One never knows what images one is going to hold in memory, returning to the city after a brief orgy in the country. I find this morning that what I most vividly and longingly recall is the sight of my grandson and his little sunburnt sister returning to their kitchen door from an excursion, with trophies of the meadow clutched in their tiny hands–she with a couple of violets, and smiling, he serious and holding dandelions, strangling them in a responsible grip. Children hold spring so tightly in their brown fists–just as grownups, who are less sure of it, hold it in their hearts.
The essayist is a self-liberated man, sustained by the childish belief that everything he thinks about, everything that happens to him, is of general interest. He is a fellow who thoroughly enjoys his work, just as people who take bird walks enjoy theirs. Each new excursion of the essayist, each new “attempt,” differs from the last and takes him into new country. This delights him. Only a person who is congenitally self-centered has the effrontery and the stamina to write essays.
The bar was pretty empty. Three booths down a couple of sharpies were selling each other pieces of Twentieth Century-Fox, using double-arm gestures instead of money. They had a telephone on the table between them and every two or three minutes would play the match game to see who called Zanuck with a hot idea. They were young, dark, eager and full of vitality. They put as much muscular activity into a telephone conversation as I would put into carrying a fat man up four flights of stairs. There was a sad fellow over on a barstool talking to the bartender, who was polishing a glass and listening with that plastic smile people wear when they are trying not to scream. The customer was middle-aged, handsomely dressed, and drunk. He wanted to talk and he couldn’t have stopped even if he hadn’t really wanted to talk. He was polite and friendly and when I heard him he didn’t seem to slur his words much, but you knew that he got up on the bottle and only let go of it when he fell asleep at night. He would be like that for the rest of his life and that was what his life was. You would never know how he got that way because even if he told you it would not be the truth. At the very best a distorted memory of the truth as he knew it. There is a sad man like that in every quiet bar in the world.
Do me that love
As a tree, tree
Where birds and wind
Sing though they know
How real night is
And no one can
Go on for long
In any way
Do me that love
Do me that love
As the rain, rain
That has voices
In it, the greats’
And fools’, poor dead
From old weathers–
As ours will be.
The rain comes down
And flowers grow
On the graves of
Do me that love
The house was in Santa Monica on a cross street between the boulevards, within earshot of the coast highway and rifleshot of the sea. The street was the kind that people had once been proud to live on, but in the last few years it had lost its claim to pride. The houses had too many stories, too few windows, not enough paint. Their history was easy to guess: they were one-family residences broken up into apartments and light-housekeeping rooms, or converted into tourist homes. Even the palms that lined the street looked as if they had seen their best days and were starting to lose their hair.
Baccala is one of the many Mafia bosses who generally are depicted as controlling sprawling businesses. He has been involved in a number of legitimate enterprises. At one time he was one of the city’s largest dress-manufacturers. He used threats, acid, and non-union help. People in the garment industry referred to a Baccala dress as “the buy or die line.” The chief assistant in the dress factory, Seymour Lipman, had a brother-in-law named Dave, who also was in the garment business. Dave sold Seymour material. It took four sets of books to do it, but Seymour Lipman and his brother-in-law Dave wound up with houses in Miami. Baccala was losing eighty cents each time he sold a dress. At the first-anniversary party for his dress business, Baccala arrived at the factory with a can of gasoline in each hand.
In another business venture, Baccala and his chief of the East Harlem mob, Gigi off of 116th Street, entered into what they felt would be a gigantic stock-swindling operation. They were doing business with, they were assured, complete suckers. “High-class Protestant people, what could they know?” Gigi off of 116th Street said. Then the high-class Protestants went to Nassau for a week. Baccala and Gigi suddenly lost $140,000 each in the market and were indicted for illegal trading in potato futures.
After being arraigned, Baccala growled, “I shoot-a somebody, but first I gotta find out-a who I shoot-a and what for I shoot-a him.”
It cost him another $35,000 in legal fees before the indicment was dismissed.
