In the bedroom there was brisk movement between the bureau and the bed; that was Ann Loeb packing Manley’s bags. Manley was sprawled on the couch in the other room, surrounded by familiar debris, the evening papers (along with yesterday’s as well), magazines, half-read mail, library books. “It’s cheaper to buy them than take them out and never return them,” Ann was always saying. But buying transitory fiction seemed impractical to Manley. Like most impractical men he made frequent efforts at economy and efficiency.
This clutter was a distraction to him, Manley had claimed at times. On these occasions, preparing himself for work, he felt he could not arrange his thoughts until the mess around him was straightened up. At least once a week Ann devoted an hour to restoring some kind of order to this accumulation. But she accused him of preferring the disarray.
Although his habits inevitably produced the clutter, it really disturbed him, as a tangible expression of his being at loose ends. He was simply unable to extricate himself. He had never learned where to put things. Letters and bills left on his desk to be answered had a way of strewing themselves around the room. Definitely neurotic, he decided. For people like himself, Freud had not succeeded in doing much more than providing a new vocabulary for old faults.
“Manley, maybe you’d better come in and see where I’m putting things. So you’ll know where to find them when you want them.”
Ann had the large case nearly packed. Two suits had been neatly folded, the way he had never—for all his travels—been able to learn. Everything was in orderly piles, strategically placed. Some people had this gift. They could do things. He was sure, watching Ann, that she could rig a sailboat, build a house, kill a chicken.
“This bag we’ll check right through for you. I’ve given you complete changes for six days. There’s an extra shirt in the overnight bag in case you’re held over anywhere. Now let me show you where the pills are …”
There were the nembutals, the insulin, the saccharin, the benzedrine, the empirin, the row of little bottles that sustained him. How had he managed before Ann? She sent his laundry out, submitted his car to periodic inspections, had his income-tax forms completed, took care of those thousand and one little irritations and did them so easily he was never even aware of their being done.
While she briefed him on the layout of his overnight things, he was only faintly conscious of dissatisfaction. Maybe, because Ann was so exactly what he needed, she was not the healthy influence she seemed. Maybe it would be better for him to do his own dirty work, his own packing. Packing had been his job in the old days. The packing and the planning, both of them catch-as-catch-can. There had been no plan to Jere. Strictly a moment-to-moment girl. Even the act of packing a tooth-brush in a toilet case had seemed an impossible demand on her capabilities. “I hate people who drag umbrellas to picnics,” she had said once, “just in case it should rain. People who do that deserve to get rained on.”
Poor Jere. Only it had never seemed poor Jere then. It had been mad Jere, marvelous Jere, fabulous Jere. Up from Cannes to meet him that time in Paris:
He: Jere, where’s all your luggage?
She: Oh, darling, I packed all my bags so efficiently this morning And then forgot to have them brought down from my room. Aren’t you sorry you’ve got such an idiot wife?
He: I’m crazy about idiot wives. Never going to have anything else but idiot wives.
She comes close to him. It’s been three days. The loveliest girl he has ever seen. Three days. To be kissed like that, to be drawn down and down, closer and closer together, deeper and deeper.
April rains rapped lightly at the window but they did not hear. Morning light vaulting over the balcony broke in on them, but for them it was neither morning nor night, nor could there
have been for them any greater irrelevancy than the hour of day. Lovers are their own season and their own time.
Then they had gone out to the American Express and since this was one of those days when everything goes right, the royalty check they had been hoping for was there. This called for celebration (though every day together those first years was celebration). By noon (in the new little bar they had discovered and kept to themselves in the hope that it wouldn’t be ruined by Americans like them) they were calling Mama to bring them another Grande Fine. And he had sat there wining the afternoon away while Jere went out to replace the wardrobe she had left behind. “Jere,” he had told her laughingly then, “the clothes you’ve left behind in hotel rooms would outfit the entire female population of the Balkans!”
“Manley, are you following me?”
He was staring vacantly into the suitcase, it seemed to Ann.
“Why—” (rocketing back across six thousand miles and fifteen years) “—yes, Ann.”
