With the abruptness of semi-tropical winter, the weather had suddenly changed an hour before. Now a gray film obscured the sharp dark line of the mountains beyond the airport. Despite the somber lighting and threatening skies, a crowd of perhaps fifty waited hopefully for a glimpse of a new film idol going East for personal appearances. He was a very young, blond boy with soft blue eyes, pink cheeks and a weak chin. When the crowd caught sight of him, conspicuously wrapped in a great camel’s hair coat, they became suddenly animated, jostling each other for a better view, waving, laughing and, full of mob courage, calling out his first name familiarly. The young star waved automatically. He had been on top for a good many months already.
Other passengers, carefully inspected by the onlookers for signs of celebrity and then contemptuously rejected, passed gravely through the gate. Shep and his girl Sara, hand-in-hand, smiled at each other, made little jokes about the star, wondered what Tom Mooney was going to do now that he was free, wondered what could be keeping Manley Halliday and anxiously kept watching for him.
“Oh, there he is.” Sara recognized him from Shep’s careful description.
Gently pushing his way through the knot of people at the gate, Halliday came slowly toward them.
“I was afraid you weren’t going to make it,” Shep said.
“I almost called to say I couldn’t. I was feeling rather badly.”
“Well, you can get a good night’s sleep on the plane.”
Shep was bubbling with so much optimism about their adventure that Halliday could not tell him he had never been able to sleep on a plane.
“Sara’s over there—she’s dying to meet you.”
Halliday made the old courtier’s effort to rise to occasions.
His natural curiosity, his interest in Shep and an automatic response to attractive young women helped him shake off lethargy for a moment.
He saw a girl who seemed to have brought her own warm sunlight into this dismal evening. She had a cheerful, puckish, outdoor beauty that suddenly encouraged him. It was as if he had just downed a three-finger whiskey. Despite the drizzle she wore no hat and he liked the way her brown hair, parted simply in the middle, fell softly to her shoulders.
“Mr. Halliday, I suppose you get awfully tired of having people tell you how much they admire your books?”
“On the contrary, young lady. Most authors I’ve known could live exclusively on such a diet.”
“Now you know who she really came down to see off,” Shep teased.
“Had I known that I’d have been more prompt.”
Halliday punctuated this gallantry with his little bow. But the young couple’s vitality and enthusiasm and the play of affection between them was having a reverse effect on him now.
“What I really wanted to tell you, Mr. Halliday—” Sara’s words had an accompaniment of laughter “—is that I’m depending on you to keep Shep away from those Wellesley and Bennington girls.”
Halliday’s effort to join in made his words toneless: “Have no fear. I shall run interference for him against the entire Wellesley-Bennington line.”
“But all the polls show they’re going for older men these days. I’ll probably be running interference for him.”
This was enough of a cue to laugh lightly together and Halliday observed carefully how these two were alive to each other. They are “hooked up” together and the juice is on, he thought. For an instant, irresistibly, he compared them to himself and Jere at the same age. This girl was more substantial than Jere, more down-to-earth, less exotic, less dynamic, less driven and self-conscious. Their whole affair, he imagined, was more solid, less romantic, more purposeful, but less exciting.
“I brought this for you as a little going-away present.” Sara produced the bottle of Mumm. (Shep already had his.)
“Oh, thank you.” He could hardly intrude on Shep and Sara’s mood of festivity with the solemn information that he was not drinking. The bottle bulked awkwardly under his arm. He wished he didn’t have to drag it along.
“Have a marvelous time, Shep,” Sara was saying, offering her bright young mouth to the ritual of farewell.
Halliday moved away discreetly. He turned, tipped his hat to Sara and forced a troubled smile. Then he entered the dark comfort of the plane.
Offering Halliday the seat by the window, Shep sank into the one beside him. The spin of propellers animated this life-like thing; it began to tremble. Shep half-rose to locate Sara. Halliday looked out into the faces of the crowd. It was dinner time; why were they not home? How many would catch colds? It would serve them right. Twenty years from now how many of them would remember their little idol’s name? How many today remembered John Roche and Eddie Burns?
As the plane began to creep away, Sara was a sturdy, self-possessed little figure enlivening the dusk. Instinctively, Halliday looked from her face to Shep’s. The attraction between them suddenly had begun to affect him perversely: would Sara and Shep drift apart or, marrying, grow accustomed to each other? Whatever happened, the edge would dull. The happiest of people were machines running down. As the plane pivoted around toward the main runway, he caught a final glimpse of Sara—she had the face of an old woman and her lovely youth had shriveled. Manley touched his fingers to his lips in a desolate farewell.
“That’s my girl!” Shep was waving energetically and grinning. The roar of excitement inside him seemed louder than the roar of the motors. The great metal nose lunged forward in mechanical ecstasy. To avoid conversation with his exhilarated young companion, Halliday lay his head back and closed his eyes.
