Henry & Biggs:
Adventure Blog of a Literary Agent and His Beagle
Chapter 8: A Lesson on Obscenity
Date: February 10
Time: 6:22 p.m.
Lewis Glume leans into the doorway like a rotting tree letting go of the soil and succumbing to gravity. He is wearing a black cardigan covered in Agatha’s fine white hair which looks like a kind of tree bark fungus.
“You are in here,” he says to Biggs in his oddly effeminate manner. “I thought you’d gone home.”
Biggs closes the desk drawer into which, at the sound of the first knock on the door, he had hurriedly stuffed the leather journal that has occupied his attention all day.
“You never close your door. Now even at, what time is it,” Lewis looks at his watch, “good lord, six thirty and you’re huddled in here like some sort of survivalist. Are you unwell?”
“I’m fine,” says Biggs. “Just trying to get caught up.”
“Be honest, now. Have you fallen prey to the scourge of Internet pornography?”
“A long time ago.”
Lewis takes a step in, leaning against the doorframe. I sit up and climb off my bed and pad over to smell his shoes. He scratches my nose. His hands smell of vanilla lotion, old cat food and those mentholated lozenges he is always sucking on.
“Hello, Henry,” he says. “Don’t tell Agatha about this scratch and sniff greeting. She’ll never forgive me. What exactly are you working on?” I want to tell him that I am working on not throwing up at the stench of his hands but I am smart enough to know that the question was intended for Biggs.
“I… just… wading through the slush,” Biggs says in feigned exasperation.
Biggs shrugs. “Not much. Lot of long shots. As always.”
I am impressed by his restraint. I know for a fact that Biggs is itching to tell someone, anyone, even Lewis, that he has recently banked a hundred thousand dollars and is working his way through the first of supposedly several hand-written journals belonging to California Congressman Thomas Clifford. For as much as Lucia Samuel proclaims to know about my Biggs, her research efforts have apparently missed the fact that he generally keeps secrets like Melissa keeps her pants up. I can only assume that this new, uncharacteristic discretion is owing in large part to Lucia’s warnings that Biggs will suffer a painful death if he tells anyone about what he is doing before the memoir is complete. Over the ten days since Lucia delivered the first journal, Biggs’ naiveté has steadily discounted those warnings by at least fifty percent. But, apparently, there is still enough gravity in her admonition to keep him grounded and cautious.
Even Biggs’ mother, who calls in like clockwork every Sunday night, was led to believe that nothing new or interesting was happening in Great Neck, New York, the place her son had inexplicably decided to call home. If she wanted to, Edith Bigelow could get secrets out of Dick Cheney. Biggs would be child’s play. But, so far at least, no one knows there is any secret to be had. No one is trying. That alone has been Biggs’ saving grace.
“Your standards are too high,” says Lewis, biting at a fingernail. I go back to my bed and lay down, disgusted at the distinct possibility that he is mining the underside of that nail for residue of Agatha’s lunch. “See, you keep looking for something you like, something you’d like to see on your own bookshelf, not something that will sell to people who happen to have literary tastes that you disdain.”
“What? That’s crazy. Like who? Occult fans?”
“Horror? Supernatural thriller?”
“Eeww. Please.” Lewis scrunches up his face.
“Well, so then don’t accuse me of snobbery. I’m trying to find what will sell, not what I like.”
“Biggs, the day you seriously consider signing on to a book with non-human protagonists, I’ll eat my hat.”
“You mean like dogs, or…”
“Aliens and vampires?”
I sit up at this and give Biggs my best what-the-hell-do-you-think-you’re-doing look. But he’s not looking.
“Right,” says Lewis.
“It just so happens that I am actively considering project with just such protagonists.”
“Right,” says Lewis again, this time with enough sarcasm to sink a battleship. “Agatha and I are going home to take a bath.”
“I’m serious,” Biggs protests.
“I’m sure you’re not serious, Peter, if for no other reason than supernatural, occult, and science fiction are my exclusive territory in this firm. And I know you wouldn’t do something so… what’s the word… counter-contractual.”
I can feel the extra heartbeat in the room. He had not thought of his arrangement with Lewis before making his commitment to Lucia.
“You underestimate me, Lewis,” says Biggs, still keeping his cool. “I’d do anything to make you eat your hat.”
