Cape May, New Jersey, August, 1963.
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I went down the porch steps and around to the left on the tilting and mossy stone path. It was shady along the side of the house, with an oak tree, some box elders, some other trees whose identities I failed to note or was ignorant of.
Places always look so different in the day if you’ve only ever seen them at night. Last night the house and its grounds with its lights and its party-goers had seemed mysterious and glamorous; now the house seemed mysterious but in a more prosaic way, like an old book lying open on a table in bright sunlight.
A big and sun-sodden old house, with peeling paint and the smell of damp wood, and all was quiet, all was still, even the leaves on the trees and on the bushes and flowers.
And I had a similar feeling to the one I’d experienced last night alone in the kitchen of this house, that the house itself was alive.
I paused and put my hand on the old painted wood. It was warm and soft, almost spongelike.
Through my fingers I felt and heard babies crying, children laughing, people talking, shouting, whispering. I saw old people dying. I saw and heard young men and women grappling in darkness, some not so young.
I took my hand away and continued on to the back of the house, and I saw Larry sitting at the same picnic table I had sat at with Elektra the previous night. It was shaded by a large elm tree. Larry was sitting there with a portable typewriter. He wore khaki shorts and a short-sleeved white shirt. He had a pair of horn-rimmed glasses on, and he was absorbed in reading a bound sheaf of papers. There was a plastic flowered pitcher of what looked like iced tea on the table and a couple of matching plastic glasses.
Someone had cleaned up the yard. You’d never know there had been a big party out here the night before. There was no one else about. No sign of Frank or Dean, Sammy or Joey, or Shirley, or Dick and Daphne, or Mr. MacNamara. Just Larry.
“Hello. Larry?” I said.
He looked up, and gazed at me for a moment as if he didn’t know who I was.
“Oh, Arnold. You made it.”
“I sure did,” I said.
He stood up and took my hand. He was smoking a cigar, and he had a couple of back-ups in his shirt pocket.
“I’m so glad. Sit down.”
He gestured to the other side of the table, and we both sat down. I noticed he also had a stack of blank typing paper on the table, a notepad, a couple of ball-point pens.
“So, you ready to do some work?”
“I’ll give it a try,” I said.
“Pour yourself some iced tea. It’s good.”
“Oh,” I said. “I don’t know. I just had some iced tea that Tommy made me.”
“Oh. Was it his special iced tea?”
“Yes,” I said.
“No wonder you seem so calm. He must like you.”
“Well, he thought I needed something.”
“Not especially. But I’m trying to quit smoking and apparently I looked like death warmed over.”
“Oh. I see you’ve got a cigarette in your ear there.”
“I’m saving it for after lunch.”
“Do you want me to put this cigar out?”
“No, please don’t. I think it helps actually.”
“Fabulous. Here, have some iced tea. Don’t worry, there’s no laudanum in it. At least I don't think there is.”
He poured me a glassful. There was still some ice in the pitcher, and the cubes made delicious little clunking sounds. I picked up the glass and drank. It tasted like the tea Tommy had given me, with the spicy ginger taste but lacking that murky thick flavor which I could now identify as opium, the drug which even now suffused my being and kept me from immediately lighting up my cigarette while devouring one of Larry’s cigars whole, cellophane and all.
“So, anyway,” said Larry, “I keep doing this: I take jobs to make movies out of scripts that read like some retard wrote them. A retard who’s spent his life doing nothing but watching movies written by other retards. Oh," he interjected, recalling who he was talking to, "I — uh —”
“That’s okay, Larry. I don’t think I’m technically-speaking a retard.”
“No, I guess not. What was it, anyway, your problem?”
Like everyone else, he had heard about it.
“Well, basically I cracked up entirely, and I had to be committed for a while.”
“Uh-huh. How ya feeling these days?”
“Much better, except —”
Should I go into it? Well, it seemed only fair if he was considering working with me. Not to mention paying me.
He took off his glasses and looked me in the eyes. He seemed simply curious.
“I have visits from Jesus. And occasionally I levitate, or seem to levitate. I’ve also floated up into the air, separate from my body. Oh, and yesterday I traveled through a painting in Mrs. Biddle’s house and wound up in 1890s France, where I met the writer Marcel Proust.”
Larry took a drag of his cigar, and let the smoke gently trail up from the side of his mouth.
“Sounds like you lead an interesting life, Arnold.”
I thought about this.
“It is, actually,” I said. “At least now it is.”
“Since your crack-up?”
“Yes,” I said. “It was pretty mundane really before.”
“Working for the railroad?”
“Yeah, that, and everything else.”
“Maybe that’s why you cracked up,” he said.
“Could be,” I said.
“I could never understand it,” said Larry. “Working some job where you do the same thing every day. I realize that’s what most people have to do, but to me it’s death. That’s why I went into show biz, movies. So, you wanta hear about this script?”
“You don’t mind working with someone who’s not quite right in the head?”
“Well, you’re not going to completely flip out on me, are you?”
“I hope not.”
“Because if this is as crazy as you’re going to get, believe me, I’ve worked with lots crazier out in Hollywood.”
“Oh, okay,” I said.
“Let me tell you about this stupid script.”
So a young soldier is on leave in Paris. He meets a girl. They have a wild night on the town. They go to her apartment. Her ex-boyfriend, who has been following them, breaks in. A fight ensues. The soldier gets knocked out. When he wakes up the girl is lying on the floor dead. Someone knocks on the door. He runs out to the balcony, drops down to the pavement...Communist agents. The Corsican Mafia. A band of Gypsy thieves. An attractive Gypsy dancing girl...
“What do ya think?”
“Um, about the story?”
“It’s okay I guess. I read paperback novels like this all the time.”
“But it’s stupid.”
“I want to make it non-stupid, Arnold.”
“Well, does the story matter?”
“I think you’re on to something. What’s a story? Just one damn thing leading to another.”
“That’s true,” I said, just to be agreeable I suppose.
“Who cares what happens?”
“Not me,” I said.
“You’re brilliant. What really matters is what’s happening while the stuff is happening.”
“Or not,” I ventured.
“Right. Sometimes nothing’s happening while stuff is happening. And sometimes nothing’s happening in the first place.”
“I find that’s quite often the case in my own life.”
“But, Arnold, we gotta have something happening. Don’t we?”
“I think so. Otherwise —”
“Right,” I said.
“Like real life.”
“We don’t want that,” said Larry.
“No,” I said.
“So, uh, what do we do?”
“Okay,” I said. I felt as if my brain were bubbling over slightly, but it was not an unpleasant feeling. “We keep the soldier meeting the girl, and the fight, and him waking up and finding the girl dead.”
“That stuff is good.”
“Sure. I don’t know about the Communist agents though.”
“Lose the Commies. What about the Mafia? And the Gypsies?”
"Well, I don't know, Larry. As long as he meets the other girl, the dancer girl."
“Right. We gotta have the other dame. That's essential."
“Sure. You always need a dame,” I said.
He grabbed a blank sheet of paper and rolled it into the typewriter.
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