Mr. Sams, world-renowned literary agent, hung up the phone and immediately began emptying the contents of a bottle of James A. Prospector’s Olde-Timey Bourbon into a waiting brandy snifter. His wife, Marlene, watched from the couch with mild interest, or at least with less disinterest than she felt for the poorly written, first-person account of “One Woman’s Struggle With Ibuprofen” she had been skimming in the latest issue of Cosmo. A connoisseur of vices, yet adherent to none, it was not uncommon to see Sams taking a sip of the hard stuff before three in the afternoon, but only news of a very singular kind could lead him to seek the company of a libation as monumental as the one he now prepared. Marlene searched his face for a clue as to whether this blackout-to-be was of a celebratory or conciliatory nature; usually some hint lay in the eyebrows, but this time they proved less than prophetic.
“Something the matter?” she asked him at last.
Sams turned and exposed his teeth. “You hear me call you a whore yet?”
“Oh,” she said, with a faint smile, “then it’s good news.”
“The best.” Sams took his drink and walked across the room to where a framed copy of Gadstone’s Bricking Up the Caledonians hung above the mantle. He had purchased it from an auction at Sotheby’s not long after the Decline and Fall project had been green-lighted. Marlene could not understand the compulsion that led to these lavish expenditures; other than money, Sams expressed no passionate interest in any subject. His life was little more than a collage, built from the fragments of the works he had represented over the years, a sort of Renaissance man by proxy. The breadth of his knowledge and eclectic nature of his possessions, rather than marking him as a man of voracious mental appetites, betrayed a shallow, parasitic personality. Sams was a master of the random fact; judiciously inserted into the middle of a conversation, dispensed at cocktail parties like hors d’oveurs, he cultivated what was surely his one true talent, that of appearing to know absolutely everything. But rarely was deeper understanding pursued with anything approaching the zeal he reserved for a stiff whisky sour.
“I told you that wall would squeeze it out of him!” said Sams. He studied the painting for a moment, raised his glass to the triumphant emperor and expelled a brittle laugh. “Hadrian, I could kiss your ugly mug!”
“Edwin’s coming along then?” asked Marlene.
“Coming along? He’s finished the thing! We’ll be going to print by June!”
“Finished?” Marlene straightened herself on the couch. “It’s only been three months.”
“I know! Can you believe it?”
“He novelized The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in three months?”
This question Marlene accompanied with a severe squint, which she then aimed down at the floor, as if the answer lay somewhere beneath the linoleum tiling. Sams knew that squint; it meant his wife was thinking. At no time did he find her less attractive than these rare moments of pensiveness. The cognitive process fit her like a ten-dollar suit.
“What?” he asked.
“Well, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is a pretty big book…”
“And it seems to me that in order to turn such a big book into a novel…”
“It would probably take more than three months. To do it well, I mean.”
“Ha!” Sams gave a sweeping bow and gestured to the telephone. “Exhibit A for the defense!”
“What,” said Marlene, “Edwin? All he said was that he was finished. You don’t know if what he wrote is any good.”
“Marlene, Edwin Block is a professional. You know how much money he brings in?”
“What’s money have to do with art?”
“Oh, here we go!” Sams began to pace in front of the couch, with the cocksure strut of a man who has recently consumed a mild quantity of very cheap bourbon. “Another high-minded critic, right here under my roof! Why don’t you take some art to the supermarket this weekend, see how many groceries it buys you? It was Edwin’s money that paid for those new shoes you’re wearing, you know.”
“These shoes cost twenty-nine dollars.”
“That’s right, dollars. Not sonnets, not watercolors.” Sams took the deep breath which precedes soliloquy. “I know how you feel about me. You think I’m heard-hearted, callous, blind to beauty, obsessed with material things. Maybe you’re right, maybe I am. But it’s only because of people like me that people like you can exist. It’s because of my industriousness that you have leisure to sit around admiring “the speckled thrush’s song”, or whatever you were going on about last week. What? All right, speckled warbler, who gives a shit? You want to know the truth? I couldn’t care less if Block’s novel is any good. I couldn’t care less if he copied the New York phone directory verbatim. The fact is, this book is going to sell. It’s going to make us rich, Marlene. I may not know much, but I know that..”
“We’re already rich,” she muttered.
“Then it’ll make us even richer!” he snapped. “I know that pains you. I know it pains you to even hear the word ‘money’. Perhaps I should start spelling it, the way you do around a little kid: M-O-N-E-Y.”
“My dear husband, you’ve been practicing!”
