Manhattan Transfer/Chapter 13

VIII. One More River to Jordan

A MAN is shouting from a soapbox at Second Avenue and Houston in front of the Cosmopolitan Cafè: ". . . these fellers, men . . . wageslaves like I was . . . are sittin on your chest . . . they're takin the food outen your mouths. Where's all the pretty girls I used to see walkin up and down the bullevard? Look for em in the up-town cabarets. . . . They squeeze us dry friends . . . feller workers, slaves I'd oughter say . . . they take our work and our ideers and our women. . . . They build their Plaza Hotels and their millionaire's clubs and their million dollar theayters and their battleships and what do they leave us? . . . They leave us shopsickness an the rickets and a lot of dirty streets full of garbage cans. . . . You look pale you fellers. . . . You need blood. . . . Why dont you get some blood in your veins? . . . Back in Russia the poor people . . . not so much poorer'n we are . . . believe in wampires, things come suck your blood at night. . . . That's what Capitalism is, a wampire that sucks your blood . . . day . . . and . . . night."

It is beginning to snow. The flakes are giltedged where they pass the streetlamp. Through the plate glass the Cosmopolitan Cafe full of blue and green opal rifts of smoke looks like a muddy aquarium: faces blob whitely round the tables like illassorted fishes. Umbrellas begin to bob in clusters up the snowmottled street. The orator turns up his collar and walks briskly east along Houston, holding the muddy soapbox away from his trousers.

Faces, hats, hands, newspapers jiggled in the fetid roaring subway car like corn in a popper. The downtown express passed clattering in yellow light, window telescoping window till they overlapped like scales.

"Look George," said Sandbourne to George Baldwin who hung on a strap beside him, "you can see Fitzgerald's contraction."

"I'll be seeing the inside of an undertaking parlor if I dont get out of this subway soon."

"It does you plutocrats good now and then to see how the other half travels. . . . Maybe it'll make you induce some of your little playmates down at Tammany Hall to stop squabbling and give us wageslaves a little transportation. . . . cristamighty I could tell em a thing or two. . . . My idea's for a series of endless moving platforms under Fifth Avenue."

"Did you cook that up when you were in hospital Phil?"

"I cooked a whole lot of things up while I was in hospital."

"Look here lets get out at Grand Central and walk. I cant stand this. . . . I'm not used to it."

"Sure . . . I'll phone Elsie I'll be a little late to dinner. . . . Not often I get to see you nowadays George . . . Gee it's like the old days."

In a tangled clot of men and women, arms, legs, hats aslant on perspiring necks, they were pushed out on the platform. They walked up Lexington Avenue quiet in the claretmisted afterglow.

"But Phil how did you come to step out in front of a truck that way?"

"Honestly George I dunno. . . . The last I remember is craning my neck to look at a terribly pretty girl went by in a taxicab and there I was drinking icewater out of a teapot in the hospital."

"Shame on you Phil at your age."

"Cristamighty dont I know it? But I'm not the only one."

"It is funny the way a thing like that comes over you. . . . Why what have you heard about me?"

"Gosh George dont get nervous, it's all right. . . . I've seen her in The Zinnia Girl. . . . She walks away with it. That other girl who's the star dont have a show."

"Look here Phil if you hear any rumors about Miss Oglethorpe for Heaven's sake shut them up. It's so damn silly you cant go out to tea with a woman without everybody starting their dirty gabble all over town. . . . By God I will not have a scandal, I dont care what happens."

"Say hold your horses George."

"I'm in a very delicate position downtown just at the moment that's all. . . . And then Cecily and I have at last reached a modus vivendi. . . . I wont have it disturbed."

They walked along in silence.

Sandbourne walked with his hat in his hand. His hair was almost white but his eyebrows were still dark and bushy. Every few steps he changed the length of his stride as if it hurt him to walk. He cleared his throat. "George you were asking me if I'd cooked up any schemes when I was in hospital. . . . Do you remember years ago old man Specker used to talk about vitreous and superenameled tile? Well I've been workin on his formula out at Hollis. . . . A friend of mine there has a two thousand degree oven he bakes pottery in. I think it can be put on a commercial basis. . . . Man it would revolutionize the whole industry. Combined with concrete it would enormously increase the flexibility of the materials at the architects' disposal. We could make tile any color, size or finish. . . . Imagine this city when all the buildins instead of bein dirty gray were ornamented with vivid colors. Imagine bands of scarlet round the entablatures of skyscrapers. Colored tile would revolutionize the whole life of the city. . . . Instead of fallin back on the orders or on gothic or romanesque decorations we could evolve new designs, new colors, new forms. If there was a little color in the town all this hardshell inhibited life'd break down. . . . There'd be more love an less divorce. . . ."

