Manhattan Transfer/Chapter 5

V. Steamroller

Dusk gently smooths crispangled streets. Dark presses tight the steaming asphalt city, crushes the fretwork of windows and lettered signs and chimneys and watertanks and ventilators and fire-escapes and moldings and patterns and corrugations and eyes and hands and neckties into blue chunks, into black enormous blocks. Under the rolling heavier heavier pressure windows blurt light. Night crushes bright milk out of arclights, squeezes the sullen blocks until they drip red, yellow, green into streets resounding with feet. All the asphalt oozes light. Light spurts from lettering on roofs, mills dizzily among wheels, stains rolling tons of sky.

A STEAMROLLER was clattering back and forth over the freshly tarred metaling of the road at the cemetery gate. A smell of scorched grease and steam and hot paint came from it. Jimmy Herf picked his way along the edge of the road; the stones were sharp against his feet through the worn soles of his shoes. He brushed past swarthy-necked workmen and walked on over the new road with a whiff of garlic and sweat from them in his nostrils. After a hundred yards he stopped over the gray suburban road, laced tight on both sides with telegraph poles and wires, over the gray paperbox houses and the gray jagged lots of monumentmakers, the sky was the color of a robin's egg. Little worms of May were writhing in his blood. He yanked off his black necktie and put it in his pocket. A tune was grinding crazily through his head:

I'm so tired of vi-olets
Take them all away.

There is one glory of the sun and another glory of the moon and another glory of the stars: for one star differeth from another star in glory. So also is the resurrection of the dead. . . . He walked on fast splashing through puddles full of sky, trying to shake the droning welloiled words out of his ears, to get the feeling of black crêpe off his fingers, to forget the smell of lilies.

I'm so tired of vi-olets
Take them all away.

He walked faster. The road climbed a hill. There was a bright runnel of water in the ditch, flowing through patches of grass and dandelions. There were fewer houses; on the sides of barns peeling letters spelled out LYDIA PINKHAM'S VEGETABLE COMPOUND, BUDWEISER, RED HEN, BARKING DOG. . . . And muddy had had a stroke and now she was buried. He couldn't think how she used to look; she was dead that was all. From a fencepost came the moist whistling of a songsparrow. The minute rusty bird flew ahead, perched on a telegraph wire and sang, and flew ahead to the rim of an abandoned boiler and sang, and flew ahead and sang. The sky was getting a darker blue, filling with flaked motherofpearl clouds. For a last moment he felt the rustle of silk beside him, felt a hand in a trailing lacefrilled sleeve close gently over his hand. Lying in his crib with his feet pulled up cold under the menace of the shaggy crouching shadows; and the shadows scuttled melting into corners when she leaned over him with curls round her forehead, in silkpuffed sleeves, with a tiny black patch at the corner of the mouth that kissed his mouth. He walked faster. The blood flowed full and hot in his veins. The flaked clouds were melting into rosecolored foam. He could hear his steps on the worn macadam. At a crossroad the sun glinted on the sticky pointed buds of a beechsapling. Opposite a sign read YONKERS. In the middle of the road teetered a dented tomatocan. Kicking it hard in front of him he walked on. One glory of the sun and another glory of the moon and another glory of the stars. . . . He walked on.

"Hullo Emile!" Emile nodded without turning his head. The girl ran after him and grabbed his coatsleeve. "That's the way you treat your old friends is it? Now that you're keepin company with that delicatessen queen . . ."

Emile yanked his hand away. "I am in a 'urree zat's all."

"How'd ye like it if I went an told her how you an me framed it up to stand in front of the window on Eighth Avenue huggin an kissin juss to make her fall for yez."

"Zat was Congo's idea."

"Well didn't it woik?"

"Sure."

"Well aint there sumpen due me?"

"May you're a veree nice leetle girl. Next week my night off is Wednesday. . . . I'll come by an take you to a show. . . . 'Ow's 'ustlin?"

"Worse'n hell. . . . I'm tryin out for a dancin job up at the Campus. . . . That's where you meet guys wid jack. . . . No more of dese sailor boys and shorefront stiffs. . . . I'm gettin respectable."

