Enter Without Desire
I sat there, waiting in this dull Bronx back yard, the gun in my right pocket, safety off. It was simple… wait till he was on top of me, one shot in the heart… then run across the lot to the car. Sid had an ordinary looking heap; nobody would notice it, or the license number. The license number—that was one of the chances I had to take—one of the too-many chances.
But this would work, if my luck held out. IF… IF… Damn, I hoped to hell he didn’t have a wife and kids, looked too young for that, but even if he did—I had a wife and kid, too. God knows I didn’t want to kill this detective, but I was caught in this web,
had to do it. Hadto…
No point in thinking about that—more important to think of some way of disposing of the gun. Couldn’t pull the same gag about losing it on Tony again. Well, have to work that out, somehow. Sloppy thinking on my part not to plan…. Hell with plans, no time for it. Not like the other one.
Marshal Jameson, the promising young sculptor, sitting on his butt in a strange Bronx back yard on a sunny afternoon… carefully planning his second murder.
I grinned, a sour, nervous grin—I was damn near bawling. Me, who’d never hurt a fly, waiting with a gun for a…
I heard a car stop in front of the house. It was five to three. The dick was on time. I stood up and peered around the corner of the alley. He was alone.
I waited: no running from this, no backing out. Or was killing the easy way out for me?
ON NEW YEAR’S EVE day I couldn’t take it any longer. Nothing special happened, the same old rut. But just as there’s a boiling point, there’s a breaking point, and I sure had reached it You can only go so far without a victory, even a little victory. And I was simply sick of the loneliness, the damp cold, of being hungry, of being a flop. I tried getting high on some homemade raisin wine, nipping at a quart of it during the day, but that didn’t help.
New Year’s Eve really didn’t mean a damn to me, but somehow I felt entirely lost this time. And the wine wasn’t doing a thing for me. I had exactly eighty cents in cash. And seven bucks in the postal savings but the p.o. was shut. It was six o’clock, getting dull-dark: and I looked at the stinking kerosene lamp, at the can of beans and hunk of fish I was going to have for supper, and thought… I can’t stand this any longer. I’m going to New York.
Now there wasn’t a thing waiting for me in New York, and I’m the guy who knows how lonely a big city can be, but right at that second all I wanted was to be with people, with all the milling impersonal people of Times Square on New Year’s Eve. I wanted to see smiles, hear noise, even lots of drunken noise.
Taking my one suit out of the cedar bag, I heated a pan of water and shaved, found a clean shirt. My overcoat wasn’t in bad condition and even being dressed made me feel a little better. I walked through the village, along the road that led to the highway. I never wanted to see my shack again—or any of my lousy, unfinished statues.
My luck took a change the moment I reached the highway. A sleek roadster stopped the first time I raised my thumb. A beefy young fellow in a tux was at the wheel. He asked, “Want a lift?”
“That’s what I’m standing here for. Trying to get to the city.”
“Hop in. I’m headed for 62d Street and Madison Avenue.”
“That’ll be perfect,” I said, getting in, feeling the rich softness of the leather seat, the power of the car as he shifted gears. The car was his badge of the thing I lacked most—security.
The guy pulled a cigarette from his breast pocket—not a pack but one cigarette. As he lit it, he asked if I wanted one. I shook my head, got my pipe out.
“Going to a New Year’s party?”
“Call up a few people, see what’s doing,” I said, casually, as though I was really on the town, had some place to go.
“Lousy night. I’m stuck with this dinner party at my aunt’s. Boring as bell, but you know these family things. Been an unusually raw winter, hasn’t it?”
It was his car; the least I could do was make conversation. “Yeah, it’s been pretty rough.”
“I live in Easthampton.”
“You’re quite aways out,” I said. “I’m at Sandyhook.”
He said, “Oh,” as though I was a freak, added, “You an artist?”
“I don’t know. Trying to be a sculptor.”
“I knew some bim who hung around there couple summers ago. Said she was a model. Built like a goddess but very ordinary between the sheets. Took me all summer to… Say, didn’t know anybody lived in those eh… shacks during the winter. Must be rugged.”
We didn’t talk for a while, then he said, “Watch this,” and put the gas pedal on the floor. We cut through the twilight at seventy an hour and he handled the car well.
In less than twenty minutes he hit the outskirts of Brooklyn, or maybe it was Queens, and slowed down to a normal forty miles an hour. He said, “Doesn’t make sense, my speeding to a dull evening. How about a shot of anti-boredom syrup?” He reached over and pulled out a nearly full pint of rye from the glove compartment. He took a long drag; then I wiped the bottle and took a big gulp.
Either that rye was damn good stuff, or it was the raisin wine and the fact I hadn’t eaten a decent meal in a long time, but I was nicely high and mighty when we pulled up in front of a ritzy apartment house on East 62d Street. We took another drink while the doorman pretended he didn’t see us; then we shook hands and wished each other a Happy New Year’s and I floated down the street.
For a moment I was almost going to brace the guy for a buck, but I can never get that drunk. Only a buck would have been a big help. I mean all I wanted was a few beers to sort of bring the new year in—all that sentimental crap—but I was in a sentimental mood. I had a few people I could call, but at a dime a call that would slice my eighty cents to hell.
I reached 55th Street and was thinking how empty and cold Madison Avenue seemed, when it began to rain a little. That lousy rain tore it. I cut over to Broadway fast—to be near people. The rain hitting my face was as cold and damp as my shack, made me want to scream. I felt chilled to the bone.
Dropping into a drugstore, I had a cup of coffee and felt better, even though the bastards charged me twenty cents. I sat in a phone booth and decided I’d better stop acting like a one-man jerk—I didn’t have enough money to be alone. I dialed Marion, almost hoping there wouldn’t be any answer.
“Hell-ooo?” Her voice sounded as spirited as ever. “Marion, this is Marsh. Marsh Jameson.” I tried to sound cheerful. “Merely called to wish you all of the best.”
“Marsh, boy! When did you get into town?”
“Little while ago. Friend drove me in.”
“How’s the work coming?”
“Slower than I expected, but I’m getting on,” I lied.
“Dear boy, I’m going to a party at the Martins—you know Robb and Ida Martins? Maybe you don’t. He’s a writer, knocks off these terrible western stories, cowboy drivel, isn’t that zany? Makes scads of coin at it, too. He’s giving a shindig where you’re supposed to come as a cowhand, or an Indian, or something silly like that. I’m going with a young chap named Tony, a…”
“One of your bitter young men?” I asked, and the words sounded as phony as Marion Kimball, as I said them.
“Of course, darling. He’s even more bitter than you were —lost several toes in Korea. Oh, much more bitter than you,” Marion said, mocking me. Marion who’d been my mother, my mistress, and a real friend. “Point is, why not join us at my place in about—anytime you wish before eleven? You’ll have a good time.”
“Well… sure I won’t be in the way?”
“Nonsense, I’ll be the belle of the ball, falling in with two men. Look, if you come around nine, I’m cooking a turkey, and you remember my pies…”
“Sure, the career woman who showed them she could cook, too.”
“Marsh, you’re such an angry slob I love you. I have an extra Indian hat, lot of feathers… Coming up?”
“Well… I was supposed to call a… Look, if I’m not there by ten, don’t wait. And Happy New Year, Marion dear.”
“Same to you, Marsh darling, and do come over. Need any money?”
“I’m loaded. See you.”
I hung up. It was batty; I liked Marion, I was hungry and broke, ten minutes before I was thinking of putting the bite on a stranger, yet I knew my clumsy pride was going to make me turn her down.
I called Sid Spears, who owned the shack I was living in. He gave me the, “Marshal! Great to hear your voice. How you making out, finished anything yet?”
“Kiddy, we’re having open house tonight. Drop in any time after ten, all the drinks you can blot up. If you want to spend the night here… Hell, there’s the doorbell and Laura is soaking her fat can in the tub. Drop in. Okay, kiddy?”
I said maybe and hung up. Sid was a swell guy but some day I’d clip him when he gave me that kiddy routine once too often.
I walked toward Broadway with forty cents in my kick. I had two parties to take in and knew I wasn’t going to either. I didn’t know why, merely that I wasn’t going. I’d have a few beers and hang around Broadway till morning, take the subway to Flushing, hit the highway and try to thumb a ride back to Sandyhook.
Only I couldn’t take this damn rain.
To be honest, rain scares me, always did since the time I played football. You can get hurt—unexpectedly and badly hurt—on a slippery, muddy field.
I passed a theatre; people were lined up waiting to get in. Wondering what show could pull in a crowd on New Year’s Eve, I stopped. It was some radio quiz program called TAX-FREE!
The last person on line was a mild-looking old man. “How does one get tickets for this show?” I asked him.
“Get in line. Take in the first thousand people. But you don’t have to worry, line’s small tonight.”
I stood behind him and felt better—I was no longer wandering around, I was now doing something; even if it was something dumb, it would be a way of killing a few hours, getting out of the rain, away from the cold.
We moved up slowly and the old man said, “My wife bawled me out for coming tonight. This is the third time. Maybe I’ll be called, though, I figured it would be a short line.”
“Called for what?”
He lifted his bushy eyebrows as he turned to glance at me. It was a neat movement and I should have tried a quick sketch of him. “Called as one of the contestants, get a chance at the prize money. You see they’re supposed— or that’s what they say—to pick every fiftieth person. But they don’t.”
“Oh. They don’t?” I asked to make conversation, maybe see those eyebrows go into action again. The soles of my shoes were those rubber things you buy in the five and dime and cement on yourself, only mine were so worn I could feel the wetness of the sidewalk. As the saying goes, I was truly beat to my socks.
“All a matter of advertising,” the old man said indignantly. “Let me tell you, advertising is ruining the moral fiber of our country. Why from the ads in the subway you’d think holding up women’s breasts and under-arm odor were the only and greatest American industries. The impression foreigners must have of our country.”
“I understand their impression isn’t any too good, even without the bra ads. This show sponsored by a bra company?”
“No, no, a soap company. Merely using bras to illustrate the power of advertising. As we go in, they’ll ask where you come from, and your occupation. If you come from a small town, or have an unusual job, why they pick you, whether you’re the fiftieth person or not. I’m a retired school teacher, nothing sensational. But if I were a cop or a soldier, or wearing a funny suit, or said I came from Alaska, they’d pick me.”
“What happens if you’re picked, get a box of soap?”
The old man worked his eyebrows again as he gave me an annoyed look. “You get a chance to answer the four questions, and a hundred dollars for every right answer, tax-free. The two couples making the most money get a chance at the jackpot question. And the money balloon.”
“Sounds exciting,” I said, tired of talking to him. The coffee had worn off and I was getting high again. All I wanted to do was sit down and get out of the cold.
We finally made the doorway where two handsome men with practiced smiles gave each one a fast handshake, asked, “Where are you from, sir? What’s your occupation?”
They merely shook hands with the old guy, but when I said, “I’m a sculptor from Sandyhook,” I thought they would faint with happiness as they pumped my hand, shouted, “Congratulations! You are the 400th person to enter the theatre! Go up to the stage, sir, for a chance at TAX-FREE DOLLARS!”
“Are you a sailor?” one of the characters asked me. “What makes you think I’m a sailor?”
“Sandy Hook is…”
“Sorry, I’m from Sandyhook, L. I., not out in the bay. If that….”
“Perfectly all right, sir. Just follow the usher.”
I saw the old man give me a sour glance as I followed a trim usher down a side aisle, and backstage into a sort of office. Seven other people were sitting around, looking a bit foolish and nervous. A big jerk, with a round, smooth-shaven face and the voice and manners of a supersalesman, grabbed my hand, said, “I’m Hal Lyons, the master of ceremonies. Your name, sir?”
As I gave him my name and address, a hard-faced blonde took it down. In one corner, another overpainted chick was busy typing up some cards. When I said I was a sculptor, this Lyons boomed, “Well sir, that’s just fine, Mr. Jameson. Never had a sculptor on the program before, have to look through my gag file. You don’t have feet of clay, do you? Ha-ha!”
“You’d better start looking through your file.”
“Let me crack the yaks. Now, Mr. Jameson, we’ll have about twenty minutes before air time. Of course, on the air, we must be careful of our language, mustn’t we?” He sniffed my breath as he added, “Especially on New Year’s Eve.”
“If you mean have I had a few…”
“Yes, we all bend it a little tonight. Of course I have to wait till the show’s over before I start. I suppose you know the rules. You’ll be teamed with a partner, asked four questions. You both will receive a hundred dollars for every question you answer correctly. The couples winning the most money then try for the big question, worth $2,000, and a chance at the money balloon. Now….”
“What is this money balloon?”
“Mr…. eh… Jameson, haven’t you ever listened to TAX-FREE before?”
“My radio’s busted.”
“I see,” he said, as though I’d slapped him. “A dart is placed before each of the final contestants, and if they think they have an answer to the jackpot question, they try to break the balloon with the dart. There’s a bill inside the balloon. However, time is flying and our accountant wants to ask you a few questions—in case you win, we must know what Uncle Sam’s bite is. Joe—come here and get this… Mr. Jameson.”
A bald fellow, with a narrow, bony face and tired eyes, came over and “got me” by grunting a couple questions as to my income, was I married, any dependents? was writing this down, I glanced at the other people and I saw this girl staring at me—really staring.
I stared back.
She had a lanky figure, so slender she seemed taller that she actually was, with fair legs, and a bosom too large for the rest of her. But her face was wonderful—strong but soft lines, very black hair cut in bangs, odd slant-shaped eyes that gave her an exotic look, an average nose— and when she smiled at me, a great big warm mouth. Warmth was the key to her whole face, a most friendly warmth.
I smiled back at her, wondering what it was all about.
The accountant was saying, “Let me see, Mr. Jameson, your partner is… yes, Mrs. Elma Morse,” and then he took me over and introduced me to this beautiful girl— and I don’t mean beauty in the mere physical sense.
When he left us, she said, “I hope my staring didn’t embarrass you, Mr. Jameson, but I knew you were going to be my partner. Marshal Jameson—odd name.”
“Ole Kentucky boy.”
“Lost that somewhere along the line.”
“Well,” she said, moving over on the bench so I could sit beside her, “I was looking you over. What sort of a freak are you? I’m a record librarian.” Her voice went with the face—hot and frank.
“Told them I was a sculptor. I’m trying to be one.”
“Not bad, you should do fine on any art questions, and I can handle music. You smart? I could use the money.”
“So could I. Afraid I’m not clever.”
She smiled again and I wanted to touch her face. I said, “Stop that.”
“Grinning. It gets me….”
The smile fled and she looked more like a frightened kid. I figured her for twenty-three, maybe twenty-five at most.
“Sorry,” she said. “I wasn’t making fun of you, or anything. It seemed funny, two strangers meeting and trying to pick the other’s brains, in hope of a quick buck.”
“Yeah, big way to spend New Year’s Eve.”
“Anyway, that’s why I was smiling. I didn’t mean to…”
“Mrs. Morse—Elma, you have an exciting smile, as you damn well must know. What you don’t know is… I haven’t been… eh… around a woman for many months. So don’t tease me with that smile.”
“Been trying to get that way, but without success.”
“These ‘many months’… sound as though you’ve been in jail.”
“Might call it that. I’ve been living in a shack out on Long Island, trying to work. With no heat, light, money, or women.”
“Oh, stop talking about women as though we were a stick of furniture. Never met a real starving artist—thought they went out with bootleg gin and the Charleston. Did your work turn out all right?”
“Don’t be funny, because you’re not!”
“I won’t be anything.” She lit a cigarette, turned away from me—her movements so graceful I wanted to cry. I mean—well, you know; see a girl on the street, on the screen, or even a picture in a magazine, and there’s something about her that sets your body chemistry bubbling; maybe she doesn’t affect any other man that way, but for you, she’s a stick of red-hot sexy dynamite. That’s what this Elma was doing to me. She was so damn lovely and this was New Year’s Eve, and here we’d been accidentally thrown together…. Only I wasn’t going to do any chump act—in a few minutes it would be over, and she’d be back with her lucky husband, who was probably sitting out in the audience like a proud poppa. I was all steam on the inside, but I was playing it cool—I had to.
All the time I’d been at Sandyhook, trying to work, trying most of the time to keep warm, I hadn’t thought much about sex. I had a good plaster anatomical female figure I kept studying and handling, but looking at female muscles isn’t exactly a passion arouser. Also, not eating regularly is far more effective than saltpeter. There were a few girls around Sandyhook in the winter—the plump daughter of the local storekeeper, the tall wife of the guy who rented boats. Sometimes Tony and Alice Alvins, my neighbors, had some girls down for a week-end… but I didn’t have the energy or the money for those kinds of campaigns.
There was a tavern on the outskirts of Sandyhook that served shore dinners and was empty most of the winter. Sometimes I went to hell with myself and dropped in for a beer, watched television. There was a bloated old woman of about sixty, with terrible make-up and bright blonde dyed hair… who suffered from the illusion she was still twenty. She wore an expensive mink like it was a rag, was a Mrs. M. Something or other… but loved to be called Margie. She had a station wagon, lived in a big house near the sea, and had a husband, some place. Marge was always high and would breeze into the joint and sing in a clear voice, “Hold that tiger…” and give everybody her young girl’s smile with her wrinkled mouth.
I don’t know if she was crazy or what, but every few minutes she would hum or sing out, “Hold that tiger…” as though it was very witty. Marge was popular with the barflies. She’d set up the house a couple of times during a night. Several times Marge not only gave me the eye, but gave me a whispered version of “Hold that tiger…” but I wasn’t having any of that. Maybe I wasn’t hungry enough, or I’d get to wondering if Marion would end up like this unhappy old woman, and it would give me the shivers.
Elma asked, “Do they let us pick our subject?”
“I don’t know. I ducked in here to get out of the rain.”
She looked at me for a second, her eyes warm and clear, then she laughed, throaty, thick laughter that hit me like a drink. “That’s as good a reason as any. In fact, it’s even better than if a person had a reason to come here.”
I didn’t try to understand that. I packed my pipe and dug into my pockets for a match. She held out a cheap lighter; I thanked her and she said, “Come on, don’t look so glum. We have to be partners, whether we like it or not.”
I wanted to say, “Honey, I couldn’t be angry with you if I had to,” but didn’t want to sound like a jerk on the make. I simply said, “Don’t mind me. Hell, I’m not only glad you’re my partner, I’m happy to have even seen you.”
“Well, thank you,” Elma said, giving me that big-mouthed smile that made me sweat. To change the subject, I didn’t want to build myself up for a big let-down. I asked “What does a record librarian do?”
“Make a file of their titles, keep a catalog. Frankly, I haven’t worked at it in several months. I’m… well, unemployed. Why I’m here. But I liked the job, was more fun—to me—than work. You see, I love music… modern stuff…”
She kept on talking, her voice a happy sound, telling me about the old sentimental records she had, how she played them now and then just to have a pleasant cry… I studied the good curves of her cheeks, the unusual eyes, the lush, heavy lips.
The typist at the end of the room stood up and gave Hal, the m.c., a stack of cards and everybody looked at their watches, as though we were about to go into battle. Not that I’ve ever been in battle. Hal left the room and out on the stage a band began to play and the room filled with tension as people whispered, “They’ve started.”
Elma whispered, “The band is strictly commercial— junky.”
Hal’s secretary, the hard-looking blonde, suddenly rushed into the room, motioned for the first couple, like a hammy actress. The couple were so nervous they turned a sickly pale. Elma said, “Look like they’re walking to their doom. We’re fourth—last. Nervous?”
“No. I don’t expect to win. How long does this last?”
“Half hour. I sure wish we win. I’m full of the great American dream—lucking up on some easy money. I need it.”
“Who doesn’t? But I still don’t expect to win.”
The first couple had hardly left the room when the next two were called. Elma giggled nervously. “Must have been a couple of dopes.”
“You get a consolation prize for fluffing out?”
“Everybody receives a box of soap powder.”
“Exactly what I need on a rainy New Year’s Eve. I’ll…”
The third couple left, and a few seconds later the blonde stuck her head in, curled a finger at us. Elma squeezed my hand. “Here we go—to make asses of ourselves.”
As it turned out, we didn’t go any place for what seemed years, but was probably about ten minutes—we just waited around in the wings. The stage was bright with light, a band in the background. At one side of the stage there was a large cardboard Uncle Sam with a cash register for a mouth. At the other end was this huge wooden dollar sign, painted a cheesy gold, with an ordinary red balloon attached to it. In the center of the stage at a platform and several mikes, Hal was putting a couple through the mill. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but the audience seemed to enjoy it.
From the wings the stage looked unreal, phony to the teeth. And the audience, what the hell did they come for? Did they all hope to get a chance at the prizes? Or were they all lonely and…?
Buddy-boy Hal motioned the couple offstage with, ”… So sorry, but at least you’re walking out two hundred dollars richer. And who knows, you may be in the running for our grand prize and a chance at the mystery balloon. Now… for our final contestants we have Mrs. Elma Morse, a record librarian, and Mr. Marshal Jameson, a sculptor. Folks, bring them on with a great big hand.”
It was the first time I’d ever received a round of applause, except on the football field, and that’s different. Either I was embarrassed, or the jerks applauding us like mad seemed so awfully stupid, out of this world—anyway I got stage fright and couldn’t move. Elma tugged at my hand and giggled, and I just stood there like a dope. The blonde gave me a sharp kick in the ankle which made me jump— and then I was okay.
Hal escorted us to the center of the stage, ran his eyes over Elma, looked like an idiot, and gave out a corny wolf-whistle, which seemed to panic the audience. He said, “Well, now, Mrs. Morse, shame we’re not on TV, you’re certainly the prettiest record librarian I’ve ever seen. How about that, folks?” There was more clapping, some whistling. Elma stood there, face flushed, forcing a tight smile. I stared out at the rows of faces, feeling like a loon, wondering what in the hell I was doing on the stage.
Hal said coyly, “Any time you want to come up and listen to my records…” and slapped himself across the face. For some reason this got the audience hysterical.
When the laughter died down, Hal said, “Just gagging around, Mrs. Morse. I suppose Mr. Morse is out in the audience?”
“I doubt it.”
“You mean he’s home listening in?”
“I don’t know if he’s listening in, either,” Elma said calmly, face relaxed once more. “Haven’t seem him for some time.”
“Well, time is running out, so let’s get on with the show,” Hall said quickly. “You’ll have fifteen seconds to answer….”
I was still so dazed that for a moment I didn’t get what Elma had said. Although what good would it do me with less than two quarters to spend on New Year’s Eve?
“… Now,” Hal boomed, “here’s an easy question— what’s the finest soap for home washing? Why, of course… Liquid Bubbles!”
A big, six-foot pigeon-toed girl in skin tights suddenly pushed a large box of soap into my hands, nearly knocking me over, another in Elma’s. She towered so over me, the audience laughed. I wondered if there was anything the audience wouldn’t laugh at.
Hal was looking through several little file cards in his hand as he said, “Listen carefully to question number one. You’re to pick out the nearest correct answer from several I give you. Now, for a hundred TAX-FREE dollars: How many counties in New York State? 10? SO? 100? 500? 1000?”
Elma looked blank, then almost angry. I said, “I believe there are about sixty-two counties in the state.”
“Correct! Right on the nose for Mr. Jameson, the sculptor! You have a hundred dollars and Uncle Sam receives…”
He pointed to the register in the cardboard Uncle Sam’s mouth, which rang up $21 in taxes. I snapped out of my daze —I now had fifty bucks, could eat—even ask Elma to join me—make a night of it.
Hal held up a fat hand for silence. “For another hundred TAX-FREE dollars: Which of the earth’s continents has the highest waterfalls in the world?”
“Niagara…” Elma began. I nudged her, said, “Venezuela—South America.”
“On the nose again, Mr. Jameson!” Hal roared as the audience clapped like mad. “Yes, sir, there is a waterfall in Venezuela that is over 3,000 feet high, while our own Niagara is only a puny 169 feet,” Hal read from one of the cards.
Elma whispered, “Aren’t you the quiz kid! My God, two hundred bucks. And he’s sore at me, giving us the hard ones so….”
“All right now,” Hal said, after Uncle Sam registered more tax money. “Quiet, please. For another hundred TAX-FREE bucks, let’s go. In what states is the largest reservoir in the U. S. A.? I mean largest in terms of water supply?”
“Arizona and Nevada,” I said promptly, as Hal shouted correct again and the audience cheered. I felt a little drunk —I had a hundred and fifty dollars, a fortune.
Hal said, “Mr. Jameson, you have a unique knowledge of little known facts. May I ask how you know these things, sir?”
“Sure. I’ve been living in a shack in the country all winter. There was last year’s World Almanac and… that was about all I had to read.” There was a moment of silence and then this “clever” line brought the house down, Hal’s inane laughter beating against my ears till they hurt. Elma was staring at me, amazement in her eyes.
Hal waved his hands again for silence. “Mr. Jameson, because you’ve been so quick at answering, and because you’ve really run into some hard questions, I’ll give you a break. For your last question, you can tell me the name of the reservoir, or I’ll give you a new…”
“It’s Lake Mead, but it may also be called Hoover Reservoir,” I said, like a kid reciting homework.
“Lake Mead is good enough! You have four hundred TAX-FREE dollars. Now, if you’ll kindly sit at the table —along with the other couple—in a few seconds you’ll get a chance at the grand prize and the money balloon. But first a word about Liquid Bubbles…”
At another mike three girls sang of the wonders of Liquid Bubbles, as the amazon who’d nearly floored me with the box of soap took us over to the table. We sat down and Elma said, “You’re simply terrific. Was that really true, about having nothing to read but the Almanac?”
“Yeah. See, in order to get the shack heated, I had to stuff the door cracks and windows with paper. What I mean is, once I got set, I wouldn’t go out to get a paper or anything, because if I opened the door, damn shack would be like an icebox for the rest of the day.”
“That sounds so…”
Hal came over, carrying a hand mike. “Ladies and gentlemen, you each have a dart in front of you. I shall read a line of poetry, give you one hint, and then you will have exactly ten seconds to tell me the name of the author. Now, if you think you know the answer, before you tell me, try to hit the money balloon with your dart. If you hit the balloon and if you have the correct answer, you will receive the bonus bill, but whether you hit it or not, if you have the right answer, you will receive the big $2,000 TAX-FREE prize.
“Quiet in the audience please, I can only say the line once. And please, no help from the audience. Ready? What famous Irish writer penned these words:
“’Each great passion is the fruit of many fruitless years’?”
The stage was full of an unreal, heavy silence. A clock was ticking off the seconds loudly. When four seconds had passed, I was about to take a chance and say, “Shaw,” when Elma grabbed her dart and threw it with one neat and clean motion. There was a mild pop as the balloon disappeared and a fifty-dollar bill sailed through the air in lazy circles, finally glided to the floor. A kind of dull roar from the audience and Hal held up his hand, as though directing traffic, said, “Wait a minute, Mrs. Morse, what’s your answer?”
“George Moore!” Elma said, trying to keep her voice even.
Hal’s booming “Correct!” hit me like a wallop in the gut. I opened my mouth like a jerk and gasped for air. For Christsakes, I had over a thousand bucks! I never had that much dough at one time in my whole life. At the moment I didn’t believe it. I didn’t even believe I was on the stage, although over the noise of the audience I could hear that awful bass-drum voice of Hal’s saying, “You and your partner have won a grand total of two thousand, four hundred and fifty TAX-FREE dollars!”
Vaguely, in dream fashion, I knew Elma was shaking my hand, and maybe I was pressing hers. The big girl in the skin tights came over and handed Elma a bunch of roses—I remember the delicate light-red color. The main thing was the noise—there were all sorts of noises in the air. I guess we were off the air, for Hal called over the accountant and he gave each of us a statement about the tax being paid, asked, “Shall I give you a certified check?”
“Hell no, cash,” I said. In my mind I was already ploughing through a steak.
“Lot of money to carry around on a New Year’s Eve….”
“We’re a big boy and girl, we’ll take the cash,” Elma said.
There was a lot more talk and people milling around us, asking questions—for publicity, I suppose; then Hal handed me a thin pile of twenty-four 100-dollar bills, and a fifty. I turned and gave Elma a dozen of the bills, said, “I don’t have change for the fifty.” And I almost burst out laughing because I didn’t have change for fifty cents, much less fifty bucks. “Neither have I.”
“You take it,” I said. “You won the folding money.”
“Nonsense, if you hadn’t answered those other questions….”
I took her arm. “Look, Miss Newly-Rich, I’m a little dizzy in here, let’s blow.”
“Take the loot and run,” Elma said.
I elbowed my way out of the crowd, Elma following me. Hal was yelling about pictures, but we reached the stage door and came out on the street. It was still raining.
We stood there and she said, “Well, thanks for….”
“Look, it’s New Year’s Eve and… well, back there you said… your husband….”
“We’ve been separated for several months.”
“Elma, let’s blow the fifty, have a big evening?”
“Well—okay, Marshal, only I don’t drink much and… God yes, I’ve been cooped up for a lot of dreary weeks. Let’s go.”
I hailed a cab and as we stepped in she said, “Let’s get rid of these goddamn boxes of soap.”
“Just a couple of ingrates,” I said, as we left the boxes on the curb.
I told the cabbie to cruise around and he said, “Have a heart, Mac, not on a rainy New Year’s Eve. That real soap in them boxes?”
I nodded and he got out and picked up the boxes, said, “The wife can use this. Made up your minds yet?”
I asked Elma if she was hungry and she said yes, so I told the cabbie to drive to a steak house on 33d Street. I grinned at Elma, “God bless America—we’re rich.”
“Yes, the 500-to-l shot came in and the hell with the other 499 losers. Marshal, you amaze me: a character who reads the Almanac like it was a novel should be… a dull, mechanical sort. And you’re just the opposite.”
