F One F
New York probably is infested with as savage a horde of cut-throats, rats, treacherous gunmen and racketeers as ever swarmed upon a rich and supine principality.
-Stanley Walker, The Night Club Era, 1933
Sitting against the pillows of a Pullman sleeper, bones clacking like the pistons of the metal beast speeding me westward, I wonder if I'm going to die.
The walls of my vibrating coffin are polished mahogany, windows spotless, reflecting onyx midnight presently. I've been watching them for several days. When I wasn't switching trains, which was its own jostling hell and doesn't bear repeating.
Does Salt Lake City ever bear repeating, really?
I don't even suppose I took the fastest route cross-country. So long as I was always moving. I remember fleeing New York, still adrift with the shock. Battling sucking currents of lost love and lost city dragging me under. Changing at Chicago I remember-the hustle, the weight of all that metal, the sheer rank sweat of making the connection. I recall prim forests, sloping hills. Downy wheat tufts, crops we tore through like an iron bomb, and desolate empty skies. Big burgs, shabby shacks, towns undeserving of the word, all blurring into America.
But at night it's been the black window, the white alcove curtain, smells of cigarettes and pot roast and cold cream, and the fever slick coating my brow confirming that I'm going to die.
I'm in shock, possibly. Despair, certainly.
Now it hits me in a crack of panic that I'd prefer death drop by when I'm ninety and not twenty-five, supposing it's all the same to the Harding administration.
Panting, I tug at my hair. The sudden flare momentarily douses the fire in other locales. I wonder when my bunkmate will return to torment me. I wouldn't have taken a sleeping car if I hadn't been forced-acquaintances are dangerous. They pore over your mug out of sheer boredom, make remarks like God, isn't our porter just dreadful, these sheets are barely tucked in. They don't give a knotted cherry stem what you think of the porter, they can't really see him anyhow. No, they hanker to watch you react to them. Then they can journal it, whether you're haughty or humble or hateful. Whether you're all right.
Whether you're not all right, which is ever so much more interesting.
Dangerous, what with death and dismemberment potentially in hot pursuit. I couldn't go full-scale deluxe, though. A private car would have been checked first by someone searching this train, any cadet axman would chart the same course. Private cars, sleeping cars, then public seating. Maybe I ought to lend a hand to the brakeman, trade a few dirty jokes in exchange for a hiding place.
If only I could dangle from the undercarriage like a bat.
The bullet wound deposited in Harlem started reaping interest in Chicago, and now we're well past Walla Walla and it's aiming to make me a swell payout. Last time I staggered to the facilities, it looked like a volcano had erupted, crusted reds and blacks. Now it's eating me alive. I can't sit up in a public car. Has to be a sleeper, has to be this one; I leaped on this connecting train in Denver like an outlaw onto the town's last nag.
My heart isn't beating, it's clenching its fist at me.
Beastly. Tears keep welling up and my throat keeps closing, and no, I say.
You're called Nobody for a reason. Just be yourself. Be Nobody.
Be Nobody, and breathe.
Having died before, I ought to be more sanguine over the prospect. I first died six days ago at the Murder Stable, when Officer Harry Chipchase hustled me out of that gruesome dungeon, snapping, "Run, kid!"
"Damn it, Nobody, hitch a ride to the moon. You're dead to this town now, you hear?" Harry was always dour, but I'd never seen his face turned the color of molding cheese previous. "I swear to you, I'll find a body somewheres. Trust me, kid. You died today. Now, run."
Portland, Oregon, is as far as I can think of from New York, New York. Still. It might not be far enough. If I can get to Portland, he can track me there. In 1921, you can get practically anywhere with a little jack jingling in your pocket.
I identify a faint, floating nausea not confined to just my belly. My skin is actually queasy. Tiny ripples pass along it as if my body is a river. That's new. I don't much care for new things just now.
Terror gushes, but I choke out a "Come in?"
The paneled door slides, and I exhale. It isn't my forced companion-she must still be gossiping in the dining car. She retires around one a.m., is up with the dawn. It's only Max, our Pullman porter. Real warmth seeps into my skin again.
