excerpt – Making the Ghost Dance
When Peck was eleven and felt invisible, his father, the doctor, brought magic home. It was a surprise. Peck heard his father say to his mother: “Hopefully it will bring him out.” There was a silk handkerchief which, when Peck coiled his hand on it, whisked red to green … then green to red again. There was a wooden egg Peck could make appear and disappear from a red bag on a black stick. There was a deck of cards which, when Peck riffled, forced anyone who reached to pick the jack of hearts. There were two Chinese sticks with tasseled strings which Peck could make dance invisibly. Peck and his father spent the evening together reading instructions, practicing, rehearsing. Everything seemed magic that night. Everything seemed possible. Peck’s mother brought fresh-baked cookies and hot cider. And when one of his father’s patients called, his father said: “Tell them I’m not available. Tell them Dr. Wyman is on call.”
So the message Peck received that eleven-year-old day was that you could start out the day alone, dropping beech leaves into the brook at the Underwood Estate and feeling queer about yourself like a runt animal or freak. Then that night you could be with your family doing tricks and nothing else mattered, everyone you loved would be interested in you and there with you, treating you as if they were you. And words would come into your mouth. You could talk. You could stand at one end of your father’s room and fool your parents and they would love you. Anything was possible. Peck would never forget that lesson.
* * * * *
Anything was possible. Peck started doing magic everywhere. He did it in his room instead of homework. He did in on the back seat of the bus to his music lesson in Cambridge. He stuffed sponge balls into his pockets, filled his sleeves with silks, carried decks of cards. He excused himself to go to the lavatory and changed water into wine in the chipped enamel sink. His mother donated a chewed suitcase as a carrier, and Peck sneaked the suitcase to scout meetings, where instead of learning lashings, he mystified even the Eagles.
“I’m famous,” Peck told his mother.
“Be modest,” his mother said.
“I’m getting famous,” Peck said.
“That’s better,” she said and pulled Peck so close, Peck believed he could feel her bones trembling. “Don’t grow up too fast,” she said. “Don’t grow up too fast and leave me.”
* * * * *
He earned money. He shoveled driveways in winter, delivered papers, made jewelry out of seashells the way he’d learned at day camp and went door-to-door selling. He collected newspapers and scrap aluminum in his cart, bundled and sold them to the junk man. He smudged his face with grease so he looked like Oliver Twist, then sat in a doorway in Harvard Square moaning, crying, begging. One woman gave him forty dollars. When the prospects seemed right, Peck would omit school from his schedule and sell lemonade or comic books in some strange neighborhood. His mother had given him an old card table for his tricks and he would haul that with him and set it up. One or two weeks—at only twelve now—he made close to a hundred dollars.
“What are these absences on your report card?” Peck’s father, the doctor, asked. “I don’t remember that you were ill last term.”
“There’s a new lady in the office,” Peck said. “She mixes people up with the same last name.”
“Whose grades are these?” Peck’s father asked.
Peck looked at the card: three Cs, a D, and a B in English. “The B’s mine,” Peck said.
* * * * *
There were stores in Boston that lured Peck to them, one down an alley, a novelty and joke shop called Humpty Dumpty’s. That’s where Peck’s father had bought the tricks for his birthday. Every Saturday, Peck took the bus and subway to hang out in Humpty Dumpty’s watching a magician there do tricks. Peck bought more props. He bought a small copper jug that kept refilling with water every time it was emptied. He bought a cane that turned into a rainbow silk. He bought a device that enabled anything he stuffed into his hand to vanish. Then he outgrew Humpty Dumpty’s and moved on to Max Holden’s.
Max’s was a real magician’s store. No whoopee cushions or hand buzzers. It was real, and it bore the posters of legends on its walls. There were glass cases filled with spring flowers, collapsible doves, huge silks. There were swords and saws and boxes painted red and black, gold and silver. Magicians came and bought tricks. They talked about shows: ‘When I was at the Albee in Baltimore,” they would say, or “I did this club in Indianapolis.” And they would mention names like Scarne and Blackstone. They sat on padded benches and did sleight of hand. Max Holden’s had a catalogue, which Peck devoured. They sold books of comedy and magician’s patter. He bought and memorized two whole books. Half of the material was off-color and Peck had no sense of it. It sounded funny even if he didn’t understand it. It had certain beats, like songs, certain rhythms which sounded smart and sure of themselves—like comedians Peck sometimes saw on television. He said the routines on the playground and in his junior high lunchroom to huddles of people ringed around him, the huddles booming and growling with laughter. There were older boys elbowing and slapping each other. Peck got invited to eighth-grade parties where he could do his routines, tell his stories. People would turn down the music and he’d stand in the middle of some downstairs recreation room and you couldn’t hear anything except Peck in tempo with the bursts of laughs.
