Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence
Swimming Upstream

 
For the first time in years, the young writer decides to wear a suit. She's worth it - and, he knows, would expect nothing less. If he were to show up in his "uniform," Levi's and leather jacket, she'd upbraid him with a simple crook of her chin, and, from there, the entire meeting would be shot to hell. Kaput. Smiling in the mirror, one hand on his tie, he tries for a Windsor knot, succeeds, and then sings her name with reverence. Ivy Taylor. Itself a love song. Not that he's attracted to her - after all, she has to be in her late forties, a little real estate on the backside - but he can't explain the lightheadedness away as apprehension. Nervous? Fuck no! She's the one who had extended the invitation. Would she tolerate the surprise? Maybe. Maybe not. He can't afford to torture himself with possibility. A lyric pops into his head: If you want the truth, blind man, go downtown and ask Tiresias. He draws out each syllable: Tie-ree-see-ass. Then he says it again, in the vernacular, grabbing the last syllable, lingering as he knows to linger. Over the phone, they can never tell. The name changed on the manuscript, they can never tell. He is a mimic of epic proportions. Not disrespectful, you understand - no embarrassing White boy's hip-hop-rasta-patois. Just a subtle tinkering of vowels, a studied formality, enough to be identified as an "articulate ethnic" by racist Anglos who are sure that a well-spoken person of color is an exception to the rule. Sometimes he gets so caught up in the pretending he closes his eyes and thinks of all the adjectives he can use to describe his skin color: chocolate, caramel, cinnamon, espresso, mocha, cappuccino, café au lait, chestnut, kola nut - sweet sweets every one.

Is it wrong? Not one hundred percent wrong. You don't take chances, you don't get anywhere.

She had taken chances. One year ago, Ms. Taylor had won the National Book Award for her novel Blackberries and Cream, in which she satirized the lives of wealthy African-Americans living in Manhattan. When the reviewers claimed that her characters were modeled after Very Famous People, stores couldn't keep the book in stock. Circuits buzzed. Everyone raved. Still, she had taken some heat from the usual quarters. Angry revolutionaries and Third World intellectuals barked about "tearing us down when she should be building us up," and penned other catchy phrases, all vituperative, all piss and vinegar. They even got on her for growing up middle-class, as if that delegitimized her color. But Ivy ignored them. Stood her ground. He pulls words from her silence: I refuse to write for the approval of others. Today, such integrity is nearly impossible to find. Yeah, he muses, feeling a little drunk, slipping his arms into his coat, Ms. Taylor deserves the suit.

Trying his best to accentuate the curl, the writer combs his hair and contemplates last week's phone call. What had her assistant said, exactly? Ms. Taylor requests the honor of your presence at the St. Francis Hotel. No, it wasn't a wedding invitation. He reconsiders the phrasing: Ms. Taylor will be in San Francisco on the nineteenth. She'd like to know if you’d be available to meet her for coffee and dessert. He had been stunned. It was just like the movies - peasant meets queen - Oliver Twist (or, in his case, Tevye the milkman) chats up Cleopatra. He must have sounded like Jimmy Stewart, stuttering good-naturedly, "She w-w-w-ants to see m-m-me?" "Yes sir," volleyed the voice, crisp as fall apple. The elation he would normally have felt sunk, momentarily, into fear. She had done so much for him - why destroy the illusion he had created, especially after she had said she felt "a kinship" with him? It would only hurt her, make her a fool. But a refusal would be worse. Better to get it over with, and, as his aunt would say, "face the music." Quickly, he had answered, "Yes, I'd like that very much," and the assistant had filled him in on the details. Barring any last-minute cancellations, the game was over.

The writer visits his kitchen with the intent of eating something; yet, as he stands before the open cupboard, playing with his cufflinks, food loses all meaning. As he has said many times, to those he thinks deserving: only writing matters. You can distract hunger with a few fancy words, the turn of a phrase, an extended metaphor, but literature will out. You can't hide from the truth of literary fiction (what beautiful irony, that only a constructed lie tells it like it is). The writer devotes so much to his craft - every word a jewel, every sentence a string of pearls - for good reason. William Carlos Williams was wrong. Nothing depends on a wheel barrow. Everything depends on literature. Politicians, doctors, military men, members of the clergy - all full of shit. But writers! Exposing corruption, limning souls, all the while living excremental lives, stacking up the rejections, barely grazing the margins with a finger, like drowning swimmers clinging to a raft. The question: so long as his work rang true, why should anyone care about his ancestry?