“Yes. Of course. It’s bath time. Goodnight.” Lewis’ voice trails off down the hall.
Doing my level best to banish the image of Lewis and Agatha tonguing each other clean, I get up and position myself at attention directly in front of Biggs, boring my eyes into his. What part of “you must not tell anyone what you are doing or else you will die” did you not comprehend? Was Lucia Samuel unclear on this point? Are you interested in tangling with her pet seven-foot hairless Sasquatch? Because I’ve done that already and I can tell you it’s no day at the fair!
Biggs pulls the journal out of the desk and searches for the pages he was reading before Lewis’ intrusion. When I do not move, he looks up and scratches me on the head.
“I know, I know,” he says looking back that the journal. “We’re going home soon. Just hang on a few more minutes. Go sit down. Here.” He pulls a Basted Lamb Crunchy out of the open drawer and holds it out in my direction.
I take it and do as I’m told. If he wants me to eat a Basted Lamb Crunchy, then I will eat a Basted Lamb Crunchy. But it’s not going to make him any safer.
I can hear Tinkles scampering up the hall. She has a sixth sense devoted to Basted Lamb Crunchies. If astronauts took Basted Lamb Crunchies up into space – and really, why wouldn’t they? – Tinkles Lang would sit up and look at the moon the moment they opened the box.
By the time she is through the door and in my face, I am mostly done. She gets a flake or two off of my muzzle, but its only enough to whet her appetite. She spins and sits in front of Biggs, her tail like a kind of propeller.
“Tink!” Melissa bellows from her office. “Let’s go!”
“She’s down here,” Biggs shouts back, stuffing the journal into his satchel to take home. He extracts a Basted Lamb Crunchy and hands it to Tink, who promptly lays down next to me and gets to work. Seeing my expression, Biggs sighs and tosses another one to me. Tink pauses to watch it land and I can see her wondering if I have been in here, behind an uncharacteristically closed door, eating Basted Lamb Crunchies all day long. I expect that tomorrow she will be camped out here, sacrificing her window out onto the park, just to make sure she is not missing out.
“That’s all,” says Biggs in an absolutist tone we have been conditioned never to believe. “No more.”
“No more what?” Melissa is in the door, coat on, purse on one shoulder, large bag spewing miscellaneous crap on the other. Who carries a hair dryer back and forth to work?
“Those lamb crunchy things,” says Biggs. “I think they baste them in crack. Looks like you’re headed out.”
“Gotta date. Gary’s coming over to binge-watch something on Netflix.”
Tink and I trade a knowing glance as we pulverize our treats. Tink’s eyes gloat that while I may have been feasting like Caligula’s dog, she’s going home to another night of naked monkey couch Olympics.
“So,” says Biggs, “you’re the resident political junkie, what do you know about Congressman Thomas Clifford?”
I sit bolt upright and bark at the dumbass son of a bitch, basted lamb crumbs showering down into my bed. All of them look at me in surprise. Tink recovers quickly and begins vacuuming up the crumbs that are rightfully mine. I don’t care. I let Biggs have another dose of my outraged incredulity.
“Henry? Just…chill…out! Sit…down.”
He bulges his eyes at me in that way that is supposed to convey that he means business, but that really only makes him look painfully constipated. I sit anyway. Having finished my second Basted Lamb Crunchy, Tink is now busy polishing off the last of her own.
“Thomas A. Clifford,” she says authoritatively. “California evangelical conservative. Tea-Party darling. Bat-shit crazy.” Melissa holds up a finger for each resumé entry. “And I’m not kidding about that. The man is nuts. He makes Orly Taitz and the Birthers look reasonable.”
“Orly Taitz and the Birthers. You make them sound like a really bad house band.”
“In fact, Thomas Clifford is one of these right wingers claiming that President Obama had actually invented his Kenyan goat-farming father to cover up the fact that he is really the illicit love child of a commie journalist and writer named Frank Marshall Davis. Because, you know, if you’ve got presidential ambitions, better an illegal alien and Kenyan national than the son of a communist.”
“But if you’re going to invent a father…”
“…why not invent one from Omaha, Nebraska, or …”
“Biggs, don’t throw logic at these people. It only makes them crazier. But here’s the thing you need to know about Frank Marshall Davis: he was not just a journalist and a poet. He also wrote hard-core porn.”
