Notes: This is a fragment from a project I worked on several years ago called the Glum Estate about a group of siblings that return home after their famous, eccentric, insane mother dies. I have a lot of material for it and expect that someday I will revisit the concept but when I do, I will probably re-write most of it. I’m left with several orphaned fragments that are perfect for this site while I continue to polish and post more current material. Hope you enjoy! –Erik
When the call came Whitman Glum was staring at a blinking cursor, an expanse of white space, in dark blue flannel pajama pants, a t-shirt, midnight stubble and nothing to write. Whitman Glum, the acclaimed author of Penelope’s Lesson, After Louisiana and other Stories, heralded as a “bold new voice” in a 1997 issue of Atlantic Monthly, profiled in Vanity Fair, Harper’s and Rolling Stone, a Rhodes Scholar, and a brief tabloid sensation during his 6 week courtship with post-Pulp Fiction Uma Thurman; peaked in his mid-thirties and increasing terrified of his own creative obituary. He imagined the words “redundant” and “gratuitous” in scathing reviews. He imagined literary mediocrity.
It was Emily that answered the phone and padded in bare feet to Whitman’s study to tell him the news. With one hand on her pregnant belly the other holding Whitman’s cell phone, Emily said, “it’s Cordelia, Whitman. It’s your mother.”
“I’m working,” Whitman lied.
At breakfast that morning Whitman folded a cloth napkin on his lap expectantly, looking across the table at Abigail Minerva, Joseph Pritchard and Horace DeWitt and insisted it was not a writer’s block. He didn’t believe in writer’s block.
They were at Le Table, a white gold and silver slightly French restaurant and wine bar. The three deans sat on the inside of a C shaped table, leaving Whitman on the sharp outer edge looking in at them, huddled and ready.
“Let’s not quibble over terminology, Whitman,” Pritchard said coolly. They had intimidating names, names that could have been picked from a long lost rum soaked Fitzgerald manuscript. They had premeditated mannerisms and looked nearly identical to their portrait photographs framed and on display in Kniesley Hall. Narrow Joe Pritchard in his tweed three piece suit sipped from his tea. He dabbed his napkin against his pale hairless upper lip. He drank everything like it was a fine scotch.
“The fact remains that we have expectations that are not being met,” Abigail continued. She was a cruel caricature of an academic woman; brilliant, competitive, brutal. She was small, dark haired and never laughed in public.
“I have produced work,” Whitman responded defensively. He had not been sure what would await him when the three deans invited him for breakfast but imagined the topic of his sophomore novel would be broached.
“Shit,” Horace spat.
“Excuse me?” Whitman turned his attention to the youngest but most imposing dean. Horace DeWitt was built like a professional football player and got literary awards and honorary degrees for his essays, novels, notes to the gardener and shopping lists. He’d been invited to the White House to discuss literature with two presidents and had once stopped a mugging on the New York City subway by breaking the mugger’s arm with his bare hands. He was a physical and intellectual titan. His skin was a rich coffee black and had long hair falling past his shoulders. During Whitman’s first year at the Hollister Academy he’d heard the story of an instructor that found Horace in flagrante delicto with his wife. The instructor apologized to Horace.
“Shit,” Horace repeated. “You’ve produced shit.”
“The academic essays, the vignettes-“ Abigail began.
“Short stories,” Whitman corrected. “Short fiction. Published in popular and significant journals. That will be collected, anthologized.”
“Yes,” Pritchard said. “But of more pressing interest to us is an overdue full length manuscript.”
“You see, Whitman, Hollister has made an investment in you and we are becoming concerned,” Abigail continued.
“Brilliant novels can’t be produced overnight,” Whitman defended.
“Eight years,” DeWitt said. “You’ve been at Hollister for eight years and in that time you’ve published a book of self indulgent essays and a half dozen stories.”
“You’ve been given sabbatical,” Pritchard reminded him, referring to Whitman’s six month journey through Mongolia and two years later the eight months he lived in Athens.
“An assistant,” DeWitt added.
“In addition to your 4 months of vacation annually, we have reduced your class load and adjusted your schedule so that you would have one additional day a week for your creative pursuits,” Abigail told him. “And we have been nothing but disappointed by the results of this generosity.”
“I’ve been working on it,” Whitman told them. “I have.” He felt like a small child confronted the morning after wetting his bed.
“You need to work faster,” DeWitt informed him.
“Whitman, this will be your last academic year at Hollister if you are unable to sufficiently live up to the profile expected of you,” Joe Pritchard said bluntly.
