Manhattan Transfer/Chapter 11

VI. Five Statutory Questions

They pair off hurriedly. Standing Up in Cars Strictly Forbidden. The climbing chain grates, grips the cogs; jerkily the car climbs the incline out of the whirring lights, out of the smell of crowds and steamed corn and peanuts, up jerkily grating up through the tall night of September meteors.

Sea, marshsmell, the lights of an Iron Steamboat leaving the dock. Across wide violet indigo a lighthouse blinks. Then the swoop. The sea does a flipflop, the lights soar. Her hair in his mouth, his hand in her ribs, thighs grind together.

The wind of their falling has snatched their yells, they jerk rattling upwards through the tangled girderstructure. Swoop. Soar. Bubbling lights in a sandwich of darkness and sea. Swoop. Keep Your Seats for the Next Ride.

Come on in Joe, I'll see if the ole lady kin git us some grub."

"Very kind of you . . . er . . . I'm not . . . er . . . exactly dressed to meet a lady you see."

"Oh she wont care. She's just my mother; sit down, I'll git her."

Harland sat down on a chair beside the door in the dark kitchen and put his hands on his knees. He sat staring at his hands; they were red and dirtgrained and trembling, his tongue was like a nutmeg grater from the cheap whiskey he had been drinking the last week, his whole body felt numb and sodden and sour. He stared at his hands.

Joe O'Keefe came back into the kitchen. "She's loin down. She says there's some soup on the back of the stove. . . . Here ye are. That'll make a man of ye. . . . Joe you ought to been where I was last night. Went out to this here Seaside Inn to take a message to the chief about somebody tippin him off that they was going to close the market. . . . It was the goddamnedest thing you ever saw in your life. This guy who's a wellknown lawyer down town was out in the hall bawlin out his gash about something. Jez he looked hard. And then he had a gun out an was goin to shoot her or some goddam thing when the chief comes up cool as you make em limpin on his stick like he does and took the gun away from him an put it in his pocket before anybody'd half seen what happened. . . . This guy Baldwin's a frien o his see? It was the goddamnedest thing I ever saw. Then he all crumpled up like. . . ."

"I tell you kid," said Joe Harland, "it gets em all sooner or later. . . ."

"Hay there eat up strong. You aint eaten enough."

"I cant eat very well."

"Sure you can. . . . Say Joe what's the dope about this war business?"

"I guess they are in for it this time. . . . I've known it was coming ever since the Agadir incident."

"Jez I like to see somebody wallop the pants off England after the way they wont give home rule to Ireland."

"We'd have to help em. . . . Anyway I dont see how this can last long. The men who control international finance wont allow it. After all it's the banker who holds the purse strings."

"We wouldn't come to the help of England, no sir, not after the way they acted in Ireland and in the Revolution and in the Civil War. . . ."

"Joey you're getting all choked up with that history you're reading up in the public library every night. . . . You follow the stock quotations and keep on your toes and dont let em fool you with all this newspaper talk about strikes and upheavals and socialism. ... I'd like to see you make good Joey. . . . Well I guess I'd better be going."

"Naw stick around awhile, we'll open a bottle of glue."

They heard a heavy stumbling in the passage outside the kitchen.

"Whossat?"

"Zat you Joe?" A big towheaded boy with lumpy shoulders and a square red face and thickset neck lurched into the room.

"What the hell do you think this is? . . . This is my kid brother Mike."

"Well what about it?" Mike stood swaying with his chin on his chest. His shoulders bulged against the low ceiling of the kitchen.

"Aint he a whale? But for crissake Mike aint I told you not to come home when you was drinkin? . . . He's loible to tear the house down."

"I got to come home sometime aint I? Since you got to be a wardheeler Joey you been pickin on me worsen the old man. I'm glad I aint goin to stay round this goddam town long. It's enough to drive a feller cookoo. If I can get on some kind of a tub that puts to sea before the Golden Gate by God I'm going to do it."

