All the way up to Harlem through the white hush of the park, Manley kept recalling fantasies of shrill Harlem nights in the era when Harlem was the gin-spangled corridor for all good citizens with early-morning itch. Their legendary antics, his and Jere’s and their twinkling friends’, made him laugh in a way that was new to Shep but old and no longer familiar to Manley. The laughs they had had, the innocent laughter. People didn’t laugh any more, just to be laughing; now it was all at the expense of other people and other ideas.
Manley wouldn’t let Shep pay for the cab. He pulled out a crushed handful of bills, selected one at random and flung it to the driver. It happened to be a five-dollar bill.
“Manley, you ought to hang on to some of that money.”
“ ’Fi drove a cab, that’s how I’d like to be paid.”
From the entrance they could hear a small, sloppy combination racing through a popular riff. “The Dipsy Doodle.” Steps led them down to a dark, red cave. There were just two couples in the place. It was a desolate pleasure-dome and the tinny, bogus jazz made it unbearably forlorn. “Place useta be jammed all the time. But Eddie ’d always put a table on the floor for us.”
Manley closed his eyes listening to the old time din: say this stuff isn’t half bad sometimes I’m happy sometimes I’m blue-hoo my disPOsition depends on you-hoo …
A dapper, light-skinned Negro, who for some reason affected dark glasses, came up in a hurry and gave Manley not just a big but a warm hello.
“Hello, Pops, you’re a sight for sore optics.”
He held Manley at arms’ length and appraised him fondly. “Here’s my boy. Here’s a creature I approve mightily.”
Shep had the feeling they were making more of it than had ever been really there, because the room was so empty and the glory so long gone.
They clustered around a small table where Eddie bought a round—“Your money’s no good here, Pops”—and another round while they talked remember-the-time and what-ever-happened-to?
Manley felt grateful to Eddie for remaining unchanged. These last ten had been fierce years, not doing anybody any good, an intense erosion eating away flesh and spirit. But here was Eddie Bell with the same smooth figure, face and line, apparently as cheerful a failure as, in more propitious and amoral days, he had been a success.
“Eddie,” Manley went with the tide of reminiscence, “will you ever forget that night The Gimp got it? Le’s see, he was sitting right over there.”
“You can still see the bullet holes,” Eddie said proudly. “The Gimp was a small-timer who tried to hold out on Schultz,” Manley explained to Shep, remembering how pleased he and Jere used to be when important mobsters came over to their table. “They’re so polite and so much more dignified than respectable people,” Jere had insisted.
“We were all here one night when The Gimp came in with a blonde.” Manley insisted on telling the whole story.
“Lucinda,” Eddie said with the accuracy of acute nostalgia. “Lucinda Edwards. Cute as a flute. She was fingering him for Schultz all the time.”
“Let’s see—what was the band you had then, Eddie? Oh, Kenny Watts and his Five Kilowatts.” “Man, you’ve got a good rememory,” Eddie said. “They were playing a song I never could stand, Ramona, when something cracked and The Gimp started slipping down under the table. The band was playing a medley and, this you’ll never believe, but while the waiters were carrying The Gimp out the dancing went right on. And the tune the band had switched to—Kenny swore it wasn’t on purpose—was And Then My Heart Stood Still.”
Eddie chuckled. “That was phony as Coney. But it happened just like Pops says.”
“You wrote a short story around that,” Shep said. “ ’Midnight Frolic.’ You got the whole crazy speakeasy era into that story.”
“It was one of those things that just drops in your lap,” Manley said. “Wrote the whole thing in two hours when I got up that next afternoon.”
“It won the O. Henry for the best story of the year,” Shep said.
“Yeah man, we had the times,” Eddie Bell said. Grinning at Manley, he tried not to see that one of the only two paying couples in the place was drinking nothing but beer. You couldn’t even pay this band with what you made in beer. “Come on, Pops, drink up, let us be gay.”
Shep was drinking with them, from outside, watching them and wondering how much of this Manley could take. He seemed a little clearer than at 21. Apparently the cool ride through the Park and Eddie Bell’s reminiscences, spiraling around them like confetti, had helped to revive him. He was slipping easily into the illuminative atmosphere that had flared up between him and Eddie Bell as if they were two matches struck together.
The band was resting from its fruitless exertions. “Anything you want ’em to play, Pops?”
“Why Do I Love You?” The words gurgled through his mind with their catchy rhymes that had always pleased him.