* * * * *
The one thing Peck’s father had shared with him before the magic was a ritual Sunday visit to the hospital. Somehow Peck’s father, the doctor, had thought it to be a treat conducting his son on guided tours of disease. Peck hated it, but said nothing. After all, it was time with his father, and he guessed that was okay. He liked the ride in the Oldsmobile. He liked the trip to the delicatessen afterward. He liked the ride back. The maples and elms whizzed by, six-oar skulls sped by on a sparkling Charles River. Peck’s father would tell stories of his different patients: who they were, what they did, about their families, how they got to be sick, what their sicknesses meant, how bad they were. Peck liked hearing his father talk as if he were talking to him.
After his introduction to magic. Peck usually had a trick or two in his pocket on those Sunday outings, out of habit now. One April Sunday in a room occupied by a Mrs. Giarnarni, Peck found himself fiddling with a trick called the “ghost handkerchief” while his father talked to Mrs. Giarnarni and read her chart. Mrs. Giarnarni was old. She had hair the color of aluminum siding and lay in a raised bed with bottles hung over her and tubes running from the bottles to different parts of her body. Her face looked like it was crusted. She spoke in a slow and scratchy way. Peck’s father said Mrs. Giarnarni owned the best Italian restaurant in North Boston.
“… Dr Peck?” Mrs. Giarnarni asked … barely.
“Yes, Mrs. Giarnarni,” Peck’s father, the doctor, said.
“What is that your son’s doing?” she asked.
Peck’s father turned to see Peck behind him, keeping busy with his ghost. “Oh, my goodness!” Peck’s father said and laughed. “Oh, my goodness, look at that! My son’s a magician,” he said to Mrs. Giarnarni. “He loves magic. He does trick after trick. Sometimes we feel it would be better if he did his school work.”
Peck was making the ghost dance in mid-air. He felt strange—funny—and put on the spot.
“I started him,” his father said, and it seemed to Peck he said it proudly.
Peck felt strange in a new way.
“Son? …” Mrs. Giarnarni said to Peck in her voice that crawled like a bug.
“Yes, ma’am?” Peck said, stuffing the ghost into his pocket.
“Come here. Come … by me,” she said.
Peck’s father motioned. Peck drew near.
“Do your trick,” Mrs. Giarnarni asked. “Do your trick and make me better.”
Peck looked at his father. His father seemed to be shuffling papers inside his head, behind his eyes. He nodded.
“Do your trick and make Mrs. Giarnarni better,” he winked.
Peck drew the ghost out of his pocket and began. He told the story about how all the other ghosts laughed at this one because it was so small and couldn’t scare anybody and how the ghost had said he didn’t want to scare anybody anyway, he just wanted to make people laugh. It was the patter story that had come printed with the trick.
Mrs. Giarnarni listened. She watched and smiled.
Peck’s father stood by, a little behind Peck, also smiling.
Peck made the ghost rise. He made it move from side to side. He made the ghost rise up over his shoulder, which was an added twist he himself had invented. Finally, he made the ghost do a somersault in the air.
Mrs. Giarnarni made a sound of pleasure. “If I could clap, I’d clap,” she said.
Peck’s father said: “That’s very good. I don’t know I’ve seen that one. How do you do it?”
“I can’t tell,” Peck said. A magician didn’t tell his tricks, that was the law. That was the credo. He’d heard it over and over at Max Holden’s. Some of the older men now were taking Peck under their wing and offering professional confidences. Magicians could only tell secrets to other magicians.
Mrs. Gianiami laughed. “I feel better already, Doctor,” she said.
Peck felt amazing. He felt powerful. In the car on the way home from the hospital, Peck’s father again asked the secret to Peck’s trick and Peck again refused. The moment after was unspoken but tense. Peck had never defied his father before in that way or felt he knew something his father didn’t. It was as if he held some fleeting, subtle power over his father, and it felt strange.
A month later, during their hospital Sunday, Peck asked where Mrs. Giarnarni was.
“She took an amazing turn,” Peck’s father said. Her blood count went down. Her lungs cleared. She’s back running the restaurant.”
Peck felt good. It made him feel absolutely powerful. Maybe it was because he had done the ghost for Mrs. Giarnarni that she had gotten better. He asked his father for an expensive gift for his thirteenth birthday two weeks away: a black, red, and gold Mandarin Chinese box, large enough for the appearing or disappearing of a cat or small dog.
“Do you think it’s possible you’re getting a little carried away,” Peck’s father said, “with this magic?”
* * * * *
With the parties—the ones Peck found himself newly invited to—there were older high school girls, sometimes a year or two past Peck. Some of them he knew and some he had only seen. Some had smiled at him in the corridors. At one party, after making everybody laugh with a fifteen-minute comedian’s patter-book monologue about growing up fat, which was all the funnier because Peck was lank and bony, he amazed the room by producing blazes of fire at his fingertips. There were ooohhs and aahhs, and when the music was turned back up and the lights further down, two girls came up to Peck at the same time and asked if he would dance.
