by Judy Karasik
Many years ago when I was a young assistant editor at a New York publishing house, a stroke of fortune led me into an editorial relationship that was to last a long time, until after the writer’s death. Our entanglement, like many between writers and editors, was muddied by friendship on the one hand and the desire to publish on the other.
The relationship began when the editor-in-chief, Tom Wallace, who was leaving the house for another, handed me the file of an author named Edward P. Whittemore.
He was called Ted. He had gone to school with Tom in the 1950s, they were old buddies from Yale, and there the resemblance ended. Tom was a classic Yale type—sentimental yet incapable of expressing emotion, good hearted and highly principled, and completely stuck in his ways. Ted, by contrast, was completely out of the loop. He defied the loop. Ted had lived all around the world, been in the CIA (in fact, nobody knew for sure if he was really out of the CIA), written several crazy novels that were sort of about espionage and sort of about the mammoth course of history, its large brutish atrocities and the small moments of goodness, books that were compared to Fuentes and Pynchon and Nabokov.
Tom described the books by saying they were really all about poker.
Ted was famous to about six thousand people who thought he was a genius; nobody else had ever heard of him. He’d had two marriages that hadn’t worked out, and a girlfriend he was breaking up with, and a strong Maine accent. He was a recovering alcoholic who had once been the kind of drinker who wanted to crawl inside the fifth to lick it completely clean, and a chain-smoker, and he lived on the east side of town.
As it turned out, of all the places he could have lived in the city of New York, he lived on Third Avenue and 24th Street, while I lived on 24th Street and Sixth Avenue. This is the kind of magical coincidence that populates the novels of Edward Whittemore, and it seemed strangely appropriate that our domestic routines were performed in locations that were exactly parallel, yet existed a precise and unbreachable distance apart, as though we were two matching magnets with the contrary ends facing one another.
In 1981, I was handed the manuscript of Nile Shadows, the third in a projected quartet of Jerusalem novels. This quartet followed his first and splashiest novel, Quin’s Shanghai Circus, which we had published seven years earlier.
Ted had also written several that we did not publish. I was told both that Ted was a genius and that it was possible the manuscript was not publishable or needed a great deal of cutting. I knew almost nothing about editing fiction; I had never worked on anything remotely this serious, which meant I was going to have to concentrate very hard. Once I opened it and began, there was no question but that this was what they call the real thing. For me, how terrifying and how thrilling.
The first time, I read it slowly, almost without thinking, submitting to it, letting it sink in. The book was both domestic and fantastic, its settings shabby and arcane, and doom was everywhere. Ted understood the big and how it depended on the little. Centuries of conspiracy pivoted on a chance encounter. Friendship was everything, and utterly ephemeral. A shaft of light illuminated horror, then a sweet timeless calm, then slapstick. Words kept it going, words and talk and more talk: chatter, letters writ in stone, a scream in an emergency, a late afternoon’s long slow story, a coded telegram.
The editor’s job was to be inside it and yet float above it, to see where it wasn’t true to its own internal logic, to love the characters and expect them to be themselves, to applaud every song—but to mark the slightly flat note—to be sure the plot had all its small signals straight. The second time I read it I tried to remember every word, every gesture, every motion.
My editorial letter advised—but most of all it paid attention. It is not so much the comments made by a careful editor that help a writer revise, I think, but the simpler fact that these comments show the writer that he is being watched. He is being watched intently by someone who tells him, in as many ways as possible, that this matters. And so he thinks harder, he reaches in all directions—plot, character, gesture, sequence, tone, echo—and, so doing, activates the deeper and shadowed part of the brain where music and feeling are stashed. The place where stories begin.
Ted lived in a tiny apartment very high up above Third Avenue. He had a big window and a dark-floored single room, a small kitchen—the refrigerator contained only a pint container of milk and a plastic tub of tofu—and a bathroom with a towel. In his room were a double bed, a desk, a writing chair, a second chair, a television, and an ashtray. Just the setting for a former spy.
I went over there on my way home from the office several times, to drop off the edited manuscript, to look at his changes, to explain the copy-editing. I gave Ted more personal attention because the novel demanded it, and also, although without saying a word, somehow Ted expected it. The desk was occupied by his typewriter and a few completely neat stacks of typing paper and previous drafts, so instead of interrupting his work space, I laid the box of manuscript on the bed, cracking it open and leafing through the pages, tracing the progress of one detail or another, the intricate traces of his threads. We bent over the manuscript together.