“Pops, will you ever forget the night—we had a line of Sepia Sirens then and you and Mrs. H had just come back from some sun-kissed shore and were two shades darker than I was? Mrs. H sneaked off to the dressing room and when the kids came stepping out, there she was…”
“Eddie, you talk too much.”
It caught Eddie with his guard lowered and brought him down to now.
“Now, Pops, don’t snap your wig. I was just trying …”
“Aw, shut up.”
“Pops, you all right? You’re pretty far in the bag.”
Manley ignored him. He had remembered something else. That same Arabian night. Some goings-on between Jere and Eddie Bell he had never been sure about. He had always been afraid she had taken Rimbaud’s vilification of the white race too much to heart.
He stood up from the table and though he felt positive he had done so quietly, the chair fell over behind him. “Come on, let’s get out of here.”
Manley came back to their rooms at the Waldorf shaken and depressed. What a wild-goose chase! He should have known there was no Harlem to run up to any more; it was just a sprawling dark ghetto now.
“What y’ say we do a little work?”
If it had been two other people, Shep would have laughed.
“Right now? You know what time it is?”
“What’s difference? I always used t’ work this time, early i’ the morning. Some my best work early i’ the morning. Come on, le’s get the damn thing over with.”
“Manley, don’t you think we’ll feel more like it after a little shut-eye?”
“Damn you, always telling me what I should be feeling. One thing your time my time have in common—young men lecturing to old men.”
“Lecturing, hell. I’ve had too much myself to be able to keep my mind on our damned story.”
“Hell with all this talking. Real writers get sick o’ talking. What y’ think I am, one of these story-conference streaks? I’m a writer, we’re both writers. What d’ya say we both sit down ’n start writing?”
“But what are we going to write?”
“Love on Ice. Le’s just sit down and write it.”
“You mean both write it at the same time?”
“Sure. Le’s each write half. Le’s both go in separate rooms ’n write. Then in, say, two hours we c’n meet back here and piece it together.”
Shep searched the gray, strained face for some sign that Manley meant to be humorous. But no such sign was to be found. At this moment Manley believed quite seriously in their ability to saw a plot in half.
“But Manley …” The entire idea was so incredible that Shep couldn’t even devise a sensible protest.
“Come on, le’s start! Which half you rather take?”
For no other reason than helplessness, Shep said, “Okay, I’ll take the first half.”
He went into the bedroom with a sheaf of hotel stationery and, somehow falling in with the absurdity of it, began writing whatever came into his head. To his surprise he found this madcap plan a little less senseless than it had sounded. Having to make words on paper forced him to characterize in more detail than he had in all the days of talking the story. Several times he paused to rebuild his highball from the bottle in the living room. Once he went to the threshold of Manley’s room and looked in. Man-ley, using the bed for a desk, was writing furiously.
Dawn was just beginning to filter in when Manley suddenly appeared in the doorway of Shep’s room. He had a thick pad of stationery in his hand. If it hadn’t been insulin or a shot of something, the work had revived him. He was, obviously, delighted with what he had done.
“Anywhere near through, Shep?”
“Well—I guess so.”
“I think mine went pretty well. All we have to do now is splice ’em together.”
Shep was not at all sure they were even writing the same story, or the same characters, but, accepting topsy-turvy logic as one does in a dream, he followed along.
“Now first you read yours, then I’ll read mine and then we’ll drive in a golden spike at the place where they connect,” Manley said. “Just the way they joined the first railroad line in The Iron Horse.”
Self-consciously, Shep read his section aloud, feeling more and more like a damn fool. But Manley listened seriously, sometimes nodding in agreement. It never seemed to occur to him that what Shep had written was an improvised jumble.
When Shep finished, Manley said, “Well, it needs a little touching up but it’s not too bad,” mixed himself another drink and began with an air importance to read his section. It rambled —at times incoherently, and it had practically nothing to do with any college musical they had discussed; and yet, from the first line, evoking a wonderland of evergreens in freshly fallen snow and the reckless laughter of bright-eyed girls, it was much too good for what they needed. But for what they needed, not nearly good enough. When Manley finished, Shep did not know what to say. It had the Halliday touch all right. Apparently the old boy hadn’t lost that magical gift of not being able to write a bad line. The only trouble was, it made no sense. As a future item for Halliday collectors it might have some value. But it wasn’t exactly what Victor Milgrim was expecting for his $2000 a week. “There,” Manley said. “I told you we were writers, didn’t I, baby?”
“It’s—it’s got some nice feeling.” Shep struggled for an out. “I think we’ve got a real heroine in Diane.” His voice was paced with an ebullience that made him sound youthful. “Couldn’t you feel her coming to life? I always was successful with girls who love life, who throw off restraints. Diane’s really a second cousin to Julia in Midnight Frolic. Your mentioning that tonight gave me the idea.”