Max. He's not the blackest of the lot, he's a sweet rum color, but plenty black enough to play this godforsaken gig. His eyes are wide set, an amber tone below philosophical brows, and he has large hands I figure ought to be playing music someplace daylight never visits. Maybe thirty years old. He sells phonograph records on the side to the travelers, and I bought one. "Crazy Blues" by Mamie Smith and her Jazz Hounds. Max was tickled to pieces-hell, he'd have put on a parade if I'd admitted I'd seen Mamie play live. But the purchase was enough. Small things like that make people cotton to you.
I'm tempted to say, Call me Alice, but they don't do that sort of thing on Pullman trains. In fact, I'm meant to call him George, after George Pullman, because George Pullman is the type so steeped in Christian humility that he orders all the Negroes on his trains renamed George. Bet he could charm the skin off a tomato in person.
"Hullo, Max. Here for the trapeze act?"
Then I wink at him. It feels a bit less like dying on a train car.
Anyway, Max is safe. He has a purebred Brooklyn accent, and we picked him up in Chicago at the transfer, which is how I figure he's so musical. Hell of a sideline record stock he displayed for a fellow who fluffs pillows. I like the version of Nobody I can be with Max. She claims to be an easygoing flapper on the run from a dreadfully cruel gentleman caller, Yonkers born, midlevel typist, interested in jazz but doesn't know much yet. Likes the Greenwich speakeasies that look like tearooms. Terribly droll those, likes to chew the fat about the latest plays over Darjeeling spiked with bootleg rum. Likes cats. That sort.
"'Scuse me for saying so, but you're looking real poorly, Miss James." Max glances behind himself.
"Well, I'm in Oregon, you see."
He exposes the glint of a flask in his pocket.
"Oh God," I gasp. The pain flares up again, rich and real. "Name your price."
"Take it easy," he says quietly. "Settle down and have a snort on the house."
Angels sing faint arias. I don't dawdle over finding out what it is before I guzzle the stuff. Good corn liquor, not the best but not cheap hooch either, small-batch operation. Pure Midwestern moonshine. The drink cuts a rug through my veins.
"Beg pardon, but this louse hurt you real bad, didn't he, Miss James?" Max's genuine frown sticks me right in the chest.
Well, yes, Nicolo Benenati shot a small-caliber bullet that grazed my torso like a neat little sewing stitch, out the other side, so it was more of a lark than it could have been, and I got the wound to stop bleeding a few hours afterward, happy day.
Hissing, I force my eyes shut until I'm less set on weeping all over Max, because it simply will not do. I like him. I like him awfully. I like his smooth brown lips and his wise-guy jabs and the way his eyelashes fan. I like his quiet magnetism. I like how he reminds me of someone.
Your nickname is Nobody, remember. Nobody at all.
"The trapeze act isn't very cheery tonight," I admit.
"Aw, look, there's a doctor over in car three, and we can-"
"Why's that, miss?"
"Because this is very silly nonsense, just an attack of nerves, probably, touch of stomachache, and I'm being a wretched little idiot. How long until Portland?"
"We'll be there before dawn."
"You're a dear."
"When we pull in," I think Max says, his vowels thick and strong as big city blocks, "you're coming with me, all right? I know a girl what don't fancy a regular-type doctor when I see one. You'll be just fine, Miss James. I'm gonna make sure."
Nobody the sweet flapper would answer him, I think, but by now I live in a different world than he does, a seasick haze of nothing at all.
When I wake up, my bunkmate has returned. Looking dreadfully hopeful of conversation, and here IÕm fresh out of the stuff. And probably about to lose consciousness again.
"Oh, Miss James, you are pale. Should I fetch you some ginger ale?"
Hearing Mrs. Muriel Snider speak, I reflect, is better than being shot. But not by a terribly wide margin.
"You're so kind, but I couldn't possibly put you to the trouble." I offer her a shy smile.
Really, I've been doing a crackerjack job at not looking agonized.
Mrs. Muriel Snider has a face that makes me figure God took His inspiration from a potato. She's sedately dressed in a brown traveling suit when she isn't sedately dressed in a nightgown, and I'd wager that she's sedately dressed in a bathing costume when taking a bath. The Nobody I am with her is fluttery and inexperienced, hinted she met with an embarrassing riding accident, devoutly Protestant, anxious whether she's authoritative enough when giving her piano lessons, thinks grape juice should be served at all religious services including the Jewish ones, embarrassed to be unmarried. Knitter. That sort.
