Nate and Al’s deli on North Beverly Drive had a handful of late breakfast lingerers scattered among the booths as we came in. The geezers with the blow-dried heads and ladies in posh pink running suits and diamond hoop earrings were scattered around nursing their coffees.
One of the pretty young waitresses greeted Harry with a big hug. He faked a ritual lunge for her behind; she responded with a loving cheek pinch. We were shown to his prime corner booth. Harry ordered his usual lox, eggs, and onions scramble, home fries, and a toasted bagel, which he promptly smeared with a thick swath of cream cheese. He looked contemptuously at my melon slices. “Think you’ll live an extra 50 seconds eating that gassy shit? All you get out of melon is sweet-smelling farts.” He piled a few heavy forkfuls of his eggs on my plate. “This is real food. That’s the trouble these days, everything is what they say, virtual — nothing’s real.”
The waitress refilled our coffees and exchanged a few salacious lines with Harry, and Harry grabbed the check.
“C’mon, let’s walk up to Santa Monica Boulevard and get a bench.” We found a bench beneath a huge live oak near the majestic Spanish Renaissance Beverly Hills City Hall on North Rexford. “That’s where I got married for the first time,” he said, pointing to the building. “My old man disowned me. She wasn’t Jewish you know. Back then marrying a shiksa was a capital offense in certain Orthodox homes. It lasted two years. They put the kaynahorah on it.” he said, sardonically. “To be fair I screwed around.” He’d turned away from me now and continued talking to the building as if calling upon it to bear witness to his trespassing the Laws of Moses by taking an Edomite wife over 60 years before.
“I married a gentile girl,” I said. “She was raised Lutheran in Atlanta but these days she’s a committed Buddhist.”
He roared and punched my shoulder. “You are a throwback kid, ain’t you?” he said. His cellphone went off. He excused himself and fumbled around till he found the talk button. “No, no Shana, I’m sitting under a shady tree with a very charming young man from the office. I should be home by 2, maybe 3. Broil some fish for me, that’s all.” He punched off. “My daughter. She gets antsy when she doesn’t know where I am every half-hour.” Then his expression turned earnest. He crouched over, clasped his hands together in deep thought a long moment, then said, “Son, I am about to entrust to you the great secrets of 20th-century show business.”
“What have I done — or not done — to deserve that honor?” I said, trying to keep it all light. I was beginning to feel that there was something utterly crazy about Harry’s behavior. Was Joseph Heller’s prescient narrator’s observation materializing beside me on the bench? Clearly he’d crossed the line from ingratiating old coot eccentricity to something much darker.
“Nothing really. You came recommended as the only possible person to trust with the transmission of this immense trove of history of the golden age of show business.”
“Recommended? By whom?”
“Stanley? Our Stanley? The Stan Mendelsohn?” I asked, utterly shocked. The man had been chairman of the agency until last year. Stan’s last coup was birthing the first Internet all-movie channel that fetched over a billion and a half when he brokered the sale to a cable giant. How was it ever possible that he knew I was alive?
Other than a handshake at a company pep rally every so often, the most time I’d ever spent with Stan was when we accidentally shared an elevator ride or a short walk to the curb where his limo driver stood at the open door of his black Mercedes sedan.
The idea that he was actually watching me was incomprehensible. Nobody watched me at the agency. It’s doubtful that anyone other than a handful of fellow shleppers and my boss knew me as anything other than another cubicle baldie with an open collar who paced around talking into a headset trying to convince everyone else who did the same thing that he was actually working. “What did Stan tell you?” I managed to mumble out.
There was a long pause. “Well you know Stan had his underground network of yentas laced throughout the agency. Before he retired we had lunch, right there in Nate & Al’s. And he told me he had one last assignment for me.”
“He said he’d heard you were the only kid who had a genuine appreciation for the culture of 20th-century show business greatness.”
“Twentieth-century greatness?” I said, feeling suddenly stupid. “That’s kind of odd, Harry. From the day I came here all I ever heard from management was, ‘Don’t get dragged down by our past. Reimagine the company. Pay no attention to that Elton Talbot heritage crap.’ I assumed it was marching orders direct from the mouth of Stan Mendelsohn. You telling me I was tone deaf?”
“No. That was Stan’s public mantra alright. In private he hated what we’d become. Kids like you he’d said, throwbacks, that was the ticket.”
“Ken. It is you. You are the chosen one, trust me. Stan wrote your name down. I had no idea who the hell you were, believe me,” he said. His voice was reassuring but his face told another story. His eyes seemed clouded in a faraway haze, sort of when you stand on a lonely beach and gaze out at the ocean listening to the caw of gulls, unable to grasp elusive thoughts.
