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Authors: David Bergen

The matter with morris

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DAVIDBERGEN

The Matter with Morris

A NOVEL

Dedication

To LarryParce que c’est toi, parce que c’est moi.

Epigraph“Oh, for a change of heart,a change of heart—a true change of heart!”SAUL BELLOW,HERZOG

Contents

Cover

Title Page

Dedication

Epigraph

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Acknowledgements

P.S. Ideas, interviews & features

About the author

About the book

Read on

Copyright

About the Publisher

1

Morris Schutt, aged fifty-one, was a syndicated journalist, well liked and read by many, who wrote a weekly column in which he described the life of a fifty-one-year-old man who drove a Jaguar, was married to a psychiatrist, played pickup basketball, showed a fondness for Jewish novelists, suffered mildly from tinnitus, had sex once or twice a week depending on how much wine he and his wife drank, and who cared for his mother, a hypochondriac and a borderline narcoleptic. There was a son as well, who had just turned twenty and who coloured his mother’s hair every six weeks. He was a gentle, slothful boy. He had tried university, disliked it, and dropped out. He played online poker. He smoked too much weed. There was some concern that he might be dealing, though there were worse things than selling dope—like accosting old women and stealing their purses, or having sex with animals. Morris longed for the true and the beautiful and the good in his column, and though he could not be certain, he anticipated that we are saved by hope. Readers responded with hopeful thoughts. They appreciatedMorris’s wry take on the world, his sardonic skepticism, his “straight shooting,” his seeming annulment of the private, and his family’s apparent openness. As is the case with most columnists, readers believed that because Morris wrote in the first person, the life he described was his own. They identified with the domestic dramas, the small failures, the financial burdens, and the difficulties of family relationships. Men especially recognized themselves and wrote to Morris as if he were a friend. As is also the case with columnists, Morris did little to dissuade anyone. As a journalist, he knew the fine line that existed between truth and fiction and he felt he was adept at walking that tightrope. Sometimes, however, he was brought up short by his apparent honesty, by his capacity to appear to be revealing the truth when all he was doing was offering the shell of himself. But he understood that he worked in a temporal, modern world, and if he had doubts or took the time to reflect on the thinness of his thoughts, it did not take long for him to push these doubts aside and then to sit down and write another column.

And then Morris’s son joined the army as an infantryman, passed through training in Wainwright, Alberta, and within a year and a half he was deployed to Afghanistan. And he died. And everything changed in Morris’s life. His wife let her hair go grey and she stopped having sex with Morris. She confessed that at night, when she knew that her two daughters and her grandson were safely sleeping, she imagined a dark place she might run to, but there was no place far enough, there was no corner dark enough. AndMorris, who had always cunningly told the world about his private life, began to lose his grasp of himself. The madness trickled into his columns, and in one of the last pieces he wrote in the late summer of 2007, he borrowed overtly from the seventeenth-century mystic Jacob Boehme, and he descended into the second-person voice, alienating many of his readers.

You are like a fugitive.The hardness is fixedand you are on a turning wheel, one part of you striving upwards, the other striving downwards, and you are full of both desire and will. So the wheel spins and has no destination andthere then results the greatest disquietude, comparable to a furious madness, from which results a terrible anguish.You wish to bend time, to pass through it. Of course. You desperately wish to regain your son. Absolutely. You desire him, you want to experience your own reflection, and so you grasp, you lay out crafty plans, you manoeuvre and beg. Yet, to no avail, because your son is dead. The wheel turns and you haveno destination where to arrive.

His agent, Robert, a rational man with a sharp chin and a distrust of anything contemplative, phoned Morris and said that his columns had become too wistful and he told him to retool them. “Everyone’s threatening dismissal. Everyone. You’re killing your cash cow here, Morris.”

“I write what I write,” Morris said. He said that he was not a word processor, that he could not just mass-produce essays on demand. “You have no sense of art.”

“Your own life has seeped too much into these columns,” Robert said. He liked to string together words like “seeped” and “too much.” He smelled a loss of income and he was panicking.

