A LETTER IS A GIFT.
FELIX STAKED HIS PROFESSIONAL LIFE
ON THAT SIMPLE CLAIM.
A STORY FROM THE WINNER OF THE
UNIVERSITY OF PITTSBURGH PRESS'
1996 DRUE HEINZ LITERATURE PRIZE.
WRITTEN BY EDITH PEARLMAN
"But suppose Congress made letter writing illegal."
"I'd drop underground."
Lisa said in a rush, "Suppose correspondence went out of fashion? Litigation is never out of fashion. If you were married to me, you'd always have something to eat."
Felix recognized this as a proposal despite its conditional mood. He was unsurprised by the offer. He said evenly and politely, "Well, let's think about it." So they stacked the dishes and both left for work.
"Felix's Business" is from Vaquita and Other Stories, by Edith Pearlman, © 1996 by University of Pittsburgh Press. Reprinted by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.
When Felix got to his shop there was already a customer waiting, Dr. Blaker. Wearing his white coat, Dr. Blaker leaned against the doorway like a ruler. He was a slender, handsome man of about fifty who had a busy periodontal practice.
"Good morning," said Felix.
Dr. Blaker shook hands with the young man. "Good morning," he said.
Felix unlocked his door and went into the shop and threw his hat at a peg on the wall. The hat missed. He bent over and picked it up and threw it again, and this time it landed on the peg. (The hat was invisible and all the business with it was pantomime. Felix didn't own a hat. But detectives and hometown newspaper editors and other people in small chambers always tossed their hats onto pegs; it seemed to put clients at ease.)
After the second, successful attempt, Felix withdrew a letter from the top drawer of the desk. He handed the letter to Dr. Blaker, who had seated himself in the customer's chair. Felix sat down in his own chair and swiveled it away from the desk so that he faced his client. There was nothing on the desk anyway but a cumbersome nonportable Royal.
Dr. Blaker gave the letter his attention, and Felix gave the doctor his attention. For six months Dr. Blaker had been writing to this Darling, whom he had not seen for almost a quarter of a century. Nor would he agree to see her now; though she, half a continent away, urged that they meet in some neutral place. Dr. Blaker turned thumbs down on reunion. He wanted to be a correspondent, he had said at their first interview, not a co-respondent. Felix had then understood that his customer was bound to the conventions of courtly love, and that theirs would be along and profitable alliance. (He still thought so, despite Lisa's breakfast-table warnings.)
Dr. Blaker put the letter in his pocket. "Thank you," he said. He stood up and gave Felix a grateful look.
Felix stood too. "Chivalry is always congenial," he said, and bowed his client out.
So much was congenial in this trade. Felix took off his horn-rimmed glasses and, wincing, fit a pair of wire spectacles to his ears. He rolled a sheet of paper into his typewriter and began to type.
Many versions and many rollings later, Felix thrust away all drafts but the last:
"What brought you to this work?" he demanded, after reading the letter.
"What will bring you to the study of law?" was Felix's response.
"Though the old man must never know, I have a vocation. Keep it under your hat."
Felix, who happened to be wearing a burnoose, nodded.
"Do you have a vocation too?" asked Joseph. Without waiting for an answer, he said, "Your trade may land you in jail. As an accessory. Wilde's letter to Bosie helped convict him of moral obliquity. Dispatches hidden in a pumpkin convicted Hiss of treason. Dreyfus was found guilty because of a letter, the bordereau."
"And exonerated because of another letter, the petit bleu," said Felix in his easy way. "Hiss was convicted only of perjury, Joseph. I wish Wilde had been my client."
"You would have helped him with his problem?"
"Yes. His epistolary problem."
"Which was. . ."
"Excess," Felix confided.
FELIX HAD NEVER ENdorsed the theory that speech was what lifted man above other animals. To him, conversation was overrated and subject to abuse. "Let's talk things over, let's have an exchange," a husband would say earnestly to a wife, a teacher to a student, a world leader to another world leader, and the next thing you knew, out of the invisible untouchable space between two mouths there came a divorce, and a grade of F, and a war.
