My Night In the Neal Pollack Suite
by Bettina Swigger (email@example.com)
Summer was hot in the West and the drought-ridden air was choked with thick smoke. Life here is never easy, but that summer brought out the worst in people; the phlegm-filled throats of elderly ladies at the supermarket coughed out “forest fire” instead of the usual “Virginia Slims.”
The governor told the national news that the whole state was burning up, and some mornings downtown looked like it was covered in the first snow, only this snow was a maelstrom of ash and debris. Some mornings the cars at the end of the next block were hardly visible for the haze, which disturbed the already-oxygen deprived drivers. On this side of the Mississippi, we eschew public transportation and like to see the streets go on for miles, filled with SUVs.
But if the fire brought out the worst in people, it was the animals who took it the hardest. Deer fled into backyards and public thoroughfares, dogs whimpered to go outside then whimpered to be let back in, and it seemed even the fattest and slowest squirrels could smell something in the air that whispered death, death by fire.
I was house sitting for an up-and-coming professor of literature. She was glamorous, well coiffed, and doing research in Russia with other Nabakov scholars. In addition to her tremendous accolades in academia by the time she reached the tender age of 30, she had one burning secret that lit my soul alive. She had attended high school with Neal Pollack.
How, an astute reader may ask, did such a lovely young woman of a tender age attend high school with one of the strongest, most visionary voices in American fiction? Of course, Mr. Pollack’s history as a journalist had inspired him to go underground for a brief period in the 1980s after he won his seventh Pulitzer prize. Biographers have uncovered the little-known fact that Mr. Pollack, in a decidedly non-Salinger move completely unrelated to the plot of a recent poorly-received Drew Barrymore film, enrolled in high school in Phoenix to try and experience again the youth and innocence that had been stolen away by his instant literary fame as a child. With the help of some top-secret workers at NASA working on a product known then as “bo-tix,” Mr. Pollack enrolled and successfully earned his diploma, allowing him the secret joy of being able to click “1987” whenever the classmates.com pop-up advertisement graces his browser.
In the spring, the professor had invited Mr. Pollack to come and receive an honorary degree and read from his newest publication, “The Neal Pollack Dictionary of the American Language,” at our humble local college. Mr. Pollack’s disdain for barren hotel rooms and the professor’s insatiable passion for cleanliness led to his 3-day stay at her house in Colorado Springs. He stayed in the guest bedroom downstairs, with adjoining bath and Western-facing windows.
Each morning during my stay I awoke in the bedroom upstairs between 4:30 and 6 to the sound of the cat. The cat was white, beautiful, and completely deaf. Because he could not hear himself, he had no idea what kinds of horrible sounds he was capable of making. Instead of meowing, he screamed. The smoke from the forest fire did not help this condition. The sound the cat made was like the sound of a very loud whale dying or a bagpipe being slaughtered. Needless to say, those weeks at the house were sleepless, in addition to being smoky and hot.
One morning I awoke to the death knells of the cat and the almost-nuclear temperature of the sun pouring through the window, burning my tender ankles. I stumbled downstairs to get a drink of water and try to comfort the yowling cat. It was cooler down there, and as I petted the cat, he purred contentedly and then yowled a yowl of inhuman suffering. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw something shimmering in the hazy early morning light. It was the door to the Neal Pollack suite.
I’d been staying at the house for five days now, and had mostly spent my time trying to cool off. This involved lying on the couch, not moving at all, and watching every episode of Sex and the City. I knew it was shallow to indulge in such frivolities, but I had to take time off from my research on 16th century codpieces because the sweat from my fingers as I turned the pages was causing pigment damage to the fragile paper of the codices and sacred documents. Because of my intense yet disdainful dedication to Sarah Jessica Parker, I had forgotten to pay homage to the room that had once housed my literary hero.
The door shimmered and swayed as I moved toward it. The cat’s dissonance faded into the background as I stepped toward the suite. I opened the door and walked in to the bedroom. The room housed a simple bed, a bookshelf, and a closet. I sat down on the bed and looked around me, then breathed in. This air was fresh and fragrant, so unlike the putrid stench of decay and death that filled the outside air. This must be the smell He left behind, I thought, as I rose slowly and walked toward the bathroom.
The air in the bathroom felt comforting and smooth, and the claw-footed bathtub must have reminded Mr. Pollack of his tryst with Lousia May Alcott, showers not being de rigeur in those simpler times. A single black hair, about a half-inch long and slightly curled, lay next to the drain. My mind raced. Had Corinne had any other houseguests since Mr. Pollack? She was so committed to cleanliness; how could she have missed such a blatant imperfection on the otherwise pristine whiteness of the bathtub? Even better, was it possible that this lone hair could be NEAL POLLACK’S PUBIC HAIR???
I sat down on the edge of the tub and tried to calm myself. I wanted a pen and paper to write the Ethicist immediately. Was it wrong to want to possess this treasure for myself, or better, auction it off on Ebay immediately? In the seething literary underbelly of the Internet, this tiny souvenir could make me thousands, if not millions of dollars. That could mean no more writing painful research grants, no more eating inexpensive government cheese, and no more living with roommates who cannot recognize my burgeoning genius. As I reached toward the hair to pull it out of the tub, the cat came tearing in from the other room. In an uncharacteristically playful move, she dove in to the tub. The world moved in slow motion as my thoughts jumped from one to the next. This cat, loved and adored by so many brilliant intellectuals, must somehow have recognized that the hair had been a part of something truly great. And yet suddenly, in the blink of an eye, he batted at the hair and it slid down the drain, into that great big remainder bin, the sewer. The hair was lost forever.
I sat on the tub and stroked the cat, imagining what could have been. He hadn’t meant to do it on purpose, just as he hadn’t meant to wake me with his cacophonous voice. He was just a cat, after all, a scared cat in the cruel hot smoky summer night. They say it’s better to have loved, then lost, but I never got the chance to love that hair. We might have done great things together. Now I’ll never know.
These days it is winter, and the stark trees stammer gracelessly in the wind while my own cat mews peacefully beside me. The fires have long been extinguished, and the air is crisp and clean with the promise of snow. My research stunted, I spend most days on the divan sipping blackberry brandy and listening to Danish folk songs. I don’t speak the language, but somehow they comfort me. It is a comfort born of seeing the possibility of a lifetime and having it yanked away by a playful feline. I’m not sure if the Danes like cats, but their language, when broadcast at a loud enough volume, sounds hauntingly familiar to the drones of that beautiful, deaf cat. Listening to music without understanding the lyrics makes me feel the way I felt the first time I read Neal Pollack’s work: like I had so much to learn and not enough time to possibly understand it all. It also makes me feel a little bit like I am the opera. But that is another time, another place, and another story. So ends my sojourn into the Neal Pollack suite. May you take much from my experience. Go swiftly and teach others.
No cats or Danish people were harmed in the writing of this piece.