Baldwin burst out laughing. "You tell em Phil. . . . I'll talk to you about that sometime. You must come up to dinner when Cecily's there and tell us about it. . . . Why wont Parkhurst do anything?"

"I wouldnt let him in on it. He'd cotton on to the proposition and leave me out in the cold once he had the formula. I wouldn't trust him with a rubber nickel."

"Why doesnt he take you into partnership Phil?"

"He's got me where he wants me anyway. . . . He knows I do all the work in his goddamned office. He knows too that I'm too cranky to make out with most people. He's a slick article."

"Still I should think you could put it up to him."

"He's got me where he wants me and he knows it, so I continue doin the work while he amasses the coin. . . . I guess it's logical. If I had more money I'd just spend it. I'm just shiftless."

"But look here man you're not so much older than I am. . . . You've still got a career ahead of you."

"Sure nine hours a day draftin. . . . Gosh I wish you'd go into this tile business with me."

Baldwin stopped at a corner and slapped his hand on the briefcase he was carrying. "Now Phil you know I'd be very glad to give you a hand in any way I could. . . . But just at the moment my financial situation is terribly involved. I've gotten into some rather rash entanglements and Heaven knows how I'm going to get out of them. . . . That's why I cant have a scandal or a divorce or anything. You dont understand how complicatedly things interact. . . . I couldnt take up anything new, not for a year at least. This war in Europe has made things very unsettled downtown. Anything's liable to happen."

"All right. Good night George."

Sandbourne turned abruptly on his heel and walked down the avenue again. He was tired and his legs ached. It was almost dark. On the way back to the station the grimy brick and brownstone blocks dragged past monotonously like the days of his life.

Under the skin of her temples iron clamps tighten till her head will mash like an egg; she begins to walk with long strides up and down the room that bristles with itching stuffiness; spotty colors of pictures, carpets, chairs wrap about her like a choking hot blanket. Outside the window the backyards are striped with blue and lilac and topaz of a rainy twilight. She opens the window. No time to get tight like the twilight, Stan said. The telephone reached out shivering beady tentacles of sound. She slams the window down. O hell cant they give you any peace?

"Why Harry I didnt know you were back. . . . Oh I wonder if I can. . . . Oh yes I guess I can. Come along by after the theater. . . . Isnt that wonderful? You must tell me all about it." She no sooner puts the receiver down than the bell clutches at her again. "Hello. . . . No I dont. . . . Oh yes maybe I do. . . . When did you get back?" She laughed a tinkling telephone laugh. "But Howard I'm terribly busy. . . . Yes I am honestly. . . . Have you been to the show? Well sometime come round after a performance. . . . I'm so anxious to hear about your trip . . . you know . . . Goodby Howard."

A walk'll make me feel better. She sits at her dressingtable and shakes her hair down about her shoulders. "It's such a hellish nuisance, I'd like to cut it all off . . . spreads apace. The shadow of white Death. . . . Oughtnt to stay up so late, those dark circles under my eyes. . . . And at the door, Invisible Corruption. . . . If I could only cry; there are people who can cry their eyes out, really cry themselves blind . . . Anyway the divorce'll go through. . . .

Far from the shore, far from the trembling throng
Whose sails were never to the tempest given

Gosh it's six o'clock already. She starts walking up and down the room again. I am borne darkly fearfully afar. . . . The phone rings. "Hello. . . . Yes this is Miss Oglethorpe. . . . Why hello Ruth, why I haven't seen you for ages, since Mrs. Sunderland's. . . . Oh, do I'd love to see you. Come by and we'll have a bite to eat on the way to the theater. . . . It's the third floor."

She rings off and gets a raincape out of a closet. The smell of furs and mothballs and dresses clings in her nostrils. She throws up the window again and breathes deep of the wet air full of the cold rot of autumn. She hears the burring boom of a big steamer from the river. Darkly, fearfully afar from this nonsensical life, from this fuzzy idiocy and strife; a man can take a ship for his wife, but a girl. The telephone is shiveringly beadily ringing, ringing.

