Inventing Dietrick Zimmerman
I read about a writer hiding out in Butte, a Jewish writer by the name of Dietrick Zimmerman, winner of so many literary awards that his second wife Alice was once quoted as saying: ‘He’s lost track of which books won what. It’s not like we have a trophy case in the house or a wall of blue ribbons. Dee is surprised when friends bring up a particular award in conversation, because it’s news to him more often than not.’ Alice would die in a car accident exactly fifteen days after the interview in the spring of 1989. Zimmerman—who rarely gave interviews and never talked to the public for fear of being misquoted—retreated even further into his unlisted Upper West Side apartment, saying only to a small New York weekly on the matter: ‘I loved Alice.’
By Thanksgiving of 1992, mostly shelved by writers who thought his writing career was over and talked about by critics in the past tense, Zimmerman quietly submitted a lean manuscript titled The Eternal Feminine to his agent and long-time friend, Beatrice Fairchild, who read it in one sitting at her father’s ranch outside Denver. She got on the phone the next morning and pleaded to her associates at Little Brown that because of the nature of the subject matter and its autobiographical content, she believed it to be his final and most momentous work. The novel would later be added to, subtracted from, retooled and published as Velvet Requiem, an elegaic love letter to Alice in the guise of fiction. Though Ms. Fairchild was wrong about it selling well—it bombed—she was right about it being his last book. Dietrick Zimmerman, at the age of fifty-four, author of six novels and three collections of stories, loved and hated by his critics and readers alike, bowed out the best he could. He would not publish for the next seventeen years.
One evening in April of 2004, a staff reporter for the Times recognized a New York address listed on the market that matched an address Zimmerman used as one of many mail drops early in his career, a serendipitous discovery, which after a months-long investigation proved to be a dead-end. But the sleuthing produced a lengthy human-interest detective piece titled FromSuperman to Zimmerman and resulted in a renewed curiosity for the author. New editions of his seminal works came out and interest in him, however slightly, grew. By this time, the myth around his disappearance had more than a decade to steep, everything from the accusatory (the death of his wife was faked, a publicity stunt to sell Velvet Requiem) to the completely ridiculous (he was in fact a pseudonym of Thomas Pynchon, who was a pseudonym of J.D. Salinger, who was a pseudonym of a cabal of writers operating under said pseudonyms) to the uncanny (kidnapped by a UFO cult he infiltrated as a twenty-seven-year-old and later parodied in his third novel The Wisdom of Solomon) to the psychedelic (took a massive dose of LSD and was currently a patient at Wayworth House). His group of close friends revealed nothing to the reporters who came snooping, pointing instead to what could already be found in erroneous biographies by people who were not really his friends, which became stranger and more tabloid-like as time went on: tales of all-night cocaine-orgy parties, ritualistic human sacrifices in Central America and later, cannibalism off the Gold Coast of Africa.
‘It’s quite obvious,’ Bruce Minkler, a prominent book critic for the San Francisco Chronicle noted in a review, ‘that the newest crop of so-called biographies about Zimmerman are really written by Zimmerman himself as an elaborate hoax, a long-winded critique on identity and our obsession with his literary persona, his relevance to the state of Jewish-American fiction today, as a poke-in-the-eye and pie-in-your-face to his critics, of which I’m one. The spyglass in these books isn’t trained on Zimmerman the author, but on us, his readers. The fact that his circle of friends, editors, and agents has been able to keep it up for so long is mind-boggling.’
Zimmerman was like the Chinese finger cuff—the harder you pulled, the tighter the grip became. But the answer, once discovered, was evident. Eyewitnesses from San Francisco to Seattle and into the Inland Empire had something else to add: a man fitting the description of Zimmerman lugging around a tome more than a thousand pages thick. He showed up uninvited at book parties, booed poets at readings, and was once blamed for defecating in a gallery. The only reliable person to have publicly acknowledged such a manuscript was Theodore King, a childhood friend and middle school principal in a lazy suburb of Portland, Oregon who carefully worded his response to the Village Voice by stating: ‘Yeah, I’ve seen it. It’s about, I don’t know, five inches thick maybe, single-spaced, eight-point type, with lots of notes in the margins. I asked him what it was. He said he didn’t want to talk about it. Then we went fishing.’