The revisions took place in the winter; when I stopped by it was always dark out. I was working long hours, partly to get over a disappointment with a man that had happened at the time; work was a secure place for me in the middle of this unhappiness. One night it snowed and we went to the window to marvel. The snow flew in specks outside the window, tiny furry points of light in the darkness, cold dusty sisters to the lights flickering on Third Avenue below and the many apartments winking on the other side of the canyon. We stood next to the glass and watched the snow swirl, high in the heavens of New York, so far away, it seemed, from the rest of my life.
As we stood there looking at the snow in that night sky, that winter night in New York, Ted Whittemore, quite unexpectedly, ran his hand lightly down my back. Tentatively. I did not move, and he did not touch me a second time.
We went back to being an editor and a writer.
Ted left the country after the manuscript went through copy-editing, but before we published the book. He took a freighter to Jerusalem. Ted said it was a bad idea to fly to the Middle East, because you were traveling through so much time that it should take a long time to make the journey. Also a freighter was cheaper than flying, and Ted never had any money.
He read his galleys in Jerusalem, where he lived in an apartment in the courtyard of the Ethiopian Church. In the early mornings, on one side of the courtyard wall, a flock of French nuns sang their devotions. All day, around the circular Ethiopian Church, a school of monks walked and murmured their prayers. And Ted read his galleys in July and we published in the Fall.
When I pitched the book at sales conferences, I got applause, which usually doesn’t happen at a sales conference, certainly not for a novel that will advance fewer than seven thousand copies. But the sales reps, those cynical hard eggs, put their hands together, not so much for my performance as for what Ted meant to the house as a whole. Of the books we published, his were the ones that proved to us publishing could be about good writing and fearless imagination and vision.
Before he moved from New York, Ted sent me a note. “I’m glad you’re part of the Quartet,” he wrote. And so I became connected to Ted Whittemore, connected forever.
* * *
The book, as it turned out, did not sell well. It had some good
reviews, but the machine of publishing did not kick in for Whittemore.
The reps applauded at sales conferences, but the machine did not
Great fiction is hard to sell. What happens to a person who reads a book—if it’s any good—is a profoundly private and irrational process, and the more distinctive the novel, the more private and irrational the process. That’s where the trouble with publishing begins.
* * *
Two and a half years later, I left the industry. I was frustrated by the limitations of the business end, and I had fallen in love, this time, I thought, for keeps, to a man who lived in Western Massachusetts who had three kids and joint custody and who was very persuasive. Love to me was more important than work, so I moved to Massachusetts and married. But I discovered that I was not as nice, not as accommodating, as I had thought I was. Even though I’d always believed that I was able to make anything succeed if I just worked hard enough at it, I was not able to respond to my husband’s demands, and he was very far from being able to help me mend my unhappiness. We were soon miserable.
After two years we divorced. Although the marriage had been horrible, divorce was still like suddenly falling into nothing.
The summer after, I got a call from Ted. I had heard from him from time to time. He had heard about my romance and my departure from New York, and now he’d heard about my divorce.
At my end, over the years, I’d also had reports of Ted back from Tom, who visited Ted in Jerusalem. Ted was with a wonderful woman, a painter named Helen, Tom reported. A year or two after that news, Tom told me that Ted had broken up with Helen, abruptly. Without so much as a day’s notice, said Tom, Ted had packed up and left Helen and Jerusalem. Tom said Helen was heartbroken. Tom disapproved, and so did I.
Although I disapproved I was still glad to hear Ted’s voice. He was back in the country and writing, up at the family home in Dorset, Vermont, for the season. Would I come up to see him?
I did, twice. Dorset is beautiful in the summer, green and leafy and a good ten degrees cooler than Western Massachusetts. Ted showed me everything and how much he loved it and how much he wanted me to love it, too. We talked a little about the book he was working on, but mostly we didn’t. The Whittemore family home was big and rambling; late afternoons, we sat on white Adirondack chairs on the great lawn, sloping into a meadow, and watched the young girls from the dancing school down the road mince like birds into the middle of town, to buy their sweets. Beyond, the mountains misted with blue, and flowers of all shapes and colors and sizes waved in the breeze.
