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A Model World and Other Stories

Michael Chabon

  A Model World

  And Other Stories

  Michael Chabon

  To the memory of Ernest Cohen

  The author is very grateful to Mr. Daniel Menaker, to Mr. Douglas Stumpf, to Ms. Mary Evans, and to Ms. Lollie Groth.


  Part I: A Model World


  Ocean Avenue

  A Model World

  Blumenthal on the Air



  Part II: The Lost World

  The Little Knife

  More Than Human


  The Halloween Party

  The Lost World

  A Biography of Michael Chabon

  More delicate than the historians’ are the map makers’ colors.


  Part I

  A Model World


  ON THE MORNING OF his cousin’s wedding Ira performed his toilet, as he always did, with patience, hope, and a ruthless punctilio. He put on his Italian wool trousers, his silk shirt, his pink socks, to which he imputed a certain sexual felicity, and a slightly worn but still serviceable Willi Smith sport jacket. He shaved the delta of skin between his eyebrows and took a few extra minutes to clean out the inside of his car, a battered, faintly malodorous Japanese hatchback of no character whatever. Ira never went anywhere without expecting that when he arrived there he would meet the woman with whom he had been destined to fall in love. He drove across Los Angeles from Palms to Arcadia, where his cousin Sheila was being married in a synagogue Ira got lost trying to find. When he walked in late he disturbed the people sitting at the back of the shul, and his aunt Lillian, when he joined her, pinched his arm quite painfully. The congregation was dour and Conservative, and as the ceremony dragged on Ira found himself awash in a nostalgic tedium, and he fell to wishing for irretrievable things.

  At the reception that followed, in the banquet room of the old El Imperio Hotel in Pasadena, he looked in vain for one of his more interesting young female cousins, such as Zipporah from Berkeley, who was six feet tall and on the women’s crew at Cal, or that scary one, Leah Black, who had twice, in their childhoods, allowed Ira to see what he wanted to see. Both Ira and Sheila sprang from a rather disreputable branch of Wisemans, however, and her wedding was poorly attended by the family. All the people at Ira’s table were of the groom’s party, except for Ira’s great’ aunts, Lillian and Sophie, and Sophie’s second husband, Mr. Lapidus.

  “You need a new sport jacket,” said Aunt Sophie.

  “He needs a new watch,” said Aunt Lillian.

  Mr. Lapidus said that what Ira needed was a new barber. A lively discussion arose at table 17, as the older people began to complain about contemporary hairstyles, with Ira’s itself—there was some fancy clipperwork involved—cited frequently as an instance of their inscrutability. Ira zoned out and ate three or four pounds of the salmon carpaccio with lemon cucumber and cilantro that the waiters kept bringing around, and also a substantial number of boletus-mushroom-and-goat-cheese profiteroles. He watched the orchestra members, particularly the suave-looking black tenor saxophonist with dreadlocks, and tried to imagine what they were thinking about as they blew all that corny cha-cha-cha. He watched Sheila and her new husband whispering and box-stepping, and undertook the same experiment. She seemed pleased enough—smiling and flushed and mad to be wearing that dazzling dress—but she didn’t look like she was in love, as he imagined love to look. Her eye was restive, vaguely troubled, as though she were trying to remember exactly who this man was with his arms around her waist, tipping her backward on one leg and planting a kiss on her throat.

  It was as he watched Sheila and Barry walk off the dance floor that the woman in the blue dress caught Ira’s eye, then looked away. She was sitting with two other women, at a table under one of the giant palm trees that stood in pots all across the banquet room, which the hotel called the Oasis Room and had been decorated to suit. When Ira returned her gaze he felt a pleasant internal flush, as though he had just knocked back a shot of whiskey. The woman’s expression verged a moment on nearsightedness before collapsing into a vaguely irritable scowl. Her hair was frizzy and tinted blond, her lips were thick and red but grim and disapproving, and her eyes, which might have been gray or brown, were painted to match her electric dress. Subsequent checking revealed that her body had aged better than her fading face, which nonetheless he found beautiful, and in which, in the skin at her throat and around her eyes, he thought he read strife and sad experience and a willingness to try her luck.

