Manhattan Transfer/Chapter 15

II. Nickelodeon

A nickel before midnight buys tomorrow . . . holdup headlines, a cup of coffee in the automat, a ride to Woodlawn, Fort Lee, Flatbush. . . . A nickel in the slot buys chewing gum. Somebody Loves Me, Baby Divine, You're in Kentucky Juss Shu' As You're Born . . . bruised notes of foxtrots go limping out of doors, blues, waltzes (We'd Danced the Whole Night Through) trail gyrating tinsel memories. . . . On Sixth Avenue on Fourteenth there are still flyspecked stereopticons where for a nickel you can peep at yellowed yesterdays. Beside the peppering shooting gallery you stoop into the flicker A Hot Time, The Bachelor's Surprise, The Stolen Garter . . . waste basket of tornup daydreams. . . . A nickel before midnight buys our yesterdays.

RUTH PRYNNE came out of the doctor's office pullthe fur tight round her throat. She felt faint. Taxi. As she stepped in she remembered the smell of cosmetics and toast and the littered hallway at Mrs. Sunderlands. Oh I cant go home just yet. "Driver go to the Old English Tea Room on Fortieth Street please." She opened her long green leather purse and looked in. My God, only a dollar a quarter a nickel and two pennies. She kept her eyes on the figures flickering on the taximeter. She wanted to break down and cry. . . . The way money goes. The gritty cold wind rasped at her throat when she got out. "Eighty cents miss. . . . I haven't any change miss." "All right keep the change." Heavens only thirtytwo cents. . . . Inside it was warm and smelled cozily of tea and cookies.

"Why Ruth, if it isn't Ruth. . . . Dearest come to my arms after all these years." It was Billy Waldron. He was fatter and whiter than he used to be. He gave her a stagy hug and kissed her on the forehead. "How are you? Do tell me. . . . How distinguée you look in that hat."

"I've just been having my throat X-rayed," she said with a giggle. "I feel like the wrath of God."

"What are you doing Ruth? I havent heard of you for ages."

"Put me down as a back number, hadn't you?" She caught his words up fiercely.

"After that beautiful performance you gave in The Orchard Queen. . . ."

"To tell the truth Billy I've had a terrible run of bad luck."

"Oh I know everything is dead."

"I have an appointment to see Belasco next week. . . . Something may come of that."

"Why I should say it might Ruth. . . . Are you expecting someone?"

"No. . . . Oh Billy you're still the same old tease. . . . Dont tease me this afternoon. I dont feel up to it."

"You poor dear sit down and have a cup of tea with me."

"I tell you Ruth it's a terrible year. Many a good trouper will pawn the last link of his watch chain this year. . . . I suppose you're going the rounds."

"Dont talk about it. . . . If I could only get my throat all right. . . . A thing like that wears you down."

"Remember the old days at the Somerville Stock?"

"Billy could I ever forget them? . . . Wasnt it a scream?"

"The last time I saw you Ruth was in The Butterfly on the Wheel in Seattle. I was out front. . . ."

"Why didn't you come back and see me?"

"I was still angry at you I suppose. . . . It was my lowest moment. In the valley of shadow . . . melancholia . . . neurasthenia. I was stranded penniless. . . . That night I was a little under the influence, you understand. I didn't want you to see the beast in me."

Ruth poured herself a fresh cup of tea. She suddenly felt feverishly gay. "Oh but Billy havent you forgotten all that? . . . I was a foolish little girl then. . . . I was afraid that love or marriage or anything like that would interfere with my art, you understand. . . . I was so crazy to succeed."

"Would you do the same thing again?"

"I wonder. . . ."

"How does it go? . . . The moving finger writes and having writ moves on . . ."

"Something about Nor all your tears wash out a word of it . . . But Billy," she threw back her head and laughed, "I thought you were getting ready to propose to me all over again. . . . Ou my throat."

"Ruth I wish you werent taking that X-ray treatment. . . . I've heard it's very dangerous. Dont let me alarm you about it my dear . . . but I have heard of cases of cancer contracted that way."

"That's nonsense Billy. . . . That's only when X-rays are improperly used, and it takes years of exposure. . . . No I think this Dr. Warner's a remarkable man."