Shep said nothing but Manley was too pleased with himself, or, more kindly, too pleased with the motions of writing he had gone through, to notice. “I told you we could do it, baby. I told you if we just sat down to the writing we’d be all right.”
“Yes, you did,” Shep said. This was, as Sara would say, a major worry. What did Manley Halliday need, a cup of black coffee, or a whole new life?
“How’d you like that line where Diane sees Toby make his jump, ’a giant bird plunging downward’ and so forth, that isn’t bad prose, is it, baby?”
That he was supposed to be writing a bare outline for a film seemed entirely forgotten. He had gone home to prose style as an old blind horse finds its way back to its stall. It left Shep with a sense of confusion as to how he felt about Manley now.
The morning light was insistent, unflattering; their beards looked rougher, their clothes seedier. The morning light, taunting Shep with its irritable arithmetic, now added up to forty hours of fruitless wakefulness. The morning light led Manley in a happy daze to the little balcony outside the sitting room. It’s a hard job but I’m getting it done, he was thinking. I’m a craftsman, not a bohemian: I get things done. Shep watched him leaning on the railing in the hazy winter’s light. He must be weary to the breaking point after that last try. The bones were sharp in his face and from Shep’s point of view there was a terrifying illusion: the fine profile was bony and motionless as a death’s head.
For two-and-a-half days—according to Shep’s impromptu recapitulation—he had thought about nothing else but Manley Halliday. At first he had thought about how to make himself attractive, worthwhile to Halliday. Then he had thought about what he was learning from Halliday, and how to say the things that would bring Halliday out. Then he had begun to wonder about Halliday, and criticize. Now he was worried about him. He had been looking out toward the balcony, thinking he ought to tell Manley to lie down and get some rest, when a streak of independence flared: the hell with it, nobody appointed me his keeper. He went on into his own bedroom and closed the door.
Put Manley Halliday out of your mind. Why worry about a ruined man whose mind stopped with the clocks of Twenty-nine? This business of thinking every man was an island. Couldn’t they see that just below the waterline they were all connected? Shouldn’t every honest writer feel himself inextricably bound to society, to his fellow-men? How could he take off on a ten-year binge like Manley Halliday?
He shifted on the bed and tried to change the subject. This wasn’t getting away from Manley Halliday. But the ghost pursued him. What had happened to Manley Halliday ? What would become of him?
Closing his eyes, he could not close out Manley Halliday. How long had he known him? Already the worshipful beginning, the awe seemed part of an earlier incarnation. He had known him always, always his intimate and confidant.
All Shep could remember was that he had started out as a healthy, robust, relatively uncomplicated young man. Now he had lost the most luxurious of all youthful accomplishments— the ability to take sleep for granted. He shifted and tossed, felt his nerves hopping under his skin like sand-fleas, and slipped off into brief, disordered dreams only to twitch into wakefulness again.
Slowly Shep began to realize that he must have succumbed to sleep at last, for he was being awakened by a new, strange voice, a voice that sounded as if a man and a girl were using the same vocal cords.
Someone was making a shrill accusation. Shep heard “drunk again” and “you’re a damn fake” and “you’ve been nothing but bad news for me ever since I c’n remember.”
“Now, Douglas,” Shep heard Manley trying to calm him, “now, Douglas.”
“Why the heck should I spare your feelings? When did you ever worry about me?”
Shep couldn’t resist putting his eye to the keyhole. He saw a tall, thin, boy who would soon grow into being handsome and who looked as if he had stepped out of Brooks’ pre-college display. A cigarette flipped into his mouth with adolescent casualness and Shep noticed that he could talk with it between his lips like an old hand.
Even without seeing Manley, Shep knew how disturbed he was. When he was able to get a word in, his voice was low and strained. From what he had told Shep he was deeply concerned for Douglas, anxious that he become a “useful, integrated human being” and he probably wished this even more keenly than most fathers because of his guilt at having failed Douglas in the formative years.
“What’s the use of trying to stay in school?” Douglas was demanding. “What kind of meatball do you take me for? How do you think I feel when the Bursar’s office calls me in and asks me if my father knows my tuition is two months overdue? Tells me you haven’t even answered their letters! Holy Cow, I’d rather quit and get a job selling cars or something.”
“Douglas, there is to be no more talk about leaving school.”
“Well—I’m disgusted,” Douglas said.
