I n October of 1988 I took a short trip to Paris—a very short trip, as it happened. I was on the ground in France for less than seven hours, at least two spent in cabs getting out of, then back into, DeGaulle. Another big chunk of the day consisted of four separate stints of waiting on or taxiing across rainswept tarmacs. Although I never saw a mountain, I crossed the Alps twice in nine hours.
I was a guest that fall of the Rockefeller Foundation, which maintains the Villa Serbelloni in Bellagio, Italy, as a conference and study center. People come to Bellagio from all over Europe to check out the alpine vistas and terraced lakeside gardens. The short fondamenta consists mostly of ferry docks, outdoor cafes, clothing and souvenir shops, and hotels. Villa Serbelloni sits several hundred feet up the hill from all this, at the tip of a thumb-shaped peninsula called Il Punta Spartivento, the point where the wind is divided, and, not incidentally, where the three arms of Lake Como converge.
The room Ellen and I were assigned, No. 9, was on the top floor of the villa, high enough above the town that I felt comfortable standing naked in front of the floor-to-ceiling window, especially when it was open and the south wind was being divided. Our bedroom and bathroom windows faced south, with views of both the Lecco and Como arms. During our five-week stay, we must have had twenty-five days of sun, which gave first the Lecco arm a blindingly platinum glitter, and then, as we got dressed for dinner, the Como. Sunsets, obscene to begin with, were luridly doubled. But the moon made the water blaze even more piercingly, since the mountains and sky remained black. Except for, on clear nights, le stelle. Ellen, for her part, preferred to gaze out mostly clothed. Almost ten weeks pregnant, she told me she was “gladder” than she ever had been in her life. We both were. I’m so glad, I’m so glad, we giddily sang in the big glass-doored shower, watching the sun going down over Switzerland. I’m glad, I’m glad, I’m glad…
Twenty-six hundred years ago Celts built a stone fort at the top of the promontory, and remnants of two of its walls can still be distinguished as ruts. Virgil and Catullus refer to the place, as well as both Plinys, who had a summer home, the Villa Pliniana, on the site in the years just after Christ was born. The younger Pliny called the steep, rocky promontory Tragedia, after the stiltlike shoes worn by Greek tragic actors. The present villa was commandeered in 1943 by the S.S., who deployed it as R and R quarters for Luftwaffe pilots. Mussolini and Clara Petacci hid out nearby before he was captured by the partisans and executed by a one-person firing squad. Ella Walker, the whiskey heiress, had purchased the villa in 1928 and refurbished it after the war. When she married the crown prince of the Thurn und Traxis family of Duino, she came to be called Her Serene Highness, Ella, Principessa della Torre e Tasso, although given the source of her fortune Rosso e Nero may have been more appropriate. She died in 1959 having bequested most of her property to the Rockefeller Foundation, whose president that year was Dean Rusk. We are eyeball to eyeball, he famously stated, referring not to the Principessa but, three years later, to Khrushchev, and I think the other fellow just blinked. It was Rusk who decided the villa should be used as a haven for artists and writers and scientists.
Being the primo alpha hangout required those parts of the villa not surrounded by water to be sequestered from the Bellagio proper with handsome stone walls hung with ivy and sturdy iron gates topped with spikes. Residents were presented with keys attached to small flashlights and oval medallions engraved with a globe encircled by the foundation’s motto, The Well Being of Mankind Throughout the World, but there wasn’t any reason to leave. All meals, goods and services were provided, all snacks and beverages. Grappa! Persimmons! Huge, juicy figs from the orchard. Much pasta. Newspapers, magazines, books. Pre-stamped postcards. Pencils and pens, ritzy stationery, unlimited reams of typing paper—slightly longer and narrower than American paper, and on which my poems, I thought, looked more sleek. An IBM Correcting Selectric. (Only scientists worked on computers back then.) Thirty-five straight days on which you didn’t have to cook or do dishes. Or shop. If you didn’t want to interrupt your writing for panza al fresco back at the villa, the kitchen staff packed you a lunch to take to your studio. Thermoses of coffee or tea could be ordered for delivery with mid-morning snacks.
