Книга: The Man with the Golden Arm
Назад: The Man with the Golden Arm PART ONE Rumors of Evening
Дальше: Afterword Glassesby Studs Terkel


Act of Contrition

F. SCOTT FITZGERALD In the real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning, day after day.
Frankie lived by day beside the ceaseless, dumping shuffle of the three-legged elephant which was the laundry’s sheet-rolling machine. When he piled onto his narrow pad in the long dim-lit dorm at night and turned his face to the whitewashed wall, the three-legged elephant of the mangle roller followed, galumphing, through dreams wherein he dealt Record Head Bednar hand after hand while Louie Fomorowski watched from behind the captain’s chair. Night after night.
When the lights were down all voices were subdued. Down the long and low-roofed hall the good boys slept: the laundry and the bakery workers, the printshop typesetters and the boys who sat in classrooms and accepted their sentences with the dry, hard-bitten humor of old contented soldiers. These were the ones who had convinced the chaplain that they were really going straight this time. Frankie too had convinced the chaplain.
It had been harder to convince a certain ex-army major. ‘That vein been injured,’ he’d told Frankie in the infirmary on Frankie’s very first morning. ‘How long you been punchin’ holes in it?’
‘I been on the sleeve since I got out of the army, Doc,’ Frankie told him.
‘How big a habit you got, son?’
‘Not too big. I go for a quarter grain a day.’
‘Big enough. But I’ve seen them come in here hooked worse than that ’n still kick it. In here you got to kick it. When you get sick I’ll taper you off and if you behave yourself you’ll be out for Thanksgiving and have it kicked for keeps. Still, there’s boys in here who’ll tell you they can get you anything from heroin to gage for a price – forget it. Capone couldn’t afford the price. But if you get out of line any time you’re in here – remember that you’re on the books as a user. I’ll get you shipped to Lexington ’n that won’t be for a week end the way it used to be. That’ll be six months added. I tell you now for your own good and I won’t tell you again.’
Frankie gave him the grin. ‘I’ll tough it out, Doc.’
After that Frankie slipped into a life like the life of the barracks he had known for three years. Orders were given matter-of-factly without threats; and were obeyed complacently. Most of the men kept themselves as clean as if preparing for retreat each evening and most, out of sheer boredom, attended services in the pink-and-white chapel on Sunday morning. And each good soldier counted his two days off a month, for good behavior, like money in the bank and well earned.
All but Applejack Katz, with a long-term lease on the cot next to Frankie’s own: a man who daily risked his good-conduct time for the sake of a certain jar fermenting under the ventilator. He’d bought cider from one of the kitchen workers and, at every meal where boiled potatoes were served, stole the skins and made Frankie steal them too. He added the potato skins to the cider after lights out and was only waiting for a chance to snatch a few white-bread crusts. ‘When we get them crusts it’ll only take a week after that,’ he promised Frankie. He leaned across the cot to add a low warning word:
‘I seen you come out of the infirmary your first morning, Dealer. My advice to you is look out for the major. He’s a psycho. What he’ll do to you is to get you so square you’ll never have another day’s pleasure in your life.’
Katz glanced about the dormitory with a look so swift and furtive Frankie was reminded, with a troubling pang, of Sparrow Saltskin.
‘Listen. They sent me to a psycho eight years ago. I was forty-five then ’n if I’d worked two full weeks in my life I don’t remember where. If anyone had told me, eight years ago, I’d go to work for eight hours a day six days a week and stick at it over two years I would of give him hundred to one against it.’ N I would of lost.’ Cause that’s just how square I got.
‘For two years I was off the booze, off the women, off the horses, off the dice. I even got engaged to get married in a church. All I done that whole time was run a freight elevator up ’n down, up ’n down. It scares me when I think of it now: I come near losin’ everything.’
Applejack lay back in the very real relief of one snatched from the eternal fires, at the last possible moment, straight up into Salvation Everlasting. He gave a low laugh, mocking and wise.
‘Now they’re after me to go back to that same psycho. “He done me so much good that other time,” they try to tell me, “he almost cured my new-rosis.” Sure the fool almost cured my “new-rosis.” If I went back he might cure it altogether – and what would I have left? All the good times I ever had in my life was what my little old new-rosis made me have. Them whole two years on the square I didn’t have one good time. I like my little old new-rosis. It’s all I got ’n I’m holdin’ onto it hard. My advice to you is hold onto yours: lay off them psychos. Look out for the major. When guys like you ’n me get square we’re dead.’
Katz had a record that read like a Southern Pacific Railroad schedule. He’d made every stop between Jeff City and Fort Worth and had fashioned applejack out of white-bread crusts and potato skins in every one. Of his fifty-odd years fifteen had been spent between walls and he recounted each one in terms of applejack. Sometimes it had been hard to make and had turned out badly, in other places it had been easy and had turned out fine: his life was the definitive work on the science of making applejack under the eyes of prison guards.
He remembered certain jugs as if remembering certain people: the El Paso County Jug, recalled with joy and a certain tenderness, that he had kept filled, through a kitchen connection, night and day for six blissful months. The Grant’s Pass Jug, recalled with bitterness and doubt, that had been spirited out of his cell in the night and never seen again.
But applejack wasn’t Katz’s only interest. He had half a dozen minor projects going, involving the bartering of nutmeg for Bull Durham, of Bull Durham for nutmeg and of emory for the manufacture of something he called a ‘glin wheel,’ a sort of homemade cigarette lighter. It was also his daily concern, while working beside Frankie on the mangle roller, to steal the paraffin wax off the rollers for the making of candles, which he sold clandestinely to the harder cons upstairs.
The cons up there were either in bug cells or deadlock. They were the privates who went for stronger brew than applejack. These no longer cared: these were the truly unsaved. Over the hump for redemption and the hour for turning back lost forever: too late, forever too late. So they hurried forward all the faster into the darkness.
They talked in terms of police administrations and remembered in terms of police cars. ‘That was the year the aces had black Cadillacs with a bell on the side – or was that the year they had them speedy orange Fords?’
One night some pale castoff, a twenty-year-old so far gone in narcoticism that nothing but the one big bitter fix of death could cure him, was placed among the good soldiers either by error or just to see how long he could stand it there.
It didn’t take long for the panic to start. One look at the stolid faces about him, he knew he was in the wrong tier and the horrors shook him like an icy wind.
‘Bond me out! Don’t touch me!’
The junkie wants a bondsman though he doesn’t own a dime. His life is down to a tight pin point and the pupils of his eyes drawn even tighter: nothing is reflected in them except a capsule of light the size of a single quarter grain of morphine. He has mounted the walls of all his troubles with no other help than that offered by the snow-white caps in the brown drugstore bottle. A self-made man.
But all the drugstores are closed tonight.
‘Bond me out! Bond me out!’
And the flood of shameless tears. By the time the major shuffled in, yawning, with the hypo, the junkie was throwing a regular circus for the boys, tossing himself about on the floor. It took four men to hold him down to give him his charge at last.
‘I think he ate somethin’ didn’t agree with him,’ Applejack observed after the youth was carried out. Such exhibitions seemingly required this flat, cold sort of mirth. The only laughter that broke the monotony here was that same hard-bitten glee: ‘The service is gettin’ pretty bad when a man has to knock his skull on the floor to get a charge of M. I remember a time when all you had to do was hold your breath for half an hour.’
Yet such pale youths felt as devout about their addiction as others might of some crotchety religious conviction or other. ‘I’m just the type got to have it, that’s all. It’s how I’m built. Don’t ask me why - how do I know? It’s just something, cousin. It’s there.
Frankie Machine understood too well. Standing at the sheet roller on his eleventh morning, it hit him so hard and so fast he went down beside the machine while the sheets, unguided, twisted and tore themselves to shreds at the very moment that his own entrails were tearing at his throat and his very bones were twisting. He heard his own voice crying as shrill as a wounded tomcat’s down the icy corridors of his anguish.
He lay eight hours in a 104 fever before the major pulled him out of it with dolaphine.
‘If you get sick on me like that again you won’t even get paregoric off me,’ were the first words he could distinguish, and blinked the sweat out of his eyes to see the major studying him. ‘Next time I’m lettin’ you sweat it out, soldier.’
Back at the sheet roller two mornings later, Frankie felt he’d already sweated it out. All that remained of his sickness was a couple days of the chuck horrors, of which Nifty Louie once had told. ‘It feels like I got a tape snake or somethin’,’ he complained to Applejack Katz, ‘every two hours the bottom falls out of my gut ’n I feel like I could eat myself through a cow on the hoof.’
Katz traded off his ‘glin wheel’ to a kitchen connection for a pound of lump sugar and gave it to Frankie. Frankie consumed it in a single day.
‘Wait till the applejack is ready,’ Applejack immediately promised him, ‘that’ll kill the chucks every time.’
‘Ain’t it ready yet?’ Frankie pleaded a little, he still felt so weak.
‘Give it just one more day,’ Applejack promised.
Katz could give anything he owned to anyone but the warden. Except that applejack. He was no more able to give that away than to give away his blood.
When the horrors had passed at last Frankie felt himself beginning to want Molly-O again. He hadn’t had one visitor, not so much as a letter or a card, in all those hard first two weeks.
But he’d gotten to know some of the boys who were neither trying to be good soldiers, like himself, nor bad ones like those upstairs.
These were the ones who just wouldn’t work. Yardbirds who couldn’t quite be trusted in a bakery or a laundry. They never disobeyed an order directly nor made trouble nor talked back. But time off for good conduct means little to men with no place to go and nothing in particular to do when they get there. They were men and youths who had never picked up any sort of craft – though most of them could learn anything requiring a mechanical turn with ease. It wasn’t so much lack of aptitude as it was simply the feeling that no work had any point to it. They lived in prison much as they had lived out of it, vaguely contented most of the time, neither hoping nor despairing, wanting nothing but a place to sleep and a tin pie plate with some sort of slop or other on it a couple times a day. They neither worried about the future, regretted the past nor felt concern for the present.
They were the ones who had never learned to want. For they were secretly afraid of being alive and the less they desired the closer they came to death. They had never been given one good reason for applying their strength. So now they disavowed their strength by all sorts of self-deceptions.
They gave nothing because nothing had been given them. If they lost their privileges they shrugged it off, they had lost certain privileges before; one way or another they had had always to forfeit any small advantage gained by luck, chance or stealth.
Some slept at the race-track barns all summer and crashed County in the winter, year after year. Getting back to the barns a week sooner or later didn’t mean much, it would probably be raining that week anyhow. So why get all steamed up in a laundry all winter for nothing? Where was the payoff?
They didn’t even read comic books. They had been bored to death by all that the day before they were born. The whole business between birth and death was a sort of inverted comic strip, too dull to read even if set right. So what was the difference whether a man slept on wood or hay?
‘Rubber heels ’n fisheyes again’ was the word on the meatloaf and tapioca, ‘but wait till we get that mountain goat’ – warless soldiers as indifferent to Sunday mutton as the walls were indifferent to themselves; yet feigning to look forward to a Sunday dinner as tasteless in the mouth as life was in their hearts.
Sometimes something wakened and flared feebly in one of these: he talked back and got to think it over in deadlock.
Deadlock was any cell with a red metal tag locked onto the bars to indicate the man was either a junkie or just out of line. As long as the tag stayed there it meant no yard privileges, no cigarettes, no newspapers and no mail; no candy, no card playing and the next time maybe you’ll keep that big trap buttoned.
Deadlock meant a monotony more deadly even than the regular abnormal monotony of jailhouse days and nights. For no one can sleep all the time and deadlock brought hours when memory caught up with a man at last. Hours in which to sit and remember that willing long-ago lovely who’d married some square after all; or a family that cared less than ever. Or how suddenly the rain had come one blue-and-gold Easter Sunday a dozen blue-gold Easters ago.
Thinking of release only slowed the hours down to the deadliest crawl of all – yet of what else was there to think? And what could freedom mean except a chance to get out of the state with one clean shirt on your back and jump back on the con the day it got dirty? You had to get across the state line to promote some decent clothes and enough change in the poke to take a woman to a movie or a bar.
So the deadlockers walked up and down till they grew weak at the knees, slept and rose to walk again till night and day and the weariness in the knees and the weariness of the mind all rolled together into one big cell-sized, life-sized weariness.
‘The day after I come out of deadlock the first time,’ Applejack Katz told Frankie, ‘I seen how they got all the clocks stopped at twelve o’clock ’n I realized I was in deadlock whether I was in a cell with a red tag on it or not.’
Till night and day were one and the heart itself felt like a clock stopped cold on a dead-cold hour.
The very hour that life was to begin; and would not tick again.
Yet even a stopped clock can be right for a while. If time moves slowly enough. And Frankie lived in a deadlock only somewhat darker and narrower than that deadlock in which all his days had been spent.
Just one bit lighter than the deadlock of the cells with the red metal tag.
To the tune of some old frayed song, offered over and over again by Applejack Katz in his horrible fifty-four-year-old squawk.
‘I’m a ding-dong daddy from Duma
’N you oughta see me do my stuff.’
Till all the other cots would howl him down.
‘That stuff ought to be about ready,’ Frankie hinted.
Applejack felt it wasn’t yet sufficiently fermented.
