“A Late Lunch with Philip Roth” – Fiction by Ron Kolm

A recently-deceased author makes a brief return to the land of the living in “A Late Lunch with Philip Roth,” Ron Kolm‘s ghostly vignette from our Winter 2019 issue

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I FIRST MET PHILIP ROTH MANY YEARS AGO when I was a store manager at Coliseum Books, on the corner of 57th Street and Broadway. Coliseum was one of the largest, best-stocked bookstores in Manhattan at the time. This was the early 1980s, and Barnes & Noble hadn’t yet started its massive invasion of the city, opening superstores uptown and downtown, eventually putting Coliseum out of business. Our store was the place to go if you were a serious lover of books.

Coliseum was also at the top of the list of places to make an appearance for published authors, particularly best-selling ones. The tiny, grizzled Norman Mailer came by the store, escorted by his statuesque wife, Norris Church, who walked him like a wayward bulldog up the steep steps to the manager’s station, where we had piled copies of his books to be signed. He grumbled, but signed them anyway.

Fran Lebowitz, who lived a block away in the Osborne, a landmarked building, visited the bookstore almost every day, and was very nice to the staff. She’s an acquaintance still.

Then there was the first time that the famous novelist Philip Roth stopped by. Most of us knew who he was – we all read widely – but for the uninitiated, one of the guys on the staff grabbed a paperback copy of Portnoy’s Complaint and pointed to the photograph of him on the back cover. In person he was tall, and his hairline was receding, but it was definitely him. Thus apprised, the floor manager let him walk up the three steps that led behind the counters where the cashiers held sway. This partial elevation was to protect the cashiers, to keep dangerous folks down below them where security could more easily remove them from the premises.

Anyway, there was a long plate-glass window overlooking Broadway behind the cashiers’ station, and the early afternoon sun would shine brightly through it. This same sun was now etching a fiery halo around Philip Roth’s head and shoulders as I looked up at him. I was stuck dumb by the vision before me. I so wanted to ask him about one of his early books, Letting Go, that had played an important part in my life when I was in college. Portnoy’s Complaint and Goodbye, Columbus were no-brainers as far as I was concerned – I’d read them quickly, and enjoyed them — but I simply couldn’t move or speak. He thanked the store manager, turned and left.

He visited the store many times after that; he lived on the Upper West Side I’d been told, but I was always in the middle of doing something, so I’d say ‘hello’ to him, and that was about it. I never did get a chance to engage him in a conversation about Letting Go.

Life went on. Shortly after 9/11 Coliseum Books lost its original location, due to a spectacular rent increase, and moved to 42nd Street across from Bryant Park. That location closed a few years later when Barnes & Noble opened a store on Fifth Avenue, just a short walk away. We lost fifteen percent of our business that night. After that, I lucked out and got a job at Posman Books in Grand Central Station – I’m still working for them in their Chelsea Market store.

So yesterday I get an email from ‘Charles Lindbergh,’ and out of curiosity I opened it, expecting to get hacked. But no, it seemed to be on the up and up.  The text in it explained that it was from Philip Roth reaching out to me from the void. I shrugged and read on. Everything is so out of whack these days, that I simply accepted the impossible; the impossible had to be way better than the possible anyway! Philip apologized for never addressing my love for his novel, Letting Go, but he wasn’t interested in talking about that particular book anyway. What was on his mind were several things: were people buying his novel, The Plot Against America, and would I be interested in talking about how it related to Donald Trump, and what was going on in the country right now.

“Sure,” I typed back. “Do you want to do this via emails?”

“No,” he answered. Actually ‘Fuck no!’ is what he wrote. “We’ll meet for lunch at the Russian Tea Room. It only makes sense, given the Russian collusion and all that sort of thing. They did bail him out in Atlantic City, you know! And it will be your treat! I mean, after all, I’ll be doing you a huge favor, and you have no idea how much trouble this visit will put me through! I’ll get back to you with the particulars in a minute. But first I have to go and Portnoy myself – emails like this get me off!”

In just a couple, he got back to his machine, and asked me if I could meet him in about an hour at the famous eatery on 57th Street. I typed back ‘sure’ and turned off my computer, but before doing so, I googled the Russian Tea Room. They had no dress code, and the prices were outrageous for a bookstore clerk like myself, but I figured I could use a credit card and worry about it later. When I got there I saw Philip Roth sitting at the bar with a glass of water before him. I sidled over and introduced myself, wondering how the fuck he had crossed the line from the dead to the living, and asked if he wanted a beer.

“Sure,’ he said. “A Bactika 3. It’s Russian, only costs eighteen dollars. And, to answer your question, all of us in the nether zone are walking among you all the time. We just pick and choose our appearances very carefully. Fake news, and all that! So how are my books selling? Particularly The Plot Against America – I hear it’s regarded as being prescient, not a word I use often – meaning it predicts Mr. Trump, and what’s happened to the body politic recently.”

“Well, gotta tell you I love that book! It sure isn’t all that far away from Portnoy. I marked up my copy, and page 153, where Alvin talks about peeing and holding his cock, and falling on the bathroom floor, could have been lifted from it directly! Hey, do you want a bite to eat? I read on the internet that the second booth in the back to our left is called ‘The Tootsie Booth” — that part of the film was actually shot here. No one’s sitting there now, so we could head over and grab it, then order lunch.”

“Um, I think I’m starting to fade… Don’t know that I can hang out much longer. Geez, really wanted to talk about the ‘pee tape.’ The ‘alleged’ pee tape. It’s like that stuff on page 153 kind of presages it… in a way. Glad you mentioned that part of the book. So much I wanted to talk about… Trump’s limited vocabulary… his lying, fascist tendencies… Sorry, have to sign off here…”

And he was gone. More to the point: I got the check and almost checked out myself.

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Photo by Arthur Kaye

RON KOLM is a founding member of the Unbearables and a contributing editor of Sensitive Skin magazine. He’s the author of The Plastic FactoryDivine ComedySuburban Ambush, Duke & JillNight Shift, and with Jim Feast, the novel Neo Phobe. He’s had work in Have A NYC 3, Live Mag! and the Outlaw Bible of American Poetry. Ron’s papers were purchased by the NYU library, where they’ve been cataloged in the Fales Collection as part of the Downtown Writers Group.

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