"Hell I dont mind you stayin here. It's just that I dont like you raisin hell all the time, see?"

"I'm goin to do what I please, git me?"

"You get outa here, Mike. . . . Come back home when you're sober."

"I'd like to see you put me outa here, git me? I'd like to see you put me outa here."

Harland got to his feet. "Well I'm going," he said. "Got to see if I can get that job."

Mike was advancing across the kitchen with his fists clenched. Joey's jaw set; he picked up a chair.

"I'll crown you with it."

"O saints and martyrs cant a woman have no peace in her own house?" A small grayhaired woman ran screaming between them; she had lustrous black eyes set far apart in a face shrunken like a last year's apple; she beat the air with worktwisted hands. "Shut yer traps both of ye, always cursing an fightin round the house like there warnt no God. . . . Mike you go upstairs an lay down on your bed till yer sober."

"I was jus tellin him that," said Joey.

She turned on Harland, her voice like the screech of chalk on a blackboard. "An you git along outa here. I dont allow no drunken bums in my house. Git along outa here. I dont care who brought you."

Harland looked at Joey with a little sour smile, shrugged his shoulders and went out. "Charwoman," he muttered as he stumbled with stiff aching legs along the dusty street of darkfaced brick houses.

The sultry afternoon sun was like a blow on his back. Voices in his ears of maids, charwomen, cooks, stenographers, secretaries: Yes sir, Mr. Harland, Thank you sir Mr. Harland. Oh sir thank you sir so much sir Mr. Harland sir. . . .

Red buzzing in her eyelids the sunlight wakes her, she sinks back into purpling cottonwool corridors of sleep, wakes again, turns over yawning, pulls her knees up to her chin to pull the drowsysweet cocoon tighter about her. A truck jangles shatteringly along the street, the sun lays hot stripes on her back. She yawns desperately and twists herself over and lies wide awake with her hands under her head staring at the ceiling. From far away through streets and housewalls the long moan of a steamboat whistle penetrates to her like a blunt sprout of crabgrass nudging through gravel. Ellen sits up shaking her head to get rid of a fly blundering about her face. The fly flashes and vanishes in the sunlight, but somewhere in her there lingers a droning pang, unaccountable, something left over from last night's bitter thoughts. But she is happy and wide awake and it's early. She gets up and wanders round the room in her nightgown.

Where the sun hits it the hardwood floor is warm to the soles of her feet. Sparrows chirp on the windowledge. From upstairs comes the sound of a sewingmachine. When she gets out of the bath her body feels smoothwhittled and tense; she rubs herself with a towel, telling off the hours of the long day ahead; take a walk through junky littered downtown streets to that pier on the East River where they pile the great beams of mahogany, breakfast all alone at the Lafayette, coffee and crescent rolls and sweet butter, go shopping at Lord & Taylor's early before everything is stuffy and the salesgirls wilted, have lunch with . . . Then the pain that has been teasing all night wells up and bursts. "Stan, Stan for God's sake," she says aloud. She sits before her mirror staring in the black of her own dilating pupils.

She dresses in a hurry and goes out, walks down Fifth Avenue and east along Eighth Street without looking to the right or left. The sun already hot simmers slatily on the pavements, on plateglass, on dustmarbled enameled signs. Men's and women's faces as they pass her are rumpled and gray like pillows that have been too much slept on. After crossing Lafayette Street roaring with trucks and delivery wagons there is a taste of dust in her mouth, particles of grit crunch between her teeth. Further east she passes pushcarts; men are wiping off the marble counters of softdrink stands, a grindorgan fills the street with shiny jostling coils of the Blue Danube, acrid pungence spreads from a picklestand. In Tompkins Square yelling children mill about the soggy asphalt. At her feet a squirming heap of small boys, dirty torn shirts, slobbering mouths, punching, biting, scratching; a squalid smell like moldy bread comes from them. Ellen all of a sudden feels her knees weak under her. She turns and walks back the way she came.