“That’s six months,” Whitman said. “That’s impossible.”
“Hollister Academy is among the most prestigious and renowned college preparatory boarding schools in the world. Our student body includes the children of senators, congressmen, cabinet members, foreign dignitaries and the presidents of Ivy League universities,” Abigail said. “There are expectations the parents, students and alumni have of our faculty. If you are unable to meet those expectations there are other candidates that will.”
“If you are able to present to us a manuscript draft and details on an upcoming publication date by July first, you will be retained,” Pritchard advised. “Failing that…”
DeWitt stood up abruptly. “Maybe you can find a position at a nice state university.”
The three deans were not the first to demand Whitman’s sophomore opus. He had been given similar though less direct demands from his agent, his publisher, the webmaster of his fan site, two of his assistants, the owner of a favorite local bookstore and an angry fan in the Pittsburgh airport that threw a half eaten gyro at him before yelling, “where’s the fucking book at?”
On the phone ten minutes after the deans left him with his cold fennel egg white omelet and pomegranate juice, Emily tried to reassure him. “Whitman, I don’t care where we live and where you work. I just want you to be happy. I support you unconditionally.”
“It’s not about that,” Whitman tried to explain to her. Beautiful pregnant supportive Emily.
“What’s it about, Whitman? What do you want to do? We can do it. Together we can do it.”
“They’re right,” Whitman said. “About me. That collection of essays was self indulgent, terribly self indulgent.”
“I don’t care what they say,” she told him. “I love you.”
“I know,” he said. He tossed the napkin onto the table and stood up. “I love you too.”
“I have hot yoga at 8:30 but I can skip it if you need me,” Emily said.
“No,” Whitman headed for the exit. “You go. I’ll be fine. I just need to think through this.”
“Okay,” she said. “You should call Landon. For thinking.”
Whitman considered it. “Maybe,” he said.
“I love you very very very very much.”
“I love you too. I’ll see you later.”
“Landon is the problem, Whitman,” Yuki told him as he slid into a booth at Benny’s Diner later that morning. Yuki took a tin out of his winter coat and put it in the center of the table. Silas sat next to him, Whitman across from him and Dennis took the last spot next to Whitman. They were an eccentric cabal: Yuki, the expatriate Japanese-Canadian albino performance artist and poet; Dennis Craig, the bearded novelist of modest repute; Silas Wertham, the abnormally short and bald playwright and drama critic in exile from New York City; and finally, Whitman Glum the literary failure.
“Landon,” Whitman repeated. “Would you care to elaborate?”
Yuki opened the tin and took out a hand sanitizing wipe. He opened the package and quickly wiped down his alabaster hands and cheap silverware.
“You know how Yuki feels about mental health,” Dennis interjected.
“I’m against it,” Yuki said. “Mental health and or happiness are the worst things that can happen to an artist.”
Their waitress, Kimberly, got to the table with their waters. “Hello gentlemen. When I checked my calendar this morning it wasn’t Thursday. I’m surprised to see you.”
The four of them had been holding weekly informal meetings at Benny’s for six years. The four of them flipped over their coffee cups. “Emergency meeting,” Silas explained.
“Must be nice not to have work or anything interfere with these emergency meetings of yours,” Kimberly said.
After talking with Emily, Whitman had walked through campus aimlessly for forty-five minutes and then told his assistant to run his classes for the day and called the others.
“This is our work,” Yuki told her.
“I’ll be back with your coffees-“ Yuki held up his hand to interrupt her – “ and your hot water,” Kimberly finished.
“Now,” Yuki said, replacing his newly polished silverware down on the table, “where were we?”
“You think my counselor is interfering with my writing,” Whitman said.
“I think your counselor is part of the problem, certainly,” Yuki said. “I’ve warned you before, Whitman.”
“You warned against taking a job, against getting married, having children,” Whitman said. “Essentially, you warn against everything that isn’t whipping myself and writing a story about it.”
“Anxiety, depression, seething anger; these are the foundations of creativity,” Yuki told him. “Trying to whitewash it away with a quaint little job, with a family and regular psychoanalysis it’s just going to suffocate your artistic voice.”
“Yuki supposes that the only good writer is a miserable one,” Silas interpreted.
“Not just writers, Silas,” Yuki said. “This is across the board for poets, novelists, essayists, painters, actors, musicians, what have you; misery is the soul of man, the evolutionary force that drives us. Without suffering, a man will succumb to the basest comforts. He will grow fat from the abundance of the land and wallow in the complacency of his own meaningless existence. He will die with a smile on his face and fertilize weeds and fungus.”
