As if the leaves from London weren’t enough. As if getting hotel clerks all over the world to paint pictures of flowers for me to receive on my arrival wasn’t enough. As if making lunches for my pregnant self and sending them by courier across D.C. to my office in Alexandria because he was worried about my vitamin intake wasn’t enough. As if making me asparagus ice cream for the same reason wasn’t enough. As if smelling like the most marvelous combination of old books and the most spectacular cologne in the world wasn’t enough…well, my lord, the list is positively endless.
Just weeks ago in my Raving Maniac I Am Writing A Book About Authentic Living Now Can’t You Just Get The Hell Away From Me and Stop Breathing So Loudly Stage, I determined that I could only write with one kind of pen–a pen from the Graves 601 hotel in Minneapolis where Mr Brilliant and Emma stayed on her way to Japanese language camp last summer. Nothing else would do. "I LOVE this pen," I gushed repeatedly. "I can only write with this pen," I said, histrionically waving said pen in the air above my head and laughing. "What will I do when this pen runs out?" I cried in anguish. I walked around clutching that pen for weeks, insisting on using it and nothing but it.
The man just flat out loves me.
And now. The Christmas gift to end all gifts: five beautiful, off-white linen envelopes. “Open them in order,” he said quietly, smiling.
I pondered that for a while, confused. Then I opened the card. Inside it read: “I talked to some people about how wonderful and brilliant you are—I talked to them about some of your heroes since they’re friends or related to them (now mostly and basically dead). After hearing a bit of your story, they have agreed to sit at the phone and talk to you a spell about some of their stories. This is the next best thing to being there, I think; I hope they’ll tell you something that you’ll carry with you into the future. Your Christmas gift for 2007 will be at least four telephone chats with the following folks…”
“What on earth?” I said. “What do you mean?”
“Open the second envelope,” he said.
Envelope number two held a card imprinted with a beautiful photo of William Faulkner and the inscription, “Billy 1” under the photograph.
“Billy,” the inside read. Underneath that header was this paragraph: “Talking chat with Jerry Showalter, the nephew of Eudora Welty and student of William Faulkner. Jerry says that ‘when I was the bagging boy at the local grocery, Mr Faulkner would always come to my line to check out.’"
I went to graduate school at the University of Virginia, studying in the very department in which William Faulkner taught. Mr Brilliant knows I think Faulkner is a genius. I’ll talk to someone who actually studied with him!
The next envelope contained a card imprinted with a beautiful little photograph of the front of The Recognitions, a great American novel by William Gaddis and the focus of my dissertation at the University of Virginia.
“Billy 2,” the inscription read. Knowing that the reclusive, dead Gaddis was A) reclusive and B) dead, I wondered what this meant.
On the inside, the header read:
Beneath it, it read: "Talking chat with William Gass about old William Gaddis. I’m guessing that Gass knows more about him that anyone; plus, he’s alive. Plus plus, well, he’s William Gass. He’s very jolly.”
My heart jumped. Not only do I think that William Gaddis is one of the greatest American writers of all time, but I think William Gass (often mistaken for Gaddis) is an enormous genius himself and one of the great minds of our time. Not only has he written about Gaddis, but also about Rilke, another of my heroes. Whew. About this time, I started sweating at the very thought of talking to him on the phone.
“He’s very nice,” John said. “I called his house and just asked to talk with Mr Gass, and then without hesitation, I heard his wife say, “Bill, you have a phone call. He was very jovial.” Gass is 85 years old now.
The next envelope stopped my heart completely for a few moments. On the card was a photograph of my beautiful Billy Collins. “Billy 3,” the inscription beneath is read.
I dropped the card. “NO! ARE YOU KIDDING ME?” Something like fear swept through me. Oh my lord, after all these years of adoration, the very thought of talking to him on the phone scared the noodles out of me. “I CANNOT POSSIBLY DO THIS!” I yelled. Talking to Billy Collins on the phone would be like going out during an eclipse and looking right into the sun without protective eye gear. I felt myself hyperventilating. “I can’t breathe,” I said, opening the card.
“Billy,” the header said simply. “Talking chat with Mr Billy Collins, our past Poet Laureate of the United States, who, when I talked to him about Gass and Gaddis, shouted "hey, I once had dinner with William Gaddis!"
My hands were suddenly sweaty and shaking. “Johnny,” I said. “I can’t possibly do this. This is just too scary.” “You can,” he said. “You once interviewed Stevie Wonder in your pajamas. I know you can do this.”
“How on earth did you get him to do this?”
“I called him. Got his voice mail and left a message about you and about what I was trying to do. And he called back. We talked.”
This from the man who, when he needs a recipe for the icing that sticks gingerbread houses together, calls the White House chef rather than googling "gingerbread house icing." And gets the White House chef on the phone for twenty minutes.
“What did you say?”
“Can’t tell you. You’ll have to wait until you talk to him. At 10:00am on December 26th.”
I needed more time. I couldn’t possibly prepare in such a short time. Suddenly I remembered Emma when she was little and wanted to call a friend. “I don’t know what to say,” she agonized. “I can’t do it.” She was seven or eight at the time. “Sure you can honey. Just ask for your friend when someone answers.”
“I can’t,” she cried. “I don’t know what to say.”
We wrote out a script for her. “Hello, this is Emma. May I speak with Hannah?” Then if the parent said Hannah wasn’t home, Emma could say, “Would you mind telling her that I called? Thank you" or "I’ll call her back later," or "I was just calling to invite her to play at the park…" And so on, covering every possible contingency for pages on end. She only needed the script for a few phone calls, and then she was fine.
I need a script for my call with Billy Collins. Any ideas are welcomed. I imagine I won’t be able to speak so it will be a short call. When I heard his voice mail a few days ago, even that was too hot for me. I had to hang up before I heard the end of the message. It was too close.
Johnny Unitas died on September 11, 2002.
On the inside of the card: “Johnny," the header said, followed by this: "When I told William Curry about you and your career and intellectual pursuits and your adoration of Mr Unitas, he said that he’d happily and delightedly talk to you about John. Coach Curry played center with Unitas in Super Bowl V (1971, a win for the Colts) and knows more about Unitas than, well, probably anyone.”
Yep, it was the Johnny Unitas one that made me cry. Always my childhood hero, number 19 with his flatop and black hightop cleats, larger than life.
Three Billys and a Johnny.
The second Johnny from the title of this post? None other than Mr Brilliant himself.
The man just flat out loves me.
And I love him back just as big.