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Chapter 1(1 / 2)

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When it came to concealing his troubles, Tommy Wilhelm was not less capable than the next fellow. So at least he thought, and there was a certain amount of evidence to back him up. He had once been an actor—no, not quite, an extra—and he knew what acting should be. Also, he was smoking a cigar, and when a man is smoking a cigar, wearing a hat, he has an advantage; it is harder to find out how he feels. He came from the twenty-third floor down to the lobby on the mezzanine to collect his mail before breakfast, and he believed—he hoped—that he looked passably well: doing all right. It was a matter of sheer hope, because there was not much that he could add to his present effort. On the fourteenth floor he looked for his father to enter the elevator; they often met at this hour, on the way to breakfast. If he worried about his appearance it was mainly for his old father’s sake. But there was no stop on the fourteenth, and the elevator sank and sank. Then the smooth door opened and the great dark-red uneven carpet that covered the lobby billowed toward Wilhelm’s feet. In the foreground the lobby was dark, sleepy. French drapes like sails kept out the sun, but three high, narrow windows were open, and in the blue air Wilhelm saw a pigeon about to light on the great chain that supported the marquee of the movie house directly underneath the lobby. For one moment he heard the wings beating strongly.

Most of the guests at the Hotel Gloriana were past the age of retirement. Along Broadway in the Seventies, Eighties, and Nineties, a great part of New York’s vast population of old men and women lives. Unless the weather is too cold or wet they fill the benches about the tiny railed parks and along the subway gratings from Verdi Square to Columbia University, they crowd the shops and cafeterias, the dime stores, the tearooms, the bakeries, the beauty parlors, the reading rooms and club rooms. Among these old people at the Gloriana, Wilhelm felt out of place. He was comparatively young, in his middle forties, large and blond, with big shoulders; his back was heavy and strong, if already a little stooped or thickened. After breakfast the old guests sat down on the green leather armchairs and sofas in the lobby and began to gossip and look into the papers; they had nothing to do but wait out the day. But Wilhelm was used to an active life and liked to go out energetically in the morning. And for several months, because he had no position, he had kept up his morale by rising early; he was shaved and in the lobby by eight o’clock. He bought the paper and some cigars and drank a Coca-Cola or two before he went in to breakfast with his father. After breakfast—out, out, out to attend to business. The getting out had in itself become the chief business. But he had realized that he could not keep this up much longer, and today he was afraid. He was aware that his routine was about to break up and he sensed that a huge trouble long presaged but till now formless was due. Before evening, he’d know.

Nevertheless he followed his daily course and crossed the lobby.

Rubin, the man at the newsstand, had poor eyes. They may not have been actually weak but they were poor in expression, with lacy lids that furled down at the corners. He dressed well. It didn’t seem necessary—he was behind the counter most of the time—but he dressed very well. He had on a rich brown suit; the cuffs embarrassed the hairs on his small hands. He wore a Countess Mara painted necktie. As Wilhelm approached, Rubin did not see him; he was looking out dreamily at the Hotel Ansonia, which was visible from his corner, several blocks away. The Ansonia, the neighborhood’s great landmark, was built by Stanford White. It looks like a baroque palace from Prague or Munich enlarged a hundred times, with towers, domes, huge swells and bubbles of metal gone green from exposure, iron fretwork and festoons. Black television antennae are densely planted on its round summits. Under the changes of weather it may look like marble or like sea water, black as slate in the fog, white as tufa in sunlight. This morning it looked like the image of itself reflected in deep water, white and cumulous above, with cavernous distortions underneath. Together, the two men gazed at it.

Then Rubin said, “Your dad is in to breakfast already, the old gentleman.”

“Oh, yes? Ahead of me today?”

“That’s a real knocked-out shirt you got on,” said Rubin. “Where’s it from, Saks?”

“No, it’s a Jack Fagman—Chicago.”