The sighting last Sunday happened in Butte. Three unrelated people inside the Remington Hotel would go on record about the incident, but neither the hotel guest, the guard, nor the police officer knew Dietrick Zimmerman. According to a page four article in the Montana Standard, a guest of the hotel had called the front desk reporting an elderly man roaming the second floor hallways in his underwear and talking to himself. A security guard was summoned, who proceeded to the second floor and found the man in question sitting at the top of the stairwell. Which probably would have been the end of it, but the old man refused to comply with the hotel guard, who decreed by order of the fire marshall that sitting on the stairwell and blocking the exit—in one’s skivvies no less—was a hazard, a violation of NFPA Fire Safety Code 8.7.3. The man was uncooperative. Police were notified and the situation resolved without further incident. The short article ended with a quote from the responding officer, Lt. James Broward, who said: ‘His only possession was a large stack of paper bound with twine which looked like it’d been carried around awhile. Without identification he also stated that his name was Dietrick Zimmerman, a Jewish-American citizen.’
– – –
My roommate in Jesse Hall during the second semester of my freshman year, a loner kid from Shelby, Montana named Toby Goldman, was reading a book titled Women & Other Curious Creatures, Zimmerman’s first collection of stories. On the night Toby was arrested for assaulting a police officer—the altercation happened at a house party a block off campus—I found the book on his bottom bunk and decided to flip through it. The first story caught me immediately, as it was about a young man very much like myself. ‘Ethan Birnbaum,’ the story opened, ‘was on his way to achieving great things when at his bar mitzvah he was struck and killed by a bolt of lightning.’ Toby was released from jail Monday morning. By that time I had finished the book and became obsessed with Dietrick Zimmerman.
After my freshman year I did a stint in Glacier as a fire lookout, which gave me a severe case of ennui but a greater appreciation for nature. It was the perfect summer job for an uninspired, mediocre student. I returned to Missoula in August to start school and to look for a new job, my wallet fattened by months of work and nowhere to spend the money. At a bakery that carried the Montana Standard I came upon Zimmerman’s name in an article. How could it not be a joke? I contacted the reporter but she had very little to tell me that wasn’t already in her piece. She was surprised by my interest in the old man, in a story that amounted to police reportage. I asked if she knew that Dietrick Zimmerman was an American author who won the Pulitzer twice, who once infiltrated a Jim Jones-like cult and barely escaped alive and was (possibly) kidnapped later in retaliation, who made no qualms about (possibly) resorting to cannibalism off the Gold Coast of Africa during an especially frightful summer when civil war broke out between two warring tribes, who arm-wrestled Bill S. Burroughs in a middle-school gymnasium in 1974 and lost (Bill cheated, Zimmerman said in a rare quote), and whose second wife died in a freakish car accident that put a permanent hiatus on his literary career. She said she’d never heard of him. I asked her if she was really a journalist.
I called my friend Colin the next morning and got him caught up with the newest Zimmerman developments. Colin was five years older, a first-year graduate student at an Ivy League university, and was now in a position to tell me that Zimmerman existed as a Baudrillard-like signifier, a Borgesian kind of infinity pool I shouldn’t stare into for too long unless I wanted to go blind. He thought I’d finally lost it, connecting little clues that added up to nothing. I’d gone the way, he said, ‘of a million fanboy idiots.’ I was, he said, ‘being fooled just like people who saw Elvis at their local supermarkets were being fooled.’ I went to the public library and scanned the newspaper article and emailed it to him that same afternoon as proof. The article was convincing at a glance, he said, but added that facts and descriptions in the story were inconsistent. He did a quick research of the fire code and found it erroneous. ‘The work of a clever undergraduate and a homeless man,’ he said. The hoax had reached into places as far away as Montana.
Still convinced that I was onto something, I put my Zimmerman books into a cardboard box, dusted off my recently purchased Olivetti typewriter, and decided to spend an afternoon in Butte. Who would it hurt if it turned out to be untrue? Less than two hours from Missoula—quite possibly—lived the greatest and most reclusive American author of our time.