“I was reading it because I was bored with myself. How did you know that George Moore line?”
She shrugged. “Stayed in my mind. First because I thought the fruitless years would be a good theme for a song lyric. Then, because it’s so true. Our values are all based on comparison, and if you go along on a pretty even level, you never will know great passion, great love or great sorrow.”
“Yeah, but isn’t that learning it the hard way?”
“Lately I’ve found you don’t learn anything the easy way. Like tonight, because both of us are down on our luck, the money we have seems like a million dollars to us. A rich slob wouldn’t be excited about winning a…”
The cabbie double-parked, said, “Here ya are.”
The meter said we owed him 70 cents, and when I gave him the fifty-dollar bill, he said, “Mac, you must have been celebrating since yesterday. I ain’t got change for no green this long.”
“I’ll see if I can get change in the restaurant,” I said, embarrassed. “Don’t have anything smaller.”
Elma took a dollar out of her bag, handed it to him. As we went into the restaurant, I said, “I’ll pay you, soon as I change….”
“Stop it, Marsh, stop acting like we’re still poor people. We’re a pair of the most highly paid people in the world— over two thousand dollars for less than ten minutes work,” she said, teasing me.
It was about nine-thirty and the place was pretty empty. We took a corner booth and ordered cocktails and two thick steaks with all the trimmings. Now that the excitement was over—or just beginning—I looked at Elma more closely. Her blue suit, the gray blouse, the cloth coat trimmed with some sort of cheap fur—all seemed well kept; the way a person with only a few clothes takes care of her things.
Her face was far from pretty, in the classical sense, but then what the hell is classical beauty? Her features might even be called sloppy, the odd slanted eyes, and the contrasting overlarge mouth. But the soft lines were interesting, and whatever makes for warmth and intelligence in a face was there—lots of it.
“Okay,” she said, “I stared at you, so it’s your turn.”
“You have an exciting face.”
“You just say that because I have money.”
“As a sculptor, I say you have a wonderful face.”
“Tell me about your work. I don’t know a thing about statues. There you see, I’m sure there’s more to sculpting than ‘statues.’”
“Statues is good enough. I go in for what they call objective realism. See, I’m crazy for Rodin’s works, and strictly against non-objective shapery that…”
“Good Lord, what’s that?”
“All this so-called extreme modernism—that’s usually only understood by the artist himself. I’m striving for art that can be understood at once, don’t go for this stuff about you-got-to-educate-the-people before they can enjoy your work. In one of Malvina Hoffman’s books on art she quotes a Paul Valery who wrote:
It depends on him who passes by
Whether I’m a tomb or a treasure,
Whether I speak or keep silent.
This rests with you,
Friend, do not enter without desire.
“Well, I see it this way….”
“I like that,” Elma said. “Sometimes a poem really gets under your skin. This does.”
“And the same for art. If the average person can’t tell if your work is a treasure or a tomb, then it’s your fault. Before the war I was a half-ass artist, an advertising man. I went in for this symbolism, made art something mystic—and in reality only because I myself was confused. But over in Paris I met this drunken old French sculptor, and he started me on Rodin. Rodin was an honest joker—in everything he did. Know what he…”
As the waiter brought our steaks, Elma said, “Honesty is the key to all things. Why I’m here with you, even back in the radio studio when you were snotty, it was a snotty kind of honesty. Say, does that make sense?”
I nodded. “Everything about you makes sense. That’s what I see in your face, realness… honesty. And it can’t be merely skin deep. Why in 1914 when Rodin heard about the war breaking, he said, ‘Oh civilization—the civilization of man! It’s a bad coat of paint that comes off when it rains.’ See what I mean, he was honest in all his thoughts— art was life to him. Why next to da Vinci, Rodin was one of the greatest all-around men the world has ever…”
I talked and talked, even talked my steak cold. I rambled on and on as if to make up for all the months of loneliness, of not talking. I made a jerk of myself, but I had to talk myself out to her. I even told Elma about working like a dog all the previous summer to save a few bucks to last me for the winter… and how cockeyed things went.
“What was supposed to happen after the winter?” she asked, pushing her plate away with a sigh.
“First, I had to see if I had any ability. This was my first attempt at sculpting full time. If I can do it, I want to make small works, nothing more than a foot high, so they’ll be within anybody’s pocketbook range Not that size alone determines price, but for Christsakes, where could a family living in two or three rooms put a six-foot figure, even if they got it as a gift? I’ll make small objects of beauty, capture the realism of nature and life in my clay, solid, yet living-in movement. I figure there will be a market among people who never had a chance before to buy anything except an insipid cupid doll, or a gaudy figurine, or one of those crummy brass horses. But I didn’t get started, ran out of dough.”
“Now what, little artist?”
I laughed, in love with her mouth every time she talked. “Now? I been living on seven bucks a week, spent all my time trying to keep warm, something in my belly. I’d walk up and down the beach after a storm, picking up fish that had been washed ashore, waiting for me all nice and frozen….”
“Nature’s deep freeze.”
“Yeah. Telling you this so you’ll understand what a big deal winning this money is to me. It’s a miracle, a fantastic gift. Now… my God! With twelve hundred bucks…. Oh man, I’ll really give it a try. I’m going back to Sandyhook, get me a winter house… one with heat and light, hot water, buy a… Hey, I’m gassing too much, and all about boring me. Let’s start over—where shall we go tonight?”
“I don’t know. I can’t drink much, these three cocktails are past my limit. And I certainly can’t eat any more… so… what?”
“Taking in a midnight show would be a sad way of spending New Year’s Eve. Know a few parties, but…” I didn’t want to take Elma to any party, listen to the attempts at being oh-so-clever, the small talk… sharing her with all the people. It was hard to believe I had her alone… and we were going so fast… so fast.
“I have a party we could go to,” she said. “Except I haven’t seen the people for months and… I don’t feel up to that.”
“Tough spot, lousy with dough and no place to go. Sometimes I keep thinking this must be a dream, that I’ll wake up. Elma, it’s all too good—the crazy way we got the money, and all that money. And there’s you—you’re a little unbelievable.”
“I hope that’s a compliment.”
“Come on, Elma, we’re way past the coy stage. I’ve never seen anybody as beautiful as you are.” And I kept thinking, Slow down, you’ve only known her a few hours, slow down… don’t spoil this, you can’t spoil this!
“Now who’s being coy? You’re pretty too. Not just the big shoulders, but the rugged bitterness in your face. Listen to me, and to you…. I’m not even ordinary-pretty.”
“Stop it, stop fishing for compliments because I’m the guy to give them to you. Beauty is an individual thing and to me—you’re the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen.”
She studied me for a moment—those exciting slant eyes —said, “Marsh, I think you actually mean that.”
“Well it’s the nicest… God, the waiter’s bringing us more drinks. And who ordered the strawberry shortcake?”
“Don’t think I can put it down. One thing we’ll have to do is take a long walk—work some of this food off. I’m wearing a new garter belt and it’s killing my… Why are you looking at me that way? I say something wrong?”
“Wrong? No. What do you see on my face?”
“I don’t know exactly. Sort of a pained expression, or… What is it?”
“Elma, we’ve been moving along at a fast pace these few hours we’ve known each other and…” I stopped. I didn’t want to talk out of turn, ruin things, yet when she said garter belt I had such a vivid picture of long slim legs in sheer stockings, the flash of her bare thighs and round hips… and I wanted her so much I had to stop talking, or come right out and ask her… and we couldn’t be going that fast.
I tried to cover up by gulping a cocktail, mumbling, “Come on, take a drink.”
“I’m high now. Marsh, what’s happened, you look so strained, so…?”
“Elma, stop it.”
She giggled. “But what…?”
The giggle tore things. I said slowly, “All right. When you said garter belt, I pictured you… Elma, I want you!”
Then the words came bursting out, stumbling over my tongue. “Don’t get sore, we’re just going fast, awful fast. I’m not slipping you a line, the old one-two or… I didn’t want to spoil things. I’m sorry.”
Her face seemed a mask I couldn’t understand as she said, “Why should you be sorry? It’s no crime to tell somebody you want them, only…”
“What is it?”
“Well we are racing along and… Are you sure it’s me you want, or is it the fact you haven’t seen a girl in months?”
“Elma, I said this was a little unbelievable, maybe fantastic, but from the first second I saw you, your wonderful mouth, I’ve wanted to kiss you so very much that I… Why I had to tell you back in the studio to stop smiling, you were tearing me up. Guess I sound like a walking cliche, but this isn’t any quickie deal with me. Maybe it doesn’t make sense, and don’t ask how I know, but I know. I’m not a kid, I’ve been married and divorced and… What I’m trying to say is: May sound like tripe, but I know I never want to lose you. I say that and mean it—and we’ve only known each other a few hundred minutes and… Okay, I’ve ruined things. Tell me I’m crazy, get up and walk out.”
“Do you really think I’d get up and… and slap you?”
“No. I don’t know what to think, except I’m talking too damn much, to cover up my eagerness, my brashness. Hell of it is, I’m a shy joker. Really.”
“So am I. But I hate all this stupid, silly fencing between a man and a woman. If they’re going to be… real friends, I suppose it’s better to start with sex than have it as the climax, the end-all, make it more important than it is in a relationship.”
“Darling, I’m talking like a kid, but honestly I don’t do this every night in the week, or think of you as a pushover.”
She held a slim finger against my lips. “Don’t say that. Neither of us is a pushover. God, how I hate those words—pushover, a lay, a piece, a boff… those horrible, horrible, ugly man-words! Always trying to make sex a dirty, unhealthy thing, a sensational mess.”
I tried to kiss her finger but she pulled it away. I didn’t know what to say. I only knew I’d never wanted any woman as much as I wanted her… and I’d fouled up everything.
She smiled at me, said, “Don’t look so troubled, Marsh. I’d like to go to bed with you… and I don’t do this every night in the week, either. And I…”
“And I don’t think we have to worry about any overnight relationship, be afraid. We’ll see what works out. In a way, we’re starting with much in common… both of us a little lost, and I’ve been lonely for a long time, too. Ever since my husband….”
“Instead of talking about him, let’s get out of here.”
Changing the fifty-buck bill, we left a big tip. Once outside, I took Elma in my arms and her lips were as wonderful as I knew they would be. She had an odd little smell to her that left me excited… this was better than the other jackpot! This was the greatest thing that ever happened to…
Some dumb bastard blew a horn in our ears and we jumped and I let go of her, said, “I couldn’t wait.”
“Neither could I. Where shall we go?”
“Have to be a hotel.”
“Walls and bars do not a prison make, nor does hotel furniture make a… Don’t say it.”
“Elma… darling, let’s go—fast!”
It was still drizzling and we tried a few of the big hotels and they were full. I said, “I might call a friend and get her apartment for awhile, but that… Hope you don’t mind if we go to one of the smaller hotels. They look like dives and probably are, but…”
“Marsh, let’s get out of the rain.”
I tried to stop a cab, then we walked down Broadway and on one of the side streets we stopped at one of the old hotels, now looking a little crummy and run down. We got a room with a bath and I registered as Mr. and Mrs. Marshal Jameson of Sandyhook. I started to give the clerk a story about being in town for the night, to explain our lack of bags, but he looked bored so I gave it up.
The room wasn’t bad, large, and the furniture solid and old and homy, and only a faint smell of insecticide. Elma still had her roses and she put them in the water-pitcher on the dresser, said, “Take the edge off the frowziness.” Taking off her coat, she held up her pocketbook, asked, “Where shall we put our money? I keep mine under the pillow.”
“Good a place as any,” I said, and placed my dozen 100-dollar bills under one of the pillows, on top of hers, as though it was something I did every night. She went to the bathroom and when she came out, I went in and washed up, and as I came out, Elma was waiting for me at the door. “Marsh, this is about the best way of starting a new year, isn’t it?”
I covered her face with kisses and then we began undressing each other, and her hands were two delightful, racing, living things.
Pulling my T-shirt off, she patted my guts, said softly, “Ah, you’re lean and hard—the way I thought you’d be.”
When I unhooked her bra, her breasts were surprisingly large and heavy, and when I kissed the hard red nipples I began to cry. I don’t know why—it was all so perfect. She finished removing her things as I stood there and sobbed.
When she was nude, I let my hands run over her body, said through my tears, “Darling, I can’t help it, you’re so beautiful… like a dream.”
She laughed, low laughter, her voice a warm breeze.
“Too many couch dreams these days—the highest compliment a man can pay a woman… I think.”
“Elma, Elma, you look so… so…”
“Don’t say ‘innocent,’“ she whispered, those lush lips moving against my cheek and ear. “Man only says that because he thinks he’s about to dirty up a woman, to…”
I crushed her to me, her skin a delightfully cool smoothness. She said, “Oh darling… easy… easy.”
The racket in the streets woke us at midnight. We kissed and dutifully wished each other a happy, happy New Year. I was truly at peace with the world: Elma beside me, money under my pillow…. I was fully enjoying that most intimate and delicious of all private little worlds—lovers in bed.
I awoke later and in the dim light I saw her staring up at the ceiling, her eyes wet. I touched her breasts, whispered, “Elma, I… didn’t use…. Have to be more careful from now on.”
“You don’t have to worry,” she said gently. “Your wet-dream girl comes complete—I’m four months pregnant.”
For a minute the whole room was dead with shocked silence, then Elma began to cry—sullen, fierce, whispered sobs that hit me like dull punches.
I tried to kiss away her tears, tasting the bitter salt. I kept repeating, “Please, honey, stop crying… stop crying. It doesn’t matter…”
“Should have told you before but… this was all so fast. I was fed up with things, and worry. You must think I’ve tricked you.”
“Elma, stop it. Get some sleep.”
“Now you feel sorry for me and…”
“Sure, I feel sorry as all hell. So what? Maybe that’s a part of what we call love. Half the time I feel sorry for myself. But don’t cry and don’t worry. Tomorrow we’ll straighten things out.”
“It isn’t that simple.”
“Anything is simple when you have money. You’ll get a divorce, we’ll get married.”
“Marsh, because… You don’t have to marry me.”
“I know I don’t have to, but I want to marry you. Tomorrow we’ll…”
“He wants the baby. I won’t give it up. I won’t!”
I tried to cover her mouth with a kiss, held her tenderly. “Sleep. Tomorrow, honey. Tomorrow we’ll think it out, the two of us. I promise you this—nobody will take the baby away.”
“That’s all I’ve been thinking about, losing the baby. Driving me half crazy that…”
“Tomorrow, Elma. Please try to sleep.”
And she did fall asleep in my arms and I lay there, staring at the darkness of this strange room, a bit surprised I didn’t feel anything at all about the baby. Didn’t feel especially happy or sad or trapped… I took it all for granted. It was truly a big New Year for me!
I reached across Elma to the bed table, lit one of her cigarettes, watching the smoke vanish in the darkness.
FOR SOME STUPID REASON I thought of my ex-wife, Mary Jane. Her bright blonde hair making her face all the more shallow looking, wearing that worn houserobe she lived in, asking me, “But Marsh, why don’t we have a baby? Is it my fault?”
“Nobody is to blame. We can’t afford a kid anyway.”
“I’d simply die if I thought I was barren. Marsh, you’re not fooling me, using something I don’t know about?”
“Look, I don’t do this alone, you know I’m not using anything. We just aren’t having any. It isn’t like ordering a pound of meat in a store.”
She’d start crying, the creepy way she had of bawling. “Now Marsh, don’t you talk rough to me.”
Of course from the start I’d known marrying Mary Jane was a mistake. And I was using something—I’d read up about this wave-rhythm control and our relations were very mathematical, I was always counting from her last period to the square root of the next, or something. A baby.
I remembered my mother on her knees, moaning, “My baby, my baby,” and all of us standing around the drafty bedroom, staring at the dead baby on the iron cot. Us five kids, some of us full of youth’s indifference to tragedy. My old man was there in his old, patched winter underwear, wailing. I got my older brother alone in the next room, asked, “What’s he bawling about? Got more kids than he can feed now. Knocking them out like rabbits in…*
He smacked me across the face. He was eighteen. I had just turned thirteen, stunted, but already muscular and with big shoulders from shoveling manure in the fertilizing plant every day after school.
We were having a hell of a fight when my old man came out, cursed us. “This a time to fight? Stop it or I’ll break both your necks.”
I looked at his thin body—even winter underwear hung on him—and I thought I could break his neck with no trouble if it ever came down to neck-breaking. He was under forty, should have been at his peak, but he’d put in over twenty-five years in the mill.
I had childish ideas about age then. Mom was thirty-three, a faded, skinny woman with sparse hair a mixture of sandy-blonde (like mine) and gray. To me she was an old woman. But one afternoon I was doing an errand and saw this big car draw up and this beautiful woman get out. She was something, all straight and slim, lovely red hair, and of course well dressed. Some kid said, “Know who that doll is, wife of one of the mill owners. The fat guy.”
The “fat guy” was a big man, over six feet tall, and almost as wide around the belly. But an old man. I stared at this pretty girl, asked, “What’d he do, rob the cradle? She isn’t over eighteen.”
“Listen to you—eighteen! Don’t be dumb, she’s going on thirty-seven.”
“I know. I was working at the newspaper last month when she had herself a fancy birthday party, and there was talk about giving her age or not.”
And Mom was younger than her and looked like the girl’s mother!
See, not knowing any better, I didn’t mind the shack we lived in, the row on row of company shacks in the company street, the company store. Despite the poverty around us, we kids had fun. But now I realized what the mill did to you, what it had taken out of Mom. I made up my mind to escape before I started looking as old as Pop.
Mom and Pop are still down there, still working—taking it. Never even think of asking out. They’re caught too firmly.
I was the first kid in our family to graduate public school. My older brothers were against any more school, but I was too small and young-looking to work in the mill. It was agreed I might try one term in high school. Although small, I was the strongest kid in town, and when the gym teacher saw me in shorts, he told me to try out for the football team.
There was only one subject of conversation on the football squad—one common prayer—each one hoped a scout would see them, give them an athletic scholarship to a college… where a pro scout might see them. Football didn’t mean a thing to me till then. A scholarship would be my passport out of town, from the mill… when that idea bedded down between my ears I decided I’d become the best football player in school.
I lived and slept football. Because of my size I had to rely on speed, so I began to run. I’d run everywhere I went. Soon I had speed and because of my overlarge shoulders I could give a guy a hell of a jolt when I tackled him. I got bounced around plenty myself, but I was light on my feet, and in high school there wasn’t too much difference in weight.
Our school was very small. Mill people made up the bulk of the town, but very few mill kids went to high school. Our coach was an ambitious ex-college player named Buster Lucas. He coached all the teams from football to tennis, taught gym, too. His ambition was a break for me. Also he was a second cousin to the owner of the biggest restaurant in town.
Working after school, playing football, was killing me. Mom said something about giving up this “football foolishness.” I went to Buster, told him, “Coach, I can’t keep up three things at once; working, playing ball, and going to school. I was thinking of your cousin. For the sake of the school, he might give me an after-school job. Something not too tiring and paying ten a week.”
“Doubt if he’d go for that,” Buster said, studying me.
It was just before practice and I began to take off my football togs—slowly. “My folks need the dough, so I can’t give up shoveling fertilizer. Can’t keep burning myself out, either, so….”
“This is a hell of a time to talk like that—middle of our season.”
season. Hear your cousin is a big sport, always betting on the team. Now he must make more than ten bucks a week on bets alone.”
“Okay, I’ll talk to him,” Buster told me.
The job was ideal. Each evening, from six to nine, and half a day Sunday, I slipped on a white jacket, kept the water glasses on the tables filled. I picked up a few cents in tips. Best of all, I ate like a pig in the kitchen, stuffed myself with good food, plenty of meat.
By the time I was seventeen, I was still a runt but weighed 165 pounds, had walking beam shoulders that made me look even shorter than I was, and legs like tree trunks. There were write-ups in the paper about me, about the team winning the state title—which really didn’t mean much in Kentucky. But it all helped the tips I pulled down in the restaurant.
In my senior year, Buster got a Dayton high-school job. I had scholarship feelers from two big southern schools, and a half dozen small, Midwestern colleges. When the team went up to Cincinnati, across the Ohio River, for a radio interview, I hitched my way on up to Dayton, told Buster about the offers.
He said, ‘Marsh, you’re too small to ever be a real football player. You got to have beef in this game. I was you, I’d forget college ball.”
“I didn’t come to ask you that. Football has kept me out of the mill, now it will put me on a college gravy train, get me the hell out of that hick burg.”
Buster shrugged. “You’ve always been a cocky little bastard. Okay, but watch out you don’t get hurt. College ball will be a lot different. Tell you, Marsh, take a small college. Grind won’t be so rugged there.
It was a little school in Indiana that was out to build a stadium, make money. I got fifty bucks a month plus room and board for emptying the gym trash basket—often it would need emptying every month. I made another fifty waiting on table. I liked college. I not only had the prestige of being a “football man,” but more important I found out all the sketching I’d done as a kid wasn’t outright junk. I decided to study advertising art, which was supposed to be a big money deal.
Buster was right about football—I was playing against bruisers averaging 210 pounds and I still couldn’t tip the scales above 166. I was light and fast on my feet, still bounced around like a ball—only sometimes after a game I had to stay in bed all day. After the freshman year, I got the regular sub berth at left end. During the summer I wangled a scholarship at the Chicago Art Institute, and a job at a children’s day camp that kept me in food.
I was finishing my soph year when they pulled the props from under me. We were playing a big university—a game we couldn’t possibly win—but the university had a large stadium and “our” cut of the gate was big dough. They put me in the second quarter and I picked up yardage in two plays. We had one of these hidden ball deals where I ran to the right sideline, made like a bunny down the field, and cut in to receive the pigskin. Our back could rifle the ball like a bullet. As I cut in, I put my hands up in the air and the ball was there—as I knew it would be. Tucking the leather under my arm, I started making tracks. I was twenty yards from their goal and only a safety man ahead of me.
A week later, when I was still in the hospital, the coach showed me movies of the game. A brace of giants who ran like they were jet propelled got me from the rear. Some 437 pounds of brawn gave me a brain concussion, along with minor bruises.
I snapped out of the concussion without being paralyzed, but the docs warned me to be careful—mustn’t fall or trip, watch myself going downstairs—“a misstep can give you an awful jar.” Any sudden fall, I could end up blind, or dead. They gave me a long lecture about staying out of fights and football games for the next few years—a clout on the jaw could leave me bedridden, if it didn’t kill me. I finished out the term and in a way I was even a sort of campus hero… but of course my athletic scholarship wasn’t renewed.
I hit New York with some good clothes, not many, but what I had was, and looked, expensive, and a little over a hundred bucks in my kick. I was twenty and confident I’d set the advertising world on its bottom. I got a cheap room on the outskirts of the village, practiced hard to get rid of my drawl, and anything that would make me sound like a hick. To be a “hick” seemed to my childish mind to be the greatest of horrors, and calling me a “hill-billy” was fighting words.
I was in love with New York. Broadway fascinated me, Fifth Avenue amazed me, Central Park was lovely country, and Coney Island the place for a mad night. I liked watching the smartly dressed women on the streets, the shops; the tension of many people in the air. I even enjoyed the constant rush, the great wasted energy of a city.
The phony, fairy atmosphere of the Village interested me, with the would-be “Bohemian” bars, the comic jokers who roamed the streets trying overhard to be characters. It was 1939 and I soon realized the Greenwich Village I’d read so much about had vanished a dozen years before.
Dressing my sharpest, I began making the rounds of the agencies with my sketches, then rushing back to my room to hang up my good shirt and change to an old one. But the ad business was glutted with eager kids like myself. Although I lived as cheaply as I could, my money didn’t last three weeks. I found a job as a waiter in a large coffee pot, and on my off days still made the rounds of the agencies, getting a little punchy from the polite doors slammed in my face.
I hit this small agency one afternoon, one of these compact outfits with a few good accounts. The boss was a shorty like me, but gone soft and fat. His name was Barrett. His assistant was Marion Kimball and she was in the process of giving me the brush-off, the usual line about ”… although your work shows definite talent, at the moment we do not have any openings…” when she suddenly reached across the desk and felt of my arms. It was a muggy day and I only had on a thin sport shirt. Due to not eating regularly I was in fair shape. She said, “My God, real midget muscle man, aren’t you? Stick around for a second.”
She called Barrett on the office phone. He came in and looked me over like he was a queer. Turning to Kimball he grunted, “He’s the man.” Then he favored me with a grunt. “Thirty a week. Okay, son?”
“Yes, sir!” I said, my heart pounding. Thirty was low, even for a starter, but that didn’t matter… I actually had a job as an artist!
“Miss Kimball will explain your duties,” Barrett said and left us.
Marion Kimball looked like she could be in her late twenties, middle thirties, or even older. She had a firm, hard figure, probably well girdled, and a shrewd and sophisticated face under a smart makeup job, and she was expensively and smartly dressed. A handsome woman, rather than pretty. She grinned and it was her teeth that told me she was older than she appeared. “Let me break this to you right, Jameson. I’ll let you do some art work, whenever I can. But you’re a rent collector.”
“My, my, aren’t we shocked and angry.”
“Well damnit, I’m an artist and…”
“Get the wind back in your sails, Jameson. Take the job, artists are a nickel a dozen. Job is fairly easy. Barrett owns several houses, some of them tenements. He has a complex about being held up, and a mania about real estate agents screwing him. Also, he hasn’t the time to look after the houses. You’ll do that, and collect the rents. Be any trouble bonding you?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Fine. The houses won’t take up all your time, and I will try to give you some art work. Buying it?”
“Yeah,” I said, disappointed as the devil.
We shook hands. Kimball’s hand hard and warm, almost intimate.
It wasn’t a bad job. I had seven houses to “take care of.” Each day I’d leave my room at about ten, start making the rounds of the houses. There were two “good” houses on West 55th Street, former brownstones that had been converted into small, expensive apartments. There were large tenements on the lower West Side, where five rooms and hot water rented for $30, and one house in Harlem where five rooms without heat or hot water rented for $40.
At each house I’d chat with the janitor, pick up what rents he had, visit people who were behind and maybe send them to the relief office. I had the authority to okay small repairs, or even order a paint job. Around the first of the month I’d be busy, put in full days, but usually I was finished by one, would drop into the office and give Barrett a quick accounting—and the dough—then finish out the day behind my drawing board.
I soon wised up to some of the soft dough waiting to be picked up. It was real small time, but I could average an extra ten bucks a week. Barrett probably knew about these rackets, that’s why he started me at thirty. For instance, I’d tell a janitor to buy a broom and pay him when he gave me the paid receipt from the hardware store… then I’d add a new pail or a couple of pounds, of soap powder on the receipt—pocket the buck or two.
As I said, it was petty scuffling.
When there was an apartment to be painted, I had a choice of several painters and by dropping a hint that I was interested in a Broadway show, I’d chisel a pair of orchestra seats now and then.
There were other angles that could be worked with the janitors. If a tenant moved in on the fifteenth of the month, I’d hold his rent till the first of the following month, tell Barrett he’d moved in as of the first. Then when he paid again on the fifteenth, I’d split this one “extra” rent with the janitor. As long as I remembered to make out the tenant’s receipt dated the fifteenth, everything was okay. Sometimes, when I had a couple hundred bucks in rent money on me, I could even short-change Barrett out of a five spot.
If you think this was a petty hustle, remember the janitors had their own angles. But it wasn’t hard work, my hours were my own, and I never got tough with anybody or looked for trouble.
Life moved smoothly. I moved to a room on East 37th Street, which wasn’t much, but the address was “good.” I lived correctly, wore the correct brands of clothes and, by scrimping, I could even take a babe out to a correct bar now and then—vaguely mention I was “something in real estate,” or “something in advertising,” depending on what brand of bull I was dishing out. It was all a phony front, and I didn’t like playing the four-flusher, but it was a way of life, and good for a few fast tumbles.
Of course, after a week or so I got hep to the office set-up. Kimball was the brains of the firm—she was everything. She could write copy, lay out ads, butter up accounts when necessary. She was extremely capable and efficient. She was never off guard or relaxed, was in there pitching all the time… yet there was a sort of sensuous warmth about her I could never figure out I could feel it in the way she’d glance at me now and then, like the promise of an expensive mistress. Like the glowing of a match before it bursts into flame. It was all in contrast to her cold, super-efficiency. I never kidded around or made a pass, but I often wondered what she’d do if I pinched her ass, fire me or pinch me back.
Kimball was always barking, full of razor-like sarcasm. Everyone was lashed by her biting voice, even Barrett… but I had the feeling he slept with her any time he wanted.
Barrett was easier to figure—he was all boss, knew only one way of doing things—to keep plugging. He dashed at each new account like a bulldog, bluntly hanging on till he either had the account or was completely knocked out. He worked hard, worried hard, had his ulcers and a soggy wife —whom I only saw once, and who probably only saw him once or twice a week, if that often.
Barrett would have gotten nowheres, except to a padded cell, without Kimball. She was behind him every step of the way, calmly soothing and smoothing things out with her charm and cleverness. Barrett had either married or inherited money. With his houses, the agency, his stocks, he never had any real financial worries, yet he kept plugging after the buck as though he was on the ragged rim of poverty. I didn’t try to understand his frantic rushing, killing himself for more dough, treating his wife as though she were an old pet dog.
I did try to understand Kimball—that was something else.
She always handled me like a child, as if everything I did was some secret joke to her. The first week there, I came tear-assing into the office every day before lunch, anxious to get a layout assignment—only to hang around the rest of the day, doing nothing. When I did the same thing the following week, Kimball asked, “Jameson, don’t you take your lunch hour?”
“Grab a bite while going to the houses, Miss Kimball.”
