The Nabby

photo by Simonetta Ginelli

“You’re worthless, did you know that? Worthless and stupid and not very attractive. God, the years I’ve wasted in this relationship. The years! The things I’ve done for you… with you… because you made me. Because you made me. Look at you! You fat cunt.  Got the personality of a sea slug… you stink as well… can’t believe anyone ever had the stomach to kiss you. I swear, if I could leave… if I could but find the strength to cut all ties, I would! In a heartbeat, my dear. In a bloody heartbeat.”

Nigel Selwyn-Trask then pinched his fat red organ at the neck, shook out residual CCs of aperitif-colored urine and stuffed the Colonel back in its boxers. He was standing A-legged at the urinal, chin up, when a stall door creaked behind him and a white-haired fellow emerged, avoiding eye contact. The old duffer hurried out of the Gents on deck shoes without a ceremonial washing or even so much as a tug on the towels. Nigel had frightened him.

“Sorry,” he said.

Facing himself in the mirror over the sink, he patted his side-hair in place, stooping and twisting. The dangers of talking to one’s dick in public. His armless tee-shirt, what one of his scholarship students had pricelessly referred to as a wife-beater, was hanging more loosely than ever and he palpated his face: cheek bones getting closer and closer to the surface because all that running was starting to pay off. All that running and all that not-so-tasty food. But by running a bit longer on Nabokov’s birthday Nigel felt he would earn the right to splurge that night and treat himself to an artery-clogging dessert.

“It is, after all, a special occasion.”

Which made him groan. For five seconds he’d forgotten the looming doom of the evening. Oh. God. He wanted to go into a trance and snap out of it sometime next week with only dim memories of tonight’s disaster. Christ be clement. He was half-tempted to get the old Colonel out and yell at it all over again. As if that would help. Tonight will be the end of everything.

“I am going to have my head bashed in with a Nabby.”

Was one of those brilliant spring days that make Minnesota worth it. Lake gave off its sparkling little melodies of light while boats like lovably dumb dogs mobbed a dock laden with pretty wives and all their children. The far side of the lake was decorated with a naively busy tapestry of all commercial colors… walkers and joggers and bladers for life. Wind-surfer thingies criss-crossed the shocking blue water with pointless speed. The kind of windy day he would have dreaded when there was still stuff on the top of his head to worry about because being bald wasn’t so bad…. it was going bald that he’d hated. What was that wonderful smell? The wind had changed and grilled bangers from as far away as the band stand at Lake Harriet were waving.

April 23, a sunny late morning in Minneapolis. But it was a miserable suppertime in Blighty… cold and damp and reeking of cur and Nigel was pleased to think it, that even the posh gits he’d honed his ambitions on were gasping in fog at the moment, gasping and sniffing around tatty flats in itchy cardigans and grumbling at their lipless girlfriends about toast crumbs in the marmalade. Snooker on the telly.

He did his stretching on the side of the foot path, a sun-dappled bear toppling a tree and launched into the stream of pattering Reeboks, huffing already like he’d been at it an hour. There were two lanes of jogger traffic, separated by a cute little dotted line and he recognized every third person in the oncoming lane, an effect he never got used to.

“Hullo!” Huff.

“Hi!” Huff.

” ‘Morning, Stewart.”

It was incredible to think of the journey he’d made from Elephant and Castle, that fuscous cranny, to Uptown, Minneapolis, USA and all this comfy. He was a sort of semi-suburban Squire here, wasn’t he? In Minneapolis he was a Toff! “Hi!” And he’d done it with books. Books! He’d done it with books. A brick-layer’s son! Earning his money with books. “Hullo!”

“Hullo Julia!”

Not writing them. Christ, he’d tried. He’d tried a few years and given up, having managed to squeeze one parsimonious paperback out before the sphincter slammed shut, never again to open, and yet, nevertheless, here he was, living The Amurrican Duh-ream, doing quite well for himself teaching fiction… private lessons… a dozen paying students… ninety bucks an hour and three hundred a pop to read and critique a novel-length manuscript, thanks. Hello, house near the lake and hello studio in a building with a uniformed doorman and hello a Land Rover with vanity plates.

Big-Brit1.

“Hi!” Huff.

“Hullo!” Huff.

