The entrance of the comedians ended any serious conversation, but I continued to marvel at his deft handling of so many divergent types. David turned out to be an archly circumspect balding cynic with a long Don Quixote beard and an elaborate turn of phrase for everything. Completing the crew was a still striking hippie who kept everyone at arms length with the foulest sexual epithets imaginable dropping effortlessly from her carmined lips. They took turns eviscerating favorite rivals and puffing each others' accomplishments, with only bitten quotes as clues to the wider works under scrutiny.
Eliot introduced me as a budding young novelist, but everyone was much too hyped by their own performances to pay me much notice. And so I retreated behind a third and eventually a fourth succulent drink and observed the man in action.
There was no question that Eliot remained the center of attention, no matter who temporarily took the floor, no matter how long dialogues went on, no matter how little he actually said. He agreed, paraphrased, occasionally soundly skewered whatever was offered, questioned for amplification, and generally kept things moving.
Whatever I noticed then was subliminal, undefined, inchoate. The boisterous, flamboyant poets accepted my reticent attention on the grounds of Eliot's introduction and trotted out for me their juiciest lines, their most exaggerated posturings, and so I acted as audience. Everyone --- and throughout the evening the table was swelled and diminished as other performers dropped by to display their turns --- had something, though it seemed to me that they evidenced only minor talent. That wasn't a selfish judgement. I judged their pretentions against what I could see of their accomplishments, and all of it against my passionate but as yet unfulfilled yearning to be published, so everyone came up short. But on first contact, of course, I never considered why. .
Long after the event, however, one trivial incident returned to my mind. Everyone took their turns roasting poor Billy and his persistent attempts to turn a horror figure into a sympathetic hero. Old friends trotted out his whole career for ribald examination, and someone recalling the past summed up his anecdote with the observation "but that was back when Billy was content to be nothing but a juggler."
"Way- Way- Wait a miminute!" he suddenly bristled, "I wa- wu- wawas a dedamn gugood juggler! I still am!"
And, snatching objects from the table, he proved it. He kept adding and changing objects, kept varying the rhythm and the difficulty, the jobs each hand had to perform either separately or in concert, and when he finished, triumphantly dropping every article back in the place he had found it, he had never broken a rhythm nor dropped a single object. I was astonished, but the group's applause was tepid, tempered apparently by repetitions that had made the astonishing ordinary. Why someone who seemed a gifted mime and juggler defied his handicaps to read for speaking parts, even to write them for his own performances, was a puzzlement my mind could not, then, comprehend.
That night, however, I was dazzled by the show, impressed by the erudition and dedication to art that was evinced by everyone, and of course continually aware of the scope and variety of Eliot's friendships. He seemed to meet everyone on their own terms, at their level of talent and awareness, and in general his comments often made people think, sometimes differently, about what they had said. When I suddenly surprised myself with the sweet, succulent flesh of my fifth maraschino cherry I noted the lateness of the hour and, regretfully, tore myself away from the committee meeting still in progress.
My usual habit is to fade unobtrusively from parties at which I have been a smiling, mostly irrelevant participant. As I whispered my appreciation of his invitation, Eliot pressed a card into my palm and whispered back "Call me when you start part two."
My mind, as I plodded a little tipsily to the trolley, was alive with ideas and images of this exciting new universe I'd just entered. I had always thought of the literary world as purely a marketplace, in which my wares consistently wandered unnoticed and unpurchased. Eliot, however, seemed to me to hold out a wreath of success not festooned with greenbacks, but with laurels. Through that long, interesting evening I watched him cheer on to serious achievement talents I knew instantly had no hope of gainful publication. Most of them, I felt certain, were minor talents that could never benefit from any advice I might tender, since my hopes were not for pure, unadulterated excellence but for successful fame and fortune almost indifferent to excellence. I had naively believed that writing as well as I knew how would, if I approached enough editors or publishers, be blest and accepted and paid for, and years of consistent unsuccess never really blunted my optimism.
But, obviously, I had never been edited before.
I wended my tipsy way home with my mind alive to the surprising individuals I had met, the ritualistic, dogmatic, intransigent arguments they engaged in, the triviality of the points of intense discussion, and the sheer style that everything was engaged in. I fell into bed ignoring both the clock-radio and the alarm that I needed to leverage my grumpy consciousness into being at a decent hour, and when I came groggily to awareness long after noon I went to the keyboard, typed in the word MORNING, and wrote uninterrupted for three and a quarter hours before I noticed I was hungry. That Second Day was, obviously, there and waiting to spill out of me, often surprising me not just by the originality of the insights, but the inevitability of those turns in narrative. I felt, as I wolfed down whatever fell to hand, that I could write uninterrupted for weeks, and I was back at the keyboard, sandwich at my elbow, as quickly as I could. I was part of the keyboard, and my novel was merely using me to write itself.
It was two a m before, exhausted, I dialed Eliot's number.
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