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| Category: || General Fiction |
Posted:|| March 17, 2019 Views: 47|
the fiction half
"Night of the Round Table - Part 2"
by Mark Valentine
There was no way I was going to pay eighty-four dollars and not see what I came to see. Emboldened by the alcohol, I formulated a plan – not a good plan, but then I wasn’t trying to rob a Las Vegas casino, simply to walk through a door.
I noticed that the man sitting a few stools down from me was unaccompanied and about my size. Draped over the back of his stool was a very nice London Fog raincoat, the kind a secret service agent might wear. He was also about my age, which is to say, given that he was drinking beer, he would be going to the bathroom soon.
I watched him out of the corner my eye and, when he went to the bathroom, I casually got up from my stool, walked over to his, put on his raincoat, and walked through the door that led from the bar to the kitchen. I figured there had to be a door at the other end of the kitchen that led into the Rose Room.
As I entered the kitchen, I touched my hearing aid with one hand while talking into my Fitbit; “Yeah, you can just walk Mr. Bennett and his guests down the length of the bar to the kitchen – be careful the floor is slippery, and then turn right.”
I saw a cook from the kitchen heading my way so I preemptively made contact with him. “Excuse me sir, does that door lead to the Rose Room?”
I was hoping for a simple ‘yes’, instead I got, “Who are you?”
“I’m security detail for Mr. Tony Bennett, the singer. He’s coming here for a surprise party for his wife. He’ll also be accompanied by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper. For obvious reasons, they don’t want to walk through the dining room, so we’re going to bring him in this way.”
“It appears that you’ve been drinking.”
“Of course I’ve been drinking –it’s Tony’s wife’s birthday – we’ve all been drinking. It’s not like I’m guarding the president – nobody’s gonna take a shot at Tony Bennett.”
“I wasn’t told about this.”
“If you had been it wouldn’t be a surprise party would it? Besides, we cleared it with Ben.”
“Ben O’Brien? The head of security for the hotel?”
“Well nobody told me.”
Time to double down. I tried to look exasperated as I spoke into my Fitbit.
“Hold everything Jason. Tell Mr. Bennett he’ll have to wait outside while I get Ben O’Brien down here to explain to…” I pushed aside the lapel on the cook’s jacket so that I could see his name tag “…to explain to Carlos that it’s Ok to bring three of the biggest celebrities in the world into the hotel.”
I shook my head as I pulled out my cell phone and punched in a few random numbers. “Yeah, get me Ben – we got a problem.” I looked at Carlos and said, “You’re making a lot of enemies tonight.”
This time Carlos chose not to call my bluff. “OK, here. The Rose Room is just through that door.”
“Thanks – I’m just going to go in and let the guests know that Mr. Bennett is on his way in.” I pulled out my last twenty from my wallet and handed it to him. “Thanks for understanding.”
Then I walked through the door.
I had come to the Algonquin Hotel in hopes of encountering some lingering ghosts from its glory days. It looked like I was about to get more than I bargained for. There, at a round table, check that, at THE round table, sat what, for all the world appeared to be Dorothy Parker, Robert Sherwood, Edna Ferber, George S. Kaufman, Harpo Marx, and the other members. They seemed not to notice my entrance.
“Excuse me”, I said timidly. “Is this some sort of re-enactment?”
“Yes”, said a woman who looked a lot like Dorothy Parker, “We’re re-enacting yesterday’s lunch. Yesterday we re-enacted the lunch from the day before, and so on and so on. It’s a vicious circle.”
She smiled at the quip she had made. I got it. While the world knows this group as the Algonquin Round Table, they referred to themselves as The Vicious Circle.
Then it dawned on me that she said they were having lunch. I looked outside and noticed it was daytime. Strange.
“Excuse me for a second,” I said as I turned back toward the door I had just passed through and looked through the window in the door into the kitchen. Carlos was gone. They were all gone. All the chefs and waiters that had been in the kitchen just a minute before had been replaced by different waiters and cooks. All of the appliances were different too. It looked like something out of the twenties.
