Manhattan Transfer/Chapter 9

IV. Fire Engine

Such afternoons the buses are crowded into line like elephants in a circusparade. Morningside Heights to Washington Square, Penn Station to Grant's Tomb. Parlorsnakes and flappers joggle hugging downtown uptown, hug joggling gray square after gray square, until they see the new moon giggling over Weehawken and feel the gusty wind of a dead Sunday blowing dust in their faces, dust of a typsy twilight.

THEY are walking up the Mall in Central Park.

"Looks like he had a boil on his neck," says Ellen in front of the statue of Burns.

"Ah," whispers Harry Goldweiser with a fat-throated sigh, "but he was a great poet."

She is walking in her wide hat in her pale loose dress that the wind now and then presses against her legs and arms, silkily, swishily walking in the middle of great rosy and purple and pistachiogreen bubbles of twilight that swell out of the grass and trees and ponds, bulge against the tall houses sharp gray as dead teeth round the southern end of the park, melt into the indigo zenith. When he talks, forming sentences roundly with his thick lips, continually measuring her face with his brown eyes, she feels his words press against her body, nudge in the hollows where her dress clings; she can hardly breathe for fear of listening to him.

"The Zinnia Girl's going to be an absolute knockout, Elaine, I'm telling you and that part's just written for you, I'd enjoy working with you again, honest. . . . You're so different, that's what it is about you. All these girls round New York here are just the same, they're monotonous. Of course you could sing swell if you wanted to. . . . I've been crazy as a loon since I met you, and that's a good six months now. I sit down to eat and the food dont have any taste. . . . You cant understand how lonely a man gets when year after year he's had to crush his feelings down into himself. When I was a young fellow I was different, but what are you to do? I had to make money and make my way in the world. And so I've gone on year after year. For the first time I'm glad I did it, that I shoved ahead and made big money, because now I can offer it all to you. Understand what I mean? . . . All those ideels and beautiful things pushed down into myself when I was making my way in a man's world were like planting seed and you're their flower."

Now and then as they walk the back of his hand brushes against hers; she clenches her fist sullenly drawing it away from the hot determined pudginess of his hand.

The Mall is full of couples, families waiting for the music to begin. It smells of children and dress-shields and talcum powder. A balloonman passes them trailing red and yellow and pink balloons like a great inverted bunch of grapes behind him. "Oh buy me a balloon." The words are out of her mouth before she can stop them.

"Hay you gimme one of each color. . . . And how about one of those gold ones? No keep the change."

Ellen put the strings of the balloons into the dirtsticky hands of three little monkeyfaced girls in red tams. Each balloon caught a crescent of violet glare from the arclight.

"Aw you like children, Elaine, dont you? I like a woman to like children."

Ellen sits numb at a table on the terrace of the Casino. A hot gust of foodsmell and the rhythm of a band playing He's a Ragpicker swirls chokingly about her; now and then she butters a scrap of roll and puts it in her mouth. She feels very helpless, caught like a fly in his sticky trickling sentences.

"There's nobody else in New York could have got me to walk that far, I'll tell you that. . . . I walked too much in the old days, do you understand, used to sell papers when I was a kid and run errands for Schwartz's Toystore . . . on my feet all day except when I was in nightschool. I thought I was going to be a lawyer, all us East Side fellers thought we were goin to be lawyers. Then I worked as an usher one summer at the Irving Place and got the theater bug. . . . Not such a bad hunch it turned out to be, but it's too uncertain. Now I dont care any more, only want to cover my losses. That's the trouble with me. I'm thirtyfive an I dont care any more. Ten years ago I was still only a kind of clerk in old man Erlanger's office, and now there's lots of em whose shoes I used to shine in the old days'd be real glad of the opportunity to sweep my floors on West Forty-eighth. . . . Tonight I can take you anywhere in New York, I dont care how expensive or how chic it is . . . an in the old days us kids used to think it was paradise if we had five plunks to take a couple of girls down to the Island. . . . I bet all that was different with you Elaine. . . . But what I want to do is get that old feelin back, understand? . . . Where shall we go?"

