Sunday, August 22, 2010

“A Town Called Disdain”, Episode 38: Manhattans

(Go here to read our previous episode; click here to return to the beginning of our Pabst Blue Ribbon Award-winning serialization of the legendary Larry Winchester’s unexpurgated masterpiece.)*

The place: Big Jake Johnstone’s ranch, several miles outside of the town of Disdain, New Mexico. The time: an afternoon in early September, 1969.

(This episode rated R for "restricted plot development".)

*("Not only the only American film-maker whose name can justifiably be mentioned in the same breath with Bergman, Fellini and Renoir, but perhaps the only American novelist who could equitably tipple a cocktail with the likes of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Dickens and Cervantes." -- Harold Bloom)

Big Jake was mixing up a batch of Four Roses Manhattans in a stainless steel shaker that had the Playboy Bunny embossed on it.

“What a very cunning cocktail shaker you have, Big Jake,” said Daphne.

She lay sprawled out on a faded old floral print sofa with yellowed lace anti-macassars here in Jake’s large and somewhat grandmotherly living room. Dick sat in a naugahyde adjustable reclining chair with a lever that didn’t quite work. The chair seemed to want to sit either bolt upright or straight back. He had opted for the bolt upright position.

“Ain’t it nice?” said Jake. “Got it at the gift shop at that Playboy Club up in Chicago. “Y’know that Hugh Hefner feller’s a personal acquaintance of mine.”

“Really, how exciting for you,” said Daphne. She was smoking a cigarette in her holder, and she tapped the ash into a blue cut-glass ashtray balanced on her belly. “I’ll bet you’re quite the hit with all those little bunnies of his.”

Big Jake halted in mid-shake.

“Miz Daphne, there ain’t a one of them bunnies I seen up there can hold a candle to you in the female pulchritude department and that’s the God’s honest truth. You like a cherry in your Manhattan?”

“Two please.”

“Cherry, Mr. Smith?”

Dick was smoking also, one of Jake’s Marlboros.

“Mr. Smith?’

“Yes, Jake?”

“I say you want a cherry in your Manhattan?”

“Oh. Twist of lemon peel for me, Jake, please.”

“That is within the range of my capability, sir.”

Dick and Daphne were still in their dusty riding clothes. Big Jake wore a silk smoking jacket in a paisley design, a scarlet silk ascot around his massive neck, and a bright white Mexican ranchero shirt embroidered in garnet and gold. White silk bell-bottoms and red velvet slippers completed his ensemble. A Double Corona Cuban lay smoking in the Playboy Club ashtray on the drinks cart.

Sticking the thick tip of his tongue out of the corner of his mouth in concentration Jake raised up the completed cocktails, one in each of his enormous hands, and then he walked very carefully over to Daphne. His hand trembled as he handed Daphne her cocktail.

“Thank you, Big Jake.”

“You’re very welcome, ma’am.”

Jake lumbered over to Dick with his cocktail, spilling only a few drops on the priceless Persian rug.

Dick rose slightly in his seat and took the drink.

“Thanks, Jake.”

“My pleasure, Mr. Smith.”

Jake went back and got his own drink and his cigar, then he went and sat himself down in the sturdy-looking red leather easy-chair at the foot of the sofa, his lower torso sinking down nearly a foot into its plush seat cushion as both he and the chair emitted a brief whinnying chorus of wheezings.

Jake raised his glass in toast, despite the fact that Dick and Daphne had already sampled their own drinks.

“To friendship,” he suggested.

Dick was staring off into space, Daphne was massaging one of her bare feet, so Jake went ahead and tasted his drink alone.

“So, Miz Daphne,” Jake ventured again, speaking a bit louder, “lost your boots in the quicksand?”

“What? Yes. What a bother.”

“Well you gonna have to let me get you a pair of genuine handmade Mexican boots. Gila monster skin. As a gift.”

“If you can find a pair to fit these big feet of mine.”

“You got lovely feet, Miz Daphne.”

“They’re enormous.”

“Well, they ain’t small exactly -- what size are they anyway if ya don’t mind my asking.”

“Can I just write it down?”

“Think you might could take a man’s size 8?

“Well I might just possibly squeeze into them.”

“Esmeralda!” Jake bellowed, and after a long moment or two the little maid came in slowly from the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron and blowing smoke out of the corner of her mouth. “Esmeralda, go on up to Little Jake’s room and bring down them boots I got him his last birthday. Por favor, if you please.”

The maid made a clicking sound with her tongue and went off up the great curving staircase, speaking Spanish under her breath.

