At both ends of the long table in the inner lounge were large cut-glass bowls filled with a timid concoction popularly known as Faculty Punch, an unsuccessful compromise between teetotal beverage and alcoholic fillip. Although at least a hundred academicians had gathered to welcome these strange birds descended on them from Hollywood, there was such an emphasis on decorum that it did not sound like a social gathering at all but more like an assembly of lip readers standing around murmuring to themselves.
The entrance of Manley Halliday was a sly joke, passing swiftly from one end of the gathering to the other. These cool, clean, sober, respectable people were duly shocked, but in a way that pleased them. They began to share the delectable piece of gossip, Halliday is positively plastered, that murmured and snickered discreetly through the lounge.
The humor of it did not escape Manley Halliday as he stood on the landing looking in at this gathering of the courteous and proper. He had a reasonably clear appreciation of the spectacle he was making of himself but he was neither embarrassed nor otherwise disturbed. There was his basic independence, his old enjoyment of shocking staid gatherings and, working just below the level of consciousness, his superiority to all those who had lived less fully and with far less accomplishment. What also carried him into the room was a dim but overwhelming sense of inevitability, a sense of being borne on through darkness, through strange corridors, unfamiliar rooms, as on one of those boats gliding through an amusement pier’s tunnel-of-love, except that those had a clearly identified beginning and end and offered a journey for the light-headed who had parted with a specific amount of small change to immerse themselves in a routine experience with darkness, while this journey was through a tunnel whose end no one could foretell, that grewdarker and darker and for which he had not had to pay anything in the beginning (on the contrary they were paying him) but for which a terrible price might be exacted before he could exit.
Shep was helplessly aware of the grotesque figure slumped beside him, a bloodless face behind a three-day beard, a crumpled body in a stained and crumpled suit that had become so baggy as to suggest the soiled declasse elegance of Charlie Chaplin. The comparison, thought Shep, was more than casual, for Manley Halliday in his humiliating contrast to the orderly people gathered to honor him had something of Charlie’s innate dignity, his laugh-provoking, absurd, yet somehow impressive superiority to the self-possessed assembly.
When Victor Milgrim saw them his face lost its assurance. For a moment it actually could not seem to find any expression at all and remained blank. Then, when the Secretary to the President said, “Ah, Mr. Halliday,” and came forward to intercept him, Milgrim muttered something about “how hard he’s been working, hasn’t even had time to clean up” and decided on the desperate measure of passing Halliday off as a colorful eccentric—the traditional mad genius of the arts.
Manley Halliday started forward and—perhaps through accident, perhaps through buckling of the knees—stumbled and might have fallen if Shep had not in quick reflex caught his elbow.
The Dean, who had made excellent grades for an athlete at Webster, made a remark Shep couldn’t quite hear, yet got the pith of it—something about this beginning to look like a red Hollywood cocktail party, complete with drunks who got two thousand a week. Shep sensed the hostility this outlandish income aroused in educated people having their troubles being middle class on three to six thousand dollars a year.
The Secretary threaded them smoothly through the assembly, introducing them to the more important of the campus hierarchy who acknowledged Halliday with conscious good manners. “Well, you must be having quite an adventure, Stearns,” said Prof. Blodgett, an owlish, apple-cheeked bachelor of fifty known for the catty quality of his wit. Loyally, Shep felt he had to say,
“Yes, I’m learning a lot from Mr. Halliday.” “I’m sure you are,” said Prof. Blodgett with an emphasis that stung. “Now tell me, is this going to be one of those super-colossal productions, or merely colossal?”
Another English professor, Bridgman, a young man who had never known youth, said to Manley Halliday with unconscious cruelty, “I had occasion to reread Friends and Foes last summer. It holds up surprisingly well.” “Well, don’t we all?” Manley Halliday said. Farther down the table they met Prof. Crofts, the Emersonian who had had such hopes for Shep as an undergraduate and who could not pretend to be pleased that Shep was “doing movies.” With the characteristic directness that bordered on rudeness, Crofts asked, “Will you be able to get anything of your own into this film?” Shep answered uncomfortably, “Not this one. Maybe eventually—I hope.” Then Prof. Crofts had turned to Halliday. “Did Shep tell you he chose your work for his final paper in my course ? He admired you very much. Although he saw you as the classic decline of the middle-class artist.”