He knew one of the girls. She was Libby Abbott, someone whose teeth were so white they seemed, even to Peck, to be artificial like a prop. She was a year older, but she had been in an art class with Peck. She had been nice before with greetings and smiles. The other girl’s name was Marcia Wolfenstein and she was in the ninth grade. Her body rose and fell; it curved in and out like a woman’s, and Peck had never seen her until that very night. He said yes to Marcia and maybe later to Libby Abbott. Peck had never learned to dance, but Marcia obviously knew. So he fit and moved accordingly and everything seemed to be working out. Marcia moved Peck more than Peck moved her, and before he understood, they were through a door and in an unlit laundry room, the door shut behind them.
“Can you do that trick again,” Marcia asked. She was very close.
Peck had one more piece of flash paper and one more match head. He’d glued abrasive on his palm. Diverting Marcia briefly, he got the match head under his fingernail, the flash paper into his palm and … Poof! Presto! … fire in the dark!
“Jesus Christ!” Marcia said, “is that amazing or what?” And then she said, “Now I’m going to show you a trick,” and she took Peck’s hand and drew it under her sweater. Peck’s breath jumped inside him. It seemed almost to leave his throat dry. Then Marcia’s mouth was on Peck’s mouth, open and wet, her tongue digging entry then finding the insides of his cheeks, the roof of his mouth. Peck felt like a piece of his own flash paper. Then Marcia was apart again, leading him back through the laundry room door and into the dancing party. “You show me your tricks,” she said to Peck, “I’ll show you mine.”
* * * * *
A habit Peck developed to the point of ritual was putting his magic away in the steamer trunk his mother had loaned him. He could not remember ever having been so neat and orderly. He set trick after trick inside the trunk into what he felt should be its proper place. The priority places for the best tricks were angled along the edges and in the corners where the trunk shaped its own enclosure. Sometimes when Peck was falling asleep he would sense a better place for a given trick and get up, go to the trunk, open it, and make the necessary rearrangement.
The real mystery, the real fascination, came after he had set the tricks inside and closed the trunk. It was what it felt like to have the magic nearby but out of sight. It was what it felt like for Peck to have magic stored in his room. On those occasions when Peck felt confused or hurt, he might simply go to his room, sit on the worn Karistan, and stare hard at the lid of his trunk.
Over time. Peck formed a friendship with Antony Foley, who was older by two years. Antony Foley was interested in magic. Someone had given him tricks—easy stuff in a box, which Antony had never thought interesting until he’d seen Peck. Peck triggered him. Peck triggered Antony Foley’s criminal mind, as well, which was clearly ready for whatever magic and whatever prompt would spur him in that direction. Foley came and introduced himself one day in the corridor. “I’ve got magic at home,” he told Peck.
“Great,” Peck said. What did he have?
“How should I know?” Antony Foley said. “Come home. I’ll show it to you. You can see for yourself and tell me if I can make stuff disappear.”
“What do you want to disappear?” Peck asked.
“I dunno. Candy. Baseballs. Cigarettes.”
Peck checked out Antony Foley’s tricks. They lay strewn in a lidless cardboard box in a corner of the bedroom against Antony’s water stained, statue-of-liberty wallpaper. The tricks weren’t much. Peck knew them all. Still, he began instruction.
“No disappearing?” Antony said.
“Never mind then,” Antony said and showed Peck his stash of nude polaroids. They were girls from Rye Beach, New Hampshire, where Antony’s family had a summer cottage. “Where can I get a disappearing trick?” Antony asked.
Peck marked the appropriate page and brought his catalogue to school, and the next Saturday he took Antony on the MTA subway to Tremont Street and Max Holden’s, where they rode the elevator up to the third floor. They walked down the dim hall that crossed over into the world of legerdemain and performance.
“Holy shit! This is amazing!” Antony Foley said.
Peck had the clerk vanish a silk for Antony. They could buy the trick for three dollars. Antony wanted two.
“All you need is one,” Peck told him.
“Hey, if something is good, you never just need one,” Antony said.
He had the clerk teach him the trick. It was standard magician’s paraphernalia—an aluminum egg on an elastic, painted flat black with one end of the egg sliced off. You wore a coat, pinned one end of the elastic way up inside your sleeve, palmed the black egg, stuffed the silk into your fist, opened your hand, and extending your arms, zipp! … the elastic retracted the egg-shaped cupful of handkerchief.
“Fabulous!” Antony said. “Fabulous!” It didn’t sound, Peck thought, like a word kids used. “I want another one,” Antony said, “for my friend here.”
