The following story first appeared as part of an extensive portfolio dedicated to the French author Éric Chevillard in Music & Literature no. 8.
M. R. James has written that “Not long before the war…” makes for a proper sort of opening to a ghost story. The idea, I presume, being that wars are occurrences of sufficient gravity, not to say regularity, that they remain always an identifiable yet ambiguous point of reference. To begin in this way is to say, “My little tale took place some little time ago, before our little lives took on their current ugly contours.”
Readers of my own era, however, and certainly of my own temperament, may find themselves doubting that the divine Montague, for all his contributions to the cause of nameless dread, could have anticipated just what terrors that noun would come to convey. With clearer foresight, he’d have known that even a casual mention of war might ruin any author’s chances of eliciting the pleasant, fireside, hot-chocolatey variety of creepiness with which we associate the tale of the irrational. A medical parallel might be “Not long before contracting agonizing cancer of the bowels…” Which is to say that there are situations and states of mind, depths of agony and anxiety, in which the threat of the weird registers as little more than frivolity.
The strange anecdote I’ve been asked to share in these pages did indeed take place “not long before the war.” In the light of what has befallen our nation since, I know that some of you will deem it hardly worth the telling. And yet, in case there may be something of value in it, even in an era such as ours, I here present my humble contribution to your festschrift.
I had taken a sleeper train over the late-autumn mountains back to my alma mater, a university blessed with an enormous endowment that had brought it, nonetheless, little pedigree, located upon the depopulated plains of our revolution-prone republic. (I won’t bother to mention the school’s name, since the current regime has long since salted the ground upon which my lucky generation spent its carefree youth.) The reason for my trip was a visit to my old classmate Steingartner, the novelist, occasioned by a summons from his wife of twenty years. Steingartner had been awarded a semester-long fellowship at the university, despite the fact that he’d never taken his degree, despite the fact that he was, as a rule, the least scholastic author conceivable. He affected to disdain the academy, reserved his most acid ire for students seeking degrees in so-called “creative writing,” and generally hewed to a “life is the best classroom” tack when asked in interviews to give advice for aspirants.
Only authors of renown received these fellowships: as a rule, the sort whose oeuvres were highly praised but who fell short of outright celebrity, and so remained more than ordinarily vulnerable to such fiscal temptations as grants, fellowships, endowments, and temporary professorships. All that was asked of such fellows was that they deliver a couple of lectures and make themselves available to the university community during assigned office hours; this in exchange for a significant emolument as well as room and board, gratis, for the duration of their stay, in a two-story Gothic-revival carriage-house located on the campus. Steingartner, a realist by temperament as well as profession, could hardly turn such an offer down, whatever his ideals: he had two teenaged daughters to support.
“It’s the sweetest gig I’ve ever had,” he told me at the station, insisting on carrying my bags to his rental car before insisting that we stop to have a drink on the way to his digs. Steingartner loved his liquor, it’s true; it was a part of his image, part of his charm. When we were at school together, he would come to my apartment at all hours, without calling ahead, and insist I join him at some local dive. He would buy me drink after drink and keep me out so late that there were occasions when I found myself kneeling by a pay phone in a puddle of fusty beer or piss, come three or four in the morning, weeping and calling my mother collect to make my last adieus: believing, in my stupor, that I would probably be dead before sunrise.
Not, mind you, because Steingartner was a dangerous drunk, or even unpleasant company, but because he was a devotee of “research,” a subscriber to the notion that one can’t write about what one doesn’t know, or hasn’t, oneself, experienced. On those endless excursions in search of the essential or authentic character of our prairielands, he would attract one after another parole-violating sex-offender, knife-enthusiast militiaman, heroin-peddling ex-marine, and other such characters, radiant with poignancy and equally as discomfiting, at least to yours truly. Steingartner was a magnet for these borderline types, despite having had a wealthy and protected childhood. He knew how to speak to people from every class and walk of life, egging them on, getting them to tell their stories. As for me, his sidekick, those livers of real life saw me as inert, at best. At worst, I was a target for their suspicions, their incipient wrath. I do not miss those excursions. I got nothing out of them but a closer acquaintanceship with my own cowardice. But Steingartner got a career.
His first novel, seven years in the making, begun at university and finished on a merchant marine vessel somewhere in the roaring forties, was about a cross-country trip in the presence of one of these “characters,” seeking to locate and join a cryptofascist militia. It was hailed as terrifying and prescient. His second novel, a further four years in the making, was about an intercontinental drug deal gone gruesomely haywire. Movies were made of each, and it was on the proceeds from those rights sales that Steingartner survived when his royalties were thin. His following grew, especially in those engagé days when it seemed we might have a future worth the living. And I should emphasize that I considered Steingartner a good writer. A very good writer. Though his books consisted exclusively of long stretches of dialogue between hard men and women speaking or fighting or fucking, I admired them, and him. That admiration was behind my decision to give up on my own creative writing, despite being awarded, with honors, the same degree in our supposed discipline which Steingartner so memorably abjured. I recognized, in the light of his accomplishments, that I was not cut out for the job. I set aside my ambitions rather than compete, and considered myself quite fortunate, later, to find work in our coastal capital as Steingartner’s editor, at the prestigious though shallow-pocketed publisher that made his name.
