Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Writer: Chapter Three

Chapter Three: Manhattan’s Shock and Awe

I shared a cabin on the S.S. United States with two Americans, a barber from Upstate New York, and the assistant manager of a New Jersey bank: three men in a boat that began a gentle boogie-woogie soon after leaving Southampton dock and then let rip.
The swarthy Italo-American barber took to his bunk and was soon pleading for the last rites. The atheist banker tried mind-over-matter and then transcendental meditation but must have had bad connections. I tried something from the ship’s pharmacy from which I quickly parted company.
Apart from half a Hershey chocolate bar I went on a five-day fast, sipping ice water and trying to block out the sad symphony of the air-conditioner and the barber’s pitiful gasps and groans. He was only briefly a soloist, then the banker and I joined it.
The savage sea became subdued as we approached the American shoreline and the banker and I recovered enough to go on deck, leaving the barber still thrashing around on his back as if in labor. “Morning sickness, or a false pregnancy?” quipped the banker, with the callousness of a convalescent.
As we glided closer on that overcast morning, Manhattan’s massive, masculine skyscrapers put Easter Island and Pompeii for shame. “It’s like a massive monument to a fertility cult,” I said.
The non-stop motor traffic on the Westside Highway and Riverside seemed as frantic to get off as I was to get on, not only to have solid ground underfoot but also to begin the adventure.
Standing in line on the Manhattan dockside waiting for a cab even the air had a foreign flavor: cold, sharp and salty. I shuffled similes, searching for the right way to fix my first close view of our lost colony, as a ferocious wind-whipped rain drove the drivers to park or switch on their pale headlights. The banker lent me his pen to write his phone number on the back of an envelope, and I added, “Wet potatoes hitting hot fat in a pan—plus a swish.”
Water dripped onto the paper from his prominent eyebrows as he looked over my shoulder and muttered a baffled, “What the hell’s that?”
“Traffic noise in the rain”
“Too labored,” he said.
The barber arrived and squeezed between us. “Think the rain cured me. What you up to, pal?”
I told him.
“How about a cow pissing on a flat rock?”
“Great,” I said. “Thanks.” I planned to play around with the phrase and make it my own. Would I ever have the confidence to admit that my muse was a seasick barber?
“Any time. Let’s keep in touch.” And he gave me his phone number. “Here’s your cab. Good luck.” You could tell from his handshake that he was an ex-marine.
My cab driver dressed like a bum, but smoked a cigar with the panache of a plutocrat. He took off in a pigsqueal turn, cutting in front of a sports car, its convertible roof stuck half way and letting in the driving rain. I glimpsed a young woman in the passenger seat holding a soggy newspaper over her head.
We met at the next red light.
“You fucking jerk!” the other driver yelled.
“What was that?” my driver snarled. He opened his window an inch and agitated his cigar between his teeth in an angry up and down motion.
“You FUCKING Jerk!”
“No, Johnny!” the young woman pleaded. She sounded scared. “Don’t. Please don’t!”
“You’re lucky my girl’s here!” Johnny shouted.
“No, son, YOU’RE the lucky one!”
“You fucking JERK!”
The light favored us, but we didn’t move. Traffic backed up behind us gave a ragged imitation of the 1812 Overture, with dashing vocal arrangements. Just what I expected of New York! Street opera! Then I recalled Gershwin’s Slaughter on Fifth Avenue, or was it Murder on Tenth? We were on Tenth! I slumped to make myself a less inviting target.
The two cars began to slither forward like Siamese twins, until my driver saw a chance to escape between two trucks, took it and some paint off them, and rattled ahead.
A few lights later the sports car caught up alongside and wobbled menacingly at as like a movie-chase car.
“Guy’s nuts!” my driver hissed and braked unexpectedly.
The sports car shot ahead. Cars and trucks behind us collided and stalled.
“They’re okay,” said my driver, complacently, glancing in his mirror, “Minor whiplash at worst.”
The enemy awaited us at the next red light. We stopped behind him.
He leaped from his car, his soaked T-shirt accentuating his weight-lifter muscles, and what from a distance appeared to be bruises close to were a tattoos. One word stood out: HELL.
“Watch this,” my driver said, still trying to make light of it. ”We’re in for a fundamentally religious experience.”
“No, Johnny! DON’T!” his girl shrieked. Was he a homicidal maniac on parole? One of the one in five lunatics reputed to be at large in the city? She looked like a drowning chipmunk. He looked like he meant business.