Gradually the droning in his ears faded to a low, insistent hum. He had slipped off into a choppy, troubled half-sleep. Grotesque fantasies droned in his head. Something that looked like Ann was soaring through the air with arms outstretched like wings and little propellers whirring from her breasts …
He seemed to be moving with her in some way he could not quite understand … and Milgrim was there too … but where was Ann? Milgrim’s office was in a toilet and Milgrim was saying, “Your wife has the most beautiful figure in Hollywood …” Oh, Christ, this was terrible! Jere was behind that door with Victor Milgrim. Oh, that wench! The thought of what they might be doing filled him with choking rage. He’d murder Milgrim, and Jere too … He ran into the room. There were Shep and Sara on a tremendous couch. His mouth was full of apologies as he tried to back out. But his feet seemed glued there. And they did not seem to mind his being there at all. “Have you seen Jere?” he screamed at them. “Oh, we’ve always wanted to meet her,” they said. “Was she really Lenore in The Night’s High Noon?” Was she really? Was she really was she really … A telephone rang. It jangled in Manley’s ears. Lingalingalingalingaling … “Mr. Milgrim will see you now,” a voice said, and then for some inexplicable reason the phone began ringing in his head again lingalingalingalingalingngn …
He could feel himself making a frantic effort to break out of the nightmare’s coils.
Shep was watching him nervously. The gray pallor had gone dead white. The head had rolled strangely. Eyeballs had disappeared. He was beginning to chew his lips fitfully. Shep called the stewardess. She took over with crisp efficiency. Her arm propped him up. She was ready with a small cylinder of ammonia. Half-conscious of this, he brushed it aside. He was beginning to know where he was. “Pocket,” he whispered, “ri” pocket.” In this pocket they found a typed note beginning, “I am a diabetic,” with instructions for emergencies. There was also a small bag of lump sugar and the stewardess, following the written instructions, forced several into his mouth. Shep felt a little ill himself as he watched the sick mouth sucking on sugar. But the magic of Halliday’s quick recovery fascinated him.
“I’m all right now, thank you,” Halliday said. He even managed a smile for the stewardess. He looked at Shep apologetically.
“Are you sure you’re all right?”
“I’m fine now. Should have eaten, that’s all.”
He hated to talk about it. He despised physical infirmities. He felt contemptuous of his own weakness. Regularity, diet, rest, abstinence—this was his program of survival. Right now he should have been home in the Garden, after a quiet supper, talking or playing chess with Ann or perhaps reading over his manuscript …
“Do you—have these things often?”
“Just once in a while, if I miss a meal, or forget my shots. Sometimes I just get a sleepy feeling. But I suppose this was almost an insulin faint. I should show you where everything is —even how to operate the damn needle—” he saw the look of dismay on Shep’s face “—though the chances are this won’t happen again.”
Hammering in his head was: I never should have come— never should have come. He wished he didn’t have to let this young man in on this diabetic business. Except for medical personnel, no one but Ann had seen these spells before. Once or twice she had had to give him the shots. He was nervous about the needle and never did it well. Ann could do it with a sure hand. But her knowledge of the damned thing was one of the reasons he could never work up any sense of romance toward her. He felt unclean about these injections.
“… in New York at eight. Let’s see, that’s eleven our time, that makes sixteen hours …” Shep was studying the time-table. He leaned back contentedly. “Gee, I haven’t been in New York since I stopped over on my way back from college after graduation. Just by luck I caught the opening of The Cradle Will Rock. Now that’s my idea of the new idiom for musicals.”
“I’m beginning to think I’m old-fashioned about musicals,” Halliday said. “I don’t like too much art in my musicals. I like ’em rough and ready. Low comics like Ed Wynn and Bobby Clark. Chorus girls. Songs you can whistle.” He almost added, “I wish you could have seen Garrick Gaieties,” but he was only talking to fill the gap. What could it mean to a boy who couldn’t have been over ten years old at the time? The lines rippled in his memory though “… our future babies—we’ll take to Abie’s Irish Rose—I hope they’ll live to see—it close …” If we
had an American poet laureate, I’d vote for Larry Hart, he decided.
The efficient stewardess brought dinner on aseptic metal trays. Her smile was a nice compromise between a cold professional and a warm personal one. It was remarkable how much charm she managed to maintain while performing such menial tasks.
“I suppose your generation will fall in love with airline hostesses the way we did with our nurses,” Halliday said. “This one is a damn good-looking girl.” “They’re all damn good-looking girls,” Halliday assured him. “And the more you travel on these things the more convinced you’ll be that they’re all the same damn good-looking girl. I’ve always wondered how the airlines managed it. Maybe they put them together on assembly lines.”
“They should make wonderful wives,” Shep caught his mood. “Serving you all your meals right on time. Bringing you reading matter. Asking if there’s anything else you want.”
“But they’re all going to marry their pilots and produce a new race of handsome, airborne mechanics,” Halliday insisted.
“Junior, stop following me around the house—go outside and play with your autogyro,” Shep offered.
“Can’t you see them in bed together?” Halliday went on. “A sign will flash on—’Fasten your seat-belts. Landing in fifteen minutes.’”
Shep went on eating vigorously while they improvised their own little brave new world. Halliday only picked at his tray. He knew he should be eating but he was never hungry any more. Long ago he had resigned from the gourmets. And in the last few years he had begun to take a grim view of food. There had been so many mustn’ts that finally he had had to accommodate himself to the sour conception of food as fuel.
When the stewardess removed their trays with that same practiced cheerfulness, Halliday came back to their theme with variations. “More likely Miss Heath isn’t a model wife at all. When her husband asks her when supper will be ready maybe she snarls, ’Listen, I’ve been standing over a hot aisle all day. Get your own supper.’” “And if her old man should wake up and want to assert a husband’s privileges in the middle of the night, she probably answers in her sleep, ’I’ll get to you just as soon as I can but there are still several passengers ahead of you.’”
