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Find more Dear Mr. S
[Molly McQuade, a Booklist columnist, is writing a series of meditations on J. D. Salinger that will be published on Booklist Online under the title “Dear Mr. S.” Here is the seventh installment. —Ed.]
Dear Mr. S,
As I’ve said, I run into a little trouble here among the freewheeling penned goats in Central Park, because while I’m kept busy admiring the goats, taking in the scene, imagining your neighborhood jaunts and miseries of years ago, I am also being observed, with a certain righteous alacrity.
Remember how, in your novel, Holden Caulfield came to this same park to clear his head? Here he meditated on conundrums: where did the wild ducks go in winter? Here he watched his beloved younger sister Phoebe ride on the splendid Central Park merry-go-round. Near here, Holden sat in the rain, getting drenched, in order to observe correctly and fully the redeeming spectacle of her unself-conscious innocence. And you wrote about it.
I, on the other hand, come here for something else, as will become apparent.
A blonde with imperfect incisors confronts me. She bares the incisors.
“What are you writing?” she asks.
“Are you a writer?” I reply, with just the right amount of decorously friendly fellow-feeling.
She giggles. “Oh, no, I’m not!”
Again I smile.
She bares the fangs. “What are you doing?” she asks.
I explain that I am a columnist, and that I’m here to gather material for a column to be written about J. D. Salinger, timed to coincide with the release of a touted new book and a documentary film about him. I inspect her face for a glimmer of recognition or reaction. There isn’t any. She hasn’t heard of the new book or of the film, opening today with fanfare a few blocks away. The book happens to be in my bag. I consider pulling it out. I decide against that. Besides, does she know what a book is?
It crosses my mind that somehow this encounter isn’t going so happily for us, even though I’m dressed impeccably, have a good dentist, and am well behaved. Better behaved, at any rate, than she.
She presses in on me more closely, as if to corner and rout. “Some of the parents noticed you writing down the names of their children,” she reports.
Some of me notices that I am being harassed without cause by a lady with bad teeth. I respond with tact, repeating mildly what I have already said.
She’s done her part. What more can she say? She sidles off.
I stay where I am and continue watching goats. Twin goat kids with black faces and ginger brows. Their floppy ears are speckled. Children seem drawn to the ears, which flop some more, equable and cuddly; then they twitch, seem to steer. Goats like to perch tall on a tree stump, showing off. When they are young, they love to shove. The goats are goggle-eyed, and sweet. They have rather luscious pink, mumbling lips.
There is an all-white goat. There is a strawberry blonde. There are dark goats with spots scattered amply among them. The white goat is clean, big, bright. I picture him by the podium, bravely conducting the New York Philharmonic, his bear bobbing in time to the piccolos and trumpets. Another goat, cinnamon brown, will bask, then strut, his eyes golden from many warm, hay-fed nights.
If goats had been here when Holden came, he would have flocked to them, I think: a flock of one.
I happen to glance up. A zoo employee in uniform is studying me carefully, with a worried look. He asks me what I’m doing.
I’m not in uniform, but I am wearing Marimekko. Does that count?
I explain to him what I explained to the lady, just as calmly and just as slowly. I ask him if he would like me to explain in more detail. He doesn’t say no.
So I say, “I’m doing scene-setting. The main character of Salinger’s novel came to this park. Salinger lived nearby for some years. The park and the zoo inspired him. I’m here to set the scene in my column about Salinger.
After a pause to take this in, he says, “You seem like a nice person. The zoo clients don’t want you to write about them.”
After a pause to take this in, I say, “Thank you.”
I remain with the goats for a little while. But when closing time nears, I leave, and hope to find my zoo interlocutor once more. There he is, beginning to close up with another zoo worker.
I smile and withdraw the new book from my bag.
I want to show him the book, as if it will convince him, or convince others, or convince myself, that what writers do is legitimate, even sometimes respected, even sometimes admired. There’s value in it.
The cover of the book is red. The title is large. So is the volume itself.
I hold the book up to him. It says: SALINGER.
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