Shriver - 003
The ballroom was packed for the afternoon reading by Gonquin Smithee. Shriver, seated toward the rear, among the students, leaned to the right to take some weight off his smarting behind—easy to do, with all the change weighing down his right coat pocket. This position also afforded him a better view of Simone, who sat in the front row, off to the side, her head cocked as she took in Ms. Smithee's words, her long yellow hair casually pulled over to one side and bunched at her shoulder. She glanced over and caught him watching her. Caught off guard, he did not even bother to turn away. She looked at him for a moment with an impenetrable expression, then returned her attention to Gonquin Smithee.
The poet wore a man's tailored suit, complete with necktie, her chiseled face framed by graying hair cut short and choppy. She read her work aggressively, each line like a stone hurled at the audience.
"Your eyes like an ice-cold speculum," she read from the podium, "pushing deep into the tender pink folds of my soul."
Earlier, just before his intestinal difficulties, while he was browsing through the books on the lobby table, Shriver had noticed the enthusiastic critical endorsements of Ms. Smithee printed on her book jacket. "A painfully honest exploration of survival." "Ms. Smithee plumbs the depths of emotional truth as she attempts to exorcise the demons that have possessed her." "These are gut-wrenching poems that do not flinch from the hard truths." Glancing through the pages, he'd noticed a number of poems concerned with rape and/or blood. The author's bio, accompanied by a rather severe black and white photograph, broadcast the information that she had been sexually abused by her father.
“She’s very intense,” someone whispered into Shriver’s ear. He turned to see Edsel Nixon beside him. Shriver had not even noticed the grad student sitting there. He’d been too busy watching Simone.
“Who?” Shriver asked.
“Why, Gonquin, of course. Who else?”
"Your hand as big as a vulture’s wing on my buttery skin," Ms. Smithee intoned. "Fingers long and hairy between the knuckles, their tips rough as a cat's tongue."
As Shriver attempted to digest the poetry—"Your cock," Ms. Smithee chanted, "tastes salty and smells of yeast and baby powder"—he was suddenly overwhelmed by the abrupt realization that he was in this strange room in a strange town full of strangers. Why on earth was he here? His heart pounded. Icy sweat erupted on his forehead. He wondered how long it would take him to get back home—to get to the airport, to fly half-way across the country, to take a cab to his building—if he walked out of here right now. He was sure he would die if his heart did not slow down.
He shut his eyes and thought of Mr. Bojangles, who was always able to comfort him at anxious times such as these. The cat would somehow sense his distress and come to him, leaping daintily onto his lap. Shriver would then stroke Mr. B.'s silky head and back, feeling the vibrations building up deep inside the animal. He had seen a program on public television about cats in which experts admitted bafflement about the origin of purring—how the noise is manufactured, and even where. It remains a pleasant mystery.
"Are you okay?" Edsel Nixon whispered.
Shriver realized that he'd been miming the act of stroking a cat.
"Fine," he said, shifting in his seat.
He made an effort to pay more attention to the poet's words, in case he would have to speak with her later on, at dinner. He wanted to be able to say something intelligent and, hopefully, complimentary, and needed a concrete example of her work to talk about.
"You have finally killed me, I thought, when you pulled out your blood-drenched sword," Ms. Smithee read from her book-length poem, Menstrual Show, "but then disgust spread across your face like a shadow, and I knew it was I who had somehow done wrong."
Shriver wondered if perhaps he should compliment her vivid imagery, but worried that this was not original enough for a writer as sophisticated as the real Shriver seemed to be. As he rehearsed to himself various plaudits—“I particularly enjoyed your comparison of semen to wood glue,” or “How did you come up with so many striking rape metaphors?”—Gonquin Smithee brought her performance to a well-received climax.
“Remember this,” she read. “Though I cannot murder you; though I will not yank the ragged fingernails from your hands; though I dare not take a razor to your dangling scrotum; my words will tear you limb from limb, and I, and thousands of readers, will applaud that some sort of justice has been served.”
After lengthy applause, during which Ms. Smithee stood tall and defiant at the podium, the poet asked if there were any questions. No one raised a hand. Shriver watched as Simone scanned the apparently stunned crowd. Seven hundred people, and no brave volunteers.
Simone stood and said, as loudly as she could manage, "Okay, I'll get the ball rolling."
How courageous she is, Shriver thought.
"Is it difficult," she asked, "to be so open about your personal story in these poems?"
Gonquin Smithee mulled over the question as if it had never been asked before. Then she leaned toward the microphone and said, "Yes."
There was a pause as the audience awaited further elucidation. None came. Shriver heard a few titters as people realized this. Simone, he could see, was worried. She now stood off to the side of the room, watching for any raised hands. Ms. Smithee, meanwhile, remained proudly at the podium, awaiting the next question.
