A Musical Novelby Bruce Jay Friedman
“[Friedman’s] writing is so funny – and deceptively effortless – critics often liken it to a stand-up comedy routine.”–The New York Times
Bruce Jay Friedman is the reigning don of the ironic comic novel, a man of whom The New York Times has written, “His writing is so funny – and deceptively effortless – critics often liken it to a stand-up comedy routine.” Now he triumphantly returns to the form with Violencia!, a crackling satire of show-business pomposity, flimflam, and dreck in the spirit of Mel Brooks’s The Producers. Paul Gurney is a struggling civilian clerk working the desk at a major New York homicide precinct who runs a department newsletter, The Homicider, that covers the goings-on at the precinct, dispenses advice, and disseminates interoffice gossip. But Gurney is newly divorced and dissatisfied, and abruptly decides to retire from the force, not knowing exactly what he’ll do next. When he meets a shady Broadway impresario who wants to create a stage musical from his newsletter, he soon finds himself plunging headlong into the world of actors, agents, singers, songwriters, hacks, hams, and con artists. As the show Violencia! moves from rounds of financing from suspect sources to questionable casting calls to a disastrous out-of-town opening (at each stage getting progressively – and hilariously – worse and worse), Gurney enjoys the high living, romantic flings, and glamour of the entertainment industry. But he also comes to realize that show people aren’t that different from other people he already knows: the thugs, lowlifes, and cutthroats he’s encountered during his career on the homicide squad. Packed with unforgettably reprehensible characters, unimaginably turgid lyrics, and unimpeachably funny dialogue, Bruce Jay Friedman’s Violencia! is a sidesplitting farce about the dark underbelly of the Great White Way.
“[Friedman’s] writing is so funny – and deceptively effortless – critics often liken it to a stand-up comedy routine.”–The New York Times
Closing in on age forty and rattled a bit by a recent divorce, Paul Gurney decided to quit his job and try for a completely new start in life. He was a tall, slightly under-nourished fellow with no particularly distinguishing characteristics except for a constant look of perplexity on his face, even as he slept. Or so he had been told. For years, he had been attached to a New York homicide bureau as a civilian clerk, getting out a lively monthly newsletter for the dicks called The Homicider.
Gurney had no particular idea of where he was headed, but he wasn’t especially concerned about it. He had already gotten one offer–to serve as a guide for a two-state dam project out west, taking groups on underground tours and regaling them with anecdotes about the dam’s construction and the difficulties faced by early laborers. But he was not convinced he wanted to go in that direction. Detective Turner, his boss in Homicide, had become reliant on Gurney and was not anxious to lose him.
He told Gurney he felt it was a mistake for him to leave and tried to dissuade him.
“You are at least a year away,” he warned his assistant.
But Gurney stuck to his guns and said he had to try something else in life, even if it was nothing spectacular. Though not an actual favorite, Gurney had been well-liked by the dicks. In the seven years since he had taken over its reins, The Homicider had gotten to be quite a respected publication around the Bureau. ‘my Favorite Collar,” written each month by a different dick, was a popular feature. There was a hefty inventory of submissions that were targeted for future issues. The same was true of ‘slab Happy,” a roundup of amusing overheards at the morgue, written by the assistant coroner, who aspired to become a television gag writer. Gurney’s own personal advice column,–”Ask Gurney,” was a particular favorite at the Bureau, though the wife of one dick did hold Gurney accountable for her husband’s early demise. The columnist had recommended mountain-climbing as a leisure activity for overly stressed homiciders. Shortly afterward, the woman’s nearsighted spouse had plunged to his death from a treacherous peak in upstate New York.
But apart from the one episode, Gurney’s record as an advice-giver was difficult to question.
Once Detective Turner saw that Gurney was determined to leave, he not only gave him his blessings, but arranged for the Bureau to give him a send-off party.
It was a lively affair. Several of the dicks, who were no great shakes at speaking in public, rose to their feet and gave stumbling testimonials to their colleague.
Gurney, not much of a speaker himself, kept his remarks short and sweet.
“I’ve made many friends in my eleven years here,” he said, “and I’m glad I did.”
As he sat down, and the dicks realized they had heard his entire speech, a collective groan could be heard throughout the rented hall. It was the first time Gurney had ever let them down.
Picking up the sentiment of the group, a tall vice dick named Centro asked: “Is that it?”
“That’s the long and short of it,” Gurney said.
As editor of The Homicider, he had been expected to be much more voluble and entertaining. Gurney, once he was seated, did think of several surefire manslaughter jokes, but it seemed embarrassing to ask for the floor again, and so he said no more. When the last portion of baked Alaska had been consumed by the dicks, and the banquet was winding down, he gathered up his farewell gifts, chief among them a dozen drink-holders that were shaped like handcuffs. Gurney then stuffed a few printed programs into his jacket pockets and said goodbye to the assembled detectives. He turned his back, much more easily than he’d expected, on eleven years of homicide.
After his divorce, Gurney had sublet a small apartment in the Village from a young one-armed Irish woman who worked as a civilian assistant in Armed Robbery. The woman appeared to like him, which accounted for her granting Gurney an exceptionally good deal on the rent. Twelve years of married life had at first made the prospect of living alone a little frightening, but he found he enjoyed the simplicity of it–cooking breakfast for himself, keeping the place tidy–and liked taking strolls through the neighborhood. It was a fascinating one, with twisty and mysterious side streets, a surprising number of them specializing in antique music boxes. He hadn’t realized there was that great a demand for such a specialized item, and felt a need to stop in and buy one, if for no other reason than to help one of the stores along. Gurney enjoyed looking in the windows of all the shops, even the ones that sold only dresses. He felt sorry for most of them–lonely, defeated little out-of-the-way establishments–and couldn’t see how the owners were able to make a go of it, or why they even bothered to keep them open. Just a place to go every day, he guessed.
And what did it say about Gurney that he felt sorrier for stores than he did for people?
It was not a bad time for him at all. At first he felt his serene life was much too good to continue, and that each day was a stolen one; but after a while, he began to think, Why not. He had some money saved, his rent was low, and he felt capable of carrying off this cool, pleasant existence for at least a couple of months.
Evenings, Gurney dropped into a fashionable bar and restaurant called Bombola’s. It was run by a bluff and hearty-looking man who had been disbarred as an attorney for throwing a client through a window, then spent the next five years trying to get reinstated. When he had finally pulled it off, he announced, perversely, that he had decided to go into the restaurant business.
Gurney had first come across Bombola’s when he had been with the Bureau. Prominent men and well-turned-out women were the main clientele. On his early visits, he had felt awkward and out of place in his wide, flowing detective-style pants. But now that he had resigned from the Bureau, he was more at ease about appearing in the plush and cozy little nightspot. Gurney was an outer-rim man, never quite getting a seat at a choice table; on the other hand, Bombola himself, on occasion, would nod in his direction. The bartenders knew him by name, although they tended, annoyingly, to call him “Gurns.”
