In the most vertical city in the world men have run up their dreams and their ambitions into slim skyscrapers that seem to exclaim at the audacity of the mere mortar that sustains them.
Minarets appear almost to tamper with the stars; towers to impale the moon. There is one fifty-six-story rococo castle, built from the five-and-ten-cent-store earnings of a merchant prince, that shoots upward with the beautiful rush of a Roman candle.
Any Manhattan sunset, against a sky that looks as if it might give to the poke of a finger, like a dainty woman’s pink flesh, there marches a silhouetted caravan of tower, dome, and the astonished crests of office buildings.
All who would see the sky must gaze upward between these rockets of frenzied architecture, which are as beautiful as the terrific can ever be beautiful.
In the vertical city there are no horizons of infinitude to rest the eyes; rather little breakfast napkins of it showing between walls and up through areaways. Sometimes even a lunchcloth of five, six, or maybe sixty hundred stars or a bit of daylight-blue with a caul of sunshine across, hoisted there as if run up a flagpole.
It is well in the vertical city if the eyes and the heart have a lift to them, because, after all, these bits of cut-up infinitude, as many-shaped as cookies, even when seen from a tenement window and to the accompaniment of crick in the neck, are as full of mysterious alchemy over men’s hearts as the desert sky or the sea sky. That is why, up through the wells of men’s walls, one glimpse of sky can twist the soul with—oh, the bitter, the sweet ache that lies somewhere within the heart’s own heart, curled up there like a little protozoa. That is, if the heart and the eyes have a lift to them. Marylin’s had.
Marylin! How to convey to you the dance of her! The silver scheherazade of poplar leaves when the breeze is playful? No. She was far nimbler than a leaf tugging at its stem. A young faun on the brink of a pool, startled at himself? Yes, a little. Because Marylin’s head always had a listening look to it, as if for a message that never quite came through to her. From where? Marylin didn’t know and didn’t know that she didn’t know. Probably that accounted for a little pucker that could sometimes alight between her eyes. Scarcely a shadow, rather the shadow of a shadow. A lute, played in a western breeze? Once a note of music, not from a lute however, but played on a cheap harmonica, had caught Marylin’s heart in a little ecstasy of palpitations, but that doesn’t necessarily signify. Zephyr with Aurora playing? Laughter holding both his sides?
How Marylin, had she understood it, would have kicked the high hat off of such Miltonic phrasing. Ah, she was like—herself!
And yet, if there must be found a way to convey her to you more quickly, let it be one to which Marylin herself would have dipped a bow.
She was like nothing so much as unto a whole two dollars’ worth of little five-cent toy balloons held captive in a sea breeze and tugging toward some ozonic beyond in which they had never swum, yet strained so naturally toward.
That was it! A whole two dollars’ worth of tugging balloons. Red—blue—orange—green—silver, jerking in hollow-sided collisions, and one fat-faced pink one for ten cents, with a smile painted on one side and a tear on the other.
And what if I were to tell you that this phantom of a delight of a Marylin, whose hair was a sieve for sun and whose laughter a streamer of it, had had a father who had been shot to death on the underslinging of a freight car in one of the most notorious prison getaways ever recorded, and whose mother—but never mind right here; it doesn’t matter to the opening of this story, because Marylin, with all her tantalizing capacity for paradox, while every inch a part of it all, was not at all a part of it.
For five years, she who had known from infancy the furtive Bradstreet of some of the vertical city’s most notorious aliases and gang names, and who knew, almost by baptism of fire, that there were short cuts to an easier and weightier wage envelope, had made buttonholes from eight until five on the blue-denim pleat before it was stitched down the front of men’s blue-denim shirts.
At sweet sixteen she, whose mother had borne her out of wed—well, anyway, at sweet sixteen, like the maiden in the saying, she had never been kissed, nor at seventeen, but at eighteen—
It was this way. Steve Turner—”Getaway,” as the quick lingo of the street had him—liked her. Too well. I firmly believe, though, that if in the lurid heat lightning of so stormy a career as Getaway’s the beauty of peace and the peace of beauty ever found moment, Marylin nestled in that brief breathing space somewhere deep down within the noisy cabaret of Getaway’s being. His eyes, which had never done anything of the sort except under stimulus of the horseradish which he ate in quantities off quick-lunch counters, could smart to tears at the thought of her. And over the emotions which she stirred in him, and which he could not translate, he became facetious—idiotically so.
Slim and supine as the bamboo cane he invariably affected, he would wait for her, sometimes all of the six work-a-evenings of the week, until she came down out of the grim iron door of the shirt factory where she worked, his one hip flung out, bamboo cane bent almost double, and, in his further zeal to attitudinize, one finger screwing up furiously at a vacant upper lip. That was a favorite comedy mannerism, screwing at where a mustache might have been.
“Getaway!” she would invariably admonish, with her reproach all in the inflection and with the bluest blue in her eyes he had ever seen outside of a bisque doll’s.
The peculiar joy, then, of linking her sweetly resisting arm into his; of folding over each little finger, so! until there were ten tendrils at the crotch of his elbow and his heart. Of tilting his straw “katy” forward, with his importance of this possession, so that the back of his head came out in a bulge and his hip, and then of walking off with her, so! Ah yes, so!