The sun is heavy like his arm across her back, strokes her bare forearm the way his fingers stroke her, it's his breath against her cheek.

"Nothing but the five statutory questions," said Ellen to the rawboned man with big sagging eyes like oysters into whose long shirtfront she was talking.

"And so the decree is granted?" he asked solemnly.

"Surely in an uncontested . . ."

"Well I'm very sorry to hear it as an old family friend of both parties."

"Look here Dick, honestly I'm very fond of Jojo. I owe him a great deal. . . . He's a very fine person in many ways, but it absolutely had to be."

"You mean there is somebody else?"

She looked up at him with bright eyes and half nodded.

"Oh but divorce is a very serious step my dear young lady."

"Oh not so serious as all that."

They saw Harry Goldweiser coming towards them across the big walnut paneled room. She suddenly raised her voice. "They say that this battle of the Marne is going to end the war."

Harry Goldweiser took her hand between his two pudgy-palmed hands and bowed over it. "It's very charming of you Elaine to come and keep a lot of old midsummer bachelors from boring each other to death. Hello Snow old man, how's things?"

"Yes how is it we have the pleasure of still finding you here?"

"Oh various things have held me. . . . Anyway I hate summer resorts." "Nowhere prettier than Long Beach anyway. . . . Why Bar Harbor, I wouldnt go to Bar Harbor if you gave me a million . . . a cool million."

Mr. Snow let out a gruff sniff. "Seems to me I've heard you been going into the realestate game down there, Goldweiser,"

"I bought myself a cottage that's all. It's amazing you cant even buy yourself a cottage without every newsboy on Times Square knowing about it. Let's go in and eat; my sister'll be right here." A dumpy woman in a spangled dress came in after they had sat down to table in the big antlerhung diningroom; she was pigeonbreasted and had a sallow skin.

"Oh Miss Oglethorpe I'm so glad to see you," she twittered in a little voice like a parrakeet's. "I've often seen you and thought you were the loveliest thing. . . . I did my best to get Harry to bring you up to see me."

"This is my sister Rachel," said Goldweiser to Ellen without getting up. "She keeps house for me."

"I wish you'd help me, Snow, to induce Miss Oglethorpe to take that part in The Zinnia Girl. . . . Honest it was just written for you."

"But it's such a small part . . ."

"It's not a lead exactly, but from the point of view of your reputation as a versatile and exquisite artist, it's the best thing in the show."

"Will you have a little more fish, Miss Oglethorpe?" piped Miss Goldweiser.

Mr. Snow sniffed, "There's no great acting any more: Booth, Jefferson, Mansfield ... all gone. Nowadays it's all advertising; actors and actresses are put on the market like patent medicines. Isn't it the truth Elaine? . . . Advertising, advertising."

"But that isn't what makes success. . . . If you could do it with advertising every producer in New York'd be a millionaire," burst in Goldweiser. "It's the mysterious occult force that grips the crowds on the street and makes them turn in at a particular theater that makes the receipts go up at a particular boxoffice, do you understand me? Advertising wont do it, good criticism wont do it, maybe it's genius maybe it's luck but if you can give the public what it wants at that time and at that place you have a hit. Now that's what Elaine gave us in this last show. . . . She established contact with the audience. It might have been the greatest play in the world acted by the greatest actors in the world and fallen a flat failure. . . . And I dont know how you do it, nobody dont know how you do it. . . . You go to bed one night with your house full of paper and you wake up the next morning with a howling success. The producer cant control it any more than the weather man can control the weather. Aint I tellin the truth?"

"Ah the taste of the New York public has sadly degenerated since the old days of Wallack's."

"But there have been some beautiful plays," chirped Miss Goldweiser.

The long day love was crisp in the curls . . . the dark curls . . . broken in the dark steel light . . . hurls . . . high O God high into the bright . . . She was cutting with her fork in the crisp white heart of a lettuce. She was saying words while quite other words spilled confusedly inside her like a broken package of beads. She sat looking at a picture of two women and two men eating at a table in a high paneled room under a shivering crystal chandelier. She looked up from her plate to find Miss Goldweiser's little birdeyes kindly querulous fixed hard on her face.

