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He was dressed in the same suit he had been wearing earlier that day, but he looked as if he had just stepped out of a shower and into a brand new suit freshly delivered from his tailor’s.
“And the lovely Betsy,” he said.
She looked at him but didn’t say anything. She returned her gaze to Gabriel and his trumpet.
“I know what you’re thinking, Porter,” he said. He took his hand off my shoulder, of which I was glad.
“Yes, I do.”
“What is it then?”
“First you tell me. Then I’ll tell you if my guess was correct.”
“But how will I know if you’re telling the truth?”
“How does anyone ever know? I am a public relations man after all. But I give you my word of honor.”
“Okay, I was wondering why your suit looks so fresh and new.”
“Is that all you were thinking.”
“Then I was wrong,” he said. “But if you must know I’ve just come from my club, where I had a steam and a shower and a rub-down, and then the club barber cut my hair and gave me a nice old-fashioned shave. While all that was going on the valet laundered and pressed my clothes.”
“Oh,” I said.
I turned away.
“Don’t you want to know what I thought you were thinking?”
He was talking loudly through the music, almost yelling almost right into my ear.
Reluctantly I looked at him again. He was standing quite close to me; despite myself I had to admit he smelled nice. Although not as nice as a Betsy did. He had what I suppose you would call a clean manly scent, with only a slight hint of sulphur to it.
“All right,” I said, with my usual indefatigable politeness, “what did you think I was thinking?”
“I thought you were thinking, ‘Why doesn’t this guy leave me alone?’”
“To be honest that was one of the things I was thinking,” I said. “In the background.”
Betsy turned to the both of us.
“If you two are going to gab like a couple of old women, why don’t you go to the other end of the bar? We’re trying to listen to the music here.”
“Oh, feisty!” said Nicky. He took a drag from his cigarette in its shiny black holder. I forgot to mention he was smoking. With his shiny black holder.
He put his hand on my arm.
“Come along, Porter, some people I want you to meet.”
“But I’m listening to the music,” I said.
“It’ll only take two minutes.”
“After the song.”
“Have you heard Gabe play before?”
“No,” I said.
“He’s been known to blow a solo for a half-hour or more. Come on. Just for a minute. Just say hello.”
“Well, okay,” I said.
“Darling,” said Nicky to Betsy, in a voice that was louder than it had to be, “I’m going to borrow your boyfriend for just two seconds. It’s on a matter of his career you see.”
“He’s not my boyfriend, and go ahead,” she said.
“I’ll be right back, Betsy,” I said.
“Take your time.”
Well, I didn’t feel good about it, but I let Nicky lead me by the arm back through the crowd. As I had noticed before his grip was strong, and warm, almost hot.
“I’ve been talking you up, Porter. Just want you to say hi to few people. These are guys who can really help you. Get you on the television, y’know?”
“Wait,” I said, “didn’t you talk to Julian?”
“About me not wanting to do any sort of publicity things.”
He stopped, but kept his hand on my arm.
“You’re not going to be difficult are you? Please tell me you’re not.”
“I hope not,” I said. I peeled his hand off my arm, but it wasn’t easy. “I just don’t want to do any interviews, or talks, or TV appearances.”
“And Julian agreed to all that?”
“Yes,” I said. At least I seemed to remember he had. It all seemed like such a long time ago, although it had only been that afternoon.
“Hmm. Well, what about a New Yorker profile?”
“I think we covered that, too,” I said.
“As in you won’t have one.”
“Only if I don’t have to talk to anyone.”
“How about if they just follow you around?”
“No,” I said.
“Even if it’s my friend Truman? He’s very small, you won’t even know he’s there.”
“He was one of those guys having lunch with you today?”
“Yeah, the little fair-haired fella.”
“No, I don’t think so,” I said.
“Listen, Porter --”
I could see Carlotta and Pat over at the bar. They had mugs of beers in their hands, and they were laughing, having a good time.
“Porter,” said Nicky. “Are you listening?”
“Oh, yes, sorry.”
Somewhere the fly was in here, I supposed he was having a good time, too.
“Look,” said Nicky, “I know you’re a poet. That’s your job. So of course it makes sense that you would only want to -- to do your job -- to write poetry. Right?”
“I barely want to do that,” I said.
“Ha ha, a sense of humor, that’s good. But listen, Porter, there’s just one tiny little problem with poetry. One tiny problem. Do you know what that is?”
“That it’s written in the first place?”
“Ha ha, funny. No. What I mean is, the audience for poetry is small. Infinitesimal. This isn’t the 19th century when people would be lining up at the booksellers for the latest volume of Browning or Scott or Alfred, Lord Tennyson. This is 1957. People barely read at all and when they do they like to read Mickey Spillane or Grace Metalious.”
“Spillane’s pretty good,” I said.
“Yes he is, but my point is that hardly anyone reads poetry. Don’t you want people to read your book, your marvelous epic poem? Don’t you?”
Gabriel played on and through all of this, his trumpet’s wail flowing through the room, through the chatter and laughter. I really wanted to be back with Betsy, listening to the music, feeling the touch of her arm.