“Oh, ha ha!” said Sams. “Very much ‘ha’! I had no idea twenty-six years ago that I was marrying Oscar Wilde! A pity you inherited the wit without the femininity!”
Having landed that rather pointed low blow, Sams started quickly from the room. When he was halfway through the door he stopped. “Oh, and by the way, ‘novelize’ isn’t even a word!”
“Are you sure?”
“I don’t think so.”
“I thought it meant to drastically change something. Like how those miracle knives on TV novelize the way you chop vegetables.”
“No, they revolutionize the way you chop vegetables.”
“Oh, you’re right. Well I know I’ve heard it somewhere before. Do you remember where I put the Scrabble dictionary?”
Sams rolled his eyes and slammed the door on his way out.
When Mr. Sams needed to unwind, he took a walk through Burberry Park. It was neither the largest park in the city nor the nearest to where he lived, nor was it – by any conventional standards – the most beautiful. But there was something about the position of the trees, the way their branches filtered the light and shrouded the footpath below in otherworldly gloom, and the almost constant breeze that added an unnatural chill to the air, that made one think of autumn. Sams rather enjoyed the quiet solemnity of that season, not so bombastic as summer’s swimming pools and screaming children, nor so cruel as winter’s paralyzing cold, nor so trite as spring’s flowery dalliances. Burberry Park lent itself to quiet reflection, and despite his wife’s characterization of him as a superficial money-grubber, Sams found no greater solace than treading its softly undulating hills, alone but for his thoughts.
It was also where he met his twenty-year-old mistress, Suzette.
That Suzette was French should be obvious to even the most casual student of Anthropology, and as anyone who traffics in cultural stereotypes knows, the French are well-versed in the ways of love. Though her supple, tawny form was enough to make Gandhi take up firebombing, what Sams appreciated most about Suzette was her complete lack of standards. Despite the fact that in proportion and aspect he was not so different from your average, run-of-the-mill, Atlantic bull walrus, Mr. Sams found little trouble convincing Suzette to do to him things the Marquis de Sade would have found tasteless. All she required in exchange for these services was to know that Sams cared for her, and though he was a busy man and had little time to spend in her company, it was a mark of her character that she never once complained, contenting herself with the occasional platinum necklace, Versace gown, or two-week getaway to the Spanish Riviera he offered as consolation.
Sams checked his watch and hurried down the walkway towards their usual meeting place, by the statue of Faustina near the southeast gate. He was very much alone this afternoon, his footsteps clearly audible above the occasional bird call and soft rustling of leaves. Mounting a footbridge, which joined the opposing banks of a small, manmade pond, he paused to look down at the school of koi darting to and fro in their graceless, unwieldy manner. He was about to continue on, but something held him to the spot; whether it was the placidity of the park or the waning effects of the bourbon, Sams slipped into that semi-lucid state which lends itself to meditative thought. It occurred to him (and perhaps this was not such a novel concept, yet even the most timeworn ideas – for one who has not been previously exposed to them – carry the profound impact of revelation) that a man’s life was worth little more than the barely sentient hunks of meat swimming hither and thither beneath him. Were fish meat, he wondered? Catholics certainly didn’t think so. If not meat, then what? Rubber? Plastic? Sams chuckled at the absurdity of the idea. He had always disliked Catholics.
But neither biological nor theological semantics altered the fundamental truth he had hit upon: it was only by a man’s deeds that his life gained meaning. What, then, had been the deeds of Mr. Sams; what exactly was his life worth? He shuddered as he realized he was having an “existential crisis”, a term he had picked up from an author many years ago – an author, it should be noted, he had decided not to represent. “Here’s an existential crisis for you,” Sams had written in his rejection letter. “How can a man afford to buy groceries when he writes third-rate Camus imitations no publisher would touch with a ten-foot pole. I suggest you ponder this one deeply.” No doubt that young man, if he could see Sams now, would be savoring his karmic dessert.
Faced with the profound truth of his own insignificance, Sams decided to call it a miss and indulge his sexual appetites. He found Suzette toeing the grass in the usual spot, looking even more sullen and pitiful than he remembered; as he approached her, he was alarmed to find that she was crying.
“Aw crap!” he said. “What now?”
“I am looking at this statue.”
“Well knock it off, for Christ’s sake!”
“It’s too late,” she pouted. “I am already quite sad.”
Sams sighed. “Ok, I’ll bite. Why are you sad?”
“This statue…” Suzette ran her hand over Faustina’s marble leg. “It is so beautiful.”
“Are you kidding me? Look at the honker on that broad!” Sams jerked a thumb at Faustina’s honker. “And that hairdo! She looks like Ben Franklin, for crying out loud!”