MARYLIN (who had the mysterious little jerk in her laugh of a very young child): “Getaway, you’re the biggest case!”
GETAWAY (wild to amuse her further): “Hocus pocus, Salamagundi! I smell the blood of an ice-cream sundae!”
MARYLIN (hands to her hips and her laughter full of the jerks):
“Getaway, stop your monkeyshines. The cop has his eye on you!”
GETAWAY (sobered): “C’m on!”
Therein lay some of the wonder of her freshet laughter. Because to Marylin a police officer was not merely a uniformed mentor of the law, designed chiefly to hold up traffic for her passing, and with his night stick strike security into her heart as she hurried home of short, wintry evenings. A little procession of him and his equally dread brother, the plain-clothes man, had significantly patrolled the days of her childhood.
Once her mother, who had come home from a shopping expedition with the inside pocket of her voluminous cape full of a harvest of the sheerest of baby things to match Marylin’s blond loveliness—batiste—a whole bolt of Brussels lace—had bitten the thumb of a policeman until it hung, because he had surprised her horribly by stepping in through the fire escape as she was unwinding the Brussels lace.
Another time, from her mother’s trembling knee, she had seen her father in a crowded courtroom standing between two uniforms, four fingers peeping over each of his shoulders!
A uniform had shot her father from the underpinnings of the freight car. Her mother had died with the phantom of one marching across her delirium. Even opposite the long, narrow, and exceedingly respectable rooming house in which she now dwelt a uniform had stood for several days lately, contemplatively.
There was a menacing flicker of them almost across her eyeballs, so close they lay to her experience, and yet how she could laugh when Getaway made a feint toward the one on her beat, straightening up into exaggerated decorum as the eye of the law, noting his approach, focused.
“Getaway,” said Marylin, hop-skipping to keep up with him now, “why has old Deady got his eye on you nowadays?”
Here Getaway flung his most Yankee-Doodle-Dandy manner, collapsing inward at his extremely thin waistline, arms akimbo, his step designed to be a mincing one, and his voice as soprano as it could be.
“You don’t know the half of it, dearie. I’ve been slapping granny’s wrist, just like that. Ts-s-st!”
But somehow the laughter had run out of Marylin’s voice. “Getaway,” she said, stopping on the sidewalk, so that when he answered his face must be almost level with hers—”you’re up to something again.”
“I’m up to snuff,” he said, and gyrated so that the bamboo cane looped a circle.
She almost cried as she looked at him, so swift was her change of mood, her lips trembling with the quiver of flesh that has been bruised.
“Oh, Getaway!” she said, “get away.” And pushed him aside that she might walk on. He did not know, nor did she, for that matter, the rustling that was all of a sudden through her voice, but it was almost one of those moments when she could make his eyes smart.
But what he said was, “For the luvagod, whose dead?”
“Me, in here,” she said, very quickly, and placed her hand to her flimsy blouse where her heart beat under it.
“Whadda you mean, dead?”
“Just dead, sometimes—as if something inside of me that can’t get out had—had just curled up and croaked.”
The walk from the shirt factory where Marylin worked, to the long, lean house in the long, lean street where she roomed, smelled of unfastidious bedclothes airing on window sills; of garbage cans that repulsed even high-legged cats; of petty tradesmen who, mysteriously enough, with aërial clotheslines flapping their perpetually washings, worked and sweated and even slept in the same sour garments. Facing her there on these sidewalks of slops, and the unprivacy of stoops swarming with enormous young mothers and puny old children, Getaway, with a certain fox pointiness out in his face, squeezed her arm until she could feel the bite of his elaborately manicured finger nails.
“Marry me, Marylin,” he said, “and you’ll wear diamonds.”
In spite of herself, his bay-rummed nearness was not unpleasant to her. “Cut it out—here, Getaway,” she said through a blush.
He hooked her very close to him by the elbow, and together they crossed through the crash of a street bifurcated by elevated tracks.
“You hear, Marylin,” he shouted above the din. “Marry me and you’ll wear diamonds.”
“Getaway, you’re up to something again!”
“Whadda you mean?”
“Diamonds on your twenty a week! It can’t be done.”
His gaze lit up with the pointiness. “I tell you, Marylin, I can promise you headlights!”
“Never you bother your little head how; O.K., though.”
“Oh—clean—if that’s what’s worrying you. Clean-cut.”
“It is worrying me.”
“Saw one on a little Jane yesterday out to Belmont race track. A fist-load for a little trick like her. And sparkle! Say, every time that little Jane daubed some whitewash on her little nosie she gave that grand stand the squints. That’s what I’m going to do. Sparkle you up! With a diamond engagement ring. Oh boy! How’s that? A diamond engagement ring!”
“Oh, Getaway!” she said, with her hand on the flutter of her throat and closing her eyes as if to imprison the vision against her lids. “A pure white one with lots of fire dancing around it.” And little Marylin, who didn’t want to want it, actually kissed the bare dot on her left ring finger where she could feel the burn of it, and there in the crowded street, where he knew he was surest of his privacy with her, he stole a kiss off that selfsame finger, too.
