The old man who opened the door had about him a faint musty smell, like a book taken from a damp, subterranean library shelf.

“So, are you the guy from the magazine, the one that wants to interview me?” he said in a deep, stentorian voice that belied his age. But I had been advised that this old man was the real goods. He’d known them all.

“Yes. We at the magazine thought it would be a good idea if you were interviewed for the historical record.”

“Yeah, well, I know a lot about history.” The old man laughed at this, but it sounded more like a phlegmy cough. “What do you want to know?”

“Well, as much as you can tell me about the famous people you knew.”

“I see,” the old man said, sounding dubious. “Listen, have you spoken to my agent about this? I don’t know if this is such a good idea.” The old man was getting agitated. “Maybe we should discuss this with Morty, my agent. I know what happened to Brooksy with this kind of stuff. He made those records; they were a big hit and he didn’t get a dime. The record companies got the money and Mel was history. I wasn’t born yesterday, you know. Maybe I should call Morty.”

“I already did. It’s not a problem. The percentages are all worked out. You’re well taken care of. Trust me.”

“The last guy that said that to me was Bill and look what happened.”

“Who was Bill?”

“Shakespeare. Billy Shakespeare. That liar. Stole everything from me. Well, really, from me and Francis. Between you and me, Francis was the best. Could write us all under the table. Pure poetry. He was a little weird so be called him Baky the Flaky.”

“And Bill?”

“A hacker. Hallmark cards stuff. I’ll tell you a story. You got a minute? We had this regional dramatic club. A part-time summer thing, you know. I mean, in the summer, the Globe was stifling. Humid, phew! Terrible. So in the summer we all went to the mountains or to the shore to cool off. We started this small theater group and we submitted scripts and there was some competition, but it was pretty low-keyed, you know. Anyway, I came up with this idea of a boy and a girl who meet in a summer resort like the one we were in and they fall in love but the families hate each other from the last summer they spent there. The story goes from love to tragedy to love again as the families make up and the kids marry.  A solid script, you know. Young love, a little sex, internal dissension, struggle, fights, then they make up and everything ends happily.  The cast loved it. Billy, are you ready for this, submitted a script about two bunnies and the trouble they had delivering Easter eggs. Could you believe that? I’m telling you the man was a laughing stock. Then two years later he twists around my old play, he becomes El Grande at the Globe and I’m hustling greeting cards trying to stay alive. Unbelievable, right. But it’s a fact.”

“He certainly did well for himself.”

“Sure. He stole, he had a good agent, Annie threw great parties; why shouldn’t he do well?  But listen: he was successful, that’s what counts. A thief, but successful. Strange family life, though. Did you know that?”

“No, not much is known about his life. What can you tell us?”

“Oh, he made sure it was hard to pin it all down. We called it the ‘Big Cover-Up.’ I’ll tell you. Annie, his wife, sweet girl but a bit simple, she was his aunt. Yeah, you look surprised. Here’s what happened. You know the play Hamlet?  Listen, it’s a true story. My hand to God a true story. Except, except, Hamlet was Bill’s father. Bill made a whole big deal out of it making them kings and queens, but we all knew the real dope, that Billy’s father offed Billy’s grandmother. But not before, and this wasn’t in the play, not before the old lady had a kid, a daughter, with Bill’s uncle.”

“Ann? She was Bill’s father’s half-sister?”

“Bingo! To try and keep it hush, hush, Billy married Annie and then made believe that nothing strange happened. But we all knew. How could we not, with the kids they had. All idiots. And ugly. The weirdest bunch you ever saw. Made our lives miserable at the resorts. Incest never works out. Don’t do it. Promise me.”

“I promise.”

“Good. Listen, what I just told you now isn’t really new stuff. I told Jim Joyce the same story 75-80 years ago. At the time, I wasn’t sure that he heard me. Drunk like you wouldn’t believe. But I guess he heard me because it wound up in that big book of his. That scene in the medical library, I think. I can’t remember so good any more.”

“You knew Joyce, too?”

“Of course. Actually, Jim looked me up in Paris. I was living with Sylvia. I was doing the cooking and cleaning, and she brought this thin, near-sighted guy to dinner because he had heard of me and wanted to talk. He was plotting out his next book and had an angle but wanted to check the details. Never saw a guy for details like old Jim. Paranoid about details. Drove people nuts. Had people running all over Dublin measuring this, checking the name of that. Maddening man. Anyway, one thing led to another and I became his secretary. I was there before Beckett. Now that was one depressed son of a gun. Sad Sam we called him. Anyway, Jim is flopping all over Europe, morose, whining about Ireland this, Ireland that, wandering from place to place. Very antsy, you know. So I told him about Odysseus and the trouble he had and Jim said how did I know so much and I told him that I did for the old man what I was doing for him, Homer’s amanuenses, you know, and the next thing you know…”


“Bingo, again.”

“You really knew Homer?”

