October 4, 1970
Nathaniel Hawthorne Flowers is sitting in the back seat of a Chicago taxi between his girlfriend, Jane Chandler, and his literary agent, Veronica Sambucello. They are cruising south on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, past Washington Park, on their way to a bookstore where Nate will give the first reading from his just-published book of short stories. Ronnie is counseling Nate.
“Now, remember, Natey, be charming. I know you can be charming, but I want you to be extremely charming tonight.”
Nate grimaces, scrunches his shoulders together, sticks his hands between his knees. “We’ve been over this again and again,” he says.
“I know we have, Natey, but you seem out of sorts and I want to make sure you’re in a good frame of mind to meet your adoring public,” says Ronnie. Jane squeezes his arm.
“I’m fine,” says Nate, but he knows he’s not. He doesn’t like this meeting his so-called adoring public. He doesn’t want to read them a short story. He doesn’t particularly like being back in Chicago. He thinks, If I’d known I had to go on a publicity tour, I wouldn’t have written a book in the first place.
Something else is bothering him, too. His mother and her new husband, whom he’s never met, have been invited, as have his two younger brothers. He’s not sure how he feels about this, or how he’s going to handle seeing his mother after their last encounter. But for now he refuses to think about it.
Jane is wondering when Ronnie gave herself permission to call her boyfriend Natey. Until this moment, she’d been under the impression only she could call him that.
“Either the bookstore manager or I will introduce you, then you’ll say a few words. But only a few because you’ll answer get to questions after you read. Just say something about why you wrote these stories. Why you named your book The Pieces Fit.”
Not my title, thinks Nate. It’s another matter bothering him. Yours and the editor’s title. The title of the first story, to be sure, but my title was, is, and shall ever be, Peoplesongs.
The taxi turns onto Garfield and stops halfway down the block. Nate gapes at the wooden sign that reads The Garfield Street Bookshop. It’s the same bookstore he’d visited that bitterly cold winter day two years earlier. The bookstore where Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, was on display in the window. The day he’d met his Uncle Ned for lunch and learned his mother’s secret.
Ronnie looks at her watch and says, “Six-thirty. Goodie! We’re half an hour early.” She pays the fare, opens the door, and they all get out. Nate steps out on the sidewalk hesitantly and looks in the shop window. Copies of The Pieces Fit are stacked on a table amid a sign that reads, “Just Published! Local Author!” His book, where he’d seen Vonnegut’s.
“Oh, Natey,” says Jane, her voice filled with awe.
What goes around comes around, he thinks, but why this, and why now? He wonders if this is some ironic manifestation of Dylan’s paying the price for having to go through the same things twice.
The bookstore owner and his pretty clerk have lured customers over by offering them punch and cookies, but there are fewer than a dozen people seated for the reading. A lot of empty chairs. Ten minutes pass. The doorbell rings and in comes Adele, his mother, with a man in a suit and tie who must be her husband, David Steele. His brothers, Ernest Hemingway Flowers and Francis Scott Flowers, follow. Nate smiles at them. Ernie waves and smiles back. Jane scampers over to greet the family and sits down beside Adele.
The owner has ceded the introduction to Ronnie, who says, “We’re just so thrilled to bring Nathaniel from San Francisco back to his hometown, Chicago, to kick off his national book tour celebrating the publication of his absolutely mesmerizing, engaging, thrilling collection of short stories. You will have the privilege of buying one of the very first copies of the very first printing here tonight, autographed by the author himself, Nathaniel Hawthorne Flowers!” She stops to beam at him adoringly.
Nate acknowledges that Ronnie’s adoration is likely to win over the audience. Ronnie is good-looking from the top of her head to the tips of her toes. Strikingly beautiful, actually. He thinks, wryly, that maybe they should have had her stand outside to attract more people. But now she has finished introducing him. There is light applause and it’s his turn to stand and smile.
“Thank you, Veronica,” he says, and smiles at Jane, who returns his smile with a dazzling smile of her own, her eyes glistening as tears of joy threaten to spill down her cheeks. “I want to thank my late father, John, who taught English at Emily Dickenson High School in Waukegan, for giving me the gift of my name and a deep love of literature. Thanks also to my mom, Adele, who is here today with my two brothers, Ernest Hemingway Flowers and Francis Scott Fitzgerald Flowers.” A chuckle passes among the seated patrons.
“And thank you to my . . . to the love of my life, Jane Louise Chandler, who has been my muse throughout the writing of People . . . ah, The Pieces Fit. I’m pleased to be introducing my book in my hometown, and happy she can be here to share this . . . evening . . . with me.” Jane wriggles in her chair like she wants to jump up, run to the podium, and throw herself into his arms.
“Veronica—Ronnie—believed in me, and my book, right from the start,” he continues, “and I’m very fortunate she’s my literary agent. I’m also grateful to my—to Jane’s and my—creative writing professor Gerald Iron Moccasin at the University of California at Santa Cruz, who unfortunately couldn’t be here for . . ..”
The doorbell tinkles once again and on cue, Gerry Iron Moccasin steps in, grinning. Ronnie and Jane start laughing and clapping their hands. Nate joins in.