Christ!

He was out of breath, it happened every time, one had to greet so many relentlessly polite people running around Lake Calhoun on the weekend that one incurred an oxygen debt in less than half a lap. He spied a free bench up ahead and made for it, sprinting the last few dozen meters. A nice warm sunny bench. He plopped down on it with grateful hallelujahs. He cast his gaze about the green splendor of foliage and the blue splendor of lake, his eyeballs banging with heartbeat, and grinned pantingly, staring dreamily at a houseboat puttering by.

Someone said, “Good morning Mr. Trask!” and Nigel stuck an arm up without looking.

It was all in the accent, of course.

He freely admitted it. He was forty seven years old, he was financially secure and he no longer had to prove anything to himself, so he had no problem admitting to himself that the key to his success had had little to do with his knowledge of words and much to do with the sound of his voice and the effect that it had upon upper-middle-class housewives of the Midwest. Upper-middle-class housewives and paunchy lawyers on a self-improvement kick and the occasional “scholarship” student that Nigel instructed for free, which energized the sessions with a little youth and the ethnic spice of the underprivileged and made him look like a saint on top of it. Wife-beaters. Nigel chuckled soundlessly.

Five years, once a week, a dozen paying students, ninety dollars an hour. And all Nigel had to do was sit in his comfortable leather chair and moderate what were basically group-encounter sessions, with “fiction” as the medium of confession. Oh yes, and then, three years ago, he’d had a brainstorm: The Nabby. If only he hadn’t! But he had. He’d created The Nabby, and now he was going to die from one, having his head bashed in with it. They were quite heavy, these Nabbies. With big sharp Nabokovian noses.

Nigel stood up from the bench, considered jogging again, thought better of it, and commenced the leisurely ten minute walk to his door step, head bowed with athletic modesty.

He let himself into his lovely old Tudor, sidestepping that terrible spot in the foyer, the spot facing the foyer mirror. He sidestepped it like a dog refusing to cross the patch on the floor where somebody had died. It was this spot, just inside the front door, upon which Gina Balinari had knelt and produced the banal voila of a blowjob just two nights before. He’d watched it in the mirror, the sad back of her divorcee’s hopeful haircut, her freckled fat strapless shoulders, his hands hovering, awkward, noncommittal… and the look on his face: embarrassed to meet its own gaze. But then he’d looked down and gotten the real shock, for she was staring up at him! Staring up at him while she slurpped and gulped, her lips a huge red zero.

She’s mad, he’d thought, but then: That’s right… she is a Psychologist, isn’t she?

Oh, how he regretted that stingy little orgasm now! He’d had bigger ones by accident! And oh how he regretted the beers and flattery that had lead to that moment! And he regretted having written that little note (“keep at it!”) on the back of the receipt he’d mailed to her after receiving her monthly check. And the husky-voiced call he’d gotten from her after she’d read the note, divining praise where only half-hearted encouragement had been intended. And he regretted…

The ansaphone was blinking in the kitchen. He approached it sternly, with his hands on his hips, licking the sweat off his over-licked lip.

“Well hulloooo there Mr. Trask…” giggle “… just called to inform you how much I enjoyed our little moment the other evening and that I can’t wait for our little bash tonight, and…” giggle “… I just wanted to leave you this marvelous little quote by Yeats…”

He shut it off.

Yeets.

How long had Gina Balinari been attending his Workshop? Very nearly a year. It had been quite clear, straight off the bat, that she had no talent, would never, but since when had that prevented Nigel Selwyn-Trask from assuming the merciful role of tutor? Her money was as good as anyone’s.

Sad cow! What she lacked in writing ability she more than made up for in her greed for praise and in her clanking brass balls, the networking monster; the tireless coalition builder; shamelessly wheedling and browbeating the other members of the Workshop into agreeing to behave as though they considered her stuff worth reading. If someone with real talent had the temerity to dismiss one of her cliché-honeycombed trifles, she beehived a retaliatory clique and the offending party ended up in Workshop Siberia. It was a peculiar skill, what she had, and certainly worked in local politics and organized crime, but what was the point of bullying people into calling you a decent writer if they and you both knew bloody well better? What would one hope to achieve, in the end?

The Nabby.