The Steingartner of the fellowship was older, thicker, redder about the eyes. There was white in his hair and he complained of joint pain; I sympathized and spoke of my herniated disc. His wife and daughters had been cohabitating with him at the carriage-house, but they’d left a week or two before.
“I think he’s losing his mind,” his wife had told me over the phone.
“He’s been nothing but upbeat when I’ve spoken to him,” I told her.
“We can’t stay in that house with him anymore. With it. Look, you should go out and do something for him. As his editor or as his friend. You’ll lose both the writer and the man if you don’t. See if I’m wrong.”
And I figured: a fling with a student, probably. The notorious mid-life crisis. It happens to the best of them. Nothing a little straight talk with an old friend wouldn’t cure. I was owed a vacation in any case. In any case, the demonstrations in my sophisticated city had been tending toward violence, of late.
Over a bourbon, Steingartner said, “It’s been weird for me over in that house. I can’t explain it, hermano. Just have to show you. That’s why I’m so damn glad you offered to come out and visit. I need a second opinion.”
I reminded him how often he and I had fantasized, as students, about being invited back to the school as fellows, fantasized about being handed the keys to the carriage-house, about being fêted by the faculty and the students, about preying upon the female population from positions of power (and I gave him my most reproachful editorial glare as I said so). In our eyes, in those days, there had been no better measure of having “made it” than to occupy the carriage-house.
“Sure and maybe,” said Steingartner. “But we never figured on the logistics of it. They’ve got writers in that place all year, every year. Think about the damage that does to a building. We aren’t exactly ‘house beautiful’ types. We piss all over the floor. We leave the drains clogged. We steal the sheets and bleed on the towels and get crumbs between the floorboards and leave empties to draw fruit flies and worse under the master bed. I mean, I found a piece of fossilized cheesecake behind the toilet. Behind the toilet. Like someone was sitting there about to have a bite when the phone rang, you know? It had to be years old. And that’s not the worst of it.”
I was sozzled but Steingartner still grim and focused when he took me around to the house and unloaded my bags. Preceding Steingartner into his wood-paneled foyer, I saw a horrible, sooty apparition skitter over the toes of my shoes, and commenced to shriek.
“That’s the worst of it,” called Steingartner.
The thing retreated into what I took to be the living room, hiding behind a maroon sofa and making an appalling, shrill, slurred, sirenlike sound that caused much the same sensation as a mild electrocution. Steingartner, coming in behind, dropped my bags and locked us in. He told me to calm down. It was only another of his predecessors’ leftovers.
“There was this damn Frenchman here,” he said, shouting over the din. “He didn’t even stay for the full semester, they tell me. Didn’t care for the food, the booze, the humidity. He left all sorts of crap around, and, hey, fair enough. This is the life we’ve chosen. But forgetting your own dog? Monstrous!”
A dog? I supposed it might be a dog. I felt an immediate antipathy for it. No less an antipathy than it developed no less immediately for me. It wasn’t until Steingartner fished the creature out from behind the sofa and held it to his chest that it left off its atrocious broadcast. Shivering in terror, it gave me the once over, and I it: a wide-eyed, pointy-eared bitch, jet black, about the size of a footstool.
“She hates strangers. She wouldn’t even come near me the first few days I was here. It was that noise, man, twenty-four seven. She shat in the attic and puked in the kitchen. After that, though, I guess Stockholm syndrome set in, and now I’m the only one she’ll kibitz with. I complained, of course, to the school, and some student came to try and take her, but she just made that noise again, and I finally had to shoo the kid away.”
I gave the creature my wrist to smell, but it balked. I was angered to see in her brown eyes that she had assumed I would strike her.
“And here’s the thing,” Steingartner said. “She cries when I take a shower, cries when I sit down to write, cries when I try to sleep! She demands constant attention. I can hardly see straight.”
“I’d assumed you were having more of a metaphysical crisis,” I told Steingartner. “It never occurred to me it might be a pest infestation. No wonder your family made a break for it.”
He was alarmed by my tone, even panicky, and he kissed the dog on its sharp head. As though acting under compulsion, I thought.