“Cut the beaver act. From now on take an hour for lunch—even if you eat on the job. And for Christsake, stop rushing around with that pathetic eager smile on your kisser. Quiet down.”
The two other artists, and a copywriter, had desks in one large workroom, which was headed by Kimball’s glass-partitioned office, where she kept an eye on us.
The copywriter was a tweedy old man, a beaten hack writer who I heard had done a fair novel in his youth, and whose only ambition now was to sip beer and figure the races.
Neither of the two artists bothered much with me. One was a snobbish middle-aged nance who flew into a loud tantrum if anything on his drawing board was touched. The other was a sloppy young woman who wore wrinkled stockings and always looked like she needed a bath—although she didn’t smell. She was one of these overserious types, who get into a blue mood when they’re old enough to stop playing jacks—and never snap out of it. But she really had talent, a wonderful sense of colors.
Then there was a receptionist-typist, a flashy redhead, who seemed to spend all her time in figuring out new ways of making her small breasts look bigger. She frankly told me she “never went out with any guy making under fifty per.” She was said to be a friend of Barrett’s wife, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if Barrett got into her bloomers. In fact maybe he got into the nance. Barrett went after sex with the same boorish tact he went after business— smashing right through the center of the line.
In the beginning, I’d sit around all afternoon, waiting at my drawing board. No one said anything to me, minded my amusing myself with cartoons, or whatever came to mind. Now and then Kimball would realize I was alive and send me on some goddamn errand. I tried reading a book or the paper all afternoon, but she didn’t seem to notice.
One day when I came breezing into the office at about two, she said, “Jameson, before you get settled for the day, go down to the drugstore and find out what those bastards did with the tongue sandwich I ordered a half hour ago. On whole wheat toast, no butter or anything. And a container of iced tea—no sugar.”
Kimball was always watching her figure. I was, too— whether I wanted to or not. At the drugstore I got a gooey ham salad sandwich and a big chocolate sundae swimming in whipped cream and nuts. When Kimball opened the bag, she called me in, asked, “What’s the bright joke, shorty?”
“Couldn’t remember what you asked for, Miss Kimball. I’m not used to running errands.”
“I see. You don’t like my…?”
“Didn’t say I didn’t like it, merely that I’m not used to doing errands. Anyway, this is my treat. I’m loaded today.”
“Did that would-be copywriter, that pseudo-Hemingway, give you a horse?”
“No, Miss Kimball. No, I hocked my paints and brushes —never be missed around here.”
For a moment she stared at me with those steady, hard, clear eyes, then the expertly painted red lips broke into a smile and she giggled. “Cute, Jameson. Not overbright, but still kind of cute, brash kid stuff. Guess it won’t kill me to eat this junk—send you out again and who knows what you’ll come back with. In about an hour—after I’ve digested this crap, I want to see you. And get your brushes out of hock.”
I went out and had a bite myself and, when I returned, Kimball told me, “I’m lining up a campaign for a girdle company. Give me a couple of roughs along these lines— we want to get across the idea that with these girdles women don’t look like stuffed sausages. Some copy like… Look your boudoir best, no matter what you’re doing… That’s tripe, but you get the idea. I want sketches of women at work—sweeping the house, taking the kids to school, cooking… all that housewife bull. Sketch them in plain dresses, but with a transparent deal around their hips-showing how trim and sexy the girdle is making them look. Maybe throw in some long, sheer, black stockings—they say that’s sexy. Black stockings get you, Jameson?”
“Always wondered why. Well, you get what I’m after?”
“Yes.” I almost said, “Yes Ma’am.”
“Okay, give me a half dozen roughs, and take your time. Maybe I can make something out of it.”
I dashed back to my board and sketched like mad the rest of the afternoon. I had half a dozen complete drawings, not roughs, by five, but Kimball said she was too busy to see them.
I felt good that night, sure of my drawings. Next morning I covered most of the houses by phone and was in the office at eleven. I marched into Kimball’s office, put the sketches on her desk—and waited. She glanced at them quickly, sneered, “Jameson, how the hell old are you?”
“Well, you should know the facts of life. Girdles are worn by women, not these slim kids you’ve drawn. Women, with thick hips and fat bellies and hanging tits—that’s why they buy girdles. We tell them our product will improve their looks, and it will, but it won’t make them look like any eighteen-year-old model. You can only kid the customer when she doesn’t know she’s being kidded. Hell, if the women we’re trying to sell looked like the slim babes in your drawings, they wouldn’t need a girdle, or even read our ads. Try again—and give me women.”
I went back to my desk, sore as a boil. But when I calmed down and examined my work, I saw Kimball was right. I’d drawn slim gals who certainly didn’t need girdles. I tossed the sketches into the waste basket and started over. By the end of the afternoon I had it—women who looked like they should be using girdles.
I showed them to Kimball just as she was going home. She took off her hat, lit a cigarette, and backed away like a ham patron of the arts to study the sketches. Then she shook her head, said, “No good.”
“What’s wrong now?” I asked, trying to keep anger out of my voice.
Kimball turned and practically laughed in my face. “Jameson, I love the way you keep yourself under control. What’s your first name, again?”
“That fits. From a wide-spot-in-the-tobacco-road South?”
She shook her head, and slowly ran her eyes over me. “Cocky kid, going to make good in the big city or bust those big shoulders in the…”
“Look, Miss Kimball, it’s after five. I’m on my own time, so how about getting down to cases? What’s wrong with these sketches?”
“Nothing,” she said, putting them in a folder and into a file cabinet. “The sketching is rather simple, but good.”
“The entire idea stinks. I wanted you to visualize my idea; you did, and now I see the idea was wrong. That’s all. Not your fault. And since I’ve kept you overtime, I’ll buy you a drink.”
“Sorry, have to take a rain-check on that,” I said, trying to sound casual as I lied. “But I have a supper date.”
“Have fun,” she said.
I had an idea Kimball was interested in me, but she never asked me out for a drink again. Nor paid any special attention to me. But she did keep me busy putting her ideas on paper, most of which she discarded. The few times she liked my work, she gave it to the queer to do. When I asked her why, she said, “Slow, Jameson, slow. You’re getting valuable experience here, but the fruit is a more finished artist than you are. He’s been at this rat race longer.”
For some six or seven months things went on like this. Along about February Kimball bawled the hell out of the red-headed receptionist for failing to type a couple of letters Kimball wanted in a hurry. The redhead burst into tears, said she had more work than she could handle, showed pages of dictation Barrett had given her the same day. Kimball marched into Barrett’s office—there was a short argument during which I heard the boss yell several times, “But the damn overhead…”; then Kimball came out and called up one of the government employment agencies.
The new typist had a desk next to me and she was a cute kid. When she said her name was Kraus, Mary Jane Kraus, you smiled because somehow it went with her country-girl face, the strawberry blonde hair done in a bun atop her head, the naive baby-blue eyes set in the soft, round face. She wore print dresses that didn’t do a thing for her stocky figure, she rarely spoke, and all in all she was so unsophisticated you wanted to take her in hand, protect her from the big city slickers.
Kraus was sort of fun. When I took her to a Village bar, she was shocked by the homos, but after one drink she would giggle and make moon eyes. It was all good fun, like teasing a kitten. When one of the painters slipped me some tickets and I took her to a play, she was walking on air. She had the usual story: came from a little upstate town, rushed to New York as soon as she graduated business school.
I took her out now and then. I never kissed her or tried to neck her. She looked so healthy and well-scrubbed, somehow sex never entered my mind. I mean, I had some backward ideas myself in those days about sex.
Kimball treated Kraus with her usual, sarcastic manner, correcting her mistakes, roaring when Mary Jane blushed at Kimball’s cuss words—telling her to stop wearing those flowery dresses that made her look as though she was on her way to milk a cow.
And from the start, Barrett was too nice to Mary. He hardly ever raised his voice to her, and when Mary told me, “Mr. Barrett is just too wonderful,” I was a little worried about Miss Kraus.
Kimball began to take a sudden interest in me. Maybe she was jealous of the boss making a play for Mary Jane. Whatever the reason, she began to joke with me, making fun of Barrett and Miss Kraus. Nothing nasty, merely clever digs. One afternoon, when I’d fast-changed Barrett out of a ten spot, I sat at my desk and watched the lines in Kimball’s figure as she bent over the copywriter’s desk.
When she came over to look at a layout I’d done for her, she asked, “Where’s Kraus?”
“Guess she’s in Big Business’s office.”
“She’ll soon be getting the business,” Kimball said.
“Forget her. I’d like to take up my rain-check on that drink you once offered me. I also have a couple of seats for a show. Suppose I take you to supper? How about Mori’s?”
“That’s so sweet of you. What will you do for the next two weeks, diet?”
“What do you mean?” I asked stiffly. I’d never been to Mori’s, but people had told me about the place.
“Come off it, Jameson, I make out your pay check every week. Mori’s will set you back a week’s salary, even with your side rackets. I’ll…”
“What side rackets?”
“Don’t kid the kidder, Marshal. I know this real estate business, from the petty rackets up to the big ones. Forget about Mori’s, and I’ll go dutch treat to some less expensive place, if you wish.”
I laughed—to cover my embarrassment. Kimball had a red roadster and she took me to a Chinese restaurant near Columbia University that I’d never heard of, and I made it a point to supposedly know all the good eating spots in the city; it was part of my big-New-Yorker front. It was a small place, but they had real Chinese food, I didn’t even know what I was eating half the time, and of course Kimball could use chopsticks. Then we drove downtown and she parked her car near Ninth Avenue and we stopped for a few drinks.
The show was pretty stupid and we walked out after the second act and I took Kimball to a Village bar and we had more drinks and danced, and naturally Kimball was an expert dancer.
She was good company, and when she asked if I wanted to go to her place and kill a bottle, I was all for it. She had floor-through of a private house in Brooklyn Heights, full of modern furniture that was all angles. We had more drinks and I was pretty high, told her about playing football to get out of the mill. She told me about working ever since high school: salesgirl, switchboard operator, secretary, then finally meeting Barrett. She had a fancy ivory-white radio-phonograph and we danced, barely moving, and bulled each other about art and Spain and Hitler and where would it all end.
And I knew I could sleep with Kimball that night, if I wanted to. You know how it is, without any petting or double-meaning cracks, you suddenly feel this happy wave of warmth go through you and you know she feels the same way, and that’s it.
I wanted to sleep with her—I always had.
I was wondering how to go about it, what to say, when she took the play out of my hands. We had stopped dancing and were sitting on the rubber and wrought iron couch, when she put her arms around my neck and kissed me hard on the lips. It was a fine kiss, all expertly done. I was so astonished I didn’t react. Pushing me away, she laughed, asked, “What’s wrong, Marshal?” Her voice was too businesslike.
“Yes there is.”
“I was just eh… surprised.”
“What’s there to be surprised about? You’re young, strong and lean, with silly corn-blonde hair. I don’t think I’m too hard on the eyes…. So?” She kissed me again, her lips hard and demanding, her tongue forcing its way into my mouth.
I’m not a sap or a prude, yet I was shocked. I stared at her like a dumb schoolboy and all the time I wanted her, really wanted her.
Marion Kimball smiled at me, asked gently, “This is too sudden, too fast for you? I believe in going fast, living for the present—the future is too far away, too uncertain… maybe a dream.”
“Isn’t the man supposed to hand the gal this live-for-the-present line?”
“Maybe. And maybe this is reverse English,” she said, and she laughed—loudly. Her laughter did it.
She became once more the most efficient Miss Kimball laughing at a clumsy young man, her laughter almost a sneer. I had a lot of pride stuck in me somewhere—I still have—and I couldn’t have her treating me like a kid.
I said coldly, “Sorry, Kimball, I can’t do it like this. Can’t go at it this way. Guess it is too quick.” I stood up and poured myself a drink and wondered if I was talking out of my mind because Kimball looked all desire.
She didn’t get mad, give me the heave-ho, and I liked her for that. She merely shrugged, said, “Okay, forget it. Mix me a shot, too.”
We sat and talked and even danced, as if nothing had happened—and nothing had. I had another drink and my whisky began to talk. I said, “Kimball, you mind if I call you by your first name?”
“Don’t be silly.”
“I’m not silly, just high. Marion, maybe I’m talking out of turn, but there’s something I’ve been puzzling about for a long time. None of my business, but you are attractive, smart, desirable and yet…”
“I’m unmarried?” she cut in.
“Yeah. I’m curious.”
She smiled at me. “Marshal, you’re such a youngster, but…”
“Damn it, I’m not a kid, stop treating me like I was the village idiot.”
She shook her head. “You’re a boy, or you wouldn’t have turned a woman down. You see, it takes something for a woman to ask… and it is a hurt to be turned down, but I know why you did it… your pride.”
“Nonsense,” I lied.
“Not nonsense, I know you want me, I’ve seen it on your face, every day. Hear me, talking like the office siren.”
We both laughed and I bent down and kissed her, our lips hugging.
“Oh Kimball—Marion—don’t say that. You’re right, I do want… Hey, you haven’t told me why you never married,” I said, clumsily changing the subject.
“As I said, you’re a kid. But I’m not—I’m thirty-eight years old—cross my heart. When I was younger I was just a bit too busy, too full of modern-day curse, the get-ahead drive, to bother much with boys. Now, I could marry somebody like Barrett, but I can’t stand these ‘executives.’ Seen too many of them in the raw—and they are raw. Take them out of their office fish-bowl and they turn out to be stupid, disgusting, and so awfully dull.”
“There are other men besides jerks like the boss.”
She nodded. “If I hunted, or maybe shopped is a better word, I might find a man my own age, but husband hunting is a full-time job. I don’t have the time. Nor am I quite sure it’s worth it. In our social set-up, women must marry for economic reasons—I have that beat: I have my job and even a chunk of money I made in one of Barrett’s real estate deals. And I like young men! God, do I love you youngsters! That frighten you?”
“I’m mad about this generation of disappointed young men—who still remember the depression days, and are now worried about the shadow of war, worrying if Hitler will get out of bounds. I like the potential explosion you youngsters represent, the fire that’s smoldering inside you! I don’t know, maybe it’s the mother instinct, maybe that plain old sex urge. But whatever it is, I like boys with fight and ideas in them, still unblunted. I know you’ll never amount to anything, but I like your drive, the windmill you’re wrestling. Usually after three or four months I junk a youngster, get a newer model.”
“Am I one of your young men?”
Kimball nodded. “At times you’re so bitter, so mad at the world, I could kiss you. But in six months from now you’ll be beaten down, like all the other slobs, and that will spoil you for me and I’ll boot you out. Now, are you afraid?”
“Yeah, a little,” I said, getting my hat. “And I’d better take a powder—before I stop being afraid.”
From then on, the office became the last act of one of those old hearts and flowers melodramas: Barrett going after Miss Kraus in his usual bullish manner, and Kimball waiting for me, cool and sure of herself, certain I would come.
I wasn’t worried about myself, but little Mary J. Kraus was something else. I knew she had lots of pride too, but dumb pride that might force her to do anything rather than return home, admit the big city had thrown her for a loss. Mary was a bit simple and if the boss slipped her a line of big talk, she might believe him, and be a fool… for if she did sleep with him, she’d go to pieces when he gave her the brush-off.
The last-act curtain came down one Saturday afternoon, as we were all knocking off at noon. Barrett stuck his noggin out of his office, said, “Oh, Miss Kraus, would you mind staying a few minutes? Have two letters that must get in the mail today. By the way, did Kimball tell you that you’re getting a three-dollar raise, starting next week?”
Barrett beamed at her and Mary Jane was overjoyed, her childish face one big smile. She quickly took off her hat—a straw pot only a Miss Kraus would wear—grabbed her steno book. Over her shoulder she called to me, “Have to skip that soda with you, Marsh.”
The redheaded receptionist stepped into the elevator, snickering. I hung around.
Kimball came out of her office and winked at me, asked, “You ring for the elevator?”
“No. How come Barrett gave Mary a raise?”
Pressing the elevator button, Kimball said, “Didn’t old Barrett sound like a tenth-rate movie? Today is der tag for Miss Corn-Fed.”
“I don’t follow you.”
“Don’t be dumb. He’s been playing Kraus, slow and easy. Think he was afraid she might be under age. Wonder if he’ll offer her a trip to Atlantic City or a short voyage? Kraus hasn’t enough appeal for a voyage, she’ll last about a week-end. And probably hasn’t brains enough to blackmail him with the Mann Act. Lousy three-bill raise—cheap enough lay.”
“You… think he’ll proposition her now?”
“Know so. I’m the gal who’s been with him for over eight years…”
“Then, while we’re talking…?” I cut in.
“Aha, the psychological moment—news of the raise, then the works.”
The elevator came and Kimball stepped in. I didn’t move. The operator asked, “Coming?”
“No. I… eh… forgot my pipe,” I said, rushing back to the office. I thought I heard Kimball’s laughter as the elevator doors closed, and frankly I did feel like a jerky hero.
The office held that afterwork stillness and I sat at my desk for what seemed hours—listening to the faint mumble of voices in Barrett’s office, my imagination working overtime. The longer I sat there, the more ridiculous I felt What was it my business if Mary J. Kraus ended up in a hotel room with the boss? Might be the best thing in the world for her, make her snap out of…
She came running out of his office, crying, her hair flying—exactly as I knew she would. Barrett came after her, stopped short when he saw me. I stepped in and clipped him on the chin and he went down.
I ran out into the hallway after Miss Kraus, but she was gone. I cursed and rang furiously for the elevator, but the service was lousy after working hours. When I finally reached the street, Kraus wasn’t in sight. I looked around, slightly bewildered, I somehow expected her to be waiting for me.
A horn was blowing and there was Kimball in her roadster, motioning to me. As I came over, she put her fist to her lips, said, “Ta-ta-tata, all hail the conquering hero!”
“Cut the clowning, where did she go?”
“Took a cab, in all her virtuous wrath. And hop in before I get a damn ticket.” I got in and we drove uptown and through the park and then downtown and Kimball asked, “Want me to drive over to her room?”
“No. Hell with it.”
“Marsh, does that hayseed mean anything to you?”
“Not a thing. Merely a nice kid I didn’t want to see hurt.”
“Cross my heart!” I snapped.
“Of course you slapped Barrett on the chin?”
“I did… all the trimmings.”
“And now what, little man?” Kimball asked, parking the car. We were in front of her house. It was like her to time things exactly right.
“I’ll get along,” I said, suddenly sick with the realization my job was gone. I had no money beyond the pay check in my pocket.
“Will you? Kraus will go back to the sticks, where she belongs. But you—can you go back to that mill town you told me about? And Barrett will blackball you out of every ad agency.”
“I’ll do free lance art work.”
“Slop. You won’t make a dime and you know it. Come on in and have a drink.”
I knew what was coming, but I went in. We had a drink and sat on the couch and I waited. Kimball came right out with it. She said, “About you—I still like young chaps, particularly interested in a certain young jerk who was brash enough to poke the boss on the chin. That’s quite an accomplishment and…”
“How long before you’d turn me in for a new model, Marion? Would I last a week, a month?”
“I might even be willing to send you_ to art school for six months, even a year. You need more schooling.”
“A kept man,” I said, turning red.
Kimball’s warm hand stroked my face. “Don’t let a word scare you. You also keep things that are precious and…”
I don’t know why I did it. You see I either had to walk out or show her I was a man. I didn’t want out, so I reached over and tore her dress from the shoulder to her hip, pulled her to me. She still had this cat grin on her face, so I pulled her to me as roughly as I could.
And that was it.
It was after midnight when I left Kimball’s. I’d slept with my share of girls, but Kimball was the first real woman I’d ever known, and she was amazing. Even between the sheets, she was so wonderfully efficient.
I didn’t want to leave, but she put me out, saying, “I’ll be knocked out for the week if I don’t get some rest on Sunday, look like hell. I’ll never get any rest with you around, so darling, go to your room and pack your things and be here Monday night. Okay?”
I stopped at a coffee-pot and had something to eat, tried to figure out what I was getting into. Finally decided I didn’t know… but it was something I wanted. Somehow, that seemed to clear my mind, made me feel pretty good.
I walked across Brooklyn Bridge, taking in the beauty of the Manhattan skyline against the moonlight, then took a cab up to my room. As I unlocked the downstairs door, I heard the joker who ran the house—a glorified janitor although he called himself an “agent”—climb out of his bed. He had a large combination office and bedroom on the first floor.
As I went up the stairs, he stuck his head out, whispered, “Mr. Jameson.”
“See you tomorrow with the rent,” I called over my shoulder, and kept on walking upstairs.
“But Mr. Jameson, I…”
I walked faster, ran up the second flight, unlocked my door. I stepped inside and quickly undressed in the dark. I was pretty well pooped.
I jumped straight up in the air, my pants in my hand, asked, “Who’s there?”
“It’s me, Marsh… Mary Jane.”
I found the light cord and there was Miss Kraus in my bed, holding the covers up to her chin. Soon as she saw me, she began to weep.
“What… what are you doing here?”
“Please don’t scold me,” she said, through fat tears. “I didn’t have anybody else to turn to. You see, I didn’t expect to be… fired and I’d bought some dresses last week and now… now I don’t have any money. I didn’t know what to do, so I came here, told the landlord I was your sister, and he let me wait in your room.” She really began to weep. “Marsh, I waited and waited… and I’m so upset and… well… I just went to sleep.”
I sat down on the bed, feeling so sorry for her I could cry myself. I patted her soft blonde hair, said, “It’s all right. Just take it easy.”
“You must think I’m awful to be in your bed… but I’ve had such a wretched day. Marsh, I don’t know what I’m going to do!”
“First thing to do is get some shuteye. I’ll sleep in the chair. Tomorrow I’ll get you some money and you’ll be okay.”
“I couldn’t take money from you. Oh that horrible Mr. Barrett!”
“Stop bawling, the money will be a loan,” I said, not even thinking where I’d get money. All I could think was we made a silly tableau—Mary Jane weeping into the sheet and me sitting there in my shorts.
I got up, told her, “Go to sleep and we’ll talk about it in the morning. Don’t worry.”
Taking one of the pillows, I tossed it on the one big chair, realized I’d put it on her clothing. As I started to take her dress and stockings from the chair, Mary said, “Oh no, I’ll sleep in the chair. It’s your room,” and she jumped out of bed.
She was wearing one of my sport shirts, and it just reached her hips and she looked very young and inviting— and like a barber-shop calendar. For a short moment we stared at each other, then with a little cry she was in my arms.
The rest of the night was kind of messy. Mary Jane did a great deal of crying and I kept telling her over and over to rest. At some point in the early morning hours, she whispered, “Marsh, we’ve done a terrible thing. We are going to be married, aren’t we?”
I felt all warm and sorry for her, and a little dazed. Kissing her, I said, “Yes,” and she hugged me and went to sleep.
When we went down for breakfast around noon, the agent made some snide cracks and I damn near socked him. So we moved to another room in the next block, as man and wife. While Mary Jane went back to her room to get her bags—and pay her rent—I took the subway over to Brooklyn.
Kimball greeted me with, “Marsh! What a nice surprise. I…”
“I got a surprise, all right, listen.” When I finished telling her what had happened, she shook her head, said, “You poor sucker. You don’t have to marry her.”
“I want to, she’s a lost kid.”
“She’s hooking you. And she isn’t a kid, she’s twenty-three. I checked her age for Barrett.”
“You pimp for him too?”
She stared at me for awhile, her eyes hurt. I said, “Sorry, I didn’t mean that,’ Marion but… Oh hell, all right, maybe I am merely sorry for her, but she isn’t sophisticated, doesn’t know the ropes, floundering like a lost puppy and…”
“You feed a puppy, not marry her.”
“Kimball, I promised to marry her and I’m going through with it. I’ll feel lousy if I don’t.”
“Okay, Marsh, thanks for telling me.”
“I didn’t come just to tell you, Marion. I’ve got to find a job, but pronto. Neither of us has a dime. You know people, can pull strings. I feel like a heel asking you, but can you help me?”
“See what I can dig up tomorrow. If you need any cash…”
“We have enough for a few days.”
Kimball squeezed my hand. “Call me tomorrow, around noon. And I’m sorry, guess I got you into this, sort of…”
“I’m walking in with my eyes open.”
“I hope so. And I really hope it works out. Call me before noon.”
Mary Jane and I were married on Monday, at the license bureau. Kimball not only got me a job with a big real estate company, but wangled two weeks’ salary for both of us from Barrett.
Mary found another steno job and for awhile things went smoothly. Living in one room with two salaries, we had more spending money than before, and during the summer we spent a week with her folks—they ran a small store upstate.
By the end of the year our marriage began to wear. I still felt sorry for her, and at times we had some fine moments. But Mary Jane whined a lot, and if she was young and sweet, she was also dull and boring. I collected rents and didn’t even look at a paint-brush.
That Christmas Pearl Harbor happened and we forgot about ourselves and in February I was number seven in my draft board and got my greetings and we had quite a tender scene when I went off.
They sent me to Fort Dix, over in New Jersey, and the only true feeling I had about things, aside from a faint feeling of patriotic duty, was one of relief, of being free from Mary.
Logan was alone. He walked down the alley with a long, springy stride. I don’t know why I kept thinking he still didn’t look like a private detective. More like a salesman, or a young bank clerk.
When he saw me he slowed down a little, smiled as he said, “Lose your baggy tweeds? And your height? My, you’ve grown a lot of hair.”
“Forget that phone talk, Logan,” I said, trying to keep my voice calm. “Guess I’m overcautious.” My hand dropped into my pocket, on the gun—all very casually—as he came around the back of the house. I felt of my other pockets with my left hand, asked, “Got a cigarette?” He was less than three feet from me.
He dug into his breast pocket, held out a crumpled pack: I took one, put it in my mouth—all with my left hand.
“Thanks, I have a match,” I said. I had a firm grip on the gun only… I got it half out… forgot about the clumsy long target barrel. The damn thing was stuck in my pocket—would only come partly out!
Logan dropped the pack of butts, his eyes went big. He came at me as I backed away, still tugging at that lousy, clumsy gun. Suddenly I yanked it out and…
He was lightning fast. I think I saw the bright burst of flame from his hip before I felt the bullet… felt as though I’d been smacked across the belly with a baseball bat. The force of the slug knocked me down.
For a moment, when the shock got me, I didn’t even know I was hit, thought I’d stumbled backwards. My gun fell from my hand. I tried to sit up… and then… at the same time I heard the sharp, clear sound of the shot, the hot terrible pain—this awful, awful pain—cut into my guts and the blood came squirting out of my shirt, down my legs.
For a long second the pain was so intense, so complete, I couldn’t breathe or see. Then he came into view, his gun still in his right hand. He carefully kicked my gun away, went over and picked it up.
We stared at each other for a long time. His face was pale and his eyes puzzled. He asked, “What the hell is this? What you throw a gun on me for? Who the hell are you?”
ONE OF THE CORNY JOKES you heard in the army was: “You never had it so good.”
That was pretty true for me, I got more than my share of breaks in the army. At the start I remained at Fort Dix for nearly three months. Guys were being shipped out on all sides of me, but my name was never called. Our regiment, company, battalion, or whatever we were, was made up of a small permanent cadre of several enlisted men, all “old” army men, meaning they had been in six months or a year, and a Captain Drake, a dapper little man about thirty-five years old. His uniform was always sharply pressed, he walked with an inflated strut, spoke with a drawl, and happily was rarely seen. I was made a barracks orderly, meaning after morning inspection I had nothing to do for the rest of the day.
On week-ends I came in to New York and saw Mary Jane, and one day I walked into Kimball on Lexington Avenue and she made a fuss over my being in uniform and bought me a fine wrist-watch on the spot.
I was taking things easy, doing a lot of sketching of the various faces in camp, plenty of reading, and soaking up hours of sack time. For the first time in my life I had no worries about rent or food, and the army showed me the fallacy of this goosing finger of fate we call ambition. I mean, a joker hustles and wears the correct clothes and puts up a big front to impress his boss—and zowie, the army calls him and all that energy is wasted because now he’s merely another buck-ass private under a non-com who happened to be called a few months before our joker-buddy. So he bucks like hell for stripes in the army, brown-noses everybody in sight, and maybe by the time the war is over, he has sergeant stripes and then—zowie, they discharge him and he’s a nobody civilian again and has to start the apple polishing all over again. Now I don’t mean a guy shouldn’t try to get ahead—but not too hard, should make that his whole life. You push so much, you never get a chance to enjoy life, and one day you’ll push yourself into the grave and they’ll shovel dirt on your face and on your tombstone they’ll chisel, Where Did It All Get You?
The trouble was, after a time I got restless at Dix. I dropped in to see Captain Drake, gave him a clumsy salute, asked if my records had been lost or something. He said, “Jameson, you’re a Kentucky boy and ah’m from the South, too. Figured ah’d rather have you getting these soft jobs around here than any of these here Northern boys. Sick to my belly with talking to Jews and wops and micks. About a year or so, they’ll throw mah can out of here and ah’ll take you with me. All right with you, boy?”
“Yes, sir. Only—well there is a war on. I sort of feel useless here.”
“You got spunk, son. But ah let you go and sure as shooting you’ll be shipped to the infantry. Know you don’t want that. Boy, what were you doing in civilian life?”
It was a good thing I wasn’t drunk on PX beer at the moment—one more “boy” and I might have socked his skinny jaw. I said, “I was an artist—advertising art.”
Drake was impressed, said, “See what I can do for you, Jameson.”
I cinched the deal by giving him a pen-and-ink drawing of himself. A week later I was sent out of Dix on a one-man shipping list, stationed at Lexington Avenue and 46th Street. I was part of a special-service outfit that made posters. We had a chicken officer who must have got a rake-off from the shoe polish companies. We had to march along crowded Lexington Avenue, trying to look like soldiers, and all the people staring at us as though we were. I felt more of a fraud than in Dix. It was very frustrating.