An issue of some concern among the fellows and spouse-equivalents, especially during the first several days of their residency, was whether the splendor of the place could be less a catalyst than a distraction. An ancillary point was often averred—that such patrician extravagance could even be rather distasteful. I often politely agreed. Though it made us all nervous when staff members ran to answer a summons from Lucia Giorni, the dark-eyed, imperious assistant director. Even resident fellows weren’t safe from her wrath. On the rare occasions when Lucia’s team lost at bocce, the winning team’s members had reason to fear their supply of firewood, or even the electricity to their studio, might be mysteriously cut off, or worse—they might not be invited back ten years hence.
About half the guests, especially ones with reduced mobility (or enhanced immobility, as Beckett would put it), had studios attached to their bedrooms. This was the arrangement I’d hoped for before I arrived, though I hadn’t made a formal request. My office at home is around the corner from our bathroom and upstairs from the kitchen, so I was used to feeling covered both coming and going. Lucia, however, assigned me a studio a quarter of a mile down the hill, in a grove of chestnut trees that would serve, I inferred, as my bagno. Il Polenta, she told me they called it. During a famine that lasted from 1815 to 1817, Alessandro Serbelloni employed an army of workmen to build the pathways, tunnels and terraces surrounding his villa. My studio had functioned as the “stand” from which his workers were served bowls of cornmush, probably fortified with garlic and tomato, before they trudged the rest of the way up the path with their loads of fieldstones and gravel.
The ground floor had an overstuffed reading chair, a working stone fireplace, and three bookshelves empty except for a mildewed Webster’s New Collegiate and two rolls of carta igienica. Upstairs were the desk, IBM, more empty bookshelves, three windows. The north windows on both floors faced across the water to the fishing village of Varenna. Beyond Varenna was the Lario arm of the lake, the deepest fresh water in Europe. In some lights the water was steely gray-blue, in others matte sable, titanium sapphire, turquoise pastel. When the north wind was up it was slate ripped by whitecaps. The jagged granite mountains also changed color and dimensionality as the sun arced across them. In postcards I mailed to the States their peaks were capped with snow, but the month I was there they were gray—light black, as Beckett would have it. The views were postcard-caliber by any standard, but to a Midwesterner like me they looked downright unnaturally vertical.
I wrote two decent poems in those rooms: “Punta Spartivento,” one of my very few landscapes, and, of course, “Il Polenta.” I also drafted the first fifteen stanzas of my (still unfinished) Laurie Dann poem, “Hubbard Woods.” Ellen and I had some shiveringly romantic sex in them, too, though I never wrote a poem about it. Afterwards I’d restoke the fire and down both our portions of the local pinot grigio as we feasted on grilled yellow peppers or tuna panini. One day we even fucked twice. We’d been told by Willa Hewer, Ellen’s gentle but frank gynecologist, that intercourse was “altogether permissible.” (So long as it was frank but gentle, I inferred.) Ellen was taking an elaborate regimen of zinc, folic acid and vitamins, and reading What to Expect When You’re Expecting, which confirmed what Dr. Hewer had told us.
Leaving or entering the studio, we could hardly help squashing ripe chestnuts with our heels into pulpy white mash. Ellen kept threatening to dig up a recipe for polenta della castagnaccia, or, failing that, to concoct one herself. Unfortunately, she never got around to it. But chestnut polenta did make it into the poem.
When we did eat lunch in the villa’s diningroom, the conversation tended to revolve around Ellen’s pregnancy. Names, due date, morning sickness, circumstances of conception, intensity of glow, gender preference (and various other cravings), sweetness and patience of obstetrician or midwife. Or husband. Whether it was safe to occasionally—now and then, once in a while, sometimes, seldom, never—have a small glass of wine with a meal. Ellen’s position was that if drinking a lot had been proven to compromise brain development, and no one could draw the line saying how little caused none, she wouldn’t touch even one drop.
“Right own, girl,” said one of the spouse equivalents. “That’s a Sixties expression that means, ‘I agree with you.’”
“You only stay pregnant nine months anyhow.”
“Hey, what’s this about ‘only’ nine?”