"Why dont we go down to Coney Island then? I've never been?

"It's a pretty rough crowd . . . still we can just ride round. Let's do it. I'll go phone for the car."

Ellen sits alone looking down into her coffeecup. She puts a lump of sugar on her spoon, dips it in the coffee and pops it into her mouth where she crunches it slowly, rubbing the grains of sugar against the roof of her mouth with her tongue. The orchestra is playing a tango.

The sun streaming into the office under the drawn shades cut a bright slanting layer like watered silk through the cigarsmoke.

"Mighty easy," George Baldwin was saying dragging out the words. "Gus we got to go mighty easy on this." Gus McNiel bullnecked redfaced with a heavy watchchain in his vest sat in the armchair nodding silently, pulling on his cigar. "As things are now no court would sustain such an injunction . . . an injunction that seems to me a pure piece of party politics on Judge Connor's part, but there are certain elements. . . ."

"You said it. . . . Look here George I'm goin to leave this whole blame thing to you. You pulled me through the East New York dockin space mess and I guess you can pull me through this."

"But Gus your position in this whole affair has been entirely within the bounds of legality. If it werent I certainly should not be able to take the case, not even for an old friend like you."

"You know me George. . . . I never went back on a guy yet and I dont expect to have anybody go back on me." Gus got heavily to his feet and began to limp about the office leaning on a goldknobbed cane. "Connor's a son of a bitch . . . an honest, you wouldn't believe it but he was a decent guy before he went up to Albany."

"My position will be that your attitude in this whole matter has been willfully misconstrued. Connor has been using his position on the bench to further a political end."

"God I wish we could get him. Jez I thought he was one of the boys; he was until he went up an got mixed up with all those lousy upstate Republicans. Albany's been the ruination of many a good man."

Baldwin got up from the flat mahogany table where he sat between tall sheaves of foolscap and put his hand on Gus's shoulder. "Dont you lose any sleep over it. . . ."

"I'd feel all right if it wasn't for those Interborough bonds."

"What bonds? Who's seen any bonds? . . . Let's get this young fellow in here . . . Joe . . . And one more thing Gus, for heaven's sakes keep your mouth shut. . . . If any reporters or anybody comes round to see you tell 'em about your trip to Bermuda. . . . We can get publicity enough when we need it. Just at present we want to keep the papers out of it or you'll have all the reformers on your heels."

"Well aint they friends of yours? You can fix it up with em."

"Gus I'm a lawyer and not a politician. . . . I dont meddle in those things at all. They dont interest me."

Baldwin brought the flat of his hand down on a pushbell. An ivoryskinned young woman with heavy sullen eyes and jetty hair came into the room.

"How do you do Mr. McNeil."

"My but you're looking well Miss Levitsky."

"Emily tell em to send that young fellow that's waiting for Mr. McNiel in."

Joe O'Keefe came in dragging his feet a little, with his straw hat in his hand. "Howde do sir."

"Look here Joe, what does McCarthy say?"

"Contractors and Builders Association's goin to declare a Jockout from Monday on."

"And how's the union?"

"We got a full treasury. We're goin to fight."

Baldwin sat down on the edge of the desk. "I wish I knew what Mayor Mitchel's attitude was on all this."

"That reform gang's just treadin water like they always do," said Gus savagely biting the end off a cigar. "When's this decision going to be made public?"

"Saturday."

"Well keep in touch with us."

"All right gentlemen. And please dont call me on the phone. It dont look exactly right. You see it aint my office."

"Might be wiretappin goin on too. Those fellers wont stop at nothin. Well see ye later Joey."

Joe nodded and walked out. Baldwin turned frowning to Gus.

"Gus I dont know what I'm goin to do with you if you dont keep out of all this labor stuff. A born politician like you ought to have better sense. You just cant get away with it."

"But we got the whole damn town lined up."