Kimberly returned with two pitchers. She poured coffee for Silas, Dennis and Whitman and filled Yuki’s mug with hot water. “Do you need any food for your emergency meeting?”
“No,” Yuki said. “Just privacy.”
“We’re fine, Kimberly, thanks,” Whitman told her.
“Another round of coffee in twenty, twenty two minutes,” Silas told her.
“Sure,” Kimberly said. “Twenty-two minutes.” She left the table.
Yuki opened his tin and took three sugar cubes from folded wax paper and dropped them into his hot water. He stirred in alternating clockwise and counter-clockwise motions. He was affecting obsessive compulsive traits, Whitman noticed. It was new.
“You realize that you’re full of shit,” Dennis said after his first sip of coffee. He dragged his fingers down through his full beard. He had not shaved his face since Kurt Cobain’s death when he was in college.
Yuki smiled. He wore thick prescription sunglasses. His moppish white Andy Warhol hair covered his forehead. “Except that you know I’m not.”
“You’ve been working on that novel, Whitman,” Silas said, changing the subject. “That one about the veterinarian.”
“The animal insemination technician,” Whitman said.
“That one. It sounded interesting. Where are you with that one?” Silas asked.
“It’s shit,” Whitman said. “Complete drivel, unsalvageable. I gave up on it last spring.”
“What about that modern safari piece?” Dennis suggested. “You sent us fragments.”
“Unworkable,” Whitman said. “Nothing I have, none of the old stuff, has any potential. I get an idea, maybe a few lines of dialogue or a description of a scene but the deeper connective tissue, the substance that keeps all of it from just being a gimmick peppered with allusions, metaphors, flowery speech – it’s not there. If I produce anything short of revelatory I’ll be crucified critically. I worked on something for weeks that I thought was groundbreaking until I realized I was rewriting a section from Finnegan’s Wake from memory. I need something more.”
“You could try free writing,” Silas told him. “Unconscious association. Just start writing and wait to see what comes out. I do it every time between projects.”
“All of your projects are about repressed homosexuality and religious guilt,” Yuki said.
“That’s neither an accurate nor productive statement,” Silas replied bitterly. “Thanks anyway.”
Dennis dragged his fingers through his beard and cocked his head to the side thoughtfully. “I can see it,” he said.
“Fuck you,” Silas hissed.
“It proves a point,” Yuki said. “Silas writes about the conflicts of his homosexual yearnings and his deeply orthodox Jewish background and his physical shame from being small in stature.”
“Small in stature?” Silas fumed. “What the fuck does that mean, Yuki?”
Dennis smirked. “He’s talking about your cock, Silas.”
“Crude and completely narcissistic, Yuki,” Silas spat. “You’ve taken Whitman’s very real problem and transformed it an opportunity for you to put your armchair psychology on display.”
Yuki sipped from his sugar water. “It’s evident, Silas. Our flaws and insecurities inform and permeate our greatest works. It’s in the scripts, on the stage and it proves my point. It’s because of how fucked up you are in the head that your work has any real merit at all. If you found peace with the internal turmoil – you should resign yourself to writing romantic comedies for Hollywood or directing GAP commercials.”
“We’re not all as dysfunctional as you’d like us to be, Yuki,” Dennis said.
“We’re not?” Yuki said. He shrugged. “I’m a bi-sexual albino sleeping pill addict with bipolar
tendencies. You’re an alcoholic misogynist sex addict, Dennis.”
“What?” Dennis said.
“Porn addiction is synonymous,” Yuki told him.
“I’m not a porn addict,” Dennis objected.
“You masturbate a dozen a day and whisper to yourself while you do it,” Yuki said. Dennis’s face contorted
incredulously. “I was going through a manic phase in Pittsburgh and was not asleep when you thought I was.”
“This is just mean spirited,” Silas said. “We should change the subject entirely.”
Whitman held up his hand. “No,” he said. “I want to hear this. Do me, Yuki. I want to hear it.”
Yuki shrugged. “You’re happy, Whitman,” he said. “You love your wife. You like your job and respect your coworkers. You eat well and exercise. You play squash. You go to Unitarian church and it’s just right for you. You used to have so much all tangled up. Penelope’s Lesson was a twisted dense novel stuffed with mother issues, sibling jealously, sublimated anger, lust, fear, liberal guilt and raw hungry need for approval and acknowledgment. You had it all, Whitman. You had Cordelia fucking Glum for a mother but you let it go. You forgave her. Now? Now, you’re happy and that’s pretty much the kiss of death.”
