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The Burglar on the Prowl
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"The man," said my friend Marty Gilmartin, "is an absolute . . . a complete . . . an utter and total . . . " He held out his hands, shook his head, and sighed. "Words fail me. "
"Apparently," I agreed. "Nouns, anyway. Adjectives seem to be supporting you well enough, but nouns --"
"Help me out, Bernard," he said. "Who is more qualified to supply le mot juste? Words, after all, are your métier."
"Books are your stock-in-trade, " he said, "and what is a book? Paper and ink and cloth and glue, to be sure, but if a book were nothing more than those mundane components, no one would want to own more than one of them. No, it's the words that constitute a book, sixty or eighty or a hundred thousand of them."
"Or two hundred thousand, or even three." I'd read Grub Street recently, and was thinking about the less-than-eminent Victorians George Gissing wrote about, forced by their publishers to grind out interminable three-volume novels for a body of readers who clearly had far too much time on their hands.
"That's more words than I require," Marty said. "Just one, Bernie, to sum up" -- he glanced around the room, lowered his voice --"no, to impale Crandall Rountree Mapes like an insect upon a pin."
"An insect," I suggested.
"Far too mild."
"A worm, a rat." He was shaking his head, so I shifted gears and exited the animal kingdom."A bounder?"
"That's closer, Bernie. By God, he is a bounder, but he's much worse than that."
"Better, but --"
I frowned, trying to conjure up a thesaurus spread open before me. A bounder, a cad ...
"Oh, that comes close," he said."We'll settle for that if we can't do any better. It's just archaic enough, isn't it? And it's better than bounder or cad because it's clearly not a temporary condition. The corruption is permanent, the man is putrid to the core." He picked up his glass, breathed in the bouquet of aged cognac." Rotter comes very close indeed to conveying just what a thoroughgoing shitheel goes by the name of Crandall Rountree Mapes."
I started to say something, but he held up a hand to stop me. "Bernie," he said, wide-eyed with wonder,"did you hear what I just said?"
"Precisely. That's perfect, the quintessential summation of the man. And where do you suppose the word came from? Not its derivation, that would seem clear enough, but how did it get into our conversation? No one says shitheel anymore."
"You just did."
"I did, and I couldn't guess the last time I uttered it." He beamed. "I must have been inspired," he said, and rewarded himself with a small sip of the venerable brandy. I couldn't think of anything I'd done to merit a reward, but I had a sip from my own glass just the same. It filled the mouth like liquid gold, slid down the gullet like honey, and warmed every cell of the body even as it exalted the spirit.
I wasn't going to drive or operate machinery, so what the hell. I had another sip.
We were in the dining room of The Pretenders, a private club on Gramercy Park every bit as venerable as the cognac. The membership ran to actors and writers, men in or on the fringes of the arts, but there was a membership category called Patron of the Theater, and it was through that door that Martin Gilmartin had entered.
"We need members," he'd told me once,"and the main criterion for membership at this point is the possession of a pulse and a checkbook, though to look around you, you might suspect that some of our members have neither. Would you like to become a member, Bernie? Did you ever see Cats? If you loved it, you can join as a Patron of the Theater. If you hated it, you can come in as a Critic."
I'd passed up the chance to join, figuring they might draw the line at prospective members with criminal records. But I rarely turned down an invitation to join Marty there for lunch. The food was passable, the drink first-rate, and the service impeccable, but the half-mile walk from Barnegat Books led me past eight or ten restaurants that could say the same. What they couldn't provide was the rich atmosphere of the nineteenth-century mansion that housed The Pretenders, and the aura of history and tradition that permeated the place. And then there was Marty's good company, which I'd be glad of in any surroundings.
He's an older gentleman, and he's what fellows who read Esquire want to be when they grow up -- tall and slender, with a year-round tan and a full head of hair the color of old silver. He's always well groomed and freshly barbered, his mustache trimmed, his attire quietly elegant but never foppish. While enjoying a comfortable retirement, he keeps busy managing his investments and dipping a toe in the water when an attractive business venture comes his way.
And, of course, he's a patron of the theater. As such he goes to quite a few shows, both on and off Broadway, and occasionally invests a few dollars in a production that strikes his fancy. More to the point, his theatrical patronage has consisted in large part of underwriting the careers of a succession of theatrical ingénues, some of whom have actually demonstrated a certain modicum of talent.
Dramatic talent, that is to say. Their talent in another more private realm is something upon which only Marty could comment, and he wouldn't. The man is discretion personified.
We met, I would have to say, in highly unlikely circumstances ...