Later, sitting in the uptown express in the subway, she still could feel his soft hand patting her gloved hand. "Good-by little girl, God bless you," he'd said huskily. He's gotten to be a ham actor if there ever was one, something was jeering inside her all the while. "Thank heavens you will never know." . . . Then with a sweep of his broadbrimmed hat and a toss of his silky white hair, as if he were playing in Monsieur Beaucaire, he had turned and walked off among the crowd up Broadway. I may be down on my luck, but I'm not all ham inside the way he is. . . . Cancer he said. She looked up and down the car at the joggling faces opposite her. Of all those people one of them must have it. Four Out of Every Five Get . . . Silly, that's not cancer. Ex-lax, Nujol, O'Sullivan's. . . . She put her hand to her throat. Her throat was terribly swollen, her throat throbbed feverishly. Maybe it was worse. It is something alive that grows in flesh, eats all your life, leaves you horrible, rotten. . . . The people opposite stared straight ahead of them, young men and young women, middleaged people, green faces in the dingy light, under the sourcolored advertisements. Four Out of Every Five . . . A trainload of jiggling corpses, nodding and swaying as the express roared shrilly towards Ninetysixth Street. At Ninetysixth she had to change for the local.

Dutch Robertson sat on a bench on Brooklyn Bridge with the collar of his army overcoat turned up, running his eye down Business Opportunities. It was a muggy fog-choked afternoon; the bridge was dripping and aloof like an arbor in a dense garden of steamboatwhistles. Two sailors passed. "Ze best joint I've been in since B. A."

Partner movie theater, busy neighborhood . . . stand investigation . . . $3,000. . . . Jez I haven't got three thousand mills. . . . Cigar stand, busy building, compelled sacrifice. . . . Attractive and completely outfitted radio and music shop . . . busy. . . . Modern mediumsized printingplant consisting of cylinders, Kelleys, Miller feeders, job presses, linotype machines and a complete bindery. . . . Kosher restaurant and delicatessen. . . . Bowling alley . . . busy. . . . Live spot large dancehall and other concessions. We Buy False Teeth, old gold, platinum, old jewelry. The hell they do. Help Wanted Male. That's more your speed you rummy. Addressers, first class penmen. . . . Lets me out. . . . Artist, Attendant, Auto, Bicycle and Motorcycle repair shop. . . . He took out the back of an envelope and marked down the address. Bootblacks. . . . Not yet. Boy; no I guess I aint a boy any more, Candy-store, Canvassers, Carwashers, Dishwasher. Earn While You Learn. Mechanical dentistry is your shortest way to success. . . . No dull seasons. . . .

"Hello Dutch. . . . I thought I'd never get here." A grayfaced girl in a red hat and gray rabbit coat sat down beside him.

"Jez I'm sick o readin want ads." He stretched out his arms and yawned letting the paper slip down his legs.

"Aint you chilly, sittin out here on the bridge?"

"Maybe I am. . . . Let's go and eat." He jumped to his feet and put his red face with its thin broken nose close to hers and looked in her black eyes with his pale gray eyes. He tapped her arm sharply. "Hello Francie. . . . How's my lil girl?"

They walked back towards Manhattan, the way she had come. Under them the river glinted through the mist. A big steamer drifted by slowly, lights already lit; over the edge of the walk they looked down the black smokestacks.

"Was it a boat as big as that you went overseas on Dutch?"

"Bigger 'n that."

"Gee I'd like to go."

"I'll take you over some time and show you all them places over there . . . I went to a lot of places that time I went A.W.O.L."

In the L station they hesitated. "Francie got any jack on you?"

"Sure I got a dollar. . . . I ought to keep that for tomorrer though."

"All I got's my last quarter. Let's go eat two fiftyfive cent dinners at that chink place . . . That'll be a dollar ten."

"I got to have a nickel to get down to the office in the mornin."

"Oh Hell! Goddam it I wish we could have some money."

"Got anything lined up yet?"

"Wouldn't I have told ye if I had?"

"Come ahead I've got a half a dollar saved up in my room. I can take carfare outa that." She changed the dollar and put two nickels into the turnstile. They sat down in a Third Avenue train.

"Say Francie will they let us dance in a khaki shirt?"

"Why not Dutch it looks all right."

"I feel kinder fussed about it."

The jazzband in the restaurant was playing Hindustan. It smelled of chop suey and Chinese sauce. They slipped into a booth. Slickhaired young men and little bobhaired girls were dancing hugged close. As they sat down they smiled into each other's eyes.

"Jez I'm hungry."

"Are you Dutch?"

He pushed forward his knees until they locked with hers. "Gee you're a good kid," he said when he had finished his soup. "Honest I'll get a job this week. And then we'll get a nice room an get married an everything."