We swam in the Dorset Quarry. The Dorset Quarry is a writer’s dream, because when you swim in the Dorset Quarry you are swimming in the space left by the stone that now is the New York Public Library, the great lion library at 42nd Street. The quarry’s stone walls rise high and flat, gray streaked with white. Boys in baggy bathing suits jump off the high walls screaming. Women paddle quietly. Children sit on low ledges and dip their feet. At the far end is an island of stone; birch trees rise skinny and white from its nooks.
After we had spent some time in the water, Ted got out, but I stayed in. He threw me my swimming goggles, and I went exploring around the shallower end of the quarry. Looking for what kind of gunk grew down there, where the New York Public Library used to be.
I saw something green. I went to the surface, got a big gasp of air, dove down and swam, down and down and down. I reached for the green and headed back up.
It was a twenty-dollar bill. I swam over to Ted and gave it to him. We were both amazed. “Are you coming out?” he asked.
“In a little,” I replied. I went back to see what else was down there. Again, I took a big gasp of air, dove down and swam, down and down and down. Something green. I grabbed it and headed back up.
“Ted,” I said. I waved the bill. Ten dollars.
The next time down, I found a five. And that was it. I looked, but nothing else was down there. I shook the water out of my hair, and we spent the money on dinner.
It was not surprising to me that magic like this would happen around Ted. It seemed almost predictable. Ted Whittemore was a magician, not only of words, but of moments. He marveled, and any sensation, of light or sound or character or scent, was ratcheted up another notch. We walked past swaying meadows and through the graveyard where all the Whittemores are buried. We drove down roads, looked at the cows, stopped the car near a stream and took off our shoes and hopped from rock to rock and stood in the running water, listening to the leaves rustle and the water bubble, smelling the good air.
Ted put his arms around me and kissed me. I kissed him back, but then I said no.
He could not imagine why I would not grasp this good thing. He could see it so clearly, something between the two of us; he could see it and he wanted it. The world is full of possibilities, he said. I could see it, too, when he talked about it, because Ted always made me see whatever he saw, but still I said no.
I came back, however, the next weekend, and told him I would sleep with him, but only one time, and then it would be over and he had to understand that this was the only way it would happen.
I told myself this was because I was a woman who recently had been hurt, and that Ted was, after all, the man who had left Helen, but my true motives weren’t so attractive. Ted’s proposal appealed to me a lot—I had a particular weakness for writers (the man who had broken my heart that long-ago winter and the ex-husband were both writers)—but I had no intention of getting tangled up with Whittemore. Like a spoiled child, I wanted to play out this flattering scenario but without accepting responsibility for what would follow. Crazily enough, Ted agreed to my counter-proposition, and so, only once it was.
Afterwards, back in Massachusetts, I spoke to Ted occasionally, but finally I stopped returning his calls, his persistent, baffled, loving, persuasive, tempting calls.
* * *
That was 1988. In February of 1994, I was planning on visiting friends in New York (from Washington, DC, where I had moved four years earlier), and so I called Tom Wallace to see if he wanted to have lunch. Tom had become a literary agent, but he was the same Tom, solid as a rock. He gave you a sense that the important things still mattered and that history counted for something. It was a good thing I had called.
“By the way,” he said, “I meant to phone you and ask—have you talked to Ted Whittemore lately? You might want to give him a ring. He’s back in New York. Ted’s had some tough times, I’m afraid, and now there’s bad news. He’s very sick.”
Ted had been diagnosed with a very lethal, inoperable prostate cancer. He was working on a new book and living with a woman named Annie, who had a brownstone on the Upper West Side, right off the park in the 90s.
Whittemore was completely happy to hear my voice. Yes, he was well; how was I doing? We arranged to meet at Tom’s office at 2:30 on Friday, if I could manage to get Tom back by then. We agreed that Tom could talk a person’s ear off and lunch was bound to go on forever.
I hadn’t seen Ted for so long. Tom’s receptionist buzzed him in, and Ted walked into the reception area and took off his knit cap, holding it in both hands, twisting it slightly. His face was puffier than before, but his smile was the same. He turned his head slightly to the side, and the edges of his thin, wide mouth turned up in delighted mystification and complete charm.
He put out his arms; I fell into them. We hugged, hard.