Though Frankie would hear him rise in the night, fumble about under the ventilator, hear the secret gulping in the dark and the sound of the cork being carefully replaced; and once, long after lights out, that querulous, quavering squawk.
‘I’d feel bad if you’d kissed too many
But I’d feel worse if you hadn’t kissed any.’
All the next day, working beside Frankie at the mangle roller, Katz murmured songs as frayed as his voice. There was a certain sly merriment about old Applejack. One felt that, secretly, he was convinced he’d already beaten the state on so many charges that there was no chance at all of the state getting it back in terms of timeserving. He could be in the rest of his life, he knew, and still end up far ahead of the game.
Down in the G-H blocks the punks from eighteen to twenty lived in shifts more sullen than that which Frankie shared with Katz. G was for the black punks and H for the whites. The whites went to school in the mornings and blacks in the afternoons. The sign in the mess-hall library said:
Read a good book
Which didn’t at all mean that a black punk should be caught reading a good book at the same time as a white punk; and didn’t say just what book. Each went to think separately, for the thinking of separate thoughts. For the black con’s brain, it appeared, was darker than the white con’s and therefore required the afternoon sunlight to assist the thinking of certain scheduled thoughts.
Yet, strangely enough, the chair in the basement accepted any color at all. Indeed, it was painted black just to show how little race feeling there was down there in the basement where the afternoon sunlight didn’t shine at all.
Nor did the big black sheriff’s wagon that pulled up for the haul to Stateville, St Charles, Dixon and Menard draw any particular color line.
The punks piled in it, leaping over each other as if going on a picnic, filled with a sudden brainless, coltish joy to be out of the cells and riding in the open air for the hour that took them down Route 66. One hour. The years to follow were forgotten in the brightness of the immediate sun.
Screwy punks and tough punks, wise punks and dumb punks, dirty punks and clean punks, little punks and big punks, skinny punks and fat punks: here comes the wagon and we’ll all take a ride.
Here comes the sheriff’s wagon, punks, and you’ll be a long time gone.
While all clocks will remain forever, however long you serve, precisely at twelve o’clock.
‘A.M. or P.M.?’ Frankie Machine wondered idly, as if it really made some difference. If you wanted to know the time you asked the screw and were told, inevitably: ‘Forget it. You ain’t goin’ nowheres.’
The time the clockmakers had locked into the stopped clocks of these corridors was a different kind of time, Frankie felt, than that they had put into the clocks outside. Just as there was a different sort of time for cripples than for junkies, and a different kind of time than either for dealers, there was a special kind of time for convicts too.
On Sundays he went to Mass, in the pink-and-white chapel lined with portrayals of the Stations of the Cross, fashioned by some forgotten felon. He always knelt beneath one labeled Jesus Falls the First Time, he didn’t know why. Yet that one touched him most.
He would cross himself, genuflect and assure himself mystically, ‘Zosh’ll be so much better when I get out I’ll be able to tell her about me ’n Molly-O myself, I won’t have to let Vi do the dirty job for me.’ On some Sunday morning dream train with the incense in his nose.
When his next ten days had passed without any recurrence of the sickness he began drawing fresh courage with the passing of each new day. ‘The hell with Nifty Louie ’n Private McGantic, too,’ he told himself one night, refusing either to see Louie ‘on his bedpost’ as Bednar had put it or to worry about McGantic’s terrible monkey. ‘Louie was a long time livin’ and he’ll be a long time dead and there’s more people better off for his bein’ out of the way than not.’ And the memory of that hallway blow returned to him like the memory of a blow by which he had freed himself from McGantic’s monkey. He felt not the faintest flutter of remorse for his part in the passing of Louie F. Remorse touched his memory of the fixer only when he recalled that, by losing his head, he had lost the fixer’s big fat roll.
From the passage of the nights now he gained more strength than he had ever gained from a hypo. He felt himself getting over the roughest point of the hump without so much as a quarter grain to help him over. And knowing how proud Molly-O was going to be for him, felt proud of himself.
The pride he’d abandoned in the ward tent on the narrow Meuse. Through the open laundry window the first cold hint of spring touched him as had that other spring on that cold and alien river.
‘I got the second paw off,’ he confided to Katz; like a man who’d seen a festering wound in his flesh dry before his eyes and slowly start to heal.
For now all things healed strangely well within him, as though by grace of his punishment. He was paying off for smashing up Sophie, the irons had only been God’s means to let him, a priest told him; so that when he was released everything he’d done would be paid for and he’d be truly free at last.
‘I feel like, someday, I’m gonna shine again,’ he told old Applejack.
And heard, through walls as high as tenement walls, a long, slow, dull whirr-whirr.
As of a heavy sewing machine being pedaled by some lame and sweating con.
Ten o’clock in the morning. Above the visitors’ cage burned one small dull red bulb and right below it, peering through the glass with the prison pallor on his face but the shadows gone from under his eyes, Frankie Machine waited for his first visitor; though they hadn’t told him who it was. Certainly the punk wouldn’t have the nerve to come around after the way he’d pulled out of the deal with the irons, ducking without a warning word so that Frankie might have gotten rid of that damned bag.
Then spotted Molly Novotny far down the line, trying to see over the heads of the other visitors like a child trying to see the animals in the zoo over the heads of the adults and saw him at last.
She took his breath away with her pertness: a neat dark suit and little silver-heeled slippers that tap-tapped right on up to him just as she’d tapped into his arms on the first floor front.
They had only fifteen minutes and he didn’t know what to ask first. There was so much he had to know and she had so much to tell.
‘That poor old man of Vi’s is gone,’ was the first thing she reported. ‘He leaned out the window too far.’
‘So long as he wasn’t pushed,’ Frankie told her.
‘No, Vi just forgot to lock the window.’
And they passed over Poor Old Husband as indifferently as life itself had passed Poor Husband by. ‘How’s Zosh?’ he wanted to know.
‘Gettin’ fatter than ever, Frankie,’ and heard the ancient malice in her voice.
‘How are things going at the Safari?’ As soon as he asked that he knew he shouldn’t have. For she didn’t lower her eyes, she simply curtained them from him and he’d never seen her look so hard.
‘I ain’t there no more, Frankie,’ she told him defensively. ‘I don’t live downstairs no more.’
‘Where you livin’, Molly?’ A leaden fear had him. He had to ask her twice before she could hear through the glass. Or just didn’t want to hear.
‘Just around, Frankie. I’m just livin’ around. You know.’
The red bulb winked, the whistle blew, Visitors’ Day was over.
And knew in his bones she wouldn’t return on any Visitors’ Day to come.
‘Little Lester,’ he called himself. ‘Little Lester the Money Waster and Woman Chaser’ and he lived up there in the bug cells with all appeals but the last one gone.
Down where Frankie lived below rumors came each night of Little Lester’s latest piece of arrogance in the very face of the big black chair. But Frankie never got to lay eye on the fellow till, on the Saturday afternoon of Frankie’s sixth week, he caught a detail with Katz.
‘You two get the Susie-Q wagon ’n get up there to the fourth floor,’ Screw told them, ‘there’s a ticket on both of you for talkin’ in line.’
There wasn’t much to the detail. The Susie-Q wagon was the little white cart on which mops and buckets were borne. The fourth-floor boys themselves couldn’t be trusted with buckets and mops. Half of them were in deadlock and those that weren’t never moved without a screw’s eyes following. They were the sullen jug-heavies and the loudmouthed torpedoes, the gaunt jungle buzzards and the true assassins.
‘Me ’n you ’r just punks up against some of these birds,’ Applejack reminded Frankie in secret admiration of all assassins and Frankie was glad, in that moment, to be on the books as only one more jerk who’d tried to cop a piece of tin out of a West Side department store. He felt a clandestine thrill at recalling the thinness of the hair which had kept him out of the bug cells. ‘I almost made it up here myself,’ he boasted to Applejack, ‘when I was on the junk I pulled lots of jobs.’ And hastened to add, ‘I got it kicked for keeps now.’
‘It’s what they all say,’ Applejack answered skeptically, and Frankie was too superstitious to boast further. ‘The smarter a guy is the harder he gets hooked,’ Katz observed, ‘I’ve seen ’em hittin’ C, I’ve seen ’em hittin’ M, I’ve seen ’em hittin’ the H ’n I’ve seen ’em shootin’ speedballs – half a cap of C ’n half a cap of H together. C is the fastest, it’s what they start on when they’re after a gentleman’s kick. M is slower ’n H is the slowest ’n cheapest of all, it’s what they wind up on when they’re just bummies tryin’ to knock theirselves out without no kick at all. But I’ll tell you one kick to lay off ’n that’s nembutal. If you miss the vein you get an abscess ’n the shade comes down. Lay off the nembie is my advice to you, Polak.’
Just as if he hadn’t heard Frankie tell him he’d kicked all that stuff.
‘Another thing works funny is gage,’ Applejack resumed his report while dragging the little white wagon behind him. ‘One day you’ll pay two bucks for a single stick ’n the next day some guy says, “Gimme twelve cents ’n a pack of butts for a stick,”’n you pass him up. It don’t make sense to me neither the way they always say a guy gets “high” on it. My cell buddy at Grant’s Pass worked twenty years in mines around Scranton before he threw his shovel away ’n started eatin’ a little higher up on the hog. The gage never lifted him up, it sent him down. When it was hittin’ real good he’d get to thinkin’ he was twelve miles underground. He never said he was “coastin’ in.” He always said, “I think I’m comin’ up.” Say, if you get detailed down to the kitchen sneak me a fistful of nutmeg, I know a fool who’ll give a pack of butts for a sack of that stuff. I wonder what he does with it.’
‘Maybe he puts it in applejack,’ Frankie hazarded a guess.
‘You guys laugh at my applejack,’ Katz told him, ‘but a guy got to do somethin’ to keep his mind occupied. Otherwise I’d be thinkin’ how it used to be outside.’
‘When will you make the street again?’ Frankie asked him.
‘Never, soldier,’ Katz told him without regret, almost with contentment. ‘When I finish here the feds pick me ’n I start a twenty-year rap – when I finish that one they can come ’n cremate me: I been caged up all my life, I don’t want even my bones to be cooped up in some hole in the ground,’ he confided cheerfully to Frankie. ‘What can a guy like me do on the outside anyhow? I’m so used to holdin’ up my hand when I want another piece of bread ’n dumpin’ the silver in the wire basket on the way out from chow I wouldn’t know how to do for myself on the outside no more.’
A guard, eating off one of the same tin pie plates that the deadlockers used, in an empty cell with the door ajar, looked up at the pair as they passed and motioned them silently down the half-lit corridor toward the cell where Little Lester leered lewdly through the bars.
All day Little Lester stood waiting for someone to pass whom he could bait for a moment. He liked to be looked upon pityingly in order that he might catch the pity coming at him on the fly and hurl it back between the eyes – to see pity replaced there first by shock, then by real hatred. Little Lester had long suspected that everyone in the world hated him, on sight and from the heart; that all, without exception, had wished him to be dead since the morning he’d been born. So it pleased him to prove to himself that he’d been right in this suspicion all along, that everything the priests had told him since he’d been so high had been wrong.
Pity was the thing people used to conceal their hatred, Lester had decided, for the chaplain himself came now only out of a sense of duty. Lester had had trouble turning the chaplain against him but he had done it at last and now the chaplain hated him as cordially as did the screws, the warden, the sheriff, his attorney, his mother and sisters, his father and his old girl friend.
‘You guys want a pack of Bull Durham wit’ two papers for thirty-five cents?’ he began on them hurriedly, the moment he heard the cart roll up. Though he knew every con was forbidden to talk to him while he was in the cell. ‘You guys want to change jobs? Look, you two first-floor marks, all I do is play solitary ’n chew the fat with the screws all day. How’d you like that awhile, marks?’
The marks didn’t care to switch jobs at the moment, they had to keep the mops moving down the tier.
‘Hey!’ he called after them. ‘You the guys gonna split my pants ’n shave my little pointy head?’
‘He’s just tryin’ to get a rise out of us,’ Katz cautioned Frankie, ‘he wants to see if he can get us in a little trouble, arguin’ with him about somethin’. One of the screws asked his lawyer to make the guy lay off him, he kept askin’ things like is them fuses all screwed in good ’n tight, he don’t want no slip-ups ’cause he’s invited his folks as witnesses – it’s how he gets people’s nerves jumpin’. If you ask me the guy is suck-silly.’
‘If you ask me it’s his nerves is jumpin’ the highest,’ Frankie surmised.
Applejack and Frankie stalled around at the far end of the block, for two soft-clothes men were coming up on either side of a little man with a bandaged eye and all three tagged by some joker in a spring topcoat, wearing the coat with the sleeves hanging emptily, like a woman’s cape.
‘That’s a newspaper joker,’ Applejack assured Frankie, ‘I don’t know who the bandage is but only newspaper guys drape a coat on them like that. You know why?’
Frankie didn’t have the faintest idea.
‘He ain’t got time to button it ’cause he gotta keep his hands free of his sleeves to take notes, in case somethin’ big happens real fast. If he takes time to get his hands out of his sleeves some other guy’ll beat him to the phone ’n get a scoop on him. I saw all about it in a movie at Jeff City.’ Old Katz was proud of his knowledge.