“You said we’d just be two seconds,” I said.
“Okay, maybe you don’t care. Maybe you don’t care now. But what about a couple of months from now when your book comes out and sinks like a stone and your advance is gone. Do you want to go back to being a truck driver?”
“Actually I was a cab driver,” I said. “Apparently.”
“Apparently, ha, funny, look, Porter, look at this jacket you’re wearing.” He fingered the material of my lapel. “Where’s this from, Sears?”
“I think it was Macy’s,” I said.
“Wouldn’t you like nice clothes?”
“No,” I said, “I honestly don’t care about clothes too much.”
“I could get you in my club.”
“The one with the steam, and the rubdown?”
“Yes, and a very excellent barber. Not that I’m implying you need a good barber.”
“The neighborhood barber’s fine for me,” I said.
“Plush chairs in the reading room. A man to bring you drinks and fresh stationery while you’re writing your poems. A quick swim in the pool to clear your head.”
“You have a pool there too?”
“Olympic-size. Do you like to swim?”
“Well, yes, I do, actually.”
“Good, I’ll propose you for a membership tomorrow. But I just need you to do me a little favor.”
“Bend a little.”
“Don’t be so unbending. Maybe you don’t care if no one buys your book, but what about all the poor people at Smythe & Son? Do you want them to lose money?”
“No,” I said.
“But Julian said that it might be good publicity if I shunned publicity.”
“Porter, with all due respect to Julian, he’s not a PR man. Not to say there aren’t some things Julian isn’t good at. Like driving sports cars and playing tennis and golf and drinking everyone and their uncle under the table, all of these quite valuable skills mind you. But he knows nothing about public relations. And I’m telling you no one is going to buy a first book of poetry without publicity. Look at your girl over there.”
I turned and looked back at Betsy, whose dark head I could just barely see through the crowd and the smoke.
“Don’t you want to buy her nice things?” he said. “Don’t you?”
“Then meet a few people.”
“Do I have to bribe you, Porter? Is that what it’s come to?”
He reached into his inside jacket pocket and took out his wallet.
“Because I’ll bribe you if I have to.”
I thought about that three dollars and change in my pocket, all the money I had in the world, or at least in this world.
“Well, if you could let me have twenty, just till I pick up my first week’s pay --”
“Or maybe ten?”
“Porter, I was only being dramatic, drawing out my wallet.”
“But if that’s what it takes, here --” He stuck his cigarette holder between his teeth and opened the wallet. “Please, take this.”
He took a twenty out of the wallet and held it out.
“Go ahead,” he said. “Please.”
“I can pay you back after Friday afternoon,” I said, “that’s when I pick up my --”
“Don’t worry about it, just take it. I’ll write it off on the expense account.”
I started to take it but then I stopped.
“Wait a minute,” I said. “If I take this, that doesn’t mean I’m signing my soul over to you, does it?”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake, Porter --”
“But -- aren’t you --”
“Aren’t I what?”
“Aren’t you --”
“Aren’t you the Devil.”
He laughed, and seemed to relax a bit. But then I guess he saw that I wasn’t laughing or smiling.
“Porter,” he said. “I don’t know what you’ve read or heard about PR men, but all I am is good old Nicky Boskins. I have a beautiful wife and three lovely children and a fine old Victorian house in Scarsdale and all I’m doing is trying to do my job. Now do you want this twenty or not.”
“Well, I am a little short on cash right now.”
“Then please, take it.”
He stuffed the bill into my shirt pocket, folded up his wallet and stuck it back into his inside jacket pocket.
“Now come along.”
He took my arm again and pulled me through the crowd and we wound up at a round table with three men sitting at it. All three of them seemed vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t place them.
“Fellas,” said Nicky. “Here’s our boy, Porter Walker. The voice of his generation.”
All three of the men stood up, which I thought was nice, but one of them almost fell down again. Fortunately he was in the middle and the other two fellows grabbed his arms and steadied him.
“Porter,” said Nicky, “Let me introduce you to Mr. Ralph Edwards --”
This was the man to the left. I shook his hand. It was sticky, I don’t know why.
“Call me Ralph, Porter.”
“Pleased to meet you, Ralph.”
“And that’s Mr. Edward R. Murrow over there,” said Nicky.
This was the fellow on the right. We shook hands.
“Just call me Ed, Porter.”
“Okay, Ed,” I said.
“And Mr. Wobbly there in the middle,” said Nicky, “Is Mr. John Cameron Swayze.”
The wobbly man extended a hand and I took it.
“Call me Cam,” he said.
“Pleased to meet you, Cam.”
He was doing that annoying thing where the other guy keeps holding onto your hand after you’ve shaken it. Then --
“Oh, wait,” I said.
“What is it, Porter?” said John Cameron Swayze, finally pulling his hand away from mine. “You look strange.”
“Wait,” I said. “You, you’re all, you’re --”
“What, son?” said Edward R. Murrow.
“You look nonplussed,” said Ralph Edwards. “Don’t worry, Porter, this is not an episode of This Is Your Life. There’s no camera crew here.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “It’s just --”
“He’s probably never seen a television personality in person before,” said Edward R. Murrow, sitting down. “Sit down, son, we wipe our asses the same way everybody else does.”
