So it was this great windfall for the ex when the next door neighbor got breast cancer. This neighbor lady was connected some kind of way to the editors of the local paper. It was a hoity-toity glossy thing for the hoity-toity glossy suburb we all lived in then. The paper was really all about advertisements for upper-bracket real estate, with coverage of the debs and dandies as a kind of decent fig leaf. And in most issues they'd run a profile of some local, or do some kind of human-interest thing, and the neighbor lady's cancer — she was a stockbroker's trophy wife, professionally pretty with a big photogenic smile — must have been of interest to the upper-bracket humans who read the thing. They asked her to write a piece about it. You know — my struggle, my battle kind of thing. A thousand words. The kicker was that she was to be photographed for the piece. Looking stylish in spite of it all. Who could resist?
Problem was the neighbor lady couldn't write. They don't teach them that in finishing school evidently. And the ex, well she thought she could. OK, let's be fair, the ex could write. This was before she went off her game and started doing Lear on the heath twenty-four-seven. She'd won the usual workshop prizes and placed some stories and verse in the usual journals before she got pregnant and settled in to what we settled for: small-time academics carrying a mortgage a couple sizes too big for us in this swanky Waspy suburb to which the fates had delivered us. And as we became functionaries, paper-grading machines, the ex never lost this sense of herself as artist. Poor kid, she carried well into midlife that shallow M.F.A. culture that tells you Tess Gallagher and Raymond Carver are the alpha and omega, and what's past is nothing but prologue.
So when next-door Louise asked the ex to ghost write the thousand words for her there was a great outpouring of emotion. I was already out of the house by then—seeing the kids on alternate weekends and waiting for the lawyers to make it official—but some of the outpouring managed to reach me.
"Mom's writing about Louise's breasts for the stupid town paper," my older daughter told me. "It's like she can't stop talking about it."
It was easy enough to imagine just what sort of kick the ex was getting from this. Some of it must have been whistling past the graveyard. A lot of it was that sister-sister solidarity that the soccer moms pretend has some kind of political edge because they have no other way of getting near that edge. But most of the kick, I'm sure, was getting to pose as a writer again after years of being just a Mom, and getting to pose for an audience of rich people.
How we came to live in that upper-bracket town was an oddball fluky thing. A one-year gig in the town's picturesque little college became a tenure-track job, and I hung on like grim death through the babies and through the ups and downs of the ex's adjunct job at the not so picturesque community college across the tracks, as it were. Tenured by the skin of our teeth in this unlikely town, it was necessary to buy a house. Now our leafy old-money suburb includes one vernacular zone where housing is feasible at a stretch, if not strictly speaking affordable. This is where in the bad old robber-baron days the servants and tradesmen used to live, at a comfortable distance from the mansions on the hill. The realtors who found us our place—a down-at-heels Victorian—called the neighborhood Codfish Town because the fish-eating Irish lived there in the horse-and-buggy days. Or maybe it was the fish-eating Swedes. Perhaps it depended on which realtors you used.
I could have told Louise that the ghost-writing plan was going to pan out empty, but she and the ex were having such a sweet little clambake at the beginning that I couldn't bring myself to spoil it. Besides, mine was what you might have called a discredited voice in those days.
Eventually, of course, the two of them came to parade's end and, a little to my surprise, Louise called me. The editor's deadline was a week away, she told me, and the ex wasn't getting it done for her. "I hate to say anything negative, Jim, especially under the circumstances. But all she does is come over here and drink and, well, complain about you. Nothing's getting written." This was easy enough to picture, but the upshot was a surprise. Would I come over and help her out?
I immediately went into demurral mode. Not that kind of writer, you understand, not like the ex. Yes, you see, there's creative and then there's the other kind. And it's kind of a women's subject, isn't it? Not something I'd be any good at. But she was persistent and I had some time on my hands back then. And of course she was very ill. So over there I went — pen, as it were, in hand.
Louise made this big espionage drama out of it. Could you make it after dark, please? Could you park your car out of sight, please? "Haven would absolutely kill me if she knew you were helping me with the testimonial." So it was a testimonial now, I was thinking as I slunk through the shadows to the neighbors' house. Piss elegant. These poor women getting all wobbly in the knees over a thousand words. Childish, really. Louise's husband, the stock broker, met me at the door, ushered me into the presence, and left us alone as if hurrying to get out of the way of the powerful medicine I was supposed to deliver.
I think it was the den where Louise met me, and it looked like the room had been done up in something like literary drag. Back issues of the local rag had been arranged in a fan pattern on the desk, and a Levenger fountain pen had been placed atop the pages of some very luxe and girly cream-colored stationery. Writing as décor, I was thinking. What she and the ex had put together was a page and a half in Haven's big loopy handwriting, and it was pretty weak stuff. All this limp-wristed therapy-speak — the sort of meaningless feel-good stuff I'd thought the ex was supposed to know better than. Process this and process that. "Dialogue" as a verb. And that stupid thing people do these days when they write "share" instead of "say."