It was snowy and cold. Ted and I walked through Central Park, ice crunching beneath our feet, the same way we had walked down the dusty roads of Vermont, talking, talking, talking. We stopped at a food stand for tea and sat on a patio, in a corner protected from the wind, looking out across an oval frozen pond. Although his attention seemed to be entirely on the beauty of the day, the moment, and the happiness of being together again, Ted still managed to read the notes and overhear the conversation of the man sitting next to him. Once a spook, always a spook. As we headed up the hill away from the tea shop, he told me the man had been writing poetry. Bad poetry, he said, but not as bad as it might be.
That first long walk, he never mentioned his illness. I saw him again the next afternoon, and we walked in the blistering cold wind over by the Hudson. He still didn’t talk about it. We just walked, often with our arms around one another, to be close and to keep from slipping on the ice, trooping down the streets that became Ted’s because of what he saw. “See that fellow at the corner, in front of the shop?” he’d say, giving a friendly salute to a rangy, beaten-up, leather-faced man. “Been here for years. Turkish, you know.” And then he’d explain how the junk in the guy’s store told you everything you needed to understand about some invasion in the seventeenth century, and it would all make perfect sense.
He didn’t talk about his illness, but we did agree that I would read his novel when it was done. He was very pleased. And so we fell back into the roles of editor and writer, but of course we were something else, too, after all of this time. Time makes friendship in a way that no single action possibly can. That, after all, is what Ted’s novels are about—time, friendship, and history, the real history.
At one point, but only once, Ted asked me about the events in Dorset, and afterwards, and how I had stopped being in touch. I didn’t have much to say about it.
“Bad timing,” I said. He nodded.
That summer Ted and Annie went to Italy, and I saw Ted again in the fall. I had dinner with him and Annie, but before, he and I took a walk. That’s when he told me.
He sat me down on a park bench, over by the wading pool where children sail their boats. It was November and getting cold. We were warm enough, though, in hats and scarves and gloves. He had something to tell me, and spoke very clearly and simply and straight. He had cancer, and it could not be cured or permanently halted. He was in remission thanks to heavy doses of hormones; they had left him impotent, but that was better than being dead.
“The trouble is, that I can go out of remission at any time,” Ted told me. “And the docs say that if that happens, I can go in as fast as three weeks.” He paused. “It changes how you view things. Some things, like politics and what’s in the newspaper, become utterly unimportant. And things like friends, family, especially friends, become the most important things in the world.”
Ted looked at me. He reached for my hand, and held it fast. “So you see, having you come back into my life, now, all of a sudden, well it couldn’t make me happier.”
I wrapped myself around him, my arms and also one leg hooked over his lap—actually we probably looked fairly ludicrous there on the bench—but it was a moment where it didn’t matter how we looked or what we were doing with our bodies. Ted held on tight. Nothing could change what was, the bad or the good. I said I loved him and then we said no more, just held on.
As we walked back to the house, and Annie, and dinner, we talked. He wanted very much to finish the draft of the novel, the last book he would ever write. I wanted very much to read it.
* * *
When Ted was still in remission, it seemed to me there were some things going on that were suspicious. Ted had always had a bad back, but it had gotten worse, why he wasn’t sure. My assumption was that this was the cancer, he just didn’t want to dignify it with the name. That would be giving it too much ground.
I called him one Sunday, from my apartment in Washington. Annie said he was out and she didn’t know why he hadn’t returned. Several hours later, Ted called and told me the story.
“The most amazing thing happened,” he said.
He had gone to a hotel to meet a man who was going to do his taxes; the place was way over west on 58th Street, practically in the river. He walked down the hall to meet the man and heard some music coming out from behind a door; the hotel rented larger halls as well as rooms for people who had business to transact. After getting the tax stuff taken care of, he passed by the door again.
This time it was open. And he could hear the music more clearly. It was gospel. There was plenty of gospel, Ted had explained to me, in the book he was working on, but he had never actually been to a live service. A woman standing by the door saw his interest, and pulled him in. He sat in the rear.
“The music was wonderful,” he said. “Just what I’d imagined. So full of feeling and passion and emotion and all the good things of being human. The sound just rolled over me. Everyone was singing and the sound was immense.” It went on for a long time, and then there was quiet. A small woman came to the front of the room. Several people stood up, in no apparent pattern.
Ted’s back was hurting him, so he stood up too.
He hadn’t understood. All of the people who had stood up were brought to the front of the room.
The woman prayed over them. She prayed for strength and health. Calls of reassurance and encouragement came from all corners of the room. She prayed in front of Ted. And then she knocked him down.
