The esteemed American novelist, Greg Ivanovski, arrived via the New Canaan branch on a Wednesday morning. By lunchtime, the rumble of loafers and wedge heels had the walnut paneling of the dining hall chattering and the Louis IX chandeliers rocking on their chains. Where had this swarm been only moments ago? Huddled in sleep behind the lancet arches? The cafeteria staff jostled the thrumming scholars into manageable lines, but finally had to impose the fire safety limit, with one particularly tragic result—Irish playwright Niall Glenn was forced to stand swaying from foot to foot in the outer hall for twelve full minutes before being allowed inside.
Greg Ivanovski did not attend the lunch.
Vedra Miller scooped out the potatoes au gratin, contorting her neck like an egret to canvass the room. “I wonder, might Greg peek in at dinner tonight?” she remarked to Eloise Delacroix (a novelist of the South, late forties, blonde, pink, tenured, with ponderous turquoise earrings that jowled her earlobes). Vedra’s rosette shift dress—saved for this day, a handsome plus size açaí berry sleeveless from Macy’s—suffused the woman with such giddy pluck that she imagined her question to have sounded most natural and blasé, as if enquiring on an old friend.
“Girl, I cut my teeth on Ivanovski as a turnip cooch down in Tifton,” Eloise replied. ” I think Rushdie said it, and I don’t disagree. Ivanovski is America’s Chekhov.”
Blanche Arnold—the Massachusetts matron, the Steel Rose, finalist for the 1998 PEN Faulkner poetry prize—lifted her mournful head from the buffet and remarked, “Oh dear, Rushdie wrote that Ivanovski sang like Chekhov. There’s an appreciable distinction.”
“But, but, Madame…” Vedra Miller’s tongue double-clutched, fluttered for some badinage she might send Blanche Arnold’s direction, but the poor woman managed only, “Do you… do you think Greg might peek in at dinner this evening?”
The poetess sifted spinach leaves with plastic tongs. “Consider us blessed if Ivanovski attends his reading tomorrow,” she said to Eloise Delacroix.
Eloise leaned in, shielded the grand dame from the sycophant in the açaí sleeveless. “Blanche, what exactly do you mean by that?” she whispered.
“It’s no secret,” Blanche Arnold said. “The great Ivanovski simply cannot bring his presence to bear at a conference or speaking engagement without first coddling out some young… aspirant.”
Vedra, her chin against the sneeze guard, devouring every word of Blanche Arnold’s philippic, was suddenly separated from the plexiglass by a smiling white-haired gentleman: the conference organizer—a ruddy-cheeked fellow in a camel-hair three piece, energetic and clean-shaven as a child. “Come along,” he said, whisking Vedra by the elbow toward the dessert table. “We don’t want to hold up the buffet line.”
“I’ll be over here, Eloise,” Vedra called behind. “I’ll wait for you!”
“That’s fine, dear,” Eloise said.
“We’ll sit together!”
“He’s like a diving osprey,” Blanche Arnold went on, spooning out baby tomatoes. “It won’t do, dear, to scatter the fish. Nor to keep them schooled. Your only chance is to cage the bird before he sets himself to diving.”
By now the hive had settled in and the Louis IX chandeliers hung still. The women took their seats at a table with Endicott Singer, the young Brooklyn novelist, and Goyan Marshai, the Indian essayist. The men offered cordial nods over steaming rice dishes. The venerable surgeon/author John Reinhardt (an artfully tailored personage of Northern gentility) took the head of the table. Padding a few feet behind him came the conference organizer, ready to squire the old knight’s cutlery or arrange the salt and pepper shakers in a more amicable fashion.
“I hear Ivanovski’s landed,” Goyan Marshai said.
“Yes, yes,” the organizer said, easing the surgeon into his seat. “On the ten o’clock train. Mr. Ivanovski is safe and sound at the Study Hotel. Laying low today, I’d imagine.”
“That’s Ivanovski’s style, is it?” Marshai said. “Low?”
“His ego is like a sea anomie,” Blanche Arnold said. “Touch it wrong and the organism curls inward.”
“Did she say anomie?” Endicott Singer said.
“In the Dostoyevskean sense, Mr. Singer. Though I suppose an ocean polyp is the appropriate emblem.”
The only person at the table not to laugh at the poetess’ quip was the Ivanovski devotee Vedra Miller, who sat clinging the edge of her chair as if in danger of being separated from it by the next gust of wind. Vedra’s mouth was slightly open, and she seemed to be admiring the cut of the surgeon’s tweed when she said, “I wonder… oh I certainly wonder if Greg will peek in at dinner this evening?”