“Oh kumquat, sometimes you speak such stupidness!”
It was an annoying tendency of Suzette’s to call her lovers by the names of exotic fruits and vegetables.
“All right,” snorted Sams. “So she’s a real dish. Why get all weepy-eyed about it?”
“Look here.” She pointed to a bronze plaque mounted below on the pedestal. “This statue was built in 1902. It is more than one hundred years old.”
“One hundred years old, and it has not aged a day. While every minute that passes my skin grows more wrinkled, my muscles more flabby and loose.”
“Hey,” said Sams, “you’re having an existential crisis!”
Suzette nodded gravely.
“I just had one a few minutes ago. Don’t sweat it, they pass pretty quickly.”
“Not mine. I will never be happy again.”
“Aw, come here darling! Let old Sammy Wams cheer you up!”
At this suggestion, Suzette burst into tears. It was not the reaction old Sammy Wams had been hoping for.
“It is not fair!” she sobbed. “Why may she stay young and beautiful while I must grow old?”
“For starters,” said Sams, “how about the fact that you’re a human being and she’s a big rock.”
“Humph! Are you going to mock me now?”
Never renowned for his verbal thrust-and-parry, Sams was surprised to find several witty retorts on hand to lob at his hapless opponent. It crushed him to waste such a rare opportunity, but try as he might he could feel nothing but sympathy for the poor, pathetic creature in front of him, sniffling liberally into the confines of her embroidered silk handkerchief.
“Naw,” he said, sitting down on one of the wooden benches that lined the walk. He reached out and put his hand on her arm. “I know how you feel. Come on, sit down here a minute.”
Suzette did as commanded, momentarily stunned out of her sadness by this sudden and unexpected tenderness from Mr. Sams. She perched delicately on the edge of the bench and waited for him to continue.
“Let me ask you something,” he said, after a moment’s pause. “What do you think of me?”
“How do you mean?” asked Suzette.
“I mean, what’s your opinion of me? Do you respect me?”
“Sure, sure I do.”
“Yeah?” Sams nodded as he mulled this over. “Why?”
“You are a very successful man.”
“You mean money?”
“Not just money.” Suzette’s face lit up as she shifted her focus away from Time’s inexorable march; such is the capriciousness of youth! “You work with books. That’s ever-so-important. I just can’t think of anything more important. I adore books, but I’m simply not smart enough to be a writer, or an editor like you are.”
“What do you think of the idea of writing a novel about ancient Rome based on a famous history book?”
“I think it sounds marvelous!”
“Well, that’s what I’m editing right now.”
“Oh, pomegranate, what is it called?”
Sams squirmed slightly, speaking the words as if it were a confession. “At the moment, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire – The Novel.”
“You think so?”
“Oh yes!” Suzette’s eyes widened in that naïve way that both exasperated and charmed Mr. Sams. “Rome sounds so incredibly grand, but I don’t know a thing about it!”
“Why not read a history book?”
Suzette scrunched up her face.
“But you’d read this novel?”
“Of course! Literature is much more beautiful than history. I only care for beautiful things.”
“So by reading this novel, you’d be learning things about Rome you wouldn’t have known otherwise?”
“Oh, I hope so! I want to know everything about it! Like her!” Suzette turned her attention back to the statue. “Faustina. She was Roman, wasn’t she?”
“Rome,” she sighed. “Caesar, and the Coliseum, and gladiators, and Helen of Troy, and Shakespeare…”
“Hell of a town.”
“We should go there someday!”
“Oh yes!” Suzette brought her legs up and knelt on the bench, clutching Mr. Sams’ forearm. “I hear it’s ever so lovely this time of year.”
“Yeah? Who do you hear that from?”
“A girl hears things.”
Sams grunted. “And I suppose I would be footing the bill?”
“Oh, papaya, how can you think about money when we’re talking of Rome?”
“Rome is money, sweetie! Quite a lot of it. So are you, I might add. What the hell am I going to get out of all this?”
Suzette grinned like a tigress that’s cornered a gazelle. As her head sank slowly towards Mr. Sams lap, he weighed the relative merits of the idea that he was an educator. It was a different light than any in which he had ever viewed himself. How many other young men and women like Suzette had read through the works he had edited and learned something new about the world? How many dull happenings of a bygone era had he helped make relevant with the trappings of artistic beauty? Before he could answer there was a blinding white flash, and all existentialism melted in the glorious wellspring of carnal release. Life, decided Sams with his last cognizant thought, still had some meaning after all.
Look for part THREE to appear soon . . .
[Forever after at http://eyeshot.net/adaptation.html]
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