“Are you lost?” the woman who looked like Dorothy Parker, (who perhaps was Dorothy Parker?), asked.
“You could say that.”
“OK, I will. You’re lost. Now that we know where you are, let’s find out who you are.”
“I’m Mark Valentine…and you’re… Dorothy Parker?”
“Yes I am, but don’t try coming on to me. All my men must be handsome, ruthless, and stupid, and you seem to have only one of those qualities. I’ll leave it to you to figure out which one. Where are you from Mark Valentine?”
The man whom I believed to be Robert S. Kaufman chimed in, “Ah, Chicago, Hog Butcher for the World, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat. Do you know that poem?”
“Sure, I had to memorize it in fifth grade.”
“Well then you must be much younger than you look because that poem was only written a dozen or so years ago and you look like you’re at least sixty.”
I’m fifty-nine, I thought to myself indignantly, before saying “I mean, I used to teach fifth grade. That’s when I memorized it.”
Ms. Parker resumed her interrogation, “So Mark Valentine from Chicago is a teacher?”
“Don’t tell me, what you really want to be is a writer.”
“Have you been drinking?”
“Well, that’s a good start. Why don’t you go drink some more, somewhere else, and come back when you’ve written something.”
My brain was racing. I didn’t know what was going on, but somehow I had ended up in a room with some of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. I was about to be shown the door if I didn’t come up with something fast. C’mon, Mark – lying is one of the few things you’re good at.
I said, “Oh, but I already have written something. It’s quite good.”
“And I suppose you want us to read it and give you our opinions. Well, I’ll save us all a lot of time and tell you to piss off now.”
“No, I don’t want you to read anything. I’ve written a play that I’m shopping around to producers. I hope to get it on Broadway.”
“Oh, why didn’t you tell us? You want to get your play on Broadway. That’s a much more realistic goal for a drunk guy from Chicago. And what, pray tell, is your play about?”
“I’m guessing it’s about two hours too long.” Alexander Woollcott had jumped into the game of let’s-insult-the-amateur. The rest of the table chuckled.
Think of something quick – when will you ever be in this situation again? Don’t throw away your shot. That’s it! “Actually, it’s a musical based on the life of Alexander Hamilton.”
“Wow, you really are drunk, aren’t you?” Ms. Parker turned to a 6’8” man who could only be Robert Sherwood and said, “Robert, be a dear and get someone from hotel security to escort our new friend out.”
“Wait!” I pleaded. “Please. Let me perform the opening number for you – then, when I leave, you’ll have something amusing to talk about – how a drunk guy from Chicago stumbled into your private room and sang you a song about the guy whom Aaron Burr killed.”
I referred to myself as ‘the drunk guy from Chicago’, but the thing was, for some reason, I didn’t feel drunk anymore. Perhaps I had found a way to go from drunk to sober without passing through hangover – simply time travel back to the Nineteen-twenties and you’re golden.
“You’ve got five minutes.” And then with a sarcastic tone, Ms. Parker introduced me to my audience. “Ladies and Gentlemen, the world Off-Broadway premiere of… “ and then turning to me she asked, “What are you calling your play?”
“Of course you are – so imaginative.”
Ms. Parker resumed her faux introduction “The world Off-Broadway premiere of Hamilton.”
I addressed the table. “OK, so imagine the scene. The curtain opens to reveal all of the characters that you will meet during the play. There’s Aaron Burr, Thomas Jefferson, Washington, Eliza, his wife, Maria Reynolds…”
“Who is Maria Reynolds?” Edna Ferber interrupted.
“Does it matter?” asked Ms. Parker. “Let’s get this over with.”
Undeterred, I answered Ms. Ferber’s question, “Actually, Maria Reynolds is the woman with whom Hamilton had an affair. It was our country’s first sex scandal.”
I looked at Robert Sherwood whom I knew to count ‘historian’ among his many skill sets.
