Raw wind drove the wild-falling snow into their faces as they hurried across the street. The all-night diner was a bright chromium refuge. There was a sense of timelessness about the brassy riff of the disc-jockey program from the tinny radio, the expressionless face of the swarthy short-order cook doped with monotony, the skinny, fortyish waitress with too much make-up carrying on a weary tradition of idle flirtation with a truck driver.
“Wottle it be, boys?” the waitress said.
“Two cups of Joe but fast,” Shep said.
“Suppose I ought to eat something,” Manley Halliday said. “Did we eat dinner tonight? Or lunch? Funny, I can’t remember.”
“Let’s see. Can’t remember dinner. Damned if I know if we had lunch either.”
“Didn’t we order lunch in the room. The German waiter—?”
“No, wasn’t that yesterday? We’re in great shape.”
“ ’S funny, three days ago I’d be upset if I missed a mealtime by five minutes. Rubin and Ann had me working like a clock. It’s this drinking’s got me all mixed up.”
“Manley, if you want to eat something you’d better order fast. We’ve only got seven minutes.”
“Let me think—oughta get back to my diet—need to get back in shape so I can help you. I guess soft-boiled eggs.”
“Manley, we haven’t got time for that now,” Shep said crossly.
“If you’re in a hurry, better fry ’em honey.”
“All right, one egg.”
“Turned over, honey?”
“And it’s no gag about the rush—we’re off that train.” Shep added.
“A sunny one, toot sweet,” the waitress called to the cook. “That’s why you hafta listen all the time,” Manley Hallidaysaid. “You could think for days an’ never write a line like that, a sunny one, toot sweet.”
“Yeah,” said Shep. “Better start drinking your coffee, Manley. That clock isn’t waiting for us.”
From the radio came the incorrigible cheerfulness of the all-night jockey: “And now for Sue and Earl, a couple of night-owls in Brattleboro, and for Johnny and Edna of 331 Canal Road and for Rose and Morris and for Margaret at Vic’s diner in Springdale …”
The dark, sullen face of the short-order cook grinned. Margaret their waitress laughed, embarrassed, and the truck driver took it big.
“Hey, Margaret, c’n I have your autograph?”
“Gee, I been waitin’ for three weeks. I thought I missed it.”
“The boss oughta give you a raise, all that free advertism’,” the cook said.
“I wonder if Frank heard it,” the waitress said.
Their check was under the glass and Shep with a “we’ve got to cut out of here” reached for it, but Manley Halliday, as if this were Voisin’s, said no, it was his party, the stop-off had been his idea and he insisted.
“All right, all right, then pay the lady,” Shep said. “But for Christ sake hurry. If we miss that train we might as well settle down here in Springdale.”
“All right,” Manley Halliday said, pushing the egg away with childish pique. “I can’t eat when you’re riding me every minute.”
“Go ahead and finish it. We’ve got four minutes.”
“Wasn’t really hungry anyway. Just thought I ought to try and cat something. Oh, Miss—” He was reaching for his wallet to pay the check.
“Haven’t got change? Here I’ve got change,” Shep said impatiently, on his feet and ready to run.
“ ’T’s all right, need some change anyway,” Manley Halliday said.
“Look, Manley, why don’t you start for the train? I’ll pay it and catch up with you.”
Manley Halliday opened his wallet slowly and, Shep thought, with exasperating deliberation. He looked into it, then he looked up for a moment and then he looked into it again. A small “oh” formed in his mouth but never quite came out.
“It’s right here,” Shep said, his voice rising as he grabbed the tab from the counter.
“No, my check from the studio. The advance for the first week.”
“What the hell were you carrying that around for?”
“I took it East to deposit in my bank in New York. I thought it’d be faster.”
“Well, look for it—you must have it—here gimme your wallet.”
While Manley Halliday waited helplessly, Shep ran his fingers through the wallet. “Look in your pockets, the coat pockets, maybe the inside pocket of your jacket.”
Manley Halliday groped through his pockets. “Don’ understan’ it. Haven’t taken it out since we …”
A warning whistle from the train made Shep say, “Forget the damned check. Let’s run.”
“Just a minute, mister,” the cook said in a tone meant to inform them he was on to such shenanigans. “All I hear so far’s a lotta talk. Let’s have the money.”
“A couple of smart guys got away with this two weeks ago,” the waitress said. “Ran out just in time to jump the train.”
“Here,” Shep flung a dollar toward the counter and ran toward the door. It was one of those sliding kind but he had forgotten and tried to push it open.
“Damn thing’s stuck,” he cried.
“Slide it, slide it,” the cook said, shaking his head to the truck driver with a look that said unmistakably the morons we get in here.
