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Epitaph For A Tramp

David Markson

  David Markson

  Epitaph For A Tramp



  You know how hot the nights can get in New York in August, when everybody suffers—like the vagrants in the doorways along Third Avenue without any ice for their muscatel? Or all the needy, underprivileged call girls with no fresh-air fund to get them away from the city streets for the summer?

  I’d taken a cold shower at one o’clock. Since then I’d recited the line-ups of six out of the eight National League baseball teams from the early thirties, I’d tried twice to make a mental list of every woman I’d ever known carnally, and now I was running through parts and nomenclature of common American hand weapons. I’d even had the light on and read for half an hour, but it was no good. It was still steaming. I was still awake. I was still thinking about her.

  Cathy. I did that once in a while. Lying there alone like a chump and remembering. Things like the little cries she’d made, my name the way she’d always said it over and over, and then the way it would come in a gasp and her fingers would tear at my shoulders and—

  Me Tarzan, you Jane. It was a recollection you’d cherish, like your first swift hobnail boot in the shins. I wondered how much lower she’d sunk in the year since I’d seen her.

  No, I didn’t wonder that. All I wanted was to get some sleep. I started doing the linemen of the 1940 Chicago Bears. Stydahar. Artoe. Fortman. Musso. Plasman. Turner. Bray. Wilson. Fortman. Or had I said Fortman? I was almost glad when the phone rang.

  I knocked my book to the floor, reaching for it. One considerably bushed private investigator with a healthy dose of insomnia, at your service. “Hello,” I said.

  There was nobody there. Or rather somebody was, but he wasn’t saying anything. Probably just shy. “Take your time,” I told him.

  I heard one long exhale. Then the steady dull buzz of a disconnected line.

  “At the tone,” I said to no one in particular, “the time will be sort of damned near three-thirty in the morning.”

  I put back the receiver, then fumbled for the book and put that back too. Nothing else to do, so I supposed I might as well be neat. Maybe I’d even get up and iron. I took a smoke, rolled over on the damp sheets with my hands behind my head and stared at shadows.

  The book was a gay little thing by Thomas Mann called The Magic Mountain, another one of the forty-nine thousand and thirteen items I hadn’t had time for when I was day-laboring my way through the University of Michigan at left halfback. Or before that, in North Africa. Or for that matter later, when I had been night city editor in too many saloons. I had been slogging through it for weeks and was having a rough time. Hardly any shooting at all.

  I heard a car screech around a corner and then pull up abruptly near my building, burning rubber extravagantly along a curb. It had to have come in from Lexington Avenue, since I live on 68th just off Third and the traffic runs one-way east. The car door slammed with a squeaky sound, as if a terrier had had its tail in the way. High heels clicked a few irresolute steps on the pavement, paused, clicked indecisively some more, stopped altogether. The car was very likely something small, probably a foreign sports job. The indecisive lady was very likely potted.

  I heard another car door closing, a heavier one this time. And this time when the telephone started I did not lift it immediately. I let it tease me until after the sixth ring, just to give my playful chum an idea of how valuable my time could be.

  “Hi,” I said then, “this is Judge Crater. Where is everybody?”

  “Mr. Fannin? Mr. Harry Fannin?”

  “Fannin’s dead. Wasted away from lack of sleep. People kept calling him in the middle of the night.”

  “Oh, please, this is urgent. May I have Mr. Fannin?”

  She wasn’t one of the names in the little black book. She sounded young and pretty. But then they always sound that way. Also they always think it’s urgent.

  “This is Fannin.”

  “Mr. Fannin, you don’t know me, but my name is Sally Kline. m—

  “You call a few minutes ago?”

  “What? No. Please, Mr. Fannin, I started to say, I—”

  I lost the rest of it, or at least the next sentence. The doorbell blasted in my ear like time to change to the next classroom. When I caught Sally Kline again she was saying,”—and I think she might be in trouble, Mr. Fannin, in serious trouble.”

  “Who?” I said. “Listen, Miss Kline, hang on, will you? All of a sudden we’ve got a Laurel and Hardy two-reeler running up here.”

  “A what? But—”

  “One minute. I’ve got to get the door.”

  I left her angled on top of ponderous friend Mann and went to the buzzer. I’ve got one of those speaker things at the bell, rigged by an electrician who should have been a tuba player, and it sometimes works. “Who is it?” I said brightly.

  Another female, but that was all I got out of it. My name and a lot of static. This one seemed to know me, however. She called me something that sounded intimate, like hlmphlmph or phrugg, instead of formal old Fannin.

  I pressed the button and unlatched the door, but I didn’t bother to look out. I’m on the second floor in front, and with the stairs moving toward the rear you couldn’t see a pole vaulter carrying his gear home from practice until he was almost to the top. I started over to Miss Kline again, and then I remembered that it might be appropriate to greet my guest in something more dignified than common perspiration.

  I pulled on G.I. suntans, then leaned down to the phone and said, “Can you hang on there for one more minute?” I went to the door again without listening for an answer. “Who is it?” I called down.