Peck protested, but Antony wouldn’t listen. Antony pinned both his eggs in place inside his raincoat and had Peck position his egg. “Okay,” he said as they left Max Holden’s and stepped into the elevator: “Let’s rehearse!” Antony hung a right into the first department store. It was called Town & Country.
“But this is a lady’s store,” Peck objected.
Antony raised his eyebrows. “Silk handkerchiefs!” he said.
He led Peck to the handkerchief counter and began to rummage. Peck imitated. He saw Antony stuffing silks into his hand, then lift both hands over his head, fingers spread. “Mama mia!” he exclaimed theatrically: “They got nothin’ here! Nothin’! My sister’s gonna go nutso!”
“Mama mia!” Peck aped Antony. He was almost laughing. He threw his hands high over his head and could feel the metal egg on the elastic snap up his sleeve.
“Would you boys please put those silk handkerchiefs back?” A salesgirl, who had been standing near and attending, approached the boys.
“What’re you talking about?” Antony said.
“Hold your hands out,” the woman instructed. Both boys complied. The salesgirl looked mystified. “I saw you stuffing handkerchiefs into your hands,” she said.
Peck felt terrified. His father talked all the time, it seemed (when he talked), about right and wrong. His mother always broke into tears when Peck had done something he shouldn’t.
“I was just going through them,” Antony said. “I was just going through—looking for a red and green one for my sister.”
The salesgirl requested that they roll up their sleeves. Peck caught an image of himself in jail.
Antony started rolling and Peck copied him. Both rolled their coat sleeves fold by fold to their elbows. Peck could feel the black metal egg under his armpit, six or seven inches away. But in the stretch running elbow to fingertip, there was only skin.
“I’m sorry,” the salesgirl apologized. “I shouldn’t have accused you unfairly.”
Right or wrong, fair or unfair, this was a new world! Peck imagined sawing the salesgirl in half. He imagined touching her breasts and having each turn into a half-dozen roses. Tomorrow he would eat fire. Tomorrow he would peel the moon like a blood orange. Tomorrow he would open his lunch bag at school and a thousand blue butterflies would rise up.
With the right words, with the right gestures, there was nothing in the world that could not be brought close and made wondrous, moved from light to dark and back again in a single stroke. There was no ghost, it seemed to Peck, that he could not make dance.
With the right words, with the right gestures, there was nothing in the world that could not be brought close and made wondrous, moved from light to dark and back again in a single stroke. There was no ghost, it seemed to Peck, that he could not make dance.
What happened with Peck’s career was a half-hour comedy series called Making Due, which dealt with a group of young people working in a collection agency. Kelson Kopf, sending him into the first audition, had called it a long shot. He said such series usually knew who they wanted before they cast. Still, “Look, it’s America!” and if Peck had “the balls he was born with” and went the next day to the thirteenth floor (“Don’t be superstitious!”) of a building on West 57th Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue, someone in an office there named (“Just a minute, I wrote this down”) Lisa Cantrell would have sides for him, scene pages. He should take the sides, take them home; he should look them over that night. The following day, he’d have a twenty-minute slot to make his case on the twenty-sixth floor of a building on Fifth Avenue on the corner of 49th Street. “I essentially had to sell my dick to get you this audition,” Kelson said, “but the way things have been going in my life, it’s an unnecessary appendage. So, enjoy …” Peck took a breath and thanked his agent.
* * * * *
He’d run similar obstacle courses previously. It was practically rote. He caught a cab at the corner of Mott and Canal and taxied to the appointed Westside building, where he “charmed” Kelson’s Lisa Cantrell, when she gave him his pages, by producing a 42-D brassiere out of her blouse. It was, Peck understood, a risk—a kind of throwback to his topless days. Still, magic was magic; it had brought him to life. Peck trusted it.
There was such a thing as the wrong trick. Peck, who had just said Voila! stood with the bra in one hand, the audition pages in the other. Lisa Cantrell, like a stoplight, turned orange, red. She made theatrical sounds of humiliation and kept moving her tongue against her upper lip to check its placement. Finally, though, she smiled, her teeth white and flat and reflective enough to be a mirror. “Good luck!” she said to Peck. And she repeated it. “Good luck.”
* * * * *
Peck read the sides. The dialogue made his brain bend. Who wrote for television, anyway? Who were these people and what kind of training did they have, doing stock inventories for department stores? These particular sides, though particularly terrible in certain stretches, were not as bad as some he had seen. They were punctuated correctly, which counted for something. And there was a line which Peck quite liked. In response to a co-worker’s, “Did you have a date last night?” Peck’s character replied, “They hadn’t dried yet.”
