Chapter Two ~ Up to Speed
Greta had hurried out. It was getting late, she had said, and she had to prepare for a morning class. And she had to grab some dinner. Harry had pressed $100 into her hand. She had careened down the back driveway. She blew down the country lane to the highway and drove ferociously through the dusk back to campus. The images from the proof sheet were projected on her mind’s screen: Penny Carter and Dr. Liz Winters, in Penny’s secret boudoir, nude, in a lovers’ embrace, and more.
Greta parked in outside her apartment building and stalked across campus to the Klinefelter Humanities building where Dr. Winters had her office. She stood outside the building in the evening chill. Dr. Winters’ office light was on. Two students stood nearby, smoking cigarettes. Greta approached them.
“Can I get one of those?” she asked. Both boys raced to produce packs. She chose the organic brand over the menthol, but Menthol had his lighter ready for her.
“Thanks,” she said.
“Are you okay?” asked Organic. “You’re shaking.”
“I just had a weird moment and I needed to talk to Dr. Winters about it,” she said. She dragged heavily on the cigarette.
“Dr. Winters is a weird moment,” said Menthol lamely.
“Dude,” said Organic. “She’s awesome. She’s an easy grader if you show some imagination and spell correctly, and she’s funny as shit.”
“I hear she likes girls,” said Menthol.
“What’s not to like?” asked Organic.
“Thanks guys,” said Greta. “I’ve got to go.” She stubbed the cigarette out on the edge of a trash can and threw it away. She went through the glass doors into the yellow-white light of the institutional building. She climbed the stairs, feeling the nicotine buzz, her heartbeat pounding in her ears. She reached Dr. Winters’ floor and walked down the marble-texture tile hallway to her office. The door was slightly open and she knocked.
“Come in,” said Dr. Winters.
Greta closed the door behind her.
“Ms. Everheart, hi!” said Dr. Winters, smiling. “How did it go with the new job? Did you get started?”
“I started today,” said Greta. “I had no idea…”
“Who you were working for?” Dr. Winters laughed. “A prize-winning author?”
Greta was confused. Did she mean Penelope Carter?
“What?” she stammered. “Who?”
“Harry Barrett. Pen-Faulkner award, National Book Award, Pulitzer Prize finalist.”
“Wait,” said Greta. “Mr. Barrett? I wondered what he did. No, we didn’t talk about that.”
“He’s really amazing. You should read his work.”
“I—I will,” said Greta. “And his wife, I didn’t realize…”
“That you’d be developing the work of a legend?”
“What happened to her?” asked Greta.
Dr. Winters’ face grew sad. “Cancer,” she said.
“Oh,” said Greta.
“She was a genius and had so much creative energy. But in the end she didn’t have the energy to develop her film anymore. She was always running behind, but in her last couple of years she shot but never developed. She wouldn’t go digital. So there’s all that film. Penny’s life experiences, through her eyes, frozen in time and in those basement freezers. Your job is to bring it to life. For her, for her loved ones, for art.”
“Will these be published?” asked Greta.
“Many probably will be,” said Dr. Winters.
“Who will edit them?” asked Greta.
“My guess is that will be you,” said Dr. Winters. “Or between you and Harry, anyway. The work is now his intellectual property to do with what he wishes.”
“I have a contact sheet with me,” said Greta. “I think you should see it.”
Greta pulled the folded sheet from her camera bag and handed it across the desk to Dr. Winters, who unfolded it and put on a pair of reading glasses. She blushed and laughed.
“Oh, wow,” she said. “Oh, wow. I had forgotten—I mean, I remember, but I had forgotten about the photos. Yeah. Yeah, I remember. Gosh.” She set the proof face down on the desk.
“Should I show that to Mr. Barrett?” asked Greta, pointing.
Dr. Winters sighed and looked up at the ceiling. She rubbed her eyes, got a tissue and dabbed them.
“Ms. Everheart,” said Dr. Winters. “You do what you think is right. He’s paying you to develop his wife’s film, not to be his emotional gatekeeper. He’s a grown man.”
“He seems so innocent,” said Greta.
“He is forty-five years old,” said Dr. Winters. “No forty-five year old man is innocent. He wants to understand his wife through her work. Your job is to make that work accessible to him. How you perform your job is between you and him. But remember always to be professional.”
“And your relationship with her? With them?”
