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I looked at my wristwatch. It was almost five o'clock. The gray of the morning was slowly turning to gold. I turned to Doris, "Isn't it about time you tried to get some sleep, sweetheart?"
Her eyes were dark blue and shadowed. "I'm not sleepy/' she answered, but the lines in her face belied her words.
"Yuh gotta get some rest, baby," I said. "You can't keep this up forever."
She looked at me. A faint shadow of a smile flickered across her face for a moment and was gone. Her voice was lightly mocking as she answered: "You tired, Johnny?"
It was an old joke of the family's. It had started a long time ago when Peter used to come into the studio at almost any hour of the day or night and used to find me there.
"Johnny never sleeps," he used to say, laughing. "He's got money in the bank."
I smiled at her. "A little," I admitted, "but you're the one that needs the rest. Things are tough enough around here without you falling flat on your face."
The smile on her face bloomed; its warmth spilled over into her eyes. "All right, Uncle Johnny," she said in a small girl's voice, "but you'll promise to come and see me tomorrow?"
I caught her to me and held her close. "Tomorrow and every day the rest of my life when this is over, if you want it."
Her voice was rich in my ear and full of promise as she answered: "I never wanted anything else, Johnny."
I kissed her. I liked the way she held my face close to hers,
her hands cupping the back of my ears and extending round the back of my head. Her touch was light, yet firm with the knowledge of an old passion. I liked the soft touch of her face against mine, the light smell of perfume that rose from her neck and shoulders, the crinkling soft sound that her hair made when I stroked it.
She stepped back and looked at me for a moment, then she took my hand and we walked into the hall. Silently she helped me into my topcoat and watched me put on my hat; then we walked to the door.
At the door I turned and faced her. "Now you go right upstairs and get some sleep," I said sternly.
She gave a small laugh and kissed me. "Johnny, you're sweet."
"1 can be mean too," I said, still trying to keep my voice stern, but not quite succeeding, "and if you—"
"If I don't go up to bed, you'll spank me like you did once," she said with a mischievous smile.
"I never did," I protested.
"Oh yes you did," she insisted with the same smile still on her lips. She cocked her head to one side and looked at me speculatively. "I wonder if you would if you were angry enough. It might be fun, at that."
I put my hands on her shoulders and turned her away from me. I pushed her toward the stairs and gave her a light pat on the rump as I did so. "I'll beat you with a stick if you don't go right to bed," I told her.
She went halfway toward the stairs and then she turned around and looked at me.
I looked back at her silently.
At last she spoke; her voice was serious. "Never leave me, Johnny," she said.
For some reason I couldn't speak for a few seconds. My throat was all knotted up and I couldn't find my voice. Something in her voice, in its small, quiet sound, in its loneliness and patience, seemed to go deep inside me. Then the words seemed to come from me by themselves. I didn't form them in my mind, I didn't make them in my throat, I didn't even seem to say them with my lips; they just seemed to come from within me by themselves and build a bridge between us that no distance could ever break.
"Never no more, sweetheart."
Not an expression on her face seemed to change, but a glow came from within her, and its warmth reached out and held me close across the room. For a moment she stood there; then she turned and started up the stairs.
I watched her go. Her step was light and easy and she moved with the quiet grace of a dancer. At the top of the stairs she looked down and blew a kiss to me.
I waved to her and she went down the hall and out of sight. I turned and let myself out the front door.
The sky was bright and the air was cool. The dew on the flowers sparkled in the slanting rays of the early morning sun. Suddenly I wasn't tired. My weariness had left me with the first deep breath of the morning air. I looked at my watch. It was a few minutes after five, too late to go home to sleep.
I picked up a cab two blocks from the house. "To Magnum Studios," I told the driver as I settled back against the cushions and lit up a cigarette.
The studio was only fifteen minutes from Peter's home. I paid the driver and walked toward the gate. It was locked. I pressed the bell button on the right wall and waited for the watchman to come.
I could see the light flicker as a shadow moved in front of it in the gateman's cabin a few feet beyond the gate. The door opened and he came out toward me.
He saw me through the gate and recognized me. Almost imperceptibly his step quickened until he was almost running, He opened the gate. "Mr. Edge," he said, "I didn't expect to see you back so soon."