Even when his spirits were low, Wilhelm could still wrinkle his forehead in a pleasing way. Some of the slow, silent movements of his face were very attractive. He went back a step, as if to stand away from himself and get a better look at his shirt. His glance was comic, a comment upon his untidiness. He liked to wear good clothes, but once he had put it on each article appeared to go its own way. Wilhelm, laughing, panted a little; his teeth were small; his cheeks when he laughed and puffed grew round, and he looked much younger than his years. In the old days when he was a college freshman and wore a raccoon coat and a beanie on his large blonde head his father used to say that, big as he was, he could charm a bird out of a tree. Wilhelm had great charm still.

“I like this dove-gray color,” he said in his sociable, good-natured way. “It isn’t washable. You have to send it to the cleaner. It never smells as good as washed. But it’s a nice shirt. It cost sixteen, eighteen bucks.”

This shirt had not been bought by Wilhelm; it was a present from his boss—his former boss, with whom he had had a falling out. But there was no reason why he should tell Rubin the history of it. And although perhaps Rubin knew—Rubin was the king of man who knew, and knew and knew. Wilhelm also knew many things about Rubin, for that matter, about Rubin’s wife and Rubin’s business, Rubin’s health. None of these could be mentioned, and the great weight of the unspoken left them little to talk about.

“Well, y’lookin’ pretty sharp today,” Rubin said.

And Wilhelm said gladly, “Am I? Do you really think so?” He could not believe it. He saw his reflection in the glass cupboard full of cigar boxes, among the grand seals and paper damask and the gold-embossed portraits of famous men, García, Edward the Seventh, Cyrus the Great. You had to allow for the darkness and deformations of the glass, but he though he didn’t look too good. A wide wrinkle like a comprehensive bracket sign was written upon his forehead, the point between his brows, and the were patched of brown on his dark blond hair skin. He began to be half amused at the shadow of his own marveling, troubled, desirous eyes, and his nostrils and his lips. Fair-haired hippopotamus!—that was how he looked to himself, He saw a big round face, a wide, flourishing red mouth, stump teeth. And the hat, too; and the cigar, too. I should have done hard labor all my life, he reflected. Hard labor that tires you out and makes you sleep. I’d have worked off my energy and felt better. Instead, I had to distinguish myself—yet.

He had put forth plenty of effort, but that was not the same as working hard, was it? And if as a young man had had got off to a bad start it was due to this very same face. Early in the nineteen-thirties, because of his striking looks, he had been very briefly considered star material, and he had gone to Hollywood. There for seven years, stubbornly, he had tried to become a screen artist. Long before that time his ambition or delusion had ended, but through pride and perhaps also through laziness he had remained in California. At last he turned to other things, but those seven years of persistence and defeat had unfitted him somehow for trades and businesses, and then it was too late to go into one of the professions. He had been slow to mature, and he had lost ground, and so he hadn’t been able to get rid of his energy and he was convinced that this energy itself had done him the greatest harm.

“I didn’t see you at the gin game last night,” said Rubin.

“I had to miss it. How did it go?”

For the last weeks Wilhelm had played gin almost nightly, but yesterday he had felt that he couldn’t afford to lose anymore. He had never won. Not once. And while the losses were small they weren’t gains, were they? They were losses. He was tired of losing, and tired also of the company, and so he had gone by himself to the movies.

“Oh,” said Rubin, “it went okay. Carl made a chump of himself yelling at the guys. This time Doctor Tamkin didn’t let him get away with it. He told him the psychological reason why.”

“What was the reason?”

Rubin said, “I can’t quote him. Who could? You know the way Tamkin talks. Don’t ask me. Do you want the Trib? Aren’t you going to look at the closing quotations?”

“It won’t help much to look. I know what they were yesterday at three,” said Wilhelm. “But I suppose I better had get the paper.” It seemed necessary for him to lift one shoulder in order to put his hand into his jacket pocket. There, among little packets of pills and crushed cigarette butts and strings of cellophane, the red tapes of packages which he sometimes used as dental floss, he recalled that he had dropped some pennies.

“That doesn’t sound so good,” said Rubin. He meant to be conversationally playful, but his voice had no tone and his eyes, slack and lid-blinded, turned elsewhere. He didn’t want to hear. It was all the same to him. Maybe he already knew, being the sort of man who knew and knew.

