Won’t You Come Home, Bill Buckley?
by Lou Antonelli
I felt a wave of heat.
“There it is again,” I thought. “It’s not my imagination.”
WFB was too busy being charming in the Union League ballroom to notice my discomfort.
Wilbury did. “Are you OK, Cassie?”
I gave him a lopsided smile. “Oh, I’m just having hot flashes. Ha, ha.”
Alex Wilbury was my literary agent. He leaned over and whispered conspiratorially.
“I would say something smart-aleck, like ‘you’re about 30 years too young’ — but I felt it, too.”
I gave him a puzzled look. “You’ve been in this place before. What gives? Is it the AC?”
His gaze wandered innocently as he held his cocktail waist-high. “Who knows, as large and old as this place is?”
I smiled. “Talk about blowing hot and cold,” I said.
The old literary agent chuckled.
The Union League Club is a big old Italianate piece of pomposity between Park and Madison Avenues on East 37th Street in Manhattan — talk about a highbrow address.
It was built from contributions from 19th Century Robber Barons. This evening a gaggle of 21st Century Robber Barons were all smiles and G&Ts as they mingled and admired each other.
William F. Buckley was in the center of a cluster of sleek and well-fed Republican types. I’d never met him in person and I probably stared a bit. I almost missed it when Wilbury made his move.
“Bill, I have here a young fan of yours — an up and coming literary lion.”
I put out my hand in my best faux-finishing school style.
Buckley smiled a toothy grin as he took my hand. His silver well-groomed hair still held a few blonde streaks.
“Miss Cassandra Queller! I recognize you from your press! It is my pleasure.”
“A literary lion, indeed, Alex,” Buckley continued, “more like Texas mountain lioness.”
Wilbury was right, he was a charming bastard.
“The honor is all mine, Mr. Buckley. I’ve read all your Blackford Oakes novels. I greatly admire your writing.”
Buckley laughed heartily. “My dear, flattery will get you everywhere. And I must say, your drawl is delightful.”
“Drawl? What drawl?” I said as innocent as a calf at a new gate, as we say back home. We both laughed.
I felt it again, just as I leaned in to laugh with him. A passing wave of heat. It was like someone was taking our picture with some kind of invisible, infrared flash.
I saw Buckley hand someone his drink and mop his brow — did he feel the wave of heat, too?
He turned to my companion.
“Alex, I have plans to attend Alicia Alonso’s master class tomorrow evening at Symphony Space. I’d be honored if you were both my guests.”
He turned to me again. “My dear, would you like to see the great Cuban ballerina Alicia Alonso?”
I had no idea who he was talking about.
“Her political background is reprehensible,” he continued, “but I admire her artistry and dedication.”
I shot Alex a glance. He nodded slightly.
“I’d be delighted, Mr. Buckley.”
“Splendid. I’m sure I will enjoy talking to you then. Unfortunately, I have a dinner to attend at the Armory shortly.”
He smiled that toothy grin again. “The Buckleys made their fortune in Texas oil, you know,” he said with a twinkle in his eye.
He leaned over to say something to Alex before shaking my hand again. I felt at least two more flashes.
“What the heck is going on?” I wondered.
After he left, Alex and I turned to stroll in the opposite direction.
“I feel the same way about him,” I said.
“I find his politics reprehensible — but he’s a great writer.”
“Well, keep your politics to yourself. You’re here for a book tour, not a political rally.”
“I’ll be a good girl, Alex.”
“Crap, what are you, the last liberal left in Dallas?”
“Some days, I feel that way.”
* * *
The book tour was the first time I’d been out of Texas for any extended period of time
I had no idea when I workshopped “My Big Ol’ Texas Cowboy Flame” that the story would go anywhere.
I pretty much wrote it as therapy for myself, as a way to cope when I broke up with a big dumb cowboy-type out in Cypressville. I had met hime when I was attending an East Texas writers’ retreat.
I got my therapy by taking this petty tragedy and putting my tongue firmly in cheek. When I finally began to laugh about it, I knew it was over it.
“They say you gotta kiss a lot of frogs to find a prince,” I began. “In Texas, ya’ gotta kiss horny toads. The job’s that much tougher.”
A Dallas agent who was at the workshop loved the book. Next thing I know the manuscript’s been passed up to New York.
“An authentically wry Texas voice.”
I guess I was a curiosity.
“Looks like Renee Zellweger,” wrote one reviewer, “writes like Kinky Friedman — in high heels.”
Kinky Friedman in drag. That’s an image.
I hooked up with Alex — who snared whom was the subject of some debate — and the old pro that he was, he got St. Bertram’s Press to arrange a book tour.
