Sunday, February 11, 2007

Chapter 2: Sex and Violence

A Crime Novel in Installments,
by Dick Adler

Where we left off: During his weekly poker game with Ross Calhoun and other pulp magazine editors and writers in New York, Viking’s Ivan Davis learns that Saul Cooperman, a once-famous Chicago novelist reduced by drink, has a new lead in solving a murder mystery.

* * *

“So what did Cooperman want?” Ross asked Ivan. In spite of their very different upbringings (Calhoun was a New Hampshire kid who got into a posh prep school because they liked the idea of a smart local boy among the rich students), Ross had, like Ivan, been a huge fan of An Immigrant’s Diary, which he’d read between football practice sessions at Dartmouth College. Now he shared Ivan’s mixture of fear and faded respect for Cooperman’s subsequent fate.

“I was hoping he had a new story or at least a section of a novel,” Ross said. “Wouldn’t it be nice to run a cover line announcing that?”

“Sure--right below ‘Secret Sex World of Debutante Call Girls’ or ‘I Battled a Giant Otter,’” Ivan replied. “No chance. He’s after an advance--five hundred bucks for a Court of Final Appeal story he’s working on. Can you imagine Erickson going for that?” Both men shook their heads at the ridiculousness of such a proposal.

The next morning, after sharing a 50-cent breakfast with Calhoun at a local greasy spoon--neither of their apartments had kitchens--Ross went off to visit some recent Smith College graduates, while Ivan spent that Saturday in the company of Ruth Sharansky, a hefty and sexy bohemian girl he’d met at a Catholic Worker peace rally. She was surprised that a Korean War enlistee like Davis would be against war; he was surprised by her surprise.

In between discussions with worthy folk at the rally in Washington Square, they smoked Ruth’s Gitanes and cruised through Greenwich Village, an area Ivan had been intrigued by ever since he read the novels of Dawn Powell. They dropped in at the White Horse, where the Clancy Brothers sang about Irish history, then decided to see how many famous painters they could recognize at the Cedars Bar, a famous artists’ hangout. Ivan spotted de Kooning, Larry Rivers, and Franz Kline--all looking as though they belonged there.

The couple splurged on stuffed cabbage at Ratner’s on Delancey Street, around the corner from Ruth’s apartment, then wound up in her bed, where Ivan made his own contribution to world peace. She was as round and as sweet as a watermelon, and he enjoyed her company, even if her sheets needed washing. They stayed in bed all through Sunday, had a late breakfast of scrambled eggs and kasha at a deli on Second Avenue, then split up to get ready for the working day ahead--she at her job as a junior copywriter with a Midtown advertising agency, he at the magazine. They were both smiling as she walked him to the subway.

On Monday morning, after cashing his paycheck, Ivan bought a pack of Gitanes at the newsstand on the first floor of the building where Worldwide Publications had its offices. He braced himself for another call from the errant Cooperman--and for Morgan’s scorn for one of his own literary heroes gone bad. McLennon had been a heavy drinker himself; he only quit, he once confessed, when someone in Paris told him that his urine tasted sweet.

But the morning brought only welcome silence from Saul. Ivan spent the day editing a story about a fake World War II battle (they’d used up all the real ones) and arguing with Morgan about whether a cover line reading “I Saw Them Eat Muñoz” was clear enough about cannibalism. In between, he spent a few minutes doing what he often did--wondering if this was really where he should be working at 25, especially if he wanted to become a “serious writer” someday. The answer, though, was always the same: he was a dropout from New York’s City College, who had enlisted in the Army to get some real-life experience; the Viking job paid decently, and he was lucky to have it; he was actually in the magazine business, and anything could happen.

There were plenty of good examples of men who’d used their editorial jobs as springboards to something more literary. Billy Freeman over at Magazine Associates was working on some fiction of his own, while also managing to buy 36 to 40 freelance stories a month at $500 apiece from writers such as Bruce Pronzini--who in turn used that money to feed his family, while sweating away at a long novel about Italian immigrants that had been in the works for five years. So what if some people Ivan knew from college (the ones who didn’t ask if he actually got to meet the girls on the Viking covers) came over a bit snotty when he told them where he worked? They were mostly pulling in $75 a week writing captions at Time or Life or Look, wearing Brooks Brothers button-down shirts they couldn’t afford, and drinking the cheapest, most palatable French wines they could find.

Saul was equally silent all day Tuesday. On Wednesday, Ivan began to worry; Cooperman didn’t answer his phone. Maybe he was sick, or sleeping off a binge. Ivan persuaded Ross to spend their lunch hour going over to Cooperman’s place in Tudor City, just down the street from their offices. But there, they found no signs of anything odd ... or of Saul, either. They banged on his door long enough to wake a corpse, but he never answered. Finally, they sought to convince the building manager, a scrawny and suspicious man in his 50s, that they were indeed Cooperman’s employers, and were worried about his not keeping an appointment.

“Maybe he needs a doctor,” Ivan said. “Can you open the door for us?”

The manager remained suspicious, but he let them into Saul’s place.

It was a shabby apartment, with a sad lack of comfort, smacking of an empty life very different from Cooperman’s days of fame. Saul’s bed looked slept in, and there were a few shirts waiting for the laundry. The kitchen needed a cleaning, but there was no sign of recent cooking or eating, except for the remnants of a can of Scotch Broth soup that must have been his supper.

Then, in the living room furnished with seedy castoffs, Ivan and Ross found their first clue. A stain of what looked like dried blood decorated the back of the lonely man’s sofa. Ivan reached for the phone; it was working, although someone seemed to have tried to yank its cord from the wall. As he dialed Morgan’s number, he remembered Saul’s call to the poker game on Friday. Something about New Mexico crept back into his memory ...

© Copyright 2007 by Dick Adler

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