Also, I was seeing Mary Jane every night and I wanted to get away from her. Poor Mary was at least working in a defense plant in New Jersey and I didn’t want to be a tin soldier. I casually mentioned to the first looey who was our CO. that I didn’t think the war effort was really dependent upon whether we shined our damn shoes or not. Two days later I was back in Dix and out the same night on a troop train heading for Fort Benning, Georgia.
Infantry basic wasn’t as rugged as football training and it felt fine to get into shape again. But one morning when they had us hitting the dirt—running and throwing ourselves on the ground—breaking the fall by digging the butt end of our rifles into the hard earth—I took a heavy fall and had a headache that scared hell out of me.
On sick call I told the doc about having had a concussion and they took X-rays and stuff. To my surprise I was soon on my way to an artillery outfit in Kansas where I worked at painting camouflage. It was interesting work and I learned a lot about blending colors. Most of the fellows were artists and I became pals with Sid Spears, who’d been studying sculpture when he got his greetings.
Sid was a tall, thin fellow with a sensitive Jewish face, but he’d been a college boxer and for some unknown reason his skinny frame packed a hell of a wallop. The two of us became a jerky goon squad; we made a good combination—Sid so thin and me so short. We’d get a little liquored up in some dive, start talking a lot of high sounding “art” talk—which was bait for characters who thought wearing a uniform made them rugged, entitled them to make snide cracks about us being “ball-bearing Wacs, charging over the top with fixed paint-brushes.”
It was stupid fun, Sid flooring guys with one punch and me tackling them if he didn’t floor them, or throwing them against the walls.
Sid and I came to New York together on leave and had a good time at his place. I wasn’t going to see my wife, but I felt like a bastard and finally spent my last two days with her.
After nearly two years in Kansas we were all shipped to Camp Patrick Henry in Newport News, Virginia, I called Mary J. and she bawled over the phone and then I was jammed on a Victory ship for a slow and pleasant crossing of the Atlantic, spent some weeks hangings around Oran in North Africa, sketching the Arabs and the ruined tanks. Then Sid and I and four other fellows were flown to London, and after D-Day, we followed the real soldiers into Paris, lived at a small hotel on Place Clichy, worked eight hours a day drawing maps, making scale topographic models of future battlegrounds.
Of course Paris was terrific and Sid had been there in 1935 and seemed to know a lot of people on the so-called Left Bank. He introduced me to a huge old man with a flowing white beard named Bonard. Bonard liked nothing better than to tell us about the old days of the Left Bank and the Montmartre—as he smoked our cigarettes and took our rations home. He was a sculptor and “home” was a large, dirty old barn on the outskirts of Paris which was also his studio. He had a few heads and small figures around, and I don’t think he’d touched any clay in years, but I began fooling around with clay and right away I knew I’d found my medium—this was what I wanted to do. Sculpting was far more satisfactory, more creative than working with paints and brushes. When you made a statue of a woman, by God, there it was—nothing on flat canvas, but something you could touch and handle and feel proud of, as though you had almost created life.
I spent the war in Paris, working on maps during the day, visiting the famous old cafes at night with Bonard, as he talked about Saint-Gaudens, Rodin, Malvina Hoffman, Epstein, about Stein and Hemingway. I heard about the successes, the suicides, and the love affairs of the “old days.” I knew most of the time Bonard was merely repeating gossip, and I didn’t believe him when he said he’d been a personal buddy of Gauguin, had in fact urged him to go to the South Seas. Bonard was a grand old liar but he did give me valuable lessons in the human anatomy, and when I slipped him a few cartons of cigarettes, he came up with some plaster and I began making casts of my fingers, my hand, my fist. The first time I tried it, I didn’t know plaster grows hot as it hardens, and I screamed like a madman that I was losing my hand as Bonard roared with laughter. Under his instruction I even tried a few heads and one figure, was pleased when he said I had talent. Whenever I could get a jeep, the two of us would drive around examining the various statues with which Paris is studded, Bonard pointing out the good and bad techniques. I became very fond of the old man.
Mary wrote me faithful, insipid letters, sent me packages of stale cookies every week. I sent her perfume, sent Kimball a bottle, and one to my mother—all purchased with packs of cigarettes.
In a sense, Paris was a school for me, with Bonard my teacher. And I studied hard—read everything I could about Rodin, buying pictures of his works, going over them with Bonard.
I imagine Bonard was more amused by Sid and myself than really interested in our work. He could drink two or three quarts of wine at a bull session, and he had a secret supply of wine which he flatly refused to share with us.
“Waste of time, waste of wine. You Americans and your hard liquor—always in a hurry. Wine is a slow sensation, a long delight. Hard liquor, that’s for idiots who receive no sensation unless hit over the head. Like I see your soldiers running after the girls on the Pigalle… push, push, and it’s over.”
“We’re a very sexy bunch,” Sid said, kidding him. Both Sid and myself were so damn scared of getting a dose we left the street-walkers alone.
“Americans understand sex the way you understand wine. You get no satisfaction. In the old days a man went with a woman, even an ugly man and a dumpy woman, and they enjoyed each other. But today the movies have ruined young people. In France too, but especially in America, where the movies are more a part of life.”
“What’s movies got to do with it?” I asked.
Bonard fixed his watery eyes on me. “You go with a woman but are you thinking of her? Bah! Her arms are around you and her eyes are closed, but she is seeing Clark Gable, Boyer. And in your mind you are with a Jean Harlow, Mary Pickford, Rita Hayworth or…”
“I don’t know about Mary Pickford,” Sid said, winking at me.
“I saw you wink!” Bonard roared. “A wink—shallow as your work, you have not the heart or understanding for art! For you art is like a woman. You Americans, always chasing, hoping in the next woman to find the full enjoyment you do not have with this one—and only because you are thinking of the next, instead of the woman you have.”
“That’s too complicated for me,” Sid said. “Bet you were hell with the gals in your day.”
Bonard kissed his fingertips. “Ah, my youth, when there was true love! The dancing of Avril and La Goule in the Moulin Rouge, the singing of pale Yvette Guilbert. Or sitting at the Chat Noir, with Seurat, and Toulouse-Lautrec… the lucky ones, the sons of the rich.”
“Stop it, old man,” Sid said. “That was about 1880, make you at least eighty now.”
“You dare call me the liar?” Bonard screamed, clutching his wine bottle, but looking around for something to throw.
It was a wonderful way of sitting out the war, working hard during the day and believing the maps, your work, was important… spending all my spare time with Bonard. For a time Sid was cool to me. I think he was jealous of Bonard’s interest in my work. Sid had reached his art level long ago, a mediocre level, and while he was still the better sculptor, I was progressing and he was standing still. He started hanging out with the other GI’s, which was okay with me, since I had Bonard all to myself. One evening the old man asked, “When will you have a free week-end?”
“Get a three-day pass most any time, I think.”
“Good. It is time you work from a model.”
“You mean a live model?”
Bonard groaned, pulled his beard, said in French I had the sense of a mule’s rear, then added in English, “The purpose of a model is to get the breath of life into your work. For a death mask we need the lifeless, for now you need the living—a nude woman.” The old man puffed on a cigarette, waited for me to say something.
I didn’t know what to say. Finally I said, “Okay.”
Bonard banged his big hands together. “The croak of the idiot… okay, okay, okay! Mon Dieu, you show no interest. I, an old man, am wasting precious time with you!”
“Sure I’m excited. How do we get a model?”
“I will bring the model, a great-grandchild of mine, Yvonne. Her face leaves much to be desired, but the lines of youth are in her body. Three days of intense work in my studio. Of course, it will not be cheap.”
“One carton of cigarettes for her mother. At least two cartons for Yvonne—she needs clothes. As for myself, I only ask two cartons—and some cans of rations, so we may eat as we work.”
Bonard had been smoking (and selling) my butts for months. I shook my head, said, “Take me a month to save that many. Can’t we do it for less?”
“Yvonne has never posed before, it will take much pleading for her mother to trust the child in my care. Your friend Sidney, it would do him no harm to stir his lazy soul, strain his small talent—join us for a week-end of work.”
I told Sid about it that night, and at first he wasn’t interested. But after a lot of sales talk on my part, he agreed. We went through our outfit borrowing cigarettes, telling everybody we had a terrific “shack job” coming up, mortgaging our PX rations for the next two months.
We arrived at Bonard’s barn on a Thursday night with the butts, cans of C rations and boxes of K rations, candy bars, a couple bottles of coke, plus a bottle whose label claimed it was cognac.
Bonard soon had a hot meal going and, as usual, his bottle of wine. Yvonne was disappointing: a sullen, horse-faced thin kid about IS years old, she was dressed in her worn best, ate greedily, and never spoke.
After supper, she immediately went to sleep in a room at one end of the barn as Bonard showed us our straw beds, set up the work tables, helped us make two small wire armatures. He had managed to get fifteen pounds of raw clay, which was wrapped in a dirty, wet cloth.
The old man was in one of his talkative moods. For the tenth time he told us about his true love—a laundress who’d been the best can-can dancer in the Montmartre. He went into modest details about his ability in bed, the firm body of the laundress… while Sid and I numbed ourselves with cognac, which tasted like a poor-grade shellac. When Sid began to yawn, Bonard shouted, “Sleep, idiot, it is a waste of air to talk to this generation! Sleep may give cleverness to your fingers tomorrow—surely nothing else will!”
Sid stood up, a little angry. “Time magnifies everything, even your sex life. Bet you couldn’t even pay your way into that laundress’ bed.”
Bonard staggered to his feet, looking around madly for something to throw. As he reached for the armature on my table, I grabbed him, said, “Easy, he only jokes.”
“Jokes!” Bonard slapped his flowing beard, suddenly pointed a fat finger at us. “I tell you one thing that is no joke—I have never been a pimp!”
“You’ve had too much wine, old man,” I said. “Nobody said you…”
He pointed toward Yvonne’s stall-like room. “I will stand no funny business with her, understand? She is in my trust.”
Sid burst out laughing. “You have no reason to worry, not with her.”
I grinned. “As you said yourself, she is only a child with a face that leaves much to be desired.”
“I warn you, for your sakes, the little one is well able to protect her honor.” Bonard took a last swig of wine, staining his beard and killing the bottle. “Now we sleep the good sleep.”
Sid and I lay on our straw beds, listening to the old man snoring, the running of mice—sorry we hadn’t thought to bring mattress covers along. To my surprise I slept well, without battling any bugs.
The morning was muggy and after a quick breakfast, we started working the clay. At a nod from Bonard, Yvonne mounted a box, fumbled with her dress, let it slip to her feet.
She stood there, blushing a bit, and she was still a scrawny kid, but the lines of her thighs were soft, and her tiny breasts two delicate buds. Stepping out of her dress, she told Bonard to fold it neatly, then he had her move about till she found a relaxed pose she was able to hold for five or ten minutes at a time.
We worked hard, Bonard fussing over us, full of sarcastic cracks about Sid and I being unusual men—born with ten thumbs. By lunch we both had a rough sketch, about a foot high. As she made lunch—dressed again, of course—Sid kept watching Yvonne. He said, “More I see of her, prettier she gets.”
“I know. It’s because we haven’t been with a woman for so long.”
Sid said, “Don’t make a pass at her, kiddy. She’s just a kid and after all, Bonard is doing us a favor.”
“Stop it. What you think I am, a slob?”
Sid winked. “I merely think you’re like me, not made of stone.”
I was happy with my work that afternoon. While Sid’s figure was mechanical and stiff, mine held a certain flowing movement—the clay seemed to come alive in my hands. When it grew dark and we stopped, Bonard said to Sid, “Your work looks like a human being, not a cow. That can be called progress, I suppose.” Looking at my figure, he added, “You have the lines of the legs very well.”
“Marshal Rodin, Jr.,” Sid said, curtly.
It was too muggy that night to sleep. The damn barn seemed full of the chatter of mice, the musty odor of hay. Bonard was snoring like a motor, and in the middle of the night I heard Sid get up and leave the barn. He accidentally awoke me when he returned and I asked, “Cooler outside?”
“Yeah,” Sid said sleepily.
Putting on pants and shoes, I stepped outside. The weeds and grass around the barn were high—it was easy to see where Sid had walked—the trampled grass led straight to Yvonne’s window. There was enough moonlight to see her—wearing a thin slip—stretched out on the straw, eyes open. She was slowly eating a candy bar. Sid had come prepared.
We stared at each other for a moment, then she came noiselessly to the window. I whispered in my best French that she was beautiful.
A tiny smile gave her face a Madonna quality.
I suddenly took her in my arms and she kissed me hard, then pulled away, shaking her head and saying, “Fini, fini.”
I blew a kiss at her like a fool and walked away… jealously wondering if Sid had been with her, thinking what a lousy thing it was to do… and wanting her something fierce.
On Saturday I couldn’t keep my mind on sculpting, Yvonne’s skinny body seemed to take on sensuous curves. My fingers were listless and Bonard ranted and raved. Sid did better, had luck with the head and face. Yvonne had the same blank expression on her face, although Sid and I tried to joke with her at lunch.
After supper I went to the musette bag we were sharing and all the candy bars were gone. When I asked Sid, he acted surprised, said, “I got hungry, ate them. Why?”
“You dirty bastard 1” I said, and walked out of the barn.
I was too angry to sleep. Sid got up as soon as Bonard started to snore. I waited a moment, then followed him. He was at the window, giving Yvonne five bars of candy, when I said, “Damn it, she’s only a child!”
He spun around. “That’s why I’m giving her candy. I never touched…”
“Bull! She Bonard’s great-grandchild and you have to mess up like a dog in heat!”
“Take it easy, Marsh. I didn’t do a damn thing… but how come you’re out here? What did you want the candy for, kiddy?”
Yvonne was eating the candy, watching us without interest.
“I came out to protect the kid.”
Yvonne held a finger to her lips for silence.
I whispered, “I’m going to beat the slop out of you! Raping this…”
“Stop talking like a jerk. No point fighting, nothing happened,” Sid said. “And let’s get away from here, before we wake the old gent.”
We walked out to the road and I suddenly turned and measured Sid, swung on him.
The night turned very dark and when I came to, I saw Sid’s thin face over me, wet with tears. I was lying with my head in his lap. He moaned, “Marsh! Thank God you’re alive!”
I sat up, my head spinning, felt of my jaw… I’d forgotten how he could punch.
Sid was still crying. “I could cut off my hand! Marsh, you’re my best pal and I slugged you, you with your concussion…!”
“That was years ago,” I said, standing up, brushing myself off.
Sid jumped to his feet. “Honest, Marsh, you feel okay?”
“Sure,” I said, rubbing my jaw. “Must have been nuts to swing on you, way you wallop.”
Sid began laughing so hard he started to cry again. “Marsh, you scared the living crap out of me. I thought you were dead! And listen, I never laid the kid. That’s the truth.”
I wanted to grin but my jaw hurt. “I know. I couldn’t get no place with her last night, either. Now let’s get some sleep and stop acting like dopes.”
We worked till late Sunday afternoon and Bonard was fairly happy with my work—I thought it was great. As we were dressing to go back to the hotel, he said, “About Yvonne, I am glad you both acted with honor. For the sake of my family and your health. Watch.”
We were sipping the last of the alleged cognac, and Yvonne was nibbling those horrible K-ration crackers that tasted like dog biscuits. Bonard opened a sharp little gold pen knife and handed it to her, then tossed part of a cracker in a corner of the barn. He held up a hand for silence, pointing toward the cracker.
I thought he was off his rocker, but after a few minutes a gray rat came out and sniffed at the cracker, Yvonne suddenly threw the knife—a clean expert motion—the blade went through .the rat, pinning him to the rotten floor.
We stared at the tiny pool of dark blood forming under the rat, who thrashed about for a second and then quietly died. It was a hell of a knife throw. I glanced at Sid and he was sweating too. I mumbled, “This is a rough war.”
Sid said, “M-Marsh, you saved my life…. Why we could of been killed!”
With the invasion of Germany we moved out of Paris and for a time were soldiers again, sleeping in tents, eating out of mess kits. We even rushed into the Battle of the Bulge—after a few hours of frantic carbine practice—but got there too late.
When the war was over I didn’t exactly know what I wanted to do. I would have liked to stay overseas as long as possible, but I couldn’t bring myself to sign up for the occupation army, so I was sent to a repple-depple in the south of France, and there was little chance of getting to Paris. I made a half-hearted attempt to get a job as a truck driver with the Red Cross, so I could be discharged overseas, but nothing came of it.
The repple-depple was crowded, noisy, and uncomfortable, and being among combat soldiers made me a little ashamed. Sid was sent back to the States in October, 194S. Although I had enough points to get out—I’d been in longer than most of the other men—I kept trying to get back to Paris on some sort of assignment. There was talk about going to a French college under the G.I. Bill, but nobody at the camp knew how to go about it, and it ended up as a latrine rumor. There wasn’t any privacy in the camp and I couldn’t do any sculpting. Finally, in December, I was fed up with the damp cold, stopped ducking shipping lists, and returned to the States. I didn’t bother with a leave, but was sent back to Dix and discharged.
I hadn’t been a soldier, merely a tourist with corporal stripes.
Mary Jane was living in a large four-room apartment in Flushing. She had spent several years working in an aircraft instrument plant, had over two grand in the bank besides a lot of new furniture. Mary looked swell, slim and even a bit sophisticated. For a few weeks we just hung around the apartment, doing a lot of bottle and bed work. I thought for a time we might make a go of it, but things wore thin again. We simply didn’t have anything in common.
For the hell of it I saw Kimball once and that turned out to be a disappointing evening—now she was an elderly woman with wrinkles and dyed hair, trying so desperately hard to be young and gay. New York had been one big Smorgasbord table for Kimball during the war years, and she was bubbling over with stories about all the soldiers she had been “friends with.” Somehow the stories seemed old hat to me.
For many months I didn’t do a thing but sleep a lot, lounge around the apartment, write to Bonard, tell myself that “tomorrow I’ll start sketching, maybe buy clay…”
Mary Jane gave me a wise, patronizing look, as though I’d just been released from a nut-house and had to be humored. One of the current myths of the time was that all soldiers needed “adjustment and readjustment.” It was true I was trying to find myself, but the war had nothing to do with it.
I didn’t see Sid for awhile and when we did meet he had changed, no longer wanted to slug somebody after a few shots to demonstrate his punch. He was about to marry a “nice” young girl and work in his in-law’s big hardware office. He had paid a thousand under the table for a small apartment in the Village, was going to art school at night, suggested I do the same under the G.I. Bill.
I finally purchased some clay and tools, tried my hand at carving wood—for some stupid reason—and became thoroughly discouraged. I felt too unsettled to do anything for any length of time. I was sending Bonard CARE packages and he wrote once, but his French scrawl was too much for me.
1946 slipped by and we were broke. In ’47, Mary tried to get work in an aircraft instrument factory, but they weren’t hiring women. She took out her anger with a week’s drunk, being sick most of the time, then went back to office work. She began making cracks about me getting off my rear—we couldn’t live on her pay—and of course she was right.
Kimball was opening her own agency, having rooked Barrett out of two of his best accounts, and gave me a job doing layout. Little things annoyed me, like having to shave every day, wear a fresh shirt and tie each morning… I didn’t have the heart any more for this rat race. I gave it up after a month and went back to my old real estate office, and into the soft routine of collecting rents. With apartments as hard to find as uranium, people were paying their rent promptly, not asking for repairs, so the job was even more of a comfortable rut than before. Although with no repairs, the petty graft was out.
I spent a lot of time at Sid’s place, sometimes making a pest of myself. I mean, after all, they only had a two-room place. And if I didn’t come home till early morning, or stayed out all night, Mary J. never complained, and that made me feel like a heel. Sometimes I’d try to be a good husband to her, but no dice. I always had this restless feeling, as though waiting for something to happen. And seeing the headlines didn’t make me feel any better. Seemed to me the war had been a waste of time, the Nazis were being released as though killing of thousands of people had been as dangerous as passing a red light. Everything had been a waste of time, so far, especially my life.
I got a sudden desire to go home and, to my surprise, Mary thought that was a good idea, and when I got my vacation, I went back to Kentucky.
My answer wasn’t there.
Somehow I expected a big change, but nothing had changed, it was like stepping back into my life. Mom looked the same, as if she had grown as old as she ever would while she was young. Pop still looked as though a light breeze would carry him off. I had a new sister who was five years old, the mill was still the mill. Home was still a shack—a shack with a radio and electric toaster and even an electric heater. My oldest brother had left part of his toes in the cold of Dutch Harbor, and another brother had decided to stay in the army and was in Japan.
I was still glad to get away from home.
When I returned to New York, Sid told me he had heard from a friend in Paris that Bonard had died. That was a shock, a kick in the heart. The death of this old wino, this great liar, really upset me. Over a brace of drinks I took stock of one Marshal Jameson and the inventory wasn’t much. Bonard’s death made me realize life was rushing by and I was still not doing anything I wanted to, cared about. I was getting past the “young man” stage and it was about time I stopped being a bum.
I staggered home about three in the morning, sat on the bed and awoke Mary, told her, “Baby, this is all cockeyed—been wrong from the start. No sense holding on to a vacuum. I want out.”
“You mean, we should separate?”
“Will you give me a divorce?”
“Of course. That’s the best thing I can give you.”
“Marsh,” she asked slowly. “Are you sure it won’t… hurt you?”
“Be good medicine for the both of us. When do you want to see a lawyer, get this going and…?”
Mary must have seen the surprise on my face. I’d expected a lot of hysterics and screaming, and oddly enough, Mary Jane was still so helpless, I couldn’t bring myself to hurt her.
Now she said, her voice low and clear in the still room, “I know we haven’t been happy. But I didn’t want to be the one to bring things to a head. I knew you’d been through a lot in the war and I felt…”
“Stop it, I wasn’t a hero. The war was a breeze for me.”
“Marsh, are you sure you can make out okay—alone? I owe you that, at least.”
“Don’t worry about me. God, you don’t owe me anything. I’m the one who owes. What will you do?”
“I’ll see a lawyer in the morning. I think you should sleep on the couch from now on.”
“Sure. You can have the apartment, everything we have. And thanks for taking all this so… bravely.”
“Marsh, this is as good a time as any to tell you. And I meant to tell you, no sneaky stuff, understand. I met a guy during the war. Alfred…”
“Don’t be angry, I was all alone and worried and… well, there was Alfred. I still see him. He wants to marry me. He’s a mechanic, got his own garage now in Jamaica. I would have told you sooner, but at first you were just back from overseas and I couldn’t tell you, and then you seemed so… so… upset, I didn’t want to do anything to… make you sick. Marsh, I know it was wrong to…”
“It wasn’t wrong. What we were doing was the wrong thing—all this pretending. Marry this Alfred, Mary. Have a houseful of kids and be happy,” I said, getting up.
“Marsh, you really don’t mind?”
“Everything’s all right.” And that night I slept on the couch and pounded my ear like I was drugged, the best sleep I’d had in years.
Four months later Mary got her final decree and remarried. Alfred was a stocky, plodding-type, joker about thirty-five, and rather handsome, even with a bald dome.
At one of Sid’s parties I’d met a Mexican girl, Ofelia, who had ideas about making marionettes and going on TV. She had a good singing voice, wasn’t a bad actress. I was to make the marionettes. Ofelia was exciting in a sort of nervous way—I never knew what she’d do next. She had a furious temper and was always biting me. The second time I saw her we ended up between the sheets, and she was nervous there, too. She agreed to be the corespondent in our divorce, and we even thought it was rather clever to go to Mary Jane’s wedding, where Ofelia was the center of attraction, by dint of passing out.
I gave up my real estate job and moved into a loft Ofelia had made over into an apartment, without much success. I spent all my time experimenting with marionettes, and couldn’t make them. They either looked awful, were out of proportion, or didn’t work. Ofelia and I began screaming at each other about money, borrowing from all our friends. Finally we were busted and we both got jobs in a factory, and Ofelia started seeing a psycho-analyst, who advised her to get the hell away from me.
I found a crummy room and was bored by factory work. I decided there wasn’t any sense in letting the G.I. Bill go to waste, so I enrolled at N.Y.U. to get my degree. I managed to finish a year, but living on $75 a month was tough, and I always had the feeling college was unreal—a time killer. Somehow it was silly for a guy of twenty-eight to be acting like a school-boy. And what good would a B.A. do me?
I tried to change to art school, which made more sense, but they were filled up. So I stayed at school and thought about starting with clay again, but never got past the thinking stage. For one thing I couldn’t spare the extra bucks. I tried not to hang around Sid’s too much. Sometimes I saw Kimball, mainly when I wanted a decent meal. Kimball was okay, she’d even give me a ten spot when I looked too beat—without a pep talk.
During the following summer I decided to take a vacation from school, meaning no more subsistence money. I got Kimball to buy me a few shirts and took a job as a temporary salesman in one of the big department stores. The place was air-cooled, and not a bad way to spend the summer. I stole paints and brushes from the art counter and did some work.
Sid had bought this shack out at Sandyhook and when I went out there for a week-end, I fell in love with the place. It was a real artists’ colony, even had a natural red-clay pit and the clay could be used, if you kept wetting it. There was a beach within walking distance, fine fishing and swimming, and at night a lot of characters anxious to drink and shoot the breeze.
That week-end made me snap out of my daze. I decided I was going to be a sculptor, no matter if I starved. I wasn’t eating too regularly anyway. Sculpting was the one thing in life I wanted to do and I was going to give myself a crack at it, stop drifting around. Sid was leaving the place in September and when I asked if I could stay there, he said, “You’re welcome to it, Marsh, only… be rough. No heat or hot water. I don’t even know if they keep the electricity on in these shacks during the winter.”
“I’ll manage. I figure I can live on a buck a day. I want to try it for six months. Save like crazy during the summer, maybe get a night job, too. Then I’ll go back to school for a month, get that $75 check. If I can start out with about $250—I’ll be in.”—
I got an evening job as a bus boy, which meant I didn’t have to pay for my meals. The summer passed in a haze of work, sweating, penny-pinching, and little sleep. But I enjoyed it, I was happy, I was working towards something, had a goal, a purpose. During September I managed to hold on to my two jobs and enroll at college—cutting most of my classes, so that when I went out to Sandyhook the first week in October I had nearly $300.
I spent over seventy bucks for a small oil heater, a hot plate, lead pipes for armatures—to support the figures I’d make, wire, cutters, proportional calipers, and other tools, along with a book on anatomy and a plaster female figure for study.
October was a mild month and I dug up pails of clay and went to work. I was pushing myself, trying to knock out a major work in my first attempt… with the result I developed a very trite idea. I tried doing a small tableau to be called, Mankind, which would have as a base a woman on her stomach and trying to get up, and a man stepping on her back, then part of a leg and a high-heeled slipper on his back—with a section of a man’s foot on the knee of this leg. Sure, it was obvious, a corny piece of cynicism, but for some reason I liked the idea and worked hard at it. Didn’t bother with sketches or models, just started working on what I was certain would be a “masterpiece.”
October was a good month. I caught up on all the sleep I’d missed during the summer by not getting up till noon. I’d work all afternoon—long as the light held—then go down to the beach for surf casting. Evenings I’d listen to the radio, read, or drop in on the Alvins.
Tony and Alice Alvins were local people who had been influenced by the summer invasion of artists. Tony started doing some bad water-color abstractions, while Alice turned writer and, after doing a trashy novel, she threw it away and started a long book about the Long Island Indians— which was rather good, in spots. They had a comfortable all-year-round house and Tony worked at the Grumman Aircraft factory and made a good salary.
I guess they were glad to have me around: Sandyhook is pretty isolated and lonely in the winter. I’d drop in and bull with them about art, Paris, the Village, and the world in general. Tony had been a combat man, had a Purple Heart, and we often talked about the European towns we’d both been in.
It got so I’d barge in without ringing their bell, get a beer out of the icebox, thumb through their newspapers and magazines, even read Alice’s novel over her shoulder as she typed. I’d bring them fish, and sometimes a bottle of rye.
There’s such a thing as being too intimate and two petty things came up that ruined our friendship—for me, at least. One day when I was in their house and Alice was out shopping and Tony at work, I was searching through his desk for a pipe cleaner, when I came upon a Luger in one of the drawers. I admired the deadly beauty of the gun, left it where I’d found it. Later, when I casually mentioned it to Tony, he got angry, snapped, “Thought I had that hidden away. Don’t see why you had to snoop around and…”
“Sorry. I wasn’t snooping,” I said, stiffly. “Well, I don’t like people to know about me having a gun.”
“I certainly won’t go around blabbing about it I know it’s against the law and…”
“I have a permit,” Tony said. “It’s… the gun brings back a lot of unpleasant memories. I took it off a dead Nazi—guy I killed. The point is I might have captured the guy alive, but it was in my first combat and I was trigger-souvenir-happy… Well, forget it. Gun means things to me other people can’t understand and… Just forget it.”
“Sure, I never saw it,” I said, still angry.
Several weeks later we were sitting around the table after I had helped them put away a duck supper and Alice was talking about the summer colony—some of the people had sent her cards from Mexico. She said, “They have money to travel, but out here they’re nothing but spongers. They’ll eat you out of house and home and never even think about reciprocating.”
I’m sure she didn’t mean that as a dig at me, but it made me uncomfortable, as though I’d outlasted my welcome. From then on I only saw them once or twice a week, instead of every day, never stayed for supper or took a drink. Tony and Alice didn’t seem to notice the difference, so maybe it was a hint.