But letters could be touched and seen, could be hidden under a blotter, passed around at a funeral; could be crumpled, incinerated, or swallowed. Like certain animals and fairy princes, letters might undergo transformations. Like sauces, they could in the making be reduced first to perfection and then out of existence. Like diamonds and ballet performances and handmade sweaters, they were gifts. And if some people had difficulty parting with the gifts that were theirs to give, if some individuals needed help in this endeavor--why, that was fortunate for Felix and not so unfortunate for them. Their deficiencies were no disgrace. Were two left feet a sin? Or the inability to crochet?
Convinced of his calling, Felix had nonetheless been surprised by the success of his practice. He had been in business for five years and now had more requests than he could handle. His clients had included dissatisfied utility company customers and timid clerks and inhibited parents of first-time campers. He had worked on letters for the dying and disinheriting, for wastrels and prodigals. He had helped enlighten public officials, including the president. Felix had been summoned to chronic hospitals and to prisons. Certain letters he refused to have a hand in: anonymous ones, threatening ones, and obscene ones. He turned down pleas to write suicide notes. He would not do business over the telephone (he had no telephone). He sent out his bills monthly, he did not accept MasterCard (although if business ever dropped off he'd be glad to reconsider that policy).
HIS FIRST AFTERNOON appointment was with Miss Hanya. Miss Hanya wore her abundant gray hair in a bun. She was sending letters to a Mr. Mortimer, whom she had met last summer in Scotland. Felix charged her very little. For one thing, Miss Hanya's salary (she played the piano in a tearoom) was low. For another, Felix was sure that Mr. Mortimer did not exist--or, rather, that Mr. Mortimer was not an aged gentleman living quietly in a residential hotel in Edinburgh, but a bird, probably the black-whiskered vireo, whom Miss Hanya had met, exactly as she claimed, in a cobblestoned courtyard, and who had joined her for tea every day during her visit.
Miss Hanya had plump cheeks and wonderful skin, though she was not in her first youth. The romantic sweetness of her nature had to be allowed to reveal itself but not to romp all over the page. Felix employed judicious quotes from well-known poetry. He kept adjectives under strict supervision. He encouraged Miss Hanya to tell him about her day-to-day life, and as a result both he and Mr. Mortimer had learned a lot about the finances and clientele of the tearoom.
With Mr. Tratti, the next client, the challenge was to release the fellow's sentimentality while keeping the lid on his rage. Mr. Tratti had been a construction worker and now he owned a company. He had a wife and four children and one grandchild and a mistress and an ex-mistress. His mother still lived in a little brick house in Brooklyn with his sister Marcella, and she was kept alive, according to her own testimony, by his and Felix's communications. The weekly letters were better than any pacemaker, she said.
"The bitch," said Mr. Tratti that afternoon, squeezing himself into the customer's chair. "My sister Marcella the bitch is trying to talk Mama into selling the house. Move into an apartment, says Marcella. Neighborhood going downhill, she says. Stairs too many. Old lady too demanding. What Marcella really wants is to put the old lady away."
"Murder?" Felix inquired.
"Hey!" said Mr. Tratti, sensing an ethnic slur. "Nursing home."
"There are some good facilities. You could still write to your mother."
"Yes," said the fat man, leaning forward and spreading his hands on his knees. "And what will happen to a letter? Instead of going into the slot and dropping onto the sun porch floor--ah, that warm tile--and being picked up by Marcella, and being carried up to Mama on her lunch tray, and being opened by Mama, who says, Oh, from Vince, offhand, like she don't care; my eyes are too bad, says Mama; read it, Cella. Instead of that, what'll happen? Some nurse's aide will carry it around in her pocket for days. When she finally reads it to Mama, through her nose, she will skip whole paragraphs. Our letters, Felix, aren't meant for a facility. They're meant for 1160 East 23rd Street. I remember when we bought that house. Fifty-five years ago this week."
Felix took out a clipboard from his drawer. "Please tell me about the sun porch."
An hour later he was busy incorporating the sun porch into a letter of reminiscence, a short-sentenced letter in which the second person predominated. It would bring tears to Mrs. Tratti's eyes and to the bitch Marcella's, too. In the middle of yet another draft of that effort he was visited by Mrs. Wing, whose letters to the editor required Felix's assistance. Activists on behalf of children's television, said Mrs. Wing without preliminaries, were well meaning, but their heads were up their asses. It would be better to show nothing even halfway educational on the tube during the daytime, only shit. Then sensible parents would take a hatchet to the screen, and children would grow up without that glassy, goosed look. "That's the message," said Mrs. Wing, stuffing bits of paper back into her handbag. "Clean it up a little." At the door she turned and said, "Next to nuclear war, pesticides and contaminants are our greatest menace. Don't you think so?"
