MITCH BERGER WAS SPRAWLED on his living room sofa at two in the afternoon watching The Manchurian Candidate and devouring his fourth Krispy Kreme honey-dipped of the day when the woman he worked for buzzed his apartment.
For Mitch to be home in the middle of the day watching an old movie on TV was not unusual. He was the lead film critic of the most prestigious—and therefore the lowest paying—of the three New York City daily newspapers. And while he did have a desk in midtown alongside of the paper’s other eminent culture vultures, he generally worked at home. His books were here. His VCR was here. His lair was here.
But for his editor to show up at his apartment unannounced was most unusual indeed. Shocking, even.
Lacy Mickerson was a tall, edgy tuning fork of a woman in her late fifties, an immaculate dresser who favored gray flannel pants suits and claimed to have bedded Irwin Shaw, Mickey Mantle and Nelson Rockefeller in her youth. As the paper’s arts editor, she was one of the most influential cultural arbiters in New York, if not the whole country. It was Lacy who decided which shows and films merited extra attention. It was Lacy who had hired Mitch away from a scholarly film journal the year before when the man who had been the paper’s reigning film critic since Truman was in the White House finally agreed to hang up his flashlight pen. Mitch was young for such a heavyweight job, thirty-two. The same age William Holden had been when he played Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard. But he was uncommonly knowledgeable when it came to films. In fact, Lacy believed Mitch had seen virtually every film that had ever been made. He hadn’t, although he had written two highly authoritative and entertaining film reference guides, It Came from Beneath the Sink and Shoot My Wife, Please, which catalogued and critiqued the worlds of horror and crime films, respectively. As a critic, Mitch was considered witty, informative and enthusiastic. As a person he was considered unusually modest. He did not have a swelled head. He did not think his opinion mattered more than anyone else’s did. In fact, he still could not believe that someone was actually paying him to go to the movies.
The day she hired him, Lacy predicted that Mitch would win a Pulitzer before he was forty.
Right now she stood there looking around at his living room with keen disapproval. Mitch had a very desirable parlor floor-through in a turn-of-the-century brownstone on Gansevoort in the West Village’s meat-packing district. Hanging over the fireplace was a framed poster made from a rare Sid Avery black-and-white group photograph featuring all of the cast members of Ocean’s Eleven. When Maisie was living with him it had been a photograph of Georgia O’Keeffe that hung there. When Maisie was living with him it had been spotless, too. Now it was dingy and cluttered. Books and videos and magazines were heaped on every available surface. Clothes and food wrappers were strewn all over. The sky-blue Fender Stratocaster that Mitch had recently bought to ease his pain was propped against the monster-sized stack that went with it—a pair of Fender twin reverb amps, piled one atop the other, with a signal splitter on top and two foot pedals, a wa-wa and an Ibanez tube screamer. He could blow out all of the windows on the street if he wanted to. Every tenant in his building had been sure to let Mitch know they hated him for buying it.
There had been a cat, but Mitch had given it away. He could not bear to look at it after Maisie was gone.
Mitch reached for his remote control and stopped the tape of The Manchurian Candidate, even though it was right in the middle of the landmark garden club scene. He cleared space for Lacy on the love seat. He offered her a doughnut. She accepted one. Krispy Kreme doughnuts were considered a great delicacy among New York foodies. Lacy was a consummate New York foodie.
“Would you like a glass of chocolate milk with that?” he asked her, opening the shutters to let in some of the midday sunlight. “They go very well with chocolate milk, I’ve discovered.”
She gazed at him curiously a moment. He did not look great. Mitch knew this. He was still in his bathrobe. He was unshaven, his curly black hair uncombed. “All right,” she said finally.
He padded into the kitchen and came back with two cold glasses and handed her one and sat down.
“What are we working on?” She bit into her doughnut.
“A Sunday piece on Laurence Harvey,” Mitch replied, sipping his milk. “He’s amazing in this movie. Positively oozes with self-loathing. I don’t think I ever appreciated how good an actor he was before. I just finished watching Room at the Top and Darling and now I’m trying to track down Expresso Bongo, a British cult film he made with Cliff Richard. I thought I’d give him his due, because the sad truth is that no one under thirty even knows who he was.”