Nigel had felt so clever… so entrepreneurial… thinking it up. Knowing full well the virulency of that American virus: competition. Before coming up with the idea of an annual fiction prize, to be awarded on Vladimir Nabokov’s birthday, Nigel had had a worrying number of drop-outs every season.

But just give them a goal, a prize to compete for, and suddenly the egocentric little shits were sticking with it the whole year in hopes of winning the damn thing. It had cost him one hundred and forty dollars apiece to have them cast in bronze from the template he’d commissioned from a student at MCAD and for every one he handed out he figured he’d stabilized about ten thousand dollars in revenue. He had four of them in a kitchen cabinet, left from the original run of six, and it gave him a weird thrill to think that the source from which his continued success in America emanated could be pinpointed to a spot above his dishwasher, where he also stored his Saltines. They might as well be solid gold, these poxy little busts of Nabokov.

And if Gina Balinari didn’t get hers this year, she’d no doubt make a horrible stink. At the worst she’d be crying sexual harassment and at the very least spreading the rumor that their beloved Englishman, shepherd of their sheepish muses, had taken advantage of her. And that would be the end of everything. These cute little Minneapolitans were a Puritanical bunch, after all. They were Calvinists in footy Pyjamas, and it was Nigel’s job to tuck them in once a week, with his soothing British voice, but they’d never stand for a tuck-in from a dirty old man. A dirty old man who’d taken advantage of an hysterically lonely divorced mother of a bedwetting (“The Little Wet Bed”) toddler. No. They’d be outraged and summarily re-think the propriety of his tutelage and he’d be bereft of ninety dollars per hour times twelve paying members times two hours per bloody week, forty two weeks a year.

And the problem was, Nigel had his eye on a boat. A cabin cruiser with the euphonious name of Bella Fortuna, equipped with an antique eleven foot teakwood bar that had been salvaged from a yacht once owned by Errol Flynn. Sleeps twelve. If Gina B. didn’t get The Nabby, Nigel didn’t get that boat. How was he going to mail photographs of himself leaning on that eleven foot antique teakwood Errol Flynn bar back to those bastards in Elephant and Castle if he couldn’t have the boat?

On the other hand, if Nigel immorally gave The Nabby to the unliterate Gina B. to keep her quiet, rather than to one of the two obviously deserving members of his Workshop (that chubby lawyer Del Eckhardt, or pretty Tonya Rice), and it ever came out that Gina had fellated him two days before the Award Dinner, the result would no doubt be the same.

He wanted that boat; he loved his lifestyle; he considered faking a heart attack. He was too afraid of the train of thought he might find himself on to even joke to himself about killing her. What would Nabokov do?

Nigel writhed out of his wife-beater and his shiny shorts and trudged upstairs and climbed into a scalding shower and thought about it. He pulled his (chest) hair and gnashed his teeth and took, once more, the opportunity to berate his ridiculous dick.

The dick in turn looked guilty and small and remained so as Nigel dressed himself later, after a fitful nap, from which he’d woken, paradoxically, refreshed. During the nap he’d had a dream and from the dream he’d derived a solution to the dilemma that had threatened to destroy him. Nigel whistled while he dressed himself, choosing a chiffon-yellow pullover, with suit pants and dress shoes, that made him look like Seamus bloody Heaney.

In Nigel’s dream, Nabokov had been twins, and had eloped with two women, one of them dark and fetching, and the other an Italianate cow. The Nabokov who’d gotten the dark and lovely one had run off with her to Iowa, and started a new life there as a brown-rice farmer. The dream was still vivid as Nigel worked his way through a loin chop, and a conversation about Martin Amis’ obvious, but rarely remarked upon, debt to Kurt Vonnegut, at dinner.

“Thank you, Carl.”

Nigel could remember when he’d first arrived in town and had discovered Figlio’s and had gone around mispronouncing it, giving it a hard “g”. Thank god nobody had known him back then. He looked around the trendy dining room; the open kitchen with flames leaping; and all those Minneapolitan diners still dressing like Don Johnson from Miami Vice, or in their prom gowns, and he felt a twinkle of affection for them in each eye, which came dangerously close to condensing into sentimental tears. Perhaps he’d had too much to drink.

“I think we’re all ready to order dessert now, Carl.”