"It's a surprise visit," I said. "I didn't expect to be back myself."
He closed the gate behind me. "Anything I can do, Mr. Edge?"
"No, thanks," I said, "I'm going up to my office."
I walked down the long street to the administration building. The studio was quiet and I could hear the sound of my footsteps echoing hollowly behind me as I walked. The chippies woke up as I walked past them and began to chirp in the trees. They resented anyone coming in early. I smiled to myself, remembering the sound from the long years behind me. They always chirped when I would get to the studio early.
The watchman at the administration building was waiting for me as I reached it. He stood there in the doorway, sleep still showing in his eyes. The gateman must have called and told him I was on the way up. "Good morning, Mr. Edge," he said.
"Good morning," I replied, walking through the door.
He hurried down the hall in front of me and opened the door of my office with his key. "Is there anything I can get you, Mr. Edge?" he asked—"some coffee or something?"
"No, thanks," I replied. I sniffed the air. It was dull and dead in the office.
He saw my gesture and rushed past me to the windows and opened them. "Some fresh air in here won't hurt, sir," he said.
I smiled and thanked him and he left. He seemed almost to back out the door as he shut it carefully behind him. I took off my topcoat and hat and put them in the little closet. I felt like a drink, it had been a long night.
I walked through the side door in my office. Between my office and Gordon's was a little kitchen. A refrigerator, pantry, and small electric stove were in there. A coffee pot stood on the stove. I touched it; it was still warm. The watchman must have made himself some coffee, I thought. I opened the refrigerator and took out a small bottle of ginger ale and carried it back to my office.
I took a bottle of bourbon out of my desk and a glass from the small table behind it. I put two fingers of liquor in the glass and then poured ginger ale over it until the glass was almost half full. I tasted it. It was just right. I drank almost half of it and then walked over to the window and looked out.
The sky was brighter now and I could see almost to the back lot. The writers' building was almost directly behind ours, and the other executive buildings fanned out to the right and left of it, making a sort of crescent around the administration building. Behind the writers' building was Sound stage number one.
Sound stage number one. I smiled to myself as I thought of it. It was a new building, all white and modern and fireproof. The first stage that Peter and I had opened was more of a barn than a building. It was a rambling structure with four walls and no ceiling so the sun could shine through. There was a big tarpaulin top that we used to stretch over it at the first sign of rain. I remembered how we used to have
a man always sitting on a little platform near the top of the building, scanning the skies.
The rain-watcher we used to call him. In case rain threatened he would yell down and the tarpaulin would be rigged in a hurry. We used to leave it off almost until the last possible minute because the mercury vapor lamps we used for indoor lighting used to cost so much money.
Joe Turner had thought of it. When we had figured out how expensive the lamps were to use, he suggested: "Why don't we put a circus top on the building? Then when it rains we can just cover it up."
Joe had been dead almost twenty years now, but there were some things about him that were as fresh and vivid in my mind as if I had seen him each day of those two decades. I could still remember his booming laugh as he told the story of how we got the land for the studio for nothing. It was his favorite story. I smiled to myself as I looked across the forty acres that made up the studio today. It hadn't cost us a cent of our own money.
It was after I had come back to New York with the first print of The Bandit. Peter couldn't come to New York as the judgment against him that was held by the combine was still unsettled. The first showing was held at the screening rooms of Bill Borden's studios. The independents were growing a little braver as Fox's suit against the combine seemed more certain of success each day.
The screening room was crowded. All the important states' rights distributors were there in addition to an already large list of our creditors. I don't know who was more enthusiastic about the picture, the distributors who were clamoring to buy it or our creditors, who were beginning to entertain visions of getting their money back and maybe a little profit too.
I don't think any of us really expected in our wildest dreams the events that followed. Within two hours after I had screened the picture I had collected almost forty thousand dollars in deposits from the distributors against the showing of the picture. Borden, standing at my side as each distributor pressed me to accept his check for his territory, kept saying over and over to himself: "I don't believe it, I don't believe it."
By midnight I was talking to Peter on the phone. I was so
excited I stuttered. "We got forty thousand dollars, Peter," I shouted into the mouthpiece.
His voice was thin and crackly as it came through the receiver. "What did you say, Johnny?" he asked. "It sounded like forty thousand dollars."