And our windshield wipers went Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill!
My driver got the message, yelling, “I warn you, I’ve got heart trouble,” and arching his thumb at me. “This man is my witness. If I die he can swear it was premeditated murder,” Then he frantically closed the inch-open window.
“LOWER YOUR FUCKING WINDOW!” He began to beat on it with his fists.
My driver lowered the window a hair and Johnny flicked rain at him. “If you’ve got a bad heart,” he spat at him, “you shouldn’t pull that shit!”
Sensing victory, my driver opened the window a fist to have the last word. But he was too slow. Johnny reached in and ripped the cigar from his mouth. He raced back to the water-locked car, leaped in and drove off through a red light. His girl half stood, and turned to yell “Bastards!” as she aimed her soggy newspaper at us.
My driver was quiet for a block, then, “Took half my fucking lip with him,” he complained. He looked in his mirror, catching my eye, “Shook you rigid, didn’t it!” He was either trying to imitate me or so scared his voice had climbed a register.
“It was your driving that shook me,“ I replied. “Do you really have a bad heart?”
“Christ, no. But I would have had if that mother-fucker had connected.”
He stopped at the thirty-fourth street address Gwen had recommended. Expecting something a step or two down from the Paris Ritz Hotel, or London’s Savoy Hotel, I thought the driver had made a mistake when I entered the less than lush portals of The Young Men’s Christian Association. Maybe the Rev. Applegate’s prayers were being answered.
Dear Nobby and Adam and vice versa:
Waiting for Gwen or Underwood to tell me my next move, I’m bashing this out on a typewriter in the entrance of my new temporary home, the YMCA. Fortunately you don’t have to be a Christian to get in. It costs twenty five cents an hour. {The typewriter, not the YMCA} You’ll get about ten cents worth. Before breakfast this morning a fellow resident at the next washbasin in the rest room as they call he lavatory, asked, ”Did you hear that howl last night?” I heard nothing but howls,” I said. {Police cars, ambulances, and fire engines sounding off.} “This was different,” he said. “Guy went berserk and took a dive from the twelfth floor. Lost an arm on the way down.” They say one in five New Yorkers is mentally disturbed, or, in the vernacular, “nuts.” I’ve never seen so many people talking to themselves or making obscene gestures as they prowl the streets. I sleep in spurts, because from fourteen floors up Manhattan sounds like a prehistoric forest during the dinosaur-mating season. And I wake with each impregnation.
The night I arrived in the city, a gangster was gunned down in a nearby fish restaurant, midway through his bluefish and french fries, chips to youse guys, the bullets also shattering the glass tank containing lobsters treading water. That same night, to change to a minor key, a young Christian (Ha! Ha!) stole my overcoat (topcoat in Yankee lingo) from a hanger in the Y dining room while I toyed with what seemed to be red peppers and gravy. And he left a fragile piece of cotton in its place. It was three below and snow was up to your elbows, where it hadn’t been ploughed (plowed here) I trudged and skidded across the street to buy a replacement with a fur collar, taking giant bites out of my nest egg—and that’s no yoke. Forgive me.
I called on the business agent who represents Underwood on the east coast, who handed over forty dollars, exactly the cost of the coat. At least I now look like a native.
At night I roam the snow-free sidewalks {pavements} window shopping, sometimes talking or singing to myself so that I don’t look out of place. And I’ve found treasures in some doorways after dark, colorful copies of Life, Look and Fortune magazines, which I take back to my cell. The food is colorful, but the swollen tomatoes have lost their taste and shop-sold carnations have lost their scent. But the coffee is great and tastes as good at is smells.
It’s weird living high above a blazing city—blazing with lights, not fires—all the pleasures of the world at my feet. Sounds like a foot fetish, or time-travel back to Biblical times, doesn’t it? Intriguing opportunities seem to lurk around every corner. If it’s just an illusion, why is it so strong and pervasive? Is the air hypnotic, or are the jazzy flashing lights responsible? It’s worth a thesis.
Their cops are chunkier than ours, leer at women, carry guns like growths on their hips. Out of uniform its hard to distinguish them from the hoods. One took a seat next to mine in a fast-food joint and his portable radio blared incoherently, while he calmly chewed pastrami on rye and ogled the charming waitress who called everyone “honey”. When waitresses shout, “Burn the English!” I no longer flinch. It’s snackbar-ese for “Toast the English muffin.”