Suddenly their nonsense lost Halliday’s attention. He was staring gravely at the rain tap dancing on the shiny metallic floor of the plane’s wings. He seemed to be crouching down into his own silence. His face was turned away from Shep’s as if in search of as much privacy as this public cylinder could provide. Shep found himself conscientiously nibbling around the edges of Love on Ice. They had to bear down now. A hell of a lot depended on it. If he and Halliday didn’t come through, Milgrim was sure to drop his option. And no credits meant no more Hollywood jobs. They simply had to lick this story before Mil-grim joined them in New York. That gave them only twenty-four hours. It probably didn’t matter too much to Halliday, but for him it was a turning point. He looked at Halliday speculatively. The author seemed preoccupied. Shep wondered if he was thinking about their story. A new tide of confidence came rolling in. After all, Manley Halliday, even in decline, was bound to come up with something that would solve their problems. Shep had a few little ideas for a new approach, but he hesitated to introduce them. They were ideas which had worn a little shabby with use and Shep feared they would lower him in Halliday’s eyes. So he kept on waiting for Halliday to light the dark corners. But perhaps he should prod him again.
“I suppose we should talk about this darn story. The old man is really going to expect something when we hit the Waldorf tomorrow.” What he would like to have said: “Let’s stop horsing around and do some work for a change.”
Shep’s challenge filtered through the layers of Halliday’s resistance. His mind stretched and yawned. Now let’s see, what was this damn story again—two college roommates who ask the same short-order waitress to their houseparty? No, it couldn’t be that. But if it wasn’t, where did he get the idea that—“Let’s see,” he ventured, “didn’t you have some new notion for the girl the other day?”
Shep felt a twinge of disappointment. After all, Halliday was the star. When was he going to start carrying the ball?
“Well, I—I was just sort of thinking off the top of my head, as we say in Hollywood. I thought we might try something like this. Joe, the poor boy, has a kind of grudge against the Mardi Gras. All these rich kids with their Vassar girls. So, sort of in spite, as a kind of social protest, you might call it, he decides to ask a good-looking waitress who catches his eye in a small-town diner. Well, when she’s picked as the Queen of the Mardi Gras, it turns out that she’s actually a society girl from a Main Line family who’s had a hassel with her family and wants to prove she can get by on her own. She’s been going to Vassar, but she’s dropped out. Her old roommate, who’s up with Joe’s roommate, recognizes her …”
Shep went on building the story conscientiously, cliche on cliche. Halliday listened expressionlessly. Suddenly he asked, “Have you ever known a short-order waitress who turned out to be a Vassar girl?”
“But Mr. Halliday, if you applied that test to every story, ninety-nine and ninety-nine one-hundredths of all the Hollywood movies would never see the light of a projection room.”
“What I’m wondering is what would actually make a society girl do a thing like that. I knew a girl on Long Island once who was brought up in a very proper, well-to-do household. Even when she was eighteen her parents had to approve of everyone she went out with and they always waited up to be sure she came in by eleven. If she was as much as five minutes late she’d be restricted to quarters for a week. She was a nice-looking girl, although she was only allowed to use a little lipstick, a fine student, a beautiful pianist. Well, when Elaine broke out it was a real Vesuvius. Her father’s private detectives found her in a room somewhere near the East River docks with a French merchant seaman. That was in, let’s see, 1916. The last I heard of her, about seven years ago, she was in a private sanitarium.”
“We had a case something like that at Webster. Over in Middleboro, the nearest town, there was a sixteen-year-old daughter of the town’s Presbyterian minister. She was hot as a pistol and it didn’t take long for the campus swordsmen to get the scent. Her name was Polly Ann Dean, but of course all the boys called her Dizzy. One time one of the fellows brought her back to the dorm. She stayed there for nine days and the story was that this fastball who had brought her—a third-string quarterback from Worcester, can’t think of his name now—had made himself five hundred dollars setting her up for the boys.”
“Dizzy Dean. That’s a good story. What finally happened?”
“The campus cops moved in and took Dizzy home. The old man lost his congregation. The quarterback was expelled.”
“Well, for the movies we may have to clean it up a little,” Halliday said. “Maybe we could get Jeanette MacDonald for the role of Dizzy and give her some songs to sing.”
“Jeanette MacDonald will be terrific for the girl,” Shep agreed. “And maybe we could get George Raft for the boy.”
“With Peter Lorre for his roommate,” Halliday put in. “An exchange student from Germany.”
“Lorre’s date is Fanny Brice,” Shep went on. “She’s a freshman at Smith. Her mother has warned her about those Webster wolves and she’s frightened to death.”
“So she decides to room with Dizzy because she’ll be safer with a minister’s daughter,” Halliday continued. He was feeling a little better.
Maybe if we stay up on this cloud a new idea for the story will bubble up, Shep was thinking. Then he remembered the champagne. After all, this ought to be a festive occasion. It wasn’t every day that a junior writer reached into the Hollywood pool for a collaborator and drew out a favorite author. Surely that called for a toast. The idea appealed to his sense of romance: drinking champagne with Manley Halliday as they flew East to Webster on this miraculous assignment.
“Mr. Halliday, would you join me if I cracked one of our jugs?”
“Thank you, I really shouldn’t.” Then seeing Shep’s disappointment: “But you go ahead anyway. I wish I could join you.”
Shep got some paper cups and brought the bottle down. “Sure you won’t have just a drop?”