"That's right," I shouted, "forty thousand dollars! They loved the picture!"
There was a silence at the other end of the phone, then his voice came through doubtfully: "Where are you, Johnny?"
"At Borden's studio," I answered.
"Is Willie there?" he asked.
"He's standing right next to me," I said.
"Let me talk to him," Peter said.
I handed the phone over to Borden.
"Hello, Peter," Borden said into the mouthpiece, "mazeltov!"
I could hear Peter's voice crackling at the other end of the phone, but I couldn't make out what he was saying. Borden turned and looked at me, a half smile on his lips.
He waited until Peter had finished talking. His smile grew broader as he turned back to the phone. "No," he said, "Johnny hasn't had a drink all night. He's as sober as I am." There was a few seconds' silence while Peter spoke, then Borden spoke again: "Yeah, forty thousand dollars. I seen the checks with my own eyes!"
Peter's voice crackled again and Borden handed the phone back to me. "Didn't you believe me?" I asked.
"Believe you?" Peter's voice was full and happy. "My boy, my own ears I didn't believe. Forty thousand dollars!"
"I'll transfer the money to you in the morning," I said.
"No," he replied. "Transfer half of it to me so I could pay off Al the twenty thousand dollars I owe him. The other half you use to pay off our notes in New York."
"But, Peter, that will leave us broke again. We owe almost twenty here and we'll need money to make the next picture."
"If I pay off the money I owe for this picture," he said, "I can sleep easy for one night. Tomorrow I will worry about getting money for the next one."
"But what about money for a studio? We can't keep working on a farm all the time. Pay off half now; they'll be glad to wait for the rest of it. This picture looks like it will gross a quarter of a million dollars and they know it."
"If it grosses that much we can afford to pay them now," Peter said.
"But we'll have to wait almost a year for the money," I protested. Under the states' rights method of distribution we were entitled to get our money six months after the release of the picture by the distributor. "What will we do until then? Sit around on our behinds and wait? We can't afford to wait now!"
Peter's voice was firm. "Pay the money like I said. One good night's sleep I'm getting out of this!"
I knew I was licked. When that stubborn tone crept into Peter's voice, standing on my head wouldn't change his mind. "All right, Peter."
His voice lightened. "They liked the picture, hah?"
"They were crazy about it," I told him, "especially that gun fight where the sheriff and the bandit shoot it out in the parlor of the girl's house." I knew that would please him, it was his idea. In the play the shooting took place in a big saloon, but we didn't have the money to build a set like that, so Peter switched to the girl's parlor.
He laughed. I told you it was more dramatic that way, didn't I?"
"You were right, Peter," I said, smiling at the proud manner in which he spoke.
He chuckled again. "They didn't mind sitting through the whole picture?"
"They didn't want it to finish, they liked it so much. They applauded when it was over. You should have seen them, Peter, they stood up and applauded."
I heard him turn from the phone and say something to someone. I couldn't make out what he said. His voice came over the phone again: "I was just telling Esther that I was right about seven reels not being too long."
I laughed, remembering what he had said once before—that six reels were too much for a person to sit through.
He interrupted my laugh. "Esther just asked me who's paying for this phone call."
I looked at Borden and smiled. "We are, of course. You don't think I would make a call like this on somebody else's phone and not pay for it, do you?"
There was a second of stunned silence at the other end of
the wire. When his voice came through, it sounded weak. "Almost twenty minutes already we been talking. A hundred-dollar phone call." His voice grew stronger. "Good-by, Johnny."
"But, Peter—" I started to say, when I heard the click of the phone being hung up in the receiver. 1 stared at it a moment in a sort of surprise and hung up my phone.
I looked over at Borden and smiled. He shrugged his shoulders and together we walked out of his office into the general office. There were still a crowd of men gathered in there talking. The air was blue with smoke and conversation. Among them were the leading independents of the day.
One of them was saying: "I guess that proves it once and for all. The day of the two-reeler is over; from now on we have to think in terms of big pictures."
"What you say, Sam?" another of them replied. "Might be true, but where are we going to make them? In New York here the outdoor season is only three months at the most. The best we could make is five pictures in that time. What'll we do the rest of the year? Lay off?"
The first man thought for a minute before he answered: "We'll have to go some place where there is a longer season, then."