– – –
Butte’s one of those places where you are decidedly from, not a place you move to. I arrived at two in the afternoon on a Friday, the sky packed dense with claw-grey thunderheads. From the highway the whole place looked like it was ready to be bulldozed and built over, abandoned. But as my car veered its nose and slumped up the hill into the historic district, the town unfolded like an architectural slideshow in reverse: dingy fast food restaurants and liquor store casinos transformed into 1800s era multi-windowed brick buildings, late-Victorian edifices built by the copper kings which had survived intact from Butte’s mining heyday.
My first stop was uptown at the Remington Hotel, where the events of the newspaper article took place. The neon sign above the nine-story structure said HOTEL REMINGTON. The lobby floors were polished a speckled-grey marble with brown and green insets, giving it a matte finish, veiny lines set in geometric patterns spiraling outward. Leather sofas and armchairs stretched across faux-Persian rugs, three oversized chandeliers that hung like a rain of glass.
I went immediately to the front desk. The clerk was a man in his forties with a bright-domed head and mismatched ears, in a navy button-up tucked into jeans, skinny everywhere except his belly.
‘I’m a writer for the Missoula Independent,’ I lied. The lobby echoed. It was two-thirty in the afternoon.
‘Another Berkeley Pit story, is it?’
‘A Montana Standard article mentioned this.’ I handed him my folded copy of the newspaper clipping.
He reached into a cubby hole underneath the counter and retrieved a pair of wire-rimmed reading glasses. They looked too small on his face, not looping around his ears properly. He held the article about eighteen inches from his nose. Laughter was coming from the other end of the lobby. Elevator doors dinged open.
‘Yes, I remember hearing about this. I wasn’t here when it happened. Homeless people, unfortunately, find their way into the hotel.’ He took off his glasses and gave back the article.
‘Are you sure he wasn’t a guest? Is there a log I can look at?’
‘What’s this really about?’
I deflected the question. ‘Is there any chance I might be able to talk with the person who reported it, or the hotel guard? Their names weren’t mentioned.’
‘As a matter of policy…’ and he went on, quoting from some invisible regulations book.
I thanked him for his time and asked for the front desk’s number. I would call if I had more questions. Frustrated, I went outside and smoked a cigarette—my first in months—to calm my nerves and come up with another plan. The front desk knew next to nothing, the reporter who wrote the article was no help, and unless I went around the hotel questioning everybody about the incident (and I didn’t think this sort of nosy approach would get me very far before I was asked to leave), the prospect of finding Dietrick Zimmerman seemed less and less likely. Maybe the officer who responded to the call was an avenue worth investigating.
I needed a place to sit down and think. I returned to the lobby to see if the hotel had a bar. He waved in a general direction and said I couldn’t miss it. I begrudgingly made my way to the lounge. The room was dark, track lights dimmed to give a secluded feel. The bartender was my age but with smoother skin, like a wax statue, cutting limes and watching sports at the same time. He sliced a whole lime without looking down at it once. No one else was in the bar.
‘What can I get you, bud?’ he said, wiping his grassy-stained knife in a white dish towel.
‘Just a beer. Anything is fine.’
‘Sure thing.’ He poured a local porter from the tap.
‘The name Zimmerman mean anything to you?’
‘You work for the police? He on the lam?’
‘No. He’s a writer, actually.’ I tapped a finger on the headline. ‘You know anything about this?’
He set my beer on a coaster and pulled up his sleeves. Liquid frothed over the pint’s lip. He leaned on his elbows and glazed over the article. ‘Not me, bud.’
‘Just following up on a story,’ I said mostly to myself. He didn’t care. ‘Thanks anyway.’
I finished my beer and retraced my steps, meandered down the wide, beige-brown hallways. Prints of Butte’s storied history lined the corridors: mustached men with sooty and sullen faces and the mines that both gave them their prosperity and destroyed them. I let each image soak into my memory before I returned to the chandelier-lit lobby, which looked even brighter reflected off the front desk clerk’s domed head. He must have seen my flushing face, my eyes still readjusting from the dark bar, because he said coyly, ‘I see you found our lounge.’ Not knowing what else to do, I asked for a room, fumbled in my pockets for money. He asked how my investigation was going. I was working on some leads, I said. It felt good to say even if it was untrue, as though I were a real private eye doing real detective work. How Chandleresque could this get? Would there be rainy alleyways and red herrings and wild goose chases? A femme fatale to complicate things?
