Authors: Laura Z. Hobson
For Mike and Chris
BRUPT AS ANGER
, depression plunged through him. It was one hell of an assignment.
“You’ll find some angle,” John Minify said.
“It’ll need an angle all right.” He squinted his eyes and looked off past Minify’s shoulder as if he were taking the measure of some palpable thing there.
“Take your time on it.” Minify spoke without urgency. “I think you might turn out a great job.”
Philip Green nodded, not in agreement with the comfortable words, but in affirmation of his own estimate of the job ahead. It would be flabby, lifeless, unless he found some special approach to it. Instinct, experience, past failures as well as past successes, all helped him now in his quick appraisal.
“If you want,” Minify went on, “we’ll borrow the clips on it from some newspaper morgue. There’d be plenty of names of agencies and committees to start on.”
“Committees.” The certainty of future boredom, of wasted listening, laced his depression with resentment. Minify surely could have found a more manageable subject for his first job as a staff writer. “The clips would help,” he said. “Thanks.” He half closed his eyes, drew his lower lip in taut over his teeth as if he were shaving his chin, and sat thinking. “I’ll start researching it, anyway. There must be plenty of dope around.”
“I wouldn’t force this series on you,” Minify said. “Knock it around awhile and we’ll talk again.”
“O.K.” Phil stood up, without finality. He was in his middle thirties, tall, too thin, with an intelligent, decent face. Eyes and hair were dark; he had begun to go gray. There was a quiet about him, an absence of aggression, yet there was no diffidence in his voice or manner.
“You certainly didn’t hand me a pushover for a starter,” he said at last. It was matter-of-fact, bare of complaint or chiding. It would take more than a disappointing assignment to topple his admiration for Minify or lessen his confidence in him as an editor. “Would anybody read five articles about antisemitism?” He saw Minify nod. “Three million readers?”
Minify didn’t answer. He leaned forward toward his desk, propped his chin on the knuckles of his closed hand. Then he swiveled the hand about so that the thumb stood up vertically across the corner of his mouth. He seemed all at once absorbed in another idea. His thumb tapped lightly against his lips, in a one-two-three, one-two-three rhythm. Phil smiled. Minify was considering three million readers out there somewhere across all the towns and cities of the land.
“No,” Minify said at last. “You couldn’t print anything in God’s world all three million would read. But some of them will.”
“Sure. And will it do any good?”
Minify tipped his head back so he could look directly at Phil. “Did your Okie pieces or your mine pieces ‘do any good’?”
Phil smiled. “That’s nailing me. Fathead question.”
“It didn’t take that Roper survey to tell me it’s getting worse. You feel it. It gets you either mad or uneasy. I mean me.”
“So you can bet it’s hitting plenty of people that same way. If you find some strong way to write it, it’ll get read.”
Minify offered his half-empty pack of cigarettes as if he counted on a refusal, the way you used to during the cigarette shortage. He lit one himself and then sat examining his lighter. He snapped the flame on and off several times, watching it flare up and snuff out. He gave it a last decisive click and stood up.
“Getting to know people here?”
“Not so many. I’m always slow about that. It’s fine, though. My kid likes it, and my mother. She always wanted to live in New York.”
“Have you any relatives here? Or are they all in California, too?”
Phil shook his head to both questions. Minify’s concern on this personal level pleased him. “One of my sisters is out there, and the other lives in Detroit. Grosse Pointe, rather.”
“I’ve been meaning to introduce you,” Minify began vaguely. Then his manner lost its air of improvising. “How about tonight at my place? We’re having some people over. Couple of girls and people.”
“Thanks. I’d like to.”
The editor told him where, and they shook hands with a touch of formality, as if each suddenly remembered he didn’t know the other well. With an inexplicable embarrassment, Phil took up his coat and hat and left quickly. He went down the long corridor, past open-doored offices in which people were talking or laughing. The shyness of the outsider came over him. Though the line “By Schuyler Green” was known to every one of them, he himself was a stranger. Working at home was the setup he’d asked for, but it would be wise, now that he was on the staff, to come in every day until he got to know some of these editors and writers. At once the idea disturbed him. On an assignment, he was never shy about meeting and interviewing people, but to make new social contacts was another thing. His mind ran from this self-recognition, with a hurried promise to do something about the office soon.
In the reception room, he stopped to put on his overcoat. The receptionist gave him a neat, exact smile, a precise replica of the one she had bestowed each of the other three times he had come in or gone out through the double glass doors that announced
Smith’s Weekly Magazine.
The scene was a replica of the other times, too; in the dark-red armchairs the usual assortment of people waited the signal to go in to their appointments. Could any of these unknowns be some writer whose name and work were perfectly familiar? The notion made him look around once more. With the exception of best-selling authors and syndicated columnists, whose faces looked out of endless book advertisements, reviews, and columns, there was an anonymity about most writers. Perhaps some of these waiting people in the reception room knew his name and work and would yet look blankly at his stranger’s face. In his anonymity, he smiled comfortably, and went out to the elevators.