“I’ll make their eyes hang out on their cheeks like grapes when they see you coming along, Marylin.”
“I love them because they’re so clear—and clean! Mountain water that’s been filtered through pebbles.”
“Pebbles is right! I’m going to dike you out in one as big as a pebble. And poils! Sa-y, they’re what cost the spondulicks. A guy showed me a string of little ones no bigger than pimples. Know what? That little string could knock the three spots out of a thousand-dollar bond—I mean bill!”
It was then that something flashed out of Marylin’s face. A shade might have been lowered; a candle blown out.
“Getaway,” she said, with a quick little dig of fingers into his forearm, “you’re up to something!”
“Snuff, I said.”
“What did you mean by that word, ‘bond’?”
“Who built a high fence around the word ‘bond’?”
“Bonds! All that stuff in the newspapers about those messengers disappearing out of Wall Street with—bonds! Getaway, are you mixed up in that? Getaway!”
“Well, well! I like that! I had you doped out for fair and warmer to-day. The weather prophet didn’t predict no brainstorm.”
“That’s not answering.”
“Well, whadda you know! Miss Sherlock Holmes finds a corkscrew in the wine cellar and is sore because it’s crooked!”
“Whadda you want me to answer, Fairylin? That I’m the master mind behind the—”
“It worries me so! You up in Monkey’s room so much lately. You think I don’t know it? I do! All the comings and goings up there. Muggs Towers sneaking up to Monkey’s room in that messenger boy’s suit he keeps wearing all the time now. He’s no more messenger boy than I am. Getaway, tell me, you and Muggs up in Monkey’s room so often? Footsteps up there! Yours!”
“Gawalmighty! Now it’s my footsteps!”
“I know them! Up in Monkey’s room, right over mine. I know how you sneak up there evenings after you leave me. It don’t look nice your going into the same house where I live, Getaway, even if it isn’t to see me. It don’t look right from the outside!”
“Nobody can ever say I wanted to harm a hair of your little head. I even look the other way when I pass your door. That’s the kind of a modest violet I am.”
“It’s not that, but the looks. That’s the reason, I’ll bet, if the truth’s known, why Monkey squirmed himself into that room over mine—to hide your comings and goings as if they was to see me.”
“Nothing of the kind!”
“Everything—up there—worries me so! Monkey’s room right over mine. My ceiling so full of soft footsteps that frighten me. I know your footsteps, Getaway, just as well as anything. The ball-of-your-foot—squeak! The-ball-of-your-foot—squeak!”
“Well, that’s a good one! The-ball-of-me-foot—squeak!”
“Everybody tiptoeing! Muggs! Somebody’s stocking feet! Monkey’s. Steps that aren’t honest. All on my ceiling. Monkey never ought to have rented a room in a respectable house like Mrs. Granady’s. Nobody but genteel young fellows holding down genteel jobs ever had that room before. Monkey passing himself off as Mr. James Pollard, or whatever it is he calls himself, just for the cover of a respectable house—or of me, for all I know. You could have knocked me down with a feather the first time I met him in the hall. If I did right I’d squeal.”
“You would, like hell.”
“Of course I wouldn’t, but with Mrs. Granady trying to run a respectable house, only the right kind of young fellows and girls rooming there, it’s not fair. Monkey getting his nose into a house like that and hatching God knows what! Getaway, what do you keep doing up in that room—all hours—you and all the pussyfooters?”
“That’s the thanks a fellow gets for letting a straight word like ‘marry’ slip between his teeth; that’s the thanks a fellow gets for honest-to-God intentions of trying to get his girl out of a shirt factory and dike her out in—”
“But, Getaway, if I was only sure it’s all straight!”
“Well, if that’s all you think of me—”
“All your big-gun talk about the ring. Of course I—I’d like it. How could a girl help liking it? But only if it’s on the level. Getaway—you see, I hate to act suspicious all the time, but all your new silk shirts and now the new checked suit and all. It don’t match up with your twenty-dollar job in the Wall Street haberdashery.”
Then Getaway threw out one of his feints of mock surprise. “Didn’t I tell you, Fairylin? Well, whadda you know about that? I didn’t tell her, and me thinking I did.”
“What, Getaway, what?”
“Why, I’m not working there any more. Why, Gawalmighty couldn’t have pleased that old screwdriver. He was so tight the dimes in his pocket used to mildew from laying. He got sore as a pup at me one day just because I—”
“Getaway, you never told me you lost that job that I got for you out of the newspaper!”
“I didn’t lose it, Marylin. I heard it when it fell. Jobs is like vaccination, they take or they don’t.”
“They never take with you, Getaway.”
“Don’t you believe it. I’m on one now—”
“Aw, not the way you mean. Me and a guy got a business proposition on. If it goes through, I’ll buy you a marriage license engraved on solid gold.”
“What is it, then, the proposition?”
“Can’t you trust me, Marylin, for a day or two, until it goes through? Sometimes just talking about it is enough to put the jinx on a good thing.”