The second man spoke glumly; his manner didn't express much hope. "But where? We all ain't got friends like Kessler has. We can't all make pictures in California."
Suddenly everything clicked for me. I knew all the answers. "Why not, gentlemen?" I said, stepping into the middle of the group. "Why can't you all make pictures in California?"
I looked around at them. The expressions on their faces ranged from open amazement to restrained curiosity.
"What do you mean?" one of them asked.
I looked at them a moment before I answered. I wanted them to be properly impressed with what I was about to tell them. I lowered my voice to a confidential tone.
"Magnum has not been without foresight enough, gentlemen, to realize the effect The Bandit would have on the future of the picture business. And Peter Kessler has not been without gratitude to his many friends among you for standing by him when the outlook was darkest. And so, gentlemen"—I lowered my voice still more and they pressed closer to hear me—"after just speaking to Kessler over the phone to California,
he has informed me that he has decided to offer you the same opportunity that he himself now enjoys. To make pictures in California! Think of it, gentlemen, think of it!" I smiled to myself; this was the old carny pitch. "An opportunity to make pictures not only thirteen weeks a year, but fifty-two! An opportunity to make pictures where the sun always shines, where there's room to make any kind of a picture you want!
"Magnum has under option almost a thousand acres of land in Hollywood. Enough land to build a hundred studios. When Lasky, Goldwyn, and Laemmle came out there, Peter got the brilliant idea that all you independents would come out too and make Hollywood the motion-picture capital of the world! And so he has authorized me to offer you the following deal. In return for your many past kindnesses and favors to him, he will transfer to you his option on as many acres and as much land as you may require for the same price that he has paid for those options! One hundred dollars an acre!
"Of course he does not expect you gentlemen to buy a pig in a poke. He will give you the option for as many acres as you wish now, subject to your approval of the site when you see it. The opportunity to select the site will be given in the same order as the option is made. That is, the first person to take an option will have the first choice of the site. If any man is not satisfied, his option money will be refunded without protest."
Borden was as amazed as any of them. "You didn't say anything about this to me before," he said.
"I'm sorry, Bill," I said, turning to him. "I was under orders from Peter not to say anything until he gave the okay. He just gave me the okay inside."
"But what about our studios here?" Bill said. "We've got a lot of money tied up in them."
"You can still use them for shorts and other subjects," I answered, "but for big pictures and big money you will have to come to Hollywood. How big is your studio here? About three blocks square. Can you drive a hundred head of cattle through here as we did in The Bandit? Can you run a group of men on horses and photograph them here as we did in The Bandit? The answer is obvious. If you stay here, you're limited. Limited by space, limited by time, and limited by opportunity."
I stopped and looked around me. Their faces showed that they were impressed. I knew I had them.
There was only one hitch. If any of them asked me where Peter had got the money necessary to take all these options, I was sunk. But I didn't have to worry, because Borden was the first to sucker for it.
He took out his fountain pen and began writing a check. "I want fifty acres," he said.
In an hour I had sold options on land we didn't have amounting to sixty thousand dollars. The others, seeing Borden leap to the bait, fell all over themselves trying to get on the hook. It was easier than getting the yokels to buy a ticket to see Salome and her Dance of the Seven Veils.
At three o'clock in the morning I had Peter on the phone again, this time from my hotel, where no one could hear me.
He answered the phone. I could hear the sound of other voices talking excitedly in the room behind him. "Hello," he said.
"Peter, this is Johnny."
His voice grew excited. "I thought I told you you shouldn't call me. It's too expensive."
"Damn the expense," I said, "I had to call you. I just sold sixty thousand dollars' worth of land out there and you have to buy some right away!"
"My God," he shouted, his voice rising to a shrill scream, "have you gone crazy? You want us all to go to jail?"
"Calm down," I said as quietly as I could. "I had to do it. The suckers were falling all over themselves to get out to California. It's better that we make some dough out of it than the land sharks. What can we get an acre of land out there for?"
"How should I know?" he asked, his voice still shaking.
"Is Al there?" I asked. "If he is, ask him."
I heard Peter turn away from the phone. A few seconds later his voice came on again. "Al says about twenty-five dollars an acre."