Nate leans on the podium and says, “I didn’t learn a darned thing from Gerry about creative writing because it can’t be taught, but I still value him as a mentor, a thinker, and a . . . wise reader of literature. Gerry, it’s great to have you here!” Nate steps over to Gerry. They shake hands and share a quick man-hug.
“You have before you a very talented writer,” Gerry says to the room, “whom Miss Sambucello and I believe is really going places in the literary world. He is my Iktomi,” he says, leaning into Nate. “That means the creative spirit-god of my people, the Lakota. As you read his short stories, think of them as appetizers. Although each is delicious in its own right, the main course is yet to come! But enough from me. Let us hear Nathaniel Hawthorne Flowers live up to his namesake.” Gerry sweeps an arm toward Nate. Ronnie and Jane begin clapping again, and everyone joins in.
As he reads, Nate thinks he hears the tinkle of the doorbell. Glancing up, he sees a man slip in and take a chair in the back. He looks to be a tired-out 40-year-old, hair unkempt, wearing a rumpled tweed sport jacket, his tie loose around his collar. It is soon apparent he is taking notes.
The applause is strong, more sustained, as Nate finishes reading the eponymous title story. As it dies down, Ronnie steps up to ask for questions.
The rumpled man in the rear shoots his hand into the air. “Bowen, Chicago Trib.”
“Yes!” says Ronnie. “I remember we sent you galleys. Glad you could make it.”
“A very auspicious beginning,” says the reporter. “What led you to take up writing?”
Nate pauses, glances at Ronnie, not sure how much she wants him to talk about himself. “My father,” he says slowly, “and . . . college.”
“You were in the armed services?” says Bowen. “Vietnam?”
“Yes to the first, the Air Force, and no to the second. I was sent to Germany, not Vietnam. My job was cryptography. Kind of like writing, but not much of a civilian career in eavesdropping on the Russians.” The audience chuckles.
“I have a question,” says the clerk. “My name is Marybeth Richards, and it’s a great honor to meet an author in person here in our bookstore. Congratulations, Mr. Flowers.”
“Thank you.” Nate smiles and nods. The doorbell tinkles again as three men enter. They remain standing, shadow figures, behind the reporter.
“How did you come up with the title?” Marybeth is saying. “I mean, it’s the story title and it’s the title of the book, too. How come?”
“I named the story first.” He pauses, then says, “I think it’s something people are always trying to do. Make the pieces of life fit together. Make life make sense. It’s really tough, though. Life doesn’t want to fit together into neat segments, like a picture puzzle.”
Marybeth nods. Ronnie nods; his answer, short and to the point, pleases her.
“You know about the laws of thermodynamics, Marybeth?”
Ronnie frowns; now he’s going off-script. Frankie leans toward Ernie and whispers, “What does Nate know about thermodynamics?” Ernie glares at his little brother.
The girl shakes her head, her long brown hair swaying across her shoulders, her parted lips expressing anticipation.
“Let me just explain it like this. One of the laws is about an orderly evolving universe. A contrasting law states that the universe is increasingly disorderly. It’s called entropy and so far, it looks like entropy’s winning.”
Marybeth says, “I kinda get that, but where did you come up with the title words?”
“Well, I was visiting England and I wanted to see Abbey Road—you know, where the Beatles crossed for the picture on the album cover?” Marybeth nods, excited. “Somebody had painted those three words on a stone wall across the street. I thought they were words worthy of contemplation and took a picture. And so that’s how they ended up as the title of the story. Ronnie—Veronica—and my editor, Graham Douglas, thought it sounded so good they wanted it for the book title, too.”
“Huh!” says Marybeth, thrusting back in her chair and crossing her arms under her breasts as if she had expected more.
“I’m glad you asked about it,” says Nate. “I think people often overlook the art of naming things, especially story and book and chapter titles. I think names are important and I put a lot of thought into them. Like this one. I don’t think the pieces fit, and probably won’t ever.”
Marybeth nods her head solemnly. The room is quiet, then Bowen, the reporter, says, “You’re working on a novel?”
“Yes and . . .?”
Nate just smiles.
“What’s your favorite thing about Chicago?” asks a woman who had been browsing.
“I have three. One, the old Water Tower. Two, the friendly people. They’re open-minded and believe everyone should be free. Three, Chicago.”
The man sitting next to her looks at him quizzically.
“There’s a Chicago band named Chicago. They first called themselves Chicago Transit Authority, but the CTA made them stop. So now they’re just ‘Chicago.’ They’re Chicagoans and they believe in freedom, too.”
Ronnie interrupts. “We only have an hour, so we should probably move along to the autograph table.” More people looking through the window have come into the shop, heralding the promise of a few more book sales. The audience applauds, gets up, heads toward the cookie table. Ronnie takes Nate by the arm. “You did good. In fact, you did very well,” she says.
Nate grins and wipes mock-sweat from his forehead.
Bowen walks up and shakes his hand. “Congratulations, Flowers. First book is a real special event in life. I enjoyed reading your stories. I hope you keep on writing.”
“Thanks, Mr. Bowen,” says Nate.