“I mean I’m going to have money in my pockets.”
“What kind of money?”
“Honest-to-God money. And I’m going to dike you out. That’s my idea. Pink! That’s the color for you. A pink sash and slippers, and one of them hats that show your yellow hair right through it, and a lace umbrella and—”
“And streamers on the hat! I’ve always been just crazy for streamers on a hat.”
“No, just pink. Wide ones to dangle it like a basket.”
“And slippers with real diamond buckles.”
“What do you mean, Getaway? How can you give me real diamond shoe buckles—”
“There you go again. Didn’t you promise to trust me and my new business proposition?”
“I do, only you’ve had so many—”
“You do—only! Yah, you do, only you don’t!”
“I—You see—Getaway—I know how desperate you can be—when you’re cornered. I’ll never forget how you—you nearly killed a cop—once! Oh, Getaway, when I think back, that time you got into such trouble with—”
“Leave it to a woman, by Jove! to spoil a fellow’s good name, if she has to rub her fingers in old soot to do it.”
“I—I guess it is from seeing so much around me all the time that it’s in me so to suspect.”
“Oh, it’s in you all right. Gawalmighty knows that!”
“You see, it’s because I’ve seen so much all my life. That’s why it’s been so grand these last years since I’m alone and—and away from it. Nothing to fear. My own little room and my own little job and me not getting heart failure every time I recognize a plain-clothes man on the beat or hear a night stick on the sidewalk jerk me out of my sleep. Getaway, don’t do anything bad. You had one narrow escape. You’re finger-printed. Headquarters wouldn’t give you the benefit of a doubt if there was one. Don’t—Getaway!”
“Yah, stay straight and you’ll stay lonesome.”
“Money wouldn’t make no difference with me, anyway, if everything else wasn’t all right. Nothing can be pink to me even if it is pink, unless it’s honest. That’s why I hold back, Getaway—there’s things in you I—can’t trust.”
“Yah, fine chance of you holding back if I was to come rolling up to your door in a six-cylinder—”
“I tell you, no! If I was that way I wouldn’t be holding down the same old job at the factory. I know plenty of boys who turn over easy money. Too easy—”
“Then marry me, Marylin, and you’ll wear diamonds. In a couple of days, when this goes through, this deal with the fellows—oh, honest deal, if that’s what you’re opening your mouth to ask—I can stand up beside you with money in my pockets. Twenty bucks to the pastor, just like that! Then you can pick out another job and I’ll hold it down for you. Bet your life I will—Oh—here, Marylin—this way—quick!”
“Getaway, why did you turn down this street so all of a sudden? This isn’t my way home.”
“It’s only a block out of the way. Come on! Don’t stand gassing.”
“What if I did? Want me to go up and kiss him?”
“Don’t believe in hugging the law, though. It’s enough when it hugs you.”
“I want to go home, Getaway.”
“Come on. I’ll buy some supper. Steak and French frieds and some French pastry with a cherry on top for your little sweet tooth. That’s the kind of a regular guy I am.”
“No. I want to go home.”
“All right, all right! I’m taking you there, ain’t I?”
“Oh, you’ll go straight, if you can’t go that way anywhere but home.”
They trotted the little detour in silence, the corners of her mouth wilting, he would have declared, had he the words, like a field flower in the hands of a picnicker. Marylin could droop that way, so suddenly and so whitely that almost a second could blight her.
“Now you’re mad, ain’t you?” he said, ashamed to be so quickly conciliatory and trying to make his voice grate.
“No, Getaway—not mad—only I guess—sad.”
She stopped before her rooming house. It was as long and as lean and as brown as a witch, and, to the more fanciful, something even of the riding of a broom in the straddle of the doorway, with an empty flagpole jutting from it. And then there was the cat, too—not a black one with gold eyes, just one of the city’s myriad of mackerel ones, with chewed ear and a skillful crouch for the leap from ash to garbage can.
“I’m going in now, Getaway.”
“Gowann! Get into your blue dress and I’ll blow you to supper.”
“No. I said only—”
“No. Some other time.”
“When? To-morrow? It’s Saturday! Coney?”
He thought he detected the flash of a dimple. He did. Remember, she was very young and, being fanciful enough to find the witch in the face of her rooming house, the waves at Coney Island, peanut cluttered as they were apt to be, told her things. Silly, unrepeatable things. Nonsense things. Little secret goosefleshing things. Prettinesses. And then the shoot the chutes! That ecstatic leap of heart to lips and the feeling of folly down at the very pit of her. Marylin did like the shoot the chutes!
“All right, Getaway—to-morrow—Coney!”
He did not conceal his surge of pleasure, grasping her small hand in both his. “Good girlie!”
“Good night, Getaway,” she said, but with the inflection of something left unsaid.
He felt the unfinished intonation, like a rocket that had never dropped its stick, and started up the steps after her.
“What is it, Marylin?”
“Nothing,” she said and ran in.