"May 'ave you 'eard from Congo?"

"Got a postalcard from some goddam place I couldn't read the name of. . . . Aint it funny when you write for money an all ye git 's a postal ca-ard. . . . That's the kid gits me for the askin any night. . . . An he's the only one, savvy, Frogslegs?"

"Goodby May." He suddenly pushed the straw bonnet trimmed with forgetmenots back on her head and kissed her.

"Hey quit dat Frogslegs . . . Eighth Avenue aint no place to kiss a girl," she whined pushing a yellow curl back under her hat. "I could git you run in an I've half a mind to."

Emile walked off.

A fire engine, a hosewagon, and a hookandladder passed him, shattering the street with clattering roar. Three blocks down smoke and an occasional gasp of flame came from the roof of a house. A crowd was jammed up against the policelines. Beyond backs and serried hats Emile caught a glimpse of firemen on the roof of the next house and of three silently glittering streams of water playing into the upper windows. Must be right opposite the delicatessen. He was making his way through the jam on the sidewalk when the crowd suddenly opened. Two policemen were dragging out a negro whose arms snapped back and forth like broken cables. A third cop came behind cracking the negro first on one side of the head, then on the other with his billy.

"It's a shine 'at set the fire."

"They caught the firebug."

"'At's 'e incendiary."

"God he's a meanlookin smoke."

The crowd closed in. Emile was standing beside Madame Rigaud in front of the door of her store.

"Cheri que ça me fait une emotiong. . . . J'ai horriblemong peu du feu."

Emile was standing a little behind her. He let one arm crawl slowly round her waist and patted her arm with his other hand, "Everyting awright. Look no more fire, only smoke. . . . But you are insured, aint you?"

"Oh yes for fifteen tousand." He squeezed her hand and then took his arms away. "Viens ma petite on va rentrer."

Once inside the shop he took both her plump hands. "Ernestine when we get married?"

"Next month."

"I no wait zat long, imposseeble. . . . Why not next Wednesday? Then I can help you make inventory of stock. . . . I tink maybe we can sell this place and move uptown, make bigger money."

She patted him on the cheek. "P'tit ambitieux," she said through her hollow inside laugh that made her shoulders and her big bust shake.

They had to change at Manhattan Transfer. The thumb of Ellen's new kid glove had split and she kept rubbing it nervously with her forefinger. John wore a belted raincoat and a pinkishgray felt hat. When he turned to her and smiled she couldn't help pulling her eyes away and staring out at the long rain that shimmered over the tracks.

"Here we are Elaine dear. Oh prince's daughter, you see we get the train that comes from the Penn station. . . . It's funny this waiting in the wilds of New Jersey this way." They got into the parlorcar. John made a little clucking sound in his mouth at the raindrops that made dark dimes on his pale hat. "Well we're off, little girl. . . . Behold thou art fair my love, thou art fair, thou hast dove's eyes within thy locks."

Ellen's new tailored suit was tight at the elbows. She wanted to feel very gay and listen to his purring whisper in her ears, but something had set her face in a tight frown; she could only look out at the brown marshes and the million black windows of factories and the puddly streets of towns and a rusty steamboat in a canal and barns and Bull Durham signs and round faced Spearmint gnomes all barred and crisscrossed with bright flaws of rain. The jeweled stripes on the window ran straight down when the train stopped and got more and more oblique as it speeded up. The wheels rumbled in her head, saying Man-hattan Tran-sfer. Manhattan Tran-sfer. Anyway it was a long time before Atlantic City. By the time we get to Atlantic City . . . Oh it rained forty days . . . I'll be feeling gay. . . . And it rained forty nights. . . . I've got to be feeling gay.

"Elaine Thatcher Oglethorpe, that's a very fine name, isn't it, darling? Oh stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples for I am sick of love. . ."

It was so comfortable in the empty parlorcar in the green velvet chair with John leaning towards her reciting nonsense with the brown marshlands slipping by behind the rainstriped window and a smell like clams seeping into the car. She looked into his face and laughed. A blush ran all over his face to the roots of his redblond hair. He put his hand in its yellow glove over her hand in its white glove. "You're my wife now Elaine."

