Main > Series > Chapters > Fame Book 2 > Chapter 6

The McClain apartment was in a block in the North of Manhattan overlooking Morningside Park. Elizabeth Sherwood took the elevator to the tenth floor, feeling distinctly uneasy. She'd scripted several versions in her mind of the encounter that was about to take place, but she'd been disadvantaged by the fact that she could only control one side of the conversation. If Richard McClain would only present his arguments in the form in which Elizabeth had visualised them, she'd have no problem in winning through; but unfortunately, life never ran so smoothly. Over the telephone, he'd sounded nothing like the religious zealot that she was half-expecting him to be. He hadn't even sounded like an enemy.

She checked her watch before she rang the bell; she'd said that she hoped to arrive at five, the soonest that she could make it after school, and now it was a few minutes after. When she pressed the button, she could feel that her hand was almost shaking.

The door opened, and Richard McClain stood before her.

Whatever she'd been expecting, she was wrong. McClain was in his forties, and he looked normal; no hair shirt, no shaved head, no obvious fervour in his eyes. He was smiling warmly, and the warmth appeared to be sincere.

'Mister McClain?' She said. 'I'm Elizabeth Sherwood.'

'I know. Jenny's told me a lot about you. Won't you come in?'

Elizabeth seated herself on the sofa, and declined McClain's offer of coffee or tea. 'I'm not exactly sure how to begin,' she admitted.

'Then let me help you out,' McClain suggested. 'You feel that Jenny's future as a writer is being damaged by my screening process.'

'Well . . . yes, I do.'

'I agree,' McClain said, pleasantly.

Elizabeth couldn't understand. McClain was taking her best lines. 'You do?' she said.

'Yes, I do.'

'But I don't . . . I mean I can't see how . . . '

'First of all,' McClain went on, 'you assume that I endorse Jenny's wish to become a writer. I don't. Frankly, Ms. Sherwood, I think she can do better.'

Better? Elizabeth though, unable for the moment to find the words to express her incomprehension of such an idea, but McClain was now beginning to warm to his theme.

'Secondly,' he said, 'there are personal, family considerations that you couldn't possibly be aware of.'

'I certainly don't mean for this to be an invasion of your privacy, Mister McClain. It's just that Jenny has so much talent, she deserves every chance to develop it.'

'And she will. I guarantee it.' McClain looked down for a moment, preparing to develop his line further. 'Tell me, Ms. Sherwood, do you object to the screening process that protects children from adult films?'

'Well, no, but . . . '

'It's just a way to help a child grow up healthy and decent, wouldn't you say? A necessary kind of protection. But no such system exists for books, does it, Ms. Sherwood?'

'Mister McClain, that's not a fair comparison. You're talking about pornography, and I'm talking about ideas . . . '

'And ideas come from people, and people are fallible. So are a lot of the ideas they come up with.'

This was it, the brick wall that Elizabeth had been fearing, and it was as high and as hard as it could possibly be. McClain wasn't an unfair man, and he certainly wasn't a stupid man; but he and Elizabeth differed so widely over the basic concept of the freedom of ideas that they might as well have been speaking in different languages.

'I think I've disappointed you,' McClain said, in answer to Elizabeth's frustrated silence.

'Excuse me?'

'You were expecting to find some simple-minded man who you could dazzle with all sorts of logical arguments. Instead, you find somebody who has already thought through all the arguments, and then made his decision.' McClain stood. His tone as he continued was polite, but firm. 'I met with you as a courtesy, Ms. Sherwood, but I see no need to waste any more of your time . . . or mine.'

Elizabeth moved towards the door. He was right, she did want to stay and dazzle him with argument - or, failing that, to beat his head on the coffee table until he saw sense - but she knew that she had no choice but to leave.

At the door, she said, almost in desperation, 'Is there anything I can say to change your mind?'

'I'm afraid not. I'll see to it that the school's reimbursed for the books.'