The window in her little rear room with the zigzag of fire escape across it was already full of dusk. She took off her hat, a black straw with a little pink-cotton rose on it, and, rubbing her brow where it had left a red rut, sat down beside the window. There were smells there from a city bouquet of frying foods; from a pool of old water near a drain pipe; from the rear of a butcher shop. Slops. Noises, too. Babies, traffic, whistles, oaths, barterings, women, strife, life. On her very own ceiling the whisper of footsteps—of restless comings and goings—stealthy comings and goings—and then after an hour, suddenly and ever so softly, the ball-of-a-foot—squeak! The-ball-of-a-foot—squeak!
Marylin knew that step.
And yet she sat, quiet. A star had come out. Looking up at the napkin of sky let in through the walls of the vertical city, Marylin had learned to greet it almost every clear evening. It did something for her. It was a little voice. A little kiss. A little upside down pool of light without a spill. A little of herself up there in that beyond—that little napkin of beyond that her eyes had the lift to see.
Who are you, whose neck has never ached from nine hours a day, six days a week, of bending over the blue-denim pleat that goes down the front of men’s shirts, to quiver a supersensitive, supercilious, and superior nose over what, I grant you, may appear on the surface to be the omelet of vulgarities fried up for you on the gladdest, maddest strip of carnival in the world?
But it is simpler to take on the cold glaze of sophistication than to remain simple. When the eyelids become weary, it is as if little red dancing shoes were being wrapped away forever, or a very tight heartstring had suddenly sagged, and when plucked at could no longer plong.
To Marylin, whose neck very often ached clear down into her shoulder blade and up into a bandeau around her brow, and to whom city walls were sometimes like slaps confronting her whichever way she turned, her enjoyment of Coney Island was as uncomplex as A B C. Untortured by any awarenesses of relative values, too simple to strive to keep simple, unself-conscious, and with a hungry heart, she was not a spectator, half ashamed of being amused. She was Coney Island! Her heart a shoot the chutes for sheer swoops of joy, her eyes full of confetti points, the surf creaming no higher than her vitality.
And it was so the evening following, as she came dancing down the kicked-up sand of the beach, in a little bright-blue frock, mercerized silk, if you please, with very brief sleeves that ended right up in the jolliest part of her arm, with a half moon of vaccination winking out roguishly beneath a finish of ribbon bow, and a white-canvas sport hat with a jockey rosette to cap the little climax of her, and by no means least, a metal coin purse, with springy insides designed to hold exactly fifty cents in nickels.
Once on the sand, which ran away, tickling each step she took, her spirits, it must be admitted, went just a little crazily off. The window, you see, where Marylin sewed her buttonholes six days the week, faced a brick wall that peeled with an old scrofula of white paint. Coney Island faced a world of sky. So that when she pinched Getaway’s nose in between the lips of her coin purse and he, turning a double somersault right in his checked suit, landed seated in a sprawl of mock daze, off she went into peals of laughter only too ready to be released.
He bought her a wooden whirring machine, an instrument of noise that, because it was not utilitarian, became a toy of delicious sound.
They rode imitation ocean waves at five cents a voyage, their only mal de mer, regret when it was over. He bought her salt-water taffy, and when the little red cave of her mouth became too ludicrously full of the pully stuff he tried to kiss its state of candy paralysis, and instantly she became sober and would have no more of his nonsense.
“Getaway,” she cried, snapping fingers of inspiration, “let’s go in bathing!”
“I’ll say we will!”
No sooner said than done. In rented bathing suits, unfastidious, if you will, but, pshaw! with the ocean for wash day, who minded! Hers a little blue wrinkly one that hit her far too far, below the knees, but her head flowered up in a polka-dotted turban, that well enough she knew bound her up prettily, and her arms were so round with that indescribable softiness of youth! Getaway, whose eyes could focus a bit when he looked at them, set up a leggy dance at sight of her. He shocked her a bit in his cheap cotton trunks—woman’s very old shock to the knobby knees and hairy arms of the beach. But they immediately ran, hand in hand, down the sand and fizz! into the grin of a breaker.
Marylin with her face wet and a fringe of hair, like a streak of seaweed, down her cheek! Getaway, shivery and knobbier than ever, pushing great palms of water at her and she back at him, only less skillfully her five fingers spread and inefficient. Once in the water, he caught and held her close, and yet, for the wonder of it, almost reverentially close, as if what he would claim for himself he must keep intact.
“Marry me, Marylin,” he said, with all the hubbub of the ocean about them.
She reached for some foam that hissed out before she could touch it.
“That’s you,” he said. “Now you are there, and now you aren’t.”
“I wish,” she said—”oh, Getaway, there’s so much I wish!”
“What do you wish?”
She looked off toward the immensity of sea and sky. “I—Oh, I don’t know! Being here makes me wish—Something as beautiful as out there is what I wish.”
“I don’t see—”
And then, because neither of them could swim, he began chasing her through shallow water, and in the kicked-up spray of their own merriment they emerged finally, dripping and slinky, the hairs of his forearms lashed flat, and a little drip of salt water running off the tip of her chin.
Until long after the sun went down they lay drying on the sand, her hair spread in a lovely amber flare, and, stretched full length on his stomach beside her, he built a little grave of sand for her feet. And the crowd thinned, and even before the sun dipped a faint young moon, almost as if wearing a veil, came up against the blue. They were quiet now with pleasant fatigue, and, propped up on his elbows, he spilled little rills of sand from one fist into the other.