“One of the reasons I’m making such an effort to write for Hollywood is to be sure you finish your education.”
“Maybe if you didn’t drink so much it wouldn’t have to be such an effort.”
“Douglas, I—I cannot allow you to talk to me that way.”
“Aah—look at you—you’re drunk right now. You never did anything for me in your whole life.”
Listening behind the door, Shep was surprised to discover how closely identified he felt with Manley. This brat couldn’t talk to him that way, not to Manley Halliday. One more crack out of Douglas and he was tempted to go out and punch the kid’s face in.
Douglas was talking about Mother now. From the way he capitalized and softened the word, one could tell what had happened to Douglas. “God knows you’ve made Mother’s life a holy hell. It makes me sick when I see how she has to worry about money. And all the time you’re spending it on flit and some Hollywood floosie. I’ll never understand—never understand why you left Mother in the first place.”
Manley came within range of the keyhole for the first time. Apparently the pain had sobered him. If only he didn’t look so run-down, Shep thought possessively. The shapeless suit, the bristled face, the stupefied look.
“Douglas.” Manley shut his eyes a moment in weariness. “Of course I respect you for standing by your mother. It’s—gentlemanly of you. In fact, I would be disappointed in you if you didn’t.”
Douglas waited with his mouth open a little to relieve the tension. It was easier when his father fought back.
“ ’Parently your mother has discussed me with you. More sorry than I can tell you that you have to be dragged into adult sit-u-ations.” He had to pick his way very carefully not to stammer or slur. “You are remarkably sophis-ticated for sixteen. Nev’ theless I suggest there may be certain ’motional problems that are still beyond your—comprehension.”
It would have been more impressive if Manley hadn’t had a tendency to stagger and to try so hard not to soften the edges of the consonants.
“Aw, if you were a man you’d go back to Mother and take care of her.”
“Ah, Douglas, it’s not so simple as all that.”
“Sure it isn’t simple”—suddenly rising hysterically, Douglas’ voice sounded even younger than sixteen—“not with that goddamned bitch on the West Coast.”
Manley said quietly, “If you were not my son, and you were a few years older, I would have to punch you in the nose for saying that.”
“Go on, go on,” the young voice screamed, “try it anyway—I’ll—I’ll—I’ll—”
Then Shep heard an unexpected sound. Douglas was sobbing. Manley put his arms around him. He held him like a small boy.
“Why do things have to be so damned lousy?” he sobbed. “If only you and Mother had stayed together.”
Families, Shep was thinking behind the door, hating each other without ever having stopped loving each other.
So it all ended with Manley consoling Douglas, telling him not to worry and giving him some extra spending money for the week-end. “I’ll pay up that tuition the minute I get next Wednesday’s check. Why don’t you go in my bathroom and wash your face?”
A soft family ending to a hard family quarrel.
When Shep heard the door to the corridor close behind Douglas, he wondered what he should do. To burst right in on Man-ley would be too obvious. But he thought—perhaps Manley needs me. Or was that only what he wanted to think?
He was still trying to make up his mind when Manley came in. Manley looked drunk again. He had this strange ability to go in and out of sober focus. It must have been a terrible effort to hold himself in for Douglas; now he was going slack.
“Suppose you heard the whole bloody business?”
“Sorry you had to hear that. ’Pologize.”
Shep heard himself muttering broken, meaningless assurances. Manley slumped to a bowed sitting position on the bed. “Lad,” he said almost inaudibly, “if you’ll fetch me a drink I’ll give you half my kingdom.”
When Shep brought it to him, Manley’s hand was shaking so badly that the top of the highball slurped over onto his sleeve. “Not the drinking,” he was careful to explain. “Just nerves.
Damned sugar balance all shot.” He tried to rise above it. “I’m quivering inside like a Model T.”
“That’s an awful lot to take.”
“My fault. Poor kid’s confused. Don’t blame ’im. We’ve led him a merry chase. Jere and I both. He’s just bouncing all his resentment off me.”
“But, hell, he’s old enough to know.”
The corners of Manley’s mouth began to turn up in an effort to smile that made him look even sadder. “You’ve probably forgotten already. An adolescent’s the most conservative citizen there is. Wants everything to stay just as he finds it. Sixteen-year-old’s a moralist. When he says, Mama Love Papa he isn’t kidding. Sixteen-year-old doesn’t give a damn if Papa’s books are translated in fifteen languages. I know what’s eating Douglas. An’ the hell of it is it’s too late to do anything about it.”
“I’ll swap fathers with him any day,” Shep said. “You’re—I can’t exactly explain what I mean. My old man flies off the handle and thinks with his blood pressure.”