When they got up to dance they were trembling so they could barely keep time to the music.

"Mister . . . no dance without ploper dless . . ." said a dapper Chinaman putting his hand on Dutch's arm.

"Waz he want?" he growled dancing on.

"I guess it's the shirt, Dutch."

"The hell it is."

"I'm tired. I'd rather talk than dance anyway . . ." They went back to their booth and their sliced pineapple for dessert.

Afterwards they walked east along Fourteenth. "Dutch cant we go to your room?"

"I ain't got no room. The old stiff wont let me stay and she's got all my stuff. Honest if I dont get a job this week I'm goin to a recruiting sergeant an re-enlist."

"Oh dont do that; we wouldn't ever get married then Dutch. . . . Gee though why didn't you tell me?"

"I didn't want to worry you Francie. . . . Six months out of work . . . Jez it's enough to drive a guy cookoo."

"But Dutch where can we go?"

"We might go out that wharf. . . . I know a wharf."

"It's so cold."

"I couldn't get cold when you were with me kid."

"Dont talk like that. . . I dont like it."

They walked leaning together in the darkness up the muddy rutted riverside streets, between huge swelling gas-tanks, brokendown fences, long manywindowed warehouses. At a corner under a streetlamp a boy catcalled as they passed.

"I'll poke your face in you little bastard," Dutch let fly out of the corner of his mouth.

"Dont answer him," Francie whispered, "or we'll have the whole gang down on us."

They slipped through a little door in a tall fence above which crazy lumberpiles towered. They could smell the river and cedarwood and sawdust. They could hear the river lapping at the piles under their feet. Dutch drew her to him and pressed his mouth down on hers.

"Hay dere dont you know you cant come out here at night disaway?" a voice yapped at them. The watchman flashed a lantern in their eyes.

"All right keep your shirt on, we were just taking a little walk."

"Some walk."

They were dragging themselves down the street again with the black riverwind in their teeth.

"Look out." A policeman passed whistling softly to himself. They drew apart. "Oh Francie they'll be takin us to the nuthouse if we keep this up. Let's go to your room."

"Landlady'll throw me out, that's all."

"I wont make any noise. . . . You got your key aint ye? I'll sneak out before light. Goddam it they make you feel like a skunk."

"All right Dutch let's go home. . . . I dont care no more what happens."

They walked up mudtracked stairs to the top floor of the tenement.

"Take off your shoes," she hissed in his ear as she slipped the key in the lock.

"I got holes in my stockings."

"That dont matter, silly. I'll see if it's all right. My room's way back past the kitchen so if they're all in bed they cant hear us."

When she left him he could hear his heart beating. In a second she came back. He tiptoed after her down a creaky hall. A sound of snoring came through a door. There was a smell of cabbage and sleep in the hall. Once in her room she locked the door and put a chair against it under the knob. A triangle of ashen light came in from the street. "Now for crissake keep still Dutch." One shoe still in each hand he reached for her and hugged her. He lay beside her whispering on and on with his lips against her ear. "And Francie I'll make good, honest I will; I got to be a sergeant overseas till they busted me for goin A.W.O.L. That shows I got it in me. Onct I get a chance I'll make a whole lot of jack and you an me'll go back an see Chateau Teery an Paree an all that stuff; honest you'd like it Francie . . . Jez the towns are old and funny and quiet and cozylike an they have the swellest ginmills where you sit outside at little tables in the sun an watch the people pass an the food's swell too once you get to like it an they have hotels all over where we could have gone like tonight an they dont care if your married or nutten. An they have big beds all cozy made of wood and they bring ye up breakfast in bed. Jez Francie you'd like it."

They were walking to dinner through the snow. Big snowfeathers spun and spiraled about them mottling the glare of the streets with blue and pink and yellow, blotting perspectives.

"Ellie I hate to have you take that job. . . . You ought to keep on with your acting."

"But Jimps, we've got to live."

"I know . . . I know. You'd certainly didnt have your wits about you Ellie when you married me."

"Oh let's not talk about it any more."

"Do let's have a good time tonight. . . . It's the first snow."

"Is this the place?" They stood before an unlighted basement door covered by a closemeshed grating. "Let's try."

"Did the bell ring?"

"I think so."

The inner door opened and a girl in a pink apron peered out at them. "Bon soir mademoiselle."

