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© J.D.Salinger, 1951
Source: The New Yorker, July 14, 1951, pages 20-24
WHEN the phone rang, the gray-haired man asked the girl, with quite some little deference, if she would rather for any reason he didn't answer it. The girl heard him as if from a distance, and turned her face toward him, one eye--on the side of the light--closed tight, her open eye very, however disingenuously, large, and so blue as to appear almost violet. The grayhaired man asked her to hurry up, and she raised up on her right forearm just quickly enough so that the movement didn't quite look perfunctory. She cleared her hair back from her forehead with her left hand and said, "God. I don't know. I mean what do you think?" The gray-haired man said he didn't see that it made a helluva lot of difference one way or the other, and slipped his left hand under the girl's supporting arm, above the elbow, working his fingers up, making room for them between the warm surfaces of her upper arm and chest wall. He reached for the phone with his right hand. To reach it without groping, he had to raise himself somewhat higher, which caused the back of his head to graze a comer of the lampshade. In that instant, the light was particularly, if rather vividly, flattering to his gray, mostly white, hair. Though in disarrangement at that moment, it had obviously been freshly cut-or, rather, freshly maintained. The neckline and temples had been trimmed conventionally close, but the sides and top had been left rather more than just longish, and were, in fact, a trifle "distinguished-looking." "Hello?" he said resonantly into the phone. The girl stayed propped up on her forearm and watched him. Her eyes, more just open than alert or speculative, reflected chiefly their own size and color.
A man's voice--stone dead, yet somehow rudely, almost obscenely quickened for the occasion--came through at the other end: "Lee? I wake you?"
The gray-haired man glanced briefly left, at the girl. "Who's that?" he asked. "Arthur?"
"Yeah--I wake you?"
"No, no. I'm in bed, reading. Anything wrong?"
"You sure I didn't wake you? Honest to God?"
"No, no--absolutely," the gray-haired man said. "As a matter of fact, I've been averaging about four lousy hours--"
"The reason I called, Lee, did you happen to notice when Joanie was leaving? Did you happen to notice if she left with the Ellenbogens, by any chance?"
The gray-haired man looked left again, but high this time, away from the girl, who was now watching him rather like a young, blue-eyed Irish policeman. "No, I didn't, Arthur," he said, his eyes on the far, dim end of the room, where the wall met the ceiling. "Didn't she leave with you?"
"No. Christ, no. You didn't see her leave at all, then?"
"Well, no, as a matter of fact, I didn't, Arthur," the gray-haired man said. "Actually, as a matter of fact, I didn't see a bloody thing all evening. The minute I got in the door, I got myself involved in one long Jesus of a session with that French poop, Viennese poop--whatever the hell he was. Every bloody one of these foreign guys keep an eye open for a little free legal advice. Why? What's up? Joanie lost?"
"Oh, Christ. Who knows? I don't know. You know her when she gets all tanked up and rarin' to go. I don't know. She may have just--"
"You call the Ellenbogens?" the gray-haired man asked.
"Yeah. They're not home yet. I don't know. Christ, I'm not even sure she left with them. I know one thing. I know one goddam thing. I'm through beating my brains out. I mean it. I really mean it this time. I'm through. Five years. Christ."
"All right, try to take it a little easy, now, Arthur," the gray-haired man said. "In the first place, if I know the Ellenbogens, they probably all hopped in a cab and went down to the Village for a couple of hours. All three of 'em'll probably barge--"
"I have a feeling she went to work on some bastard in the kitchen. I just have a feeling. She always starts necking some bastard in the kitchen when she gets tanked up. I'm through. I swear to God I mean it this time. Five goddam-"
"Where are you now, Arthur?" the gray-haired man asked. "Home?"
"Yeah. Home. Home sweet home. Christ."
"Well, just try to take it a little--What are ya--drunk, or what?"
"I don't know. How the hell do I know?"
"All right, now, listen. Relax. Just relax," the grayhaired man said. "You know the Ellenbogens, for Chrissake. What probably happened, they probably missed their last train. All three of 'em'll probably barge in on you any minute, full of witty, night-club--"
"They drove in."
"How do you know?"
"Their baby-sitter. We've had some scintillating goddam conversations. We're close as hell. We're like two goddam peas in a pod."
