A Difficult Subject

A Difficult Subject
Elizabeth Cooke

Wendell Crane was up early to walk the dogs. Down Steinway Street and past the oil tanks, up the rise by the willow banks to get a look at the Manhattan skyline across the bay from his home in Astoria; from there his two Bassetts could run through the thick undergrowth, then the tall grasses that led to sand and water. Sometimes he threw the ball into the salty waves and the dogs chased it while he engaged in his morning ablution, dipping his fingers into the salty water and pressing them to his forehead.

Later in the morning Wendell would have a second meeting with his editor to look at the new draft of his manuscript, and he was fidgety about it.  He’d written war novels, a few mysteries, but this one, started in his seventieth year, it had turned into something else, and sometimes, like now, he felt queasy at what he’d written. So he did not throw the ball, though the dogs raced through the undergrowth, their long silky ears catching in the brambles and dried wild roses. They turned to bark at him, hoping for one quick throw, but Wendell only stared across the bay to the towering skyscrapers.

“C’mon, boys,” he called. The pups trotted toward him, their long ears waving in sync. Wendell led them home, settled them on their beds, then reached for the manila envelope that held his manuscript, all the pages with all those lines, each word coming from a hidden fold in his heart.

On that late October morning, Ms. Jiang greeted him in the hall with her quiet voice and led him past the row of young assistants he always hoped to avoid. Several months ago when she’d taken him on after his longtime representative, Mr. Bloom, developed the ‘palsy’, as Wendell called it, he asked that she alone would handle his project. She had agreed. “You’ve been with Bloom, Winslow too long to relegate to inexperience,” she’d told him, “and this work, so different from your others in its profundity, challenges even my experience.”

Ms. Jiang’s expert editorial skill was unmatched; at their first meeting he had seen her follow his words beyond the letters on the page and into the narrowest fissures of his characters, shedding new light onto them. Beyond that was an affinity he felt toward her, evident when he first saw her twined braid of thick black hair, that mark of her origin that told him she would not rely on artifice to bring this book to life.

Today Ms. Jiang, who did not fall prey to petty changes in fashion, wore a neatly fitted silk jacket and skirt of light tan, with only a slim silver bracelet on one wrist. Her braid fell forward over one shoulder as she sat down at her desk. Wendell wanted to express his appreciation of her skill; he knew it was her love of every word, of the truths embedded in them rather than the meaningless flash of a best seller that drew her to this new story. “You have literary maturity,” he told her.

She replied with a small smile, “As do you,” then gazed at him kindly. “Remember, I was a girl from Wu Han during what the West calls The Cultural Revolution. I spouted maxims from Mao’s red book. I was a middle school student ridding the land of its educated.”

“I didn’t know,” he said, settling his large hands on his lap.

“We all have regrets, no?”

Wendell felt his face tighten. Was she speaking solely of herself, or possibly hinting at something she saw in him?

Ms. Jiang’s eyes darkened in that way she had of approaching a difficult subject. “I did not mean to, well, imply anything. But you? You were a boy of what era?”

She appeared to know what he was thinking, an uncanny quality. Yet without hesitating, Wendell told her he was conceived in the days before his father trained as an infantryman for the second war. “I was raised on rations and a hatred of the Japanese.”

“Did your father survive the war?”

“He did.”

“A bit of fortune. So many casualties of war in human history.”

He nodded. He chose not to speak of his year in Vietnam as a rifle platoon leader. That experience had worked its way into several characters in his earlier novels, men who returned from that war with shredded spirits, and surely Ms. Jiang was aware of that.

Ms. Jiang placed her hands palms down on the manuscript that lay on her desk, then she drew a pad of blue lined paper from a briefcase. “This new draft, your sense of irony is strengthened.”

Wendell nodded. He’d hoped she would see that.

“This work explores new territory for you, does it not?”

“Does it?”

“From your usual material.” She paused, her slender fingers lifting the title page and placing it to the side, then added, “And written from a woman’s point of view. You’ve captured it eloquently, and most uncommonly.”

“It works then,” Wendell said. “It wasn’t natural, you could say.”

“That you could step into the mother’s mind, in such a situation as she faced.”

“The research was….tedious.”

“Yes, for a woman to lose her son in this manner, her only child…does this happen?” Ms. Jiang’s voice half trembled now, “I should add, it is horrifying that a father could do such—“

Wendell wondered at the tremble. “The father was a liar,” he offered.

“A liar?”

“He knew what he was doing, don’t you think?”

“I do.” Her chin lifted, a small tilt.