"You're my husband now John." And laughing they looked at each other in the coziness of the empty parlorcar.

White letters, ATLANTIC CITY, spelled doom over the rainpitted water.

Rain lashed down the glaring boardwalk and crashed in gusts against the window like water thrown out of a bucket. Beyond the rain she could hear the intermittent rumble of the surf along the beach between the illuminated piers. She lay on her back staring at the ceiling. Beside her in the big bed John lay asleep breathing quietly like a child with a pillow doubled up under his head. She was icy cold. She slid out of bed very carefully not to wake him, and stood looking out the window down the very long V of lights of the boardwalk. She pushed up the window. The rain lashed in her face spitefully stinging her flesh, wetting her nightdress. She pushed her forehead against the frame. Oh I want to die. I want to die. All the tight coldness of her body was clenching in her stomach. Oh I'm going to be sick. She went into the bathroom and closed the door. When she had vomited she felt better. Then she climbed into bed again careful not to touch John. If she touched him she would die. She lay on her back with her hands tight against her sides and her feet together. The parlorcar rumbled cozily in her head; she fell asleep.

Wind rattling the windowframes wakened her. John was far away, the other side of the big bed. With the wind and the rain streaming in the window it was as if the room and the big bed and everything were moving, running forward like an airship over the sea. Oh it rained forty days. . . . Through a crack in the cold stiffness the little tune trickled warm as blood. . . . And it rained forty nights. Gingerly she drew a hand over her husband's hair. He screwed his face up in his sleep and whined "Dont" in a littleboy's voice that made her giggle. She lay giggling on the far edge of the bed, giggling desperately as she used to with girls at school. And the rain lashed through the window and the song grew louder until it was a brass band in her ears:

Oh it rained forty days
And it rained forty nights
And it didn't stop till Christmas
And the only man that survived the flood
Was longlegged Jack of the Isthmus.

Jimmy Herf sits opposite Uncle Jeff. Each has before him on a blue plate a chop, a baked potato, a little mound of peas and a sprig of parsely.

"Well look about you Jimmy," says Uncle Jeff. Bright topstory light brims the walnutpaneled diningroom, glints twistedly on silver knives and forks, gold teeth, watch-chains, scarfpins, is swallowed up in the darkness of broadcloth and tweed, shines roundly on polished plates and bald heads and covers of dishes. "Well what do you think of it?" asks Uncle Jeff burying his thumbs in the pockets of his fuzzy buff vest.

"It's a fine club all right," says Jimmy.

"The wealthiest and the most successful men in the country eat lunch up here. Look at the round table in the corner. That's the Gausenheimers' table. Just to the left." . . . Uncle Jeff leans forward lowering his voice, "the man with the powerful jaw is J. Wilder Laporte." Jimmy cuts into his muttonchop without answering. "Well Jimmy, you probably know why I brought you down here . . . I want to talk to you. Now that your poor mother has . . . has been taken, Emily and I are your guardians in the eyes of the law and the executors of poor Lily's will. . . . I want to explain to you just how things stand." Jimmy puts down his knife and fork and sits staring at his uncle, clutching the arms of his chair with cold hands, watching the jowl move blue and heavy above the ruby stickpin in the wide satin cravat. "You are sixteen now aren't you Jimmy?"

"Yes sir."

"Well it's this way. . . . When your mother's estate is all settled up you'll find yourself in the possession of approximately fiftyfive hundred dollars. Luckily you are a bright fellow and will be ready for college early. Now, properly husbanded that sum ought to see you through Columbia, since you insist on going to Columbia. . . . I myself, and I'm sure your Aunt Emily feels the same way about it, would much rather see you go to Yale or Princeton. . . . You are a very lucky fellow in my estimation. At your age I was sweeping out an office in Fredericksburg and earning fifteen dollars a month. Now what I wanted to say was this . . . I have not noticed that you felt sufficient responsibility about moneymatters . . . er . . . sufficient enthusiasm about earning your living, making good in a man's world. Look around you. . . . Thrift and enthusiasm has made these men what they are. It's made me, put me in the position to offer you the comfortable home, the cultured surroundings that I do offer you. . . . I realize that your education has been a little peculiar, that poor Lily did not have quite the same ideas that we have on many subjects, but the really formative period of your life is beginning. Now's the time to take a brace and lay the foundations of your future career. . . . What I advise is that you follow James's example and work your way up through the firm. . . . From now on you are both sons of mine. . . . It will mean hard work but it'll eventually offer a very substantial opening. And dont forget this, if a man's a success in New York, he's a success!" Jimmy sits watching his uncle's broad serious mouth forming words, without tasting the juicy mutton of the chop he is eating. "Well what are you going to make of yourself?" Uncle Jeff leaned towards him across the table with bulging gray eyes.

