Read OPUS 21 Online

Authors: Philip Wylie





A Concerto for a One-Man Band


Fugues, Anthems, & Barrelhouse




New York and Toronto











MOST OF THE characters in this book are unreal--and that is particularly true of the author. . . . Few of the events recorded here ever took place--exactly. . . . Even the time is somewhat out of joint, so purists are advised not to bother to compare the meteorology with the obituaries. . . . I never had (for instance) an elder sister named Georgianna, that I know of. . . . The difference between what is Real (or Truth) and what is Illusion (or Fiction) is left to such judgment as the reader may own--just as it is in all the other experiences of life. P.W.






PART ONE: Scherzo


IT HAPPENS to millions.

They sit in doctors' offices trying to hide nervousness in the pages of magazines.

Wondering what germs their predecessors have deposited in
Harper's Bazaar
Action Comics.

The nurse calls:

Mr. So-and-so. Mrs. So-and-so. Miss So-and-so.

They go in.

"Doctor," they say, "just lately I've begun to notice . . ."

They have begun to notice Death.

And now the doctor notices, too.

Millions of us, in this century, find out before angina curls us like insects, in flame. Before the stone is lodged in its screaming cavity. Before the final, involuntary issue of bowel or bladder or foamy lungs.

It is one of the marvels of science.

"Tom," I said, for the doctor is an old friend, "lately I've noticed a feeling of fullness in my nasal passages. And I his morning, before I flew down from the country, I looked at the back of my throat. Up behind the uvula. Something is--growing there."

"Let's take a squint."

Tom was calm. He hadn't spent his forenoon staring from an airplane window at the landscapes of New York and New Jersey, but seeing only a reflection in a bathroom mirror. A reflection of his face, yawning unpleasantly in the lavender fluorescence, the vertical tubes of light, and there, on his throat's arch, a foreign tissue like a clot of paint scraped from a bright palette.

He had merely shaved, as the rest of us had shaved on thousands of mornings, thinking of this and that.

Now he switched on a light, tilted the circular reflector above his forehead and removed his gold spectacles. I yawned.

He said, "Hunh."

So I knew.

We'd been friends, after all, for thirty-four years; by the inflection of a syllable, we could make lucid assertions. He thought--what I thought.

"Phil," he said, "we better get a biopsy right away."

"It's in a bad spot."

His instruments gagged me for a minute or two, brought tears in my eyes, probed at revolted mucosae. "Yes, Phil. And there's a lot of it. You didn't notice--anything--?"

"Earlier? Nope. This morning. I was flying down anyhow. I have a serial to correct."

"Of course," Tom said, ''I'm not sure. It could be one of those rank lymphoid things. Radium blots them out. X-ray. Radioactive cobalt, these days, perhaps. But--"


We looked at each other for a while. He said a kind thing: "We're both-forty-six."

He meant that we shared the hazards of time together. He also intended to start me thinking of all I had been and done, seen and known, felt and expressed, in four and a half decades of life.

His clock ticked.

His phone rang.

The receiver brought to my age-dulled ears the emery of a woman's voice. And Tom, with the cultivated patience that masks a physician's irritation, told her to take the

"pink medicine" every two hours instead of every four.

The elixir alurate, I thought.

That brickbat on the safety valve of America: barbital.

I would soon be on morphine myself . . .

"How long?" I asked, when Tom hung up.

His pale eyes peered affectionately from behind his spectacles. I felt sorry for him. "Let's get that biopsy, first."

"No fooling, Tom. You're nine-tenths convinced. The learned goons in your profession have told me my number was up, several times, before this. Sooner or later, one of you is bound to be right. And I don't feel lucky today. How long?"

He picked up a letter he had dictated, read it, and put it in a tray. He straightened his prescription pad so it was square with the tooled leather corner of his desk blotter. He glanced at the photograph of Aileen, his wife, Joy and Lee, his daughters. "If it's malignant--it's where you can't operate."

"How long will I be-able to write?"

"Month. Two. Three. Maybe more. No way to tell."

"Radiation--won't slow it down?"

"Can't use strong doses that near your brain, Phil." He grasped his telephone again. He told his nurse to arrange the biopsy. Immediately. He wrote an address.

' I'm busy tonight," he told me. "Can't get out of it. What about tomorrow--for dinner?"

I said, "Swell. When will I have the report?"


"Be quite a long weekend."

He commenced writing a prescription.

I had told him how well he seemed, when the nurse had ushered me in. He didn't seem well any more. The vestige of his White Mountain tan was saffron. In fifteen minutes, circles had come under his eyes. He handed me two little rectangles of paper.


"Not yet." It was a cruelty.

He flinched minutely. "That's for pb. Quarters. If you spook yourself up. And sodium amytal. Grain and a half. Sleep. You can take the whole bottle, if you want to.

Then the biopsy will surely be negative and you'll have thrown away your other six lives." He put his arm around my shoulder. "See you tomorrow--at your hotel--around seven."

I walked through the patients--through people who had nothing more serious than hypertension, or gastric ulcer, or diabetes. Or perhaps they did have fatal afflictions, though. Cancer, for example. You couldn't say what they had--sitting there, tremulously thumbing the magazines. They looked at me. They looked at the fat girl who rose because her turn was next.

I lit a cigarette when I got outdoors.

Coal tar, I thought.

Too late not to light a cigarette.