“This is a first for you,” Morris said. “All this time I’ve stolen from my own life, and not happily, I should say. I’ve sold myself to the highest bidder, to readers who are fond of human interest and self-reference and biography. Given them the aging mother who is based on my father, the remote spouse, the son who dyes his mother’s hair, the pot smoking, the fumbled sexuality, the American brother who is a duplicate of my own brother, Samuel, and my grandchild whom I’m not allowed to see. And finally I offered up my dead son, hoping it would bring some peace. All of this, and now you complain about seepage? You are a philistine and you are, contrary to your highfalutin sense of yourself, astonishingly middle class.”

“Before.” Robert paused and then sighed, and Morris imagined him leaning forward as if to convey a secret. “Listen. Before, when you first began writing this column, you were generous. Of course you excavated your own life, but you did it circumspectly, with a kind of mockery. You nailed the truth in a lighthearted manner. Lately, you’ve become too serious. Bleak. Nobody wants to read about unhappiness. What the fuck is all this mysticism?”

“The reader doesn’t mind.”

“But he does. He’s complaining. The letters! Numbers are way down. You’re frightening people. Christ, you’re frighteningme.Take a leave. Sort things out. Better than losing the column completely. You need this column. You need the money. It’ll carry you through to old age. Find a good person to talk to, and when you’re ready to come back, your column will still be here. But take some time.”

Morris closed his eyes, then opened them. “I’ve been thinking that I could just drop out of sight and there could be a note from the editor saying that I have cancer, or that I died quickly, without warning. Perhaps an aneurism.”

“Jesus, Morris. You don’t want to kill yourself. I’ll handle it. It will be done tastefully. Keep writing the columns for yourself and at some point you will pass through this.” His tone was wry. He had read Morris’s piece written in the second-person voice and hadn’t liked it and now he was mimicking him. But gently. He said, “How’s Lucille? You talk to her?”

“We talk. Though not lately. She’s seeing someone else.”

“Youshould find someone else.”

“I have. Ursula.”

“She’s married, Mo. To a dairy farmer. You had her once in a hotel room in Minneapolis. That’s not a relationship. She’s Dutch, for God’s sake. What is it, you like guttural noises?”

“We didn’t have sex. We talked.” Morris was sorry that he had ever told Robert about Ursula. He had confessed it in a moment of weakness, or perhaps he had wanted to appear potent.

“You feed each other poison. This isn’t good. Stop throwing bottles into the sea and think about your column. Your gravy train.”

“I’m tired of talking about myself. I get nothing back. Anyway, Robert, the column’syourgravy train.”

“That’s true, that’s true. I don’t mind admitting it. But I worry about you. I talked to Lucille myself yesterday.”

“Don’t. She’s not part of this.”

“She worries about you. She feels guilty.”

“I can’t be responsible for her guilt. Anyway, you’re my agent, Robert, not my therapist. My private life is none of your concern—not Lucille, not my children, and certainly not Martin.”

“Well, you did offer him up to the public. You wrote about him and you talked about him and you laid him out on a platter. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, but you use people in your column.”

“You think so? This is sobering. Listen, I’m going to hang up and go smoke something illicit. Okay, Robert? I’m hanging up now.” And he did, though there was a squawk from the other end, Robert trying to convince him of something, but he throttled the noise and laid down the phone. He leaned forward and removed his glasses. He was feeling old. His knees were sore. He’d played a game of noon-hour basketball yesterday at the Jewish centre, a collection of young men who were terrifically quick and a few older men like himself who had to measure their output, and who then later in the steam room complained about sex: too much, not enough, too quick, sometimes aborted. The men were Jewish, theymade fun of themselves, they took the world and held it and studied it. They were both generous and hard. Morris wanted to be Jewish. He imagined that this might have made him a more interesting person; more spontaneous, passionate and complicated, though Lucille had already called him complicated in the extreme. (She said that his desire to be Jewish was a secret wish for tenderness and affection. “You’re isolated, Morris. You think that love is over there somewhere, close to the menorah. But maybe it’s right in front of your Russian Mennonite nose.”) She might be right, Morris thought, but she didn’t have to be so smug.