“Gee! you’re pretty, Marylin!”
“Are I, Getaway?”
“You know you are. You wasn’t born with one eye shut and the other blind.”
“Honest, I don’t know. Sometimes I look in the mirror and hope so.”
“You’ve had enough fellows tell you so.”
“Yes, but—but not the kind of fellows that mean by pretty what I mean by pretty.”
“Well, this here guy means what you mean by pretty.”
“What do you mean by pretty, Getaway?”
“Pep. Peaches. Cream. Teeth. Yellow hair. Arms. Le—those little holes in your cheeks. Dimples. What do I mean by pretty? I mean you by pretty. Ain’t that what you want me to mean by pretty?”
“Well, what the—”
“It’s all right, Getaway. It’s fine to be pretty, but—not enough—somehow. I—I can’t explain it to you—to anybody. I guess pretty isn’t the word. It’s beauty I mean.”
“All right, then, anything your little heart desires—beauty.”
“The ocean beauty out there, I mean. Something that makes you hurt and want to hurt more and more. Beauty, Getaway. It’s something you understand or something you don’t. It can’t be talked. It sounds silly.”
“Well, then, whistle it!”
“It has to be felt.”
“Peel me,” he said, laying her arm to his bare bicep. “Some little gladiator, eh? Knock the stuffings out of any guy that tried to take you away from me.”
She turned her head on its flare of drying hair away from him. The beach was all but quiet and the haze of the end of day in the air, almost in her eyes, too.
“Oh, Getaway!” she said, on a sigh, and again, “Getaway!”
His reserve with her, at which he himself was the first to marvel, went down a little then and he seized her bare arm, kissing it, almost sinking his teeth. The curve of her chin down into her throat, as she turned her head, had maddened him.
“Quit,” she said.
“Never you mind. You’ll wear diamonds,” he said, in his sole phraseology of promise. “Will you get sore if I ask you something, Fairylin?”
“Want one now?”
“No,” she said. “When I’m out here I quit wanting things like that.”
“Fine chance a fellow has to warm up to you!”
“What did you do last night, after you walked home with me?”
“You know when.”
“Why, bless your heart, I went home, Fairylin!”
“You were up in Monkey’s room last night about eleven. Now think,
“Nobody can fool me on your step. You tiptoed for all you were worth, but I knew it! The-ball-of your-foot—squeak! The-ball-of-your foot—squeak!”
“Sure enough, now you mention it, maybe for a minute around eleven, but only for a minute—”
“Please, Getaway, don’t lie. It was for nearly all night. Comings and goings on my ceiling until I couldn’t sleep, not because they were so noisy, but because they were so soft. Like ugly whispers. Is Monkey the friend you got the deal on with, Getaway?”
“We just sat up there talking old times—”
“And Muggs, about eleven o’clock, sneaking up through the halls, dressed like the messenger boy again. I saw him when I peeked out of the door to see who it was tiptoeing. Getaway, for God’s sake—”
He closed over her wrist then, his face extremely pointed. It was a bony face, so narrow that the eyes and the cheek bones had to be pitched close, and his black hair, usually so shiny, was down in a bang now, because it was damp, and to Marylin there was something sinister in that dip of bang which frightened her.
“What you don’t know don’t hurt you. You hear that? Didn’t I tell you that after a few days this business deal—business, get that?—will be over. Then I’m going to hold down any old job your heart desires. But first I’m going to have money in my pockets! That’s the only way to make this old world sit up and take notice. Spondulicks! Then I’m going to carry you off and get spliced. See? Real money. Diamonds. If you weren’t so touchy, maybe you’d have diamonds sooner than you think. Want one now?”
“Getaway, I know you’re up to something. You and Monkey and Muggs are tied up with those Wall Street bond getaways.”
“For the luvagod, cut that talk here! First thing I know you’ll have me in a brainstorm too.”
“Those fake messenger boys that get themselves hired and, instead of delivering the bonds from one office to another—disappear with them. Muggs isn’t wearing that messenger’s uniform for nothing. You and Monkey are working with him under cover on something. You can’t pass a cop any more without tightening up. I can feel it when I have your arm. You’ve got that old over-your-shoulder look to you, Getaway. My father—had it. My—mother—too. Getaway!”
“By gad! you can’t beat a woman!”
“You don’t deny it.”
“Oh, Getaway, I’m glad then, glad!”
“Over-the-shoulder look. Why, if I’d meet a plain-clothes this minute I’d go up and kiss him—with my teeth in his ear. That’s how much I got to be afraid of.”
“Oh, Getaway, I’m so glad!”
“Well, then, lay off—”
“Getaway, you jumped then! Like somebody had hit you, and it was only a kid popping a paper bag.”
“You get on my nerves. You’d make a cat nervous, with your suspecting! The more a fellow tries to do for a girl like you the less—Look here now, you got to get the hell out of my business.”