I could feel the blood running into my face. I let out a sigh. I had guessed right. "Buy a thousand acres," I told him. "That'll cost us about twenty-five thousand dollars. I just sold six hundred acres at a hundred bucks apiece and we'll net thirty-live thousand on the works and have enough dough left over to build a studio with."
There was a moment of silence at the other end of the wire, then Peter's voice came on again. There was a peculiar tone in it that I didn't quite recognize; if I hadn't known him better,
I would have called it awe. "Johnny," he said slowly, "you're a gonif. But a smart one."
I turned back from the window, sat down behind my desk, and finished my drink. That was a long time ago, but somehow it seemed like only yesterday. Hollywood was built on a swindle and it never changed. It lived on a swindle today, only the swindlers of yesterday were beginning to meet their masters. The swindlers of today were taking them—not as we had in the old days, out of necessity, but because of greed. Today's swindlers not only practiced on one another, but the whole world was their feeding-place.
My eyes were tired. The lids felt hot and heavy. I thought I would shut them for a little while to rest them.
The dull sound of voices kept tugging at my ears. I turned my head to shut them out, but they persisted. I sat back in my chair and opened my eyes and rubbed them. My body ached, my back was stiff from the uncomfortable position in which I had fallen asleep. I stretched and looked around the office. My gaze fell on the clock on the desk and I snapped up with a start. It was three thirty in the afternoon. I had been sleeping almost all day.
I got out of my chair and went into the little room next to my office. I turned on the cold water and splashed it over my face. Its chill woke me up thoroughly. I took a towel from the rack and dried my face in it. I looked in the mirror. I needed a shave. I turned and started out of the little room to go to the barber shop when Gordon's voice came through the wall.
"I'm sorry, Larry," it was saying, "but I don't see how I can agree to that. After all, my agreement with Johnny was that I was in charge of all production. Dividing it up in the manner you suggest will only lead to duplication of work and further unnecessary confusion."
That put an end to my shave. Something was going on in Gordon's office that I should know about. I put my hand on the door and opened it. Gordon was seated behind his desk, his face flushed and angry. Opposite him Ronsen and Dave Roth were seated. Ronsen's face was as calm and imperturbable
as usual, but Dave looked like the cat that had just got away with the canary.
I stepped into the room. Their faces turned toward me with varying expressions written on them. Gordon's showed relief, Ronsen's annoyance, Roth's fear. I smiled. "What's the matter with you guys?" I asked. "Can't you let a feller sleep?"
They didn't answer. I walked over to Gordon and held out my hand. "Hi ya, boy, good to see you."
He played along with me. No sign of our having met last night appeared in his voice. He took my hand. "What are you doing out here?" he asked. "I thought you were still in New York."
"I got here last night," I answered. "I came out to see Peter." I turned to Ronsen. "I didn't expect you out here, Larry."
He looked at me searchingly a minute. If he was trying to find out what I knew, he didn't succeed. My face was as bland as his. "Something turned up after you left, and as you weren't there, I thought I'd fly out here and handle it for you."
I let interest show on my face. "Yeah? What was it?"
"We got a call from Stanley Farber," he replied. I could see that even his calm had been shaken by my unexpected appearance; he seemed to fumble a little for words. "He made us the proposition that we put Dave here in charge of our top pictures. In return for that he would see to it that we played off in all the Westco theaters and in addition loan us a million dollars."
For the first time since I walked into the office I looked at Dave Roth. But I spoke to Ronsen. "I know Stanley," I said. "He must want something else from us for a million bucks besides putting his protege in charge of production."
I didn't take my eyes off Dave's face while Ronsen answered: "Well, naturally we'd have to give him stock as security. You don't expect anybody to advance us that much money without some sort of security."
I nodded my head slowly. Dave's face had grown paler under my gaze. Ronsen's voice cut in eagerly; he couldn't keep the tension from showing in it. "You mean you think it's a good idea?" he asked.
Slowly I turned my head back to look at him. His eyes were
burning brightly and fiercely behind his bifocals. More than ever he reminded me of a big, moon-faced tiger waiting to pounce on its prey. "I didn't say I thought it was a good idea," I said, my eyes meeting his. "But I'll think about it. A million bucks is a lot of cabbage."