Whitman stared at Yuki for a long silent moment. He remembered those nights writing Penelope’s Lesson, remembered the visceral process of it. Drinking heavily alone, pacing his shithole Brooklyn apartment in the coldest weeks of winter with the heat turned off, destitute and hopeless but for the book. He remembered typing until the tips of his fingers felt bruised, forgetting if it was day or night or what month it was and not caring, not eating, collapsing in his bed, chain smoking and crying, hating himself for not being able to tell the story the way it felt, ignoring calls from his sister, from Dennis, writing notes on the back of his hand on subway trips, hating the city, jacking off in the cold shower and not shaving for days, turning pale and gaunt but finally emerging. Finally, finishing the book and reading it from start to finish over and over again like exorcising a demon, a legion of demons. There had been times he had thought of dying. There had been days he couldn’t get out of bed. It seemed so long ago. It seemed like ancient history. He missed it terribly.
“You have no idea what you’re talking about, Yuki,” Whitman finally said. “You’re right – I am happy. I’m shitting happy. And it doesn’t have any impact. Silas is right- I need to free write. I need to go back to the well on some of those ideas. I can write a fucking novel in a weekend that’s ten times better than anything Horace DeWitt could write in a lifetime.”
“Hell yeah,” Dennis said and raised his coffee cup in a toast.
“I hope so,” Yuki said.
“I just needed the fire,” Whitman told them. “Give me a deadline and I’ll blow your goddam mind.”
Yuki dropped another sugar cube into his water and smiled knowingly. Whitman imagined breaking his hands. He decided he’d free write about it later.
Whitman managed to free write for forty-five minutes before deciding he should check TiVo to make sure it was still recording all of his favorite programs. He wrote about the curtains Emily put up in the living room. They were peach colored or maybe it was just the light. He didn’t recognize them. He wrote about the pubescent breasts of a Palestinian American student and used them as a literary device to analyze the Arab Israeli peace process. He wrote a haiku about baby carrots and hummus and discovered that some of his favorite BBC America shows were not on the Season Pass list. Whitman watched Fawlty Towers. He wondered if there was any new porn. He knew that there was certainly porn he hadn’t seen but wondered if they’d come up with any new kinds since the last time he checked. He imagined they had, that there were new kinds of porn he didn’t even know about.
Emily came home before lunch. “Hey there,” she said. “Do you want me to make you a fresh fruit smoothie? I got feijoa.”
“I’m working, Emily,” Whitman snapped. He paused Fawlty Towers.
“I’m sorry, sweetie,” she said.
Whitman wanted her to not be sorry. He wanted to get into an argument with her although he knew it would never work. “Well, pay attention,” he said.
Emily smiled. “I’ll try.”
“Goddamit, Em,” Whitman said. “Could you just… you know? Like we talked about?”
“Oh!” She said. “Right.” She shook her arms and legs a little bit like an actor preparing to go on stage, lowered her head and brought it back up again. “Why don’t you pay attention, Whitman?”
“Because I’m working, remember,” he said.
“Oh yeah,” she said. He could see she was struggling to continue. It was foreign to her. All kinds of verbal sniping, spats, screaming fits were something she didn’t do, had never done and faked poorly. “Well, well, shut up then,” she said finally.
Whitman turned the television off. “This isn’t working.”
“I’m sorry, sweetie,” Emily said. “I can keep trying.”
“No,” he said. “This is ridiculous.”
It was Landon’s epiphany for Whitman to talk to Emily about the fighting.
“You need to be honest with her, Whitman,” Landon had told him in a session early in the pregnancy. “Trust and love have a foundation in honesty.”
“I don’t know,” Whitman told his therapist. “It seems strange.”
“There’s nothing strange about owning your needs,” Landon told him. “Feel them,” he said. “Right here.” Landon put his fist against Whitman’s heart. “In your heart, Whitman. Feel.”
That night over dinner Whitman told his wife that not fighting made him feel insecure, that her serenity and willingness to compromise without surrendering her own needs to his, was a little condescending.
“So you want us to argue?” She asked him.
“Yes,” Whitman said with a nod.
Emily scooped up some quinoa and eggplant. She shrugged. “I’ll try.”
And she did. She watched movies where couples bickered and she took notes. She even told him that she didn’t like watching the Charlie Rose Show with him but her heart wasn’t in it. They hadn’t consummated a successful argument and it only left Whitman feeling more frustrated.
“How do I know that you really love me if you don’t yell at me or play guilt trips or give me the silent treatment – just something so I knew you were really angry with me and I’d done something wrong?” Whitman had asked Emily in desperation after a particularly unsatisfying attempted argument about properly sorting the recycling.