I took my box of books and my Olivetti up to the fifth floor. Spare and clean, the room was set in regional accents, neutral colors, a rustic, cozy feel, though the furniture and bed were contemporary and didn’t quite fit the Montana motif. The drapes were on the dingy side and could use a good wash. I pulled the cord to let in the pale afternoon light. The clouds had shifted. Across the street a parking lot, four or five cars angled in an arrowhead.
I turned on the faux-antler desk lamp and opened my first edition copy of Zimmerman’s last novel, Velvet Requiem. His most lyrical book, his most affecting, but the quietest. Gone were the clever names and labyrinthine plots, the witticisms and the ensemble cast of hundreds. But what was left was something far more endearing—the story of his love for Alice, of her death, and finally the overwhelming power of one man’s astonishment at how his life came to pass. Did it matter that I needed to know anything more about its author, though in fact, I thought I knew everything?
– – –
I spent Saturday exploring Butte’s uptown, browsing second-hand stores and dropping in on cafés to get a sense of the locals. Drinking seemed to be Butte’s main preoccupation, even at eleven in the morning. Drinking in public, I discovered, was not a crime. After two hours of going up and down the hill and poking my head into various buildings, I returned to the hotel and stopped in the lounge for a last drink before checking out—one for Butte and her locals. The bartender glanced at me and disappeared into the back storeroom. He surfaced seconds later and said, ‘Got something for you.’ He slapped an envelope on the counter. It looked like a telegram or a discrete bill collector’s notice, yellow and ordinary.
‘Are you sure it’s for me?’
‘He said it’s for the reporter that’s been asking about him.’
Puzzled by this sudden turn of events, I ripped the envelope along one edge and dumped out the letter. The letter, written on hotel stationary with a blue pen and in blocky caps, said: NEITHER DO I WISH TO ENGAGE IN ANY DISCOURSE OF ANY KIND NOR DO I WANT TO BE BOTHERED IN ANY WAY. PLEASE RESPECT MY PRIVACY AND GO HOME. No signature, no other markings.
‘How could he know?’ I rubbed the letter between my forefinger and thumb.
‘I’d mentioned you off-hand this morning, joked about how the name Zimmerman sounded. That it sounded Californian—one of those Hollywood guys coming up here to buy this town.’
I asked the bartender what he knew. He shrugged his shoulders and gave me a thoughtful look. ‘He’s been coming in about six months. Got lots of stories to tell. Good tipper. Never did ask for his name. Came in to apologize.’ He puffed out his bottom lip and did a clucking noise. A brain racing to make connections. ‘I had to kick him out last week for pissing on that ficus tree over there. Was one of those nights. Later, the cops found him in his underwear—’ then realized that he’d missed the obvious from the beginning, ‘Hey—Zimmerman—that’s the same guy who pissed on my ficus tree!’
– – –
It stormed all afternoon. A wet, musky smell settled on the room like the damp of an antique store. Cars splashed puddles outside, a whooshing like a washing machine. One brave blue raincoat bobbed up the street, took the corner, and disappeared. I booked the room for another night. I left the hotel once to find lunch, a toothbrush, and a box of envelopes. The rest of the afternoon and evening was spent at my Olivetti working on a letter to Zimmerman. A lot of pacing and standing at the window looking out onto rain-streaked Butte. The letter had to be serious, but not so serious that I came across as a fawning academic type. I had to extol his writing without worshipping him, without coming across as a fanatic. I had to convince him that I was worth his audience, that this was the right time for him to come out of his seventeen-year slumber. I had a lot of questions.
The letter was too clever and disingenuous. I yanked it from the carriage wheel and wadded it up into a ball, pitching it at the wastebasket. I started a second letter. Then a third, a fourth, a fifth. By six o’ clock I was on my ninth draft and feeling desperate. My letter had nothing to do with why I wanted to meet Zimmerman. Hours of typewriter keys had a hypnotic effect. Outside it was blue and black, few buildings with any lights on, the parking lot empty. I stared dully at the pea-green Olivetti. I took one last stab at it and disgorged myself in a rambling indictment of Zimmerman’s critics. When I finished and without looking back at what I’d written, I quickly folded the letter and sealed it in an envelope. I wrote Zimmerman’s name on the envelope and took the elevator down to deliver my letter to the bartender.