  Ira stood and approached the woman, on the pretext of going over to the bar, a course which required that he pass her table. As he did so he stole another long look, and eavesdropped on an instant of her conversation. Her voice was soft and just a little woeful as she addressed the women beside her, saying something deprecating, it seemed to Ira, about lawyers’ shoes. The holes in her earlobes were filled with simple gold posts. Ira swung like a comet past the table, trailing, as he supposed, a sparkling wake of lustfulness and Eau Sauvage, but she seemed not to notice him, and when he reached the bar he found, to his surprise, that he genuinely wanted a drink. His body was unpredictable and resourceful in malfunction, and he was not, as a result, much of a drinker; but it was an open bar, after all. He ordered a double shot of Sauza.

  There were two men talking behind him, waiting for their drinks, and Ira edged a little closer to them, without turning around, so that he could hear better. He was a fourth-year drama student at UCLA and diligent about such valuable actorly exercises as eavesdropping, spying, and telling complicated lies to fellow passengers on airplanes.

  “That Charlotte was a class A, top-of-the-line, capital B-I-T bitch,” said one of the men, in the silky tones of an announcer on a classical music station. “And fucked up from her ass to her eyebrows.” He had a very faint New York accent.

  “Exactly, exactly,” said the other, who sounded older, and well-accustomed to handing out obsequious counsel to young men. “No question. You had to fire her.”

  “I should have done it the day it happened. Ha ha. Pow, fired in her own bed.”

  “Exactly. Ha ha.”

  “Ira!” It was his cousin, the bride, bright and still pink from dancing. Sheila had long, kinky black hair, spectacular eyelashes, and a nose that, like Ira’s, flirted dangerously, but on the whole successfully, with immenseness. He thought she looked really terrific, and he congratulated her wistfully. Ira and Sheila had at one time been close. Sheila hung an arm around his neck and kissed him on the cheek. Her breath blew warm in his ear. “What is that you’re drinking?”

  “Tequila,” he said. He turned to try to get a glimpse of the men at the bar, but it was too late. They had been replaced by a couple of elderly women with empty highball glasses and giant clip-on earrings.

  “Can I try?” She sipped at it and made a face. “I hope it makes you feel better than it tastes.”

  “It couldn’t,” Ira said, taking a more appreciative pull of his own.

  Sheila studied his face, biting at her lip. They hadn’t seen one another since the evening, over a year before, when she had taken him to see some dull and infuriating Soviet movie—Shadow of Uzbek Love, or something like that—at UCLA. She was looking, it seemed to him, for signs of change.

  “So are you dating anyone?” she said, and there was a glint of tension in her casual tone.

  “Lots of people.”

  “Uh huh. Do you want to meet someone?”

  “No thanks.” Things had gotten a little wiggly, Ira now recalled, in the car on the way home from Westwood that night. Sheila drove one of those tiny Italia
n two-seaters capable of filling very rapidly with sexual tension, in particular at a stop light, with Marvin Gaye coming over the radio and a pretty cousin in the driver’s seat, chewing thoughtfully on a strand of hair. Ira, in a sort of art-house funk, had soon found himself babbling on about Marx and George Orwell and McCarthyism, and praying for green lights; and when they arrived at his place he had dashed up the steps into his apartment and locked the door behind him. He shook his head, wondering at this demureness, and drained the glass of tequila. He said, “Do you want to dance?”

  They went out onto the floor and spun around a few times slowly to “I’ll Never Be the Same.” Sheila felt at once soft and starchy in her taffeta dress, gigantic and light as down.

  “I really wish you would meet my friend Carmen,” said Sheila. “She needs to meet a nice man. She lives next door to my parents in Altadena. Her husband used to beat her but now they’re divorced. She has the most beautiful gray eyes.”

  Át this Ira stiffened, and he blew the count.

  “Sitting right over there under the palm tree? In the blue dress?”

  “Ouch! That’s my foot.”


  “So you noticed her! Great. Go on, I., ask her to dance. She’s so lonesome anymore.”