Halliday studied the bottle. Mumm, 1934. Should be good champagne. The word hummed with pleasant vibrations. His mind toyed with the syllables: cham pagne, sham pain, sham playin’ … champagne cocktails at Harry’s New York Bar at three o’clock in the afternoon …
“No, thank you. I don’t think so.”
Shep filled a paper cup and offered it to him anyway.
“Not even a sip to toast success to our super-colossal epic?”
Well—it almost seemed like tempting fate to reject a few drops of wine on that basis. “Literally a few drops then—mmmnn, that’s too much.”
They touched paper cups with mock formality. The sound of fizz was a cheerful reminder of brighter days. Manley’s tongue met the wine with the warmth of an old friend: Come in—it’s been a long time. He let the wine trickle down his throat. It was slow pleasure.
“That’s nice wine.”
Shep said: “I’m not one of these guys who can inhale the bouquet and tell you the year. I just know it tastes damn good.”
“I couldn’t always tell the year. But one night in Biarritz we had a blindfold test on Lanson, Moet and Chandon, and Piper Heidsieck. I won a magnum of Lanson. My wife and I lugged it around for years, saving it for special occasion. We really went through hell to save that bottle. We finally opened it in New York for our tenth anniversary. It was completely flat.”
The anecdote, Halliday realized, had also lost its sparkle somewhere along the way, but Shep chuckled loyally. “You see, that’s what I mean. Don’t put off till tomorrow what you can drink tonight.”
Halliday nodded appreciatively. He was feeling a good deal better.
“This is extremely nice wine.”
He drank it with mounting enjoyment, with increasing suspension of self-censorship. After all, one little cup of wine could hardly hurt him. It might be just the tonic he needed. The very thing to help him forget his cold, the coma and the ordeal of travel.
“Well, just a little more—I said a little more.”
Shep had refilled the cup. “The bouncing made me do that.”
Halliday held up his full cup. He was looking forward to this drink. This would be his last and he would drink it slowly, draining its full enjoyment. “Well,” he said, “here’s to Dizzy and her Reverend father.”
Either his depression was really lifting or he was jacking up his spirits artificially, as if he owed it to the wine to meet it with a happier disposition.
Down the aisle the male starlet had fallen asleep. His mouth was slightly open and he was snoring.
“If the women of America could only see him now,” Halliday said, “disillusion would spread like smog over the orange groves.”
Oh, he was feeling much, much better.
The wine was fine. The wine was kind. He had always had a happy reaction to champagne. It made him feel a little lighter in his feet, in his head, made the words flow easier, it made him like the sound of his own voice and the devoted way the young man listened—almost like having a disciple. His ego had always craved disciples. Once or twice he had caught one, but they always got away.
“… probably the first time a great industry was ever set up to grind out a dream a week …”
He punctuated his talk with little sips of wine. He was wound up now. It was good to talk to this listening young man who disagreed with him just enough to give an edge to conversation.
The wine tingled. The wine tempted. From its white paper mouth the wine gave up a golden smile. Wine tickled Halliday’s nose and wine tickled his head: the ideal antidote for the poison of old regrets. And he talked and he talked and he talked with the self-intoxication of one only lately used to ideas.
And Shep listened earnestly and refilled his cup and begged to differ. And with the condescension typical of his youth and his point-of-view, he clearly thought Halliday wise in his own outdated way.
“… What’s wrong with our movies? You say they’re too reactionary or escapist, that they shy away from real problems and real people. But I say they lack a soul …”
Halliday was beginning to sip his wine more quickly.
“… There’s one thing we accomplished. We smashed the icons of gentility and complacency. Your trash is vulgar and sensational. Ours was prissy and pollyanna. But our honest books were more revolutionary than the ones by your so-called revolutionaries. We had a revolution all right, but it was strictly every man for himself.”
“But wasn’t that kind of romantic? That personal rebellion stuff doesn’t get you anywhere.”
“It got us some pretty damn good books, baby.”
Shep reached for the bottle and was surprised to find it empty. He wondered if Halliday would think him excessive if he opened the other bottle. He had never been more than a social drinker but he found the wine reassuring and—was he imagining it?—felt it drawing them closer together. He was going to ask Halliday if he should go on to the second. Then he obeyed his impulse and pulled the cork.
Halliday was glad. If Stearns had asked him, he would have had to say no. But he welcomed another cupful. It was having a soothing effect on his nerves. Sara was a bright little girl to think of champagne. It was beginning to soften the edges of this ridiculous journey.
The pop of the cork—always a moment of jubilance and festive promise. The cork goes pop and everybody laughs with his own release of pressure. The popping of old corks set up a nostalgic barrage in his head: that New Year’s Eve at Davos when he had to bop the Egyptian bey and at Deauville, at Corfu and Rapallo and the Hotel Belvue in Bern, at that villa they rented (and ruined) outside of Rome, at restless back-and-forthing on the Berengaria, the Mauretania and one particular last night out in Sesue Hayakawa’s suite on the Majestic, at Ciro’s in Paris where he insulted (and was insulted by) Maurice and at Ciro’s in Monte Carlo where he flattered (and was flattered by) Julien, at that little place—was it Pharamond’s?—near the abattoir where he was so drunk he invited to bloody battle a formidable Parisian butcher, and at the nightstands of a hundred beds where he and Jere delighted each other. He remembered a Veuve Cliquot 1921 in a Hollywood speakeasy that was certainly not 1921 and quite likely not V. C. Why should such a silly little burr of a fact stick to his mind through all these years? And the time they sat on the balcony outside their room at the Ritz sipping a marvelous Pommery and watching the Place Vendome melt away into purple twilight. Ah, ah, ah that was a good time, a sweet time, a lost time. The staccato popping of corks had been a rhythmic counterpoint as they danced in a champagne haze on the rooftop of the Crillon, in a champagne daze on the rooftop of the world. The days and weeks and months and years had popped and fizzed and poured together in the soft yellow twilight of a champagne haze, the champagne days from the wine-numbed heights of Naples to the Mumm-soaked shores of Santa Monica, from a day in 1927 he managed to remember to a night in 1929 he could not forget. The years of his sleep-walking. Manley Halliday, homo somnus ambulatus, Manley Halliday the novel somnambulist, the novel’s somnambulist, asleep with his eyes open, asleep at his typewriter, writing the moneytales, asleep at the switch, asleep at tea dances and casual adulteries, asleep on paper, on deck, on the town, on the make, on the qui vive, on the rebound, on the pickup, on the skids.