"All right. All right. So what? Will ya sit tight and relax, now?" said the gray-haired man. "All three of 'em'll probably waltz in on you any minute. Take my word. You know Leona. I don't know what the hell it is--they all get this god-awful Connecticut gaiety when they get in to New York. You know that."
"Yeah. I know. I know. I don't know, though."
"Certainly you do. Use your imagination. The two of 'em probably dragged Joanie bodily--"
"Listen. Nobody ever has to drag Joanie anywhere. Don't gimme any of that dragging stuff."
"Nobody's giving you any dragging stuff, Arthur," the gray-haired man said quietly.
"I know, I know! Excuse me. Christ, I'm losing my mind. Honest to God, you sure I didn't wake you?"
"I'd tell you if you had, Arthur," the gray-haired man said. Absently, he took his left hand out from between the girl's upper arm and chest wall. "Look, Arthur. You want my advice?" he said. He took the telephone cord between his fingers, just under the transmitter. "I mean this, now. You want some advice?"
"Yeah. I don't know. Christ, I'm keeping you up. Why don't I just go cut my--"
"Listen to me a minute," the gray-haired man said. "First--I mean this, now--get in bed and relax. Make yourself a nice, big nightcap, and get under the--"
"Nightcap! Are you kidding? Christ, I've killed about a quart in the last two goddam hours. Nightcap! I'm so plastered now I can hardly--"
"All right. All right. Get in bed, then," the grayhaired man said. "And relax--ya hear me? Tell the truth. Is it going to do any good to sit around and stew?"
"Yeah, I know. I wouldn't even worry, for Chrissake, but you can't trust her! I swear to God. I swear to God you can't. You can trust her about as far as you can throw a--I don't know what. Aaah, what's the use? I'm losing my goddam mind."
"All right. Forget it, now. Forget it, now. Will ya do me a favor and try to put the whole thing out of your mind?" the gray-haired man said. "For all you know, you're making--I honestly think you're making a mountain--"
"You know what I do? You know what I do? I'm ashameda tell ya, but you know what I very nearly goddam do every night? When I get home? You want to know?"
"Arthur, listen, this isn't---"
"Wait a second--I'll tell ya, God damn it. I practically have to keep myself from opening every goddam closet door in the apartment--I swear to God. Every night I come home, I half expect to find a bunch of bastards hiding all over the place. Elevator boys. Delivery boys. Cops--"
"All right. All right. Let's try to take it a little easy, Arthur," the gray-haired man said. He glanced abruptly to his right, where a cigarette, lighted some time earlier in the evening, was balanced on an ashtray. It obviously had gone out, though, and he didn't pick it up. "In the first place," he said into the phone, "I've told you many, many times, Arthur, that's exactly where you make your biggest mistake. You know what you do? Would you like me to tell you what you do? You go out of your way--I mean this, now--you actually go out of your way to torture yourself. As a matter of fact, you actually inspire Joanie-" He broke off. "You're bloody lucky she's a wonderful kid. I mean it. You give that kid absolutely no credit for having any good taste--or brains, for Chrissake, for that matter--"
"Brains! Are you kidding? She hasn't got any goddam brains! She's an animal!"
The gray-haired man, his nostrils dilating, appeared to take a fairly deep breath. "We're all animals," he said. "Basically, we're all animals."
"Like hell we are. I'm no goddam animal. I may be a stupid, fouled-up twentieth-century son of a bitch, but I'm no animal. Don't gimme that. I'm no animal."
"Look, Arthur. This isn't getting us--"
"Brains. Jesus, if you knew how funny that was. She thinks she's a goddam intellectual. That's the funny part, that's the hilarious part. She reads the theatrical page, and she watches television till she's practically blind--so she's an intellectual. You know who I'm married to? You want to know who I'm married to? I'm married to the greatest living undeveloped, undiscovered actress, novelist, psychoanalyst, and all-around goddam unappreciated celebrity-genius in New York. You didn't know that, didja? Christ, it's so funny I could cut my throat. Madame Bovary at Columbia Extension School. Madame--"
"Who?" asked the gray-haired man, sounding annoyed.