“Yes, under the pseudonym Bob Greene. If I’d been born forty-five years earlier, I could have been the literary agent whose professional distinction was in securing the publication of Sex Rebel, the pornographic novel by the man who would later be rumored by crazy people to have fathered the President of the United States. That’s the kind of shit you frame and put up on the wall next to your diploma.”
“What publisher stepped up to that plate?”
“A guy named Hamling. William Hamling. He ran an independent called Greenleaf Publishing. He launched Nightstand Books in the late fifties as an imprint for sex novels. One of his claims to fame was bankrolling the criminal defense of a bookseller named Robert Redrup who was prosecuted for selling two books published by Greenleaf, violating New York obscenity laws.”
“And I’ll bet you know the titles of those two books, don’t you?”
“Lust Pool and Shame Agent,” she says. “Read them both.”
“Terrible in a great sort of way. He was no D.H. Lawrence. Or Anais Nin.”
“Does it ever bother you that you forget to pay your mortgage every other month, and yet you are encyclopedic when it comes to pornographic literature?”
“What can I say? I’m an agent who knows her shit.”
“So they convicted him?”
“Redrup was convicted but they appealed and managed to convince the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the conviction. Redrup v. New York effectively ended censorship of written material in this country. Two years later, the Court decided Stanley v. Georgia, which holds that we all have a right to privacy that allows us to look at all of the smut we want to within the confines of our own home.”
Biggs snorts. “And here I thought that was in the Bill of Rights.”
“Well, as you might imagine, the judiciary’s depraved tolerance for obscenity thoroughly pissed off the other two branches of government. Congress and President Johnson got together and put together the Presidential Commission on Obscenity and Pornography. The Commission spent months reviewing the problems of pornography and obscenity on society and the individual, and then issued a report.”
“Which drew a map to hellfire and damnation.”
Tink is up and begging. Biggs extracts two more Basted Lamb Crunchies from the drawer and tosses them onto my bed.
“No more,” he says. “Last one.”
“No, actually,” says Melissa. “The Commission Report found that pornography and obscenity were really not serious social problems after all and that there was no evidence of harm to individuals from exposure to pornographic materials, literary or otherwise.”
“Really? I never saw that coming.”
“Well, the members of the august and morally unimpeachable United States Senate did not like the report one little bit.”
“Oh. Well that’s more like it.”
“They voted to reject the report by something like sixty votes to five votes with thirty-four senators abstaining. Thirty-four! Fully one-third of the Senate abstained.”
“So they rejected the report.”
“Yep. Once again, solid Christian values harnessed the democratic process to protect the national morality and stave off the coming carpal tunnel epidemic. William Hamling, not to be outdone, had one more card to play. And that card was to publish a book called An Illustrated Edition of the Presidential Report of the Commission on Obscenity and Pornography. ”
“An illustrated edition.”
“Right, featuring the sorts of evidence that the dirty ol’ men in the Senate had been considering for months.”
“Bet they liked that.”
“Locked Hamling up in a federal prison for three months.”
“Yes, but mostly to get back at him for underwriting the case that placed erotic fiction under Constitutional protection and beyond prosecutorial reach. But now get this, lest you think I am just showing off. Guess who was one of the five nay votes on the Senate motion to reject the porn-friendly findings of the Presidential Commission on Obscenity and Pornography.”
“Mel, I have no earthly idea.”
“Senator Calvin Clifford. Democrat. California. Defender of privacy and presidential commissions.”
“Clifford? What, Thomas Clifford’s…”
“So… wait… so Calvin Clifford’s grandson grows up…”
“Grows up to be a crazy-ass, bible-thumping, conspiracy-loving Republican Congressman who thinks Barak Hussein Obama dreamed up a Kenyan father in order to hide the fact that his real father was supposedly a communist smut-writer named Frank Marshall Davis, whose publisher was William Hamling, who paid for the case that protected the literary genre that partly pays the mortgage when I remember to mail in the check, and round and round we go.”
“My head hurts.”
“Small world, Biggs.”