My troubles started in November when Nature lowered the boom on me. It got so cold the water pipes busted and it cost me twenty bucks to have them fixed, and after that I had to keep the water running all the time and the noise drove me crazy. I’d spent far too much money—I had less than a hundred dollars left—so I began cutting down on everything, eating lots of starches and fish. I found a kerosene lamp in one of the empty cottages and used that to save electricity. My radio broke and I didn’t bother to fix it. As it grew colder I became a hermit. I’d get up in the morning, force myself to leave the warm blankets. Not wanting to buy oil, I’d made a stove out of some tin cans and I’d run around the beach to find driftwood, and any frozen fish, then dash back to my shack and start the wood fire going.
I’d stuff the door and windows with paper to keep the cold out, and by early afternoon the place would be comfortably warm and I’d start working. By six it would begin to grow dark and I’d knock off. But I stayed in the shack, for to open the door would let out all my precious heat. I’d eat fish and a can of beans, then huddle around the kerosene lamp and read anything I could find—usually this old World Almanac, then climb into my bed, the stuffy air giving me a headache.
Actually I was bored stiff with myself. I knew my “masterpiece” was junk, but I wanted to finish it. The only thing that gave me any confidence was a piece I did of two dogs mounting each other. I saw them on the beach one day, did a quick sketch of them, and later did it in clay as a gag. I’d really caught their movements, and as it turned out, it was the best work I did during those months.
The damn weather turned colder and colder. The clay froze and I had to keep washing it down with a hot damp rag before it was workable. During the second week in December my armature broke and the figure dropped to the floor. Being hard and frozen, the clay broke into a million pieces and… that was that.
I felt trapped. I couldn’t go back to New York—I didn’t have enough money for carfare and a room, so I started working again, but everything went screwy. Most times I was so hungry I couldn’t think of anything but food. Like a pregnant woman, I’d get a driving yen for a steak or a soda, or a drink, and sometimes I’d give in—go to the tavern, have a few shots, watch TV, feel warm and almost human again.
By Christmas I had less than $20 and spent a lot of time on the beach, bundled up in all the clothing I had, picking up frozen fish. I must have eaten fish and beans in every form possible, including a few I invented. I was sick of fish, of the cold, of myself, of being alone. The Alvins asked me over for Christmas dinner, and for some crazy reason I refused—and felt good about it.
I hung around my shack as though it was a jail. I felt completely frustrated, getting no place. Sometimes I told myself I had to start from scratch, remembered Bonard’s long conversations about a sculptor knowing as much about the body as a doctor. I’d read my anatomy book, then spent long hours studying my facial muscles in the mirror, or feeling the muscles in my arms and legs… and often wondered if I wasn’t going mad.
I’d put my money in a postal savings account, so I wouldn’t piss it away. On December 31 I had a dollar and seventy cents in cash on me, and seven bucks in the saving account. It was rainy and windy, the water running in the sink seemed to be streaming through my brain, and I couldn’t get the damn shack warm. While trying to find driftwood, ‘I stopped and had a few beers. Then I drank some raisin wine I had aging, but it didn’t do any good. I tried fooling with some clay but it was too cold to work. I was ready to admit I was licked… I wasn’t a sculptor, I wasn’t anything but a jerk.
While I heated a pan of water, so I could wash and shave and get out of there, my inner mind kept calmly telling me I had to stick it out, that all my life I’d run from things… that I really hadn’t given myself a chance to see if I had any ability.
But I knew I couldn’t take it any longer, at least not that night. New Year’s Eve never meant a damn to me, but now I had this terrific longing to see people, to be around noise and lights, and I knew I’d really blow my top if I spent another hour in the gloomy shack. I washed and dressed and as I walked toward the road I passed Tony coming home with an armful of packages. He asked, “What time you coming over tonight?”
“Can’t make it. Got something on in the city.”
“Oh. We were sort of counting on you—the three of us tying one on. How’s the work coming?”
“Great! Happy New Year!” I said, walking on. The goddamn wind nearly tore me apart as I walked to the highway. I stood there, bending to the wind, when I saw this sleek roadster coming and gave it the thumb.
To my surprise it stopped. The driver was a young fellow wearing a tux and I sat down beside him, on my way to New York… to nothing.
I’d blacked out. Now, when I opened my eyes, for a time I didn’t know where I was. I stared up at this old boxlike wooden private house and the little garage with the angular roof. All I could see was the ugly square of the house, the sharp roof of the garage. I wanted to see soft curves… it was horrible to realize these dull, conventional designs, this stupid scene, might be my final picture of our earth.
The pain was so absolutely complete it drowned out everything else; I didn’t feel it—didn’t feel a damn thing. The burning bullet hole in my stomach seemed like part of a different body, vaguely connected to the rest of me. I knew I was bleeding badly, hanging on to life by a thread, corny as that may sound. Only when you’re dying nothing seems trite or real, or matters overmuch. In fact, it’s difficult to believe you are dying or…
Logan asked, “What is this?”
I shut my eyes.
First the square house and now his face coming into focus—a face so average as to represent all the ugliness of life, a memo of all things banal. It was comical—after all these hustling years, I had to end up a horrid bloody mess in a Bronx back yard.
I still had one thing to do, see Elma again, explain it all to her. Elma baby, I gave it all I had, but it wasn’t enough, not nearly enough to…
Hearing the rustle of clothing, I opened my eyes. Logan had his belt and tie off, was bending over me, blotting out the sky. He seemed to be fooling with my guts.
“Trying to get a tourniquet around your thighs,” he said. “Want you alive till the cops get here, so you can explain….”
“Listen,” I said, and it was a great big effort to speak. “Hell with cops. Get my… my… wife. Phone is… Sandyhook… 7… 3… 6. Riverhead operator… Long Island. Mrs. Elma Jameson. Have to… hurry.”
He straightened up. His face looked overbig as he shook his head slowly, repeating, “Mrs. Elma Jameson, Sandyhook.. L.I.?”
I tried to nod, gave that up.
Getting to his feet, he said, “Damn, this sure is…”
“Come on… hurry…!”
He said, “Yeah, that’s best,” and left.
What does a dying man think about? Above the house I saw the sky all a clean blue, and the sun out somewheres. Elma be at the beach, take her at least an hour’s fast driving to reach me. How could I explain all this to her? What would I say, what made sense? Elma, because I’m so wonderfully crazy in love with you I killed a man, tried to murder this private detective…?
That sounded so melodramatic I wanted to laugh. Oh God, my poor Elma, the headlines would crucify her. If I could only save her from that, or…
The dick was looking down at me again, the uninteresting lines of his clean-cut face. There was a change in his eyes, they held a different sort of puzzled look. He said, “Broke into this house, found a phone. Your wife’s on her way. Damn it, why did you go for your gun? Guns are my line, what I’m good at—you didn’t have a chance, Mr. Jameson.”
MISTER Jameson! This was a respectful dick, this goddamn snooping bird-dog who’d been sticking his nose into my life these last few months. The crummy things men do for money, for a job.
“If you only hadn’t pulled a gun…?”
“Had to,” I told him, my voice like a distant echo. “You were closing the trap on me. Did… lot of trapping… when I was a kid in Kentucky. Used to catch… Will I last till Elma gets here?”
“You’re bleeding like a pig but that tourniquet seems to be holding… some. I sure hope you last, Mr. Jameson, till she gets here—or the cops. Christ—the cops!” He began to sweat, it ran down his lean face in big glistening drops.
His wet face disappeared from view. I stared up at the wash-blue sky. Everything was so quiet and peaceful— the only sound was the steady throbbing of my heart, even that was a small sound.
My life was being pumped out in this forgotten Bronx alley… That was okay with me—only Elma would get here a few seconds before that marvelous little machine they called a heart, stopped.
The thought hit me hard…. Suppose I didn’t die? That would be a worse mess… the trial, the chair… all be so stupid. Perhaps if I could get the tourniquet loose….
I tried to sit up, tried to raise my arms…
athick black wave washed over me….
… Kept washing over me, as though I was lying on a dark beach….
I heard somebody cursing, quick little cuss-words. I could hear them distinctly because everything else was so quiet… but the words sounded as though they were filtered through a heavy screen.
It took time to open my eyes. The air seemed a little thick, misty, smelted oversweet. I got Logan in focus. He was bending over me… doing something to my wrist… then he was smashing it and my wrist-watch against the cold stone sidewalk. He squatted beside me, asked, “Mr. Jameson, can you hear me?”
“Get this, I’m giving you a break and it can mean my neck. Remember this, Mr. Jameson, you got shot NOW, busted your watch when you fell. Got that, not a half hour ago but NOW, Mr. Jameson?”
“Yes,” I had to swallow a few times to clear the thick air out of my throat. It was an absurd comedy—he’d just shot me and he was so-so polite.
“Remember that. I’m calling the cops now, an ambulance, so…”
“I thought you… called…?”
“Mr. Jameson, guess you won’t be in no shape to say much, but keep remembering you got shot now. I’m going to slip the cops a phony yarn. After I called Mrs. Jameson I fell off the chair in my excitement and ripped the phone out of the wall. It’s just a silly enough yarn to hold up. Stupid me, an accident, see? I don’t know where I’ll find another phone around here, take me time. But I’m going now to phone the cops. I’m giving you a break. Want your wife to get here before the cops do. Then we’ll see. Mr. Jameson, buddy, you got to understand how I’m sticking my neck out. I can be in a holy mess of trouble, real trouble, but I’m doing this for you. Understand?”
“Thanks,” I said, not knowing what he was talking about.
“All you got to do is hold on, live till Mrs. Jameson gets here. Mean, I couldn’t say much over the phone and…”
“I’ll live… till Elma comes,” I said, wishing he would go away. When you have minutes left in life, no point in wasting them talking to a stranger.
Something was wrong with Logan, he looked worried, still sweating. I could see him pretty clear through the thick air. He’d nothing to be afraid of, shot me in self-defense… that clumsy, long gun barrel.
I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer, the lids were too heavy. As I closed them, he said something. I felt him walking away, feeling the jar of each of his steps on the stone—shaking me a bit.
I felt all soft and weak, terribly lazy. The only thing that kept me from drifting away on the dark wave was the throbbing of my heart, which seemed to nail me to the spot.
I wondered how long it would hold me there. “Elma, Elma,” I said to myself, and how beautiful the mere sound of her name was! “Darling… hurry… please.”
NEW YEAR’S DAY WAS bright and sharp.
I awoke with the sun across our bed. I sat up and looked at my watch—it was 11 a.m. Why I should look at my watch the first thing, I don’t know. Habit is no answer—I’d never been in a hurry to go any place. It took me a second to realize Elma wasn’t in bed with me. Calling her name, I quickly ran my hand under the pillow—and felt ashamed— the money was still there.
“Taking a bath, Marsh,” she said.
I should have known she hadn’t gone—her clothes were still on the chair, where I’d flung them. Getting out of bed, I stretched and went to the window. It felt fine to be standing in the nude, looking down at New York. I wondered why nobody had ever tried doing the skyscrapers in wire. Maybe some day I’d try it, although I hadn’t worked in wire much.
The rain had changed to snow during the night and there was still some clean white snow on the rooftops. Be muddy and slushy in the streets. Maybe I could find a shoe store open—or get a pair of rubbers in a cigar-store.
Pushing the bathroom door open, I waved to Elma and sat on the John… watching the graceful line the water made at her breasts, the curve of her hips and legs under the soapy water… the little islands her raised knees made. And of course the wonderful face, the odd eyes, the dark hair, and that big-mouthed smile.
Elma said, “Good morning. Good New Year’s morning, honey.”
I went over and kissed her and she put a hot wet arm around my neck. I whispered, “Elma, we have a lot of talking to do.”
She smiled. “But not in the tub.” She knocked the stopper out with her toes, held out her hand. “I’ll run your bath.”
I helped her stand up, took a towel and started to dry her. I must have been staring at her stomach, which seemed normally round, for she said, “Stop staring like an X-ray machine. He and/or she is in there. I’ll start getting big about now.”
I kissed the cool, smooth skin of her belly. “Hello in there. You’re going to be our child,” I said, and I meant it. For some reason I was almost pleased she was pregnant, as though it was an unbreakable bond between us.
Elma rubbed her stomach against my nose, said, “I’m starved. We’ll eat and then we’ll talk.” She stepped out of the tub. Her long legs made her a few inches taller than I was.
I finished drying her, gently pressed her against my chest. “Elma, maybe this doesn’t make sense. Sounds like a confession story, but we haven’t known each other twenty-four hours, yet I’m in love with you. Very much and very honestly in love with you.”
“I know, Marsh, and it doesn’t matter if it makes sense or not, it adds up for us. I’m so happy and contented when I’m with you. That must be love.”
“Who knows what love is? Or cares? Whatever we feel, it’s great. Look, Elma, is it okay to…?”
“The books say it’s healthy and normal up to the last two months. Shall we go back to bed?”
Kissing her I whispered, “Yeah, in a minute. Right now I have to… Get out of the bathroom, we’re not that much of a married couple, yet!” I shoved her out, shut the door, and urinated like a wild horse.
Around noon, we took a shower together, playing around like a couple of backward kids. We paid for the room for another night, went out and had a terrific breakfast.
It was sunny but cold out and the streets not too wet. Elma said, “Let’s take a walk—along Fifth Avenue. Or a bus ride.”
We walked up the, Avenue and after awhile she started talking about her husband, talking very calmly. She said, “I’m a Norwegian. Got some Lapp in me—accounts for the eyes. My…”
“Good for the Lapps!”
“My father brought me to Canada when I was a baby, after my mother died. He had a sister living in Toronto. He was killed in a truck accident when I was a youngster. I lived with my aunt’s family and came to the States a few years ago—to get a job, finish college. I always thought I was a Canadian citizen, but actually I’m not. For some reason, father never became a citizen and…”
“Forget all that. What about your husband?” I asked impatiently.
“But this is all a part of it. I worked in Detroit for a year, then came to New York, where I found a job with this record company. Mac—my husband’s name is Maxwell —isn’t a bad sort. But he’s weak. He comes from a rich— not really rich but very comfortable—family. Mac’s father died a long time ago and he’s the apple of his mother’s eye—real silver-cord stuff. His mama has a chain of jewelry and accessory shops in New Jersey. Mac began playing the clarinet when a kid, went to Juilliard but didn’t graduate. He tried out for classical orchestras, but that’s a tough grind. Then he began playing dates with a few minor jazz bands. When I met him he was on an arranging kick. Mac was…”
“He was making arrangements for some of the smaller bands. That’s another tough racket to get ahead in. Trouble with Mac is, he just can’t be an ordinary musician, and he hasn’t enough guts to really work and study to be an above-average music man. Anyway, the record company had a house band that used to back up the lesser known singers. Mac hung around, did some arrangements for them. He had to work cheap and this company—they cut every corner in the game. That’s how we met. I suppose I felt sorry for him —he was making a fight to stay out of his mother’s shops, trying to be on his own, doing what he wanted in life. Only he was losing the fight. The record outfit was tight with wages and long on profits, so when a union showed its head, Mac and I helped organize the place. There was a strike, we lost, and I got the bounce. The day we lost the strike, Mac and I were married, went on a short honeymoon. We were happy, I guess, but when he took me to New Jersey to meet mama—the roof came down on everything. Mama didn’t like me—to put it mildly. She hated my guts.”
“She must be a loon.”
Elma shrugged. “I don’t think she’d like any wife of Mac’s; still thought of him as her little boy belonging only to her. In…”
“I know the type.”
“In my case she palmed it off on the grounds that we were of different religions. Mama had been lonely most of her life, turned to religion, and became a sort of fanatic. Anyway, it gave her a basis for undermining our marriage. As it happens, I believe you can worship God any way you wish, so I have little… eh… formal religion and I’d have been willing to change that to hers, but in the old lady’s eyes that wouldn’t do much good. Besides, it was on this point that Mac decided to take a stand—a great, big mad-as-hell stand.”
“Good for him.”
“No, it was his way of ducking the real issue—mama. Mac is one of these persons who fight like the devil on little things, and run from the big ones. By the way, Marsh, are you religious?”
“Yeah, I worship you.”
“Seriously, we might as well iron this out before…”
“Relax, Elma, I feel the way you do—let each person communicate with God, or their God, as they wish. And if a person doesn’t believe in a divine power, that’s his business. All I ask of a person is not to be a hypocrite. But let’s get on with you and dear Maxwell.”
Elma stared at me with puzzled eyes for a moment. “Marsh,” we’ve known each other so few hours, I don’t know when you’re kidding me or not.”
I squeezed her hand. “Honey, one thing you can always know for sure—I’d never do anything to hurt you. Nor do I think you’d ever try to hurt me.” I suddenly laughed—to cover up my embarrassment at being so frank. “Now we sound like a couple of mooning school kids,” I added. “But don’t start old blabbermouth me talking, I want to do the listening.”
“All right, I’ll talk you deaf and dumb,” Elma said. “I didn’t take Mac’s mother too seriously at first, thought it was the usual case of mother-in-law trouble. And Mac, in making his big pitch about religious freedom and all that, almost talked back to mama—for the first time in his life. We lived together for several months and I assumed mama had gotten over the shock that her little boy was now a husband. Living in New York, we didn’t see her often anyway. But the old woman was merely lying back in the woods, waiting to ambush me. Since both Mac and I were out of work, we had money troubles, but I got a job as a salesgirl and Mac still had his union card and picked up a couple of recording dates, so we were eating. One Sunday mama paid us a pop call and was shocked at our living in a furnished room. She said Mac should come home and run their Newark store, maybe I could work there too. She even had a big furnished apartment lined up for us. We accepted. Our big error.”
“Why? Sounds like a good deal.”
“It was wrong from all angles. Mama had Mac in her grip again, a double grip, because she had him tightly by the purse hairs now, too. And poor Mac, it knocked whatever little self-confidence he had smack out of him. He always hated being a storekeeper, some sort of phony conception of his being an artist, all that bunk and snob-appeal. So when we got our fancy apartment in North Bergen, a car, started to learn the ropes of the store… well, the more we got, the more Mac’s ego began dragging on the ground; it was all a kind of surrender—to him—that finished him as a man. Maybe you can’t see the picture, since you don’t know Mac.”
I said, “Seems to me the guy is crying with a loaf of bread in his kisser.”
Elma shrugged again. “Could be this is all rationalizing on my part, to build up my own ego, own explanation for a wrong marriage. Point is, by this time I realized what a weakling Mac was—where mama was concerned—but I thought I could snap him out of it. But the more he worked in the store, more sour he became, started drinking. As it happened, we were making a success of the store, so I suggested I might be able to handle the store alone and he could go back to arranging. That might have worked, but the baby changed all that.”
She stopped talking and after we’d walked a block and she kept staring ahead as though I wasn’t there, I finally asked, “What about the baby?”
“I don’t know quite how to explain Mac and the baby. Either the thought of being a father scared him silly—he’d always ducked any ‘responsibilities’—which was a fancy name for anything he didn’t want to do, or maybe he was tired of me… or tired of battling mama. I’ve tried to think it out, but can’t. Seems he was seeing mama daily, without my knowing it. Anyway, when I first thought I was pregnant, Mac seemed happy about it, but a week later when the doctor assured me I was going to have a baby… Mac suddenly said I had to do away with it because mama couldn’t stand a baby being brought up by a person of a different religion. Mac arranged for an abortion and when I refused he got nasty, started slapping me. Even in that he was frustrated, I conked him with a jar of cold cream and left. I…”
“How long ago was that?”
“Over two months ago. I had a few bucks saved up, sold some jewelry… since then I’ve been living in a room, trying to get along as cheaply as I can. Reason why I was at the radio show last night, seeking free entertainment. That’s my story, and sometimes it all sounds like a bad dream, so stupid and pseudo-melodramatic, I can hardly believe it myself.”
“Except for the trimmings, it’s an old story. We’ll straighten this out in a hurry,” I said, wondering if she was telling me the truth. I could hardly believe any clown giving up a girl as pretty and intelligent as Elma merely because of mama. And carrying his child. “What I’d like us to do is go back to Sandyhook, which is very quiet and peaceful in the winter. If we pool our money, leaving about $500 for hospital expenses and doctors when the baby comes, we have $1,900. We can rent a decent house for less than sixty a month, it’s off season, buy some furniture for another few hundred. I still want to try my hand at sculpting, find out if I have it or not. Suppose we give it a try for six or seven months, or till the baby comes?”
“Sorry, Marsh, but it isn’t that simple.”
“Look, Elma, I won’t make a dime, I know that. But at the end of six months, whether I’ve found myself or not, well still have some bucks left, and I’ll get a job. Meantime, we’ll ask Mac for a divorce, get married and…”
“Marsh, you can try being a sculptor for as long as you wish. Money never worried me too much. I’m a good office worker, can always find a job. It isn’t that.”
“Of course I’ve assumed you want to marry me, but if…”
“Oh, Marsh, you know I do!”
“Then, honey, what is it? Won’t Mac give you a divorce?”
“He’d be only too glad to,” Elma said, her voice shaking. “It’s the…” She began to weep, soft gentle tears.
Hailing a cab, I told him to take us back to the hotel. I held Elma tightly, but she still cried. “Honey,” I asked, “what’s wrong? He’ll give you a divorce, and we’ll…”
“Marsh, he… he wants the baby!”
“But you just said he wanted you to have an a.b.”
“That’s it, he demands I either do away with it—and I won’t!—or I must give the baby to him. You see, this is another of his stands, his great goddamn stupid ego-bolster-ers. But it’s my baby and I’m not killing it or giving it up!”
I kissed her and laughed. “Honey, that all you’re upset about? All you have to do is go to court, tell the judge he wanted you to get an abortion… all this crap his mama was handing you… you’ll keep the baby.”
She shook her head, her face in pain. “No, Marsh, I’d lose in court. That’s where he has me over a barrel. I’m not a citizen: I’m in the country illegally, he could not only take the baby but also have me deported.”
“That’s ridiculous. Why any judge…”
“I wish it was ridiculous. They have another angle, my union activities. As a non-citizen… you know the rest. Mama thought up this angle, probably talked it over with a lawyer. Mac hinted as much. And the fact that I’m not even a Canadian citizen…”
“But that didn’t stop you from coming into the States?” I said, as though that proved anything.
“That was simple—then. I looked and talked like a Canadian, and I told them I was born in Toronto—which I really believed at the time. Why, I even voted up there. No, now under the McCarran Law they could stick me on Ellis Island and forget about me, throw away the key.”
“Stop talking like that. For Christsakes, this is the U.S.A., not a…”
“You stop talking like a jerk, Marsh. Mac even told me their lawyer assured them they could pin a moral turpitude charge on me because I lived with Mac for a week before we were married. As a non-citizen, illegally in the country, they can do almost anything they want to me, and I have no comeback. And imagine if they find out about us, why they’ll surely…”
I put my hand over her wonderful mouth. “I don’t want to hear any more stuff like that.”
“You may not want to hear it but…” she mumbled through my hand.
“We’ll talk to a lawyer first, then see…”
“I’ve already discussed my case with a society that aids non-citizens. They think I’d lose a court case… these days,” she said, her lips moving against my hand.
“I have a friend who knows some big lawyers. We’ll get their opinions. Why, seems to me when you tell this Mac you plan to get married, he’ll be glad to step out of your life, get off without a mess or…”
She shook her head. “Marsh, don’t you think I’ve exhausted every avenue, every out that…?”
I took my hand away, closed her mouth with a kiss. “Okay, no more worrying or thinking about it. Things have changed, Elma. There’s two of us, and we have some money. Now let’s stop all the guessing till I talk to a lawyer. Not another word.”
Elma nodded, found a handkerchief in her bag and ran it over her face. When we got back to the hotel, she said she was tired and stretched out on the bed. I went down to the lobby, called Kimball, asked her, “You know a good lawyer I can talk to? Not for free, either?”
“Sure, Marsh. Thought you were coming over last night? We balled till… What sort of a jam you in? Are you in the clink?”
“No. I’m going to get married to a girl I met last night and she’s having husband trouble. There’s a baby involved and I want to know where we stand.”
I heard Kimball gulp over the phone and finally she said, “Say that again.”
“I’m going to marry a girl I met yesterday, and she has a husband and a kid and… Aw, come on, Kimball.”
She laughed and I could almost smell the stale liquor on her breath over the phone. “Marsh, you’re wonderful. Never a dull…”
“Marion, this isn’t any laughing matter. I need to see a lawyer—now.”
“On New Year’s Day?”
“You’re a gal with influence. Can you swing it?”
“I ought to swing on you. I’ll call you back—soon as I pull myself together.”
Giving her the hotel number, I hung up. I bought some pipe tobacco, went up to our room. Elma was sleeping on top of the covers, in her slip. I stood by the bed, looking at her for a long time—liking what I saw.
I think even then the idea was already in the back of my mind, waiting to be said. For I knew I’d found the girl I’d always been looking for, and I’d be damned if I’d let any spoiled mama’s boy take her away!
I don’t know if I believed in fate or anything like that, but I had a hunch that with the money and everything, it was almost as if Elma and I had been fated to be together.
I touched the smooth skin of her shoulder and she slowly opened her almond eyes and stared up at me. I thought how fantastic it was that this girl, whose mother had lived in the Arctic, should now be in an off-Times Square hotel with me. Elma asked, “What are you thinking about, Marsh?”
“That I’d be crazy to let a spoiled brat like this Mac come between us.”
She smiled—those big lips that sent a charge through me —and I sat on the bed and kissed her and kissed her and she said, “Marsh, how I wish I’d met you before—wasn’t bringing you a dowry of trouble!”
“We’re not in trouble. And, honey, I’m so in love with you, I’m glad to just know you—under any conditions!”
We were kissing and kidding around when Kimball called back. She gave me a name and-a Central Park South address, said, “He’ll talk to you. No money, but buy him a box of cigars—real Havana. You really got money, kid?”
“A few bucks. Thanks, Marion.”
“All this stuff you told me before, that’s true? I mean, you’re not crocked or anything?”
“Sober as a church mouse.”
“Sounds wild as hell, but I hope you make it this time, Marsh. Really, I hope for you from the heart, Marsh.”
Elma wanted to see the lawyer with me, but I thought it best I go alone. I bought a box of cigars for fifteen bucks, took a cab up to see this lawyer.
It was a big, flashy apartment. A maid opened the door and I passed a tired-looking young woman with badly dyed red hair watching TV in a room. She was wearing a sheer robe and could have been the lawyer’s daughter—although I would have laid five to one she wasn’t.
He was a plump, hard-faced, elderly man with little pale blue veins showing in his thick nose. His face a sickly yellow contrast to his blue silk robe, he looked the picture of the morning-after. He thanked me for the cigars, talked about the weather. I didn’t know what Kimball had told him, but I seemed to amuse him, as though I was his favorite jester. That made me sore but I told him the story as calmly as I could.
He sat—sunk deep in his big chair—staring at the wall, half-asleep. When I finished he belched a bit, patted his potbelly, asked, “What you want with a babe already knocked up?”’
“You a lawyer or an advice-to-the-lovelorn columnist?”
He stared straight into my eyes for a moment, then sighed. “Okay, that’s your red wagon. I hereby give you my best considered legal advice: kid, they got you by the short hairs.”
“He can really take the baby, have her deported? Why, that’s… that’s unbelievable!”
“Fellow, don’t you read the papers, don’t you know what’s going on? In the old days a lawyer would take any case that came along, and in a way that’s how justice should work. Now, well I’d just be wasting my time defending your… girl. In my youth I used to think I’d be a Clarence Darrow… but that’s a long time ago.
“About our case?”
He shook his head. “No lawyer would take it to court, haven’t a chance in hell of winning.”
“But why? She hasn’t done anything criminal?”
“Fellow, she’s a non-citizen, that means they can deport her like this…” He was about to snap his thick fingers, but he belched again, added, ”… quick as that. She’s 100 per cent right, nail her for morals, and for being here illegally. Why, fellow, they get big shots for that, so figure out what chance your girl would have! Be a joke to even take her case to court.”
“Don’t be a comedian. What should we do?”
“Have the…” He belched again. “Damn stinking booze, always gives me lousy gas. Have the abortion. Always have kids with her later.”
“She won’t do that. Could she get the divorce now, battle over the baby afterwards?”
“No. Wanting the kid, he’d make the baby one of the conditions of the divorce. Might have her deported on the q.t. anyway. My advice is to forget it.”
“I didn’t come here for that kind of advice, or…”
“Aw, stop flying off the handle, I had a rough night. Look, forget about a divorce, or marriage. Understand you live out in the country? Fine, take the gal back to the sticks with you as your new blushing bride.-When the kid comes, simply put your name down as poppa.”
“But, would that be legal?”
He laughed, showing a lot of rotten teeth. “What means legal? Fellow, laws are made to break. If there weren’t any murderers, we wouldn’t have capital punishment on the books. What’s a marriage license? Nothing but an unused piece of paper—99 per cent of the time. Get what I’m driving at?”
“Hell, return to your place in the country, with this girl, say you were just married. Who’s going to doubt you, who’s going to care? Her husband will never find you, if you’re careful. You just met her, she lives in New Jersey, before that she lived in Canada—you probably haven’t any friends in common. Play it careful and it will work out fine. And when the kid is born, she’ll have a birth certificate and all the other papers, all saying you’re the father. Might run into trouble years from now, if you should die and there was a battle over a will… but that can be arranged too. From now on you two are man and wife, and who knows different?”
He pointed a fat finger at my clothes. “Fellow, you haven’t enough dough to arouse my curiosity. I don’t even remember your name.” He stood up. “Another thing, remember what I said about the law—remember too, at times, I’m proud that I am an attorney, respect myself—at times —so I wouldn’t stoop to blackmail—not petty stuff, anyway.”
