Excerpt

The Fall Guy

James Lasdun

October 24, 2016 
The following is from James Lasdun’s novel, The Fall Guy. Lasdun is the author of The Horned Man and Seven Lies, as well as six collections of poetry. He teaches creative writing at Columbia University and The New School and lives in upstate New York.

They’d arranged to leave late so as to avoid the traffic. Matthew, trundling his suitcase from the subway, arrived at Charlie’s house in Cobble Hill at seven and helped load Charlie’s bags into the back of the Lexus. It was a humid evening, and by the time they were done his shirt was soaked in sweat.

They took the tunnel out of Brooklyn and headed up the West Side Highway, Charlie slowing the heavy vehicle at every intersection to avoid the speed cameras and accelerating hard for the next stretch. All the way through Midtown the lights cooperated with his progress, spreading green welcomes as if waving some dignitary through checkpoints. Not that Charlie noticed, of course, Matthew observed to himself; Charlie would never deign to notice such a trivial piece of luck.

In Harlem they exited to stock up at Fairway, filling a cart with cheeses, olives, artichokes, caper berries. At the last minute Charlie threw in some tins of Osetra caviar.

“Best thing on earth for late-night munchies . . .”

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Matthew shrugged: Charlie was paying, after all. A few minutes later they were crossing the George Washington Bridge.

“Why don’t you find some music?” Charlie said.

Matthew had thought they might talk, but did as his cousin asked, selecting Gieseking’s Debussy on the iPod.

“Good choice.”

After a minute, though, Charlie said: “Actually, could you find something by Plan B?”

Matthew scrolled to Plan B. Hard beats and aggressive voices replaced the rippling piano.

Oi! I said Oi! What you looking at you little rich boy?

“What do you think?” Charlie said. “Great, aren’t they?”

Matthew glanced over to see if his cousin was joking, but he didn’t appear to be.

“Not bad.”

“Needs to be louder, though.”

Matthew turned up the volume.

They drove down the Palisades and onto the Thruway. As they passed the Suffern exit Charlie motioned with his hand that he wanted the music turned back down.

“You know that feeling when you’ve forgotten something?”

“Yes…”

“I’m getting waves of it.”

“Uh-oh.”

“But I’m not getting a fix on what it is.”

“Someone you’re supposed to’ve called?”

“No.”

“Something to do with work?”

“Nope.”

“Family?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Maybe it’s just a phantom version of the feeling.”

“Let’s hope.”

Twenty minutes later, Charlie slowed down and pulled onto the shoulder.

“It’s Chloe’s anniversary present. I bought her a bracelet. I left the fucking thing behind.”

“Shit.”

“Shit is it.”

“Can you get it when you next go down?”

Charlie shook his head.

“No. Our anniversary’s this Sunday. I can’t not have a gift for her. It’s our tenth.”

“Well, okay. Let’s go back.”

“So much for dinner at the Millstream.”

Chloe had left that morning to drop off their daughter, Lily, at music camp in Connecticut before heading back west into New York State to meet Charlie and Matthew. The plan had been to rendezvous at the Millstream Inn in Aurelia for a late dinner before going on to the house.

“We won’t get in till two or three a.m. Chloe doesn’t like being there alone at night. She’ll be deeply pissed and I won’t be able to explain why it happened without ruining the surprise.”

“Why don’t I go back?” Matthew offered. “I can get the train from Harriman and catch the late bus up to Aurelia.”

“No, no. No. Anyway, there isn’t a late bus.”

“Well, I could stay in the city. Come up tomorrow morning.

“No, this is my screwup. I’ll get the train down and you can drive on up and meet Chloe. That’s what we’ll do.”

“That’s ridiculous, Charlie. Let me go back. You need to open up the house, deal with the pool. Chloe’ll be much more upset if I show up without you than if you show up without me.”

“No, that wouldn’t be right. I couldn’t let you do that.”

“Don’t be silly. Plus this way you won’t need to invent a reason for being late. You can just tell her I had some last-minute hitch and couldn’t come till tomorrow.”

Charlie went on protesting, but Matthew knew he’d given his cousin what he wanted: an excuse to let Matthew fetch the bracelet without it looking too much like he, Charlie, was taking advantage. It would be a matter of purely practical necessity. In due course he agreed to the plan.

At the train station he gave Matthew his Amex card.

“Don’t stint on taxis. And get a decent dinner. Rucola should still be open, or go somewhere fancier. Anywhere’s fine.”

“I like Rucola.”

“Also you can sleep at the house if you like. Lupa’ll be there in the morning, so you can just leave everything for her.”

“Well, I have no choice. My subletter’s moved in for the summer.”

Charlie looked surprised.

“Your subletter? I didn’t know you’d sublet.”