Frankie understood. ‘You’re right. I seen one come into the Victory on North Clark one night ’n set down with one bottle of beer ’n wrote in a little book-like, everythin’ that was goin’ on, what the people said. Then he picked up ’n didn’t even touch his beer. He didn’t touch his beer was how I knew there was somethin’ wrong with him.’
‘It’s sort of a club,’ Applejack explained, ‘they all get together ’n write a book.’ Though neither he nor Frankie could hear what either the bandage or the draped topcoat said to Little Lester, there was no difficulty at all in hearing the punk’s jeering reply.
‘Sure, ya stinkin’ squeala, I’m the guy shot out ya eye. It was easy as eatin’ a ice-cream comb. So what? Prove I’m nuts I go to the buggy bin – they feed you there, don’t they?’ N if I ain’t nuts I get the seat – so what? Then I don’t have to bother with stinkin’ squealas no more. It don’t make me no difference.
‘Naw, I don’t feel nuttin’ good ’r bad. Good ’n bad is strictly for stinkin’ squealas. You know what? I chew t’ree packs of gum a day but I don’t smoke. I don’t even eat much. I don’t even play ball. Movies I like better’n anythin’.
‘But what I really like is mechanics. I don’t like readin’ about crime stuff, they don’t put it down how it really is. What I really like is readin’ about takin’ t’ings apart ’n puttin’ ’em togedder so they stay, like in airplanes. I used to go out to the airport just to watch, I seen them fancy squares all come down the gangplank like in them square movie pictures.
‘But what I really like is gym-a-nastics. That’s for me, it’s what I took up in the neighborhood. I crooked four days a week from school – you know what I was doin’? I was workin’ on the parallela bars.’
Abruptly his mind returned to the point of the interview. ‘You know what made me sore?’ Nodding toward the bandaged eye. ‘It wasn’t when that pig of his scratched me, what really got me was when I shoot his dirty eye out ’n he says, “Don’t shoot me.” After I done it he comes on wit’ a pitch like that.’ He imitated a high-pitched squeal: ‘“Don’t shoot me, please don’t shoot me” – boy, I would of let the stinkin’ squeala have it for real then only the dirty gun jammed on me, I should of cleaned it wit’ somethin’ good first.
‘Naw, I never went for playin’ wit’ other kids, all they do is jump up ’n down. Girls ’r poison. Once though I had one of ’em “I-got-to-get-in-tonight” romantic deals, we went down to Hubbard Street ’n got a free blood test. She was on one side of the screen ’n I was on the other ’n we hollered over to each other. A real romantic deal.
‘My old man? His one big trouble is he’s always a pallbearer ’n never a corpse. He’d look better to me wit’ his dirty head off five inches beneat’ the shoulders. You know what I told him that time he called the aces on me for sellin’ the icebox while he was out stiffin’ some piece of trade? I told him, “Daddy darlin’, you been workin’ for me for twenny-two years. Now go out ’n get a job fer yourself.” It’s what I told him, he’s a stinkin’ squeala too.’
Applejack Katz looked at Frankie Machine and Frankie Machine looked at Applejack Katz. ‘Let’s get the detail done,’ Applejack urged, ‘I got a deal on with a guy who got his hands on six bennies.’
What a loudmouth,’ Frankie whispered of Little Lester.
That was the name by which the screws knew Lester too.
Yet, when on the last Saturday afternoon in April Frankie sat for an hour at the same dayroom table where Little Lester sat, the punk spoke softly all the while. This was an assigned group permitted to write letters or play cards under the eyes of two screws, between four and five o’clock. If you didn’t have a letter to write and didn’t care for cards you went all the same. Neither Frankie nor Lester wrote letters. They sat across from each other with a soiled deck between them while Frankie showed him some of the tricks which had once seemingly confounded Sparrow.
‘It took me ten years to learn this one,’ Frankie explained, ‘pick a card.’
‘Show me one that don’t take so long,’ Lester reminded him humbly. Once away from his cell bars, he abandoned his tough-guy act; exactly as if he needed it only when locked behind steel for others to stare at and question.
He was only days from the chair if his last appeal were denied, yet slept and ate much as Frankie slept and ate. Therein lay a horror and a marvel for Frankie. Each saw the same gray corridors all night, each night, with the same yellowish fog wadded about the night lights. Each wakened from dreams of lifelong deadlock to the same muffled sounds: down the tier the long day was beginning.
Something of this awe was in Frankie’s eyes when he noticed how neatly combed and oiled Lester’s dark hair looked, and Lester caught Frankie’s glance. ‘I’ll have to wash the oil out the night before,’ he explained earnestly, not even in the same voice he had used for the reporters at all. ‘Oil leaves a burn ’n they don’t like to leave a man burned even from sweat.’
He spoke without any challenge to the world beyond the bars. ‘Here,’ Frankie insisted, wanting to do something for Lester, ‘here’s one it only takes two weeks to learn. Pick a card.’
But Little Lester had lost interest in cards and without a word picked up a book in which he sat immersed, not once raising his eyes till their hour was done. A book called How to Write Better Business Letters.
Frankie didn’t see Lester again for several weeks, though he once or twice saw the boy’s lawyer swinging down the corridor on that business of the last appeal.
Then, on a morning early in April, Frankie came out of the laundry with Applejack Katz to see two guards bringing Lester, uncuffed, to some unknown destination. He turned cheerfully toward Frankie as he passed.
‘Hi, Dealer!’ he greeted Frankie. ‘Take a look at a man on his way to the chair!’ and sounded really deeply relieved.
A face like any stranger’s face, slightly slant-eyed in the Slavic way. A face at once as old as the moons of Genghis Khan and as youthful as a child’s playground in May. He seemed smaller than Frankie had remembered him. It had seemed, in the weeks since, that he was a big man. Small but rugged and built all in one piece, with a heavy-legged stride, a little bowlegged as if he had learned to walk too early about the West Side’s broken walks.
Frankie noticed that he was wearing bowling shoes with both laces neatly tied.
‘They ain’t takin’ him no place but the dentist’s chair,’ Applejack grumbled irritably at Frankie’s side.
Yet Frankie was to recall with awe, months later, those neatly tied bowling-league shoes still faintly touched with chalk.
‘A guy got somethin’ like that on his mind ’n he jokes about goin’ to the chair ’n ties his laces like he had a big-league bowlin’ match comin’ up,’ Frankie complained to Katz.
‘He has,’ Applejack decided dryly, ‘he got to bowl over six thousand volts from a settin’ position. They’re puttin’ him down in the deadhouse Monday week.’
Little Lester’s last appeal had been denied.
When, two days later, Lester was taken into the prison yard for a workout Frankie and Applejack watched, from the ground-level laundry window. Lester and three others were being marched out there like stock. It was strange that the other three, though only small-time thieves, would draw a certain prestige about the prison for having been exercised beside the condemned youth.
It was three o’clock of a May afternoon, the hour when school doors open and the city’s children ramble home down a thousand walks with books and crayons under their arms and their shoelaces tied into small, neat bows. A few more days till summer vacation and out in the prison yard a great crane, straining skyward to see the first sign of summer, caught only a glint of rusted iron sunlight instead. These were days of clouds swollen gray with promise of rain – only to burst emptily and reveal the deepest sort of blue drifting there all the time. Against the concrete wall Frankie saw a single con sitting on an upturned orange crate looking, under his winter pallor, like someone who’d seen all there was to see of grief, in prison or out.
That yard is laid out like somebody’s country garden; there’s a duck pond and a chicken house and a pale blue birdhouse. Beyond the wall rises a two-story-high legend:
One Price to All
While directly across the way from Budintz that company’s chief competitor offers its own appeal:
Fastest Delivery
Cheapest in Years
Along rows where, in summer, vegetables would grow, the four cons stood under the eyes of four guards. Behind them a machine gun’s eyes peered from the sentry’s tower.
Without uniformity the cons touched their toes with their fingertips, bending awkwardly from the waist. Three of them had to stand spread-legged to do so. Lester, Frankie saw with an odd pride, touched the toes without either bending the knees or spread-legging. Touched the tips of the shoes’ neat bows with the condemned tips of condemned wrists.
A man no taller, not so old, neither uglier nor handsomer than himself. A man like any man, with a bit less luck than most. A punk like any punk. Clean-shaven, vain of his heavy head of hair. A youth much like any youth who has seen night games at Comiskey Park, shot six-no-count pool, applauded a strip tease on South State, played nickel-and-dime poker in the back of a neighborhood bar, crapped out on an eight-dollar pass or carried a girl’s photograph in his wallet one whole spring. Who perhaps had had a drink on the house from time to time and worn bright new swimming trunks to the Oak Street Beach some summer afternoon when he’d owned lake, water, sky, beach, sand, sun, the bright blue weather and every girl of all the girls that had passed so yearningly by.
‘He just does caliskonectics is all,’ Applejack informed Frankie. ‘Don’t worry, they ain’t gonna let him climb the horizontal bars. He might get too good at it.’
‘If it was me I’d tell ’em to let me skip the rope,’ Frankie said, because he wanted to say something funny too. Only Applejack didn’t see anything funny. ‘What good would that do?’ he demanded to know. ‘You’d still have to beat the chair. Nobody gets the rope in Illinois any more.’
Yet Frankie wasn’t quite as wrong as Applejack Katz thought. There was still one fugitive on Illinois’s books that would die by the rope when he was caught. Down in the sheriff’s basement, among slot machines confiscated from half a hundred roadhouses and roulette wheels that once had whirled for Guzik, Nitti and Three-Fingered White, stood the gallows that waited, year in and year out, for Terrible Tommy O’Connor’s return.
Not many knew that still, behind the Board of Health Building, where once the County Jail had stood, the death house from which Terrible Tommy had escaped remained. Though the building about it had long been demolished, the little brick room waited, in the middle of a parking lot, for Tommy to come back. The law forbade the room, as it forbade the gallows, to be demolished until O’Connor was hanged. It looked like a long wait.
For it well might be that the little room would be the great city’s most immemorial monument, more lasting than the Art Institute lions on the boulevard, Bushman in his cage near the Lincoln Park Lagoon or Colonel McCormick in his bomb shelter below the river.
‘Just tryin’ to make a little joke,’ Frankie apologized for his reference to skipping the rope. And the pale gray laundried light wavered, with an unwavering wonder, along the laundered walls.
‘I think the stuff is almost done,’ Applejack confided that night to Frankie after a long visit to the ventilator. ‘Give it one more day.’
With the pungent reek of the stuff on his breath as he spoke.


* * *


Each man knew the hour. Each man knew the day. Lester had not slept well the night before, the word was going about. He had wakened and played casino with the night screw through the bars. The night screw had taught him the game, the punk had grown to like it. Somebody who had it right from the night screw himself said that Lester had had one good last laugh at some misplay the guard had made. He’d been happy because he’d beaten the guard at the guard’s own game.
Yet when the warden had gone to the death cell, the word went around, to read the death warrant, Lester had looked at him without fear and said, ‘Wait a minute, Frank, I want to finish this cup of coffee.’
Such calmness seemed somehow more terrible to Frankie than if they’d said Lester was lying on his bunk in a dead-cold nightmare sweating out the hours. Instead he was sitting there killing the hours with cards just as Frankie had killed so many; while a clock had ticked away below a luminous crucifix.
There were no luminous Christs for Lester. Neither Christs nor clocks nor calendars.
Yet each man knew the hour. As each man knew the day.
But what if the laces broke on the way? Would he stop to tie them – or demand a new pair before he took another step? It seemed so wrong to trouble tying laces at such an hour, to comb and oil your hair and make corny jokes about going to the dentist’s chair. It seemed so wrong to laugh because you caught a winning deuce against one of the men who was going to help strip you for the cold white slab. To brush your teeth or write a letter to your mother in California.
‘If that letter goes out tonight,’ Frankie reckoned, ‘he’ll be buried by the time his old lady reads it ’n he knows that when he’s writin’ it ’n when he tells the screw to send it air mail ’n seal it good – “it’s somethin’ personal.”’
Would he have to add that same old crack, used twice already in that same cell, ‘This is certainly going to be a good lesson to me’?
‘One more white shirt is all you’ll wear,’ Frankie told Lester, though Lester lay many cells away. ‘Shine your shoes like you’re goin’ to get married. Five’ll get you ten, you forget your act when they fit you into them tight black tights.’
Frankie lay on his cot half fevered with the idea of Lester’s trip to the chair, suddenly uncertain that he himself had really missed it after all. In his mind Little Lester and himself had merged.
‘Let’s see you trot through the little white door,’ he challenged this Frankie-Lester: ‘Three steps to the right ’n now take a load off your feet and don’t let the smell of vinegar bother you either. That’s only a couple drops on the sponge that fits between the voltage ankle and the clamp to keep the sponge from burning – all for your own good you know. Now just put your nose through the little black helmet. That’s right – now let’s hear you wisecrack, wise guy.’
The wise guy of Frankie’s fantasy had no word that one could hear through that dead-black hood.
Some other con, with his own private burden of guilt, cried out, in sleep or waking, and the lights in the corridor seemed to flicker a moment. The sleepers wakened, a long murmur went like a wave from wall to wall. It was that hour when men cried out in voices not their own.