The buzzer burrs at the same time. Ellen presses the button to click the latch. "Hello. . . . No, I'm very sorry I'm afraid you'll have to tell me who it is. Why Larry Hopkins I thought you were in Tokyo. . . . They havent moved you again have they? Why of course we must see each other. . . . My dear it's simply horrible but I'm all dated up for two weeks. . . . Look I'm sort of crazy tonight. You call up tomorrow at twelve and I'll try to shift things around. . . . Why of course I've got to see you immediately you funny old thing." . . . Ruth Prynne and Cassandra Wilkins come in shaking the water off their umbrellas. "Well goodby Larry. . . . Why it's so so sweet of both of you. . . . Do take your things off for a second. . . . Cassie wont you have dinner with us?"

"I felt I just had to see you. . . . It's so wonderful about your wonderful success," says Cassie in a shaky voice, "And my dear I felt so terribly when I heard about Mr. Emery. I cried and cried, didnt I Ruth?"

"Oh what a beautiful apartment you have," Ruth is exclaiming at the same moment. Ellen's ears ring sickeningly. "We all have to die sometime," gruffly she blurts out.

Ruth's rubberclad foot is tapping the floor; she catches Cassie's eye and makes her stammer into silence. "Hadnt we better go along? It's getting rather late," she says.

"Excuse me a minute Ruth." Ellen runs into the bathroom and slams the door. She sits on the edge of the bathtub pounding on her knees with her clenched fists. Those women'll drive me mad. Then the tension in her snaps, she feels something draining out of her like water out of a washbasin. She quietly puts a dab of rouge on her lips.

When she goes back she says in her usual voice: "Well let's get along. . . . Got a part yet Ruth?"

"I had a chance to go out to Detroit with a stock company. I turned it down. ... I wont go out of New York whatever happens."

"What wouldnt I give for a chance to get away from New York. . . . Honestly if I was offered a job singing in a movie in Medicine Hat I think I'd take it."

Ellen picks up her umbrella and the three women file down the stairs and out into the street. "Taxi," calls Ellen.

The passing car grinds to a stop. The red hawk face of the taxidriver craning into the light of the street lamp. "Go to Eugenie's on Fortyeighth Street," says Ellen as the others climb in. Greenish lights and darks flicker past the lightheaded windows.

She stood with her arm in the arm of Harry Goldweiser's dinner jacket looking out over the parapet of the roof garden. Below them the Park lay twinkling with occasional lights, streaked with nebular blur like a fallen sky. From behind them came gusts of a tango, inklings of voices, shuffle of feet on a dancefloor. Ellen felt a stiff castiron figure in her metalgreen evening dress.

"Ah but Boirnhardt, Rachel, Duse, Mrs. Siddons. . . . No Elaine I'm tellin you, d'you understand? There's no art like the stage that soars so high moldin the passions of men. . . . If I could only do what I wanted we'd be the greatest people in the world. You'd be the greatest actress. . . . I'd be the great producer, the unseen builder, d'you understand? But the public dont want art, the people of this country wont let you do anythin for em. All they want's a detective melodrama or a rotten French farce with the kick left out or a lot of pretty girls and music. Well a showman's business is to give the public what they want."

"I think that this city is full of people wanting inconceivable things. . . . Look at it."

"It's all right at night when you cant see it. There's no artistic sense, no beautiful buildins, no old-time air, that's what's the matter with it."

They stood a while without speaking. The orchestra began playing the waltz from The Lilac Domino. Suddenly Ellen turned to Goldweiser and said in a curt tone.

"Can you understand a woman who wants to be a harlot, a common tart, sometimes?"

"My dear young lady what a strange thing for a sweet lovely girl to suddenly come out and say."

"I suppose you're shocked." She didnt hear his answer. She felt she was going to cry. She pressed her sharp nails into the palms of her hands, she held her breath until she had counted twenty. Then she said in a choking little girl's voice, "Harry let's go and dance a little."

The sky above the cardboard buildings is a vault of beaten lead. It would be less raw if it would snow. Ellen finds a taxi on the corner of Seventh Avenue and lets herself sink back in the seat rubbing the numb gloved fingers of one hand against the palm of the other. "West Fiftyseventh, please." Out of a sick mask of fatigue she watches fruitstores, signs, buildings being built, trucks, girls, messengerboys, policemen through the jolting window. If I have my child, Stan's child, it will grow up to jolt up Seventh Avenue under a sky of beaten lead that never snows watching fruitstores, signs, buildings being built, trucks, girls, messengerboys, policemen. . . . She presses her knees together, sits up straight on the edge of the seat with her hands clasped over her slender belly. O God the rotten joke they've played on me, taking Stan away, burning him up, leaving me nothing but this growing in me that's going to kill me. She's whimpering into her numb hands. O God why wont it snow?