Shep finally slammed it to one side and threw himself out into the dark night of whirling snow.
“Train’s still there,” he yelled. “Come on!”
Manley Halliday ran as fast as he could but the footing was uncertain. It was easier to believe he was in the Topanga cottage or the Garden bungalow running through an anxious dream than that he was running for a train in a GodforsakenNew England whistle-stop at some awful hour before dawn.
“Are you coming? Are you coming?” Shep shouted. “Run, the train’s still here.”
When Shep reached the train there was not a light anywhere. He ran along the car to the steps from which they had descended, but the platform was down and the door was closed. No, maybe he had made a mistake, easy to do in the dark, all the cars looking the same; he raced down to the next. But it was closed too. He reached up and shook the handle. It was locked. Manley Halliday came up behind him breathing heavily. The train lurched forward a few inches and stopped. Shep cupped his hands to his mouth and shouted. Nothing stirred within the dark train. He pounded on the door. He yelled as loud as he thought it was humanly possible for him to yell and then a little louder than that and the train just stood there deaf and impenetrable.
Manley Halliday stood by, becalmed, as if watching something made less terrible through the perspective of passing time.
“Help! Help! Stop the train!” Shep was yelling, for it was moving now, creeping tantalizingly into motion. They stood there stupidly while it gathered speed. This incredible thing that couldn’t really be happening was happening: the train chugged off into the night. The little red tail-light winked at them mockingly and, in less time than would have seemed possible from the cumbersome start, was gone from sight.
Shep’s voice wavered as if in piteous prayer. “I’ll be a son of a bitch.”
Shep looked at Manley Halliday. He thought he was coughing but it turned out to be what Shep least expected, chuckling.
“I wish you’d let me in on the goddam joke,” Shep said. “We’re marooned in East Jesus. It’s cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey. This is probably the last train out of this hole till morning. And when Milgrim finds out we’re gone—him with his heart set on arriving with the great Manley Halliday—he’ll kick our tails right off the payroll.”
“Don’t you think I know it? When I think of Victor getting off that train without me, how he’ll try to explain, when appearances mean so much to him …” He began to laugh again, akind of hard inside chuckle that became more of a cough.
“Damn it, you’re drunk,” Shep said.
“Uh uh, too cold to be drunk. Feel a little giddy but afraid it’s more the sugar balance outa control.”
“Well, if you’re not drunk, you’ve a damn strange sense of humor.”
“Lis-sen, baby, no law against having a sense o’ humor same time you’re miserable, is there? I’m an old hand at being miserable.”
“Yeah. Come on, let’s get in out of the cold.”
They picked their way slowly through the snow to the diner.
Shep slid the door back as if he were going to drive it all the way to the end of the diner and barged in ahead of Halliday.
“Miss your train?” the waitress asked.
“No, we just like it here so much we thought we’d stay,” Shep said.
“Where you guys trying to go?” the cook wanted to know.
“What you fellas do, play in a band or something?”
“Ever hear of Gene Goldkette’s orchestra?” Manley Halliday said.
“Yeah, seems to me somewhere I did.”
“Well, this is Gene Goldkette,” Manley Halliday said. “My name is Trumbauer.”
“We get a lot of you musicians in here. Paul Whiteman was in here once. No kidding. Sat right over there.”
“On that little stool?” Manley Halliday said.
“No kidding. I got his autograph on a menu. Know who else was in here one time?”
“Mad Dog Coll?”
“Jessica Dragonette. And you wanna know something, she acts just like anybody else.”
“Him and Jessica Dragonette,” the waitress said.
“Listen, we’re in a real jam. How can we get out of here?” Shep said.
“Next train’s five-oh-five.”
“What’s the next stop for the train we were on?” Manley Halliday asked suddenly.
“Le’see, South Harmon ain’t it?” “What time’s it due there?” Manley Halliday asked. “Le’see, around four o’clock.” “How far is it?”
“Le’see, thirty-five maybe forty miles.”
Manley Halliday had taken over. A hectic travel history that included missing and chasing trains across several continents had taught him how to face these emergencies. “Can you find us a cab that’ll put us back on that train?” “Jesus, at this hour?” The cook looked doubtfully at the waitress. “Think Freddie ’d be willing to get up?” “Try,” Manley Halliday said to Shep. “Call Freddie.” But Freddie said he wouldn’t take his car out on a night like this for Christ Almighty himself.
“Le’see,” said the cook, getting interested in the problem. “Think Alva would try it?”
“In that wreck of his?” the waitress said. “You’d have to want to go awful bad.”