By the sound of the cop’s radio I guessed that a holdup had been called in. His response: “Another coffee and prune Danish, sweetheart.” A prune Danish is not a wrinkled Scandinavian but pastry plus prunes. And to “knock up a woman,” is not to wake her, but to get her pregnant. You can imagination the misunderstanding when you ask a woman, “Shall I knock you up, tomorrow?”
Home seems as remote as Shangri La. The few bars (pubs) I’ve seen resemble funeral homes with no or darkened windows. Among the graffiti in the YMCA urinal are the usual affectionate invitations and this gem: “Don’t piss on the floor. My shoes have holes.” Maybe it was the guy who pinched my coat. On a return visit I saw a new message. An asterisk was followed by very small, neat writing low on the wall. I leaned forward and read; “You are now shitting at exactly 45 degrees.” I’m sending mother a similar letter purged of suicide, scatology, homicide, and insanity, You get Mickey Spillane. She gets P. G. Wodehouse.
My Dear Mother, Everything is great. I’m still practicing typing, as you see. No mistakes so far! I’m learning not to take American English for granted: lift is elevator; flat,apartment; tram, streetcar; snack bars are fast food restaurants; fags mean cigarettes to us, homosexuals to them. “I’d like a fag,” is easily misunderstood. I was surprised to find that their words are often longer than our shorter and snappier equivalents. Thanks for the cakes. They arrived intact. You must have mailed them the day after I left. Now, only the crumbs remain. Food here is plentiful, but tomatoes taste like tap water, and carnations are so lacking in scent they might just as well be made of paper. America lacks at least four things with which Britain’s blessed: bluebells, fish-and- chip shops (not pale imitations), drinking establishments with the ambiance of our pubs, and unarmed cops. No, five things. Unarmed crooks. The cold air here is marvelous. It’s like breathing razor blades and, strangely, invigorating, when you find you’re not bleeding. In this arctic weather I hurry from over-heated drug store (chemist) after coffee and prune Danish, to any other overheated refuge I come across. I once sauntered through a hotel called The Waldorf-Astoria that stretches from one street to another, Lexington to Park, along lush-carpeted corridors, among scented women, chandeliers and warm air. It’s a town under one roof.
In contrast to our soccer, a game of skill, dash and almost constant movement, American football is ludicrous. Players wear so much protective padding they can only be identified by numbers on their shirts. Basketball too has its freakish aspect: the game of choice of men twenty two feet tall and above. I’ve loaded up with books about William Blake thanks to the public library, and am looking forward to starting work on this intriguing project. Meanwhile am savoring this sensational city. Regards to the neighbors, especially Mrs. Willet, Parsons and Whelan. Any news of David? He’d love it here, especially the ladies—-called women. Many are extremely attractive, with perfect teeth, smiles, and shapes. Expect to hear from Gwen, Underwood, or one of his minions with my marching orders any moment. Although I expect to fly to California. Hurrying to catch the post, or mail as they call it.
Love, Stephen.
Snow settled on the city like ice on a wedding cake, except where plows took bites out of it. Although I spent little time in my Spartan six-by-ten-feet room at the Y, I called at the reception desk several times daily and last thing at night for messages that never came. Had Underwood forgotten me? Met with a fatal accident? I called his agent who reassured me. Be patient, he said.
For days the sky was blue as a child’s painting, swept clear of clouds, its brightness accentuated by the snow, a new world. I never tired of seeing my own breath, as if I were a kettle. And I soon responded with sangfroid when my nostril hairs froze rigid, knowing that I could always step into an overheated building before the rest of me froze too.
One Sunday, my intercom sputtered incoherently and I eagerly took the elevator down. Underwood was waiting at the reception desk, in a beaver-fur coat that doubled his width and gave him the air of an Arctic trapper. He carried a basket of apples. ”Been visiting friends in Connecticut,” he said. “They forced these on me. I assume your need is greater than mine.” He handed over the fruit. “I’m at the Carlyle, if you need to get in touch. We’ll be leaving in a few days. Make the most of your freedom.” Little did I suspect what that meant.
He briefly questioned me about life at the Y, like an officer making sure his troops are comfortable. Then he nodded and left. I watched him buy a New York Times at the newsstand. He noticed me, pretended the bloated paper was too heavy to carry, waved goodbye and was gone. The apples gave me diarrhea.


When I told Underwood it was my first flight, he surrendered the window seat, saying, ”Seen it all before.” His nonchalance reassured me. When we broke through the overcast, he sighed as if infinity was his natural element. Not that he didn’t take a collector’s-like interest in the finite.
