The door opened into a room that was also a tomb. Jere was standing there surprised, pleased, wishing he had given her time to make up (she had been lying down and looked a fright).
“Well, Mannie, fevensakes, will you please get your ugly puss in here?”
She had always called him ugly-puss, and she tried now to recall the old tone of bantering affection.
He came in stiffly. She had put on weight, even more than last time, around the middle and in the face. He had thought it could no longer matter, but he felt a sharp sorrow for the departed 22-inch waist and the boniness of her face. She still wore the bangs though, exactly the way she had that Armistice night. He wished she wouldn’t. It was a senselessly frivolous style for a middle-aged woman. (Only thirty-eight. Could it be possible? She looked ten years older at the very least. Well, he guessed they all did. No one would take him for early forties. At least he no longer wore his hair parted in the middle.) The bangs irritated him. Christ, would the woman never grow up? When she got to be eighty would the needle still be grinding in the twenty-year-old groove? Sure, she had been marvelous at twenty. But you can’t go on being marvelously twenty all your life. He had learned that finally. Thirty had seemed so old. The trouble with both of them, he was able to see with such brilliant hindsight now, was they had thought youth was a career instead of a preparation.
She led him through the hallway to the large living room handsomely furnished in modern decor, with an extra-sized window looking out on the river. On the table he noticed the leather-bound set of all his books that had been Jere’s birthday present to him ten years before. On a smaller table was a photograph of Manley and Jere when their profiles had been a sight to behold. These things had the same effect on Manley as the bangs. There were too many symbols of the past.
She led him to the couch and pulled up a chair opposite him, crossing her legs. By some corporeal miracle, it was always disconcerting to notice, her legs had remained exactly the same. There was something repulsive about that now, the legs of the marvelously lithe young woman he knew so well supporting the thickening middle-aged body of a stranger.
“In the Times this morning I read you were coming on. What in the world are you writing—the Ice Follies?”
“Oh, I’m doing a thing for Victor Milgrim I’ll be finished with in a month or so, thank God.”
“I can’t imagine you working for the movies.”
He gave a mirthless little laugh. “Neither can I.”
She said, “Oh, by the way, I win the fur-lined cuspidor. It looks like New Directions is going to publish my Saison en Enfer.”
She had pushed one version through a porthole of Reggie Bankhart’s yacht in the Mediterranean and tossed another into the fireplace of a villa near Perpignan. She was forever fiddling with the translation, doubting it, fighting it, until the very mention of Rimbaud had made him a little sick. Something had cracked in her. She could never finish anything she started to do, a translation, a marriage or her own growing up.
“Good. They’re doing nice books.”
He was careful not to kid with her. He had teased her about this life’s work before.
“Laughlin seems to like it. I just have to sharpen Matin and Adieu and change a few words in Faim.”
He tried not to smile. Long ago the second psychiatrist had told him about Jere and her translation. He tried very hard to keep his voice neutral. “Good.”
“Oh, I forgot, Mannie—would you like a drink? Isn’t it silly, now that I’ve stopped I forget all about offering it to people.”
The last ones were wearing off (or wearing in) and only a drunkard could know the pounding desire.
“No, thanks, Jere, I’m drinking very little these days.”
She looked up suspiciously. He didn’t act drunk, but he always could carry a lot and his eyes looked fixed and sodden. “Mannie, I know what you’re going to say, but we really get the most amazing results with AA.”
“Look, Jere, I don’t need AA. I didn’t have a drink for eight and a half months before I came on this job.”
“But, Mannie darling, once you take the step, it’s such a satisfaction, such a sense of peace.”
“God damn it, I don’t want to spend the rest of my life nursing other drunks. I only have another fifteen, twenty years. I’ve got to work’’
“Manley, if you could see yourself. You look ghastly.” She came over to the couch. “And your clothes.” She bent over him. She still smelled of that special perfume. “Your tie’s all off to one side.”
She touched him to straighten it. He pulled away. “Jere, for God’s sake, relax. I don’t care about my tie. I don’t care how I look any more.”
“But, Mannie, there’s a difference between being informal and being—disheveled.”
He was up, spleen angry.
“Jere, I came up here for—well, I certainly didn’t come to be picked at.”
She softened disarmingly. “All right, Man, I guess I am getting to be an old spinster bitch.” She came up to him with a smile he recognized. “But will you just let me straighten your tie like a good fella? There. Now I want no more nonsense out of you.” She sat on the couch beside him. “Who have you seen lately—of the old crowd?”
“I don’t see anybody any more.”
“In his second childhood. B scenarios and extra girls.”
“At Romanoff’s every night, half-potted, playing gin with his agent until closing time.”