Another, more difficult question surfaces as the writer leaves his apartment and locks the door. If his background means nothing, why change his name in the first place? His answer comes swiftly: because she wouldn't have given the manuscript the time of day. She would have read his last name (a few hundred years ago it would have been a patronymic - Michael Son of Gabe), cringed, and tossed his string of pearls into the trash. "Swimming Upstream" would have been pelted with coffee grounds, orange pulp, bacon fat, cracker crumbs. As he reminds himself daily, broken rules and higher purposes are not mutually exclusive.

Once in his car, the writer thinks it might be good to soften the blow. Why not get her a gift? Nothing overdone or involved, but a nice token, a preemptive strike, a way of saying "thank you." He drives from Lake Merritt to a flower shop on Grand Avenue. Inside, the black flower seller shakes water from a half dozen irises, dresses them with baby's breath, wraps them in a paper cone, and hands them to his customer, who watches him intensely. Is that Sonny Rollins on the radio? "St. Thomas," right? Can that cat swing, or what? As the florist rings up the sale, the writer feels that they have just managed some sort of connection. He can't really explain it. He wants to tell him, "I may not be exactly like you, but because of the way you hold yourself, I think I understand you." The writer grips this intangible as tightly as he grips his bouquet. These are exactly the kinds of insights (along with volumes of Toomer, Ellison, Baldwin, Morrison) that propel him to write.

He imagines himself to be a black man selling flowers in north Oakland, just as he had, in "Swimming Upstream," assumed the voice of an elderly black preacher trying to extricate himself from his parishioners' sins. In the process, he finds he has had to come to terms with his own desires and, in many cases, to ignore them for days at a time. His characters' struggles seem more poetic, their language richer. He lives through them rather than vice versa.
 
Since he has abandoned writing the familiar, he finds the work more demanding than ever. Before, it was easy: the characters, always comprising a family, ate at the dinner table. The uncle, a professor, sobbed over the Dodgers' move from Brooklyn - the grandfather, a closet socialist, talked of retail. A dyspeptic borscht-eating aunt gestured passionately. A 'melon-breasted' sister with DKNY on the brain sifted through a Louis Vuitton purse to find her lipstick. A senile grandmother reached for the chopped herring and accused her grandchild of conspiring with Joseph Mengele.

Now, as he documents other cultures, he feels he has to be more careful, and infinitely more reverent. He has fought to be taken seriously. And, because of the manuscript he sent to his idol, he is. Among the few thousand people he estimates read his piece in the prestigious Manhattan Review, he has (the word is magical) promise. Ms. Taylor had written: "It is rare that a young person of twenty-six can so ably capture the mannerisms and nuances of an old man three times his age. Mr. Key, I was startled by your facility with language, and would be more than happy to find an outlet for your work."

When "Swimming Upstream" appeared in the Review, he felt that his characters' truths had superseded his own. At the same time, he hadn't been so humble as to deny the possibility of his gift (he had no interest in playing the "who me?" routine - it would have been disingenuous). Ivy Taylor may have helped, but her applause could only keep the curtains open for so long. Wasn't the story up-to-par with the others the Review had recently published? Hadn't his editor told him that a "publisher friend" of hers had expressed some interest in him? At first, it surprised him, but then he thought about it. He took pains to avoid the "gritty urban realism" prominent in so much of what he had seen published by status-driven Caucasians whose careers depended on exploiting the Hip. Hypocrites! J’accuse! says the writer. Talk about Blaxploitation! It was his intention to present another side of African-American life, one in which characters were more than alienated homeboys and crackhead welfare queens disappearing in oceans of denim and fucking and killing their way around Compton and Cabrini Green. This nameless "publisher friend," whoever he or she had been, had simply responded to the need for something fresh. "You've given us some real people," wrote Ivy Taylor, "what a relief from all of the Johnny-One-Notes.”
The writer leaves the flower shop hoping his transition from Mr. Key to Mr. Kovler won't undercut her praise.
 
Despite the writer's wishes, traffic on the bridge is light. It takes barely ten minutes to get downtown; he has another half hour to kill until their appointment. He drives from south of Market to Union Square and searches for parking, but the street gives him nothing. Tired of climbing hills, he allows himself a rare treat and has his car valet-parked in the St. Francis garage. For the first time, he admits to nervous discomfort. The tie is a vise around his neck. As he rides the elevator up to the hotel, he visualizes the most optimistic scenario. "Oh, well, that was a good one you played on me, wasn’t it? I would never have guessed!" Or, "I understand what you must be feeling. If you'd like to use a pseudonym, that's all right with me."