“… We’re two little lambs who have lost our way, baa, baa, baaaa…”
Talking their way through the second bottle:
“… In those days we seemed to be the hub around which parties were always revolving. Wherever we moved our parties always seemed to move with us. Whether we wished it or not…”
—now be honest with yourself, Manley. You sought those parties as eagerly as they sought you. Even if they always seemed spontaneous, bumping into an old friend (they were all old friends, those chance acquaintances) in the Ritz Carlton Japanese Garden, on the Blue Train, at Henry’s on the Rue Volney, at the Yale game, on the Channel boat …
“… I think I begin to understand what those parties were all about. It was a kind of group rebellion, even if most of us never knew what we were rebelling against.”
“But in your books,” Shep pointed out, “there certainly seems to be an awareness that there was some explanation, some significance for all the crazy stuff that happened. You certainly feel in High Noon that all those parties, all the carousing, the frantic search for oblivion was a symbol of, well, call it group neurosis.”
“Tell you the truth, Stearns, I had a big talent and I used it pretty well, in my good years anyway. I put down the things I saw and nobody who looked at the things I was seeing saw more than I did. I didn’t worry about proving any points, group neuroses or abortive revolutions. Maybe that’s why I was more convincing. Readers want a sharp edge but they don’t want to hear the grinding of the ax.”
Then Halliday said with an edge of hostility: “I’ve still got some of my talent left, Stearns, but I’ve got to channel it, concentrate it.”
Halliday stared down into his empty paper cup. He felt quite sure that he was sober. But somewhere in his mind lurked the vague impression that he was talking too much, or too revealingly. He made a hasty recapitulation of what he had been saying—movies, parties, Jere (no, he had been careful not to mention Jere, hadn’t he?), writers, himself—it wasn’t exactly a jumble, just the informal playing of truth and consequences.
The stewardess was bending over them. “Aren’t you two nightowls going to sleep at all?”
Shep held up their half-finished bottle. “Have a drink?”
“Ooh, champagne. Somebody’s birthday?”
“No, it’s a marriage,” Halliday said. “We’re eloping.”
“I can see you’re going to be very happy together.”
“And we’re going to have a child together and its name is Love on Ice and we want you to be its godmother,” Halliday said.
“Come on, Miss Heath, a toast to your godchild.”
“I wish I could but it’s agin regulations. Try me again when I’m on the ground.”
“That’s the trouble,” Halliday said. “Too many regulations. Everybody is so serious. Young girl like you—too many ’sponsibilities.”
Shep studied the older man carefully. He felt perfectly sober himself. He hadn’t even noticed a change in Halliday.
“Pour me just one more little touch,” Halliday said.
Shep poured him a very short one. “Not even one friendly little drop with us?” he pressed Miss Heath. She smiled a practiced no.
Rain was still falling. The plane plowed through the darkness. The passengers slept. The snoring of the movie star was a gentle satire of the motor’s roar. Shep talked with Miss Heath of aerial weather and flight. Halliday leaned his forehead against the window and stared out at the colored riding lights on the wings. Women would be attracted to young Stearns, he imagined. He was that disarming combination of robustness and sensitivity and he spoke with great earnestness and he listened as if he liked you.
—But I was more brilliant and I was more of a natural for women (remember how it used to irk Jere, long before I was unfaithful?) and (losing his way in the dark corridor) the party itself was the thing. Some of those years were lived from one party to the next, with in-between periods used only for recuperation.
He shut his eyes and tried to remember one party in detail, not pop and ha ha ha and who wants gingerale and hey Jere I’m over here but exactly who was there, what was said, why that fight broke out … Strange, out of the blur of alcoholic laughter and the more dramatic of the seductions (some not so much seduction as a wandering, lost, into wrong bedrooms) what came back to him most sharply were the casualties: Harry Talbot’s suicide the night before they docked in New York, November 19, 1929, the night Ham Cohn, the All-American guard in Manley’s class at Harvard, found his wife Bunny with his former roommate and best man Brew Crawford and broke up the party and locked them all out of the house (anything in that he could use on this job?) and the time Jere’s friend Mitzi Sedgwick (the one he always hated) got drunk as usual and lost her temper as usual and threw a cocktail glass as usual only this time her aim was better and there was blood all over the white chiffon dress of Betty Lou Vanner, runner-up to the Atlantic City Beauty Contest Winner that year and Manley had rushed her to the hospital and waited in the corridor until the doctor came out and told him she would be all right except for having to lose the eye. They had always seemed to be having so much fun. Yet, looking back, it was the casualties, the tragedies that stuck up in his mind like telephone poles stretching across the desolate landscape of the past; once the good times had run glistening and taut and wire-fine from pole to pole, but ill winds and the ravages of time had torn them down. Now only the poles remained, giant uncrossed crosses marking the route he had taken.
