Monday, November 5, 2012

The Buchanan Letters excerpt by Neil Plakcy

In The Buchanan Letters by Neil Plakcy, Jeff Berman, a Pennsylvania history professor, discovers correspondence between President James Buchanan and his male aide, which depicts their sexual and emotional relationship. With the help of handsome Pascal Montrouge, a disgraced New York Times reporter hungry to return to the big time, Jeff is swept away by publicity for what he has seen as an academic book, and his dreams of tenure and true love seem to be coming true. But when his life falls apart and his academic career is threatened, Jeff questions whether Pascal has only been using him—and how he can build a new life from the debris of his old one.

The Buchanan Letters
MLR Press (October 19, 2012)
ISBN: 978-1-60820-7879 (print)
ISBN: 978-1-60820-7996 (ebook)


“Is this Dr. Berman?” my caller asked.

The only people who use my academic title are those who want something from me, like entrance into a closed class, or a change of grade. It’s not like I can save someone’s life or deliver a baby. “Yes,” I said hesitantly.

“My name is Pascal Montrouge, and I’m the assistant editor of the Upper Bucks supplement for the Courier-Times.”

His voice was deep, with a hint of a French accent. “I’ve been going through old press releases looking for local authors for a feature I’m working on. I was hoping to interview you about your book.”

I was flattered and relieved. Some publicity, at last, even if it was only in the local paper. “Sure. What do you want to know?”

“Can we meet, maybe have a cup of coffee, and talk about your book? I’ll need to get a photograph of you, to go with the story.”

We agreed to meet at a little country inn slash coffee shop in Washington’s Crossing, a few miles downriver from Leighville, that evening at eight. As soon as I hung up, I called Naomi. “I’m going to have my picture in the paper!” I crowed.

“Oh, no, don’t tell me the police found out about that place you go, in the woods behind the library.”

“I only went there once. And I swear to you, I didn’t do anything.”

“Ah, but did you have something done to you?”

“Do you want to find out why I’m going to be in the paper?”

“Yes, yes, tell me, or I shall surely die.”

“You’re in a snippy mood today, Naomi.”

“School is going to start again. A whole new crop of students who have no grasp of the subjunctive and whose idea of critical thought consists of the word because. So I’m understandably cranky. Tell me, my dear friend, why are you going to be in the newspaper?”

“I’m going to be interviewed about my book.”

“Congratulations! That’ll be nice. You can clip it out and send it to your father and your stepmother.”

“Well, that depends on how gay the article gets.”

“Jeffrey, you’re thirty-seven and unmarried. Don’t you think your father already knows you prefer boys to girls?”

“Sometimes I think he does, and then other times he or Evelyn will mention something about my getting married and I realize they don’t have a clue.”

“Trust me, they have a few clues. If you’re not comfortable with people knowing you’re gay, you shouldn’t have written a book about a gay president.”

“I’m comfortable with people knowing. Just not my father.”

“Fathers are people too.”

“What should I wear? This reporter wants to take a picture of me.”

Naomi has a wonderful sense of fashion, most of which she represses, and she loves to dress me. I’m like the doll she never played with as a little girl, when she was always stealing her brother’s GI Joes and staging mock battles with them in the backyard. “I’ll come over,” she said. “Give me ten minutes. And while you’re waiting, trim your eyebrows.”

“Take twenty. I’ll take a shower so I can be nice and clean for you.”

“I love it when you talk sexy to me,” she said, and hung up.

She arrived right on schedule and we settled on a pair of crisp khakis and a blue and white striped oxford cloth button-down shirt I had bought at the Brooks Brothers outlet at Franklin Mills. Though it was the middle of winter, my skin was still Mediterranean-dark, my arms and neck coated with a thin layer of dark hair, and the shirt made me look healthy and vibrant. I combed my thinning hair into place and then shellacked it down with hair spray.

Our only argument arose because I wanted to wear my new Swatch, while Naomi insisted the occasion called for my gold dress watch.

“You want to look distinguished, like a professor,” she said. “Professors don’t wear goofy sport watches.”

“Most professors we know don’t wear any watches at all. If you really want me to look academic I should dig out my loden cloth jacket with the leather elbow patches.”

“That jacket is so 1950s prep school,” she said. “If I were your wife I would give it to the Salvation Army instantly.”

“If you were my wife I would join the Salvation Army.”

