For a moment I raised my eyes from the manuscript I was editing and looked out the streaked plate glass (New Jersey Transit doesn’t do windows either) at the drab towns racing by, on their way to some unknown western destination. A man sat next to me. I didn’t look at him but I saw his well-pressed, superbly tailored trousers and Gucci loafers on his stretched-out feet. I’m tempted to say that he looked like a man who would comb his hair before making an important phone call. I sensed him watching me work. Another nosy guy, I thought. Any minute, I imagined, I’d hear him say: My brother is a writer; or, my niece wants to write; or, isn’t that interesting, I always wondered, what does an editor do? Pretty soon, from his sleeve, like a magician, he would draw a manuscript and present it to me. Although I had been deeply immersed in my work since I boarded the train in Trenton, I felt this man had slipped in next to me for a reason. And since such nosiness, or, to be generous, curiosity, annoys me, I try to tilt the pages toward me to show they’re mine.
But he still hadn’t said a word, which completely disarmed me. From his briefcase he took out a Wall Street Journal and began reading. He’s an analyst for a brokerage house, I thought, or perhaps a compliance officer at a hedge fund. What links do these guys have to literature?
Finally, I turned to him. He gave me a fetching smile, this well-dressed, handsome man in his mid-fifties, but he said nothing. Now I was about to speak. This later amazed me, for when I’m working on the train I don’t initiate small talk. But this quiet chap was turning the tables on me. Even without speaking he radiated energy, magnetism, drawing the iron filings of my attention. I felt I was in an inside-out conversation, in a mirror-image, effect-and-cause world. While praying my seatmate wouldn’t talk to me, I was half expecting him to. Change that to expecting him to. His surprising silence hexed me into talking to him. I opened my mouth and was about to say, “I sense you’re interested in writing,” but caught myself at the last minute.
What’s the matter with you? I asked myself. Soon you’ll ask him to favor you with one of his manuscripts. Come on, just pull it from your sleeve and I’ll start reading it now. Or maybe, even more absurdly, I would proclaim, I’ve got this great manuscript for you to read, and he would respond, using my favorite line, I’m so sorry, our publishing house doesn’t accept unsolicited manuscripts. We deal only with accredited literary agents.
I sensed him watching me work. Another nosy guy, I thought. Any minute, I imagined, I’d hear him say: My brother is a writer; or, my niece wants to write; or, isn’t that interesting, I always wondered, what does an editor do?
But the fact is I didn’t tilt my manuscript toward me. Didn’t use it as a place of refuge. I turned to him and he uttered a curt, = Hi.
I waited for him to continue. But, again to my surprise, he said nothing more. He was frustrating me, my taciturn seatmate.
Then, finally, he said, = Looks like you’re either an editor or—
I was about to respond amicably, but he stopped in mid-sentence. I don’t know if he picked up his Wall Street Journal, for I turned from him and looked out the window.
Then softly, so seductively I had to face him, he continued:
= What a fortuitous meeting! I’m a writer. And I have an unusual love story I’d like to show you. You see—
Another love story, I thought. Everyone has a love story.
= Forgive me for interrupting you, I said, looking him in the eye, = but I get this all the time.
His face reddened, which immediately made me feel bad. What could I do now with this seemingly gentle man with thick black curly hair with a bald spot on the top of his head and a few strands of gray threading here and there? It’s always hard to say no, especially in person.
= I don’t want to be mean or sound abrupt, but the small publishing house I work for—you guessed right, by the way, I am an editor, but I could be an author too, you know, correcting my own manuscript—doesn’t do fiction. We used to, but not anymore.
The man nodded, absorbing the disappointing news. And, in any case, how could I afford to read a manuscript by an unknown? Take any ten people in a room, twelve of them claim they are, used to be, or want to be writers. Most people assume writing is calligraphy: take a pen in hand and start writing. But it’s not handwriting; it’s think-writing, for which the hand is only an instrument, a faithful intermediary, sometimes a less-than-willing amanuensis.
I looked out the window at the Jersey swampland. Just a few minutes earlier, trees in their June green were whizzing by. And now the swamp. I imagined I was a tourist in some Asian country. It looked rather appealing in the early morning sun, as does most anything in sunlight. I felt my seatmate’s tension and dashed hopes, vivid and palpable, stirring in the small space between us.
= But I didn’t finish my sentence, he said.
= Sorry. What were you going to say?