  There was no reply but I knew it would be the gal from the sports job, the one I’d decided was drunk. I could hear her using both dainty left feet on each of the steps, taking them slowly enough so that for all I could tell she might have been lugging that little car on her shoulder. I wasn’t going to help her with it. “If you’ve got any friends or pets maybe, bring them along too,” I told her. I went back to the phone.

  Miss Kline had found some other form of amusement. I put the receiver on the cradle, crossed the living room once more and went into the kitchen, took ice out of the bucket and poured two Jack Daniels on the rocks. There were a couple of steaks in the Frigidaire, but they were frozen solid and I wasn’t quite sure they’d be fully thawed before my guest got there.

  I decided I wasn’t feeling too hospitable anyhow. Snow White was in the outside corridor now, but she was so tight that even on a level keel she was bumping into dwarfs all over the forest. A professional call, no doubt about it.

  I could see it all. One of my legion of admirers, alone and bewildered in the night, come to seek succor at Harry’s hearth. Eight to five I’d have to listen to some incoherent sob story until she passed out, all the while doing valiant combat with my conscience to keep from taking advantage of her condition—which would be precisely what she would have come up to have taken advantage of. I dropped myself into my one good chair and took a short snort of the sour mash as the door opened.

  No one came in. The door had swung inward toward me, so that I could see her shadow where the light behind her threw it on the rug, but nothing else.

  The shadow swayed. Whoever it was, she giggled.

  I’d expected a belch. So now we were playing guessing games. “Garbo,” I said. “Anna Magnani.” I couldn’t think of any woman with a foreign car, but I decided I ought to be sporting about it. I supposed I’d given out the license when I’d pressed the buzzer to let her in. “Dietrich. Wendy Hiller. Maria Meneghini Calks.”

  Still nothing. I had a paperback Book of Quotations on the stand next to the chair and I tried that, stabbing a page at random. “The
life of man in a state of nature is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. Thomas Hobbes. And don’t ask me who Thomas Hobbes is, because governess hasn’t come to that part yet.”

  “Old Harry,” she said then.

  I closed the book. I put down the glass. I put down my cigarette also, so there were only my hands left, and since there wasn’t anymore room on the table I picked those up and stared at them.

  “The same... same old Harry.”

  It was a year. I supposed it was a year, but when I looked up at her everything was the way it had always been. There was the face, there were the eyes. It was all there and it still did it to me, and even if I’d had a last name like Onassis or Getty or Zeckendorf this was still the only counter in the world I could buy it at.

  She had one hand on the doorknob. She was wearing one of those white linen summer coats which weigh about as much as an overseas airmail stamp and her other hand was inside of it, holding herself below the left breast so that she looked as if she had knocked aside six or eight old ladies in her breathless sprint to get here. But she generally looked like that. That was just another one of the little things that made her so easy to forget.

  She had moved toward me half a step, unsteady on her feet, and then had thought better of it. She stood there, clinging to the knob, and all I could do was flip some more pages in the book.

  A mighty fortress is our God, said Martin Luther. It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees, said Emiliano Zapata. Work out your salvation with diligence, said Gautama Buddha. Everyone had something right on the tip of his tongue except Fannin.

  “You’re stoned,” I said then. “You’re stoned and you ought to be in bed. Go the hell home, won’t you? Or wherever it is you’re shacked up now.”

  I didn’t want to say it like that, God knows I didn’t. But there wasn’t any other way. I’d found that out a year ago and I wasn’t going to leave myself open for it again.

  She was still swaying slightly, the out-of-breath smile still in her eyes, being so lovely you could pawn your poor brains for five minutes of not remembering what had happened. “Old Harry,” she said again. “The same tough, hard... same old... same...”

  I was out of my chair when she started to buckle, but it came too fast. She hadn’t given any sign, hadn’t even closed her eyes, just turning a little and then going over as if she’d simply gotten tired of standing there and thought she might like to try the rug for size, and I had to go down on one knee to keep her from hitting. I took her weight with one arm around her shoulders and eased her down, holding her head and shoulders up. And then all of a sudden all of the lovely, lovely toys were smashed and scattered all at once.

  “Cathy,” I said. “Oh, good God, Cathy—”

  The coat had covered it while she was standing. The stain was as big as a six-dollar sirloin below her breast, dark and seeping, and the inside of her hand was soaked with it from where she had had her palm pressed against herself. I saw the slash in the blouse where the blade had gone in, no wider than a man’s leather watch band, centered and near the top of the seepage.

  Her eyes were open, staring at me, but they weren’t smiling now. There wasn’t any expression in them at all. They were as empty as two spoonfuls of weak tea.

  “Harry. Know what I did, Harry? Real... cops and robbers. You would have...”

  “Easy, baby,” I said. “Tell me later. Let me get a doctor. You just lie here and—”

  “No!” She had clutched me by the wrist. A four-year-old at his first Hershey bar would have had a hand about as sticky. Or with as little strength in the grip. “Harry, don’t let me go. Hold me, Harry, I...”