"Madame Bovary takes a course in Television Appreciation. God, if you knew how--"
"All right, all right. You realize this isn't getting us anyplace," the gray-haired man said. He turned and gave the girl a sign, with two fingers near his mouth, that he wanted a cigarette. "In the first place," he said, into the phone, "for a helluvan intelligent guy, you're about as tactless as it's humanly possible to be." He straightened his back so that the girl could reach behind him for the cigarettes. "I mean that. It shows up in your private life, it shows up in your--"
"Brains. Oh, God, that kills me! Christ almightyl Did you ever hear her describe anybody--some man, I mean? Sometime when you haven't anything to do, do me a favor and get her to describe some man for you. She describes every man she sees as `terribly attractive.' It can be the oldest, crummiest, greasiest--
"All right, Arthur," the gray-haired man said sharply. "This is getting us nowhere. But nowhere." He took a lighted cigarette from the girl. She had lit two. "Just incidentally," he said, exhaling smoke through his nostrils, "how'd you make out today?"
"How'd you make out today?" the gray-haired man repeated. "How'd the case go?"
"Oh, Christ! I don't know. Lousy. About two minutes before I'm all set to start my summation, the attorney for the plaintiff, Lissberg, trots in this crazy chambermaid with a bunch of bedsheets as evidence--bedbug stains all over them. Christ!"
"So what happened? You lose?" asked the grayhaired man, taking another drag on his cigarette.
"You know who was on the bench? Mother Vittorio. What the hell that guy has against me, I'll never know. I can't even open my mouth and he jumps all over me. You can't reason with a guy like that. It's impossible."
The gray-haired man turned his head to see what the girl was doing. She had picked up the ashtray and was putting it between them. "You lose, then, or what?" he said into the phone.
"I said, Did you lose?"
"Yeah. I was gonna tell you about it. I didn't get a chance at the party, with all the ruckus. You think Junior'll hit the ceiling? Not that I give a good goddam, but what do you think? Think he will?"
With his left hand, the gray-haired man shaped the ash of his cigarette on the rim of the ashtray. "I don't think he'll necessarily hit the ceiling, Arthur," he said quietly. "Chances are very much in favor, though, that he's not going to be overjoyed about it. You know how long we've handled those three bloody hotels? Old man Shanley himself started the whole--"
"I know, I know. Junior's told me about it at least fifty times. It's one of the most beautiful stories I ever heard in my life. All right, so I lost the goddam case. In the first place, it wasn't my fault. First, this lunatic Vittorio baits me all through the trial. Then this moron chambermaid starts passing out sheets full of bedbug--"
"Nobody's saying it's your fault, Arthur," the grayhaired man said. "You asked me if I thought Junior would hit the ceiling. I simply gave you an honest--"
"I know--I know that.... I don't know. What the hell. I may go back in the Army anyway. I tell you about that?"
The gray-haired man turned his head again toward the girl, perhaps to show her how forbearing, even stoic, his countenance was. But the girl missed seeing it. She had just overturned the ashtray with her knee and was rapidly, with her fingers, brushing the spilled ashes into a little pick-up pile; her eyes looked up at him a second too late. "No, you didn't, Arthur," he said into the phone.
"Yeah. I may. I don't know yet. I'm not crazy about the idea, naturally, and I won't go if I can possibly avoid it. But I may have to. I don't know. At least, it's oblivion. If they gimme back my little helmet and my big, fat desk and my nice, big mosquito net it might not--"
"I'd like to beat some sense into that head of yours, boy, that's what I'd like to do," the gray-haired man said. "For a helluvan--For a supposedly intelligent guy, you talk like an absolute child. And I say that in all sincerity. You let a bunch of minor little things snowball to an extent that they get so bloody paramount in your mind that you're absolutely unfit for any--"
"I shoulda left her. You know that? I should've gone through with it last summer, when I really had the ball rolling--you know that? You know why I didn't? You want to know why I didn't?"
"Arthur. For Chrissake. This is getting us exactly nowhere."
"Wait a second. Lemme tellya why! You want to know why I didn't? I can tellya exactly why. Because I felt sorry for her. That's the whole simple truth. I felt sorry for her."
"Well, I don't know. I mean that's out of my jurisdiction," the gray-haired man said. "It seems to me, though, that the one thing you seem to forget is that Joanie's a grown woman. I don't know, but it seems to me--"
"Grown woman! You crazy? She's a grown child, for Chrissake! Listen, I'll be shaving--listen to this--I'll be shaving, and all of a sudden she'll call me from way the hell the other end of the apartment. I'll go see what's the matter--right in the middle of shaving, lather all over my goddam face. You know what she'll want? She'll want to ask me if I think she has a good mind. I swear to God. She's pathetic, I tellya. I watch her when she's asleep, and I know what I'm talkin' about. Believe me."