“Though you shouldn’t really imbibe while you’re nursing…”
Of course not. Of course not. Of course not.
“Of course not.”
“But I do feel a little unfortunate being knocked up in the land of barolo and frascati.”
“But mille fortunati not to have to abstain from this mindbending tagliatelle.”
“No way,” Ellen said. “This girl is eating for two—just as Vinci is drinking for three.”
“Maybe four,” I’d chime in, and then swig. Since guests came and went on a rolling schedule, and most of our meal partners changed every day, it was safe to recycle a joke.
“If a little dolcetto makes me feel even half this prolific and silky, I may as well have one more sip.”
“Hey, isn’t that Zeno’s paradox?”
“It is. Allows one to drink wine forever—an infinite number of glasses. Speaking of Svevo, does anyone here have a cigarette? It’s for Ellen, of course…”
“I thought she said Zeno…”
“Italo Svevo. Wrote that novel about the guy who couldn’t quit smoking.”
“La Coscienza di Zeno.”
“That’s the one.”
I’d go out onto the patio and smoke one with one of the women.
The issue Ellen and I didn’t joke about, or even bring up, was how lucky we felt that Ellen was pregnant at all. The location and extent of her endometriosis had reduced the likelihood of conception by at least eighty percent. Surgery, motility testing, thermometers, calendars, making love seven times in three days—somehow, in the end, we got lucky. Having undergone a pair of laparoscopies and spent three years trying despite hellacious dyspareunia, plus knowing that the endometriosis now predisposed her to a greater likelihood of miscarriage, Ellen was basically tiptoeing around the Villa Serbelloni with her fingers and toes and her heart crossed. The pain during intercourse she’d experienced before her surgeries had diminished even more now that she was finally pregnant. (It sure hadn’t helped make it happen!) Between ourselves, kneeling half naked in front of the Il Polenta fireplace, our joke was that dyspareunia was better than no pareunia at all. And it was.
Afterwards Ellen pressed my ear to her belly. She was sticky with semen and sweat and persimmon juice, and all I could hear was the crackle of the fire and a vague digestive gurgle. The bulge below her navel was barely discernible, about the size of a pancake, but hard underneath and slightly off-center. I kissed her—her and what was inside her. We’d already pored over the astonishing Lennart Nilsson photographs in A Child is Born. The ones for Six Weeks showed the embryo floating like alien scampi in the transparent sac of cloudy amniotic fluid. Arteries and capillaries of the oversized brain clearly visible, miniature elbowless arms held up in front of the head as if for protection, ending with short pale webbed fingers. And eyes! And a tail! According to the captions, the thing was a quarter-inch long at this point. By the end of the month it would be twice as big. The lenses of the eyes were developing. Could it hear us, I wondered, or sense us in some other way? It didn’t even have ear holes yet, let alone ears, but maybe its face could feel sound waves—the way light could be sensed with your eyes closed, or seen, with them open, from past the far curve of a tunnel. As glow.
“Anything?” Ellen asked. She’d been humming and stroking my ear.
“Something.” I kissed her again. “Absolutely.”
Ten days after we arrived at the villa, Barney Rosset called from Long Island to insist I come to Paris the following afternoon to meet Samuel Beckett. Barney would be over there anyway on publishing business. I told him I’d love nothing better but doubted I could get away from the villa, let alone afford last-minute plane tickets. Ignoring all this, he repeated his invitation. “Have us some lunch and meet Sam,” he practically shouted, his voice disappearing from moment to moment, blinking out over the ocean. “Just get Royal Hibernian over king gay Paree!” Although he had called me in Bellagio, I had the impression he thought I was still in Chicago. But wherever I was, it wouldn’t have made any difference.
“It’s gotta to be tomorrow?”
“Gotta be, Vinci. Poor snot feeling so hot. Though he complains about anything.”
