When I got home from the Armenian meeting last night she was sitting in a chair reading Alice in Wonderland. She reads English almost as well as she speaks it, and she can get through almost anything now that I’ve taught her to use a dictionary. She would miss most of Lewis Carroll’s puns, of course, but so do all children.
“Hi,” she said. “Cómo está?”
“Bien, gracias,” I said. “Who’s teaching you Spanish?”
“Paulie.” Paulie, né Pablo, was the janitor’s little boy. “And also Estrella.” Estrella was the prostitute who lives on the second floor.
“Oh. Shouldn’t you be asleep by now?”
“I will make you some coffee,” she said. “And I will have a glass of milk.”
She went into my little kitchen and made a cup of coffee for me. She brought it out along with a large glass of milk for herself. We sat together, and I sipped my coffee, and she drank her milk.
I said, “It was very nice of you to make the coffee, but it is still very late. Later than before you made the coffee. Don’t you think you ought to go to sleep?”
“I will go to sleep when you go to sleep.”
“I don’t sleep. You know that.”
“Sometimes you sleep, Evan.”
“When Zenta was living here-”
“That wasn’t sleeping exactly.” Zenta had spent a few days and nights with us, and it had not been sleeping, not at all. “That was different.”
“I thought so.”
“You don’t miss a trick, do you?”
“Miss a trick?”
“You notice things, I mean.”
“Some things I notice,” she said.
“And on top of that you changed the subject. I don’t go to sleep, you know that. But you have to sleep regularly or you’ll be sick. You know that, too.”
“So go put on your pajamas.”
“Put them on what?”
“Put them on you.” She was unsuccessfully repressing a giggle. “You knew precisely what I meant. You knew miss a trick, too.”
She quoted Humpty Dumpty: “‘When I use a word, it means precisely what I wish it to mean, neither more nor less.’”
“Maybe I shouldn’t let you read Alice. It’s making you far too clever.”
“I like it. Don’t you like it, Evan?”
“Yes, very much. Go put on your pajamas. Now.”
When she returned, properly pajama-clad, hands and face washed and teeth brushed, I asked her if she was ready to go to sleep now. She said that she was.
“We’re going to have to find a home for you,” I said.
“This is my home, Evan.”
“A real home, I mean. You need a Mommy and a Daddy and-”
“Why? I like to live here. With you.”
“A regular house,” I said. “With a lawn out in front and a big back yard and grass and trees and flowers-”
“I love to go to Central Park,” she said. “Grass and trees and flowers.”
“And children to play with, and dogs and cats-”
“There are so many children here in this building for me to play with,” she said. “Paulie and Rafael and Willie and Susan and so many others. And Eduardo lets me play with Ginger in the cellar, and Susan has a big dog named Baron, he is a German shepherd, but they speak to him in English. And there are all the animals in the zoo. I had a wonderful time when you took me to the zoo.”
I went into the kitchen and made myself more coffee. I had the uncomfortable feeling that I wasn’t getting my point across. I came back and couldn’t find her. Then I went to the bedroom. She was sitting up in bed with the covers pulled up to her neck.
“You will have to start going to school,” I said. “How will you learn anything?”
“But I learn so many things. English, Spanish, reading, writing, numbers, everything.”
“Still, in a good school-”
“Paulie says school stinks. What does that mean?”
“That it smells bad. But-”
“I would not want to go to a place that smells bad.”
“Well, what it means, really, is that Paulie doesn’t like school, I suppose. But you would like it.”
“I like it very much right here,” she said. “I teach myself things out of your books, and other people teach me things, and you teach me the most of all, Evan. Why do I have to go to school so that I can learn things?”
“If you don’t go to school, you can’t go to college.”
“What is college?”
“It’s like school.”
“Did you go to college?”
“No.” This wasn’t working out well at all. “There are laws,” I said finally, “that say children must go to school. It is the law.”
She looked at me.
“Well, it’s the law.”
“Will they put us in prison?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Besides, how will they find out? Who will tell them?”
“They might find out.”
“Then, when they come to look for me, you will tell me, and I will quickly hide in the closet or under the bed.”
“And I will live here forever with Evan,” she said. “And I will play with all my friends and I will learn many different languages and I will go to the zoo to see the animals and I will read all the books and study many things.”
“But now I must go to sleep,” she said smoothly. “So that I will not become sick. And I will stay here forever, and when I am Queen of Lithuania, you will be my Prime Minister.”
“Do you want to be Queen of Lithuania?”
“No. I want to live forever right here on 107th Street. May I stay here, Evan?”