We ended up on the living room floor playing Monopoly; I got hold of both Park Place and Boardwalk and bankrupted her. All in all it was a very satisfactory time.

We ate a quick pasta dinner and by 7:30 I was on the road to Washington’s Crossing. “Call me as soon as you get home and tell me how it went,” Naomi said, waving out the driver’s window of her Jeep.

I was so happy I was almost whistling as I drove south along the river. The trees were bare and snow was heaped along the edge of the road, but it could have been high summer to me. I loved driving along the river; I grew up in the middle of endless suburbs and I still could not believe that I lived so close to the country that there were cows within walking distance of my house.

I drove through the quaint downtown area of New Hope, past over-ripe hippies in sheepskin coats strolling in the early evening light. I had to stop for a crowd streaming across the street and through the parking lot of the Bucks County Playhouse, heading for a production of the musical La Cage aux Folles. When I was back in the country, I turned on the radio and relaxed in the fall of evening, passing wooden bridges over the canal that led to quaint country farmhouses.

I pulled up at the Crossing Inn a few minutes ahead of schedule and walked out to the patio behind the old stone building. The owners had constructed a beautiful little garden back there, with an arched bridge across a trickling creek where tiger lilies and black-eyed Susans grew in the summer. In the winter it was picture-perfect, with a faint dusting of snow on the branches of the pine trees.

Inside the wood-paneled lobby, empty except for a clerk behind the bar/registration desk, I chose an Adirondack chair with big cushions, stripped off my coat, gloves and scarf, and settled in next to the crackling wood fire.

As I leaned in and rubbed my hands, a deep, sexy voice behind me that matched the one I’d heard on the phone said, “I’m hoping you’re Dr. Berman.”

I turned around to see a dark-haired man, six-foot-three at least, with square shoulders and a lopsided grin, sticking his hand out to me. My heart soared and sank at the same time: he was the kind of man I fall for, the kind who is so bad for me. Someone I think will be big enough and strong enough to take care of me, but who turns out to be all Jell-O on the inside, needy and whining and no good in a street fight.

“Call me Jeff,” I said, standing and shaking his hand. “I’m always afraid when I hear people call me Dr. Berman that they’re going to expect me to resuscitate someone before the evening is out.”

He wore a long leather duster over jeans and a light blue shirt. He gave me a sly grin and held my hand for a fraction of a second too long. “Sometimes those evenings can be the best kind.”

I loved the way his “th” sounded like a “z.” Our eyes met and locked and I knew that I was in trouble. He was handsome, gay and charming, and I was depressed and horny. Like combining vodka and methamphetamine, the mix could be deadly.

He ordered a couple of beers for us, then said. “Let’s get the pictures out of the way first.” He posed me next to the stone fireplace, to give me a historical context, he said. Never mind that the inn was built in 1768 and Buchanan had lived nearly a hundred years later. “Buchanan never even came to this part of Pennsylvania, did he?” Pascal said, angling his camera and snapping shots.

“I think he must have,” I said. “He was our Senator for many years.”

“You’re probably right.”

I couldn’t help noticing how Pascal’s faded blue jeans embraced his legs and butt like a second skin, the way his raw silk shirt moved so easily as he tilted the camera, zoomed and focused. I felt like a fashion model, but instead of making love to the camera I was flirting with Pascal Montrouge.

The bartender brought over our beers, and we sat down by the fire again. Pascal’s long legs stretched out in front of him, putting his generous package into sharp relief. “How did you end up at Eastern?”

“I got my undergraduate degree in history from Penn and a Ph.D. in history from the State University of New York at Albany. After graduation I landed my first job, a one-year gig at a small private college in Illinois.” I sipped my beer. “From there I got another one-year job in Maryland, and then another in Pittsburgh. I published a couple of papers in history journals, and then lucked into a tenure-track job at Eastern.”

“What got you interested in Buchanan?”

I forced my gaze up from his crotch to his dark eyes, sparkling with humor in the firelight, and told him about finding the letters in the old oak box. “By the end of that first day my friend Naomi and I had figured out that what I’d found were love letters were between two men. It took more research to figure out that the men involved were James Buchanan and his aide.”

Pascal sputtered his beer and slammed the glass stein back down on the wooden table between us, beer frothing up over the edge in a little geyser. “Wait a minute,” he said. “You’re saying Buchanan was gay?”

“That’s the whole point of the book. You didn’t look at it, did you?”

