It was the waiting, Shep was thinking, always the waiting. They had been waiting for hours. In the cramped corridor of tension intensified by Jere’s shrill resentment of Ann Loeb, it seemed like days.
The cold shadows of winter’s early twilight were lengthening rapidly when the doctors came down. Everyone stood up. It was unexpectedly formal. All three tried to read the faces of the doctors. Dr. A. A. had thrown a white coat over his operating uniform. His mask still dangled from his neck.
Dr. Wittenberg said, “We hope everything will be all right. I thought you should hear from Dr. A. A. himself as to just how it went.”
This was the part the surgeon did not like. They were races apart, Wittenberg and the bedside-manner boys, and the ones like himself who did it with their hands and let others explain. Dr. A. A.’s little talk was a harsh camouflage of his true feelings.
“The surgery went fine. But he suffered a pulmonary embolism immediately afterwards.”
Jere began to whimper. Ann bit her lower lip and said, “I see.” Shep had to ask: “Will he pull through?”
The surgeon answered, “That has nothing to do with surgery. Depends on how many other—uh—loose clots there are.”
Jere cried out, in a way that made Shep and Ann wince, “Tell me the truth, he’s going to die, he’s going to die!”
Dr. Wittenberg would not look at her directly. “It’s hard to say. If another one of those clots breaks off …”
Jere’s scream was a horrible intrusion on the hospital silence. “Manieeeeee. I can’t bear it I can’t bear it I can’t bear it I can’t bear it.” She wept into her nervous fingers. Her head moved from side to side in a primitive show of grief.
Dr. A. A. turned away. In fifteen minutes he had a gall bladder to remove.
Dr. Wittenberg said to Jere, “He’ll be brought down in a little while. You’ll have a chance to see him for a moment. There’s hope, remember that.”
Under the cute bangs, Jere’s face was old with grief and confusion.
“Oh, why did everything have to happen to us? Why doesn’t anything ever go right any more?”
On those inappropriately trim legs the bloated figure swayed.
Shep hurried to support her. She withdrew with a vacant smile and moved off into some half-lit chamber of her own.
Ann was standing by the window, hard-eyed and as sharply complex as a prism.
Shep came up to her and said, “Ann, some time I’d like to see you and …”
“Yes. Some time. Come and talk to me. Tell me everything that happened. Not too soon though. For a while I want to think about it all to myself.”
She turned back to the window, to keep it that way.
Shep went wandering around the room, around and around. If only he could make some final sense of this. Was Manley Halliday the playboy of the Western world played out and dragged down in the collapse of a generation? Halliday’s Twenties had begun with a wonderful blowing of horns, New Year’s Eve, year in year out, getting pleasantly stinko and going home—or to somebody else’s home—with somebody else’s girl. Waste, of course, a round of empty pleasures (soon Waste Land was their label for it), a palace of silver that turns out to be only papier mache covered with tin foil that peels off in the first real storm. Just the same, just the same. To think even for a moment that your house was built of silver. To be able to romanticize, even for a moment, about the wool you pulled even over your own eyes, while at the same time knowing exactly what you were doing and what it was doing to you, to hold it up to the fluoroscope, diagnose it, find it suffering from high stock pressure, hardening of the material arteries, cirrhosis of the spirit—and predict its death. And then to mourn at the bedside like the doctor who has also been the lover, himself fatally infected. Or was it too simple to blame it on the times? Was ManleyHalliday just a lost soul or was he really a symbol of that feverish age he had glorified and gloried in? A child of his times, more vulnerable to epidemic than other, stronger children? Less cautious about crowds, more careless of infection?
Shaken and upset and somehow driven to find some order in the chaos of these last few, terrible days, Shep was questioning not only his answers but even his questions now. What were these eighty-three pages of die-hard talent? Was Manley Halliday to have another chance? And if he managed to fight through, would this be a meaningful victory or just another happy accident? Was failure inevitable and tragic? Or merely the biggest and last of the bad breaks? Would death, like the unfinished manuscript—another broken promise—be the final symbol?
O Christ, maybe he should die and get it over with, Shep’s thoughts twisted in a sudden fit of bitterness. Die all at once, before another failure, another fiasco. Die now, so as not to submit himself to further humiliation of the spirit and the flesh. Die now, Shep thought hysterically. Let him be lowered into his grave so that disciples may begin to worship, so that readers may savor the pleasure of rediscovery. Let us bury the remains. Let the Halliday revival begin.
They carried Manley Halliday down to his own bed. It had become his bed, this bed. He stared up into feverish confusion. White lines pinwheeling outward from dark centers. Wider and wider circles flashing and a roaring in his ears, a tri-motor roar, oh he was flying East Shep let’s think THINK we’ve got to get it before we land a waitress a waitress but what was he thinking about? Jere wasn’t a waitress Jere was that’s what he meant an heiress a disinherited heiress well weren’t they all? disinherited by choice and taking no for an answer but what a beautiful answer what a beautiful moment never again the grace or the poetry of evasion never again would the myth of the immediate pass for eternal truth O Lord O Jere O genius he called down the endless corridor of time and the echo that came back to him was only the sound of his own breathing and as he listened it sounded familiar yes where had he heard it before shantih shantih shantih on the plane recalling it had he known the meaningof These fragments I have shored against my ruins mere fragments of might-have-been with too much of the wrong kind of Datta and damn little damyata suck air shantih suck air shantih suck air shantih then and RED funny he didn’t remember that in the poem no that was life, his brief taste of life, the taste of blood as he spewed it forth and then he thought wait a minute (oh time hold still) diabetics don’t cough blood not even diabetics with gangrene (ugh!) this is something else
a Something choking him that he must FIGHT he jerked convulsively trying to sit up if he could sit up he could stop this thing opening his mouth wide to breathe breathe (sucker) of life’s sweet air. This couldn’t be it not this oh you talked about it philosophized about it worried about it even joked and lived with it but it was always it, nothing real, nothing that could happen to you, not you Manley Halliday half done and half undone, and then O choking on pain and fear This was to be all, Be All and End All of human achievement human waste human dreams human failure human being a joke a joke a blood-spitting joke and then remembering everything (we have exhausted the future all the realities, what will they be tomorrow in comparison with the mirage we have just lived? ring down the curtain I’m certain at present my future just passed) just as clear as on a screen but even brighter he saw it, like a deadly subtitle they once had offered him fabulous sums to write (oh why do you never see it in time?):
A second chance. That’s the delusion. There never was but one.
But one but one but one but take it from me, baby, in America nothing fails like success—(pause)—and then when he thought he could almost laugh he thought he’d die: this is one pause that won’t refresh, Mannie old boy—
For one convulsive moment (“Doctor Doctor Wittenberg come at once!”) he sat straight up and suddenly, with the power of final sight, he could look forward a lifetime into the future and backward a lifetime into the past. What he saw brought a final stab of pain and when he fell back, at last, he had ceased to be whirled about.
Published as The Disenchanted by Budd Schulberg (1950).