Manley Halliday lowered the punch glass someone had handed him. “Well, I admire him as the clashic decline of the young Marxist critic, so we’re even. Maybe the reashon we admire each other so mush is becaush we’ve been declining together so mush.” “He’s a total wreck, isn’t he?” Prof. Crofts managed to say to Shep in an undertone as the Secretary steered Halliday along. Shep said, “Well, he does have another book he’s working on.” “Then what is he doing up here on the movie?” Prof. Crofts wanted to know. “Needs money,” Shep said. “Huh!” snorted Prof. Crofts, transcendental as Emerson.
At last they reached Milgrim who was cornered by Prof. Connolly, the head of the Drama Department, a worldly monk of a man. Prof. Connolly was springing on Victor Milgrim a cherished idea. Ever since he had been brought to Hollywood as technical adviser for Twelfth Night and had had pictures taken with Bette Davis, Paul Muni and George Arliss (the one with his arm around Joan Crawford he had decided not to hang with the others in his office), he had been movie struck. It long had been his plan to establish a movie course with a library of actualscenarios and perhaps with Hollywood notables as guest lecturers. “I thought perhaps we might have a special wing in the library,” Prof. Connolly was saying. “With your permission, the ’Victor Milgrim Room’, with bound movie scripts and a collection of all the books and magazines on the films.”
“If a thousand dollars will start the ball rolling,” Milgrim replied. “I’m sure I can get Academy co-operation on old scripts.”
“Most gratifying,” Prof. Connolly purred. “And perhaps—I know how busy you are—you could deliver the opening lecture on The Art of the Cinema.”
“I’m delighted you recognize that it is an art,” Milgrim said modestly.
“Oh, my, yes. Before you leave perhaps you’ll have time to look over an article I’m doing. I call it ’The Eighth and Liveliest Art.’” “This summer you should come out as my guest and study film production at first-hand,” Milgrim said, confident he was picking up the scent of his honorary degree. “You can use one of our executive offices. I’ll be glad to loan you a secretary.” “That would be elegant,” Prof. Connolly beamed. All though this buttery exchange, Manley Halliday had been standing by with his eyes practically closed, his head bent forward as if too heavy for his neck, his legs strategically apart to afford better balance for his swaying. Milgrim and the professor had been ignoring him politely when suddenly he interrupted with a blurt: “Scrip’s no good.”
The two men looked up warily. Like a man talking in his sleep, Manley Halliday continued.
“ ’S’like reading a book about plumbing. On’y way t’ learn how to fit th’ pipes t’gether is t’ get some pipes ’n try it. Let ’im send you the pipes, movie camera, sound equipment, a movieola, study a picture on y’r movieola, take it apart ’n put it t’gether again. Learn more that way ’n memorizing Eisenstein.”
“Yes, yes, I quite see your point, Mr. Halliday,” Prof. Connolly promptly agreed. “Of course if Mr. Milgrim could spare us some movie equipment …” He did everything but rub his palms together.
People were coming up and wanting to be introduced to Halliday, a few with genuine admiration, the rest merely sightseers eager to get back to their friends with a vivid story of Manley Halliday’s debacle.—“I saw him at a party in New York years and years ago,” Shep heard someone saying behind him. “God, what a beautiful man! He’s gone completely to pieces.”
Then Shep knew what it was that had been angering him. Manley was drunk and he was a spectacle. But they seemed glad this had happened to him. That is what galled. “Shep!”
Shep had been strong for Prof. Osborne from the time they had worked together in the League Against War and Fascism, in the years when most of the faculty hesitated even to sign a petition against the Nazis for fear of forfeiting their precious and precarious objectivity. But at this particular moment, knowing Osborne’s friendship for Halliday, Shep welcomed him like a fellow-countryman in a strange land. “Shep, I think we ought to get Manley upstairs.” “Have you seen him yet?”
“I’m afraid so. But I don’t think he’s seen me. Or maybe he doesn’t want to see me.” “He’s—he’s in pretty tough shape.” “How long has he been drinking?”
“Let’s see—’bout three days.”
“Damn. I read somewhere, I thought he was all through with his drinking.”