– – –
To my utter amazement, Zimmerman agreed to meet me in the bar of the Remington Hotel the next afternoon at two, where last week he was reprimanded for urinating on a ficus tree. He showed up in a crisp three-piece pin-striped suit. He looked mafioso, like an aging patriarch of the Gambino clan, or a retired investment banker lost on his way back to Connecticut. His left eye drooped a little further than his right and squiggly grooves carved his forehead.
‘What do you think?’ he said, putting his palms out like a game show host.
‘The suit. I picked it up at JCPenny’s on the way over here.’
I gave him a thumbs-up and he grinned.
‘Did you know,’ he said, ‘that Tom Wolfe lived down the street from me in New York? For a summer, I ran into him almost every day. We made our rounds on the Upper East Side. I told him I was an ass doctor and he believed me. This was back in the early Sixties. It developed into an inside joke to see who could wear the best suits when we ran into each other on our walks. He always won, of course. He hasn’t taken his off since then.’
He told one anecdote after another, chatting as if we were the best of friends, and meeting in a hotel lounge in Butte was something we did all the time. He gave the impression of someone who had interacted with every famous writer of the past fifty years, moving among them like a ghost, collecting anecdotes. It didn’t make sense. If he was so well-known in literary circles—as volumes and volumes of biographies stated—why didn’t these writers share anecdotes about him? Zimmerman had that look in his eye, as if he’d just left the room without going anywhere, a gaze fixed on something above the bartender’s head and far away.
The cocktail waitress got to our table, a curvy twentyish girl in a crimson scarf, an ornate corset lacing her back, part Edwardian housewife, part twenty-first century vampire. A milky-white face, her eyes sunless and almost supernatural.
‘Brandy and Benedictine,’ Zimmerman said. ‘Doubles.’
She nodded, tossed a grimace that passed for a customary smile, then proceeded to the table behind us. A pair of Butte natives with matching buzz cuts and frizzly Fightin’ Irish baseball caps huddled around a televised ballgame.
I blurted: ‘What about people who slander your name in fake biographies, accuse you of things you’ve never done, and say that your standing in the literary world is eroding, or people who say you’re elitist, esoteric, way behind the times, and done for as an author? And what about the fact that some people claim that you are these very same accusers?’
He blinked at me as if I had just landed my spaceship in his backyard. ‘Let them say what they want to say. Seems you’re more bothered about this than I am.’
My instinct was to fire off more questions. But I wasn’t a journalist and this wasn’t an interview. There was also the fear that if I pressed too hard, he’d take it as an insult and close up completely, bag the whole operation, then catch the next flight out of town to a place where nosy twenty-year-olds didn’t come around asking questions.
The waitress returned with our drinks.
‘You know what? When I drunkenly blabbered my name to that no-good cop last week and it ended up in the paper, I thought I was done for. People from Long Beach to Jerusalem would come storming my door with their cameras and unpublished novels. As it turns out, it’s only you.’ He laughed in a kind, grandfatherly way. ‘That’s a writer’s ego for you.’ We clinked glasses. Ice cubes rattled. Then he mentioned my letter and said he was moved by it, though he found it a bit sentimental.
We watched an old man playing a keno machine, mesmerized by the lights. He leaned back on his stool and grumbled under his breath, reaching into his front pocket for another five dollar bill. Four clean-shaven teenagers bumbled through the door and lined up at the bar counter. They didn’t look old enough to drink, probably had never seen the edge of a razor, but the bartender didn’t seem to mind.
Zimmerman’s smile grew wide. He said offhandedly, as if it just occurred to him, ‘Biographical detail is overrated—says nothing about a writer.’ He finished his drink and crunched ice cubes in his mouth. Then he stood up and looked at me. ‘Should we go stare into the Berkeley Pit?’ he suggested. ‘It’s one of my favorite activities here. Like meditating in a Zen garden.’