I had just gotten into New York for the book tour that morning. We had been visiting in his office, going over some details. He was a short bald man — he looked like the dancing dude in the Six Flags commercials. Someone had told me he looked like Swifty Lazar — whoever that was.
At the end of the day, almost as an afterthought, he popped a question. “Is there anyone you’d like to meet?”
It wasn’t something I had thought about. “I really don’t know.”
“You ever read any Blackford Oakes novels?”
“Sure, they’re lots of fun.”
“Would you like to meet William F. Buckley?”
“Hey, that sounds like a great idea. I’d love to meet him.”
“I have an invite to a reception at the Union League this evening. He’s going to be there.”
“That would be wonderful,” I said. “I guess I’d better go back to the hotel and change into one of the formal outfits I brought along for the tour.”
“You’d better,” he said. “I’ll meet you at the hotel at 6:30.”
* * *
The day after that cocktail reception I made the rounds with Alex to visit of some of his literary friends. (“She’s so cute, and you talk so adorable, dearie.”)
I thought I would barf a chicken fried steak.
Alex was upbeat. “You’re hitting all the right notes, young lady,” he said with a smile as we taxied through midtown Manhattan. “We’re going to make you into something!”
That night we rode up the West Side to Symphony Space at 72nd Street. As we went through Columbus Circle, I pointed.
“Hey, look, there’s Columbus’ statue!”
Alex snorted. “I never noticed.”
I couldn’t tell if he thought I was a hick, or he really had never noticed. New Yo’kers are strange.
The Buckleys were charming in the way only very financially comfortable people can be. Mr. Buckley and I talked about Texas as everyone milled about before the master class.
I hadn’t known his family’s fortune came from oil and his grandfather had been a sheriff in South Texas at the turn of the 19th century. His father was the one who took the family north to Connecticut.
WFB filled me in on Alonso, who was a stern-looking 83-year old with steel gray hair pulled back into a ferocious bun.
She had been a great ballerina before the Cuban revolution, he said, and continued dancing for many years afterward because of her dedication to the government.
Walking in the hallway, Alex filled me in. “Alonso began to go blind decades ago, but she kept at it for years because the government needed the money. She finally had to quit dancing altogether.”
The woman was obviously blind as a bat, but her knowledge and skill were apparent as she put the dancers through their paces without getting up once from her chair at center stage.
Alonso was in her own little cluster during the reception afterwards. At one point, I could see Buckley had sidled over and struck up a conversation. He caught my eye and waved me over.
He began an introduction, speaking particularly clearly to ensure that Alonso recognized his voice. As I walked over, I felt a flash of heat again.
I knew it wasn’t my imagination. Alonso flinched. Buckley wiped his brow. I knew he felt it, too.
In my peripheral vision, I saw someone cringe.
I turned my head and made eye contact with a man who was carrying a camera and trying to be inconspicuous behind a pillar. When he saw I’d made him, he dropped the camera on his chest by its strap and began to hurriedly make his way through the crowd towards the kitchen.
I made a quick withdrawal, facilitated by the fact that Alonso apparently didn’t get what Buckley had said. When he turned to repeat himself, I took off. Alex was momentarily distracted elsewhere.
One nice thing about being a pretty girl — among others — is that people get out of your way when you’re working through a crowd. The guy I was following was surprised when he turned around to see how close I was, and he bolted through the kitchen doors and made a quick run down a service corridor.
I kicked off my shoes and tackled his ass just as he went around a corner. I straddled him and sat down real hard. He was short and had a round brown face with beetle brows. He looked like he might be a Hindu.
He wasn’t very big and groaned when I sat on him. I yanked the camera up, and the strap jerked his head.
“Please don’t hurt me,” he whined.
“What a wuss,” I thought.
I looked the camera over. It was obviously digital but otherwise I couldn’t make out the markings.
“What are you doing, stalking me? You were at the Union League last night, too.”
I guess a normal girl would have been scared and hollering for the police, but I don’t do things that way. I was Texas-pissed and probably not thinking straight.
I jerked the camera by its strap again. His head bounced on the concrete floor.
I had gotten more of a fight out of a calf in the calf scramble at the rodeo when I was six. I unhooked the camera from its strap and held it out as I raised my voice. “And what kind of camera is this?”
“I didn’t realize you could tell I was taking your picture until I saw your reaction,” he said.
“What kind of flash are you using? I never saw a flash, but I felt it.”
“It uses a microwave flash.”
“I never heard of a microwave flash.”
“Ah, they didn’t become common until about 2100.”
OK. I didn’t expect that answer.