He recognized the waiter. He was still trying to work out if the fellow was gay, a brown hatter in the parlance of Nigel’s antediluvian chums. It always bothered him when presumably gay men didn’t flirt with him. Not that Nigel was: far from it. But it seemed a very specific failure of one’s allure if one could not even attract…

He sat at the head of the very long table and tipped back yet another glass of red stuff that Carl had disinterestedly replenished for him. He smiled, through the bottom of the glass, at Del Eckhardt, who was not going to win a Nabby this year.

Del, still griping about Amis, was to Nigel’s immediate left. Next to Del was Judy Weintraub-Johnson (Nigel had proof that her hyphen was a recent development: her cancelled checks). Then came Wanda Pratt (in her Yoko Ono sunglasses) and Jeff Johannsen and the irritating affectation of his Vandyke. Next came sweet old Martha Teufel, who wrote surprisingly sexual stories about a village of human-like mice called “Nibbletown.”

Gina Balinari had, of course, commandeered the seat at the opposite head and was as chipper and chirpy as could be, loudly praising every writer at her end of the table with elder-stateswoman-like largess. Nigel winked at her from time to time to mask the facial tick that afflicted him whenever he gazed upon her. As a subtle prompt, or an effort at literary symbolism, she was wearing the same plum-colored strapless thing she’d had on the night she’d blown him. Nigel was quite sure that the powdery stain he imagined he saw near the neckline was impossible.

To Gina’s immediate left, coming up the other side of the table, was lawyer number two, Chad something, who’d been with the Workshop going on nine months and had yet to submit a story. After Chad came Chad’s girlfriend, Lyndsay Huffstedt, who owned a pointless pottery shop. Next to Lyndsay was that nice Jewish lady, Gloria Hundred Trees (who’d married and immediately divorced a real Indian, just for that name, Nigel suspected).

Gloria was the most recent member of the Workshop to be sentenced to Siberia for butting heads with Gina B., and she sat there, glugging booze, while Gina turned her into a negative presence by deliberately over-praising everyone else in a precise pattern around her. She’d even praised everyone’s but Gloria’s choice of an entrée. Gloria had beautiful flame-red hair and Gina said to Jeff Johannsen, whose hair appeared to have reddish high-lights from certain angles, “Jeff, you have the most scrumptious red hair.”

Next to Gloria was the oldest member of the Workshop, Valmore Cheney, who wrote Dadaist rants in beautiful cursive. Gina would send a salvo of praise towards 80-year-old Valmore, right across poor Gloria, and Valmore would say “Alright, already!” with undisguised exasperation and Martha Teufel would slap a hand over her mouth and titter through it.

Next to Valmore, after two empty chairs where Mo Jenkins and her hubby should have been (trouble at home), came… wait for it… the lovely Tonya Rice. Tonya was the “scholarship” student, colored and poor, from North Minneapolis, her father black and absent, her mother Lebanese.

She took two busses to Nigel’s studio and then two busses back home every Workshop night and he was always relieved to see her again the next week, alive and relatively unmolested. She was midway through an obviously autobiographical first novel called “Ignorance of the Law,” that Nigel was quite convinced would end up being published. She’d submitted a story taken from it and despite the ah-troe-shus spelling, it was brilliant. She was nineteen years old and Nigel had bent over backwards to avoid responding to her physical beauty for the six months she’d been attending his Workshop.

She’d sit there on one of the big pillows in the sun room of his studio, in nothing more special than a tee-shirt and jeans, listening politely while the rest of the group jabbered and Nigel would catch himself peeking at her. Those desert eyes and slender brown hands. And now she was within smelling distance, to his immediate right, all dressed up and looking like a Sumerian Queen, wearing touchingly inappropriate pearls and a delightfully cheap perfume that reeked of candy. He found himself fighting the rudiments of a stiffy.

She’s ineffably effable, he thought. He was going to be very pleased to hand her her Nabby.

Speaking of which: two Nabokovs sat, like kidnap victims, in a gym bag at his feet. He stood up, when the bussers had cleared everything in preparation for dessert and hoisted the gym bag upon his place at the table.

“Ladies and Gentlemen,” Nigel smirked, “Protégés and colleagues,” he winked, “Friends and pains-in-the-asses.” They all laughed.