He grinned shamefacedly. “I read the press release. All you said there was that Petitjohn was Buchanan’s aide. I thought you would tell me the rest.”

“Ah, Mr. Montrouge,” I said, wagging my finger at him. “You’re lucky not to be one of my students. I frown on that kind of sloppy research.”

“Please, call me Pascal,” he said, and our eyes locked again, and I knew that at some point I was going to end up in bed with him. I just wasn’t sure when. “Why didn’t you focus that press release on the proof you have that Buchanan was gay? That’s the real angle.”

“My editor was afraid that people would find it too controversial and that libraries and academic collections wouldn’t buy it. I complained that they were missing the market of people who would buy it because of what it’s about. But my editor told me they’d find it.”

“And have they?”

I shook my head. “Not so far as I can tell. My editor quit six months ago, and I can’t get anyone to tell me how many copies they printed, or how many have been shipped.”

“That’s publishing. Everything’s a big secret.” He ordered us a second round of beers and said, “That should be enough about the book. Now tell me something about yourself—what made you decide to be a history professor?” There was that accent again, the way he stressed the last syllable of the word rather than the first. It gave me a sensuous thrill.

“When I was in tenth grade, I fell in love. Not with a girl, or a boy, but with history. My social studies teacher assigned us to interview a family member and write an oral history. I thought it was a stupid assignment and that our family was so boring. There wouldn’t be anything for me to write.”

“Families are always interesting,” Pascal said.

“Yeah, I figured that out. My father suggested I interview my mother’s mother. My mother didn’t want me to, and of course, that made me more determined. One day after school I took the train in from Long Island to Queens, where my grandmother lived. My father gave me some money to buy her flowers, and I got her a bouquet of red tulips. She told me that her family had tulips outside her house when she was a little girl.”

I took a sip of my beer, then sat back. “All I knew of my grandmother at that point was that she had been born in the Netherlands, and come to the United States after the Second World War. She led me into her living room and I sat on an old velvet couch and turned on my tape recorder. She must have talked for the next hour without a break. I discovered that her family had moved from Amsterdam to Curaçao when she was five years old, that she had grown up there and married my grandfather when she was eighteen.”

“That’s certainly exotic,” he said. “A lot more interesting than most people on Long Island.”

“It gets better. Two years after they got married, they left for Japan. Her husband was older than she was, and he imported Japanese porcelain and textiles to Curaçao. It was cheaper for her to go to Japan with him, rather than have to keep her in a house in Curaçao for a year.”

“When was all this happening?” Pascal asked.

“They left Curaçao in 1940, and spent a year in Japan. They got on a ship in September of 1941. They docked in Batavia—that was what they called the capital of Indonesia then—in December of 1941.”

“Mon dieu. During the war.”

“Yeah. The captain decided it was too dangerous to leave Batavia while the Japanese and the United States were fighting in the Pacific. So my grandfather opened a store in Batavia, and started selling the merchandise he had bought in Japan. My grandmother was pregnant with my mother, and even after the Japanese came everything was fine for a while. My mother was born in Indonesia, and she had never even told me.”

“Parents have secrets.” Pascal ate a handful of peanuts from a dish on the table between us. “That must have been scary. How did they get out of there?”

“Eventually the Japanese confiscated the shop and the house, and took away my grandfather. After that my grandmother and my mother had to move into the Tjiden camp.”

“That must have been terrible,” Pascal said. “I’ve written a couple of articles about places like that. The treatment there was inhumane.”

“It made my grandmother very sad to talk about it, but she said we had to. It was like Holocaust survivors, you know? They feel like they have to leave behind a testimony.”

“Poor you, just a teenager and having to hear all that.”

I nodded. “It was tough, but that’s when I became seduced by history, particularly by the stories of all those bit players in the grand sweep of world events. I started reading about all these tragedies—the San Francisco earthquake; the Triangle Shirtwaist fire; the Armenian genocide. Every time I had a history paper to write I picked a topic where there were so many anonymous victims.”

“You must have been a real goth.”

“No, just a nerd. But enough about me. Tell me something about yourself.”

(To learn what Pascal has to say, read The Buchanan Letters!)

To purchase, click


Victor j. Banis said...

Ah, Neil, all those layers beneath layers, peeling them back so expertly. Few can successfully create that kind of depth in so few words. And smooth, like cream. Very nice.

Lloyd Meeker said...

Looking forward to reading it, Neil -- sounds like another very satisfying read!