"Well, that's something you know better than--I mean that's out of my jurisdiction," the gray-haired man said. "The point is, God damn it, you don't do anything at all constructive to--"
"We're mismated, that's all. That's the whole simple story. We're just mismated as hell. You know what she needs? She needs some big silent bastard to just walk over once in a while and knock her out cold--then go back and finish reading his paper. That's what she needs. I'm too goddam weak for her. I knew it when we got married--I swear to God I did. I mean you're a smart bastard, you've never been married, but every now and then, before anybody gets married, they get these flashes of what it's going to be like after they're married. I ignored 'em. I ignored all my goddam flashes. I'm weak. That's the whole thing in a nutshell."
"You're not weak. You just don't use your head," the gray-haired man said, accepting a freshly lighted cigarette from the girl.
"Certainly I'm weak! Certainly I'm weak! God damn it, I know whether I'm weak or not! If I weren't weak, you don't think I'd've let everything get all--Aah, what's the usea talking? Certainly I'm weak ... God, I'm keeping you awake all night. Why don't you hang the hell up on me? I mean it. Hang up on me."
"I'm not going to hang up on you, Arthur. I'd like to help you, if it's humanly possible," the gray-haired man said. "Actually, you're your own worst--"
"She doesn't respect me. She doesn't even love me, for God's sake. Basically--in the last analysis--I don't love her any more, either. I don't know. I do and I don't. It varies. It fluctuates. Christ! Every time I get all set to put my foot down, we have dinner out, for some reason, and I meet her somewhere and she comes in with these goddam white gloves on or something. I don't know. Or I start thinking about the first time we drove up to New Haven for the Princeton game. We had a flat right after we got off the Parkway, and it was cold as hell, and she held the flashlight while I fixed the goddam thing--You know what I mean. I don't know. Or I start thinking about--Christ, it's embarrassing--I start thinking about this goddam poem I sent her when we first started goin' around together. `Rose my color is. and white, Pretty mouth and green my eyes.' Christ, it's embarrassing--it used to remind me of her. She doesn't have green eyes--she has eyes like goddam sea shells, for Chrissake--but it reminded me anyway ... I don't know. What's the usea talking? I'm losing my mind. Hang up on me, why don't you? I mean it."
The gray-haired man cleared his throat and said, "I have no intention of hanging up on you, Arthur. There's just one--"
"She bought me a suit once. With her own money. I tell you about that?"
"She just went into I think Tripler's and bought it. I didn't even go with her. I mean she has some goddam nice traits. The funny thing was it wasn't a bad fit. I just had to have it taken in a little bit around the seat--the pants--and the length. I mean she has some goddam nice traits."
The gray-haired man listened another moment.
Then, abruptly, he turned toward the girl. The look he gave her, though only glancing, fully informed her what was suddenly going on at the other end of the phone. "Now, Arthur. Listen. That isn't going to do any good," he said into the phone. "That isn't going to do any good. I mean it. Now, listen. I say this in all sincerity. Willya get undressed and get in bed, like a good guy? And relax? Joanie'll probably be there in about two minutes. You don't want her to see you like that, do ya? The bloody Ellenbogens'll probably barge in with her. You don't want the whole bunch of 'em to see you like that, do ya?" He listened. "Arthur? You hear me?"
"God, I'm keeping you awake all night. Everything I do, I--"
"You're not keeping me awake all night," the grayhaired man said. "Don't even think of that. I've already told you, I've been averaging about four hours' sleep a night. What I would like to do, though, if it's at all humanly possible, I'd like to help you, boy." He listened. "Arthur? You there?"
"Yeah. I'm here. Listen. I've kept you awake all night anyway. Could I come over to your place for a drink? Wouldja mind?"
The gray-haired man straightened his back and placed the flat of his free hand on the top of his head, and said, "Now, do you mean?"
"Yeah. I mean if it's all right with you. I'll only stay a minute. I'd just like to sit down somewhere and--I don't know. Would it be all right?"
"Yeah, but the point is I don't think you should, Arthur," the gray-haired man said, lowering his hand from his head. "I mean you're more than welcome to come, but I honestly think you should just sit tight and relax till Joanie waltzes in. I honestly do. What you want to be, you want to be right there on the spot when she waltzes in. Am I right, or not?"