I was used to Barney’s impulsiveness, his breezy contempt for the merely practical. Six hundred bucks worth of plane tickets for a two-hour visit? Next question. Barney was eminently comfortable working on an ad hoc, last-minute basis—was proud to, in fact. On the other hand, since the moment three years earlier when he and his wife Lisa had signed me up at Grove, I’d been after them to help me meet Beckett. So what was I complaining about? I had dozens of reasons to feel overjoyed to be on their list, but none thrilled me nearly as much as sharing an editor and publisher with Samuel Beckett. Not that Barney could alter so much as a comma of Sam’s. But now he was telling me the century’s greatest poet of dying was dying himself, and this would be my last chance to meet him. Barney had named his second son Beckett. I was planning to name my son Sam.
The rules of the Rockefeller Center could not have been clearer. They invited you to one of the most beautiful places on the planet to work on a project, as well as to mingle with scholars, musicians, policy wonks, government officials, and scientists. Your time during the day was your own, but between seven and nine in the evening they asked that you put on a jacket and tie to break bread with your distinguished fellow fellows. The fourteen-page information sheet they’d sent along with the original invitation spelled out the policy. “Once at the Center, we expect guests to remain in continuous residence including on the weekends.” A week before our flight, I got a letter from Lucia in which the policy was pointedly, if subtly, reiterated. “We expect you will find that the uninterrupted time for reflection and exchange minimizes the temptation to tour.” Milan and Lugano were an hour away, Venice, Bologna, Tuscany, Provence and the French Riviera all within an easy day’s drive. Who wouldn’t want to visit these places? I had little doubt that Lucia and Paolo were forced to entertain an endless succession of whining requests for an exception to be made. Mi dispiace, but it’s the opportunity of a lifetime, so won’t you suspend the rules just this once, per favore?
Twenty minutes after hanging up with Barney, I arrived outside the director’s office not knowing what I would say. I hadn’t even talked yet to Ellen. And if I couldn’t live up to a more-than-reasonable expectation in the face of such vast generosity, what kind of dude did that make me? Yet I didn’t see how I could possibly not go to Paris. Either way, I’d be looking a gift horse.
Paolo’s office had Renaissance tapestry on the wall, a fire crackling aromatically in the hearth, a view of the Lecco arm with the Grigne massif behind it. On top of one bookcase, alongside two cacti, were half a dozen framed photographs. All but one were in color. The black-and-white pictured John Kennedy sitting in the passenger seat of a nondescript sedan, being mobbed by grinning and waving Italians. There is lust in the eyes of the women. Kennedy’s window is rolled down and a man in a dark short-sleeved shirt has reached into the car; his hand is actually clutching the president’s wrist. Kennedy appears tickled pink by all the attention. I remember that his tie and lapels seemed amusingly narrow to me in 1988, whereas now they’d be quite fashion forward, along with his tan and the haircut.
When I asked Paolo where the photo was taken, he explained that Kennedy had come to Bellagio in 1963. “On the very last day of giugno,” he noted millennially. Kennedy had made state visits to several European cities, including West Berlin, Dublin, and London. In Rome, an audience had been scheduled with Pope John XXIII, but the pope wound up dying before they could meet. Kennedy suddenly had a problem on his hands. He’d already landed in Rome, but his attendance at a papal memorial would make him appear unduly in thrall to the Vatican, as had been widely predicted he would be during the 1960 campaign. Dean Rusk, who was now Secretary of State, persuaded his boss to lay low at the Villa Serbelloni instead, as a guest of Rusk’s old foundation. The resident scholars and artists were evacuated to a hotel. “Even our director, John Marshall, was invited to leave by ’is advance team.”
I asked him what Jackie had thought of the place, gesturing to the view out his window.
“Mrs. Kennedy did not accompany ’im at all to Europe. She must stay ’ome with their children.” He paused. “But your president did not sleep alone.”
He allowed my deep shock to sink in, and I tried not to smirk. But the more I thought about his use of the second person, the more it sounded like an indictment. Of me. Or maybe it was just all Americans.
“Which room did he sleep in?” I finally asked, hoping he’d say No. 9.
“I do not know. If you like, Vince, we ’ave a short film of your president ’ere in Bellagio, from the television.”
“By all means, Paolo. Please. Molto grazie. That would be wonderful.”
He straightened the picture of Kennedy. “The man in this photograph may be the last alive person to reach inside the car of and to touch the American President.”