No, it wasn’t good. Wilhelm held three orders of lard in the commodities market. He and Dr. Tamkin had bought this lard together four days ago at 12.96, and the price at once began to fall and was still falling. In the mail this morning there was sure to be a call for additional margin payment. One came every day.

The psychologist, Dr. Tamkin, had got him into this. Tamkin lived at the Gloriana and attended the card game. He had explained to Wilhelm that you could speculate in commodities at one of the uptown branches of a good Wall Street house without making the full deposit of margin legally required. It was up to the branch manager. If he knew you—and all the branch managers knew Tamkin—he would allow you to make short-term purchases. You needed only to open a small account.

“The whole secret of this type of speculation,” Tamkin had told him, “is in the alertness. You have to act fast—buy it and sell it; sell it and buy in again. But quick! Get to the window and have them wire Chicago at just the right second. Strike and strike again! Then get out the same day. In no time at all you turn over fifteen, twenty thousand dollars’ worth of soy beans, coffee, corn, hides, wheat, cotton.” Obviously the doctor understood the market well. Otherwise he could not make it sound so simple. “People lose because they are greedy and can’t get out when it starts to go up. They gamble, but I do it scientifically. This is not guesswork. You must take a few points and get out. Why, ye gods!” said Dr. Tamkin with his bulging eyes, his bald head, and his drooping lips. “Have you stopped to think how much dough people are making in this market?”

Wilhelm with a quick shift from gloomy attention to the panting laugh which entirely changed his face had said, “Ho, have I ever! What do you think? Who doesn’t know it’s way beyond nineteen-twenty-eight—twenty-nine and still on the rise? Who hasn’t read the Fulbright investigation? There’s money everywhere. Everyone is shoveling it in. Money is—is—”

“And can you rest—can you sit still while this is going on?” said Dr. Tamkin. “I confess to you I can’t. I think about people, just because they have a few bucks to invest, making fortunes. They have no sense, they have no talent, they just have the extra dough and it makes them more dough. I get so worked up and tormented and restless, so restless! I haven’t even been able to practice my profession. With all this money around you don’t want to be a fool while everyone else is making. I know guys who make five, ten thousand a week just by fooling around. I know a guy at the Hotel Pierre. There’s nothing to him, but he has a whole case of Mumm’s champagne at lunch. I know another guy on Central Park South—But what’s the use of talking. They make millions. They have smart lawyers who get them out of taxes by a thousand schemes.”

“Whereas I get taken,” said Wilhelm. “My wife refused to sign a joint return. One fairly good year and I got into the thirty-two-per-cent bracket and was stripped bare. What of all my bad years?”

“It’s a businessman’s government,” said Dr. Tamkin. “You can be sure that these men making five thousand a week—”

“I don’t need that sort of money,” Wilhelm has said. “But oh! If I could only work out a little steady income from this. Not much. I don’t ask much. But how badly I need—! I’d be so grateful if you’d show me how to work it.”

“Sure I will. I do it regularly. I’ll bring you my receipts if you like. And do you want to know something? I approve of your attitude very much. You want to avoid catching the money fever. This type of activity is filled with hostile feeling and lust. You should see what it does to some of these fellows. They go on the market with murder in their hearts.

“What’s that I once heard a guy say?” Wilhelm remarked. “A man is only as good as what he loves.”

“That’s it—just it,” Tamkin said. “You don’t have to go about it their way. There’s also a calm and rational, a psychological approach.”

Wilhelm's father, old Dr. Adler, lived in an entirely different world from his son, but he had warned him once against Dr. Tamkin. Rather casually—he was a very bland old man—he said, “Wilky, perhaps you listen too much to this Tamkin. He’s interesting to talk to. I don’t doubt it. I think he’s pretty common but he’s a persuasive man. However, I don’t know how reliable he may be.”

It made Wilhelm profoundly bitter that his father should speak to him with such detachment about his welfare. Dr. Adler liked to appear affable. Affable! His own son, his one and only son, could not speak his mind or ease his heart to him. I wouldn’t turn to Tamkin, he thought, if I could turn to him. At least Tamkin sympathizes with me and tries to give me a hand, whereas Dad doesn’t want to be disturbed.

