For the first time in his life, the words refuse to come.
He lies in bed, propped on a pile of chintz pillows, their suffocating tangle of tea roses faintly reminiscent of a Southern grande dame’s parlor.
We’ve each mused, at one time or another, that somewhere beneath his gnarled-gnome exterior lurks a genteel New Orleans matron, mortified by her host-form’s crassness.
He stares vacantly at the page before him, thoughts elsewhere. On delivery dates he hasn’t met, on advances already spent. On the Fabergé paperweight he’s just nabbed at auction, how it changes hue when the light shines through it just so, citrine tones conjuring Babe’s miniature vegetables, darling little carrots that only grow so big.
On the eight hundred pages of lies he has or hasn’t told, depending on who you ask. Depending on what he’s said and to whom.
For all his boasts to the contrary, the paper—curled around the barrel of the Smith Corona balanced on his protuberant stomach—is barren. A stack of sunny legal pads proves equally unfruitful, his spider-like scrawl more scribbled through than not.
He reaches for an ashtray full of half-smoked cigarettes and grabs his pack of True’s—a brand he’s sworn to each of us was named after him. He trembles as he lights one, causing the flame to quiver before he sucks the nicotine into his lungs. He runs a hand through his tissue-fine hair, a gesture of old, when a mop of thick corn-silk fringe swept across his forehead. The fringe, like so much else, is long gone, with only a habitual gesture to remind us of a tow-haired boy we once adored. A boy pampered and indulged well into middle age, courtesy of his unquestioned genius.
In madras pajamas and ratty pink cardigan, the aging wunderkind seems less the literary lion, less still the social barracuda of public perception. Alone in the darkened room, stripped of bravura, he looks like what he is—‘just a pissant rug rat from Monroeville, Alabama, shit-scared as ever.’ (His phrase, not ours.)
The Tiny Terror is in many ways still the terrified toddler who sobbed when his Mama left him locked in fleabag motels while she stole out with her lovers. Lillie Mae, who traded her small-town, small-time name for the more exotic ‘Nina,’ a further removal from the role she never wanted: Mother to the odd Lilliputian boy with the snow-hair, toad-face, and girlish voice, the child whose very oddness repulsed her.
He’d sat, he’s told us, on the ‘Big-Bed,’ chubby fingers sticky with sugar from the bag of beignets that had been bought to bribe his silence. He watched her dressing as he chewed, wide eyes peering from his cherub face. She was barely more than a girl herself, and were it not for his gnawing at the scrap of fried dough, one might mistake him for her baby doll, propped against the pillows— rather than her great mistake. A live baby, who she never asked for, from whom she just needed a few hours’ escape to try to salvage her wreck-of-a-life.
She’d told him this in dulcet tones, almost a lullaby, which he couldn’t help but think of as good, given her smile as she cradled him close.
She was beauty and light. His whole tiny universe.
He’d studied her as she sat at the vanity in a sheer black slip, taming a honeyed pin-curl into place. He watched as she unscrewed a tube of lipstick—red like the tin fire engine a man called Daddy once gave him. She smacked a pout at her reflection. Across the room he mimicked the same, spreading sticky sugar between invisible lips. She grinned at him, and he giggled.
He pulled another beignet from his bag as she slithered into a silky dress, the green-gray hue of Spanish moss. She’d told him that was the name of the stuff that hung from the trees there, those spider arms blowing in the breeze that used to scare him, the rustle of which he had come to think of as home.
She moved to a hotplate in the corner. His eyes followed, transfixed by the colored lights that shone through the window onto her face, flashing Red-Green-Blue, Red-Green-Blue—like a Christmas tree. A trumpet-wail from the open window battled a jangling pianola from another room. She’d shaken her hips to the ragtime of the latter, as she stirred a saucepan of milk, pouring a healthy splash from the glass bottle of ‘Mama-juice’ she always kept on her nightstand. He loved to look at that bottle, its amber liquid sparkling in the lamplight, even when there was precious little left inside.
She had poured a cocktail of warm milk and Mama-juice into a tin cup and presented it to him. She stroked his hair, telling him what a fine boy he was as he sipped, the fire trickling down his throat. He nuzzled against her, inhaling her perfume. It reminded him of the scent of jasmine in the lobby they walked through each day, sneaking past the fat man behind the desk who, like a broken gramophone record, asked in an angry voice when she intended to pay. She’d made it a game—run, run! she told him—and his chubby little legs raced to keep up with hers.