“I loved her and I love him,” said Dr. Winters. “In different ways. Harry isn’t naïve. Don’t try to protect him. That’s what Penny always did. She treated him as if he were breakable. But he’s really tough as leather. He handles bad news better than he does good news, in fact.”
Greta stood up. She didn’t feel any better, but she felt as if she were starting to get a grip on the situation and on herself. The money was good and she was working on something that could be important. She could get editing credit—maybe even do a book of her own about her experience. This could end up being an important part of her CV if she didn’t flake out.
“I appreciate your time, Dr. Winters,” said Greta. “You’ve helped me understand things better. I just wish I had been better informed going into it.”
“I assumed you knew them already,” said Dr. Winters. “Penny was local, after all—what’s Mark teaching you kids?—and Harry has something of a cult following of earnest young women. Besides, a search engine could have given you some information. Always research your employers.”
“I’ll remember to research my employers from now on,” said Greta. “That’s good advice.”
“Also, take care with Nathan,” said Dr. Winters. “He was close to his mom and took her death very hard. She was like a goddess to him, radiant and magical. She was like that for a lot of people. But he has trust issues. He’s afraid to get close to people because they might just disappear one day and never come back. He doesn’t need a crush on an ambitious college girl who is pausing at the local university on her way to New York, which is where you will probably end up.”
“I’m here to learn an art and a business,” said Greta, “and I want to be taken seriously. I’ll be professional. This is a job, not a personal relationship.”
“Good to hear,” said Dr. Winters. “May I keep this?” She pointed at the contact sheet on her desk.
“I guess so,” said Greta. “Why not?”
“Thank you for coming, Greta,” said Dr. Winters. “Keep me posted on how things are going.”
Greta, with the phrase cult following of earnest young women still in her ear, headed for the campus library and found two novels and a book of essays by Harry Barrett. He had a play in his bibliography, but the library didn’t have a copy. One of his novels—not the play—had been made into a critically acclaimed film that had done poorly in theaters. She found the DVD online and ordered it.
She did a search on Penelope Carter and read national stories about her museum controversy, editorial condemnations from professional scolds, and mostly glowing reviews from critics. Penelope Carter’s book of photographs was also not in the library, a legacy of the prior controversy. She recalled hearing a classmate, Twyla Dunwoody, talking about Carter, but she didn’t remember Penny being in her photography curriculum.
The hour was late and she did have a class in the morning. But she sat down on the funky library couch, holding Harry Barrett’s books. She opened one—the essays—and began to read. A copy machine desperately hummed a rhythm nearby.
The title essay was called “Life Collections” which was a sort of multi-layered pun. Its epigraph was from William Faulkner:
The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life.
It went on to describe art as a kind of possessive mania, a drive to capture and own the world, to fix it and freeze it. The eponymous “life collection” might mean a collection of photos, or an autobiography, or the everyday objects of a life lived, or a still-life photo or painting. The essay went into a tangent about “re-collection” or memory, looped through historiography and archaeology, and then to artistic expression. Then “life collector” became Death personified, the Reaper. The essay described the artist as working under the shadow of destruction, frantically trying to create, create, create, and to hold onto life in some way, by any means: in fiction and poetry, paintings and photographs; and by the common compulsion to hang onto things: pressed flowers, movie ticket stubs, a pencil with bite marks. The artifacts of life.
Greta read the essay and heard Harry Barrett’s easy twang in her mind. She felt he was speaking to her from within that house full of the artifacts of life. She imagined that the house, packed with carvings and art and found objects and photos, was what Harry’s mind looked like. Harry was a life collector. Penny was a life collector, too. But while Harry’s life was on display, Penelope Carter’s life was hidden away in a dark basement freezer.
Penelope had arrested motion on celluloid, and Greta was Faulkner’s stranger tasked to bring it to life again as a witness. And more: as a conduit from Penny to Harry. Her job, simply put, was to bring Penelope back to life for Harry. Maybe even for the world. Dr. Winters basically told her to process the film and let the chips fall where they may. But Dr. Winters was part of the story. And Nathan. And now Greta herself. She wondered where this story would go. She saw, perhaps, even the seeds of a memoir, a best-seller about her discovery of the secret lives of Penelope Carter and her husband the prize-winning author.