Since the carriage-house didn’t have a guest room, and its living area was notoriously drafty, Steingartner set me up a bed in his office, on the top floor: a room whose walls were covered with framed photos of the writers who had occupied the house in the past. It was an unnerving sight, but Steingartner was nothing if not self-confident, and I saw his typewriter, blank paper, and manuscript pages cluttering the surface of the venerable desk provided by the university. I fell instantly asleep, thanks to the booze, but then, with no discernable transition, was awake again. Gradually, I realized that what woke me was a low clicking noise in the corridor. It was the creature, loose, patrolling the halls. It didn’t like that there was a new human in the house.
Poor Steingartner! I thought. There was something unhealthy and uncharacteristic in his protectiveness of the creature. But I’d leave that conversation till morning. My primary concern was swallowing my resentment and getting back to sleep.
I crossed to the imposing desk and took up, with editorial entitlement, Steingartner’s drafts. I would read myself to bed, as I’d done as a child.
Steingartner’s book—the work he had been invited to our university to finish, free of material cares—began very much as did all his novels. There was a desperate sort of character, a speed freak, sneaking through an airport. He was hoping to make it past customs with contraband in his carry-on. Guns, who knows, or drugs (again). It was engrossing, fast-moving stuff, and made gifts to the reader of numerous passages of subtly unlikely but savory dialogue. I was enjoying the hell out of it, and marveling at the consistency of Steingartner’s output: repetitive, perhaps, but never poor. The night got away from me, and it was something approaching the witching hour by the time I reached the point in the manuscript on which my friend had been working when he arrived at the carriage-house. On the previous page, the speed freak had locked himself in a men’s room to do a few lines before facing up to customs. Then, things changed.
First, the number of typos increased fivefold. The pages reeked with effort rather than Steingartner’s usual fluency. I imagined him trying to type as the dog whined and clattered incessantly behind him, while, in the story, someone barged into the bathroom, interrupting the freak in the midst of a snort, leaving him to hustle into a stall, hoping he hadn’t been seen and wouldn’t be reported. Then another man came into the bathroom, blowing his nose. And another, hacking and spitting, and two others making out, and then a father with two young boys. The freak was, well, freaking out. He was trapped, powdered snot running out of his left nostril. A plane must have landed, a squadron of planes must have landed at the gates adjacent to this particular lavatory, all full of males requiring immediate relief. They were queued up outside the bathroom, these world travelers full of international urea, and the freak was plagued by a vision of a line of them leading off into a vast distance—an eternal fountain. Would they never leave? Would it never stop? Would he spend the rest of his life sitting on that toilet, listening to their wind?
Steingartner’s novel had come to a dead halt in an airport bathroom stall. There was no action. Just page after page of the freak examining the grout between the tiles on the floor of the badly maintained convenience. Page after page of the freak reading the graffiti on the walls of his stall. I flipped ahead to see how long it would be before Steingartner managed to extricate his smuggler from this very un-Steingartnerian situation, and to my alarm and amusement found that this scene lasted for the remainder of his two hundred completed pages. Worse, the freak began, in his imprisonment, to construct a lunatic mythology around the few sights and sounds that were his only stimuli—began to imagine that the inanimate objects in the bathroom were as alive as he. The hand-dryer spouted long and eloquent monologues “in a deep and breathy Irish accent” about the provenance of the air that it forced through its tubes and coils—who had breathed out what, and when: celebrities and criminals, insects and rodents. And did the freak know, for example, that the dryer was holding in reserve some especially deadly airborne bacilli, collected years before during an unsuccessful attack by insurgents, for deployment on just the right passenger, maybe a world or religious leader?
From there, the dryer began to wax grandiose: Air, after all, is the medium through which not only life itself but all communication, the stuff of our thought, all our words, is conveyed. The freak might never have considered it, but fans, hand-dryers, air conditioners, purifiers, and the like were thereby instrumental in modulating the discourse of humanity. They move the air that is our voice.
Well, what about paper, asked the freak, just to be contrary: what about writing on paper, isn’t that just as important to communication?
Paper! thundered the dryer. Paper is hardly worth speaking of, in this context, insofar as the history of life, the history of intellect; how could such a lowly product, mere litter, compete with the majesty of the very atmosphere of our planet? Speech came before writing; writing is only an imitation of speech.
To which the toilet paper rolls said “Nuts!” Writing perfects speech. Words aloud are the chaff; it’s paper that preserves what is valuable to man. And there followed a debate as to the primacy of air versus wood pulp insofar as the transmission of thought: the merits of silent, private, written authorship versus public, vocalized rhetoric. Soon the resin in the plastics of the floor and sink cabinets began to chant madly of the forthcoming reign of synthetics, in which both air and paper would become obsolete in the face of instant communication via silicon, at which the florescent lights took a turn burning the importance of electricity to cognition into the little freak’s brain … and so forth. A universe—a university—in a bathroom.