Miss Heath had removed her trained smiles and her crisp answers. A flickering hive of lights behind them was Salt Lake City. The plane floated through the air and they floated through the plane, talking, talking, talking.
—“The wonderful thing about your scenes was the way they not only mirrored but seemed to make a comment on the times. The episode in High Noon for instance, where Ted takes Lenore to the stag party dressed as a boy—I remember writing a theme on that for American Lit. I said that wasn’t so much a haphazard stunt as a sign of what modern women wanted in the Twenties. Lenore didn’t only want her rights as a woman; she was really an advance scout for the single standard. If men went to stag parties, by God, she’d put on a tuxedo and go along with them. I think that’s what real literature should be, entertaining and convincing as contemporary reporting and yet with overtones of interpretation.”
Halliday repressed a giggle. There was a lot of sound poetry in slang. Oiled for instance. He was getting a little oiled. There was less friction in him. Ideas slid back and forth across one another more smoothly. Just went to show you, you couldn’t always follow the book. The book said stay strictly on the wagon. Only way to feel well and get your work done. But a few squirts of oil took the squeaks out of the old body, made for greater flexibility, easier to face chores like Love on Ice …
Shep watched Halliday’s face crease into a relaxed smile for the first time. “… give me more credit than I deserve. Never thought of that stag party as any social symbol. Matter of fact that really happened to Jere and me” (he groped to remember— had he mentioned Jere to this boy before?). “Just after we came back from Europe the first time. We’d decided to do everything together—none o’ this Babbitt-husband’s-night-out business. She was tall, long-legged, no hips, in my clothes with her hair combed back she could’ve been Wally Reid’s double. Another time we did it at a party and someone asked Jere to come outside and fight for flirting with his wife. We had some wonderful laughs.”
Shep was trying to disentangle Jere from the Halliday heroines. Had she finally made a dull marriage for security like Wilma in Friends and Foes? Or had she taken an overdose of sleeping pills like Lenore in High Noon? Had she been a warmhearted flapper with nympho tendencies like Wilma or a brilliant, self-destroying drinker like Lenore? Hadn’t he heard something, somewhere about Jere’s having escaped from a home for alcoholics in New York City (had she slid down the side of a building with sheets tied together and had she gone on to the Stork in a nightgown so fancy it passed for an evening dress?) or was that just a snatch of fiction he had read somewhere?
“… Jere was always crazy about speed. We brought a Daimler back from Europe and Jere used to drive it down Park Avenue sixty miles an hour. If a cop caught up with her she’d listen to the whole j’accuse and then produce her honorary captain’s badge.”
“Then Jere was really the model for Georgette?”
“Oh, you remember that story?”
“I wasn’t giving you a Hollywood snow job. I told you I’ve read everything you’ve written. Even that little travel book on Hollywood.”
“Not the poems. Not the little chapbook I published at Harvard?”
“Juvenal? Yup, that too.”
“Oh, my God. I was a lousy poet. Juvenal. I thought that was so goddam clever. The stage when a young bird leaves its nest and at the same time the name of a satirical Roman poet.”
“I remember it well. I even remember it was dedicated to Beatrice.”
“You frighten me. Beatrice Vining. I was engaged to her when I went overseas. A real aristocratic beauty. A breathlessly lovely girl.” He sounded that familiar philosophic monosyllable: “Hmnn. Beatrice’s eldest daughter came out last year. Beatrice is still lovely-looking, with white hair like Billie Dove’s, and schoolgirl complexion. Lady of the old school. Don’t seem to breed them so gracious any more.”
Vocabulary was running over. He had the feeling that talking, talking, talking would keep the wolf away from his door. No, he didn’t mean that, was it the river away from his door. No, no, keep the skeleton in the closet, the nose to the grindstone—oh, he knew what he meant but he couldn’t find the words. Must be getting tired when he couldn’t find words. Wine made him hazy, made him vague and lazy, but he always said sleep on a plane or a train was no sleep at all, just a brief, uneasy numbing of his consciousness. He’d rather stay awake …
“… I remember one time” (for some reason he was saying this) “Jere and I tried to see how long we could stay up. It was in the dance-marathon days and we wanted to see if we could stay up that long. On the morning of the fourth day we thought it might revive us if we went swimming. So we drove out of town to the first body of water we could find and got arrested for swimming in a reservoir.”
He was traveling along the singing wires, consciously or unconsciously leaving out the poles. His was the generation that discovered it had a sub-conscious. “I know the trouble with you,” Jere had turned on a rival, “you’re repressed.” Could one have said anything more crushing then?
“Jere was the most unrepressed creature I ever knew.” (For some reason he was telling the young man—must be careful of him, he listened too well.) “She was a one-woman assault on Puritanism. I think she started shocking her parents when she was three. Never really remembered her mother. Her father was strict Episcopalian. Awfully rich. She used to say ’We hated each other on sight. He said I bit his hand before I was a year old.’ When she was sixteen she picketed with a bunch of suffragettes outside his house on Fifth Avenue. That’s when he packed her off to Europe. One time at a cocktail party my publishers gave for me one of those Helen Hokinson literary ladies gushed over Jere. ’It must be simply fascinating to live with a famous author. I’m sure you’re a great help to him in his work.’ Jere answered in a very ladylike tone, ’All I do is——.’ It was a frightful thing to say. I never liked that word myself even if Jere and all my friends did. But I can see how it was irresistible for Jere to use it on that old busybody.