"Come on," she said. "I won't bite you."
Several people coughed. Shriver felt sorry for Simone, who now seemed embarrassed. No doubt she had played up the audience participation angle to the author. She wiped a sheen of sweat from her brow.
Impulsively, Shriver raised his hand.
"Mr. Shriver," Gonquin Smithee said with an exaggerated nod.
How did she know who I am? Shriver wondered as murmurs spread through the crowd. He could hear his name being whispered all around him. He stood. Simone, obviously relieved and grateful, smiled encouragingly.
"What is the question?" Ms. Smithee asked. He thought he detected a hostile tone to her voice.
Shriver licked his dry lips and tried to think. He looked down at Edsel Nixon, who watched him with great anticipation. Out of the corner of his eye he caught the intense gaze of Delta Malarkey-Jones, who sat as if frozen in the act of taking a sip from a large soda. He said the only thing that came into his mind.
"Have you ever written a poem from the point of view of your father?"
During the long moment that followed, a truck could be heard backing up—beep, beep, beep—somewhere outside the building. Why he'd asked such a question was a mystery to Shriver. He knew nothing of literature, never mind poetry.
The poet looked down at him with an amused expression. "And why would I do that?"
Still standing, Shriver felt 1,398 eyes turn toward him.
He cleared his throat. "I just thought it might be interesting."
The audience buzzed.
"Any other questions?" Ms. Smithee asked, looking around the room.
Shriver glanced over at Simone, who did not meet his gaze. A woman in the rear called out that she, too, had been abused by a family member, and she'd written six hundred poems about it. Ms. Smithee responded warmly to this information.
When the Q and A had ended, a grateful Shriver followed Edsel Nixon into the lobby, where hundreds of people now loitered. A few smiled at him; others looked away, embarrassed.
From across the lobby, a man's voice.
"Shriver, you old devil!"
A middle-aged man in a cheap suit squeezed his way through the crowd. Rather portly, he wore thick glasses and a gray mustache that contrasted sharply with his brown toupee.
"You haven't changed a bit, you mischievous old s.o.b.," the man said, offering his hand. "Jack Blunt. Remember?"
Fate tapped a paradiddle on Shriver's heart. He tried to brace himself, but it was no use. This man knew the real Shriver. Here was the moment he was to be exposed. He braced himself.
"I interviewed you years ago,” Jack Blunt said. “Your book had just been published. We went out and tied one on." He laughed. "Jesus, I think I'm still hung over."
He doesn’t remember me, Shriver thought. Relieved, he said, "Of course. Blunt. That was a long, long time ago. I hardly recognize you."
"You look the same," Blunt said, sizing Shriver up through cola bottle glasses.
“Of course not,” the reporter laughed. “None of us do. Listen, how about an interview?"
"Oh, I don't know."
"This is a big occasion. Your first appearance in, what, twenty years? I flew all the way out here for this."
"I'm not really doing interviews, Mr. Blunt."
"And it's only appropriate you talk to me," the reporter persisted, "since I was the one who got to you first all those years ago, when you were a nobody. That was a big deal for you, Shriver. This will make for a delicious bookend. Plus I really need the break."
"But I don't have anything to say."
"Look, let's go to this little hole in the wall around the corner, I'll buy you a drink or two, and we can just shoot the shit. Off the record. Then you can decide. How about it?"
A drink sounded very good to Shriver, especially after that reading.
"I think there's a dinner thing planned," Edsel Nixon said. "With Gonquin and a few of the others."
"I'll have him back in time," Blunt promised.
"Will Professor Cleverly be there?" Shriver asked Nixon.
"Yes, I think so."
Shriver turned to the reporter. "I really must be back by…"
"Six," Nixon said. "At Slanders Restaurant."
"No problemo," Mr. Blunt said. "I'll have him there by then."
Nixon appeared troubled. "Mr. Shriver—Professor Cleverly will kill me if you get lost or anything."
"Time's a wastin'," Jack Blunt said, miming the tipping of a bottle to his lips.
"Don’t worry, Mr. Nixon," Shriver told his handler. "Tell Simone—er, Professor Cleverly—that I'll be there at six." Poor Nixon looked stricken as Blunt led Shriver down the stairs and out the front doors.
"Goddamn, it's good to see you, old man," the reporter said as they crossed the street. "To be honest, I thought you were dead."
"Where else would you be for twenty years? But the minute I heard you were appearing here, I made my plans."
Shriver had to skip to keep up as the fast-walking Blunt rounded a corner. The change in his jacket pocket jingled with each step, and mosquitoes buzzed noisily around his head.