After a dinner of poached pickerel and wild rice, he made himself an espresso and drank it in one shot. Then he rolled a joint and smoked it on his third-floor balcony overlooking the street below. It was warm for September and in the sky to the west dark clouds were piling up. There were girls in tight jeans and sleeveless tops strolling along the sidewalk. Some had boys on their arms, some had big purses, and many had both. The boys were immature; they seemed coltish and awkward and were always half a step behind the girls. On the corner there was a patio bar that was filling up with mostly young people, though there was an older couple, perhaps in their late forties, who had found a distant table. They were drinking red wine and the woman was smoking and leaning towards the man, touching his arm and then stroking his face. Morris experienced an ache in his chest and stepped inside his condo. He sat down at his computer and began a column that was truncated and elliptical and was lifted from Petrarch.

You will stand safely on the shore, watching others being shipwrecked and hearing their cries in silence. The spectacle will indeed arouse your pity; but your own safety, compared with others’ danger, will arouse just as much pleasure. That is why I am sure you will eventually get rid of all your sadness.Just so. But then you will think, What if I am not safe on shore? What if I am in the midst of the wreck? And you will have to reckon with yourself.

He did not write, as he always did, “This is the truth,” which had been the four words with which he had ended every column. This particular piece was unfinished, and in any case, the claim to truth was fraudulent. He’d known this from the beginning, when he had first typed those closing words, but some greater force had guided him. Everyone—his readers, his editors, those who wrote letters back to him—all of them liked that he announced the truth. Only his family rebuked him. Lucille had said that he was exploiting those who loved him. She no longer wanted to be fodder for his writing. He’d argued that if he did not use what was in front of him, the clay of his own life, then he would have nothing to say. “Use your imagination,” Lucille said. She had an office on the fifteenth floor of a downtown corporate building and she would come home and tell Morris about her patients. Though these people remained nameless, they were very real. There was the man who couldn’t have sex unless he was wearing a red dress. The woman who kept changing her identity, using the phone book to discover new names. The adolescent boy who tried to kill his father as heslept. And there were those, ordinary people like him, who were overwhelmed by staying alive. They were addicted to the material, to commerce, to the comfort of stuff. The world was mad. He had used Lucille’s stories, the people she worked with, as a taking-off point for much of his earlier writing. Very much disguised, these people had entered his column. And then there came the day—he can still remember the tiny quiver of recognition—when he began to use his own life, and though he suspected he was betraying his family, he saw himself harnessed to some great fated and unguided wagon. The astounding fact was that his readership grew. People were hungry for the personal and the private. He offered himself up as if he were both Abraham and Isaac, and he laid himself out on the altar and took up the knife as if to slay himself. And how he had succeeded.

Morris stepped back out onto his balcony and surveyed the street and the patio of the restaurant. The couple he had seen earlier must have just left, because their table was cluttered with dishes and napkins and the edge of the bill fluttered in the breeze. He examined the sidewalk, looking for them. He imagined that they would be heading home, that dinner and wine would be a prelude to a shot of liqueur or a glass of Scotch, which would lead to slow kissing and a removal of clothing and the sex that had been on their minds all evening. A couple of years ago he used to live like that. Now, he augmented his life with novels, occasional truncated sexual escapades, buttertarts, Petrarch, and long evening walks that led him into the depths of a city where two muddy rivers met, where the homeless slept under bridges, and where cars slipped silently by, their occupants vague shadows. There were times, as he came upon another pedestrian, that he willed eye contact, and when this happened the connection was brief, a quick glance and then a turning away. Perhaps he was too forceful, his head too large; perhaps he appeared as just another derelict in a silent city. He found that as he walked his anxiety was released. Past the wide grounds surrounding the legislative building, the late-night coffee shops, stopping at the corner store where an elderly Korean woman in a pale yellow shift read from her Bible, and on down into the guts of the city where young people swam in and out of nightclubs and drunks gathered outside the Occidental Hotel, parrying, sharing cigarettes and ribald stories.