  The information that the older woman might actually welcome his overtures put him off, and somehow made him less certain of success. Ira tried to formulate a plausible excuse.

  “She looks mean,” he said. “She gave me a nasty look not five minutes ago. Oh, hey. It’s Donna.”


  Donna Furman, in a sharp gray sharkskin suit, approached and kissed the bride, first on the hand with the ring, then once on each cheek, in a gesture that struck Ira as oddly papal and totally Hollywood. Donna started to tell Sheila how beautiful she looked, but then some people with cameras came by and swept Sheila away, so Donna threw out her arms to Ira, and the cousins embraced. She wore her short hair slicked back with something that had an ozone smell and it crackled against Ira’s ear. Donna was a very distant relation, and several years older than Ira, but as the Furmans had lived in Glassell Park, not far from Ira’s family in Mt. Washington, Ira had known Donna all his life, and he was glad to see her.

  This feeling of gladness was not entirely justified by recent history, as Donna, a girl with a clever tongue and a scheming imagination, had grown into a charming but unreliable woman, and if Ira had stopped to consider he might, at first, have had a bone or two to pick with his fourth cousin once removed. She was a good-looking, dark-complected lesbian—way out in the open about that—with a big bust and a twelve-thousand-dollar smile. The vein of roguery that had found its purest expression in Sheila’s grandfather, Milton Wiseman, a manufacturer of diet powders and placebo aphrodisiacs, ran thin but rich through Donna’s character. She talked fast and took recondite drugs and told funny stories about famous people whom she claimed to know. Despite the fact that she worked for one of the big talent agencies in Culver City, in their music division, and made ten times what Ira did waiting tables and working summers at a Jewish drama camp up in Idyllwild, Donna nonetheless owed Ira, at the time of this fond embrace, three hundred and twenty-five dollars.

  “We ought to go out to Santa Anita tonight,” Donna said, winking one of her moist brown eyes, which she had inherited from her mother, a concentration camp survivor, a Hollywood costume designer, and a very sweet lady who had taken an overdose of sleeping pills when Donna was still a teenager. Donna’s round, sorrowful eyes made it impossible to doubt that somewhere deep within her lay a wise and tormented soul; in her line of work they were her trump card.

  “I’d love to,” said Ira. “You can stake me three hundred and twenty-five bucks.”

  “Oh, right! I forgot about that!” Donna said, squeezing Ira’s hand. “I have my checkbook in the car.”

  “I heard you brought a date, Donna,” Ira went on, not wanting to bring out the squirreliness in his cousin right off the bat. When Donna began to squeeze your hand it was generally a portent of fictions and false rationales. She was big on touching, which was all right with Ira. He liked being touched. “So where is the unfortunate girl?”

  “Over there,” Donna said, inclining her head toward Ira as though what she was about to say were inside information capable of toppling a regime or piling up a fortune in a single afternoon. “At that table under the palm tree, there. With those other two women. The tall one in the flowery thing, with the pointy nose. Her name’s Audrey.”

  “Does she work with you?” said Ira, happy to have an excuse to stare openly at Carmen, seated to the right of Donna’s date and now looking back at Ira in a way that, he thought, could hardly be mistaken. He wiggled his toes a few times within his lucky pink socks. Donna’s date, Audrey, waved her fingers at them. She was pretty, with an expensive, blunt hairdo and blue eyes, although her nose was as pointed as a marionette’s.

  “She lives in my building. Audrey’s at the top, at the very summit, I., of a vast vitamin pyramid. Like, we’re talking, I don’t know, ten thousand people, from Oxnard to Norco. Here, I’ll take you over.” She took hold of the sleeve of Ira’s jacket, then noticed the empty shot glass in his hand. “Hold on, let me buy you a drink.” This was said without a trace of irony. “Drinking shots?”

  “Sauza. Two story.”

  “A C.C. and water with a twist and a double Sauza,” she said to the bartender. “Tequila makes you unlucky with women.”

  “See that blonde Audrey is sitting beside?”

  “Yeah? With the nasty mouth?”