“I can’t afford not to, Charlie.”

“Oh. Well, great. That’s great.”

“I hope so!”

“The bracelet’s in the safe, which is probably why I forgot the damn thing. I never use it.”

Charlie wrote down the burglar alarm code for the house and the combination numbers for the safe.

“I’ll have to kill you, obviously, as soon as you get back tomorrow,” he said, handing Matthew the scrap of paper.

“Obviously.”

“Seriously, though, tear this up when you leave the house.”

“I’ll swallow it.”

“And be careful at the Port Authority tomorrow. We don’t want you getting mugged with a ten-thousand-dollar bracelet.”

“Maybe I should swallow that too.”

“That’s gross, Matty. I’ll see you tomorrow.”  

*  *  *  *

There was an hour’s wait for the train. Matthew had a book, his father’s old copy of Pascal’s Pensées, as well as the summer issue of Vanity Fair. But he was distracted. After a while he realized he was actually a little upset. Not about having to go back for the bracelet, but about Charlie’s apparent surprise at the news that he’d sublet his apartment.

Hadn’t Charlie meant what he said when he’d invited him to stay for the summer? He could remember Charlie’s words exactly: “Come up to Aurelia with us. You can have the guesthouse. We have plenty of room for other visitors. Stay as long as you like. Stay the whole summer, bro . . .” Matthew had thanked him noncommittally, not wanting to snatch too eagerly at the offer in case Charlie should have second thoughts. But a week later Charlie had repeated it, more firmly: “Chloe and I would love to have you stay for the summer. I’m going to have to be in the city quite a bit and it’ll be good for Chloe to have someone around. We thought we could appoint you official cook and grillmeister…”

Matthew had taken him at his word, appreciating the tact of the little quid pro quo. And since he had no reason to come back down to the city for the period, he’d found a subtenant to stay in his apartment until Labor Day.

Now he had to wonder if he’d misunderstood Charlie’s invitation. Had his “stay the whole summer, bro” not been meant to be taken literally? Was it what his father would have called just a façon de parler?

Well, there wasn’t much he could do about it if it was. He’d advertised his apartment two months ago and the subtenant had arrived this morning: a Norwegian art historian who wanted to spend her summer exploring Brooklyn and looking at paintings in the Met. Anyway, Matthew told himself, Charlie hadn’t seemed upset or put out, exactly; more just surprised.

They were first cousins, he and Charlie; their mothers sisters from Providence, Rhode Island. Charlie’s mother had died when Charlie was thirteen. His father, at that time posted at the Dubai office of his bank, had sent Charlie to live with Matthew’s family in London. The two of them had gone to the same London private school as day boys, and for a while they’d been close: brothers in all but name. Charlie’s return to the States for college five years later would have been a wrench for both of them if things had continued as expected, but that had not been the case. Instead, calamity had struck. Matthew’s father, a well-to-do solicitor who’d become a member of Lloyd’s, had lost almost everything when the insurance giant collapsed in the late eighties. A man of unstained character until then, he’d emptied the accounts of several of his clients and disappeared out of the country, vanishing without trace and leaving a pall of bewildered shame and grief hanging like a gaseous wake over his abandoned family. In under a year, Matthew, acting out in his own singular fashion, had been expelled from school after admitting to selling drugs. As for Charlie, rather than remain in the blighted Dannecker home, he had asked his father to enroll him as a boarder for the remainder of his time at the school, and with Matthew continuing his education at a series of crammers in increasingly obscure corners of London, the boys had soon lost touch with each other. A reprisal of the friendship had never been something Matthew had considered remotely in the cards, or even especially desirable. But ten years later, circumstances had brought Matthew himself to live in the States, and after some initial reluctance he had contacted his cousin. Charlie, at that time freshly separated from his first wife and still raw from the experience, had responded with unexpected warmth, and the two had become friends again.

Still, it wasn’t the same as if they’d never had a breach. And it didn’t take much for Matthew to start wondering how dependable this newfound relationship really was.

He made an effort to shrug off Charlie’s surprise about the sublet, telling himself he was being oversensitive, and started reading an article in Vanity Fair about gourmet food trucks, a subject that happened to interest him.

The train, when it finally came, crawled morosely toward New York as if in protest at having to work at this ungodly hour. Just outside Secaucus Junction it seemed to realize it was about to relinquish any further chance of inconveniencing its passengers, and came to a complete halt for forty minutes. It was past midnight by the time Matthew arrived at Charlie’s house in Cobble Hill. Rucola would be closed. He was too tired to look for somewhere still open, let alone cook for himself. He was fastidious about food, and preferred to go to bed hungry than eat poorly.