One Friday night, Gurney, seated at the bar, with a soft, comfortable buzz on, and not paying any particular attention to his surroundings, saw a small, slender, sandy-haired man with a neatly trimmed goatee being ushered along to a favored inner-rim table. The woman with the fellow, even by Bombola’s standards, was especially attractive. Tall and blonde, she had a quiet air of money and good schools about her, along with a look of mischievous invitation. There was a small gap between her front teeth which did not reduce her appeal. In his current condition, Gurney noticed and admired women but did not particularly lust after them. In some curious way, he was pleased with himself for having arrived at this state. In a move reserved for a select few, Bombola himself took the couple’s drink order but did not linger for the traditional embrace. To Gurney’s surprise, the man got up from his table, walked to the bar, and asked if he would care to join him.
“If you’re sure I’m not intruding,” Gurney said. He’d never sat at one of the coveted inner-rim tables.
‘don’t be ridiculous,” said the man. “We’d love it.”
Once they were seated, the fellow introduced himself as Norman Welles, his companion as Tippy Turnbull.
“I’m a composer, Paul, “he said,” and I’ve been a fan of The Homicider for quite some time. Not only do I think it’s brilliant, but I’m convinced it would make the basis of a terrific Broadway musical comedy. I’ve gone down the list of possible adapters and come to a conclusion: There’s only one person in the world who can possibly write the libretto and bring the material to life on the stage.
“His name,” he said, pausing for effect, as if he were delivering an award, “is Paul Gurney.”
It was news to Gurney that someone outside of the Bureau was even aware of his publication. And Welles’ proposal took him completely by surprise.
Once he had gotten his bearings, Gurney said: “It’s nice of you to think of me, Mr. Welles, but I just don’t see how I fit into the picture as a librettist. I did write a couple of sketches years back at the community college, but apart from that I have absolutely no experience in the field.
“Plus,” he continued, “I’ve recently gotten divorced, and would just as soon not make any violent swerves in life.”
“Then you won’t do it,” said Welles. “Is that what you’re saying?”
“I guess so,” said Gurney.
“I knew he wouldn’t,” Welles said to his lovely companion, with some bitterness in his voice. “He’ll suck you in, make you think you’ve got him, and then pull out.”
Gurney thought the man was being surprisingly childish about his position.
“I didn’t suck you in,” he said. “Besides, you’re probably well-fixed. I’m not, and I’ve got to make sure that what I go into has some kind of payoff. How much money can you make on one of these?”
‘millions, if it works,” said Welles. “About thirty-five dollars if it doesn’t.”
“Then there you are,” said Gurney.
“What did I tell you, Tippy,” said Welles, erupting once again. “And do you know why this is happening?” he asked. ‘simple. It’s because I want it so much.”
With that, he got up from the table and walked toward the door, his friend following along, but not before she’d smiled apologetically at Gurney.
When the couple had left, Bombola sat down beside Gurney for the first time since the ex-dick had become a regular at the restaurant.
“Let me tell you a little bit more about Norman Welles,” he said. “He’s never actually done a Broadway musical, but years ago he composed the music for a string of tent shows that toured the country and made a lot of money. The shows were pure schlock, but surprisingly, a few of the songs became hits.”
Bombola hummed a few, accompanying himself with jolly Vegas-style finger clicks. Though he was far from a buff, Gurney recognized at least one melody.
“Welles hasn’t been heard from in recent years,” said the restaurateur, “but the guy is loaded. Does he want to work with you?”
“Yes,” said Gurney, still enjoying the fact that Bombola was actually sitting at his table. “But I don’t think I’ll do it. My idea is to coast along for a while. You probably know that I’ve just gotten divorced.”
“Actually, I didn’t know that,” said Bombola. “But don’t coast too long.”
Gurney thanked him for the advice, then stretched out a bit and took in the view from the preferential table.
“I’m starved,” he said. ‘maybe I’ll sit right here and try the liver and onions.”
“Good call,” said the owner. “But try it at the bar. I need the table.”
The next week Welles phoned Gurney at his apartment and said that he would like to have lunch with him and a famous director named Clement Hartog who had become interested in the Homicider concept. Gurney did not like getting calls at home and found it irritating that the composer had gotten his unlisted number with such apparent ease. The only other calls he had received were for the one-armed Irish woman who had sublet the apartment to him. They were late-night ones from heavily accented men he assumed were her lovers. Gurney was a little short with Welles, but he had heard of Hartog, and thought it might be enjoyable to meet him.
The three had lunch the next day at a midtown restaurant favored by theatre people. Although Gurney did not do so intentionally, he arrived a bit late and was somewhat embarrassed about it. Welles received him warmly, but Clement Hartog seemed annoyed and did not meet his eyes, wheeling about instead to greet several famed actors seated at other tables. He was a watery-eyed man with a head of unruly gray hair and a magnificent profile. When one of the actors approached to shake his hand, Hartog began to do amputee imitations, making his arms disappear in his jacket as though they had been shot off and then dropping to his knees in what appeared to be a takeoff on Toulouse-Lautrec. After ten minutes or so, he seemed to weary of being cool to Gurney. Turning to the ex-dick, his eyes tearing up with sincerity, he said that he had decided to pass on several major projects because his heart wasn’t really in them.
“Just once,” he said, “I’d like to do a show I really care about. And by God, this material has all the earmarks of being that show. Violence. It’s all around us. It’s in the air we breathe, and as far as I’m concerned it’s the only subject worth dealing with. I love Norman’s music and I think his songs can bring it to life.”
Gurney was quite flattered at having a man of Hartog’s stature present himself in such an honest and naked way. It occurred to him that all of the really great ones were probably that way– secure enough in their abilities to be completely open-faced and candid.
“I’ll work with you on it, Paul,” said Hartog. “Right by your side, and I’ve never done that before with a librettist. I think that if we start in a week or so we can have it ready for the fall season. I’d like to call the show Violencia, unless one of you fellows has a better idea.”
“I love it,” said Welles.
‘sounds good to me,” said Gurney.
Sitting in the legendary theatrical restaurant, being pursued with such earnestness by Welles and the celebrated director, Gurney, in spite of himself, felt a certain thrumming of excitement. Still, he thought it only fair to tell Hartog about his divorce and his plan to be cautious about taking on any bold new ventures.
“Jesus,” said Hartog, “I can imagine how rough that must be. My heart goes out to you. But perhaps this will take your mind off it.”
“Well, my mind really is off it,” said Gurney.
But as he said this, he felt powerfully drawn toward Hartog and knew he would enjoy discussing his personal problems with the director, who must have been a good fifteen years his senior, and seemed awfully easy to be with.