So that was it. She'd lost, and she didn't even feel that she'd lost with honour. McClain ushered her out into the hallway, and he seemed to sense what she was feeling; as if to soften her frustration, he said, 'I know this visit came out of concern for Jenny.'

'Yes, it did.' Sorry, Jenny. Sorry, but I blew it.

'And I really do appreciate it. Jenny's a lovely child.'

Elizabeth stopped. 'That may be the one thing you didn't think of.'

'What's that?'

'Jenny. She's not a child anymore, Mister McClain.'

Well, she was still beaten. But at least she knew, from the expression on Charles McClain's face as she walked away from him, that she'd taken a lot of the satisfaction out of his victory.

Bruno, Doris and Julie went along to a coffee shop on Sixth Avenue for sandwiches and shakes before taking the subway to the part of town where Kickers was situated; none of them could have to find somewhere else in the area wasn't exactly an enticing idea.

As they waited for Doris to get through her third donut, Bruno excused himself and disappeared into the rest-rooms. Five minutes lster, he was back.

'Does this moustache look as if it's getting any thicker to you?' he asked them. He'd obviously spent most of the time studying it in a mirror from every angle, checking the effect prior to launching it on Nancy.

'A moustache!' Julie exclaimed in surprise. 'Is that what it's supposed to be?'

Bruno was so crushed he hardly spoke at all in the time that they were on the train.

The streets and the almost empty parking lot beside the club looked no less grim and unpleasant in the dusk. If you knew you were going to get mugged and you were allowed to choose the place Bruno thought, this area would have to be very low on the list. They'd probably leave you hanging on the wire for a joke.

The neon sign wasn't switched on yet; at this hour, it wasn't likely that there would be anybody other than staff in the place. Well, that was okay; it was staff they were here to see.

Bruno asked after Nancy, and was sent around the back to where she'd be checking out the evening's cash floats for the various tills. Doris saw that most of the Will Gunther band were sharing a pitcher of light beer at the bar, and she took Julie over to meet the man at the top.

'Yo, Doris.' Will said. 'Thought you were going to call me.'

'Well, I managed a personal appearance instead,' Doris said. 'Someone here I want you to meet. Julie Miller, this is my friend Will Gunther.'

'Pleased,' Julie said as they shook hands. She felt that she was understanding less and less as the evening went on; Doris had used every argumentative ploy at her disposal to get Julie to come here tonight, and now here they were and the place was empty - no music, no atmosphere, nothing.

Her puzzlement increased as Doris said, 'Julie's uh . . . kind of in the same line as you. She's a string player. Only she says she doesn't like Country and Western, so I brought her along to show her how wrong she can be.'

'A string player?' Will said.

'Well,' Julie began, 'yes, but it's not the same kind of . . . ' She got no further, because Will Gunther had taken her by the hand and was leading her across to the unlit stage.

He helped her up onto the boards, and sat her on the drummer's stool. Then he took his highly-polished Gibson acoustic guitar from its stand, and held it out to her.

'Oh, no,' Julie said. 'I don't think I can . . . '

'Sure you can,' Will said. 'I'm going to show you how.' And then he drew across the chair that was normally used by Bob, the band's Hawaiian guitar player, and sat himself down alongside her.

'What do you play?' he said. 'Fiddle?'

'Cello.'

'A cello's just a fiddle with a thyroid condition.'

'So?' Julie said with a smile. 'A guitar's just a muscle-bound ukelele.'

'Oh, no,' Will said with a mock warning in his voice. 'You can make jokes about my accent or my boots, or anything you want except my Gibson. A guitar's like a lady. You do the right things, she'll make the sounds you want to hear.'

Julie didn't even accuse him of being sexist.

He started her off simply, getting her to run a slow four-part claw-hammer pick whilst he took care of the left-handed chord fingering. 'The music can sound simple,' he explained, 'but that doesn't mean you can assume it's easy to do.'

Doris watched them from the bar, a million miles away.