Jimmy chokes on a piece of bread, blushes, at last stammers weakly, "Whatever you say Uncle Jeff."

"Does that mean you'll go to work for a month this summer in my office? Get a taste of how it feels to make a living, like a man in a man's world, get an idea of how the business is run?" Jimmy nods his head. "Well I think you've come to a very sensible decision," booms Uncle Jeff leaning back in his chair so that the light strikes across the wave of his steelgray hair. "By the way what'll you have for dessert? . . . Years from now Jimmy, when you are a successful man with a business of your own we'll remember this talk. It's the beginning of your career."

The hatcheck girl smiles from under the disdainful pile of her billowy blond hair when she hands Jimmy his hat that looks squashed flat and soiled and limp among the bigbellied derbies and the fedoras and the majestic panamas hanging on the pegs. His stomach turns a somersault with the drop of the elevator. He steps out into the crowded marble hall. For a moment not knowing which way to go, he stands back against the wall with his hands in his pockets, watching people elbow their way through the perpetually revolving doors; softcheeked girls chewing gum, hatchetfaced girls with bangs, creamfaced boys his own age, young toughs with their hats on one side, sweatyfaced messengers, crisscross glances, sauntering hips, red jowls masticating cigars, sallow concave faces, flat bodies of young men and women, paunched bodies of elderly men, all elbowing, shoving, shuffling, fed in two endless tapes through the revolving doors out into Broadway, in off Broadway. Jimmy fed in a tape in and out the revolving doors, noon and night and morning, the revolving doors grinding out his years like sausage meat. All of a sudden his muscles stiffen. Uncle Jeff and his office can go plumb to hell. The words are so loud inside him he glances to one side and the other to see if anyone heard him say them.

They can all go plumb to hell. He squares his shoulders and shoves his way to the revolving doors. His heel comes down on a foot. "For crissake look where yer steppin." He's out in the street. A swirling wind down Broadway blows grit in his mouth and eyes. He walks down towards the Battery with the wind in his back. In Trinity Churchyard stenographers and officeboys are eating sandwiches among the tombs. Outlandish people cluster outside steamship lines; towhaired Norwegians, broadfaced Swedes, Polacks, swarthy stumps of men that smell of garlic from the Mediterranean, mountainous Slavs, three Chinamen, a bunch of Lascars. On the little triangle in front of the Customhouse, Jim Herf turns and stares long up the deep gash of Broadway, facing the wind squarely. Uncle Jeff and his office can go plumb to hell.

Bud sat on the edge of his cot and stretched out his arms and yawned. From all round through a smell of sweat and sour breath and wet clothes came snores, the sound of men stirring in their sleep, creaking of bedsprings. Far away through the murk burned a single electric light. Bud closed his eyes and let his head fall over on his shoulder, O God I want to go to sleep. Sweet Jesus I want to go to sleep. He pressed his knees together against his clasped hands to keep them from trembling. Our father which art in Heaven I want to go to sleep.

"Wassa matter pardner cant ye sleep?" came a quiet whisper from the next cot.

"Hell, no." "Me neither."

Bud looked at the big head of curly hair held up on an elbow turned towards him.

"This is a hell of a lousy stinking flop," went on the voice evenly. "I'll tell the world . . . Forty cents too! They can take their Hotel Plaza an . . ."

"Been long in the city?"

"Ten years come August."

"Great snakes!"

A voice rasped down the line of cots, "Cut de comedy yous guys, what do you tink dis is, a Jewish picnic?"