Ms. Jiang was ready to move on. She returned to her notebook. Wendell peered at the page on top, saw it was filled, edge to edge, with the finest markings of a pencil. “Are those Chinese characters?”

“It’s the subtleties of this story, things hidden inside the words, my notations just went to my first language. It happens sometimes.” She gazed at him steadily. “I want to start on page thirty-two. Shall we?”

Wendell had set the story in Manhattan, eleven stories up in an apartment building on the East Side where he’d grown up, overlooking Central Park. The husband was twelve years older than the wife. Ms. Jiang asked Wendell why he named only the boy, Rufus. He answered that he wanted them to be timeless, as if this could happen to any couple, at which she inquired, “How can it be so?”, to which he answered, “One parent may turn a child against the other parent,” he said, “even knowingly, yet for unconscious purposes.”

“You bring this to life, yes, so delicately. It startled me, honestly, yet this is the strength of the work, that it’s ambiguous until it isn’t and then the truth comes hard.”

Wendell had shaped the husband as an affectionate fellow, hardworking in his job as headmaster of a private school for international students, but not so hardworking that he wasn’t able to be at home during parts of every day. The wife was a competent designer, and she returned to work part-time after their son was born. “I didn’t want him to appear resentful of her work, did you see?”

“I saw him take advantage of it. Almost as if he pushed her back to work,” Ms. Jiang said, then went on to inquire about the couple’s intimate life. “Do you leave that out for a reason?”

“No,” Wendell thought aloud: “But perhaps I’ll add a scene from early in the marriage, showing there are few boundaries between them, a scene in which they whisper to one another in the night’s darkness, talking openly—perhaps too openly—about their every need, wish, concern. Just one short conversation would show it, as the darkness closes around them. And maybe it would be only her needs and wishes, not his.”

“Yes,” Ms. Jiang said. “Yes, that sort of intimacy would establish the pattern, the husband withholding and the wife giving. She’s the artist while he’s the bureaucrat, so to say.”

Wendell smiled at her misuse of the phrase.

She drew in a breath, and shook her head. “I still get that wrong. So to speak, is what I meant.”

“Well, you wouldn’t want to hear me attempt any phrase in Chinese, I wouldn’t even try.”

A moment of silence, and then she asked if the wife’s abilities needed to be built up. “So the reader can see how competent she is.”

Wendell closed his eyes for quick seconds, then said, “I can be more specific; she can create graphic designs for, say, the Met, or … maybe the Portrait Museum in Washington. She could do all the work on the computer and could travel there several times a month.”

“Yes, yes, the Portrait Museum,” she said, nodding. “She would understand portraits, faces of people with their lives painted in their eyes. And she would know how to present them to the public. And the work would take her away from home which would leave the husband with care of the son.” Then, “Would he be able to do so?”

“Ah, his job demands so much of him. But that’s how it would happen, he would make spaces in his schedule, time to be with the boy when she was gone.”

Silence fell between them as they considered these changes. Ms. Jiang flipped through several pages and then back, then a few pages ahead while Wendell settled into the apartment with the husband and his wife, and Rufus. The evening was rising across the city as he envisioned the scene, and the words spilled into his mind. He jotted notes in the margin, and Ms. Jiang waited until he was ready to proceed.

Wendell read aloud a few notes for the third chapter: “Her sense of color is intuitive, as evidenced by their home which leads a visitor into warm spaces with plush rose-colored chairs and house plants that invite the distant outdoors into the room, a fresh verdancy.” He looked up, then read more to her: “Dutch painters on the wall, Vermeer, those moments of utter stillness.” Then he added, “I want the home to offer stillness, the contemplative sort.”

“This will emphasize her sensibilities,” Ms. Jiang said, “and the reader will understand her anguish all the more for it.”

A discussion ensued about the wife’s weaknesses, that perhaps they could be developed further. “More specific,” Ms. Jiang said, and Wendell thought aloud again, “The husband’s family did not warm to the wife, they were coolly distant. And perhaps—“ and the idea rose right then, “perhaps she lost her twin sister years earlier, a drowning, and she felt herself only half-present at times.”

“Does she tell her husband about this?”

“Yes,” and he jotted down and then read aloud his notations: “She confided in her husband the night dreams she had of joining her sister in the water, and he said he understood, of course he understood.”

“Yet he considered this a shortcoming?”

Wendell nodded.

“Any other weaknesses?”

“She didn’t follow his explanations well.” Wendell wrote more words, speaking them, “He told his wife she was too literal, and as Rufus got into school, that she should not help the boy with his homework as she only confused him.”