“Can I have around a week to think it over?”
“You’ve got it,” said Hartog, getting to his feet and shaking Gurney’s hand. “And I do hope you’ll decide to come in with us.”
“Any young puss in the show?” Gurney asked, then whirled around swiftly as if to glare at the individual who had asked the self-conscious question. The coarse phrasing was a carryover from his years at the Bureau.
Hartog smiled weakly and tolerantly.
“Only kidding,” said Gurney, as if to a parent.
But as soon as Hartog had said good-bye and left the restaurant, Welles said: ‘don’t worry, once we get out of town, there’ll be more puss than you can handle.”
“Frankly, I don’t know if I’ll be doing the show,” said Gurney, “but that man is certainly impressive.”
“We’re damned lucky to get him,” said Welles. “Not only that, but we kill two birds with one stone. We get Essie Hartog in the lead role. Terrific little actress.”
“His mother,” said Welles, calling for the check.
At first Gurney was shocked that Clement Hartog would agree– and even arrange–to have his own mother play the lead in a major musical under his direction. It seemed a cynical plan, and Gurney thought he understood the reason for the great director’s interest in what had to be considered a strange and flimsy project–at least in this early stage: Obviously, it was the only way for Hartog to get work for his actress mother. But Gurney could not rid himself of the picture of the graying, world-renowned figure, leaning across the table toward him, eyes brimming with sincerity, and expressing with deep conviction what almost certainly had to be honest feelings for Violencia. Perhaps Gurney was being too hard on the man.
After mulling over the project for several days, he called John Gable, an ex-newspaperman who had taken over The Homicider when Gurney had left. As it turned out, it was Gable, a showbiz buff, who had passed along copies of The Homicider to Norman Welles– clearing up that mystery. Gable said that Essie Hartog was indeed a fine actress, although most of her starring roles had been on the Vienna stage some thirty years back. More recently, she had appeared briefly in a highly praised Noh play in Greenwich Village.
‘she’s good, all right,” said Gable, a man not given to passing out compliments lightly, “and there’s one thing handy about having her involved.”
“As I recall, she can play either male or female roles.”
Gurney kept savoring the news that Essie Hartog was regarded as a brilliant actress. He had been terribly impressed by Clement Hartog; it helped him to know that the director’s mother had a reputation of her own and was not just riding along on her famous son’s coattails. Gurney, indeed, was quite interested in the project now; a part of him wanted to contact Welles and Hartog immediately, so that they could all get going without delay. What if they took his hesitation to be a lack of interest and decided to pursue another librettist, one with a few shows under his belt? But it had always been difficult for Gurney to go directly after goals he wanted to achieve. He often took the opposite course.
In this case, he decided not to act until the week was up. For all of its appeal, the project loomed as a long and difficult one; as a result, Gurney had the feeling he might not get to do some of the modest, newly divorced things he had begun to enjoy so much. So he did them for the rest of the week. He bought treats like mangoes and Swiss chocolate bars and ate little gourmet meals by himself in the apartment, at all hours, as many as five small ones a day. On Saturday, he had a maid come in; late in the day, he returned to the flat, took off his clothes, lay down on the bed, and took pleasure in the neatness and simplicity of the place. He enjoyed everything that week: making a couple of pieces of toast, the radio, the fresh December air, and mostly just lying around, not particularly worried about his next step.
At night, he sat around at Bombola’s, looked at the pretty girls, and congratulated himself for not feeling any strong pressure to have them. On Sunday, he felt ill and had a sudden fear that he might become so weak that he wouldn’t be able to call anyone for help and would be found dead in the apartment. His temperature rose and his condition worsened as the day went along; the grim scenario seemed a real possibility. Sunday night was his deadline on whether to commit to the show. As it got on toward midnight, he felt it was impossible to get out of bed and reach the telephone. Fifteen minutes before the appointed hour, struggling, as if he were moving through heavy syrup, he made it to his feet and somehow dialed Clement Hartog’s number.
“I’m sick as a dog,” he whispered, “but count me in.”
“Oh, I’m so thrilled!” said Hartog, with the candor that had endeared him to Gurney. “Wait till mother hears the news.”
Once Gurney had recovered, the three collaboraters decided to have dinner together to celebrate the beginning of their new venture. Gurney thought his two new friends might enjoy a visit to Lumpy’s, a colorful bar and restaurant on the same street as his old precinct where homicide dicks and second-rate criminals alike tended to congregate. Hartog had promised to bring Essie along, but when he arrived, he was alone.
“Quite frankly,” he said, ‘she’s a little afraid to meet you. I think she’d prefer to demonstrate beforehand what she can do with your dialogue. I don’t delude myself. She’s probably a little sensitive about her son’s being the director–and feels she might not have gotten the part on her own.”
“That’s preposterous,” said Gurney. “I’ve heard she’s marvelous.”
‘she is,” said Hartog, close to tears. “And she’ll go to hell and back for us in this show.”
Welles, dapper and freshly barbered, showed up with the lovely woman he had brought to Bombola’s.
‘since the last time you saw me,” he said, his arms around her, “I’ve fallen madly in love with Tippy here, and we’re to be married as soon as the show opens. But I’ve explained to her that I really can’t concentrate on our romance while I’m working. And she understands.”
Tippy smiled weakly, but it seemed to Gurney that she might not have been quite so understanding. Gurney, who knew the menu by heart, recommended Soup N”Beef, a heavily grueled stomach-liner of a dish much favored by the hardworking detectives.
“Is it any good?” asked Welles. “I’ve got to be careful with my eating when I’m working on a show.”
“It’s first-rate,” said Gurney.
As he broke off a piece of the restaurant’s popular corn bread, some shots rang out, causing his new friends to duck down instinctively in their seats.
“There’s no cause for alarm,” he assured the shaken group. “The rounds you just heard are from an adjacent firing range where the dicks take their practice once a week. Whenever I eat at Lumpy’s I have a fantasy in which bullets slip through the walls and cut me down at the table.”
‘do you think it’s possible it might happen now?” asked Welles, who seemed terribly concerned with his physical condition. ‘maybe we ought to move to another restaurant.”
“No, no, it’s safe,” said Gurney. “Nobody’s been shot here in weeks.”
Tippy was interested in knowing about several men at the bar.
“Are they criminals or police?” she asked. She seemed excited by either possibility.
Gurney said that they were homicide dicks in plainclothes. The short stocky one in the group was Detective Gatti, who was known to be quick on the trigger and had more “kills’ than anyone else in the Bureau. Though he had made a persuasive case for each incident, the Department kept a close eye on him. Several of his superiors considered him a walking grenade.
“It’s good to know people like that,” said Welles.
“When I get angry,” said Hartog, who seemed to feel that his masculinity had been questioned, “I really lose my head.”