“I am loving this, Mitch!” Lacy said excitedly. Lacy was very good at being excited. It was one of her greatest gifts as an editor. “Only, now you’re making me wonder who else we’ve forgotten about.”
He frowned at her thoughtfully. “Oskar Werner … ?”
“Of course,” he pointed out hastily, “for every one of them you’ve got your Michael Saracens and your Richard Beymers. Performers who make you wonder how they ever landed the starring role in a major Hollywood film.”
“There might be a Sunday piece in that, too,” Lacy suggested, wagging a long, manicured finger at him. “Coupled with a ‘where-are-they-now’ sidebar. I could put a reporter on it.”
Mitch peered at her for a moment in silence. “We’re not talking about what you came here to talk about.” And when she said nothing to that he said, “Lacy, why are you here?”
“I have some news for you, Mitch,” Lacy replied, uneasily. “I don’t know whether you’ll be disappointed or relieved, but … I came to tell you that you’re not going to Cannes this year. I’m sending Karen instead.”
He was relieved, actually. Usually, he looked forward to Cannes. It was France. It was fun. But he hadn’t wanted to go—to Cannes or anywhere else. He did not want to see anyone. He did not want to talk to anyone.
“It’ll be good experience for her,” he said encouragingly. Karen was the paper’s new second-string critic. Very raw. Her precedessor, an Oxford-trained classical scholar, had left just after Christmas to write the new Jackie Chan movie. “Although I should warn you that it’s a bit of a meat market. You might lose her to another paper.”
Lacy fell silent. She wasn’t done. Mitch could tell by the determined set of her jaw. “You’re headed somewhere else, Mitch,” she added in a firm, quiet voice.
A sudden wave of panic washed over him. Here it was—his worst nightmare. She was banishing him to the L.A. bureau. A fate which he regarded as worse than death. Within a week he would become a character straight out of The Day of the Locust. Living in a run-down bungalow court. Hanging around with tormented midgets, broken-down cowboys and baby-faced, brain-dead blondes. He would quit the paper, that’s what he’d do. He would have to quit.
Yeah, right. And do what?
Mitch breathed in and out, watching Lacy intently now. And waiting.
“I’ve wangled you a weekend getaway piece for the Sunday travel section.”
He heaved a huge, inward sigh of relief. “And where am I getting away to?”
“It’s on the Connecticut shoreline, out near Rhode Island.”
“What am I going to … Wait, isn’t that the place that had the outbreak of killer mosquitoes last summer?” demanded Mitch, whose natural habitat was a darkened movie theater, preferably below Fourteenth Street.
“It’s the jewel of the Gold Coast,” she said crisply. “Serious old money—more millionaires to the square mile than East Hampton. It’s also charming and unspoiled and way New Englandy. Artists have been drawn to it for years. The Dorset Academy of Fine Arts is there. You’ve heard of it, surely.”
“Vaguely,” Mitch grunted.
Lacy managed a tight smile. “Hell, I wish I were going.”
“So why don’t you? I’ll stay here and work on my Laurence Harvey piece.”
“It’s a perk, Mitch. A freebie. Only columnists and chief correspondents are supposed to get them.”
“So how did I get so lucky?”
“I thought you could stand to get out of the house for a change,” she replied.
She was right. Mitch knew this. And she was trying to help him the only way she knew how. Mitch knew this, too. He was becoming a recluse. Whole days went by when he spoke to no one. If he didn’t watch out he might turn into Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets. He needed to take charge of his life again. He needed to heal. He knew this. Healing was right up there near the top of his list of things to do—pick up shirts at cleaners, punch out Oliver Stone, play shooting guard for the Knicks, heal. It was right up there. But knowing it and doing it were two vastly different things. Especially when it was so much more comforting to sit watching old movies for days at a time in wounded, Olestra-free isolation.
“Go to Dorset,” Lacy commanded him. “Write about what you see. And don’t think about anything else for a couple of days, okay? Look, I don’t do the nurturing mother thing particularly well. I know this about myself …” Like all self-absorbed New York media people, Lacy turned every conversation about somebody else’s feelings into a conversation about her own feelings. “But this is what is known in the trade as a wake-up call. Your work hasn’t been up to your usual high standards lately. In fact, your Adam Sandler review was downright hostile.”