As she stands on the gray pavement fumbling in her purse for a bill, a dusteddy swirling scraps of paper along the gutter fills her mouth with grit. The elevatorman's face is round ebony with ivory inlay. "Mrs. Staunton Wells?" "Yas ma'am eighth floor."

The elevator hums as it soars. She stands looking at herself in the narrow mirror. Suddenly something recklessly gay goes through her. She rubs the dust off her face with a screwedup handkerchief, smiles at the elevatorman's smile that's wide as the full keyboard of a piano, and briskly rustles to the door of the apartment that a frilled maid opens. Inside it smells of tea and furs and flowers, women's voices chirp to the clinking of cups like birds in an aviary. Glances flicker about her head as she goes into the room.

There was wine spilled on the tablecloth and bits of tomatosauce from the spaghetti. The restaurant was a steamy place with views of the Bay of Naples painted in soupy blues and greens on the walls. Ellen sat back in her chair from the round tableful of young men, watching the smoke from her cigarette crinkle spirally round the fat Chiantibottle in front of her. In her plate a slab of tri-color icecream melted forlornly. "But good God hasnt a man some rights? No, this industrial civilization forces us to seek a complete readjustment of government and social life . . ."

"Doesnt he use long words?" Ellen whispered to Herf who sat beside her.

"He's right all the same," he growled back at her. . . .

"The result has been to put more power in the hands of a few men than there has been in the history of the world since the horrible slave civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia. . . ."

"Hear hear."

"No but I'm serious. . . . The only way of bucking the interests is for working people, the proletariat, producers and consumers, anything you want to call them, to form unions and finally get so well organized that they can take over the whole government."

"I think you're entirely wrong, Martin, it's the interests as you call em, these horrible capitalists, that have built up this country as we have it today."

"Well look at it for God's sake. . . . That's what I'm saying. I wouldnt kennel a dog in it."

"I dont think so. I admire this country. . . . It's the only fatherland I've got. . . . And I think that all these downtrodden masses really want to be downtrodden, they're not fit for anything else. . . . If they werent they'd be flourishing businessmen . . . Those that are any good are getting to be."

"But I don't think a flourishing businessman is the highest ideal of human endeavor."

"A whole lot higher than a rotten fiddleheaded anarchist agitator. . . . Those that arent crooks are crazy."

"Look here Mead, you've just insulted something that you dont understand, that you know nothing about. . . . I cant allow you to do that. . . . You should try to understand things before you go round insulting them."

"An insult to the intelligence that's what it is all this socialistic drivel."

Ellen tapped Herf on the sleeve. "Jimmy I've got to go home. Do you want to walk a little way with me?"

"Martin, will you settle for us? We've got to go. . . . Ellie you look terribly pale."

"It's just a little hot in here. . . . Whee, what a relief. . . . I hate arguments anyway. I never can think of anything to say."

"That bunch does nothing but chew the rag night after night."

Eighth Avenue was full of fog that caught at their throats. Lights bloomed dimly through it, faces loomed, glinted in silhouette and faded like a fish in a muddy aquarium.

"Feel better Ellie?"

"Lots."

"I'm awfully glad."

"Do you know you're the only person around here who calls me Ellie. I like it. . . . Everybody tries to make me seem so grown up since I've been on the stage."

"Stan used to."

"Maybe that's why I like it," she said in a little trailing voice like a cry heard at night from far away along a beach.

Jimmy felt something clamping his throat. "Oh gosh things are rotten," he said. "God I wish I could blame it all on capitalism the way Martin does."

"It's pleasant walking like this . . . I love a fog."

They walked on without speaking. Wheels rumbled through the muffling fog underlaid with the groping distant lowing of sirens and steamboatwhistles on the river.

"But at least you have a career. . . . You like your work, you're enormously successful," said Herf at the corner of Fourteenth Street, and caught her arm as they crossed.

"Dont say that. . . . You really dont believe it. I dont kid myself as much as you think I do."

"No but it's so."

"It used to be before I met Stan, before I loved him. . . . You see I was a crazy little stagestruck kid who got launched out in a lot of things I didnt understand before I had time to learn anything about life. . . . Married at eighteen and divorced at twentytwo's a pretty good record. . . . But Stan was so wonderful. . . ."

"I know."

"Without ever saying anything he made me feel there were other things . . . unbelievable things. . . ."

"God I resent his craziness though. . . . It's such a waste."

"I cant talk about it."

"Let's not."

"Jimmy you're the only person left I can really talk to."

"Dont want to trust me. I might go berserk on you too some day."

They laughed.

"God I'm glad I'm not dead, arent you Ellie?"