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to…”
We shook hands and he said, “Speaking of blackmail, I’ll deny I ever told you this. I’m giving you practical advice, fellow, not legal advice. One more thing, if you go through with this—remember to always play it safe, don’t talk to anyone about it.”
When I explained it to Elma, it sounded foolproof. She said, “But if at any time Mac catches up with us, he can still take the baby?”
“How will he ever find us? He never heard of me, neither have any of your friends. From now on you disappear and become Mrs. Elma Jameson of Sandyhook, L.I. If he should locate us, it will be years from now, maybe times will have changed. Besides, what else can we do?”
“It does seem a little… sneaky… but as you say, what else can we do? I’ll have to be careful to keep out of Newark, away from people I know.”
“And never get in touch with Mac.”
“Lord, that’s the very last thing I ever want to do.”
I pulled her off the bed, kissed her softly on her full lips. “Darling, I hereby pronounce you Mrs. Marshal Jameson. And some day we’ll really make it legal. This will work out, I know it.”
“Marsh, we love each other, that makes it as sincere and honest as any other marriage ceremony,” she said, kissing me fiercely.
By way of a honeymoon, we took in a movie and had a big dinner, and a cab ride through the park. We both slept soundly and in the morning I said we ought to get going out to Sandyhook. Elma said, “I have a few things in my room in New Jersey that…”
“Hell with your old clothes. Let’s make a clean break.”
“There are a lot of records I’ve collected, some good old numbers. What harm is there in my packing them, shipping them out to Long Island? Besides, I have to have some clothes when I get there—look suspicious.”
“All right, but let’s get on with it. Spoil everything if your ex-hubby sees me with you.”
“He doesn’t even know where I’m rooming. And you can wait outside, or wait here in the hotel.”
We took a bus to New Jersey. She lived in a run-down private house. I took a walk while Elma packed. She called a moving company and they came over with barrels and she carefully packed all her records. The company said it might take about two weeks—have to wait till they get a full load going out to L.I.
I’d called Alice Alvins, told her to arrange about renting me a house, that I was married to an old girl friend of mine, and yes, I knew it was sudden and all that. Alice has one of these silly minds for detail and she said, “You mean, you’ve made your application for a license. Now you’ll have to wait three days.”
“That’s what I mean, Alice. See you in a few days. But I’m wiring two months’ rent, to take care of a lease on the house.”
“My, this girl got money, too?”
“Sure, what the hell you think I’m marrying her for?” I said, and hung up.
We had to spend another three days in the city to make it look good, and we saw the shows and had a wonderful time. But being in the city with Elma made us both a little nervous—never knew when she’d run into somebody who was a friend of Mac’s.
Elma liked Sandyhook, even though we arrived there in a lousy snowstorm. The house was a four-room bungalow with a cellar, oil heat. We were very busy the first week. I went over to Len’s garage, near Smithtown and bought a second-hand Chevy for three hundred bucks. Len had a rep as an honest mechanic, and he said the car was a buy. Then the three of us—Alice loved shopping—drove all over Long Island buying up old furniture. All told, we spent some $800, but the house really looked comfortable, and if the car looked like a heap, the motor was first class.
There was a glass-enclosed back porch I used as a studio, and I started working as soon as possible, moved all my junk out of my shack—including an old tombstone I had swiped from the cemetery in an attempt to work in marble —and of course soon found out it was too much for me.
The Alvins liked Elma and when I casually mentioned she was pregnant—I thought it best to get that over with— they took it without too much surprise. Elma visited the local doc and of course it was soon all part of the village gossip. But we were safe. I was an “artist”—therefore anything I did was bound to be “crazy.”
We saw Tony and Alice every day and Elma turned out to be a capable cook and housewife. Her records came and we spent long, happy evenings listening to them. Jazz meant a lot to her—Elma knew every member of each band by heart and she’d say, “This is one of Artie Shaw’s best, made before he became famous and had to turn commercial….” Or, “In this Billie Holiday, catch Frankie Newton’s trumpet behind her….” The Alvins came to our house as often as we went to theirs and I felt completely at ease.
I was busy studying some American sculptors, Cecil Howard, Paul Manship, the Frasers, and Donald de Lue. I liked de Lue’s Omaha Beach Memorial, but thought he idealized the face of the soldier a bit, and did a rough copy of it in clay, making the face bitter, and frightened—the way the guys who hit Omaha Beach on D-Day probably felt. The statue came off well and gave me a lot of confidence, and Elma thought I was a second Jo Davidson.
And every minute I spent with Elma, the more I was in love with her. Everything we did turned out right. We laughed at the same jokes: she loved to walk along the beach, her hair blowing out of her parka, and when I showed her how to surf cast and she landed a few king fish, she was as happy as a kid. Even the little things she did pleased me —the fact that she wore low-heeled shoes and didn’t distort her long slim legs—the way she’d wake me in the middle of the night, ask, “Marsh, are you sleeping?”
“Look, there’s a full moon out. Let’s drive along the beach… watch the moonlight on the waves. Want to?”
“Honey, fix a thermos of hot coffee and we’ll get going.”
Or, on a cold morning, she’d pull the covers around us like a tent and we’d fool around like children, daring the other to get out and brave the cold, start the heat.—And when we had the kitchen good and warm we’d have breakfast to the music of Chick Webb or Lunceford or Father Hines. We both loved to eat and Elma was blooming, starting to swell with child.
Her swollen body, the heavy breasts, seemed so beautiful to me, I asked her to pose, and she was delighted. With the kitchen warm as bed, and a stack of records on her phonograph, Elma would pose for hours—resting every fifteen minutes. I made a great many sketches of her—standing, on her back, on her side, of her bosom, of her big belly.
A statue of a pregnant woman isn’t a new idea, but for the first time I felt very sure of myself. I decided to do a two-foot figure of Elma standing very straight and proud. I had a rough done and it was hard work for her, and once when she was resting in an old rocker we had, she fell asleep… and then I knew I had it Sleeping in the chair, Elma was the picture of ease and I sketched her from all angles on paper, started working in clay.
I was able to catch the warmth and personality of her face, the soft lines of her body, and when I finished it, Elma was delighted and of course it had to be titled: RELAXED.
I was proud as the devil of it and took it to New York to see if it could be baked and colored. Sid was amazed and immediately took it to a friend of his who had a gallery on 55th Street. I couldn’t have it baked—I was not only using the wrong clay for terra-cotta work, but I also had a lead pipe armature in the clay, which would crack the statue with heat. But we arranged to have a bronze made—meaning a wax and plaster mold would be made, the wax melting and running out as the hot metal was poured in.
The gallery owner was to act as my agent and I left the statue with a studio that specialized in bronze work. I rushed back to Sandyhook and started working on a head of Elma. She was getting so big now, it was tiring for her to pose. Within a month RELAXED was cast and finished and on exhibition. Elma and I drove in to see it, take pictures. The dealer had it in the window and it attracted a great deal of attention. Even Kimball heard about it, sent me a note, care of the dealer, telling me it was a professional job and asking how married life was.
The gallery owner managed to get a picture of my work in one of the Sunday papers. I had a moment of despair at the thought that Mac might see it and trace Elma—for I had certainly captured her face, every line and plane. But I kept telling myself there was little chance of his reading the art pages of the paper.
The gallery man was enthusiastic about the possibility of a sale, and said he was going to enter the statue in several contests. He wanted to see more of my work, and all I could show him was the piece with the two dogs mounting each other, which he admired but didn’t think it would be to my “advantage to show that now. Later, we can make it a collector’s item.”
March was a damp and windy month and the doctor advised Elma to rest a lot. He was afraid she might get a cold. Otherwise she was coming along fine, and should have her baby some time in May. That would be fine too, because it would be before the summer crowd came down and Sandyhook got hectic.
Our money was holding out nicely. Actually, once we bought the car and furniture, there wasn’t much to spend money on in Sandyhook, and we figured I wouldn’t have to think about a job till September, and then, as Elma said jokingly, “We’ll go to New York, win another $2,400 on a quiz show and return to the country singing ‘God Bless America!’”
But as it turned out we were only living in a fool’s paradise.
I was in the post office one morning, mailing a letter to my agent and one to Sid, when the postmaster-storekeeper asked, “Say, Mr. Jameson, your wife’s name is Elma, isn’t it?”
“Been holding a letter here for a couple of days for a Mrs. Elma Morse. About to send it back—unknown— when I thought of your wife, what with Elma being such an odd name. That her?”
I had to think fast. Mac, that nosy bastard had seen my statue after all! If the letter was returned, Mac might come down here. The best thing was to take it. I said, “Thanks. Yeah, that… eh… was her maiden name. Don’t know where they got the Mrs. from.”
“My wife said I should wait and ask you. Beats me, how women are always right—some of the time.”
The return address was her husband’s. Once outside the store, I opened the letter. The sonofabitch had traced her through the damn moving company, those two barrels of her records. He wanted to know if she was still pregnant and, if so, if she still was going to have the kid. He said he’d give her a week to answer him before taking up the matter with his mother and her lawyers.
I walked along the beach, trying to figure what to do. She could write that she had a miscarriage, but he probably wouldn’t be content with that, would snoop about.
I wasn’t going to tell her, but we only had a few days left in the week he gave her to answer. Elma saw I was upset and finally I showed her the letter that night and she fainted. I got the doc over and he gave her something to make her sleep, told me, “Seems to have suffered a shock of some kind. Your wife looks and is strong and healthy, but with a first baby a woman…. She’ll have to take it easy. I want her to remain in bed for the next week, have absolute rest.”
I tried my best, we didn’t even talk about it too much, but Elma would lie there and cry all day, and even though Alice came over and acted as a nurse, Elma got worse: her face almost looked like a death mask. The doctor gave me seven pills, said, “Give Mrs. Jameson one of these any time she gets excited, but no more than one a day. Your wife seems terribly upset about something. Having a family quarrel?”
“She’s a mighty sick girl. Frankly, if she doesn’t get better, I may have to take the baby… and I’m not sure she’ll survive that.”
“She… might die?”
“There’s a chance. I don’t want to frighten you, but I do want you to know the gravity of the situation, the importance of keeping her calm. Hysteria can be as deadly as a poison—in her condition. Whatever is exciting her has to stop.”
When he was gone I sat in my studio, staring at the head of Elma I was working on. The problem was clear in my mind…. I was in danger of losing Elma. Even if she didn’t die, if the bastard took her kid, had her deported, where would I be? Staring at the clay face, that seemed to be nearly alive with her warmth, everything seemed so damn unfair. All we asked was to be left alone, a chance at happiness, and this miserable sonofabitch insisted on killing her—us.
I went in the bedroom. Alice was sitting beside Elma’s sleeping figure, working on her book, writing on long yellow notepaper. She said, “What’s wrong, Marsh? Why up to now Elma has been as healthy as a baby food ad, then all of a sudden—a nose dive. Anything wrong?”
“Makes me afraid to hope for a kid. You hear about women getting these mental quirks during pregnancy. Like tipping a balance, one day very healthy, the next day…”
“Things will work out,” I said. “Be back soon.”
I went to the store in the village. I didn’t want to use our phone in case he traced the call—although he knew where Elma was. I got the Newark operator, asked for the number of the shop. A man’s voice answered and I asked, “Mr. Maxwell Morse?”
“This is Doctor Rogers. I’m calling about your wife. Your letter has upset her to the point where her life is in danger.”
“Is she still pregnant?”
“Yes, and having a very hard time. Unless you give up your demand for the baby, I cannot be responsible for her condition, or her life.”
“Is she in a hospital?”
“That doesn’t matter. Unless you stop annoying her with your unreasonable demands…”
“She can put her mind at ease by giving me the child. She’s not a fit mother to…”
“Mr. Morse, your wife doesn’t even know I’m calling you. Can’t you understand that her life is in danger? That…”
“That’s a decision she must make. After all, she’s a young woman, can have other children. I feel I have as much right to my child, give it all the advantages…”
I hung up.
We’d tried everything. There was only one more possibility, the one thing I thought about deep in my mind, even dreamed about at times when the thought escaped and came out into the open…. How simple things would be if Elma became a widow.
The idea of killing this Mac scared the bejesus out of me. But I knew it was the only out left.
Mac had to die.
I had to kill… figure out a perfect murder.
I HAD THE RUNS THAT NIGHT, I WAS SO NERVOUS.
And when I wasn’t running, I was sweating. I lay beside Elma, hearing her moan now and then in her sleep, or her leg suddenly kick out—a reflex of nervous terror. And I tried to think how to murder her husband.
“Comic” books and contemporary literature to the contrary, murder is a sickening, insane thought—a reflection of a sick world. The very idea of one human ending the hopes, the desires, the laughter and sadness of another human is the height of stupid conceit. Much as I hated Mac, I didn’t want to kill him. Yet I had no choice: it was either him or losing Elma… which would be the same as ending my own life.
But murder frightened me: I’d never been so frightened. I tried to think it out thoroughly…. How does one murder? I was a layman, the rankest of amateurs, and I had to plan the greatest of all crimes—the perfect killing. One thing was for sure—getting caught would be as bad as losing Elma.
My thoughts raced around in a tired circle. Undoubtedly as soon as Mac was killed, the police would get in touch with Elma—as his widow—and I’d be the number-one suspect. The first thing I needed was a good alibi. I thought of all sorts of childish things—like taking a rowboat and saying I was going fishing, beaching it on the shore and going into town and killing him, then returning to the boat and rowing in from the Sound at the end of the day. But I knew that was a lousy alibi—the cops had better trained minds than mine, they could figure that too.
And I knew the more I planned, the more chance I had of tripping myself. What was needed was a simple method of killing. I had one advantage—Mac had never seen me, so I could approach him without warning. But approach him where, when? Would I kill him on the street, strangle him in his sleep…?
I kept turning ideas over in my mind—most of them things I’d read or seen in the movies—till I had a headache and was still no nearer having a plan. With murder there cannot be any failure.
Towards morning the dope Elma took wore off and she began to cry softly, thinking I was asleep. Her crying was like a whip cutting my heart. I put my arms around her gently, tried to calm her. She sobbed, “Marsh, this is all so unfair to you. I wish I could control myself, I know I’m being selfish, but I can’t even think of giving up my baby.”
“Darling, first have the baby. If you don’t stop worrying you can have a miscarriage and that would be worse than losing the kid to Mac. You must believe that things will turn out right for us. We have to keep riding our luck—like in a crap game. When you’re hot, have faith in yourself.”
“But maybe our meeting, our luck, was too good to last.”
“Don’t even say that, it’s going to last—it has to! Elma, I have a… a hunch… things will work out. But you have to stop all this damn worrying, getting yourself sick.”
“Marsh, I can almost lean on your words. Your strong arm seems like a great wall protecting us,” Elma said, kissing the muscle of my arm.
I flexed the muscle, like a kid showing off. “I’d like to get my arm around Mac for a few seconds! Honey, we’ll outwit him. After all, we have two minds against his—a crummy little storekeeper…”
You know how it is—you can think and think for days and never get any place, then one word suddenly sets your mind in order. Soon as I said “storekeeper” a brace of bells went off in my brain, as if I’d hit the jackpot in a pinball machine. All the time I’d been thinking of killing Mac and here…. Outside of a natural death in bed, how do storekeepers die? What’s an almost occupational hazard for them?
“Marsh, I’m such a pest and you’re so good and…”
“Get some sleep, honey, and relax,” I said, kissing her, and so wide awake I wanted to spring out of bed.
Elma turned until she was comfortable, began breathing evenly. I stared up at the darkness. A stick-up would be simple… and nobody would connect me with it.
An “unknown thug” enters the store and shoots Mac during a hold-up. I might be able to hire a thug, but that would be risky, and I hadn’t the slightest idea how to go about that. No, the thug would have to be me—in disguise. A good disguise so that if he was seen—in fact I wanted “him” to be seen—he would look entirely different from me.
Now I had a plan. First the disguise. It would be impossible to make myself taller, but if I wore a lot of padding, then my shoulders would be lost, I’d merely look like a short, dumpy, clown. I’d dye my hair black with one of these new washable dyes. This was it. I’d make sure Elma took a pill late, then leave here at about four in the morning. She wouldn’t come to till noon. I could be over in Newark by eight, shoot Mac as soon as he opened and be back before…
Shoot? Where would I get a gun?
How the hell does one get a gun? Must be a hundred or more places in New York where guns were sold under the counter… you read about kid gangs getting guns… but where? I could stab him, but that would be clumsy and maybe I didn’t have the guts to cut a man to death. It would be nothing to buy a rifle… saw off the barrel. I had a dull hacksaw. Tony had a better one that…. I smiled up at the dark ceiling…. Tony’s Luger!
I’d steal it, shoot Mac, and put the Luger back. Tony would never miss it. Then a day or so later, I’d borrow it… ask him for it… I wanted to use it as a model or something. Then I’d lose the damn thing, throw it in the ocean. He’d raise hell and I’d say I was sorry, offer him money for a new gun.
I sighed. The gun part was simple.
The big thing was the get-away. I’d have the car parked near the store and after I’d shot Mac, made it look like a robbery, I’d drive away, stop some place to take off my padded suit, wash the dye out of my hair. I’d put a plug in my nose, a wad of cotton, to distort my face, place a wart on my face with make-up. I had to be seen… so the cops would be hunting for a fat, dark-haired man with a wide nose and a wart on his face.
This was it, all right. There were plenty of holes in my scheme. Suppose Tony knew the gun was missing? What if Alice came over in the morning, to see about Elma, knew I wasn’t home? What if I couldn’t make a quick get-away, had to shoot it out with a cop? What if somebody saw me get into the car, remembered my license plates? Jesus, maybe Mac had a clerk working with him? Maybe Mac had a gun, and shot me!
I couldn’t find the answers to these questions. A perfect crime depends upon a great deal of luck… and luck would either be with me or against me. I’d have to push my luck to the limit, hope it held.
When night slowly changed to dawn, I was in the bathroom, still thinking like mad. I had a few answers. I’d buy a can of this house paint that has a water base, paint one fender to make the car noticeable, then wash it off before I came back to New York. Maybe I could steal some New Jersey license plates? No, that would be too much risk… I’d muddy up my own.
I dressed and had some coffee. Elma was still sleeping. At nine I went over to the Alvins. Alice was in the kitchen, a robe over her nightgown. She told me, “You look like you tied one on, Marsh.”
“Didn’t sleep. Elma had a rough night. Look, I have to go into town. Could you stay with her this morning?”
“Of course. Do my writing at your place. I’ve rewritten this one chapter three times now. Gee, Elma is certainly having a time. I don’t understand it, always seemed so calm and healthy and then…”
“Doc says some women have it rough with the first one. And I forgot to give her a pill last night. Tonight I’ll be sure to give her one, so don’t come over tomorrow morning.” And my heart beat faster at the casual way I’d decided it would be tomorrow! Within twenty-four hours I would take a man’s life.
I went back and changed from my sweat shirt and dungarees to a suit and shirt and tie. Alice came over about an hour later and Elma was still sleeping. I told her to tell Elma I had to see my agent, would be back before supper.
I drove off, then quickly circled back to their house. Nobody locked their doors in Sandyhook. I found the Luger hidden in a drawer and a full clip of bullets. That was another chance I had to take. Tony mustn’t notice there was an empty shell or more, in the clip… if he should look at the gun. I’d stripped a .45 during army basic and I prayed I could do the same with a Luger, get the cordite stink out of it.
As I drove to New York I had another nightmare. What if I got a flat in New Jersey, had motor trouble? Only insurance against that would be to have Len check the car.
Now and then I felt of the Luger in my pocket. The very feel of the gun gave me a kind of stupid confidence. The fact that I had death in my pocket gave me a feeling of strength, of power. It didn’t make sense—I had a gun in a world full of guns, yet I almost felt as though mine was the only one.
I drove directly over to Newark, found Mac’s shop. It was a small store, off the main street. I walked by several times—slowly—and looking through the window, I saw only this big fat slob behind the counter, recognized Mac from Elma’s description. Getting in the car, I cruised around till I found several places—none of them far from the store—where I could park. Then I practiced driving to the highway, back to the Lincoln Tunnel, to make sure I knew the route by heart. I kept thinking that some little dumb mistake would throw me.
A couple weeks before, there was an account in the papers of some characters who had gone in for gold smuggling. There was a lot of money involved and they’d worked out plans, here and abroad. They were caught when they parked in a No-Parking street in midtown Manhattan, to split up the dough. A cop came over to see why they were parked… and that was that. Overlooking a lousy little thing like a No-Parking sign.
Coming out of the Tunnel at 34th Street, I stopped at Macy’s and bought one of those hair dyes that are a part of a comb. I also purchased a small can of blue house paint.
Driving over to the Bowery, I bought a second-hand suit, size 48, stout and short, got a ragged padded quilt at another second-hand store. The suit was a blue pin stripe, just loud enough—and worn enough. Passing a tool store, I got a real bright idea—purchased one of these baling hooks longshoremen use. I stopped at a drugstore in Times Square, said I was from a little theatre group and bought a make-up kit, including a large, ready-made wart with two crazy black hairs sticking in it. I threw the rest of the kit into several garbage cans, walking back to my parked car.
On the way back to Sandyhook, I stopped at Len’s garage, had the car gassed and oiled, told Len the motor was missing, and he spent an hour checking it while I had lunch. I had confidence in him, he was one of these slow, but careful, mechanics… kind that handles a car like he was in love with it.
It was almost four when I returned. Alice and Elma were talking in the bedroom. I gave them some cock-and-bull story about missing my agent,—waiting for him… something about an exhibit I’d read about in Dayton, where they have a ritzy art center.
Elma seemed rested and when Alice finally left, I gave Elma the papers to read and went to my porch studio. I cut up the quilt and roughly sewed it inside the coat and pants of the suit. I roughed up the coat—not that it needed much—and when I wore it over my own suit, it felt like a straitjacket, but I looked like mister five-by-five. I tried combing some of the dye into my hair, put the wart on, stuffed cotton up my nose, added some shadows under my eyes—and as a final touch stuck the steel freight hook in my belt. I put on an old cap, examined myself very carefully in the mirror.
I looked like a little tough guy on my uppers. I put another wad of cotton inside my left cheek—and that completely changed the contour of my face. I took out one of my worst shirts and a faded, loud tie, made sure to remove any laundry marks. Then I undressed and practiced stuffing the suit into two large shopping bags. Next I filled a gallon can with water. In two minutes I’d washed the dye out of my hair—had it back to my own sandy-blonde shade. I tried out the blue paint on a piece of metal—that washed off easily. I ran through the washing routine again—in two minutes flat.
I was set.
Dry my hair with my shirt, then use the shirt to wipe the paint off the car, wipe my license plates. After I’d tossed the can away, got rid of the bags with my clothes, I’d merely be another guy in an old Chevy—and no reason why I should be stopped.
But where would I dispose of the clothes? I couldn’t keep them in the car—just in case I was stopped. I could burn them, but that would certainly attract attention.
Skipping over the clothing for a moment, I went to work on the Luger. Couldn’t take a chance on firing an experimental shot, but I took it apart and put it together again— positive I knew how to work the deadly beauty. I washed an old pair of kid gloves, washed them carefully to get rid of any particles of clay, hung them up to dry. That would take care of fingerprints.
I put everything in a corner of the studio, even filled the can with water, so I’d be ready in the morning. I fixed supper for Elma and we sat and listened to records and all the time I was racking my brains, trying to think what the hell to do with the damn clothes.
I gave up—decided I’d chuck them into corner waste-baskets, once back in Manhattan. It was a weak spot in my plans, but I couldn’t think of anything else to do… even though I kept thinking of those gold smugglers stopping in a No-Parking street. Be my luck to drop in the bags and get picked up for littering the streets!
Elma seemed in good spirits and we even played some gin. I put her in bed at ten, then dropped over to see the Alvins. Tony didn’t say a thing about the gun being missing. I told them Elma was very tired and I’d just given her a pill, not to disturb us in the morning. Alice said she had some typing to do and a lot of house work, but would drop over in the afternoon.
When I returned, Elma was listening to the radio. I sat in a chair and fell asleep—to my surprise. I suppose I was so nervous I was emotionally exhausted. I awoke to hear Elma calling, “Marsh, it’s midnight. Come to bed. I must have kept you up all last night.”
When I got into bed, Elma dozed off and I lay there, afraid to fall asleep. Suppose I overslept? But I was too tightly wound up to sleep anyway. At four o’clock I got her pill, some water, gently shook Elma awake. “Honey, you forgot your pill.”
“What time is it?”
“Little after one. Now…”
“That all? Feel like I’ve slept for hours.”
“Now take your pill and go back to sleep.”
She took the pill, asked for the bedpan, and by 4:30 she was sleeping soundly. I dressed quickly, took a slug of whisky, then carried my stuff out to the car. The village was still asleep and I didn’t see a soul as I drove off.
It was a dreary, dull-cold morning, the right atmosphere for killing, I guess, but it didn’t help my nerves any. I’d put the gas pedal down, then reminded myself that all I needed was to be picked up for speeding, took it slow for a few miles. I came over the 59th Street Bridge at five to six, stopped for a cup of coffee. The crummy restaurant was full of sleepy-eyed men on their way to or from work. How I wished I was one of them, and not on my way to murder!
The coffee did what the whisky failed to do, steadied me. I had a second cup and a doughnut and felt okay. As I paid the toll and drove through the Tunnel, I wondered if I should tell Mac who I was before I plugged him? Gave me a hell of a satisfaction, but if by some chance he didn’t die at once—he’d tell the cops.
One thing I’d overlooked—where to shoot him. The stomach was the largest target—I might miss his head, even at short range.
In New Jersey I drove off the highway at a spot I’d picked out the day before, parked in a wooded area. Glancing around to make sure I was alone, I quickly painted one of the fenders, made some mud and dirtied my license plates. I dressed in the padded suit, put on the shirt and tie, dyed my hair, and slapped the mole on my cheek. I hung the hook from my belt, put on my cap when my hair was dry. I stuffed cotton up my right nostril, stuck a wad in the right side of my face. My mouth felt full of cotton.
Double-checking my appearance, I drove toward Newark.
I reached the store by eight and of course it was shut. I’d made my first mistake—had a half hour to wait; I felt certain I had screwed myself up. I suddenly got the jitters, told myself the smart thing would be to go home, try again tomorrow….
But I was on top of the killing now, and tomorrow might be too late. I drove around and when I came past the store again it was 8:30 and the damn place was still shut. But some of the other stores were open.
I parked the car and waited—praying I didn’t get the runs now.
At a quarter to nine I got out and strolled past the store. He’d just opened, was standing behind the counter, his hat and coat still on, reading the mail.
A few people were on the street. I didn’t see any cops.
I waited, my knees doing a little dance. I waited and waited… then I boldly walked in, walking like a man on his way to the chair; wanting to get things over.
Mac gave me a practiced smile as he said, “Good morning. What can I do for you?”
He ran his eyes over my cheap clothes and his expression said I wasn’t going to be much of a customer, even to break the ice for the day.
“You got lockets?” I heard my voice as if speaking from another world. I was talking with what I thought was an Italian accent. I don’t know why I chose to be an Italian… put it on them.
“Yes, sir, a store full. About how much do you plan to spend?”
I was standing directly in front of him as I yanked out the Luger, my body hiding the gun from anybody in the street. “This is a stick-up!” I said hoarsely. “Keep your mitts on the counter—not up in the air! Keep still and you won’t get hurt!”
“Of course,” he said, biting off the words, his whole face ashen. “A-all the money I-I have is in the cash register. Please don’t h-hurt me.”
“Move over—with me—to the register.”
We both sidestepped toward the .cash register, moving like an awkward dance team. I motioned with the gun, “Open it!”
He pressed the button and the drawer shot open, making me jump. I took up a handful of bills with my left hand, asked for his wallet. I stuffed the money and wallet into my left pocket.
There was a tray of costume jewelry on the counter, I scooped that up, put the junk in my pockets. I told him, “Mister, don’t call nobody for ten minutes. You hear, mister?”
He was less than two feet from me and I had the Luger pointed at his heart. My own heart was beating like a hammer as I pulled the trigger….
… A tiny tear, a slit that became a hole, appeared in his coat. That was all.
Shocked surprise swept his face as he staggered a step backwards, eyes wide with disbelief… then he slowly and quietly slipped under the counter.
For a second the shop was still, then it seemed to be ringing with the thunder of the shot, the sound smothering me. Jamming the gun in my pocket, I walked out—forcing myself not to run.
The street looked normal. Two men were standing in the doorway of a haberdashery, three stores away, chewing the fat. They glanced at me as I passed, but that was all. There wasn’t any sound of the gun on the street. I kept my hands out of my pockets, away from the security-feeling of the gun, as I turned the corner, got into my car and drove—smack into a red light!
The tension was terrible. I wanted to scream, yell my lungs out… having to sit in the car not thirty feet from his store. I looked about with a trapped feeling, noticed a parcel-post truck parked on the opposite side of the street. If they had a package for Mac… they’d find the body in a few minutes… maybe a few seconds… with the damn red light on, me sitting there, waiting for…
When the welcome green came on I drove away, forcing myself to drive at twenty per. I spat the cotton wad out of my mouth, took the plug from my nose, the wart off my cheek.
Glancing at the steering wheel I almost fainted—I didn’t have any glove on my right hand!
Frantically I dug into my pockets for the other glove. It wasn’t… then I saw it on the seat beside me. That was a relief… if I’d dropped it in the store…. But damn, I must have forgotten to put it on! They’d find fingerprints… store’d be lousy with prints! I tried to convince myself I hadn’t touched anything with my right hand—only had used my gloved left… But had I?
I reached the highway, expecting to hear sirens following me any second, my brain in agony as I tried to recall every movement I’d made in the store. Did I push the door open with my right hand? Leave prints that could be easily checked with my army record? No, the door had been open… I think it was open… I’m almost sure it was open.