Ms. Jiang asked if the husband’s idiosyncrasies needed expanding. The specifics flew into Wendell’s mind, and he wrote: “Even early on, the husband’s insistence upon complete order in the household, and his need for total privacy in the early mornings as he did his paper work at home, were evident.”

“It seems,” Ms. Jiang offered, “that the husband’s need for control was beyond the ordinary, or perhaps, the acceptable.”

Like water overflowing as it pours into one’s hands, Wendell realized the husband had a deviant quality that showed nowhere else in his life. He spoke the words as he wrote, “The husband kept a polished dowel under the corner of his mattress, and he used it, whether his wife liked it or not—and the reader would know she did not—to enhance their intimate moments.”

That was enough for one day, they decided. Ms. Jiang said, her eyes showing soft concern, said, “You are weary.”

“I am indeed.” He moved his shoulders and felt them uncramp. “The pups’ve been cooped up all day and will need a walk.”

Funny, Wendell thought, as he walked the long blocks from the subway to his home, stopping once to purchase some hamburg for the pups and a pre-made salad for himself. All my books, and none of them mattered. Not till this one.

He pushed open the door to the kitchen and called, “Let’s go, boys,” and the dogs were there, jumping at his heels. He saw the familiar varnished cupboard doors that wrapped around the room and stretched to the high ceiling; Wendell reached inside the nearest one for a bag of Oreo cookies, put four in a pocket and did the same with a handful of doggie treats, all the while talking to the pups: “I know, I know, you thought I’d never get home, and truth is, it was a long day for me too, but boys, you’d like my editor, a slim little one, but hell, she sees the work for what it is, she’s damn good.” He held the door for the dogs; their nails clicked on the old wooden floor and down the jerry-rigged steps as they raced ahead of him. Wendell grabbed the ball he kept on the shelf by the door, then followed.

Later, and after supper, Wendell felt a chill, so he built a small fire with old strips of lathe taken from the house next door when it fell down and that he’d cut to fit the fireplace. He settled back into his chair, once a warm shade of rose velvet, removed his socks and shoes—how his feet ached at the end of such a day—and then pulled the manuscript from his briefcase as the fire warmed him and the pups who lay on their beds by his feet. Milt licked his owner’s feet, a habit the dog could not abandon, and Mac lay on his side and waited for scratches on his chest. Wendell placed the manuscript on his lap but found his eyelids closing.

Instead of reviewing what he and Ms. Jiang had worked on that day, he slipped into a half-sleeping state, imagining himself a companion to the Little Prince as they ventured to a different world, hopping from planet to planet, measuring death, with his pups beside him on the Prince’s small carpet, and all he’d ever known fell away. It was always the same, had been since he was a boy and studied St. Exupery’s tale in French: the vastness of the Heavens, the distance one could go beyond what was known, these calmed him.

In the night Wendell woke to embers in the fireplace and two snoring dogs at his feet. His neck was stiff, his vision blurred by sleep. His first thought was of Rufus, the boy in his novel. Into his mind came the image of the new moon, clear and hardened. In the near dark he reached for one of the #2 pencils that, newly sharpened, stood point up in a white ceramic cup, a remnant from his childhood.

On the cover page he wrote these words: “The father kept the boy in a bubble. In his first years Rufus was a mama’s boy, and this annoyed his father who said, ‘Don’t you know I like to have my own time with him, without you hovering?’” Wendell imagined the mother felt a physical injury at these words, as if her husband was cutting the tie between herself and her son. He noted that she began to speak of pain around her heart and into her neck when her husband finally came to bed. Where had the gentle whisperings gone?

Yes, Wendell thought. He wrote, “The mother’s whisperings were silenced as was the earth’s when the snow hid the ground.”

The next meeting with Ms. Jiang occurred on a rainy Friday afternoon as November’s days grew dim. Wendell wore a black wool cap and his old navy peacoat into the city, knowing he’d have some walking to do once he left the subway. A young assistant named Marney took the damp outer clothes and whisked them off somewhere, saying, “They’ll be dry and warm for you, Mr. Crane, when you’re ready to leave.”

As he sat down in Ms. Jiang’s office, he noticed a weariness in her, her eyelids slightly swollen and her sparrow hands still.

“I went through my comments this morning,” she began. On this day she wore grey; slacks and a cashmere sweater buttoned to the neck. Her only decoration was a red scarf that reminded Wendell of the photos of Chinese children in the late 1960’s enacting Mao’s plans for equalizing the classes, wearing those red kerchiefs as they tormented their elders. In the National Geographic, he guessed. He thought about the ease with which children could be persuaded to believe almost anything, that their teachers—even their parents—were evil, that such lies could be truth.