He was a repository of bizarre information which he disgorged at intervals during our flight. I expected him to want to discuss William Blake, instead, after an air hostess brought us drinks and we had skirted the Grand Canyon, I learned that the British Queen Boadicea, a contemporary of Nero, is buried under London’s St. Pancras Railroad Station. He even knew which platform.
“And Anne Boleyn,“ I said, “is buried in a church near the Tower of London, where she was executed for adultery.”
“For adultery, incest and high treason,” he added. “Did you study the Tudors at Oxford?”
“No, at grammar school. And just the reigns of Henry the Eighth and Elizabeth. To bring history to life our teacher took us on a trip to Boleyn’s childhood home, Hever Castle. It’s only ten miles from our school.”
“At Edenbridge. I know it well. Despite his reputation, Henry the Eighth was justified in getting rid of two wives. Especially Boleyn. After all, she committed adultery with at least four lovers, as well as incest with her brother.”
“But the men were tortured into confessing.”
“Not all of them. The aristocrats weren’t. More important, Henry was desperate for a son to succeed him, and she wasn’t up to it. Not being prescient, he wasn’t to know what a great monarch their daughter Elizabeth would turn out to be. Bloodlines are important. A shame she remained childless. What a king her son might have been.”
“D’you believe that Henry regarded Anne Boleyn’s failure to give him a son, in the same league as committing adultery and high treason?”
“Of course not. But certainly a reason to get rid of her. It threatened the survival of the House of Tudor, for goddsake. Without offspring, the family tree simply fizzles out. As the House of Tudor did in sixteen hundred and three, with the death of Elizabeth. Incidentally, I prefer to think of her as the Barren rather than the Virgin Queen. Who knows if she was a virgin?”
During lunch, mentioning the operas he had enjoyed in Italy as a boy, he spoke of the strange deaths of composers. “Ernest Chausson by riding his bicycle into a wall, Henry Purcell from a chill after his irate wife locked him out of the house one cold night. And just after World War 2, during the American occupation of Austria, composer Anton von Webern stepped out of his house to smoke a cigar and was fatally shot by a drunken, trigger happy American sentry, who later drank himself to death.”
Underwood accepted another drink from the air hostess, took a sip, and continued: “Charles Alkin, greatly admired by Liszt, was crushed to death when his bookcase fell on him. Franz Koczwara died in a brothel from auto-erotic asphyxia. And Jean-Baptiste Lully, conducted so vigorously that he stabbed himself to death with his baton. Another, whose name escapes me, died by falling out of a tree.”
This led to our discussing how to handle the scene of William Blake claiming he had seen “angels” in a tree. Should the proposed film show what might look like dazzling sunlight, or from Blake’s viewpoint have the kind of ethereal beings he produced in his own paintings? Or what?
He opened a green leather notebook and handed it to me. saying, “None of this is made up, none is fiction. All of it is true to Blake’s life and the various biographies I’ve read. So look it over and tell me how you would handle it without getting laughs.”
I read, ”Blake persuades his reluctant wife to join him in the garden and follow his lead in taking off all her clothes. How avoid laughs? It’s not a comedy. And here’s another scene. After Blake witnessed his brother’s death, he claimed that he saw the man’s soul flying to heaven and clapping its hands for joy. Seems to justify his critics calling him a lunatic. Am I making a movie about a lunatic a genius or both?”
I found the answer I needed in my briefcase, and said. “Here it is. Wordsworth among others thought Blake was mad, but added, ”There is something in the madness of this man which interest me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott.”
“Not bad,” Underwood said and took the page from me. “The mad genius. I like the premise. ”Apparently he’d forgotten that I’d made a similar suggestion at the first interview.
When the pilot told us we would be landing in twenty minutes, Underwood put away his notes and said, ”Forget Blake. You’ll have plenty more time to think about him. We have to come up with something to jump-start tonight’s homecoming party. My friends Hal and Iris are holding it in their home and we’ll probably stay there for the night.”
Parties at Oxford were usually sparked by booze, wild men and willing women; and the highlights were dancing or debauchery. The so-called intellectuals among us favored word games that disintegrated as the evening progressed to the battle of the quips, debagging, or dunking someone in the lake. And intellectual intercourse, if the party lasted long enough, quite often led to sexual intercourse.
“I suppose charades is too tame.”
