New York City, Summer 2016
Her first impression was of entering a church. Or if not a church, then at least a place of worship, its air scented with old metal and polish, its wooden shelves glimmering with holy relics. Juno Lambert had not much idea what to expect when she stepped out of the elevator and pushed open the door of the New York Typewriter Company three floors above Fifth Avenue, but she’d scarcely imagined this. Row upon row of them, stacked floor to ceiling: antique Olympias, Remingtons, Smith-Coronas, Olivettis, and Royals, their keys jet or smooth ivory, their steel casings gleaming pink, blue, green, and Bible black. It was not so much a shop, as a place of pilgrimage. A shrine.
Nailed on the opposite wall was a rusting tin sign.
TYPEWRITERS: SALE & REPAIR. ALL MODELS
From the back of the shop, behind a partition, came the sound of someone negotiating on the telephone, murmured interjections and agreement, accompanied by a rapid, atonal symphony of clattering keys.
Otherwise, she was alone.
Inhaling the acid tang of oil and ink, Juno eased the auburn hair from the sticky back of her neck and twisted it up into a ponytail. Her cotton dress clung to her and she longed to fan herself vigorously. Outside, the Flatiron Building loomed over another choking hot day, the Manhattan air fogged with fumes and the city’s arteries clogged with noisy traffic, but inside this store a stillness presided. The only wall space not covered by typewriters was plastered with newspaper clippings and photographs of them. Pictures of collectors’ items. Thank-you notes from grateful purchasers. Articles about how vintage machines were selling for thousands of dollars amid cyber hacking fears. How people suffering from “digital burnout” were seeking a fresh connection to the past.
Juno loved vintage too, but mostly in the form of Chanel jackets or Dior dresses or battered Bottega Veneta bags found from hours of scouring eBay. She had never given typewriters a second thought until she was commissioned to photograph an actress performing in a Tennessee Williams play in a pop-up theater in SoHo and she had the idea to evoke a forties feel with a black-and-white shot of the actress gazing out of a window. Moody lighting, draped silk dress, plume of cigarette smoke. The addition of a typewriter was a last-minute inspiration.
From behind the partition, the voice could still be heard, talking on the phone. Moving over to examine a sleek model in lime green, Juno tentatively brushed the keys. She had never used a typewriter—hardly even touched one, unless you counted the machine in the attic of their old family home, its workings caked with dust and stuck fast—imagine having to crank in a piece of paper every time you wanted to put something in writing! Her instinct had been correct though; merely the sight of a machine like this inspired a host of associations. Dorothy Parker with her Smith-Corona, George Orwell and his Remington. Jack Kerouac used a Hermes. Ian Fleming’s typewriter was gold plated. All you do is sit at a typewriter and bleed. Whose novelistic tip was that? Ernest Hemingway, wasn’t it?
There was an irony too. The previous day Juno’s laptop had been hacked, and as the virus rampaged through her hard drive, it might as well have swallowed her whole life. Contacts, past writing, years of photography. Friends, recent pictures of her mother taken just before she died. Her brother, Simon, in his London apartment. Everything gone. Yet even as she opened up the computer and discovered its memory dissolving like an aspirin, it had seemed weirdly appropriate.
After all, wasn’t half her life in the process of disappearing?
It was three months since Daniel Ryan, her partner of the past fifteen years, had departed. People change, Juno knew that, it’s the oldest complaint in the world, but the changes in Dan had played out before her eyes as inexorably as time-lapse photography. When they first met—she a twenty-one-year-old photographer fresh out of college, he a fledgling actor—Dan had just won a cameo role in an art house film. He got noticed, and great reviews, and they were both ecstatic. Once they moved in together Dan drifted away from movies to spend time in theater “learning his craft,” and that proved the right decision. His talent was real and he began to turn heads.
For a while Juno enjoyed accompanying Dan on his steady rise to fame. Being consort to celebrity brought distinct advantages. She liked the double takes and the whispers when he was recognized in the street or at parties, the subtle rise in status, the overspill of curiosity as eyes turned to her and tried to puzzle out who she was. The best restaurant tables, the premiere tickets, the weekends in Connecticut and Long Island with producers and directors, the vast ranks of his new best friends.
Then Dan’s success was crowned by the call from Hollywood. He had been cast in a Netflix World War II drama, to be shot in L.A. and on location. Even now Juno could recall the excitement in his eyes as they began the inevitable dispute about priorities. Her job was infinitely portable, Dan coaxed. Her mother—how to be gentle about this?—had been dead for months. For what possible reason could Juno cling to Manhattan? What kind of person wanted to live in the same city all her life? This wasn’t the Juno he knew. Sometimes he didn’t recognize her anymore.
Sometimes she didn’t recognize herself.
Juno thought of her friends, her contacts, her beloved apartment two floors above a bakery, whose aroma was the first thing to greet you as you walked out the door. Then she imagined a new life in L.A. as one of Dan’s entourage. The hangers-on and admirers, the late nights, the times when the only chance of seeing him would be pitching up to his trailer, or in a stupor of sleep before a predawn call.
They argued until they were barely speaking. The apartment was so small it was hard to avoid each other, but Dan managed it, flinching infinitesimally if her hand brushed his, waiting until she had finished in the bathroom rather than barging in as he used to and jokily sharing the basin. Tension hummed like tinnitus in the air. A wall of silence descended between them, cutting off further discussion. Until, eventually, the start of filming arrived. At JFK Dan’s parting words lingered as if written in neon on the air.
You can come with me or you can stay here without me. Up to you.
Up to you.
Three little words, but not the three she really wanted to hear.
Juno was jerked from her thoughts by the approach of a man from behind the partition. He was a bulky figure in thick spectacles and suspenders with a sunburned face, a shock of white hair, and fingers stained with ink the way a smoker’s are yellowed by nicotine. He glanced down at the lime green typewriter.
“The Hermes 3000. You have good taste. Thing about this one, it lasts. It’ll serve you a hundred years. What computer lasts a hundred years?”
Could he tell that her laptop had just been hacked? Or was the question merely rhetorical? He bent closer and started to fiddle with the machinery, as delicately as if it had been a Swiss clock.
“Here. To unlock the carriage simply move it to the right. You know how to move the marginal stops, right? Adjust the centering scales? Change a ribbon? Takes an Ellwood ribbon.”
Surely it was obvious that she couldn’t change a ribbon or operate the paper-centering scales or a marginal stop release button to save her life. What was more, she didn’t have the faintest intention of learning. Writing had never been her way into the world. Pictures were.
Juno drifted over to another machine and ran her fingers across it. This one was smaller than the Hermes and in every way more perfect. Its sleek black enamel was as shiny as a fountain pen, the casing buffed to a Mercedes gleam.
“That’s the Underwood Portable. It’s Jazz Age, the 1931.”
“How much is it?”
The old man blew out his cheeks and glanced up through his thick lenses. He took a while to consider this proposition, crossing his arms and slapping them against his torso, as if he were cold. Juno sighed. This was supposed to be a store, wasn’t it, that sold things? Yet this guy was acting as though she had requested something outlandish. She might as well have asked him to part with a piece of his soul.
“This machine belonged to a special lady. She was quite well known.”
No doubt he was planning to charge a fortune and was stalling to calculate how much.
“Would I have heard of her?”
“Cordelia Capel, her name was.”