"And that question of yours,” Blunt said. “Goddamn brilliant! How I despise the self-serving victim crap that dyke ladles out."
They came to a one-story cinderblock building, painted brown. On the metal door adhesive letters spelled out "THe BLoodY DuCk." Inside, thick, gray cigarette smoke fogged the room, though there was only the bartender and a waitress in the place, neither of them smoking.
Blunt led Shriver to a booth and called to the waitress for two double whiskeys. Shriver winced as he sat on the cushionless bench. Initials and names and slogans adorned the wood of the booth. Directly over Blunt's left shoulder someone had carved NOW THAT I’M ENLIGHTENED I’M JUST AS MISERABLE AS EVER.
The waitress brought their drinks. She had skin the color and consistency of alabaster, and green-apple eyes. She set the drinks down and walked away with the sultry air of a woman in a black-and-white movie set in a tropical bar frequented by mercenaries.
“Look at the kiester on her,” Blunt remarked. "Cheers." Blunt held up his tumbler and the two men toasted.
Shriver relished the heat that cascaded down his throat.
"What I want to know," Blunt said, "is what the hell you've been up to these past twenty or so years."
Shriver thought back over the past two decades. They were as hazy as the bar.
"This and that," he said.
"Have you been writing?"
Shriver patted the yellow pages in his jacket pocket.
"A novel? Stories? What?"
Blunt slapped his now-empty tumbler down on the table. "You're playing games with me, Shriver." He signaled to the waitress for another round. Shriver hurried to catch up with him, draining his glass and setting it down beside its companion.
"No games," he said.
"Alright. So tell me why you've been out of the spotlight for so long. Is it the ol' sophomore slump?"
"I guess so."
"I mean, the first book goes nuclear, millions sold, a buttload of awards—who could follow that up?"
The waitress delivered two more glasses of whiskey. Shriver drained his in one gulp.
"Still able to put it away, I see," Blunt said.
Shriver felt like a man in an airtight wetsuit slowly submerging into an icy lake.
"What is it you want from me, Mr. Blunt?"
“Just talk to me. Tell me where you’ve been, what you’ve been doing.”
“Why would I do that?”
"Oh, come on, Shriver. You need me now, just like you needed me then. You may be a star at this little dog and pony show, but out there"—he waved toward the wall and beyond, toward the rest of the world—"nobody remembers you. I had to explain who you were to my editor. The stupid twit."
"Then why bother to talk to me at all?"
"Because as ridiculous and self-serving as these little events are, it is a big deal that you're coming out of the woodwork, and it's a great opportunity for me."
"You want a scoop."
"Hell yes! And I can help you while I'm at it."
"Help me how?"
"By getting your name out there! And your face, too."
From his coat pocket Blunt produced a small camera, the kind a spy might use.
"No!" Shriver cried, covering his face. "Absolutely not!"
"Just one shot. No one remembers what you look like."
"They don't even put your photo in your goddamn books."
"Honest to God, Blunt, if you take a picture of me I will not speak to you at all."
"Oh, alright." The reporter slid the tiny camera back into his pocket. "Still cranky. That hasn't changed."
Shriver scratched at the mosquito bite on his hand. The waitress emerged from a wall of smoke with two more drinks.
“I’m a fan,” she said, then she turned and wiggled away.
“Yum yum,” Blunt grunted. “Play your cards right, Shriver, and. . .” His eyebrows flapped suggestively.
Shriver ignored him. The reporter eyeballed him over the rim of his tumbler.
“What is it?” Shriver asked.
"I'm on to you," Blunt said.
"What do you mean?" Shriver’s adrenal gland pumped madly away.
"You're up to something, old boy."
"It's some sort of stunt. I don't have it all worked out yet, but…"
Shriver's lips began to quiver a little.
"What I can't understand," Blunt said, "is why you would agree to attend this puny little conference."
"It's simple. They asked me."
"Is that all it took?"
"So you've been hiding away for two decades because no one asked you out?"
Shriver finished his drink. He could feel the alcohol seeping into his bloodstream. He peered through the fog-like smoke at the clock on the wall.
"Sorry, Mr. Blunt, but I really must go. I am expected for dinner."
"You haven't changed much, Shriver."
"You don't know how pleased I am to hear you say that. Thanks for the drinks."
"Any time. How about tomorrow? An on-the-record chat over lunch?"
"I don’t think so. Have a nice trip back home."
"Oh, I'm not going anywhere. I'll see you around town, old boy."
Shriver squeezed himself out of the booth. “Bye!” the waitress called out with a wave. “Come again!”
Shriver walked stiffly from the tavern, trailing a wispy tail of cigarette smoke.