For each man knew the hour. As each man knew the day.
They said, between the bakery, the laundry and the mess, between the printshop, the library and the little white infirmary, they said he’d come out of the death cell hooded all in black. The black tights shimmering under the lights, that final white shirt buttoned over one shoulder like a fencing master’s, he had stepped forth into that hooded hour. They said it had taken a full minute and a half, from the moment he’d stepped into the big glass cage to the moment the switch had been pulled.
Some said it had taken nearer two. The voltage clamp had required adjustment after he was in the chair and there had been no smell of vinegar after all. They told just how it had been.
Between the darkened infirmary and the clean, well-lighted mess, between the sweating boiler room and the cool dry dorm – ‘the left knee kicked up, just once, after the switch was thrown.’ The voltage clamp behind the neck had fitted nicely on the very first try – only the one on the pale right ankle had seemed a trifle loose – but the laces, the laces – Frankie had to know – had he tied them up first or had he just let them loose? Did one of the screws tie them for him so that he wouldn’t trip and skin his knee? The laces, the laces-
But no one had noticed if the laces were tied at all.
The single shoulder button had been stripped off when the shirt had been ripped down to expose the flesh above the poor seared heart. Five doctors – which one had pulled the button off? No – it certainly had been six – had pronounced the heart as dead as any hustler’s heart can get: a charred lump of ashy flesh that sagged where the living heart had burned.
There had been one hundred and twenty men and two women on the witness benches, they said. It had all been spick and span behind the glass, everything had gone off in tiptop order, there had been not even the telltale flickering of the lights throughout the building.
Four buttons had been pushed by four unnamed men. They said. Yet only one of these had pushed the live one. None would ever have to think it was himself had sparked the living flame.
But the laces, the laces-
They had used an amperage of eight, everyone knew, because that was the usual amperage for a white man. Everyone said. Just as the usual amperage for a Negro was seven and a half.
Everyone knew.
Then they’d thrown him nine hundred extra volts just to make certain. Everyone knew about that too. Everyone told everyone else just how it had gone off. Everyone but Frankie had been there it seemed.
But the laces-
What laces? You think they let him walk in there with shoes on? Those tights cover your feet like an acrobat’s tights, there aren’t any shoes to it. Just a strip of black cloth sheared neatly halfway around the right ankle.
It wasn’t until weeks after he’d been released that Frankie learned Little Lester had died on his bunk with eleven hours yet to live.
A heart attack, the warden had concluded.
Arsenic, the coroner’s physician had insisted.
His heart had stopped beating too soon, the afternoon papers had reported.
And neither the evening nor the morning press would ever be able to prove a thing, one way or another, under any old buffalo of a moon, by flat-nosed, buffalo-eyed Frankie Machine.
Now, as the moon of other nights mounted the arch of June, he felt the touch of other Junes along the bars. Remembered how the orange Blatz signs of Wolcott Street would be glowing now each night more softly as the brief month passed trailing smoke, and July came on in a haze. And every arc lamp’s reflection along the rain-wet, moon-wet, sun-wet, and summer-dusted walks would burn more deeply as the days burned longer.
Frankie could tell himself at last that he had buried his monkey as deeply as the county had buried Little Lester.
Each Saturday afternoon now the good soldiers were led into the yard for a game of softball. Whenever he found himself out there in the open, after the long week in the laundry, he was seized with the need of hearing Molly Novotny’s teasing voice and a longing for the dark appeal of her eyes. He felt he didn’t care whether he dealt another hand of stud in his life or not.
Playing first base on the last Saturday in August, he took off his shirt in the fading West Side sunlight and a swift squall, as if waiting all the bright afternoon behind the sentry box for some fool to do just that, swept the field in chilling gusts. By the time they’d played out the inning he was sneezing and by the time he got back to his cot he was in a wringing sweat. The laundry had weakened his resistance more than he’d known.
By chow time he was rocking down Fever Street in a sidecar attached to some Good Humor vendor’s bicycle, racing east down Division with little pennants whirling in the white-walled wheels and the vendor, wearing a meter reader’s cap and waggling a finger at Frankie to sentence him to life imprisonment in a broom closet for stealing Captain Bednar’s only electric iron.
Sitting upright there among the brooms was good old McGantic wearing a sergeant’s stripes on his sleeve, dead as a doornail in line of duty. Dead for days. The face had withered to a monkey’s face, one dead brown paw pointed to where, upon an empty beer case, lay the same old hypo and two new quarter grains.
‘If he wants water give him water,’ the major was telling Applejack, ‘and water is all he gets. He’s still tryin’ to kick the habit. Let him sweat it out. If his ticker ain’t bad he’ll make it.’
Intern Katz understood. He knew how to get a half a cap of morphine out of the infirmary as well as how to fashion a needle out of a common pin. But he believed in Frankie Machine as he believed in his own applejack. ‘It won’t be me to put him back on, Major,’ he promised. Then he was left to watch alone beside the narrow cot in the narrow little infirmary. Because its looseness seemed to be causing Frankie distress, Katz rolled up the nightshirt’s sleeve.
Frankie felt McGantic rolling his sleeve to give him the one big fix that would fix him forever and for keeps. With all his remaining strength he pried at those fingers to get them off his precious arm. But the fingers had no strength left at all, something that was surely a hypo glinted in the light and in an access of hopeless dread Frankie cried like a sick baby for help: ‘Molly! Molly!’
But no Molly was near to reply. Only the sheet roller rumbling down the tier to punish him for what he’d done to Zosh. He ducked down Schwiefka’s alley and around the shed to pick up an armful of kindling for Jailer. Deep under the wood lay a soft green hat with a small red feather in its brim.
Strong hands held him down while others fastened the voltage clamp to the back of his neck but he was too smart for all of them – he rested one moment to make them think he had really given in at last and then shouted out of his very bones, ‘A Polak never gives in!’ – and kicked off all the hands at once. But it was all up with Frankie – the sponge was pressing his forehead and a voice was warning him through glass – ‘Don’t let your life go with it, Dealer.’
He opened his eyes and through the sweat saw Applejack Katz’s good tough mug studying him gravely. And Applejack’s long, hard hand drying the tears, fears and sweat away.
‘You’re toughin’ it through the hardest sort of way, Dealer,’ he heard Katz telling him. ‘Quit stonin’ yourself. You ain’t that sick. How many guys you fightin’ anyhow? Be yourself, Dealer. Be yourself.’
‘That’s not so easy,’ Frankie whispered weakly. ‘I got to get straight first.’
‘It’s the same thing,’ Katz told him quietly.
At Applejack’s feet Frankie saw the infirmary’s gray cat sitting upon its haunches. It purred, just once, to affirm Applejack’s counsel.
As the fever lowered Frankie dreamed of someone folding and refolding bundles of newspapers right beside his cot and forced himself awake to see who it was this time.
Only the old woman of the wind, there on the other side of the pane, wrapping the great sheets of the rain.
Indian summer came and September drew toward its close. It closed in a green half-twilight, like the half-twilight of the heart. In this green-gray late September light the Prager beer signs gleamed redly as soon as the arc lamps gleamed yellow. Then the arrows of all the Old Style Lager signs began working anxiously back and forth till the yellow arc lamps dimmed and died, the scarlet Prager bulbs signed off and the overworked Lager arrows went to bed. Only the green-gray light was left, like a light left burning in a hallway entrance all night long. To light the morning’s earliest peddler waking the tenements with one clear call: ‘Kartofflee! Kartofflee!
Then the trolleys, like mild-tempered elephants, approached each other slowly and paused, with a primitive graciousness, to let each other pass; and went shambling forward once more upon their predestined jungleways as though the pause had lent each a greater understanding of all things.
Frankie came down Division Street, where only arc lamps and fire hydrants grow, wearing the same woolen army trousers and the combat jacket – its sleeve patched so neatly, by a county sewing machine, the old tear was scarcely detectable. With a new checkered cap on his head and feeling as if some tightly wound spring within himself had slackened, never to stand taut winding again.
Back in the city’s littered bivouac he walked among the tenements of home like an awol private returning to barracks from which his old outfit had long ago convoyed and scattered for keeps. He felt both weakened and strengthened by his stretch. His hands hung heavily, the fingers felt like thumbs for lack of use with deck, cue, dice or drum. But he’d beaten McGantic and McGantic’s terrible monkey.
He’d paid in full. He didn’t have to punish the blood and bone any longer. Molly-O had shown him what was gnawing at his heart and the long stretch had forced him to the fight.
‘Once you got the touch it’s always with you,’ he remembered, and passed the Safari without looking in. There was no longer anyone there he needed to see.
‘When a cripple leads a cripple it doesn’t amount to much,’ he recalled someone telling him as he turned into his own dark hall.
In the dimness someone was shouting threats to someone far above. Halfway up the first flight he made out the hulking raincoated figure of Poor Peter Schwabatski pushing an artificial daisy into a crack of the stair. How long was it now he’d been trying to make them grow there? Since before that middle tread had come loose, Frankie remembered. When the dimwit had once asked his papa why his flowers never grew, Frankie remembered the Jailer saying, ‘Because it never rains indoors.’
That was a hard thing for Peter to understand. It seemed to him it rained all day indoors. All day it rained in Poor Peter’s mind upon the paper daisies of his brain: a paper garden in a paper rain. It was the reason he always wore a raincoat, sun or rain; dust storm, blizzard or summer hail.
It was of this same Poor Peter Frankie had heard the Jailer speak mournfully once, after the Jailer had been openly boasting to Violet, ‘I know how to hit them ovalries: the right one makes a boy, the left one a girl, right square in the middle is what we call a murphydyke.’
‘Where’d you hit it?’ Violet had asked.
‘I missed altogether, I guess,’ Jailer had acknowledged then with a smile so wan Frankie had wished Vi hadn’t asked that that time.
For the boy had been sitting then where he sat now, moving humbly aside as always for traffic, too absorbed in his dusty flowers to lift his half-bald head. He was not more than twenty but had been losing his hair since he’d been twelve.
As he stepped past Peter, Frankie heard Violet and the Jailer really going at it.
‘No hammering on Sunday!’ Violet was demanding. ‘Go to sleep, drunk! Get a wife and hammer in bed!’
‘One I had said no hammering on Sunday too,’ the Jailer reproved Violet, ‘she said I hammered enough all week!’
‘You’ve hammered enough around here too – and you ain’t hit a nail yet,’ she chided him. ‘Two years fixing one board!’
‘You want to come down and try my board for size now?’ he invited her. ‘You won’t mind my hammering after that!’ He sounded a trifle tight all right.
‘Shame, Schwabatski,’ Vi teased him softly, ‘drinkin’ up that boy’s milk at the bars.’
‘Leave the helpless children out of this!’ He waved the hammer, pretending to be ready to come up after her.
Frankie leaned heavily on the rail, waiting for he didn’t know what. For some reason the twenty-watt bulb of the hallway had been painted a dull red, the same as that over the visitors’ cage. As he passed the Jailer the old man’s hammer caught him by the claw and hauled him back.
‘It served that one right, Dealer – he went into that business in the wrong neighborhood – Polaks don’t need what he was selling. You see: it didn’t help him after all to have the devil for a father.’
Frankie freed himself and went on up the stairs, but the old man shambled right on up behind him, babbling away till Frankie had to turn on him to get him back to his stairs, his son and his whisky.
‘You’ll never finish that step runnin’ off at the mouth all day, Jailer,’ he urged without anger.
The old man took him by the jacket’s sleeve and Frankie looked down into the grizzled, grayish, boozed and wrinkled mug, always so intent on giving fresh heart to all those who seemed to be in need of it.
‘People like that ought to be knocked on the head!’ he whispered as though he’d overheard Frankie’s threat to Louie one night. ‘Don’t torture yourself! Myself would of give you this hammer! Myself would have done it! Don’t torture! Don’t suffer!’ The old man was pleading so, two steps there below, he seemed to be pleading on his knees. Frankie took the big veined hand and felt his own fingers’ weakness in the old man’s grip.
‘All I done was a little stealin’, Jailer,’ he told the old man softly. ‘Now I done my time for that, so let’s forget what can’t be helped no more. All sorts of things happen and then it’s done and the less we talk about it now the better for me ’n everybody.’
It was the assurance the old man needed, he sensed Frankie had found some degree of peace and let him go at last. Frankie saw him return, with a pencil behind his ear and a ruler sticking out of the back overall pocket, to his work among the paper daisies.
Overhead he heard Violet return back down the hall without a greeting. That wasn’t like Vi at all. ‘She’s gone to tell the punk I’m back,’ he guessed.
‘You heard what I said all the same,’ the old man mumbled, through two nails clenched in his teeth as he squatted on the step. ‘Knocked on the head! With this same hammer!’ Then the hammer’s rapid tapping, light and sane and calm, a good carpenter’s hammering, like the beat of a lightened heart. The Jailer felt better for having unburdened himself. Frankie could tell. But how long it had been since the old man had first wished to speak out Frankie could only surmise.
‘The old man got good heart,’ Frankie told himself. Everyone, even those who left doors ajar just to bait him a bit, knew the old man had the truest sort of heart.
It was only that there was so little demand for the truer sort of heart of late.