Now I drilled my eyes directly onto Harry’s. His expression had turned pixieish. He stared out into the distance watching the cars whoosh by on the boulevard. Had Harry boarded the sad night train to Dementiaville and was he just hallucinating about making me his time capsule? Had he forgotten to take his Aricept? He fell into a distant silence, just sitting there, smiling, running his fingers through his wavy hair as if he was getting ready for his close-up for Mr. DeMille. There I was not far from Sunset Boulevard living a scene from “Sunset Boulevard.” Was I was being jerked off by a master, a senile master?
“I see,” I said, trying to appear solemn and eager to hear it all.
“The great secrets of 20th-century show business, son, are about to be laid in your lap, so listen closely and prepare yourself to assume the burden of he who has been chosen,” Harry said, leaning back on the bench.
“Sure, Harry.” I said, feeling my stomach drop into my groin.
He reached into his portfolio brief and took out a huge Baby Ruth bar. He broke it in half and offered a chunk to me. “Want a bite? We’ll be here awhile. There’s much to tell. We can start with that magical night in 1948 when I discovered Chase and Carroll in Atlantic City.”
He bit off a huge piece, chewed and swallowed, then produced a mini-bottle of Fiji water to drain it down. “Ah . . . you get to be my age, kid, and a Baby Ruth can be as erotic as a first-class night of sex,” he ruminated.
Harry smiled approvingly at me. He set his briefcase aside, stood up in front of me. He removed his jacket, folded it meticulously, and laid it beside me on the bench. He backpedaled, spread his arms out, took a deep bow and said, “You know, kid, there was a time I thought I might be right up there with Fred Astaire. I’m graceful, dontcha think?”
He went into a soft-shoe dance singing “Me and My Shadow.”
Me and my shadow
Strolling down the avenue
Me and my shadow
Not a soul to tell our troubles to
And when it’s twelve o’clock
We climb the stair
We never knock
For nobody’s there
I listened to Harry’s tremulous old voice and watched his graceful shuffle around the sidewalk and what suddenly popped into my rattled brain was that melancholy line uttered by Linda Loman, Willy’s wife in “Death of a Salesman.”
“A man must not be allowed to die like a dog in a hole,” she’d pleaded to the world as it hammered him into the dust.
A man must not be allowed to die like a dog.
“Al Jolson wrote that song, kid,” he said, going down on one knee to make his point.
He’d totally weirded me out by then.
“Harry, c’mon, get up, tell me the secrets. I’m listening,” I said, eagerly. I took another bite of the Baby Ruth and felt the wonderful warmth of the midday sun splashing like a tonic across my face. But Harry had drifted away and just kept his soft-shoe going. A tan ’62 Rolls pulled up on the street. A woman in a floppy straw hat, oversize sunglasses, flowered top, and leggings emerged and walked over, her flip-flops flapping against the sidewalk. She was in her 50s and, being my father’s son, I noticed all the telltale pulls on her face as being the work of a very competent plastic surgeon. She watched him dip and turn, whirl and sing, and came up beside me.
“Are you the young man from Elton Talbot?”
“I am,” I replied, guessing I was about to meet Harry’s daughter. She introduced herself. “Hi, I’m Shana Falk, Harry’s daughter. I’m so sorry. He does fade in and out. When he’s lucid he’s impressive but the dead zones are widening. I hope you’re not pissed at all this?”
“Oh no, I’m fine. I’ve enjoyed our chat,” I said.
“He give you the ‘chosen one’ meshugas?” she said wistfully.
“Actually, I kind of enjoyed it,” I lied.
“That’s nice of you,” she said dipping her head appreciatively. “Thank you for looking after him. I’m sure you’ve helped make his last day in the office special. We appreciate it.”
She walked over to Harry and took his arm in hers. “C’mon Dad, I need to get over to Bristol Farms to get your fish for tonight. Now what do you care for? We had salmon yesterday. How about some sea bass? Trout? I can put it on the grill?” She began walking him toward the car.
He stopped momentarily, turned, smiled, and eased her arm away. He stared intently at me. Then he came nearer and began singing “When You’re Smilin’.”
The whole world smiles with you . . .” he said, pointing a finger.
Shana came beside him, took my hand, thanked me, and I watched them shuffle back to the car, get in, and drive off into the golden California noon.
Howard J. Klein, a resident of Southampton, is a casino consultant. He was senior vice president at Caesar’s, Bally’s, and Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, where he created and produced the Grandstand Under the Stars outdoor concert series. He is the author of four nonfiction books and one novel written under a pseudonym.