“I will no longer keep you in suspense. Or not for very much longer, at any rate. We didn’t really all show up here tonight for the good food, or convivial company, now did we?”

Good God, he thought, look at her! So sure she’ll be getting one! He could barely bring himself to gaze at that smug gob of hers. He was going to hate himself for handing one over to her. Hate himself.

(Think about the bloody boat, you berk, and get on with it)

“But before we get to the goodies, a few remarks.”

“As most of you know, I come from a funny little corner of the world called Elephant and Castle, as unmagical a place as can be, despite the whimsical poetry of the name. It’s a rule of thumb, in fact, that the more blighted and drear a place in England is, the more lyrical its name and vice-versa. There’s a place called Grimsby, for instance, that couldn’t be lovelier.”

“Anyway, back to Elephant and Castle, the rhyming nickname for which I can’t, in mixed company, repeat…”

Gina raised her hand and shouted, “Smelly cunts and arse-holes, luv!” with her Dick vanDykian attempt at Cockney. Martha Teufel slapped a hand over her mouth and tittered through it. Jeff Johannsen laughed as well, tugging on the waxed points of his facial monstrosity. Diners in far corners of Figlio’s turned around in their seats in mid-chew.

“Right,” said Nigel, “Right. Good one. Where was I?” He pulled on his nose and frowned. He definitely had a Merlot buzz going. He was amazed that he wasn’t slurring his speech. Or was he. All the stuff he’d planned on saying about Vladimir effing Nabokov had flown right out his head and through the open window.

“Erm… yes.” He regained his composure. “So there I was, as a bored illiterate youth, subsisting in that wretched stop along the Northern line, the only distinguishing feature of the neighborhood being that that was where you could go if you needed to explain to some unsympathetic bastard at British Telecom why you wouldn’t be able to pay your phone bill that month.”

He scrunched his face and falsettoed his voice Tiny Tim-ishly.

“It’s me mum, Sir. Sick again, innit?”

And everyone at the table had a good but brief (award the award, dammit!) laugh, and Nigel said, smiling down at the table, “And if anyone had told me then that twenty years later, I’d be standing at the head of this table in this fancy American restaurant, passing judgment on the literary works of all you good good writers, I’d’ve called that soothsayer a liar, or a nutter, at the very least.”

“But here I am, indeed! Passing judgment! And that’s what you all trust in me to do, in fact.”

He unzipped the gym bag. He got out the two Nabbys, and stole a look at Gina, who had stopped beaming.

“I usually only hand out one of these a year, but this year is special…” and he looked at Gina again and she was no longer just looking mildly confused. Now she looked dangerous. Of course: for a praise-greedy creep like her, sharing the award was nearly as bad as not getting one at all. In the micro-moment it took Nigel to finish his sentence, she had turned from a giddy pink to a blood-blister red and her mouth had hardened into an assassin’s professional grimace. She began fumbling in her purse for something: surely not a pearl-handled revolver?

“I usually, as I say, erm, only give out one of these at a time, but… uh… this year….”

He was relieved to see she had merely retrieved a compact from her purse…she wanted to look good for her big moment… but Nigel thought: I’ll be damned if I’ll give in to this frowsy, big-mouthed, no-talent Yankee bitch and give her anything… and he experienced a sort of epiphany that he knew was wine-based and yet he gave in to it and he looked down at lovely deserving Tonya Rice, who had not a glimmer of the sense of what was to come, and he said,

“But this year I’m giving two of them… to Tonya Rice, one for her short story and one for her novel, and I only wish I had more than these, and my hollow words, to give her…”

…and Del Eckhardt slammed both fists on the table and shouted that he wanted all of his money back and Gina B. was making a noise like a hiccuping jackal and Martha Teufel was saying Oh my! and Nigel closed his eyes and felt all Hell break loose and wash over him and his heart was beating in his skull where it surely did not belong and he fell back in his chair, pelted by lipsticks, with his palms over his eyes and Tonya Rice’s delicate little hand on his shoulder, if only in the form of a daydream.

He had the fleeting thought that Life was a beautiful and meaningless thing and if only he could capture a sense of that adequately on paper, he wouldn’t give a toss about having to give up the idea of having that ridiculous boat.

-March 1998

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