“Yes, and in this small world, you’re still pissed that you didn’t have a part of Fifty Shades of Grey. ”
“Mother fuckers. I was this close.”
“You were not.”
Melissa is pinching her fingers together when she looks at her watch. “Ooo. I gotta bounce. I’ve got to pick up Gary and I’m already late.”
“Doesn’t Gary drive?”
“Suspended license. Come on, Tink. Get your furry white ass in gear. Night Biggs.”
“Night Mel. See you tomorrow.”
Biggs and I sit and listen to Melissa and Tinkles clamor away down the hall and out the front door into the snow. The door closes with its familiar thunk and the Bigelow Literary Agency pressurizes with silence.
Biggs pulls the leather journal of Thomas Clifford out of his satchel and looks at it, turning it over and over in his hands. I can see his face constricting in concentration.
“He has to be crazy,” he says finally in a whisper. “Why else would he write this shit down?”
Long seconds pass.
“I’m writing the memoir of a lunatic. A very wealthy lunatic.”
Long seconds pass.
His voice drops away and I am left to wonder whether he will finish. He keeps turning the journal over in his hands like some sort of talisman. Then he stops and looks at me.
“What if the journal itself is a fiction? No one is this crazy. What if it’s not his at all?”
Biggs sits motionless for another minute, staring at the journal in his hands. He stuffs it in his satchel, turns off his desk lamp and stands up.
“Time to call on Jimmy,” he says. “I’ve got to talk this out. Let’s go home.”
We leave the office and work our way through the grey, commuter-choked streets of Great Neck for home. I ride shotgun with my front paws on the dash, scanning the cars for canine passengers. I find several and let them know who’s boss as Biggs’ blue Volvo leaves them in a dusting of snow. Biggs, who normally calls me down when I do this, is silent and thinking, chewing his bottom lip as he drives.
Biggs pulls his cell phone out of his pocket and dials with his thumb.
“Jimmy. Biggs. Hey, wanna come over for a beer? Tonight. Do I need a reason? It’s been awhile; just wanted to see how you’re doing. When did you get so suspicious and cynical? Okay, yes, I do have an agenda. I need to talk to you about something. I can’t tell you over the phone. And I need the attorney-client privilege. I didn’t kill anybody. I haven’t been arrested. No. Of course not. Just… can you come over or not? My place. Half hour? Cool. See you then.”
As we pull into the driveway, I push myself back into the seat to avoid being blinded by the motion light above the garage. Inexplicably, Biggs has trained the damn thing so that when he drives up to the garage, if I am in my co-captain position, the beam from the motion light is like a steel blade that skewers my cerebral cortex. So I have learned to dismount the dashboard as soon as he makes that final turn of the wheel.
But, to my surprise, the floodlight is a cold, dark glassy eye.
“What the…” Biggs is leaning over the wheel in towards the windshield and pushing at the remote to open the garage door, but nothing is happening. He tosses the remote on the dash. “Fucking ConEd.”
Biggs cuts the engine and grabs his satchel and keys and opens the door. He climbs out into the snow and waits for me to jump out.
“Let’s go, Henry. Do your business now because I’m not coming back outside.”
Normally, I am out of the car almost before he is. But now… something is not right. The hair on my neck is up. I stand still in the passenger seat and listen.”
“Let’s go, Henry. Out.”
The neighborhood is quiet. The lights are on at the McKenzie’s place across the street. Whatever is going on, ConEd is innocent.”
“Henry. Come … on. It’s freezing out here.”
I hop out and make my way to my place of business, which is an old pin oak on the edge of the property. En route, I reconnoiter, nose in the snow making a shallow trench. I stop; take in a deep sniff. Daisy, the chocolate lab from the next block, has been by. Her infection is worse.
I press on.
Mister Mayor, the overweight collie from two doors down, has left his calling card too, now covered in fresh snow. Leftover lasagna with too much basil.
And, of course, here’s ol’ Barney, the bulldog…
“Henry! Get to it already!”
I christen the trunk of the pin oak and head back to the dark, lifeless house where Biggs is waiting beneath the dead glass eye above the garage. But as I pass the corner on the side of the driveway I stop.
“Henry. If I have to chase you down…”
There, in the snow, running the length of the house, is a trail of boot prints. Very, very large, heavy, odorless boot prints.