Changing his name for the purpose of selling his work had probably been the most disturbing part of the whole experience. It was worse than writing the letter to Ms. Taylor. When he had finally held a copy of the published story in his hand, and had seen the credit attributed to a cipher - a ghostly nothing - he had felt cheated. Who the fuck was Damon Key, anyway? Almost as grating is the five-hundred-dollar check he can't cash. During a few desperate hours he had considered revealing his indiscretion to the Review's editor, going so far as to call her at work one Friday afternoon. But when she picked up the line, he demurred, choosing instead to thank her once again for all she had done for him. He had hung up the phone, disgusted. Soon after, though, he convinced himself to see the change as part of a leap toward immortality. Why did it have to be selling out? Had Samuel Clemens thought of it like that?

The writer has difficulty leaving the elevator for the lobby; an elderly woman, twisted over her walker like a circus contortionist, unknowingly prevents him from stepping forward. When he finally manages to squeeze between her and a thick-necked businessman - his shoulder poking forward - he bumps into another woman who has just turned the corner.

"Sorry," he mumbles.

"I beg your pardon," the woman says, smoothing her dress, as if their collision had dirtied the fabric.

The writer stares at the curl plastered like a shiny fish hook onto her forehead. As he prepares to apologize for the second time, he notices the woman's friend, whose lips fasten into a smirk. With recognition comes complete shock. He's not prepared for the immediacy of her famous face, the one he has worshiped on the dust jacket. Her high cheekbones are like butterfly wings on either side of her regal, African nose, and her chin angles upward just enough to give her an air of sophistication. He had not thought her so attractive.

“Please excuse my friend." She touches his shoulder. "That girl's in love with herself today."

Before he can respond, the two walk away, laughing. He closes his eyes and imagines exiting the elevator again, without incident. Ms. Taylor will not be pleased to know she has revealed her lighter side to him. He feels like a groom who has seen his bride an hour before joining her at the altar. If only he hadn't been so impatient, if only he had waited to use the elevator . . . Like William Collier says, in "Swimming Upstream," No matter how much I've accomplished in my life, I still get that fool' s notion - that I'm fated to walk onstage at the wrong moment, that I'll get out in front of my people and start flapping my arms like they were wings, and they'll see that the man they've trusted for all these years has nothing to give them but a few tired lines of Scripture.
 
The restaurant. Fenced off from the lobby by art deco railing. A rich person's internment camp. Potted ferns hanging over silver-haired ladies, accountants chewing ice, a slack-jawed pianist launching into "I Got it Bad (and That Ain't Good)." The writer glides toward the maître d', his dress shoes light as pastry flake over the expensive carpet.

"Yes?"

He clears his throat, suddenly remembering that he's left the flowers on the passenger seat. "I'm supposed to meet Ivy Taylor here."

"If you'll follow me." He sees her. She's sitting without the friend, a napkin tucked into her plum-colored blouse, a bowl heaped with ice cream on the table (why has she started without him?). Behind her are bay windows overlooking a large slice of city. The maître d' speaks a plain, Midwestern English - "Your party's here, Ma'am," - and leaves.

The writer is fooled by Ms. Taylor's smile. No, he corrects himself, she is fooled by her smile.

"Nice to see you again," she says plainly, as though she's reciting her social security number.

He guesses what she's thinking: He's finally realized who I am and wants an autograph. "Ms. Taylor. Hi. I'm a big fan."

She nods. "Well, thank you, Sir."

"And I know that you must be a very busy woman, but I wanted to get your opinion about something."

"Uh-huh." She eyes him suspiciously now, with one careful eyebrow cocked for craziness.

"If you don't mind answering, what do you think about Harriet Beecher Stowe? Do you think she had the authority to write about what she did?"

"Ms. Stowe was a very brave woman."

"It doesn't bother you that she wrote African-American characters?"

"Listen, I don't know what your name is - " she pauses. He declines the opportunity to introduce himself. " - but, as they say, that was then. At the time, Ms. Stowe was right to speak out against slavery in the way that she did. Now, things are different. I'd like to think, if she were alive now, she'd know not to write Uncle Tom. It's not her place. You see what I'm saying?"