"Yeah. I don't know. I swear to God, I don't know."
"Well, I do, I honestly do," the gray-haired man said. "Look. Why don't you hop in bed now, and relax, and then later, if you feel like it, give me a ring. I mean if you feel like talking. And don't worry. That's the main thing. Hear me? Willya do that now?"
The gray-haired man continued for a moment to hold the phone to his ear, then lowered it into its cradle.
"What did he say?" the girl immediately asked him. He picked his cigarette out of the ashtray--that is, selected it from an accumulation of smoked and halfsmoked cigarettes. He dragged on it and said, "He wanted to come over here for a drink."
"God! What'd you say?" said the girl.
"You heard me," the gray-haired man said, and looked at her. "You could hear me. Couldn't you?" He squashed out his cigarette.
"You were wonderful. Absolutely marvellous," the girl said, watching him. "God, I feel like a dog!"
"Well," the gray-haired man said, "it's a tough situation. I don't know how marvellous I was."
"You were. You were wonderful," the girl said. "I'm limp. I'm absolutely limp. Look at me!"
The gray-haired man looked at her. "Well, actually, it's an impossible situation," he said. "I mean the whole thing's so fantastic it isn't even--"
"Darling- Excuse me," the girl said quickly, and leaned forward. "I think you're on fire." She gave the back of his hand a short, brisk, brushing stroke with the flats of her fingers. "No. It was just an ash." She leaned back. "No, you were marvellous," she said. "God, I feel like an absolute dog!"
"Well, it's a very, very tough situation. The guy's obviously going through absolute--"
The phone suddenly rang.
The gray-haired man said "Christ!" but picked it up before the second ring. "Hello?" he said into it.
"Lee? Were you asleep?"
"Listen, I just thought you'd want to know. Joanie just barged in."
"What?" said the gray-haired man, and bridged his left hand over his eyes, though the light was behind him.
"Yeah. She just barged in. About ten seconds after I spoke to you. I just thought I'd give you a ring while she's in the john. Listen, thanks a million, Lee. I mean it--you know what I mean. You weren't asleep, were ya?"
"No, no. I was just--No, no," the gray-haired man said, leaving his fingers bridged over his eyes. He cleared his throat.
"Yeah. What happened was, apparently Leona got stinking and then had a goddam crying jag, and Bob wanted Joanie to go out and grab a drink with them somewhere and iron the thing out. I don't know. You know. Very involved. Anyway, so she's home. What a rat race. Honest to God, I think it's this goddam New York. What I think maybe we'll do, if everything goes along all right, we'll get ourselves a little place in Connecticut maybe. Not too far out, necessarily, but far enough that we can lead a normal goddam life. I mean she's crazy about plants and all that stuff. She'd probably go mad if she had her own goddam garden and stuff. Know what I mean? I mean--except you--who do we know in New York except a bunch of neurotics? It's bound to undermine even a normal person sooner or later. Know what I mean?"
The gray-haired man didn't give an answer. His eyes, behind the bridge of his hand, were closed. "Anyway, I'm gonna talk to her about it tonight. Or tomorrow, maybe. She's still a little under the weather. I mean she's a helluva good kid basically, and if we have a chance to straighten ourselves out a little bit, we'd be goddam stupid not to at least have a go at it. While I'm at it, I'm also gonna try to straighten out this lousy bedbug mess, too. I've been thinking. I was just wondering, Lee. You think if I went in and talked to Junior personally, I could--"
"Arthur, if you don't mind, I'd appreciate--"
"I mean I don't want you to think I just called you back or anything because I'm worried about my goddam job or anything. I'm not. I mean basically, for Chrissake, I couldn't care less. I just thought if I could straighten Junior out without beating my brains out, I'd be a goddam fool--"
"Listen, Arthur," the gray-haired man interrupted, taking his hand away from his face, "I have a helluva headache all of a sudden. I don't know where I got the bloody thing from. You mind if we cut this short? I'll talk to you in the morning--all right?" He listened for another moment, then hung up.
Again the girl immediately spoke to him, but he didn't answer her. He picked a burning cigarette--the girl's--out of the ashtray and started to bring it to his mouth, but it slipped out of his fingers. The girl tried to help him retrieve it before anything was burned, but he told her to just sit still, for Chrissake, and she pulled back her hand.
© Aerius, 2004