“He was. Hank, it was my fault. I started him drinking on the plane. I didn’t know.”
“Aw he’s been doing it for years. I love him but damn it makes me mad, a man like that, well, anyway, the big talent of our crowd, deliberately destroying himself.”
Near them Manley Halliday was fortifying himself with punch while holding off a group that could best be described as fawning tormentors. “What makes you think you know enough to cri’size Shadow Ball? Bet you anything you don’ even understan’ Shadow Ball. C’n see it in y’r face. Jus’ becauseyou grew up without a sense o’ humor—prol’ly a Presbyterian minister’s son—you mistook it for intelligence,”
“Man can still see in the dark,” Osborne said. “Bridgie is a small-town New England minister’s son. But we better get him out of here before he swings on the Dean. I know the symptoms.”
“Come on, Man, let’s go up to your room. I haven’t had a chance to talk to you,” Osborne said, taking Halliday’s arm firmly.
Manley Halliday thought he heard, imagined he saw Hank Osborne as one of the phantom figures looming up in this dark labyrinth where the past twisted with terrible confusion into the present. Remembering the arm of Hank Osborne as having guided him many times along the edge of the precipice, he went along peacefully. He didn’t even bother with hellos, for this was not a meeting in time and place but more like the resumption of a memory.
This was how they led him back to the attic room where Hank said, “Now lie down, Man, and try to get some sleep,” which reminded Manley Halliday of where he was. “Where the hell you come from?” he said to Hank. “Who in-vited you? Always telling me what to do. Why didn’ you write High Noon, if you were so goddam good? Yes and don’ think I’ve forgotten that letter you wrote me about Shadow Ball. ’… the style has the faint beauty of a rose picked a week before an’ beginning to decompose … ’”
“Jesus, how he remembers, how he remembers everything,” Osborne muttered to Shep.
“Well, lis’en, your style didn’ have any smell at all, just the smell of typewriter ribbon an’ Hammermill Bond, you jealous hypercri’cal bashtard.”
Osborne said quietly, “Manley, I told you a long time ago you can never make me mad again. Minnie and I have made up our minds to go on liking you no matter what you do to us—or to yourself.”
“Aah—ish-kabibble,” Manley Halliday said. “I’d better go,” Osborne said. “Damn, I’ve been looking forward for years to seeing you again, but …”
“… Says I made a pass at Minnie,” Manley Halliday muttered. “Christ, we were all swacked and maybe I said I think I said Minnie’s the kind of girl who makes every man think of going to bed with her—but, hell it was jus’ talk an’ if you don’ like it you sonuvabish you know I’m not afraid of you …”
Manley Halliday lunged forward with his fists clenched. Carefully backing out of his way, Osborne said, “I’m your friend, Manley. Remember that. Come to see us if you’re feeling better.”
“Yeah, so I’m starting to decompose. Well, I’ll decompose you, you smart smug sonuva …”
Outside the door Osborne said to Shep, “God Almighty, it’s a terrible thing to see.”
“Three nights without sleep,” Shep said.
“Three nights,” Osborne said. “A thousand and one nights.”
“He still sees everything. I don’t know how the hell his mind keeps working.”
“A tremendous talent,” Osborne said. “You don’t lose that. You just lose the way of putting it to work.”
“And how old is he, forty-three?”
“He lived twice as fast as anybody else. That makes him 86. When he came in to that reception he looked 86.”
“I don’t understand it, Hank. The Twenties was your time too. But you got over it. You kept up. You’ll be as much at home in the Forties.”
“Partly, it’s because I wasn’t a success,” Osborne said. “Being a failure—if it doesn’t ruin you—can teach you something. Trouble with Man was he had his youth and he had his success and he thought the two were the same thing and that both could last forever. Well, you better go back. If you need any help, call me. I used to be able to handle him sometimes.” He smiled fleetingly and a look of unexpected sadness came into his face. “I don’t envy the poor bastard from here in.”
When Shep went back into the room Manley Halliday was sitting on the edge of the bed with his head in his hands.
“Baby, we’re wasting time,” he said accusingly. “Victor’s gonna call us any minute—remember? Shep, we’ve got to think of something. Wasn’t going to tell you this but I—I need thisjob. If I c’n just once get out of debt, buy six months of writing time. Shep, I’ve loused up so many chances I don’t want to muff this one. Just get us started, start talking story and don’ let me get off the point. So go ahead, Shep. Please start talking story.”