In the street, he turned toward Fifth Avenue. In the two weeks since he’d become a resident of New York, he had passed the stage where he had to watch two successive street signs to see whether he was headed uptown or down. At the corner of Fifty-seventh and Fifth, he turned south and began to walk rapidly in the thin December sunlight. Soon he was striding along as if he were hurrying to a specific place at a specific time. Actually he was walking only so that he could think more rapidly about the new assignment. Already the search for the “angle” completely occupied him. He might take one Jewish family in some particularly antisemitic section and trace its life in the past few years. No, a long string of articles on that would bore readers to death. His mind pushed the notion aside, darted in new directions, hunting possibilities, exploring, rejecting. Again he was depressed. For days he’d be in for the old familiar sequence—hope as an idea flared bright, then unease and self-mistrust as closer examination snuffed it out. Like Minify’s lighter.
It was the rhythm of all living, apparently, and for most people. Happiness, and then pain. Perhaps then happiness again, but now, with it, the awareness of its own mortality. He had made an honest enough search for happiness—in the last year or two, at any rate. All he had found was transience.
The sting of cold air in his throat told him he had sighed deeply. “Cut the philosophy,” he told himself testily. He walked on now, thinking of nothing, merely watching, seeing, noting. At Thirty-fifth Street, he turned left, to the remodeled brownstone house just east of Park where he lived. In the vestibule he took out his keys, tapped the bell, and let himself in without waiting. Above, a door opened. His mother’s voice said, “That you, Tom?” and he said, “No, it’s me.” He went up the carpeted steps slowly, suddenly thinking about his mother. Her voice sounded older than her sixty-eight years; all the chivying details of transcontinental moving had been hard on her.
“How was it, Phil?” she greeted him.
“O.K. I’ve got the hell of a stiff assignment.”
She sat down, waiting. He wandered about the wide, tall-ceilinged room in which their own furniture and books looked so different from the way they had in the house in California. When the extra bookshelves were built in and the rest of his books taken out of the stacked cartons, it would be a pleasant room; he would like working in it. This and his mother’s room in the rear of the whole-floor apartment were the only good things about it; the kitchen and bathroom had air-suction outlets instead of windows, and the two “hall bedrooms” which were for him and Tom were smaller than their bathroom out in California.
Yet when Minify had told him that he could sublease the apartment from an editor who had been newly assigned to the London office, Minify had said, “Better grab it, whatever it is. The Coast isn’t the only place with a desperate housing shortage.” He had grabbed it and considered himself lucky.
Actually, the very oddness of living in a rectangular shelf of space rather than in a house set to the earth among bushes and trees had so far stimulated rather than dampened his spirits. He had sought basic change in the patterns of his life. This apartment was physical proof that he had found it, or, at any rate, one facet of it.
He remembered that his mother was waiting for him to go on. “Minify wants me to write a series,” he said, “five, six articles, on antisemitism in America.”
“That’s good.” She underlined the “good” with approval.
“If I could find some way to
“I mean, most big magazines—it’s nice Mr. Minify wants to do it. You can do such a fine thing on it.”
“Minify’s a strange guy. I liked him even better today than the first time.” He lit a cigarette. “He’s all hopped up about the job I could do, just like you.”
“And you’re not?”
He frowned. “It’s a toughie.”
“You’ll do a wonderful series, dear.” She sounded placid. He remembered Minify’s comfortable words and was all at once irritated with both of them. It was so easy to say, “This is a great theme and you’ll write a great series.”
“Christ, I will if I can get some
” His voice flung exasperation at her. “But not just if I spin out the same old drool of statistics and protest.” He walked over to the window, looked down on the street. Without turning around, he added a moment later, “Sorry.”
“That’s all right. How about some coffee?” She started toward the small kitchen.
“Fine. Damn assignment’s got me in a sweat already.”
A hundred times he vowed never to talk to her in that quick sharpness, yet a moment would come when it sprang out as if he had no power to halt it in his throat. Once he had apologized, too earnestly, and she had said, “It’s all right. It’s because you’re not happy enough.” At his silence, she had added, “Being lonely makes people snap. Tension, I suppose.”
Now he waited a moment and then followed her to the kitchen. “Where’s Tom?” he asked conversationally. “It’s nearly four.”
“Across the street at Jimmy Kelly’s.” She looked at him and smiled. “He makes new friends so easily, Phil.”
“Yeah.” Suddenly he felt obscure pride in himself. Tommy, at eight, without a mother since infancy, was relaxed, outgiving, never “the problem child.” Somehow, then, he, Phil, had done a sound job of concealing the unevenness of his own moods all these seven years.
“I told him not to be too long,” Mrs. Green added. “Belle’s in town.”
“Again?” His sister had flown in from Detroit to help them get settled the day they’d arrived in the East.
“Just for today—Christmas shopping.”
“Aren’t Detroit stores good enough for her? That Belle. She’s the golden sheep in this family for fair.”