“Okay, time out,” Mitch objected defensively. “That movie was total crap.”
“Everyone else at the paper thought it was hilarious. The scene in the elevator? I wet my pants.”
“So did he!”
“Frankly, Mitch,” she shot back scoldingly, “you no longer seem able to comprehend the concept of comedy.”
Mitch didn’t disagree. He could smile from time to time, but he did not know how to laugh anymore.
“Naturally, I’ve understood,” Lacy added tactfully. “We all have. But when you get back we need to talk about where your life is headed.”
The West Coast, if he didn’t watch out. Oblivion.
“The getaway is for two,” Lacy added gamely. “Why don’t you take someone?”
“Now why didn’t I think of that?”
He took his Power Book, in the hope that he might at long last get rolling on his new reference book on Westerns. He had a ton of notes and raw material on floppy disks, but he couldn’t seem to get started on the actual writing. And it was rapidly becoming overdue. The computer rode next to him on the passenger seat, along with a generous bag of goodies from the Cupcake Café, as Mitch reluctantly piloted his rental Toyota out of Manhattan, his hands gripping the wheel tightly. Mitch Berger was a true child of the pavement—a product of Stuyvesant Town, Stuyvesant High and Columbia. Being a native New Yorker, he almost never drove. And driving in Manhattan, with its cab drivers, potholes, delivery trucks, bike messengers and pedestrians, was no easy task. Particularly during rush hour on a muggy Friday afternoon in May.
He had stowed his weekend bag in the backseat. Maisie had tried in vain to pep up his semi-shlumpy wardrobe, having once described his look as two-parts teddy bear and one-part tornado. Now that she was gone, he had reverted to what he had always worn—wrinkled button-down collar shirts, roomy V-neck sweaters and rumpled khakis. He owned two sport coats: an olive corduroy and a navy blazer. He had brought along the corduroy in case it was required in the dining room of the inn where he was staying. He did not bring a tie. He did not own a tie. He was very proud of this fact.
As he drove, Mitch’s thoughts drifted back to the last weekend getaway he had taken. They had taken. It had been one year ago almost exactly. They had driven up to Mohonk Mountain House to hike and snuggle and not think about the test results that were due on Monday. Maisie had been incredibly gay and cheerful on the way up. Mostly, she kept going on and on about some damned thing called the Fibonacci Series.
“For weeks we have been absolutely wracking our brains for the iteration of our planting plan,” she had declared excitedly. The planting plan was for the Hillview Reservoir. The city of New York was capping it against airborne contamination, which was a polite way of saying bird shit. Her firm had been hired to make it look nice. “And guess who thought of the Fibonacci Series—moi!”
“Congratulations!” he had exclaimed. “Maisie … ?”
“Yes, my sweet baboo?”
“What is the Fibonacci Series?” The influence of German Expressionism on the noir films of Robert Siodmak Mitch understood. Maisie’s work he never did.
“Why, it’s a variation of the Golden Section.”
“Which is … ?”
“A basic mathematical system of proportion dating back to the Greek temple structures. Le Corbusier based his Modular system on it. It’s defined geometrically as a line that is divided such that the lesser portion is to the greater as the greater is to the whole.”
“And the Fibonacci Series … ?”
“Is a variation using whole numbers. Each representing the sum of the two preceding numbers. So instead of counting out one, two, three, four, five, you count out one, one, two, three, five, eight, thirteen and so on. Just imagine it as a planting pattern of grasses spanning some two hundred acres. Imagine it from the air.” Maisie sighed. “If only one were a bird.”
Maisie Lawrenson was in a landscape architecture firm down on Duane Street with four other young women, all of them Harvard Graduate School of Design alums. All of them were smart, which was not necessarily synonymous with being a Harvard graduate. All of them were pretty, although in Mitch’s opinion Maisie was far and away the prettiest. She was a tall, slender blonde who dressed in loosely flowing linen and silk things and was in a perpetual hurry.
He had met her on Fire Island at the Fair Harbor dock. The first words he said to her were, “Are you waiting for the ferry?” The first words she said to him were, “You’re not supposed to call them that anymore—they prefer to be known as alternative water craft.” Within three weeks they had moved in together. They had been married nearly two years when they went away to Mohonk that weekend. They did not believe each other to be perfect. She felt he was among the socially lost, a brooder, a screening-room rat, a slob. He felt she could be impulsive and rash—Polyanna in Arche sandals. But she was his Maisie.