“I think so. I like to keep them guessing.” He looked across me at the wing, lost in thought, then, “Suppose we just pretend that you’re from some Godforsaken place, Borneo, or Upper Mongolia say, and see how long we can fool them.”
Though uneasy at the idea that I’d be the bright spark at a party of strangers, I felt even more reluctant to be a wet blanket. “Are there any rules?” I asked.
“Make them up as you go along. They’re used to the Hollywood scene anyway, where not everyone’s what they seem to be. And if they get too suspicious, just clam up. Tell them you’re with M.I.5. and not free to elaborate.”
“Does a secret agent ever admit he is one except under torture?”
He thought that was funny. “Sure,” he said, “Malcolm Muggeridge and Graham Greene spoke about it all the time.”
“But only when they were former agents.”
“Well that’s what you’ll be.”
I felt uneasy and tried to ridicule the idea to make him give it up. “It’s really like a childhood game of Let’s Pretend.”
“That’s it,” he said enthusiastically. “It’s just a game.”
“At twenty two I’m a little too young for the role.”
“You could easily pass for twenty six.”
When I wondered aloud if masquerading as a secret agent was considered “moral turpitude” in the States, which could get me deported, Underwood didn’t think this worth a response.
As we buckled up for the landing, he exclaimed, “I’ve got it! You’re a former travel agent from Tibet. That’s the game plan. Let’s see how long you can get away with it.”
California Here I Come

Underwood sent me to collect our luggage and said he’d be waiting in the airport bar. As I lifted off the first spinning case I pulled a muscle. Underwood’s chauffeur, who’d flown in the previous day, found me sitting on the case. “What the fuck happened to you?” he asked.
“How about welcome to California?”
“Welcome to California. What the fuck happened to you?”
“Pulled a muscle.”
”That’s because you obviously don’t work out.” He helped me to spot Underwood’s dark-green cases, and, when I tried to lift one, he beat me to it, saying, “Noblesse oblige. That’s French for get the fuck out of the way. You’ll only do yourself another injury” He insisted on lifting all of them off the roundabout and onto a trolley, told me that we would be driving north for about seventy miles to Hal and Iris’s home, enroute and more than half way to Underwood’s estate. Then he headed for the exit and waved me to the bar.
There Underwood introduced me to our host and hostess for tonight’s welcome home party. “I was discussing your bizarre experiences in Tibet among the Yogis,” he said.
Though my eyes were not yet adjusted to the room’s semi-darkness, I assumed that the jasmine scent was emanating from Iris as she took my outstretched hand, saying, “Charles tells us that you learned to levitate.” She held on a touch longer than necessary. I was too flummoxed to reply.
Gradually Iris came into focus: Nerfetiti hairstyle, elegant eyebrows, a beauty spot near her glistening lips, and almost childlike brown eyes.
Sweat-soaked socks came to mind as I sipped my first whisky ever, but I kept at it, anxious to appear sophisticated, and hoping a few more sips would mask my nervousness.
“Can you talk about it?” Iris asked. “I mean it’s not like having to keep your mantra secret, is it?”
Hal asked for a demonstration and Underwood told him not to rush me.
“Can’t even stand up straight,” I said. But not wanting Iris to think that I was permanently disabled, I explained, “Put my back out lifting the luggage.”
She moved closer. “If it still hurts in the morning I’ll take you to my masseur. His hands are unbelievable.”
“So are his fees,” Hal said.
Now I could see him, he looked like a football player who’d broken training, with an incipient double chin and a slightly confrontational manner, which encouraged me to go along with Underwood’s game.
“Is there a difference between doing the high jump and levitating?” Hal asked.
“You’re defying gravity in both cases,” I explained, surprised that I could answer so confidently.
“But one’s natural and the other seems miraculous,” Iris said.
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” Hal said.
It didn’t strike me at the time, how unlikely it was that I, who couldn’t even straighten my back, was claiming to be able to float in space.
“Don’t try to rationalize Eastern mysticism,” Underwood said. “It takes years to understand, right, Elliot?”
“No question.”
Our plane had been late and Hal and Iris had obviously tanked up while waiting for us. Which explained why on our way out, Hal walked into a Christmas tree and apologized to it.
I joined the chauffeur up front in the custom-built Silver Wraith, but Iris called me to join them in the back. Underwood didn’t object so I took what was left, the jump seat, toe to toe with Iris who sat between the two men.
“Fasten your seat belts,” Underwood commanded.