"I dont know. Look here's my place. I dont want you to come up. . . . I'm going right to bed. I feel miserably. . . ." Jimmy stood with his hat off looking at her. She was fumbling in her purse for her key. "Look Jimmy I might as well tell you. . . ." She went up to him and spoke fast with her face turned away pointing at him with the latchkey that caught the light of the streetlamp. The fog was like a tent round about them. "I'm going to have a baby. . . . Stan's baby. I'm going to give up all this silly life and raise it. I dont care what happens."

"O God that's the bravest thing I ever heard of a woman doing. . . . Oh Ellie you're so wonderful. God if I could only tell you what I . . ."

"Oh no." Her voice broke and her eyes filled with tears. "I'm a silly fool, that's all." She screwed up her face like a little child and ran up the steps with the tears streaming down her face,

"Oh Ellie I want to say something to you . . ."

The door closed behind her.

Jimmy Herf stood stockstill at the foot of the brownstone steps. His temples throbbed. He wanted to break the door down after her. He dropped on his knees and kissed the step where she had stood. The fog swirled and flickered with colors in confetti about him. Then the trumpet feeling ebbed and he was falling through a black manhole. He stood stockstill. A policeman's ballbearing eyes searched his face as he passed, a stout blue column waving a nightstick. Then suddenly he clenched his fists and walked off. "O God everything is hellish," he said aloud. He wiped the grit off his lips with his coatsleeve.

She puts her hand in his to jump out of the roadster as the ferry starts, "Thanks Larry," and follows his tall ambling body out on the bow. A faint riverwind blows the dust and gasoline out of their nostrils. Through the pearly night the square frames of houses along the Drive opposite flicker like burnedout fireworks. The waves slap tinily against the shoving bow of the ferry. A hunchback with a violin is scratching Marianela.

"Nothing succeeds like success," Larry is saying in a deep droning voice.

"Oh if you knew how little I cared about anything just now you wouldnt go on teasing me with all these words. . . . You know, marriage, success, love, they're just words."

"But they mean everything in the world to me. . . . I think you'd like it in Lima Elaine. . . . I waited until you were free, didnt I? And now here I am."

"We're none of us that ever. . . . But I'm just numb." The riverwind is brackish. Along the viaduct above 125th Street cars crawl like beetles. As the ferry enters the slip they hear the squudge and rumble of wheels on asphalt.

"Well we'd better get back into the car, you wonderful creature Elaine."

"After all day it's exciting isnt it Larry, getting back into the center of things."

Beside the smudged white door are two pushbuttons marked Night Bell and Day Bell. She rings with a shaky finger, A short broad man with a face like a rat and sleek black hair brushed straight back opens. Short dollhands the color of the flesh of a mushroom hang at his sides. He hunches his shoulders in a bow.

"Are you the lady? Come in."

"Is this Dr. Abrahms?"

"Yes. . . . You are the lady my friend phoned me about. Sit down my dear lady." The office smells of something like arnica. Her heart joggles desperately between her ribs.

"You understand . . ." She hates the quaver in her voice; she's going to faint. "You understand, Dr. Abrahms that it is absolutely necessary. I am getting a divorce from my husband and have to make my own living."

"Very young, unhappily married . . . I am sorry." The doctor purrs softly as if to himself. He heaves a hissing sigh and suddenly looks in her eyes with black steel eyes like gimlets. "Do not be afraid, dear lady, it is a very simple operation. . . . Are you ready now?"

"Yes. It wont take very long will it? If I can pull myself together I have an engagement for tea at five."

"You are a brave young lady. In an hour it will be forgotten. . . . I am sorry. . . . It is very sad such a thing is necessary. . . . Dear lady you should have a home and many children and a loving husband . . . Will you go in the operating room and prepare yourself. . . . I work without an assistant."

The bright searing bud of light swells in the center of the ceiling, sprays razorsharp nickel, enamel, a dazzling sharp glass case of sharp instruments. She takes off her hat and lets herself sink shuddering sick on a little enamel chair. Then she gets stiffly to her feet and undoes the band of her skirt.

The roar of the streets breaks like surf about a shell of throbbing agony. She watches the tilt of her leather hat, the powder, the rosed cheeks, the crimson lips that are a mask on her face. All the buttons of her gloves are buttoned. She raises her hand. "Taxi!" A fire engine roars past, a hosewagon with sweatyfaced men pulling on rubber coats, a clanging hookandladder. All the feeling in her fades with the dizzy fade of the siren. A wooden Indian, painted, with a hand raised at the streetcorner.

"Taxi!"

"Yes ma'am."

"Drive to the Ritz."