It was an awful lot to wade through, but Louise smiled along as I nipped and tucked and generally sanitized what they'd written. I asked her a lot of questions about her thing, and tried to show her how to turn notes into an outline. But it was hard to pay attention to what she was saying. The window of Louise's study, or whatever it was, gave on our backyard. My former backyard, I should say. My former kitchen had two big windows for a view of the yard, and made the room colder than hell winter mornings. Anyway, my notes on Louise's breast cancer grew kind of abstract as I became aware of figures moving around in the kitchen next door.
First I saw my older daughter, Ellie, cross to the kitchen sink, carrying a book or something, the expression on her face cancelled by distance and the refraction of the window. Then as Haven moved into the frame to stand by her, my daughter moved away suddenly and came out of the picture. I saw my ex raise her arms above her head and then saw or thought I saw her throw something—a book, a cup—in the direction the kid had gone. I made myself look back at the manuscript where a particularly inept sentence lay on the page as if in a pool of its own mess. So many things to fix and me with just a few poor tools. I put the sentence unsteadily back on its feet, and smiled at Louise who looked like she had motion sickness standing still. When I turned back to the kitchen across the yard there was no one in the windows.
Two days later Louise called me with pins and needles in her voice: "I hate to be a bore, really, but I still need your help. Your ex was over here today—well I suppose she's not officially your ex just yet . . . ." The bit of constrained laughter here was supposed to ease the tension, but I let it ride, and she went doggedly on. "Anyways, she wanted to work on the profile and I thought it would look wrong—you know—if I told her not to. So she looked at what we wrote—or what you wrote—and she got all offended—hostile almost, Jim—that we'd changed things from the first one. She said it was a betrayal of trust, a 'vote of no-confidence' she said, and insisted that we change everything back to how it was before."
"Did she get it?" I asked. "Did she know that the changes were mine?"
"I don't know. I don't think so. Does it matter?."
"No, that's fine," I told her, trying not to sound like I was talking to a cranky child. "Let it stand as is. I'm sure her version is as good as mine. I'm not going to consider it a violation of trust or of anything else if you go with her ghost writing over mine."
"But that's the thing. She took the manuscript home with her. Said she needed to think about the edits. And I don't know if she's ever going to bring it back." There was such a note of tragedy in her voice that I wondered, not for the first time, at just how worked up these surface dwellers can get over a little ink. Everybody wants to be a writer—even if they need support staff to get there. Even just being the subject of a writer, or being the muse, even the muse of a used-up burned-out husk of a writer like my ex, was enough to bring this poor trophy wife to tears. And what a little self-absorbed piece the ex was. As if I needed further proof. Stalking out in a huff with the manuscript in her talons. Didn't she know her friend was a sick woman?
Louise sounded like a woman who was holding it all together by main strength when she said: "The deadline for the profile is in 72 hours, Jim. I'm going to have to ask you to come over again. Come very discreetly please, because I just can't go through a scene with you two. And let's go back to the beginning. We'll get this done and maybe it will do someone some good, and even if it doesn't it will be done."
So that night, after dinner, I went through the drill — parking my car a couple of blocks out, and slipping in at Louise's's backdoor, like a covert lover in a blues song. The text was such fluff it was easy enough to reconstruct from memory, and I had hopes of getting out of Dodge before the cock crowed. Then suddenly things went Vaudeville. The doorbell rings, Louise springs to a window where she can scope the front door and—check it out—it's not the Queen of the Night, as we're all thinking; it's my older daughter here on what errand I can't imagine. With a force that surprises me, Louise lays hands on me, walks me through the door behind her writing desk, gives me a meaning look, and closes the door.
The little study where we'd been working must have been the anteroom to the marital lair but it took a few seconds, after the shock of Louise's pushing, to see that I was standing in the bedroom she shared with the stockbroker. Part of what made it so strange was that never, in the decade or more I cohabited with my wicked evil ex, never even when things were OK between us, never even on the best day we ever had, did we share a bedroom so utterly pulled-together and perfectly arranged as this one. Like some wet dream out of Architectural Digest, the place was all silk and down and mellow rubbed oak. Not a hair out of place, unless it was me—like the single dirty sock someone had left on the smooth still surface of the place. On the wall above the bed was one of those photo-mosaics: the rendering in austere black and white half-tones of a grand domed building that had to be—no it couldn't be—yes it must have been the Vatican. My goodness, what kind of obscure mysteries did they celebrate in here, the stockbroker and his glossy ailing spouse, with the proud dome of St. Peter all but casting its shadow on the marital bed? Was one of them Roman Catholic? Or were they, as I had always assumed, your standard godless upper-bracketers and the Vatican just their idea of décor?
It felt for a moment like I was standing in the hot draft leaking from someone's craziness, and so preoccupied was I with taking this strange heat that I didn't even try at first to hear what was being said on the other side of the door. Sure enough it was my kid out there, her intonation familiar through the door, but her words obscure. I thought that she sounded agitated about something, and that Louise was cooling her out. How did Louise manage to summon that tone of composure? Maybe that's what cancer did for you.
When the kid had gone and Louise let me out of that flossy birdcage of a bedroom, I asked her what the deal had been.