He validated my answer, “He’s right.” And then turning to me, “Sounds like you did some research for this play.”
“Indeed I did,” I said, surprising myself with the brazenness of my lying. Oh well, in for a dime, in for a dollar. Here goes. “OK this first song is written in what we in Chicago call a rap style, Rap is sort of like poetry recited over an underlying beat and it features heavily accented rhymes – and lots of them.”
“Get on with it.”
“Certainly, Ms. Parker. If you all would do me the favor of humoring me by snapping your fingers to this rhythm.”
I started them off, then once they had the rhythm, I swallowed hard and began. Making eye contact and emoting as best I could as I went:
“How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped, in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Carribean, by providence impoverished in sqaulor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar…”
For a couple of minutes I somehow managed to overcome my usual stage fright and deliver a decent rendition of the show’s opening number. I could tell I was winning them over. Well, actually Lin Manuel Miranda was winning them over. I felt a little guilty, but pretty sure I wouldn’t be found out. Can you plagiarize someone’s work ninety years before they’ve written it? When I had finished the song, my audience stood in applause. George S. Kaufman walked across the room to get a chair, pulled it up to the table, and invited me to take a seat.
I had done it. I had a seat at the table in the room where it happens.
Ms. Parker’s tone was less insulting as she addressed me. “So, Mr. Mark Valentine of Chicago, I take it you have come to pick our brains. I’m afraid the lode will contain less gold than you had hoped, but pick away.”
“To begin with, what do you love about writing?”
Though the question was addressed to the group, Ms. Parker answered. “I hate writing. I love having written.”
The conversation continued like this. I was the proverbial kid in a candy shop. Or maybe I was the proverbial guy trying to take a drink from a fire hydrant. All I know is that, whatever proverb I was inhabiting, I was loving it. The banter was witty, pretentious, irreverent, and sarcastic. The drinking was intense. These were all things I was pretty good at. I had begun to let myself imagine that there actually might be a place for me in this exclusive club, when the door behind me opened.
“Gene. Come on in. We have an aspiring playwright from Chicago in our midst tonight. He’s written a musical based on the life of Alexander Hamilton. Can you imagine? Mr. Valentine, you came on the right night, Gene is not technically a member of our club – he’s much too famous to slum around with us, but he occasionally drops by – the Irish can smell our whiskey a mile away. Mr. Valentine, say hello to Eugene O’Neill.”
“Hello.” I wanted to say more but that’s all that came out, in part because I recognized the woman he had brought with him.
Ms. Parker’s line of inquiry confirmed the identity of the woman. “Gene, I see you’ve brought your Catholic anarchist friend around again. I’m sorry dear, but I’ve forgotten your name.”
“Ah yes, Dorothy. How could I forget a name like that? Tell me Dorothy, what's the difference between an enzyme and a hormone?”
“I don’t know”
“You can’t hear an enzyme.”
Robert Sherwood shot Ms. Parker a disapproving glare to which she responded.
“Oh, Robert, don’t you look at me in that tone of voice. Pull up some chairs for our guests.”
Dorothy Day motioned him to stay where he was. “Don’t bother, Mr. Sherwood. Gene can take Mr. Valentine’s seat. He and I have some unfinished business to discuss. We’ll go talk over in the corner for a while.”
“You two know each other?” asked Ms. Parker incredulously.
“No.” replied the ‘other’ Dorothy, “that’s part of the business we need to finish.”
The woman who had been my hero since I first read Loaves and Fishes, led me to a table in the corner of the room, as far from the Round Table as we could get.
“Hi, Mark. I’m Dorothy Day. I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to meet you when you came to New York for the first time, but, unfortunately, I was dead.”
I was speechless, so she continued.
“So you’ve written a musical about Alexander Hamilton?”
I could tell by the look in her eyes that she knew my sin.
“Don’t apologize to me, I’m not Lin Manuel Miranda. Nor am I God.”
“Yeah, but you’re awful close.”
