Home > Fiction > Mora
Published: Wed Dec 12 2018
Deepa Jayaraman, Ascending Sparks (detail), 2022, pencil on paper

The phone’s ringing. I first hear it in my dream. A woman comes into the room I’m in and the phone’s ringing and she says “Why don’t you answer it?” and the dream ends. I wake up and the phone’s still ringing. It’s late and I should probably get up to answer it. It could be my daughter with something alarming to tell me. Or my sister or one of her children with something alarming to tell me about her. I stay in bed. Covers are over me, room’s dark. Five rings, six, seven. And the three or four when I thought they were part of my dream. So about ten rings total. Who was that woman in my dream? I didn’t recognize her, can’t place her now. Then the ringing stops. Twelve rings, thirteen? An awful lot anytime, but more so for someone calling so late. And I know who it is. I don’t have to answer it. I don’t want to talk to her. I don’t want to hear her voice. Nor what she has to say about herself. Maybe that she only recently found out my wife died five years ago and is calling with much belated condolences. Mora Stone. That’s who it is. Calling from BWI airport. On her way to Italy with her partner, she’ll call him. Been together for a year and a half now and it’s as unrocky a relationship as she’s ever had. “In a way, he’s much like you,” she’ll say. “He’s Jewish. That’s not why, though I’m sure it has something to do with it. He’s serious and artistic. Thinks constantly about his craft and is always working on something, when he isn’t scrounging around for money to do it. Also like you, he’s produced an enormous body of work. A documentary filmmaker. Seven films already and he’s working on his eighth: a full-length feature on me. That’s how we met. He came to my studio to speak to me about a possible film on my life and we immediately flashed on one another and hooked up the next day and have been together since. But tell me how you are. It’s been so long. We’re on our way to Florence for a wedding there and have an unscheduled three-hour layover in Baltimore. I know it’s late. Though not that late, I don’t think.” “What time is it?” I’ll say. “A little past ten. Why, were you asleep? You sound tired. We’re still on California time.” “I wasn’t asleep,” I’ll say. “I was reading in bed.” “So we thought, or I did since I haven’t seen you in what must be more than thirty years, you might want to come to the airport and you and I and Harrison—that’s my partner’s name—can have a drink together before our flight takes off.” “I can’t,” I’ll say. “I don’t much like driving at night. My eyes. They’re getting a little old. I’m wearing trifocals now, while when I knew you, it was single lenses in my glasses, just for reading.” “You should get special glasses for night-driving,” she’ll say. “Are there any for what I have?” I’ll say. “I don’t know what you have. It’s probably glaucoma, from what you’re saying. Then an operation, with lasers, I think. One eye at a time, simple and quick and ninety-nine point nine percent effective. But tell me; are you still writing? I don’t see you ever stopping, but I’m asking anyway.” “Sure I’m writing,” I’ll say. “Much as ever. It’s what gives me—far as my work’s concerned—my greatest pleasure and occupies enough time of my day to…well, you know. I haven’t changed on that.” “Same with me,” she’ll say. “My sculpturing goes well too and never stops exciting me. I do it all the time. I go into my beautiful studio, which I had built to my specifications about ten years ago, and sculpt and draw and assemble and plan my work all day. From nine to nine most times, weekends included, and sometimes that’s nine p.m. to nine a.m. if I’m really deep into a piece and don’t want to let go of it or can’t. I never get tired doing my art. Collages and Matisse-like cutouts too. I don’t only do one thing. I’ve had some success too, just not in New York yet, but my agent and I are working on it. Just as I suppose you’ve had your fair share of success, though I’ll be honest with you and say I don’t keep up on your books. I hear they’re around but I don’t see them or look for them. Have you had anything out recently?” “Several books,” I’ll say. “Maybe four in the last eight years, two of them long ones.” “How long?” and I’ll say “One was six-hundred-plus pages and the other seven-hundred and forty-nine.” “Too long for me,” she’ll say. “I like my books short, or much shorter than those. Each of them would take me half a year to read. And how is your cat?” and I’ll say “My cat? I have a new one, if getting a cat five years ago can be considered a new one.” “Derek told me you had one, that’s how I knew. Black, like mine.” “How are Derek and Lindsey?” and she’ll say “You must know. He says you exchange letters, not emails.” “Twice a year at the most,” I’ll say. “He never told me about your wife till a month ago,” she’ll say. “I don’t know why. It could be he doesn’t like to convey bad news. I’m sorry for you, Charles. So sorry,” and I’ll say “Thank you.” “Have you been in a serious relationship since?” and I’ll say “No. Nothing at all.” “You will,” she’ll say. “Yours must have been, and I can hear it in your voice, a very strong and loving marriage, and I admire that. So, my dear, you won’t come to the airport? It would be so nice. And you’d be surprised how I look. I might be seventy-two—you’re