Hearts shaped like valentines aren’t at all the fashion. What is more in demand are hearts with a bit of iron – and a twist to the iron at that. A streamlined heart, say, with a claw like a hammer’s claw, better used for ripping than for tapping at old repairs – that’s what’s needed to get by these days. It’s the new style in hearts. The non-corrugated kind don’t wear well any longer.
Hearts with a twist to the iron – that’s what makes a good hustler’s heart.
Behind the narrow yellow door bearing the red tin 29 he himself had nailed there, Frankie heard the old clock below the crucifix tick once – warningly – and pushed in without knocking.
Sophie sat with her head thrown back and eyes closed, looking debauched in the dim tenement light. Apparently assuming it was only that nosy Violet again, she said tonelessly, ‘You come in yourself this morning, did you? You only sent things yesterday.’
The room certainly looked as though Violet only sent things these days. It didn’t look as if it had been swept in a month; cigarette butts, Kleenex, bottles and hairpins littered the floor. The walls had grown darker.
Her scrapbook lay on her lap. ‘You pastin’ pictures, Zosh?’ he asked.
She opened her eyes, smiled wanly and lifted her hands listlessly toward him.
The gesture told him she had known it was himself in the doorway all the time, that she had been playing some strange game with herself after hearing his voice on the stairs, pretending she had not heard anyone at all. Yet he held both her hands in his. He had seen so many weary homecomings at the Pulaski. Till her fingers began to work like small claws upon his palms.
‘You’re stronger than you were,’ he told her. For her hands seemed to have gained a chilly ferocity all their own. They felt so cold, so cold. He dropped them gently and went behind her chair to rock her shoulders awhile.
‘That’s nice, Frankie,’ she told him thinly, ‘you learned your lesson. God punished you. Always be nice after this fer what you done.’
Violet’s voice at the open door: ‘When did that sonofabitch break out?’
Frankie saluted her from where he stood. ‘Hi, Sergeant – come on in – but don’t bring your army.’
For the punk’s shadow fell behind her.
‘He didn’t mean no harm, Frankie,’ Violet pleaded for him like a mother for a wayward child, ‘he just got scared ’n run.’
‘Then he can keep on running – right back up them steps. He’s got somebody’s nice fat bankroll up there to count and he’s gonna get plenty of time to count it. I’m goin’ back to work by Schwiefka tonight ’n that mocky ain’t workin’ no door where I’m dealin’. I’m the guy who got him the job ’n I’m the guy who’s visin’ him off it. That’s the first thing I’m doin’ t’night, it’ll be my first good deed for society.’
He heard Sparrow retreat as softly as he had come. As though knowing for months that that would be Frankie’s answer. He’d run like a scalded dog all right, no two ways about it.
‘What makes him so brave?’ Frankie asked Vi with heavy irony. ‘He ain’t got a bad conscience about anythin’, has he?’
But Violet was gone, to console or upbraid her Sparrow, and Zosh was waiting for him to turn toward her so that everything could begin again, just like it used to be.
‘Your bonus dough is gone, Frankie,’ was her opening shot. ‘I tried to make it last. The last two mont’s I been livin’ off yer disability dough -’ n even then I had to borrow a double sawbuck off Vi I ain’t been able to pay back.’
‘You don’t have to pay it back,’ Frankie assured her, ‘if it come from where I think it come from.’
‘She said it was Old Man’s insurance dough,’ Zosh told him, ‘but the way she’s actin’ I don’t care if I pay her back either. You really goin’ back to work so soon, Frankie?’
‘Just till I get back on my feet,’ he assured her. ‘I’m out for a real job, Zosh. Beatin’ them tubs. I’m gonna be a drummer just like I always said.’ Then he noticed that no Rumdum crouched beneath the dresser. ‘Where’s the hound?’ he wanted to know.
‘Vi took him, she got more room. How could I take care of him all day here by myself? He didn’t like me anyhow. Why don’t you get me a nice little puppy-pup, Frankie? You said you would. You promised.’
So nothing had really changed after all. She would own a dog and he would be a big-name drummer. He would practice every night.
But she’d seen spurts of golden hope in him before. It would wear off now as it always had. He’d be back dealing where he ought to be and she’d be sitting where she ought to be and everything would be just the way it had been, just as it ought always to be.
He was pulling the practice board out from under the sink and brushing the months of dust off its scars and dents and picking up the sticks to get the feel of them again. Then put them down gently, for he saw she was nodding where she sat, the brief half sleep of invalidism.
‘Let’s do like regular people now,’ she murmured, as though in sleep. ‘Like regular people ’n go by the Aragon.’
He stood behind her chair with his hands on the wood, ready to wheel her if she wakened. Then, as her head nodded, told her softly: ‘Have a good dream, Zoschka. Have a good dream you’re dancin’ again.’
He could not see the trace of a smile that strayed so knowingly across her lips.
Neither the Tug & Maul nor the Safari saw Molly Novotny any more. She had drifted into the vast web of backstreet and alleyway, crosslight and traffic warning, of the overnight hotels and those little nameless restaurants that burn all night under the single sign: DOOD EATS.
‘She’s workin’ in some boog honky-tonk,’ Antek told Frankie. ‘Ask Meter Reader, he’s the guy who goes out scoutin’.’
Frankie waited half a day for Meter Reader to show up, and got only the vaguest sort of information for his patience. ‘All I remember is a cat settin’ on a piano. I was so boiled I don’t know where I was. But I remember talkin’ to Drunk John’s girl. She was a little boiled herself.’
So all nights ended for Frankie now with a firm resolution, renewed each morning, to scout around Lake and Paulina before the day was over. But 10 P.M. found him in the dealer’s slot and he couldn’t afford to miss a single night: he had to get a small stake together. He couldn’t come to Molly broke and begging.
Yet the week ran out on Saturday night and he was no richer than he’d been on Monday morning. The old merry-go-round was rolling again and he had to ride as hard as any.
Once more the yellow arc lamps bloomed in the shadow of the El. Pumpkin-colored posters appeared in the bakers’ windows among the round brown loaves of morning, announcing that Mickey Michaels’ Melody Masters would play at St Wenceslaus Kostka Saturday evening for the Endless Belt Invincibles S.A.C.
In front of Piechota’s Poultry & Fresh Eggs Market a single gander stood gawking between its legs at a cord that forever held it fast.
Umbrella Man came in to Schwiefka’s every noon with the Times morning line crumpled in his pocket, the daily double checked off and fifty cents in his hand. He never won and never complained. He came in with a bottle on his hip, made his bets like a man paying a bill, and left with the relieved air of one who has settled a long-overdue debt. The only return he seemed to expect was the privilege of climbing the same stairs and trying again another day.
He wasn’t permitted to climb those stairs after the last race had been run. Since Frankie had been gone Cousin Kvorka had forbade him to sit in any poker game. So that, after his fifty-cent bet was made, Umbrella Man spent the evening drinking instead of playing poker. By the next noon, as often as not, he would still be weaving a bit.
It was said that he had taken to begging secretly for drinks at Widow Wieczorek’s. That though he never begged anywhere with his lips, for fear of Cousin Kvorka, he managed to pick up a beer or two at the Widow’s simply by using his eyes to express his need.
‘The gray cat’s purred for Umbrellas,’ Frankie heard Antek say.
All things remained the same; yet all things had changed. No one sat under the short-card sign waiting to bring up coffee and cigarettes for the players. Blind Pig spent his nights in the Safari now and lived in the room where Louie had lived, among Louie’s abandoned possessions. ‘I’m takin’ all I can get,’ Pig reassured the troubled ghost of Louie Fomorowski.
For Louie’s old customers still found their way: they came now with cold, hard silver. Pig wouldn’t touch folding money. ‘I can’t get nobody to give me a square count,’ he complained of everybody.
The Prager legend above the Tug & Maul still came on at the same moment every night. Above the bar mirror, and all down Owner’s wall, hung fresh ads for Budweiser, Chevalier, Nectar and Schlitz. As if in honor of Frankie’s return.
And why was it, Frankie wondered, getting his own little beer paunch back, that the faces in Owner’s ads were always so clean and healthy and wholesome and glad? There was the freshly scrubbed young housewife winking broadly at her own cleverness in having kept two bottles of some green offgrade brew in the icebox in event of company: evidently she was one of the few women in Cook County who had heard of beer. For her husband’s enthusiasm over such foresight scarcely knew bounds.
Beside her was some usurer togged out in woodsman’s gear, preparing an enormous t-bone – where had that come from? – over a smokeless fire in a clean green land of night-blue lakes and birch trees so straight and tall they looked like ivory-tipped cues. ‘He must of gone up there ’n shot it hisself,’ Frankie decided, missing the entire point of the ad, which was simply to take note of the cold beer mug waiting in the blanket-roll by that smokeless fire.
Down the line a pink-cheeked, overstuffed illiterate with a shot glass at his side looked benignly down, over volumes heaped by a cynical photographer, upon the barflies of the Tug & Maul who actually drank the stuff.
The barflies returned his gaze, from time to time. But a slight glaze so commonly clouded their sight that they thought, as often as not, that the man in the private library was Errol Flynn.
This freshly blooded race bred by the better advertising agencies looked down upon the barflies of the Tug & Maul, trying to understand how it was that these battered wrecks could look as though not one of them had ever seen a land of night-blue lakes with poolroom cues for trees. Nor any man’s private library at all. They appeared not even to have discovered the public ones.
There were only boys with bad teeth, wives with faces still dented from last night’s blows and girls whose hair was set so stiffly it looked metallic. There were only old drooling lushbums with faces like emptied goboons. There was only a long line of faces that had passed straight from the noseless embryo into the running nose of senility. And had seen no birch tree at all.
‘I got to get a lib’ry card myself,’ Frankie determined.
That was only one of several matters he had to tend to right away. Another was the business of getting a job on the legit so that he could break clean with Zosh instead of running off like some sneaking punk. He was going to start on that the minute he finished his shot – he finished it. And was right on the verge of getting up to look up a certain name in the telephone directory five feet from where he sat – a name that had been told to him once, right in here, of a party who could put a man to work on the drums with or without a union card. But just at that moment he noticed that Antek’s glasses had been broken while he’d been gone. ‘What happened to the goggles, Owner?’ he asked urgently, needing to know the answer right away.
Antek made no reply. He felt he was being razzed and walked off with the string tied over one ear and knotted to the stump of the glasses’ frame. Antek suffered occasional defeats, and these humiliated him more deeply than blows.
His deaf-and-dumb cat had also, it seemed, come under fire. She came gimping across the floor on three legs and somebody’s hound, on a leash, made a run for her. Antek’s wife, holding the leash, let the hound go just far enough to make the old cat scramble for it on all threes.
‘The old cat’s no good,’ Mrs Owner explained herself righteously, ‘she’s the one what trampled her young ones to deat’ – somebody ought to give it to her good for that.’
A dull compassion for all old cats hit Frankie. ‘She did it to make room for her next litter,’ he told the woman. So just to show everyone how she felt she hollered, ‘Get her, Bummy!’ and let the leash go altogether. The old cat barely made it, half crawling and half slipping up the piled beer cases to safety.
And the old bums drooled and drooled.
Frankie turned away. It seemed that everything that ever happened to him had begun with some hound or other’s aimless yapping.
Outside the traffic warnings flashed from red to green and back again. In the bar mirror he saw the door open and Sparrow wander in pretending he wasn’t looking for anyone in particular. Then just happen to spot an old buddy who hadn’t been around for a while.
‘Hi, Dealer,’ he sounded Frankie out from the front of the bar, signaling to Antek for two shots. Frankie let his shot stand before him without even acknowledging that he’d seen anyone come in.
But out of the corner of his eye, turned toward the mirror, he studied the punk as never before. So this was the joker for whom he’d done nine months in County. ‘He left me holdin’ the bag for sure that time,’ Frankie reminded himself firmly; so that he’d never, never weaken.
Sparrow leaned over the bar to Antek, whispered confidentially, and a minute later Antek ambled down toward Frankie with a far too casual air.
‘He wants to talk to you,’ Antek reported, ‘somethin’ about gettin’ back on the door by Schwiefka. Says you got him awfully wrong about somethin’.’
‘If a guy wants a job by Schwiefka,’ Frankie said loudly enough for the punk to hear, ‘let him go by Schwiefka. I don’t run no joint, I’m just dealin’.’
Antek, duty done, reported back to Sparrow and the punk picked up his courage at last. Catching Frankie’s eye in the mirror, he asked, in a small peaked voice, ‘You still got them hard feelin’s, Dealer?’
‘I got no kind of feelin’s.’
‘It wasn’t no sense bot’ of us gettin’ busted, Frankie.’
‘No sense at all,’ Frankie agreed readily. ‘Who’s arguin’?’ Frankie certainly wasn’t. It was all over and done so far as Dealer was concerned. He turned on the stool, leaving the shot the punk had bought him with his last two bits, and brushed past him to the door.
Sparrow plucked pleadingly at Frankie’s sleeve. ‘Let me talk to you, Frankie.’
Frankie looked down at him. The punk was looking shabby all right. And a bad time of year for dog stealing. ‘There’s lots of things I got wrong awright,’ he told the punk, ‘but you ain’t one of ’em. You’re the one thing I’m real right about.’
