She once came home to find Allen Ginsberg in her bed, or so she claimed, and I didn’t yet have reason to doubt her. I hadn’t heard of him, nor had I heard of James Joyce, but she spoke a little too highly of the guy. Had he ever wound up in her bed?
“My mom hosts a reading every year at the store,” she explained. “All the professors bring their eloquent selves, and then some of them drink too much and leer at me and it gets a little ca-reepy.”
I stared at her with utter incomprehension.
“Molly’s soliloquy is one of the most beautiful things written in the English language. You’ve really never heard of it?”
When you’re a very stupid seventeen, you don’t expect such arch disappointment from a wild-haired girl with paint-stains on her jeans. You shrug, and you let her console you with a giggle and a whisper.
“It’s an orgasm.”
She exhausted me—not only because she barnstormed through each new day, but because I soon understood that my every experience, every memory, was merely a feeble imitation of her far more interesting life. If I dabbled at the guitar, she had fronted a band at a nearby roadhouse. If I got a speeding ticket, she had an ex-lover in prison. (The infamous James Joyce? I couldn’t ask.) If I wrote a poem, she printed her own magazine and pocketed checks from a mysterious benefactor in New England. If I sighed, she swooned—and someone reported the news in the local paper.
Her mom was of little help. The dirty dishes in her stairwell and the sink full of books seemed vaguely Continental, at least to someone who had never actually been to a Continent, and I was charmed when the grinning pixie extended a wisp and greeted us, greeted her dahlink, in the German accent that everyone knew was a put-on. She led me by the hand to her living room, where seated on the couch was a grim, chin-whiskered man who looked rather literary. Was this the famous James Joyce? He was ancient—at least 35.
Mother and daughter vanished, so my rival and I politely ate exotic fruit together. He was a mechanic. His name, alas, was William.
But I never forgot about the elusive James Joyce. Two years later, when I found myself in Dublin on a June sixteenth, I sought him out. He and I had unfinished business.
I looked for him at his favorite cafeteria, but I found only scones. At the college, I wandered through dismal old rooms, pushing past tourists and one musty book. Disheartened, I trudged to the ferry terminal, intending to leave, but on a whim, I followed a sign to the thrice-blessed tower that bore his name. The sun was setting and the tower was closed, but it felt like a start.
After her late shift at the convenience store, I told her all this—and then I waited, and braced for her reply. I expected her to say that she had found James Joyce where I had failed, that by typical coincidence he had sauntered into the bookshop, kissed her mother’s hand, and whisked her away to Paris or Zurich. She would have proof: autographed books, unpublished letters, secret photos. Reporters would clamor. Quakers would be stunned.
Instead, she managed a faint smile and stared at her coffee. She’d had a long day, she said, and the diner was cold, so I drove her home, to the shabby house next to the projects where she was raising her brother. She still had stories to tell, sadder ones than when I’d known her, but I scarcely cared. All I saw was the look she gave me as the door shut. I knew the look well, but I was thrilled to see it, because I had never seen it on her. She, finally, was exhausted too.
A lifetime later, I teach English. I guide curious students through great works, and I watch as long-dead authors bring out the best in them. My star pupils shine with pride—the pride of discovery, of creativity, of intellectual optimism. Garrulous and confident, they insist that the best art is transcendent. They mean it, so I smile and nod. I dread what they’ll eventually learn: that sometimes, literature makes us look for things that aren’t there—and that sometimes, a simple book can cause us to be truly and terribly cruel.