For those of us who toil for the spotlight — on behalf (like me) of a book, or a movie, or a political point of view — television is not exactly a seller’s market, but it is more of a seller’s market than it was, say, in 1951, when there were only two nationwide networks. If we have something to say, there is often someone who is willing to hear it — and to broadcast it, if it is reasonably coherent and interesting.
So it is that my agent, the fabulous Diane Nine, hooked me up with the TV host Christine Warnke. Christine’s show, “The Next Word”, plays on MCC, a cable station which broadcasts (if that’s the right word) to homes in Montgomery County, Maryland. Montgomery County is full of wealthy and well-educated people, who are (if my informal census is accurate) also extremely good-looking. Thus, it’s a great audience for the book which Lee Hurwitz and I wrote, Capital City.
So it was that I trundled, on a cold and drizzly Monday evening in November, to the Town Hall of Kensington, Maryland, where the interview would take place. I wandered past the police station (closed!) and the Montgomery County archives (also closed) until I reached the MCC studios. Raychyl Segovia presided over a bevy of electronics like Bach over an organ. “Have a seat,” she said to me, and also to my dear bride, who was along to make sure I didn’t say or do anything catastrophic.
I wandered around the studio, making sure that I didn’t knock anything over. At one point I hazarded upon a beautiful photograph of a city’s shoreline. I recognized it from previous iterations of the show, where it had served as a backdrop. “What city is this?” I asked Raychyl.
“Any city you want it to be,” she responded briskly.
Christine came in a little later, harassed to lateness by the (inevitably impossible) DC traffic and obviously prepared to do business. She was ready to talk about Capital City, she said, but she wanted to talk about some other things — my life as a reviewer of theater in the DC area, the log house in which I lived, and my career as a lawyer…specifically, as a lawyer who once had his office in a school for models.
Well. I was prepared for talking about theater in DC, but these other things? I hadn’t thought about them for a long time.
Wait, let me strike that. I think about living in my house all the time. I bet you think about your house all the time too. It’s just that I haven’t written about it.
So, OK. I live in a log house, out in the sticks.
And living in a log house, out in the sticks, means that I live in compromise with nature. I step out on my porch with my coffee, and I see deer amble in from the nearby woods. Had I been in the city, where I lived prior to here, or in the suburbs, where I grew up, this would have been a major crisis, but here I simply sip my coffee, and watch them gambol and cavort. They eat my meadow grass, which will grow back, and, growing bored, slip back into the woods.
I try to describe this to Christine. I try to describe the time the vultures came to roost.
Here’s what happened. One day a young deer confronted a car, traveling at high speed in front of our house. She lost that confrontation. She staggered through the trees separating our yard from the street, weaved a couple of feet, and died.
And then the vultures came.
There were about a dozen of them, dignified and circumspect, and — large. They could see the dead beast, although it had not yet begun to emit the signature aroma that let them know she was ready to eat. The vultures settled on our roof, and the roof of a small shed that we had in our back hard.
When the time was high, the vultures congregated — there is no other word — before the deceased beast. They bowed their heads, as though saying grace before meals. The high priest — is that too fanciful a name for the alpha vulture? — stepped forward. He bit into the deer, and the congregation followed.
But there was something else going on. In our shed — a ramshackle structure, near collapse — a hugely pregnant vulture had established her territory, and the territory of her mate. In short order, she laid two eggs, carelessly, on the concrete. These are tough birds; no feathered nest for them. A hard ground and the open air suffice.
Vultures, like more romantic creatures, mate for life, and the pair took turns watching the eggs until they hatched, and then the young until they matured. In the meantime, the flock would gather every morning around the dead beast, and, on signal from the alpha, feast.
At first, channeling Gertrude Stein, I said “vultures on the lawn, begone,” but I soon came to admire their efficiency in eating, a quality I prize in myself. When they had finally finished one side of the dead deer, they nosed her over and attacked the other side.
Vultures are fearless. They have no natural enemies, and I was not about to make myself one. My dear bride was able to snap this picture of one from about eighteen inches away; if the vulture had been any more accommodating he would have signed the picture as well.
The vultures stayed as our guests until the deer was done with. By that time the two chicks had reached flying size, and when the flock took off, to find more despoiled meat, the chicks took off with them.
They left just the shell of their eggs — and the knowledge that a vulture pair, once it finds a hatchery, returns year after year, generally for ten years.
So I told all this to Christine — or as much as I could comfortably fit into the segment — and we eventually started talking about the book. And I realized that as I described it, I was experiencing a sense of deja vu.
The Mayor’s dear is dead — death by misadventure, to be sure, but a bullet to the brain is as final as a speeding car. The sinister Mayor, who is the alpha vulture, stands before the body with his congregation: his political crew, bound to protect him (and themselves) before all other motivations; the gangsters who live off his patronage; the hapless men in his personal security crew — all wait for his signal, and on that signal, move to make the body disappear, and the witness disappear as well, and with the body and the witness, the crime itself.
In the meantime — and there is always a meantime, in story as in life — we have vultures in love. The killer and his prey, oddly matched but irresistible to each other, find that their flaws fit each other in a way that is as real as the hard ground and the open air. No hatchlings result, except that they, like all the characters (and all of us) hatch the seeds of their own destruction.
I describe the novel to Christine, who listens patiently, asking salient questions. Christine’s an old hand at this; she holds a doctorate from the University of Maryland, where she has been named an outstanding alumnus; she chaired the White House Project to Advance Women’s Leadership; she is a Democratic State Committeewoman from the District of Columbia; she has served on the DC Humanities Council and the DC Commission on Women. She knows, as they say, a hawk from a handsaw.
So go ahead and watch the show, and then — dare I say this? — go buy the book. It’s online at Amazon and Barnes and Noble, and at Politics and Prose and wherever else booksellers have good taste and good judgment. And as you read it, think of vultures, gathering on your lawn.