“Sic transit …” Jere suggested.
“Not gloria. Promises.”
“And you’ve really been working on a book?” Three thousand miles away, writing only to remind him, occasionally, how much he was in arrears, it was remarkable how closely she kept tabs. “Margit told me when she came in for the holidays.”
“Yes,” he said, “I’m working. When I get rid of this ton of ice I’m lugging, I’m not going to take another movie job until the book is in.”
“You’ll have enough money to take the rest of the year off?” “Oh, I’ll still be in debt up to here, but at least I’ll be able to throw a few dollars to the nearest of the wolves. And I figure the book ought to do a lot for me. After all, I still have a following.”
“I hope it’s a good book, Man.” “Pray for me, baby. I’m sweating blood.” “I think it’s heroic of you to try this way.” “I don’t have to try. I’ve got the call. As bad as you with your AA, I guess.”
“Mannie, frankly, I’m surprised to find you so—pulled together.”
“Ho ho, I’m pulled together all right. Don’t believe everything you hear, Jere, about Halliday coming apart at the seams. They aren’t ready to cart me off to the laughing academy yet.”
I’m not drunk, he thought, not drunk, just a little wordier than usual, that’s all.
At this point Jere decided it was time to say: “Mannie—I hate to bring this up the first time I see you in nearly three years but —well after all we are adults, we can talk things over sensibly— you owe me eight hundred and seventy-five dollars. God knows I’d never ask you for it if I didn’t need it, but I owe two months rent on this apartment …”
“God Almighty, Jere, give me a chance. The main reason I’m in this jam is because of you—the sanitariums, the psychoanalysts, the nutty extravagances …” He indicated the apartment with an impatient sweep of his hand. “We can’t afford apartments like this any more—you should see what I’ve been living in these past three years. Lord, Jere, when are you going to realize I’m not made of gold any more? I’ll always do my best not to let you starve, but I can’t keep you in the style of a-of a…”
An elusive figure of speech led him off into the shadows. From the Cornebiche they had gone back to Paris with the manuscript completed. Then began the Hungry Hundred and Seventeen Days. The manuscript went off to Green & Streeter. For a while they lived on severance pay and some money in Jere’s private account. The manuscript came back. “Goddam philistines,” Hank Osborne had said. “They just don’t dare tell the truth.” The manuscript went back across the Atlantic, read-dressed to Dorset House. Meanwhile Manley had gone to work for the Paris Trib. Jere made the gesture of giving French lessons to discharged Yanks staying on in Paris. But she was always forgetting her appointments. And Manley got fired after five weeks for oversleeping after a rough night at Mamma’s on the Rue Tabout. The severance pay and the private account had run out weeks before. Manley hated to do it but he hit Hank for twelve hundred francs. It had been at this nadir that Jere came home with a new eight-hundred-franc hat. An enormous chartreuse hat with peacock feathers. “Wildberg, that is a beautiful hat, but I would like it even better if we could eat it.” He was still too much in love with her to be as angry as he should have been. “But Mannie darling, I was feeling so depressed. And this makes me feel fabulous and wicked, like Madame Pompadour.” Two days later came the check for five hundred dollars from Dorset House. They wanted changes, of course, and they wished he could tone down the satire on the “goings on at the Crillon, especially relating to our own peace commission” but at least they recognized “a new voice.” Jere insisted that her hat had changed their luck. The fact that the check had been mailed a week before the purchase of the hat did not disturb her kind of logic. “Oh, I hope we’ll make millions on the book.”
They didn’t make millions, of course. It was twenty-three thousand. They were terribly rich that next year in France with the franc at seven to a dollar. And everywhere they went everybody knew them and adored them. And all the critics said young Halliday was the first American author to reflect the serviceman’s real attitude toward the war, after all the fake idealism and the Hun-hating that had been served up to them by journalists and popular novelists after ceremonious “tours to the front.” And now all the magazines, not just the few good ones but the high-paying, big-circulation ones, wanted more from Manley Halliday. As fortune would have it, as they say, Friends and Foes was not only an impressive first novel but the first work of fiction to be post-war in spirit as well as in time. Man-ley Halliday was the man of the hour and Jere Halliday was his queen. The story of the hat she had not been able to afford became “typical of Jere,” not typical of irresponsibility and emotional instability and neurotic selfishness (as it seemed later), no—of irrepressible vivacity and unconventional impulsiveness and an infectious wildness.
Crying, if you close your eyes and listen, makes a horrible sound, cat howling on a midnight fence and gasping and sniffling.
—“Jere—Je-re—please don’t cry.”
But he wasn’t as solicitous as he sounded. For a curious little rhyme formed in his head: ah weeping is bleary and weeping is smeary and weeping is very, very dreary. At the same time he remembered his trick for cutting through when she suddenly fell to crying.