Old Dr. Adler had retired from practice; he had a considerable fortune and could easily have helped his son. Recently Wilhelm had told him, “Father—it so happens that I’m in a bad way now. I hate to have to say it. You realize that I’d rather have good news to bring to you. But it’s true. And since it’s true, Dad—What else and I supposed to say? It’s true.”

Another father might have appreciated how difficult this confession was—so much bad luck, weariness, weakness, and failure. Wilhelm had tried to copy the old man’s tone and made himself sound gentlemanly, low-voiced, tasteful. He didn’t allow his voice to tremble; he made no stupid gesture. But the doctor had no answer. He only nodded. You might have told him that Seattle was near Puget Sound, or that the Giants and Dodgers were playing a night game, so little was he moved from his expression of healthy, handsome, good-humored old age. He behaved toward his son as he had formerly done toward his patients, and it was a great grief to Wilhelm; it was almost too much to bear. Couldn’t he see—couldn’t he feel? Had he lost his family sense?

Greatly hurt, Wilhelm struggled however to be fair. Old people are bound to change, he said. They have hard things to think about. They must prepare for where they are going. They can’t live by the old schedule any longer and all their perspectives chage, and other people become alike, kin and acquaintances. Dad is no longer the same person, Wilhelm reflected. He was thirty-two when I was born, and now he’s going on eighty. Furthermore, it’s time I stopped feeling like a kid toward him, a small son.

The handsome old doctor stood well above the other old people in the hotel. He was idolized by everyone. This was what people said: “That’s old Professor Adler, who used to teach internal medicine. He was a diagnostician, one of the best in New York, and had a tremendous practice. Isn't he a wonderful-looking old guy? It's a pleasure to see such a fine old scientist, clean and immaculate. He stands straight and understands every single thing you say. He still has all his buttons. You can discuss any subject with him.” The clerks, the elevator operators, the telephone girls and waitresses and chambermaids, the management flattered and pampered him. That was what he wanted. He had always been a vain man. To see how his father loved himself sometimes made Wilhelm madly indignant.

He folded over the Tribune with its heavy, black, crashing sensationalist print and read without recognizing any of the words, for his mind was still on his father’s vanity. The doctor had created his own praise. People were primed and did not know it. And what did he need praise for? In a hotel where everyone was busy and contacts were so brief and had such small weight, how could it satisfy him? He could be in people’s thoughts here and there for a moment; in and then out. He could never matter much to them. Wilhelm let out a long, hard breath and raised the brows of his round and somewhat circular eyes. He stared beyond the thick borders of the paper.

. . . love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Involuntary memory brought him this line. At first he thought it referred to his father, but then he understood that it was for himself, rather. He should love that well. “This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong.” Under Dr. Tamkin’s influence Wilhelm had recently begun to remember the poems he used to read. Dr. Tamkin knew, or said he knew, the great English poets and once in a while he mentioned a poem of his own. It was a long time since anyone had spoken to Wilhelm about this sort of thing. He didn’t like to think about his college days, but if there was one course that now made sense it was Literature I. The textbook was Lieder and Lovett’s British Poetry and Prose, a heavy black book with thin pages. Did I read that? he asked himself. Yes, he had read it and there was one accomplishment at least he could recall with pleasure. He had read “Yet once more, O ye laurels.” How pure this was to say! It was beautiful.

Sunk though he be beneath the wat’ry floor . . .

Such things had always swayed him, and now the power of such words was far, far greater.

Wilhelm respected the truth, but he could lie and one of the things he lied often about was his education. He said he was an alumnus of Penn State; in fact he had left school before his sophomore year was finished. His sister Catherine had a B.S. degree. Wilhelm’s late mother was a graduate of Bryn Mawr. He was the only member of the family who had no education. This was another sore point. His father was ashamed of him.

But he had heard the old man bragging to another old man, saying, “My son is a sales executive. He didn’t have the patience to finish school. But he does all right for himself. His income is up in the five figures somewhere.”