He turned up his jacket against the evening cold and left without looking back.


* * *


Each morning now the tide of his loneliness rose, to ebb only when he took his evening place in the slot. To rise a bit higher, by the following morning, than it had the morning before. If it hadn’t been for the punk, it somehow seemed, he’d be on the legit now somewhere with Molly instead of still hustling suckers all night long. His eyes, under the night-light, no longer reflected the light.
It’s all in the wrist, with a deck or a cue; yet the fingers had lost the touch. The feel of the deck wasn’t there any more. And it had all been better before.
He practiced squeezing a sponge ball one evening. ‘Tunney stren’thened his hands like this,’ he explained to Sophie. And fancied the fingers felt stronger.
He gave the sports a shaky deal three nights running. On the fourth he settled down. Till, toward morning, one sport sat with a low straight and three others drew to two pairs. The second player’s final card slipped face upward, matching the pair of sixes already showing on the board. Frankie reddened and gave the others theirs face upward too, with a mumbled ‘sorry’ to the one whose hand he had so clumsily betrayed, a youth known to him only as Bird Dog.
Four players turned up their cards with real relief; the dealer had saved them money from home. But Bird Dog shoved the pot toward Frankie.
‘You won this one, Dealer,’ Bird Dog assured him, slapping his corduroy hat against the flat of his hand to indicate he was casing out, and tossed two bits of his own into the pot. ‘You win that too.’
‘Take your money, Bird Dog,’ Frankie begged off, ‘it’s yours.’
‘No hard feelings,’ the boy assured him with a flat little laugh. Everyone watched him leave while Frankie boxed the deck, pretending it had all been the fault of the cards, and opened a fresh deck. The pot stayed in the middle for the next hand’s winner.
His palms were sweating and the deck, that had always slipped so lightly, seemed half glued to them. On the very first go-round with the fresh deck he dealt a card to the missing player’s empty seat and the cards had to be shifted all around the board. Schwiefka put his hand on Frankie’s arm with a meaningful touch.
‘Go down ’n get a drink, Dealer. You’re dealin’ like you got hairs in your teet’. I fired one guy awready who could deal that good.’
Frankie shoved back the chair, slapped on his cap, and all the way to the door fancied small laughter behind him.
And right in the downstairs doorway, just as though he didn’t know he’d ever been fired, the punk was waiting again. ‘How long you been waitin’ for nothin’?’ Frankie wanted to know. A cold wind came down the alley and the punk blew on his hands.
‘A long time, Frankie. Get me my job back. I’m broke.’
‘You always were,’ Frankie reminded him.
When he reached the Tug & Maul Sparrow hustled in right behind him and stood watching while Frankie ordered a double shot for himself. His right hand was shaking so that he had to lift the glass with his left. Anybody’s hand would shake, having a punk shadow him all night. The punk must be practicing to be a Pinkie again. He kept the hand in his pocket. He had two doubles before it stopped trembling.
‘You got a loose crowd up there tonight, Frankie?’ The punk sounded homesick all right. ‘You got to get back up there right away?’
‘I don’t got to go nowheres right away.’
When Frankie ordered a third double shot Sparrow sensed that something had gone wrong in the slot. Frankie stuck to coffee between shifts when things were going as they should.
‘Ain’t you goin’ back upstairs all night, Frankie?’ And felt a faint little twinge of hope that, just maybe, Frankie had been fired too.
‘Not tonight ’r any night. Nobody’s stairs. I’m gonna try downstairs awhile.’ The hand was fine now, steady as a die. ‘I’m gonna find out what’s doin’ in the basement.’
‘You still got rent to pay,’ Sparrow reminded him meekly.
Frankie turned on him. ‘It looks to me like you’re fallin’ behind in yours,’ he accused the punk, looking him up and down from the worn shoes and the pants so thin at the knees to the coat that had once been old Stash’s: it still bore the marks of an ice tongs faintly visible across the left shoulder. ‘You look like Vi has fired you too,’ he threw in.
‘I’ll get my own racket.’ Sparrow tried, at the last possible moment, to salvage something of his pride.
‘It’s pretty cold for rollin’ stiffs,’ Frankie observed.
Sparrow saw then it was no use; no use at all. He wasn’t even good for a shot with Frankie any more.
‘What’s yours?’ Sparrow really wanted to know. ‘What’s yours?’
And didn’t stay for an answer.
Frankie saw his tattered coat catch in the door as it closed behind him, then the punk extricated himself and was gone into the November night. ‘It was toward this time of year I first hooked up with him,’ Frankie remembered with a heart homesick for many Novembers.
Owner came up with the bottle. ‘On the house,’ he told Frankie, and poured evenly for both the dealer and himself. Frankie shoved a half dollar toward Antek. He wasn’t so hard up as some people seemed to think.
‘See that sign of yours?’ he asked, pointing to one of the bar legends:
Our cow is dead
We don’t need your bull
‘Well,’ Frankie told Owner, ‘my cow’s dead too. So don’t gimme none of your bull. Just give me a square count on my change.’ And spat, slowly and provocatively, making a great show of the act, between his knees and down to the floor at his feet.
Antek was hurt. He’d only been trying to patch things up between a couple old buddies and this was what he got. He withdrew the bottle and his own glass, returned with change for the half dollar and said, ‘Suit yourself, Dealer.’
Then spat, just as slowly, just as provocatively, between his own feet.
‘You call that spittin’?’ Frankie laughed with a huge contempt, hawked once and blew a beautiful round gob straight over the bar to splash across the mirror where the photographs of Antek’s wife and daughter hung in gilt-edged frames. Antek picked up a sodden bar towel and slung it straight into Frankie’s face.
Frankie wiped his face absent-mindedly with the rag precisely as though it had been handed to him politely for just that purpose.
‘After all, Frankie,’ Antek apologized in all humility, ‘a bartender got feelin’s too.’ Then saw that Frankie was crying.
Antek watched this spectacle a minute, figuring something slowly to himself. Frankie handed him back the towel.
‘I’ll say this much about somethin’ that’s none of my business at all,’ Antek told him, measuring each word as though fearing to say one word too many. ‘I think you’re dead wrong about the punk. That’s all.’ And turned away.
So it really had been Pig – and the punk had been right in guessing that it had been Owner who’d given Pig ‘some kind of count’ on Louie’s roll. Then his pride came up to deny flatly what all his senses had told him at last. If he’d been wrong this long he’d just stay wrong. If the punk had gone, let him go. Let everyone, let all of them go.
It was too hard to get slapped in the teeth with a wet bar towel twice in a row.
He didn’t tell Sophie of his determination to quit Schwiefka. Why hang on? He didn’t even tell Schwiefka. The whole day following the night of the shaky deal he lay on the bed waiting for the old strength to return, in a single jump, to his wrists. He lay fully clothed, with his cap in easy reach of his hand; as though in order to be ready to go back to work the moment the touch returned.
But the feel of the deck had died with the light that had died in his eyes, leaving only a loneliness that was a loneliness for more than any lost skill.
More than a loneliness for careless nights when he and the punk had first gone on drunks together. More even than the gnawing need for Molly-O.
A loneliness that took on substance and form, like a crouching man wearing some sort of faded, outworn uniform.
He was lonely all right. He was lonely for his old buddy with the thirty-five-pound monkey on his back.
Neither Sophie nor Sergeant McGantic wanted him to practice at the board any more. She sat by the window and McGantic roamed the long, cold hall. It had been some hours since she had spoken. It had been some time since McGantic had called.
But toward the end of the afternoon she began telling him of all the things he had missed when he’d been gone. She had seen a movie about ‘Jack London in the Klondikes’ and another wherein Joan Crawford had changed hats without a change of scene. ‘I’m gonna write to Screenland about that,’ she threatened to snitch on Joan, ‘they pay five bucks fer movie boners they call them.’
She never wrote. But had added several morbid memories to the five-and-dime loose-leaf volume, her Scrapbook of Fatal Accidence. Yet there were long hours between them now when the book lay open on her lap and she had no word to say.
As if realizing at last that there was really nothing for her to do in the world. No true place of her own at all. Nothing to do but to wait. For what? For the booby hatch or a miracle, she didn’t much care which.
‘Why don’t Vi come to see me no more, just to say, “How you feelin’?” like she used?’ she suddenly demanded to know.
‘She’s havin’ trouble with the punk is why,’ he answered, not knowing himself just what he meant. ‘Vi is up to somethin’,’ he guessed indifferently and let it go at that.
Thus Sophie knew, more clearly with each hour, what she had so long suspected: that they were all in secret league against her. Violet and Frankie, Owner and Jailer, just the same as they’d been before Frankie had gone away; the overnight guests and creaky old Pin Curls down the fourth floor rear who played, over and over, just to get Sophie’s goat, the same old creaking tune:
‘Painted lips, painted eyes,
Wearing a Bird-of-Paradise…’
‘You only make the same mistake once,’ she advised him abruptly.
‘Whatever that means,’ he answered mechanically.
‘Oh, don’t always pertend you don’t know what I’m talkin’ about,’ she persisted, ‘a woman is the downfall of every man ’n a man is the downfall of every woman. You’re my downfall ’n I’m yours.’
‘Quit fallin’ down ’n say what you’re tryin’ to say,’ he urged her irritably, ‘quit beatin’ around the bushes.’
‘What I mean is there’s nuttin’ deader’n a dead love,’ she told him sternly, ‘nuttin’ deader.’
‘Sure there is,’ he assured her lightly, ‘dead people. They’re deader’n anybody.’
Her reply was simply to weave her hands in front of her face like a Hawaiian dancer and to sing saucily:
‘Hello, Aloha, how are you?
I’m bringin’ you kisses
From over the sea.’
She watched him slyly while they ate a cold-cut supper out of paper plates. There wasn’t enough strength left in her wrists, she claimed, to slice bread or cut sausage. She watched while he cut everything into small cubes for her and then sat weaving her hands instead of eating.
‘Others you’ve met
May call you coquette…’
‘Quit yawpin’ ’n scoff,’ he told her, ‘you sound like a lost orphan in a rain barrel.’
For now she fancied herself a vocalist with an all-girl band. Over the sausage she smiled faintly at the unseen players, encouraging one with a nod here and another with a nod there. There was something really distracted about her smile.
‘What the hell are you – a bird?’ But his eyes were clouded with concern for her.
‘Evelyn ’n her magic violin,’ Sophie explained easily. ‘I can do magic too.’
‘Well,’ he sighed, realizing he was in for a long, long night, ‘here we go again.’
‘… mean to me’
she sang,
‘Why must you be mean to me?’
and broke off abruptly to ask directly, ‘What do you think of the A. F. of L.?’
Frankie looked up, genuinely startled. ‘What the hell – you don’t even know what the A. F. of L. is. I think you’re tryin’ to act crazier just ’cause I’m back. If nobody was here you’d have more sense. Quit disguisin’ your eyes. Quit showin’ off.’
But whether she was just showing off or not he couldn’t be certain. Half an hour later she overdid herself. He was dozing and wakened to see her tracing, with one forefinger upon the dust of the unwashed pane, the single word: Perdition. Just as she finished tracing it the sirens sounded, the hook-and-ladder pulled past and patrol cars, insurance cars and all the frantic traffic of a 4-11 alarm came crashing by with a sense of imminent doom. She wheeled to the door and shrieked up the stairwell to Violet, ‘It’s goin’ up! Loop ’n all! It’s all goin’ up!’
Violet came down the stairs at a gallop; she had to phone the papers to learn what was burning, how far it was spreading, and a kind of elation seized Sophie while Vi was at the phone behind Jailer’s desk.
‘It’s just a short circuit by Fish Furniture’s basement,’ Vi reported dryly from the doorway. ‘All under control.’
But Sophie herself stayed out of control the rest of the evening. Neither magazines nor scrapbook nor the promise of beer could give her consolation. Just to realize that that was all it had come to, that that was all anything could ever come to. Just the way Vi had said that – it made a person want to cry, that was all.
‘The whole fire was in my head,’ she mourned.
He left for Schwiefka’s toward eleven o’clock. There was no other way to make the long night pass.
And wondering, the minute he sat down in the slot, how in the name of sweet Jesus Christ he was going to make it without a charge till morning.
Solly Saltskin wasn’t as happy, sleeping in the late Stash Koskozka’s bed, as he’d once thought he’d be. If he could, occasionally, have slept there alone it might have been endurable. Sneaking in for an hour of fast woo a couple times a week when Old Husband had still been padding about had been one thing: being tied down to these same four bedposts all night long, night after night, was strictly something else. Of late the bedposts had taken to leaning together with a faintly disapproving air. They’d seen them come and they’d seen them go: this one wouldn’t last as long as some of the others, they calculated, the reckless way he was going about things. A cooler head was what was needed; a cooler head, an older hand, a bit more restraint and snatches of sleep between rounds.
But Vi was so hothanded he didn’t get a chance either to sleep or even to cool off between rounds. Once he evaded her senseless stroking with some such thin excuse as, ‘I’m just gonna have a fast cup of coffee in the kitchen – you go to sleep, you need your rest, you’re gettin’ to look like a wornout movie actor.’