"Oh yes New York is really pleasanter in midsummer than any other time; there's less hurry and bustle."

"Oh yes that's quite true Miss Goldweiser." Ellen flashed a sudden smile round the table. . . . All the long day love Was crisp in the curls of his high thin brow, Flashed in his eyes in dark steel light. . . .

In the taxi Goldweiser's broad short knees pressed against hers; his eyes were full of furtive spiderlike industry weaving a warm sweet choking net about her face and neck. Miss Goldweiser had relapsed pudgily into the seat beside her. Dick Snow was holding an unlighted cigar in his mouth, rolling it with his tongue. Ellen tried to remember exactly how Stan looked, his polevaulter's tight slenderness; she couldn't remember his face entire, she saw his eyes, lips, an ear.

Times Square was full of juggled colored lights, criss-crossed corrugations of glare. They went up in the elevator at the Astor. Ellen followed Miss Goldweiser across the roofgarden among the tables. Men and women in evening dress, in summer muslins and light suits turned and looked after her, like sticky tendrils of vines glances caught at her as she passed. The orchestra was playing In My Harem. They arranged themselves at a table.

"Shall we dance?" asked Goldweiser.

She smiled a wry broken smile in his face as she let him put his arm round her back. His big ear with solemn lonely hairs on it was on the level of her eyes.

"Elaine," he was breathing into her ear, "honest I thought I was a wise guy." He caught his breath . . . "but I aint. . . . You've got me goin Httle girl and I hate to admit it. . . . Why cant you like me a little bit? I'd like . . . us to get married as soon as you get your decree. . . . Wouldn't you be kinder nice to me once in a while . . .? I'd do anything for you, you know that. . . . There are lots of things in New York I could do for you. . . ." The music stopped. They stood apart under a palm. "Elaine come over to my office and sign that contract. I had Ferrari wait. . . . We can be back in fifteen minutes."

"I've got to think it over . . . I never do anything without sleeping on it."

"Gosh you drive a feller wild."

Suddenly she remembered Stan's face altogether, he was standing in front of her with a bow tie crooked in his soft shirt, his hair rumpled, drinking again.

"Oh Ellie I'm so glad to see you. . . ."

"This is Mr, Emery, Mr. Goldweiser. . . ."

"I've been on the most exordinately spectacular trip, honestly you should have come. . . . We went to Montreal and Quebec and came back through Niagara Falls and we never drew a sober breath from the time we left little old New York till they arrested us for speeding on the Boston Post Road, did we Pearline?" Ellen was staring at a girl who stood groggily behind Stan with a small flowered straw hat pulled down over a pair of eyes the blue of watered milk.

"Ellie this is Pearline. . . . Isn't it a fine name? I almost split when she told me what it was. . . . But you dont know the joke. . . . We got so tight in Niagara Falls that when we came to we found we were married. . . . And we have pansies on our marriage license. . . ."

Ellen couldnt see his face. The orchestra, the jangle of voices, the clatter of plates spouted spiraling louder and louder about her . . .

And the ladies of the harem
Knew exactly how to wear 'em
In O-riental Bagdad long ago. . . .

"Good night Stan." Her voice was gritty in her mouth, she heard the words very clearly when she spoke them.

"Oh Ellie I wish you'd come partying with us. . . ."

"Thanks . . . thanks."

She started to dance again with Harry Goldweiser. The roofgarden was spinning fast, then less fast. The noise ebbed sickeningly. "Excuse me a minute Harry," she said.

"I'll come back to the table." In the ladies' room she let herself down carefully on the plush sofa. She looked at her face in the round mirror of her vanity case. From black pinholes her pupils spread blurring till everything was black.