“Well, for the time being.”
“We’ll see how it works out.”
She didn’t say anything, and then her eyes slipped quietly shut, and she slept. I eased her down onto the bed, settled the pillow under her golden hair, tucked in the covers. When I bent over to kiss her good night she stirred.
“I will live here forever,” she whispered. “Forever.” And then she slid away to sleep again.
I turned out the light, left the room, closed the door. I will live here forever, Evan.
Well, why not? She’s fun to have around.
Evan Michael Tanner was conceived in the summer of 1956, in New York ’s Washington Square Park. But his gestation period ran to a decade.
That summer was my first stay in New York, and what a wonder it was. After a year at Antioch College, I was spending three months in the mailroom at Pines Publications, as part of the school’s work-study program. I shared an apartment on Barrow Street with a couple of other students, and I spent all my time – except for the forty weekly hours my job claimed – hanging out in the Village. Every Sunday afternoon I went to Washington Square, where a couple of hundred people gathered to sing folk songs around the fountain. I spent evenings in coffeehouses, or at somebody’s apartment.
What an astonishing variety of people I met! Back home in Buffalo, people had run the gamut from A to B. (The ones I knew, that is. Buffalo, I found out later, was a pretty rich human landscape, but I didn’t have a clue at the time.)
But in the Village I met socialists and monarchists and Welsh nationalists and Catholic anarchists and, oh, no end of exotics. I met people who worked and people who found other ways of making a living, some of them legal. And I soaked all this up for three months and went back to school, and a year later I started selling stories and dropped out of college to take a job at a literary agency. Then I went back to school and then I dropped out again, and ever since I’ve been writing books, which is to say I’ve found a legal way of making a living without working.
Where’s Tanner in all this?
Hovering, I suspect, somewhere on the edge of thought. And then in 1962, I was back in Buffalo with a wife and a daughter and another daughter on the way, and two facts, apparently unrelated, came to my attention, one right after the other.
Fact One: It is apparently possible for certain rare individuals to live without sleep.
Fact Two: Two hundred and fifty years after the death of Queen Anne, the last reigning monarch of the House of Stuart, there was still (in the unlikely person of a German princeling) a Stuart pretender to the English throne.
I picked up the first fact in an article on sleep in Time magazine, the second while browsing the Encyclopedia Britannica. They seemed to go together, and I found myself thinking of a character whose sleep center had been destroyed, and who consequently had an extra eight hours in the day to contend with. What would he do with the extra time? Well, he could learn languages. And what passion would drive him? Why, he’d be plotting and scheming to oust Betty Battenberg, the Hanoverian usurper, and restore the Stuarts to their rightful place on the throne of England.
I put the idea on the back burner, and then I must have unplugged the stove, because it was a couple more years before Tanner was ready to be born. By then a Stuart restoration was just one of his disparate passions. He was to be a champion of lost causes and irredentist movements, and I was to write eight books about him.
I don’t know if there was a Latvian Army-in-Exile back in the Sixties. What I do know (or thought I knew) is that there was a Lithuanian Army-in-Exile. It came to my attention sometime in the late fifties, when I was sitting around with a group of people that included Dave Van Ronk and Tom Condit, and someone (Dave? Tom? Someone else?) mentioned a friend or acquaintance who’d found a particularly efficacious way to avoid getting drafted. (We were all preoccupied with avoiding the draft, as if it would cause the flu. It’s hard to remember why. I don’t know that the Army would have had me, and if it had, serving would very likely have done me no harm, and might even have done me some good. That’s hindsight talking, of course; at the time, I dreaded the prospect.)
And how had this worthy escaped military service? Had he (like another legendary genius) smeared himself with filth and reported for his pre-induction physical reeking, only to be summarily dismissed and written off as an ambulatory psychotic? Had he (like other mythical beings) made a strong physical pass at the consulting psychiatrist? Had he cultivated a psychopathic stare and demanded to be given a gun so he could kill the filthy Russians? (And would that really work, or would they just give him a big hug and send him to Officer Candidate School?)
No, he had accepted a commission as an officer in the Lithuanian Army-in-Exile.
“That’ll do it,” someone pointed out. “If you enter into the service of a foreign power, they can’t take you into the U.S. armed forces. Of course, you get stripped of your citizenship.”
That seemed extreme. Suppose one wanted to run for president one day? Which seemed a stretch, admittedly, but still, one did want to keep one’s options open. Still, the idea of marching and saluting and drilling in the Catskills with a batch of Lithuanian patriots had a certain appeal.