“Mark, the largest number you can think of is no closer to infinity than the smallest number you can think of. We are all in the same boat here.”
“Well my boat seems to be sinking.”
“Perhaps because you’re rowing against the current. You shouldn’t be chasing that” she said pointing to the round table, and I glanced at the group of wits whose company I had just left, “you should be chasing that” and she pointed to a crucifix that hung above the door through which I had entered the room.
Odd, that being there, I thought as Dorothy continued. “You'll find there’s nothing for you over there.” She again pointed at the round table, but this time when I looked back at the table, it was empty. They were gone. All of them.
The weirdest night of my life had just gotten weirder. And it wasn’t through, for when I turned back to look at Dorothy Day, she was no longer the twenty-nine year old woman who I had just been talking to, but the eighty-three year old woman who died my senior year in college. She saw the confusion-bordering-on-fear in my face.
“I know, it’s been a bit of a disorienting night, hasn’t it?”
“To say the least. What year are we in?”
“We are in the present. We are always in the present. There is no place else we can be. And because it’s all we have, killing time, which you seem to be doing a lot of lately, is not a wise idea. You can’t kill time without injuring eternity. Henry David Thoreau wrote that right before he wrote, the masses of men lead lives of quiet desperation. Was he writing about you, Mark?”
I couldn’t bring forth any words, so I just nodded.
"What’s going to be waiting for you when you go back to Chicago?"
"A difficult job, a bitter wife, and an invalid, crabby mother who needs to be attended to around the clock."
"What kind of work do you do?"
"I work for a non-profit."
So let’s see, meaningful, mission-oriented work, a woman you vowed to love and cherish, and a mother totally dependent on you for her basic needs. Seems to me that any one of those things presents an opportunity for you to practice the Christianity you’ve been reading so much about. Maybe you should put the books down and do it."
"But, it’s so hard."
"Yes, it is."
I was sort of hoping there would be more than that – a hand on the shoulder perhaps along with a ‘There, there, everything will be OK’, but all I got was a ‘Yes, it is’. She may be revered as a paragon of Christian love in action, but Dorothy Day would have made a lousy therapist.
I buried my face in my hands and began to cry. Still, no consoling hand on the shoulder. Instead, I heard the kitchen door opening. I looked up to see Carlos.
“What the hell, man? I thought you said Tony Bennett was coming?”
I looked around. No Dorothy. What I saw was a lot of very well dressed rich people, none of whom I recognized. Carlos was right. I most definitely did not belong here. I turned to him and said, “Yeah, sorry. I lied about that. I just wanted to see the room. I’ll leave now.”
I walked back into the bar from which I had made my entrance. I returned the London Fog raincoat to its rightful owner. He hadn’t even noticed it was missing. Putting on my own coat, I walked outside into the cold Manhattan night. I thought about the man from the Gospel who meets Jesus face to face, but walks away full of sorrow when Jesus tells him he must sell all he has and give it to the poor.
And then I walked. Numb. Sad. Hopeless.
I was walking south on Fifth Avenue, approaching 50th Street, when I felt a comforting hand on my shoulder. I turned around to see Dorothy Day.
“Oh, I forgot to tell you the most important thing. You can’t do it alone.” And then she motioned for me to continue on my way.
I did as she suggested. I didn’t look back to see if she were still there for I knew she wouldn’t be. I found myself in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. It was magnificent. I thought about the world of my youth, when the doors to Catholic churches were never locked. People would go in at two in the morning to pray, light a candle, or simply sit in the presence of God.
What the hell? I thought to myself. It’s been a night of improbable occurrences. This seems pretty tame by comparison. I walked up the steps of the cathedral and pulled the handle of the imposing door. It opened, and, for the third time that day, I felt different as I walked through a door.
It was a start.
This is the second half of a non-fiction / fiction post. Much of what comes out of Dorothy Parker's mouth in this piece are actual quotes attributed to her (I'm not that clever).
and 2 member cents.
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