“Won’t you tell me just a little about your novel?”
“You ever hear that old song, ‘Secret Love’?” says Nate.
“Doris Day?” says Bowen.
“The one about telling the daffodils?”
“Yep, that’s the one,” says Nate.
“OK, I get it.”
“But when it’s time, you’ll be first on my list,” says Nate.
“I appreciate that. Really do. I’m hoping to be the first to write about you and your book.”
“And we appreciate that, too, Mr. Bowen,” says Ronnie, smiling her I’m-his-literary-agent smile. Gerry steps up and shakes Nate’s hand. Bowen shakes Gerry’s and they begin conversing. Jane waits for Nate beside the table where the autograph hounds are gathering. His mother, brothers, and the man emerge from the crowd and walk up to Nate.
“Hello, Nathaniel,” says his mother with a tight-lipped smile.
“Hi, Mom,” says Nate.
His mother looks at him, then Ronnie and Gerry, and says, “Aren’t you going to introduce me to your friends?”
Nate does so, then Adele says, “And I would like to introduce all of you to my husband, Mr. David Steele. David is the superintendent of the Hinsdale High School District. I am the head librarian. And these are my other two sons, Ernest and Francis. Ernest is a senior, and Francis is a freshman, at Hinsdale High. We live in Clarendon Hills.” She turns to look directly at her eldest son. “I hope you will have an opportunity to stop by and visit while you’re in town, Nathaniel.”
Without another word Adele Steele, formerly Adele Flowers, turns her retinue around and begins walking them toward the door. Ernie casts a quick, helpless glance over his shoulder at his big brother. Nate lifts a hand and waves, watches them, but as they reach the door his eyes drift to the three young men who had come in late. One of them, he now sees, is Tim Rosencrantz. They’re dressed in preppy khaki trousers and blue blazers, and appear to be browsing the bookshelves. Tim holds a book up and grins at Nate. It’s The Pieces Fit. He winks.
Nate walks over to them, dread lurching up his windpipe. “Hello, author,” says Tim, eyes steely, lips drawn tightly against his teeth. His two companions remain facing the bookshelves as Tim hands Nate his book, a folded slip of paper stuck in its pages.
“What are you doing here?” Nate says softly, as if this were a noir scene from a B-movie. “I thought you were in Santa Cruz. I didn’t know . . . .” His voice trails off.
Seeing Jane approach, Tim says, “Hello, sweet Jane,” and with a glib smile grabs her in his arms and gives her a quick squeeze. She pulls back, glaring at him and pushes his arms down before Nate can take a step. “Nice to see you, too,” Tim says. Turning to Nate he sneers, “See ya ‘round, brothah.” The three take their leave.
Jane looks at Nate, bewildered, eyes and says, “What is he doing in Chicago? Did he just, you know, show up?”
“Yeah, maybe, I dunno,” says Nate. He remembers the note and unfolds it. There is a single word written inside:
Arnold Bowen writes a glowing review of The Pieces Fit, weaving a profile of Nate and the Garfield Street Bookshop reading into it, for the morning edition. Ronnie sees it first, of course, and runs down the Drake Hotel hallway to Nate and Jane’s door to share the news. She knocks and knocks and knocks. Finally, wrapped in a sheet, Jane answers. “Look!” Ronnie says, clutching the Trib in a fist. She barges into the room, humid from lovemaking, handing the paper to Jane. Nate sits up in bed, pulling his long hair out of his face.
Jane, scanning the review, says, “Oh wow! Oh wow!” as she walks to the bed, reading while trying to keep herself covered with the sheet. She fumbles the newspaper into Nate’s lap. As she does so, she sees a photograph of Janis Joplin and says, “Oh, geez, Janis is dead?”
“No, no no no,” says Nate, reading to the front page headline:
BOMB HAYMARKET STATUE
An explosion early today ripped apart the Haymarket Square Statue at 652 W. Randolph St., almost exactly a year since the statute had been damaged by a bomb.
Moments after the 12-foot statue was blown from its pedestal, a man telephoned The Tribune and claimed the Weatherman faction of Students for a Democratic Society was responsible for the blast. The caller said he was “Mr. Weatherman.”
. . . The caller to this newspaper last night said:
“We just blew up Haymarket Square Statue for the second year in a row to show our allegiance to our brothers in the New York prisons and our black brothers everywhere. This is another phase of our revolution to overthrow our racist and fascist society. Power to the People.”
Just below the headline is a story on the President’s Commission on Campus Unrest regarding its findings in the Kent State student massacre by National Guard soldiers. The headline reads, “Kent Probe Blames Both Sides.” His eyes riff down the page to “The 61 shots by the 28 Guardsmen certainly cannot be justified.” Nate’s temperature shoots up.
“What the . . .” he says, then shuts his mouth and turns the paper over to concentrate on Arnold Bowen’s story. No need to vent his anger about the Kent State murders in front of Ronnie. No need to draw her attention to the bombing last night. No need for her to know it was more than likely Nate’s former Air Force buddy, Tim Rosencrantz, calling himself “Mr. Weatherman,” who had called the Tribune. And who had more than likely blown up the statue.