How about the counter… did I put my right hand on that? That goddamned ungloved right hand!… Maybe, but I had the right hand around the gun…. Yeah, I had my right hand in my pocket, all the time, holding the gun. No need to worry, my right hand was… But was it?… Oh Christ, had I left any prints…?
Turning off the road, I drove into the wooded area again and shut off the motor. I was sweating like a pig, with my padded suit on. For a second I studied the trees, the bushes, then quickly undressed, stuffed the clothes into two paper bags. The costume jewelry fell out of the pockets and I tossed that into the grass. I had taken thirty-three dollars from his cash register, and there was another fifteen bucks in his wallet. I shoved the money and wallet in my back pocket, put the gun and the freight hook under the car seat. I washed my hair, soaping it good. The dye came right off and I dried it with my shirt, then went to work on the car. It took more time than I expected to wash the paint off the fender. I should have had more water, but I finally got the blue off.
Driving toward the tunnel, I threw the water can away, tried to keep my thoughts clear, my mind sharp… and all I could think about was those lousy fingerprints I might have left.
A motorcycle cop passed me and I nearly blacked out. But he didn’t stop and at exactly 9:32 I came out of the tunnel and headed cross-town for the 59th Street Bridge. Stopping for a red light, I got out and shoved one of the bags with my clothes under the other paper bags of garbage in a corner wire basket.
Going up Second Avenue, I passed a garbage truck, asked if it was okay to throw in some junk and one of the men said sure and it was a relief to see the bag disappear under the metal scoop, as though the truck had digested it.
I was beginning to breathe easy once more, although the idea of fingerprints kept hammering at my brain. When I stopped for a light at the entrance to the bridge, a beefy traffic cop jerked his finger at me and I nearly screamed. He took a few steps toward me, said, “Hey, wash up them plates, next chance you get, bud.”
I said yes sir and drove on, and when I got across the bridge I took out a handkerchief and dampened it with my sweat and cleaned the license plates. When I hit the parkway, I put the gas pedal down. I went past Sandyhook, cut across to the ocean—stopped for a moment to throw the baling hook into the waves—then came back toward the house, avoiding the village. It seemed to me I didn’t pass anyone. It was 11:00 and most people would be at work, or still in the house.
Taking the gun, I went into our place, walking softly. Everything was quiet, Elma was still asleep. I quickly stripped, hid the gun and the wallet in my studio, climbed into bed. To my surprise, I fell into a sound sleep at once, as if I’d suddenly let myself fall off into space.
I had a nightmare.
I was back in the store, only this time everything went wrong. I saw the entire scene through a sort of web, which seemed to glow with a red neon brilliance. Then Mac was laughing at me like an idiot, suddenly yanked out a gun and poured bullets into me. The slugs didn’t seem to hurt. An electric alarm shrilled through the store and as I turned to run, I found myself in the arms of a giant cop, who held me fast while Mac ripped off the mole, the padded clothing, and kept roaring with laughter. Then he pointed to the neon web and I suddenly knew what that was—a huge fingerprint. The cop began beating me over the head with his billy…
I awoke with a start: sweating badly. Elma was moaning. When I asked how she felt she said, “Very nauseous.”
“Now take it easy. Want the doctor?”
It was one in the afternoon: my alibi was perfect. As I dressed I suggested maybe she was just hungry, but the very mention of food made her pale. I called the doc, helped Elma with the bedpan, then went over to see if Alice was around—she seemed to have a soothing effect on Elma.
She was standing in the doorway as I came up the path. I had the gun hidden behind my back. She stared at me curiously as I came up to her.
“Lousy mosquitoes kept biting me all night,” I said, scratching myself, keeping the gun out of sight. Her face broke into a smile, “Same trouble myself, Marsh. How’s Elma?”
“Not so hot. Why don’t you run over for a while?” She said sure and as soon as she went over to the house, I cleaned the Luger with an improvised ramrod and patch and lighter fluid, slipped it back in Tony’s drawer.
The murder seemed like something that had happened ages ago. Even the fingerprints didn’t worry me; somehow I was certain I had my right hand on the gun all the time.
Back in the house, Alice was giving Elma the latest village gossip. I tried to eat but vomited. A slug of whisky stayed down, warmed my guts.
The doctor spent a long time with Elma. Alice and I sat in the kitchen and Alice said, “I’m worried, she really looks sick today.”
“Damn, she starts throwing up… that will be it.”
“The chemistry of the body is certainly an odd thing. We…”
The doc came into the kitchen, his wrinkled face worried. He said, “I gave her an injection of vitamins. Can’t understand what she’s worrying about. Doesn’t seem afraid of birth…”
“Hard to say. Jameson, you and your wife aren’t fighting over anything, are you? Even a very minor incident can upset a woman in her condition. You really want the child, don’t you?”
“You don’t know how much I want it!” I said, and my voice damn near broke at the thought of how much I wanted Elma to have her baby…. I’d murdered for Elma and the baby!
“Well, nothing more I can do. She must have peace of mind. And you take it easy, too. Sound a little hysterical.”
Elma seemed to grow weaker, more listless as the day wore on. It was a muggy, dreary day, and she was uncomfortable. I washed her down, changed the linen several times to cool her off. Alice and I spent every second with her, playing her favorite records, reading to her, discussing Alice’s book… but Elma just lay there as though she no longer cared to live.
When the New York evening papers came on the late train, I read each line, but there wasn’t any mention of the killing. It would certainly be in the Newark papers, but I couldn’t get them….
Then it hit me—the stupid irony of the whole mess! The crazy joker in the deck that was our life! There wasn’t any way I could tell Elma Mac was dead, without exposing myself!
Suppose she worried herself into a miscarriage, even death, before she found out about Mac? I would have become a murderer for no reason, then! It was pretty awful, sitting beside Elma, watching her suffer, and not being able to tell her the reasons for her being sick no longer existed… the baby was all hers, all ours. Yet I had to sit and watch and keep still. The doc said not to give her any more dope that day and her soft, pitiful cries drove me crazy.
I tried to tell her, beg her, to get control of herself. But she would only sob, “You’re right, Marsh. It’s so unfair to you… my wonderful Marsh. I am trying… really I am, but… but…” and her voice would fall off to a sob again.
The doc called and said he would stop in before he went to bed, so I knew Elma must be real sick. Alice and Tony dropped in after supper, asked me if I’d eaten. I lied that I had. I was half high, what with nibbling at the bottle all day. I went out to buy another fifth and it was a hard shock to realize that I was paying for it with his money.
There wasn’t much in his wallet—a driver’s license, membership card in a local merchants’ association, a Legion card, a memo to pay some bills by the tenth, a couple of blank checks. I went out to the homemade incinerator back of the house, where we burned most of the garbage, spilled a can of lighter fluid over the wallet, carefully burned it.
Alice and Tony left. Elma was staring at the ceiling, without seeing anything. I sat beside her bed like a mourner. A disk jockey was knocking himself out on the radio. It was nearly nine. I’d either have to chance telling Elma— and that would probably kill her—or drive into New York in the morning and get a copy of the Newark papers… if Elma survived the night. And that would look phony, I’d never bought the Newark papers before. But I sure had to do something—murder wasn’t enough, it seemed.
I lit my pipe, asked if the smoke bothered her.
“This is your favorite brand—real aromatic.**
“Is it? I don’t smell it.”
“How about a game of gin?”
“Shall I read to you?”
The record jockey read a commercial and as the nine o’clock news came on, I tuned in another station for more music. A brittle-voice commentator said, “Now for another crime-doesn’t-pay bulletin taken from real life. Today, a Newark businessman, Maxwell Morse, was shot to death in a hold-up. The unknown gunman took a life for fifty dollars in cash and a handful of jewelry….”
I tuned it up loud, asked, “Elma, did you hear…?”
She was sitting up in bed, one hand motioning for me to keep still. Her face seemed to be listening with every pore—a pose I’d love to sketch, put in clay.
“… Later in the afternoon, some children found the cheap jewelry off the main road, where the thug had evidently thrown it away. So a human life was snubbed out for a few dollars and a handful of cheap trinkets, worth less than ten dollars. What price death! And now a news item from Denver tells us of a freak accident in which…”
I cut the radio off. Elma fell back against the pillow, began to cry once more.
I stroked her hair, wanted to shake her. “Elma honey, may sound hard to say this but… well… our troubles are over! The baby is ours, we can be married tomorrow… you’re a widow!”
“What a way for poor Mac to die… always hated that store and now…”
“Damn it, the hell with poor Mac! He didn’t give a fat damn if you went through hell, worried yourself and the kid into a… Poor Mac, my ass!”
Elma held out her arms and I kissed her wet face as she bawled, “Marsh, don’t talk like that. He was such a weakling, and the .world so strong. He never had any of the happiness we’ve known, and now he’s dead and…”
“Baby, don’t cry. You heard what the doctor said. You’re shaking with sobs.”
“I’m okay, Marsh. Really I am. This is different… I only feel sorry for him, the way he lost out in life.”
And as I held her I realized the difference in her crying. Now it was the sort of abstract tears a person gives out when they see a sad picture, or a puppy run over. I held Elma gently and knew everything was going to work out. I began to cry too… because I was still damn scared.
Elma asked, “Should I call up his mother?”
“She must be sick and…”
“I wouldn’t call her now. As you say, she’s probably too sick and upset to talk.” And as I listened to my own words, the casual, offhand sound of them, I was surprised at my hardness. For as soon as Elma called his mother, it might be the start of a link between me and the case… the police.
Elma slept soundly that night—without pills. The doc dropped in and we were both in bed. He looked at Elma, said it was a “good sleep.”
I had the same nightmare, only with a corny touch this time. I was running out of the store and a motorcycle cop was chasing me, Mac sitting behind the driver and pointing to me and laughing as he yelled, “Killer I Killer!” Then I ran into a huge spider web and got hung up on it. The web turned out to be my fingerprint and Mac’s pointing finger became a gun barrel and flame spurted from the finger nail and I felt the hot lead tearing through me with horrible pain and I awoke with a short scream, my pillow sweat-wet.
In the morning Elma ate a large breakfast and I managed to keep coffee and toast down—although even that gave me the runs. She decided to call her mother-in-law. I tried to stall her, but there wasn’t any way I could talk Elma out of it. She had a long talk with the old woman, who was hysterical most of the time. I held my face next to Elma’s, listened in.
The old woman said, “Elma, we’ve lost him. God has taken all I had in life. Maybe I was wrong in wanting him so much, in trying to run his life and yours. Elma, do you forgive me?”
“The funeral will be… tomorrow. Oh God, they’re burying my son tomorrow, tomorrow!” When she finally checked her sobbing, she said, “In the prime of his life, he had to die. I keep asking myself only one question: Why? Why did this happen to me and mine? He was right, always hated the stores… they fed and clothed him, and they killed him. Elma, you must be at the funeral. I have so few friends, and I know so few of his…”
I shook my head. The thought of me driving Elma back to the scene of the crime, to the cemetery, gave my guts a chill. The old lady’s babbling didn’t upset me… she probably had talked as passionately in convincing Mac he had to take the baby.
Elma said, “I’m not feeling too well. And I’m quite a long ways from Newark. I can’t travel. You see, I expect to have the baby in a few…”
“Ah, the baby! My God, are You punishing me for what I did to Elma? Elma….”
“Do you have it in your heart to forgive an old jealous mother? Oh my daughter, no one has the right to take a child from its mother—how I know that now! How I think of…”
The old woman rattled on and I gave up listening. As I lit my pipe I thought it was lucky she wasn’t going to try to take the baby. Her case wouldn’t be as strong as Mac’s, but it would still be a nasty mess if she tried… and mean I’d knocked off Mac for… nothing.
Elma talked to her for almost an hour, soothing her. It seemed to be a tonic for Elma too. When the doc came and spent some time with her, he gave me the eye to walk him to the door, told me, “Well, Jameson, your wife is very much better. I think she’s snapped out of it. Young women of today, they read too much. In the old days they didn’t know about childbirth, couldn’t worry too much. You know the saying: A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Now, a woman reads a couple of these pseudo-medical books or articles, and scares herself half to death. Glad she’s over whatever was worrying her. She’ll be all right, and shouldn’t have any trouble during the birth— she’s built right.”
The doc was correct—within two days Elma was out of bed and pretty gay. She still called the old lady every day, to comfort her, and the old woman suddenly seemed to love Elma like a daughter… all of which I took with a grain of salt.
I drove to New York and bought all the Newark papers, including back issues to the day of the killing. It looked good. The police admitted they didn’t have the slightest idea as to the identity of the killer, and in one story they even said that fingerprints weren’t found… which made me feel better, but I knew that might just be newspaper talk. Two other storekeepers said they remembered “a swarthy little fat man leave the shop at about the time of the murder.” One of them even recalled the freight hook and the other said, “he looked like a tough little thug.” The papers said the police were searching the Jersey docks for the man.
Driving back to Sandyhook, I had a bad minute wondering what I’d do if they picked up some jerk and framed him… but I gave up thinking about that.
When I suggested to Elma that we could now be legally married, she roared with laughter—for the first time in months—asked, “With me all swollen as though I’d swallowed a watermelon? Marsh, the minister wouldn’t be able to keep a straight face. Be too much like one of those old jokes.”
“Would you be embarrassed?”
“A little. Why can’t we wait till the baby comes?”
“We can. Thought it might make things simpler. But you’re right, no one will know the difference if we’re married later. Just have to give the hospital a small white lie about us being legal now.”
The next few weeks were wonderful—or nearly wonderful. Elma was again the picture of health and happiness. We had long and silly arguments over what to name the baby if he was a boy, or if he turned out a she.
I still had my usual nightmares, and nervous stomach. Couldn’t sleep without taking a stiff hooker of whisky before I hit the sack. I managed to get into New York every couple of days, followed the Newark papers. Whoever said there’s nothing as old as yesterday’s headlines wasn’t kidding—the case was forgotten. Even his mother told Elma—over the phone—that the police had given it up as hopeless, couldn’t find the killer… me. The old lady was mad as a hornet at the cops, claimed they weren’t trying.
Exactly seven weeks and three days after I’d shot Mac, Elma gave birth to a six-pound girl, whom we named Joan. It was a week sooner than the doc expected, but the kid was healthy and hungry. This may sound crazy, or maybe all new babies look alike, but the kid looked like me! She had Elma’s wide mouth, but what little hair she had was sandy-blonde, and she had my pug nose, the same wide bone structure around the eyes. Elma and I roared with laughter over the resemblance. When we came home from the hospital we found an unexpected gift for the baby—a letter from a Newark attorney.
He was handling Mac’s “estate” and as his legal wife Elma would get a $10,000 G.I. policy Mac had evidently never got around to changing over to his mama. There was also an accident policy for $5,000 which mama, as head of the corporation running the stores, had taken on Mac. There was a personal checking account of $700, and an apartment full of furniture and a second-hand car.
Elma and I had a long talk as to whether she should accept the dough. Our radio prize money was down to less than $400 and we could use the cash. But Elma felt squeamish about taking the money, since she knew Mac never meant for her to have it. But if she didn’t take it, it would go to mama, and mama was already well fixed. We finally decided to take it and put at least five grand in the bank for Joan.
Several things started moving for us. I saw Sid in town and he had an idea for plastic molds—an easier and cheaper way of replacing plaster casts and, more important, a method of getting work down to fit everybody’s pocketbook. I had lunch with him on my way to see my agent, and Sid was excited about this plastic deal and I agreed to advance $500 as a one-third partner in the deal.
The agent had terrific news—my bronze had been sold to a private collection in the midwest for $900. Strangely enough, my first sale made me sad. Somehow it didn’t seem right that my efforts should now belong to this rich man who had no talent, except for making money. However, it really was a big break—his collection was always on exhibit at some museum or other, old moneybags getting his kicks out of being known as a patron, busting his buttons with pride over the words… “From the private collection of Mr. Joe Blow….”
The agent wanted to know what I was working on. Although I’d made several sketches of Elma nursing Joan— and gave them up as being too trite—I wasn’t working at all. I was still too damn nervous and worried to work. Along with my nightmares, there was still one very real piece of business that tied me to the killing.
The day Elma took Joan over to Newark to see the lawyer and let Mac’s mother have a look at her granddaughter, I dropped in on Alice, asked, “Can I borrow Tony’s pistol? Sketching an idea I have… figure to be called THE THUG, like to use the gun as a model.”
“That’s an odd composition.”
“I know, but crime is a part of American life and never put in clay, as yet,” I said.
“Let me see, where did he put the gun?” Alice said, looking through several drawers. “Haven’t seen that horrible thing for months.”
I watched Alice hunting for the gun, careful not to tell her exactly where it was. Alice finally found it in a drawer full of bathing suits.
Back in my studio I examined the clip—there was still one bullet missing. Evidently Tony hadn’t looked at the gun, or noticed the missing shell. I quickly made a few rough sketches on paper, all corny as hell, even a rough in clay of a gangster, with the gun as a background… then got in my car and drove toward the ocean.
The ocean was rough, the waves exploding against the shore, and I had this sudden hunch the damn gun might be washed ashore. About twenty miles past Sandyhook, going out toward Riverhead, there’s a small, deep lake that’s used as a reservoir. After making certain I was alone, I threw the gun as far as I could and when it vanished into the smooth water, a great feeling of relief swept over me, as though the water that hid the Luger had also washed the last signs of murder off me.
When Elma came home she said, “In a few days I’ll get a certified check for $15,000. I signed a waiver to any claim on the shops, car, and furniture. Mama Morse was rather sweet to me, and of course simply crazy about the baby. However, I made it very clear to her, without sounding harsh, that I thought it best she didn’t see Joan again. Also told her about you—not by name—but that we expected to be married shortly.”
“How did she take that?”
“In stride. The poor woman has aged badly. Blames herself for what happened to Mac, because she insisted he take over one of the stores.”
“Have they… eh… found anything more about the killer?” I asked, my voice almost calm.
“She was very bitter about the police. Claims they’ve given up the case. I talked to the lawyer about it, and he told me the cops have talked to local stoolies and are convinced it was the work of an out-of-town stick-up man.”
“Might have been some punk just passing through. No fingerprints, or any clues?”
Elma shook her head. “Not a thing. Cops told Mama Morse that in time the killer will be caught in some other robbery, confess this one.”
“Yeah, guess the police know their business,” I said. If they were waiting for me to commit another stick-up and killing, we’d both die of old age first!
“That’s what I tried to tell Mrs. Morse, but all she talks about is avenging Mac, how nothing is being done, and God is punishing her… all that.”
“But with it all, she drove a bargain—made sure you didn’t get all of Mac’s estate.”
“That’s not nice to say—half the stuff I didn’t want. Merely took the two policies, made her a sort of… well, gift with the small stuff in his account. Listen to me talk— nearly a grand and it’s small stuff!”
“You talk like a wealthy widow,” I said, kidding her.
Elma yawned. “And a tired one, too. First time I’ve been back in New York in months. Felt good, but better to be here.”
“I had a real bright day,” I said. “Borrowed Tony’s pistol, as a model for some sketches. Seemed so nice out, I decided to go hunting for rabbits. I…”
“Yes, one of those crazy urges. Never got to shooting any—lost the gun in the woods some place. Hope Tony won’t be sore. I’ll tell him to buy a new one and send me the bill.”
But when I told Tony he blew his top. I thought he was angry because the gun was a war souvenir, but he said, “Damn it, Marsh, you could have got yourself a year in the can for carrying a gun without a permit, and in a way I’d be at fault.”
“I was merely horsing around and it must have dropped out of my pocket.”
“Guns aren’t made to horse with,” Tony snapped. “Come on, let’s look around where you were walking. Some kid will find the rod and I’ll never forgive myself.”
Tony and I “searched” the woods that afternoon, the next, and most of Saturday. I kept telling him it was probably hidden in the mud and Spring weeds, would never be found, and when I took him into Riverhead and paid for a fancy target pistol he wanted, Tony calmed down.
The night of the afternoon I threw the Luger in the lake, I didn’t have any nightmares, slept smoothly. I felt so good in the morning, I started working again—touching up a head I’d done of Elma months ago. Elma always called me to watch her feed the baby, and as I watched her this time… I got an idea: a shell of a baby’s head suckling a breast… but just the nose, and part of the face, and only a part of the breast… mainly the lips clinging greedily to the nipple.
I spent the afternoon sketching on paper and liked the idea. Elma thought it was good and I tried to figure out an armature that would support the tricky figure.
I worked hard on the figure, studying Elma feeding the baby, knowing I had to get it exactly right or it wouldn’t be anything, had to really capture the spirit of feeding… if there is such a thing.
Two weeks later Elma got a registered letter with a $15,000 check attached and she deposited it in our joint checking account. When I said something about taxes, she grinned at me, said, “You know us, the tax-free kids. Mama’s lawyer took care of that. Seems legally I could ask for a share of the stores, so we agreed that for my not being a pig, they would take care of any taxes, and his fee. So I took the deal. There was…”
“Look, when will…?”
“… About a thousand bucks in odds and ends that I gave to Mama for a…”
“Skip the details. When will you stop nursing Joan?”
“Aren’t you interested in what I did for Mama?”
“Let’s cut the I-remember-mama routine,” I said almost curtly. “Forget that witch. What about you and Joan?”
“She’s over a month old, I can stop any time. Why?”
“Thought it might be an idea for us to hire a nurse for a few days, fly down to Maryland, make us both an honest married couple. We could have a second honeymoon—one all tied up in legal ribbons this time.”
That wonderful wide mouth gave me a big grin and a bigger kiss as Elma whispered, “Marsh, I do want that, want it so much, darling.”
I tried to nibble at her tongue, said, in my usual corn-ball manner, “You know of course I’m only marrying you for your money.”
“Why of course, sir, you’re such an arch villain, you probably killed my husband, you hammy dastard,” Elma said, laughing.
“Yeah, that’s me, the villain,” I said, holding on to her tightly, my voice sounding hollow as fright replaced all desire within me.
IT STARTED OUT AS A lovely summer. We spent a seven-day honeymoon traveling about Maryland, even flew over to Kentucky to be with my folks for a couple hours. I squeezed a hundred bucks into my father’s thin hand when I left. He thanked me, stared at the money and asked, “What you doing these days, Marsh?”
“I’m a sculptor. I make statues and heads and things.”
“Don’t say.” My old man fingered the five 20-dollar bills again, said, “You must make out good at it.”
“Man make himself a living at fooling with clay?”
“Very few do. I can’t.”
“Then why you doing it?” the old man asked.
“I don’t know. Guess because I like it.”
“Hmmm! Son, son, don’t you know life ain’t doing what you like?”
“No, pop. Elma and me, we try to do as much as we can of what we like to do. That’s called happiness.”
The old man shook his head and pocketed the cash. “Marsh, that’s just talk unless you got money—and you seem to have money.”
The art colony came back to Sandyhook and there was the usual heavy talk, the heavy drinking, and all of it gay and—interesting. And we had that and in addition the wonder of raising a baby. My statue of Elma… RELAXED… had won several honorable mentions, and the new one, which I called… HUNGER… was so fragile I had to make it in sections, and it gave me a hard time before it was finally cast. It caused some talk, especially when one jerky critic decided it was obscene and an insult to “motherhood,” when my agent displayed it in his gallery.
Don’t get me wrong—I wasn’t the boy wonder of the art circle, no one was shouting my name up and down 57th Street, but I was becoming known. My name would be mentioned as “promising” or as one of the “younger” artists in some of those dull Sunday bread-and-butter articles the critics wrote. But I could see I was a tiny bit important and enjoyed the feeling—from the way Sid and the others talked to me, asked my opinions. Wasn’t anything they said, but the way they said it that made me feel good.
Elma and I were completely in love and Joan was a healthy bawling baby. We decided she would be given ballet training as soon as she was old enough—not that we especially wanted her to be a dancer, but dancing gives people such wonderful bodies. Elma wanted to start having another baby—mine—but I felt it would be best if we waited a year or so.
Elma was full of little surprises: she could swim like a fish—seemed to love the sea. When I asked her where she learned to swim so well, she gave me a corny, seductive look with her almond eyes, said, “You know the gag… I was a call girl in Venice! Father taught me to swim soon as I could stand.”
She and Joan practically lived on the beach, Joan even crawling around in the water. They were both tanned a deep nut brown and I loved to watch Elma take off her bathing suit, the creamy white of her breasts and hips in happy contrast to the brown of her body. I decided to do a terra-cotta figure of her in the nude… the UNDRESSED BATHER… made several water-color sketches, finally decided to do her from the waist up and accentuate the whiteness of her bosom by making the nipples a deep red.
My agent was excited about it and I even crushed bricks to mix with the clay, for heating… but somehow I was too busy bathing and going to parties to work. I had the sketches down, would work on the clay during the winter.
Elma was quite popular with the summer crowd. They were happy she was part Lapp—having never seen a Laplander—and they trooped into our house to hear her old records, get into hot, wordy arguments over King Oliver and Bix and Bunny Berrigan, the atomic bomb, and anything else that came to mind. We hired a part-time nurse to look after Joan, purchased a second-hand boat with a new outboard, some ridiculous yacht caps, and did a lot of fishing.
We were really eating high up on the hog.
Elma and I had our little spats, too. She felt we should live abroad while we had the money, while I wanted to play it safe—make our cash last as long as possible. Elma said, “You yourself told your father happiness is doing what you like to do. Way things are, all this war talk, let’s enjoy ourselves. Joan has her own money. If after a year or two we end up starving artists, hell with it, I’ll go back to punishing a typewriter.”
She gave up the idea of Europe, after reading all the travel ads, when I pointed out she would have passport trouble, due to her non-citizenship. We compromised on seeing California and maybe Mexico during the winter. With everything, we were living cheaply, spending money only for food and rent.
Sid, and some toy manufacturer who was interested in art, were working on the idea of plastic reproductions. They worked hard but ran into several snags. They made some transparent heads, but the transparency robbed all realness, and when we experimented with colors—a foggy gray, white, blue, the figures somehow reminded us of piggy banks. But we all had hopes of it making our fortune, some day.
All in all I was never so happy in my life—till one Sunday early in August. One of the painters always made a point of inviting Negroes down. Knowing I was from Kentucky, he seemed to get a bang out of introducing them to me.
Actually, since I was raised in a mill town and the mill only hired whites, I never saw a Negro when I was a kid. I suppose I grew up with some sort of prejudice instilled in me, but I lost that with my drawl while scuffling for a living in New York. Outside of admiring the works of Barthe, a Negro sculptor, I didn’t especially like or dislike Negroes…. I never thought of people as a race, but merely as persons.
This week-end the painter had a West Indian down, a middle-aged dark-brown man named Sandler, whose heavy body was still fairly muscular, and a face with an interesting high forehead and sharp cheek-bones. Sandler was some sort of union leader on the water front, and in his lousy, patronizing manner, the painter insisted I take Sandler fishing in my boat. Being from the islands, Sandler was nuts about fishing.
I wanted to study his face, and as I was going out anyway, I was glad to have company. He had an odd, sloppy English accent, and was fond of talking. As we fished, not getting much outside of some small porgies and one weakfish, he kept telling me about his work as an organizer of the rank and file along the water front.
He talked a lot; about the corruption on the docks, the stealing and dope racket, the gangster control. “And the stoolies,” he said. “We had this white joker started to hang around our group, and the sonofabitch turned out to be a dick, like I suspected.”
“From one of these un-American committees?” I asked, because I had to say something. I relit my pipe and watched the muscles of his big face as he talked. I had his head firmly in mind, but didn’t want to look like an “artist” and start sketching as we were bouncing around on the waves.
Sandler laughed. He didn’t have white teeth or a flashing smile, merely bad teeth. “That’s what we thought. Like to give us a fit. But turned out he was just a private dick hunting for a punk. Seems there was a hold-up and a killing in New Jersey and… I don’t know what made them think a longshoreman did it, but this guy was just nosing around. So we…”
I didn’t move. I bit through the stem of my pipe and my guts began turning over and I thought I was going to puke.
For a while I didn’t say a word, let him talk on. But when we ran into a school of king fish and Sandler started remembering the fishing he did in Trinidad as a kid, I said, “This fellow hunting for a murderer—what did you say his name was?”
“You mean the guy who was killed? Some clown who ran a jewelry shop over in Newark.”
“I mean the dick?”
“Used a phony name with us, of course, but when we got suspicious of him, he was ducking too many real jobs, we did a little snooping on our own. Name is Harry Logan. Why do you ask?”
“No special reason,” I said, hoping my voice wasn’t shaking. “Don’t have much to read out here in the winter, so we read every line in the papers, including all the murders. Remember that case.”
Sandler reeled in a two-pound king, said, “All you see is crime headlines. I say only way to cure crime is to cure the society that makes it necessary to rob to eat or…”
I waited till he was done making his speech, asked, “And that dick, he was a real cop or a private snooper?”
“Private dick. We got the whole story out of him. Some woman in Newark had hired him, given him a few bucks and offered a reward. He told us everything—to get off the stoolie hook. That’s the trouble, always suspect hard working people, especially black people, although it turned out he was looking for a white man. But of course they never investigate the gangsters who run the docks and…”
I had a nibble but didn’t even bother hitting the line. So Mama Morse had to put a dick on my trail! Things were going too well for me, something had to spoil it. Nothing was over, forgotten, that bastard, Mac, was still harassing me—us, even from the grave.
A sudden cramp nearly doubled me up. I started to sweat and Sandler asked what was wrong and I told him, “Nature is calling. Get your line in for a moment.”
Peeling off my trunks, I jumped over and holding on to the anchor rope, I relieved myself, which isn’t as easy as it sounds.