A huge man in a Navy pea jacket walked up to the bar, ordered a beer, and then waved toward the table.
“Hey, Gurns,” he shouted, “how they hangin”?”
After acknowledging him with a nod, Gurney explained to his friends that the man was a two-bit hood named Kicker who liked to hang around cops.
“There’s quite a community of interest between the two groups. The hoods are fascinated by police, the way kids are by star athletes. The really important mobsters don’t come in here, just the fringe types.”
He said that Kicker was an expert foot-fighter. His style was to bump into someone, back away with his hands up in apology, saying, “Excuse me, fella, I didn’t mean any harm,” and then lash out with one of his feet and smash the man’s jaw.
Kicker approached the table and said: “I heard you left Homicide, Gurns. What’s the matter, getting too good for us?”
“Beat it, Kicker,” Gurney said, looking the man in the eye. “Try any kicks and you’re dead meat.”
“Okay, okay,” said Kicker, backing away with his hands up apologetically. “Pardon me for breathing.”
“You handled that beautifully,” said Tippy.
“It didn’t take much ” but thanks.”
“I thought he was going to kick,” said Welles, his brows knitting in fear. “I was sure of it.”
“That’s funny,” said Hartog. “I knew he wasn’t.”
“Listen, Paul,” said Welles, with a boyish and somewhat appealing grin, “if you had an argument with your collaborators, you wouldn’t punch us out, would you?”
“Of course not,” said Gurney. “I’m not really a fighter. But being in Homicide, you pick up a few tricks here and there.”
“Well, that’s a relief,” said Welles. “Because sometimes collaborators don’t get along. In the heat of a show, I mean. And you’re probably strong enough to beat the shit out of me.”
The next morning, Clement Hartog called Gurney and said that the first order of business was getting a producer to back the show. He spoke in the style of a man who had once been highly emotional and had taught himself to reason and to keep his passions in check.
“I don’t delude myself,” he said. Violencia is a tough nut. It doesn’t have a star in the conventional sense. The composer comes out of tent shows and has been off the scene for many years, and the subject in many ways is abrasive and not your usual musical comedy fare.”
“How about me?” said Gurney. “An unknown librettist.”
‘somehow I don’t think that’s hurting us, Paul. All I know is that I believe in the basic material.”
He said that he had reviewed the list of producers who might be available, canceled out most of them, and decided the best candidate was Philip Undertag, a man Gurney had never heard of before.
“What shows has he done?” Gurney asked, realizing it was no doubt presumptuous of him, of all people, to be asking this question.
Hartog said that Undertag had produced a dozen or more shows thus far and had never brought in a single hit. On the other hand, he was a square shooter, had a great deal of money, and was known never to quit on a project. “I don’t want someone walking out on us before we’ve gotten off the ground,” he explained.
Additionally, Undertag had varied interests, such as the ownership of a theatrical costuming company–and would be useful in getting out-of-town and Broadway bookings for Violencia.
“One more thing,” said Hartog. “He knows Essie from her Vienna days. He adores her and understands that even though she’s never done a big show, she is ready to stand this town on its ear.”
“Well then, it’s all right with me,” said Gurney.
He was delighted that Hartog always seemed to consult him on an equal basis–as though Gurney himself had a wealth of background in show business.
The three collaborators met the producer the following day in the Undertag Building; in his travels about the city’s downtown area, Gurney, for some reason, had never noticed the imposing structure.
Undertag was a stocky fellow who spoke somewhat haltingly; at each gap in the conversation, he would smile, take two corners of his wide slacks in his hands, and do a curtsy. It surprised Gurney to see that Clement Hartog, in speaking to the producer, was terribly deferential in his manner. He took a chair that was quite low to the ground, which somehow minimized the celebrated director’s importance and made Undertag, standing behind his walnut desk, appear to be a figure of great eminence.
“I believe we’ve got a whale of a show, Mr. Undertag,” said Hartog. “If you back us, have a little patience and faith in us– although I can’t guarantee it–I think we can hand you a hit.”
It upset Gurney to see the great director reduce himself in this manner. Nor could he for the life of him see why he felt the need to do so.
Undertag, to his credit, did not use Hartog’s toadying manner to any particular advantage.
“I believe in you fellows,” he said, “but even though I have plenty of money, I really don’t like to put it at risk. I’ll produce your show, but we’ll have to get some outside dough. And my question is, where’s it coming from?”
“That’s the most ridiculous and insulting thing I’ve ever heard,” said Norman Welles, leaping in with knitted eyebrows and terrible fury. “I myself can guarantee one hundred and fifty thousand dollars. Have your secretary get society’s Betty Fiscus on the phone immediately. She is a friend of mine and is good for another fifty thou right there.”
“It’s all right with me,” said Undertag, holding his hands aloft, giggling and doing his trademark curtsy.
Gurney was proud of Welles for standing up to the producer in a direct no-nonsense manner. He envied the composer, too, for being able to express himself openly and with such conviction.
Undertag’s secretary made the call and came back with the information that Betty Fiscus was touring the Greek islands and could not be reached.
“That’s a pity,” said Welles. “The breaks are going against us. Because I’m sure that if I had gotten to her, Betty would have immediately fired off a check for the fifty. I played her some of my song ideas for the show and she got so excited she wet herself.”
Though obviously he had an opening, Undertag declined to press his momentary advantage over Welles. As a result, Gurney began to think of the producer as a fine gentleman.
“All right, boys,” said Undertag, “let’s not concern ourselves with money at the moment. I’m producing the show. Let me worry about it. What’s much more important is that we don’t have a word down on paper. How do we know we can put on a show for the fall season? You fellows can use my offices, my facilities, and let’s see if we can get the sucker written before we go any further.”
“That sounds mighty fair to me, Mr. Undertag,” said Clement Hartog, an odd folksy note creeping into his cultivated European delivery. “That all right with you boys?”
Welles nodded his assent. Gurney, of course, went along, and there were handshakes all around. Undertag said he had to leave, but that the three collaborators could remain in the office and begin right away if they liked. He did a sign-off curtsy at the door.
As soon as he was gone, Welles sat down at his desk and began putting through expensive long-distance calls to remote parts of the globe such as Bombay and Kuala Lumpur. Gurney thought it insensitive of Welles to take advantage of Undertag’s offer in such an obvious manner; but on the other hand he admired the composer’s flair and theatricality. He seemed to be calling brokers around the world who had made fortunes of money for him and berating them for not making more. Welles had a way of insulting people directly and getting away with it. Gurney shuddered to think what might have happened if the composer had tried that style on some of his old mates in Homicide.
While Welles was on the phone to Gstaad, the ex-dick asked Clement Hartog why he had been so deferential in dealing with Philip Undertag.
“Oh, was I?” said Hartog, wheeling about, less in surprise than as though he were an actor conveying surprise.