– – –
Details of Dietrick Zimmerman’s birthdate and birthplace were sketchy at best. According to the biographical record, either his birth documents were destroyed in a fire on Kristallnacht or shortly thereafter, an event in which his family’s house was razed and his father deported. Biographers fell into two camps: half decided Zimmerman was most likely born in Berlin during the last week of November in 1938; the other half on Kristallnacht, which occurred more than two weeks earlier. Both guesses were based on recollections thirty years later by neighbors who survived the Nazi pogrom. It was unclear if Ada, Zimmerman’s mother, had delivered a baby by the time Zimmerman’s father, Nathan, was arrested. The Kristallnacht camp produced two eyewitnesses who claimed they actually saw Nathan kissing his newborn son moments before being whisked away by SS guards. A dramatized account was given in Schlomo Winninger’s classic biography Zimmerman: An Obscure Life (the first book on Zimmerman and the last by Winninger, who died in 1968, the same year it was published). Others believed Ada was still pregnant during Kristallnacht and had stayed over at a friend’s house because of the house’s proximity to a local Jewish hospital. Ada’s friend died of cancer in the 1950s before she could be properly interviewed. Many second-hand sources since then have corroborated her story. Virgil Marzano’s extensive research into this matter produced a wealth of circumstantial evidence, unverifiable documents, blurry photographs, illegible signatures, dates, numbers, but no actual proof. He included them in the opening chapter of his bestseller Son of Moses: The Early Years of Dietrick Zimmerman. What was certain and agreed on was that Zimmerman was orphaned on the first of December, the Nazi execution orders for Ada and four others surfacing in 1951 from a Swiss vault, apparently misfiled by a German bureaucrat during the war.
The first biographies on Zimmerman were skeletal fact-finding missions. He was only thirty by then. Biographies of a living writer so young were unheard of, but the public’s curiosity for information outgrew the few known facts about him. But it wasn’t until his third book that his Jewish identity was questioned. The Wisdom of Solomon was divisive. It satirized Jewish culture and history in the context of a Jonestown-like cult, complete with the figurehead of a Jim Jones/Moses character, the environs of Los Angeles substituted for the Egyptian desert. Was the book satire or bigotry? The work of a literary genius or an anti-Semite with an ax to grind? The Council on Jewish Literature boycotted the book, took aim at the Pulitzer Prize committee for awarding its prize to a work that was so blatantly anti-Jewish.
Once he had established himself, garnered every conceivable literary award worth mentioning, nobody actually cared to know anything more unless the information was filtered through a second or third or fourth-hand source. This theory was tested out by two professors from Berkeley in an experiment. Upon the publication of Zimmerman’s sixth book, a collection of stories called Letters From Black Africa, the two theorists held readings of Zimmerman’s book at different venues, announcing at the last minute before the simultaneous events in San Francisco that each was the real Zimmerman, and the other a phony. Since it was only possible to attend one reading or the other (the distance was carefully calculated to ensure no one could attend both), and since no cell phones or video or audio recording equipment were allowed during the readings, there was the dreadful sense, no matter which location one was at, that it was the wrong one. Halfway through the readings restless crowds at both venues collectively agreed that the person standing before them was the imposter. They concluded that the fiction and the reality of Zimmerman was inseparable.
– – –
We took a taxi and arrived at the Berkeley Pit.
‘Don’t you find it a little funny that of all Butte’s historic places one could visit, this is where people come most? A Superfund toxic dump.’ He sucked in a belly of air and exhaled.
We had paid two dollars each to go through a narrow service tunnel that ended at a viewing stand above the Pit, which loomed like a pristine lake around us. A mix of tourists with cameras flitted between the placards and the rail. A pig-tailed girl monkeyed on the view finder, swinging from side to side until her father, who was reading a placard about the atrocious behaviour of the Anaconda Company, turned and said, ‘Honey, be careful, anything that touches the water dies and we wouldn’t want to fall in now, would we?’
‘I want to be a mutant!’ she screamed.
‘No you don’t, dear,’ the mother said. She adjusted a giant telephoto lens on her fancy camera, shuffled back and forth in a blue windbreaker in an attempt to capture a crisp image of Our Lady of the Rockies. The statue was visible from where we were standing, a ninety-foot eggshell-white effigy of the Virgin Mary that perched high on a ridge overlooking all of Butte.
