Harlan Ellison

Memory of a Muted Trumpet

THEY CALLED THE PLACE VALHALLA, but it was a loft on Second Street, a wino’s-breath from the Bowery, a pub’s-crawl from the Village.

It was on the fourth floor of a condemned building, and no one else lived there. Just The Green Hornet and Spoof and Gig-Man. There was Gig-Man’s new woman, they called her Patty Peek — because her name was Patty and she looked like she was always peeking around a corner, like that — and half a dozen cats, three of whom were named Shadrach, Meshach, and Boo-dow!

The night the girl they later called Irish first showed at Valhalla, they were having a rent party. The Hungarian who owned the rat-trap still made it to their door the first of every month, holding the rope they had nailed up for a bannister, and demanding his pound of flesh. So they were having a rent party, and digging.

The Green Hornet was hunkered down in front of the stereo being wigged by Shelly Manne whacking it home on “Man with the Golden Arm” at 180 decibels. The Salamander was sitting in the butterfly chair, combing her hair and trying to rationalize Nietzsche with her harelip. William Arthur Henderson-Kalish was standing in a corner talking to No. 1 and his latest acquisition, a chick named Maureen, who had carrot-colored hair, telling them, “Mencken was a genius, okay. But he had too many blind spots; the Jews, organized religion, isolationism. Genius is no excuse for being so out of it …”

Big Walt was sitting like a monarch in the easy chair near the forest of rubber plants. All 314 pounds of him, perspiring freely, making that areaverboten for anyone with a nose, and drinking from a can of beer on top of a stack of thirty beers. There was an old man nobody knew with a mouthful of gold teeth — so he’d been nicknamed Goldmouth — and he was sitting cross-legged in the middle of the floor, speaking softly in a Vermont dialect about, “Goin’ tuh th’ barn dance in m’dungies …”

In the kitchen six nobodys in button-down shirts and Harris tweed jackets were pouring the contents of a hip flask into the gigantic cooking pot of Sweet Lucy. They had each paid their dollar-fifty for the privilege of attending the party, and they were making certain — through dint of sheer alcohol — that they would each wind up with a weirdie Bohemian chick in their beds that night. Everyone was pointedly ignoring them.

A knock on the door was ignored by everyone except Floormat, a short and exceedingly dumpy girl with adolescent pimples, who hurried to answer it. When she flung open the door, Dick Eherenson and his new wife Portia stood there, holding their baby. They had been married a week; the baby was almost a year old. Its name was Bach Partita.

In the bedroom, where a monstrous bed took up the entire floor space — room enough for three couples on it — God Geller was sitting cross-legged upon the dirty sheets, informing a rapt audience of four girls from Hunter College what the drugpeyote was like:

“It’s non-habit-forming and it’s purely safe. The one drawback is that it tastes like hell. I mean, it’s so bad the thought of it can make you puke.”

“What’s it made from?” one of the girls, a freshman with deep-black eyes, asked.

God Geller ran a shaky hand through his short, curly hair. “Thepeyote cactus,” he answered conversationally. “We have it mailed to us from a nursery in Texas. It’s illegal in California, you know. I used to blast off on it when I was in Hollywood. You know I was in one of the Bowery Boys movies, don’t you — ”

God Geller had once hitchhiked as far West as the Napa Valley where he had worked for two months hauling feed bags on a dude ranch. He had come back to astound his friends in New York with tales of his sexual prowess among the starlets, and his modicum of success in the cinema. He was paranoid.

“ — the Indians have a religion based on thepeyote. First you strip off the spines and the bark around the roots, and you cut them up, and boil them down into a tea. The stuff is too bitter otherwise.”

“Is it really that bad?” one of the girls asked, her young face lit with awe.

God Geller made a steeple with his fingers, and pointed the edifice at her. “I can tell you how bad it is. When you drink it, you have to cut it with Hawaiian punch or tomato juice, and toss it off real quick, otherwise you’ll barf right then. Your stomach can’t hold it down for very long, maybe a half hour.

“I’ve been able to keep it down over an hour before I vomited it back up!” he chimed proudly. “But that’s enough time for the stuff to saturate the lining of your stomach, and then boo-dow, it’s like you were a God or something!”