“Well, we’ve made about five different starts but we never seem to be able to stay with one to the finish,” Shep plunged in. He had gone so stale on this that he could hardly remember the various formulas they had tried.
“Tha’s right tha’s right le’s go back to the very first one you had, isn’t that usually wh’happens? ’Riginal one turns out to be the best? Now, remind me of it again.”
“The waitress, Sally, I called her, is elected Queen instead of Miss Rich Bitch, Lorna, so Lorna tells Hugh …”
“Isn’t it just Girl Meets Webster, Girl Loses Webster, Girl Gets Webster ? All we need is some cute business an’ a few little mishunderstandings …”
He shut his eyes as if in intense concentration and when Shep spoke and he did not answer except with a swallowed groan, Shep realized he had slipped off into some private limbo. “Manley, you can’t go to sleep now.” The shaking startled him. He looked up accusingly. “Where’d you go?” “Manley, for Christ’s sweet sake.”
“The girl,” Manley Halliday picked it up dormouse fashion. “Shtill can’t see the girl. Gotta be able to reach out ’n touch my people when I write. ’Member Laura-Lee? So much in love with her Jere was actually jealous.”
His eyes opened wide, suddenly, and he strained forward, staring fixedly at something only visible to him. “I heard her. Laughing.” “Heard who?” “Jere.”
Shep looked at him hard. Outside, on the pavement below, a couple of undergraduates were throwing flirtatious snowballs at their dates. “Jack Jack eeeeeeeeek,” came the girlish protest, followed by a soft laugh that rose musically. “Outside. Somebody’s date,” Shep said. “It’s—amazing. Sounded like Jere. Sounded exactly like Jere.”
As quickly as that it was all over. The shock of what he had thought seemed to have jolted him out of his partial coma. Now he was simply embarrassed.
“Now where are we?” he persisted. “Ann I mean Fran meets her rival at the fraternity house …”
The knock on the door was ominous. It was Hutchinson with a big forced grin. “Well, we got the Boss out of the clutches of those long-hairs. Jesus, is that Prof. Connolly a super-salesman. The Boss kills me the way he falls for that crap.” The grin was carefully maintained. “You boys ready for the big moment?”
Shep looked up warily. “We already had our big moment.”
“No—the story conference. You’re on. The Great Man’s ready to hear all. He’s got the joint filled downstairs. Even Professor Connolly and the Dean and Mrs. Dean.”
“The Dean’ll be a big help,” Shep said. “What the hell is this, a story conference or a public exhibition?”
“Listen, guys, don’t let the Boss get you down. Just between you, me and the outhouse he goes a little nuts when he’s around these campus characters. You shoulda heard him and the Dean and the Prof. All you gotta do is go in and lay your story on the line so a simple schnook like me c’n understand it and to hell with those big shots. We’ll get together on this and make a helluva picture if the Boss’ll just leave us alone. I’d like to talk him into letting me direct the whole thing. Us three’d work right together with none of this Hollywood crap.”
Neither Shep nor Manley Halliday was paying the slightest attention. Each of them had withdrawn into his own hive of anxiety.
“Say, I’m anxious to hear this yarn myself,” Hutchinson said.
“So am I,” said Shep.
“Ha ha, you mean Hally’s gonna tell it?”
“Hutch, before we go down, haven’t got a shot on you?” Man-ley Halliday asked suddenly.
Hutchinson became wary. “Well—you’ve been hitting it pretty heavy, haven’t you, Hally?”
“Hutch, believe me, a drink’ll steady me. Steady my nerves.”
“We-ell …” They were seeing Hutchinson shrink to his trueidentity of timid employee. “Now fer Christ sake, don’t let the Boss know where ya got it,” He slipped a flask out of his pocket. Manley Halliday grabbed for it in his eagerness. “God help us all,” he said and poured it down.
“I could use a little of that myself,” Shep said.
“Well, here’s to your story, boys,” Hutchinson cheered them. “And remember what your pal Hutch tells you—talk right up to the son-of-a-bitch same way I do,”