I suppose I would have recognized them sooner except for the fact that I was used to seeing these men in black-and-white, and here they were in living color, blotchy florid skin and all.
“Please, Mr. Walker, sit,” said Ralph Edwards, coming around and pulling out a chair.
“I really can’t stay,” I said.
“Why the hell not?” said John Cameron Swayze, who had sort of fallen down into his chair but had managed to stay upright in it.
“He’s got a girl waiting for him,” said Nicky.
“It’s always a girl, isn’t it?” said Ralph Edwards, who was still standing. I noticed he was carrying a large book bound in blue leather. “Perhaps a childhood sweetheart from your hometown of Boise, Idaho? Daughter of the local pediatrician and now a successful designer of ladies’ hats for Bonwit Teller?”
“No,” I said. “Just a girl.”
“What do you think of the young people today, Porter,” said Edward R. Murrow, lighting a cigarette and tossing the match to the floor. ”The so-called Beat Generation?”
“Oh, the hell with that crap, Ed,” said John Cameron Swayze. “Tell me, Porter, you wear a watch?”
I looked at my wrist.
“Apparently not,” I said.
“You want a free Timex?”
“Look --” I said.
“I think Porter needs a drink,” said Ralph Edwards. “An athletic young man, he nevertheless enjoys the occasional carouse with some like-minded souls.”
“Beatniks they’re called,” said Edward R. Murrow. “The so-called ‘Beat Generation’. Rebels without a cause. Or do you have a cause, Porter?”
“Ed, you’re plastered,” said John Cameron Swayze.
“Of course I’m plastered. Oh, and here’s our drinks, finally.”
A waitress had arrived with a big tray with a pitcher of beer on it, five empty glasses and what looked like five shots of whiskey.
“Thank you, young lady,” said Ralph Edwards, stepping aside so she could lay the drinks down. “A New York City native, you were born twenty-three years ago in the lovely borough of Queens.”
“Cut the crap, Ralph,” said John Cameron Swayze. “Here, sweetheart, don’t mind him, take a watch.” He pulled a handful of watch-cases out of his jacket pocket. “Here ya go, a nice Lady Timex, real leather band.”
“Thank you, Mr. Swayze.”
She took the case and dropped it into a pocket of her apron.
“Takes a licking, keeps on ticking,” said John Cameron Swayze. “Now, miss, I want you to do us a small favor. Porter, which one is your gal?”
“Well, she’s not really my gal --”
“Which one is she?”
“Well, she’s back there, by the band, dark-haired girl --”
“What’s her name?”
“Miss,” said John Cameron Swayze to the waitress, “what’s your name, sweetheart?”
“Veronica, please go over there by the band, find this young dark-haired lady Betsy and ask her if she’ll do us the honor of having a drink with us.”
“Sure, Mr. Swayze,” she said, and off she went though the crowd.
“Listen, Mr. Swayze --” I started.
“Cam,” I said. “I think Betsy’s listening to the music --”
“This you call music?”
“They call it bebop,” said Edward R. Murrow. “I believe this particular variety would be termed ‘hard’ or perhaps ‘East Coast’ bebop. Sometimes simply called bop.”
“An outgrowth of the blues-based music that was first played in the saloons and bordellos in the turn-of-the-century South,” said Ralph Edwards, and it looked like he was ready to say a lot more but I interrupted.
“Look, fellows,” I said, “my, uh, lady friend and I really just want to --”
“’Dig’ is the term I think you young people use,” said Edward R. Murrow.
“Yes,” I said. “We want to dig the music.”
“So go dig,” said John Cameron Swayze. “But first have a drink with us.”
“Go ahead, Porter,” said Nicky, who had been quiet for what seemed like a long time for him. “Have a drink. Just one.”
“Yeah,” said John Cameron Swayze. “Or two or three. Now grab a seat and grab a glass.”
He was pouring the beer from the pitcher into the glasses.
“I, uh, really, uh --” I said.
“Have a shot, Porter,” said Edward R. Murrow. “You do like whiskey, don’t you?”
“Yes,” I admitted.
“Four Roses okay?”
“Yes,” I said. Then, just to get it over with, “Okay. But just one shot.”
We all of us picked up a shot glass. I remained standing, as did Nicky and Ralph Edwards.
“To the voice of his generation,” said Nicky.
“They call it the Beat Generation,” said Edward R. Murrow.
“A voice that speaks of the concerns of these children of the Depression and of the greatest war the world has ever known, this first generation to grow up in the shadow of the atomic bomb,” said Ralph Edwards.
“Which if ever detonated in this fair city would destroy every sign of life in a ten mile radius,” said John Cameron Swayze, “the only sound heard being that of thousands of Timex watches, still ticking, ticking, ticking!”
“Well, cheers,” I said, and we all drank our shots.
Great, I thought, now I can make my getaway.
But then I saw Emily come in through the front door.
(Continued here, unless I have to go back to the rest home for a while.)
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