= That this isn’t a run-of-the-mill, dime-a-dozen love story. Did you ever hear of a love affair where a guy’s rival is not the fellow next door, but Jesus?
It took me a moment to absorb that.
= Well, that is interesting, I said. = You mean the girl has an infatuation with Jesus.
= You’ll see how it plays out.
= All right, I’ll make a deal with you, I suddenly said.
The man brightened. = You won’t be disappointed, I assure you. And I’ll make a deal with you. If it isn’t worth your while, I’ll buy you a yearly pass.
I laughed. = I admire your confidence. And thanks for your generous offer. But that won’t be necessary. Do you take this train every day?
= Well, almost.
= I take this one Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. On Tuesday and Thursday I take an earlier one. How far do you go?
= Penn Station, the man said.
= Me too. My name is John.
Most people assume writing is calligraphy: take a pen in hand and start writing. But it’s not handwriting; it’s think-writing, for which the hand is only an instrument, a faithful intermediary, sometimes a less-than-willing amanuensis.
= So what’s the deal? the man asked.
= I’ll be frank with you. I won’t be able to read the manuscript, but you’ll narrate the story for me. And by the way, telling a story is the best way to fine-tune it, to make it clearer and sharper. But you still didn’t tell me your name.
= Call me Katz, he said. = Katz is how I like to be called. Okay, I’ll narrate the story, but would you mind if once in a while I read from the manuscript?
= That’s fine with me.
= Okay, it begins like this. My hero, who is separated, but maybe not, we’re not sure…
= We? I interrupted. = Who’s the “we?”
Katz raised his index finger, requesting patience. = I’ll tell you in a minute. The hero, also named Katz, met this girl about twenty years ago, almost the same way I met you, on a train. Actually, a waiting room in Boston’s T, the trolley car line that goes in to the city from the western suburbs. And she tells me, I mean him, my hero, her name. Wait! Why should I break my tongue, like the Italians say, and keep saying “him” and “he,” when I’m writing the story in the first person? Though it didn’t happen to me.
= To be sure, I said. = It’s just a narrative device. And I thought to myself: I haven’t yet met a writer who will honestly say, Yes, that first-person hero, that’s me.
= Exactly, a narrative device, Katz was quick, too quick in my estimation, to reply. Then he added, = Actually, to be perfectly honest. . .
At that I shut my ears. Whenever I hear that phrase it sounds discordant, like two elbows on a keyboard. Hearing it I immediately brand the speaker an inveterate liar.
= Actually, it’s not my book. It’s my brother’s fiction, I heard Katz say.
= Ah, I said. = There’s that “we.”
= Yes, John. It’s his work. My brother’s. I must accent this. Please understand that the Katz who is the protagonist of the novel should in no way be confused with Katz the author, and certainly not with his brother, me, Katz the reteller. I’m just retelling his fiction. I told you I’m a writer because everyone probably begins his spiel to you by saying, my brother is a writer. But in this case, my brother is the writer. . . Okay, although I have a good memory—my brother says I have total recall—I still won’t be able to repeat word for word what’s he’s written, but I’ll look over the pages the night before and try my best.
= You’ll see, he’s a terrific writer with great imagination. I too wanted to become a man of letters, Katz said wistfully, = but it didn’t work out. My brother became the writer, but of course he has a day job, and I ended up in business. Still, I wish I could write.
And, at once, blindsided, I fell into his neatly baited trap.
= What would you write?
= Wrongs, he said, and again gave me that wicked, engaging smile.
It took a while for that wordplay to sink in.
Then I admitted to Katz that one of my ambitions too had been to become a novelist or short story writer, but I wasn’t good enough. But since I had a good literary sensibility, I got a job as an editor.
= How long you been at it?
= About twenty years.
Then I panicked, fearing the question Katz might ask me. But to his credit, he was discreet enough not to ask the name of my firm.
Please understand that the Katz who is the protagonist of the novel should in no way be confused with Katz the author, and certainly not with his brother, me, Katz the reteller. I’m just retelling his fiction.
= Got my first job soon after I graduated college. And since I did so well, I capped the flame of my ambition to write fiction.
To which Katz responded, = That’s why Balzac said, “It is as easy to dream up a book as it is difficult to put it on paper.” And the American novelist C. L. Eviant once wrote: “Fiction is like dreams, imagining and vivifying the impossible.” And me, I have dreams, can’t write them down. So I admire my brother for his determination. Sometimes, when I read his book, I feel I’m entering a magical world, where the page splits and two new, previously unseen pages appear, and you enter a dream world. . .