“What—thirty, forty thousand?” said his stooped old friend.

“Well, he needs at least that much for his style of life. Yes, he needs that.”

Despite his troubles, Wilhelm almost laughed. Why, that boasting old hypocrite. He knew the sales executive was no more. For many weeks there had been no executive, no sales, no income. But how we love looking fine in the eyes of the world—how beautiful are the old when they are doing a snow job! It’s Dad, though Wilhelm, who is the salesman. He’s selling me. He should have gone on the road.

But what of the truth? Ah, the truth was that there were problems, and of these problems his father wanted no part. His father was ashamed of him. The truth, Wilhelm thought, was very awkward. He pressed his lips together and his tongue went soft; it pained him far at the back, in the cords and throat, and a knot of ill formed in his chest. Dad was never a pal to me when I was young, he reflected. He was at the office or the hospital, or lecturing. He expected me to look out for myself and never gave me much thought. Now he looks down on me. And maybe in some respects he’s right.

No wonder Wilhelm delayed the moment when he would have to go into the dining room. He had moved to the end of Rubin’s counter. He had opened the Tribune; the fresh pages drooped from his hands; the cigar was smoked out and the hat did not defend him. He was wrong to suppose that he was more capable than the next fellow when it came to concealing his troubles. They were clearly written out upon his face. He wasn’t even aware of it.

There was the matter of the different names, which, in the hotel, came up frequently. “Are you Dr. Adler’s son?” “Yes, but my name is Tommy Wilhelm.” And the doctor would say, “My son and I use different monickers. I uphold tradition. He’s for the new.” The Tommy was Wilhelm’s own invention. He adopted it when he went to Hollywood, and dropped the Adler. Hollywood was his own idea, too. He used to pretend that it had all been the doing of a certain talent scout named Maurice Venice. But the scout had never made him the definite offer of a studio connection. He had approached him, but the results of the screen test had not been good. After the test Wilhelm took the initiative and pressed Maurice Venice until he got him to say, “Well, I suppose you might make it out there.” On the strength of this Wilhelm had left college and had gone to California.

Someone had said, and Wilhelm agreed with the saying, that in Los Angeles all the loose objects in the country were collected, as if America had been tilted and everything that wasn't tightly screwed down had slid into Southern California. He himself had been one of those loose objects. Sometimes he told people, “I was too mature for college. I was a big boy, you see. Well, I thought, when do you start to become a man.” After he had driven a painted flivver and had worn a yellow slicker with slogans on it, and played illegal poker, and gone out on Coke dates, he had had college. He wanted to try something new and quarreled with his parents about his career. And then a letter came from Maurice Venice.

The story of the scout was long and intricate and there were several versions of it. The truth about it was never told. Wilhelm had lied first boastfully and then out of charity to himself. But his memory was he, he could still separate what he had invented from the actual happenings, and this morning he found it necessary as he stood by Rubin’s showcase with his Tribune to recall the crazy course of the true events.

I didn’t seem even to realize that there was a depression. How could I have been such a jerk as to not prepare for anything and just go on luck and inspiration? With round gray eyes expanded and his large shapely lips closed in severity toward himself he forced open all that had been hidden. Dad I couldn’t affect one way or another. Mama was the one who tried to stop me, and we carried on and yelled and pleaded. The more I lied the louder I raised my voice, and charged-—like a hippopotamus. Poor mother! How I disappointed her. Rubin heard Wilhelm give a broken sigh as he stood with the forgotten Tribune crushed under his arm.

When Wilhlelm was aware when Rubin watched him, loitering and idle, apparently not knowing what to do with himself this morning, he turned to the Coca-Cola machine. He swallowed hard at the coke bottle and coughed over it, but he ignored his coughing, for he was still thinking, his eyes upcast and his lips closed behind his hand. By a peculiar twist of habit he wore his coat collar turned up always, as though there were a wind. It never lay flat. But on his broad back, stooped with its own weight, its strength warped almost into deformity, the collar of his sports coat appeared anyway to be no wider than a ribbon.

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