“'Little Jake?'” asked Daphne.

“Damn fool pipsqueak son o’ mine. Went off to live in one of them hippie communes and didn’t take nothin’ but his blue jeans and his guitar. Said he didn’t want nothin’ from me so fuck him, pardon my French. Got a beautiful pair of boots he never even took out of the box. He’d rather wear sneakers,” he said with contempt, “or run around barefoot like some God damn greaser or Injun.”

“I can’t imagine why he’d want to leave a nice place like this,” said Daphne.

“Weak blood,” said Big Jake. “His mother is -- ain’t a neither one of you’s of Spanish descent, are ya?”

“Good heavens no,” said Daphne.

“Mexican his mother is,” said Jake. “I was young, and foolish. Thought I knew everything. And she was damn good lookin’ and, you know --” He raised up his turned-in splayed meaty paws and bounced an imaginary pair of bowling-ball sized breasts. “Biggest mistake I ever made. Made me bring up the kids -- you all ain’t Roman Catholic, are ya?”

“Good Lord no,” said Daphne, although in fact both she and Dick had been raised at least nominally Catholic.

“Thank God for that. She made me bring up the kids Catholic, and I ain’t a prejudiced man but I don’t trust the Catholics and I don’t trust the Jews. It’s white people like you two good people and me what built this damn land o’ liberty and if we don’t watch our step it’s gonna be overrun by the Catholic Church and the Jews and the damn Black Panthers and Black Muslims and the Communists and the Ayrabs and the Mafia and the Mex-- oh, hey there, Esmeralda.”

The maid had quietly come back down the stairs during Jake’s discourse. She handed him a white cardboard box.

“Mr. Little Jake’s botas,” she said.

“Thank ya, darlin’.”

She went away and Big Jake took the lid off the box. He opened the tissue paper and took out two incredibly garish cowboy boots with pointed silver toes. The boots fairly glowed in the late-afternoon light.

“Whatcha thank?”

Neither Dick nor Daphne said anything.

"Miz Daphne?'

"Yes, Jake."

"I say whatcha thank?"

"What do I thank?"

"Whatcha thank about the boots."

“Oh, what do I think. About the boots. I think they're just marvelous, Big Jake,” said Daphne. "Marvelous."

“Lemme help ya on with ‘em.”

He heaved himself up with the boots, went down on one knee at Daphne’s feet and reverently began to slip one boot onto her right foot.

Dick was paying attention to none of this, sitting in his uncomfortable chair sipping his drink and smoking, staring at nothing on this earth.

“So where is this wife of yours?” asked Daphne.

Big Jake popped the heel of the boot with the heel of his hand and the boot slid neatly onto Daphne’s foot.

“Run off with a damn priest,” said Big Jake.

“Oh dear, how horrible for you.”

“Good riddance to bad Mex rubbish I say. How’s that feel? Wiggle your toes around in there.”

“Feels fine. A little loose even.”

“Don’t want ‘em too tight. Pair o’ thick socks, they should do fine.” He picked up the other boot and buffed it with his sleeve. “Whatcha thank, Mr. Smith? Mr. Smith, Dick --”

“Dick, darling,” said Daphne.


“Big Jake asked you what you think?”

“About what?”

“About the lovely boots he’s given me.”

“Oh, they’re -- uh -- nice, uh, really nice,” said Dick.

“They’re a little bit big for me, but I’ll wear them with a pair of nice thick socks.”

“That’s swell,” said Dick. “Say, Jake, you don’t have a radio you could lend us, do you?”

“Radio. Don’t listen to the radio much myself. ‘Course there’s one in the Victrola console over there.”

A Jackie Gleason instrumental album had been playing all through this on the old hi-fi set.

“Nothing smaller we could keep in our room?” asked Dick.

“Thank, I mean I think, I think Little Jake left one in his room. I’ll have Esmeralda dig it out for ya.”

“Thanks, Jake --”

Doc Goldwasser came in from the front hallway just then and stood there with his homburg on his head and his black bag in his hand.

“Doctor!” called Jake. “Come on in.” Jake stood up, still holding the left-foot boot. “You want a drink, Doc?”

“No thanks, Jake.”

The doctor took his hat off, and put it on the old coat tree, the one that was made out of antelope horns.

“Want you to meet some guests o’ mine. Doctor Goldwasser, Mr. and Mrs. Smith.”

The Doc came forward, and Dick stood up and shook his hand.

“Please to meet you, sir,” said Dick.