I looked again, hard, at the man reaching into the car, this time assuming it had to be Paolo. He was featured, after all, in most of the other photographs. It was prominently displayed in his office. The man in the black-and-white picture had a more intact hairline, but that had been twenty-five years ago. They both had the same beaklike nose. Like Beckett’s, I realized. Yet the obvious question seemed, at that moment, unaskable.
As Paolo opened his appointment book to block out a time to screen the old footage, Lucia pushed open the door and told him lunch had been served. She nodded and smiled in my direction, but she was clearly pissed off about something. Because I’d gone over her head? While she and Paolo conversed for a moment in heated Italian, I gathered my thoughts, attempting to formulate an acceptable proposal. Perhaps I should make it to both of them—now, simultaneously, looking from one to the other, making eye contact with each of them fifty percent of the time, although maybe the hierarchy dictated the eye contact should be, say, sixty-forty… Above all, I wanted to avoid embarrassing either of them by requesting an off-villa sojourn in front of the other residents at lunch. Asking in private seemed the likeliest way to get the response I was after.
Lucia left the room too abruptly—I remember she was wearing a short, crisply pleated grey kilt—for me to ask both of them. As soon as the door closed I more or less blurted out Barney’s proposal and offered to fly up to Paris and back the same day. I would leave before dawn, return before sundown. That way I wouldn’t miss even one cocktail hour or dinner. I must have been hoping Paolo would deem a one-day roundtrip so utterly inefficient and ridiculous he’d give me, along with his blessing to stay overnight, the name of his favorite Left Bank hotelier.
He immediately agreed that I should go. “What an opportunity! Beckett!” But he still seemed distracted by something Lucia had told him. “My God!…”
“He’s the man,” I admitted.
He opened his door. I stood up. Because of the look on his face, I doubted my previous expression made sense to him, and so was trebly surprised when he said: “I know twenty people ’oo would kill to be able to meet ’im.”
I coughed. Wouldn’t a murderously rare opportunity dictate a pause in the rule? “Ventuno,” I managed to say.
“Of course. You are, Vince, so lucky.”
“I hoped you’d see it that way.”
“I studied for one year, do you know, at the Sorbonne. In nineteen and seventy-six.”
“No, I didn’t…”
As we strolled toward the diningroom he quizzed me about Beckett’s health, stopping to jot down the names of two restaurants in Montparnasse. He even offered to have the Center’s travel agent make the arrangements, an offer I gratefully accepted. One of his drivers would take me to Linate airport and pick me up upon my return.
It was settled.
I left before five the next morning. The cost of the ticket was crazily exorbitant, something like eight hundred and fifty thousand lire, but I told myself Beckett was worth it. Ellen and I would have virtually no other charges on Visa for thirty-five days. We’d budgeted for daytrips to Milan and St. Moritz, and those would have to be put on hold. But the most difficult question was whether Ellen would accompany me. She’d never been president of the Samuel Beckett fan club, and she’d spent time in Paris before we met, but those weren’t really the issues. Two roundtrip tickets would have come to eleven hundred dollars. Plus four lengthy car rides, two international flights, four customs gauntlets—for a woman in the first trimester of her first pregnancy, it was all just too much of a muchness. Even so, I still wished she’d come with me.
The driver, Roberto, was the same one who’d picked us up at Malpensa ten days earlier, but he didn’t seem to remember me. (There’d been another Rockefeller couple in the limo, and I’d kept my Bulls cap pulled down, trying to sleep during the two-hour drive.) He didn’t speak very much English, though he managed to identify for me the series of young women standing in the rain by the side of the road, some of them next to small trailers. “Prozetitutes,” he said, using the English word. He insisted two times, once in English, that none of these women were Italian. “Zingaro francesi,” he said. “L’Africani. L’Albaniani.” He pointed to his wedding ring and shook his head sternly.