“Jere could always get away with those words, in three or four languages. Somehow they never seemed indecent with her. She was just speaking her mind in a simple and direct way. She could use those words in erotic poetry for instance and make you like it. She was as high-strung and high-spirited as a finely bred show horse. She didn’t want anyone to put a bit in her mouth. That’s why she kept moving away from me to other—interests.”
Inquisitive as Shep was about everything concerning Halliday, he felt for the first time a certain reluctance to listen. It was surprising, after all their years of unrest and separation, to find Halliday’s wound at losing Jere still so sensitive. He could not seem to mention her without paying court to her. There was always a silent I-love-you attached to the mention of her name. It was, Shep felt, private talk, of impressions locked away in a vault with fading souvenirs, inadvertently opened with the key Sara had supplied. Shep felt like a trespasser, digging into Halliday’s past.
But Shep exaggerated. Actually Halliday was skillfully censoring out all the strain and stress, all the mess and the ugliness. He was sailing along the singing wires:
“Going to a party in the Village one night we got a hansom in front of the Plaza and Jere made the old cabby ride inside so she should sit up on the high jump seat behind. When we got there we took the old driver in with us. It started to rain and Jere burst into tears because the poor old nag was getting wet. She finally took two blankets off one of the beds to wrap around the poor creature. Neglected animals always broke her heart. She was forever picking up stray cats and dogs because they looked so hungry—and half the time forgot to feed them. People thought she was hard and cynical but she was really a sloppy sentimentalist in an age when sentiment was out of fashion …”
Listening to the tales of escapade, Shep was thinking: what jerks those people would have been if they tried those stunts in the Thirties. In fact he had once seen a girl take off her clothes as the early morning climax to a fraternity house party and it had seemed to him merely a dizzy blonde hangover from an era of exhibitionists. Not in a million years could he imagine Sara doing any of these things, and if she tried he would have pinned her ears back. But, Shep decided in the words of the old joke, on Jere it looked good. In their own setting, their frivolous little acts of escape took on a romantic glow Shep could not help enjoying vicariously.
There were no hills or valleys or fields or cities or state lines beneath them. In an uncanny vacuum of darkness they roared eastward. For these few hours they were freed from the land-mass that claimed them. The combination of words and wine is an ancient and delicious one. Between them time folds into itself accordion-wise. Somehow, as the first pale shafts began to streak the eastern sky, they were back to Eliot again. Halliday’s mind, reeling from topic to topic, had fixed on the point of departure between the writer who succeeds only in catching the moment and the artist who relates the particular moment to the universal “like Eliot. Maybe you’d call him a capitalist lackey, a clerical apologist, a bootlicking Anglophile or worse. But a hundred years from now will people remember that he was a monarchist and that the New Masses sneered at him or that he wrote lines like April is the cruellest month, breeding Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing Memory and desire, stirring Dull roots with spring rain.
With his eyes closed, remembering in a sort of trance, he did not stop until he had remembered it all, right down to the mysterious coda.
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata Shantih shantih shantih
For fully half a minute after he had finished his eyes remained closed, though whether in reverence or champagne drowse, Shep could not be sure.
Then Halliday said, “Jere and I used to be able to start anywhere and recite alternate lines to each other. But I haven’t tried to go through the whole thing in years. Never thought I’d remember it.”
“Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata. Shantih shantih shantih,” he repeated childishly.
Faint grays and pale blues, those anemic heralds of dawn, were gradually lighting the plane’s interior.
“What time is it?” Halliday groped for the old-fashioned watch he carried in his vest pocket. “Two-thirty.”
“It’s five-thirty,” Shep said. “You haven’t set your watch ahead.”
“I seem to be living in the past.” Halliday smiled. “Have we been talking all night?”
In the cheerless morning light Halliday looked gray and gaunt. An overnight stubble was beginning to roughen the exceptional smoothness of his face. It was not the kind of face to which a beard is becoming, Shep thought. Essentially boyish and delicately made, it was a face for starched white collars and fresh toilet.
“It’s been a wonderful night for me,” Shep said. “But I hope it hasn’t tired you out too much, Mr. Halliday.”
“You might as well start calling me Manley. After all the things I’m afraid I told you, you know me too well to keep up these formalities.”
The second bottle of Mumm’s had run dry hours ago and the effects were wearing off. As if irritated by an itch that can’t be located and has no physical cause, Halliday’s sense of guilt made him think he had been more revealing than he had been.
“You know, it’s strange, Shep, in this one night I think I’ve talked to you about more of the things I really think about than I have with my son in his entire life.”