Until that Monday morning when they got back from Mohonk and he found out he was going to lose her. It was ovarian cancer. The silent killer, they called it, because there were no early warning signs. First they removed her ovaries. Then they put her on chemo. When her lovely blond hair fell out Mitch bought her a Yankee cap to wear. To this day whenever he saw a kid on the street wearing a Yankee cap he would start crying. She was gone in six months. She was thirty years old.
Mitch had a sister in Denver, parents in Florida, colleagues, pals. He had nobody. It was Maisie who had brought him out of his shell. She was his lifeline. Without her, he was achingly, crushingly alone.
Some mornings, he could barely will himself to get out of bed. The future terrified him. On several occasions, he had awakened with a gasp in the night, his heart racing and fluttering out of control. His doctor had diagnosed it as anxiety. He advised Mitch to seek counseling. Which Mitch had. His counselor had advised Mitch to find some way to relax. That was how he’d ended up with the Stratocaster. He had taken up the guitar in high school, briefly, in the hope that it would enable him to meet girls. Another fervid illusion shattered. But he had enjoyed the playing.
As he inched his way now over the Triborough Bridge onto the Bruckner Expressway, Mitch helped himself to a cupcake and glanced at the travel kit he’d been given. His destination was the historic Frederick House Inn in historic Dorset, which was situated on the Long Island Sound at the mouth of the historic Connecticut River.
It does not take very long, Mitch reflected grumpily, for the word historic to get old.
It started to drizzle when he was crawling along outside of swank Greenwich on 1-95. By the time he had made it to Westport he had managed to figure out how to work his windshield wipers, which was a good thing because it was pouring now. And the temperature had dropped markedly. Beyond Fairfield, upscale suburbia gave way to the downscale rust belt of Bridgeport and New Haven, where he ran out of cupcakes. Then Mitch crossed the Quinnipiac River and officially entered Southern New England. The foliage got thicker, the traffic thinner. It was getting dark by the time he reached Exit 69, which was the last exit before the Connecticut River. He wanted Exit 70, but he got in the wrong lane and instead of crossing the river he somehow ended up on Route 9, heading due north toward Hartford. He was halfway to East Haddam before he figured out what he’d done and managed to double back. As a result, it was pitch black by the time he finally set eyes on Dorset.
The town was utterly asleep. Mitch had a funny feeling it would look exactly the same when it was wide awake.
A stand of trees shielded the Frederick House Inn from the road. A broad circular driveway led to the front door of the three-story house, which had been built in 1756. There were eleven rooms, each furnished with antiques. There was a fireplace in the dining room. Chilled, Mitch warmed himself in front of the fire with a generous jolt of Bushmill. He was too late for dinner. In fact, the dining room was technically closed. But the innkeeper managed to assemble a plate of cold sausages, lentil salad and rolls for him.
Afterward, he went upstairs to his snug little room and drew a bubble bath for himself in the claw-footed tub. As it filled Mitch stripped off his clothes and gazed at himself in the mirror. He was not terrible-looking. He was not bald. He was not short. His weight generally fluctuated between burly and pudgy, depending on his intake of sweets. Right now, pudgy was winning out. Still, he was not in bad shape for someone who spent most of his waking hours sitting in a dark room on his butt. He sucked in his stomach and puffed out his chest and flexed his tattooed right bicep in the mirror. His tattoo said: Rocky Dies Yellow. He grinned at his reflection, a brave, jaunty grin reminiscent of Errol Flynn in Captain Blood. This was something he had taken to doing lately. His way of assuring himself that he was going to be okay.
I am laughing in the face of danger.
After his bath Mitch burrowed into his canopied bed with a collection of Manny Farber’s film columns from the fifties. Briefly, he was absorbed by the cranky iconoclast’s brilliant dissection of the films of Budd Boetticher. But before long Mitch found his mind drifting and he set the volume aside and lay there listening to the rain and thinking the same thing he thought every night as he lay in bed alone:
I am so glad I do not own a gun for my personal protection. Because if I had one I would shoot myself.
THE COLD BLUE BLOOD. Copyright © 2001 by David Handler. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.