The water brought me back to my senses. Climbing back into the boat, I put my trunks on and started to make a lot of chatter—getting Sandler to talk about the islands, fishing, anything… And all the time I was frightened stiff at how close I’d come to giving myself away. We hadn’t talked about Mac’s death in Sandyhook, of course, but the postman knew Elma’s “maiden” name was Morse, and all Sandler had to do was hear that, or notice my sudden nervousness, tie it up with my sudden interest in the dick and… it wouldn’t take much to add that up.
After awhile we cleaned our fish and, like all newcomers, Sandler was amazed at how close the gulls came around us—fighting over the fish heads and insides. Cleaning fish is an aid to thinking, just as I find sweeping or mopping a floor helps me think.
I did some furious thinking.
So there was a private dick named Harry Logan on the case. Mac’s mother had said she didn’t think much of the police efforts, so she had hired this detective. But what did I have to worry about? This… Logan… was obviously running around in little blind circles, still going for that freight hook, the longshoreman idea. Actually he had nothing to connect me with the killing—if I played it smart. He was getting paid, so of course he’d run down any clue. Well, let him run himself crazy, use up the old lady’s dough looking for a fat, dark-haired longshoreman with an accent— that guy was another world removed from me.
Sure, I was safe. Even if he came out and questioned Elma for possible clues, there was little chance of his getting suspicious of me… there were millions of short guys. And he mustn’t have considered Elma as having any leads, or he would have been out long before this.
By the time we docked, I felt fine, had convinced myself I had nothing to worry about. Hell, these private dicks were known to charge thirty to fifty bucks a day and Sandler had said this incident happened a month ago. By this time the old lady had probably spent all she was going to spend on the case and Harry Logan was off her payroll. Anyway, long as he was fooling around the water front, I was safe.
But I had a few uneasy nights over it, started worrying about fingerprints again, then forgot it. I had other things on my mind—we had an auto accident.
We had invited Sid and his wife over for supper and Elma thought we ought to have lobsters. It was a bright day, with little breeze, and we took the baby and headed for Three Mile Harbor, where you can buy lobsters weighing from one to twenty pounds. Three Mile Harbor is past Easthampton and would be a nice ride for us. They also sold excellent crab cakes and we usually stuffed ourselves with half a dozen or so on the spot, like hungry kids… which was the real reason we drove out there instead of trying one of the markets in Riverhead.
As we were nearing Riverhead, a low slung foreign car tried to pass me, cut in ahead of us sharply, taking off our left fender and bumper and giving us a severe jolt.
Happily Joan was sleeping in Elma’s arms, so nobody was hurt. But I was angry because the bastard never even stopped. His car was one of these very light jobs and I figured he’d probably done more damage to his buggy than to our heavier Chewy. I stepped on the gas—after we tossed the fender and bumper in the back of the car— and sure enough, less than two miles down the road I overtook him, his right wire wheel wobbling like crazy.
Forcing him to the side of—the road, I jumped out. A pale, thin fellow of about 22—one of these bow-tie and crew-cut lads with a silly face—sat behind the wheel. He stuck a whole pack of butts up to his thin lips, then jerked it away, leaving a cigarette pasted to his mouth, waved at me and mumbled, “Sorry.” He must have practiced that cigarette deal for a long time.
“Sorry? You didn’t even bother to stop, you dumb sonofabitch!”
“Stop? I nearly turned over, took me a mile to get the car under control and…”
“Send that crock of crap C.O.D. to somebody else!”
He looked me over, decided I was too short, said, “No need for all the big talk. I’m insured.” He crawled out of his car and I don’t know how he ever got in it—he was six feet tall, but all skin and bones.
We went through the routine of taking each other’s license number. I told him I wasn’t insured but it didn’t matter, since it was clearly his fault. He was getting up more courage by the second, said, “No insurance? And driving a wreck like that? Why even the potato pickers have better cars than your…”
“Keep your trap shut, buster. Having insurance doesn’t cover up your hit-and-run deal. We might have been lying dead beside the road for all you care.”
“Happen to be in a bit of a rush, so let’s cut the dramatics and get…”
I socked him in the belly, right where his gray flannels and dark blue silk polo shirt met. Elma came running out of our car as big boy doubled up and sank to the road… and started to weep!
Actually I hadn’t hit him hard because I wasn’t sure if I wanted to wallop him and had only half swung. Elma said, “Shouldn’t have done that, Marsh. He drunk?”
“Naw, merely a spoiled brat. He isn’t hurt.”
Elma looked down at him, finally said, “Oh stop crying and get up. My goodness, you look positively silly, sitting there and crying like a baby.”
Riverhead is a county seat and you see more prowl cars than in other areas of Long Island. While we were standing there, a police car stopped and a handsome young cop came over and asked what was wrong. We told him and the cop pulled the kid to his feet and shook him. The kid began crying louder than ever, but when he mumbled his name, a sort of servile tone of respect crept into the cop’s voice and I knew this must be a real rich kiddy.
The cop came over to us and whispered, “You know he could have you pinched on an assault charge? However…”
could? Why he…!”
“… However I think he’ll drop it if you’ll forget the hit-and-run business. Best to make it a civil thing and let the insurance company take over.”
“I don’t know how he got a license in the first place. Acts like a moron,” I said as Elma touched my shoulder, pointed to our car. The radiator was leaking. “Goddamn, look at that and we’re at least twenty-five miles from home!”
“Let me drive you to a garage,” the cop said. “One not far…”
“I’m not for running up any tow bill.”
“Forget the charges, he’ll take care of it.”
“He will? I didn’t hear Slim say anything about that or…!”
“He will,” the cop said like he knew a lot more than he was saying. “Just drive straight ahead. We’ll follow.”
Elma and I got in our Chewy and drove slowly, the cop car followed, and crew-cut brought up the end of this sorry parade. We reached a service station in a cloud of steam and had hardly been there any time when a smooth Packard roadster pulled up, a heavy-set bald man at the wheel. He was either a relation of the kid, or the head butler, or maybe merely the boy’s keeper. He bawled the brat out—but politely—then came over to us and I didn’t catch his name, but it wasn’t the same as Slim’s. He said, “I’m terribly sorry about all this. Suppose you leave your car here and I will have it completely repaired?”
“Rather have my own mechanic do it.”
“As you wish. Have you called him?”
I phoned Len’s garage and Len said he’d send his oldest kid with the tow jeep and I told him to come himself, and he said he was busy—in fact he seemed a little annoyed. But he finally came driving up in a battered jeep he loved. He said it would cost a hundred and fifty bucks, including towing, to fix up the Chewy. Crew-cut had the wheel of his European struggle-buggy repaired and seemed to have disappeared. But the smooth character in the Packard didn’t argue with Len, merely wrote out a check, and Len chained our car to his jeep and drove off.
Elma, who seemed amused by it all, said, “Well, no car, * no lobsters.”
Executive-type made with a slight bow. “My car is at your service. I shall be happy to drive you wherever you are going.”
We rode out to Three Mile Harbor in style, bought four fighting lobsters, had some crab cakes, and this guy not only paid for everything, saying, “Least I can do for the inconvenience you’ve been caused,” but also drove us home.
I had an idea the brat had been in plenty of accidents and his family was afraid one more and he might lose his license, or even land in the jug. I bet if we’d held out, we could have got real dough from them.
That night Len called me. “I can fix your car, Jameson, but frankly it isn’t worth putting that kind of money into it. Can get you about… maybe… another hundred and fifty for it as it stands. Gives you three hundred toward either a new car or a good second-hand job. I got a new Buick— only has 4,000 miles on her—that’s a steal for fifteen hundred bucks. Means cost you $1,200. It’s a buy.”
I told him I’d think it over, drop in to see him in the morning. When I told Elma she said, “That’s a bright idea. If we’re driving to California this winter, we’ll need a decent car. Maybe we ought to consider buying a new one.”
I was busy the next morning. Somebody had lent me a book on Calder’s mobiles, and I was all for making myself a mobile. I had a good idea. Start with a heavy iron hook, and suspended from that little figures of seaweed, clams, shells, and suspended from those, a blow fish. I was off on this terra-cotta craze, and I wanted to catch all the bright colors of the fish, the almost human fat face, the green jewel eyes. I spent most of the morning making water-color sketches, wondering if it was hard to get a mobile in balance. Around lunch time, when I was walking to the beach, I remembered the car and called the garage. Len’s kid said his pop was in New York, wouldn’t be back till the next morning.
The following morning Elma borrowed Sid’s car to do her shopping and when she came back, I drove over to see Len. He seemed a little upset as he showed me the Buick, which really looked new. I told him, “We’re planning a trip to California this winter. Will this car hold up, or should we buy a new one?”
“Why… eh…” Len was staring at the car without seeing it, his mind a million miles away. I just stood there, waiting. After a long moment he snapped out of it, asked, “Like the car, Mr. Jameson?”
“Sure. Just told you so. Will this hold up on a trip to the Coast?”
“What? The Coast? Sure, sure.”
I laughed. “Have a rough night in the city, Len?” I vaguely remembered he was a widower… maybe he went to town now and then… to go to town.
“I had a terrible day yesterday. I’m in a kind of jam.”
“God, I wish it was just money. Know this reservoir some miles out from here? Well, month or so ago my boy was fishing there. Not supposed to, but you can catch some mighty fine bass. All the kids around here sneak in some fishing there. Well…”
“Game warden slap a ticket on him?”
Len shook his gray head. “Worse than that, much worse. See, the kid fished up a pistol, one of these German guns. Water ain’t hurt it much, so I take it apart, dry and oil it up and it works fine. Only I get to thinking I don’t want no pistol around with the kids. Rifle is okay, but a pistol…. You listening, Mr. Jameson?”
“Yes, I’m listening,” I said quietly, my voice sounding as though I was talking into an echo chamber.
I knew at that moment it was all over, the world seemed to be squeezing in around me. I was caught. Murder had caught up with me, as it always does, I suppose. Odd, the little things that you couldn’t figure on… that private dick… and now a kid fishing up the gun. Odds were probably a million to one against anybody hooking the gun… but somebody had. A kid, excited at his catch. Only he couldn’t have known he had caught me on that hook.
“… Guess you never met my younger brother Bud, Mr. Jameson. He’s a photographer in New York. Anyway, he wanted the gun and I was glad to get rid of the thing. Well, sir, the darnedest thing happened: Bud’s got a combination studio-office and apartment, and the place is robbed by some sneak thief. Bud must have caught him in the act because the guy fled up the fire escape to the roof, and run away. But it turned out he left a pillow case with the loot in it on top of a skylight. Just threw it up there while he was running. The spunky bastard returns the next day and picks it up. Well, Bud… You ain’t sick or nothing, Mr. Jameson? Seem kind of pale.”
“Stuffed myself with lobster last two days,” I said, a strange calm, low voice that didn’t seem to belong to me. I heard my own voice like a man listening to a judge sentencing him to death… a sentence expected.
“Want a glass of water? Maybe a shot?”
I shook my head. “I’m all right.”
“Well, sir, to make a long story short, Bud reported the robbery, of course. The robber didn’t take much, but Bud lost some equipment worth a couple hundred and if you report a theft you can deduct it from your taxes. Bud forgot all about it till last week a cop comes to his studio and says they found the crook. Picked him up for carrying a gun in a bar brawl, and it turns out this very Luger is checked by the cops and it’s a gun that killed some man over in Newark….”
Killed some man over in Newark….
The words cut through my brain like a knife. Everybody in the world seemed to know about it. A nobody, a lousy mama’s boy like Mac is shot, and suddenly it becomes interstate gossip. That crack about it being a small world… it was making a noose around my not-so-small neck.
“… Of course they try to pin the killing on this here sneak thief. A youngster too. Telling you, kids these days scare the pants off me. But it turns out this kid had a perfect alibi, he was in the army at the time of the killing. So he tells the cops where he got the rod—in Bud’s apartment. Now Bud ain’t got no gun permit and he plays it cool—says it’s all a lie. Since the crook admits he left the stuff he stole on the roof overnight, Bud suggests maybe whoever owned the gun might have stuck it in the pillow, on the roof. Well sir…”
“That’s a good out,” I said, my lips moving on their own, as if they weren’t a part of me. I don’t know why I bothered to talk. I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to do a thing but flee… get out of the world.
“Mr. Jameson, Bud is a sharp thinker. Always had a good head on him. They question Bud as to where he was on the day of this murder and he also has a perfect alibi—a magazine sent him to Chicago to cover a convention. Well, sir, you know how the police are—human beings—not looking for no extra work. The New York cops say the case belongs to the New Jersey cops and the Jersey police, well they got the gun but they don’t know whose it is. They check on Bud again and then drop the case. Bud don’t hear nothing more about it. This thief gets a year under the Sullivan Law and a suspended sentence for robbing Bud, in fact Bud even gets some of his stuff back from a hock shop. Tell you, we all breathed a sigh of relief, might of got Bud and me and my kid in a peck of trouble.”
“You mean… that’s the end of it?” My voice suddenly came alive, became my voice again.
“That’s what we thought. Bud didn’t tell me this, but last week a private detective drops in to see Bud. He tells…”
“A private dick?”
“Yep. Brash fellow, too. Tells Bud right to his face he believes the crook, that it was Bud’s gun. Seems he’s working on the case. He don’t say Bud did the killing, mind you. Fact is, he promises to keep Bud’s name out of things, if Bud will only tell where he got the gun. Bud don’t fall for that because if the police ever knew he lied… well, you know how it is in those things.”
“I know,” I said, my voice weary and dead again.
“Now this Logan, the detective, he ain’t got no rights like a real cop has and Bud sends him packing. Only this Logan is a sharp one. You see…”
“Too sharp,” I mumbled. And I thought: So sharp he’ll cut my heart out, slice my life to pieces.
“You see, photographers, doctors, people like that, get a lot of small cash fees and well… you know… don’t always keep records. They don’t make out truthful income tax reports either. They all do that. This detective, he starts snooping around and tells Bud he’ll get him on a tax charge if he don’t come clean about the gun. Bud is plenty worried. Calls me into town yesterday and we have a long talk.”
“You talked to Logan… I think that’s what you said the dick’s name was…?” I asked, my voice so very polite, the polite voice of a talking corpse.
“No, no, Mr. Jameson, not with him, what to do about him,” Len said, impatiently. “Thing is, Bud don’t want him snooping around his customers. Scares them away, and suppose he finds something, turns Bud in for a tax dodger? Be messy. Either way he’s got us over a barrel with our pants down. What Bud wanted to discuss with me. Suppose he tells the guy where he really got the gun, then what happens to me, my kid? I mean, we have to decide whether we trust this bird, make a deal with him.”
“Did you make a deal?”
“Naw—not yet. Hell, I don’t want to do no year in the can for not reporting a gun. And I sure don’t want them to send my kid to no reform school. This is real serious. Bud had a chat with this dick, told him he was getting to be a pain in Bud’s rear, and they got an appointment to talk again this Saturday. Be a showdown. By then we got to decide whether to tell him or fight him. You know, Mr. Jameson, I shouldn’t be telling you this or…”
“Damn right you shouldn’t! Got to watch your mouth, Len. For Christsakes, they make saints out of stoolies these days—never know who you’re talking to,” I said curtly, marveling at the anger in my voice. What did it matter if I was angry or not—now? What did anything matter? But if Tony heard this…. I don’t know, guess that crack about hope springing eternal is true, for I still had a faint ray of hope… hope that made me sick to my guts. But it was there, waiting for me to turn to it.
“Absolutely right,” Len said, looking me over. “Of course I know I don’t have to worry about you, Mr. Jameson. And…”
“I’ve forgotten every word you said. Told anybody else?”
“Not a soul. Guess I simply had to get this off my chest to somebody, why I spilled it to you. Feel better now that I’ve talked it out, too.”
“Best you don’t tell anybody else. Same goes for your son.”
“Sure. Got my kid so scared he wouldn’t let out a peep. Well, been burdening you with my troubles and thanks for listening—and forgetting. Now what you want to do about the car?”
“The car?” That faint ray of ‘hope’—there was only one thing I could do… murder is a sickness, a trap, a one-way street with only one possible out—another murder. This Harry Logan had to be killed before Saturday, for once the trail led to Len, to this neighborhood, to Elma, everything would point toward me. The simplest deduction would turn up…
“About the car, Mr. Jameson?”
“Yeah, the car. Why… I don’t know.”
“This Buick is a real steal, and that’s no sales talk. Won’t be able to hold it for long—guy needs cash badly. Of course, you want to fix up your old car, that’s up to you.”
“We’ll probably take the Buick. Have to…. to… eh… talk it over with my wife,” I said, wondering why at the moment I wasted time on a car. A gun was what I needed. Good God, where would this killing stop? Would I ever be in the clear? Did Logan have a partner? Had he told the cops what he thought about the gun and Bud’s story? Would Mama Morse hire another dick, another snooper trying to spoil my happiness, my life?
“That okay, Mr. Jameson?”
I jumped. “What? Sorry, seem to be daydreaming. What did you say?”
“I said today’s Tuesday, you talk it over and I’ll wait till Friday before I show it to anybody else. Okay?”
“Yes. I’ll call you tomorrow. Maybe tonight,” I said, talking without thinking.
I drove back to the house and told Elma about the Buick, talked to her calmly, as though I was interested… and all the time I felt like a bystander, an eavesdropper.
She thought we should buy the Buick and I called Len and said we would probably take it, but Elma wanted to see it. He said he’d drive it over to our place Thursday or Friday and we could settle the deal.
I went out to my studio, lit my pipe, stared at my sketches of the blow-fish mobile. How unimportant all that seemed now! It had taken all my courage, everything I could get up, to kill Mac. In a way it helped that I hated him… but now… to shoot down this Logan, to kill a man I’d never seen or talked to… in sheer cold blood. I wasn’t sure I could do it.
And could I get away with it… again? Again. I was getting to be an old hand at murder. Would it be again and again and again and…?
Sid came over to drive us to the beach and I mechanically got into my trunks, held the baby, even took part in the small talk, discussed my idea of the mobile, as we drove. And all the time my inner mind was working like an adding machine, turning over and discarding ideas—ways of killing.
I still had that same old advantage—Logan didn’t know me from a hole in the wall. I’d have to see what he looked like, then surprise him, ambush him. And the gun?
Good God, I ought to at least buy the tools of my new trade!
And the gun? I could steal Tony’s new revolver, but would the same scheme work again? One thing—if Logan was killed the cops would certainly learn about Mama Morse, but unless Logan had told anybody about Bud and the gun, the cops would be right back where they started— looking for the swarthy fat man who shot Mac… and now Logan. The same old false trail, but for a double murderer this time. What about Bud? Would he run to the cops when he heard about Logan dying?
Bud might… but it was a fifty-fifty chance. From what Len told me the only idea Bud had was to get out from under. I’d have to chance his clamming up. Christ, all the things I’d have to chance! Was my luck still riding, or was I pushing it too hard?
Everybody is lucky—only one can’t tell if it’s good or bad luck ’til it’s too late to matter.
It was all crazy: I lay on the beach and sunned myself, as though the sun or lack of sun was the main thing wrong with my health, my chances of being alive a year from now. I joked and played around with Elma in the water, and under it all only one thing was on my mind—murder.
That night I even slept and in the morning there was a letter from my agent, he had a possible buyer for the bronze of the baby’s lips sucking Elma’s breast. It was a legitimate reason for going to town… and I made up my mind I’d kill Logan that day.
Just like that, practically on the spur of the moment, I decided to take a man’s life. I wondered if I was crazy, or was the violence in the air so great these days that taking a life seems almost normal?
I didn’t know how I would go about it, but I felt a certain sense of relief that I had made up my mind, that within a few hours things would be settled for me, one way or the other.
I borrowed Sid’s car and stopped off at the Alvins to ask Alice if she wanted anything from the city. She and a woman in one of the summer cottages were going to make a big outdoor barbecue and while Alice went to ask what sauces they’d need…. It was so easy to find a gun, take it… a long-barreled target automatic… lighter than the Luger. What a gun expert I was becoming!
Crossing the Tri-Borough Bridge I suddenly turned off into the Bronx and drove around aimlessly. North of the Yankee Stadium I came upon this old residential section that almost looked like the side street of a small town. I found a little alley that had this square wooden house on one side, the drawn dusty shades evidence it was either empty, or maybe shut for the summer. On the other side of the alley were these nice high hedges that needed trimming, then a wide open lot and a small modern brick house. The alley ran around the old wooden house to an unused garage. Back of the garage there was the exposed skeleton of an apartment house foundation—a house that was probably started way back during the depression years and never finished. This was surrounded by a sagging wooden fence that kids had knocked down in several places, and a street with more private houses.
I looked the scene over as though it was all a stage set, something especially built for what I had in mind—a personal drama.
Suddenly everything fell in place: if I could only get Logan in the alley, a quick shot that nobody would notice… Sid’s car waiting in front of the sagging fence on the other street… me rushing across the old foundation and a clean get-away.
It sounded too easy, too simple, and yet I knew its very simplicity was in my favor. There were no complicated plans here to go wrong… I’d lucked up on this place by chance, nothing to identify me with it again.
I drove downtown and called my agent. He was out and I left my name, said I was coming into town from Sandyhook and would call later in the afternoon; even that was a sort of alibi—a mild one.
Driving over to Newark made me feel a bit queasy… I kept thinking over and over—the murderer returning to the scene of his crime. Harry Logan was in the book. I figured him for a small, one-man agency… he’d been doing all this snooping himself… and I knew I was right when he answered the phone himself, saying, “Yes? Logan speaking.” He had a dull, clear voice.
“Are you Harry Logan, the private detective?”
“Not the, but a private detective. Who’s this?”
“Free to do some work today?”
“Maybe. Who is this?”
“Tell you when we talk. Have some shadowing I want done. I’m willing to pay well for it.”
“Fine. Come up to my office and start talking. Anybody who can pay well is more than welcome in my…”
“I can’t come up to your office,” I said. “I think I’m… eh… being followed. Explain it all when I see you. Can you meet me in about ten minutes? I’m a big guy in a baggy tweed suit, bald head.”
“Funny way to do business. Why can’t…?”
“This is a kind of funny case. Mean a hundred bucks for a few hours’ work.”
“Got yourself a boy, baggy tweed. Where do we meet?’
I was phoning from a drugstore across from his office. “There’s a drugstore across the street from your place. I’ll be able to be outside there in ten minutes. What do you look like?”
“Tall, girls sometimes tell me I’m handsome—even when they’re sober. I’m wearing a blue suit and a brown coconut straw,” Logan said, as though I amused him.
“Okay, ten minutes,” I said and hung up.
I drove around the block twice and even stopped at the drugstore for a red light. Logan was tall and handsome, didn’t look at all like a dick—nothing tough about him.
I drove north and when I came across the George Washington Bridge, I parked and called him again. “This is baggy tweed, Mr. Logan. Sorry I couldn’t keep our date.”
“What is this, a rib?”
“Oh no, this is on the level. For…”
He said, “I don’t like this.”
I said quickly, afraid he’d get off the hook, “You see, I got scared. It’s… eh… sort of dangerous for me to be in New Jersey. Process server after me.”
“Gotcha. This a divorce case?”
“Why… yes. Any objections?”
“Nope, long as you put the green on the line. How do we get together?”
“It’s one-thirty. Have you a car?”
“It’s been called that.”
“Suppose you come to New York, to my place in the Bronx? If you use the George Washington Bridge, shouldn’t take you more than an hour to get there. Let’s make it for three.”
“Right. What’s the address?”
I gave him the address of the house in the Bronx, added, “My wife has been giving me a hard time, so if the shades are down, don’t worry. Don’t want her to know I’m living there. Just come around to the back door. I’ll give you fifty dollars then, and another fifty by seven tonight, when you tell me who she’s seeing for supper.”
“Got yourself a deal. Only, be there—this is a long ride, chum.”
“I’ll be there. This means a great deal to me.”
I drove up to the Bronx, parked the car on the street side of the sagging fence and old foundation. There wasn’t a soul on the street, the kids must have been in a neighborhood pool, or park. Walking around the block to the deserted house, I passed a woman wheeling a baby carriage—no one else in sight. I knew my luck was with me, I’d stumbled on the ideal spot for murder. It was two-twelve. My seersucker coat was wet with sweat and my mouth sandy dry. I had to walk three blocks before I found a candy store. A bottle of soda made me feel a little better, only I wished the soda had been a whisky bracer.
Walking back slowly, I turned into the alley as though I owned the place, sat on the back steps. I put my hand in my right pocket, made sure the safety was off the gun….
The sky turned a grayish blue… as though it was all a blue wash on which a drop of black had been spilled. I wondered if I was losing my sight. I wanted to ask Logan, who was pacing up and down beside me, staring at my stomach every few minutes with a worried look.
But when I opened my mouth to ask him about the sky, the air was as thick as a huge marshmallow and all I could do was chew on it. It felt good whenever I was able to swallow a little of the air. It stunk a bit, too, a rotten, over-sweet smell.
Logan muttered—and it was amazing how clearly I could hear even the smallest sounds. “Hope your wife gets here soon. Almost an hour now. Cops will come any minute and unless she gets here first or…”
He suddenly stiffened, held out a hand for me to be quiet —which was comical—as we both heard a car stop out in the street with the weird scream of tortured rubber. I heard the sound of people running up the alley… then Elma came into focus and behind her I saw the frightened face of Alice.
Logan grabbed Elma as she came toward me, her face ugly with hysteria. He shook her, said something in her ear, glancing at Alice. I saw her lips move and she pushed him aside and knelt next to me. She was wearing a strapless summer dress and I noticed the creamy white of the rise of her breasts as she bent over me—in pleasant contrast to her tan shoulders. I’d never do that terra-cotta nude of her now. I’d never do a damn thing any more…
She moaned, “Oh Marsh… Marsh,” and tears rushed from those wonderful slant eyes. The lovely mouth, the fine body, the ideas and jokes we had in common… all the things I loved and thought would always be mine… the things I murdered to keep… and now was losing.
I had only one thing more to do—try to explain to Elma why I did it. But when I opened my mouth, the air came in thick as spongy rubber. I kept chewing on it, trying to talk.
I moved my jaws hard… I had to tell her! But when I swallowed to clear my throat, another chunk of the sticky air stopped up my mouth.
I knew then I wouldn’t be able to explain things to her and that made me sad, hurt. I made one last effort to clear my throat, but the hunk of air in my mouth merely moved down to my Adam’s apple and stuck there and I began to choke.
I must have blacked out while I was gagging, for when I opened my eyes again I thought the blue sky had fallen on us. There was a wall of dark blue behind Elma… and a streak of white. Then I knew I was looking at the legs of a lot of cops and the streak of white was merely the pants of the ambulance doc.
Keeping awake was a long effort. The air was still stuffing my mouth and I could hardly breathe. Elma was bending over me, her eyes the tenderest things I’d ever seen. I looked into those wonderful eyes… tried to tell her with my own why I’d done all this… the gamble I’d taken, the horrible crime I’d committed… all for our happiness.
Her big lips were moving but I didn’t hear a sound. I swallowed a few times, barely moving the chunk of air clogging my throat. Then—as if an invisible door had been opened—I heard her say, “Marsh, and if what they say is true… that you shot Mac… it was all my fault! I—I brought all this misery to you…. But, darling, if you had only told me!” She began to weep again, her tears falling on my face like a caress.
My eyes smiled up at her, trying to say she’d given me the only happiness I’d ever known and I was grateful.
She sobbed. “Marsh, Marsh… if you had… told me!”
I pushed the chunk of air to one side of my mouth with my tongue. I moved my hand, trying to touch her face— and nearly fainted with the effort. With my eyes I wanted to say, “Elma, what difference would it have made if I had told you? Only make you upset. And this goddamn professional busybody, this Logan, would have got me—us—and there would be the scandal of a long trial and the chair waiting at the end of the line, the…”
Then she said it… how clear I heard her words!
“Marsh, sweet, you see…. I hired Logan. To make the old lady feel better. And if I’d known it was… you…” She looked up and Logan’s ordinary face came into view as he whispered, “Sure, Mr. Jameson, I’d have kept my mouth shut. I’m only paid to find out things, not to do anything about it. Why… when you told me your name… why I stalled calling the cops… till Mrs. Jameson came.”
“Marsh, we have so much ahead of us. You must get well and somehow we’ll fight this out and…” Elma’s voice ended in a hopeless sob and her tears wet my eyes.
The crazy irony of the whole mess hit me. So Elma had hired Logan! Sweet Jesus—if I had known! He probably would have blackmailed us, but I’d still have Elma and the baby… our life.
I wanted to laugh, to cry…. Marsh Jameson the clever boy, and all the time life had been laying in ambush, laughing at me, waiting for this final twist of the knife in the back, this last kick in the groin fate had been saving up for me.
I opened my mouth wide to laugh and this big solid chunk of air slipped in. I tried to shove it out but it went down my throat like a cork in a bottle. I couldn’t chew it. I began to choke, to gag…. I knew I was dying now.
I thought, Death, you miserable bastard, get away from me…. Death, sneaking up in the shape of a hard hunk of smelly air.
Elma’s large mouth suddenly twisted open to form a grotesque circle and a scream came tearing out, a scream that seemed to cover me with sound, and I began drifting away on it. I tried to fight, like a swimmer bucking the tide.
The choking in my throat made an odd rattling sound. Elma screamed and screamed and the doctor in white bent over me, but her tears hit my eyes, seemed to dim things. It seemed as though I was falling through a telescope, Elma’s Screaming face was growing smaller and more indistinct in the distance.
Her screams were growing heavier and heavier—around me, carrying me away on the sound. I was floating on the sound waves and then Elma’s face became a blur and I was sinking in the waves… sinking and… sinking fast….