—“All right, Lillian, let’s have that scene once more, and this time make it gush.”
They had heard that when Griffith had invited them to Mamaroneck to discuss filming Friends and Foes and they had gone on the set to watch him direct the Gish girls in Orphans of the Storm.
It still worked. Jere said, “Look at me, would you, leaking like an old hose.”
Manley made the mistake of putting his arm around her. “Oh Mannie, Mannie. I’m sorry but it’s—being so goddam alone. God almighty, the nights I haven’t been able to sleep thinking about it. The pills I’ve taken—tracing it back. Where, where was it that it happened? It drives me crazy. How many times I’ve been at the phone to call you. I just drag along, existing without you. I’m sure my maid thinks I’m a lunatic because once in a while I forget and she hears me talking to you.”
He dreaded what was coming next. They had tried it once, the year before he left for Hollywood and it had been strained when it wasn’t listless—no good for either of them. They had nothing left for each other. They were like a couple of runners who pace themselves badly and run themselves out in the first lap. They had tried to make a sprint of what turned out to be a crosscountry endurance contest. But it had been a honey of a first lap. He braced himself. It came. “Man, we’re both getting older. We’re more sensible now. I don’t drink any more—after all, that was the main trouble, wasn’t it? And it would be so good for Douglas. Don’t you think, if we both worked at it as a …”
“Jere—” he did not mean his voice to be so harsh but he felt himself cornered and he had to fight free—“I simply haven’t got the time or the strength to go through all this with you again.”
“You seem to have plenty of time and strength for that slut I hear you’re living with on the Coast.”
“Jere, stop it. Right now. Miss Loeb has nothing to do with this.”
“Oh, don’t think I haven’t heard all about your wonderful Miss Loeb. And you dare write me that mularky about having no more personal life. ’My personal life has become my writing life.’ Merde.”
This time her hysteria only made him calmly superior. “Jere, believe me, Miss Loeb is getting no bargain. She’s just a collector of old relics who went around picking up the pieces of Manley Halliday that nobody seemed to want and brought them home for safe-keeping. It makes no sense to be jealous of her. She came along years after our cause was lost.”
“Just the same if that woman were out of the way, if she didn’t have such a hold on you …”
He took her hand tenderly. “Jere, Jere, what have we done to each other? We can’t go back to the dream and we can’t go on to anything else.”
“Just what I need this afternoon—philosophy.” She had always been too soft or too brittle. Either God had made her without a balance-wheel or the psychiatrists were right about the need for a father. “Well, Jere, good-bye. I’m sorry I’ve upset you.” “Good-bye, Manley.”
“And, oh, I’ll send you that money just as soon as I can.”
Silently she led him to the door. In search of a dream, he had found only this carping middle-aged impostor. Well, he had always been too much of a romantic to learn quickly from experience. But what he learned these days he applied. He would never do this again. He would keep Jere Halliday where she belonged—a babe with bounce and beauty on the memory-couch of youth.
Going down in the elevator the let-down hit him hard. When he came out into the cold air he turned once to look up at the window. She was staring down at him. From the angle of the sidewalk, with the curtains shadowing her face, she looked startlingly beautiful again. Hating himself and her and confusion in general, he turned toward First Avenue without waving.
Near the corner of Third Avenue was a bar he recognized as a blind-pig he used to know as Paul and Tony’s. Now it had a life preserver in the window and was called the Ship Ahoy. Well, he needed a life preserver. This had been a day. Don’t worry, Ann, I know what I’m doing. But I could do with a shot before going back on the job.
“Are—are Paul and Tony still around?”
“Paul and Tony—used to run this place.”
The bartender looked over toward a small man with glasses studying the Racing Form in one of the booths. “Hey, Al, ever hear of Paul and Tony—useta run this place?”
The man in the booth did not look up. “Never heard of them.”
The bartender: “When wuz they here?”
“Oh, Twenty-five, Twenty-six.”
“What ya givin’ me, ancient history. What’ll it be?”
“Scotch and soda. Pinch bottle.”
The bartender ignored Manley while setting up his drink.
“Hey, Al, how long you figger it’ll go tonight?”
“Aah, the Bomber oughta take him quick.”
It was peaceful being the only customer in the Ship Ahoy. Ocean travel always gave him a sense of peace. “Same thing again. Might as well make it a double.” The second drink raised his hopes. He was really feeling remarkably well, much better than he could have expected after a full day without sleep and an upset diet. He’d go back to the hotel in a little while and block out the college story in half an hour’s time. On the third drink the thin red line of confidence was climbing steadily.