“Yes,” said Gurney. “And it puzzled me, because you’re so much more important than he is.”
“You really think I was acting too respectful to him?” said Hartog, this time in genuine surprise. “Well, maybe I was. I’ll watch it next time.”
“How much would you fellows say I’m worth?” asked Welles when he had finished making his calls. “Go ahead, take a guess.”
Hartog said half a million. Gurney had been living on the equivalent of detective’s pay and was dazzled by the number. He said he had no idea.
“Four million two,” said Welles, boyishly enthusiastic. “But if I don’t watch it,” he said, his mood switching to anger, “these bastards will let it slip down the drain. I just bring this up to indicate that I don’t really have to do this show and can easily retire. But I love it, and it will be good to get my name up there in lights again.”
When Hartog suggested that the trio get right down to work, Welles smiled exultantly, stretched, and said: “Look, fellows, this has been a great day for us. We’ve got a producer, we’ve got a hit on our hands. I’m just too excited to work. I say we adjourn for today and get a fresh start in the morning. I’ve got a little doll–well, hell, you met Tippy–and I’m dying to take her to dinner. I’m crazy about you two guys and I just hope that each of you gets to experience what I’m going through–really being in love.”
Hartog laughed softly to himself and seemed to stroke an imaginary beard.
“All right, let’s do that,” he said wearily. “We’ll get a fresh start in the morning.”
Welles then looked around and appeared to notice Under-tag’s handsome suite of offices for the first time.
“What a terrific place to get laid.”
He let the remark hang in the air a bit, then added, with an endearing chuckle: “What’s wrong with me! I’ve got a fourteen-room town house for that. And besides, I’m in love with one of the greatest little gals in history. And she’s smart as a whip, too.”
They assembled the next day at Undertag’s office. When they’d had their coffee and Danish pastries, Clement Hartog pushed the table back and said: “How to begin! It’s vitally important in this project to make the right start. Otherwise, it could be costly.”
“I don’t care what anyone says,” said Welles, his knees drawn up to his chest. “I think this will make one helluva musical.”
“You don’t know it,” the composer said to Gurney, “but I’ve had my eye on this property for five years. I didn’t contact you earlier because, who knows, you might have demanded a fortune for the basic material and really stuck it to me. And I wanted to get this great man, Clement Hartog, interested too. So this is a tremendously important day for me. Not that I have to be here. I could be out writing specialty songs for nightclub singers at five grand a crack. Maybe not in the States, but they love me in St. Tropez.”
Lips pursed, looking somewhat gray and ashen, Clement Hartog said: “Quite frankly, gentlemen, I’m not sure I have a precise way to get rolling.”
The three sat in silence for a few minutes. Gurney tried to appear in deep thought, but was not actually thinking.
“Look,” said Welles, getting to his feet, “I think we’re in trouble. Maybe you can’t do a show on this subject. Maybe Undertag was right to be cautious. Fellows, I’m crazy about you two guys, but I’m pulling out. It’s nothing personal, I hope we can remain friends and maybe even do a show together someday, but I know a turkey when I see one. I’ll probably get singled out personally and get blasted by the critics, and I just don’t know if I can take that. I’m not as young as I used to be and I don’t have that many chances left.”
Clement Hartog chuckled softly and patted Welles’ knee.
“Norman, be a little patient. We’re just getting started. I think we can lick it.”
Gurney could see clearly that Hartog was going to be the strength and guiding force of the team.
“Look,” said Welles, brows bunched together, eyes on fire, “I’m crazy about this material. I’m the one who brought it to you and kept it alive for five years and don’t you ever forget it. I’ll fight like a tiger for this show if I see there’s a chance. But I just can’t afford a flop, that’s all. Just one of them and I’m out of the business and no one will ever work with me again. This is it for me, fellas. You, Paul, can go back to Homicide, and Clement here will have a million offers. Who’d ever collaborate with me if Violencia went down the drain?”
“Well, shall we just get on with it?” said Hartog patiently. “What’s the beginning?”
They sat in silence again, Gurney thinking only of the deep, grave, almost Olympian concentration of Clement Hartog.
“Look, fellas,” said Welles after a minute or so. “I can’t work this way. I’m a composer, you guys are writers. I’m going back to my town house to work. I’ll try some stuff on my own. As soon as you fellows have something, shoot it over to me and I’ll put songs to it. That’s the only way I can function. I did that on my last show, Finally, Love, and it worked beautifully, even though the show got killed for being ahead of its time. I knew how to fix it, but the writer was the world’s worst sonofabitch and wouldn’t give an inch. I sued his ass off, but don’t worry, Paul, I’m not going to go after you in court. It was not that bad an experience, because at least the critics singled me out for praise on my score. When I saw that, I said fuck the show, at least I made out.”
‘maybe it’s not a bad idea for you to go off by yourself,” said Hartog. “Paul and I will work alone for a while and see what happens. If we break through, we’ll call you.”
Gurney was touched each time the great director called him by his first name; also, he thought it was remarkable that he was able to be so patient with Welles, who, to use the kindest description, was behaving like a spoiled child.
“Good luck, fellas,” said Welles, grinning with delight as though he had been let out of school early. “And I still say we’ve got a helluva chance.”
“Paul,” he said, his arm around Gurney “you’re brilliant, and from what I’ve seen you can fart ideas.”
When Welles had left, Gurney felt a little jittery, as though it might be up to him to concoct a wonderful notion on the spot. But Hartog’s gentle, thoughtful, easygoing style calmed him down–and in some mysterious way, the two began, haltingly, to block out a plan for the show. Quite naturally, it would be located in the interior of a big-city homicide bureau, one known to have an outrageously high crime rate, and, as a consequence, an atmosphere more violent than virtually any other department in the country. The main character (to be played by Essie Hartog– although this was not stated but more or less implied by the two collaborators) would be the Chief of Homicide, a man wedded to the old, tough, head-cracking approach to criminal injustice. The key relationship would be that between the Chief and his son, also a homicide dick attached to the Bureau, but convinced there was another, more humane style of dealing with hoods. The basic machinery of the story would involve the war between them, the young detective’s inevitable victory, and the tragedy of the Homicide Chief’s Lear-like decline.
A key story line would involve a murderer on the loose in the city, one whose victims were all dry-cleaning personnel. He would turn out to be an attractive young black dick in the department. The decision on how to deal with him would bring into focus the schism between the Chief and his son, the former insisting on harsh punitive measures, the detective son favoring a search for understanding: What were the societal forces that turned a nice young dick into a killer who took out his wrath on pants-pressers?
A subplot would involve an adulterous situation in which one homicide dick violates another’s wife, rubbing salt on the wound by using a police riot baton during sex, and the wife’s eventual admission (ideally in song and dance) that it was the first time she had been able to achieve satisfaction in bed, and that if only her pigheaded husband had understood this, there would never have been a marital infidelity.