Then I added:
= And the great Argentinian short story writer, Jorge Luis Borges, who never wrote a novel, once said something similar. “To imagine the plot of a novel is a happy task. To actually write it is an exaggeration.” You’ve read Borges, right?
= Read him? Katz said indignantly. = I wrote most of his stories, including “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote.”
= Mmm, I said, not really knowing what to say. At times I felt I was talking to him in foreign tongues.
I didn’t want to ask Katz what he did. That is, I did want to ask him, but the protocol of train friendships forbade it. Like giving your last name. But perhaps my silence spurred Katz on.
= So I became a surveyor. I’m principal of a land surveying company.
= Well, well. K the Land Surveyor. How interesting!
= I never thought of the similarity of initials. So you know The Castle.
Katz didn’t phrase it as an interrogative, but I sensed the question lurking.
= Why do you ask? You can see I’m making reference to Kafka’s famous novel.
= Not necessarily, he said. = Some people read reviews or dust jacket flaps and think they’ve read the book.
= Did you major in land surveying, if there’s such a thing?
= I majored in comp lit but sort of sidled into land surveying, but let’s get back to my brother’s novel. The hero doesn’t usually give his name because he’s a very private person. Quite shy. Just like my brother. But for some reason he can’t quite explain, maybe because the girl is so appealing, after she introduces herself, he gives her his name right away.
= That’s amazing, I said.
= What’s amazing, John?
= I don’t like to give my name either, I said. = On planes, when a stranger starts talking to me and asks my name, I give the guy a card that a previous nudnick had given me and which I keep for just such an occasion.
= What a terrific idea! Katz said. = I’m going to remember that. Only problem is now both of us will be suspicious that we’ve given each other false aliases.
= Fear not. It will be all right.
= So as soon as I tell her my name, she says: The author of Travels in Bessarabia. And I say, That book was published more than fifteen years ago. How do you remember that one? And she says she used it for her trip to Romania after a Jewish friend gave her that book. . . one of the best-written travel books she ever read. Soon as she said, ‘a Jewish friend of mine,’ I knew for sure Maria was Christian. That’s not her real name, by the way. That’s what my brother calls the heroine to protect her privacy.
Katz pronounced the word the British way, with the short “i,” as in ‘privilege.’ I couldn’t tell if it was an affectation. Then he stopped and gazed out the window.
= I wonder, Katz continued, where she is now, after all these years. Probably back in Romania, helping the poor gypsies again, for her goal was to help poor people in Seventh World countries perfect their shoplifting and wallet-snatching skills.
= What’s the novel about? I asked.
= What’s it about, you ask? It’s about a guy named Katz and a girl named Maria. They get to know each other, but she’s a deeply devout off-the-wall Protestant, and how this love affair of hers with Jesus, which complic—but I don’t want to get ahead of myself.
= You said you had a brother.
= Had? Why had? He’s still alive. The author of the book.
= Okay. So what do people call him?
= Katz. He doesn’t like first names either.
= So how do you, or your mother, or anyone else distinguish you from him?
= By the pronunciation.
And Katz, that rascal, didn’t even smile. I decided to drop it. He was either being purposely obtuse or didn’t know when to stop teasing. But Katz continued as though our conversation had not taken an untoward turn.
= So we hope this book, with its unusual theme and plot, will work for him. My brother wants to see this book published so badly.
= Then he should come to our house. We publish all our books badly.
Katz disregarded my joke.
= He doesn’t want it to be part of that ever-growing library of imaginary books, in the uncatalogued collection of the Universal Library of Non-existent Books of which Borges is the Honorary Head Librarian…Oops, here we are. My stop.
= But it’s only Newark. I thought you were going to Penn Station.
= Newark has a Penn Station too. You New Yorkers, with your transito-geographic chauvinism! If we both make it through the night alive and well, I’ll see you Wednesday for another installment of My Love Story Which Jesus Elbowed Into, which, by the way, is not the title of my brother’s book. Which station do you get on?
= Trenton. And you?
= Princeton. Save me a seat, okay? See you tomorrow morning, Katz said.
From Katz or Cats, or How Jesus Became my Rival in Love. Used with permission of Dzanc Books. Copyright © 2018 by Curt Leviant.