Bud lowered his voice: "Funny, it's years I been thinkin an wantin to come to the city. . . . I was born an raised on a farm upstate."

"Why dont ye go back?"

"I cant go back." Bud was cold; he wanted to stop trembling. He pulled the blanket up to his chin and rolled over facing the man who was talking. "Every spring I says to myself I'll hit the road again, go out an plant myself among the weeds an the grass an the cows comin home milkin time, but I dont; I juss kinder hangs on."

"What d'ye do all this time in the city?"

"I dunno. . . . I used to set in Union Square most of the time, then I set in Madison Square. I been up in Hoboken an Joisey and Flatbush an now I'm a Bowery bum."

"God I swear I'm goin to git outa here tomorrow. I git sceered here. Too many bulls an detectives in this town."

"You could make a livin in handouts. . . . But take it from me kid you go back to the farm an the ole folks while the goin's good."

Bud jumped out of bed and yanked roughly at the man's shoulder. "Come over here to the light, I want to show ye sumpen." Bud's own voice crinkled queerly in his ears. He strode along the snoring lane of cots. The bum, a shambling man with curly weatherbleached hair and beard and eyes as if hammered into his head, climbed fully dressed out from the blankets and followed him. Under the light Bud unbuttoned the front of his unionsuit and pulled it off his knottymuscled gaunt arms and shoulders. "Look at my back."

"Christ Jesus," whispered the man running a grimy hand with long yellow nails over the mass of white and red deep-gouped scars. "I aint never seen nothin like it."

"That's what the ole man done to me. For twelve years he licked me when he had a mind to. Used to strip me and take a piece of light chain to my back. They said he was my dad but I know he aint. I run away when I was thirteen. That was when he ketched me an began to lick me. I'm twentyfive now."

They went back without speaking to their cots and lay down.

Bud lay staring at the ceiling with the blanket up to his eyes. When he looked down towards the door at the end of the room, he saw standing there a man in a derby hat with a cigar in his mouth. He crushed his lower lip between his teeth to keep from crying out. When he looked again the man was gone. "Say are you awake yet?" he whispered.

The bum grunted. "I was goin to tell yer. I mashed his head in with the grubbinhoe, mashed it in like when you kick a rotten punkin. I told him to lay offn me an he wouldn't. . . . He was a hard godfearin man an he wanted you to be sceered of him. We was grubbin the sumach outa the old pasture to plant pertoters there. . . . I let him lay till night with his head mashed in like a rotten punkin. A bit of scrub along the fence hid him from the road. Then I buried him an went up to the house an made me a pot of coffee. He hadn't never let me drink no coffee. Before light I got up an walked down the road. I was tellin myself in a big city it'd be like lookin for a needle in a haystack to find yer. I knowed where the ole man kep his money; he had a roll as big as your head but I was sceered to take more'en ten dollars. . . . You awake yet?"

The bum grunted. "When I was a kid I kep company with ole man Sackett's girl. Her and me used to keep company in the ole icehouse down in Sackett's woods an we used to talk about how we'd come to New York City an git rich and now I'm here I cant git work an I cant git over bein sceered. There's detectives follow me all round, men in derbyhats with badges under their coats. Last night I wanted to go with a hooker an she saw it in my eyes an throwed me out. . . . She could see it in my eyes." He was sitting on the edge of the cot, leaning over, talking into the other man's face in a hissing whisper. The bum suddenly grabbed him by the wrists.

"Look here kid, you're goin blooy if you keep up like this. . . . Got any mazuma?" Bud nodded. "You better give it to me to keep. I'm an old timer an I'll git yez outa this. You put yer clothes on a take a walk round the block to a hash joint an eat up strong. How much you got?"

"Change from a dollar."

"You give me a quarter an eat all the stuff you kin git offn the rest." Bud pulled on his trousers and handed the man a quarter. "Then you come back here an you'll sleep good an tomorrer me'n you'll go upstate an git that roll of bills. Did ye say it was as big as yer head? Then we'll beat it where they cant ketch us. We'll split fifty fifty. Are you on?"

Bud shook his hand with a wooden jerk, then with the laces flickering round his shoes he shuffled to the door and down the spitmarked stairs.