“I just want to be sure you know where your extra bow tie is —so you don’t pull everything out trying to find it in the morn-ing.”
“Yes, I’ll remember, the tie is in …”
“Now, anything else?”
“How about the manuscript? I might have a chance to look it over on my way.”
“Fine. It’ll be right on top. Now, for goodness sake, don’t lose it.”
He should really concentrate on what she was saying. Good-looking woman, Ann. Large-boned, a big girl but well proportioned. Strong legs, heavy-breasted, but with fine carriage— a statuesque woman, Ann. It was a sign of his development, he liked to think, to find maturer pleasure in her cropped black hair, the fine high forehead, the prominent but at the same time elegant and delicately bridged Semitic nose, the unplucked eyebrows that would have bothered him ordinarily but seemed just right for her and the serious eyes that seemed always to follow you.
He felt a sense of guilt toward Ann. For his infidelity took place in the secret chambers of his mind. But like the husband who sneaks off to actual liaison, Halliday was always shaken by remorse on his way back. In the great tradition of roving husbands, he solemnly avowed, I must not visit that woman again. But his rendezvous were so easily affected. There was no need for elaborate intrigue, surreptitious exit or proficient alibis. He had merely to enter the private passageway spiraling through his mind. There at the bottom of the steps was Jere’s door. It was never locked against him.
With the years Halliday had grown increasingly ascetic. Having wallowed in self-indulgence, he had come to identify it with failure and decline. Having achieved his early triumphs with such ease, he had become suspicious of anything too easy. And there was nothing easier than to slip away to his secret door. It was like wearing a magic ring and being your own genie. But what happened in the fable when a greedy benefactor invoked the charm once too often ? Manley tried to apply the moral. Self-destruction always had fascinated him. (Remember the dangerous sports he had pushed himself, through fear, to try?) Wasn’t it pure self-destruction that lured him onto emotional rocks where Jere beckoned? In fairness to Ann, and for his own peace of mind, there must be no Jere. No Jere.
“Plan to see Jere when you’re in New York?”
Guiltily, Manley’s eyes turned outward again. The calm directness of her stare almost convinced him that she had eavesdropped on his thoughts.
“Oh, I suppose I’ll have to.”
A mute of resignation deadened his tone of voice. It was always a bad time, seeing Jere now. He knew being this far away was one of the reasons he had begun to knit a little in California. And perhaps, though he was hardly aware of it (or resisted it), that was one of the reasons that hovered behind his reluctance to make this trip East. The Jere Halliday he would have to see would not even be a ghost of the Jere Halliday in his mind, the Jere of twenty years ago. Had that Jere lived merely in his mind too? Now a crippled romantic, a recent convert to skepticism still somewhat unfamiliar with the litany, he wondered if she had ever been all those things his love had credited her with being—the wildest, the brightest, the funniest, the most passionate, the most beautiful, the most talented, the most companionable woman he had ever known.
Now their divorce was five years old, their love was ten years cold. And the last time he had seen her, just before he came West two years ago, they had wrangled about money.
I must stop thinking about Jere.
“Ann, how’s Boris? You haven’t mentioned him lately.”
Boris Beskind, a German refugee director, had made several pictures Ann had edited at World-Wide. He was a moody, insecure man of considerable talent. They had worked closely on the cutting, found they had a good many film ideas in common and had dined together a number of times when Manley had been working on his novel or preferred to be alone. On a few occasions they had all gone out together and Manley, with dog-in-manger keenness, had been quick to detect the look of adoration for Ann that escaped through Beskind’s guard of polished manners. Beskind was in his early thirties, rather attractive in an unhealthy, dark-complexioned and melancholy way.
“Boris has been down at Laguna since he finished Swan Song. I thought I told you he was taking a month off. He wants us to come down and see him some week-end.”
“You should really marry Boris.”
She looked up sharply from the suitcase. “What am I going to get now, the I’m-just-a-stone-around-your-neck speech?”
Even when she undertood what made him say these things, she was annoyed. It was messy, she felt. Her sense of neatness, of pattern, extended to emotions.