I couldn’t settle on what color the water in the Pit was supposed to be. The sun weaved in and out of clouds, turning the water either red, brown, or even a shade of blue-teal that made it appear almost drinkable. Zimmerman explained that the color changed depending on current levels of iron and other metals. It looked highly chemical, regardless of the color. Rimming the Pit were brown terracing lines that cut deep into rock, showing the steady progression—or recession—of the open-pit mine’s better days. Whole neighborhoods bulldozed to mine the precious copper, he added.
‘See that pump near the edge of the Pit down there?’ Zimmerman said. ‘Those buildings? They treat the water, remove the toxic copper for other uses. First we destroy this landscape and mine so much of it that it’s now a Superfund site, where the water is so contaminated migrating birds who land on it die. Now we’re mining the Berkeley Pit’s water to extract even more copper. That’s human ingenuity for you.’
Zimmerman and I stared into the Berkeley Pit and pondered. The pale sun brought a sudden drop in temperature. The cold winds whipping down from Canada were coming, and we’d have to leave soon.
‘Would you care to take this conversation to my house in Walkerville?’
‘Sounds great,’ I said.
‘Under two conditions,’ he added hastily. ‘You’re not allowed to tell anyone you met me. And you’re not allowed to write about me, ever. Not a word. There’s already enough rumor and biography out there. Understand?’
‘I swear,’ I said. I shook his hand.
He looked at his watch. ‘In that case, I think it’s about tea time.’
– – –
Almost four o’ clock, the October sun low in the sky. We took a taxi to his house—which was a decrepit trailer far up the hill in Walkerville—to an area that made Butte proper seem like a bustling city. Unleashed dogs patrolled the streets and buildings lay wasted in varying stages of abandonment. NO TRESPASSING signs were posted everywhere. Piles and piles of scab-rusted metal littered yards: cars, appliances, wrecked bicycles, an unused swingset. A green Ford pick-up with blown tires sat in Zimmerman’s dirt yard, broken pallets of wood haphazardly stacked in the back of the truck.
He opened the gate to the chain-link fence and led me into the trailer. There was no sign inside that the man I was talking to was a writer. None of his books could be found, or any books, only a small stash of old Esquire magazines. No photographs on the walls, but that was at least understandable. In his living room: a second-hand coffee table covered in crusty brown mug rings, a lime-green sofa that was less used but with the middle section missing, and a pair of Queen Anne-style armchairs that looked close to new. A large map of England scotch-taped to the far clapboard wall had black ink circled around various cities and towns.
‘Welcome to my cottage,’ Zimmerman announced. ‘It’s not much to look at, but it serves its purpose. I don’t get visitors, you understand. Have a seat.’ Once the kettle was on the stove, Zimmerman dragged a metal patio table from the kitchen and situated it between the two armchairs. A white sheet from the closet was thrown over the table, releasing a thick cloud of dust. ‘Not quite the Broads in Norfolk, but it’ll have to do.’
I sat in the chair. It was surprisingly comfortable. Hoping to confirm the existence of the thousand-page tome and elicit first-hand details, I asked, ‘Are you working on anything now, Mr. Zimmerman?’
He brought out the tea tray—the only thing in the house I’d seen so far that looked like it had any value. ‘A biography,’ he said.
Was he joking or was this the enormous manuscript being dragged up and down the West Coast? ‘Who’s it about?’
‘It’s about Dietrick Zimmerman, naturally,’ he said, as if it was the most obvious answer.
‘So it’s an autobiography.’
‘I guess you could call it that. That does make it more authentic sounding, doesn’t it? But it’s written in the third-person and my memory isn’t so good, so I don’t know if you can call it exactly that.’ The kettle whistled. Zimmerman returned with a silver teapot. ‘We’ll let it steep for a bit.’ He plopped into the chair across from me. ‘Sugar?’
‘Please,’ I said.
‘One lump or two?’
‘One is fine.’
‘Milk or lemon?’
‘No, but thank you.’
We sat and sipped our tea and studied each other’s faces.
‘Do you think I should write a book about the Holocaust?’ he asked. ‘Because I was born in Berlin during a tragic time. Because my father was shot as soon as he arrived at Dachau. Because my mother was shot outside her synagogue. Because I was smuggled out of Germany and to England by kind Jews who risked their own lives to save an infant. And mostly—because I’m Jewish.’