Not long after Martin died, Morris, in a painful and irrational attempt to justify his son’s death, had begun to stop people on the street and ask them, “Are you free?” It was not a casual question; in fact, it was a hard-found query, full of irony. Using the convoluted logic of politicians and generals, Morris reasoned thus: (1) Freedom is everything. (2) We are in danger of losing our freedom. (3) Our freedom must be defended. (4) We must seek young men to defend that freedom. (5) The young men will die doing so. (6) But they will preserve our liberty. (7) Therefore, we are free. And so Morris began to ask the question “Are you free?” which did not go well, because people misunderstood, thinking that they were being asked if they had a moment to talk, or as one young man said, backing up, “Get lost, fag.”And then Morris began to ask, “Do you have freedom?” and this too was difficult, but it was both general and personal enough to make people think. Or so he thought. “Sir, sir, do you have a minute?” he asked a man in a suit carrying a briefcase near the Trizec Building at the corner of Portage and Main, certainly a banker or a lawyer, and when the man paused and Morris asked the question, the man shook his flat head and he moved on. Morris looked down at himself as if to understand whether he looked like a panhandler, or appeared to be mad. He was wearing jeans and a dark jacket. He had shaved, though he might have looked a little grey around the jaw. He attempted to talk to several more people, two women and an older man, but they too snubbed him, although the man, bald and with rheumy eyes, did say that he would be free when he won the lottery. Morris discovered that an answer, any answer, was more possible if he approached those working as the slaves of modern society: waitresses, bank tellers, the barista at Second Cup, taxi drivers. He also learned to couch the question in less obvious ways, as an offhand curiosity, or as part of a random survey. A few people patronized him but most thought him foolish. He was astounded by the indignation, the lack of thought. Of the two people who talked to him at length, one was a drunk standing outside the Sherbrook Inn, the other was a young man on a bicycle to whom Morris offered one hundred dollars to answer one question. The young man refused the money with a smile. He was a Christian, he said. And then he proceeded, over the next half-hour, to try to convert Morris.

Lucille, when she discovered what he was doing, said that of course no one, absolutely no one, would answer that kind of question, especially when it was asked by some stranger on a city bus. “People are just trying to make it through the day. They don’t want to be accosted,” she said.

“But it was Martin, and boys like Martin, who made it easier for those people to make it through the day. Martin died so that Ian, our neighbour, could buy a new Lexus every spring. So that your cousin Annalena could send her daughter to Juilliard. So that Libby can be free to choose what colour of iPod she wants.”

“Or so that,” Lucille said, “as a girl, Libby can choose whether or not to suffer circumcision. Or to be educated.”

“Oh, Jesus Christ, come on. It was the Muslims who saved Plato’s writing from the Christian fanatics.”

“You’re sad and angry, Morris, and you’re taking it out on complete strangers.” She said she worried about him.

And still she worries, Morris thought. He sighed, went inside, picked up the phone, and dialled home. Libby picked up.

“It’s me,” Morris said.

“Hi, Dad.”

“What are you doing?” “Studying bio.”

“What’s that background noise?” “TV. My iPod.”

“Okay.”

The girl was wildly talented. She was eighteen, in grade twelve, and she had none of her father’s greed and calumny, or her mother’s severity. She was interested in fish and marinelife. Morris liked to call her Cousteau, a nickname she accepted with equanimity. The truth was that he had never used Libby in any of his columns, and he never would, though she would be the least likely to complain. She was innocent; a stark contrast to her brother, Martin, and her older sister, Meredith, who was twenty-five and angry and full of entitlement. Meredith lived with a younger man named Glen who disliked Morris. Or perhaps Glen was afraid of him. One couldn’t be certain, though he thought that Glen was doltish and immature and had every reason to fear his girlfriend’s father. Glen and Meredith had a child, a son of four, whom Morris adored, but he could only adore him from a distance. In a column, written almost a year ago, he had talked with affection about his grandson, Jake, and then he had described Glen as rabbit-like, soft and pale with a curious nose that twitched. When he wrote the column he had believed that it was more humorous than withering, but Meredith was furious and cut him off from seeing Jake. If he saw his grandson at all now, it was when Lucille had him and Morris happened to drop by. Mystified by his daughter’s anger, he had refused to understand the strife he had caused. He missed the boy and now, on the phone, he thought he heard Jake in the background.