Here in the Big-Bed, she stroked the white straw that topped his head, the warmth of her thigh the last thing he remembered before sinking into deepest sleep.
When he woke the room was dark. He reached for her, but she was gone.
He sat up, groggy, feeling like syrup had been poured through his brain. The colors of the Christmas neon still flashed in through the window. He could still faintly hear the player-piano, drowned by the blare of a brass band.
He slid off the Big-Bed, feet dangling, falling with a thud to the floor. He teetered toward the door, reaching upward for the cold brass knob. He turned it—one way, then the other. Wouldn’t budge. He put his cheek against the crack and cried out, ‘Mama...?’
He’d called again, ‘Mama—?! Mama!!’
Only music and shrieks of pleasure from below.
Terrified, he’d howled—desperate that someone might hear him. He worried that she’d gone away for good and forgotten to take him. He pounded tiny fists against the door, screams muffled by ragtime and laughter and grown-up things he didn’t understand. He slumped to a heap on the floorboards, sobbing till he just couldn’t sob anymore.
He’d cried himself asleep by the time she returned. She scooped him up, dumping him in a threadbare armchair. He stirred—and through exhausted half-slumber he could just make out the man she led into the room. A man in a smart white suit, sharing a sloppy gulp of Mama-juice as their mouths collided, just before they fell into the Big-Bed, crushing his bag of beignets, stuffed between the pillows.
Of course, sometimes the details change . . .
The color of her dress. Beignets or cake, ragtime or blues. Who the man might be. Whether the Mama-juice was clear or amber. Whether she’d instructed the motel staff to ignore his screams. He’s always left behind, locked inside. Alone. Abandoned. Terrified.
That’s the important part, as the tale is told and retold.—
We’ve all heard his stories, a hundred times over.
These were Truman’s playing cards. How could they fail but rouse our sympathy? How could we not reciprocate with our own tragic tales, each believing ourselves to have privilege over one another...? Each believing ourselves to be his Favorite.
We’d loved him, after all. We’d welcomed him into our homes— our multiple homes—into our pools and yachts and planes. Accepted him into our celebrated families—Paleys. Guinnesses. Guests and Keiths. Agnellis and Bouviers. All vigor and tans, fresh-cut flowers and pure-bred pups. With our money and our manners, we picked up his tabs and lifted his stature. We festooned him with cachet.
We were the wives he’d never know. The mothers he wished he’d had. We loved him as we loved our own broods—more so, perhaps. No one would dare leave Truman behind with the nanny. His childlike zeal and raunchy wit proved too heady a cocktail. He’d even seduced the husbands. Those alpha males who launched networks and empires, who found themselves confiding in our androgynous sprite in ways they couldn’t confide in us.
He seduced us all with words—and Truman knows full well the power of his words. They’re both armor and weapon, the one thing he’s sure of. They alone have never failed him, their lyricism hinting at the beauty trapped within his stunted body, not to mention his conflicted soul.
But now the muses have gone silent. For the first time since he set up a spartan desk in his childhood bedroom, armed with a composition book and a thimble of whiskey, the muses refuse to speak. Blind to the elusive gossamer threads, from which he once wove such intricate verbal webs. Deaf to the delicate balance of tones he used to strike so effortlessly. Stripped of that singular gift to find just the right word to make a phrase reverberate.
While the right words elude him, the wrong ones are another matter. Waffle and bile increasingly spew from his thinning lips— half-baked thoughts, easy insults. He can hardly stop himself. And loooord-eeee, the boasts!
‘Honey, I was born to write this book. I’m the only one who could write it. Let’s face it, no one else has the guts to say what I’m prepared to say. I’ve seen spoiled monsters first-hand and, baby, they ain’t pretty. Trust me, this story is the one true thing I know.’
We’ve heard him preach this gospel, to anyone who’ll listen. Columnists. Chat-show hosts. Friends, Strangers. Enemies, Sycophants— come one, come all. He’s been writing it for ages. Told everyone he was doing it. He’s taunted with bits and pieces, read snippets to some of us, quoted lines to others, and hashed and rehashed the plot.
For years Truman’s warned we just might find ourselves making an appearance. He’s tailored hand-carved coffins for each of us.
‘It’s called Answered Prayers. And if all goes well, it’ll answer mine.’