  Her hand slipped away. All I could think of were the five minutes I’d spent counting the sterling while she was dragging herself up the stairs.

  “Cath, you’ve got to let me—” I was stretching, trying to reach a pillow from the couch without letting her go. I couldn’t make it.

  “Cathy, I’m going to make you lie back. Just don’t move and 111—”


  “Yes, baby, yes. Here I am.”

  “Harry... just for a minute... both your arms. Hold me, Harry.”

  My right arm was still beneath her shoulders. I put my other hand along her cheek and it was tearing me apart then. Because it wasn’t going to make any difference if I called a doctor now or ever. I could save the dime for my estate.

  I lowered my hand to below her breast, cupping it tight against the wound. The blade had missed her heart but it had been close enough. It had to have happened just before she rang the bell. It was seconds before I caught the faint small beat, like a whisper behind heavy draperies.


  “Here, baby, here.”

  “Nobody else, Harry. Rotten... so rotten for you. The only one... only one it was ever right with. You, Harry...”

  “I know, baby, I know.”


  And then there was nothing else. “Cath,” I said. “Cath. Baby, I—” Or maybe I didn’t say it out loud, I’m not sure. It didn’t matter. I knelt there holding her for another minute, feeling her hair against my neck, and then I put her down.

  The phone was ringing. I had no idea how long it had been doing that again. I got up and walked toward the bedroom extension to answer it. I had a dead one on the living-room carpet and all my instincts told me there were a dozen things I’d better start doing, but I couldn’t think of any of them. Because this one wasn’t just silver dollars for Harry Fannin, private cop. This one was about Cathy.

  The phone was in my hand. “Yes?” I said stupidly.

  “Mr. Fannin, please, this is Sally Kline again. I tried to tell you before, I live with Cathy. I’m worried, Mr. Fannin, and I didn’t know who else to call. I think Cathy’s in trouble. I think something might happen to her.”

  I was staring into the other room. The irony of it registered very remotely. “What?” I said.

  “Oh, heavens, what’s the matter? Are you asleep, Mr. Fannin? I said it’s about Cathy, about your wife...”


  I met her in the summer of ‘56. It had been one of those weeks when all the business is the kind the competition deserves. On Monday a pleasant Mrs. Dijulio told me that her sweet, innocent, sixteen-year-old Maria was being kept out all night by a nota so nice’a crowd, and could I perhaps tella the boys to leave her alone? Sure. I told’a the boys, although I had to confiscate a few switchblades to do it, and that left me with Maria. Alone in Central Park with charming, innocent Maria. First she ripped off her blouse and screamed rape. No patrolman was close enough to be impressed so she ripped off her skirt too. That impressed me, enough to spank her. So then she threw her arms around my neck and wailed that this was what she had wanted all along, a man, a real man. She had lovely arms, only thirty or forty needle punctures above the elbows. I went over there again the next morning and dialed the number myself to make certain that Mrs. Dijulio got through to the juvenile bureau.

  That was Monday. Wednesday it was a pharmacist named Heppenstall whose wife had wandered. I found her easily enough, holed up with a Matterhorn-size lesbian and the dregs of a case of rum in a dollar-a-night Third Avenue hotel.

  Agnes Heppenstall threw a sheet-shredding tantrum while I booted out her playmate, then turned whisky coy the minute we were alone. She was such a dreadful mess, she said. And it was all psychological. Heppenstall hadn’t excited her in seventeen years and so she had been experimenting. And I was such a pretty man, couldn’t I help her experiment some more? She was sick four times in the cab on the way home, and not psychologically.

  Nice week, nice profession. Friday it was a tavern keeper named O’Rourke from Eighth Avenue whose night-shift barmaid was clipping the payments on a Mercedes-Benz out of the till, but would I go a little easy because the dame was his deceased brother’s only child? No thanks, Mr. O’Rourke. Even if the doll didn’t have nineteen sailor pals guzzling for free along the rail, there wo
uld probably be a light machine gun behind the blackberry brandy. Or a folding bed under the rear booth. No, O’Rourke, sorry, but I was just leaving. I had a date to wrestle a python. Something undemanding, you know?

  I locked the office and got out of there fast. Three newspaper guys I knew had rented a shack on the Long Island shore. Ants, roaches, linen that had been dirty when the last of the Mohicans abandoned it and hadn’t been washed since, dishes in the sink from one leap year to the next. And no Maria Dijulio, no Agnes Freud, no worldly little barmaid. Just a couple of fifths of Jack Daniels, a little sun, and I was my clean, wholesome old self again.

  The newspaper guys drove back into the city late Sunday evening, but I decided to give it another night. I sat around for a couple of hours, disciplining myself by not opening the next bottle until I could manage it without defacing the tax stamp, and trying to make sense out of something called The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot which was the only book in the joint. About midnight I decided I’d take a stroll on the beach.

  I did not have anything in mind. The tide was out and I went along the edge of the wet sand. I walked for twenty minutes and used up a couple of cigarettes and then I decided it might fill my later years with fond memories if I left my clothes on some rocks and went in.