The World According to Teller

The World According to Charlie Teller
(From Teller: A Novel, by Frederick Weisel)
 
In March of that year, I saw a man named Paul Barkley shot to death. It happened late at night in the parking lot of a café in Santa Rosa called Galileo’s.

Every American autobiography, someone once said, is about one thing—escape. Look into the frightened heart of an American life, and you’ll find a compulsion to flee—a seed planted in the national character at the start by those ships sailing out of Europe and landing on our shores.

Aren’t autobiographies born in a question we ask ourselves: how did I get to this point? Don’t we look back over the path and tell ourselves a story? This is how it happened. This is who I am.

The problem with escaping is that we leave behind us, even among those we love, different versions of the truth and everything we couldn’t bring ourselves to say.

I lived that year on top of a wooden tower in an area east of Santa Rosa known as the Valley of the Moon.

As the chapters took shape, a change came over her. It was the double-sided recognition that this book, the last that she would write, might achieve esteem and success equal to her great novel, but that its emotional heart would lie in her own unhappiness for having failed to find the one thing she wanted. For the first time she was a character in her own writing, and her frailties and mistakes were trapped on the page by the beauty and unsparing focus of her prose. Towards the end it was a battle to finish a page. The story was the story she had told herself for decades, deep within her own mind, and now as it grew, line by line, on the paper before her, she wrestled with each turn in the path all over again, as if it were still possible to change its course with the power of her words.

If they’re together long enough, every couple has one conversation over and over. This was ours.

At first, he talked about the flowers in the garden behind his country house in Surrey. His voice still had its Midlands accent but was soft now and barely audible. He knew the plants by name and took a few minutes with each of them: ageratum, coreopsis, echinacea, rudbeckia. The yarrow, he said, had rose-red flowers on two-foot stems. Achillea millefolium, the plant Achilles used to heal wounds.

In an instant, I noticed his eyes shift slightly away from my face, to see behind me, and something crashed onto the back of my head, and I fell face down on the gravel road.
 
“Hey, bright boy,” a voice yelled. “What’s wrong? You fall down?”

Is this what it’s like to die? I wondered. I looked down and watched a small car traveling along an interstate. It seemed to move more slowly than my former earthbound sense of vehicle speed. Or, was that just the perspective? I could never remember the principles of physics, which were so simple and complicated at the same time. Then, in my dream, I thought: In the afterlife, would I be asking questions? Wouldn’t there just be answers? In that case, how was I, who had spent my whole life conducting interviews, asking a million stupid questions, qualified for this eternity? I looked at my arms. Were they as light as a minute ago? Physics again. It was difficult to know before you died what was important to learn.

There was an air of expectation in her office that day. We sat on either sides of a gleaming desk, cleared of everything but a pencil and a new legal pad, as if that was all that was needed for greatness to succeed.

Investigating a murder and ghostwriting an autobiography have a natural intersection in their reconstruction of a life. In a murder investigation, you start with the clues left behind by the deceased’s passage on earth. In an autobiography, you and your client stand over the corpse of a personal history, prodding it with your toes to hear the story it has to tell.

He was besotted with the possibilities of his own large hope. He was at once the star and the fan of his dreams, the wonder and the celebration of the wonder. The more he talked, the more he drew me in, and somewhere in my not protesting his generous assertion that we were already friends, I became his friend.

Kenny picked up the gun and fired three rounds in the direction of the sound. The gun’s explosion echoed off the rock walls. The bullets ripped through the brush, splintering the red branches and blasting puffs of leaves into the air. Shell casings clattered onto the tabletop.

The sun had already set behind the mountains, and the sky had been drained of color. The trellises of sauvignon blanc flowed down the hill in even rows toward the valley floor. Whatever I was looking for, it wasn’t outside. As far as I could tell, the grapes were minding their own business.

“He hit the gentleman in the nose. Broke it, I believe. Quite a lot of blood. More than you would think. We’ve only just cleaned it all up.”

Nico’s hair was combed straight up, stiff with mousse, the tips dyed the color of traffic cones.

Styles loved the frozen frames of time at the plate: the moment just before the pitcher’s release, the moment of the ball in flight toward him, the moment of his swing, and the moment of the ball climbing in the air. What he wanted most was to be inside one of those moments all the time.

He picked up a joint from an ashtray. He put it to his lips and inhaled, and as the smoke from the still burning joint curled in front of his face, he sniffed it through his nose.

Over the years, Skye sampled every drug she could find, and like many addicts, had a working knowledge of pharmacology. She snorted coke and swallowed pills. She took downers—orange and red Seconal, red and ivory Dalmane, Miltown, Librium, Luminal, Nembutal, and Quaaludes. Blue devils, red birds, purple hearts. Enough of them sank her in a kind of coma, where she watched her own limbs suspended in front of her in syrup. For a party, there was Benzedrine, rushing in her veins and making her talk for an hour in one long sentence. Day to day, she carried yellow tablets loose in her pockets, Dilaudid and Percodan, and chewed them in the back of classrooms. But her favorite was the greatest pain reliever of them all, named for the German word for hero.