seventy-eight; I even remember your birth date—but I look nothing like it, everyone says. It must be a combination of things I do and don’t do. I work out daily on my exercise machines in my house and eat well and drink sparingly and haven’t touched a cigarette or joint in twenty years. I also swim and jog a mile on alternate days and even play one-on-one basketball with Anthony a couple of times a week on the backboard and hoop by my garage. You know who Anthony is.” “Your son,” I’ll say. “What do you think? Come on, I lived with you for four years and was the kid’s surrogate father for all that time.” “Four years?” she’ll say. “I think it was three. By the way, I told Harrison all about you. He’d like to talk to you.” “If you mean now, I don’t know,” I’ll say and she’ll say “He’s very nice. You’d like him. Here, speak to him. He knows everything about us. My getting knocked up. You wanting the child and to marry me and I didn’t want to ever get married again or have a second child and for certain not with someone who at the time had to work three different jobs at once to make a half-decent living.” “I tried,” I’ll say, “and I really don’t want to speak to your partner.” “Are you being cynical or sarcastic with that last remark—your emphasis on ‘partner’?” and I’ll say “No. That’s what you called him.” “I also called him ‘Harrison.’ All right. And he doesn’t just want to say hello. He wants to ask you something, which he was going to do if you came to the airport. But I don’t want to force you to do anything. You don’t want to speak to him, you don’t have to,” and I’ll say “Put him on. It’s okay,” and I’ll hear her say away from the phone “Here,” and Harrison will get on and say “Hello, Charles. ‘Charlie’? ‘Charles’?” and I’ll just say “Just Charles.” “It’s nice to finally have the opportunity to speak to you. I’ve heard a lot about you, of course. You were a very important person in Mora’s life, and Anthony’s too.” “Well, we lived together for three years, and it wasn’t easy then. We didn’t have much money and jobs were tough to get for both of us, even menial ones. I’m glad that struggle—the money part—is over, it seems for all of us. According to Derek, whom I’m sure you know, even Anthony is doing well. But Mora said you have something to ask me,” and he’ll say “I do. She told you I’m making a film about her. Her life, her art. Particularly, California in the sixties. People she knew. Poets, composers, other artists, dancers, fiction writers, gurus. The drugs and all that. The mind opening to totally different experiences. And she was right at the center of it. So I wonder if you’d allow me to take a day or day and a half out of your life to interview you for this film. I’d fly in from San Francisco, book a room at a Baltimore hotel for two nights. That’s how long it’d take. One day for me to prepare for the shoot, the second day to interview you. Two days total, I figure, and I’d take care of all the logistics of hiring a sound man and lighting man from your neck of the woods. All the TV work done there, they have some very good ones. It’s going to be a great film. She’s a magnificent subject and presence and she has a great biographical story to tell and is a dream in front of the camera. Looks great; terrific poise; talks great. Funny, sharp, intelligent. Everything, and not an actress. Pure naturelle. I joke with her that she’ll be the darling of documentaries after the film is shown and the value of her artwork will zoom. But I don’t see how the film can be complete without an appearance from you, and I’m willing to go to the expense of getting it. ’63 to ’68. Those, I feel, were the daring years. Though much of what I’ll be depicting will have happened before you came onto the scene. Do I sound like a salesman? I guess that’s what I also have to be to make a film. So what do you say, Charles? Mora and I will fly in together but I only want to shoot you and then perhaps a handshake and hug and even a big kiss between you and Mora on camera after I’m done interviewing you. I already have other former lovers of hers and housemates and her ex-husband and of course Anthony and her brother, and now what I need is you. And when I say ‘at your convenience,’ I hope it can be done in the next two months after we get back from Italy. I’ve had a little success making documentaries—” and Mora will say away from the phone “Don’t listen to him, Charles. He’s had a tremendous amount of success. Nominated for an Academy Award. Almost all his films have been screened at Telluride and Sundance and the Toronto Film Festival and longlisted for Cannes.” “What’s ‘Telluride’?” I’ll say and he’ll say “Not important.” “And ‘longlisted’? A word I never heard before,” and he’ll say “The same. Also not important. As you can see, I leave all my boasting to Mora. She’s a great press agent. So have I convinced you about an interview?” and I’ll say “I’ll think about it.” “Good. Think hard. Think positively. The ayes will have it. And it’ll be fun for you too. And I’m sure you’re an old hand at being interviewed, so a snap.” “Now I should get back to sleep,” I’ll say and he’ll say “I’m sorry. You were sleeping when we called?” “I meant I’m a bit tired because it’s been a long day and I’m sleepy now and want to get to bed and maybe read a little more and then get to sleep.” “I’ll give the phone back to Mora—I’m sure she’ll