“I could see what was going to happen, because it happened with the other people,” Ted told me. “She stood in front of you, and behind you stood this immense black guy, and she knocked you down, and you had to fall right back. Where the man would catch you. You had to trust her, you see. You had to let yourself go, just completely.”
“And did you?” I asked.
“I did,” said Ted. “I can’t tell you how marvelous I feel.”
* * *
Ted finished the novel in March 1995. I was working for the Federal Government at the time. It arrived in my office on Monday, and I took the day off on Thursday and edited it and had it back to him on Saturday.
“Don’t rush,” he had said, wanting not to inconvenience me. “Take your time.”
But I knew we had no time. I read it once, all the way through. I could see the shape. The first time through, I began to understand who the people were. I read it again, slowly, and edited it, page by page, I listened to its sounds, word by word.
I was not young, not then. I was no longer a confused and anxious assistant editor at a New York publishing house. I was no longer a damaged woman who did not know her own heart. I had no questions about who Ted Whittemore was to me; I understood in many ways what was important about his work. I concentrated.
This book was not about espionage. It was about a healer. Ted began the book three months before he got his diagnosis, but still the book was about a healer. And, also, for the first time, Whittemore’s main character was female. Her name was Sister Sally and she was unlike any of his other characters; the man with whom she has a brief love affair, Billy the Kid, however, resembled characters in the earlier books and also resembled Ted.
I wrote that I was going to push him very hard: “I think you have a bit further to travel with Sally and Billy. So let’s go.” I started by telling him I didn’t think the verb in his first sentence was in the right tense. This was a brutal and ridiculous way to start an editorial letter, but I had no choice. I had to be thorough. I told my dear friend what my thoughts were as I read. I tried to remember where everything was and to see when things worked together and when they did not. I commented, I queried words, I flirted with him, I reminded him of old successes and other moments we’d both loved in other Whittemore books, I cheered, I wondered out loud about the characters so he would see how they appeared to someone else, I suggested, I doubted, I applauded, I reflected, I pushed and pushed and pushed.
Ted told me the letter was helpful. Very helpful. He was excited about getting back to work. I sent a copy of the editorial letter to Tom, who had become Ted’s agent. Tom called me up. He thought my comments were good.
And, in his old-fashioned manner, Tom said, “You know, the letter you wrote—it’s a love letter, in a way.”
A real writer puts his heart and soul and all his intelligence on the page. Any book can be the last one. Every one of the writer’s words, every small motive, counts. The editor must attend as though nothing else matters.
* * *
Ted went out of remission a few weeks after he completed the draft. Although his levels of pain increased and increased in the weeks and months that followed, he was able to do some revisions.
I told him his revisions were more than I could have hoped for. I came to New York from Washington several times, working on the pages and leaving notes with him, telling him every doubt, but most of all I told him how wonderful the book was, and how each revision made me more convinced that the book was complete and perfect inside of him and that our only task was to ask the right questions and bring it all to light.
I called Ted every other day, sometimes every day, until that became too difficult. He told me things about himself, so that in those last months I was allowed to understand more about him and how he’d lived his life.
Combined with my love for Ted was a certain brutality which I tried to keep in check. I tried not to push him too hard. I tried not to let my disappointment show on the phone when he said he was just too tired from the pain, too sick from the drugs, to be able to write.
There was one section in the book that I really wanted him to revise. It was the scene where Sally and Billy fall in love. The woman in this novel was nothing like the women he’d written about before, who quite frankly had always struck me as a little pale. Sally was a real powerhouse, a force, a tragic mess. One day he called me at the office and told me he’d spent three hours writing the day before, and he felt like hell but he’d revised that scene, which was central to the love story, the scene I was sure he had inside him. He told me—but I did not see the pages. I did not see the fix.
Of course, it is dangerous when an editor has a favorite fix. It’s not your book.
Because there was so little time, however, I let myself want it. In part, I just wanted what I wanted, and used the drama of death to cover up my presumptuousness and greed—but in part, I felt unconsciously that my desire for the fix would encourage Ted to fight harder, to slow down the illness for the sake of the writing.
Underneath this I must have believed that writing was more important to Ted than everything else, that he had no more powerful motive for staying alive. Was I crazy?