“No, seriously, Ann, a woman of your age, with your common sense—he’s a young man, with a future, with interests similar to yours. And he obviously wants to marry you …”
“For heaven’s sake, Manley, what’s wrong with you tonight?”
“It’s just that—I like to think of myself as a man of honor. You’re too much of a person to be—to be …”
If he were writing this scene, he was thinking, he wouldn’t be having this trouble. The older man would know just how to put it, the delicate phrase for the precise thought. And the girl would say …
But she was saying, “Oh, for God’s sake, I know you don’t want to marry me. I’ve never asked you, have I? Listen, Halliday, I’ll promise never to propose to you—no, not even one of those sly female hints—if you’ll promise not to marry me off to the first man who wants to have dinner with me.”
The strain of Manley’s day showed through his smile. “I know I’m a hopeless egotist, Ann. But now and then I try to think about you.”
“I’d rather you didn’t.” She said it convincingly. “I know you, Manley. Of course you’re an egotist. Don’t forget I was raised with egotists. You just happen to be the first one who’s got something worth being egotistical about. So go on thinking about yourself, doing what’s best for you. I’ll work out my part of it. I’m not worried.”
“Ann, I think you’re the only woman I ever knew who was really pulled together. But sometimes I wonder about the contradiction, on one hand so self-reliant, and yet you fasten yourself to me, a tired man who’s done most of his living, who …”
“Manley, will you let me get this packing done? That’s much more important at the moment than trying to analyze me.”
He stretched out on the bed, watching idly but with a certain enjoyment the sure movement of Ann’s labors. Then he placed his hand lightly on his forehead. Flushed, dampish, perhaps a slight fever. He shut his eyes. A flock of words flew into his mind. When he arranged them he found himself reciting silently:
This is the dead land
This is. the cactus land
Here the stone images
Are raised, here they perceive
The supplication of a dead man’s hand
Under the twinkle of a fading star.
Dead land, cactus land, stone’s image, dead man’s hand, fading star—had Eliot been to Hollywood? Ever signed on as a screenwriter? How else could he have written that?
His eyes were still closed and a new flock of remembered
words were soaring down from a great height in his mind when Ann came over to sit beside him.
“I’ve put the key to the big bag in the right-hand pocket of your overcoat—the key to the little bag will be in the little pocket of the suit you’re wearing. Your manuscript’s right on top in case you’ll want it.”
Manley nodded without opening his eyes.
“Not feeling well?”
“I’ve got a little headache and a funny pain at the back of my neck.”
“I think you caught cold staying out so late last night. Get into bed and I’ll rub some of that Vicks Vaporub on your neck.”
In bed a few minutes later, with Ann’s strong fingers working the warm ointment into the muscles of his neck, he felt good enough to say:
“Have you ever rubbed any of this into Boris Beskind’s neck?”
“Of course. That’s how we spend our evenings. Vicks Vaporub orgies.”
“If you did this for any other man I know I’d be violently jealous.”
When she finished he rolled over to face her and she lowered her head to his. “Manley, I wish you weren’t going.”
“I did my best to talk Victor out of it. But he’s like a stone wall that smiles at you.”
“Victor doesn’t need you back there. I think he just likes to arrive in New York with an entourage. And of course he’d like to show you off at Webster. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s bucking for an honorary degree.”
“You mean he’ll dangle me from his watch chain like a Phi Bete key?”
Her arm slid under his neck. Her face was so close he couldn’t see her. “This is a strange feeling for me. I’m really going to miss you this week, darling.”
“I will too, Annie.”
Her mouth pressed his, tenderly at first.
“You’ll catch my cold.”
“I don’t care.”
His arms went around her, dutifully. Her eyes were closed, her mouth was crushing into his. It was overwhelming. He was conscious of the effort he had to make.
Looking down at her and her fine big body waiting, he thought: Nothing I do is spontaneous any more. That’s the big difference …
“Oh darling, darling, oh my darling.” She was covering his face with grateful kisses as he lay resting.
Then she noticed that he had left her again, that his eyes were searching the ceiling as if for some escape.
“What are you thinking about?”
“Oh, about tomorrow. And how I dread flying East again. It’s like making a pilgrimage to my own grave.”