This character he would be auditioning to play was basically a repo man, someone who had grown up blue-collar, his father a plumber, and arrived in the suburbs deputized to take back appliances such as garbage disposals, dishwashers, and soft water conditioners when the payments had gone too far into arrears. Water seemed to be the common denominator in all of the character’s retrievals. If it wasn’t plumbing, it was a waterbed. The character was also a compulsive letch, trying to strike endless suggestive deals with the women from whom he was retrieving appliances. In one of the scenes, the character, once inside the door, came on tactlessly, to which the behind-in-payments housewife—sounding not unlike Jessica Entemann—pleaded, “Take your hand off my shoulder. Go away. Take the disposal!”
* * * * *
Peck memorized his scenes. The next day he went to the twenty-seventh floor. A receptionist who looked like Lisa Cantrell’s older sister but wore better clothes said things were backed up and would he wait? Given the running gags on water, Peck considered making a plumbing joke about being backed up, but then thought better of it.
Finally the call came to read. “Mr. Peck?” A blue door led him into a small office. Three men and a woman sat on chairs of oiled wood and gray tweed fabric. One man was the series director, a Jack Gilson. The others had industry titles. They introduced themselves as the producers, associate directors, sponsors. The word network was repeated.
A man and a woman, both looking very familiar, were called in from yet another anteroom. Introductions were made, and Peck read with them. Afterward, one of the producers began to thank him, when the director, Jack Gilson, asked, “Could we hear him read again?”
Peck did so. Again he got thanked. The next day, Kelson Kopf called. “They want you to read for another of the characters,” he said. “This is favorable.”
* * * * *
Peck greeted Lisa Cantrell, who delivered new sides. “No bra this time?” she asked, white teeth flashing. “I’m trying to be mature,” Peck said. Lisa looked disappointed.
“I’ve been told I should grow out of my lingerie phase,” Peck tried.
“Not forever, I hope,” Lisa said. They parted.
* * * * *
Peck read over and prepared his new material. This time his character was a Harvard Business School graduate “slumming” it in order to gather material for a book called Credit & Consequence. The character’s name was Ethan Frost. His character bit was that he was smart, (surprise!) he was stupid. Ha-ha.
Peck read for Ethan. Again, Jack Gilson asked him to re-read. And again the next day. Kelson Kopf called Peck, saying the series wanted him to return for yet a third character. “I don’t want to get your hopes up,” Kelson said, “but this has never happened where a client didn’t get an ongoing guest role, at least.”
This time the character was a blond California surfer. It was a stretch to imagine how a surfer guy had taken a job as a New Jersey loan-collection officer, but the “read” on him was he was the one they sent out of state to try to make the more difficult and far-flung delinquencies right. Given his passion for Malibu, he was always trying to get to California. Of course, he always ended up going to places like Bismark, North Dakota.
This time, when she flashed her teeth. Peck asked Lisa Cantrell out. “Tonight?” she said. “I’d love to!” And so they did, and Peck ended up sleeping with her. Well, not exactly sleeping. Lisa got drunk, and he took her home and put her to bed. He sat up in a chair memorizing lines because for some reason there was broken glass on the floor and Peck was worried Lisa would stagger up for a trip to the bathroom and slice open her foot. When she did wake, she smiled dreamily at Peck, who had cleaned up the glass and was making coffee. Her voice was husky, but she purred, “It was a wonderful date, incredible for me.” Peck left and bleached his hair, and that afternoon he did his third audition. He felt appropriately at sea. On his way out, he heard a producer stage-whisper to another, “Listen to him. He’s the guy!”
Then Jack Gilson stopped him. “Word is you do tricks!”
Tricks—whoops! Had Lisa Cantrell called? She had, but only to express delight about Peck’s magic. Peck talked briefly about his background. He briefly outlined his personal theory of life from failed expectations.
He left them nodding their heads.
* * * * *
The committee of producers and directors tried him for the three remaining principal characters. One was black and two were women. In each case, still, there was the murmured, Jesus, he is this … person. With the women’s parts, he stayed on while the group debated transvestites, whether they were funny or not. A sponsor questioned the idea (he called it a concept) that no one had ever done a series with drag. Another producer pronounced her own considered opinion that cross-dressing was inherently funny: “Use a cross-dresser in a series and you have a hit.” Peck was not exactly feeling buoyed about his life by their considerations.
But then came the final callback with no sides at all. A mute! Peck speculated about what this could mean. “Listen to this!” he was instructed. Jack Gilson had come up with what they thought was an absolutely amazing concept for Peck’s character. Jack’s concept was that there should be a new character with the following background. “Listen carefully,” Peck was told. The new character would come from Boston and be the son of a doctor, someone with a disabled brother, Gilson said. “He does magic. He does comedy. He’s been a kind of wunderkind … a bit with women, a bit with life in general. On the one hand, he’s an innocent; on the other, he’s got nerve … but he’s in a kind of trough now, a low, a depression. He’s struggling to pick up the magic all around, and his temporary solution is his work in this office.”