A chemistry major, a girl with freckles and a large nose supporting horn-rimmed glasses, interrupted his panegyric. “What does thepeyote cactus look like?”

God Geller looked at her with annoyance. This was the only one he considered a dog. He had been trying to impress the others. He answered her sharply, “The biggest is about the size of a fist, the smallest like a walnut. The thing looks like a mushroom head without a stalk; it’s a root like a sweet potato.”

He turned back to the good-lookers who hung on his every word, dropping his hand to the knee of one sophomore with large breasts.

“It like heightens your senses,” he confided. “You see everything clearer, hear everything better, you just naturally dig more. The neons in the street look like little jewels, everything is better, it’s just a great kick, if you can stomach the ghast of the taste.”

“That bad, huh?” asked the sophomore. He moved his hand under her skirt slightly.

“Yeah, it’ll make you puke every time. After a while you kind of build up a tolerance. It’s worth it when you’ve been up on it for a few days, though. Great!”

He stood up and moved out of the room with her, into the darkened hallway. He had never sampled peyote; he had read Huxley on the subject. But the sophomore had large breasts. It was an opener.

The Chem major was jotting notes in a pocket notebook.

The party was swinging, everybody was digging. Everybody but Spoof.

Spoof was feeling down. The party was a flake.

There was another bang on the door, and Spoof rolled over on his stomach. He was lying on a Mexican shawl stretched out near the dead fireplace. Not more of these deadbeat creeps, he thought. What we have to put up with just to pay off the goddam rent.

Floormat opened the door, and Roger “Teddy Bear” Sims stood there with a girl on his arm. One of the button-down boobs let out a low, long, two-note whistle, and Spoof rolled over quickly. She was fantastic.

It wasn’t anything simple about her; it was more the overall effect. The moment she walked in ahead of Teddy Bear, her feet in their high heels carefully placed on the tilting floorboards, she was Irish to him. Whatever her name might be, she was simply Irish.

Spoof leaped up, his image passing rapidly across the now-peeling mirror standing at the side of the fireplace. It was a clever image, full of Machiavellian undertones; his eyes set deep and brown under his thick eyebrows, the planes of his gaunt face catching light and releasing it in a panoply of shadows. He wore a black walnut–colored crewneck sweater over a white shirt, and a pair of oatmeal-colored corduroy slacks that just lapped at the tops of his soft doeskin boots. He looked clean, and yet there was a Northern desire in his face. The look of the Visigoth and the Hun was there.

He was a writer with great talent and no drive. He lazed in the backwaters of New York, mouthing his philosophies and scrawling his sentiments in loose-leaf binders that might not ever get compiled into The Novel of Outrage.

But right now, as he stood up abruptly, he was a man, and what had come through the door was Irish; for him, perhaps for others, but especially for him, a sex symbol. This was Woman, and he had the scent.

Teddy Bear had been mobbed by all the unattached men in the place, all clamoring for an introduction.

Spoof stood near the fireplace, watching her face bobbing between their heads, waiting for the glance he knew would come, and when it did, she had been staring at him a long moment before he even realized it. “Irish” he said, loud enough for her to hear, because she was expecting it; but not loud enough for the others to make out.

She smiled that gamine smile, and they were mating, right then. Right then, they were doing it with their eyes.

Finally, he elbowed through them, said a vague excuse us to Teddy Bear, who worked for Pillsbury as a clerk and took his meager hedonism on weekends, and rescued the girl from the horde. They went out through the living room, into the hall, where he yanked open the door, and they passed through. Floormat, whose love was a rotting rose clutched between her teeth, watched them go with sorrow and a sour stomach.

Down the hall there was yet another flight of steps. He led her up, like a leaf borne unresisting, fatalistically, on a south wind. The trapdoor to the roof was easily thrown back, and it was only late summer.

Time of darkness.

Time of passion.

When they came down, she was his, and the party had subsided into mixed apathy and drunkenness. God Geller was under the dirty sheets with the sophomore, while the Chem major continued taking notes. The button-down boobs, each having made his t ...

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