Greta closed the book and gathered her things. She checked out Life Collections and other Essays, as well as the two novels, a short one called Curtains, on which the movie had been based, and the other Harry’s prize-winning Lunacycle.
“He’s a local author, you know” said the student working the checkout desk. “Kind of a Salinger type, though. Doesn’t do readings or workshops. Hasn’t written anything new in years. The literature club has been trying to get him to attend our literary conference for two years, but he won’t return our letters, if they are even getting to him. He doesn’t have email.”
“Why do you think he won’t respond?” asked Greta, keeping to herself her employment by the noted local author.
“Something to do with his wife, I think,” said the student. “There was a kerfuffle about a showing of her pictures here some years back and I don’t think they ever forgave the college administration for hanging her out to dry on that. Then his wife was sick for a while and then she died.”
“Maybe he’s still grieving,” suggested Greta.
“Maybe. I see his son Nathan around. He went to high school with my little sister, goes to State, down the road. Engineering major, I think. Seems like a cool guy. People called him Naked Nathan because of those pictures. He never acted embarrassed about it. He said naked is how we come into the world and it’s how we make more people. He’d get mad if people talked smack about his mom, though. He got suspended for fighting a few times. It was always about his mom.”
“Why don’t you get him to talk to his dad for you,” asked Greta.
“We’ve asked. He says he can’t talk his dad into anything he doesn’t want to do.”
“Thanks for the background,” said Greta. “That was interesting.”
“What got you interested in his work?” asked the student.
“I work for him,” said Greta, and she breezed out of the library into the crisp fall night, leaving the student gaping, dumbfounded.
Greta was walking briskly up the path from the library toward her apartment complex. Lampposts punctuated the walkway, spaced just far enough apart for their circles of light to be separated by the shade of night. Then she heard footsteps running behind her. She whirled around with her keys in her fist, but it was the student from the library.
“Hey,” puffed the student. “Do you…,” huff “think you could…,” puff “talk to Mr. Barrett about coming to the next conference?”
“I’m sorry—what was your name?”
“Jeremy. Jeremy Allred.” Jeremy held out a sweaty hand. Greta shook it once, and then tried to discreetly wipe her hand on her jeans.
“Jeremy,” said Greta. “My relationship with Mr. Barrett is professional and I just started this job. I don’t have any influence with him, and I’m not about to upset him by pestering him with your requests. Now if you will excuse me, it is very late.”
Greta left Jeremy standing in the glow of a lamppost, looking forlorn. When she looked back one last time, Jeremy was still standing there, but in a cloud of illuminated blue smoke with a glowing orange dot in the middle of his silhouette.
Greta got back to her apartment and tried to enter quietly so she wouldn’t wake her roommate—and best friend—Amy. They had been roommates since freshman year, first sharing a small room in the Humanities dorm, a dank institutional building with guacamole-colored tile floors. Even then, when their beds were only feet apart, separated only by two desks and at least that many piles of dirty clothes, Amy brought in visitors who grunted and snuffled under blankets while Greta pretended to sleep. Mostly they were boys, but sometimes they were girls. Sometime in their sophomore year, Amy took some ecstasy and invited Greta to sleep with—that is, have sex with—her. Greta had smiled and politely declined, though her heart was pounding. Amy never brought it up again, but Greta had half-wished she would, because the extent of Greta’s erotic experience was her vicarious nights listening to Amy and her partner de nuit. That, and and her own imagination, which wasn’t very active on that front. She regretted the missed opportunity to lose her virginity, though she wasn’t sure if lesbian sex counted for that.
Greta was unsuccessfully stealthy. Amy opened her bedroom door, looking sleepy-eyed and voluptuous, and asked Greta what time it was. Greta looked at her phone.
“Oh wow,” said Greta. “It’s almost two in the morning.”
“ Maybe it was time you got to bed,” said Amy as she turned and shuffled back to her room and closed the door.
Instead, Greta brought up her browser and searched for Harry Barrett/images.
She scrolled through the search results and clicked on a photograph. It was Harry Barrett with a broad smile—the kind of smile that creates the lines she saw on his face. Joy.
Her printer whirred, and soon the photo hung on the bulletin board over the little table in her bedroom. She undressed and crawled into bed. She looked at Harry Barrett’s smiling face one last time and clicked off her lamp.“Good night, Mr. Barrett,” she said. “I mean, Harry.”