“Man alive!” The five other faces in the room cocked forward and shone like brass. “Tell us what you think!”
“Tell us what you think!” two others shouted, obviously juiced with enthusiasm.
Peck tightened his teeth. His jaw muscles leapt in a kind of rhythm as he nodded. Finally, he pronounced the new character concept workable. He could relate, go along with nearly everything but the disabled brother. Peck asked Jack where the specific notion had been born.
“It just came to me,” Jack Gilson said. “It was just one of those things … just sort of flew in, I don’t know, from different pieces.”
“So then, like to an air traffic controller,” Peck said.
“Sometimes you just get lucky,” Jack said. “Sometimes you’re creative.”
“What’s the character’s name?” Peck asked.
“Name. Absolutely right. A name. Did we come up with a name?” Jack Gilson, one by one, polled the others.
“Wait a minute! Wait a minute!” Jack Gilson’s face shone like a 120-watt bulb. “This is brilliant!” he said.
“Include me in. I can keep a secret,” Peck said.
“What if we use your name?” Jack Gilson said.
“Perfect!” one of the show’s producers said. “Perfecto!” he added for emphasis. “We’ll call the character Peck.”
* * * * *
Peck was offered the job. It wasn’t unexpected. Jack Gilson seemed to have a special appreciation when Peck accepted. Kelson Kopf was ecstatic. He had never had a client, he said, who had actually climbed the ladder to a television series and “stardom.” The pay was substantial. Peck was immediately put on contract, then given two weeks off before start-up rehearsal time.
He thought of calling his parents, sharing his news, but resisted. His mother, he felt, would be reflexively happy, his father reflexively glum, saying something like, “So, now what? You’re a celebrity?” Neither of them would understand.
It was hard. Peck wanted to feel some larger world embracing his good fortune. He was twenty-eight now—twenty-eight years old! There should be calls to make, people to gather for dinner. He called Russell in Bucks County.
“Fabulous!” Russell said. “Fabulous!” He was drunk.
Peck asked why he’d been drinking. Had he dined with clients, had he been at a party?
“I don’t know,” Russell said. “A person opens a bottle of Chivas and pours it over ice and it’s a mystery, it’s profound. I don’t know, no reason.”
Peck asked how Russell’s job was going.
Russell said, “Shitty,” and then added, “Hey, I’m kidding.”
Peck outlined the character he was to portray, and he and Russell laughed, point by point. They giggled. “Gosh, they nailed you,” Russell said. “They nailed you, every nose hair. Peck plays Peck. Great!”
Russell wanted to get into his Spider, drive to New York, and buy Peck a drink. Peck discouraged him. “I could’ve been a star!” Russell said. “This guy, me. I could’ve been a contender.”
“Hey, you are,” Peck kept saying. “Hey, buddy, you are! You’re a contender. Don’t undersell yourself. You’re a contender all the way.”
Russell asked Peck to listen to three new songs he’d written, and sang them over the phone between hits on his scotch.
Peck cringed at the gaps for scotch but otherwise beamed. The songs were good, and he said so. Some day, Peck said, a lot of people will be singing Russell’s songs.
“So, why did I do this?” Russell asked, far more drunk than when they’d begun. “Why did I go to where I am, this place … where is it anyway? What’s it called? Oh yeah, law. Hey, I’m just kidding!”
Peck hung up and felt bad. He called Leslie Fay at her home, but when she lifted the phone he couldn’t speak with her. He called Jessica in West Hartford and barely let the phone ring. Peck wondered how many times do people do that: call people they care about but break the connection before caring becomes possible?
He called his brother’s beeper at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston where he was doing a radiological residency. “Nick, guess what?” Peck began, and then told his story. Nick kept saying, “Alright! Alright!” The two laughed. They invented spins on their parents’ possible reactions. Nick, married now eight months, told Peck Lanie was pregnant. “We’re on the moon,” he said, his voice aquaver he was so happy. “We just can’t bloody believe it. Peck, it’s incredible! We’re on the moon with this!” When they closed their call, Peck was filled with a kind of gratitude for his brother and what they shared. But he was filled with a terrible loneliness as well.
* * * * *
So, instead of gathering friends, rather than being touched by the pride of parents, Peck’s rather muted job celebration involved descending his apartment stairs and taking dinner alone at Low’s, the noodle house and restaurant occupying the first floor. At his corner table, he felt sadly small. He was a curious phantom haunting the edges of the restaurant. At twenty-eight, on the day of his breakthrough, he was his own ghost—pale and insubstantial.
It was okay, he guessed. Twenty-eight wasn’t old by any stretch. There was time. Life was nothing if not possibilities. Low’s shiny menu stood before him. He decided to go for broke and order the Hunan lobster, duck noodles, and start off with some sizzling rice soup.