Linate was older, more frayed, than Malpensa, but my ticket was waiting, as promised, at the counter, and customs was easy. The plane was an elderly 727 crammed with French and Italian businessmen. I thought I could tell the Parisians from the Northern Italians by their voices and coloring, but it was the Milanese dudes who really stuck out—leonine haircuts, Armani, exquisitely tooled leather satchels. I believe it was on this plane that I beheld my first cell phone. James Baldwin’s outstanding title Going to Meet the Man fizzed semi-relevantly up through my brain, like a jingle that won’t be dismissed. We left the gate on schedule but spent forty-five minutes on the tarmac waiting to be cleared for takeoff. I felt guilty for leaving the villa, for not bringing Ellen, and spacey from not having slept much. I found myself idly wondering how much the prostitutes charged. Did they work for themselves or have pimps—and, if so, what was the split? Beckett was stabbed by a pimp, Robert Prudent, in 1937, as he was attempting to extricate himself from relationships with Lucia Joyce, Peggy Guggenheim and (probably) one of M. Prudent’s poules. He met his future wife, Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil, while recovering from his wound in the hospital…. A delay of this length on so short a trip seemed profoundly absurd. If I arrived too late at Barney’s hotel, he might think I’d canceled and go on to the hospice without me. The pilot explained at least twice what the problem was, but only in rapid Italian and even more rapid French. I was indeed going to meet the man, Samuel Beckett, but it is only in retrospect that all the waiting I did on that day seems germane.
As I waited to fly up to Paris that morning, waited for the snack to be served, to descend through more stormclouds, deboard and clear customs, for the Algerian taxi driver working behind the dysfunctional wiper of his ratty Peugeot to brake, honk, brake, curse and accelerate his way through the rain across Paris at a cost of some four hundred francs, I barely had published two books. And for most of that miserable trip, both of them sat in my lap. Having agonized all night about how to inscribe them, I’d decided to leave them unsigned. The first, Torque, was actually more of a chapbook (with a godawful “illustration” of the title on the cover), brought out in 1979 by Alexis Lynch Press in Urbana. Book out of print, press defunct, R.I.P. to the both of ’em. My second book, Wedding Preparations in Beringia, was—is, damn it, is!—a 129-page, 2307-line poem about getting married at the Arctic Circle midway between Russia and Alaska as the cold war is fizzling out. Bird nerds, Tlingits, Aleuts, Haida, Star Wars, the Pribiloffs, Nunivak, eagles and grizzlies, Da Bears, double entendres on latitude and longitude, wheat futures, Bering and Kafka and Reagan and Gorbachev, love… It has everything. It was probably the sexual dimension of the poem—middle-aged groom shares narrow bunk with lusty young consort—that appealed most to Barney. He and Lisa had seen sections of it, under provisional subtitles, as they came out in The Paris Review, The Atlantic (where Part I, “Dead Reckoning,” first appeared) and some smaller magazines. Barney called up to offer me a contract as the typescript was making the rounds of the usual presses and contests. (It had never occurred to me to submit it to Grove.) When the book came out in September 1985, Barney ran a quarter-page ad in the Times Book Review, something almost unheard of for poetry. He and Lisa and Ira Silverberg made sure it got reviewed, too. That it was published by Grove in the first place helped make it a little notorious, and most of its issues and politics were timed serendipitously. In October it was named as a finalist for the National Book Award. Although Sharon Olds eventually won in November for The Dead and the Living, I got a check for a thousand dollars, my name appeared yet again in the Times and other good places, and the famous NBA open-book emblem would still be embossed, albeit in silver, on the front of the paperback. Ed Hirsch, Sandra Cisneros and Barney wrote letters that yielded a Guggenheim, a Shifting, and the Bellagio residency. Pritzker gave me tenure and promoted me to associate professor.
Since then my stock has spiked downward. I’m tracking decidedly bearishly, as my colleague Charles Deakin has put it in his mock Harvard accent. (Prosers with Hollywood options can afford to be snotty, I guess.) I still get invited to summer conferences and autumn colloquia, and I give about a reading a year. Seven shortish poems from what I hope will be my third book have come out in A (or A minus) list magazines, but right now I don’t have a contract. I do, however, continue to be listed in a prestigious Who’s Who put out by the International Biographical Centre in Cambridge, England, and am annually invited to update my entry and purchase a leatherette-bound copy for only L89.70, plus postage and handling.