“FUCK YOU, YOU SHIT RAPING PISS BAG!” Emily screamed at him loud enough that her voice was hoarse. She coughed afterward and trembled. She dropped a coffee cup onto the kitchen floor but it didn’t break. She finally lowered her head in defeat. “Maybe we need a marriage counselor.”
“No,” Whitman told her. He embraced her and ran his hands through her silky wonderful hair. He put his hand on her swollen pregnant breast. “We can get through this.”
“We could have sex,” Emily offered him after it was clear that their argument about his not working was not working and her offering him a fruit smoothie was going to go nowhere. “To get your mind off the stuff with the deans this morning.”
Whitman thought about it. “I don’t think so. I really need to write.”
Emily put her fresh produce on the counter and flipped her stripper switch. She couldn’t argue but she could move like a cheap exotic dancer. She had taken classes when Whitman told her that he thought it was kind of sexy. She moved around the phantom stripper poll. She tucked her thumbs into the elastic of her yoga pants. She spanked her ass, kissed the air, squeezed her full milky breasts together.
“I shouldn’t,” Whitman told her.
She gave him her sad school girl pout. She kicked one foot back and twirled her hair.
They coupled in the kitchen. Right there. Downward Praying Porn Star. The Tibetans had a special kind of
pregnant tantric sex yoga, Emily told him. At least he thought she said it was the Tibetans. Someone had it and Emily learned it. Reverse Bodhisattva 69. She twisted and moved elegantly like a very pregnant spiritual sex river lapping across his fleshy shore. Her arms and legs, her belly, weightless, supple, warm and limber. Double Mockingbird Sex Lunge. Somehow he was holding an ankle, somehow he was kissing the back of her neck. She made koan sex sounds. Made a hum like a bell that he could feel vibrate through them both.
Whitman screamed out in spiritual muscle earthquake ecstatic orgasm with one of his feet on the counter and the other pressed against the refrigerator. Feijoa rolled out of the bag to the tile. Feijoa; pineapple guava. Sweet pulp. Screaming Tiger Fuck Triumph. Whitman helped his wife get back on the ground.
“I could really go for a fucking smoothie now,” Whitman said.
Meanwhile, Cordelia Glum died. It would have happened when Whitman was in his office he calculated. It would have happened sometime after he told Emily he was skipping dinner to work, maybe she died at the same time he called and left a message for Landon.
“Landon, I need help.”
Was he depressed or just lazy and settled? He hoped he was depressed. Had he felt all he could feel? Had he said all he could say? Cordelia died at home. He could have been there if he’d known, if he could have known. He thought he should have been there but didn’t know why or what he would have done.
Emily sorted out the plane ticket while Whitman made the calls. “Mom’s dead.”
Whitman emailed the deans and explained he would be going on a brief leave to make arrangements.
The first story Whitman ever wrote he wrote with colored pencils in a blank journal he’d stolen from his mother’s room. It was about space pirates and a dinosaurs and a little boy with glasses. He drew the characters with his colored pencils. He labeled them. He was 9.
“You read it,” Whitman said when he came home from school to find his mother holding the journal on the porch.
She smiled. “I did.”
“I’m sorry,” he said
“Come here,” she said and motioned for him to come to her. She was smoking a thin cigar, she was still in a summer dress even though the autumn turned cold weeks before. “Fuck them,” she told him. “Whatever they say to you- fuck them. God is dead and nothing is real or true except what you manage to piece together when you’re alone and the only honesty you have is your own shit and fear. Look at me,” she insisted. She squeezed his arms tightly, bruising him. “You’re made of something absurd and rare. My blood. The only thing you’ll ever need to apologize for is being ordinary.”
Maybe the memory was embellished but it remained remarkably clear. Her words couldn’t have been exact but they were somehow entirely authentic.
“Whitman,” his mother said to him when he was 9 and she had his purloined journal with his dinosaur space pirate story. “Go in the house and call your brother. I’ve taken pills, Whitman. Tell him that I’ve taken pills. Go.”
She pushed her son toward the house and walked down from the porch. She walked toward the road and Whitman just watched her. She stared down at approaching traffic. As a car approached she screamed.
This is going to be complicated, Whitman thought. This is going to hurt like boiled over hell all over again. Emily was packing his bag. The cursor was blinking on the computer screen.
“I prayed for this,” Whitman said out loud. Emily stopped packing. “Jesus Christ, I needed this.”
And Whitman screamed.