  “I’d like to be unlucky with her.”

  “Drink this,” said Donna, handing Ira a shot glass filled to the brim with liquid the very hue of hangover and remorse. “From what I heard she’s a basket case, I. Bad husband. A big mess. She keeps taking these beta-carotene tablets every time she has a Seven and Seven, like it’s some kind of post-divorce diet or I don’t know.”

  “I think she likes me.” They had started toward the table but stopped now to convene a hasty parley on the dance floor, beneath the frond of a squat fan palm. Donna had been giving Ira sexual advice since he was nine.

  “How old are you now, twenty-one?”


  “She’s older than I am, Ira!” Donna patted herself on the chest. “You don’t want to get involved with someone so old. You want someone who still has all her delusions intact, or whatever.”

  Ira studied Carmen as his cousin spoke, sensing the truth in what she said. He had yet to fall in love to the degree that he felt he was capable of falling, had never written villanelles or declarations veiled in careful metaphor, nor sold his blood plasma to buy champagne or jonquils, nor haunted a mailbox or a phone booth or a certain café, nor screamed his beloved’s name in the streets at three in the morning, heedless of the neighbors, and it seemed possible that to fall for a woman who had been around the block a few times might be to rob himself of much of the purely ornamental elements, the swags and antimacassars of first love. No doubt Carmen had had enough of such things. And yet it was her look of disillusion, of detachment, those stoical blue eyes in the middle of that lovely, beaten face, that most attracted him. It would be wrong to love her, he could see that; but he believed that every great love was in some measure a terrible mistake.

  “Just introduce me to her, Donnie,” he said, “and you don’t have to pay me back.”

  “Pay you back what?” said Donna, lighting up her halogen smile.

  She was a basket case. The terra cotta ashtray before her on the table, stamped with the words EL IMPERIO, was choked with the slender butts of her cigarettes, and the lit square she held in her long, pretty fingers was trembling noticeably and spewing a huge, nervous chaos of smoke. Her gray eyes were large and moist and pink as though she had been crying not five minutes ago, and when Donna, introducing Ira, laid a hand on her shoulder, it looked as though Carmen might start in again, from the shock and the unexpected softness of this touch. All of
these might have escaped Ira’s notice or been otherwise explained, but on the empty seat beside her, where Ira hoped to install himself, sat her handbag, unfastened and gaping, and one glimpse of it was enough to convince Ira that Carmen was a woman out of control. Amid a blizzard of wadded florets of Kleenex, enough to decorate a small parade float, Ira spotted a miniature bottle of airline gin, a plastic bag of jellybeans (all black ones), two unidentifiable vials of prescription medication, a crumpled and torn road map, the wreckage of a Hershey bar, and a key chain, in the shape of a brontosaurus, with one sad key on it. The map was bent and misfolded in such a way that only the fragmentary words S ANGEL, in one corner, were legible.

  “Carmen Wallace, this is my adorable little cousin Ira,” Donna said, using the hand that was not resting on Carmen’s bare shoulder to pull at Ira’s cheek. “He asked to meet you.”

  “How do you do,” said Ira, blushing badly.

  “Hi,” Carmen said, setting her cigarette on the indented lip of the ashtray and extending the tips of her fingers toward Ira, who paused a moment—channeling all of his sexual energy into the center of his right palm—then took them. They were soft and gone in an instant, withdrawn as though he had burned her.

  “And this is Audrey—”

  “Hi, Audrey.”

  “—and Doreen, who’s a—friend?—of the groom’s.”

  Ira shook hands with these two and, once Carmen had moved her appalling purse onto the floor beside her to make room for him, soon found himself in the enviable position of being the only man at a table of five. Doreen was wearing a bright yellow dress with an extremely open bodice; she had come to her friend Barry’s wedding exposing such a great deal of her remarkable chest that Ira wondered about her motives. She was otherwise a little on the plain side and she had a sour, horsey laugh, but she was in real estate and Donna and Audrey, who were thinking of buying a house together, seemed to have a lot to say to her. There was nothing for him and Carmen to do but speak to each other.