"I know a whole lot of the town that isnt lined up. But thank Heavens that's not my business. This bond stuff is all right, but if you get into a mess with this strike business I couldn't handle your case. The firm wouldnt stand for it," he whispered fiercely. Then he said aloud in his usual voice, "Well how's the wife, Gus?"

Outside in the shiny marble hall, Joe O'Keefe was whistling Sweet Rosy O'Grady waiting for the elevator. Imagine a guy havin a knockout like that for a secretary. He stopped whistling and let the breath out silently through pursed lips. In the elevator he greeted a walleyed man in a check suit. "Hullo Buck."

"Been on your vacation yet?"

Joe stood with his feet apart and his hands in his pockets. He shook his head. "I get off Saturday."

"I guess I'll take in a couple o days at Atlantic City myself."

"How do you do it?"

"Oh the kid's clever."

Coming out of the building O'Keefe had to make his way through people crowding into the portal. A slate sky sagging between the tall buildings was spatting the pavements with fiftycent pieces. Men were running to cover with their straw hats under their coats. Two girls had made hoods of newspaper over their summer bonnets. He snatched blue of their eyes, a glint of lips and teeth as he passed. He walked fast to the corner and caught an uptown car on the run. The rain advanced down the street in a solid sheet glimmering, swishing, beating newspapers flat, prancing in silver nipples along the asphalt, striping windows, putting shine on the paint of streetcars and taxicabs. Above Fourteenth there was no rain, the air was sultry.

"A funny thing weather," said an old man next to him. O'Keefe grunted. "When I was a boy onct I saw it rain on one side of the street an a house was struck by lightnin an on our side not a drop fell though the old man wanted it bad for some tomatoplants he'd just set out."

Crossing Twentythird O'Keefe caught sight of the tower of Madison Square Garden. He jumped off the car; the momentum carried him in little running steps to the curb. Turning his coatcollar down again he started across the square. On the end of a bench under a tree drowsed Joe Harland. O'Keefe plunked down in the seat beside him.

"Hello Joe. Have a cigar."

"Hello Joe. I'm glad to see you my boy. Thanks. It's many a day since I've smoked one of these things. . . . What are you up to? Aint this kind of out of your beat?"

"I felt kinder blue so I thought I'd buy me a ticket to the fight Saturday."

"What's the matter?"

"Hell I dunno. . . . Things dont seem to go right. Here I've got myself all in deep in this political game and there dont seem to be no future in it. God I wish I was educated like you."

"A lot of good it's done me."

"I wouldn't say that. . . . If I could ever git on the track you were on I bet ye I wouldn't lose out."

"You cant tell Joe, funny things get into a man."

"There's women and that sort of stuff."

"No I dont mean that. . . . You get kinder disgusted."

"But hell I dont see how a guy with enough jack can git disgusted."

"Then maybe it was booze, I dont know."

They sat silent a minute. The afternoon was flushing with sunset. The cigarsmoke was blue and crinkly about their heads.

"Look at the swell dame. . . . Look at the way she walks. Aint she a peacherino? That's the way I like 'em, all slick an frilly with their lips made up. . . . Takes jack to go round with dames like that."

"They're no different from anybody else, Joe."

"The hell you say."

"Say Joe you havent got an extra dollar on you?"

"Maybe I have."

"My stomach's a little out of order. . . . I'd like to take a little something to steady it, and I'm flat till I get paid Saturday . . . er . . . you understand . . . you're sure you dont mind? Give me your address and I'll send it to you first thing Monday morning."

"Hell dont worry about it, I'll see yez around somewheres."

"Thank you Joe. And for God's sake dont buy any more Blue Peter Mines on a margin without asking me about it. I may be a back number but I can still tell a goldbrick with my eyes closed."

"Well I got my money back."

"It took the devil's own luck to do it."

"Jez it strikes me funny me loanin a dollar to the guy who owned half the Street."

"Oh I never had as much as they said I did."

"This is a funny place. . . ."

"Where?"

"Oh I dunno, I guess everywhere. . . . Well so long Joe, I guess I'll go along an buy that ticket. . . . Jez it's goin to be a swell fight."