“Oh, more than just knew. As I said, I was his right hand man. He was blind, you know.”

“Yes, I did know.”

“Okay, sorry. But you’d be amazed at what people don’t know. Yeah, I took care of old Homer. That was a tough job. I mean, the man never shut up. He remembered everything and had diarrhea of the mouth. Write, write, write, all day, my hand was killing me. Then, at night, the rewriting. Endless. Good thing the story was interesting. Actually, between you and me, his story wasn’t that big a deal. It was right out of the newspapers. It was front page stuff. Troy, Penelope, Helen, you name it. That’s why he could write so much. Yeah, I’d read the dailies to him and he’d dictate it back to me. But there were times that he remembered stuff that happened years before. Amazing man, Homer.

“There were some fun times, though. You wouldn’t know it, but old Homer could be a riot. There were many times when we just sat around ‘jamming,’ shooting the shit, you know, because with him you never knew what would come out. Like one day, we start making up names going through the alphabet: ‘Alpha’ is for Ajax, he lives in Alexandria, and he sells Arrows, that kind of thing. I think the kids today still do some kind of variation on this. Anyway, we get all the way to ‘Zeta’ and we are stumped until old Homer makes one up: ‘Zeta’ is for Zeus, he lives in…”

“What happened, why did you stop?”

“I forgot the rest. Doesn’t matter. The thing is, Homer made up the name.”

“Homer made it up?”

“On the spot. I was there. Kids started running all over Athens screaming the name Zeus and breaking up hysterically. It was a pisser back then. But Homer doesn’t quit there. He starts to create a family for Zeus. Hera, Ares, Hebe, Athena, the whole bunch. We had a ball with this stuff. Who would have figured that some guy like Frazier would come around and start to write this stuff down, take it seriously, you know?”

“That came as a big surprise?”

“Oh, sure. I mean we were just horsing around and the next thing you know this becomes serious stuff. The mistake was not keeping the writing and the bullshit separate. See, now, Al knew that. That’s why everybody has taken his stuff so seriously, when in fact, Al was a lunatic.”

“Who was Al?”

“Oh, sorry. Right. Alighieri. We called him Al. It was a small joke. A pun on ‘al dente.’ Dente, Dante. Not a good joke, but we didn’t have much practice. Not much to laugh about in those days. Plagues, wars, it was a mess. But at least in those days we could put away the pasta. Al, sorry, Dante, didn’t like this joke on his name, so one day, at lunch I think, he threw a plate of linguine against the wall saying something about now our joke being garbage. In fact, didn’t one of your current playwrights use that in a play? I’m not sure how he heard about it. Maybe from Mel. Anyway, we all pretty much stayed out of Dante’s hair. He was a fanatic. Between his obsession with Bea, and digging his holes, he drove us nuts. That’s why we drove him out of town.”

“We thought it was because of the Ghibelline-Guelf fights.”

“It was because he was an obsessive nut. Digging, digging. At first, we thought he was making a garden. Then, maybe a cesspool, then as it got deeper, maybe he was looking for gold. Finally, he was called before the magistrate and asked what the Hell he was digging for. He said ‘Exactly!’ so they threw him out of town.”

“And Bea, er, I mean Beatrice.”

“A simple girl. Worked at a gelato stand.”

“But Dante made such a big deal out of her. She was critical to his work.”

“I’ll tell you what that was all about. Dante was a prude. Talk sex in front of him and he covered his ears. The fact was, Beatrice was plain-looking but had a body that would knock your socks off. A bust and a behind that kept the priest that heard her confession an extra ten minutes in his confessional before he came out, if you get my drift. Al couldn’t deal with his lust for her. It was like he was in a constant state of arousal. She had all the guys in heat. I saw them both, but I’ll tell you, if it was Beatrice instead of Helen, they’d still be fighting.”

“That good, eh?”

“Every time Al saw her, he dug another three feet. She finally ran away with a pizza maker from Ravenna and we never heard from her again. No, not true. I just remembered. Her picture turned up again on a calendar that some guy from Antwerp was peddling but the priests confiscated the lot and we never got to see it. But by then, Al had been thrown out of town.”

“His work has held up, though.”

“His work was an act of revenge. Al was a mean, nasty man who never had anything nice to say about anybody. He thought he was better than anybody in town, that he had all the answers. He used the book to get even with all his enemies. His enemies used the book as a doorstop and he had a snootful of enemies, let me tell you.

“Hard to get along with.”

“At least with Jim, if you got him drunk, he was a peach. With Al, it was carp, carp, carp. Always complaining about something or someone. His obsession with Bea was the final straw. Always mouthing off about how her purity would lead us into God’s realm. The only thing Bea would lead us to was our right hands. No, we were glad to get rid of him. The only thing divine was when he left.”

“Speaking of leaving, I have to be getting on. It has been a real pleasure.”

“Wait, would you like to know about when I cleaned Michelangelo’s brushes?”