"One of our colleagues from the English department is leaving us to write the great American novel," the headmaster announced.
I blushed and began to push my chair back.
"And I'm just hoping for a run-of-the-mill novel," I think I said, as I shook his hand, although, oh, yes, in some shameful corner of my ego, never to be admitted in public and to be tasted only with the tiniest, most fleeting lick in private, was a hard little lozenge of belief that this grandiose idea was true. Why not? I was an American, wasn't I? That I had not submitted for publication a single line since Cricket magazine passed on "The Misplaced Mitten" when I was twelve only meant that I had reservoirs of untapped talent.
My gift was a pair of slim books--one titled Character, the other Plot. I was touched by this gesture of support, although I knew I would use them only for a laugh. I had paged through that kind of thing often in bookstores, mostly to reaffirm that I would be a writer different from their intended audience. I aspired to be an artist, to blaze a fresh trail in prose, not to write the kind of paint-by-numbers potboiler such manuals encouraged. "You know," Neil McCloskey, my department head, said to me, quietly, kindly, as I held the books up for the teachers to admire, "you're always welcome back, if, you know, things don't work out."
I complained about this to Letty on the phone Saturday afternoon.
"But that's nice," she said. "He values you."
"It isn't nice--he assumes I'll fail."
"That's not a reflection on you. Think of all the great writers who couldn't get published. Think of Emily Dickinson."
"She was a genius, way ahead of her time. I doubt I'll write something too good to be published." There was, it seemed, some limit to my arrogance.
"Well, anyway, I admire you. I'd never have the guts."
"What you don't have is the time," I said, and, as if on cue, a crash sounded somewhere in the background, followed by a frantic wail.
"Gotta go," she said, and was gone.
Letty and I were so young when we met that neither of us can remember the occasion. Our mothers, so the story goes, deposited us in a playpen at Johnson campaign headquarters in Pasadena and told us to amuse ourselves. Other than their sporadic loyalty to the Democratic Party, and the fact that both of them relish the entirely fictitious notion of themselves as young women so busy with the affairs of the world that they raised their daughters to be independent even as infants, my mother and Pam Larue have very little in common, and their friendship was long ago reduced to the exchange of nonreligious "holiday" cards. But Letty and I have ever since been as close as twins.
That's not to say we're alike. It's more that we're a sort of team, in the classic sense of hero and sidekick, and I don't think I'm being immodest, but only truthful, when I cast myself as the hero. Of course, she's much better than I am at many things, but her qualities--patience, for instance, and an easy laugh--are those that make for a good right-hand man. Even in our games, she was always Robin to my Batman, Watson to my Holmes, Boswell to my Johnson, and the times when she's been clearly the leader have been uncomfortable.
I remember distinctly an incident in first grade, when we were each assigned to render a tree in fall colors. It was work obviously well below my level of accomplishment--at home I'd recently completed a mosaic of painted macaroni that approximated one of the floors of Pompeii--but it was enjoyable to do something that didn't demand all of my resources, and I was quite pleased with the artful way I'd arranged and overlapped my swatches of construction paper.
Our teacher had been making the rounds of the room, peering over shoulders noncommittally, when suddenly she stopped.
Excerpted from All Is Vanity by Christina Schwarz. Copyright 2002 by Christina Schwarz. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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