There’s been a lot of buzz, alotta talk. But it’s becoming cheap dime-store talk. Shit on a shingle, masquerading as pâté on Tiffany silver—‘It’s positively epic, the thing I’ve been crafting. Everyone I’ve ever met. Everything I’ve seen. I’m constructing this book like a gun. There’s the handle, the trigger, the barrel, and, finally, the bullet. And when it’s fired it’s gonna come out with a speed and power you’ve never seen—WHAM!!’
Yet now the words elude him, like snowflakes on a balmy day, evaporating before he can grasp them. Without his precious words, he is nothing. Panicked.
And when Truman panics...
He props himself upright, steals a glance at the clock. Nine thirty. It’s five o’clock somewhere. He removes the typewriter from his distended gut and drags his otherwise shrunken carcass from the bed, treading carefully over the landmines of his thoughts. Bare feet wade through a thick shag carpet, woolen strands threading between his toes. He proceeds through an open-plan living room, glass walls revealing a brittle desert landscape beyond. He’s donned swimming trunks and a terrycloth robe, which hangs loosely around his minuscule frame. Oversized sunglasses hook over tortoise glasses. The thinning hair is hidden beneath a panama hat and apart from the middle-aged paunch, he could pass as a ten-year-old boy, drowning in adult clothing.
He slides a transparent door open, squinting against the glare.
Lying catatonic on the patio is an English bulldog, Maggie, slobber dribbling from her protruding tongue. Truman steps over her, making a beeline for a wet bar. He pauses at the mini-fridge, torn between options. Shouts back to the slumbering lump—‘What’ll it be, Mag-pie...? A Bloody-Bloody or my Orange Drink...?’
The rolls of canine flesh fail to respond beyond a steady, listless panting.
‘That’s what I thought... O.J. it is.’ He reaches for a carton of concentrate. Removes a hundred-proof bottle of Stoli from the freezer. He fills half a highball with the vodka, adding the tiniest smidgeon of juice. Demurely sips—then tops up the hooch for good measure.
‘Na zdorovye,’ he quips in thick Russian dialect, toasting lazy ole Mags as he shuffles past. Heading for a lounger, Truman collects an apricot princess phone, rigged with an exceptionally long wire, linking him to the house as if by coiled umbilical cord. He reclines in the sun, Orange-Drink in hand. He takes a swig, pulling a black book from the pocket of his voluminous robe. He finds the desired number. Dials. And in that adolescent-girl whine we’ve all come to recognize in a single syllable, he commands the receiver.
‘Hello, precious. Mr. Don Erickson, s’il vous plaît,’ then, surprised by the receptionist’s apparent ignorance, ‘Why, honey, it’s Mr. Truman Streckfus Persons Capote, if you didn’t know.’
He balances the phone on his shoulder, and like a contortionist he twists around, shimmying out of the bathrobe and retrieving his drink with surprising dexterity.
From the other line, anxious, ‘Mr. Capote?’
‘Donny. Greetings and salutations.’
‘And to you, Mr. Capote.’
‘I’m not your daddy, for Chrissakes! Call me Truman.’
‘Mr.— Truman. I want to thank you for returning our call. We’re very excited, and may I stress very excited, at the prospect of publishing your stories—’
‘Chapters,’ Truman corrects. ‘The first chapters of my magnum opus. Looooong-awaited chapters. Fifteen years in the making. Think of this as a little sneak peek... A few chapters to keep ’em guessing.’
‘Yes. Chapters. I just want to express, on behalf of the Esquire staff—’
‘Let’s cut to the juicy bit, shall we? The New Yorker’s offered me twenty thousand. Care to sweeten the pot...?’
The line goes silent. Truman frowns, dabbing the pooling sweat collecting in the reservoir between his chest and belly. His ‘man-tits,’ he’d been amused to inform us while sunbathing on board the Agneta, sailing cobalt waters off the Amalfi Coast, slathering the ‘most divine’ shea butter on his beloved Babe’s porcelain skin.
We had all, of course, told him what a silly creature he was, that he was far too prepubescent to have tits of any sort.
‘Donnn-eeee...? Cat got your tongue?’ Truman ventures, pressing the charm offensive, somewhere between a purr and a growl.
From the other end, palpable disappointment.
‘We were prepared to go to sixteen. I’m sorry, Truman. We’d do anything to keep our hat in the ring. We know how big this will—’
‘Aaaac-tually, I don’t think you do.’