"Ah . . . bon soir monsieur 'dame." She ushered them into a foodsmelling gaslit hall hung with overcoats and hats and mufflers. Through a curtained door the restaurant blew in their faces a hot breath of bread and cocktails and frying butter and perfumes and lipsticks and clatter and jingling talk.

"I can smell absinthe," said Ellen. "Let's get terribly tight."

"Good Lord, there's Congo. . . . Dont you remember Congo Jake at the Seaside Inn?"

He stood bulky at the end of the corridor beckoning to them. His face was very tanned and he had a glossy black mustache. "Hello Meester 'Erf. . . . Ow are you?"

"Fine as silk. Congo I want you to meet my wife."

"If you dont mind the keetchen we will 'ave a drink."

"Of course we dont. . . . It's the best place in the house. Why you're limping. . . . "What did you do to your leg?"

"Foutu . . . I left it en Italie. . . . I couldnt breeng it along once they'd cut it off."

"How was that?"

"Damn fool thing on Mont Tomba. . . . My bruderinlaw e gave me a very beautiful artificial leemb. . . . Sit 'ere. Look madame now can you tell which is which?"

"No I cant," said Ellie laughing. They were at a little marble table in the corner of the crowded kitchen. A girl was dishing out at a deal table in the center. Two cooks worked over the stove. The air was rich with sizzling fatty foodsmells. Congo hobbled back to them with three glasses on a small tray. He stood over them while they drank.

"Salut," he said, raising his glass. "Absinthe cocktail, like they make it in New Orleans."

"It's a knockout." Congo took a card out of his vest pocket:

MARQUIS DES COULOMMIERS
Imports

Riverside 11121

"Maybe some day you need some little ting . . . I deal in nutting but prewar imported. I am the best bootleggair in New York.

"If I ever get any money I certainly will spend it on you Congo. . . . How do you find business?"

"Veree good. . . . I tell you about it. Tonight I'm too busee. . . . Now I find you a table in the restaurant."

"Do you run this place too?"

"No this my bruderinlaw's place."

"I didnt know you had a sister."

"Neither did I."

When Congo limped away from their table silence came down between them like an asbestos curtain in a theater.

"He's a funny duck," said Jimmy forcing a laugh.

"He certainly is."

"Look Ellie let's have another cocktail."

"Allright."

"I must get hold of him and get some stories about bootleggers out of him."

When he stretched his legs out under the table he touched her feet. She drew them away. Jimmy could feel his jaws chewing, they clanked so loud under his cheeks he thought Ellie must hear them. She sat opposite him in a gray tailoredsuit, her neck curving up heartbreakingly from the ivory V left by the crisp frilled collar of her blouse, her head tilted under her tight gray hat, her lips made up; cutting up little pieces of meat and not eating them, not saying a word.

"Gosh . . . let's have another cocktail." He felt paralyzed like in a nightmare; she was a porcelaine figure under a bellglass. A current of fresh snowrinsed air from somewhere eddied all of a sudden through the blurred packed jangling glare of the restaurant, cut the reek of food and drink and tobacco. For an instant he caught the smell of her hair. The cocktails burned in him. God I dont want to pass out.

Sitting in the restaurant of the Gare de Lyon, side by side on the black leather bench. His cheek brushes hers when he reaches to put herring, butter, sardines, anchovies, sausage on her plate. They eat in a hurry, gobbling, giggling, gulp wine, start at every screech of an engine. . . .

The train pulls out of Avignon, they two awake, looking in each other's eyes in the compartment full of sleep-sodden snoring people. He lurches clambering over tangled legs, to smoke a cigarette at the end of the dim oscillating corridor. Diddledeump, going south, Diddledeump, going south, sing the wheels over the rails down the valley of the Rhone. Leaning in the window, smoking a broken cigarette, trying to smoke a crumbling cigarette, holding a finger over the torn place. Glubglub glubglub from the bushes, from the silverdripping poplars along the track.

"EUie, Ellie there are nightingales singing along the track."

"Oh I was asleep darling." She gropes to him stumbling across the legs of sleepers. Side by side in the window in the lurching jiggling corridor.

Deedledeump, going south. Gasp of nightingales along the track among the silverdripping poplars. The insane cloudy night of moonlight smells of gardens garlic rivers freshdunged field roses. Gasp of nightingales.

Opposite him the Elliedoll was speaking. "He says the lobstersalad's all out. . . . Isnt that discouraging?"

Suddenly he had his tongue. "Gosh if that were the only thing."