I sat back real hard. He groaned again.
“Ms. Queller, could you please get off me? You’re hurting me.”
I stood up. “If you want your camera back, I want some answers.”
He rubbed his neck and smoothed back his hair.
“I’m an associate professor of archetypes in the Department of Contemporary Cultures at Columbia University,” he said.
I was briefly impressed with myself for actually understanding that.
“So what’s that got with you stalking me — and having to time travel to do it?”
I could see it took him a second to remember what the term meant.
“Oh, goodness, no! I’m working on getting tenure, and it’s very competitive. “I’m not stalking you. I’m doing research.”
“What kind of research are you doing? I’ll make you a deal. You tell me why you’re here, and I’ll let you go and never mention so much as a peep. I’m just curious.”
“If I get tenure, I will be on track eventually for an endowed chair,” he said. “My academic specialty, archetypes, has been pretty well picked over. It’s very hard to come up with original material. So I made this trip to do some firsthand research on some archetypes originators.”
“Archetype originators? What does that mean?”
“The late 20th century, early 21st century, was a very fertile time for the origin of some archetypes that coalesced in popular culture later on. There were some strong and outstanding personalities and images in these times. The Mad Bomber — the fanatic with a vest of dynamite — originated in this time period. Lord Buckley — the charming reactionary — is another. Also the Blind Ballerina.
“This era is full of the origins of some of the popular archetypes that worked their way into our culture later,” he continued. “And as a result of my research, I will uncover a heretofore undiscovered photo of three contemporary archetype originators who happened together in one social setting.”
“Except you didn’t find the photo,” I said. “You came here to make it yourself.”
“Exactly. In tonight’s case, I was able to take a photo of three archetype originators together in a one place. Before it was only written about. Now I have a holo record.”
“Wait a minute, I understand how William F. Buckley can go down as the archetype of the charming reactionary, although I think Lord Buckley was someone else entirely, and Alonso obviously is the Blind Ballerina,” I said. “Are you telling me a suicide bomber’s about to make an appearance?”
He got a startled look.
“Oh, goodness, now! There was no way to do that. I’d have to go to Palestine to get that photo.”
“You said three archetypes together in one place. Who’s the third one, then?”
He looked at me — and I knew.
“You’re young now,” he stammered, “but this is the one time all three of you met.”
My brain went bang like kernel of popcorn. I raised both my fists and took a step towards him.
“Oh, my God,” I started to yell. “What the hell is going to happen to me!”
I was close enough that when he swung he connected right on my nose. He grabbed the camera with his free hand and ran off down the corridor.
“Please keep your word,” he shouted.
“Bastard!” I thought. “Got his courage up, I guess.”
I kept my head down, but looked over to see him running around a corner.
“Call me,” I hollered sarcastically.
I leaned over as the blood dripped on the floor. Right then a Lincoln Center employee came around the other corner.
“Miss, what happened? Are you all right?”
I thought fast.
“A man who said he was a fan got me off in a corner and then made pass at me,” I mumbled. “I slapped him, and he punched me.”
* * *
Alex found me in the manager’s office, where I held a cotton ball under my nose. I told him the same lie.
“I’m sorry, I guess that’s what happens when you’re pretty and famous,” he said. “You attract weirdos.”
“This guy was certainly weird,” I muttered.
“My goodness, what an unpleasant welcome to New York!”
Buckley was standing in the doorway. “Alex, I heard about our Miss Queller’s mishap. I wanted to come by.”
“Thank you, Mr. Buckley.” I forced a smile. “I have to be more careful in the big city, I guess.”
“I’m sorry we couldn’t talk more, but please feel free to correspond any time,” he said in a most jovial manner. “I’m always happen to have another friend in Texas.”
“I never really did get to say hello to Alonso,” I said to Alex after Buckley left.
“Well, maybe some time in the future.”
After I cleaned up in the bathroom, we took a limo back to my hotel.
“I know it’s been a bit of a rough start,” Alex said as we pulled up. “But I think this book tour’s going to go gang-busters.”
He smiled at me, and winked as I slid out. “We’re going to make you into something big.”
I smiled back at him, and slammed the door behind me. The limo drove away as I looked up at the Manhattan skyline. “I know you will,” I said softly to myself. “But what?”
People go through life wondering if they’ll ever have what they want. I wanted fame — now I know I’ll have it. But what kind of fame?
Will I go down in history like Eudora Welty or Alice Walker. Or will I become some old damn crank people make fun of for so long, it never stops — even hundreds of years later?
It’s going to be interesting. Wasn’t that somebody’s curse?
Copyright © 2005 by Lou Antonelli