Meanwhile, he was in and out of the hospital. In June, Annie left to go to Italy, alone, to get some time away from cancer, on a holiday Ted told her she needed to take. Carol came to take care of Ted.
Years back, Carol had been with Ted, longer than anyone else. She had ridden motorcycles all around Crete with Ted. She had been with him the day when, discouraged about ever writing anything worthwhile, he spotted a scarab in a dusty British glass case in the British Museum and the whole idea of the Quartet was born. Carol showed up when things took a turn for the worse. From early until late, she moved hospital beds and nurses in and out of Annie’s house, not sleeping much, if at all.
One night in early July, when I hadn’t been able to talk to Ted for ten days—I had been out of the country—I called him from my younger brother’s house, where I was visiting.
Ted told me that he felt, suddenly, he had enough energy to really finish the book. Carol would read it, too, and Ted would mark places to cut, which I would then execute, leaving him the time to write the revisions he wanted to do.
My brother came into his bedroom, where I was using the phone. So did my sister-in-law, so I moved out to the unfinished porch off their bedroom, carrying the portable phone, which was taped together with gaffer’s tape from the results of abuse by children. As my brother and his wife lay together, sleeping, preparing for another day of work and family, I stood on the deck in the black night and schemed with Ted.
“Yes,” I said. “Yes you can do it. Yes,” I said. “We’ve had some great breaks already. You finished the draft before you went out of remission. Remember? Now we have another big break.”
The night was wide. “This is what you can fix,” I said. “With the time left. I’ll come to New York. We’ll talk about the cuts.”
“Isn’t it marvelous,” said Ted to Carol, “that just when we need her, just like magic, Miss Judy appears. I hadn’t heard from her. Wondered where she was. And here she appears. Stage Left. Enter Miss Judy.”
“Yes,” agreed Carol, wanly. “It’s a good sign.” I could hear the humoring in her tone, although I did not know, I could not see what she could see.
Instead, I egged him on. One more piece of luck, I said. One more good break. When so much has gone badly, one more piece of good luck. It’s a wonder I didn’t ask him to sit down at the desk then and there and write me a scene.
I never knew whether I was important to him for anything but the books. And I never knew if he would have been important to me if it weren’t for the books. That was where we connected.
Ted had his own brutality. He had his ambition, which resulted in modest living and ruthlessness. He told me once that women were simply more generous than men, that they were better people, and although I never doubted that Ted had deeply loved the women in his life, and made them feel deeply loved, I wondered if that was an excuse for his bad behavior. He had two daughters, who didn’t speak to him for years, although they visited him during his final illness. He said he had been a very bad husband, and a very selfish man. He knew what he was, and he knew that because of how he had behaved, he had lost his daughters. But he had written his books. Ted had two granddaughters; one is named after his sister, as though his family got his children, but he didn’t.
* * *
Six days after I returned from my brother’s house to Washington, at 6:20 on a Sunday morning, my phone rang.
“Judy. It’s Ted. Listen,” he said, speaking urgently, “I’m in terrible trouble and you have to help me.”
“Okay,” I said. “Tell me what’s wrong.”
“I don’t know where I am. And you have to come and find me.”
“Of course,” I replied. I paused. Ted didn’t know where he was, but I knew: he was lying in a hospital bed in his bedroom. He was too sick to be anywhere else. He was there, he just didn’t know he was there. So I had to get him to bring himself back.
Suddenly my bedroom seemed very big and empty and the telephone cord a slender tie to the voice at the other end.
“Can you tell me where you might be, Ted?” I asked. “Can you tell me where you think you are?”
“Certainly,” said Ted, practical, sure of himself. “I seem to be somewhere near Annie’s. So you can start looking there.”
We talked for a while and got into a conversation about other things that were going on where he was. Some things confused him, like the workmen who were lifting big sections of pipe onto the roof of a nearby building (they might have been there or might not have been there). When we talked about it, he thought of some reasons why they were there and seemed to grow easier in his mind. And so we said goodbye.
One or two minutes later, the phone rang again.
“Judy, it’s Ted.” He seemed in a hurry. Or anxious. It was hard to tell.
“I just looked at the clock. It’s six-thirty in the morning. You must think I’m crazy.” He sounded a little frightened.
“No,” I answered honestly. “I don’t think you’re crazy. I just think you’re on a lot of drugs, Ted. You’re probably on a lot of morphine. That can mess you up. Besides,” I added, looking out at the pale summer morning sky, “it’s already light here. You probably looked out the window and saw how light it was and figured it was okay to call. Is it light where you are?”