The organizer noted Vedra’s grip on the chair and clucked his disappointment. “Mr. Ivanovski will be reading tomorrow. Before lunch.”
“In the main hall?”
“Yes, the main hall.”
“Was it Rushdie?” Endicott Singer said. “Who said ‘Greg Ivanovski is the American Tolstoy’?”
“No, no, that was Kenneth Rose.” Goyan Marshai—with his thick-rimmed glasses and male model lips—spoke from a position of authority, having placed his second long-form non-fiction piece in the New Yorker that summer. “In the Times, a propos of Ivanovski’s début. Rushdie’s tack was nuanced, Endicott. You won’t catch Rushdie playing stock isomorphisms.”
“I remember now,” Singer said, lifting an apologetic hand. “Rushdie had Ivanovski as the first photo-realist. The thesis that all fiction written in advance of the internet age had been penned en plein air.”
Goyan Marshai bowed in silence to his smartphone, came back with: “Ivanovski is the first writer of epic in the internet age. Rushdie’s phrasing.”
“You’re mistaken, both of you.” The old surgeon waggled a reproachful finger at Marshai and his device. His voice was high and tremulous, but it held dominion over each syllable. “It wasn’t Ivanovski. Nor was it Pynchon. Nor David Foster Wallace, nor any of these high-functioning autistics. Valid writers of the internet era, all. But I will defend this from any plain or field of battle you might choose—Theodore Dreiser was the first writer of epic in the internet age!”
The organizer, content to see the surgeon so well situated, but anxious to return to his delicate business, smiled and excused himself. Hastening out the double doors, he muttered aloud, “Now the trick is getting him to show up, isn’t it?”
* * *
Greg Ivanovski—the blue-eyed prince, dashing Benjamite Ivanovski, architect of immortal lines—was installed at that moment at the writing desk of room 302 in the hotel on Chapel Street. His face was younger in flesh than it was on his book jackets: Ivanovski’s features did not thrive in still frame; they whirred and rattled like a wind-up automaton’s. He pounded furiously on his keyboard, and his eyes snatched up light like sapphires. A thick forelock of gray swung pendulously before his nose.
Gripped by some vision or prophecy, Ivanovski raised his strange head and gazed out at the gold-domed Georgian clock tower. Four strong raps sounded on his door. Aha, what a poetic swell of emotion overcame the novelist upon hearing those knocks! He straightened himself, swept the distal gray forelock over his white woolen head (according him a regal center stripe), strode across the room, and flung open the door in a graceful veronica.
But who was this? The girl from the train station had been blonde, plump-armed, her face dusted with freckles. And this raven-haired soubrette? “A stranger, a vision!” the novelist thought. “So thin… a Lebanese neck, Egyptian eyes… wise, mistrusting eyes. A Jewess perhaps, her chin thrust forward like that.” The more Ivanovski studied the features of this young woman, the more he was convinced. He had seen lovely faces before, divine faces, but never one like hers—so unapologetically flawless! He was like a river pushing its banks, wild and white, perilously overfull. There was a heart-stopping urge to bury his hands in her cropped hair, to squeeze her ears, to press his nose into her neck. Such a face! A face to expurgate at last those demimonde years, all those torturous steeplechases… but here she was, waiting to be invited in.
“Do I know you?” he said, in that once-a-generation basso cantante, that voice which spoke always, faithfully, to the listener’s heart. “So familiar, so strange.” Ivanovski stepped aside to let the girl pass, completed his rebolera with the door, locked both the deadbolt and the chain latch. “If they knock, we won’t answer. Ha! Yes, over there, please, please, my chair. The other one? From the train station? But she never existed! Notwithstanding. It’s as the caterpillar said, isn’t it? Who are you?”
The girl perched her fingertips on the back of the desk chair, swiveled it. “Sit,” she said.
How her voice roused the old fox! He leaped in the air, he clapped, he winked, he smacked his knees uncontrollably. “Ha! Oh, ha ha! Oooh! My goodness, my goodness!” The blood rushed to his face. His khakis burmed on his left thigh. “I recognize you now!” he said, coming toward her. “It’s striking! But can it be? How? You are Almaisa, the woman of Algiers!” He stopped an arm’s length away, suddenly conscious of his bulge. “Your eyes. Your hair,” he went on, unable to restrain the words. “The breath of Modigliani, the very breath. And those lips! Almaisa, my God, those lips, ten thousand ships!”
He pressed down hard on his slacks and sat on the bed. “Oh, you mustn’t mind this,” he said, “a natural monosynaptic response. Ho, ye corpora cavernosa.” Now, with a bizarre shrugging dance, Ivanovski began to bounce on the mattress, mumbling with repressed delight. Soon, he began tearing small clouds of hair from the back of his head.