Shep glowed with the compliment. His own father had been a devoted parent until Shep began to rebel against the car-rental business. Then had come the years of bitter battles over ways of life and politics, interspersed with periods of uneasy truce. “Does Douglas show any signs of wanting to write?” “I’ll tell you the truth, Shep—” for some reason, he was confiding in young Stearns “—Douglas has an excellent mind. He’s even written a few poems in the Lawrenceville Lit I’m rather proud of. But Douglas is an incorrigible snob. He lives for the New York holiday parties and the invitations to Newport. Of course I realize I was just as bad when I came East from Kansas City in 1913. It’s only in the last few years I’ve gotten over brooding about my failure to make the Racquet Club. But at least I sublimated my snobbishness in my work. That scene in the Racquet Club in High Noon, for instance. I made my snobbishness pay off, you might say.” “Would you have liked Douglas to become a writer?” “I’m not sure. Rationally, no. It’s really an awful curse to wish on anybody—from the day you begin you never completely relax again. Right this second, to be very, very frank, I’m thinking how I might use you some time, if I want to draw a young, middle-class radical. Even those years I threw away, when the book reviewers were giving me up, I was always worrying about writing, wishing I could find the way to get started again and wanting to push on beyond where I had been. This morning, for instance, when I should be thinking about your story—we’ll work that out yet, don’t worry—I keep thinking about my new book—how I’ve got to make it the most thought-out, the most honest piece of work I’ve done. But to get back to Douglas. Emotionally I’ve got to admit what a kick it gave me to see those things of his in the Lawrenceville magazine. The whole process of parenthood is completely irrational anyway. Just when you begin to think you’re a completely civilized man, you find all kinds of horrid, primitive things popping out of you. You feel an absurd pride when your son turns out to look like you. And another savage shot-in-the-arm when he begins to emulate you. You tell him he should be anything he wants as long as he’s happy, but secretly your ego is fattened when he chooses your profession. So I suppose you might say I’m disappointed in Douglas. Even though I know damn well the way he’s turning out is mostly my fault. When he was seven I enrolled him at Lawrenceville. I made him feel he could never be a gentleman if he wasn’t a graduate of Princeton, Harvard or Yale and didn’t date approved daughters of approved Eastern families. I suppose I passed on to him all the shabby insecurity of a Kansas City parvenu. So I should hardly blame him for not rinding out what it took me at least thirty-five years and a lot of unhealed wounds to discover.”
“Mr. Halli—Manley, if Douglas did turn out to be a writer, what would be the main things you’d want to tell him?”
Halliday spoke seriously, a trifle pompously.
“The first thing I’d talk about would be self-dedication. I’d tell him over and over again that the writing itself, and none of the American by-products, fame, money, adulation, glamorous living, is the only permanent reward. I’d try to teach him not to lose his way.”
He paused so long that Shep thought he had finished. But finally he went on, with sudden harshness: “If I had only followed that brilliant advice fifteen years ago, I wouldn’t be having to think up the plot for a Hollywood campus musical this morning.”
His face, turned to the window again, was silhouetted against the grim morning light. Prompted by Manley’s words, Shep saw things in that face he had not seen before. He saw pain pulling it taut. He saw the erosion of anxiety scarring it with deep lines. He saw fatigue, not the natural exhaustion of a day and night without sleep but a profound lassitude of body and mind. And he saw, too, a refusal to surrender.
If it were not quite possible for Shep to read all these things into Halliday’s face, it was at least true that these were the thoughts that crossed his mind as he watched the older man.
A moment too late, Halliday seemed to realize how his confessional reference to their movie job might discourage Shep. For now he turned back to him with an unconvincing cheerfulness. “Don’t worry, baby, we’ll lick this movie. After all, we’re still a couple of craftsmen, aren’t we?”
Miss Dawson, who had replaced Miss Heath at Kansas City, and who could easily have been her twin sister, came up with orange juice, a too-hearty good morning and the promise of hot coffee.
“Morning, you old stay-ups.” Diana at five thousand feet serving canned orange juice in Lily cups. “You can see the New York skyline if you look real hard.”
They both turned obediently. There it was, shrouded in winter mist.
“It’s always an amazing sight,” Shep intruded on Halliday’s thoughts. “Right now doesn’t it look like a phantom city floating above the clouds?”
Halliday didn’t bother to answer. He was staring at the dim turrets of the distant city. Once he had been able to think of it as his city. It was all one massive temple built in worship of Success. You brought to its altars your best-sellers, your Wall Street killings, your home-run records, your golden voice, your famous face. And the greedy gods of Success rewarded you, temporarily, with headwaiters who knew your name, with hotel managers who reserved special suites for you, with columnists who recorded your wit, with envious onlookers, with fellow-celebrities for friends. Halliday was remembering the times he had come to New York in triumph.
But commit the unforgivable sin of failure, of letting your batting average or your reputation slump and the temple doors slammed in your face. Headwaiters who guarded them looked the other way. The gods of Manhattan were more ruthless than Jehovah. On his last visit, Halliday had stayed in his third-class hotel room and eaten fig newtons. He could not call his publishers because he had needled them into a half dozen advances without ever delivering his promised manuscript. He could not go to the Algonquin or “21” or the Plaza because he had never answered their requests to pay his bills. He couldn’t call his old friend Burt Seixas because he felt self-conscious about owing Burt two thousand he knew Burt could use. At least five other friends had to be ignored for the same reason. He had been afraid to linger in the lobby for fear some enterprising sob-sister would track him down for one of those riches-to-rags human-interest yarns. He even had taken the precaution of registering at a dingy hotel under another name. On that last visit, he had hidden away in a hole in the wall on a nondescript side street. He had not really been in New York at all.
Now the early morning mist was lifting. The skyline, still a great many miles away, rose up like a giant battlement.
Somewhere behind that formidable barricade of stone and steel, Jere slept. The roar of propellers sent thunder bowling along into the morning. Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata. Give. Sympathize. Control.
“Boy!” Shep was saying happily, “whatta city!”