They had met every Wednesday evening at seven for over twenty years, first in an upstairs room of an Episcopalian church in Back Bay, and then more recently and more formally in a larger downstairs common room. The initial leader of the group had been an unfrocked saint or a carefully closeted fag, depending on the way his insightfully even-handed commentaries were received in the ear of the beholder. Some saw it as a Guild of literary craftsmen met to hone and refine their tools with a hope of progress from apprentice to journeyman eventually to masterpiece-producing paid professional; others immediately recognized it as a crimson-spumed bear-pit. Clacks and cliques and grudging, guarded non-aggression pacts had appeared almost immediately, and the faithful could spin epic after epic about the subtle infighting that raged subtextually often for years. At the quiet death of the founder everyone agreed that his memorial must be the uninterrupted continuity of these meetings, and though attendees had initially been recruited solely by word of mouth, a subtle sea-change became inevitable. Most still came to read a piece --- something new of their own or something newly noticed in the BPL a scant bowshot away --- but some came solely to comment, and some decided to enliven or perhaps to chill the proceedings by egging on a published literary lion to set them all to shame by the superiority of his wares. About then the new leader rechristened the group a more inclusive Circle, which the old guard contemptuously re-rechristened Ducdame, and which the faggotty fringe persisted in pronouncing "Duke-Dame". Before long the Literary Circle had become a forum for name stars, solicited and advertised, with the featured readings preceeded by two hours of amateur free-for-all. But for some the literary backbiting had been habit-forming, and so started that regal ritualized withdrawal of the disdainful faithful, before the major speaker rose, to either a bar or a coffee-house, often to both simultaneously by warring factions, where the travesty of the good old days would be excoriated and a newer, longer, less neatly organized travesty of them would be enacted.
And of course I did know him immediately. I had come early, and had become mesmerized by the improvised Happening that consisted of squabbles, over scheduling and timing and who would preceed whom in the literary open-hoot, followed by the clique-y clack-y charade wherein identity as audience or performer remained everywhere ambiguous. Readers tended toward various styles of performance-art during which they subtly signalled that what they read was poetry by an acting technique known as indicating, which made even the promising works as insufferable as the bombast and poetasting, while the self-absorbed audience of impatient performers endured it all with a palpable air of contemptuous respect. After perhaps an hour, I could tell by the turning of several prominently powerful sect-leading heads away from a jingly sestina --- or was it a sonnet? --- that a prominent player had made an entrance.
All the cliches were impeccably observed. He was elderly, yet hale, pallor-pale and slender with a merest hint of fox or kestrel about the drawn cheeks and probing anthracite eyes, and Pablo Picasso's brash black brush of hair. He had affected professorial tweeds and a flung scarlet muffler that night, though in more informal indoor settings his penchant for simple black slacks and turtle-necks invoked for me the remembered image, stumbled into once as I wandered backstage, of George Balanchine.
He moved effortlessly, quietly through the throng, pausing now and again for brief whispered exchanges, while an even more energetic reader than usual flailed and shrieked up on the dais above, and just at the moment the end to the performance was greeted with enthusiastic, relieved applause, he leaned down to my ear to whisper "Had enough yet?"
I merely grinned and nodded, to which he replied "C'mon. You look like you could use a drink," and while the next poet was launching into a long preamble explaining how his poem came into being we discretely worked our way to the fresh air outside.
However, before we had a chance to proceed on our defection or our conversation, the door behind us expectorated the frail, flapping, white-haired little vulnerable clown who had been performing his work moments before.
"Ye- yeyu- yeyou're not gegoing already, a- a- a-are you? De- Dedu- DededeDavu-vid i- i- is up next."
"He'll be along later I think, Billy," he replied mildly.
"Di-dididid'ju like th-thu-the new vu-ersion?"
He had prefaced his extravaganza explaining that it was a newly revised rhyming dialog eponymously titled "Alucard". Ah, if I had only seen that reference, that early, as the warning it was!
"I told you before, Billy," Eliot said mildly, " you're still dealing with surfaces, not essences. Alestair Crowley failed exactly the same way, and you've got to dig a little beneath the cape and the fangs or you're just repeating Stoker and Lugosi."
"Yo-yu-yuyou didn't li- li- lilike it, then!"
"You've improved some of the details a lot, Billy. But, for me, the real essence is still missing."
"Mumy The- thu- Theater Group i- i- i-is du- dudoing somethu- thething ca-alled 'The Ho- hu- huHouse of Ber-na-ardu-da A- Alba'. Know i- i- i-it? I wa- wa-ant to re- ru- ruread fo- fu- for a pu- pu- pupart in it."
"You may not find anything you can play in it, Billy."
"When you see the cast list, you'll understand."
"I- I'll che-eck at thuthe Libu-brary. Ca- cu- catch you le- lu- lelater?"
"The Parrot, as always, Billy. See you!"
As the eager little actor bounced off toward his eventual disappointment, we marched smartly past the Blue Parrot coffee- house to a cozy, friendly, brown-panelled bar called Jim's Place.
"Billy is a dear, an innocent, and excentric on the English model. I often wonder if he is crazier or saner than he might have been without all those awful shock-treatments. But a dear nonetheless."
As we eased ourselves into a secluded booth a waitress, bored in the nearly empty bar, popped up almost immediately.
"Bailed out early tonight, did you?"
"Earlier and earlier, my dear! Ten minutes of poetry and my throat feels drier than the Gobi Desert! Will you join me, sir?"
"I'd like a Manhattan, straight up, please."
"Ah, a gentleman with taste buds! Bravo! And a sherry for me... "
"Oh, and make it.... "
"Oloroso. Just as always! Right away." And I was, for the first time, alone with the monster.
"THE READINESS IS ALL"
II The Literary Circle
III The Man Himself
IV Habitat Group
V Reach Versus Grasp
VII More of The Same
IX The thing Itself