‘We do! We’re simply a smaller operation than—’
‘Sugar, you have no idea how big this book is gonna be.’
Truman rises, dragging the mile-long phone cord past Maggie, who lifts her head as it grazes her lumpy back. At the wet bar he mixes himself another Orange-Drink, the once icy vodka bottle weeping in the heat.
‘We know. We knew with Breakfast, didn’t we? We just don’t have the resources to go any higher. Try as we might, we can’t outbid the New Yorker.’
Truman pours himself an extra capful of Stoli, tosses back the shot.
‘Give me one good reason why I should go with Esquire for four grand less. You’ve got sixty seconds, Donny-Boy. Convince me.’
A sharp intake of breath, then—’Who would you like your readership to be?’
Truman pauses. ‘Well... I don’t want ’em kicking the bucket midway through. I suppooose I’d like a younger readership. One that doesn’t give a flying hoot about The Rules.’
‘Okay. Demographically, do you know what the occupation of the greatest percentage of New Yorker subscribers is?’
‘Yes—dentists. Purchased as what’s known in the trade as Lobby Lit. There’s your audience. Sad fucks with toothaches waiting for a root canal.’
Truman chews an ice cube, ingesting this, drumming his claws against the highball.
‘You know I’ll have certain demands...’
‘I want cover approval.’
‘You got it.’
‘And you cannot change a word of text. I mean it! Not a syllable!’
‘I’m flying to the Yucatán to see Lee—do you know Lee Radziwill? She’s utterly divine. Far more stunning than her sister... I mean, I love Jackie, don’t get me wrong. She was one smart cookie back in the day—surprisingly well read—but she can be so severe, don’t you think? The whole weepy-widow routine... No man would touch that with a ten-foot pole! And face it, she can look a bit like a drag queen in pearls from certain angles. Of course Ari... Well. He’s no looker. He did sleep with Lee first... but that’s another story. Anyhooooo. Seeing Lee in Mexico, then on to Key West, where I’ve found the most deliciously trashy seaside motel. I only have one copy of my book. Only one in the whole wide world. You’ll have to come down and pick up the manuscript. Personally.’
Truman dumps the last of the ice cubes into his glass.
‘Weeee-uull ... okay then, hon. Esquire it is. And on that note, I’m gonna do a jig and pour myself one last little something to celebrate...’
A splash more Orange, splash(es) more hundred-proof. Truman teeters with drink and phone toward the swimming pool. Maggie, half-eye on alert, rolls resentfully clear of his path.
On the line the mood shifts to one of triumph.
‘Wow. Truman, that really is terrific!’
‘I’m delighted, Don. Simply over the moon.’
He sets the phone base at the pool’s edge, dipping his toe in the chlorine bath.
‘But Donny... be forewarned.’ Truman pauses, wading waistdeep into warm water, relishing the moment. ‘I’m about to detonate a bomb.’
‘You always do. I’m sure this will prove no exception.’
‘Ohhh, but it will. They ain’t seen nothin’ yet...’
‘Well. I can assure you: you won’t regret this.’
‘Nooooo,’ Truman ponders, ‘I don’t think I will. But you might.’
Satisfied, he places the handset back in its cradle.
You don’t think you’ll regret it, Truman?
Truman polishes off his O.J., sets his glass beside the phone.
Part of you isn’t worried about what we’ll say when we find out...?
His brow furrows. Ours is not the Calliope voice he’s been longing to hear.
Turning to his morning exercise, Truman dog-paddles the length of the pool, keeping both head and hat above water. At the deep end he grasps the diving board, stretching his arms, feet dangling into the depths below. He makes a U-turn and paddles back to the shallow end.
You know, there’s only one thing that cannot be forgiven...
Betrayal, in black and white.
‘Stop it,’ Truman says aloud, to no one in particular. Maggie raises her head at the sound of a phrase she recognizes. He laughs.
‘Not you, Mags.’
Bitchery and butchery, in Century Expanded type. Are you sure you won’t regret...?
Holding his breath, he ducks his head beneath the water. It’s serene. Peaceful. But in the glugging, amniotic solitude, a voice, Our voice, persists...
As a rule, people are far more hurt by what they read than what they hear.
Truman allows his weight to sink, leaving his panama hat bobbing gently on the glassy surface.