He chained the door, kicked off his shoes, and went upstairs. It felt a bit strange, climbing the three flights to the guest room with no one else there. He’d never been alone in the house before, and had only been in the upstairs quarters once, when Charlie had first bought the place and was showing it off to him. The sleek fifties furnishings that Chloe collected seemed to look at him askance from their blond frames and Naugahyde upholstery. A baby grand in a second-floor room stood with its double-hinged lid half open, baring its antique teeth in a cringing grin.

Charlie had said they always kept the guest bed made up, but in fact it just had a folded comforter on a bare mattress. Matthew didn’t feel like hunting up a set of sheets, and went to look for somewhere else to sleep. Lily’s bed, on the floor below, was made up, but it didn’t seem right to sleep in a young girl’s bed, surrounded by dolls and furry toys. He went on down to Charlie and Chloe’s bedroom. The king-sized bed stood with its gold chenille cover and rumpled satin sheets flung back. It would do.

There was a gray marble bathroom en suite, with two sinks and a brass showerhead the size of a gong in the shower. He undressed and slid open the glass door, standing under the deluge of hot rain until he felt the grime of his journey cleansed from him. Books on global finance, climate change, Zen and Tibetan Buddhism were stacked on one side of the bed; photography magazines and paperback novels on the other. Naked, he climbed in next to the paperbacks and magazines. As he laid his head on the pillow, he caught the smell of Chloe’s perfume. He breathed it in deeply. As always, it stirred a very specific emotion inside him; unnameable, but powerfully evocative of its wearer. A short, sheer nightdress with thin shoulder straps lay crumpled on the carpet below the mattress. He picked it up and held it against the light. A strand of Chloe’s dark hair glinted on the cream-colored silk. He let the garment slide down softly against his cheek, and filled his lungs again with the delicately scented fragrance.

In the morning he woke early and went down to the kitchen to retrieve the bracelet. The safe was in the wall behind the refrigerator. Unlocking the castors as Charlie had instructed, he hauled the appliance out of its berth. The safe’s dial protruded at eye-level from a metal door in the wall. He turned it to the numbers on the notepaper Charlie had given him. The last four digits were 1985, and when he looked again at the other numbers he realized they formed the date Charlie’s mother had died.

He knew Charlie had this tender, vulnerable side, but it wasn’t always visible, and his feelings toward his cousin, which could sometimes be harsh, softened whenever he was reminded of it. The steel door clicked open, spilling cold air onto his forearm. Inside, in front of some stacked blocks of cash and four bottles of Cipro, was a flat Tiffany’s jewel box. He took it out and closed the safe, replacing the refrigerator and relocking the castors. Curious to see what ten thousand dollars could buy, he opened the box. The bracelet was a thick cuff of gold, with Tiffany & Co inscribed along one edge. An utterly bland piece of jewelry, in Matthew’s opinion. He felt bad for Chloe, about to receive something that, with her taste, she could only find banal, but which she would obviously have to pretend to like. He put the box in his pack and left, resetting the burglar alarm.

It was another day of clinging heat in New York. The Port Authority smelled like a dumpster. But the bus was cool inside and not too crowded, and as it headed north, the foliage along the Thruway glittered promisingly.

He picked up the article he’d been reading the evening before, on gourmet food trucks. It was a business he’d been thinking of getting into himself, some day, if he could raise the money. In London, when he was eighteen, a friend of his mother’s had taken him on at the trattoria she owned in Fulham, and taught him the rudiments of the restaurant business. Later, an acquaintance of the same woman had offered him a job in New York, where he’d learned to cook professionally, and one way or another food had been his livelihood ever since. A somewhat lean one in recent years, it had to be said. A curious lassitude had taken hold of him lately; a feeling of being adrift, and of not quite having the willpower to do anything about it. He’d had a share in a farm-to-table restaurant in Greenpoint that he’d sold three years earlier for a small profit, and he’d planned to reinvest the money in another, more promising venture, but he’d hesitated at the last moment; stayed home in a state of peculiar inertia on the morning of the final round of discussions, and the opportunity had passed. Since then, as if in obedience to some mysterious but inflexible organic law, his field of operations had been steadily dwindling. He blogged about food and made a little money off ads. A friend at a TV production company sometimes called him up to consult. He was registered with an agency that sent out chefs for private dinners, and occasionally he got a gig. But it was all beginning to feel rather remote, and not just the food business but other things too. Recently, he’d come across the coinage “meatspace,” meaning the real, as opposed to the virtual, world, and had found himself adopting it as his own private expression for what he seemed to be steadily, unaccountably, withdrawing from. Or what seemed to be withdrawing from him. Meatspace of worldly accomplishment.