In 1986 Ann Getty and Lord Weidenfeld—an appropriately monikered duo if ever there was one—bought Grove Press from Barney, leaving him with the impression Ms. Getty was simply providing Grove with an infusion of cash and that Barney would continue to run things. She’d written a poem about Barney and Grove, after all, and Barney had hired her son. Who could imagine bad faith? So that when a few months after the contract was signed Barney was fired by Ms. Getty’s henchmen, he was more than a little surprised.
As a non-Nobel Prize-winning poet, I was handed over to a decidedly junior senior editor named Earlie Sydney, who went out of her way in a letter to let me know how much she “admired” my work and who less than a year later was proffering a generous discount on remaindered copies of the paperback Wedding. Evergreen indeed! In September it will be eleven years since my last book came out, two since Ms. Sydney turned down my third, citing “timing” and “marketing exigencies.”
When I finally got to the Hotel PLM, Barney was waiting for me in the lobby. As always, he looked amazingly studly for a guy in his middle sixties. Cheekbones, strong chin, fierce blue eyes, about two percent body fat sleekly clad in black Levi’s, black turtleneck, black leather jacket. Just your typical Jewish Catholic anarchist millionaire porn-pushing Nobel Prize sort of guy. His big, veiny hands were holding a bottle of Jameson, and he told me we had to leave now. We went back outside and caught another taxi.
“Ellen is pregnant and happy, and happy to be in Bellagio. She says hi to you and Lisa, and to Beckett. Where’s Lisa?”
“Don’t ask,” he said, laughing. He shouted directions to the driver, who seemed to have his own ideas about how to most quickly reach the hospice. I could see through the streaky glass that we were on the boulevard Raspail but had no idea in which direction we were, or should have been, headed. I hadn’t been in Paris since my third year of college, and I’d only stayed three or four days. We rocketed past a parked white police van, the driver’s side door unreassuringly ajar, blue flashers streaking the puddles. Le flics.
In one piece, and briskly, we made it. No. 26, rue Remy-Dumoncel. Le Tiers Temps. As Barney paid the driver, I saw through the drizzle that at two-and-half stories it was the shortest building on the block. Red brick first floor, white stucco above. A woman came out the front door, opened a blue Credit Lyonnaise umbrella, hurried away down the sidewalk.
Barney had called ahead, so the tall woman who answered the door was expecting us. I knew Beckett’s wife, Suzanne, was gaunt and tall—that in fact she looked much like her husband—but I understood this was not her. The woman and Barney exchanged little hugs, and I heard him address her as Claire. M. Beckett was having a walk, Claire explained. We could wait for him back in his room.
I am in my mother’s room. It’s I who live there now. I don’t know how I got there. Perhaps in an ambulance, certainly a vehicle of some kind. I was helped. We followed Claire toward the back of the house. Meat was cooking somewhere close by, and I noticed that the floor tiles and panelling changed, became newer, as we moved down the hall. Molloy could stay, where he happened to be. In the annex of a hospice in Paris. I’d always loved the way he used commas….
And then I was inside the room. It was small but not tiny. Bed with no headboard, two chairs, chest-high dresser, small brown refrigerator with books stacked on top. In one corner a pewtery oxygen tank, beside it an oxygen mask. A small desk beneath a square window. Then I went back inside the house and wrote, It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows. It was not midnight. It was not raining.
Barney carefully set down the bottle of Jameson near the middle of the desk. We both remained standing. In a row against the wall at the back of the desktop were a few dozen books: Keats, Derek Mahon’s Day-Trip to Donegal, a tattered beige Divina Commedia, but mostly biographies—Ellmann’s of Joyce, Brenda Maddox’s of Nora Joyce, Max Brod’s of Kafka. I wondered whether Barney would be asked, or instructed, to burn Beckett’s unpublished manuscripts, manuscripts here in this room. On this desk. Perhaps he would burn them himself.
I felt someone, not Barney, beside me. I turned and stepped back. He was taller than me, which seemed right. Behind oval lenses his blue eyes, called gulls’ eyes in so many accounts I had read, were bloodshot but friendly. (It stupidly occurred to me that they were red, white and blue.) Barney was introducing us, and Beckett was h