She did not reply, but lay to the accompaniment of his violent nervousness and pinchings into the sand, with her face still away from him, while the dusk deepened and the ocean quieted.
After a while: “Now, Marylin, don’t be sore. I may be a rotten egg some ways, but when it comes to you, I’m there.”
“I’m not sore, Getaway,” she said, with her voice still away from him. “Only I—Let’s not talk for a minute. It’s so quiet out here—so full of rest.”
He sat, plainly troubled, leaning back on the palms of his hands and dredging his toes into the sand. In the violet light the tender line of her chin to her throat still teased him.
Down farther along the now deserted beach a youth in a bathing suit was playing a harmonica, his knees hunched under his chin, his mouth and hand sliding at cross purposes along the harp. That was the silhouette of him against a clean sky, almost Panlike, as if his feet might be cloven.
What he played, if it had any key at all, was rather in the mood of Chopin’s Nocturne in D flat major. A little sigh for the death of a day, a sob for the beauty of that death, and a hope and ecstasy for the new day yet unborn—all of that on a little throbbing mouth organ.
“Getaway,” cried Marylin, and sat up, spilling sand, “that’s it! That’s what I meant a while ago. Hear? It can’t be talked. That’s it on the mouth organ!”
“It! Yes, like I said. Somebody has to feel it inside of him, just like
I do, before he can understand. Can’t you feel it? Please! Listen.”
“Aw, that’s an old jew’s-harp. I’ll buy you one. How’s that?”
“All right, I guess,” she said, starting off suddenly toward the bathhouse.
He was relieved that she had thrown off the silence.
“Ain’t mad any more, are you, Marylin?”
“No, Getaway—not mad.”
“Mustn’t get fussy that way with me, Marylin. It scares me off. I’ve had something to show you all day, but you keep scaring me off.”
“What is it?” she said, tiptoe.
His mouth drew up to an oblique. “You know.”
“No, I don’t.”
“Maybe I’ll tell you and maybe I won’t,” he cried, scooping up a handful of sand and spraying her. “What’ll you give me if I tell?”
“Want to know?”
But at the narrowing something in his eyes she sidestepped him, stooping down at the door of her bathhouse for a last scoop of sand at him.
“No,” she cried, her hair blown like spray and the same breeze carrying her laughter, guiltless of mood, out to sea.
On the way home, though, for the merest second, there recurred the puzzling quirk in her thoughtlessness.
In the crush of the electric train, packed tightly into the heart of the most yammering and petulant crowd in the world—home-going pleasure seekers—a youth rose to give her his seat. A big, beach-tanned fellow with a cowlick of hair, when he tipped her his hat, standing up off his right brow like a little apostrophe to him, and blue eyes so very wide apart, and so clear, that they ran back into his head like aisles with little lakes shining at the ends of them.
“Thank you,” said Marylin, the infinitesimal second while his hat and cowlick lifted, her own gaze seeming to run down those avenues of his eyes for a look into the pools at the back.
“That was it, too, Getaway! The thing that fellow looked—that I couldn’t say. He said it—with his eyes.”
“That fellow who gave me this seat.”
“I’ll break his face if he goo-goos you,” said Getaway, who by this time had a headache and whose feet had fitted reluctantly back into patent leather.
But inexplicably, even to herself, that night, in the shadow of the stoop of her witch of a rooming house, she let him kiss her lips. His first of her—her first to any man. It may have been that suddenly she was so extremely tired—tired of the lay of the week ahead, suggested by the smells and the noises and the consciousness of that front box pleat.
The little surrender, even though she drew back immediately, was wine to him and as truly an intoxicant.
“Marylin,” he cried, wild for her lips again, “I can’t be held off much longer. I’m straight with you, but I’m human, too.”
“Don’t, Getaway, not here! To-morrow—maybe.”
“I’m crazy for you!”
“Go home now, Getaway.”
“Yes—but just one more—”
“Promise me you’ll go straight home from here—to bed.”
“I promise. Marylin, one more. One little more. Your lips—”
“No, no—not now. Go—”
Suddenly, by a quirk in the dark, there was a flash of something down Marylin’s bare third finger, so hurriedly and so rashly that it scraped the flesh.
“That’s for you! I’ve been afraid all day. Touchy! Didn’t I tell you? Diamonds! Now will you kiss me? Now will you?”
In the shadow of where she stood, looking down, it was as if she gazed into a pool of fire that was reaching in flame clear up about her head, and everywhere in the conflagration Getaway’s triumphant “Now will you! Now will you!”
“Getaway,” she cried, flecking her hand as if it burned, “where did you get this?”
“It’s for you, Fairylin, and more like it coming. It weighs a carat and a half. That stone’s worth more than a sealskin jacket. You’re going to have one of those, too. Real seal! Now are you sore at me any more? Now you’ve a swell kick coming, haven’t you? Now! Now!”
“Getaway,” she cried behind her lit hand, because her palm was to her mouth and above it her eyes showing the terror in their whites, “where did you get this?”
“There!” he said, and kissed her hotly and squarely on the lips.
