The Book Signing
by Pete Hamill
(Narrated by Pete Bradbury)

 

Carmody stared at the sidewalk, at Seanie’s scuffed black shoes, and heard her voice: When Buddy comes back. Saw the fine hair at the top of her neck. Thinking: Here I am, I’m back.

“So she waited for you, Buddy. Year after year in that dark goddamned flat. Everything was like it was when you split. My mother’s room, my father’s room, her room. All the same clothes. It wasn’t right what you done to her, Buddy. She was a beautiful girl.”

“That she was.”

“And a sweet girl.”

“Yes.”

“It wasn’t right. You had the sweet life and she shoulda had it with you.”

Carmody turned. “And how did she . . . When did she . . .”

“Die? She didn’t die, Buddy. She’s still there. Right across the street. Waitin’ for you, you prick.”

* * *

Carmody turned then, lurching toward the corner, heading to the bookstore. He did not run, but his legs carried him in flight. Thinking: She’s alive. Molly Mulrane is alive. He was certain she had gone off, married someone, a cop or a fireman or a car salesman, had settled in the safety of Bay Ridge or some far-off green suburb. A place without memory. Without ghosts. He was certain that she had lived a long while, married, had children, and then died. The way everybody did. And now he knew the only child she ever had was his, a son, and he was in flight, afraid to look back.

He could sense the feral pack behind him, filling the silent streets with howls. He had heard them often in the past few years, on beaches at dusk, in too many dreams. The voices of women, wordless but full of accusation: wives, and girlfriends, and one-night stands in college towns; women his own age and women not yet women; women discarded, women used, women injured, coming after him on a foggy moor, from groves of leafless trees, their eyes yellow, their clothing mere patchy rags. If they could speak, the words would be about lies, treacheries, theft, broken vows. He could see many of their faces as he moved, remembering some of their names, and knew that in front, leading the pack, was Molly Mulrane.

Crossing a street, he slipped on a ridge of black ice and banged against the hood of a parked car. Then he looked back. Nobody was there.

He paused, breathing hard and deep.

Not even Seanie had come after him.

And now the book signing filled him with another kind of fear. Who else might come there tonight, knowing the truth? Hauling up the ashes of the past? What other sin would someone dredge up? Who else might come for an accounting?

He hurried on, the feral visions erased. He was breathing heavily, as he always did when waking from bad dreams. A taxi cruised along the avenue, its rooftop light on, as if pleading for a fare to Manhattan. Carmody thought: I could just go. Just jump in this cab. Call the store. Plead sudden illness. Just go. But someone was sure to call Rush & Malloy at the Daily News or Page Six at the Post and report the no-show. Brooklyn Boy Calls It In. All that shit. No.

And then a rosy-cheeked woman was smiling at him. The manager of the bookstore.

“Oh, Mr. Carmody, we thought you got lost.”

“Not in this neighborhood,” he said. And smiled, as required by the performance.

“You’ve got a great crowd waiting.”

“Let’s do it.”

“We have water on the lectern, and lots of pens, everything you need.”

* * *

As they climbed to the second floor, Carmody took off his hat and gloves and overcoat and the manager passed them to an assistant. He glanced at himself in a mirror, at his tweed jacket and black crew-collared sweater. He looked like a writer all right. Not a cop or a fireman or even a professor. A writer. He saw an area with about a hundred people sitting on folding chairs, penned in by walls of books, and more people in the aisles beyond the shelves, and another large group standing at the rear. Yes: a great crowd.

He stood modestly beside the lectern as he was introduced by the manager. He heard the words, “one of Brooklyn’s own . . .” and they sounded strange. He didn’t often think of himself that way, and in signings all over the country that fact was seldom mentioned. This store itself was a sign of a different Brooklyn. Nothing stays the same. Everything changes. There were no bookstores in his Brooklyn. He found his first books in the public library branch near where he lived, or in the great main branch at Grand Army Plaza. On rainy summer days he spent hours among their stacks. But the bookstores—where you could buy and own a book—they were down on Pearl Street under the El, or across the river on Fourth Avenue. His mind flashed on Bomba the Jungle Boy at the Giant Cataract. The first book he’d ever finished. How old was I? Eleven. Yes. Eleven. It cost a nickel on Pearl Street. That year, I had no bad dreams.

During the introduction, he peered out at the faces, examining them for hostility. But the faces were different too. Most were in their thirties, lean and intense, or prepared to be critical, or wearing the competitive masks of apprentice writers. He had seen such faces in a thousand other bookstores, out in America. About a dozen African-Americans were scattered through the seats, with a few standing on the sides. He saw a few paunchy men with six or seven copies of his books: collectors, looking for autographs to sell on eBay or some fan website. He didn’t see any of the older faces. Those faces still marked by Galway or Sicily or the Ukraine. He didn’t see the pouchy, hooded masks that were worn by men like Seanie Mulrane.

His new novel and five of the older paperbacks were stacked on a table to the left of the lectern, ready for signing, and Carmody began to relax. Thinking: It’s another signing. Thinking: I could be in Denver or Houston or Berkeley.

Finally, he began to read, removing his glasses because he was nearsighted, focusing on words printed on pages. His words. His pages. He read from the first chapter, which was always fashioned as a hook. He described his hero being drawn into the mysteries of a grand Manhattan restaurant by an old college pal, who was one of the owners, all the while glancing up at the crowd so that he didn’t sound like Professor Carmody. The manager was right: It was a great crowd. They listened. They laughed at the hero’s wisecracks. Carmody enjoyed the feedback. He enjoyed the applause too, when he had finished. And then he was done, the hook cast. The manager explained that Carmody would take some questions, and then sign books.