The collaborators agreed that it was all terribly touchy and might be horrendous on stage if not handled with extreme delicacy. Still, the material was worthwhile and deserved to be shown. It was their hope as well that the proper use of singing and dancing would take some of the edge off the content. Gurney knew that Hartog, for all of his international reputation, had hitherto been associated only with light comedy. Why then would the director want to enter such a tough and gamy arena?
“What the hell, Paul,” he said. “I want to do something I can be proud of. Sure I’m nervous–it’s an entirely different ball game for me. But by Christ, I think this show has something to say, and I want to help say it.”
“What we have to do,” said Hartog after an exhilarating but exhausting day, “is to get Norman involved. Can we take another minute and decide on a number we’d like him to get started on?”
The two thought a while and decided that a good beginning would be an atmospheric “umbrella” piece, to be sung–and danced–by the dicks. They agreed to use “Homicide” as a working title. The number would convey the dicks’ feelings about the work they did, their fears, what they enjoyed about it, what it was that attracted them to their grisly occupation. As a model, Hartog said, it would be a good idea to keep in mind the wonderful “Tradition” number that got Fiddler on the Roof off to such a rousing start.
“I’ll call Norman tonight and have him come down tomorrow morning,” said Hartog. “I think we’ve made significant progress today.”
He seemed terribly weary, as though the day’s effort had aged him. Gurney, aware of being a much younger man, feared for a moment that the director might have a heart attack. Nontheless, he asked Hartog if he would like to go out and have a drink.
“I’d love to, but I’ll have to call Mother and tell her to hold dinner.”
Gurney was surprised that Hartog actually lived with his mother, but guessed that it was simply a temporary arrangement that would last only for the duration of the show.
Over drinks, Hartog corrected this notion and said that, as a matter of fact, he had always lived with his mother. At one period of his life, he’d had grave doubts about this arrangement, wondering if perhaps it it was an indicator of homosexual leanings. But some psychoanalytic sessions–several of which were attended by Essie– had cured him of that line of thinking.
“We just happen to have a very good thing going,” he said, “and I don’t think I could ever leave her side.”
He said that in each show he directed, invariably there was one woman in the cast or crew who appealed to him.
“It’s usually a middle-aged one with a terrific ass. At one point or another, generally on the road, I fuck her brains out, get it out of my system, and that tides me over until the next show. As far as I know, Essie knows about none of this, and I see no reason to throw it in her face.
“Unless you do,” he added, with a sharp look at Gurney.
“I don’t either,” Gurney said.
From the first time he’d met the director, Gurney had wanted to tell him about his divorce, feeling somehow that the older man would be deeply understanding about it. Sensing that the moment was right, he described his ex-wife and said that although they had had a stormy marriage, he was afraid that in some curious way he was still a little bit in love with her.
‘she has some qualities–theatrical ones, I guess you could call them–that I don’t ever expect to find in another woman.”
“How old is she?” asked Hartog.
It was a touchy question. Gilda Gurney had always been reluctant to reveal her true age, and Gurney, to his surprise, found himself loyally trimming off a few years and saying that she was thirty-two. Hartog, whose eyes watered at the drop of a hat, took in this information and then went over the brink into actual tears, saying: “Oh, you poor, poor bastard.”
It was the first time Gurney had ever resented anything the man said or did.
“It’s not that bad,” he said, and then fell back on his coarse, detectivey style. “I get a lot of pussy.”
“Oh, yeah,” said Hartog, drying his eyes and reacting sharply. “Where?”
“Around town, here and there,” said Gurney. “There are nests of them all over the city if you look hard enough.”
He had been offended by Hartog’s sympathy for him, which must have accounted for the sudden burst of feigned virility on his part. It took a while to get over Hartog’s annoyingly tearful reaction to his marital breakup, but he did. He also knew that he would probably end up discussing his personal difficulties with Hartog again, thereby walking into the same trap.
The director was a fine and modest man, although it was probably his look of sympathy that was so effective. Was it possible that he wasn’t particularly sympathetic, but was merely a great actor, able to convey sympathy without feeling a trace of it? Whatever the case, Gurney felt he had a valuable friend in his new life. Hartog’s involvement was the main reason Gurney was willing to go ahead with Violencia.
It was of greater importance than the promise of millions.
At Undertag’s office the next morning, the director told Gurney that he had phoned Welles at home only to find that the composer had gone off to Puerto Vallarta. But he had tracked him down at the pricey vacation spot and gotten Welles’ guarantee that he would plane in immediately for the meeting.
“He certainly does take good care of himself,” said Hartog.
Gurney had been led to believe that the three of them would have a tight and intensive collaboration and was surprised that Welles had taken himself off to a tropical paradise just as the project was getting under way.
Welles arrived before long, lean, suntanned, and fit. After a moment or so, he had Gurney feeling guilty about having interrupted his Mexican hiatus.
“I’ve been working my ass off down there,” he said, his forehead creased with anger. “The trick is to get up very early in the morning, compose until noon, and then you’ve got almost the entire day for waterskiing and attending to your health.
‘my dad is in his nineties, which is a great factor on my side along the lines of longevity. I’m scared to death of dying and want to live as long as I possibly can.”
Gurney sensed that Clement Hartog, too, felt a little sheepish about summoning Welles back. The director sketched in some of the progress they had made and then told Welles their idea for an opening homicide number.
“Cute,” said Welles, but then he chuckled and shook his head with amused disbelief as though a child had made some outrageous error in basic logic.
“You fellows don’t seem to understand. You can knock off a scene just like that, but a song is an entirely different kettle of fish. It takes a week of playing with it, then it has to be scored, orchestrated. ” It’s a thousand times more difficult than a scene. You expect me to come up with it, bam, one, two, three, just like that. I have to be alone, sometimes for days at a time. It might come to me in the middle of the night. I sweat and scrimp for every note and sometimes throw the whole thing out and begin again. I just don’t understand you guys, and I don’t think you’re playing fair with me.”
“Then take your time,” said Hartog. “No one’s rushing you.”
“All right,” said Welles. “I just can’t permit anyone to break my balls, that’s all.”
On his way out, he patted Gurney’s knee and flashed a genuinely delightful grin.
“It’s not you, Paul,” he said. “You’re terrific.”
The composer seemed to be a little frightened of Gurney, perhaps because of his background at the Bureau, plus Welles’ extreme concern for his own physical well-being.
Gurney congratulated Hartog on his extraordinary patience with the composer.
“I’ll bet that’s the trick to being a great director,” said Gurney. “I don’t mean to offend, but that quality is probably every bit as important as talent.”
“I’m not generally that patient,” said Hartog. “I just hope it doesn’t turn out that I’m behaving this way because my mother has the lead in the show.”