Ronsen was pressing now; I could see he wanted me to agree with him. "That's it, Johnny," he said eagerly, "Farber wants an immediate answer. His offer isn't good forever."
"But once we accept it, we're hooked," I said dryly. "I know Stanley, as I said, and it won't be anything we can get out of easily if it doesn't work out. Dave here is a bright boy. I know he can run theaters. But he never made a picture in his life and, with all my respect for him, what do we do if he turns out bad? I've seen it happen to others; it could happen to him."
I turned to Roth. His face had gone white. I smiled at him reassuringly. "No offense meant, kid," I said easily, "but this is a practical business and it takes a little experience to find out just how a thing is going to work out before you do it. I know Larry means well, but I'll have to think about it first. Supposing we talk some more about it tomorrow."
With those words I succeeded in impressing Ronsen with my disregard for his judgment, Dave with, my opinion of his inexperience, and closed the discussion.
Out of the corner of my eyes I could see the white anger on Larry's face, but by the time I turned to him he had it under control. I smiled at him. "If you have a few minutes, Larry," I said, "I'd like to talk to you after I get a shave."
His strangely deep voice was back to normal. "Sure thing, Johnny," he said. "Give me a buzz when you get back."
I walked to the door. At the door I turned and looked back at them. They were all facing me now. Gordon, who sat behind the others, gave me the wink. I smiled at them. "See you later," I said, shutting the door behind me.
Gordon was waiting for me when I got back from the barber. I felt good. It's wonderful what a shave and a hot towel can do for you. I grinned at him.
"What'sa matter, boy?" I said. "You don't look so good."
He let out a string of curses.
I smiled at him easily. "I gather you don't think much of our eminent chairman of the board."
Gordon's face turned red. "Why in hell can't he confine himself to presiding over the board meetings and keep his Goddam long nose out of the studio?" he roared. "He's only screwing up the works."
I walked over to my chair and sat down behind the desk. I looked at him. "Now, take it easy, boy." I reached for a cigarette and lit it slowly. "You gotta remember that he don't know nothin' about the picture business. You know what he is. A guy with dough who got greedy when he saw there was a fast buck to be made in pictures. When he found out that the racket wasn't all peaches and cream like he thought, he got a little nervous and now he's scratchin' around looking for something that will either guarantee his dough back or give him an out."
When he saw how calmly I was sitting there, he simmered down a little. He watched me closely for a moment. "You got an angle?"
"Sure." I smiled reassuringly. "I got an angle. I'm gonna sit tight and let him beat his brains out. When he gets tired of that he'll come back to papa."
He looked skeptical. "He's a stubborn guy," he said. "What if he insists on giving Farber an in?"
I didn't answer him for a second. If Ronsen insisted on that, I couldn't stop him and then I was through. Maybe it would be a good thing. I'd spent thirty years here and I had enough dough not to worry no matter what happened. Maybe it would be nice just to sit back and forget about everything. But it wasn't as easy as that. A good piece of my life had gone into tins and I couldn't let it go so easy.
"He won't," I finally answered, more confidently than I felt. "When I get through with him, he'll be afraid to take Farber in if he was offered the United States mint."
He walked to the door. "I hope you know what you're doing," he said as he went out.
I looked after him. "That makes two of us," I thought.
The phone rang and I picked it up. It was Doris.
"Where were you?" she asked. "I called all over and couldn't get you."
"I fell asleep in the office," I answered ruefully. "I came here after I left you and nobody knew I was in." I changed the subject. "How's Peter doing?"
"The doctor just left. He's sleeping normally now. The doctor thinks he's improving."
"Good," I said. "And Esther?"
"She's right next to me," Doris replied. "She wants to talk to you."
"Put her on."
I heard the receiver change hands, then Esther's voice came on. For a moment I was shocked, it had changed so much. The last time I had heard it, it was young and firm, but now it sounded old and shaken. As if suddenly she had found herself in a room filled with strange people and wasn't at all sure of her reception.
"Johnny?" It was more a question than anything else.
My voice softened. "Yes," I answered.
For a moment she was still, I could hear her breathing; then in the same strangely hesitant voice: "I'm glad you came. It means a lot to me, it will mean more to him when he learns it."