"Jim," she said, summoning up a big customer-relations smile, "you know I can't talk to you about that."
"Talk to me about what."
The smile recalibrated a couple of degrees. "Anything Ellie brings over here and believes she is telling me in confidence."
"Is it the sanctity of the confessional over here all of a sudden? I'm the kid's father, you know."
"Of course I know."
"The kid's coming over here to spill her guts about crazy old Natasha Fatale sharpening her knife next door, and you're telling me it's confidential from her father?"
"Couldn't we get back to writing the testimonial now? It was coming along so nicely,"
I threw a few more pitches. I probably—full disclosure here—didn't display my very best charm-school manners, but Louise kept that smile hoisted to the top of her mast and eventually she brought me to heel. So back to the thousand words. I had it like rote catechism at this point. As we begin the skies are sunny. There are options and futures and all's right with the world. But wait. Into this landscape of perfect felicity an unwelcome presence intrudes. Shock, anger, denial. It can't be me, but yes it is me. And you know what? It changes your perspective on what really matters in life. Good diet is important. Positive mental attitude. The wisdom of my wise grandmother turns out to be really wise. Loving and supportive spouse is key. Blah de blah. Blah de blah.
A chimp could write this stuff, and I wondered again at Louise's inability to turn out even this simple pabulum. Perhaps she had other talents. It wasn't late when we finished, but Louise looked all wrung out. The stockbroker saw me out the back door taking pains, I noticed, to turn off the outside lights before we emerged. He put a hand on my arm—straight-shooter, man-to-man kind of thing—and said: "We've just got to bring this thing in for a landing now, Jim. I'm sure you can see the toll it's taking on her."
I wanted to say that I never asked to be invited on this hayride, that Louise had come to me in extremis after the ex had done her some kind of shell game. But there's no getting through to these people, and I said nothing.
"Anything you can do to keep Haven from getting her stirred up about this, or starting another round of revisions—well, it would be very much appreciated, that's all."
Now the thing you've got to remember about these uber-capitalist stockbroker types is that at heart they're just salesman. But even though I knew that the frank look in the eyes and the hearty handclasp he produced next were just so much salesmanship, I couldn't help being a little touched by the guy, by his feeling for his wife and his faith in this cockeyed project. As if by "bringing it in for a landing" we were going to make a damned bit of difference to anyone. I guess people need to believe in something.
After that, I didn't see Louise or the stockbroker for weeks. I thought I had put the whole affair out of my mind, and so I surprised myself when, running into Louise on the train, I asked her first thing if the profile had come out. Louise looked a little diminished, wearing a scarf to cover, I suppose, where she'd lost her hair to chemo. And there was a deflated aspect to her face and bearing, like there was less of her there than before.
"Oh yes," she said, "the profile came out and, you know, people were really nice about it."
"I'm glad," I said. "How did you get it past Haven? She was so unhappy with the last version we did. It's like she knew you collaborated on it with me." Louise looked out the window for just a beat longer than the question merited, and at first I thought this was because she saw that I was fishing. But it turned out she was deciding something else.
"No, that wasn't a problem. You see the last time she looked at the draft she had come over for another reason."
"Was it to borrow money?"
"I'm afraid so, yes. And she must have felt that she shouldn't be too hard on what she thought I'd written when she needed me to say yes to the loan. And you know, Jim, we're so blessed, John and I, about money and things that I felt I could afford to buy a little closure on this. I wrote her a check on the spot."
How about my brakes, Louise, that are coming down to metal on metal? How about my lawyer bills? What about my living on Ramen like a graduate student? Where's my check? But instead of saying any of those things, I just asked what she thought Haven was going to do with the money.
"Well, what she said was that she needed a plane ticket so she could take the profile out to Sundance and show it around as a — what's the word? Not a script, not a screenplay, but like a miniature version of the story."
"I think they call it a treatment."
Louise's smile made hollows and furrows where they hadn't been before. "Of course, a treatment. No wonder I blocked it. A treatment."
"Well, maybe she will." It seemed like the polite thing to say.
There was a silence here and before I could figure out a way to extricate myself from this conversation, Louise asked: "How's Ellie?"
"OK, I think. Plugging along. The truth is I owe her a phone call."
Louise was getting up for her stop. "You give her my love," she said. "She's one brave little girl. A real survivor."
She put a hand on my shoulder and was gone, leaving me to wonder what Louise thought Ellie had to be brave about. Didn't everybody's parents get divorced these days? I don't know if Haven ever made it to Sundance, but I pretty much think not. And I don't think she ever figured out that I ghostwrote her ghostwriting. She'd hate it, of course, and I'd probably hear about it. Sometimes I think that, just to mess with her, I should tell her we were collaborators on Louise's life story. But I probably won't. It's good to have secrets.
Benjamin Goluboff teaches English at Lake Forest College. Aside from scholarly publications, he has placed imaginative work — poetry, fiction, and essays — in Ascent, Hayden's Ferry Review, Misfit, Anobium, Cabinet, Dead Flowers, and elsewhere. Some of his work may be accessed at http://www.lakeforest.edu/academics/faculty/goluboff/