The rain had stopped, a cool wind that smelled of woods and grass was ruffling the puddles in the cleanwashed streets. In the lunchroom in Chatham Square three men sat asleep with their hats over their eyes. The man behind the counter was reading a pink sportingsheet. Bud waited long for his order. He felt cool, unthinking, happy. When it came he ate the browned corned beef hash, deliberately enjoying every mouthful, mashing the crisp bits of potato against his teeth with his tongue, between sips of heavily sugared coffee. After polishing the plate with a crust of bread he took a toothpick and went out.

Picking his teeth he walked through the grimydark entrance to Brooklyn Bridge. A man in a derby hat was smoking a cigar in the middle of the broad tunnel. Bud brushed past him walking with a tough swagger. I dont care about him; let him follow me. The arching footwalk was empty except for a single policeman who stood yawning, looking up at the sky. It was like walking among the stars. Below in either direction streets tapered into dotted lines of lights between square blackwindowed buildings. The river glimmered underneath like the Milky Way above. Silently smoothly the bunch of lights of a tug slipped through the moist darkness. A car whirred across the bridge making the girders rattle and the spiderwork of cables thrum like a shaken banjo.

When he got to the tangle of girders of the elevated railroads of the Brooklyn side, he turned back along the southern driveway. Dont matter where I go, cant go nowhere now. An edge of the blue night had started to glow behind him the way iron starts to glow in a forge. Beyond black chimneys and lines of roofs faint rosy contours of the downtown buildings were brightening. All the darkness was growing pearly, warming. They're all of em detectives chasin me, all of em, men in derbies, bums on the Bowery, old women in kitchens, barkeeps, streetcar conductors, bulls, hookers, sailors, longshoremen, stiffs in employment agencies. . . . He thought I'd tell him where the ole man's roll was, the lousy bum. . . . One on him. One on all them goddam detectives. The river was smooth, sleek as a bluesteel gunbarrel. Dont matter where I go; cant go nowhere now. The shadows between the wharves and the buildings were powdery like washingblue. Masts fringed the river; smoke, purple chocolatecolor fleshpink climbed into light. Cant go nowhere now.

In a swallowtail suit with a gold watchchain and a red seal ring riding to his wedding beside Maria Sackett, riding in a carriage to City Hall with four white horses to be made an alderman by the mayor; and the light grows behind them brighter brighter, riding in satins and silks to his wedding, riding in pinkplush in a white carriage with Maria Sackett by his side through rows of men waving cigars, bowing, doffing brown derbies, Alderman Bud riding in a carriage full of diamonds with his milliondollar bride. . . . Bud is sitting on the rail of the bridge. The sun has risen behind Brooklyn, The windows of Manhattan have caught fire. He jerks himself forward, slips, dangles by a hand with the sun in his eyes. The yell strangles in his throat as he drops.

Captain McAvoy of the tugboat Prudence stood in the pilothouse with one hand on the wheel. In the other he held a piece of biscuit he had just dipped into a cup of coffee that stood on the shelf beside the binnacle. He was a wellset man with bushy eyebrows and a bushy black mustache waxed at the tips. He was about to put the piece of coffeesoaked biscuit into his mouth when something black dropped and hit the water with a thudding splash a few yards off the bow. At the same moment a man leaning out of the engineroom door shouted, "A guy juss jumped offn de bridge."

"God damn it to hell," said Captain McAvoy dropping his piece of biscuit and spinning the wheel. The strong ebbtide whisked the boat round like a straw. Three bells jangled in the engineroom. A negro ran forward to the bow with a boathook.

"Give a hand there Red," shouted Captain McAvoy.

After a tussle they landed a long black limp thing on the deck. One bell. Two bells, Captain McAvoy frowning and haggard spun the tug's nose into the current again.

"Any life in him Red?" he asked hoarsely. The negro's face was green, his teeth were chattering.

"Naw sir," said the redhaired man slowly. "His neck's broke clear off."

Captain McAvoy sucked a good half of his mustache into his mouth. "God damn it to hell," he groaned. "A pretty thing to happen on a man's wedding day."