“We’re in for a bumpy ride” Iris added, a fair imitation of Bette Davis in All About Eve.
“Los Angeles,” Hal said. “Or nineteen suburbs in search of a city.”
As the sun began to set, we eased into one of the lines of fast traffic and were soon sipping brandy from the same leather-jacketed flask. Iris wiped off her lipstick with paper tissue, then put a sun=kissed finger lightly on my arm, “All I want you to do darling, when you’re in the mood, is to levitate while I’m watching.”
Sounds like an invitation you can hardly refuse, Elliot,” Underwood said with the hint of a chuckle.
“Meanwhile I’ll be watching Iris,” Hal said.
I don’t have total recall, especially when awash with whisky but if I was hypnotically regressed my drive from L A. airport to Hal and Iris’s home would probably include:
Iris rests her hands—diamond and emerald rings on the right one, plain gold wedding band on the other—on her immaculate white skirt. She often puts her hands to her necklace above her decollete lime-green blouse as if we were in bandit territory and she’s scared of it being snatched. Lively hands, sleepy sensuous eyes, not childlike as I first thought. She’s slightly smashed and it suits her. Hal plays yokel to Underwood’s man-of-the-world, but conveys to me by winks and raised eyebrows, that it’s merely a role—-and if he ever had more cash than Underwood then, oh boy, then we’d see a quick role reversal. “Fuck you money,” they call it.
These, of course, are first impressions, during which I am also under the intoxicating influence of Iris’s jasmine scent which she shares with her every movement, and agreeably trapped by her toes.
From the somewhat cryptic conversation I gather that Hal is designing another house for Underwood on the coast, Iris will decorate it. They are also somehow involved with the William Blake project.
As we leave the highway and drive along a winding street, where our Rolls is as common as coal in Cardiff, Iris points out movie celebrity houses, almost invisible in the dark, or hidden behind high hedges. ”Gene Kelly’s, Ingrid Bergman’s, David Selznick’s--he’s having a fight over Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night. He wants to shoot it in the South of France and Zurich. The money boys have opted for Malibu and the studio back-lot. . .Ricardo Montalban’s, Jennifer Jones’s.”
After a pause, Underwood says dryly, “And, I suspect, several Mafiosi.”
We pass Beverly Hills’ often land-poor palaces, as
incongruous on their narrow lots as the royal coach would have been squeezing through London’s rush-hour traffic.
Judging by the architecture, an Arab sheik lives next-door to a Frenchman, who has tried to outdo Versailles, and can chat over his garden wall to an Englishman on the other side who brought the Tudor mansion with him when he emigrated, and now lives alongside a color-blind Mexican millionaire. What is claimed to be the city’s oldest house looks as if its architect had been inspired by Grimms’ Fairy Tales. But there is no one around to discuss it. No one is outside, not a soul walking a dog, picking a flower, or going for a stroll, or to mail a letter. It is as if the enemy is about to attack and the alarm has been sounded to evacuate.
More astonishing, was the appearance of a red double-decker London bus moving in the opposite direction. At least some passengers on the top deck get a better sight of the stars’ houses than we did.
What I remember vividly is when we left Beverly Hills and stopped at a red light near a store featuring dog turds and false noses. A large handwritten message in white paint on the store’s window invited you to HAVE YOUR FORTUNE READ IN THE REAR, and I imagined each customer bending over. A new Californian cult, perhaps.
It was disconcerting how close the luscious land of those who had made it, was to the mean streets of those who hadn’t. I assumed that the latter came for fame and fortune, too, but failing had settled for the sun and Social Security.
We headed north on the Pacific coastal road for over an hour, before turning northeast through small villages. Wine groves and farmland, entertained by Gershwin, Cole Porter, Ella Fitzgerald, Rosemary Clooney, on the radio.
Then, out of nowhere police and patrol cars were everywhere. And we stopped. I’d seen enough American movies to know that this was a murder scene or a drug bust.
Hurrying cops with flashlights directed us along a palm-tree-bordered driveway to the sound of staccato squeals and confusing voices from their intercoms.
One cop with a flashlight passed us on to another, and he to a third, our tires on the driveway imitated, not a cow pissing on a flat rock, more like milk meeting breakfast cereal. No one said a word in our car, as if they feared that it was bugged, until we reached a huge Spanish-style house with red-tiled roof and white walls on a hillside. “We’re home,” Iris said. “And the party seems to have started without us.” A butler opened the front double doors and from the swirl of color and music inside it was an unlikely crime scene.