want to say goodbye,” and I’ll say “You needn’t. It’s fine as it is. We sort of said goodbye. Have a wonderful stay in Florence.” “Did I say Florence?” and I’ll say “I think Mora did.” “Bologna,” he’ll say. “Then after the wedding, we’ll go to Florence. My best friend’s daughter is getting married.” “Sounds nice. Have fun,” and he’ll say “I’ll be in contact with you, Charles,” and I’ll say “If you want,” and hang up and he’ll hang up and Mora will say to him “He didn’t sound like the old Charles. His voice. It’s softened, as if something’s wrong with his vocal cords. At times I couldn’t make out or even hear what he was saying.” “I didn’t have any trouble,” he’ll say and she’ll say “I’m worried about him. He used to have such a strong voice. Great projection, like a professional actor’s. Without him shouting, you could hear him from twice the distance you could hear other people from far away. It’s the Parkinson’s, I bet. Derek told me a few years ago he had it but I didn’t want to bring it up. And he wasn’t as quick with his mind as he used to be.” “Well, that can come with age. I’ll probably get there in ten years, but you probably never will.” “I hope not,” she’ll say. “And I’m almost sure he didn’t remember who Anthony was when I first mentioned his name. Took him a while. Then he covered himself up fast enough. He’s changed so much. You still think he’ll be an asset to the film? I don’t want him embarrassing me. He used to embarrass me a lot. He drank too much. Two vodka or gin drinks every night and then wine. Maybe that was what made him slow tonight. I don’t see him ever stopping drinking. And when he smoked pot, which Derek says he gave up thirty years ago, maybe longer, he used to get wilder and more talkative and sometimes obnoxiously talkative than almost anybody I knew who smoked it. No, he didn’t sound good. That’s what I got from this call.” “Don’t worry,” he’ll say. “If he consents to the interview and I do it, I won’t let anything he says on camera make you look bad. I just won’t use it. No reason to. Nor will I let what he says about himself make him look bad, I promise, because I know you wouldn’t want that too.” “It would’ve been nice if he came to the airport,” she’ll say. “It only would have been an hour, at most. I’m curious what he looks like. If he got heavier or stayed slim. Slim, I bet, as he was always extremely conscious of his weight and looking trim, and I’m sure that’s stuck. I frequently saw him pinch his waist to see if there was any extra flesh there. Sounds bizarre, but that’s what he did. And I wanted him to see me too, for old time’s sake or something, at least once more before we both start to fade. Though from this call, I think he’ll be fading a lot faster than I will, and not only because he’s got those six years on me. Although I will say, outside of his drinking, he did take good care of himself when we lived together. We used to—Anthony and I—call him Mr. Natural because of what he ate and cooked for us—he was the chef six days out of seven—and his daily workouts and runs. Even then I hated cooking and had no imagination or tolerance for it, so don’t think I developed that attitude when you and I met.” “I don’t,” he’ll say. “But I think he was just sleepy and that softened his voice, if sleeping does that, and possibly slowed down his brain. No one’s their best when they’re sleepy or very tired or just woke up. But you may be right.” “On my medical report?” she’ll say. “Oh, I’m right, all right. He isn’t what he used to be and he probably tried to hide it, and I can understand that. But I’m afraid he’s in such bad shape that one reason he didn’t want to come to the airport was because he didn’t want me to see how weak and feeble and old he looks. I don’t think he should be in the documentary. It will bring the whole project down and depress anyone who sees him, especially if you’re going to run photos of Charles and me together from the sixties.” “If that’s what you want or don’t want,” he’ll say, “then that’s what we’ll do,” and she’ll say “That’s what I want and don’t want, you silly boy,” and she’ll ruffle his hair, like she used to ruffle mine, and kiss him on the lips and then say “So. We have nearly three hours to kill. Let’s get a drink at a sit-down place and maybe a hamburger or some good bar food. Crab cakes. Lobster rolls. Fried oysters. Baltimore’s known for its seafood, right? There must be a couple of places still open in this vast terminal that also serve wine and beer.” “That’s okay with me,” he’ll say, and they’ll go looking for a restaurant or bar.

Stephen Dixon (1936–2019), a cult favorite among writers for decades, published his work in AGNI over a span of forty-three years. During his lifetime he published seventeen novels, the most well-known of which are Frog (British American Publishing, 1991) and Interstate (Henry Holt, 1995), and eighteen story collections, the most recent of which are Dear Abigail and Other Stories (Trnsfr Books, 2018) and Writing, Written (Fantagraphics Books, 2018). He taught writing for many years in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University.

The last of Dixon’s stories to come out during his lifetime, “Tomorrow,” appeared in AGNI 90, released eight days before his death on November 6, 2019. Read William Pierce’s tribute to Dixon.




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