Joe Harland watched the young man's short jerky stride as he went off down the path with his straw hat on the side of his head. Then he got to his feet and walked east along Twentythird Street, The pavements and housewalls still gave off heat although the sun had set. He stopped outside a corner saloon and examined carefully a group of stuffed ermines, gray with dust, that occupied the center of the window. Through the swinging doors a sound of quiet voices and a malty coolness seeped into the street. He suddenly flushed and bit his upper lip and after a furtive glance up and down the street went in through the swinging doors and shambled up to the brassy bottleglittering bar.

After the rain outdoors the plastery backstage smell was pungent in their nostrils. Ellen hung the wet raincoat on the back of the door and put her umbrella in a corner of the dressing room where a little puddle began to spread from it. "And all I could think of," she was saying in a low voice to Stan who followed her staggering, "was a funny song somebody'd told me when I was a little girl about: And the only man who survived the flood was longlegged Jack of the Isthmus."

"God I dont see why people have children. It's an admission of defeat. Procreation is the admission of an incomplete organism. Procreation is an admission of defeat."

"Stan for Heaven's sake dont shout, you'll shock the stagehands. . . . I oughtnt to have let you come. You know the way people gossip round a theater."

"I'll be quiet just like a lil mouse. . . . Just let me wait till Milly comes to dress you. Seeing you dress is my only remaining pleasure . . . I admit that as an organism I'm incomplete."

"You wont be an organism of any kind if you dont sober up."

"I'm going to drink . . . I'm going to drink till when I cut myself whiskey runs out. What's the good of blood when you can have whiskey?"

"Oh Stan."

"The only thing an incomplete organism can do is drink. . . . You complete beautiful organisms dont need to drink. . . . I'm going to lie down and go byby."

"Dont Stan for Heaven's sake. If you go and pass out here I'll never forgive you."

There was a soft doubleknock at the door. "Come in Milly." Milly was a small wrinklefaced woman with black eyes. A touch of negro blood made her purplegray lips thick, gave a lividness to her verywhite skin.

"It's eight fifteen dear," she said as she bustled in. She gave a quick look at Stan and turned to Ellen with a little wry frown.

"Stan you've got to go away. . . . I'll meet you at the Beaux Arts or anywhere you like afterwards."

"I want to go byby."

Sitting in front of the mirror at her dressingtable Ellen was wiping cold cream off her face with quick dabs of a little towel. From her makeup box a smell of greasepaint and cocoabutter melted fatly through the room.

"I dont know what to do with him tonight," she whispered to Milly as she slipped off her dress. Oh I wish he would stop drinking."

"I'd put him in the shower and turn cold water on him deary."

"How's the house tonight Milly?"

"Pretty thin Miss Elaine."

"I guess it's the bad weather . . . I'm going to be terrible."

"Dont let him get you worked up deary. Men aint worth it."

"I want to go byby." Stan was swaying and frowning in the center of the room. "Miss Elaine I'll put him in the bathroom; nobody'll notice him there."

"That's it, let him go to sleep in the bathtub."

"Ellie I'll go byby in the bathtub."

The two women pushed him into the bathroom. He flopped limply into the tub, and lay there asleep with his feet in the air and his head on the faucets. Milly was making little rapid clucking noises with her tongue.

"He's like a sleepy baby when he's like this," whispered Ellen softly. She stuck the folded bathmat under his head and brushed the sweaty hair off his forehead. He was hardly breathing. She leaned and kissed his eyelids very softly.

"Miss Elaine you must hurry . . . curtain's ringing up."

"Look quick am I all right?"

"Pretty as a picture. . . . Lord love you dear,"

Ellen ran down the stairs and round to the wings, stood there, panting with terror as if she had just missed being run over by an automobile grabbed the musicroll she had to go on with from the property man, got her cue and walked on into the glare.