Gurney told the director not to be so hard on himself.
“From all I’ve heard, your mom is a gifted actress and would have landed the police chief role even if the cards weren’t heavily stacked in her favor.”
“I hope so,” said Hartog. “But I’ve got to keep the issue in mind continually.”
Twenty minutes later, Welles called and said: “It was a bitch, but I cracked it. Can you fellows stop everything you’re doing and come right uptown to hear it? It’s the single greatest piece of work I’ve ever done. When I think that every once in a while I’ve looked upon myself as a washed-up guy “”
Gurney could imagine Welles shaking his head in disbelief.
“Well, the mind plays funny tricks sometimes,” said Welles.
“I thought it would take him at least a week,” said Gurney when the composer had hung up.
“He’s full of shit,” said Hartog. “You can write a song in five minutes.”
He said it would probably set a bad precedent for them to stop everything and run right up to Welles’ place just because the composer had called.
“Why the hell doesn’t he come down here?”
But as Hartog spoke, Gurney noticed that the director was putting on his hat and coat.
Welles lived in a handsomely appointed brownstone in Greenwich Village, one that was immaculately kept but clearly had the touch of a decorator. On the walls were beautifully framed notices of the traveling tent shows Welles had done many years back, with passages related to his work blown up and underlined. This seemed in questionable taste to Gurney, but it was done on such a bold and unashamed scale that somehow it was acceptable. And there was no denying that the notices were awfully good, although for the most part he had gotten them in shows that were otherwise unsuccessful.
“Norman Welles’ songs provide the single cheerful note in an otherwise dreary panorama of tedium,” read a representative one, which Welles had posted prominently over a bricked fireplace. “Would that the poor man had surrounded himself with some decent collaborators.”
The composer greeted them in a flowered silk kimono. He seemed in good spirits, although perhaps a bit more nervous than usual. He poured them drinks, sat them in comfortable chairs around a piano, and introduced a tiny, immaculately groomed and slightly humpbacked man named Tito Passionato as his piano-playing assistant–available to him day and night on an exclusive basis.
‘many of my ideas come to me at four in the morning,” said Welles. “No matter how tired I am, I phone them in to Tito here, who is on constant round-the-clock call. I hum the section over the phone and he takes it down and commits it to paper. I pay him four-fifty a week for this, and believe me, it hurts. But I feel it’s worth it when you consider what I eventually make on the songs–sometimes hundreds of thousands. Tito has no other life. If he were to let me down and not be around when I needed him I would see to it that he never got another job in the music business.”
Tito smiled, but a bit unevenly, as though he were not entirely convinced it was the best of all possible arrangements for him. Still, he seemed determined to make the most of it.
Welles became increasingly jittery, steering the conversation around to economic policy during the Truman administration. Predictably, the exchange of comments was forced and somewhat clumsy.
“Are we going to hear the song?” Hartog asked after a while.
‘don’t rush me,” Welles shouted. “I can’t be pushed around the way other composers can. I’ve had hits, big ones, too, and don’t you forget it. So don’t pull that on me.”
Gurney was not happy to hear Welles take that tone with the great director, a man he now considered his friend.
“We’d both like to hear it,” he said, supportively.
Welles produced a sound that came across as a combination of a chuckle and a snicker.
‘since when did you become an expert, Paul? Someone would think you’d done fourteen musicals.”
The remark hit Gurney in a sensitive place: his total lack of experience. He felt his face heat up with anger. Welles must have sensed this and did an about-face.
“I’m kidding, Paul. And I can see you’ve taken my comment the wrong way. All I’m saying is that you’ve got remarkable instincts. It’s as though you’ve been working on shows since you were a pup.”
“Now, I called you guys up to hear a song,” he said, smoothly shifting gears, “and you want to hear it. That’s excellent thinking.”
Tito played some background chords on the piano that seemed designed to lighten the atmosphere. When the chords unaccountably turned somewhat harsh and abrasive, Welles wheeled around in his chair.
“Easy, Tito, easy ” much softer. Do you want them to hate what’s coming up?”
Tito smiled blandly and made a correction, segueing into a gentler musical theme. As tough as Welles was with his assistant, Gurney sensed that he was also capable of being quite nice to him. Why else would the obviously talented man have stuck it out with the moody composer?
“Now look, fellas,” said Welles, “what you’re going to hear is so rough, such a preposterously early dummy of a song, that I ought to have myself shot for doing it for you. It’s practically spitballing– and all it’s designed to do is give you a taste, a hint of what it can be. I want you also to consider my voice, which is pathetic and thin and under constant strain. Try to imagine the song, Paul–especially you, since you have zero background in the field–try to imagine it with either Essie herself singing it, or a full chorus of men, backed up with heavy orchestration, woodwinds, flutes coming up at the right time, solid brass. And don’t forget lights, makeup, the comforts of a modern, acoustically sound theatre, which Undertag better come up with, if he knows what’s good for him. And Christ, I almost forgot. I’m no actor. This is a song that has to be directed. and I think we can all agree that we’ve got one of the all-time greats in that department, Mr. Clement Hartog.”
He paused here, and looked over at the director as if expecting him to take a bow.
“In any case,” Welles continued, “with all that behind the song, I guarantee you it will be tremendous and stop the goddamned show cold.
“Take it from the top, Tito, and play your heart out.”
Welles began to sing a pretty melody. Gurney felt the composer had been much too critical of his voice. Though every bit as thin and reedy as Welles said it would be, it also came across as being authentic-sounding and therefore quite appealing. What troubled Gurney was that the lyric had nothing to do with homicide. It dealt instead with the joys of Paris–”not in the spring, not in the fall, not in the winter, but during the off-season.” How in the world Welles could imagine a tribute to the City of Love being delivered by a stageful of homicide dicks in the detectives’ bullpen was beyond Gurney, experience or no experience. He was certain, however, that Hartog would see immediately that the lyric had absolutely nothing to do with the show.
When Welles had finished the song, the composer leaned forward expectantly.
“What did you two guys think of it?”
Gurney averted his eyes, not daring to express an opinion.
To his surprise, Clement Hartog was silent for a moment, too, stroking that imaginary beard of his in solemn consideration.
“Let me hear it again,” he said finally.
Gurney was startled by the director’s failure to comment on the song’s screamingly obvious lack of appropriateness. Either Hartog, once again, was being overly diplomatic, or else he had some absurdist scheme for the show that he hadn’t discussed with Gurney.
Welles ran through the song again, and Gurney enjoyed it just as much the second time. It was, no question, a catchy tune, and it was fun listening to Welles’ thin but romantic voice. But at the same time he was certain there was no way on earth it could be wedged into the detectivey musical.
“Now look,” said Hartog, “I think you’ve written a brilliant number, Norman. But there are a couple of lines I have to seriously question.”
