If You Could See Me Now

Let me reconstruct a scene from Grub Street.

It is late spring, 1975. Upon completion of my dissertation, Charles Dickens and Jim Thompson: Hamlet as Decadent Bard, and subsequent receipt of my Ph.D. from Indiana University, I had at last resigned my position as part-time Instructor of Victorian Literature at the Coast Guard Academy and accepted an Associate Professorship in the English Department of Popham College in beautiful little Popham, Ohio, long known as “the Sewanee of the North,” and “Middlebury Writ Small.” I chose to celebrate this success with a two-week visit to London, where I could combine exposure to the high and low life of that great metropolis with a selfless, mano a mano, eyeball-to-eyeball survey of my old friend’s plight from the perspective of a makeshift bed – in the event, a mattress on the floor – in his office. Two weeks (or, as the English charmingly have it, a fortnight) is a laughably brief time in which to apply a lifetime’s knowledge to the disorders of a needy friend while unlocking the secrets of an ancient and subtle city, but I could spare no more than that. Already, I was unobtrusively in the throes of preparing the groundwork for the creation of a Department of Popular Culture, an effort rewarded six years later by my appointment as Full Professor and first Chairman of the new Department. Two weeks were what I could give, and give them I did.

My initial task, I must admit, was to conceal the dismay aroused by the smallness, shabbiness and utter charmlessness of every aspect of the Straubs’ situation. From the distance of my Popham redoubt, their address on College Lane in North London’s Kentish Town had evoked images of greenswards and elegant Georgian buildings. Foolish me, ever the optimist! The ignorance of the cabdriver who ferried me from Heathrow as to the location of College Lane should have alerted me to the coming disappointments, as should the increasing deterioration of the neighborhoods through which we travelled on our journey Straub-ward. The buildings grew smaller and meaner with every passing mile, the streets filthier, the Londoners likewise smaller, filthier, more furtive, more and more attired in the rags of the welfare-state poor. At last, the cabbie deposited me at a bleak, anonymous corner with the instruction that according to his “A to Zed,” a mysterious reference soon explained when Peter loaned me his own tattered copy of this comprehensive map of London’s streets in book form, I should find the street in question by proceeding into an unsavory alley-way and taking the first left-hand turn. College Lane, it seemed, was too narrow to permit vehicular traffic. My tip, nothing, reflected my opinion of this treatment.

I cannot now imagine how this unathletic scholar, a creature of the library rather than the gymnasium, managed the feat of transporting into the dingy alley, thence down the cheerless length of the so-called “Lane” itself, four heavy suitcases, a Mark Cross briefcase, a cardboard box filled with books, and a paper bag containing my belated housewarming present to the Straubs, a half-pound of cardamum-and-cilantro seasoned peanuts I had secured for a staggering sum from a vendor at New York’s Kennedy airport and to which I had resorted only under the pressure of stewardess-induced starvation. I believe I adopted the mountaineer’s strategy of establishing a series of base camps from which further forays are conducted. While reeling between the heaps of luggage and sweating from every pore, I could not but take in the sordid character of this “lane,” in fact a concrete footpath between a row of workmen’s cottages and a railway embankment. The Straubs’ residence, a narrow two-story hovel like its neighbors, lay at the far end of the midden.

We are speaking of a time long before Peter entered upon the ostentatious and financially ruinous practice of living like a grandee, a matter as to which I offer continuous, oft-alarmed counsel, yet never would I have dreamed that his circumstances should have progressed so little beyond the dank cellar in Dublin where four years earlier I had risked the health of my respiratory system. This was brighter, but almost anything is brighter than an Irish basement; this was larger, in the sense that a small room enlarges when the closet door is thrown open; in every way, this was scant improvement over the forthright poverty from which Marriages had emerged. The narrow, fretful staircase which led from the living room or “parlor” to Peter’s office and the Straub bedroom represented the principle sign of upward progress.

The glimpses afforded a tactful guest suggested that the bedroom was adequate, but the office! Peter’s office! That shoebox, that doll’s house, that oubliette in which every night for nearly two weeks I was made to thrust open the grimy window and semaphore my arms to dispel the miasmic fug of my host’s cigarettes before pushing his chair beneath his cheap plank desk, trundling the room’s only other chair against the back wall, then lowering the skimpy mattress from its position against the fireplace to the floor, thus affording a scant eight to ten inches of unused space in front of the pathetic bricks-and-boards bookshelves pilfered from nearby construction sites! And each morning, after waiting with a full bladder and an empty stomach in this architectural straight-jacket for my host and hostess individually to make their way downstairs into the bathroom, complete their morning rituals and wander back upstairs, it was MY duty to flip the mattress back up over the fireplace, restore the chairs to their former positions and otherwise eliminate any traces of my presence. Only then could I scurry to the bathroom in hopes of enjoying the last remaining trickle of hot water. The difficulties of the process were multiplied by the Straubs having distributed my luggage randomly about the dwelling, so that although the day’s trousers could be found within the suitcase conveniently placed at the top of the stairs, the required socks and underwear might well have been lodged behind the living room sofa.