“Is Meredith there?” he asked.

“She is,” Libby said.

“With Jake?”

Libby said yes. She said that Glen was there as well. Morris heard the warning in her voice and he suffered a moment of empathy for her. She shouldn’t have to be privy to all this nonsense.

“Give Jake a hug, okay. Tell him it’s from Grandpa.” “I will.” Libby’s voice was soft and low. “What’s up?” she asked.

“Just checking in. Doing a father’s job. How are you?” He wanted to keep her on the phone, hear her voice. She was the only one in his life who did not judge him, who did not see something dire in him, who did not want to wring repentance from him.

“I’m good.”

“School?”

“Good.”

“You still seeing that Mr. McKibben?”

“His name’s Shane. He’s actually a doctor of English, Dad. And we aren’tseeingeach other. He’s just a friend.”

“Of course. That’s what I meant. It’s just, now that you’re over there and I’m here, I don’t know what’s going on. Not as much.” He stopped talking, aware that he was asking for more than she wanted to give. Mr. McKibben was an older man, almost twice her age, who was a professor of English at the university, and Morris knew that they spent time together and were perhaps having sex. This worried him. Several times he had dropped by the university and gone to the English department in order to talk to the man, but all he’d discovered was a closed door and on the door the man’s name: Shane McKibben. One time, late on a Thursday after his men’s group, a sliver of light showed from under the door and he’d knocked and called out, but no one answered. He’d scribbled a note on a scrap of paper. He wrote:

Mr. McKibben, my name is Morris Schutt and I believe you are spending time with my daughter Libby, who is eighteen and in grade twelve. How old are you, Mr. McKibben? What do you imagine can come of this relationship other than some superior damage to my daughter? I am not threatening you, Mr. McKibben, I am simply advising and my advice is that you gently and kindly tell my daughter that you have made a mistake and that you will not see her again. Thank you. Morris Schutt.

Such restraint and decorum. He was pleased with himself. He folded the paper and slipped it under the door and then went down on his hands and knees to see if there was indeed someone in the room, if he might be able to glimpse a passing shadow. He saw nothing. He had expected that Shane would tell Libby about the note, but she said nothing. And they still kept seeing each other. Now, hearing his daughter say that she was only a friend with Dr. McKibben, Morris held back any speech he might have prepared and he said, “The debating team? That going well?”

She made a sound that was soft and very Libby-like, and he imagined that she was busy with something electronic, perhaps looking for a song, or texting someone, maybe sending Shane a message. He felt himself sink as he recognized that she might be pitying him.

“Is your mother there?”

“Hang on.”

He heard her holler and then there was silence and finally the static of the phone being handed over and Lucille said,“Don’t you have your men’s club tonight?” She sounded breathless, disappointed, as if she’d run a long distance, anticipating perhaps someone else.

“Tomorrow night. Thursday. And it’s a men’s group, not a club. Robert called. He said that my columns have become wistful and disjointed.”

“Yes?”

“He said he talked to you.” “He did. Yesterday.”

“So you knew this already. You knew I was being laid off and you didn’t let me know.”

“Morris, you aren’t laid off. A hiatus—that’s what they’re calling it.”

“And you agree? That I’m wistful?”

“Did I say that? I never did. You know I don’t read your column anymore. I don’t need to read fiction that is passed off as truth. I don’t need to read about myself. Meredith was right to challenge you.”

“How long do you think she’ll stay angry? I miss Jake.”

“You might try apologizing. Talking to her. And then talking to Glen and showing some kindness to him. Don’t you get lonely, Morris? I feel for you.”