Meatspace of relationships. Meatspace of money. At thirty-nine he was close, in fact, to living off pure fumes of just about everything. It wasn’t something he experienced as a great hardship, but he was aware that the moment was approaching when even the fumes would run out.   

*   *   *   *

The bus stopped by the village green in Aurelia, opposite the hardware store. The place was thronged: teens playing Hacky Sack, gardeners at work on the riotously blooming plantings, tourists milling around with cameras and ice creams. Behind the clapboard and brick buildings rose the round-topped mountains of the Catskills. They weren’t majestic, exactly, but they were big enough to suggest the idea of a wilderness, and to confer a bucolic air on the bustling little town. Matthew sat on a bench with his bag, waiting for Charlie.

He’d been to Aurelia several times before: weekend visits, and once over Thanksgiving. A century ago an arts colony had been founded there, and the town had been a haven for artists and musicians ever since. In their wake, these bohemians had brought an unusual combination of ragged drifters and wellheeled New York weekenders who mingled together in a curious symbiosis of mutual flattery. The weekenders were of the type who liked to think of themselves as successful members of the counterculture, and the drifters clearly enjoyed the boosted status they got from being the real thing. Some of the stores along Tailor Street—the main thoroughfare—were head shops selling tie-dyed T-shirts and drug paraphernalia, but there were also upscale realtors’ offices advertising two-million-dollar homes, as well as a couple of cafés where you could get a decent macchiato, and one good restaurant, the Millstream Inn.

After ten minutes Charlie pulled up on the road behind the green, stopping in front of the white-spired Dutch Reformed church. He was driving the convertible now, a cream-colored BMW that Chloe had driven up the day before. He was dressed in a white tennis shirt and shorts. His handsome, regular features were already a little sunburned.

“I brought you something from the juice bar,” he called out, waving a tall cup at Matthew.

Matthew took the drink and got in the car. It was a watermelon juice; cold and not too sweet.

“Thank you.”

“Thank you, man. You saved my ass. Everything go okay?”

“Everything was fine.” He gave Charlie the bracelet.

“Thanks, Matt. Really appreciated.”

“No problem.” Charlie grinned at him in the mirror:

“Were you surprised to see all that moolah in the safe?”

“I didn’t really look,” Matthew said. A momentary disappointment crossed Charlie’s face, and it occurred to Matthew that his cousin had wanted him to be impressed by the money.

“I mean, it looked like a good amount . . .”

“One and a half mill,” Charlie said. “Everyone was doing it after 9/11. Then the Cipro after the anthrax scare. To be honest, it seemed irresponsible not to.”

“Totally irresponsible.”

“Hey, don’t mock!”

“Sorry.”

“If the big one drops, you’ll know where to come, right?”

“Thanks, Charlie.”

“I mean it.”

Leaving town, they wound up into the mountains. The warm air rushing over Matthew’s face smelled of summer. At Charlie’s road they began climbing more steeply. The road, with its hairpin twists, had been cut into the mountain in the nineties when the town first began attracting the so-called “little millionaires” of the Clinton era. The houses along it were sleek and modern, with irregular-angled decks jutting out to take advantage of the view, stone-bordered swimming pools flashing turquoise in their grounds.

Charlie’s house, on a parcel of twenty acres near the top, was an almost invisible structure in which bluestone, cedar and glass mingled with the surrounding rocks, woods and sky in an ingenious way that made you unsure, as you approached, which part of what you were looking at was natural, which man-made.

From the front there was a tremendous view all the way to the Hudson River, across what looked like virgin forest, at least in summer when the billowing foliage swallowed everything but the odd church spire.

As Charlie opened the front door, Fu, their enormous black chow, bounded over. Matthew found the dog’s slobbering friendliness hard to take, though he did his best to conceal it, letting the creature jump up against his chest in his usual overfriendly greeting, without betraying too much distaste. Charlie tried to calm the animal but Fu ignored him, mashing his wet nose and bluish-black tongue into Matthew’s chin.

“We’re having some issues with Fu,” Charlie said apologetically. Stone floors and walls kept the air cool inside. Rawhide sofas and armchairs were grouped in the sunken living room around a carved wooden coffee table laden with Chloe’s photography books.

Off to the side, the open-plan dining room and kitchen looked out onto the terrace and lawn through a Japanese wall in which glass doors, paper panels and wood-framed bug screens could be arranged in combinations to let in different amounts of light and air. On the far side of the lawn was the pool, flanked by the pool house, with the guesthouse perched on a rock beyond.

“I’m going to take a shower,” Charlie said. “Go say hello to Chloe. She’s by the pool. Your bag’s in the guesthouse. Everything’s ready for you.”  

From THE FALL GUY. Used with permission of W. W. Norton. Copyright © 2016 by James Lasdun.




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