs. Coots.
“Barbara,” began Nathan, “listen, what on earth did I . . .” The good plain woman beamed at him and Nathan said, “How on earth did you hear?”
Barbara said, “Celie told me!”
Celie said, “Your wife called. She says, please call her the minute you get in.”
“Aha,” said Nathan. So that’s how the milk got into the coconut.
Now Nathan wished that he had turned around when Nancy came out onto the porch. Somebody must have called while he was walking the garbage round by the garage. As Nathan was getting into the car, the back of his head knew Nancy was on the porch. He could picture her standing there. She spoke his name but Nathan had already turned on the ignition, or took that moment to turn it on, thinking, I can’t hear her with the ignition on. At the corner the light was red. There had been that other moment in which Nathan could have, but had not, backed into the Stones’ driveway, had not reversed the direction of the car. The light changed and Nathan Cohn drove the ten minutes to Concordance University, parked behind the institute, walked in to be congratulated and made much of.
Nat Cohn was a bulky man with a heavy tread and an enthusiastic growth of very dense, very black beard. At forty-two, Nat was older than the associates, older than some of the younger fellows, the only poet among scholars. Eight years ago, when Winterneet received his Nobel Prize and retired from active participation in
the work of the institute, he’d proposed Nathan Cohn. Nat had been Winterneet’s student, and his second book of poems happened to have been reviewed that Sunday in the
Nat and Nancy had been married three years when they moved to the small university town of Concordance, in Connecticut. They were excited by this good fortune. The institute, one of the oldest of the genus “think tank,” was a beneficent organization that paid its members more or less a living wage to read and write and think. Loosely connected with Concordance University, the institute was housed on campus in the first president’s rococo residence, which it had long since outgrown.
Nathan walked, that fine morning, down the carpeted hall to applause from Betty Bennet and Jenny Bernstine, who had to make do with desks shoved out of the way under two carved archways. Betty, Joe’s executive assistant, confirmed that she, certainly, was tickled pink. Jenny came and kissed Nathan and said, “It’s a real shot in the arm for the institute!” Jenny was the wife of Joe Bernstine, one of the two founders; since Teddy, their youngest, had started school she helped Barbara out in the library. Jenny walked Nat into the kitchen.
The little kitchen looked out onto the first president’s rose garden grown wild. The great old downstairs kitchen had been turned into a mail and storage room. Acting Director Alpha Stone perched on the corner of the table pouring coffee for herself and Yvette Gordot into the blue-and-white mugs with which Jenny had replaced the cracked and handleless remnant of the first president’s Spode. The kitchen was the institute’s piazza, the forum where social and intellectual exchange took place, and coffee was always hot if not necessarily good. There was, as often as not, a batch of cookies freshly baked by one of the secretaries or wives.
The little cozy crowd stopped talking and looked very kindly at Nathan. Nathan understood that they had been saying nice things about him. It was a moment in which the heart in Nathan Cohn’s chest should have experienced gratification and disseminated it
into the bloodstream to be carried throughout the body like a good first wallop of whisky. But Nathan was doubly distracted by the aftertaste of his bad behavior to his wife, and by waiting to know what he was being congratulated for. Nat Cohn was like a man accosted by someone who calls him by his name, asks after his family—someone whose name he has forgotten, whose face he cannot recall having seen before. He was busy keeping himself from getting trapped and alert for clues.
“So when is it going to be?” asked Yvette. Yvette was the institute’s economist.
Nat said, “Nobody has told me any details.”
“There’s the traditional trip up the Hudson on the Crewbergs’ yacht. It’s supposed to be a charming event. Nancy will like it. You have a tuxedo?”
“Good grief,” said Nathan.
“You can rent them,” said Jenny. “All you have to buy are the shiny shoes.”
Now Professor Alvin Aye walked in and Jenny told him, “Nat’s won the Columbia Prize for Poetry!”
I won the Columbia Prize for Poetry! Nathan Cohn said to himself and felt the jolt of satisfaction. It took this form in Nathan Cohn’s mind: Sometimes I think I’m good—I’m better than anybody. Now the world is saying it. My friends hear the world say it. Maybe I really
? Now the heart in Nathan’s chest heaved and rasped in a way that, had the occasion not been pleasant, Nathan might not have recognized as pleasure.
And now Celie came to the door of the kitchen and said, “Your wife’s on the phone again.”
Nathan picked up his coffee cup and took the elevator up to his office. Nancy’s voice said, “What would it have cost you to put your head out the goddamn car window when you heard me calling you?”
Nathan said, “How could I hear you calling me when I had the goddamn ignition on? What did you want?”
“What do I want!” Nancy said. “What could I possibly want? Anyway I called to remind you to pick up a bottle to bring to the Bernstines’. I take it you’d forgotten we’re having dinner at the Bernstines.”
“Why should you ‘take’ any such thing?” said Nathan, making a note on the pad before him to cancel the racquetball date he’d made with young Martin Moses. “Any news?” he asked her.
“No calls?” Nathan asked her.
“Why? Are you expecting something?”
That’s when Nathan Cohn could have told his wife that he had won the Columbia Prize for Poetry, but Nathan’s mouth remained shut that moment and the moment that followed. Then he said, “One never gives up expecting
“Not me, not any more. Do me a favor and don’t be late again,” said Nathan’s wife.
“Right you are,” said Nathan. They both hung up.
When Nathan walked into little Joe Bernstine’s office, Joe stood up and came and shook his hand in the most affectionate way. “Sit down, sit down. The institute is going to pick up the tab for the round-trip for both of you, and the hotel. Have yourself a long weekend in New York.”