Somehow, with the ring off her finger and in a little pool of its light as it lay at his feet, where he stood dazed on the sidewalk, Marylin was up the stoop, through the door, up two flights, and through her own door, slamming it, locking it, and into her room, rubbing and half crying over her left third finger where the flash had been.
She was frightened, because for all of an hour she sat on the end of the cot in her little room trembling and with her palms pressed into her eyes so tightly that the darkness spun. There was quick connection in Marylin between what was emotional and what was merely sensory. She knew, from the sickness at the very pit of her, how sick were her heart and her soul—and how afraid.
She undressed in the dark—a pale darkness relieved by a lighted window across the areaway. The blue mercerized dress she slid over a hanger, covering it with one of her cotton nightgowns and putting it into careful place behind the cretonne curtain that served her as clothes closet. Her petticoat, white, with a rill of lace, she folded away. And then, in her bare feet and a pink-cotton nightgown with a blue bird machine-stitched on the yoke, stood cocked to the hurry of indistinct footsteps across her ceiling, and in the narrow slit of hallway outside her door, where the stairs led up still another flight, the-ball-of-a-foot—squeak! The sharp crack of a voice. Running.
“Getaway!” cried Marylin’s heart, almost suffocating her with a dreadful spasm of intuition.
It was all so quick. In the flash of her flung-open door, as her head in its amber cloud leaned out, Getaway, bending almost double over the upper banister, his lips in his narrow face back to show a white terribleness of strain that lingered in the memory, hurled out an arm suddenly toward two men mounting the steps of the flight below him.
There was a shot then, and on the lower flight one of the men, with an immediate red mouth opening slowly in his neck, slid downstairs backward, face up.
Suddenly, from a crouching position beside her door, the second figure shot forward now, with ready and perfect aim at the already-beginning-to-be-nerveless figure of Getaway hanging over the banister with the smoking pistol.
By the reaching out of her right hand Marylin could have deflected that perfect aim. In fact, her arm sprang toward just that reflex act, then stayed itself with the jerk of one solid body avoiding collision with another.
So much quicker than it takes in the telling there marched across Marylin’s sickened eyes this frieze: Her father trailing dead from the underslinging of a freight car. That moment when a uniform had stepped in from the fire escape across the bolt of Brussels lace; her mother’s scream, like a plunge into the heart of a rapier. Uniforms—contemplating. On street corners. Opposite houses. Those four fingers peeping over each of her father’s shoulders in the courtroom. Getaway! His foxlike face leaner. Meaner. Black mask. Electric chair. Volts. Ugh—volts! God—you know—best—help—
When the shot came that sent Getaway pitching forward down the third-floor flight she was on her own room floor in a long and merciful faint. Marylin had not reached out.
Time passed. Whole rows of days of buttonholes down pleats that were often groped at through tears. Heavy tears like magnifying glasses. And then, with that gorgeous and unassailable resiliency of youth, lighter tears. Fewer tears. Few tears. No tears.
Under the cretonne curtain, though, the blue mercerized frock hung unworn, and in its dark drawer remained the petticoat with its rill of lace. But one night, with a little catch in her throat (it was the last of her sobs), she took out the sport hat, and for no definite reason began to turn the jockey rosette to the side where the sun had not faded it.
These were quiet evenings in her small room. All the ceiling agitation had long ago ceased since the shame of the raided room above, and Muggs, in his absurd messenger’s suit, and Monkey marching down the three flights to the clanking of steel at the wrists.
There were new footsteps now. Steps that she had also learned to know, but pleasantly. They marched out so regularly of mornings, invariably just as she was about to hook her skirtband or pull on her stockings. They came home so patly again at seven, about as she sat herself down to a bit of sewing or washing-out. They went to bed so pleasantly. Thud, on the floor, and then, after the expectant interval of unlacing, thud again. They were companionable, those footsteps, almost like reverential marching on the grave of her heart.
Marylin reversed the rosette, and as the light began to go sat down beside her window, idly, looking up. There was the star point in her patch of sky, eating its way right through the purple like a diamond, and her ache over it was so tangible that it seemed to her she could almost lift the hurt out of her heart, as if it were a little imprisoned bird. And as it grew darker there came two stars, and three, and nine, and finally the sixty hundred.
Then from the zig of the fire escape above, before it twisted down into the zag of hers, there came to Marylin, through the medley of city silences and the tears in her heart, this melody, on a jew’s-harp:
If it had any key at all, it was in the mood of Chopin’s Nocturne in D flat major. A little sigh for the death of a day, a sob for the beauty of that death, and the throb of an ecstasy for the new day not yet born.
Looking up against the sheer wall of the vertical city, on the ledge of fire escape above hers, and in the yellow patch of light thrown out from the room behind, a youth, with his knees hunched up under his chin, and his mouth and hand moving at cross purposes, was playing the harmonica.
Wide apart were his eyes, and blue, so that while she gazed up, smiling, as he gazed down, smiling, it was almost as if she ran up the fire escape through the long clear lanes of those eyes, for a dip into the little twin lakes at the back of them.
And—why, didn’t you know?—there was a lift of cowlick to the right side of his front hair, as he sat there playing in the twilight, that was exactly the shape of an apostrophe!