But as money makes geniuses of all men, Baccala is known as an immensely successful real-estate holder in Brooklyn. The first thing a Sicilian in America seeks is property. This is a reaction to centuries of peasantry. Baccala’s first money went for a small house with a back yard in Canarsie. He planted fig trees in the back yard and when it got cold he covered them with tar paper and put paint cans on the tops of the trees. This, along with religious statues and flamingos on the front lawns, is the most familiar sight in an Italian neighborhood.
Little Newt stirred.
While still half-snoozing, he put his black, painty hands to his mouth and chin, leaving black smears there. He rubbed his eyes and made black smears around them, too.
“Hello,” he said to me, sleepily.
“Hello,” I said. “I like your painting.”
“You see what it is?”
“I suppose it means something different to everyone who sees it.”
“It’s a cat’s cradle.”
“Aha,” I said. “Very good. The scratches are strings. Right?”
“One of the oldest games there is, cat’s cradle. Even the Eskimos know it.”
“You don’t say.”
“For maybe a hundred thousand years or more, grownups have been waving tangles of string in their children’s faces.”
Newt remained curled in the chair. He held out his painty hands as though a cat’s cradle were strung between them. “No wonder kids grow up crazy. A cat’s cradle is nothing but a bunch of X’s between somebody’s hands, and little kids look and look and look at all those X’s.”
“No damn cat, and no damn cradle.”
When we joined the mainstream of mankind in the company street, a woman behind us wished Dr. Breed a merry Christmas. Dr. Breed turned to peer benignly into the sea of pale pies, and identified the greeter as one Miss Francine Pelko. Miss Pelko was twenty, vacantly pretty, and healthy–a dull normal.
In honor of the dulcitude of Christmastime, Dr. Breed invited Miss Pelko to join us. He introduced her as the secretary of Nilsak Horvath. He then told me who Horvath was. “The famous surface chemist,” he said, “the one who’s doing such wonderful things with film.”
“What’s new in surface chemistry?” I asked Miss Pelko.
“God,” she said, “don’t ask me. I just type what he tells me to type.”And then she apologized for having said “God.”
“Oh, I think you understand more than you let on,” said Dr. Breed.
“Not me.” Miss Pelko wasn’t used to chatting with someone as important as Dr. Breed and she was embarrassed. Her gait was affected, becoming stiff and chickenlike. Her smile was glassy, and she was ransacking her mind for something to say, finding nothing in it but used Kleenex and costume jewelry.
“Well. . .” mumbled Dr. Breed expansively, “how do you like us, now that you’ve been with us–how long? Almost a year?”
“You scientists think too much,” blurted Miss Pelko. She laughed idiotically. Dr. Breed’s friendliness had blown every fuse in her nervous system. She was no longer responsible. “You all think too much.”
A winded, defeated-looking fat woman in filthy coveralls trudged beside us, hearing what Miss Pelko said. She turned to examine Dr. Breed , looking at him with helpless reproach. She hated people who thought too much. At that moment, she struck me as an appropriate representative for almost all mankind.
When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it, and it digs a path you follow. Soon you find yourself deep in new territory. Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject? You will know tomorrow, or this time next year.
Bolivar was resting comfortably against a wagon wheel and ignored the sally. He was wavering in his mind whether to stay or go. He did not like travel–the thought of it made him unhappy. And yet, when he went home to Mexico he felt unhappy too, for his wife was disappointed in him and let him know it every day. He had never been sure what she wanted–after all, their children were beautiful–but whatever it was, he had not been able to give it to her. His daughters were his delight, but they would soon all marry and be gone, leaving him no protection from his wife. Probably he would shoot his wife if he went home. He had shot an irritating horse, right out from under himself. A man’s patience sometimes simply snapped. He had shot the horse right between the ears and then found it difficult to get the saddle off, once the horse fell. Probably he would shoot his wife in the same way, if he went home. Many times he had been tempted to shoot one or another of the members of the Hat Creek outfit, but of course if he did that he would be immediately shot in return. Every day he thought he might go home, but he didn’t. It was easier to stay and cut up a few snakes into the cook pot than to listen to his wife complain.
So he stayed, day by day, paying no attention to what anyone said. That in itself was a luxury he wouldn’t have at home, for a disappointed woman was not easy to ignore.