“Don’t,” he said. “I don’t need your amazing capacity to pretend to understand. And as far as the column goes, I told Robert that I was finished. I won’t be writing anymore.”

“I wonder sometimes.” Lucille’s tone crept upwards, ever so slightly, and Morris knew that she was standing, back arched, chin raised, with her left hand, the one free of the phone, held out from her body, bent a little, as if to ward offa blow. “I wonder if that woman hadn’t lost her son, if you hadn’t corresponded with her, if I had been more vigilant, if I hadn’t settled into my own sadness, and if I had forgiven you, whether we would still be living in the same house.”

“That’s such an interesting word,” Morris said.“If.”

“Why can’t you answer the question, Mo? Why can’t you dip a little into your thinking? Are you thinking?”

“Too much. Though my thinking is shallow. I have to think about my thinking.”

“And you don’t cry.” Lucille’s voice was softer now, as if she had sat down. He imagined her in the kitchen, or perhaps the soft red-leather chair in the den. “What will you do?” she asked. “It isn’t good for you to have all this time. You’re only fifty-one, Morris.”

“Oh, I’ll keep writing my columns for myself. Bob said that at some point I would move past the nonsense and rediscover the path of righteousness. The money path, as he calls it. He’s a parasite.”

Lucille ignored this. “You’re taking Libby out for lunch Saturday. Don’t forget.”

“Hnnh. I remember.” He studied his hand and said, “My right palm is all flaky. There’re cracks on my fingertips, sometimes they bleed.”

“Go to a clinic. It might be eczema.”

“It was way easier when we lived together, don’t you think? We’d play doctor. Give Jake a hug from me, okay?”

“I do. I always do. Lunch on Saturday. Pick Libby up at noon. Bye, Morris.” And she hung up.

Ursula was an American woman who wanted to be but was not yet his lover. She was six years younger than he was and he had come to know her in December of 2006, when she sent him a letter in response to one of his syndicated columns that he had written ten months after his son died. The column, one of the hardest he had ever written, and something he had put off for a long time, had been about a young soldier who was killed in Afghanistan. He had described the soldier’s fear and his bravery, and he had referred to the boy’s e-mails and phone calls to his parents in which he had talked about the good that the army was doing. He had also mentioned his own fear and the boy’s doubt, the sense that people at home didn’t truly believe or support what the soldiers were doing. “There are times, Dad, whenI’mnot even sure. I get scared, Dad. Scared that I’m going to be killed over here.” The whole column was written in the third person, and only at the end did Morris write, “This boy? This beautiful twenty-year-old with his life ahead of him? This boy who was killed? This was my son.”

He received Ursula’s letter via his agent. She wrote:

Dear Mr. Schutt,My name is Ursula Frank and I live on a dairy farm two hours from Minneapolis. This is not far from where you live, and though an international borderseparates us, I feel very close to you today. I just finished reading your column about your son who was killed in Afghanistan. My heart broke as you described your son’s death. I also had a son who was killed during the war, only he was in Iraq. His name was Harley. He was nineteen and he was killed last year by a bomb that exploded underneath the Humvee he was driving. He died immediately. When I heard about my son’s death and felt that first wave of shock, and then waited and waited and finally watched his casket being lowered from the transport plane, all of that was easy compared to what came after, and that’s why I’m writing you. It’s amazing to hear from someone who has lost a son to war like me and who is able to write about it in such a public way. I’ve read your column before but I’ve never thought, Oh, I should write him. And then, when I read your last column, I felt that you were sitting right beside me, telling me the story of your son. I’m not sure how to talk about your son or how to talk to you. Oh, I know that you are famous and that I’m just small fry and that you probably won’t even read this letter, but I wanted to send it, I wanted to write it on actual paper, using a pen, and I wanted to fold it and push it into an envelope and put a stamp on the envelope and drop it into a mailbox. These small things are what save me these days from my constant fear. Even though the worst thing that can happen has happened, the death of my child, I’m still very angry.And I’m afraid. In your article you mentioned the word “fear” and I thought to myself, Oh, he might be afraid as well. Is that true? Thank you for listening.
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