"What do you mean?"

"Why did we come back to this rotten town anyway?"

"You've been burbling about how wonderful it was ever since we came back."

"I know. I guess it's sour grapes. . . . I'm going to have another cocktail. . . . Ellie for heaven's sake what's the matter with us?"

"We're going to be sick if we keep this up I tell you."

"Well let's be sick. . . . Let's be good and sick."

When they sit up in the great bed they can see across the harbor, can see the yards of a windjammer and a white sloop and a red and green toy tug and plainfaced houses opposite beyond a peacock stripe of water; when they lie down they can see gulls in the sky. At dusk dressing rockily, shakily stumbling through the mildewed corridors of the hotel out into streets noisy as a brass band, full of tambourine rattle, brassy shine, crystal glitter, honk and whir of motors. . . . Alone together in the dusk drinking sherry under a broad-leaved plane, alone together in the juggled particolored crowds like people invisible. And the spring night comes up over the sea terrible out of Africa and settles about them.

They had finished their coffee. Jimmy had drunk his very slowly as if some agony waited for him when he finished it.

"Well I was afraid we'd find the Barneys here," said Ellen.

"Do they know about this place?"

"You brought them here yourself Jimps. . . . And that dreadful woman insisted on talking babies with me all the evening. I hate talking babies."

"Gosh I wish we could go to a show."

"It would be too late anyway."

"And just spending money I havent got. . . . Lets have a cognac to top off with. I don't care if it ruins us."

"It probably will in more ways than one."

"Well Ellie, here's to the breadwinner who's taken up the white man's burden."

"Why Jimmy I think it'll be rather fun to have an editorial job for a while."

"I'd find it fun to have any kind of job. . . . Well I can always stay home and mind the baby."

"Dont be so bitter Jimmy, it's just temporary."

"Life's just temporary for that matter."

The taxi drew up. Jimmy paid him with his last dollar. Ellie had her key in the outside door. The street was a confusion of driving absintheblurred snow. The door of their apartment closed behind them. Chairs, tables, books, windowcurtains crowded about them bitter with the dust of yesterday, the day before, the day before that. Smells of diapers and coffeepots and typewriter oil and Dutch Cleanser oppressed them. Ellen put out the empty milkbottle and went to bed. Jimmy kept walking nervously about the front room. His drunkenness ebbed away leaving him icily sober. In the empty chamber of his brain a doublefaced word clinked like a coin: Success Failure, Success Failure.

I'm just wild about Harree
And Harry's just wild about me

she hums under her breath as she dances. It's a long hall with a band at one end, lit greenishly by two clusters of electric lights hanging among paper festoons in the center. At the end where the door is, a varnished rail holds back the line of men. This one Anna's dancing with is a tall square built Swede, his big feet trail clumsily after her tiny lightly tripping feet. The music stops. Now it's a little blackhaired slender Jew. He tries to snuggle close.

"Quit that." She holds him away from her.

"Aw have a heart."

She doesn't answer, dances with cold precision; she's sickeningly tired.

Me and my boyfriend
My boyfriend and I

An Italian breathes garlic in her face, a marine sergeant, a Greek, a blond young kid with pink cheeks, she gives him a smile; a drunken elderly man who tries to kiss her . . . Charley my boy O Charley my boy . . . slickhaired, freckled rumplehaired, pimplefaced, snubnosed, straightnosed, quick dancers, heavy dancers. . . . Goin souf. . . . Wid de taste o de sugarcane right in my mouf . . . against her back big hands, hot hands, sweaty hands, cold hands, while her dancechecks mount up, get to be a wad in her fist. This one's a good waltzer, genteel-like in a black suit.

"Gee I'm tired," she whispers.

"Dancing never tires me."

"Oh it's dancin with everybody like this."

"Dont you want to come an dance with me all alone somewhere?"

"Boyfrien's waitin for me after."

With nothing but a photograph
To tell my troubles to . . .
What'll I do . . .?

"What time's it?" she asks a broadchested wise guy. "Time you an me was akwainted, sister. . . ." She shakes her head. Suddenly the music bursts into Auld Lang Syne. She breaks away from him and runs to the desk in a crowd of girls elbowing to turn in their dancechecks. "Say Anna," says a broadhipped blond girl . . . "did ye see that sap was dancin wid me? . . . He says to me the sap he says See you later an I says to him the sap I says see yez in hell foist . . . an then he says, Goily he says . . ."