I stepped down in the gutter--in gum wrappers, glittering bits of cellophane, the blanched drift of horse manure, a swatch of blue cloth, a letter that had been rained on, fresh Pekinese sign, and a little dry mud. All around me midday, midtown Manhattan soaked up August in its brick pores, its limestone pores-flashed back August from glass, from polished granite, and from all its million metal fixtures. The sky was bluely vague.

An air-liner shoved up through it from La Guardia--a grinding abnormality.

I hailed a cab.

For the ordeal of biopsy, whatever it might be, I summoned my meager contempt.

A long experience of surgery is a poor indoctrination for each new need of it. Ringed about with sadists in white suits, with sterile techniques, with inquisitional steel, I have been too often the Exposed Nerve. I do not hope much, any more-and only defy so long as I am able. This artificial pose, garnished with calm and with smiling, is what some men call courage, and others dignity, but no man in his right mind evokes without cost:
we are the hateful survivors of our sciences.

It was a little thing.

A needle's prick in an alabastrine clinic. A numb diddling above the tonsil. Some blood to spit out.

The one sharp experience was the slight widening of lite surgeon's eyes when first he saw my throat.

Go on, I thought. Tell me that the cure of cancer depends upon its early recognition! Ask me if I haven't read lite advertisements of the Society! And ask yourself, you smooth-faced blue-eyed son-of-a-bitch, if you have checked lite area behind your own uvula lately!

What I said was, "Just noticed it today."

I came, I meant, as soon as I could. I wasn't a dumbbell. I didn't let that gob grow inside my neck, week after week, in secret fear. I did what you told me to do.

He said, "Well, well," and injected me and clipped off a hunk and told me to come back on Monday at twelve o'clock. I went onto the street again.

It wasn't bothering me any.

Nobody could catch it from me.

Another cab slid to a stop on another pile of metropolitan offal. I got in. The radio was talking about Babe Ruth, who had recently died of throat cancer. And metastases.

I thought of telling the driver to turn off the lush woe.

Life's ironies amuse cynical people-who are, after all, sentimentalists, for only sentimental people would bother themselves to beget so foolish a self-defense as cynicism.

"Terrible loss," the driver said, waiting for the Madison Avenue light.

I chose this better opportunity. "Loss, hell! A baseball player. A tough guy.

Somebody with trick reflexes who could bat a ball farther than anybody else, oftener.

And the whole damned United States gets choked up and goes into mourning. Double-page spreads in the newspapers. When a really great man dies, he's lucky to get one snapshot and a column." I looked quickly at his framed license. Saul Kaufman. "Will the American people go on a morbid spree when Einstein dies?" I asked.

It got him. He glanced back appreciatively. "You said it!"

If his name had been Angelo Utrillo, I would have suggested Fermi. He wouldn't have known who Fermi was, but my explanation would have filled him with pride. And if it had been Michael Riority, I would have tried De Valera.

"Babe Ruth," I repeated when I paid my fare. "Did the
and the
give Freud a double-page spread? The greatest mind in the twentieth century. Greatest Jew since Jesus. We should be proud to live in the same age. But what are we proud of? Babe Ruth. Baseball's okay--but the way people act about it certainly shows what's wrong with people."

"You're right, Mac."

I tipped him a quarter. Money wasn't going to be useful to me much longer. Then I felt sick. The money I possessed--the insurance-the money that might come from my books and perhaps from the posthumous sale of a few stories to the movies--would be all there was

for my wife


my wife's mother

and some others.

I had two rooms--a bedroom and parlor. Sleep and reading in bed were thus kept separate from work, from the two hundred and eighteen pages of my serial which had to be cut sheet by sheet, line by line, to fit the precise requirements of a weekly magazine.

This small suite was on the sixteenth floor. Here, the street sounds became boogie-woogie--set to rhythm by bouncing back and forth between the walls of Madison Avenue.

Here the smell of the city was less toxic. And here the eye ranged over rooftops. My draperies, flowered and lined with sateen, moved now against the dark-green embrasures of the window--not in a breeze but in the upward eddy of diurnal heat. The yellow roses with which the management had greeted me dangled in their vase. I wondered whether to cut their stems or throw them out. If Ricky, my wife, had accompanied me. there would have been two dozen roses--and she would have known about the stems. I propped open the door to the hall with a book. Air sucked through the crack.

In a big mirror, over the mantel, over the chunks of topaz glass that represented coals in the artificial fireplace, I could see myself. Strained and pallid, sweat showing at the armpits of my dark-blue gabardine jacket.

I took it off.

My shirt was wet.

I took that off.

The man in the mirror was naked from the waist up. A man with a little fold of belly showing over his belt. A man whose back, when he turned, was well muscled at the shoulders and ridged with parallel sinews that made a valley of the spine. A man whose strength had come through effort and application, rather late. A man who stepped closer to the mirror and opened his mouth to study, inside it, a small, fresh wound.

He sat down on the divan, presently, and took a cigarette from the coffee table.

Lighted it. Reached for the telephone.

And identified with himself again.

I wanted to call Ricky--in the country.

To call her from the vegetable garden, where she might he weeding, or from the rock garden, when she might be replanting the daffodil bulbs, to call her from a book, or from washing the cocker pups, or from painting shelves, or from anything that she was doing. I wanted, with overwhelming urgency, to tell her to come down to New York and share this weekend. Carry it with me and for me.

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