Low’s was always busy. The Gow family, who owned and ran it, were remarkable, exquisite cooks. There was almost always a ready crowd, a dozen or more student- and graduate-student-types milling around the coatrack at the front. In warm weather on weekends, the hopefuls spilled out onto Mott Street. The Gows knew Peck. He was already a celebrity of sorts to them because he’d performed there a few nights, free of charge. Mrs. Gow would sometimes call him back into the kitchen to taste a special dish.
The Gows’ daughter, Victoria, waited tables, and she soon became the second of Peck’s two turnaround events—falling in love. She had a hushed and quietly beautiful way about her. She was perhaps twenty-four and always dressed in a modest sweater and black skirt, with little makeup. Her neck was long, her eyes enormous and reserved. Intelligence spanned her brow. There was a kind of heat in her lips. Peck knew her to the degree that they had spoken. He had teased. She had responded, always shyly, taking his order, bringing his food, filling his water glass and tea, bringing his check. He would always tip. It had been ceremonious and casual.
Tonight, though. Peck watched her differently as she left his table, and wondered where the difference lay. Was it in her moving away … or in his watching? When she brought the sizzling rice, he asked if she had always worked for her parents.
“No,” she said.
Peck remembered that she had not been there when he first moved in above them. Had she always lived in New York?
“I lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, briefly,” Victoria said.
Peck confessed Cambridge to be his home—or home ground—near it, anyway.
When she brought the duck noodles, Peck asked what she had been doing in Cambridge. Had she been going to school? Victoria said yes, she had been at Radcliffe. Peck re-evaluated. Certain of her mystery came together, added up, made its sense. Had she graduated, Peck asked. Victoria said she had attended three semesters. “My family needed me to work here,” she said, “so I came back.” Peck asked what she’d been studying, primarily. “Organic chemistry and philosophy,” she said. She liked to read and still “read a great deal.”
It made Peck think, made him re-evaluate. He felt an unstable stirring in himself and was unsure what it meant. When Victoria brought his Hunan lobster, he asked whether she would consent to go for a walk after Low’s closed that evening. She said, “Thank you, that would be nice,” and reset a finished table.
In his room, waiting for the restaurant to close at eleven, Peck kept having the taste of almond on the roof of his mouth and sensing Victoria. On a yellow pad, he tried to write the formula for his life to that date, that which had brought him the deepest heat of mystery and what seemed to hold that heat at bay. At the top of the sheet, he wrote “Making failed expectations pay.” Under that, he wrote Roman numeral I and headed it “Three Secrets of Magic.” Under A, B, and C, he listed:
A. Into the void
B. Out of the void
C. The divination of secrets.
Something, Peck felt, was at last making a kind of sense. Roman numeral II was headed “My Life So Far,” under which came:
A. What’s supposed to happen doesn’t.
B. What’s not supposed to happen does.
C. When the trick seems to have failed, and it’s over, suddenly, without words or warning, it works.
Peck memorized his yellow sheet and recited it again and again. He mumbled the phrases. What’s supposed to happen doesn’t. What’s not supposed to happen does. Something was alive in the notations. Something was imbedded, hidden. It was a kind of riddle.
At eleven, he descended to Low’s and found Victoria. He detected subtle eye shadow and lip gloss. Her family, she said, would be finishing the closing.
In the New York dark, the two walked across Canal and up Green Street. Peck asked a hundred questions, and Victoria’s answers, each time, figured richer and more complex patterns in a kind of deepening crystallography of conversation. Peck felt amazed. How had the evening not happened earlier? There was a kind of trembling in him about it all; their arms would brush in the walking and he would feel it at the base of his skull.
Before they stopped for a drink, Peck was in love. After their first Chenin Blanc, Peck felt lost and giddy. Victoria opened. She laughed, although it was unlike any laugh Peck had ever known. It made no sound. Her lips would press and seem, in doing so, to move some emotion out from dead center. Her eyes would do something that reminded him of blossoms opening. There would be a flaring of her nostrils, a lift of her neck. It seemed boisterous and pure grace, both at once. Peck was enraptured and reordered wine to keep asking endless questions. Whatever he asked, she answered in the most exquisite and endearing way. He discovered, for instance, that each semester Victoria took a course in the city at Columbia. That way, by the time she was thirty, she would have her degree. At her door, on returning, Peck asked, “May I … put my arms around you?” Her raised lips seemed to reach up and take his in. Climbing his stairs, Peck found he was shaking.
They began dating as though it had been going on for years. Peck called Russell at lunch hour so as to not catch him drunk. He confessed, “I’m in delirium.” “My friend, my friend!” Russell said and began to cry. That night. Peck’s phone rang. There was a piano introduction and a love song, “Only for You,” which had been written, Russell said, for his friend. Peck went to the Gows. “Teach me how to chop bok choy,” he said.