Thankfully, after stanching the bleeding left by the slug, I wore my most invisible duds. So she can't fault this Nobody for being in the wrong clothes. It's a below-the-knee skirt and a belted jacket in quiet shepherd check. And my honey-blond hair is bobbed, but long enough I can pin it so no one notices.
"Anyhow, we're almost there, I hope?"
She checks her watch. "Oh, yes, dear. Are you sure you don't want me to bring you some hot milk, perhaps? I wouldn't trust this George of ours to get the temperature right."
Smiling again, I picture round after round from a tommy gun shattering her skull, smash-crack, blood soaring like a startled flock of redbirds.
It isn't like me. I'm not violent. But I'm in an awfully bad mood.
"This late, it'll only upset my digestion, I fear."
"Heavens, yes, I never noticed how long I was gone, for the kindest Presbyterian minister and his new wife were in the dining car-she's already expecting just before their first anniversary, and I was fit to bursting with happiness for them! And with the amount of advice I have to offer, having raised six of my own alongside Fred? The poor young dear simply peppered me with questions."
She removes her jewelry, puts it carefully in her handbag, and sniffs as she locks the satchel, placing it behind her pillow. The lengths I go to ignore her are positively transcontinental.
"You're such a comfort, you know, Miss James. Forgive me for being this direct, but so many young women have abandoned the ideals of motherhood and child-rearing. Anyhow, I wanted to tell you that I trust in you, truly, to find a proper mate. It's nothing to be ashamed of, dear, being a tad plain, a bit forgettable. That requires moral courage, you know, and someday the right man will take notice. Just you trust in God and in His timing."
The genuine smile that pools over my face pleases her. I'm recalling sitting at the Tobacco Club with Mr. Salvatici, wearing a House of Worth gown. It plunged in great V's down my chest and my back, neckline bordered in a thick stripe of golden beadwork that made my carefully curled hair gleam like Broadway at midnight. The loose bodice fell in pale sea-breeze greens and blues, dripping sequined bubbles into an underskirt of aqua tulle, and when I threw back my head and laughed from heavily rouged lips, only six or seven hundred people that night looked at me at all.
If I'd wanted to get storked, I could have done it when I was seventeen. I wear a rubber womb veil, thank you-all the fast girls do, and the careless ones have been more than once to the lady doctor who solves their problems. She takes a vacation every Christmas to shore up her energies for the post-New Year's stampede. No kidding. A lot has changed since the War. Since Prohibition.
Since six days ago.
If I must die, let it be in a city. Nobody dead nowhere is too much punishment. So let it be in Portland, I decide, wondering how far I can make it until dissolving into ocean foam like some mermaids of note who weren't loved in return either.
When we arrive, itÕs still dark.
Clash-ring. Grate-scrape. Whistle blast.
Now my head is pounding, and I dread what happens next with all that's left of my heart.
Here's mud in your eye.
Sitting up, I use my arms mainly, and I don't shriek over the sensation. Markedly unpleasant though it is.
"Well, you simply must contact me when you're feeling better, Miss James," Mrs. Snider fusses. "I think we could be great friends despite the difference in our ages. My husband, Fred, is a member of the Arlington Club, and you seem of such good stock, I imagine he must know your parents already. Which is their congregation?"
"Oh . . . my parents are poor farmers some sixty miles outside the city. I send them whatever I can from my own income as a music teacher. In fact, I'm still very new to Portland. I miss them, and the farm, just . . . just terribly."
When she raises her eyebrows, it's as if a cardboard box lifted its lid. "You dear, sweet soul. Please look me up-the right connections mean everything. And there are a great many young bachelor gentlemen of our acquaintance with sober and pleasing ways! Here is my card-"
As I'm taking it, resenting the extra weight of carrying so much as her printed name, a polite knock sounds.
By now my pulse is too feeble to blaze up into genuine panic and gives a flicker of dismay instead. But it's Max again. He's wearing a chocolate-brown hat that suits his lighter complexion and a beige trench that matches the pale leather of his luggage. His eyes dart, identify the olive coat I'd hung and forgotten, and he snatches it up, draping it respectfully over my shoulders.