He felt himself tense again. And thought: Why did I run, all those years ago? Why did I do what I did to Molly Mulrane?

I ran to escape, he thought.

That’s why everybody runs. That’s why women run from men. Women have run from me too. To escape.

People moved in the folding chairs, but Carmody was still. I ran because I felt a rope tightening on my life. Because Molly Mulrane was too nice. Too ordinary. Too safe. I ran because she gave me no choice. She had a script and I didn’t. They would get engaged and he’d get his BA and maybe a teaching job and they’d get married and have kids and maybe move out to Long Island or over to Jersey and then—I ran because I wanted something else. I wanted to be Hemingway in Pamplona or in a café on the Left Bank. I wanted to make a lot of money in the movies, the way Faulkner did or Irwin Shaw, and then retreat to Italy or the south of France. I wanted risk. I didn’t want safety. So I ran. Like a heartless frightened prick.

* * *

The first question came from a bearded man in his forties, the type who wrote nasty book reviews that guaranteed him tenure.

“Do you think if you’d stayed in Brooklyn,” the bearded man asked, “you’d have been a better writer?”

Carmody smiled at the implied insult, the patronizing tone.

“Probably,” he answered. “But you never know these things with any certainty. I might never have become a writer at all. There’s nothing in the Brooklyn air or the Brooklyn water that makes writers, or we’d have a couple of million writers here . . .”

A woman in her twenties stood up. “Do you write on a word processor, in longhand, or on a typewriter?”

This was the way it was everywhere, and Carmody relaxed into the familiar. Soon he’d be asked how to get an agent or how he got his ideas and how do I protect my own ideas when I send a manuscript around? Could you read the manuscript of my novel and tell me what’s wrong? The questions came and he answered as politely as possible. He drew people like that, and he knew why: He was a success, and there were thousands of would-be writers who thought there were secret arrangements, private keys, special codes that would open the doors to the alpine slopes of the best-seller lists. He tried to tell them that, like life, it was all a lottery. Most didn’t believe him.

Then the manager stepped to the microphone and smiled and said that Mr. Carmody would now be signing books. “Because of the large turnout,” the manager said, “Mr. Carmody will not be able to personalize each book. Otherwise many of you would have a long wait.” Carmody thanked everybody for coming on such a frigid night and there was warm, loud applause. He sat down at the table and sipped from a bottle of Poland Spring water.

He signed the first three books on the frontispiece, and then a woman named Peggy Williams smiled and said, “Could you make an exception? We didn’t go to school together, but we went to the same school twenty years apart. Could you mention that?”

He did, and the line slowed. Someone wanted him to mention the Dodgers. Another, Coney Island. One man wanted a stickball reference, although he was too young to ever have played that summer game. “It’s for my father,” he explained. There was affection in these people, for this place, this neighborhood, which was now their neighborhood. But Carmody began to feel something else in the room, something he could not see.

“You must think you’re hot shit,” said a woman in her fifties. She had daubed rouge on her pale cheeks. “I’ve been in this line almost an hour.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, and tried to be light. “It’s almost as bad as the Department of Motor Vehicles.”

She didn’t laugh.

“You could just sign the books,” she said. “Leave off the fancy stuff.”

“That’s what some people want,” he said. “The fancy stuff.”

“And you gotta give it to them? Come on.”

He signed his name on the title page and handed it to her, still smiling.

“Wait a minute,” she said, holding the book before him like a summons. “I waited a long time. Put in, ‘For Gerry’—with a G—‘who waited on line for more than an hour.’”

She laughed then too, and he did what she asked. The next three just wanted signatures, and two just wanted “Merry Christmas” and then a collector arrived and Carmody signed six first editions. He was weary now, his mind filling with images of Molly Mulrane and Seanie’s face and injuries he had caused so long ago. All out there somewhere. And still the line trailed away from the table, into a crowd that, without his glasses, had become a multicolored smear, like a bookcase.

* * *

The woman came around from the side aisle, easing toward the front of the line in a distracted way. Carmody saw her whisper to someone on the line, a young man who made room for her with the deference reserved for the old. She was hatless, her white hair cut in girlish bangs across her furrowed brow. She was wearing a short down coat, black skirt, black stockings, mannish shoes. The coat was open, showing a dark rose sweater. Her eyes were pale.

Holy God.

She was six feet away from him, behind two young men and a collector. A worn leather bag hung from her shoulder. A bag so old that Carmody remembered buying it in a shop in the Village, next door to the Eighth Street Bookshop. He remembered it when it was new, and so was he.

He glanced past the others and saw that she was not looking at him. She stared at bookshelves, or the ceiling, or the floor. Her face had an indoor whiteness. The color of ghosts. He signed a book, then another. And the girl he once loved began to come to him, the sweet pretty girl who asked nothing of him except that he love her back. And he felt then a great rush of sorrow. For her. For himself. For their lost child. He felt as if tears would soon leak from every pore in his body. He heard a whisper of someone howling. The books in front of him were now as meaningless as bricks.

Then she was there. And Carmody rose slowly and leaned forward to embrace her across the table.

“Oh, Molly,” he whispered. “Oh, Molly, I’m so, so sorry.”

She smiled then, and the brackets that framed her mouth seemed to vanish, and for a moment Carmody imagined taking her away with him, repairing her in the sun of California, making it up, writing a new ending. Rewriting his own life. He started to come around the table.

“Molly,” he said. “Molly, my love.”

Then her hand reached into the leather bag and he knew what it now must hold. Passed down from her father. A souvenir of long ago.

Yes, he thought. Release me, Molly. Yes. Bring me your nickel-plated gift. Do it.

Her hand came out of the bag, holding what he expected.