* * * * *
So, Peck began his new series and spent his free time with Victoria, somehow falling into the void, out of the void, and discovering the divination of secrets. The series bloomed. It was a success—the network’s number one Thursday-night program. Peck’s picture began appearing in the television digests and commentaries. Some credited Peck’s particular kind of zaniness with being the heart and the pleasure of Making Due. One reviewer wrote: “When you most expect him to appear in a scene, he doesn’t. When he’s least expected, Voila! Often he botches a problem impossibly, but then Presto! The impossible happens—and of course in his own quirky way, which all makes sense.”
Peck, in fact, scripted some of the moments the reviewer cited. Peck had middle-of-the-night and out-of-the-blue inspirations, which he converted into turns and spins on scripts. He became a master of the spur-of-the-moment, inventing on set and keeping the cast lively. He used Russell’s songs on the show and got Russell paid for them. One day, feeling particularly frisky and within a rush, he called his father’s Boston office. “Please, it’s critical,” he told his father’s secretary. “Mrs. Breed, it’s critical. Interrupt him.” When his father took the phone, he said in a clearly breathless voice, “Now you can start using the word!”
“Who—” Peck could sense a faltering in his father’s voice. “Who is this? Is this you, Peck? Use the word? What do you mean! What word?”
Something cautioned Peck: Don’t be haughty. Don’t be arrogant. But he couldn’t help it. “Celebrity,” he said. “You can use the word celebrity.”
Dr. Peck vanished into a silence.
“Pop?” Peck questioned.
“Has Nicholas? … Has Nicholas called you?” Dr. Peck asked.
Peck said no, what? … Why? Had Lanie delivered?
“Early this morning,” Dr. Peck said.
“A boy. Eight and a half pounds. ‘Willie.'”
“And it all went well? … Tell me, okay? Lanie’s alright? The baby’s okay? … ‘Willie’ … No complications?”
“He’s short a finger on each hand,” Dr. Peck said.
What was his point? Peck wondered. What was the response to the news his father thought Peck should have? “So, what?” Peck said. “Should I buy him a catcher’s mitt?” Bad response. Tacky impulse. He hated himself for that.
In celebration, Peck called Lanie’s room at the hospital and found Nick was there. Nick held the phone out for Peck to listen to the background sound of “nursing,” or “live nursing,” as Nick said. He spoke of Willie’s hands. They were more beautiful than five-digit hands, he said. But Peck began to cry. He heard Nicholas announce to Lanie, “He’s crying!” She laughed, then started to cry herself. Nick cried. “The baby’s the only one not crying,” Nick said. The two brothers said they loved each other and hung up.
Peck wanted to send Lanie a gift for making his brother so happy, for delivering life, for enabling Peck himself to envision design. He called her room back, asked Nick to put her on the phone.
“She’s a little woozy,” Nick said.
“I like woozy,” Peck returned.
“Hey,” Lame’s voice said—sounding a bit like Styrofoam mid-ocean.
“Tell me something you need,” Peck requested.
“No, really, something you need. Something you never thought you’d have but you’ve dreamed of. Name it.”
That night Peck called his father at home and apologized for his flippancy. His father seemed at a loss. It seemed there was something his father wanted to speak to Peck about but didn’t have the words for.
“We say things,” his father said.
“And do things,” Peck confessed.
“Say hello to your mother,” his father urged. Peck’s mother’s voice came on the phone. “Peck?” it said. It was a voice like the most fragile glass, like the softest feathers, like light.
“How’re you doing?” Peck said.
* * * * *
Like a broken field runner, Peck’s luck charged forward. All around him was daylight. His luck galloped. Another avenue opened. A new adventure! A syndicated radio program, which was a comedy and variety show, in essence the current decade’s version of burlesque and vaudeville, asked him to be a weekly regular. His bit was to do magic tricks on radio.
His line on the radio became, “Now, watch my hands!” One week he emptied Lake Mead: “Now, I’m just going to put this handkerchief over Lake Mead …” The next week, using existing tapes, he changed the incumbent president into Teddy Roosevelt and then back into Jimmy Stewart. “Whoops!”
* * * * *
Of course, outside the extended hours of his career, it was Victoria and Peck, Peck and Victoria. He studied her language. One week he gave all his lines on Making Due in Chinese. It was a sensation. He learned to cook. He learned Tai Chi. He studied geography and the era of Chinese communism. He began to peruse books on organic chemistry, even tried reading Schopenhauer. He loved the Gows, and they seemed fond of him, except that Mr. Gow would sometimes wonder aloud, “I don’t know … be good thing … for Victoria marry a … Peck.”
Lord, Lord, Lord—he loved Victoria! He loved that people paid him to be delirious! He loved it that, even though it was radio, he could make whole land masses appear and disappear.
So, even though he was moving up on thirty, it seemed to Peck that he was eleven again.