"How do you do it Elaine?" Harry Goldweiser was saying, shaking his calf's head from the chair behind her. She could see him in the mirror as she took her makeup off. A taller man with gray eyes and eyebrows stood beside him. "You remember when they first cast you for the part I said to Mr. Fallik, Sol she cant do it, didnt I Sol?"

"Sure you did Harry."

"I thought that no girl so young and beautiful could put, you know . . . put the passion and terror into it, do you understand? . . . Sol and I were out front for that scene in the last act."

"Wonderful, wonderful," groaned Mr. Fallik. "Tell us how you do it Elaine."

The makeup came off black and pink on the cloth. Milly moved discreetly about the background hanging up dresses.

"Do you know who it was who coached me up on that scene? John Oglethorpe. It's amazing the ideas he has about acting."

"Yes it's a shame he's so lazy. . . . He'd be a very valuable actor."

"It's not exactly laziness . . ." Ellen shook down her hair and twisted it in a coil in her two hands. She saw Harry Goldweiser nudge Mr. Fallik.

"Beautiful isn't it?"

"How's Red Red Rose going?"

"Oh dont ask me Elaine. Played exclusively to the ushers last week, do you understand? I dont see why it dont go, it's catchy. . . . Mae Merrill has a pretty figure. Oh, the show business has all gone to hell."

Ellen put the last bronze pin in the copper coil of her hair. She tossed her chin up. "I'd like to try something like that."

"But one thing at a time my dear young lady; we've just barely got you started as an emotional actress."

"I hate it; it's all false. Sometimes I want to run down to the foots and tell the audience, go home you damn fools. This is a rotten show and a lot of fake acting and you ought to know it. In a musical show you could be sincere."

"Didnt I tell ye she was nuts Sol? Didnt I tell ye she was nuts?"

"I'll use some of that little speech in my publicity next week. . . . I can work it in fine."

"You cant have her crabbin the show."

"No but I can work it in in that column about aspirations of celebrities. . . . You know, this guy is President of the Zozodont Company and would rather have been a fireman and another would rather have been a keeper at the Zoo. . . . Great human interest stuff."

"You can tell them Mr. Fallik that I think the woman's place is in the home . . . for the feebleminded."

"Ha ha ha," laughed Harry Goldweiser showing the gold teeth in the sides of his mouth. "But I know you could dance and sing with the best of em, Elaine."

"Wasnt I in the chorus for two years before I married Oglethorpe?"

"You must have started in the cradle," said Mr. Fallik leering under his gray lashes.

"Well I must ask you gentlemen to get out of here a minute while I change. I'm all wringing wet every night after that last act."

"We got to get along anyway . . . do you understand? . . . Mind if I use your bathroom a sec?"

Milly stood in front of the bathroom door. Ellen caught the jetty glance of her eyes far apart in her blank white face. "I'm afraid you cant Harry, it's out of order."

"I'll go over to Charley's. . . . I'll tell Thompson to have a plumber come and look at it. . . . Well good night kid. Be good."

"Good night Miss Oglethorpe," said Mr. Fallik creakily, "and if you cant be good be careful." Milly closed the door after them.

"Whee, that's a relief," cried Ellen and stretched out her arms.

"I tell you I was scared deary. . . . Dont you ever let any feller like that come to the theater with ye. I've seen many a good trouper ruined by things like that. I'm tellin ye because I'm fond of you Miss Elaine, an I'm old an I know about the showbusiness."

"Of course you are Milly, and you're quite right too . . . Lets see if we can wake him up."

"My God Milly, look at that."

Stan was lying as they had left him in the bathtub full of water. The tail of his coat and one hand were floating on top of the water. "Get up out of there Stan you idiot. . . . He might catch his death. You fool, you fool." Ellen took him by the hair and shook his head from side to side.

"Ooch that hurts," he moaned in a sleepy child's voice.

"Get up out of there Stan. . . . You're soaked."

He threw back his head and his eyes snapped open. "Why so I am." He raised himself with his hands on the sides of the tub and stood swaying, dripping into the water that was yellow from his clothes and shoes, braying his loud laugh. Ellen leaned against the bathroom door laughing with her eyes full of tears.