Bruno sat with Nancy in the teller's office for a while, but apart from the Hello's and the How are you?'s they had to hold back on conversation until she was done with the mental arithmetic. Get it wrong now, she explained, and any shortfall would come out of her wages at the end of the week.

Finally, she had the cash bags all lined up on the table and ready for distribution, twenty dollars of mixed change in each. She said, 'Do you want me to fix you a table near to the music?'

'I'm not sure,' Bruno said. 'What time's the first set?'

'Eight-thirty.'

'I can't stay that long.'

Nancy smiled. 'Heavy date?'

'Homework. Geometry and social studies.'

The smile became a wince. 'I think I would have liked it better if you'd said you had a heavy date.'

'One of the things I'm learning in social studies is that Lincoln intended the Emancipation Proclamation to apply to all races. Massa' Owner has to let you out of here a some point.'

'That's why they invented Saturdays.'

Nancy gathered the cash bags together, and Bruno followed her through into the main part of the club. 'Can we have Saturday, then?' he said. 'You and me?'

'Can we have you and me on Saturday? - you bet.'

'That wasn't what I asked.'

'But it's what you meant.'

Bruno's answer was a smile, and a slight nod of admission. Wow. Danny Amatullo would have killed to get into the position that Bruno was occupying now. Knowing that it was best to quit while he was ahead, he glanced over in the direction of the bar and said, 'I'd better go see if Doris wants to take off with me.'

'Wait a minute,' Nancy said, and she set down the bags and took a napkin from the nearest table. Dipping the corner of it into the water jug, she said, 'You've got a smudge of something on your upper lip.'

'No,' Bruno said immediately, 'it's okay. I'm allergic to that stuff.'

Nancy couldn't believe what she was hearing. 'You're allergic to water?'

'Napkins. Makes me break out. Something in the detergent,' Bruno said, backing away quickly. 'I'll take care of it myself, thanks. I'll call you about Saturday.'

He'd take care of the smudge himself, all right. He'd take care of it as soon as he got home, with the electric razor that his father had bought for his birthday two years before.

He couldn't immediately see Doris. He could see Julie over on the stage with the bandleader, now with two guitars between them, but Doris had moved from the barrel-stool where she'd been sitting. Bruno was beginning to think that she'd left alone, but then he found her in a semi-darkened alcove around the corner from the bar where a row of arcade games glowed and ran through their routines as they waited for tokens.

Doris was playing on the Meteor Madness machine, zapping her way through a meteor shower with the aid of photon torpedoes and a space warp facility that slowed everything down for a few second but drank up the spacecraft's power at four times the normal rate. Bruno watched for a while; she was playing as if she meant it.

'Nice shot,' he commented as an asteroid-sized hunk went spinning away into debris.

'I'm saving the universe from hostile invaders,' Doris explained, neatly picking off a pink saucer that was trying to creep past through a screen of meteors. 'I don't know what my motivation is, but I'm saving the universe anyway.'

'Lot of nice people in the universe.'

'There are a lot of jerks in the universe. Maybe that's why I'm doing this, because I identify.'

'Since when did you become a jerk?'

Doris glanced up from the screen for a moment. 'You see that hunk over there on the bandstand? The man with the blue denim eyes?'

'I do.'

'He paid a lot of attention to me the last time we were here. Set me to thinking. With thinking comes doubting. So I grab a hold of Julie. Thought I'd tempt him with beauty, see just how real his interest in me is.' She looked up again; Will Gunther had Julie picking out a simple three-chord backing between four or five country standards.

'That's how real his interest in me is.' Doris said. There was a low rumble from the machine before her; she looked down, and saw the screen filled with yellow fire. 'I just got blown up,' she added.

'Doris,' Bruno said gently, 'you're getting tears all over the universe. Let me take you home.'

Doris nodded, and allowed herself to be led towards the exit. There didn't seem to be any point in going over and asking Julie if she needed to make arrangments for getting home; someone would help her out.

For the Julie Millers of this world, there was always someone to help out.
 
 
 
 

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