This is what the husband did, Wendell thought. He turned to the end of chapter 6 to see what words he had chosen to describe this: “The man belittled his wife in front of his son that same afternoon. ‘She has a brain problem’, he told Rufus, when his mother forgot the boy was learning about black holes in science. ‘And remember when she thought you’d said ‘spite’ instead of ‘spice’?”

Wendell looked into Ms. Jiang’s dark eyes. He waited for her to say something more. He was a patient man; his dogs had trained him well, he often told people, especially since he’d never married. It had not been a lonely life, rather a life that allowed the writing, only the writing, to lead him.

“You’ve strengthened the characters,” Ms. Jiang said, and some pink came into her cheeks. “What turned the son from his mother was insidious. We’ve spoken of the father’s lies as purposeful, but do you think he fully understood the effects of his words?”

“I believe there is knowing and not knowing, all at once.”

“How did that work?”

“He was rapt by his own needs. But at the deepest level…he needed to shame her. You perhaps remember when he calls her a prude—“

“Yes, yes, so disturbing to her. She was so vital. It’s the shame that wears her down. He must have known shame himself. What sort of husband would tell his son such things? That his mother was a lower sort, for instance. That her work took her to a lonely world of colors that distorted her connection to reality. ” Ms. Jiang glanced at the window and the darkening sky. “Why did he do that?”

“He seems a gentle man, but in chapter 11, it’s clear he’s lost his boundary with Rufus. He cannot be whole by himself.” Wendell waited for her to see it, that what had seemed like love was not.

“And he did that with his wife, she was his all, but for such a short bit of time.” She shook her head. “Why did she not see it in him, the trap he was?”

“She had her own needs, but not for submission or symbiosis. She wanted connectedness.”

“Will your readers see this?” And then, before he could answer, “When she told the two of them that she must leave them, I doubted her, I thought, perhaps, after all, the husband is right? She’s a lesser person.“

“In the last chapter,” Wendell asked, “does the son see the truth? That, although the mother has gone, he can see the alienation that was imposed upon him?”

“How else could the boy’s recognition of his father’s lies be made palpable?”

Wendell considered the final scene. Yes, he could do more. He nodded to her. “I see it, what I need to do now. Thank you.”

“The horror of it all is that Rufus was unable to think for himself. How could the father have done that?” Her voice was raised now, with a slight tremble.

“Are you perhaps overtired?” Wendell asked, looking around for a clock to indicate the time.

A distant smile slipped onto Ms. Jiang’s lips. Her voice came as a whisper, and Wendell had to lean forward from his chair in order to catch her words: “Do you not see? This is the story of my girlhood.”

Wendell felt his stomach turn. “I don’t understand.”

“Mao was the father, and my favorite teacher, Mr. Li, he was the mother. In your story.”

“I did not, I mean—“ Wendell stopped, tongue-tied.

“Ms. Jiang shook her head. “Of course not.”

On that May morning, the proofs sit on Ms. Jiang’s desk, between them. Today she wears a filmy long skirt with a pattern of branches and red berries, and a blouse of silk. She wears lipstick, a color that echoes the berries of the skirt, and her thick braid is coiled at the base of her neck like a bird’s nest.

“Your last chapter is magnificent,” she tells him. “The mother takes a stand, and it works. She leaves, but this serves to restore some dignity to herself. She knows she has cancer, but she has not told her husband or Rufus. The man would accuse her of something, certainly, if he knew. She does not give him that opportunity.”

Wendell asks what she thinks of the final moment when Rufus looks out the living room window as the mother leaves the apartment building, crossing the street, and she turns, seeing him.

“It’s brilliant. She points to him, then to herself. She holds a hand to her heart. The expression on Rufus’ face, of awareness and recognition, I wasn’t thinking he would do that.” Ms. Jiang’s office has no photographs, nothing to hint at her life outside of work, save for two Chinese peasant paintings—the sunlit alleyway of a hutong and the ragged mountains of Guilin—that hang on the wall opposite the large window. “I believe this will be your finest work.”

Wendell Crane’s eyes blur. Is this his mother, there across the desk, her thin neck porcelain white, her short black hair framing her narrow face?

Silence settles between them for long seconds.

“Mr. Crane, did you ever have the chance to tell her you loved her?” Ms. Jiang’s voice is soft as water.

Wendell shakes his head, No.

“My teacher was sent to the countryside. He died in a copper mine. I did not speak up for him.”

Wendell looks at the final line of his last chapter. The letters form words, and he knows they describe his own face, his boy face, as he watched his mother go, but he can’t read them through the blur. They could be Chinese characters, so delicate and fine.

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