“Yeah, you, too,” said the Doc.

Daphne waved to the Doc, he waved back at her. Dick sat down again.

“Have a drink, Doc,” said Big Jake.

“I thought Hope was sick,” said the Doc.

“Well, she was, Doc, she was,” said Jake.

“Then I’d better go have a look at her.”

“Well, thing is, she’s restin’ now, Doc.”

“Jesus Christ, Jake, you wake me up out of a sound sleep, I drive all the way out here --”

“Now don’t get your dander up, Doc, I’ll pay you for the visit --”

Suddenly the Doc sat down on the sofa. He put his case on the floor and it fell over.

“You all right, Doc?” asked Jake.

“Fuck,” said the Doc. His face had gone pale.

“It’s your head, ain’t it,” said Jake.

“Fuck,” said the Doc.

Everyone looked at him. He took a deep breath, then reached into his inside breast pocket, took out a small brown bottle. He unscrewed the cap and took a gulp. He waited a couple of seconds then took another gulp. He sat there holding the bottle in one hand and the cap in the other. The Jackie Gleason music played.

“You better now, Doc?”

The doctor waited a couple of seconds, then screwed the cap back on the bottle.

“War wound,” said Jake to Dick and Daphne both. “Got a piece of Kraut shrapnel stuck in his skull.” The Doc took another big breath and then finally put the little bottle away. “Look, Doc,” said Jake, “stick around to supper. We’re havin’ Saturday night barbecue. When Hope wakes up you can take a little look at her maybe. I’ll pay ya for your time and give you a good meal on top of it. Put a little meat on your bones.”

“All right,” said the Doc. He looked like it really didn’t matter to him either way right now. He sat back with his eyes half closed.

“What seems to be the matter with Hope?” asked Daphne.

“She’s nervous,” said Jake.

He came over, knelt down again and started to put the other boot on Daphne's foot.

“She’s a very beautiful girl,” said Daphne.

“Yes she is, but she’s nervous. She, uh, she recently had, uh, whatcha might call an, um, an ‘attack’. Yeah. Reason why she’s here at home now instead of startin’ out at Vassar like she should be doin’.”

“What kind of an attack?” asked Daphne.

Big Jake glanced over at the Doc, who remained impassive, taking out his cigarettes and lighter.

“Well,” said Jake, “she climbed up onto the roof of the house buck naked and speaking in tongues to the sky.”

“Oh,” said Daphne.

“I blame it on the nuns at that convent school she went to,” said Jake. “Fillin’ her head with religious hysteria, priest talk. I ain’t against religion, I’m a religious man myself in my own way, but what’s it gonna do to a child kneelin’ prayin’ to some half-naked longhaired bearded whupped man nailed to a cross or to some graven image of some woman with her heart showin’ out of her chest all bleedin’ with thorns wrapped around it, now what’s that gonna do to a child?”

Big Jake looked at each of them in turn, gripping Daphne’s foot in the boot.

“Don’t look at me, I’m a damn kike,” drawled the Doc.

“How about a drink, Doc? Got a shaker of Manhattans all made up.”

“Glass of cold water’d be nice, Jake.”

Jake patted Daphne’s booted foot one last time and hefted himself up.

“Sure thing, Doc. By the way,” he said, looking from Daphne to Dick, “Esmeralda found Hope in your-all’s room. Hope she didn’t upset nothin’.”

“In our room,” said Daphne.

“Yeah,” said Jake. “She was on your bed.”

“On our bed? What was she doing?”

“Well -- she was laughin’. And cryin’.”

“Oh dear.”

“Yeah. Wouldn’t stop. And she had her pants all pulled down.”


“I blame it on them nuns and priests.”

“How about that water, Jake,” said the Doc.

(Continued here.)


Unknown said...

Big Jake wore..White silk bell-bottoms and red velvet slippers...

Not sure if I'd love it if men I knew dressed like that or if I'd hate it--only that indifference is not an option. I certainly love Disdain: the wildness, of course, but the occasional cozy moments as well.

Dan Leo said...

Jake's dressed right out of a Playboy magazine fashion spread, circa 1969. Those were the days...

rhoda said...

fashion spread? does that mean people only read playboy for the pictures?

Dan Leo said...

Heh heh. Y'know, Rhoda, I still have (I hope) a trove of 1960s Playboys (along with some Esquires and Saturday Evening Posts and whatnot from that era) stored away in the basement of my building, and I have had many happy hours perusing their "man about town" layouts. Paisley was Very Big. And ascots. Preferably paisley ascots.