"You cant get mad at him Milly, that's what makes him so exasperating. Oh what are we going to do?"

"Lucky he wasnt drownded. . . . Give me your papers and pocketbook sir. I'll try and dry em with a towel," said Milly.

"But you cant go past the doorman like that . . . even if we wring you out. . . . Stan you've got to take off all your clothes and put on a dress of mine. Then you can wear my rain cape and we can whisk into a taxicab and take you home. . . . What do you think Milly?"

Milly was rolling her eyes and shaking her head as she wrung out Stan's coat. In the washbasin she had piled the soppy remains of a pocketbook, a pad, pencils, a jacknife, two rolls of film, a flask.

"I wanted a bath anyway," said Stan.

"Oh I could beat you. Well you're sober at least."

"Sober as a penguin."

"Well you've got to dress up in my clothes that's all. . . ."

"I cant wear girl's clothes."

"You've got to. . . . You havent even got a raincoat to cover that mess. If you dont I'll lock you up in the bathroom and leave you."

"All right Ellie. . . . Honest I'm terribly sorry."

Milly was wrapping the clothes in newspaper after wringing them out in the bathtub. Stan looked at himself in the mirror. "Gosh I'm an indecent sight in this dress. . . . Ish gebibble."

"I've never seen anything so disgusting looking. . . . No you look very sweet, a little tough perhaps. . . . Now for God's sake keep your face towards me when you go past eld Barney."

"My shoes are all squudgy."

"It cant be helped. . . . Thank Heaven I had this cape here. . . . Milly you're an angel to clear up all this mess."

"Good night deary, and remember what I said. . . . I'm tellin ye that's all. . . ."

"Stan take little steps and if we meet anybody go right on and jump in a taxi. . . . You can get away with anything if you do it quick enough." Ellen's hands were trembling as they came down the steps. She tucked one in under Stan's elbow and began talking in a low chatty voice. . . . "You see dear, daddy came round to see the show two or three nights ago and he was shocked to death. He said he thought a girl demeaned herself showing her feelings like that before a lot of people. . . . Isn't it killing? . . . Still he was impressed by the writeups the Herald and World gave me Sunday. . . . Goodnight Barney, nasty night. . . . My God. . . . Here's a taxi, get in. Where are you going?" Out of the dark of the taxi, out of his long face muffled in the blue hood, his eyes were so bright black they frightened her like coming suddenly on a deep pit in the dark.

"All right we'll go to my house. Might as well be hanged for a sheep. . . . Driver please go to Bank Street. The taxi started. They were jolting through the crisscross planes of red light, green light, yellow light beaded with lettering of Broadway. Suddenly Stan leaned over her and kissed her hard very quickly on the mouth.

"Stan you've got to stop drinking. It's getting beyond a joke."

"Why shouldn't things get beyond a joke? You're getting beyond a joke and I dont complain."

"But darling you'll kill yourself."

"Well?"

"Oh I dont understand you Stan."

"I dont understand you Ellie, but I love you very . . . exordinately much." There was a broken tremor in his very low voice that stunned her with happiness.

Ellen paid the taxi. Siren throbbing in an upward shriek that burst and trailed in a dull wail down the street, a fire engine went by red and gleaming, then a hookandladder with bell clanging.

"Let's go to the fire Ellie."

"With you in those clothes. . . . We'll do no such thing."

He followed her silent into the house and up the stairs. Her long room was cool and fresh smelling.

"Ellie you're not sore at me?"

"Of course not idiot child."

She undid the sodden bundle of his clothes and took them into the kitchenette to dry beside the gas stove. The sound of the phonograph playing He's a devil in his own home town called her back. Stan had taken off the dress. He was dancing round with a chair for a partner, her blue padded dressingown flying out from his thin hairy legs.

"Oh Stan you precious idiot."

He put down the chair and came towards her brown and male and lean in the silly dressingown. The phonograph came to the end of the tune and the record went on rasping round and round.