When the chauffeur stopped the car to drop us off, I let the others walk ahead, so they didn’t see me walking with a bent back, like an old man, and asked him what the police were up to.
“Directing traffic.”
“For a private party?”
“Can anyone get them for a private party?”
“If they pay them.”
“I didn’t think you could buy the cops.”
“This is America, Limey. The land of the free and the brave. They’re off duty. Cops can work two or three jobs in this land of opportunity.”
A smiling Filipino carried my case, leading me upstairs along carpets with bounce. En route I had a bird’s-eye-view of Underwood’s homecoming party in progress which would have made a great New Yorker cover: about fifty penguins and peahens on a white-marble floor, band one end, bar the other bordering the shallow end of a luminous, blue-tiled swimming pool. A dazzling display I had only seen matched in a few big-budget movies.
The lights ricocheted off the chandeliers, band instruments, battles and glasses on the bar, a skintight sequined dress, someone’s spectacles. And as the band played, “Just One of Those Things,” I thought—-anything’s possible. Sure I could get to the moon on gossamer wings. Or, better still, after helping Underwood turn out an Oscar-winning movie, I’ll go it alone, out-Proust Proust, out-Joyce Joyce, make a bundle, buy mother central heating, a downstairs lavatory and a part-time
gardener, send David back to college to get a degree, if he wants to go. If not, buy him a bank.
“Injured yourself, sir?” the Filipino asked, as he opened a bedroom door and gestured for me to precede him.
“I’m afraid so.”
“A few drinks will loosen you up.”
“Thanks for the advice.” When he left, I flushed the toilet three times before I realized that it was the silent type.
In the shower I directed the spray at the small of my back, which helped a bit, but the towels had so much embroidery on them I had to use three before I was dry.
Nobby’s dinner jacket, his farewell gift to me, was loose but not ludicrous. He’d worn it only once for a cocktail party, at which he never sat. And never expected to wear it again.
I hovered on the landing. What now? He stoops to conquer?
Do I join the giddy throng as a guest, Underwood’s assistant, a former spy. Or as a former travel agent from Tibet? And if I make the wrong choice will Underwood fire me?
Descending the stairs, hoping I might pass for a war-wounded veteran, I spotted Underwood at the far end of the room next to the bar. He was talking to a tall, emaciated-looking man who appeared to be stooping to examine a wall safe.
Threading my way to them, skirting the swirling dancers, I grabbed a vodka from a waiter’s tray and finished it with eye-stinging gulps. Accidentally elbowing a silky-skinned woman smelling expensive, I apologized vigorously.
“Darling, any time!” she exclaimed. “Didn’t hurt a bit.” I think she might have stayed longer, but a little man with a cigar eased her away.
Several non-dancing men I passed flashed cigars: the smaller the man the bigger the smoke.
My mistake. It was no safecracker, but Aldous Huxley peering through a magnifying glass at a small painting by Corot.
My God, Huxley! The feverishly debated subject of at least two of our “literary soirees” at home. Of course, he was slumming in Hollywood, among the philistines. But even so, his Brave New World puts him up there among the immortals.
Underwood was talking to the back of Huxley’s head: “Might it tempt you if Shostakovitch handles the score?”
I made a mental note to look up how to spell the composer’s name and to tell mother he might do the music for the Blake movie.
Huxley straightened up to what looked like six-three and faced Underwood. “I’d love to Charles, but I’m already behind on two deadlines. Shouldn’t really be here, but didn’t want to miss the chance of seeing you.”
They began to talk about the increasing violence in inner-city streets, and Huxley mentioned that in one savage tribe when its members felt their adrenalin rising dangerously, they would use their excess energy to chop down forest trees, instead of decapitating their neighbors. Since this was hardly an option for tree-starved city dwellers, Huxley suggested teaching the violent prone to channel their energy into boxing, wrestling or jujitsu competitions.
“Or long distance running,” Underwood added. “At least that would get them off the city streets.”
He noticed me. “Ah, here’s my new assistant,” he said. And, to Huxley, “What are you drinking?”
I reached for Huxley’s empty glass, before I could be ordered into waiter status. Now I could be taken for a fellow guest being courteous to an older fellow countryman.
He handed it over.
“Charles tells me you’re from England,” he said when I returned with his drink. ”Where, exactly?”
“Orpington in Kent, near London.”