But just as he was putting the cup to his lips her fingers encompassed his throat from behind and he squawked like a strangling duck.
‘Don’t do that when you see I’m swallerin’,’ he protested.
‘That’s when it’s most fun, when you’re not expectin’ – you didn’t even hear me creepin’ up, did you, Goosey? Still love me, Goosey-Goo?’
And crushed down upon his lap to feed him coffee from a Pixley & Ehlers spoon, howling with joy at his every wretched gulp.
‘You look so unhappy, Goosey.’ She never ran out of new nicknames for him, each more revolting than the last. ‘Ain’t there enough sugar in it? Now tell me I’m sweet enough for you, you don’t need sugar with me settin’ here.’
All Sparrow had heart enough left to say was, ‘Let me up, Vi. I don’t know what’s gettin’ into you lately, you didn’t use to be like this all the time.’
She didn’t give him time to figure out a thing. She chirped kisses upon him instead. In time to the coffee’s steady perking.
‘The coffee’s perkin’ over, Vi.’
He never remembered for a moment that the Jailer had never once scolded Widow Koskozka for leaving her door a bit ajar.
She let him up at last and, as he turned, shaken, to the percolator, goosed him with a single loonlike warning – whoop! He went clean off the floor on the point of her thumb, half a foot into the air, staggered hysterically into the wall and wheeled like a wounded rabbit to get his back up against something solid and looked at her in a panting despair, awaiting some final blow.
Never do that,’ he warned her weakly, hysteria darkening his eyes. ‘Never do that ’n never call me that.’
‘Wait’ll I get you in bed,’ she consoled him. ‘I’ll make it all up to you, Goosey-joosey.’ And followed him mercilessly all the way back to the bedroom, breathing on his neck and tossing her flaming henna helmet about like a conquering lion’s mane. He had been an entertaining toy in his time – but how could a girl afford a toy that never brought in a dime and drank up every stray nickel left lying loosely about? He wasn’t weakening nearly as fast as had Old Husband, who’d given out entirely at the end of the first week. Sparrow only seemed to be a bit frayed around the edges. And the rent three weeks overdue.
Somebody had to go.
And she didn’t mean Rumdum.
‘You don’t know how I miss Old Man, now he’s gone,’ she tried for some reason to convince the punk, ‘you don’t have no idea how sweet that old man could be when he wanted.’
‘Don’t come on with the cheap romance,’ the punk scolded her. ‘You married him for his fifty a week ’n all you miss is that fifty.’
‘Well,’ she admitted,’ he wasn’t as much fun as you. You’re the most fun I ever had with pants on,’ she flattered him with a knowing nudge. ‘You ’n your bedroom eyes.’
‘I think I’m the most fun you ever had with ’em off,’ he agreed dismally.
‘’N just to think,’ she went on breathlessly, ‘I’m all yours, Goosey Lover.’
‘Don’t call me that, it sounds like goosey liver.’ But what he really felt was that she wasn’t all his so much as he was all hers and that there was no rest for the weary. It wasn’t just coincidence that her favorite tune about the house, day after day, began to be:
‘All of me,
Why not take all of me?’
He devised a more subtle means of evading her than that of the midnight snack. It was too easy for her to seduce him
right there on the kitchen floor to the tune of the percolator’s perking. He took to heading for the bathroom.
‘Don’t, Vi,’ he’d plead, as she’d drag him off the bed’s edge down into the sweaty sheets. ‘Don’t – I got to go by the bat’room.’ From beneath the bed Rumdum listened with sympathy; and a dull foreboding.
She’d relent then. For five minutes. Then he’d hear her making for the bathroom door; he’d grasp the knob firmly – there was no lock – and haul back like a crazed paralytic while she’d pull, shrieking at her discovery of this new game, on the other side of the knob.
Once, drowsing contentedly on the can beside the little five-watt bulb glimmering above the paper holder in the tiny darkened cavern, he understood, dreamily, Old Husband’s love of the broom closet and failed to hear her tiptoed approach – when she rattled the board above his head he almost went into shock.
‘Go back to bed,’ he begged, ‘for God’s sake,’ but she fetched him in an iron grip, pants dragging and the plumbing’s antique roar in his ears, flat down upon the cold linoleum.
While Rumdum galloped excitedly about them, nipping their heels.
Ten minutes later he rolled over, panting, wishing he had a pillow under his head. ‘Pull up the shade, Goosey,’ she ordered him, ‘let’s see if it’s gettin’ light.’
‘If I pull up the shade I’ll go up with it,’ he recalled the ancestral burlesque retort without humor. ‘I know now what they mean by “mortal coil,”’ he decided to himself, ‘’cause I got one I got to shuffle off before they haul me out of here with my toes turned up.’
Twelve weeks of their hot-breathed union and the mornings were finding him faint. The punk woke to his ninetieth common-law dawn, on the first day of December, feeling he’d never make the ninety-first. He rose like a haunted ghost, washed in cold water and took one last fond look at the friendly percolator: that had revived him many an ardent midnight and now would revive him no more.
Beneath the sink Rumdum slept with one ear alert for the coffeepot’s first perk. Vi was trying to wean him off beer with coffee.
Sparrow couldn’t take the chance, even now, of putting the pot on the stove. She wakened to its contented perking as to some slow aphrodisiac and the time was come to go. He found three halves, wrapped in a ten-dollar bill, in her apron. The last of Old Husband’s insurance money, and a pang of conscience flicked him. ‘So long as she don’t shoot herself when she finds out I ducked on her,’ he hoped anxiously. ‘Maybe she’ll get over the shock some day.’ And left as if it had been the percolator he had loved here so long and so well; it was all he truly regretted leaving.
He could not know that even then Violet lay wide awake and listening to his every secret move, scarcely daring to breathe for fear he might change his mind. ‘If he decides to hang on any longer I’ll have to hurt his feelin’s, that’s all,’ she determined firmly. ‘I’ll have to tell him right out I can’t afford him no more.’
She heard the door shut ever so softly and turned over on her side with the sighing relief of a job well done.
‘I always wanted to get out of this crummy neighborhood anyhow,’ Sparrow rationalized going downstairs. ‘One more winter with Vi ’n I’d be tearin’ all my pieces off the calendar too.’
He went past Frankie’s door noiselessly these days; there was no use trying to talk to the dealer any more. ‘When a Polak gets an idea in his head you can’t get it out wit’ a crowbar,’ Sparrow decided ruefully.
And so returned, with the city a golden roar in his ears, to the horse-and-wagon alleys of his childhood; with a rueful renascence in his heart.
For the alleys never changed. It was as though no time had passed since he had first escaped down them: playing hooky from that first truant officer as he was on the hook from Violet now. It seemed the same morning of golden escape.
The alleys had always been his sanctuary; they had been kinder to him than the streets. He had spent those long-ago days searching the ashcans for the tinfoil in discarded cigarette packs. Though the boulevard gutters had been better for tinfoil prospecting, the alleys had always been safer.
The tinfoil racket had been abandoned for the pursuit of beer corks. A still on Blackhawk Street had paid a dime a hundred for them in those days.
Beer corks were money: they were lagged, in lieu of pennies, along the sidewalk cracks. One red beer cork was worth five of the common brown-and-white rootbeer variety, and once Sparrow had hoarded a pearl beyond price: an orange-and-green job with an owl engraved upon it. No one in the neighborhood had ever seen one like it, he was offered as high as a hundred to one, in rootbeer tops, for it. Then he’d lost it out of a hole in his pocket and it had left a ragged little hole in his heart.
‘Five up!’ He recalled how the lagger’s single toss had represented a gamble of five corks and the lagger nearest the line had gotten first toss – five from each player – and could keep all that turned up heads. He could then toss them one at a time or all at once just as the whim took him. Then the runner-up got second toss and by the time tossings came around to Solly Saltskin there was usually only one left anyhow and that was his by default, there were no other tossers. But he’d toss it anyhow, just because the others had; it wasn’t often there was anyone farther off the line than Solly.
Even then he had always been last. The decisive crack in the sidewalk had always, somehow, seemed farther away to him than it had to the other alley stubs. Even then he had blinked and goggled and furrowed his forehead and bit his tongue in tossing while those who lagged easily did the winning. Twenty years – and he still put his face too close to others when he spoke, still peered hopefully through double-lensed glasses as if trying to see whether there’d be a beer cork or two left for Solly.
Still sauntered down the one-way alleys between Division Street and the Armitage Avenue carbarns with some forgotten eye of childhood alert for anything that might be turned into a spot of cash.
The sights and sounds of the alleyways by morning were different for Sparrow than those of the boulevards and the car lines. He heard them as familiarly as a nature lover hears murmurs of a forest morning. The clomp-clomp of Western Dairy steeds and the clatter of tardy milkmen up back stairs and down two steps at a time, the newsboy wheeling down a gangway on a bicycle and the morning greeting of the rolled paper thudding neatly and accurately against the wrong door, the odor of fresh rolls off the bakery truck – home sights, home sounds and home smells for Solly Saltskin.
He stole a copy of the Tribune off some newsboy’s two-wheeled cart and two chocolate-covered bismarcks off a bakery truck, just to feel freedom returning to his shaken spirit.
‘I may die poor,’ he felt with his returning strength, ‘but I won’t die tied. It’s not for me, the common-law life.’ And fed the second doughnut to Bogacz the Milkman’s horse. ‘You married, horse?’ Sparrow asked in his rasping whisper.
The old stallion rolled one white, derisive eye: he saw so many of this aimless order of alley wanderers, forever emerging out of the shadows to feed him stolen restaurant sugar or doughnuts or salt he didn’t really want. He took them only because he sometimes got lonely himself over the week ends. Though knowing there are worse things than loneliness along the long hard road to the glue works.
Sparrow heard the milkman’s container tinkling somewhere behind him and a hangover of guilt, from some half-forgotten caper among some other milkie’s quarts and pints, caught him and he crossed the avenue to scurry down the opposite alley.
Toward noon he spotted a likely-looking terrier frolicking by itself in a yard behind a chili parlor. He had it wagging its stump of a tail, his hand on its collar – worth a dollar-fifty itself – when he glanced over his shoulder and saw an overweight gorilla in an apron stained with chili like freshly spattered blood and a meat cleaver in one paw, surveying him silently from behind the screened doorway.
Sparrow cooed swift love words at the pup and fed it an invisible dog biscuit – the screen door opened and again he ran for it. When he glanced back the cook was leaning over the fence, cleaver dangling and the whole man measuring him for future decapitation.
Sparrow didn’t linger: the incident had proven to him that the heyday of dog stealing was gone with the miniature golf courses and Star and Garter burlesque. There was no sort of living left in the alleys, it seemed. It was all on the streets nowadays.
He had been dependent upon Frankie and Violet too long. Where would he go when the sawbuck out of Vi’s apron was gone? he wondered uneasily. It looked like a long cold winter for Solly Saltskin.
He caught up on his sleep curled up on the Widow Wieczorek’s pool table, curtained off from her bar, using a rack wrapped in his baseball cap for a pillow. The Widow had been widowed so long she’d cut her hair short and grown a mustache. She didn’t mind one of the boys sleeping on the table if he lifted a couple with her first. She shook him awake toward two o’clock and he idled the rest of that bright afternoon away watching Gringo Guns in the roaring darkness of the Pulaski.
When he came out the evening light lay like a dreamer with sunburned flanks across the dreaming city: water towers, steeples and rooftops, all lay adrift in an amber sea; till the wind below began to search, in hallway and alley and yard, for the place where pale night was hiding.
A wind that stirred nothing else than a kite caught on a telephone wire. A kite of such a darkling red, with that lowering orange sun behind it flooding the heart-shaped wound where the wires ran it through, that it looked to be bleeding. The merciless city wires, upon which it tried to turn a bit, first this way and then that so helplessly, were tinted red from that enormous wound. Sparrow watched it flutter up there with the first rumors of evening, and his own heart pinked with the wind. The frail cross of the kite’s frame hung as piteously as his own heart had hung, since Frankie had gone to jail, to the taut and insulated steel. Goggling upward at it, shivering a bit in the shabby coat, he felt for a moment as if he too were something impaled on city wires for only tenement winds to touch.
He had nine dollars left in his pocket and knew just the place to build it up to forty. All you needed to sit in on a stud session at Kippel’s was a five-dollar bill on the board before you. ‘I could lick them rag sheenies every day ’n twice on Yom Kippur,’ he decided, taking the alleys toward Damen and Division.
He took a seat at the corner table, folding his nine singles to look like eighteen and declared himself casually – ‘from the pocket’ – to indicate he reserved the privilege of reaching for his empty wallet. It was seven-card, two down, four open and the last one closed and he didn’t glance at the closed pair till the first open card hit him: two blood-red jacks hiding just as the third jack slid in face up to meet its relations. Three J-boys wired, this was Solly Saltskin’s night. He glanced one suspicious second at the dealer, saw he was just some run-of-the-mill houseman and that three jacks were just luck for one punk whose luck, God knew, was long overdue for a change. All he had to do was to suck the mockies in softly.
The mockies were wary of the new hand: he looked too simple to be quite true. Each felt he had seen the punk around before; but none could give him a name or place him. Kippel’s players were Jews and this was a Jew – yet one who didn’t somehow belong. They sensed a renegade.