Jimmy Herf's legs were tired; he had been walking all afternoon. He sat down on a bench beside the Aquarium and looked out over the water. The fresh September wind gave a glint of steel to the little crisp waves of the harbor and to the slateblue smutted sky. A big white steamer with a yellow funnel was passing in front of the statue of Liberty. The smoke from the tug at the bow came out sharply scalloped like paper. In spite of the encumbering wharfhouses the end of Manhattan seemed to him like the prow of a barge pushing slowly and evenly down the harbor. Gulls wheeled and cried. He got to his feet with a jerk. "Oh hell I've got to do something."

He stood a second with tense muscles balanced on the balls of his feet. The ragged man looking at the photogravures of a Sunday paper had a face he had seen before. "Hello," he said vaguely. "I knew who you were all along," said the man without holding out his hand. "You're Lily Herf's boy . . . I thought you werent going to speak to me. . . . No reason why you should."

"Oh of course you must be Cousin Joe Harland. . . . I'm awfully glad to see you. . . . I've often wondered about you."

"Wondered what?"

"Oh I dunno . . . funny you never think of your relatives as being people like yourself, do you?" Herf sat down in the seat again. "Will you have a cigarette. . . . It's only a Camel."

"Well I dont mind if I do. . . . What's your business Jimmy? You dont mind if I call you that do you?" Jimmy Herf lit a match; it went out, lit another and held it for Harland. "That's the first tobacco I've had in a week . . . Thank you."

Jimmy glanced at the man beside him. The long hollow of his gray cheek made a caret with the deep crease that came from the end of his mouth. "You think I'm pretty much of a wreck dont you?" spat Harland. "You're sorry you sat down aint you? You're sorry you had a mother who brought you up a gentleman instead of a cad like the rest of 'em. . . ."

"Why I've got a job as a reporter on the Times . . . a hellish rotten job and I'm sick of it," said Jimmy, drawling out his words.

"Dont talk like that Jimmy, you're too young. . . . You'll never get anywhere with that attitude."

"Well suppose I dont want to get anywhere."

"Poor dear Lily was so proud of you. . . . She wanted you to be a great man, she was so ambitious for you. . . . You dont want to forget your mother Jimmy. She was the only friend I had in the whole damn family."

Jimmy laughed. "I didnt say I wasnt ambitious."

"For God's sake, for your dear mother's sake be careful what you do. You're just starting out in life . . . everything'll depend on the next couple of years. Look at me."

"Well the Wizard of Wall Street made a pretty good thing of it I'll say. . . . No it's just that I dont like to take all the stuff you have to take from people in this goddam town. I'm sick of playing up to a lot of desk men I dont respect. . . . What are you doing Cousin Joe?"

"Don't ask me. . . ."

"Look, do you see that boat with the red funnels? She's French. Look, they are pulling the canvas off the gun on her stern. . . . I want to go to the war. . . . The only trouble is I'm very poor at wrangling things."

Harland was gnawing his upper lip; after a silence he burst out in a hoarse broken voice. "Jimmy I'm going to ask you to do something for Lily's sake. . . . Er . . . have you any . . . er . . . any change with you? By a rather unfortunate . . . coincidence I have not eaten very well for the last two or three days. . . . I'm a little weak, do you understand?"

"Why yes I was just going to suggest that we go have a cup of coffee or tea or something. . . . I know a fine Syrian restaurant on Washington street."

"Come along then," said Harland, getting up stiffly. "You're sure you don't mind being seen with a scarecrow like this?"

The newspaper fell out of his hand. Jimmy stooped to pick it up. A face made out of modulated brown blurs gave him a twinge as if something had touched a nerve in a tooth. No it wasnt, she doesnt look like that, yes Talented Young Actress Scores Hit in the Zinnia Girl. . . .

"Thanks, dont bother, I found it there," said Harland. Jimmy dropped the paper; she fell face down.

"Pretty rotten photographs they have dont they?"

"It passes the time to look at them, I like to keep up with what's going on in New York a little bit. . . . A cat may look at a king you know, a cat may look at a king."

"Oh I just meant that they were badly taken."