The lost decade
All sorts of people came into the offices of the news-weekly and Orrison Brown had all sorts of relations with them. Outside of office hours he was “one of the editors” — during work time he was simply a curly-haired man who a year before had edited the Dartmouth Jack-O-Lantern and was now only too glad to take the undesirable assignments around the office, from straightening out illegible copy to playing call boy without the title.
He had seen this visitor go into the editor’s office — a pale, tall man of forty with blond statuesque hair and a manner that was neither shy nor timid, nor otherworldly like a monk, but something of all three. The name on his card, Louis Trimble, evoked some vague memory, but having nothing to start on, Orrison did not puzzle over it — until a buzzer sounded on his desk, and previous experience warned him that Mr. Trimble was to be his first course at lunch.
“Mr. Trimble — Mr. Brown,” said the Source of all luncheon money. “Orrison — Mr. Trimble’s been away a long time. Or he feels it’s a long time — almost twelve years. Some people would consider themselves lucky to’ve missed the last decade.”
“That’s so,” said Orrison.
“I can’t lunch today,” continued his chief. “Take him to Voisin or 21 or anywhere he’d like. Mr. Trimble feels there’re lots of things he hasn’t seen.”
Trimble demurred politely.
“Oh, I can get around.”
“I know it, old boy. Nobody knew this place like you did once — and if Brown tries to explain the horseless carriage just send him back here to me. And you’ll be back yourself by four, won’t you?”
Orrison got his hat.
“You’ve been away ten years?” he asked while they went down in the elevator.
“They’d begun the Empire State Building,” said Trimble. “What does that add up to?”
“About 1928. But as the chief said, you’ve been lucky to miss a lot.” As a feeler he added, “Probably had more interesting things to look at.”
“Can’t say I have.”
They reached the street and the way Trimble’s face tightened at the roar of traffic made Orrison take one more guess.
“You’ve been out of civilization?”
“In a sense.” The words were spoken in such a measured way that Orrison concluded this man wouldn’t talk unless he wanted to — and simultaneously wondered if he could have possibly spent the thirties in a prison or an insane asylum.
“This is the famous 21,” he said. “Do you think you’d rather eat somewhere else?”
Trimble paused, looking carefully at the brownstone house.
“I can remember when the name 21 got to be famous,” he said, “about the same year as Moriarity’s.” Then he continued almost apologetically, “I thought we might walk up Fifth Avenue about five minutes and eat wherever we happened to be. Some place with young people to look at.”
Orrison gave him a quick glance and once again thought of bars and gray walls and bars; he wondered if his duties included introducing Mr. Trimble to complaisant girls. But Mr. Trimble didn’t look as if that was in his mind — the dominant expression was of absolute and deep-seated curiosity and Orrison attempted to connect the name with Admiral Byrd’s hideout at the South Pole or flyers lost in Brazilian jungles. He was, or he had been, quite a fellow — that was obvious. But the only definite clue to his environment — and to Orrison the clue that led nowhere — was his countryman’s obedience to the traffic lights and his predilection for walking on the side next to the shops and not the street. Once he stopped and gazed into a haberdasher’s window.
“Crêpe ties,” he said. “I haven’t seen one since I left college.”
“Where’d you go?”
“I’m going to take a look at it next week. Let’s eat somewhere along here — ” They were in the upper Fifties “ — you choose.”
There was a good restaurant with a little awning just around the corner.
“What do you want to see most?” Orrison asked, as they sat down.
“Well — the back of people’s heads,” he suggested. “Their necks — how their heads are joined to their bodies. I’d like to hear what those two little girls are saying to their father. Not exactly what they’re saying but whether the words float or submerge, how their mouths shut when they’ve finished speaking. Just a matter of rhythm — Cole Porter came back to the States in 1928 because he felt that there were new rhythms around.”
Orrison was sure he had his clue now, and with nice delicacy did not pursue it by a millimeter — even suppressing a sudden desire to say there was a fine concert in Carnegie Hall tonight.
“The weight of spoons,” said Trimble, “so light. A little bowl with a stick attached. The cast in that waiter’s eye. I knew him once but he wouldn’t remember me.”
But as they left the restaurant the same waiter looked at Trimble rather puzzled as if he almost knew him. When they were outside Orrison laughed:
“After ten years people will forget.”
“Oh, I had dinner there last May — ” He broke off in an abrupt manner.
It was all kind of nutsy, Orrison decided — and changed himself suddenly into a guide.
“From here you get a good candid focus on Rockefeller Center,” he pointed out with spirit “ — and the Chrysler Building and the Armistead Building, the daddy of all the new ones.”
“The Armistead Building,” Trimble rubber-necked obediently. “Yes — I designed it.”
Orrison shook his head cheerfully — he was used to going out with all kinds of people. But that stuff about having been in the restaurant last May . . .
He paused by the brass entablature in the cornerstone of the building. “Erected 1928,” it said.
“But I was taken drunk that year — every-which-way drunk. So I never saw it before now.”
“Oh.” Orrison hesitated. “Like to go in now?”
“I’ve been in it — lots of times. But I’ve never seen it. And now it isn’t what I want to see. I wouldn’t ever be able to see it now. I simply want to see how people walk and what their clothes and shoes and hats are made of. And their eyes and hands. Would you mind shaking hands with me?”
“Not at all, sir.”
“Thanks. Thanks. That’s very kind. I suppose it looks strange — but people will think we’re saying good-by. I’m going to walk up the avenue for awhile, so we will say good-by. Tell your office I’ll be in at four.”
Orrison looked after him when he started out, half expecting him to turn into a bar. But there was nothing about him that suggested or ever had suggested drink.
“Jesus,” he said to himself. “Drunk for ten years.”