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Authors: Stephen Becker

Juice

BOOK: Juice
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Juice

A Novel

Stephen Becker

1

Joseph Harrison was not the average American: he was financially secure, did not covet his neighbor's wife, and had no “hobbies.” Still, he might walk unnoticed on a public street; he dressed elegantly but conservatively, and had no bizarre physical traits. He was tall, but not imposingly so. He was neither fat nor thin, but had an unostentatious solidity. He had pleasant features, and women thought him handsome. Men disagreed, and called him manly, unaware that for many women the two attributes are one. His hair was fine, soft, medium-cropped, and graying; younger women knew immediately that he was strong, urbane, and passionate, while older women knew immediately that he was sympathetic, tender, and understanding. Meeting him for the first time, an acute woman or an intuitive man might sense a chill, a reserve, almost an indifference. The woman would blame it on his affection for his wife; the man would label him a martinet. Each would be partially correct.

He loved his wife, which was not unusual; he had loved her unremittingly for fifteen years, which was. He also loved his work. To his wife and children he brought uninhibited, and often bawdy, fondness. To his work he brought an inordinate sense of responsibility and a competence unmatched in his field. There was, of course, a little mingling of attitudes: he was surely responsible and competent at home, and he was often cheerful and bawdy at work. He could distinguish one domain from the other, but he could not split his soul between them. Until a certain day in May (a day when death, which is in human affairs a constant, like the speed of light in physics, forced him temporarily out of both worlds and into an unknown region) he considered the two domains of equal and permanent importance. Perhaps they were. He was, to use another man's phrase, the mainspring of both.

The other man, the phrasemaker, was Arthur Rhein, founder and chairman of the board of the Pacific American Network. If Joseph Harrison, as managing director of the network, was its mainspring, then he, Rhein, was its twenty-one jewels. He was therefore forgiven for the phrase. In ordinary converse he was a man of fair vocabulary and graceful expression, but when he discussed business he gave in to metaphor and fustian. “There is no independence without talent,” he said proudly, for instance, thinking back on his rise in the world. Or: “Crises are not to be feared, but welcomed.” He believed that success in business (which, in another mood, he called simply “money”) was largely due to the crises generated when men of talent banded together to fodder and fleece a sheepish public.

The Pacific American Network was Arthur Rhein's unmortgaged freehold in what he otherwise considered a precariously piratical world. P.A.N. was a television channel, a radio transmitter, two newspapers with a combined circulation of over three million. P.A.N. was a small book-publishing house. P.A.N. was a theatrical weekly. P.A.N. might soon be a recording company. One way or another P.A.N. reached half of American humanity—probably more—west of the Rocky Mountains; citizens breakfasted, did laundry, made love, bet horses, squandered inheritances, graded ore, water skied, sorted oranges, read poetry, sinned and repented, devoured creatures of earth and sky, and lived through the rise or fall of personal empires, all within sight or sound of P.A.N. And this, Arthur Rhein would have been pleased to repeat, was the result of conflict. Crisis. Yes. Rhein's daring was perhaps mitigated by his being majority stockholder of the Pacific American Insurance Company (P.A.I., of course); but he had turned his versatility to noble account by requiring P.A.N. employees to insure—life, fire, theft, auto—with P.A.I.

He was revered by most of his employees. Certainly he was revered by Marie Dumont, née Duffy and as yet unmarried, twenty-three years old, of face and form divine, or at least demiurgeous (“of an inferior, not absolutely intelligent, deity”), who, as receptionist for Joseph Harrison, played king's sentry to a varied horde of harassed importunates. Marie Dumont had come to the West Coast in order to be near Hollywood; she was not quite silly enough to believe that her manifest beauty and ambushed talents would be mystically conveyed to the senses of a rich but honest agent at a soda fountain, but she was not quite clever enough to know that she had come west for exactly that. If the miracle had happened, she would have been no worse than a hundred current steatopygous sirens; she would have been a good deal prettier than most. Early on, there was nothing (nothing) she would not have done for “the big break.” Now, though, she had fallen upon lazy ways. She liked her work at P.A.N. She met what she called the
haut monde
(and spelled, in rare letters home,
haute monde
). That expression, and a flat, mangled
merde
, were her French. She had tried other phrases now and then, but had given up in weary disgust at words not pronounced as they were spelled.