The writer knows that there is no way out of what he's entered. He tries to drink in the last few drops of her graciousness. "Ms. Taylor," he swallows, "I'm Damon Key."

Her face withers like a balloon releasing air. "No you're not."

Grinning from discomfort, the writer nods.

"You're not Damon Key."

"I am." He watches her blink. The muscles in her neck tense; she looks as though she's digesting a Hyundai along with her dessert. Ms. Taylor understands, he thinks.

"Sit down." She pushes the bowl away, violently. "I think you should order something."

"Ms. Taylor - "

"No" - she motions to the waiter, bracelets clanging around her wrist - "why don't you tell the man what you want?"

The writer can barely remember what he has just ordered, he thinks it's pie. He's too busy gauging her anger. Her entire forehead seems to lower; her eyebrows arch toward the flattened bridge of her nose. The writer understands that his prospects are narrowing.

She leans back in her chair, holding the cloth napkin like a dagger. She whispers, so softly he can barely hear: Sonofabitch. Then her voice rises. "After everything I did!" She pauses. He thinks she will start to cry. She doesn't. She folds her arms beneath her chest, and starts the interrogation. "Damon Key is not a black man."

"No."

"What is he, then? Italian?"

"No."

"What then?"

"What do you mean?"

"Well, you must be something."

He can barely get the word out; it's like an infection. "Jewish."

"So why not write about being Jewish?"

"It doesn't work. I've tried." The writer knows he's losing and lies, clumsily. "Editors are like sniffing dogs! They see a Yiddish word crawling across the page, it's cuffed and deported. Straight to Tijuana jail!"

She sneers. "Why should you need any language other than your own? It's you who's trapped, not the possibilities."

"Ms. Taylor," he pleads with her, "I don't want to be limited to writing about where I came from. That's so provincial. I'm not a rabbi. Can't you understand? I'm third-generation American. And anyway, what's wrong with what I did? I wrote something worthwhile, remember? 'Swimming Upstream.' You said you were moved. You helped see it to print. Was that bullshit? I mean, were you being insincere?"

She's stoic, save for the implication of her folded arms. The writer notices her vanilla ice-cream puddling in its bowl; in fact, his authorial powers of observation tell him it's vanilla bean - flecks of pale black in a melting sea of white. Instinctively, he looks down at his skin, and then lifts his head to silence. He knows she's smart enough to pause before she speaks to make her wisdom all the wiser. A dramatist's gimmick. "What you write about is your business. If you want to pretend you're Puerto Rican, Ukrainian, Dominican, Chinese, a dolphin, a cat, a Martian, a toaster, that's fine, but - "

"That's fiction," he affirms, interrupting her. "It's exactly the point."

"What's your real name?" she asks, brown eyes wide and searching, almost vulnerable.

Why is she avoiding the question? "Michael Kovler."

"Michael Kovler, you're not Harriet Beecher Stowe, and we don't need you to speak for us."

"That wasn't my intention. I spoke for William Collier, not the entire race."

"You lied."

Again, she's changing the subject! "That's only half-true."

"Or worse, you write your own world into the grave."

He shoves what might be the truth of her accusation out of his mind, as if it's poison, and tries a final appeal, hoping she'll acknowledge the depth of his emotion. "But I feel it so deeply, Ivy, I mean Ms. Taylor, you don't know. I've always wanted ... well let me rephrase this. I don't want to be accused of being patronizing, but I've always felt that I can understand, at least part of the way, what it means - "

She slaps the table with her hand. "Please don't go on. It would be better for both of us."

He wants to disappear. She's disgraced him. The only reason she lingers is to drag out the torture, make drama. She with books translated into fifteen languages, she with second and third and fourth printings. Too frightened to leave, he stares out at the city - whose buildings look like metal torsos, human stumps - and finishes the wide angle of pie in front of him. He feels he's been treated unfairly. He doesn't want absolution for deceiving her, he just wants her to admit that her limits are political - not rational.

With her dessert finished, Ivy Taylor, playing, he thinks, the part of wronged wife, stands before him, a burgundy satchel like an emergency suitcase in her hand, and offers the martyr's devastating blow: "Don't ever contact me again, you understand?"

Michael watches her leave - her every step asserting betrayal - convinced that she's unable to face the truth. How would he describe the pie, he wonders, if he were to write the episode as fiction, from the point of view of Ivy Taylor? How would the crust and syrup-soaked peaches taste to a young Jew who had tried to write his own world into the grave?