“Which ones?” asked Welles in what seemed to be genuine shock.
“Well, quite frankly, the Paris-during-the-off-season reference,” said Hartog. “What do you think, Paul?”
“I agree,” said Gurney. “I admit I speak from total lack of experience, but I just don’t see how you can imagine a group of homicide dicks–and believe me, I know these guys–giving a thought to Paris in the off-season. I don’t think there’s more than one dick in a bureau who’s been to Paris in any season, and if he was, he’d be chasing a wise guy up the Eiffel tower. So it seems an odd way to get the show off the ground.”
“I knew they would take that approach, didn’t I, Tito?” Welles said to his assistant in an ominously calm voice. ‘didn’t I say they would come down hard on that aspect of the song?”
“You did, Mr. Welles.”
“Well, all I can say, fellas, is that you’re dead wrong. Now I’ve played ball with you guys up to now and I think you’ll admit I’ve been a good boy. But when you tell me that song is shit, you really back me to the wall. Fellas, I know that song will score for us. I agree there may be a phrase or two of the lyric that isn’t absolutely on the nose, but those are out-of-town fixes; I can do them in my sleep. Now you guys have just got to trust me. Goddammit, in my last show, Finally, Love, I took the entire chorus into the men’s room and rehearsed a new second-act opening number in stealth, behind the director’s back, and slipped the number by him, and it got healthy applause. The reviews of the show said we were garbage, but several of the critics singled that number out as having merit–and at least I wasn’t completely killed the way the book writer and the director were.
“Now I’m really angry. You come in here, you listen to the song once, no orchestration, me with my thin, reedy voice–which incidentally has been under a lot of strain lately–and you expect it to sound like fucking Aida. I don’t know what you guys want from me.”
“What if you were to adjust the lyric,” said Hartog calmly, ‘so that it referred to Precinct Nineteen in the off-season, instead of Paris? Would that work?”
Gurney followed the director’s thinking, and although he didn’t consider it an ideal solution, he felt that a song about a precinct in the off-season might just slip by and would have the advantage of an awfully pretty melody behind it.
“It won’t wash musically,” said Welles. “The entire construction will go down the drain, and I’ll get killed in the reviews. I’d rather yank the entire show off the boards, and have all of us go down the tubes together–even though there’s a chance that no one in the business will ever work with me again.
‘don’t punch me in the mouth for this, Paul,” he said, turning to Gurney, “but I’m not changing a word of that song. I can’t. I’m just not built that way. I worked too hard on the goddamned thing.”
Gurney thought that if Welles was really afraid of being smashed in the face, it took a certain amount of courage for him to be speaking this way.
“I guess that’s it,” Gurney said to Hartog as the two shared a cab uptown.
“I’m afraid so,” said Hartog. “We could take it to another composer, but I suppose it’s not morally right, since Norman really did originate the project. Besides, he’d sue our asses off. Norman loves to sue. He lives to sue.
“It’s a damned shame, too,” Hartog continued, “because the sonofabitch really does have ability–that melody, for example– but he obviously hates to work.”
Gurney suggested that even if Welles made some adjustment in the lyric, the song would continue to be way off target.
“I disagree with you there,” said Hartog. “Of course, it’s not our precise notion. But I just don’t think people listen that hard to lyrics, and it’s my view that we’d probably get by with it and come in with something highly adequate.”
Gurney thought back to the few shows he had seen and had to admit that whenever there was a stageful of people with strong voices, singing and dancing, the net effect was pleasing and it didn’t seem to matter what they were singing about.
Hartog asked the cab to stop at a midtown address and apologized for not inviting Gurney upstairs.
“Essie is a terrible housekeeper, and quite frankly I’m ashamed to have people visit. But it’s so bloody upsetting. I’m crazy about the material in this show, and no matter how many big commercial hits I have in the future, this is the one I feel America ought to see.”
Gurney was surprised to find that he wasn’t quite as disappointed about the aborted project as he thought he might be. Of course, there was a chance he would never again get to work on a major musical comedy. In a sense, however, the work on Violencia had been interruptive; he had not quite gotten his fill of the simple, uncluttered bachelor life he had been enjoying. The death of the show meant he could get right back to it.
That night, he bought a new corduroy bedspread and spent the evening rolling around and luxuriating on it. Just as he was about to fall asleep, he got a call from his ex-wife saying she had heard he was involved in a new musical and insisted on going to the opening night on his arm.
“I’ve got to have your decision right now as to whether you’ll take me, Paul, because I need a lot of advance time so that I can buy an evening gown. I feel I deserve it for the years I spent with you while you had that shitty job and weren’t working on musicals. Don’t ask me to explain any further. I just want to go, and I don’t need any twenty-year-old bimbo cashing in on the deal.”
Gurney said that he had not thought that far ahead, and as a matter of fact, there wasn’t going to be a musical anyway.
“But even if there was–I admire and respect you, Gilda, but truthfully ” looking at the whole picture ” I’m not entirely sure I’d want to be with you that night.”
‘so there is somebody,” said Gilda. “What’s she like? Big tits, right?”
“I don’t know what she’s like,” said Gurney, “because there isn’t anybody at the moment. But there might be, a little further down the line ” and I’d probably want to be with her. Would you want to go to an opening with me, knowing I’d prefer to be with someone else?”
“Absolutely,” she said. “It’s me or no one.”
Was it his imagination, Gurney wondered, or was everyone suddenly speaking in song lyrics?
“Well, I can’t give you an answer on the spot.”
“All right, but you’d better hurry up and decide, one way or the other. I’ve got my eye on a gown, and I need lots of time to get it fitted.
“And if you decide against me,” she said, altering her tone, “I may very well have to change a few of my own plans.”
There was a definite threat in her voice as she said goodbye, and although Gurney could not imagine which plans she had in mind, he was concerned as to what they might be. He had always been a little afraid of Gilda, in a curious way, and this apprehension, even after the divorce, was still reflexively there. What could she be threatening him with? A divorce? They’d already had one. Now they’d really get divorced? Could she be hinting that she would fuck every one of his friends at the Bureau? Go down the list methodically, ticking them off one by one? The scenario was an old nightmarish fantasy of his, but the truth was, he had it pretty much under control now. If she did sail right through the list, it would have nothing to do with him. He would feel sorry for her, since obviously the act would have been one of desperation. Although you never knew–possibly she’d enjoy every second of it.
No doubt what troubled him more than anything was the possibility that she was saying something else: that they would never get together again. Ever. This was a dark thought. Because even though they had gone ahead with the legalities, he had never said a total and complete good-bye to Gilda Gurney. And he had always dreamed that they could, perhaps years later, somehow drift back together.
He did not know at the moment if he would take her to the opening. And though the whole issue was academic–it looked as if there would be no show to take her to–it bothered him considerably.