Some hosts and hostesses make life a misery through a mean-spirited lack of generosity, others through simple ignorance of the ordinary considerations due their guests, and the Straubs, emphatically, should be numbered amongst the latter. It is to this ignorance that I ascribe what those less familiar than myself with Peter and Susan might describe as their withdrawal, their apparent indifference, their even rudeness, toward the end of my visit. On the fifth night of my stay Peter abandoned the living room for an evening’s “work session” mid-way through my lively deconstruction of Benny Hill’s antics. By Tuesday of the following week, no sooner had we politely dispatched Susan’s functional meal than the old night owl began yawning and finding excuses to go to bed at nine. That Friday, three days in advance of my return flight, Susan’s forceful request that I depart the Straub household obliged this thoughtful guest to find lodgings in an extortionately expensive hostelry in the Swiss Cottage area. One and all, these behavioral quirks were rooted in (if not, to more sophisticated sensibilities, truly justified by) a discussion between Peter and myself shortly after Sunday opening hours in the seedy public house located at the southern, more remote end of his “lane.” Our dialogue precipitated a crucial sea-change in my friend’s imaginative life. The Butcher’s Blood, I believe, perhaps The Heifer’s Corpse, was the name of the smoky, derelict-infested oasis to which Peter repaired at frequent daily intervals during this period. I recall his apocalyptic anxiety over arriving at the pub door exactly at noon, lest, he said, we be deprived of seats at his favorite table in the “garden.” At 11:56, still adjusting the knot in his necktie (even then, he took pains to dress as well as he could, one of the endearing signs of my old pal’s eternal insecurity), he charged down the lane before me, hurtled into the alley-way and arrived at the entrance of the saloon-bar at the instant the bolt slid back. Gripping pints of bitter and packets of salt-and-vinegar crisps, we fled into the sad little “garden” behind the pub. Peter collapsed into a chair at a rust-stained white table spotted with bird dung, evidently his favorite. Then he proceeded to explain the true source of his anxiety.

After weeks spent weeks vacillating between two ideas for his next novel, he was still unable to decide between them. For good or ill, the choice would affect the rest of his career, and the importance of the decision magnified its difficulty. Due to the inability of most ordinary citizens, even those in editorial positions, to make recommendations on artistic matters, no one had been able to assist him. He could do no more than make notes for both projects while knowing that it was time to begin actual work. Which book should he write? The weak sun picked out the flecks of salt-and-vinegar crisps adhering to the sides of his mouth as he guzzled beer from the pint glass, dribbling only slightly as he rapped the glass back on the table. Conspicuously, like a true friend, I made a show of wiping nonexistent residue from my own mouth, but he failed to take the hint. “I’m getting scared, Put,” he said, using my childhood nickname. “Maybe I’m all washed up. Maybe this is it.”

“Nonsense,” I told him. “You’ve just begun to do the decent little tales, the modest but satisfactory little things you were meant to do all along. Describe these two ideas of yours, and I’ll tell you in an instant which is the right one for you.” The relief which crossed his face as he took another pull on his beer informed me that he had been waiting for this opportunity since even before my arrival. Speaking hesitantly, stuttering only occasionally, pausing for mouthfuls of crisps and warm beer, he unfolded his two stories. The first involved an American family who move to an English village dominated by an aristocratic vampire; the second, a failed scholar – rather like himself – who returns to his grandparents’ farm in the Midwest – as he continues to do to this day – there to meet the ghost of a beloved cousin. “You must choose the second story,” I said. “There will be much more of you in it. And it must be in the first person.” I saw him take it in, I saw him ponder it as he polished off his first pint and downed three more, and while I helped him back up the lane toward his hovel, I understood that his slurred, unintelligible utterances were expressions of thanks. Susan Straub’s flinty backward glare as she half-led, half-pulled her husband upstairs and her distinct iciness during the remainder of the day was long ago forgotten on her part, forgiven on mine.

The book for which I feel a greater than usual measure of responsibility is his finest achievement. Small in scale, scope and ambition, IF YOU COULD SEE ME NOW demonstrates the modest but persuasive charm to be found within the gothic genre. It is quite nicely written, and rises to several piquant and atmospheric moments of scene-painting. The alert reader may find the book’s one reference to jazz music, a brief allusion to Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker, a dire warning of things to come. In his next, unfortunately over-praised work of fiction, self-indulgence of this sort gets entirely out of hand. But coy, smirking references to jazz musicians are hardly the worst of GHOST STORY’s exhibitionist failings.

Putney Tyson Ridge