Ted was reassured, and again we talked for a few minutes before he became tired and distracted. I couldn’t go back to sleep after we hung up the phone, so I made some coffee and tried to read the Sunday papers. But he was much on my mind.
That evening, I came home around nine-thirty or ten from a family picnic at the house of one of my older brothers, in Baltimore. I was afraid of the blinking light on my answering machine. It tells callers to wait for the famous beep. Ted had waited and left this message. I listened.
“Judy. It’s Ted.” He spoke very fast, slurring one or two words. “Calling on your famous number that you can’t make a call since you’re waiting for my beep.
“Judy. I’ve got some great news from you today. For you today. With you today. And the news is: is that I’m no longer mad! And don’t you think that it would be nice to know that Ted Whittemore is no longer mad? Wouldn’t that be fun! I hope it would be! Nice for a change anyway.
“Your number is still the change. Change. Still hasn’t changed. My number hasn’t either. What changed is that I’m no longer crazy!
“So listen. If you could call me sometime. At that number you know all about. And we could talk on that number.
“There are a lot of things . . . that are going to become clear—which never were!”
At this moment, Ted’s voice, rising in excitement and joy, was abruptly cut off. As though he simply went spinning off the face of the world. I think I knew then that I would never talk to him again, never hear his voice again.
Of course he did not go out spinning. It was not that simple, that easy, or that much fun. He continued for almost another month, increasingly disoriented, consumed by pain, pumped with drugs. He soon had nurses around the clock at home, went in and out of the hospital, and finally went into a hospice. Several years earlier I had helped care for someone through the end of a terminal illness, so when my phone calls to New York were not returned by family and by the two women who, at different times, had shared his life and now had the honor and burden of seeing him through his final passage, I knew what it meant. They had too much on their hands to bother calling back concerned but peripheral friends. They were doing the hard work, and the least I could do was stay out of the way.
When it was all over, I knew, I would be handed the manuscript, for Tom was one of the literary executors and he would vouch for me. I would see if Ted had revised that love scene. I would make sure all the changes in his hand were faithfully entered. I would see if any of the cuts we’d discussed were possible, but be cautious in my acts, just cleaning things up.
Then I would pass the pages to Tom, and he would try to sell the story. Tom, however, never was able to make that sale. The novel felt unfinished.
* * *
The family held a memorial service in Dorset on August 12. I flew to Hartford, rented a car, and drove north.
The day alternated between brilliant sun and showers. Dorset, in rain or shine, was as beautiful as ever. Tom spoke at the service. He said that Ted had compartmentalized his life, that different parts of Ted’s life didn’t touch. The parts that were represented in Dorset—his family, his true and good friends from Yale, who had supported him during his illness, who spoke of the powerful love they had felt from Ted during that time—were strangers to me.
After the service, we were all invited back to the house. It had been renovated, but some parts were as I remembered. It was strange to stand there and see those same rooms. Time passed, and the house emptied of visitors. Even the family disappeared, for a family meeting that may or may not have had to do with Ted; maybe they were burying him in the old graveyard. The house was empty, except for a woman who went from room to room, clearing away food and drink.
I sat in a rocker on the back veranda and had a glass of wine. The rain came and went yet again, spattering the tall meadow grasses behind the house. And then the sun shone bright. I took my empty glass to the kitchen, and then I went to an upstairs bathroom, put on my bathing suit, and headed to the Dorset Quarry.
It was as ever. Young men went screaming over the high cliffs, cannonballing into the water. Two women paddled at the shallower end, near where I had found all the money. Children dabbled their feet, sitting on the ledge.
The water was cool. The birches tossed their leafy arms in the sky. Life contains these perfect afternoons. I swam from one end of the quarry to the other. And then I put on my goggles and dove down, deep.
The rain had left the depths murky, however, so there was nothing I could see.
Judy Karasik's essay will appear as the afterword to five novels by Edward Whittemore to be reissued in 2002 by Old Earth Books. She also is the co-author of a memoir, The Ride Together (Washington Square Press, 2003), in which alternating chapters of text (by Ms. Karasik) and comics (by her brother, cartoonist Paul Karasik), tell the story of growing up with their oldest brother, who has autism. (5/2002)