“Yours is a classic presentation,” the young woman said, considering the novelist. “An identity crisis manifested as overactive libido, a late-life compulsion to spread seed.”
“I remember the first time I saw you, at the Institute. I was a boy… my loins trembled even then!”
“It is a simple enough cure,” she went on. “Only, it may be a bit jarring. You shouldn’t panic.”
“Almaisa!” The novelist cried, pouncing up from the bed. “I can’t hold back—let me touch your hair!” As Ivanovski lunged at her, the young woman side-stepped, leveled a wooden strike to his jaw. The blow stunned the novelist, who half-crouched before her.
“Sit,” she said.
Ah, but her voice resurrected him! Ivanovski’s khakis tightened and he stood tall before her. “Whither didst melt?” he said, and took the young woman’s hips in his hands. He caressed her with great tenderness. “Almaisa, Almaisa, how to set you on my pacing steed, Almaisa?”
Almaisa reached back, lifted the electric clock from the nightstand, and snapped its cord from the wall.
“Yes!” the novelist loomed up over her. “Who needs time, Almaisa? Let our bodies go with the suprachiasmatic nuclei!” The old fox’s teeth were a dazzling white, and they blinded his prey. As he went in for the kill, he failed to notice the clock tracing its high roundhouse arc above him.
Greg Ivanovski—National Book Award winner Ivanovski, Father of New Independent thought, light-heavyweight Ivanovski—staggered when the clock struck his skull. He remained on his feet, blinking and blinking. “What?” he said.
“Ah, ah. Almaisa. I see. Obedient to your masters according to the flesh.” The novelist slumped into the Aeron chair, rubbing his head. “Ach, it throbs.” He lit a cigarette, contemplated his laptop. “I’m not going to hit you back, if that’s what you’re looking for.”
The young woman slid to the far end of the desk, leaned against the window. The black bourgeois shirtdress, the flared white shawl collar: the breath of Modigliani. A bracelet of serpentine gold vined her right forearm. In the full light of the window’s sky, her hair was so black, so devoid of color, as to shimmer in blue.
“Write,” she said.
“Almaisa,” Ivanovski squinted at her, smoked.
She picked up a cup of hotel pencils off the desk, clinked them like cedar chimes.
“Give me a clue,” Ivanovski said. “It’s just one step too confusing. I apprehend it’s a riddle, Almaisa, the woman of Algiers. A pun, something on the pleasure principle. Or the revolution of the id? But no, too much… why, for example, Modigliani? Of all the Italian modernists, why Modigliani?”
“Write,” Almaisa said.
Ivanovski smiled, clapped his computer shut. He sparkled with revolution. “What if I don’t want to write, Almaisa? What then?”
“What do you think?” And without even waiting for Ivanovski to respond, the woman of Algiers was behind the twelve pencils, sinking their spikes deep into his left pectoralis major. The gored Ivanovski dropped to his back on the ground, clutching the sheath. His first attempt to wrench the pencils free suffered only half. Then, with a gravelly roar, he yanked out the rest.
“Ohh! You witch!” The novelist rolled on the shag like a door on its hinge. “What do you want, Almaisa? What does it mean?”
The woman of Algiers wedged the heel of her boot beneath Ivanovski’s chin and tranquilly watched the novelist mantle through shades of red. Once he stopped slapping her shins, she let him fall again.
“Write,” she said.
Ivanovski—the Calibanite Ivanovski, his head humming with a thousand twangling instruments and voices—took the bloody ascent to his chair, butterflied open his keyboard, and began to type. His gray forelock loosened, fell before his eyes.
“My right hand was always the good one. I had such troubles in the crib,” Baruch Buzna said, “I would be asleep, a normal baby who sleeps, appendages compressed into the body, like this. Now, all of a sudden, my left hand would snatch out, clasp the rattle and—KNOCK—a whack to my head!”
Ivanovski was typing with one hand and surreptitiously unbuckling himself with the other.
“KNOCK KNOCK! Oh, how I would cry! Mother had to take the toys from the crib so I wouldn’t injure myself. But no! The left hand devised clever tricks! A prod at my cheek, a pinch of my nose, a stab at my eyes!”
Now Ivanovski spun around in his chair and flung his dark stripe over his head. “Here,” he said, his falcate mast listing before his stomach. “Here it is, Almaisa!”
What power, what seductive force drew the young woman toward the great novelist? What brought her to her knees before him, this possessed tumescent king? Almaisa took the lofty branch in her hand, gently at first, then with a tighter hold, and finally, twisting, digging fingernails into its bark.