It was strange to be considered anybody’s father, Manley thought. He never stepped up to a full-length mirror without being a little shocked at the middle-aged image. He could not shake the obsession that middle age had ambushed him unfairly. Nearly all of his life he had been such a very young man, the very model of a very successful very young man. Now suddenly here he was, middle aged, old enough to be a young man’s father. But inside he wasn’t ready. Inside, he hadn’t done enough growing up. Oh, he would have to hurry, hurry to catch up with himself.
“Gee whiz,” Shep said, “almost forgot. We have to see Milgrim in fifteen minutes.”
Manley shook his head. “This morning I wouldn’t keep an appointment with—with Louie B. Mayer.”
“Jesus, we can’t stand Milgrim up, can we, Manley?”
“If that’s a question—yes, we can. Get him on the phone. Tell him we worked all night and—wait a minute, do it myself.” It suddenly had become a question of honor with him. He was always having to prove to himself that he was not a timid man. Since when did he have to hide behind a boy ? Who did Milgrim think he was, pushing him around as if he were a beginner like Stearns? He would set Milgrim straight, in a quiet, dignified way. “The more you push them around, the more respect they have for you—I know how they think,” Manley said to Shep while he was getting Milgrim on the phone.
But when he talked to Milgrim—Shep noticed and Manley was a little disgusted by it himself—the independence he had meant to assert was diluted by a self-protective sense of caution that was just this side of unctuousness.
“Victor, if you don’t mind I’d like to duck the conference this morning … You know, to be perfectly frank, conferences aren’t my metier. I’m a writing man, Victor, guess you know that … Yes, yes, we’ve been working” (here self-contempt set in as he heard himself sinking into the great mass of screen writers alibiing, fawning, selling) “all night—we’ve got an outline on paper …”
What was meant to be a pause became extended silence. Mil-grim was doing the talking. Shep saw Manley close his eyes. Shep could hear the loud, positive voice of Milgrim on the other end. To the young man it was a charade of injustice, that Manley Halliday should have to sit there and take it from Victor Mil-grim.
Suddenly he heard Manley say, “Victor, I’ve always been a man of my word. I’ll be on that train this afternoon if you insist. But I wish you’d let me wait here for you. Shep and I are working very well together now. I’m sure he can fill me …”
Then Milgrim took over again. Occasionally Manley would attempt to break in and when he did so he sounded half exasperated, half intimidated: “Yes, it’s not that, but …”
“Of course, Victor, of course, but I just thought I could be …” Finally he said, “All right, Victor, I’ll be on the train. Yes, I’m feeling all right, a little weary of course, but …” He was interrupted again, and then he said, trying to pitch his voice smartly again, “Aye, aye sir,” and hung up.
He avoided Shep’s eyes. He wasn’t at all sure how he was going to manage. The trip would be an ordeal and the script a terrifying chore, but there was not the slightest doubt in his mind that he would survive both and go on to the come-back novel. He was glad Shep was along though. In those dark moments when he was in danger of losing himself, Shep’s admiration and knowledge of his work helped him become Manley Halliday again.
“Remember, we’re in this together, baby. Don’t leave me alone up there. I’m going to need plenty of moral support.”
“Even a little physical support if you don’t lay off the booze.” Shep thought it was time to put it to him.
For a moment Shep thought Manley might lose his temper. But all he said was, “All right, I guess you can talk to me like that.” He had a way of popping a cigarette up out of the pack that Shep associated with old-fashioned collegiana. God, he was old-fashioned. A fascinating relic.
“I’ll tell you the truth, Shep,” he said gravely. “I hadn’t had a drink for nearly eight months before I took on this job. That’s why it sort of knocked me off my trolley when we started on the plane. Soon as I get back I’ll put myself in Dr. Rubin’s hands and go into my health routine again. Now that I’ve started, the only way I’ll ever get through the week-end is with the help of God and my friends Haig and Haig. For God’s sake, stay with me, Shep. Stay with me and I think I’ll be all right.”
“Sure, I’ll stay with you, Manley.”
“Le’s go over that deathless prose we wrote las’ night and see how it stands up in the cold, crass light of day,” Manley said. “But first le’s have one little drink to two intrepid explorers on the eve of their departure for the frozen North.”
They held up their glasses and touched them with the mock formality of two vodka-happy officers of the Czar.
“To us and the frozen north,” Shep said. “Mush.”
“Tha’s what we gotta write,” Manley said brightly, as if it were a joke. “Mush.”