Something was wrong inside me. I wanted to cry out: "This is me, Johnny! We've got thirty years together behind us. I'm not a stranger, you don't have to be afraid to talk to me!" But I couldn't say that, I could hardly manage to say what I did. "I had to come," I answered simply. "You two mean an awful lot to me." I hesitated a little. "I'm terribly sorry about Mark."
It was her old voice that answered me now as if suddenly across the wire she recognized the someone she knew. And yet, deep within her, a feeling of pain and resignation and acceptance came and somehow spilled into her voice. It had the sound of a people that had long known the sorrows of living. "It's God's will, Johnny, there's nothing we can do now. We can only hope that Peter—" She didn't finish her sentence, her voice broke. Across the wire came the silent sound of her crying for her son.
"Esther," I said sharply, trying to bring her back.
I could almost see her fighting for control of herself—fighting to hold back the tears that were so ready to flow, the tears to which she was entitled. At last she answered: "Yes, Johnny."
"You have no time for tears," I said, feeling like a fool. Who was I to tell her when to cry? It was her son. "You've got to get Peter well first."
"Yes," she said heavily, "I must get him well again so he can say the Kaddish for his son. So we can sit shiveh together."
Shiveh was the Hebrew ritual of mourning. You covered all the mirrors and pictures in the house and sat on the floor or on boxes for a week after the death of a loved one.
"No, Esther, no," I said gently. "Not so that you can sit shiveh, but that you may live together."
Her voice was docile and meek when she answered. "Yes, Johnny." It was almost as if she were talking to herself. "We must continue to live."
"That's better," I said. "That's more like the girl I used to know."
"Is it, Johnny?" she asked quietly. "Until this happened, I might have been the girl you knew, but I'm an old woman now. Nothing ever really changed me before, but this did and I'm afraid."
"It will pass," I said, "and then things will seem the same in time."
"Things will never be the same," she said with a quiet sort of finality.
We spoke a few more words and then hung up. I sat back in my chair and lit another cigarette. My first cigarette had burned itself out, forgotten, in the ashtray.
I don't know how long I sat there, staring at the phone. I remembered Mark when he was a kid. It's funny how the things you don't like about a person are forgotten when they're gone. I had never liked Mark the man, so I thought about him when he was a kid. He used to like me to swing him in the air and give him rides on my shoulders. I could still hear his little voice yelling in glee as I tossed him up. I could almost feel his fingers digging into my hair and pulling it as he rode upon my shoulders.
My leg began to ache. My leg. I always thought of it as my leg, but it was only a stump. The rest of it had been in France somewhere for the last twenty years. I could feel the pain shooting down my thigh. The stump was sore. I hadn't had the prosthetic off except for a few minutes in the past three days.
I loosened my trousers. Then I leaned back, drew in my belly and reached in and unfastened the strap around my waist that held the artificial leg in place. Through the trouser leg
I loosened the other strap that tied around my thigh, and the leg came loose. It thumped on the floor.
I began to massage the stump with the even circular motion I had learned so many years ago. I could feel the blood begin to circulate in it and the ache case away. I continued the massage.
The door opened and Ronsen came in. He saw me sitting at the desk and walked over to me. His step was springy, his frame big and strong. His eyes were bright and piercing behind his glasses. He stopped in front of my desk and looked down at me.
"Johnny," he said in that strangely sure voice, "about that Farber matter. Couldn't we . . ."
I stared up at him. For some reason I couldn't focus my mind on what he was saying. My hands, still massaging my stump automatically, began to tremble.
Damn him! Why couldn't he wait until I called him? I began to agree with him almost before the words were out of his mouth, before I knew what he was saying. Anything, anything to get him out of the office. Not to have to look at him standing there, so calm, so strong, so easy. Not to feel that insatiable, ruthless surge of power that flowed out of him.
His eyes first narrowed with surprise at my quick agreement. He turned and left the office as if he were in a hurry before I could change my mind.
I stared after his straight back as the door shut behind it. With trembling fingers I tried clumsily to tighten the strap around my thigh. I couldn't get it to set right. I began to curse silently as I wrestled with it.
I felt so damn helpless without my leg on.
Äàòà äîáàâëåíèÿ: 2015-09-13; ïðîñìîòðîâ: 8; Íàðóøåíèå àâòîðñêèõ ïðàâ