Felix adjusted his beret. "I don't think much about any of those things," he said courteously.
He finished Mr. Tratti's letter and wrote an outline of Mrs. Wing's, softening the righteousness as he cleaned up the scatology.
Now came a special time for the letter writer. Although it was almost evening, he hung out a cardboard that read Out to Lunch. Then he went into the back room and sat down cross-legged on the floor. With his clipboard on his knee, and nothing at all on his head, he began to write.
For letters were a gift, and not to give the gift himself would have diminished Felix in his own eyes. It pained him to submit the letter to translation. He hoped that the translator was a monk with amnesia. Or maybe the organization engaged a series of lesser nobles, each of whom, after turning Felix's undistinguished handwriting into beautiful ideographs, fell onto his own sword. Whatever happened to the translators, Felix's letters belonged only to Jennie, and Jennie's only to him.
He went to the many-paned window. Night had fallen. Across the street the shops were lit up, and people were turning on lamps in upstairs apartments. Lisa would arrive soon. He looked forward to dining out with her and hearing about her busy, combative day. He fingered a white tie and adjusted his tails and performed a glide and a dip. Then he sat down at his desk to catch forty winks.
He didn't fall asleep right away. Instead, there unrolled on a platen in his mind Lisa's sobering forecast: that some day man might become embarrassed by hard copies of his sentiments. Bundles of letters would seem as odious as offal. Felix's trade would become obsolete. But the future wouldn't stop there. After a while, some scholar short of funds would notice that the skill of writing letters was being neglected. The nation might be at risk. Small grant would follow. Big grant next. Revision of high school curricula, founding of Epistolary Centers, formation of new college departments. Finally in the university itself would arise a school of correspondence, fighting dentistry and architecture for its portion of the annual gift. Felix, recalled from obscurity, would be given an honorary degree and an honorary chair; he would become an elder statesman, exalted and unheeded, salaried and unemployed.
Presently Lisa found him, snoring into his own elbow. The streetlamp shining through the shop window whitened his fair hair, giving him the look of a young man prematurely old or an old one preternaturally young. Who was that Greek who could change shapes at will?--Proteus. Proteus: a fellow very hard to pin down.
Felix raised his head. "When every man becomes his own inditer," he continued, "I'll turn to secrets. Stash your secrets with Felix, my card will read. I'll be a repository."
"Whatever you do, I'll mind my own business," Lisa said hopefully.
But he was already gone from her, dreamily imagining this secondary use of his discretion, his memory, his tolerance, and his good manners. Heads of state would come to him, financiers, ordinary bedeviled people. Psychiatrists. He could occupy these same premises. No flinging of hats at pegs, though; on entering the shop he would slowly unwind from his neck a long, inscrutable muffler, fitting accessory for a keeper of confidences.
Pearlman's own favorite of the collection is "Felix's Business," a story with roots in a fanciful conversation with a friend about alternative careers they might have taken up. "When I stop writing stories I plan to write letters, short and then shorter," Pearlman wrote in her awards entry. "My mother could put three sentences onto a postcard and make the recipient think he'd read a novel. I'm working towards a similar compression."
Pearlman continues to be an inveterate reader. "Have you ever read the Evelyn Waugh book that ends with a young man in captivity on a desert island with a crazy clergyman who forces him to read Dickens over and over, with no chance of being rescued? This is, I think, supposed to be a bitter ending, or at least a sad one," she says. "I consider it one of the happiest endings in literature."
The Drue Heinz Literature Prize, which carries with it a $10,000 cash award, is one of the nation's most prestigious awards for collections of short fiction. This year marks the prize's 16th year. This year's final judge was Rosellen Brown, author of Tender Mercies. Previous winners include Robley Wilson, Reginald McKnight, Randall Silvis, Jane McCafferty, and Stewart O'Nan. Vaquita and Other Stories won from a field of 246 submissions.--Sally Ann Flecker