The problem had been a young man. Skye thought he loved her, when in fact he wanted her heroin. It wasn’t his fault he kissed her—he probably kissed other girls. How could he know this girl would register his casual attention like one of those seismic meters capable of sensing minute tremors thousands of miles away?

Night by night, we lay together in that incautious, youthful love, where every gesture—the strength of her arms around me, and the gentleness of my own hand on hers—was charged with desire and the sweet equality of holding on and letting go. We were happy to be alone together, as if for a little while only the two of us existed, but there were also hints of the fragility of our acts, of the delicate supports that held us aloft, high above the trees, and the lightness of all the air below.

Among the photographs taken that day is one of Jill and me, in the dark cloisters behind the chapel. . . . Years later, it was hard to see it and not think how impossibly young we appear. We look, a friend once remarked, like we think we’re going to be happy.

Seth lay on a sofa. His large dirty work boots were defiantly planted on the sofa cushion, all his energy focused on smoking a cigarette, as if it were a job.

They’ve made love, I thought. Is that what all men think when they see their ex-wives with another man?

She leaned into me and rested her head on my chest. I’d like to say that warning bells went off in my brain, and I thought of the trouble that would come of this. But I didn’t. Instead I sat there, smelling her hair and feeling the rhythm of her breathing and was lost.

Anita Kleinman was a slight woman in her seventies. Her hair was thinning and white with a touch of pink, and was swept back from her face in unbroken waves. She wore a full-length Chinese silk gown covered with bright gold dragons on a blue background. Her fingers were tipped with long red nails and heavy with gold rings. She held out her arms in an expression of welcome and perhaps to show me the full extent of her dragons.

Sometimes, however much you plan, however many precautions you take, something happens, and in a minute the world is changed. After that, you’re the person on the other side of that minute.

But, whatever the magic, I wasn’t smarter than chemistry, and after a while, I heard two people talking in the empty room next door, their whispers coming out of the phone jack.

Sometimes we do terrible things to the ones we love just to see what harm we can cause.

The stoic face, the clockwork training, and the skins hid a frightened child. It was as though she awoke one morning and found the earth beneath her unreliable, as if she forgot how not to fall.

Then he smiled as if he had thought of something amusing. He came toward me, and I rose abruptly, tipping over my chair, and backed away from him. “Everybody in the pool,” he shouted. He grabbed me by the shirt front, walked me quickly backward to the pool’s edge, and hurled me in.

“What spares us is memory,” he said. “It’s what makes us worth saving. However low we sink, whatever promise we no longer fulfill, we tell our stories. That’s why you’re so important, Charlie. You’re a guardian of our national memory.”

She crafted her seduction to meet men’s expectations. She knew the meaning of each detail—a hemline inch, visible lingerie. On screen, her confident control of her allure led her to believe she could inhabit any character. “I can be anything you want me to be,” she once screamed at a director.

“Men are stupid,” she said. “They’re all fourteen-year-old boys, still surprised by their own erections. But once they have sex with you, most of them despise you for what they think you made them do. You ever notice, Charlie, how close sexual attraction and hate are? You arrange human feelings on a shelf, those two would be side by side.”

The thing about hitting bottom is that, in the middle of it, sometimes you don’t know if you’re really hitting bottom or just bouncing off ledges on your way further down.

“People are complicated,” she said. “Didn’t they teach you that in biography school?”

At Princeton, where there was no shortage of famous progeny, Reggie enjoyed a minor notoriety. Students pointed her out across a quad and took pleasure in repeating the story of her colonial family, and I believe she used her heritage to be first in line whenever nickel bags went on sale.

But what is all that East Coast propriety for if not for a circumstance such as this? I let myself be guided by her good manners.

Thirty-year-old trash lay in the hallways, graffiti covered the bathrooms, and brittle paper posters advertised concerts of long-dead rock musicians. At night, the wind blowing through the cracked windows and banging the Venetian blinds sounded like the rough-housing of freshmen, back from a late-night kegger.

“Do you know what the essential problem of the piano is?” he asked. He held me so his head was a few inches from my own. His eyes darted back and forth. “It is impossible to play continuously on a piano string like a violin. The problem is to sustain a note.”

There’s an old adage: the sensation of drowning reminds you of everything you ever knew about swimming.

“What’s he doing?” I asked.
 
“Not a lot,” Vincent said. “He’s dead.”

Of course, when you fall out of love, it’s rarely about just one failure or one betrayal, is it? . . . .
 
How does it happen? All those things you once loved about each other are replaced by other things that remind you of something you hate until you’re always setting each other off, and what you share is a battleground. In the end, the failure turns out to be less about sex—which surprises most men—and more about loss of respect. One morning your partner looks at you across the bed and wonders at the waywardness of her own heart—how, she asks herself, can she feel such disdain for someone she once felt such love?

“Take a seat, Charlie,” he said. “I’ll kill you in a few minutes. It’ll be good for you.”

What would I have said? Would I have told him that if we survive long enough, sometimes we reach a point where the ironies of our life pile up, and however hard we try, we end up fulfilling them? Or, would I have been infected by his own high hopes and said that anything is possible?

No single act is entirely redemptive, but all a fallen man has is the first step back.