“Call Alva,” Manley Halliday told Shep. “Tell him …” He turned to the cook. “How much will it take to make Alva happy?”
“Oh, I’d say twenty-five bucks. It’s a tough night.” For twenty-five bucks Alva was afraid he’d get stuck; he heard the road was none too good around Stangford. “Tell ’im fifty,” Manley Halliday said. For fifty Alva said he guess he could try, maybe the snowplow had gone through since he last heard. “Ain’t got no heater, though,” he added. “Went kerflooey on me yesterday.”
“Ask him if he’s got any liquid heat?” Manley Halliday said. Yes, they’d need something, if they were going to pull through this ride, Shep agreed. “Alva says he’s got some applejack. Five dollars a bottle.”
“Tell ’im to bring two bottles and get down here right away. Oh, and tell ’im to bring a couple of blankets.”
Hurrying to the diner from the train they hadn’t even bothered to go back to the drawing room for overcoats. “Alva says the blankets ’ill be a dollar a piece extra.” “Tell’im okay and God bless New England.”
“He’ll be down in ten minutes,” Shep said. “How you feeling?” “You must wanna go awful bad to go with Alva,” the waitress said again as she brought more coffee.
“Margaret,” Manley Halliday said, “the older you get the more you learn that you spend nine hundred and ninety-nine one-thousands of your time doing what you have to do in order to enjoy that one-in-a-thousand chance at what you want to do.” “Brother, you can say that again,” the waitress said. “I doubt it, Margaret, I doubt it,” Manley Halliday said. “Go on, drink your coffee,” said Shep.
Alva’s cab was a Model A Ford Sedan with all the felt covering torn away from the floor boards and the stuffing pushing out through holes in the upholstery, so that after a few miles it felt as if they were sitting directly on the springs. Alva had been promised a bonus if he got them on the train and his Yankee acquisitiveness had routed his caution if not his common sense. The squeaky old Model A threatened to shake itself loose from its axle as it bounced along the icy road. Once it skidded into a snowbank but Alva was able to rock it out. “Good girl” were the first words Alva uttered since the start of the journey and it was obvious that Alva had been raised with live transportation and that this car had become more horse than machine.
Shep and Manley Halliday huddled under the thin blankets that could not keep the cold from piercing to the bone. The applejack did what it could, but after a few miles their feet were numb. They could stamp them without being able to feel the movement.
Their faces were so cold that they pulled the blankets over their heads and passed the applejack between them under the improvised tent. Manley Halliday felt light-headed and disembodied. The lapses into memory were the vivid part and this rushing on through the frozen New England darkness in a rattletrap with his head (like the top of a tent-pole) pushed up against the inside of a damp blanket was a nightmare improbability.
“Reminds me of a hilarious trip we took to San Sebastian in a taxi at three o’clock in the morning,” he was telling Shep under the blanket passing the applejack. “This fella who was with usoh what was his name he was a writer who couldn’t write that we liked for a while that winter and then there was a fairy designer an amazing guy who was a pretty good amateur bull fighter haven’t even thought of his name in years Sylvester Michaels we called him Silly and the funny part was he actually went crazy later anyway this trip was a riot …”
Abruptly he stopped, hurled forward by his own momentum, out of the bright chaos of the past into the grim chaos of the present.—“Oh God, I wrote checks in Hollywood against that advance I meant to deposit in New York and now—oh, what a mess—they’re going to bounce.”
Cold and stiff and worrying if it was really going to be possible to get back on that train, Shep didn’t bother to answer. Christ, he was fed to the teeth with Manley Halliday. Was that all those people thought about, their fun, their parties, their self-indulgences? Wasn’t he just a screwball, a congenital ne’er-do-well, a foul-up artist? Christ, people had to grow up. You couldn’t go through life in a dream. No wonder most of these characters petered out when life caught up with them and they found it wasn’t one continuous New Year’s Eve.
Cold and anxious and desperately tired he grew inwardly furious at the idea of Halliday’s treating this latest ordeal as a joke, as just another in an endless series of hilarious escapades. In his bitterness he wondered how he ever could have admired Manley Halliday. He began to blame the entire Twenties for this ride in what could only be a vibrating machine crossed with a frigidaire. Goddam the Twenties. He was turning in his suit. He had had enough of Manley Halliday and his goddam Twenties. Well, he just hoped to God he could drag Halliday through this assignment to some sort of credit and not let the old bum drag him down instead. Christ, we drink, he thought self-righteously, but we don’t drink ourselves into oblivion or the grave.