The Dumont domain was not small. The reception room was some twenty-five feet square. The walls were a deep blue-purple. The carpeting, one huge wall-to-wall swatch, was a thick cream. Glass-topped tables and Scandinavian chairs were scattered at carefully plotted random. Miss Dumont worked her ravages from an unprotected desk. Behind her, and to her left, was the door to Harrison's suite of offices. There were no windows in the reception room. Instead there were a Braque, an early Picasso, a Marin, and a Kokoschka done in blues and yellows (which should not have succeeded against the dark wall, but did, like an aggressive lodge button on a new serge suit). Visitors were invariably impressed. Those who were cold to the décor appreciated the art; and those for whom art was long and life short appreciated Miss Dumont, forgetting that judgment was difficult and experiment perilous.

Harrison, unfortunately, barely noticed Miss Dumont. Mrs. Harrison was unfailingly affable, occasionally down-right friendly, and always unpredictable. She could, Miss Dumont had decided with only a
soupçon
of bitterness, afford it: her figure was lovely, and her face would have qualified her for the glossier magazines. She was also unconventional, which drove Miss Dumont as close to fury as a character formed on the playing fields of Newman Grove, Nebraska, could be driven. Mrs. Harrison had, not six months before, pushed through the glass doors wearing men's corduroy pants, ski boots, and a buckskin tunic. Of all things. A mother of two.

So, regretfully, Harrison was unreachable. Miss Dumont understood that she was, and always would be, at best a minor character, a supernumerary, in whatever the drama of Harrison's life was, or might later be. But from nine to five each day she stood—or sat—between him and the world, which pleased her. The job had other compensations, and it paid nicely. Miss Dumont was well off, and knew it. And then there were the periodic crises. The crises were simply wonderful.

On an afternoon in late May—there had been no hint of crisis, but it was, later, a day that Miss Dumont would never forget—Marie Dumont's reminiscences were interrupted by the unannounced and belligerent arrival of a man she liked. His name was Mort Weinstein. He was managing editor of the
Intelligencer
, the P.A.N. evening newspaper. He was tall, burly, and hairy. His features were not special. Marie Dumont did not know why she liked him. He was in his forties, like Joseph Harrison. His pants were too long and the knot in his tie was entirely undisciplined. He was sensuous; Miss Dumont did not know that he was a good managing editor because he derived an almost physical satisfaction from doing his work well. A good meal gratified him; a good drink gratified him; a good woman gratified him; and an honest day's work gratified him. Metaphysics repelled him. He was a good man and a hard worker, and was happy. He was also direct, rude, tactless, wearing a $29.95 suit, and oblivious to the length of his pants or the position of his tie. He was also fairly oblivious to Miss Dumont, which she sensed. She was somewhat relieved by that. She had an idea that if he had wanted her he would simply have asked (abstractedly; while examining notes) whether she would move in with him for a while. Miss Dumont would have refused; and the nagging regret would have followed her all the days of her life.

“Harrison,” he said, looming before her. “Now. Within three minutes. I own a boat. Three minutes, or I'm in the fish business.”

“I'll buzz him,” Marie smiled.

“Tuna,” he said. “Sunshine. Fresh air. Unlimited klabriasch. Hurry. I'm hungry.”

Marie was talking to Harrison's secretary. Harrison was free. One moment.

Weinsten paced. “Marin,” he said. “Picasso. We're too good for Goya. I'll go to New York. Through the canal. More Goya in New York—
nu?
Is he free?”

“She's checking,” Marie said.

“I'll learn Italian,” he said. “Always wanted to learn Italian.
Vietato di fumare. Nicht hinauslehnen. Défense de jouer avec la serrure.”

“That's not Italian,” Miss Dumont said. She had heard
avec.

“You're right. You're indispensable. I need you, Miss Dumont.” He was glaring at the Braque.

Miss Dumont disliked him.

Mr. Harrison would see Mr. Weinstein.

“Bravo,” Weinstein said. “Now do something for me. You will, won't you?” he asked tenderly.

“Oh, stop it!” she said. “What do you want?”

“Two corned beef on rye, a pickle, two containers of coffee, black. Call down and have it brought up, will you?” He was on his way to the door; he looked back; she nodded.

Soon Harrison's secretary left for a dental appointment, and Marie Dumont was cheered: the responsibility of taking telephone messages was one she loved. There were a few calls. Osterman, the program director: was Harrison free? No? What happened with Flavia Montrose? “I don't know,” she said. “Miss Montrose hasn't been in.”

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