They sensed it in the first-generation Polish inflection which association with Frankie Machine had lent him. They sensed it in the baseball cap, tilted at the jaunty Polish angle, instead of a conservative felt pulled down a bit over the ears. Kippel’s customers wore white shirts and dark jazzbows and not one tie in that whole circle gave promise of lighting up even for a moment. ‘What’s the matter – no gamblers in the house?’ Sparrow asked with real resentment as, one by one, they dropped off from the challenge of the hidden jacks.
For, like the Jewish fighters, the Jewish gamblers were counterpunchers. They could wait on the defensive forever, hoarding their strength, their cunning and their cards for the single opening as though one opening were all that were granted a man in one lifetime.
They had learned that the one blow, the one ace, the single chance had to be the decisive one. They knew that for them there would be no consolation honors and no second chance. There was the knowledge of the long-hunted: to turn swiftly, with open claws at the very moment of disaster, upon the undefeated hunter.
For the hunter there was always another day. When the hunted lost they lost for keeps.
Therefore they had to win every day, they had to win tonight, tomorrow and forever. The long chance was the pursuer’s luxury, the short one the necessity of the pursued. The pursued had to be certain beforehand, make no mistake in timing and do it all within rules laid down long ago by the hunter.
‘If this was a Polak game nobody’d drop,’ Sparrow decided.
For the Poles shoved the law of averages off the table and chased the longest possible chance down fantastic myriad ways. With three kings face up about the board and not enough in the pot to warrant a 5-1 risk, they took the 52-1 chance without hesitation and went for the case king as if it were a hope of heaven. If they did hit it the very idea of having had the brassbound nerve to play a chance that long was as exciting a reward to them as the money it had won.
So long as they could still borrow from the bartender they played like men who never lost a round; though they might have been losing steadily for a month. The Jews recalled last year’s losses and forgot this hand’s winnings. The Poles played the game for its own sake, to kill the monotony of their lives. The Jews played to make the hours return to them of what other hours, in other cities, had robbed their fathers; their lives were less boring away from the board than at it. The Pole, even when playing on borrowed money and the rent overdue, still felt, somehow, that he could afford to lose all night because he was so sure to win everything in the end. The Jew knew that the moment he felt he could afford to lose he would begin losing till the bottom of the world fell through and he himself went through the hole. It was more fun being a Polish gambler; it was safer to be a Jewish one.
Now, after he had raised the bet to a dollar on his three jacks, only two players came along with Sparrow. He hadn’t yet filled but had an open six and an open deuce to draw to and on the sixth card the player to his left suddenly bet into him. Sparrow raised it a dollar without faltering and the third hand dropped. The final card was down and the man who’d taken over the driver’s seat checked. Sparrow sensed him to be hiding. With only a single left in front of him he said, ‘Two in the dark – one buck light.’ He was that certain his card was there. It had to be there.
‘Owes the pot a buck,’ the dealer announced and Sparrow caught High Man’s eyes measuring him as if he were a badly marinated herring and shoved two singles and a silver trail of quarters into the pot. ‘Two and two better.’ The dealer counted swiftly – ‘but not so fast as Frankie’ – Sparrow thought loyally. Then lost courage and said, ‘I see.’
‘Three bucks light,’ the dealer warned him, and the punk’s greedy little heart fluttered weakly.
‘Turn ’em over.’
High Man flipped his hand: two little deucies and three little treys. He’d caught. Sparrow revealed his three jacks wired. Beside a six, a deuce and a queen. All the closed card had to be was a deuce – but the deuces were dead – a trey – but the treys were dead – a queen then or the case jack – the dealer flipped the card for him.
Nine of clubs.
‘That nine of clubs is the devil card every time,’ somebody sympathized.
‘I owe you t’ree, friend,’ Sparrow assured High Man. ‘Be right back with the bundle – save my seat, Dealer.’
‘It’s a long night till morning,’ someone surmised dryly. But Sparrow was almost to the door before the bouncer collared him. ‘You owe the gentmuns some money over there.’
‘Holy Jumped-up Jesus,’ Sparrow protested with real indignation,’ I just told the man what I owed him myself – it’s where I’m goin’ now, to get it. Where the hell you think I’m goin’?’
‘Out to steal it for all I know – but the gentmuns can’t wait.’
‘If he can’t wait let the house pay him off.’ Sparrow faltered then and he whispered in strict confidence, ‘I’m a steerer myself, friend. Us steerers got to stick together.’
‘Let him go, Ju-ju,’ someone said behind the bouncer. It was old man Kippel, looking as professionally tolerant as a Southern senator. Old man Kippel didn’t go for rough stuff for sums under five c’s. ‘Just see the lad don’t sit in the dollar game no more.’
‘I’ll remember you all the same, sheenie,’ Ju-ju told Sparrow, to let his boss know that his heart was in his work. But the punk had fled pockets empty and feelings wounded savagely. ‘Callin’ me a sheenie, him the biggest rag sheenie on Division – he couldn’t get no job except in a rag-sheenie joint.’
And wondered whether that kite was still caught up there, so high on the city wires.
That was how Sparrow was still feeling when he wandered back into the Tug & Maul hoping that his credit might still somehow rate a shot and a beer. His rating had slipped badly with Antek since Old Husband had checked out. A new sign above the register apprised him that it was lower than ever today:
I think you think you think you know what I’m think ing but I’m not thinking what I think you think I think: Credit.
While in the place of the Our cow is dead legend a more forceful one expressed Owner’s current attitude toward everyone:
Once a rat always a rat
And who, standing up to be counted, can say that not once has he played the rat?
So there wasn’t any use reminding Owner how freely he had spent Old Husband’s Christmas bonus and then had gone right on through the old man’s insurance money while Frankie was sitting in the bucket. Owner had a bad memory for long-spent rolls. It hadn’t even been a good idea to spend it with Owner, Sparrow realized regretfully now. ‘It seemed like I was buildin’ up my credit then. But I was oney tearin’ it down,’ he was forced to conclude these many months after. ‘All the good I done was to get Frankie saltyback at me.’ While the big bass juke mocked his present poverty.
‘Wrap your troubles in dreams
And dream your troubles away …’
In the back booth, where he and Frankie had so often drunk together, Umbrella Man sat with his great unskilled hands folded gently over his bell and his head lying sidewise upon his hands, so that the bell’s rain-rusted handle made a long crease in his unshaven cheek. The bottom had pretty well fallen out of things for Umbrellas when Frankie had taken the ride to Twenty-sixth and California. He had been drunk most of the time since. His credit had fallen to a state even lower than Sparrow’s.
Once Cousin Kvorka had had him locked up overnight to keep him from gambling and had then told him he was only out on parole. Umbrellas had believed, ever since, that if he should ever be caught gambling, at any table where anyone but Frankie Machine was dealing, he too would be sent out to Twenty-sixth and California.
Now he raised his battered brow, called to some dealer of his dreams for the one card that could save his life and waited, with a dull glaze over his eyes, till it seemed to fall right in front of him. He studied the hypothetical card, turning it over and over with fingers that seemed to feel it and read with heavy lids: ‘Fulled up. Aces.’ Then boggled his eyes about at the hypothetical players with whom he played so often of late: now one of them would have to buy him a drink. And fell forward across his bell as though he’d been struck from behind with the handle of his own umbrella.
They say it’s hard enough to find a needle in a haystack. Sometimes it’s even harder to find five dollars in a city of four million people, most of them millionaires. So that when Sparrow heard a familiar shuffle behind him he turned on the stool and said, ‘I want to talk to you, Piggy-O.’
Pig, wearing his everlasting smirk with that same air of fresh prosperity he’d worn ever since Nifty Louie had checked out, tapped on toward the eyeless juke without hearing a word, leaving behind the same old smell of unwashed underwear.
Tapped on more softly than before. Sparrow looked down. The big flat feet had been squeezed into a pair of long, narrow, two-tone jobs more fit for a race track in August than a bar in December. Nifty Louie’s very shoes: Sparrow could still see them coming down that long dark stair. ‘My God,’ he thought with something of awe, ‘I don’t think he even left Louie his socks.’
At the juke Pig turned his black snout up as if to identify the numbers on the box by smell; the very hairs within the nostrils seemed to quiver. And though his hands were as grimy as ever Sparrow saw that the nails had been manicured; to go with the suit that fitted him like a hide. He lifted the cane’s begrimed tip till it touched the lowest of the box’s numbers, then moved upward, exactly like a nervous spider, in little leaps from one number to that above till it attained the top row and punched his favorite number at last.
‘O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy…’
Sparrow waited till the juke had finished, then moved swiftly up to Pig’s ear: ‘Borrow me a dirty sawbuck, Piggy-O.’
Pig looked down at his hand, lying flat on the bar, just as though he could see the soot imbedded in the wrinkles there. Slowly it began to crawl with desires all its own, one manicured finger at a time, one inch at a time, to rest till the next finger caught up; then all went on together, in a miniature burlesque, till the bar’s very edge was reached, and returned to the exact spot from which they’d begun that neurotic carnival.
‘You made me dance to your music, brother – now you dance to mine,’ he told the punk at last.
‘I was just a guilty culprit them days, Piggy-O. Times is different now. I’m not takin’ no more gas off the dealer. Account of him I got the gate by Schwiefka. Hinges ’n all. What you think of a buddy who’ll turn on a fellow like that?’
Pig looked over Sparrow’s shoulder with a certain pursued look. ‘Schwiefka’s is a good place to hang away from these days anyhow,’ he confided in Sparrow.
‘You don’t look like you need to shag coffee ’n cigarettes for him no more.’ Sparrow admired Pig’s new look. ‘You look like you’re doin’ awright, Piggy-O.’
‘Even a blind guy can see an openin’ sometimes,’ Pig boasted a bit.
Louie must have left an opening big enough to shove a suitcase full of little brown drugstore bottles through, Sparrow decided to himself. ‘Blind guys can hear real good sometimes too,’ he ventured, studying Pig’s fat face. And saw the faintest sort of flattered smile stray a moment over those bloodless lips.
‘The dealer off you?’ Pig asked at last.
‘Like a filthy shirt,’ Sparrow assured him. ‘He makes me feel like a heel. Not even a heavy heel. Just a light heel.’
‘Why don’t you try steerin’ by Kippel’s, Steerer?’
‘By Kippel’s?’ Sparrow felt shocked at the idea. ‘Not for me, Piggy-O. That’s the sheenie cheaters’ joint. I’ll go on the legit before I go to work for sheenie cheaters.’
‘A guy workin’ for me gets his dough in advance – he can’t get cheated that way, can he?’
Sparrow’s heart took a small, tight stitch. ‘Couldn’t you just borrow me a sawbuck? It ain’t my line of work, what you got in mind.’
‘It’s up to you, Steerer,’ Pig told him coldly and turned to go. Sparrow caught the cane with real despair.
‘I got no place to sleep tonight, Piggy.’ And sensed, even as he held the cane and would not let it go, that Pig had come into the Tug & Maul looking for him. That he’d simply let the talk run on until it had been Sparrow doing the seeking. He should never have talked that hard about Frankie.
‘It’s two bucks a delivery, Steerer. All I can afford.’ Then hearing no reply other than that despairing grasp on his cane, brought out a tiny package, wrapped by cleaner hands, out of an unclean vest. ‘I got friends who get sick. It’s a good deed, deliverin’ medicine to sick people.’
‘Bringing tidings of comfort and joy,’
the big brass juke agreed.
Sparrow needed a shot and a beer. But Pig let him sit feeling that his tongue was drying onto the roof of his mouth.
‘This one needs it real bad, and a hot little piece, I heard – if she wants to show you she’s grateful it’s awright – but get the sawbuck first – bring it back ’n you get the deuce for delivery – Antek’ll break the ten for me awright, he gives a guy a square count ’n don’t ask questions neither. Yeh,’ n I’ll buy you a double shot too. You stick with me you’ll have your own sawbuck by twelve o’clock.’
‘Is it real far, Piggy-O?’ It felt very far indeed.
And yet – how unlucky could one punk get in just one night? He’d had all the bad luck there was already and enough left over for a month to come. The image of the kite caught on the wires returned.
‘It’s a couple dirty miles for me but it’s only around the corner for a guy with eyes. Kosciusko Hotel. I’ll wait in the back boot’.’
And the little drugstore package lay on the scarred bar between them. Pig moved it with the cane’s curved handle toward Sparrow. If that Frankie wasn’t so stubborn, it was all that Frankie’s fault. As it moved toward him Sparrow saw, irrelevantly, that for some reason Pig had wrapped the cane’s handle in tinfoil. When Frankie found out how mean he’d been he’d be real sorry.
The cane’s bright silver luster had been stained, by those same hot blind hands, into a gutter-colored gray. ‘The dealer was laughin’ in here today,’ Pig reminisced, ‘he was tellin’ Owner how you couldn’t pick up a dime no more ’cause you lost his backin’. He said it was gonna get pretty rough for you when the Jailer moved in by Violet. He said-’
‘Don’t tell me what nobody said,’ Sparrow interrupted him, ‘let’s have the dirty bottle.’
‘T’ree-fifteen B,’ Blind Pig directed. ‘Go around the side door ’n use the elevator.’


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