In the darkness of this night and the more profound darkness of his own confusion, Manley Halliday sensed the young man’s mood and lapsed into silence. So the young man was sore. Well, let the young man be sore. If he was at fault at all it was in having begun this wild-goose chase in the first place, against his better judgment.
After a while when the air was too close and Shep pulled the blanket down, Manley Halliday was sleeping against him with his mouth open, breathing with difficulty. In spite of the harsh things Shep had been thinking and still believed, the plight of the older man softened him to a more sympathetic attitude: after all he had been up there and now he was down here and whether it was his own fault or the blame of faulty times, it isn’t easy or nice to see. In the mood of one who checks his temper at the entrance to the burial ground and goes tender inside regardless of previous resolution, he looked down at the exhausted Manley Halliday’s sleeping face and wondered where this would end.
From a distance he heard the peculiar moan of an engine’s whistle.
“That’s yer train,” Alva said.
“How far’s South Harmon?”
“’bout sixteen miles.”
“Think we c’n make it?”
“If the road up ahead wants us to.”
The train let out its distant wail again, a mocking sound coming to them down the dark, treacherous road.
“Stay with it, Alva. Drive like hell.”
“Understan’, young fella, if I get us all killed I’ll hold you personally responsible.”
In such a flat voice.
With a tail-wind now, they careened down the icy road.
Twenty minutes of this and there was another skid that almost carried them into a tree. Shep shouted something frightened and fierce that made Manley Halliday sit up and try to see what was happening. He felt cold all over, even colder than before. The cat-nap had completely taken care of the jag.
“How far to South Harmon now?”
Shep looked over in surprise at the clear, quiet way he had asked it.
“ ’Bout five miles.”
“And the train?”
“It’s behind us now, I’d say a good three miles.”
“Always something nice about going back to your college, isn’t there?”
Alva turned sharply, drew up to the station and said, “Well, we did it. She oughta be comin’ along in about five minutes.”
In the dark on the desolate wooden platform they stood shivering in the silence gradually penetrated by the sound of the oncoming train, a distant whoosh-whoosh-whoosh-whoosh that swelled with audible increase until at last the headlight was shining into their faces and the platform shook with the roar and Shep was ready to hand it to Manley Halliday for thinking so quickly of the taxi-chase. On in a terrible rush without slackening speed the train bore down, the light of the engine illuminating the platform and then leaving them in darkness and new confusion as the train rumbled past. Again they were standing in the cold and the darkness watching the red tail-light winking and mocking the left-behinds.
“Now ain’t that a howdy-do?” said Alva, scratching his head.
“Now what?” Shep said, this time too tired and forlorn even to relieve himself with profanity.
“Maybe this train’s like Melville’s whale,” Manley Halliday said. “Maybe it isn’t a train at all. Maybe it’s the unattainable, the …”
“Aw, shove it,” Shep said. “It’s so cold my eye-balls are beginning to ache. Whatta we do now—find a hotel—wire Milgrim we’re writing the goddam story in South Harmon?”
“And all for the show,” Manley Halliday said. “This nonsense of having to see the Mardi Gras. All of a sudden Hollywood’s so worried about authenticity.”
“Mebbe we c’n still flag her at Davidston.”
“How far is that?”
“Thirteen miles. The road’s good’n straight. I c’n beat her there easy.”
“Well, you wanna try Davidston?”
“I suppose we might as well freeze to death in Davidston as South Harmon.”
“That’ll be ten dollars extry,” Alva said.
“Alva, my good man,” Shep said, “if we don’t flag that train at Davidston we’re going to make you stand us to a round of coffee.”
Back into their frozen blankets, their eyes fascinated by the slippery road cut between the deep snow banks they raced on to Davidston, not talking now, tired and shaken and bone-cold, with ears, noses, eyes, hands and feet numb and yet able to feel the painful gnawing burning. Passing in and out of consciousness of movement and cold, Manley Halliday thought of death and drove it from him as a vision of panic.
Then just as unreally as they had been separated from the train at Springdale they were joined with it again at Davidston. The details would never be clear to either of them, but there was a tiny platform with a red wooden arm that could be raised, which Alva did, and once more the train came on in a flood of light roaring whoosh-whoosh-whoosh-whoosh. They stood there dumbly waiting, ready to be not at all surprised to see it swoosh by them again, at least half-reconciled to that taunting tail-light’s winking. Instead the sound of braking, of a slackening of the enormous rhythm, and a conductor, alert now, threw open the door to the platform steps. Then the train was moving under them and the little red light was winking at Alva who could wink back with seventy-five dollars in his pants, a good night’s work. He’d ’ve done it for half that, but it seemed only justice for these city fellers to spread a little of their easy money out here in the country where it was needed like rain in July.