The scream—it was the death cry of Don Giovanni—overflowed the room, it flooded the hallway, it splashed and echoed down metallic shafts and poured out into the lobby, where the conference organizer, who was waiting at the elevator, shivered upon hearing it.
The woman of Algiers went to the ground this time, keeping the novelist in her death claw. “Aaahh! Aah!” The man’s eyes rolled back. “Aaahh!” She was choking him, cutting off the blood so he could not retreat. She worked him down, down, until both his heads were a rich shade of crimson, then let him fall again to a heap on the floor. When the novelist arose, he mounted his writing chair.
“The doctor in that day was a frail, elderly man called Haddad. When my mother told him about the left hand, he suggested she tie it to the crib with a rope. She followed this bizarre counsel and it worked—I could sleep again. All was well with the left hand until I reached puberty. Which is when it started misbehaving during the day.”
The deadbolt clacked open and the door to room 302 swung inward but was caught by the chain latch. The organizer’s white hair and rosy cheeks appeared at the crack. “Ah, may I come in?” he said obsequiously. “Oh, ah… Oh no! I say, what seems to be going on with Mr. Ivanovski?”
Almaisa came to the door but did not unlock it. “We’re busy,” she said.
“You said you would cure him,” the organizer whispered. “Is he… his throat—er, is he sobbing?”
“You said no interruptions,” Almaisa said.
“Yes, yes. I see.” The organizer touched the chain delicately. “Only, is he… he seems to be bleeding, doesn’t he?”
“It’s a normal stage,” she said.
“Yes, well.” The organizer’s finger retreated, sought out the comfort of his bowtie. He would have called out a word to his headliner, but the man was working. “Of course… of course we’ll see him at the reading tomorrow?”
“Of course,” Almaisa said.
“Eleven o’clock,” the organizer said, raising his voice and tapping his Panerai watch. “In the lecture hall. That is, in Linsly Chittenden.”
“HA!” Ivanovski spun around in his chair and rose up—Achillean Ivanovski—to his full height. “YOU DID THIS? YOU!” His voice sent a Rothko print to the floor. His seed spreader hung exposed, prostrate, bloody. The organizer shrunk away, watching through the crack, and Ivanovski seemed to grow, until his white head brushed the ceiling. The organizer turned to run when Almaisa barked out a command, a one syllable word which slapped the giant down, and turned him like a dog to his computer.
“Eleven o’clock,” Almaisa said.
* * *
Hardwood leaves in an autumn wind: the scuffle of a literary crowd in a lecture hall. At ten till, the organizer signaled the doors shut and took the podium. “Bit of housekeeping,” he said, trying to hush the giddy crowd. “Please, everyone, please! Thank you, please and thank you, I’ll ask that we all remember to disengage our miniature electronic devices. Today, as you know, we offer a warm welcome to our final guest of the conference…”
All during his introductory speech, the organizer kept arching one white eyebrow at the clock. “He has been called the American Chekhov…” He could feel his shirt saturating. “And of course there will be no photography…”
When the minute hand struck eleven, the side door crashed open, and Greg Ivanovski burst into the room. The organizer clutched his breast as if at the sight of the King himself—but he was a king, wasn’t he? King Ivanovski, in his burgundy mohair blend, stripe-headed, gleaming, a blue folder under one arm.
The celebrated novelist read for over an hour that day, and he betrayed no signs of the ravages of the night before. The audience laughed, and gasped, and sorrowed, and their faces hung like jewels before him. It was all new material, and it was all sterling.
Endicott Singer was fully enchanted, and wondered if Ivanovski might not truly be the Gogol of American letters. Vedra Miller wasn’t the only attendee to cry, but she cried the longest and the lustiest. Eloise Delacroix remarked to Blanche Arnold that Ivanovski’s was the finest reading at Yale since Vonnegut’s in 1994.
The young Almaisa sat by the wall in the fourth row, studying the blue-winged angels behind the Corinthian columns and listening as one who strains to understand the pattern of a far off birdsong.
After lunch, Greg Ivanovski departed not via the New Canaan branch, but on the Grand Central line. The Woman of Algiers rode in the car with him. This was the summer of 2007. Ivanovski has since published what many call the defining work of his oeuvre, the “Primalist Trilogy,” which garnered him both a Pulitzer and his second National Book Award.
Almaisa has become an integral part of the novelist’s traveling retinue. Though she has not been called upon to reproduce the cure, she is paid to sit in the wings, and to remain on staff in case of relapse. Greg Ivanovski’s face still looks much younger in person than it does on his book jackets, but his head is all white now—not a trace of gray!