I said automatically, ‘You’re Dietrick Zimmerman. You can write about anything.’
‘You’re clearly idolizing, and you’re off the point,’ he said, visibly unhappy. His chin was stubbly, snowy. A few days away from a good shave. He scratched at his jaw, the loose skin around the jawbone stretching with his fingers. He brought the teacup to his lips, blew away the steam. ‘Let me rephrase the question. Do we have a birthright to our respective narratives, and if so, must it define us as writers?’
‘I don’t know,’ I said. This was when it occurred to me that this man before me—this man of infinite contradictions—was no imposter.
Zimmerman’s eyes wandered around the room. He got up from his chair and strutted to the weatherized windows, sealed in plastic, which was causing them to billow with the slightest provocation. Then he looked fiercely at me. ‘You have to understand, I’m not well-liked in pockets of the literary community. Between you and me, I screwed people over, or so they say. I was accused in 1968, accused by the Jewish Council on Literature of not being Jewish enough in my writing. Can you believe that? They actually accused me of not being Jewish enough! Then they said that my third novel The Wisdom of Solomon was anti-Semitic! Do you know what sort of effect that has on a thirty-year-old? It was eventually decided that I wasn’t Jewish at all. Dietrick Zimmerman, they said, was a pseudonym of some anti-Semite who was pretending to be Jewish. That was the saddest part. After that, I didn’t care what people said about me. I wanted to be left alone. I went from being simply a writer who happened to be Jewish, to a de facto Jewish writer, to an anti-Semite posing as a Jewish writer.’
Zimmerman and I continued talking into the night, until he was so drowsy I thought he was talking in his sleep. At some point his head flopped over. I sat on the sofa for a long while after. I thought about everything he had said. Near midnight the wind picked back up, the rain fell, and the thunder crashed through the uninsulated walls of the tiny trailer.
– – –
When I got up the next morning, Zimmerman made it clear that his time in Butte was up. He’d already planned on moving since the Montana Standard article came out. My appearance in his life just hurried it along. ‘I’ve got one more go-around left in me,’ he said. He wanted to move back to England, back to his childhood home to write about the German-Jewish family who had saved him.
We packed his few possessions into two brown suitcases, left the trailer as it was when he arrived last spring. He hung his JCPenney’s three-piece in the bedroom closet, the dry cleaner’s receipt still attached, and left a note for for his landlord that said: PLEASE GIVE MY DEPOSIT TO KEEPING THE BERKELEY PIT ACCESSIBLE TO ALL TOURISTS. Zimmerman hitched a ride with me back to Missoula. From there he would go to Seattle, then Amsterdam, then Norwich. He had on a pair of Bermuda shorts, a silly salmon-colored shirt with penguins lounging in the sun, a straw hat.
I dropped Zimmerman off at the airport. He turned and waved at curbside, looking nothing like the man I met in the suit a few days ago. He gave a thumbs-up with both hands. No poignant farewells or parting writerly advice. He grinned his wide grin as yellow autumn leaves twirled and skipped around him. A jet roared above us and descended on the tarmac. I didn’t feel as sad as I thought I would to see him go.
I drove back into town. I called my friend Colin and told him I’d been in Butte. Surprised to hear from me, he asked about my search for Zimmerman. I wanted to keep my promise to Zimmerman, so I said to Colin that the Zimmerman of the Montana Standard article was not the same Zimmerman who wrote novels, but a hoax. He said he told me so. He asked why I was in Butte all weekend. To work on my first short story, I explained, a story I couldn’t write in the familiar terrain of Missoula. He asked what my story was about, why he hadn’t heard me mention it earlier. He didn’t know I was so invested in such a project, in keeping it a secret from everybody. I gave him the synopsis: The story, I said, is about a writer of indeterminant origin and background, someone like the writer Dietrick Zimmerman but who is not Dietrick Zimmerman. And a younger man, similar to me but not me, who obsesses over the writer and searches for him in nearby Butte, only to find out that the elderly writer in Butte is not the elderly writer of the young man’s obsession, but a kind old stranger who has many stories to tell. They strike up a friendship, a friendship which would last until one blustery and thunderous morning when walking around town in his crisp three-piece suit, the old man is struck—and instantly killed—by a single bolt of lightning.