I love GOOD and hate EVIL.
One thing I get a bang out of is reading aloud to a roomful of middle-aged children, ten to fourteen. I need to see how they react. What makes them laugh or cry, what grabs and engrosses them.
I was about to read a few pages, but first I had to set the stage.
“How many of you have flown?” I asked. Of the seventeen in the room, sixteen raised hands. Not surprising in New York. “Okay,” I said. “Now, how many have ever seen a fly on a plane?” Two raised hands, a few made faces. “Well, probably most of you have, and never thought about it. Next time you fly, notice. Usually you’ll see a fly or two hanging around the galley, where the stewardesses prepare meals. And why do flies fly? Why, because they enjoy travel, just as you do. And think of it--all a fly has to do is look at a schedule, decide where he’d like to go, pick his flight, fly to that gate, buzz aboard, and away he goes. No X-ray, no hand-luggage inspection. Free. And first-class, too, because the food and booze are better.
The phone rang.
I went weak. Tyler Vaught.
“Wrong number,” I said.
I hung up on her, resumed. “Excuse me, kids, just my ex-wife. Where were we? Oh yes. I suppose most of you have seen JFK. Well, the next time you go out there, go to the TWA terminal, stand in the center of the big room, and look up near the ceiling, in the northeast corner. If you have good eyes, you’ll--“
The phone rang.
“Jimmie, this is Tyler.”
“Max is dead.”
A pregnant pause.
“Well?” she said.
“It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.”
“Tyler, what am I supposed to do? Fall apart? So the sonofabitch is dead. Good night.”
“No, wait. He was killed by a hit-and-run driver. In Harding.”
“Harding? What in hell was he doing in New Mexico?”
“Well, it’s a long story. But one night I happened to tell him about Harding--you know, my grandfathers, the gunfight, the trials, 1910, 1916, and--“
“Oh no. Not that again.”
“And he got very excited. You know Max. He thought there might be a book in it. So the next day he flew out there. That was four days ago. Now he’s dead.”
“You’re breaking my heart.”
“Jimmie, why I called. His body’s being flown in from El Paso tomorrow. Someone in the family must sign for it--airline regulations--or somebody authorized by the family, and turn it over to the mortuary. Well, his dear old parents live in the Bronx and they’re on their knees--Max was an only child. So they’ve authorized me to meet the body and sign for it tomorrow afternoon and Jimmie, I don’t think I can do it. Alone. Jimmie, will you go with me?”
“Hit-and-run, huh? Sorry I wasn’t the driver.”
“I hope they total his coffin the way they total my luggage.”
“Jimmie, I need you. I can’t--“
I hung up on her again and readdressed my fidgety audience. “Where were we? Oh yes. Up near the TWA ceiling you’ll see a crowd of flies. Well, they’re the jet set, the pro international travelers--TWA goes everywhere. This crowd hangs around between flights and exchanges information on the best airlines and the best hotels and so on and the most-traveled of them all is Frisby. Frisby is a really worldly fly. He’s just returned from Italy, is recovering from jet lag, and thinking about having a look at Africa next. There’s a midnight departure from Kennedy to Nairobi via London. And as our story begins-- the pages I’m going to read to you--Frisby’s asking his friends about visas and inoculations and safaris and--“
Suddenly I didn’t feel like reading, didn’t need a roomful of kids. Tyler would call again, she never quit, and I wanted to be alone to think of different ways to say no when she did.
“Bug off, you little buggers,” I said to them. “A man’s dead and I’m not in the mood. So get lost and good-bye.”
Imaginary children of course. I wish I were happily married, with my own progeny to read to, but alas, I probably never will be. Or have my own progeny. I live in an apartment on East Seventy-third, between Fifth and Madison. I used to live on East Seventy-third between Park and Lex, and it took me a long time and beaucoup hard work to move just two blocks west. Two blocks, even on the same street, can make all the difference status-wise in New York, a city I love everything about except the crime. I adore my block. On the ground floor of my building are Coiffeurs Piccolo Mondo, where elegant dames have their hair done and play backgammon, and an art gallery, Les Miserables. Little old ladies wearing boots and eating ice cream cones walk their dogs under my windows. There is always garbage piled in black plastic bags, and a Cadillac limousine double-parked. My real name, B. James Butters, is on my mailbox, but I use another sometimes. I am thirty-four years old and still basically a boy and had damned well better be. I stand five-eight and weigh one-fifty. I am a handsome lad with blond hair, baby blue eyes, four closets crammed with clothes, a classic are, a spectacular imagination, and an infallible funnybone. I BUBBLE. I BOUNCE.
I am also a coward. I thank God I’ve never been in a war and had to kill anyone. I have two locks and a chain on my door and have been mugged twice and handed over every cent and would have added a pint of blood and pound of flesh on demand. Violence on the street or the screen or the page makes me physically ill. The sound of sirens in the night--I live not far from a precinct headquarters and a fire station--and I am stark awake. I lie there and listen and think of all the ghastly things people are doing to each other that very minute and get goosebumps.
Going to an airport to take delivery of a corpse was not my idea of fun and games. Even with the most exciting woman east of the Mississippi.
“Jimmie, if you still love me.”
I did. Desperately.