‘Ah, famous for Buff Orpington chicken,” he said
“That’s not our only claim to fame. It was also the home of Orde Wingate.”
He sharpened his interest as if I’d just come into focus. “Really? A remarkable man. The Jew’s Lawrence of Arabia. Weren’t he and Lawrence somehow related?”
“Distant cousins, I believe.”
“You knew Lawrence, didn’t you Charles?” Huxley asked.
“And Wingate, Both briefly.”
All the time I was nervously waiting for Underwood to resume the game of let’s pretend, only too aware that Huxley was a sophisticated world traveler, who invariably carried on his journeys portable leather-bound copies of The Encyclopedia Britannica.
I was reluctant to deceive Huxley especially as I knew of his failing eyesight, and I was stricken by the certainty that he would eventually unmask me as a nobody with lower back pain trying to fool him.
I tuned in and out of their conversation whether the torture inflicted on him by Turks, which Lawrence claimed to have endured, was real or invented, while thinking, “How can I get Underwood to drop the game without antagonizing him? Get him onto poetry? Divert the conversation to William Blake?”
Iris rescued me, with, “I’m stealing Stephen from you to meet more of our friends.”
Huxley bent to kiss her hand, saying to her wristwatch, “You look irresistible as always,” then straightened up and patted me on the shoulder, spilling some of my vodka down my front.
Iris steered me to several guests who grasped my hot hand and looked searchingly at me with the feigned, manic air of the half-sloshed simulating interest. She glanced at two women almost hidden by an entourage. “Garbo and Gardner,” she explained. “But shy of strangers, so they’ll miss out on you.” I was sloshed enough to think she meant it.
She took me, instead, to meet George Cukor. “The so-called women’s director, but don’t say I said so or he’ll erupt. He thinks it’s so limiting.” He was erupting, anyway. “No! No! No!” he responded with a rising inflexion to someone who had proposed a remake of Jekyll and Hyde with Huxley for the script and a woman to play the dual role. “But it’s a natural,” the man insisted. ”And timely. Women are after equality everywhere”
“Time is the whole point,” said Cukor. “I don’t have it. Booked solid for the next three years.”
When Iris introduced me, Cukor wished me well as Underwood’s assistant, thought that Blake was a challenging subject, recited faultlessly the ”Tiger! Tiger! Burning bright,” poem, and concluded with, “After meeting the great Huxley, you must find us all very small potatoes!” As we walked away he said emphatically, “That’s a lot of shit!” Booze and Iris had bolstered my confidence so that I dismissed the thought that he was referring to me.
Underwood took Iris for a few spins around the room, and they moved close to Hal who had a ravishing young woman in his muscular arms.
The looks and shapes of the other males were roughly what I expected, from trim, smooth and distinguished, to obese button poppers. But the women were even more sharply divided between the ravishing with flawless everything, and the grotesquely ugly. Like an audition for Cinderella.
I guessed that the unlovely were the brains, or the excessively affluent offspring of self-made millionaires and chorus girls, who took their looks from dad. Then thought of Iris, both bright and stunning, and aborted the theory.
This night was my introduction to the solipsistic school of dancing. Each dancer shook, wiggled, twirled, stomped, and swooped, creating a unique choreography in which the only rule seemed to be—-You must not touch each other!
When it changed to the old style with, “Embrace me, you sweet Embraceable you,” Iris surprised me with, “Yes thank you, Stephen, I’d love to dance,” but quickly backed off. “You’re soaked!” she complained.
“It’s the vodka Huxley spilled on me.”
She took my arm and led me towards the stairs. “I’ll lend you one of Hal’s shirts.”
I grasped the curving rail to stop from falling backwards, recognizing my room by its bayberry smell and the window view of a grapefruit tree.
Iris came in before I had my shirt off, closing the door with her back. The Filipino was right. I could stand upright without pain. The drinks had unlocked my back. But they also had me swaying almost us much as Iris.
She wavered towards me, saying, “All right, then,” stopped, and seemed to be watching me blink. Then slowly and carefully she planted her lips on my left eyelid. She , whispered: “What I really want you to do, darling, when you’re in the mood, is to let me see you levitate.” She kissed the air between us, and was gone.
The room began to simulate the ocean liner I’d come over in. I flushed the toilet, grateful for its quiet whisper.
I don’t remember going to bed. I must have, of course, because that’s where I woke. And I felt marvelous. My back pain had vanished, so I could stand upright. Maybe I could levitate, too, if I tried.

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