I’m too late, I thought. My man’s lost his damn mind.
The dog was sitting on his lap, in the little brass-fixtured kitchen, at breakfast the next morning. Staring at me with pinched malice, the creature, as Steingartner looked at her with what could only be adulation.
“Call the pound,” I suggested. “Call the exterminator. Who cares if it cries. Call France!”
“I worry about her,” he said. “I don’t want her to spend the night shivering in a cage. Or, Christ, she could wind up in a high-kill shelter. Hell no. I feel responsible for her.”
“It’s not your dog. The real owner is probably worried. The real owner probably wants it back.”
“Fuck him in the ear! He left her behind. And, hey, could be it’s because I can’t think straight, but I’m telling you, since this dog’s been around, I’ve had a real breakthrough. A breakthrough or breakdown. Half the time I’m excited and the other half I think my brain’s gone soft. My agent definitely goes with the second interpretation. I’m wondering what you’ll think.”
He had started, he explained, seeing story possibilities everywhere, and “Not only in those hard-asses and fuckups” whose acquaintanceships he used to cultivate. “Why shouldn’t a lamppost be a character, or a bowl of soup, or an abstract concept?” he asked.
“Or a dog,” I suggested, unkindly. He couldn’t have known I’d peeked at his manuscript.
“Or a character from a fairy tale,” Steingartner continued. “Or … anything at all. I could write a novel that didn’t have any characters in it … or a novel about trying to write that novel, and then a novel defending that novel!”
I squinted to see if his pupils might be dilated. “You aren’t on something, are you?”
“And I don’t know what to do about it,” he said. “I’ve got so many ideas I can’t make any progress on anything. It’s like I’ve been wearing a hood all my life and now can see the full horizon. There are whole ridiculous sagas waiting to be written, lurking in the junctures between every sentence, you know? Every moment, every scene, every line of the book I started out to write just teems now. And all I wanted was to write my little speed-freak novel. All I want is to hold myself together, feed my family, live my life, but I can see myself seeing myself trying to hold myself together … and I even want to write about that!”
He was elated, exalted, scared. The man I’d considered the epitome of majestic, concrete, sympathetic, even ideal masculinity, in life and art, had been humbled—or so it seemed—by a couple of weeks with a neurotic canine.
“Get rid of it,” I advised again. “And get some sleep. You’re delirious. You have a career and a family. It’s suicide, surely, to publish a novel about a lamppost or dog! Or to write a novel about writing that novel! People expect a certain sort of book from you. They look to you for real life, remember? I didn’t suffer through all those nights with killer shitkickers and militiamen for you to escape into fantasy when the sane world needs you most!”
But Steingartner only gave me a defeated shrug. In the silence that followed I looked again at his captive and captor. For the first time since my arrival, I thought I saw something other than fear or hate in the dog. Indeed, I thought I saw something other than a dog in the dog. I hadn’t noticed till then that one of its legs ended in more of a flipper than a paw. That there was a strange ziggurat of bone on its cranium, coming to a perfect point, which, along with its enormous triangular ears, bony triangular knees, and moist triangular snout, gave her more the aspect of a congeries of unrelated elbows than a coherent, natural animal.
And in the turn of her jaw—was that triumph?
“Whatever happened,” I asked, pusillanimously, making an appeal to first principles, “to life being the best classroom?”
Steingartner was scratching, dreamily, the bump on the creature’s head. “Sure thing,” he said. “I mean, it’s got to be, right? Life is the best everything, man. It’s all life, however we write it. Life is all there is.”
We let him publish the book, in the end, too dumbfounded, I think, to disappoint him. The reaction was predictable. While some few foreign critics hailed Steingartner’s new direction, the most influential of our local papers came back with variations on the sentiment that “Seeing what is happening in our country, to write as Steingartner now writes, in times such as ours, is tone-deaf privilege at its most insidious.”
His wife stuck with him, somehow. His readers did not. He’d made himself irrelevant. He was painted as a deserter. He vanished from bookshelves, from the public consciousness. He wasn’t even important enough to be banned, when the bannings came, and, in time, he died, as writers will. Frankly, I was surprised that anyone remembered him well enough to bother asking me to repeat this weird tale of mine.
I wish I could say that I believed one thing or another. That the original Steingartner was right, the later Steingartner deluded (or vice versa). That the original Steingartner was doing the Lord’s work, while the later Steingartner lost his way (or vice versa). To honor his confusion, what I tell myself is this: what he gave us was what there was for him to give.
And if you need a moral, how’s this? That damn Frenchman really ought to come and get his dog.
Reader, she followed me home.
Jeremy M. Davies is the author of two novels, Rose Alley and Fancy, and a book of short stories, The Knack of Doing. He is an editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Banner image courtesy of the author.